May 2, 2010

I Am Ironman

Note 1: prepare yourself for a novel of a blogpost. I'm not apologizing; just giving you forewarning. This was a long race, and it deserves a long post. Pictures have been liberally added to reduce reader boredom.

Note 2: a minor/major distinction. Iron Man = superhero crime fighter. Ironman = endurance triathlon.

The Beginning (2000)
I did my first triathlon in the year 2000. The Wild Bill Hickman Triathlon was held in Tooele, UT at a local rec center. It was a sprint, and I didn't really know what I was in for. For those that don't know, a triathlon is generally in swim-bike-run order. However, as the swim would be in a pool, the organizers reversed the order, making the Wild Bill Hickman a run-bike-swim. I believe the main reason was so the participants would be spread out a bit by the swim portion and the pool wouldn't be too crowded all at once.

The actual race is kinda hazy after 10 years and so many races since then. But here's what I remember: The 5k run went pretty smoothly. It was a little chilly, so I wore my red gloves. And I wore my Adidas running shorts because I was embarrassed to wear just my Speedo. Anyways, I'd been running a lot, so I felt strong getting on the bike. The bike is a blur, except I recall going over some train tracks and that my calves started majorly cramping up with a couple miles to go. So I gutted that out and then hopped in the pool... where my calves promptly cramped up twice as bad as on the bike. I swam with my feet flexed (try to bring your toes to your shins), causing my legs to be like anchors in the water. Let's just say it was a slow and painful swim. When I climbed out of the pool, the finish line was close by and I was stoked to be done.

Turns out that I won my division in that race. It was the novice division, but still. Some of my family had come to watch, and I was happy they could see me do well enough to get on the podium. Then I did something that might be considering foolish and telling of my youthful exuberance: I decided I loved triathlon and I was going to do the Ironman before I turned 30 years old.

Building a Foundation (2001-2009)
Flash forward almost 10 years. Except for a 2-year hiatus from the sport, I've been doing multiple triathlons and running races every year. In 2007, I took the leap from sprint and Olympic distance races to the Florida 1/2 Ironman. As a training lead-up to St George, I participated in the Longhorn 1/2 Ironman in Austin, TX in late 2009.

Achieving the Goal (2010)
After flying from DC to Salt Lake and getting a good night's rest at my parents' house, I left early on Thursday morning, picked up Brea in Provo, and we drove down to St George. Our first order of business was to head to the race expo to sign in and get body-marked.
Unlike my previous races, where they just use a marker to write your race number on your arm and your age on your calf, at full Ironman events they prefer to basically spray paint the numbers on. My number: 916. Yes, it's the same upside down as it is right side up. Double cool.Note: my age for the race was 30, because USA Triathlon recently made a rule that your age for sanctioned events is whatever you'll be as of December 31 of the race year. This is to simplify the age comparisons for racers. I'm only 29 until December. Don't make me feel older than I already do!After grabbing some dinner, we chilled at the hotel for a bit and Brea gave me a goody bag (a.k.a. survival kit) for the race, which included all the delicious post-race treats as well as practical in-race food/drinks pictured here:Friday's required morning tasks were to drop off my transition bags and bike at T1 (bike/run in downtown St George) and T2 (swim/bike at Sand Hollow Reservoir). While we were downtown, we stopped at the finish line, which was eerily quiet but kinda got me excited just to stand under.Race day! I was up at 3:30 AM in order to eat and catch the athlete buses to Sand Hollow Reservoir. Of course I was feeling some nerves, but I was mostly just excited to get the day going. My parents, Megan, and Brea made it to the start on time, and we chatted for a bit before the gun went off and Ironman St George had begun!The water was ~59 degrees on race day, so a lot of competitors were wearing full-sleeved wetsuits. I don't like feeling constricted, and being a Utah boy am fairly used to cold water triathlon swims, so I used my new sleeveless. So glad I did. I focused on staying relaxed, avoiding big clumps of swimmers, and spotting often so I wouldn't swim off course. No sense adding distance; 2.4 miles is plenty long enough! My hands and feet were pretty chilly when I came out of the water, but overall I felt good and didn't feel like I'd pushed myself too hard, which was exactly according to plan. Swim time: 1 hr, 28 mins.I usually pride myself on quick transitions, but that wasn't my concern during this race. So after an almost 20-minute T1, due to a full clothing change, eating and drinking a little, and not rushing, I was on my bike and starting the long journey to and around St George. Aside: meanwhile, my adoring/adorable fans were back on the buses and continuing with their day. For a spectator's viewpoint on the Ironman experience, check out my sister's great blogpost.After 21 miles of riding to the outskirts of St George, I was into my rhythm and taking it fairly easy. I knew I still had a lot of racing to do. 112 miles is no laughing matter. As a result, I just relaxed and tried to be efficient in my pedal stroke and cadence.
Having reached St George, I started the first of two 43 mile loops. I'd heard stories of it being a tough bike course. At the expo, Brea and I listened to some guys discussing their practice rides of the loop and how they were going to approach it during the race. Still, I didn't know quite what to expect. I gotta be honest; the longest ride of my life before this race was an 80-miler I did during training. Scenery like this helped me keep going and not even realize how long I'd been on the bike:Here's my description of each loop:
  1. Loooong, mostly flat section with brutal headwind. Some kinda bumpy sections and a few cattle guards. Winding canyon ride and pretty scenic.
  2. Hairpin turn going into a 0.5 mile climb. Not just any climb, mind you. It feels like it's straight up. First go around, it wasn't too too (intentional repeat) bad, but the second time had me down to 3 mph -- yes I looked at my speedometer -- and just trying to inch forward and not fall over.
  3. Kind of gently rising rollers and beautiful road surface for a bit. This lasted a couple miles; just long enough to catch your breath and take in some nutrition.
  4. Climb #2. Longer but not as steep. In fact, only my first lap, I didn't realize until later that it was the 0.7-mile climb everyone had been talking about. Fast forward to second loop. I definitely noticed it this time.
  5. Aero descent practice. Yes, all the tough riding was rewarded with a 15-mile downhill. This is where you refuel on the flat parts and go for mad speed whenever possible. On both loops, I was pushing to see how fast I could get. 45 mph. Loved it. To quote Ricky Bobby: "I wanna go fast!"
  6. Lather, rinse, repeat.
During my second loop, I was greeted with this sight at about mile 75. Every time that I got to see my fans, it gave me a huge boost. Seriously, how could you not be stoked to see these smiling faces? They were awesome and I'm glad they had a good time cheering for all of the race participants. I know it was a long day for them, too, and I appreciate so much that they all came to support me.I was pretty happy to get off the bike, just because that meant I was one event closer to the finish line. Bike time: 7 hrs, 24 mins.

Surprisingly, I actually felt pretty good overall at this point. I tried to restrain my pacing in the first 13.1 miles of the run, and completed the first of two hilly loops in about 2 hrs 30 mins. Not too shabby.
Unfortunately, that pace and the full day of racing was taking its toll, and my stomach decided at mile 14 that it needed a rest from digesting the simple sugars of Clif Bloks and Powergels and Gatorade, mingled with the occasional Powerbar. The little Gatorade in my stomach found its way up my esophagus and onto the side of the road, and I shuffled along at a slower clip up the toughest hill, sipping on water when my stomach would allow. By mile 20, I'd regained some composure and ability to take in nutrients, and was able to move like this:
Believe me, this is pretty fast compared to the speed I was moseying along at times. When thinking in miles became too much to bear, I resorted to focusing on the next cone ahead (generally 50 or so yards down the road) and telling myself to "just reach that one and then you can quit." Of course, when I got to that cone, I looked up at the next cone and determined to "just reach that one, and you can be done." This lasted about 10 miles. 50 yards at a time. Run time: 5 hrs, 27 mins.It was all worth it. Crossing the line and being able to put my hands in the air. Hearing the announcer yell, "Aaron Smyth (mis-pronounced Smith, as usual), YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!" My family and friends can attest to my getting emotional at this point, and I won't deny it. My 10-year goal had come to fruition, and my body was exhausted. Not particularly sore, and I wasn't actually too sore at any point after the race, but utterly and completely exhausted.
If you do the math, and add in transitions, my total time was:
Swim 01:28:24
T1 00:18:31
Bike 07:24:19
T2 00:08:35
Run 05:27:15
Total 14:47:04
While I just wanted to finish, and thus didn't really care what place I came in, that time put me in 1,133rd position overall, and 135th in my age group. I'm plenty happy with both of those.

Prologue a.k.a. Mushy Stuff
I want to thank everyone who helped me accomplish this monumental life goal and for supporting me all along. The grad student who taught the UofU triathlon class for the one semester that I was at the UofU before my mission (seriously, if that isn't fate, I don't know what is). A veritable plethora of running partners through the years. Roommates who gave me a hard time about being comfortable in spandex and nicknamed me "Lance Armstrong," followed by either real or feigned interest in my training and race results.

Friends that didn't disown me for not being able to stay out late because I had a big training day the next morning. Employers who provided financial incentives to employees to stay healthy, by helping with race fees. Fellow competitors for teaching me to push harder and faster, making me a better triathlete in the process. All the competent and considerate drivers on the roads of Utah, California, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, New Jersey, and Maryland, who avoided killing me during training and races in your states. The countless volunteers and race organizers at all the events I've competed in. Classmates and co-workers that listened to the minutiae of technique and details of individual races that they probably didn't even care about.
And most importantly, I want to thank my family. A loving family which always encouraged me and looked past my insanity to see the passion and drive underneath. My parents split the cost of my first bike and were supportive even when races took me away from family events, and wonderful siblings who came to see races and/or asked how those races went afterwards.

Thank you all so much!! I couldn't have done it without you!!



  1. I actually got a little teary-eyed reading this. What a HUGE accomplishment! I am so happy for you and proud of you. You have some serious passion, drive, and strength!

  2. Love it! What an incredible accomplishment!! Gah, everything that I want to write just sounds corny and lame. You're awesome. 'Nuff said.