Disaster Story 1: Provo - A Lesson in Survival

This article was originally written for the Cleveland West Road Runners Club newsletter in June 2002

When I signed up for my first Ironman race, I should have known that it would never be easy. Nothing like this is ever easy, especially when I have my heart set on it, especially when it involves long distance travel, especially when it requires many months of high-volume training, and last of all, especially when it involves me.

I entered Ironman Utah in November 2001. It would be my 4th triathlon. It was also a qualifier for Ironman Hawaii, the Mac-Daddy of all triathlons. However, I never expected things to go smoothly - after all, I'm the veteran of 5 stress fractures, one of them just in time for the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials. But to my surprise, my training did go well. I stayed focused -- no injuries, no missed runs or rides or swims. My travel plans even went well: a cheap flight, favorable departure and arrival times, an inexpensive hotel near the race headquarters, and a decent rental-car deal. To top it off, my taper was near-perfect.

I was convinced that nothing would shatter my focus or my confidence. Not this time. I worked too hard for this. Life was good.

Enter mishap number one.

Mishap number one occurred at the airport. Our plane arrived at the gate with a broken windshield. Apparently, a plane cannot fly with a broken windshield, and we were informed that there would be a delay. No problem -- I had CDs to listen to, and I was going to stay calm and focused.

After about an hour, we were informed that the flight would now be canceled. My nerves were about to be tested. I had to adopt a new rule for this trip... in the event of an emergency: relax, don't panic! Luckily, knowing how anxious I can get, Jim, acting as travel coordinator, already had one foot in the direction of the service desk. He made it there before most of the passengers even knew of the cancellation. Living by my new rule, I trusted him to get the best flight available, and I walked away, sat down, put my headphones on, and closed my eyes. About half an hour later Jim arrived with the news. The good news: we would make it to Provo before race registration closed. The bad news: it would be 4:00 am when we arrived.

Relax, don't panic! I'll just have to sleep till noon. Nothing was going to rattle my cage. Not this time. I've worked too hard for this. Life would remain good.

We informed the airline that my bike would need to be in Salt Lake City by Friday, and we were thrilled to find that when we changed planes in Las Vegas, the bike box was on the way up the baggage ramp to the airplane. We flew to Salt Lake City, drove to Provo, and were in bed by 4:00 am Thursday morning. We slept till 11:00, then Jim, now the bike mechanic, put my bike together, and I went for a short spin. That afternoon, we drove to BYU, I checked in for the race, and we did some sight-seeing. Then Jim, now the chauffeur, drove back to Salt Lake City airport and picked up Julie Gauvreau, my additional race support. Friday, I went for an easy run, had a great warm-up swim in Utah Lake, dropped off my bike and transition bags, and did more sight-seeing. That night, I slept better than usual and woke up race morning energized and ready. Much to my surprise, life was still good.

The morning of the race saw temperatures in the 60s. At 4:45 am, I boarded the bus to the start at Utah Lake. Bike prep went well, my tires still intact after sitting out in the sun the day before. I geared up, then sat down to wait for Jim and Julie. They arrived at the lake around 6:00 am after which I donned my wetsuit, and we began the trek out to the dock for the deep water start. I was psyched. Life was very good indeed.

Enter mishap number two.

Mishap number two happened, not only to me, but to everyone in the race. It was the unfortunate result of a wind that kicked up around 5:00 am and increased in intensity to about 40 mph by 7:00, race start time. Walking to the start, we were pelted by wind and sand. There was a crowd trying to get onto the dock, so I slid into the water from the rocks on the side of the pier, avoiding the congestion. As soon as I hit the water, I knew it would be a rough day. The waves were reported at 3 to 4 feet. Athletes could not hear the announcers, and no one would hear the starting cannon. We heard nothing except surf and helicopters. People in front of me started swimming. The gun had not gone off. Why were they starting? I looked back at the dock where people were still waiting to get in the water. Then I looked in front of me where competitors were already swimming. So I started swimming, heading toward the far buoy.

By the first marker, I realized a steady swim was impossible. I swam a couple strokes, bobbed, looked for the next marker, swam a couple strokes, bobbed, and kept looking. Then the buoys vanished, blown away by the wind, and there was mass confusion. Everyone struggled to swim against the current, and the waves were getting bigger. Then came the mixed signals: some officials were pointing back to shore, some swimmers were telling me the race was canceled, some were telling me to keep going. Someone in a kayak told me to swim to the next marker. What next marker? Suddenly, I found myself completely alone -- no brightly colored swim caps, just whitecaps. HELP.

Relax, don't panic. Find a boat. HELP. I swallowed water. I waved my arms. HELP. I swam. I swam as hard as I could toward the shore. I found a boat and they said the swim was called off. The good swimmers swam in. The not-so-good swimmers were carried by boat. I walked onto dry land about a half mile from the start, about an hour after the race had "started." I had been expecting my 2.4-mile swim leg to last just under an hour... on a good day... with no waves. Life took a U-turn.

Many emotions set in: exhaustion, confusion, frustration, and sadness. What will become of Ironman Utah? The athletes' dry clothes were still on a truck, so we huddled around, shivering, waiting,... waiting for everyone to check in,... hoping everyone would check in. We found out later that one man did not. His name was John Boland, and he drowned in Utah Lake that morning.

Race officials scrambled to come up with a way to appease 2000 disappointed, disheartened athletes, all expecting to say, "I did an Ironman" by midnight. Life was no longer so good.

Enter mishap number three.

Mishap number three happened to me and every triathlete for whom biking is the weakest link. It was decided that the remaining two legs of the race would be shortened: the 112-mile bike ride would be changed to 65 miles, and the marathon would become a 13.1-mile run. The bike start would be staggered in order of race number, starting with the pros, and allowing no more than 3 seconds between bikes. It was a time trial, and the chip time would be final. I wore race number 1853. It was going to be a long wait.

Relax, don't panic. About 1.5 hours later, I made it to the starting line. I gathered my thoughts, focused my mind, and mounted my bike. My plan? I would push... harder than I had been planning for the 112 miles. A coveted Hawaii slot was hanging in the balance, and I was determined to get it or die trying... despite the bike leg being longer than it should be for a half-ironman, despite the fact that I'm a weak biker, and despite not having 26.2 miles to help me make up the difference.

The bike leg was not 65 miles -- it was 70, the last 5 of which were uphill. I pushed, I struggled, I gave it all I had. I thought: "Please get me off this bike and into my running shoes!" After 3 hours and 25 minutes of riding in wind and heat, my feet landed on the ground, and I ran. I ran in to the transition. I ran out of the transition. I ran. With temperatures topping out in the 80s, I ran right into dehydration and had to walk many of the water stops as well as the hills. But I was running, and life was getting better.

Enter mishap number four.

Mishap number four dared to stop me in the last 5 miles of the run -- leg cramps. Painful, knotting cramps in my right quad and calf reduced me to a limp. Had I blown it by pushing too hard on the bike? Was it the dehydration? Why now? At 8 miles, Jim and Julie gave me the bad news: I was somewhere around 4th or 5th in my age group. No! Say it isn't so! I realized I would have to reach deep down inside for this one. Life was going to be difficult.

Relax, don't panic! I needed to finish in the top 3 in my age group to get that Hawaii slot, and I'm a runner! The cramps never let up as I walked... ran... walked... ran. And then I saw them -- the remaining women in the 35-39 age group -- and I only needed to pass two of them.

I passed all but one, but I could see she was struggling also. We entered the BYU stadium, and when my feet hit the track, I was once again in high school, running the anchor leg of the 4x400m. I got within about 5 yards of her and realized she was wearing number 1844. 1844! A moment of clarity told me that she had started the race about 30 seconds in front of me. All I had to do was close that gap, and I would win my age group. Delirium changed to elation as I coasted across the finish line a few steps behind her and dropped to my knees, my right leg collapsing into a giant knot. It was over. Life was sweet.

I never actually believed it until I saw the posted results -- first in my age group. I'M GOING TO HAWAII!!! And it all came down to three simple little words: Relax. Don't Panic.

I was very fortunate to have Jim and Julie at the race with me, for pit-crew duties, general attitude maintenance, keeping me focused and relaxed, and looking out for me the entire time I was in Utah. I'd also like to thank Bill Dieter and the crew at Second Sole for the incredible support they've given me. And, last but not least, I'm grateful for all the wonderful friends who remembered me and kept me sane the week before the race, specifically Kathy Dugan and John Delzani, Julie Tebo, Nick Georgiadis (who was generous enough to supply me with a faster bike wheel), Dan Peplin, Mickey Rzymek, Rich Oldrieve, John Paull, and especially Sean Payton for all his advice and good thoughts. I would not have been able to rise to the occasion had it not been for all of you lifting me up.