Tuesday, December 02, 2014

IRONMAN Arizona Trip Report Part I

[Note: I wrote this mostly as a reminder for myself, but I think it might be helpful to other triathletes as well. I recognize that it may seem overly detailed, but triathlons are complicated affairs that require some trial and error to get right.]

I participated in IRONMAN Arizona 2014 on Sunday, November 16, and 
this is Part I of my trip report. If you are bored by detailed rundowns of packet pickup, and practice swims, you can jump directly to Part II for the race day action.

This trip really started back in November of 2013. IRONMAN Arizona is so popular that the only way to ensure a spot is to volunteer for a race. This gives you the right to register on-site Monday after the race. The lineup for volunteer registration seemed to start around 0300hrs for a 0800hrs registration. I got in line around 0430hrs and, despite being pretty far back, had no trouble getting a spot on the 2014 roster.

After volunteers, the general public can register onsite, and finally registration is opened online. In 2014, I heard that online registration ended five minutes after it opened. I just checked on the 2015 race and there was no online registration. The race filled up from onsite registration alone! If you are willing to pay double ($1,450), at the time of this writing there are some IRONMAN Foundation slots still open for the 2015 race.

One of the benefits of getting into the race is the right to sign up for the next year's race during packet pickup. If you plan to do this race multiple times, it is a real benefit. I have some specific goals in mind that are going to take a few years to reach, so it was worth it for me to invest in the volunteer trip.

Volunteering for the previous year's race also had some benefits that went way beyond assuring a spot. If you have never done a long course (140.6) triathlon before, it really helps to watch how things go at the event before participating. It was also useful to get to know the town of Tempe as well. All of that made for significantly less stress when I did the race this year.

This year's race schedule started on Thursday. You could arrive as late as Friday, but there is so much to do prior to one of these races that arriving on Friday might make things uncomfortably busy. I wanted arrive even before Thursday to get better acclimated to the desert environment, but work and other responsibilities did not allow for it.

My plane landed around noon on Thursday and by 1300hrs I had my rental car and was on my way to Tempe Beach Park. By 1330hrs I was parked in downtown Tempe (downtown Tempe has tons of parking), and headed into the registration tent to pick up my race packet.

The first step was to show my driver's license. In return I got a card with my race number printed on it, a liability waiver, and a medical release waiver. I went to a table in the back corner to read the waivers and then sign and date both. The medical release waiver permits IRONMAN to release medical information to your family if something happens to you during the race, and the liability waiver is the standard legalese to remind you that you race at your own risk.

Once read and signed, you go to the second table to turn in your forms and receive your wristband. Your wristband is your ticket to all of the athlete areas - and trust me, security is pretty tight, they will check it a lot. It has your athlete number printed on it, and it cannot be removed without destroying it.

After receiving your wristband, you are directed to the packet pickup table. You hand them the race number card that you got at the first table, and in return you get your race envelope with your race stickers, your race bib, and your colored swim cap (green for males, pink for females, white for IRONMAN Foundation racers, and I believe grey for pros). A volunteer writes your number on your swim cap, answers any questions you may have, and then directs you to the next table to pick up some SWAG.

I passed on most of the SWAG because none of it looked that interesting to me - I have no use for posters and flashy brochures. I did pick up some spiffy baggage tags though. They are made of very durable plastic and come in handy when you want a nice label for your luggage.

The last table in the registration tent is the timing chip. They check the race number on your wristband and then program that into a chip. You can verify they have the right race number programmed into the chip because your name shows up on the computer screen when you hear that satisfying *beep* that signifies your chip is ready to go. The chip comes with an ankle holder that attaches via velcro. Despite being bulletproof and virtually impossible to fall off, purely out of paranoia, I weave a safety pin into both sides of the velcro. I also wear the chip facing the inside of my leg, out of concern that it may clip something if it is on the outside.

After completing the registration tent, they direct you to the merchandising tent to pick up your backpack and athlete bags. While it is possible that they do it this way to get you into the merchandising tent, judging by how crowded the registration tent is, it seems more likely that they simply ran out of room. I took a break before I went over to the merchandising tent to listen to the remainder of the mandatory athlete meeting.

The athlete meeting goes over a lot of what is in the athlete manual (published on the website), other details that may not be obvious, and they take questions from the athletes. I have done shorter triathlons and I always find these meetings useful, so I made it a point to attend. I ended up missing the first quarter of the meeting while I was in the registration tent, so I attended a repeat meeting on Saturday.

Back at the merchandising tent, I picked up my backpack and athlete bags. The backpack is a rather nice gift, and the athlete bags are part of your equipment to complete the race. Each bag is a different color and serves a different purpose.
  • Green - Morning Clothes
  • Blue - Bike Gear
  • Red - Run Gear
  • Orange - Bike Special Needs
  • Black - Run Special Needs

Most of that should be self explanatory, but I will briefly go over each one. All of the stuff you will need in T1 (transition from swim to bike) goes in the blue bag. All of the stuff you need in T2 (transition from bike to run) goes in the red bag. Your street clothes that you wear to the race in the morning go into the green bag. If you need anything to help you through the bike or the run, you can put those in the orange and black special needs bags. The special needs bags are made available to athletes at a designated location on the bike and run courses. I ended up using my bike special needs bag, but not my run special needs bag. I have placed a list of the contents of all my bags, and what worked and did not work, at the bottom of the Part II post.

Now that I was all checked in, my last stop was to the TriBike Transport tent to pick up my bike. This is my second event with TriBike Transport, and I have nothing but praise for them. They save me a *TON* of trouble by making sure my bike gets to the event and back safely. The alternative is to buy an expensive bike box, disassemble my bike, pack it in the box, pay extra to check it on the airplane, and hope that it arrives in one piece. TriBike has a vested interest in getting bikes to events without so much as a scratch on them. And the best part is that I get to hand my bike back to them, all sticky and nasty, right after the event. A few days later I get an email when it arrives back in Seattle.

At this point, I grabbed some dinner at an outdoor pub, loaded everything up into my rental car, and checked into my hotel.

I spent nearly all of Friday unpacking and organizing my race gear. Once I got things squared away, I filled my gear bags to get them ready for gear check-in on Saturday. This was also the time I spent mentally going over my race plan to make sure I was not missing anything. I am not sure how other people do this, but it took up a fair bit of space in the hotel room to accomplish this whole process.

Saturday was the practice swim and gear check-in. It is illegal to swim in Tempe Town Lake unless you have a permit, so the practice swim was the only time to "test the waters". I treated it just like the actual event swim and wore my wetsuit. They also require you to wear your racing chip so they can chip you in and out of the water. The line to get into the swim was pretty long, so I recommend getting there closer to when it opens. The practice swim course was an 800 metre version of the actual event swim. They gave you the option of swimming all or part of it, or perhaps even going further. I opted to just swim the practice course, which took me about 20 minutes and ultimately registered 0.63 miles on my Garmin watch. The water felt surprisingly cold, even though it was tested to be 68F. I guess I am too used to swimming in the 80F water at my local pool.

The practice swim had an athlete gear storage area just outside of the swim entry. There was no privacy, just a fenced off area with stakes in the ground marking athlete number ranges. As long as you wore your bathing suit under your street clothes, you could change into your wetsuit right there and drop off your gear in your numbered area. When your practice swim is over you do the reverse. I also opted to hang my wetsuit on the fence so that it would dry in the sun. By the time I picked it up after gear check-in, it was nearly completely dry.

I took my swim gear (minus the wetsuit) back to the car and traded them for my bike, run gear bag, and bike gear bag. Overall the check-in process was extremely straightforward. I rolled my bike into the T1 transition area, found my race number and racked my bike on the bike holder. I then went over to the bike and run gear bag areas and placed my bag near the section that contained my race number. I have to admit that their race numbering was a bit hard to read, but they had volunteers helping us get our bags in the right place. After gear check-in closed the volunteers did a thorough check to ensure the bags were in the right order.

I ended Saturday's activities by attending the last athlete meeting to pick up whatever I missed in the first athlete meeting.

Continue on to part II...

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