Ironman Arizona - winning my slot for Kona 2023
This was easily the craziest race I've ever had, not because of the race but because of what went on prior to the race - and it kind of continued a bit during the race.
First, how I ended up at this race. When Ironman announced back in July 2022 that they would add 100 Women For Tri slots to certain races, I started looking. Women For Tri is a foundation by Ironman and its goal is to support women for doing triathlons. I don't think most men realize how much harder it is for a woman to have such a time consuming hobby. We are moms, we are wives, most of us work and then on top of all that fit the training in - and then of course, hear from all those people around you how selfish you are for doing this and be criticized for spending time away at races, hearing you are not as good a mom as you used to be before you started training and racing and all the like.
There is a small minority of people who see it from a different perspective and will applaud moms in sport - if you are reading this post, you are 100% in this very small minority and probably don't even realize that the other 95% or more of the people see this phenomenon very differently.
While if a man does all this, that is celebrated, that is normal and he is the super-dad. You will see his wife by the finish line and his kids' faces glowing from pride. But that's life, being sour about it is not going to change that most of the world works like this and it is expected that women cook, clean and take care of their children rather than work and/or race. So WFT tries to make it just a tiny bit more equal for women. That is how I got to go to my first Ironman 70.3 World Championship in 2019, I won a slot that was allocated as a "WFT slot", just for women.
The Ironman 70.3 World Championship in 2019 in Nice, France was the first Ironman-branded World Championship event that I participated in
In these Ironman races they allocate the general World Championship slots based on how many people line up for the given age group. As you can imagine a whole lot more men do than women. So historically some men's age groups would have 5-8 times the slots of women's.
Eg. in Arizona there were 55 general slots. There were 3 age groups for men that got 5 slots, one got 6. No women's age group got more than 2. There only used to be 35-45 general slots before this year, leaving almost all if not all women's age groups with only 1 slot. When I first qualified for Kona in 2021, I knew I had to win my age group to do that, so I did.
But now Ironman decided that they would hold the World Championship from 2023 over 2 days and one of those days, for the first time ever, will be for women only. So there are a whole lot of slots that would have to be allocated only for women, otherwise there won't be enough women in the field.
(I'm not going go into details about the decision of splitting the two days of racing between Kona and another location because that is a whole other very long subject. Only the women will race in Kona in 2023 and the men raced in Nice in September. Then the following year we will swap and the men will get to go to the Big Island.)
Ironman Arizona got an additional 100 slots just for women. This meant that basically as long as I could finish with a reasonable effort, I could get a slot. I didn't need to be in top shape. I didn't need to put together my best game. I just had to have a good enough game to come somewhere around the top 15 of my age group - very much doable even under rocky circumstances.
Even before competing in the 2022 edition of the Kona Ironman, I just couldn't pass on the opportunity to relatively easily being able to secure my race entry for 2023. Although originally my plan was just a one and done, but that was mainly because it is really hard to qualify for that race. Or at least it used to be and in 2022 it still was.
Running through the lava fields of the Big Island for the first time in 2022 was an unforgettable experience
So I signed up for Ironman Arizona, which was only 6 weeks after Kona. I did the exact same thing last year, I qualified for Kona 2022 by competing (and winning my age group) at Ironman Waco which was 6 weeks after the World Triathlon World Championship - the most important triathlon race for me in 2021. I knew from that experience that the second race is really tough, I will be tired and not in top form but as explained above, that was estimated to be plenty good enough.
THE PRE-RACE CRAZINESS
If you follow my social media then you know about the unfortunate chain of events that unfolded pre-race and I didn't even share it all just because of the lack of space and I didn't want to get too boring with the details.
It started with me catching a cold 3 weeks pre-race that got a bit more serious than usual, I was in bed for several days, obviously no workouts at all, then I went through a round of antibiotics, more rest, a round of steroids, tried to workout but couldn't and finally a second round of stronger antibiotics that solved it. I was still taking them during the race but I recovered by race day. However, I did absolutely zero training for 3 weeks other than a few attempts that didn't really work out.
The one mistake that I can only blame myself for was leaving my wallet at home by accident. Funny how many people asked when I said I left my wallet at home so I had no bank cards "do you always travel without your wallet"? Nope, I never travel without my wallet... duh...
I realized at the airport that as I had been attempting to put my wallet in my bag I got distracted, put it on my biking desk at home and left it there. I expected this wasn't going to be ideal but in today's age I didn't think it would be as big an issue as it turned out to be. My hotel was pre-paid, my rental car was pre-paid, my race was pre-paid, the only problem could be food, but worst case scenario I knew I could order groceries from Walmart online. I had the numbers of my credit cards on me and the pictures of them too. I also had them loaded in my Apple Pay so anywhere where you can tap (which in Canada is pretty much everywhere these days) I should have been ok. Or at least so I thought.
Packed and ready to fly. Except the wallet... That got left behind.
The first problem came at the rental car agency. He was ok taking my driver's license as a photo but even though I pre-paid the car online, he wanted me to insert my card into his machine for the deposit. No tap. The guy at the Toronto airport for the parking was ok just putting my card number in his machine for the deposit - my parking was pre-paid the same way, he just needed a deposit. But while he was ok entering it manually, the rental car agent wasn't. No idea why. I know it can be done, I use a payment system for my business.
I landed at 11pm on Thursday for the Sunday race, so by the time I collected my bag, went through not getting the car and Ubered to the hotel it was 1am. That's when they told me that they overbooked and gave my room away. I'm not sure how they can do that. They knew I was coming in late at night, I specified it in the booking.
So I was standing there without a room and no bank cards... now I had a problem on my hands. Other than everything being fully booked because it was Ironman weekend, there was also a game in town, maybe football? I didn't like my chances of finding a hotel room for the night.
It was not the first time this happened. In 2019 when I arrived in Spain at 4am to the AirBNB that I booked, the guy told me the same thing, sorry, not available. But at least we had a car so we slept in the car and the next day my friend, Zoli, who was with me was able to find a hotel.
But this time I didn't even have a car... I got very lucky and the 3rd hotel that I called had a room available. They told me later that there were a lot of people showing up saying that their hotel overbooked and cancelled on them when they arrived. I misunderstood the guy over the phone and expected he would be ok with typing my card in the computer since that is how he charges the card anyway, he didn't have a machine.
However, he wasn't willing to just enter the card number without the card being present. The reason is that if he didn't have a photocopy of the card, I can later call my credit card company and reverse the charge and apparently a lot of people do that (I know from my business that chargebacks are a real issue and I understood his point). I ended up emailing him a picture of the card but he also insisted that I pay cash in the morning although he still put a hold on my card for the amount. But at least I had a roof over my head.
My original hotel also said that first night that they would have my room for the next 3 nights. My first trip on Friday was to the bank for 9am. It took until 12:30pm to have cash in my hand mostly because a ton of things that should have been working just weren't, completely unrelated to me not having my card. Theoretically I should be able to withdraw cash from the Bank of America bank machine with Apple Pay. So I tapped and then instead of cash I got a message that they blocked my card for security reasons. Why they would block my card when I try to get cash out, no idea. I mean, it is not that unusual to try to get cash from a bank machine, is it? Then the bank manager spent the next few hours trying to get security to remove the block. The problem was that even though I was authenticated (I was standing right in front of them), it was confirmed that there was no security concern, the security team couldn't remove the block.
Running to the bank in my jeans. Not the pre-race shake-out I imagined.
They tried, it just didn't work. They tried 5-6 times and then gave up. They said they had no idea why this didn't work, they said they had removed the block. But I still got the same message at the ATM that the card was blocked. Eventually they ended up overnighting a new card to the branch and the cashier gave me some cash to tie me over and to pay for my hotel.
So I went back to the hotel, paid for the previous night but before checking out I called my original hotel, where last night I was told my next 3 nights would be ok. Their check in was at 3pm. But at 12:30pm they told me they had already given away my room again... that people showed up in the morning and instead of honouring my paid booking they just gave the room to those people. A week later I still haven't received a refund. So I ended up staying at the hotel where I spent the first night.
My friend, Rachel picked me up after all the banking fun, took me to athlete check-in and came to the airport with me so I could use her bank card for the deposit. Finally I had a car too. Thank you, Rachel for having my back, and for being there for me when things were falling apart!
On Saturday things didn't go much better either. It was all a huge rush. I was waiting to see if the bank card arrived in the branch for 9am so I could go there first then to the practice swim which was 10-11:30am. The card hadn't arrived, so I went to the practice swim and was very late getting there. They closed entry to the swim course at 11:15, I got there about 10 minutes before that. I didn't know I needed my timing chip to participate in the practice swim so they turned me away. "No biggie, I'll borrow a timing chip..." the first two guys I tried thought I was hitting on them... then I saw a third guy coming out of the water with a timing chip in his hand... this was going to be my guy! I walked towards him, he said it wasn't his chip - well, that was why I was here! If she loaned you her chip, it is a safe bet that she wouldn't mind loaning it to me either and I was absolutely right. The girl (who was in my age group) loaned me her chip so I could get a 15-min swim in which I did. Thank you!
My friend, Rachel Belmont, who was living in Phoenix at the time, saved me and got me a rental car! You are the best, Rachel!
The water was cold (58F / 14C) but I raced in 54F / 12C before, at that same World Championship in Spain where the guy cancelled my AirBNB. It is so true that the best confidence builder is if you had been through it before - it is just indescribable how much it means and how confident it made me that I could do this. Back then in 2019 at the practice swim I only lasted about 30 seconds first. I went in and immediately came out, it was so cold. Then I ended up going back in and after a while you realize it is not that bad but putting your face in that cold water is really hard and you feel like your whole face would freeze. At that time I took comfort in seeing other people swim. That meant it was doable. They were in that cold water and they were not dead. They cut the swim in half at that race because of the cold water, but ever since anytime the race is in cold water, as long as it is no colder than 54F / 12C, I shrug my shoulders and just think to myself "been there, done that".
After the swim we went through the race plan with Coach Gregg - his presence was a blessing, it made me feel at ease that I knew he also had my back. He met me at the practice swim and was chatting with the girl who loaned me her chip while I was in the water.
My bank card finally arrived after the swim so I rushed back to the bank and the day started to get tight - I still had to attend the athlete briefing at 2pm and bike check-in closed at 3pm.
I picked up my card and rushed back to the race site. I took my bike out of the car but I hadn't gotten a chance to ride and check it since I put it together after the flight that morning. Sure enough, the rear derailleur wasn't working. I suspected this was an easy fix because it had happened before and then suddenly it had started working on that other occasion. So I took it to the Quintana Roo guys at the expo and they explained to me that there was a "crash mode" that was triggered and how to fix it next time. Now I could finally try it out.
I was going down the walking path, very slowly, on my bike, but not clipped in as there was a lot of foot traffic. One of my pedals clipped in on its own but at that point I was almost at the rideable part. And that is when there was this lady crossing the path. She saw me coming, got scared and stopped in the dead middle. I had been expecting her to continue her walk at the same pace and everything would have been ok but by her stopping, I crashed right into her. She was also a competitor, in her 60s. We both fell but we were both relatively unscathed because I was going so slowly. She fell on her hip and was very upset because she had had some hip issues previously and was worried about her race. I apologized profoundly a million times and took all the blame for the accident - I shouldn't have been riding the bike on that path to begin with, I should have pushed it because there were so many people walking. I got away with a scraped knee but my real derailleur was now really bent...
Scraped my knee all right when I fell. It wasn't a big deal.
Back to the QR guys. This was when things started to get me down. All that happened previously, the bank card, the hotel, the car, the swim, the chip, all of it, and now the crash. They were super nice as they saw how shaken I was. One of them sat me down, gave me water, gave me a free T-shirt and fixed my bike - while letting me listen to the athlete briefing from their booth. Before the briefing was over my bike was ready. I quickly rode it for a few minutes on the road and noticed the aerobar being a bit loose but because it is such a unique aerobar (I was riding the MORF bars back then), the QR guys couldn't really do much with it and I had no time to fiddle with it any more either, time was approaching 3 pm and I had to check the bike in.
After I went through bike check-in and also transition bag check-ins, I was absolutely exhausted. I went back to the hotel, put everything together for the morning, had a hot bath and fell asleep at 6 pm.
Race bags were checked in already at bike check in.
And it wasn't over yet...
I set my alarm on my watch for 3 am, planning to leave my hotel at 4:45 am to get to the race sight for transition opening at 5 am. I usually don't look at my watch during the night. I read a study or maybe it was a metastudy, not sure, but it said that if you know the time in the middle of the night that impairs your sleep quality so I make a conscious effort not to look at my watch when I roll on my other side or go to the washroom. At one point though it really felt like it was morning time so I decided to look at my watch and it was blank. It was dead. A few very long seconds passed while I frantically ran to my phone to turn it on and check the time. My guess was 6 am which would have allowed me to make it to race start at 6:50 but not to make it to check on my bike in transition and put my nutrition on the bike and in the run bag. Luckily it turned out to be only 2:30 am. I guess going to bed at 6pm I was fully rested by 2:30 am. That time my watch came back to life one last time when put on the charger but the action button that would let me start an activity didn't work. What happened also taught me a lesson to set more than one alarm for race morning in the future. I had never thought of doing that before.
I messaged my coach who was coming to the swim start anyway that I would need to borrow his watch for the race. I never heard back. When I put my phone in the "Morning Clothes" bag, which is where I always leave it, I sent a text that I wouldn't see his message but hopefully I would see him at the swim start. The "Morning Clothes" bag is - exactly as you would expect - for your clothes that you want to get rid of for the race but then will want back at the end of the race like warm sweater, warm pants, running shoes or slippers, etc. And in my case, my phone.
I was watching out for Coach Gregg around the swim start but I didn't see him. The professionals went off a bit earlier and for age groupers the race had a rolling start, letting 3 athletes in every 5 seconds. So the guys started to get in the water and the few thousand athletes started to move towards the start line. I gave up on having a watch for the race. For the swim, it doesn't matter much anyway, for the bike I had my bike computer and I figured I still had time on my watch so I could just time my miles by the mile markers and have a rough idea of my pace on the run.
Then at the very last moment, right before I got in the water, right at the start arch there was Coach Gregg standing with his watch in his hand, already set to open water swimming. We quickly exchanged watches and off I went. Later in the day my watch went on to die completely, not even coming alive when put on the charger (it had full charge).
Coach Gregg set his watch ready to go and even had time to take a picture! Photo: Gregg Edelstein
I expected a very slow swim. I knew I wasn't going to be able to draft, I tried that during the practice swim and the water was so murky that I couldn't see the person in front of me. Previously a top age group swimmer told me "I just follow the bubbles" but that doesn't work for me - or it didn't this time. Either the water was too dirty to see named bubbles or because I am such a slow swimmer, the guys that I would be able to draft off make no bubbles with their feet...
We were swimming for the most part against the current so I was trying to adjust my expectations accordingly.
I also hadn't swam for 3 weeks while I was sick pre-race. I would have been perfectly fine with a 1:35 swim time, I was fully prepared for worse.
The water was again, very cold, which didn't really bother me until the last 1000m. That's when my feet got cold. I didn't wear a neoprene cap or booties, just my wetsuit, but I double-capped with just normal swim caps which I always do: one under my goggles and one over. That protects my goggles from being kicked off and it also gives me a back-up swim cap in case the top one slides off.
As expected, no drafting and I think I added quite a bit of distance. I was almost as far out as the bank of the river, didn't see any buoys for a good while. I knew that once we pass half way of the course they change from yellow to orange. Once I realized how far to the side I was I started to inch my way back onto the course and get closer to the buoys. Coach Gregg had his watch set for vibrating in certain intervals but I had no idea what he had it set to... that gave me something to think about and keep me busy for the swim. I played the "guess the distance" game. It was fun. Mine is set to 500m, and it felt like it was buzzing about once every 10 minutes so my best guess was 500 yards. Apparently he set it for me, so I would know, he just forgot to tell me about it... it was a good game, I had fun with it.
The grin says it all: all is good, I have a watch! Photo: Gregg Edelstein
You can't really get lost or go too far off course when you are just swimming up a river. By the time I made my way back to the buoys they were orange - a welcome occurrence. I was just over 4 buzzes too so that confirmed my guess of 500 yds per buzz. I managed to take the turns quite well and not get lost towards the end of the swim course either, where a lot of age groupers who didn't know the course went the wrong way and swam way more extra distance than I did. Towards the end of the course we were supposed to swim in the middle of the river and then take two left turns which were marked by two large red buoys and then make our way to the exit after the second one. I studied the course pre-race and was aware of this.
Once I did the part of the course that was coming back, I started sighting for the two red buoys. I remembered that I needed to go around the one that is to the middle of the river and not the other one but a lot of athletes swam towards the other one and then were sent around to make their way back to the course. I was a bit confused by the number of swimmers going the wrong way and I was second guessing myself but then I saw that some were indeed going the way I thought we were supposed to go so that helped.
The ramp out of the water was very slippery which I was warned about but a lot of people slipped and fell. I'm in the blue cap and TYR wetsuit. You can see in the water the two confusing large red buoys. A lot of athletes headed towards the one by the shore but we had to go around the one in the middle first.
I finished the swim in 1:28 which was much better than what I had anticipated so I was very happy. I was very confused about Coach Gregg's watch though haha...
I kept pressing the lap button and it kept doing absolutely nothing. When I use my own watch I put it into "triathlon" mode so when you press the lap button it starts showing your transition time and then the bike, T2 and finally the run. Eventually I pressed the stop button and that's when I realized that he had put it in open water swim mode and not in triathlon. Oh well, don't look a gift horse in the mouth.
By the time I finally saved the swim I believe I was well on my way out to the bike course. T1 was not a smooth sail though...
Strippers are one of the best things in Ironman branded races. But they are not the kind of strippers you might think. They are wetsuit strippers. No, they don't dance in wetsuits. Here is how it works.
You just come out of the water, shout "stripper", someone puts their hand up meaning they are free so you can go there. You get in front of that person and they start to peel you out of your wetsuit. Once the top is off, you immediately drop on your butt (usually there are two of them working together) and they pull the whole wetsuit off in mere seconds, saving you all the frustration of doing it by yourself. Then they just hand you your wetsuit and off you go into transition to your bike.
There was a really long run in T1. My feet were absolutely freezing as we were running either on cold and wet concrete or a very cold and wet carpet. I just went with "suck it up buttercup" but it was anything but pleasant.
My bike waiting for me in T1. It was still in one piece at this point in time...
I didn't go into the changing tent, I decided to put my socks on outside and then to just run by the tent - I expected there would be a lot of people inside and would be hard to just run through it. Except, I went on the wrong side of the tent. The route was longer that way too, so it was kind of stupid but also, nobody expected anybody to go that way! So there were all sorts of machines and who knows what in the way that I had to climb over behind the tent. I was clearly not meant to be there! But I got through it and more importantly, made up 13 places in T1!
I came out of the water in 38th place and headed out to the bike course in 25th. I'm famous for my bad transitions, eg. at the World Triathlon World Championships in 2021 I finished 2 minutes behind 4th place but she beat me in transition by 3 minutes so I was actually faster than her out on the course!
The ride didn't start well! My feet were so frozen from the swim and then the run in transition that I couldn't put them in the shoes while riding. I always clip my shoes on the bike and put them on once I get going. But I was fiddling so much with the shoes that I ended up dropping the chain. I stopped and frantically put the chain back on, not realizing that I should really put the shoes on while stopped. I put one on as I rode away again but then couldn't get the other one on still. I had to stop, take the other shoe off the bike and put it on. I estimated I lost 5 minutes with all this but my data shows that I only lost 2 minutes and nobody passed me from my age group in that time.
The bike course was beautiful - which was lost on me at the time.
The bike course consisted of 3 laps with headwind and slight uphill false flat going out and tailwind with slight downhill on the way back. I was glad I had my 53 chainring on the front but even that was not enough on the way back, I was just sitting there passing people not even pedaling. Going out obviously took much longer than coming back, my first out was 1h 13 mins while the back was only 42 mins. I realized going out that because of the bad wind I'm simply better off staying aero and pushing less power than sitting up in an attempt to push more power. Staying aero was faster because the wind wouldn't catch me as badly.
By the time I finished lap one, Coach Gregg told me that I was 17th which made me super happy. Basically goal accomplished unless I really screw up something in the rest of the race. My calculations showed that we would have at least 15 slots but potentially even 16 or 17.
The wind actually got better by the second lap. By then I was seriously struggling with my aerobar. When I crashed the day before the right side got loose but I didn't think too much about it. The left side had been loose for a long time although not to the extent that the right got loose. But during the first lap it started slipping off. That didn't seem very safe so I kept pulling it back but it got to the point where I was pulling it back every 15 seconds. That is a lot of energy wasted. I was wondering if the cables that were attached to it were short enough to keep it on so it didn't fall off even if I didn't pull it back. I wasn't brave enough to let it slip to the point where I would find out the answer. It is probably for the better because after the race I pulled it apart and it did fall off.
Yep, it indeed fell apart. I'm glad I didn't decide to take my chances during the race.
The road on the way back was really bumpy and I was flying down it at high speed - that didn't help with the aerobar situation. Eventually it got to the point that the only way to keep it in place was to hold it against the other aerobar constantly, pulling it back with effort for the rest of the ride and not letting it turn or slip. I was worried every time I had to sit up for the 180 turns because I had to let go of the aerobar. I only set up for those turns and the end of the ride.
I completed lap 2 in 1:53 so 2 minutes faster than lap 1 and by the end of it I was in 13th place. Lap 3 took me the same 1:53 and I got off the bike in 9th.
See how I'm holding the ends of the aerobars together so that the right side doesn't fall off?
At this point I was very comfortable with where I was and knew that I just had to get through an honest run and I would get what I came for. I didn't expect I had any chance of making it to the podium of 5 which would have been another mark that I cared about. I knew pre-race that it was very unlikely I had any chance of making it so I was perfectly happy with where I was.
Usually my goal on the run is to not give up any places but interestingly this has changed in the past 2 years. Now I'm starting to pass people on the run which is very new to me.
The run course consisted of 2 laps and there were two points per lap where I could see Coach Gregg. My friend, Rachel arrived too, so I would also see her at one point. Although I was perfectly content with my 9th place, when I saw Coach Gregg next time, past the 8 mi/ 13k mark, he told me I was in 8th. Still not too much to get excited about, but then half way he told me I was 7th. That is when I started to think about potentially maybe having a shot at the podium. He said the girl in 6th had slowed significantly.
When it was still going to be an honest but comfortable marathon.
That changed my plan from just running a comfortable marathon to start pushing it harder. I hadn't done this in an Ironman in a while, the last time I had was in September 2021 at the World Triathlon Worlds where I ran a hard marathon in my Ironman (3:37). This wasn't going to be anywhere near that time but it was the effort that I hadn't put in in a race since.
Thinking that if I could take over 6th then it would only take one of those 5 girls to falter to make it to the podium, which can always happen, I was determined to give myself a chance. Unfortunately the girl in 6th who was indeed slowing significantly somehow found herself and even though I put in the effort in the second half of the marathon, she managed to keep her position. There was also a super fast runner behind me who ran the best run split of our age group and ended up passing me and coming 7th and me finishing 8th. She started the run in 20th place!
I knew my run wouldn't be fast given the lack of training before the race which certainly effected my bike and run but I felt as good as you can feel in an Ironman on the run when you are putting in a big effort. I was in peace with an 8th place finish and ecstatic to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona for the second year in a row.
Got what I came for. The coin that means you are going to the Big Island.
I was a bit worried that all the pre-race bad luck and hick ups would effect the race but other than the aerobar issue, they really didn't. I feel that is one of my strengths that once the gun goes off I can turn all that off and just focus on the task at hand.
And with that, see you all in Kona!
I believe this was the last North-American race where Mike Reilly, the legendary voice of Ironman announced "You Are An Ironman!".