From the experiences of triathlete Kelly Popko:
My 2005 tri season started and ended far from my home in Minneapolis. In Tempe, Arizona, I would show up for my first attempt at an ironman distance triathlon, learn phrases like "DNF" and "gutting it out", and receive my education in the sport.
Ironman Arizona was held April 9, 2005, in Tempe Beach Park. At 5:15AM race morning, we dropped off our special needs bags and checked our bikes, and got body marked before the sun came up.
It was cool and breezy as we waited in our wetsuits for the start. I put my hands over my goggles to keep them tight and jumped in to the 63 degree water. I swam to the start and saw my son Jeffrey on the bridge above, called his name and waved. We treaded water for about 10 minutes, sang the National Anthem and the cannon went off at 7AM. It was cold, but it was so exciting! I started swimming and found a comfortable pace. I got kicked a few times but it wasn’t as rough as I expected, staying clear of the “washing machine”, except for the fella that swam across my back!
The first mile took 58 minutes, much slower than I expected but I felt great and stayed consistent. I was picking up the pace even though the winds were getting stronger and the choppy water made me feel like a Barbie in the sea. I swam the last 1.4 miles in 62 minutes.
As soon as I got out I noticed my right eye and side of my face was swollen. I ran into transition and a doctor came. She said I needed an eye doctor - when I got kicked my goggles were pressing on my eye causing the swelling. I finished getting dressed and ran to my bike - no time to wait for the eye doctor. I felt horrible, eye tearing and I was cold, but by mile 20 felt solid. The winds were strong at 25-35 mph, so I was thankful when they were at my back, and struggling to stay on the bike when they weren’t. The first cut-off was mile 79 by 3:20pm - I made it through and set my sights on the next one - mile 87 by 4:00pm.
As the day went on the winds got stronger making me feel like I was cycling into a giant wall, struggling to keep my cadence high enough to maintain speed. I didn’t have the experience to know how to effectively use my gears to combat the high winds. At 4:00pm I was at mile 90, just 22 more miles to go. I was tired, the winds kept getting stronger and people were dropping out. I thought about all my training, a dream of Ironman and Jeffrey. At 4:44pm I had only reached the 100-mile marker and started to panic - 12 more miles to come in and only 46 minutes. I didn’t come all this way to sit down and cry so I decided to give it everything I had. If I didn’t finish at least I’d know I left it on the road. I went as hard as I could, almost hyperventilating and at 5:30pm, the standard cut-off for the 112-mile Ironman bike ride I was at mile marker 110. My race was over.
I stood at the mile marker and a race official on a motorcycle came by and asked how I was doing. My reply, “It’s 5:30” He said he felt bad and offered a hug (hmm?). I decided to ride the last two miles to my family and friends. When I reached them I cried a little bit and was comforted with a big hug from Jeffrey, then Mom and my long time friend Jen. “I did my best,” I told Jeff. “I know Mom”, he said.
Five minutes. Where in 114.4 miles could I have found five more minutes? Some people say it isn’t fair, that I could have run the marathon and finished before midnight. After all those months of training and everything that Ironman means to me, I say the rules are there to preserve the integrity of the sport and are part of what makes Ironman so special. It was a risk to do a race in April coming from MN with so little triathlon and bike experience, but it was worth it. I learned a lot about the sport and myself. I felt better after ten and a half hours of racing than I have after ANY of my three marathons. The race experience was incredible and it pushed me forward. I had FUN. It made me a better athlete, friend and mother. All those miles on the bike I thought about how thankful and lucky I am to train for and participate in an Ironman and to have the support of so many friends and family.
Ironman is still out there for me and I am going to go get it. I returned home, signed up for IMAZ 2006 right away and set out to plan my 2005 season working toward a finish in 2006 remembering the Ironman motto - Anything is Possible! I spent the spring and summer gaining more triathlon experience and pushing through the barriers, even winning my age group at an Olympic distance event (***I was the only finisher in my age group). The season would end with another trip to Tempe and the SOMA Half Ironman – held on the same course as Ironman Arizona and a perfect practice race for me.