Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ironman St. George, Part I

Well it happened. The much anticipated Ironman St. George came and went this weekend, taking a part of my soul and happiness with it. The race and event proved to be every bit as dramatic and strange as any of us thought it might be. And alas, I'm here with a story to tell. So sit back and enjoy.


We arrived Thursday afternoon, checked in, and darted off to the lake to check out conditions and take a quick swim. This lake is the same one that we swam in a few months ago, but this time our blood wasn't frozen solid the moment we entered. So in comparison it felt like a hot tub. But a really cold one that still made us scream when we stepped into it in our full wet suits.

We swam for a little while and then darted off to the Ironman festivities of the evening, which included a lot of people sitting around intimidating us with all their talk of training techniques, gear, and other topics of conversation that used words we had never heard of. So we sat quietly and munched on our pile of pasta, trying not to feel anxious when the race administrators talked about each of the race cut off times that we had to meet at various points of the swim, bike, and run in order to continue to compete.


We dropped off Paul Cyclemon and Liv Tyre, as well as our two transition bags full of biking clothes, running clothes, bandages, food, and whatever else we could find in the hotel room that we thought we might want in the transitions. We felt so irresponsible abandoning all of our things at the transition stations, not to be seen again until mid-"race of our lives" the next day.

On Friday afternoon we attempted to drive the bike course and lied to ourselves by saying things like, "oh this hill doesn't look that big" and "I'm sure we are going to be so happy that there isn't much downhill here because we are just so much better at climbing."

Then we called it an early night, our lay-in-bed-quiet-time occasionally interrupted by a variation of the following conversation:

"Daniel. Daniel!"


"Are you awake?"

"Hmmmm. . . . What?"

"I'm scared."

"Of what?"




Alarm went off at 3:00 AM. And the day only got worse from there.

We arrived at the lake bright and early, got our bodies marked with our numbers and ages, and then we set off to put on our wetsuits, check our bikes in the transition, and completely lather our bodies head to toe in vaseline, mostly because there just didn't seem to be anything else to do other than wait.

Eventually they told all 2,000 of us through a loud speaker to make our way into the water. And so we did, in a slow-moving line 15 people across, like an army of identical twins methodically and suicidally jumping off a ledge, one row at a time.

Daniel and I got into the water and moved ourselves toward the back of the crowd, as we had been instructed by many wise friends who informed us that we could avoid the scuffle to a degree back there. We tread water for a few minutes until the cannon sounded the start of the race. And we were off.

Our swim started without much drama. A few kicks to the face here and there, but nothing to leave a mark or cause a panic. Occasionally I swam directly into the legs of someone in front of me. It was very odd to be so intimate with so many people all at once but not have the ability to talk to one another. After several minutes we rounded our first turn.

And then the winds and the waves hit.

Oh the waves.

I believe that what happened on that lake should be classified as a tsunami. Suddenly there seemed to be waves coming from every single direction, so violent that I was literally sucked under water about every 5 seconds or so. I frantically just tried to stay as close to as many people as possible, suddenly remembering Cathie's "strength in numbers" speech from my childhood. This lasted for probably 20 minutes or so. And then I was alone.

I bobbed my head out of the water as high as possible and looked in every direction. But all I could see were giant waves coming toward me. No people. No boats. No land. No buoys marking the course. Just waves. And so I continued to swim, sticking my head out of the water every few seconds, praying to see at least one other person. I don't know that I have ever felt so isolated and lonely. And helpless. As the waves got bigger, I started to realize that if I drowned out there, noone would be able to find me.

Cue the hyperventilation and tears of fear and frustration. So much work for so many months. So many laps in a pool. So many hours on a bike. So much time spent preparing to deal with different conditions in that lake. And none of it really mattered now because I thought I could actually drown.

The problem was, I didn't know how I was going to get back to land. I couldn't see any land when I looked around, and even if I could, no matter how hard I swam, I didn't really feel like I was going anywhere. It felt like swimming on a Treadmill. And the waves only seemed to be getting bigger. I didn't know how much longer I could keep surviving it.

But I swam. I put the glow of the sun to the right of me, and I swam as hard as I could, repeating over and over in my mind, "calm down, calm down, calm down. You are not going to let this lake kill you." I tried to think of anything I could to calm myself down. I thought about how some of you joked that The Queen of Colors ruled the waters or that The First Eye lived on that island. I thought about Jackson the Shark that Daniel and I swore we saw last time we tried to swim in that water. I thought about all the support I had from so many great friends and strangers who were convinced I could do this, even if they never told me exactly why. All the kind and inspirational messages I received from so many of you who were checking online and worried about how I was doing in that water. And as cheesy as it sounds, in that really scary moment, I was able to calm down because of all of that support and just press forward.

And then, finally, I saw it. A yellow buoy far up ahead. Still no signs of any other life. But it was something, and for lack of any better plan, I swam to it as hard as I could. And I swam and swam and swam until suddenly it was right in front of me. I wrapped my body around it and tried to climb it to get a look out and see where I was.

Then, out of nowhere, a speed boat came by with one swimmer laying in the back, crying. The boat driver and I had a conversation at the top of our voices to fight the loud waves.




Cue more tears. Yes. I admit it. In my moment of great stress, and now extreme disappointment, I hung for life onto a giant buoy, and cried.



And then he sped off.

I spotted the island and its relation to the sun and I jetted for it, swimming with everything I had in me. About 35 minutes later I reached its perimeter. A man in a kayak told me he didn't think I could make the 2 hour and 20 minute cutoff time, but he also wouldn't tell me what time it was. I later found out that he was one of the lucky kayakers who had not yet capsized, as many of them had done.

I swam around the island, found the final turn buoy, and then swam with all my might toward the finish line, believing that there was no way I was going to make that 2:20 cut off time.

And then a miracle happened. I reached the shore, stood up, and looked through my foggy goggles and dizzy eyes at the clock and the hundreds of screaming spectators to see 2:01. Through a perfect mixture of emotions and feelings ranging from shock, to elation, to trauma, to extreme fatigue, I ran into the transition, was stripped of my wet suit, and jogged briskly in my underwear to the giant changing tent. When I walked in, I faced a large crowd of traumatized-looking grown men, some crying, many flat on the ground wrapped in thermal sheets.

As I changed into my biking clothes, I thought, "it's too bad I'm having such a hard time finding this all funny. Because there's a lot of strange stuff going on here."

~It Just Gets Stranger

Sand Hollow. These photos are courtesy of my good friend Moka.

At the starting line. 10 minutes before the wind and waves started.


  1. Eli, you just dictated my worst nightmare!!! Proud of you for not giving in!! I certainly would have drown, along with most people! Look forward to hearing more stories tonight! -Maggs

  2. Wow, Eli. That experience sounds so disturbing. I'm sure the humor will come in a few weeks. Do you ever think you'll do the IronMan again?

  3. Wow, that was truly gripping. My emotions are bruised from the strangling...

    So, an editor's suggestion: I hear rumor that the whole ordeal TRUly began on Daniel's driveway. Something about chalk? ;)

    Seriously, way to give it your all.

  4. You almost had me in tears at one point. Thank you for describing it so well I was right there in the water with you. Let's not have a repeat of that wind storm in 2 wks at the StG Tri!!

  5. Holy humongo waves, Batman! That's unreasonable. You must have been swimming like a dolphin to get such a great time in THOSE waves with an EXTRA mile thrown into the mix. And to have persevered when people were telling you mid-race that you couldn't? (Which kind of ticks me off, btw.) Wow. You're incredible.

  6. are you meaning to say you swam in that insanity for two hours? WWWHHAAATTT? You know JS probably conjured up those waves somehow. Rock on rock star.

  7. Oh my god, that is terrifying! I'm so impressed that you carried on!

  8. That's amazing that you kept going in those waves and with a boat offering you an easier way out. Good for you!!!

  9. Even those on the boats weren't having a good experience. http://sabrosacycles.blogspot.ca/2012/05/im-on-boat.html?m=1 I'm glad all came out okay.

    1. Thanks for the link! Interesting account.

  10. I'm alternately proud of you for carrying on, and horrified at the fact that you swam in THAT for two hours. Congratulations on not dying, because that mess is terrifying!

  11. I was anxious reading this. I can't believe you made it through that! I heard people talk about this this week and it sounded horrific.

  12. ironman aint supposed to be easy!

  13. People who weren't there can't understand how surreal the entire swim leg was. I'm glad everyone made it out safe and you were able to finish the swim. IMSG #927.

  14. I can't believe no one told you were going the wrong way when you were already half a mile off!

  15. It's pretty incredible that you have created a life mixed with fantasy (the Queen of colors, Paul Cycleman, etc) and reality (the ironman). Yours is a truly unique life. I am privileged to read your stories.

    1. Amen. Humor and Reality in one hellofa (not swearing)great story.

  16. I know I'm a few days late on reading this, but I just want to say that I think it's awesome that you didn't give up. I don't know yet how the race of the race went, but I hope you're very proud of yourself.

  17. I can attest to the fact that it was every bit as horrific as Eli described it. My dad was at the finishing end of the lake and he has video of the waves, and it looks like the ocean waves crashing on the beach. I also have a cousin that participated and his retelling is almost identical to Eli's. He barely made the cutoff for the swim, finishing at 2:13.