Nerves set in strong. I awoke the morning of the race at 2:45 and couldn't go back to sleep. I got out of bed at 3:30 and ate oatmeal, a banana, and drank a cup of coffee. This would be the last real food until after the race. I laid back down until 4:30. My friend Mark and I walked over to the race start at 5. The battery on my bike monitor had gone dead on the drive to Arizona so I needed to change it before the race started. I checked my special needs bags. These are bags that you pack for yourself with stuff you think you might need during your bike and run; they are in addition to your transition bags which were checked in the night before. So many logistics! Next, it was onto body marking; volunteers write your race number on both arms and your age on your calf muscle. The age on the calf is strictly for athletes so they know who they are passing or who is passing them. The number on the arm is for race officials and volunteers. After body marking I put on my wetsuit and race officials called us to get in the water. There is a concrete edge along the lake so we had to jump out a few feet to get into the lake. The water was cold, about 61 degrees, and it took my breath away. There were 2800 athletes needing to jump in to the water so it took at least 15 minutes to get everyone into the water. We treaded water for what seemed like 20 minutes. My strategy was to start near the front left side of the pack. I had hoped to go out fast and then settle into a pace; knowing this effort would make me breathless, but I was hoping it would get me away from the masses. I've done several deep water starts but none to this magnitude. Hands and feet collided with fellow athletes, both men and women, as we waited to start. The lights from the buildings and the brides overhead shown on the water of Tempe Town Lake. The bridges were lined four deep with the athletes' friends and the family. There was no countdown, suddenly the canon shot off with a loud BANG. I started my watch so I would know my race splits throughout the day. We were off...elbows, feet,and hands were flying everywhere. This was by far the most brutal part of the race. Just when I thought I could settle into a pace I would get hit and not just a simple tap on the
shoulder but a full on arm coming onto my shoulder and dragging me down, then onto my back and my legs. I got hit multiple times but the worse was a hard heal to the goggles which I thought must have cut my eye. I kept thinking stay strong, be tough, give back what you're given, don't give in, you've got this, relax. It was brutal! I got out of the crowd at the half way point of the swim, only to realize it was because I was swimming a bit off course. I never felt tired on the swim, the distance felt completely fine. I felt beaten up for sure but never tired of swimming. You couldn't see more than a foot in the water, it was so murky, green, and it smelled funny. The second hardest part of the swim was the intense charlie horses in my calves and hamstrings on the back half of the race. This has happened to me in other races and I haven't figured out why. It's an intense surge up my soleus followed by a rock solid tightening in the center of my calf. Thank goodness I had experienced this before so I kept as calm as possible and drug my legs behind me until the pain lessened. The wetsuit keeps me afloat so I basically used my arms to swim. Eventually the intense tightening in the calf subsided and I could kick again. This definitely added stress to the swim and it slowed me down but I never stopped as a result. Towards the end of the swim most athletes kick vigorously to bring blood back into their legs before exiting the water.
Arizona Ironman had close to 4,000 of the best volunteers imaginable.! A volunteer pulled me out of the water onto the steps where athletes exited the lake. My calves were so cramped that I used the step to stretch them out before hitting the wetsuit peelers. That's what the volunteers are called who help take wetsuits off the swimmers. I heard volunteers yelling my race number as I approached the thousands of bike transition bags. I grabbed my bag and entered the women's changing tent. Volunteers helped me put on my bike jersey, arm warmers, socks, cycle shoes and helmet. I was off to grab my bike and headed for the three loop course. The air temp was about 56, but it felt much colder because my tri suit was wet. I had planned on riding conservatively the first lap, then gradually increasing my pace.
The second lap of the bike course was the most challenging, both mentally and physically. The wind had picked up and it wreaked havoc on all of the athletes. During the second lap athletes were allowed to pick up their special needs bag. I picked up a fresh bottle of Perpetuem and dropped off my cycle jersey and arm warmers. My family was worried that my pace was declining because my split had slowed, but thankfully this was a reflection of my stop and not my legs. I felt really strong on the third lap of the bike leg and I began to pass cyclists right and left.
As with any race, there are things that happen that can throw your race plan off. Ironman was no different than any other race. On lap one of the bike I hit a bump in the road and POP, out of my bento box came my bottle of Nuun. Nuun is my favorite electrolyte supplement. I packed extra Endurox so this would become my back up plan. Then on lap two of the bike when I dropped my cycle jersey I accidentally gave my Endurox container and with it the tabs! I was faced with a decision of taking the race electrolyte or waiting until the run to replenish my electrolytes. I know this doesn't seem like a big deal but I am a planner and this can really play on my confidence. I worried about the race fuel upsetting my stomach. I had heard from so many athletes that their fueling was the biggest problem in their ironman. I decided to wait until the run to refuel with the electrolyte that my body was use to having. In retrospect I think this was the right decision, as I had no stomach issues at all!
I had four friends who raced AZ Ironman: Mark Richard, Terry McNiff, Jeff DuBois, and Michael Myette. These guys are all great guys and I really enjoyed training with them. I saw Terry, Jeff, and Mark on the bike and that really helped keep me rolling. Jeff and I finished the bike at the same time, which was really pretty cool.
The volunteers took our bikes and once again we collected our transition bags, only this time we were preparing for a marathon. I changed quickly and started my run. The course is a three loop course and the first loop felt pretty good. Once again, the second lap was the toughest both mentally and physically. The race director had said something the day before the race that really stuck with me. He said "You can't rush an Ironman, let it come to you." You know what? He was absolutely correct! I kept thinking to myself, keep lifting those legs, one step at a time, you've got this, going the distance today!
My friend Andrew Garmin, a local ultramarathon runner and fellow triathlete had flown in to register for Arizona Ironman 2012, and he cheered us on during the race. He knew what to say to me to keep me on track and get me going. I really started fading in the third lap and he yelled at me "YOU NEED TO EAT AND DRINK" I did, and boy what a difference!! After the fuel kicked in I was able to pick up my pace and really go. I ran up on my friend Terry, whose stomach was upset. I yelled at him "come on Terry, we gotta go!" Together we ran the next five miles. It was a gift to run into Terry. We had trained for months together and we understood the magnitude of what was happening. Terry and I flew passed other competitors like they were standing still. We were MOVING and were so excited to be finishing. I'll never forget those last few miles. As we got within a mile of the finish line Terry had more left than I did and he pulled ahead. When I came down that shoot I felt invigorated, proud, and accomplished. I heard my husband Jeff, my daughters Aly and Natalie, and my best friends the Richards, screaming and yelling my name with excitement. Then finally, the announcer yells "Gina Anixter YOU ARE AN IRONMAN"!!! Simply put, this was one of the best days of my life. Nothing feels better than accomplishing something so BIG in life. I've learned that through hard work and dedication anything is possible! My overall time was 11:14. I placed 5th among women in my age group and was proud to stand on the podium for my first Ironman!