Race Report: Ironman Arizona

By Lloyd Brown

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Ironman Arizona 2017 was an amazing experience. I started focusing on this race more than year ago and I am thrilled at the result. My only struggles came during the run and I am very happy with how I rallied and overcame the difficulties to finish well.

As “A” races go, Ironman Arizona 2017 was a memorable adventure that was worth all the challenges of the year it took to prepare. I am grateful beyond words for the patience and support of my coach, Taneen (Coach T), and my family. I hope they feel as great about the race as I do.

My family and I arrived in Phoenix late on Thursday night, Nov. 16. My first activity was the underpants run. Taking off my shirt was nerve-wracking, but I wanted to have a full Ironman experience. So, there I was stripped down to my underpants, posing for photos with other racers and then trotting through the athlete’s village. Just as Coach T said, the underpants run broke the ice and I was immediately plunged into the Ironman experience.

Afterward, I checked in and got my race packet and bags. I wandered through the Ironman store and sat through the athletes briefing. Later in the afternoon I retrieved Lulu, my triathlon bike, from TriBike Transport and got her out for a 30-minute ride.

Friday evening was for family time. We had dinner with my wife Stephanie’s family and checked in for an early bedtime at our hotel.

Saturday morning was busy. Stephanie and I arrived in the athlete’s village and connected with Coach T, and my teammates Amanda and Matt. We racked our bikes and then took advantage of the swim prep time. It was good to get into the lake and get a feel for the water.

It was at that point that I felt absolutely ready to race. And, I also understood – and even said to myself – that I was amazingly calm. I was not anxious about any part of the race ahead. Not sure why. Perhaps it was because I was well trained, or because I knew that whatever I had ahead of me on Sunday was only going to last for one day. Regardless of the outcome, I was going to keep on going.

Saturday evening, Stephanie and picked up my mom and step-dad, Tom, from the airport and took them to the hotel. After a quick bite, we headed for bed.

Race Day: 

Pre-swim – I got up about 4:15 and ate a few easy-to-digest items. I collected my gear and then we headed to the race. We arrived at the race about 5:15 a.m. and I calmly set about the process of getting my nutrition in the right bags and on the bike. I borrowed a tire pump and made sure the bike tires were at 100 psi. I did a final check of the transition bags and special needs bags.

I still felt amazingly calm. I tried to soak in the day and chatted with a few people. I eventually got into my wet suit and handed Stephanie my warm clothes. It was time to race and I moved toward the start of the swim.

Swim – I lined up with the 1:10 swimmers. The self-seeding in the swim was a little chaotic, and I felt comfortable that I was in the right spot. After the national anthem, and the pro starts, I headed toward the water. I got very excited as I headed down the stairs and dove into the lake. The water was cool, but not freezing. I told myself to stay calm and to find as much open water as I could. My strategy was to stay to the right closer to the side of the lake, leaving the line along the buoys to others who liked to get kicked in the face. The water was too murky to see anything in front of your face, so it was important to sight a proper line more than I had in Cozumel 2015. My strategy was sound and for the most part, I stayed away from other athletes, found few people at the turns. It was a nice straight shot to to the swim finish. I concentrated on maintaining a relaxed stroke and no over kicking.

As I excited the swim, I saw very few people ahead of me and I thought that I had done exactly what I had hoped to do – get a good time and stay relaxed and fresh for the bike. (1:08:39)

Transition – Upon leaving the water, the wetsuit strippers took care of getting me out of the wetsuit. I trotted to the changing tent and ate a sandwich. I dried off and put on sleeves, helmet and shoes. I checked my pockets for my nutrition and endurolytes. And then I was off. It was not a very quick change, but I decided to give myself a minute or two so that I could give myself a shot at having a strong bike effort. (9:24)

Bike – I headed down the chute on Lulu feeling wonderful and strong. It was not cold like I anticipated. I immediately dropped into my aeros and checked my watch. I was sitting at 23 mph and I thought that I was barely pedaling. I knew I wasn’t going to hold that pace, but I felt good.

My strategy was to feel my way up the course until the first turnaround. That would tell me how I was going to handle the second and third loops of the bike route. About 5 miles out of transition, I began to realize the wind was a real challenge. I was cruising now at about 18 mph and beginning to slow. By mile 15, I was climbing toward the top of the hill and the first turn. I was crawling at 13 mph. I understood perfectly what was happening. I stayed in my aeros, kept my cadence high, and made sure I was on top of my nutrition.

At just shy of 18 miles, I moved into the turnaround and began the decent toward Tempe. I was now cruising at 30 mph and took the opportunity to get some rest – high cadence, fuel, and fluids.

At mile 37 I was turning around in Tempe having averaged 18 mph on the first loop. I felt so great! Coach T. and Stephanie were there cheering. I could not have been more pleased with how the race was taking shape.

However, leaving Tempe for the second loop I realized the wind had picked up and I was starting to fatigue. Here’s where experience took over. I stayed in my aeros, kept my cadence high and told myself, “Race what the course gives you.” Today it was giving me wind in my face up a hill and I was going to moderate my effort up and push on the downhill over the final two loops.

About 2/3rds up on the second loop, I was pushing harder than I wanted to push. The wind was brutal and I kept repeating my mantra – race what the course gives you. I understood I was going to reach the turnaround soon. As I cruised around the turnaround at the top of the hill, I took a deep breath, sat back and said – 1 and a half left!

After a quick stop at the special needs for some much needed Chammy Butt’r, I raced down toward Tempe and soon I had turned and was headed back up the hill for my final loop. I told myself that this was going to hurt and that I needed to stay calm and race what the course gives me. I had about an hour up the hill and then I was going to push my way back into Tempe.

Indeed, the final climb was hard. It was as hard as I expected it to be. The wind was in my face and I had to concentrate on fuel and fluids. I saw many athletes crashed, or dropping out for technical/equipment issues. I prayed that I didn’t get a flat.

As I crawled up the last few miles, I continued to repeat my mantra. Soon, I was there at the turn. I was saddle-sore and a little fatigued, but I knew at that point that with a good, controlled push down the hill, I was going to have a good ride. I also knew this would be the first place that I might see my mom.

Sure enough, after a nice steady ride down the hill, I entered the chute and there was the cheering section. I saw my mom and started to get emotional. I quickly reined that in and concentrated on getting through transition and onto the run. I knew I had given myself a shot at having a good day by managing the bike segment. (6:22:33)

Transition – I entered transition and sat down on a chair. I ate a sandwich and changed shoes. The volunteers were trying to rush me and I said to one that I was going to take an extra minute to make sure I was absolutely ready to head out onto the course. She thought I made a lot of sense after watching a lot of athletes forget key things in transition. (6:45)

Run – The run was hot. I won’t kid, I didn’t expect to be so hot. But my body temp had risen during the bike and there was little shade on the run course. I immediately regretted not carrying my own water bottle. I needed fluids badly. My strategy was to focus on cadence out of transition and to walk through water stations through the first part of the race. I started run/walk almost immediately. That was really working too. By the time I went through the first water station, I took on ice, Gatorade and water. I thought I was going to get things worked out. However, my legs were right on the edge of cramping. My Achilles on my right leg was barking. And, after I dumped water over my head, my sock got wet and I began to develop a blister on my right foot.

I maintained a run/walk and keep my cadence up. My first few miles were decent and I was staying confident until around mile 8. At that point, the wheels began to fall off. My legs were still cramping, the blister was building and two more things began to really affect me – my stomach began to cramp severely and my vision began to fail. Seriously – I was losing my ability to see. It was at that point that I started to lose my confidence and I took to walking as quickly as I could and running when I could. My pace was dropping.

Here’s also where I thought the run course was horrible. It was almost exclusively on concrete sidewalk, which is very jarring. I kept grinding though and decided I needed to work my way through to the special needs and see what happened there. I planned to change my socks and give myself a moment to regroup.

Special needs was just after mile 13 and I got fresh socks. I ate two handfuls of M&Ms and drank a can of Starbucks espresso. My energy surged as the sun began to set. By mile 16, the sun was down and I was back to running more than walking. I felt I had survived and that I was going to finish the race.

I saw my mom, Stephanie and Coach T at mile 17. There was so much I wanted to say, but all I could get out was that I was rallying. Coach T urged me to use the moment and to reach deep for the final push. It helped and my pace began to pick up.

Another thing that helped was the chicken broth on the course after the sun set. I began to take sips of cola and drink broth when those were available. My stomach pains began to subside and my leg cramps began to lessen. As I turned the final time on the course at mile 20, I knew I had one small hill, a bridge and the final mile to the finish. Another hour on the course and I would be done.

Here is where I got very emotional for a couple of minutes. As I ran, I thought about my mom and her fight with cancer. I realized that a day on the course for me was nothing compared with the battle she faces every day just to get out of bed. I allowed this thinking for only a few minutes. I buttoned it up and began to push.

I am tremendously pleased with the final six miles, and especially the final two miles. I just got stronger and focused. Not much more to say about the run. I could barely see, I was nursing the blister, the Achilles was barking and my legs were shot. But I WANTED that finish line.

As I worked my way down the final half mile, I knew I would finish ahead of the 13:40 of Cozumel, but time really didn’t matter. I wanted a slice of pizza and a beer. I wanted to be done. So I pushed and rounded the corner. I ran down the chute and heard Coach T, but I really couldn’t see much. I listened for my name and finally heard the beautiful line, “Lloyd Brown … YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.”

I raised my hands, punched the air and felt all the months of training and effort fall from my shoulders. I had crossed the finish line. I was done. (4:59:49)

Final – Little did I know that my wife had brought my mom and my son into the athletes’ finish area. As I got my medal and finishers shirt, I looked over and there was my family. I started to cry. I was very emotional.

I kissed Stephanie and leaned down to give my mom a hug. She stood up from her wheelchair and I gave her my medal. I hadn’t planned to do it, but at that moment, it seemed like the right thing to do.

There is so much more to write and perhaps most of the rest of the story is about more than the race and my day at Ironman Arizona. It is worth noting that my recovery has been amazingly easy. The effort made to manage my fuel and fluids was worth it. The sore legs were never that severe and I didn’t experience the sea sickness that I had suffered in 2015. Also my vision returned to normal about an hour after the race.

As I mentioned above, this was a day that I will always remember. In 2015, I became an Ironman. No one will ever take that away from me. But in 2017, I became a complete triathlete. I used my experiences and training to manage through a tough day and score a personal PR.

There will be more races. I know I’m not finished with triathlon and Ironman. And I might have days that are faster than Ironman Arizona. But I am not sure I will have a more special day, one for which I am deeply, deeply grateful and humbled. (12:47:10)