Mateo and Daddy


Hi, I'm Mark Rios. I'm a triathlete from Northern California. I don't do triathlons to set records. I just do them to stay in shape within my domain of work and family. Before I found triathlon working out was a bit of a chore. But triathons are interesting and keep life interesting because they are simple, yet beautifully complex. In this sport your workouts are different every single day, which is great because it minimizes the chance of burnout and reduces the risk of injury. Also, in my opinion as of current triathlon is still mainly a science and in its infancy. There's still a lot we don't know. So in terms of being sport, it's still evolving (for example a female professional is on course to be just as fast as the fastest male professional triathletes). But my favorite thing about the sport is that it attracts really great people from all walks of life and of all colors. The cliche, "you can't judge a book by its cover", is so true in triathlon. Never have I ever before in my life enjoyed the company of others from so many varied backgrounds. I'm constantly amazed at who participates in this sport. From the stay at home mom to the 80 year old nun. It's just filled with people of great character, those who will amaze you, and make you question your assumptions on life, reality, and what the human body is capable of.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Arizona Ironman, The Unofficial Guide, November 21, 2010

Photo by Hector Guatemala
Photo by Aaron D. Feen
The Guide

Since this is the first Ironman I have ever done I had a lot questions about how things worked. I read the athlete guide more than once. I read reviews of Ironman Arizona on-line. I read tips and race strategies, but I couldn't find a source that really minimized my worries. I'm hoping this guide will help the soon to be Ironman  feel more confident upon arrival so they can just focus on what they do best, race and enjoy the event.

Hotels for 2011 (from 2011 Ironman Arizona Race Director, Hessam Salim)
In connection with the Tempe Tourism Office Special rates are available to athletes.  Some even offer early breakfast and shuttles to the event.  Mr. Salim suggest booking your room as soon as possible for the best rates and availability. He also mentioned that Hyatt Place at Rio Salado and Priest, Springhill Suites at Rio Salado and Priest, Courtyard Marriott at 5th street and Ash, and the Tempe Mission Palms were all excellent choices.  Please also check for other recommended lodgings.

Note that Spring Hill Suites and Hyatt Place are actually  right next to each other.

Getting There and Finding You're Way Around

I decided to drive there from Northern California. It took us around 12 hours from the Sacramento area. We drove through the night and still hit some traffic in Los Angeles near midnight. With the price of gas I recommend if you can afford it to fly to Phoenix instead of driving. I think one of my friends got a flight there for around hundred dollars through Southwest.  Though it may cost you a couple extra hundred dollars and you may have to pay extra to bring your bike with you on the plane (or to ship it using TriBike) but at least you haven't spent a full day traveling in a car, eating fast food and letting your body get stiff before the event.

I stayed with my mom in Arizona City which is about an hour drive away. While it was nice not to pay for a hotel I'm sure staying in a hotel near or Tempe would have been a lot more convenient.  Also, the farther you are away the more likely you are to encounter traffic on your drive in. You also have to stress about where you're going to park (you will not after you read this guide).  But I think if you stay anywhere within a twenty minute drive of Tempe Beach Park you should be fine as there is plenty of parking. With that said, use your judgement and you'll probably be fine.

Base camp is Tempe Beach Park. If you use a GPS to drive there keep in mind Rio Salado is blocked adjacent to the park. It's actually quite obvious with a big Ford Ironman inflatable and bleachers for spectators. With that said I recommend using the directions in the athlete guide because they keep you on main road and steer you away from the blocked routes.

Tempe Beach Park, blue line is my actual swim path recorded using a Garmin 310xt

Familiarize Yourself with Tempe Beach Park and Race Layout

When you first arrive there's a general confusion you need to get over as there's lots of stuff going on. Cranes are placing baricades to stop traffic, trucks are dropping off aide station supplies, professional athletes are spinning around the block on their expensive tri bikes, future ironman just looking confused, etc.

As far as dropping off your bike and getting body marked I recommend parking on Ash and Rio Salado. Just left and down from the little red box below. There's also light rail nearby so watch those trains when crossing the street. On Ash there's street parking and parking structures. To the west of Ash there's additional street parking as well. All in all I found the city to be very driveable and pedestrian friendly.

The main area you need to pay atttenion to is the bike drop off area. Note that you must enter through the bike area to get anywhere that's key as an athlete. Changing tents, bag/run bag drop off, special need bags are all accessible through the bike racks. Futhermore, you can't take friends or family members with you into these areas so they're on their own as far as getting around once you enter the bike area.

As far as family and friends on race morning I recommend that they give you a kiss or hug good bye at the bike entrance and immediately have them head up to the bridge to watch you during the swim. I suspect it's standing room only up there so the earlier the better.  When I was in the water looking up all I could see was clusters of signs and smiley faces.  Besides having them get to bridge early I'd also have them be prepared for all types of weather by wearing layers and having those strollers with rain covers if needed.  

Diagram of important areas, note where parking is located.

Like Wind?

I think the first thing you need to know to know is that it's a three loop bike course that mostly exposed to the elements.  Also when you first read about the course you learn there's a false flat and that you should take it easy on the way out to the turn around. On race day  I tried this strategy and it was proven dead wrong due to race day weather.

Below is an elevation profile of the bike, my heart rate and my speed during bike lap number one. The red line is my heart rate and the blue line my speed. You'll notice something really odd here. After the turn around (the top of the peak) my heart rate is really high (you're like so what?) . The problem here was that it's a negative one percent grade which in theory means a down hill. But you'll notice my speed drops considerably and my heart rate rises. That's because I and the other 2,000+ riders were fighting a north blowing wind and at certain times, rain and wind.  The final result was that this is the first time in my short cycling career where I was faster going up a hill than down a hill. Totally weird.

One bike lap. Heart Rate, Speed and Elevation Snapshot.

The Swim, Water Temp 61 F & Murky

During this swim I was elbowed twice in the left eye, scratched, and kicked in the head.  I had a difficult time sighting until about five hundred yards out.  Most sighting attempts just yielded visions of arms moving forward and splashing. You can see below even though sighting was difficult that I was still able to keep a decent line.  You'll notice a hard correction near the fourth arrow. This was because I was following a group that was sighting off a buoy meant to guide swimmers on the way back.

My recommendation for future participants would be to start on the left side of the mass start (where I started) then swim for 600 yards straight (try to anyway, it's hard knowing what direction you're going really with some many people swimming, or count strokes) then aim for the center of the bridge. Note that prior to doing this race I read about starting near the right wall because it's fast. Though I'm not sure this would have been good idea considering it was close quarters over there. I did notice though that the swimmers over there did follow a nice speedy line though. Also, protect that head of yours in the mass start by keeping your arms close to your ears as you reach for a stroke. Remember that your pulling side is completely exposed to others while swimming and keeping your arms close to your head offer some protection from a kick or elbow.

Prior to the swim you're going to drop off your special need bags just south of the swim start. I recommend heading there first before even heading towards your bike area to check your bike. It will be a pain to get around because there's a zoo of people everywhere on race morning, but you just need to remember to get anywhere important on racing morning you need to enter where the bikes are.

As you drop your special needs bags there's also some portable toilettes over there but don't use them because there's only two and the line does not move that fast. It's better to go over to the bike area where the lines are longer but they move faster. Also, after you change into your wetsuit you're going to give you morning clothes bag to the volunteers (before heading to the swim). I recommend testing out your goggles on your head to see if they will break and applying some anti-fog spray. If they don't break put your extra pair in the morning clothes bag. You can always quickly ask a volunteer to get you the bag with your extra goggles if you need it and if you're really paranoid you can always tuck an extra pair under your swim cap or wetsuit.

My swim route in blue

The Bike

Rio Salado Drive, Nice smooth road.
Photo by Emily, Picasa Web Albums

Arizona is flat as a pancake but as you know by now the elements here may or may not be your friend.  Generally speaking when I'm on a downward slope on a bike I easily hit my top speed because I'm heavy and I was planning as using this fact as part of my race strategy. But on this course it was just the opposite because of the wind. For this reason I also recommend a tri bike, less exposure to the wind, smaller surface area for the wind to push back. The wind is such a nuisance that if you try standing or riding up on a road bike your speed will drop signficantly and you're legs will start complaining, leaving you with less energy on run. Now given that I said I did make some observations that there were still some really fast cyclist on road bikes, cyclist of all shape and sizes in fact. So just remember that the tri bike is not the saving grace, it's merely a speed tool which is only as good as its rider.

Below is topography of the whole bike route. Though it looks flat there there is climbing but nothing like we have in Northern California (especially in El Dorado County). By my estimate most of the grade is under .5% except near the turn around where it's close to 1.4 to 2%.  Because of the north blowing wind I was able to cruise to the peak (zone 2 heart rate), and at some points my speed was as high as 21 mph (usually this speed requires my to be in at least heart rate zone 3).

You should know that the special needs bags area can be dangerous, and the support areas can be as well. I saw a rider fall off his bike because of the wind after the special needs area. Also, bottles are dropped and trash is blown onto the course. You don't want to hit one of these bottles at speed.  Next you should know that drafting is not allowed however in reality it's really difficult not to catch a little draft, especially during your first two loops because everyone is out there. It's just crowded.  If you do get a drafting penalty then it's a time out in the penalty tent. But honestly I wouldn't worry about it because you've recieved the benefit of drafting and your legs get a break (it's only a few minutes in the tent).

Other bike informaton you should know is that I think your bike special needs bags should have at a minimum some pain relievers (non-drowsy), vaseline or glide, and band aides. Why? You could have got hit in the swim or scratched, you have or begin to have back/need/shoulder pain, or your aerobar pads are creating blisters on your elbows.  But remember, these are just basics. Everyone has their own "issues". I for example had lidocain patches for a lower back problem which makes me scream. Also, I carried around vicodin if things felt really bad.  Lastly, you should be setup to fix any type of flat without help from SAG as they could be out helping other riders.

A side note to  those of you who have trouble changing tires and want personal records. Chrissie Wellington got a flat two miles before the bike portion ended.  She had a motorcycle escort and just road the bike on the rim. You probably however will not have this luxury (rims are expensive to replace) to ride on expensive rims back to the finish line (it's also dangerous because the tube can just slide off the rim). My advice is to learn to change tires really fast if you want that PR.

The entire bike route

Bike Strategy

My advice for future participants is to make the first lap simple a test lap since the weather is the main factor on this course for a properly trained athlete. Test the wind, note it's direction and  know how you cycle in it. Just ride how you want to, full chat, slow, whatever, but think about the elements.  Also, it's important to note that begining of the bike course near T1 is very encouraging because it's well protected (see Rio Salado photo). You'll notice in the following map image to the south there is a moutain labeled Tempe Butte and a stadium. To the north you have Papago Park which has some hills sheltering you from winds heading south. From a wind protection stand point this a bonus on the course.

Due the above a strategy for an AZ race should be try to maximize speed through McKellips Rd because of the mentioned landmarks and because the pavement on Rio Salado Pkwy is very smooth.  Also once you're at Mc Kellips road  you're pretty much exposed to the wind from all directions with the exception being that you're still in city limits so you have dwellings and commercial property cutting down some of the wind.

Route which is basicaly protected from the harsh winds on the Beeline

Once you're through McDowell Rd there's not much excitement except stripmalls and gas stations. But I did note that the wind did change direction here and the pavement is average. I would just try to conserve energy here and get ready for the Beeline Hwy ahead.

Leaving the city, and entering the Beeline

Once you're at the Beeline you have a decision to make.  Again, my suggestion would be to make lap number one a test lap. I recommend being slighly more aggressive heading to the turn around. If you're wrong you can always adjust downward later because you get two more chances. The reason is that the wind out there is misleading and may change direction on you. 

Be ready for wind

The Run Course

I'm not a runner, but this run course is awesome. What I loved about this part is that crowd and the aid station areas are stocked with not only goods but with great attitude. It's also very scenic. You have a skyline view of the lit bridges and city skyline at night. And the sunset is very beautiful. The path is clean, well lit, smooth and the trails are soft.  As you run or walk past the aid stations you're first offered water, then a sports drink and cola followed by cookies, chips, pretzels, orange and banana slices, and then soup. I think in theory you could probably gain some weight on the run if you're not careful. In fact this is probably where I did gain some weight because up until the run I was stricly fueling on gels and wanted real food. My personal strategy for this part was cookies and cola. But at this point in the race I had real back pain and was managing it with pain killers.

Off the Bike and onto the Run
After you arive at T2 and dismount a volunteer immediately grabs your bike and your directed walk towards the changing tents where a volunteer then hands your run gear bag. For me it was simply my running shoes, and a visor as I was planning on running in my bike shorts to save time. I recommend changing into running shorts. I ran in my bike shorts for the first sixteen miles and I got blisters from the pad. Luckily I had extra clothes in case of an accident in my special needs bag and changed into a pair of shorts.

The run is basically flat ( I know you're getting sick of hearing that). When you first leave T2 there's actually a tiny negative grade (see graph below) and the run stays under .75% grade with the exception of the bridges which cross the lake, and the run along Curry road (that's the whopping 2% grade, which is a poor excuse for a hill in my opinion). When I first read about the run I read advice that you should run hills (because the bridges have slopes) to prepare for this race. That's really useless for people coming from El Dorado County or even some part of Sacramento County because the slopes on these bridges is kingergarten by our standards.


After leaving T2 you run west past Tempe Beach Park and towards the Art Center. Between the Art center and T2 is an aid station with water, endurance drink, cookies, you get the picture. Also along this route there will be lots of spectators watching you run with cow bells, great signs and they will be cheering you (this part is great). After that station it's pretty much smooth walking pavement, straight into a pink sunset (or sun if you're fast and finish during the day). Though no frills beyond this point really until you make it to the next aid station where there's a bit of a down slope, and same nice smooth payment but with a sensor to take your run split and beam it to Now you head east and you have a nice view of Mill Bridge which is lit by lights.


After the 3rd aid station you come to scenic Mill Bridge which is lined with spectators with cow bells, signs, and neon glow sticks. There's also this cool Ford thingy with a fancy purple light on it.  This part in my opinion is similar to running in Disneyland. Very perfect, cartoonish, but yet kind of techy. After you get off the bridge you run back into T2 but with a twist. They have a cattle chanel setup for you with some carpets over a sensor which is a bit dangerous. The area is dark, and needs more light. I could easily sees stepping on this carpet on this bumpy lawn and incurring a running injury (WTC folks, please read that again). In any case, step carefully until you're back onto the path along the water. So by now you're heading east to the South Rural Road Bridge and just have run under Mill Bridge. Now it's time to call out for your special needs bags. Just yell your number out and run past your box and a volunteer will hand you the bag. Across from the special needs bags is the two portables I spoke about earlier. You can use those to change, or do whatever you need to do. In my case I changed into a pair of running shorts. Once you leave this area you'll hit the only trail section on the course. It's very tame by California standards, rocks, pebbles, sand, dust, etc. It however is not well lit either at night so if you have bad eye sight take care. After the trail you'll hit an aid station and hang a left on South Rural  Bridge. After the bridge you head east. Now this part of the run is really cool because it's a two lane run here which looks like a rat race but it's a bunch of triathletes. From here you head up the hill to an aid station, after which you encounter the only hill on the course (see below).  Don't fret though. Californian's have these hills for driveways. Then you head back down hill (south) then hang a left where you're lead to an amazing aid station with women and men posing as police officers and prison guards. The women, many whom were  blonde, here had push up bras, tube tops and black stockings. There was hip hop music too. I would have never expected to see this at an Ironman, but I wasn't complaining because my only company on long runs at home were usually coyotes, snakes, skunks, toads and deer.  Any way, after sexy town you continue east until you're back on your favorite bridge (South Rural). After the bridge you hang a right, run on some compact sand for a bit, then it's on to the last aid station before you head to the finish line, or head to your second or third lap. 


Other Important Items
  1. The mandatory meeting/welcome dinner is a considerable walking distance from Tempe Beach Park at the Arts Centers. If you have family or friends attending this you may want to have a car. The dirt parking lot is also a good walk from the meeting/dinner site. Make sure your family and friends can easily make this walk.
  2. The welcome dinner/meeting is outside, and it may get cold or bring a jacket.
  3. The welcome dinner is entertaining, the meeting no so much. The main thing here is to follow the rules or be disqualified. They mean it and repeat many times, you will be DQed if you pee or poo on the side of the road or inside the changing tent, throw trash where it's not suppose to be thrown, hop crowed fencing, swim in the water when you're not suppose to, steeling from the Ironman store, general cheating, etc. Just be respectful and use common sense.
  4. WTC never checked to see if I was actually an athlete in the buffet line at the welcome dinner. I could have just walked in and got food. I could also have brought my entire family in to eat without buying extra tickets. With regards to the meal, it's ok by California standards, nothing special (chicken breast, pasta, salad, dinner rolls, and cookies).
  5. Pros are allowed to have their shoes clipped in their bikes prior to T1 but not age groupers.
  6. In addition to using pins for your race number, I also recommend some tape or some extra pins. Unfortunately the wind and rain on this course can easily rip this off of you during the bike.
  7. I'm sure there is a "we are not responsible cause" some where, but you should be aware that your helmet and sunglasses could get crushed or broken while in the bag. I recommend wrapping them in up in a jacket or towel.
  8. When you get out of the water immediately sit down and let the wet suit strippers take your suit off.
  9. You bring you special needs bags with you the morning of the race and drop them off
  10. At T2 there will be portable water so you can clean your sunglasses after the bike ride and have clean glasses for the run.
  11. Not all the aid stations offered vaseline. Take some if you need it. It could be a few more miles before you see some again.
  12. After the race you're going to be wrapped in a blanket, have your photo taken and sent to the recovery/food tent. I recommend not eating anything that's not under a warmer or on ice because you don't know how long that food has been sitting there. They had pizza, and it was disgusting because it was very cold.
  13. Before sitting down to eat in the food tent sign up for a free massage.
  14. On the bike with strong wind it may be difficult for you to hear a pro wanting to pass you (even if they're yelling or screaming). Stay to the right and if you pass someone get to the right asap. Don't fool around on this front, the pros make their living doing this sport. If you get in their way you may cost them money which they need to support their family.
Final Thoughts

There's a lot of hype associated with Ironman. The visions of crawling accross the finish line, the pros cruising on their beautiful tri bikes, good looking triathletes in tri gear running along the beach. These visions perpetuate your mind and are rebroadcasted in the media. But let me be blunt here. That's a bit of a lie. Most participants I saw out there were just regular, every day people (for back up see Action Sports Photograpy's website and look at the photos for Ironman races). People with gray hair, women with big hips, and athletes with strip mall tri apparel and bikes are the norm.  Most didn't have perfect bodies either, or perfect tans. In fact I saw some very obsese triathletes on tri bikes, and one actually passed me going full chat on the bike. He was also 60 years old (you age is written on your calf). So dont' buy into myths perpetuated by the media. For the most part the race is made up of average people, doing something challenging, but not impossible.

With the above said, have a good race and be safe!


Mark Rios

Questions or comments,

Corrections and Updates

1. Wristbands were checked at the welcome dinner but towards the beginning. I was about an hour late due to traffic on Hwy 10 which explains why I was not checked - 11/30/2010.

2. Lodging updates, see above - 11/30/2010

3. Notable restaurants in town, Fat Burger & Oreganos (pizza) 11/30/2010

Post Feedback

Dr. David Young 11/26/10

1. Wear a headlamp in the morning, you never know when you may need more light even though it's fairly decent out there.
2. Drink an entire full bottle of some sort of calorie drink (bout 500) in T1 got time to fuel before the bike, and don't forget gloves, before leaving t1 get plenty of sunscreen.
3. Make sure to pack something that can settle your stomach in the run special needs bag, something warm and rain gear if needed.

David Mack 11/29/2010

Where I stayed (Marriott chain)* was recommended by website but I thought it was far from the course and if I know prior to making reservations I would have chosen a different hotel.  Also this was  a very crowded swim  from start to finish.  I am not a fast swimmer by all means but I had to maneuver around people the whole swim and never really had a chance to get into a good rhythm and in my case I would have started more towards the front.

* Town Place Suites at Tempe (MAP)

BluePoint, 11/30/2010

You can only swim in Tempe Town Lake during the practice Swim and on Race Day. Swimming at other times will result in DQ. It's pretty hard to drive the run course.

Arial run view, with my actual gps path

50-60 elevation on the run only, and it's near Papago Park in green, on the north side

Great Song