Spectating Ironman Arizona

Right around the time Michaela signed up for Ironman Arizona last year, I started threatening to show up. In fact, I remember paging a year ahead on my calendar and filling in Ironman weekend with “Go to Arizona?” All year it sat there, and as the months passed, that question mark became more of an exclamation point. Michaela was going to be an Ironman, and I was going to watch.

Any trip that long in the making is sure to go through a bunch of changes, but this one was fairly ridiculous. For a while, a friend was planning to register for 2015, so we all signed up to volunteer together. Then, I discovered that Phoenix and Tempe are basically the same city — not in wildly different parts of AZ as I’d thought — and we’ve got good friends in Phoenix, so Pete said he’d come along since we could crash with them. Then Pete had to travel for work, my friend decided not to do an Ironman, so it was just me. Then another friend appeared, and we briefly dreamed of going to New Mexico together before she chose a beachfront yoga retreat over me. (I do not blame her one bit.) Then I got really angry at my dumb foot and almost cancelled the whole shebang because I wasn’t really in the mood to hang around an endurance event feeling sorry for myself.

But how many times do you get to see your friend become an Ironman? And how many times do you get to see a new city through the eyes of friends you don’t see enough as it is? So I sucked it up and booked my ticket, and I am so glad I went.

I got in late Friday night and caught up with my friends in Phoenix over frozen pizza and beer — already exactly what I needed. Saturday morning I headed into Tempe for the volunteer meeting, where I met up with Layla and managed to run smack into Michaela and Arvan just as they finished their practice swim.

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(I’ve hung out with Arvan a total of maybe four times now, and each time we end up in a picture sort of like that one. Below, a case in point.)

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While the racers dropped off their gear bags and bikes, Layla and I wandered around the Ironman village, spotting some faintly disturbing things …

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And then we headed out to Scottsdale for an afternoon of sports-watching, chip-eating, and obsessive spectator-strategizing.

Back in Phoenix that night, my friends took me for beers on the patio at Angels Trumpet — which I put in the top 5 of beer bars I have ever visited, and um, it’s a long list — and dinner at the adorable Tuck Shop. And because mostly what I do is eat, we started the next day at Phoenix Public Market with an incredible egg sandwich, cold-brewed iced coffee, and a patio. Yes, that’s two out of three meals eaten on patios.

Oh, and at that point, my racing friends had already been racing for about six hours. Kinda puts things in perspective.

I made it into Tempe just in time to see Arvan come through for his final loop of the bike course. It was a windy day, and my athlete tracker was showing everyone going slow on the “out” and incredibly fast on the “back” of the course — like 9 mph for the out, 28 mph for the return. (An unsolicited plug for IMTrackr, the app I used, which had one big advantage: it showed total race time at every checkpoint, which we could convert to time of day.) Michaela came through maybe 20 minutes later, and I think she tried to tell us something about being stressed about the cutoff, but we cheered so loud we couldn’t hear her. I stayed on the curb long enough to see Katie-from-the-Internet and Paul-from-my-first-triathlon-group finish their rides, and then I started the hike out to my volunteer post.

I was at the first aid station on the run course between 4 and 8 p.m., which turned out to be a pretty fascinating window of time. All the winners and pros and super-crazy-fast people were almost done with their races, but there were plenty of age-groupers finishing their first run loop and heading out for their second, plus all the people just entering the run course. I gave out sets of clapping hands to my fellow volunteers and settled into my spot on the line. I barely missed seeing a speedy GGTC friend come through but then in short order spotted Tami, Arvan, and Michaela. I shouted something at Katie’s ass and figured out the racer in the cute Coeur kit was Heidi just in the split-second required to yell something awkward. I somehow missed Paul coming through and was selfishly bummed out about it until I realized it meant he was running strong enough that he didn’t need to stop for Red Bull.

Right: My job at the aid station was to hand out Red Bull. More specifically, it was to shout out “RED BULL!!!!!” for four hours while 90% of racers looked at me like I was a crazy person and 10% gratefully swarmed me like I was handing out vials of pure life force.

After about 6 p.m., the crowd slowed down a bit. Everyone who was going to finish that day was running by then, and the volunteers were just trying to stay warm and happy and encouraging. It was chilly — by the end of my shift, I was wearing legwarmers, two sweatshirts, and gloves — and there started to be a divide between the runners who’d put warm gear in their special needs bags and those who hadn’t but wished they had. Our aid station didn’t have any of the warm things (no space blankets, no broth), and I hope everyone who came by asking for them found them before too many more miles had passed.

I’ve volunteered at 70.3s before, and I’ve always taken a late shift, so I know what it’s like to see racers come through toward the back of the pack at the end of a long day — but Ironman was a whole different thing. Most people looked fine, tired but moving along according to plan. Some people looked really good, like tearing-through-the-field good. And some people looked truly not good. There was this weird dead-eyed look that some people had, this just-get-me-to-the-finish-line-now-oh-my-god look, and it was haunting. I always clapped my clapping hands a little harder for those folks, and I hope it helped, though I imagine they actually wanted to grab the clappers and crack them over my skull.

Just as Michaela came through the second time — and I got to say “you’re doing some massive volume today” like I’d been plotting for literally two hours — my shift was done. I walked back toward the finish line with racers heading to the finish on my right and those starting their second loop on my left, and in that space between aid stations, it was quiet. There was the crunch of gravel for those heading in on the path, and the occasional brief snippet of conversation, and the beeps of Garmins for pace and time and distance. But there was no cheering crowd, no music, no distraction — just dark. I clapped the clapping hands a few times but honestly, it felt more eerie to break the silence than to just be in it.

Back in Tempe, I thawed out at a Starbucks with Layla and the rest of the Michaela/Arvan cheer squad. Everyone around us had either just finished racing or was waiting for someone out on the course, so there was a lot of “SHE’S AT MILE 18!” and “HE JUST HIT 23!” chatter. Just after 9:30, we headed to the finish line, and mere minutes after we claimed a sweet vantage point in the last quarter-mile of the chute, Tami came through. Then, not too far behind, Arvan.

Then, for a while, I just watched the stream of strangers. But they didn’t feel as much like strangers now that I’d seen them all at the aid station. There was Nebraska woman, Coeur woman (holy crap! the internet found Coeur woman for me!), guy who chugged a Red Bull, guy who left his special needs Cheetos at the aid station for the volunteers to share, woman with the brightest neon calf sleeves, woman whose makeup somehow still looked impeccable, guy in the Mountain Hardwear snowsuit with an ice axe. I’m sure they had no idea I even existed, but I remembered them, and I clapped the clapping hands and teared up every time I saw one of them tear up realizing what they were about to do. I think it was a PR in crying (and that’s saying something).

Then, out of the darkness, Michaela came into the chute. When I realized it was her, I was definitely ugly-crying. She’s an Ironman. Holy hell.

Because of how things shook out after Michaela came through, it made sense to wait through the midnight finish. So we made our way further into the chute, near the jumbotron, and we waited and watched and cheered for the final 20 or so finishers. Every so often, there would be an update about racers on the course — the last one was three miles away, then 2.5, then 2. And the remaining time was getting shorter and shorter — though because the finish line clock had stopped at some point, nobody in the chute seemed to know exactly when the race would end. It was exciting, sure, but it was also stressful.

And — well, this is the one part of the weekend that was a lot different than I was expecting. I’d heard so much about midnight finish, how inspiring and amazing it is. That was not exactly my experience. Some people looked thrilled and happy and strong. But some were really struggling. Some were wobbling and weaving in a way that made me say not “this is so inspirational” but ”holy shit, nobody should ever, ever do this.” Because of the finish clock glitch, there seemed to be a moment when it wasn’t clear if the last finisher was a “real” finisher or not, and all I could think about was how horrible that would be, to be standing there as the time ticked from 12:05 to 12:06 while you stood waiting to make sure you really were an Ironman. And when it was over, it was well and truly over — within one minute, the music was off, the giant screen was gone, the Ironman banners were coming off the finish line arch, and the barriers were knocked down and stacked in the street. It was this crazy, amped-up, fraught moment, and then it was gone.

People have asked me since I came back if being in Arizona made me want to do an Ironman, and I can honestly say “hell no, it did not.” I have a greater respect now for what it means — what it really looks like, up close — to take on that distance, and instead of getting fired up, I wanted to retreat. Given the state of my foot, this is probably a blessing in disguise, but it’s still … uneasy. I’ve said before that I thought, sure, probably I’d do an Ironman some day. Now — even if that becomes physically possible for me — I’d have to want it on a whole different level. I suppose I’m glad to have learned that lesson now.

But — I want to be clear: I am so happy for my friends, and I am so grateful that I got to be there for a small snippet of their adventures. It was an amazing, overwhelming, astonishing thing to see.

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