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Race Result

Racer: Aaron Schwartzbard
Race: Ironman USA
Date: Sunday, July 29, 2001
Location: Lake Placid, NY
Race Type: Triathlon - Ironman
Age Group: Male 20 - 24
Time: 11:30:41
Overall Place: 446
Age Group Place: 13 / 37
Comment: First Ironman - 1:10:19 / 5:34 / 6:09:55 / 2:47 / 4:02:08

Race Report:


I clearly remember the moment at which I became a runner. It happened one morning as I was brushing my teeth. Several months earlier, I decided to enter a local triathlon. With no background in any of the disciplines, doing the race meant I had to learn how to swim, figure out how to run for more than 60 consecutive seconds without collapsing in gasping and wheezing mass of flesh and bone, and ride my bike outside of the five mile radius around my apartment beyond which I rarely ventured. I started a regimen of swimming, biking, and running that would, I hoped, give me the fitness and skill to be able to complete that first race: going to the pool after work three times a week, running twice a week, and biking once or twice a week. Throughout each workout, I had to keep reminding myself that I had to stick to the plan in order to get through the race. Before each workout, doubt, fatigue, or apathy would set in, and I had to tell myself that if I were to give up, eventually, my own personal disappointment would be greater than my desire to stay on my couch eating Tostitos at that moment. And so went my life, day after day, for several months.

One morning, while getting ready to go to work, I was brushing my teeth. I picked up my watch, glanced at the time, did some quick math and logistical planning, then thought to myself, "Only 10 hours before I get to run this afternoon." Before I GET to run. I was not planning on thinking that thought. Had I been asked a moment earlier what my next thought would be, I would not have guessed it would include the phrase, "I get to run." I was caught totally off-guard, and I even had to stop brushing my teeth for a moment while the gravity of the thought dawned on me. For the first time, my workout was not something that I was doing to achieve a greater goal... It was something that I was eagerly anticipating. More than anything else I was planning to do that day, I was looking forward to my run. I would not be running to get ready to do something else; I would be running because I enjoyed running.

That one unexpected thought changed who I was. I still could not glide through the water like a dolphin. I still had to stay far to the right on the bike trails to avoid getting run over, and running still made me cough and wheeze and generally appreciate any bit of oxygen I could manage to get into my pea-sized lungs. What changed was my reason for splashing or mashing or shuffling along the roads. I no longer did it only for the race. Sure, there were still times (quite frequent, in fact) when I did not want to go out, or when I wanted to go home early. But even during those times, I understood that it was POSSIBLE to be active simply for the sake of being active. Even when there is some ultimate goal, the process --- the journey --- required to achieve the goal can, at times, be the most valuable part of the entire experience.


Figuring out how to train for your first Ironman is anything but straight forward. Some people will tell you that it takes seven months to do it properly. Some people say they do not start training until two and a half months before race day. And certainly, if you have never approached the distances of the race, it seems like it should take years to get there. I decided to sign up for Ironman USA. Registration opened on July 31st, 2000. The race was scheduled for July 29th, 2001. I signed up during the first hour that registration was open. Submitting that application felt like jumping off a cliff. Somehow, in the course of a year, I would have to teach my body to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run 26.2 miles during a single day. And there was nothing between me and the race but time.

I had actually decided to sign up for the race several months prior to registering... And that was only after several months of self-debate and careful consideration. Well before I had registered, I started taking yoga classes, I signed up for a Half Ironman triathlon that would take place in September of 2000, and I signed up for an October marathon. All of this was done help prepare me in case I should decide to sign up for the full Ironman race. The Half Ironman was my first attempt at that distance. It taught me how much endurance sports can hurt. It also taught me how unpleasant chafing can be. However, it was the marathon in which I learned the most important lessons of the year. I started the race faster than I was planning. I felt good, so I kept the pace higher than it should have been. I also neglected to consume enough calories during the race. As a result, starting at mile 18, my pace slowed considerably. At mile 22, I started to walk. By the end of the race, I was just barely shuffling along. I took two very important lessons away from that race. The first was that a marathon is a long day. I pushed too hard in the beginning because I thought that would put me ahead of the competition. But during the last couple miles, much of the competition passed me by. If I had kept my focus on the big picture, rather than the moment, the last couple miles would have been much more pleasant. The second lesson I learned was that experience is king. I knew what I was capable of doing in that race, but I did not do it. Why was I unable reach my potential? I realized that physical conditioning is only one element of a race. As distances grow longer and longer, experience becomes more and more critical. I may have had the conditioning to run a marathon in my goal time, but because of my lack of experience, I could only run it 15 minutes slower than what I might have been able to do. From that race, I learned that it is silly to neglect to include experience in the calculus of goal-setting.

After the end of that race season, I took several weeks to regroup. I had an injury that prevented me from running for some time, and I did less swimming and biking to let my body recover from the season. By January, I was ready to start building toward my Ironman goal. I had no idea how quickly or easily my body would adapt to the increased load I would be placing on it. Would seven months be enough time to get from here to there? It might not be enough time. Or possibly, it might be too much time. I just had no idea. I had to become both scientist and specimen, always testing myself, and determining the results.

In April, I ran a marathon. In the week preceding the marathon, I felt a slight pain in my right knee. I knew that my illiotibial band was slightly inflamed. I ran the marathon anyway. Well, ran may be an overstatement. I should say that I "limped" the marathon. By the time I was done, I could not bend my knee without terrible pain. The result was that I had to refrain from running for a month and a half. From the time I signed up, my ultimate goal was to finish. Sure, I would have preferred to finish with an enviable time, but I realized that finishing any time before midnight would be a significant achievement. Further, I never like to do too well in my first shot at any distance; I prefer to leave plenty of room to better my time the second time around. I continued to swim, and I increased my weekly bike mileage in lieu of running. Perhaps my race would fall apart during the marathon, but at least I would be able to get off of the bike feeling strong.

Eventually, I was able to run again. I was amazed by how strong I felt running. My marathon fitness had carried me through my running hiatus well enough that in just a few weeks, I was back on schedule, doing my long runs. And because I had focused on biking, I had become a much stronger biker. The injury that I though would turn my race into a survival exercise was a blessing in disguise. It had forced my to focus on a weakness --- my biking --- that I would have otherwise neglected.

Final Countdown

And then it was time to taper. All the work was done. For three weeks leading up to the race, I would let my body recover from all the preparation, so that I could cross the start line feeling as strong as possible. During those last three weeks, I would continue to swim, bike, and run, but to a much smaller degree than I had been doing leading up to that point. It was like spending months studying for a test, then, during the three weeks preceding the test, only being allowed to refer to the notes I had taken on a single 3" x 5" index card. There could be no last minute cramming. There was nothing left for me to do that could drastically improve my race. But a mistake could do great harm. And with all the extra time I had now that I was not spending all of my time training, there was little to provide distraction from I'M-NOT-READY anxiety. Living with that kind of stress for three weeks would be unbearable, if it were not for one fact: that everyone experiences exactly the same thing. Whatever worries I had, I just kept reminding myself that I was not unique in my fear. Everyone worries, and most people finish. I was prepared, I was strong, I had come a long way. There was no reason for me to worry. I just had to keep reminding myself of that.

A couple days before I was planning on heading to Lake Placid, Kelly mentioned that she would have room for me and my gear in The Party Van. Never being one to pass up a good deal, I took her up on the offer. We drove to Albany, picked up Cindy, Lisa, Heidi, and Kim at the airport, and got back on the road to Lake Placid. Kelly and friends were staying in Wilmington, and I was staying in Lake Placid. But I continued to see them throughout the week. We swam the course, we shopped for groceries, we sat together at the carbo-loading dinner. What was originally just a convenient way to get to Lake Placid ended up being among the most memorable parts of the experience.

I learned that the experience is so much more than the race. I knew that all the months of training were significant. And the taper, accompanied by anxiety and edginess, were known factors as well. But it was not until I was in Lake Placid that I realized how special race week could be. For a year, this event has been on my mind. After signing up, it started to fill in the cracks between serious obligations and naval contemplation. Over the course of the year, Ironman wedged itself deeper and deeper into my life. Yet even when I was most heavily focused on training, my life was cluttered with everything else that is normally a part of life. But here, in Lake Placid, in the last couple days before the race, there was nothing else. All of the clutter of life, all of the compulsion of training for this race, everything was washed away. I could sit on the patio outside of my room and enjoy the cold morning on my face without worrying about that report I was supposed to read at work, or that workout I needed to do, or that friend I had not e-mailed in three months. There was nothing but the cold on my face.

I expected not to be able to sleep well the night before the race. In fact, I was planning on tossing and turning until my watch started beeping at 4:00am. But much to my surprise, I slept deep and long. I awoke feeling refreshed, and relieved that race day had finally arrived, relieved that the waiting was over, and after devoting a year of my life to this goal, I would finally learn whether I deserve to be called Ironman. If not, so be it. But please, please, please, let me take the test. I feel ready.

And like 1800 other athletes, I performed my pre-race rituals. Despite being surrounded by thousands of people generating megawatts of nervous energy, I was in my own world. After a week of bumping into friends old and new every time I walked down the street, for the first time, I was completely alone, wrapped up in such weighty issues as the pressure in my tires and the contents of my special needs bags and the timing of my final visit to the port-a-loo. I floated among the crowds like that for three lifetimes, until I heard John, who was walking in the opposite direction, call out, "Aaron, good luck, and have a great day!" And that broke the spell. I snapped out of it. In an instant, I remembered that this day was not about the millions of details that seem so important at the time. It is about doing something extraordinary, learning about yourself, pushing your limits, celebrating a lifestyle, enjoying the day. I continued to attend to details and the little things that would affect my race, but I stopped fretting about them. And eventually, I found myself wading into water, among Ironmen, and Ironmen-to-be.


With the sound of the cannon, the whole bunch of us gained bragging rights for having been part of the largest mass start in the history of triathlon. Swimming in a small body of water with 1850 of your closest friends is a heck of a way to spend a Sunday morning. Figuring that I'm a fairly middle-of-the-pack swimmer, I started in the most middle position I could find, half way to the right, half way to the back. The swim is, for the most part, an out-and-back course with a left turn around the buoy at the far end. So you swim straight for about half a mile, turn left 90 degrees, swim a couple meters, turn left again 90, and swim back to the start, so you can do it all over again. The really aggressive swimmers stay to the left. The less aggressive swimmers swim more to the right. My plan was to stay in the middle as much as I could. But when 1850 people start moving through the water all at once, you do not fight it, you just go with the flow, and make sure you can keep your own head above water. So I took a lesson from my high school days, and I just went along with the crowd. After 200 meters, I realized that I was being absolutely pummeled. I looked down, and through the water, I could see the line running between the buoys underwater. If I was above that line, I was waaaay on the left side of the course --- exactly where I did not want to be --- among the most aggressive swimmers.

I should mention that I do not really mind rough swims. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I enjoy them. Two and a half years ago, I could not swim at all. I could float if necessary, but I certainly could not do anything that would approximate swimming. Being able to swim now amuses me to no end. The novelty of being able to do this completely unnatural thing (well, unnatural to humans, at least) has not yet worn off. Therefore, these open water Battle Royales do not strike me as being a particularly large impediment; they just serve to increase the novelty of an already-surreal experience. And that is good, because I was so completely boxed into my position by other swimmers that there was no way I was going to be able to get out of my position. I settled in, and I just swam. Three strokes breathing to the right, three strokes breathing to the left, repeat. I got kicked in the head, I took elbows in my ribs, I had water pushed into my mouth, and a couple times I went anaerobic when kicking hard to inform the person trying to crawl up my back that his efforts were not appreciated.

Due to my location, the pack never thinned out. On the second loop, I could have tried to take a different position, but I decided that I had made it through one loop on the left side of the course, so I might as well stick with what worked. If I have wanted to get into a "groove" of swimming, I would have been very disappointed. There was no swimming groove to be had. It was a constant struggle to continue to move forward, while staying aware of who was in my immediate vicinity (and making sure their elbows and feet never got too close to my head). Yet still, I was able to get into some other type of groove --- not a swimming groove, but something else. Once I found that non-swimming groove, I could just go on auto-pilot. Stroke, stroke, stroke, watch that elbow, stroke, stroke, whoa, watch that foot, stroke, stroke, I do not seem to be able to get past these guys, stroke. And even in the midst of all of the action, I could relax into a vision of my Perfect Swim.

My Perfect Swim was the vision I used to get through much of the tension of the weeks immediately preceding the race. Whenever I found myself growing anxious about the race, I would take a moment to imagine myself swimming. It was always early morning in the vision, and I was always alone in a very large lake. I would be cutting through the water gracefully and effortlessly (not how I normally swim), the only sound being the slightest plunk of my hands breaking the surface of the water. A few moments of visualizing that swim was always enough to calm me. I tried developing similar visions for the bike and the run, but neither of those could compare to the vision of my Perfect Swim. And now that I was in the thick of my real Ironman swim, I found that I could let my instincts guide me through the water, and let my mind return to my Perfect Swim. Because of that, I could emerge from a swim that put the World Wrestling Federation to shame feeling calm, refreshed, and ready to ride 112 miles through the Adirondack mountains.

After jumping out of the lake, and removing my wet-suit (with the much appreciated help of the wet-suit strippers), I made my way to the transition area. Normally, after a hard swim, I have to struggle through the first transition with intense dizziness. In this race, the transition area is several hundred meters from the lake. During the run from the lake, my body adapted to being vertical, and I entered the changing tent with no dizziness. While performing all my transition duties, a volunteer slathered my arms and neck with sunscreen. Then I stuffed my wet-suit in my transition bag, ran to my bike, and headed out.

As I left town on my bike, I immediately began to remind myself, "patience, patience, patience." I had been drilling that message into my head in the weeks leading to the race. The easiest thing in the world would be to get caught up in the moment, and let adrenaline push me harder than I should go. Once I start going fast, it is very difficult to slow down. So patience is required from the first turn of the pedals. Several miles into the bike, just as I was forgetting that 112 miles is a long day, a new phrase entered my head. I think I might have heard another competitor say it. Or maybe I saw it on a sign. Or maybe I just made it up. But it rang through my head: Stick with the plan. YES! THE PLAN! This is not just about patience. This is about feeling good at the end of the day, accomplishing something. It became my mantra for the bike, stick with the plan.

Several times on the bike course, I encountered friends who were racing. Since I climb better than I descend, and since the bike course, for the most part, is a series of rolling hills, I spent a significant amount of time playing leap frog with friends. I would catch someone on a climb, then relinquish the lead on a descent, over and over again until either I or my friend would pull away for a last time. Aside from the occasional game of leap frog, the most amusing part of the course was the signs. At the expo for several days before the race, racers, friends, family, and anyone else could make signs that would be placed along the course. Some were inspirational, some were congratulatory, some were humorous. During the last few miles of the first lap, climbing up the last few hills back to town, I was only vaguely paying attention to the signs, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my name on one. After seeing the next five or six signs, I started to wonder how much time Ally had spent making signs at the expo. And at each sign, I could not help but laugh and look forward to the next one. For the second time of the day, I realized that I was becoming so focused on the immediate goal (getting back to town) that I had lost sight of the larger picture. I remembered that I was doing an Ironman. The race was not next week or next month. It was now, and I was part of it. So I kept moving, swung through town, waved to my family, then started the second loop on the bike.

The bike course consists of a loop, with a short out-and-back section in the middle, so on a map, it looks like a lollipop. The course is 56 miles, so we ride two laps of it. Conveniently, each loop has four sections, each of which is approximately 14 miles. During the first 14 miles, we climb out of Lake Placid, then descend to Keene. The next 14 mile section starts with the left turn in Keene. It starts out flat, but eventually, the course turns left, straight up a hill. The rest of this 14 mile stretch is over rolling hills. In Wilmington, turn right for the next 14 mile section: the out-and-back. Head out seven miles and see the long string of people ahead of you. When you hear the music and cheering, you're almost at the turn around. Turn around, and head seven miles back to Wilmington, and see the long string of people behind you. Once back in Wilmington, there are only 14 miles between you and Lake Placid. But these are the slowest miles of the course, as they consist of a series of climbs, punctuated by short flat sections. The first time around the loop, the knowledge that at the top of the last climb are the cheering crowds and the glory of being half way through the ride are enough to propel you to the top. The second time around the loop, it takes a bit more motivation to get up those hills. It takes the knowledge that at the top of the hill is the second transition area, T2, a sort of shangra-la where no one expects you to ride anymore. Never mind that a marathon awaits. Never mind that the hardest part of the day is yet to come. It makes no sense to contemplate the inevitable. Just get to T2, get off the bike, and start moving. Everything else will take care of itself.

And so it went. I went through T2 faster than I expected, and then I was running. Like a song that was stuck in my head, or a thought that would not let me get to sleep at night, it kept running through my head: this is just the beginning of a marathon. A marathon, even on the best of days, is a challenge. Here I was, totally fatigued from what has already passed on this day, and I needed to run a marathon in my sorry state. I pushed the thought out of my mind, but it returned again and again. Finally, I saw the sign for the Econo Lodge in the distance. I knew that Garv's unofficial "aid station" --- Garvaid --- would be there, manned by several friendly faces. I looked for his truck, and finally found it. As I passed, a cheer went up from Garvaid. After that, the "I still have to run a marathon" thought never returned. Garvaid was not at the BEGINNING of the course, it was ON the course. Sure, it was only at mile 1.5, but it signified to me that I was no longer starting a marathon. I was running a marathon. Only 24.7 miles left. Sure it would be tough, but I could do it because, hey, at least 24.7 miles is less than a marathon. Any type of endurance challenge is as much of a mental challenge as a physical one. Being able to convince yourself that it "won't be that bad" --- even when it IS that bad --- is an essential skill. Being able to draw strength from friends, family, and anonymous spectators who line the course is no less important than being able digest the next banana or energy bar.

And as the run continued, I continued to play the mental games. "Almost at the next aid station." "Almost a quarter of the way through the run." "Almost back to Garvaid." The run is a double out-and-back course. That is, it goes six miles out of town, then back to town on the same road, then out again, then back again. Half way along the course, the Olympic Ski Jumps tower high above the road. When driving along the road, they are majestic. When running the marathon at the end of an Ironman, they taunt you. They can be seen from miles away, so during the marathon, they can be spotted in the distance. Yet they do not seem to get any closer. See them in the distance, run for what feels like several miles, and notice that they do not seem to be any closer. Of course, they are closer. Of course, the ski jumps have no malice toward those of us struggling below them. They are just the most striking illustration of what this race is. Pick a goal. Work toward it. Relentlessly chip away at it. At times, it feels like forward progress has stopped. And just then, you look up, and towering above you, almost close enough to touch are the ski jumps. So you continue going, with a renewed sense that you will cross that line.

Because of the design on the run course, the marathon is the time to see how friend are doing. For the entire marathon, you are across the street from people moving in the other direction. Occasionally, I would spot a friend, and call out a greeting. Sometime, someone would spot me. I was suffering, I was hurting. But with the support of everyone on and off the course, it was only a matter of time before I would finish this thing.

In hindsight, the marathon seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. I know that at the time, it seemed to be interminable. But looking back, it seems like a moment after I was heading out of T2 with fear of what lay ahead, I reached the fork in the road. After the first lap of the course, take the path to the left to start the second lap. After the second lap, take the path to the right to enter the Olympic speed skating oval, to head down the home stretch, past the bleachers, to the finish line. It was time for me to take the path to the right. More than any other part of the day, this is the part to savor. The work is done, just float down the final stretch, knowing that at the end, you will cross a threshold that signifies an extraordinary accomplishment.

I threw my arms in the air, because I was ecstatic at that moment. I dropped my head because I was exhausted at that moment. Then, just as I crossed the finish line, I remembered that I better look good for the finish photo, so I pulled my head up to show the big smile on my face to whomever might care. (Later, when seeing my finisher photo for the first time, my brother said, "Oh, you completely posed for that photo," to which I replied, "You better believe it!")

Fait Accomplis

In the year leading up to this point, I had done my first half Ironman, my first marathon, my first century bike ride, my first double century bike ride, and now, my first Ironman triathlon. My family was at the finish line, waiting for me, ready to attend to whatever I might need. They carried my gear, and they made sure I was okay. My brother went to a restaurant down the road and get a pizza so I would have something to eat back at the hotel. But as much as I had done this day, I was not feeling too bad. Certainly I was somewhat tired, but my body and mind had held up well. There was never a point when I felt I could not continue, and there was never a point when I lacked mental acuity. I waited at the finish line for a short while to see friends and other competitors. I saw Kelly, who feared that an injury would result in either a DNF or a long, long marathon, finish in an incredible time. I saw Eric, who had just set a major personal record by taking over an hour off of his previous best Ironman time. And I saw so many others who had persevered through 140.6 miles just to cross that line at the end. The happiness I felt was not only for myself, but for everyone who had been a part of this day.

Back at my hotel, I relaxed, ate pizza, watched the live broadcast of the finish line on TV, with the echo of the announcer booming out of the PA system in the Olympic oval across the street. Reflecting on my accomplishment, I realized that the day went about as well as it could have possibly gone. The night before the race, I sat with my family, and wrote my expected splits on a napkin, so they would know when to expect me at various points along the course. I wrote that the swim would take me somewhere between 1:10 and 1:20. I finished the swim in 1:10:19. I wrote that the bike would take me somewhere between 6:15 and 6:30. I finished the bike in 6:09:55. I told them that it would be pointless for me to estimate a run time, since I had no idea what my condition would be off the bike. They pressed me to derive some estimate. So I gave the estimate that the marathon would take somewhere between 4:00 and 4:30, but I offered the caveat that my estimate could be wildly inaccurate. In the end, I ran a 4:02:08 marathon. I finished the race in 11:30:41, feeling that I had done everything right, that I had made no major mistakes that cost me significant time, that I had reached a point where I had the experience to approach my potential.

After all of the anticipation and preparation involved in reaching that finish line, it seems necessary to step back for a moment to try to understand what it really means. Was it worth it? Am I a better or more complete person for having done this race? Or is Ironman racing a selfish endeavor, requiring vast amounts of time and energy that could be put to better use helping others, or trying to improve the world? Unfortunately, there was no epiphany as I crossed the finish line. My finisher certificate was not accompanied by literature discussing the deeper implications of having put so much time and energy into something that, impressive as it may be to some, is really a somewhat self-centered achievement.

I do not yet know the answers. I may never know the answers. What I do know is this: I was able to do it. Whatever happens in my future, who ever I am 10, 20, or 50 years from now, I will always be able to say that I picked an impossible challenge, and made it possible. When I face the obstacles that invariable arise in life, I no longer have the convenient excuses of, "oh, that's too difficult," or, "that's beyond my capabilities." With the image of that finish line indelibly printed in my mind, I have no choice but to face any obstacle that I might encounter, and approach it with a fierce determination that I am stronger than anything in my path. I know that I am stronger because I made it across that line. I know that I am stronger because I am an Ironman.