This is one of 14 updates about my 2014 challenge to complete an Ironman – you can see a list of the others here.
I did it. I can now call myself an Ironman.
What did the right to that title cost me? $6,000, 4,000 miles over 450 hours of training, 25 lbs, one toenail & 100+ hours of research. All of that and a grueling day that tested every fiber of my body & mind.
My finish time of 11:01:10 put me in 277th out of 2,390 total finishers (not counting 248 DNFs). I was also 15th out of 112 in my division (excluding 5 DNFs). All & all I was faster than about 90% of people out there on race day.
My goal was to win my age group and I missed that by a significant margin. To be honest though, I set that as a goal knowing it would be near impossible to accomplish. I fell short but still ended up doing great. Most athletes build up to an Ironman distance race over a few years of competing at shorter triathlons first. I went straight for the big one and ended up doing pretty well.
Could I have done better? Of course. I probably had the fitness on race day to do a good bit better if I had raced smarter. There will be other races.
What am I proud of from race day?
- Did not walk during the marathon
- Peed while moving in each of the events
- Final 19 miles on the bike was my fastest of the day
- Quick transitions without forgetting anything
What areas could I improve for future races?
- Lost my composure during the swim
- Did not eat for 20 miles of the bike & bonked
- Forgot to turn off auto-pause on my GPS watch
- Was out of aero position a lot on the bike
What that was out of my control am I thankful for?
- Volunteers handing out water so I could grab it at full speed on the bike
- No flat tire on the bike
- No forest fires or cancelations
- No one crashed into me on the bike
- Volunteers at transitions helping get my wetsuit off, grabbing my bags, taking my bike, bagging my gear, putting sunscreen on me, etc.
- Spectators cheering & keeping me motivated
What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?
- 15 mph headwind
- crowded swim start
- late swim start
The following is a detailed account of my race. It is long. While training for my race I read a number of similar race reports from other athletes and it helped me better understand what I was getting into. This is my way of paying it forward to future athletes, shining light on the experience for those that will never attempt an Ironman & documenting it so I can remember later on.
One note. During this recap I’ll mention my race position at various points in the race. Keep in mind that I did not know any of that during the race. I knew my approximate time because I had a watch on, I knew I was passing people, but it wasn’t until afterwards that I was able to do most of the analysis you’ll see below.
I woke up at 4AM. I had planned to sleep until 4:30 – but I was nervous and tossed a bit all night.
Race morning breakfast – peanut-butter & banana on a plain bagel. A quick shower to feel refreshed and then I drove to the race with my wife.
Getting ready for an Ironman is a lot of work. You go two days before the race to check in. The day before to rack your bike & drop off your run bag. Then the morning of you have to pump up your tires, put your nutrition on the bike & drop off your special needs bags. There is just a whole bunch of stuff to keep track of. I arrived at 5:30 so that I’d have plenty of time.
Once that is all taken care of, you can get suited up in your wetsuit and head to towards the start line. I was ready to go at about 6:30.
Arizona is a mass start from the water. That means 3,000 people have to get into the water via the temporary stairway that was about 12 feet wide. We then swam a few hundred yards to the start line where we treaded water as the pros started, the announcements happened, the national anthem was sung and some other delay took place. About 25 minutes of treading water, packed in with a few thousand of your newest friends. We were so close together than you were kicking each others ankles as your treaded and all drifting into each other like rubber duckies in a toy pool.
The cannon goes off and everyone starts swimming in a neat an organized fashion. Just kidding, you can’t go anywhere on account of how close you are packed, but despite that you are simultaneously kicked in the stomach and punched in the head. Eventually you can actually swim, which takes you mind slightly off the fact that you are still getting punched periodically.
I hated the swim.
I am already not a good swimmer. I know that and I have worked on it. I signed up for a few open water swim races this year just to get comfortable in that situation and my efforts were not in vain. I am now fine swimming in open water with a few hundred people. But this was just crazy.
My problem started here. I was so frustrated with all of the people around me swimming every which way that I wasn’t focusing on the swim. Instead of keeping my head down so that my form was proper, I kept looking around, trying to avoid crashing. The result was that I went much slower than anticipated.
Since I am an average swimmer, I was swimming alongside the lions share of the athletes. If I were faster, I might have been able to be up ahead where there were fewer people and more room to swim. As I lost my focus and tired out I started to get passed by even more people, which meant more collisions and even less focus. I don’t have splits but from what I can pick up, I moved from being ahead of 70% of people to being behind 70% of people. As I slid back I’m pretty sure every one of the 800 people that passed me found a way to bump, punch or kick me.
Two weeks prior I had done an easy practice swim and finished 2.4 miles in 1:15. I figured on race day with some drafting and the race edge I could easily get under 1:10. I finished in 1:24.
While that isn’t great, 15-20 minutes isn’t really that much time in the context of an Ironman. What got me was that I actually worked harder for that 1:24 than I had for my previous 1:15 in practice. Rather than being calm and collected, thus allowing an easy swim, I was frustrated and forcing the swim with bad technique. I burned a lot more energy than I wanted to.
But, I finally finished with a time of 1:24:43. I was in 1,392nd place overall & 78th place for my age group, meaning I was in the back half. Actually the back third.
One thing I love about Ironman races is the volunteers. At most triathlons you have a sort of station where you go to change. At Ironman events you are helped by a few personal assistants that do everything from take your wetsuit off to lather you with sunscreen. They then bag up all of your stuff for you so that you don’t have to worry about it.
I got through nice & easy. I had to do about 10 things during that transition and had practiced mentally a number of times so that I wouldn’t forget. It worked out great. The last thing you want to do is start the bike only to realize you forgot your sunglasses or bike GPS watch back at T1.
My transition was in the top 20% at 5:28. I was fast enough that I moved up to 1,047th overall & 63rd in my age group. Not bad progress for getting changed.
1:30:11 into the day.
As we hopped on the bike I was behind a guy that was clearly a Marine. The person in from of him somehow missed his mount and came crashing back towards the Marine who just gave an ‘Oorah’ and kept on going. It was pretty surreal and made me smile.
The next 20 miles on the bike were pretty much just me passing people. In 18.8 miles I moved from 1,027rd place to 876th overall. That is over 151 people I passed.
From mile 1 onwards there were people on the side of the road fixing flats. I had ridden 20 miles of the course on Friday and gotten a flat – a woman that passed me that day said she had too. This road just liked to eat tubes. I was hoping to avoid that.
You aren’t supposed to draft in Ironman races – there are penalties if you get caught doing it. That said, I don’t think it was physically possible to race middle of the pack in Ironman Arizona without drafting. The bike is an out and back on a two lane road. So you have to stay on one side. There are only so many people that can fit on a road at a time. According to the rules, once you enter the zone 23ft behind a biker, you have 20 seconds to overtake them. That seems fine except for the fact that there were 15 bikers within 23ft of me and after I passed each one another would enter that zone. There was no place I could go where I had 23ft of open road in front of me.
The first lap was exactly what I expected. I grabbed water bottles at the aid stations to refill my aero-bar bottle & tossed the empties without slowing down. I was able to execute my just-in-time water strategy perfectly which allowed me to travel light, only carrying about 24oz of water weight at the max. I kept my heart rate down under 140bpm, despite the urge to go faster and make up for lost time on the swim. I would sip water periodically, take a sip of my nutrition shake every 5th mile when my watch beeped and pop a few salt pills before the turn around. Thing were going according to plan – though a bit slower than I had hoped.
The turnaround at mile 18.8 puts you on a slight downhill as you head back to the city. To give you an idea, the 10 miles into the turnaround vs the 10 miles out of it were at 16.79 & 26.83 mph for me. So not a huge hill, but enough that you pick up some speed. I actually had so much speed that my heart rate was lower than I wanted it to be. I didn’t have a gear high enough to keep spinning at my target effort level for the steepest parts. I did take advantage of the downhill to pee – doing so while biking is actually pretty tough – I have to stand up do so which causes me to slow down a bit.
At mile 37.4, as I finished the first of three bike laps, my time was 3:20:15 and I was now in 834th place overall and 50th place for my division. I did some quick math and figured that if I held that pace on the bike, I would start the run around 7 hours. That meant that breaking 11:00 would be possible with a sub 4 marathon. That became my goal.
I headed back out to the turnaround, continuing to pass people. The wind was much stronger now and as we approached the half way point, some people started to break down. I held my pace and crossed the half way mark of the bike at 4:27:54, now in 40th for my division and 654th overall.
It was around mile 65 that things started to break down. I had to pee again but couldn’t get myself to go. I had been doing it all day, but for some reason was just not able to. It was uncomfortable to sit, but I didn’t want to stop. As we approached the mile 74 turn around, we entered the city where the streets were lined with spectators. Nowhere to stop on the side to pee and not a place that would make it any easier to ride-pee.
At the first rest stop after the turn around, mile 77 or so, I decided to hop off the bike for the first time to use a portapotty. There was a line, but it turned out to be moot. I hopped off the bike, handed it to a volunteer and immediately peed my pants. I then grabbed the bike and rode off. I’m sure people were confused. I was. But goal accomplished.
Around mile 80 I started to feel bad. I was getting passed by a handfull of people for the first time. When was the last time I ate? Shoot! I had completely forgotten to sip on my nutrition since mile 65. I was bonking.
A quick pull on my gel flask, an energy bar as I rode past the next aid station and a few sips of my Perpetuem and I was feeling a bit better.
I was still heading directly into the wind and slightly uphill though. One guy that passed me said “as far as I’m concerned, once we hit the turn around, the bike is done”. That lifted my spirits. I just had to make it to mile 93 then it was all downhill to the finish line.
I was sort of in a daze as I rode. By this time I had given up on staying in aero tuck and was riding my drop handlebars periodically to give my arms a break. I did not even wan to entertain the thought of having to run a marathon after finishing the bike. It was around this time I started to regret my decision to sign up for an Ironman.
Just then I heard the pop-sssssss of a flat tire. SHOOT!
I hopped off my bike to look. The tire wasn’t flat, but maybe it had a slow leak. My flat from Friday was such a slow leak that I was able to put CO2 in it and ride the final mile to the car without changing the tube. This was probably like that. I figured I’d go on a little further and see if it got lower before making a call if I should CO2, change it or just finish as is.
That is when I saw the tall grass in the median. It hadn’t been there back a few hundred feet before where the median was all sand. I’m not sure what the pop was, but the sssssss was just the grass blowing in the wind. I felt kind of dumb at first but then just relieved that I could keep riding.
I finally reached mile 93 and the turn around. 6:28:43. Now in 568th place overall and 30th place in my age group. I grabbed one last water bottle which I poured half of on myself and decided to take the downhill at full force. Now this is a very slight downhill, but it is just enough that you can get some momentum going if you kept a high cadence in your highest gear. I actually wish I had a higher gear for this one, I was maxed out and still only at 125bpm.
The split of my sixth and final length of the course was my fastest of the day. I made a point to shift down a bit towards the end to let my legs spin out. I was not looking forward to running.
I finished the bike with a split of 5:42:19. That put me at 7:12:30 overall. This was now the longest I had ever exercised for in a single stretch – I was forging new grounds from here on.
While biking I had finished 1 bottle of my nutrition shake which is ~1,350 calories, also one energy bar ~100 calories and 3 shots of gel for another 270. Overall 1,720 calories over 5.75 hours which is exactly 300/hour. Right on target.
I had already undone my shoes and pulled my feet out as I finished the bike – I kept the shoes attached to the pedals and my feet on top of them so I could just hop off the bike as I got to the racking spot.
This transition was extremely smooth thanks to the volunteers.
The one crucial thing I needed to remember was to grab my GPS watch off the of the bike mount before I racked the bike – I did that as soon as I hit the transition area and put it in my back pocket.
A volunteer grabbed my bike and another handed me my run gear bag. I had biked without socks but put them on here. I switched my helmet for a hat, left my sunglasses as is and put my GPS watch on my wrist.
Quick stop in the portapotty (a minute I now regret wasting) and a few volunteers tossed sunscreen on me as I ran out.
My time was 3:29, which was in the top 25% of people but not the fastest ever.
I entered the run with a time of 7:15:59. I was in 518th overall, I had passed another 20 people while changing, though I didn’t know it at the time.
My whole goal on the run was to go fast enough to break 11 hours. I knew from memory that the splits I needed to hit were 8:30 per mile. I could do that.
The easiest way to achieve that is to hit the pace exactly every time. I figured I’d need to build in a little buffer incase I needed to stop later to take care of a blister, visit a portapotty or whatever else came up. I figured the safe bet would be to average 8:00 for the first 13 miles. That would give me plenty of buffer.
It was hot & windy out. At each aid station, which was about every 2 miles, I’d grab a cup of water to toss in my mouth and another to dump on my head. I was running with a little water bottle, the same one I always train with. I figured it could refill it periodically, but it was so hot that I was consuming much more water than made it worth it to try & pour water into the tiny neck of the bottle. I decided to scrap the bottle and stick with cups.
After mile 3 I found myself running with a guy about my age who was holding 8:00 pace. It was great. I kept an eye on my heart rate which was hovering just above 140 – I just wanted to make sure it didn’t cross 145.
My stomach wasn’t feeling great, but I knew I needed to eat something else eventually or I wouldn’t be able to finish. My plan had been to use the course nutrition, but I was pretty nervous. I grabbed some pretzels & a cup of Perform (like Gatorade) at an aid station and that seemed to go ok.
Mike 8 with a split of 1:05:05, a pace of 8:08. Good so far. I was now in 28th in my division and 430th overall. I had passed 90 people while running so far and since I love passing people, that was continuing to motivate me.
The 10th mile was my first real test. That is where the hill is. It isn’t that big of a hill, maybe 60 feet of climbing, but that is enough to mess with your pace when you’re 8 hours into an Ironman. I wanted to avoid walking during the race – my goal was to run until my legs would not and then crawl. This hill would test me.
I was about 40 seconds slow that mile, but I had kept running. As I crested the hill I saw an aid station below.
They were set up under a bridge where it was shady and they had cold water and music playing. On top of that I had to pee and they had portapotties. The temptation was overwhelming to stop there for a bit and recharge. Heck, I was almost half way done with the marathon, I could use a break. But if I stopped I wouldn’t have been able to hit my goal of breaking 11 hours.
So as I ran down the hill I did something I had never done before up to this point in my life. I peed while running full speed. It was my act of defiance. I would not stop, no matter what.
Though I’ve been a runner since elementary school, peeing while running had never been necessary for me. My races were always short enough that it wasn’t an issue – 15-30 minutes at most. Even on long training runs, I’m often out in nature running on trails, close to some bushes I can duck behind or a park bathroom. I hadn’t even really ever considered that it would be something I would need to do. Even after spending a year training for an Ironman and intentionally practicing peeing while biking. I figured the cost to stop a bike moving 20mph and then getting back up to speed was not worth it, but running doesn’t have those same momentum costs.
Nonetheless, I was all in now.
As I passed through the shade & dumped water on my head I got another surge of energy. That next mile was an 8:05. I was back on pace.
The run course at Ironman Arizona is two laps of a very strangely shaped loop. I was now heading back towards the start (and what would eventually be the finish).
As I approached mile 13 I heard a familiar voice. My wife was there by the side of the road with our son, cheering me on. I was so happy to see her.
I crossed the half way point with a split of 1:49:12, which is 8:20 pace. Behind what I had hoped for, but still ahead of pace to break 11 hours. I had now been racing for over 9 hours.
Before the half way point I had been passing ~10-15 people per mile. Now that I was on my second lap, I was lapping people who had just started to run and so I was passing a lot more people, though it wasn’t always clear who was who.
The first few miles of the lap were into the wind. I averaged 9:14. That cost me precious time of the little buffer I had left.
At this point sips of Perform weren’t doing it for me, I was starting to fade and needed to eat something – despite my fears that my stomach would implode as it had towards the end of some of my longest workouts. I grabbed a packet of Chomps and half of a banana at the next aid station and scarfed them down. I figured they would be better than GU since they were a little bit more solid.
It worked, I started to get some more energy over the next mile. I was moving at about 8:45 pace now, which was really the best I could do.
That stretch leading up to mile 17 passes back past the main village & is where most of the spectators are. It is close to the finish so it is a great spot to cheer from as you wait for your athlete to get close to the end, at which point you can head over to the bleachers and finish line.
I love people cheering while I run so this stretch was great. Spectators had signs, wore costume, were handing out cookies and words of encouragement. It is really a great vibe. One group took the cake though. As I passed a man holding a platter, he said one magical word that actually made me break my stride and stop.
The dude had a full platter of bacon and was handing it out to athletes. I grabbed a 1″ segment and tossed it in my mouth despite the fact that I knew it was probably a bad idea. I love bacon. I’m sure you love bacon too. But I will tell you this, you have not experienced the fullness of bacon until you have done so at mile 130 of an Ironman. I didn’t even chew, I just let it sit on my tongue and dissolve.
When you’re nearing the last miles of an Ironman, you just need things to push you through one mile at a time. Bacon kept me going for a bit.
A little further down the road I saw my wife again. She wondered why I was smiling. Because bacon.
The sun was now setting and it was starting to get cooler. 8:37, 8:31, 8:20. I was picking up some speed again. I did some in my head math and figured I needed to hit 8:50s in order to break 11 hours. I could do this. The biggest challenge would be that hill. But the miles after it would be great, I had done well last time after the hill.
Around mile 20 I passed a runner wearing Newton gear who was clearly in pain. One of his friends on the side was cheering him on. As I passed he saw my name on my bib and yelled,
“You’re looking fresh Greg, push harder”
My form was remarkably intact despite my body shutting down from the inside. I had worked at that – running bold deep into long runs. I’m sure it helped as efficient form allows you to go fast with less energy. My limiter was my cardio though. I just couldn’t get my body to work harder. When the run started I was forcing myself to stay in the 140bpm range, figuring it would drift up over time. Now I was barely able to keep low 130’s. I could probably have gone faster if I really pushed, but I was worried that would result in a shutdown that required me to walk, or worse, not be able to finish.
I hit the hill again in mile 23. That is basically the most cruel place in an Ironman to put a hill. Any closer to the end and you know you’re there, you just have to get over the hill. Any earlier and you might have some energy left or fresh legs. Mile 23 you are completely depleted, running on legs that feel like bricks, but you know you still have about half an hour left so you don’t want to push up the hill.
That was my slowest mile of the day. 9:51. But I didn’t walk. Small victories.
It was getting dark as I ran down the hill again and into the final three miles. I didn’t know it but I was now top 20 in my division and top 300 overall. I had come a long way.
When you’ve depleted almost everything you have in your body, you enter an emotionally fragile state. As I passed the aid station, the EDM they had blasting touched me in a strange way. I was almost in tears as Calvin Harris’ hit dropped the line ‘There’s no stopping us right now’. I felt like the song was about me. Everything in my body wanted to quit but I was going to give everything I had to break 11 hours.
In the final miles I was checking my watch frequently. As I passed people they pushed to stay with me and worked with them to keep a solid pace going. I’m sure everyone was trying for the same milestone.
The final mile I used everything I had left. It was coming down to the wire. I hadn’t previewed the finish so I didn’t know what the chute was like or the turns but once I crossed the mile 26 marker I knew I only had a few hundred yards left. I dug deep.
I checked my watch and had one minute left. I started full on sprinting. Well at least in comparison to what I had been running – it was still only 7:00 pace. I could see the glow from the lights around the corner, I could hear the sound of the crowd and the muffled sound of the announcer over the loud speakers.
I turned the final corned and looked at the clock ready to see 10:59:20. I was going to sprint in and just break 11 hours.
But it read 11:00:45.
I nearly stopped running. I realized I had been basing everything off of my watch and never calibrated it. Somehow it had gotten off course with the race clock and I had missed my goal. It was a bit defeating. At the same time, I was still about to finish and I was happy about that.
As I approached the line I heard the words of Mike Reilly over the loud speaker
‘Greg Kroleski, you are an Ironman’
Those are the words we train to hear. Those words are one of the reasons why Ironman races stand in a league of their own and why thousands of people go back year after year.
I had finished.
As I crossed the finish line I was met by volunteers who put a space blanket on me & gave me my medal. Two ladies walked on either side of me supporting me with my arms over their shoulders. They were there to escort me towards the finisher area where there were medical tents, food, pictures and such. I was having enough trouble walking at that point that they didn’t let me go off on my own. I could barely stand. I was done.
I eventually caught my breath enough to walk to the food tend, grab a plate of pizza and sit down. I did to the food what dragons do to cattle when attacking a village and scarfed down and much as I could with little regard for how much actually made it in my mouth.
It was now night and actually pretty cold. My wife found me and we headed back to the car to change. I still had to go get all of my bags and bike. There is really a lot to do and you don’t really feel like doing any of it.
We eventually packed everything up and headed home. As we drove away we passed a section of the course and saw people running. It was 7pm and some still had 20 miles left to go – though it is the same distance, that is a really long day.
I didn’t take my shoes off until I got back to the place we were staying. I had to hop straight in the shower as I was covered in a thin film that was a combination of sweat, sunscreen, nutrition shake, Perform, pee & who knows what else. I took off my shoes & was surprised to see a pretty gnarly blister – how had I not noticed that? I am also now no longer the proud owner of one toenail on my left foot.
I later looked at my watch to figure out what had happened. You can see here I stopped it after crossing the finish and was still under 11 hours.
I later found the culprit. I had forgotten to turn of the auto-pause feature. That is a great feature when you’re training because it pauses when you are at a stop light or such so that your average pace doesn’t drop. During a race though, the clock doesn’t stop.
I mentioned that I had stopped to check a flat tire while biking and also hopped off once in hopes of peeing at a portapotty. Well the two of those stops added up to just over a minute. You can see below my moving time is less than my elapsed time. Moving time being what my watch displayed and elapsed time being what the race clock showed.
I love analyzing race data. My high school cross country coach got me hooked on it. After each race he’d print up a sheet of the results of our three mile race including splits at each mile.
Now, years later, instead of three data points I have dozens. The intricacies of having multiple events makes this even more fun. Tearing through the race data for the past few days has been a pleasure. Here is what I learned.
First, I did pretty well at everything but the swim. The run was clearly my best.
One of my hopes in doing triathlons is that my overall result would be better than any of my individual results. Sometimes based on the way the race breaks down you’ll be #20-25 in each event but #15 overall. That didn’t happen for me here. My run result was better than my overall result. Maybe I should just stick with running.
I love this next chart because it shows how out of place my swim was. I’m the red dot towards the bottom middle. You can see that there were only a few people that swam slower than me but ran faster. For me to have swam alongside the athletes that I ran with I would have had to swim under one hour.
Lots of work left to do.
Looking at the swim vs the sum of the run and bike you can see that it isn’t much of a predictor. This was the noisiest chart. Though the fastest athletes were also the fastest swimmers, there were plenty of competitors that swam great and then didn’t do as well from there on.
The run and the bike on the other hand are extremely correlated. There is more drift as you get farther back, but that is likely because anyone who didn’t pace themselves properly would end up on the far right side.
Playing Catch Up
I got off the a bad start in the swim, but the bright side of that is that I spent the rest of the day passing people. I love passing people in races.
The place I passed the most people was actually T1. For some reason a lot of people that swim slow like me also spend a lot of time changing. I was quick and got out of there before hundreds of them.
In my division things look roughly the same except for the start of the run. Us young guys apparently start out running strong. It was around mile 16 though when others started to break down and I passed about 10 before finishing.
What is Next?
In most sports, athletes approaching their 30s are past their prime. The cool thing about Ironman events is that I’m still early in the field. You can see in the chart below that the most populous age group is actually 40-44 and 40-49 for women. I’ve got years ahead of me.
Now you might think that even though a lot of people still compete at that age, they aren’t as competitive. The data suggest otherwise.
For men, the winning times actually continue to improve for another decade and don’t rise above 10 hours until the 55-59 division.
But that isn’t only the winners. The averages improve also. There is even a suggestion that biking continues to improve beyond that.
Endurance sports are really one where time isn’t as much of a hinderance as you might think. That is likely because the whole race is done at a moderate effort, sustained over a long time. As you get older your max heart rate diminishes, but I was racing over 40bpm away from my max.
With that said, qualifying for Kona is going to stay on my bucket list. Spot allocation in the races is based on the number of athletes in the division, so for the next 15 years I’ll have increasing chances at qualifying. I don’t think I’ll be training like I did this year again. Certainly not for a while. But I learned so much this year that I have plenty to lean on in the future. If I spend the next few years working on specific weaknesses, I might be able to give it another shot one day.
Kona – I’m still coming for you.