Like most things, it began with a goal.

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Sub-9. Never has something occupied my thoughts with such magnitude. It likely means little to the uninitiated, and to those in the know, well it probably seems like a pipe dream. But it’s my dream. And it was my goal at Ironman Arizona.

In an Ironman, if someone goes Sub-9, it means they finished in under 9 hours. 32,399 is the number of seconds in 8:59:59. It was a reminder that every second counts.

There would be no farting around in Transition. There would be no jogging to my bike. Every movement would be deliberate and with great urgency.

These are the blisters.

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This is the finish.

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Here is the story.

Saturday morning began with a big breakfast, a swim in the lake, and a short run. It was now time to check in my bike for Sunday’s race.

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Then it was an opportunity to visit with my Team TriBike Transport teammates and to take team photos.

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The rest of the day was spent resting, mentally preparing, sodium-loading, coconut-water chugging, and looking forward to our late afternoon, 3:45 dinner at Oregano’s.

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Race morning began with two Erin Baker’s Breakfast Cookies (Morning Glory), two cups of coffee, and the Mdrive trifecta: Elite, Joint, and ATP. On our way out the door, we snapped a quick shot. Check out the sign Michelle made!

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The sun had not risen on Tempe Beach Park.

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But the scene was alive.

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Swim 2.4 miles
The swim in Tempe Town Lake is a swim I’ve never looked forward to. The air temperature is 40-50 degrees. The water temperature is 60-70 degrees.

The water offers zero clarity. If you want to see your hand enter the water, you won’t. If you want to examine your pull or your high-elbow catch, you can’t. It’s like swimming in the dark.

And if you’re not a fast swimmer, get prepared to enter the octagon. You are now in a battle royale. People get black eyes, ruptured eardrums, or worse . . . some come dangerously close to drowning.

When I first did this race in 2005, there were 1,680 athletes. This year there were 3,200.

I have a lot of energy. In the days leading up to a race, much of this energy becomes nervous energy, and I devote far too much of it to the swim. I obsess over it, far more than anyone I know.

I’ve been working on this for . . . 13 years (ever since I started triathlon). I finally realized that I may continue to have this problem. So I might as well do all that I can to minimize the amount of time I have to deal with it. Thus, I’ve dedicated myself to becoming a faster swimmer.

Today was an opportunity to prove it.

The first thing I did was go for a short run.

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I ran approximately one mile before putting my wetsuit on. I hoped this would open up my lungs a bit and keep me from that feeling of hyperventilation that I occasionally get during the first 5-10 minutes of an Ironman swim.

I also focused on my self-talk. I occasionally have a bad attitude, and there is no room for negative voices at the beginning of an Ironman.

I find these voices inevitable, and they roar when I swim in Tempe Town Lake.

But these voices — like children — are highly susceptible to distraction. So I have plans in place. I distract the negative voices by counting strokes, by compartmentalizing my swim stroke, by focusing on exhaling, by repeating song lyrics or quotations. Sometimes it’s something as simple and short lived as repeating “one more stroke, one more stroke, one more stroke”.

Wetsuit is on. One last kiss.

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I didn’t get all dressed up for nothin’.

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My last two Ironman swim splits were sub-optimal:
Challenge Atlantic City: 1:07:35 (non-wetsuit)
Ironman Hawaii: 1:08:44 (non-wetsuit)

But back in May, at Ironman Texas, I swam 58:49 (wetsuit).

With all of my swim training, and with the splits I’d been hitting at CTSM, I knew I had a 57 minute swim in me. Those were, in fact, my last words to Coach Christine when I left the pool: “I know I can swim 57 minutes. I just need to do it”.

So I lined up, front row, inside buoy.

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I’m flanked by two kayaks. There are a few hundred people lined up to my right. And there are another 2,700 people behind us. Everyone is fighting for real estate. The guy behind me kicks me. The person to my left tries to squeeze by me. The race hasn’t started yet.

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The canon BOOMS. The negative voices waste no time. They are screaming. And my distractions are not working. For me this is the worst part of the race. It is a true test. Delay gratification. Increase discomfort. Be phenomenal.

I fight the voices for 5 minutes. It is torture.

I finally settle into a rhythm. The negative voices are still there, but it’s like I’ve managed to hit the mute button. Or rather, I’ve taken control. I’ve put duct tape over their mouths. They’re still fighting to be heard, so I try to ignore them. “One more stroke. One more stroke”.

I get to the bridge. I reach the red turnaround buoy. On the way back, there is chop. I sight. I swallow water. Dirty water. There’s a lot of chop. That means there’s a lot of wind. It might be a tough day on the course.

Right stroke. Left stroke. Breathe. Repeat as necessary. And finally, I reach the stairs to the swim exit. 57:25. Spot on. I am exactly where I want to be.

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In T1 (Transition 1), I see Mike Murphy. He’s volunteering at the change tent. Then I see Eric Burney. He’s volunteering at the bike racks. I run my faithful steed to the mount line, and just like that, it’s time to ride. T1 time: 4:32.

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Bike 112 miles
I am 5th in my Age Group, and I am on target for a Sub-9. My legs feel strong, and my heart rate is at 150. I’m right where I want to be.

But the wind feels a little feisty. It’s quite a lot to push against, and my 24.5 mph average begins to drop. By the time I get to the turnaround of Lap 1 (at the end of Beeline Hwy), my average speed has dropped to 20 mph. Further, I was passed by 13 guys in my AG. I passed the 4 guys who were ahead of me out of the swim, but 13 new guys overtook me. Either they are überbikers, or I need to sharpen up.

I hope that I’ll hit and maintain a high speed on the return so that my average speed will rise.

The wind is at my back, and I’m traveling at just under 40 mph.

But it’s not enough. I reach the end of lap 1, and my average speed is a tad under 22 mph. Unless the winds abate, I will not log a fast enough bike split to go sub-9.

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The winds do not relent, and my average speed does not rise. But I am working. I am so focused on going forward, on going fast, on moving through the wind, that I don’t take the time to undo the snot that has connected both of my nostrils. I must look like a bull on the bike, a ring of snot dangling above my top lip.

I finally complete my third lap. I reach the dismount line. My sub-9 dream will live to see another race, as it won’t happen here. My bike split is 5:16:01.

I am now in 14th place. My one hope is that the guys in front of me will fall apart on the run, and that I will not. But it’s been said before: Hope is not a strategy.

Run 26.2 miles
I continue to race, just as if sub-9 were still in reach. I barrel out of T2 with great urgency. My plan is to average 6:40-6:50/mile, lose a little at each aid station, and finish the day with a 3 hour marathon.

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But ten yards onto the run course I see Michelle. So I stop. Give her a big kiss. And now it’s official: I’m ready to roll.

The first 5 miles are painful. But I’m prepared for this. The pain is more mental than physical.

I see Matt Shanks on the course. He is spectating and cheering. He tells me I’m in 12th.

I’m on pace to make it through the first 13.1 mile lap in 1:35. I’m going 5 minutes slower than planned. Maybe I can negative split the second lap. These are the deals we negotiate when we are hurting.

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12th place. That’s where I am. And it is simply not good enough. In order to qualify for the 2015 Ironman World Championship, I’ll need to finish in the top 6. There are 488 guys in my Age Group. Some of them are planning to run me down. Meanwhile, I’m trying to advance from 12th to 6th.

Everyone looks the same. 50 year olds look 30. 30 year olds look 25. I’ve no idea who to target. But I’ve been running on sidewalk for 13 miles now, and my legs are growing heavy.

My cadence (steps per minute) drops from 188 to 178. I yell at my feet to move faster. They don’t listen. I urge my legs to lift higher. They disobey.

I engage my glutes and kindly inform them that they’ll have to do the rest of the work today. I feel like I’m running in quicksand. The goal is to just keep it together until mile 18, and then go all out.

Around mile 16 I see Matt Shanks again. He tells me everyone is falling apart. He says I’ve run my way into 5th! He says to maintain my pace and I’m golden.

So I dig and dig. I let nobody pass me. I spend very little time at the aid stations, just enough to dump water on my chest and to grab half a cup of Coke.

Each mile seems to take so much longer than it should. I am not on pace to negative split. In fact, I’m running a 1:41 pace, which will put me across the line at 3:16. That’s not a 7:00 mile. That’s a 7:30.

There’s no more energy to do math. Right now it’s primitive. Just survive.

On the first lap I smiled at people. I offered athletes words of encouragement. I’d overtake people by saying something like “nice pace brother”. But I no longer have the presence for pleasantries. I’ve gone to a dark place.

I see Matt Shanks at mile 24 and I say “where am I? What place?” He says the athlete tracker isn’t working right. He doesn’t know what place I’m in. The splits are all messed up.

So now I don’t know if I’m in 5th. I might still be in 14th. Fortunately, none of that matters too much when you’re going as hard as you can.

I told Michelle before the race that I will leave everything on the course. I will give this race a true 100%. And so there I was, going all out. It may not have looked fast, and my form certainly wasn’t poetic, but it was everything I had.

Steve Ruffin knew my plan: PR or ER. The Personal Record was no longer on the table. But the Emergency Room was still a viable option.

At this point, I was not racing for a position on the podium. I was not racing for a Kona slot. I was racing for myself.

I turned myself inside out during those last two miles. Things started to go quiet.

And finally, I reached the slight uphill turn into the finishing chute. I looked over my right shoulder. Nobody was there.

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I continued to push through the finishing chute, and summoned just enough energy to high-five a few kids along the way.

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When I crossed the line, I had nothing left to give. I left it all out there. And that felt good. I didn’t PR. And I’d no idea how I placed. But I got everything out of myself. I knew I could not have gone any harder or any faster. That was my best.

Two volunteers caught me in the finishing chute, and I’d been given the green light to get an IV.

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But Michelle had been spectating all day, and I didn’t want her to wait one second longer. So I declined the IV (which really would’ve expedited recovery), and I went straight to my wonderful wife.

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I soon learned that while the athlete tracker made it look like a ding-dong battle, I did make my way to 5th by the time I crossed the finish line. There were 6 Kona slots for my age group, so it was great to know that Michelle and I will spend next October on the big island again!

Overall, I felt really good about my race. I could not have gone one second faster, as I believe I gave a true 100%. Further, during the race I determined that I’d likely not ever do Ironman Arizona again. This was my 10th IMAZ. Among my finishes here are a 10, 11, 12, and 14 hour finish. I’ve spent a great deal of time at this race and on this course. To finally finish on the podium with a Kona-qualifying slot is a great way for me to say goodbye to Tempe.

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And when I returned home, this was waiting for me.

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