Taryn Spates's Ironman Arizona Story

I knew it was going to be a good weekend when my mom said to me, “I am just so happy about all that you are doing, and who you have become. In my eyes, you’ve already won.”

She was right, too, no matter what happened during the race, I already felt like I had won the race of feeling good about myself, because I honed my fitness into competitive shape, so it was just a matter if the day would pan out as planned or not.

I decided it would make sense to cut down on my commute to Tempe, AZ if I started my sojourn east by driving out to Claremont after work on Wednesday night, and then leave from there on Thursday. Plus, I really wanted to see my mom. Due to both of our busy schedules, it had been months since we had seen each other, so this trip to Claremont was strategic as both an athlete and a daughter.

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Honestly, I just wanted a Mom hug.

It was fun to go for a short run and ride around Claremont on Thursday morning, too.

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The drive to Tempe was fairly smooth and pleasant except for some needful, yet annoying road work going on along 10 freeway, but thankfully, before I knew it I was pulling into my condo on University Ave., and settling in to my home away from home for the next few days.

Race weekends are always action-packed, but this one was turned up to eleven.

Friday morning kicked off with a much anticipated Team SFQ coffee and breakfast meet-up that Hillary and Lauren, (Smashfest Queen’s #1 employee), organized for all of us who were racing in or spectating for the Ironman. I think I have mentioned before how much I adore, value, and respect these women, so to spend quality time with them to laugh and get to know each other in person before the pressure of the race set in was fantastic. 

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They all lived up to the hype.

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The rest of Friday was filled with ticking off tasks like checking in for the race, taking a longer drive than planned to find a pool that was more beautiful and peaceful than I could have imagined, and accidently driving the last mile of the race course; a mistake that proved to be vital about forty hours later.

I rose on Saturday morning excited to take my bike Simone out for one last spin, and to run a couple mellow miles around the block to warm up my legs before the long day on Sunday.

I felt great.

Then like clockwork as soon as Marion arrived around 12N, the weight of my expectations settled over my eyelids, and the stress started sinking in.

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“If you don’t win tomorrow you’re riding home in the backseat.” Marion joked as we drove to Tempe Town Park to drop off my bike and gear bags into transition.

“Thanks.” I replied in a whiney tone.

“I’m just kidding.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Just relax and do what you’ve been doing in all of your training.”

“Right, exactly.”

“You’re really fun to be around the day before races.”

“I know, sorry.”

“Just relax, you're gonna do great.”

After dropping my bags off, next we drove to Whole Foods so I could make the most important choice of the weekend, my pre-race dinner. I ate a large mashed yam with raw and salted almonds, sage, olive oil, salt and pepper, and then washed it down with a tasty and effective bottle of Kombucha. #PlantPowered.

Finally, I received the call I was waiting for all day.

“How are you feeling, T?” Hillary chirped excitedly from across the line. Instantly my shoulders relaxed because I knew she would set my mind right and I could go about my day without biting off Marion’s head every other sentence.

It worked.

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I believe our conversation falls under the coach/athlete confidentiality clause, but I will share that we were both on the same page with how I should approach the race, and that after I got off the phone I was cool as a cucumber and the sweetest wife in the world the rest of the night to my Texan beau.

A special treat about racing in Arizona, is that I have two sets of supportive aunts and uncles who live nearby and I can always on count to cheer for me from the sidelines. As a bonus, I was sent the RSVP of my jet-setting parents that they would be coming to the race, too. Now, let’s remember that this is not my first rodeo, and will definitely not be my last, so even though I always LOVE to have a supportive team assembled for my races, I never ask for it anymore, so when they said they were coming, I was thrilled beyond belief. It helps tremendously to hear familiar voices during a race, and I had a feeling they would get a worthy show out of this one. So, after I ate my delectable dinner, Marion and I headed to Fountain Hills in order to meet up with my “A-Team,” and discuss the plans for everyone’s long day ahead.

I did not expect to cry before the race, but after I rounded the hallway corner and saw my sister, Mary, sitting at the table eating dinner with the rest of my family I burst out in tears.

“Are you here for me?” I said stunned.

I didn’t have my glasses on, so at first I thought I was seeing a mirage, but no, she was indeed there in the flesh, laughing and then rising up to hug her surprised, weepy little sister.

“I came to watch your race.” She said as she hugged me tight.

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It is worth noting to new readers that my sister Mary and I are nearly as opposite as two sisters can be, yet exactly the same. She is two years older than me, about five inches shorter than me, has dark hair and olive skin, and loathes endurance sports. On the other hand, she is an incredible dancer, and the most stylish person I know, so we even each other out. Most importantly, she is the mother to two wonderful little girls, which is why I would never assume she could come to one of my nutty races, but there she was.

I couldn’t believe it, hence the happy tears.

After spending the first twenty years of our lives at eachother’s throats, (literally), we are now great friends, and genuinely enjoy spending time together. Plus, even if she doesn’t understand it, and has absolutely no desire to ever join me, Mary is incredibly supportive of all of my athletic pursuits, and an excellent addition to my cheer squad.

We didn’t stay too long, because even though I knew I wouldn’t get too much sleep, I wanted to settle in and get in as much rest as possible before my 3:45A wake-up call. I don’t think I slept too much, but I woke up, so I know I grabbed a few hours there somewhere which was plenty considering I’d be running on passion and adrenaline all day anyway.

The minutes in transition suiting up for the race flew by in a flash. I met a couple more of my teammates, and chatted with one of my training partners, but then it was time to line-up for the swim. They had changed the swim from a mass swim start to a self-seeded rolling start since the last time I raced it in 2010, which was fine with me, so I lined up at the front of the 1:10 hour group; my goal pace all year.

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The water was a comfy 67 degrees or so, (Alaskaman toughened me up for life when it comes to water temperatures), and I felt fine as soon as I started my glorious 2.4 mile swim up and back Tempe Town Lake. I did veer a little too far left on the way out, but I was surrounded by nearly all green caps, (men), which was a good sign; hopefully I was ahead of most of the women. The water got slightly choppy just after our turn-a-around, but I kept my cool and kept moving right along.

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I am well aware that I have a long way to go before I become a great swimmer, but I have made huge strides the last few months, and finally believe that I could be one day. I have swam a healthy amount of yards over the last year or so, (hiring a top swimmer as your coach will almost guarantee that), but thankfully it paid off when it needed to. I climbed out the lake in 1:09 hours, a three-minute personal best, and an eight-minute improvement over the last time I raced a formal Ironman, Lake Placid in 2016.

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I am not there yet, but am swimming in the right direction.

I moved through transition pretty quickly, and grabbed all of the fuel I needed to for the long ride ahead. That was my biggest concern going into this race, fueling correctly during the bike. Every time I would reach about hour four of a solid effort bike ride I would start to bonk. Not fun. Hillary laid out the calorie count I needed to hit in order to surpass that hurdle, it was just up to me to execute it correctly.

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The bike ride is three loops.

The first nine to ten mile stretch out of town travels up Beeline highway, it was a windy slog, but awesome. Simone knew exactly what to do because we train in wind all the time. I was moving slower on my way out, naturally, but I was still within my prescribed watts, so I just needed to put my head down and churn through it. Miraculously, once we hit the turn-around, the wind was at my back, and I flew back to town. Seriously, I was cruising between 28 – 30mph for most of my return trips, it was so fun. When we made the first turn down near transition to head back out for our second loop I heard my name being yelled out and looked up to see a sea of orange Team Taryn shirts, my family. Their cheers rocketed me toward my second loop with a smile and determination; exactly what I needed.

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I knew I took the first loop a little fast, so I backed of slightly for the second. I still remained within my watts, but I was more patient against the wind and pedaled soundly along until I saw a very welcome sight about five miles from the turn-a-round and across the street from the Special Needs station, Hillary and Lauren standing there cheering.

“Go, Taryn!!” They both yelled out in unison as I pedaled passed them on my way to the half-way point in the ride. They picked a great location because I would see them again in no time on my way back down toward town.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Palmer.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Palmer.

As we were nearing the end of the second loop and start of the third I was running low on hydration, so I needed to grab a Gatorade bottle at the first aid station I passed on my way out toward Beeline. When I went to take a swig, nothing came out. This is normal, sometimes the volunteers don’t twist the caps to the “open” position, so I twisted it in the other direction with my teeth, but it still wasn’t allowing any liquid to pour out. Not good. I needed electrolytes. So, I did what I vowed never to do, stop on the bike.

I pulled over to the side of the road and pulled off the cap to check if maybe the freshness seal was still on the bottle, nope, the top was just defunct. Annoyed, I took a few swigs, put the cap back on and took off.

Surprisingly, the next few pedal strokes felt easier than the last thousand or so, I was refreshed, renewed, and ready to hit this last lap with all I had left. It turns out grabbing that busted bottle was a stroke of good luck, because resting for those few seconds gave me a jolt of energy to finish out the third lap strong.

The final windy, climb on Beeline felt the best out of all three, and honestly, I was psycho happy about it. I credit this fantastic feeling to the many 100+ mile-training rides I had been assigned since the middle of August. Riding for 5-7 hours every weekend in the wind became my new norm; I knew how I would feel at every part of those rides, and this ride was no different. I was fueled up, feeling good, and ready to punch it hard for my last twenty miles to the finish.

Photo courtesy of Theresa Geist.

Photo courtesy of Theresa Geist.

I wanted to run. 

I pulled into transition in 5:21 hours, which was a seventeen-minute personal best bike time in suboptimal conditions; not too shabby. That reminds me, have I introduced you to my sexy, speed machine, Simone? Oh, right, I have been bragging about her for months, just checking. Buying my Dimond bike was one of the smartest decisions I made last year. #Smash-Dimond

Now let’s talk about marathon #47.

Remember how I teased what my Ironman goal race pace was during “After The Long Run: Part 3?"? Drumroll……. 7:40 – 7:50min. mi., with the target of hitting a sub 3:30 marathon. I was consistently and comfortably maintaining that pace for my long training runs, so I went into this marathon confident I could do the same on race day. Hmm, it turns out overconfident would be a better adjective to describe how I took on the marathon, because even though I maintained the pace for the first four miles or so, I could not hang on to that clip for the whole race. Still, it was one of the most raw marathons I have ever run, and one that I am most proud of. I was bare for the world to see, how I looked was how I felt, and even though it hurt more than I thought it would, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Marathons are hard.

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Let’s discuss how it all played out.

I ran out of transition feeling good, but bogged down with the numerous, yet necessary gels I stuffed in my kit in order to stay on top of my fueling. Just like the bike, I discovered in my training that I could stay at top form all day as long as my fueling was on point, which for the run meant one gel every four miles, and water and/or electrolytes every mile. I quickly aborted that plan and started eating gels every three miles, so thankfully my annoying heavy load of jostling calories came in handy.

As I made the first right turn under the Mill Ave. bridge I heard and saw a barrage of screaming people in orange shirts, my FAM!! Marion yelled out, “You’re in second! Just don’t let anyone pass you!”

At this point I was still ramping up my pace, but was thrilled and nervous about his proclamation. I knew my SFQ teammate and 6th place 35- 39 age group finisher, and first American at Kona, Emily Lanter, was in front of me, (that was not surprising, she is incredible), but I wasn’t sure yet how far back third place was? The first mile marker sat at the top of a short hill, and from there I started to open up and even out my pace and felt certain that if I maintained that 7:45ish. min. mi. pace, I would stay safely in front of the third place runner. 

I slowed down to 8:10min. miles by mile five. Uh-oh.

Once I crossed the bridge to the other side of Tempe Town lake and grabbed my second gel just before mile seven, I saw the most nimble pregnant lady on the planet pop up to my left and yell out, “T, third place is eight minutes back, you’re killing it! I am so proud!”

Yep, Hillary showed up just when I needed her.

Photograph courtesy of Lauren Palmer.

Photograph courtesy of Lauren Palmer.

At that point in the race I resolved that I had already accomplished my biggest goal of the day, making my coach proud, so I considered wrapping it up and going home. Thankfully, common sense won out, and I quickly reconsidered; just nineteen miles to go.

Once I started my second loop of the run course, I saw my family again at mile thirteen, and Marion freaked me out when he screamed, “Third place is right behind you, you gotta go!!

Shocked at this news I replied, “How far?”

“She’s close, just go!”

I thought I still had a decent buffer, and then I saw Hillary again a few yards later and she yelled, “It’s only a marathon! This is what we train for!”

Oh no, I must look terrible! I asked her to tell me that the day before on the phone if I ever looked a little rough, yikes. Still, it worked, because I straightened up and picked up my pace for the next three miles. Those two know what to say to make me hustle.

Then everything changed.

As I looked over my right shoulder to the opposite side of the lake just after passing mile sixteen, I realized I only had ten miles left in my day; no more swimming, no more riding, no more running, done. I had run that distance hundreds of times, and I wanted to savor it, and honor those miles by running them as well as I could.

“T, you’ve got second locked up, it just comes down to how fast you want to run.” Hillary told me as I ran by her again on my way to mile eighteen. I was relieved and fired up to hear her say that, I was ready to run.

The next four or five miles were even, yet painful. My heart and mind were on a runner’s high, but my feet were soaked and blistered; standard Ironman marathon fare. I was looking forward to mile twenty-two because I knew I would see my teammate Tori at the aid station on the base of the final hill.

“GO Taryn! You look great!” Tori yelled out just as I doused another cup of water over my head, my heart and body re-fueled, I turned left and powered up the hill. Thank you, Tori!

Just before I passed mile twenty-four I noticed the horizon out in front of me, and was hit by a wave of gratitude. Everything hurt, but I didn’t feel a thing. I told myself that I was a runner, marathons is what I do, and it was time to flip it on and finish up these last two miles strong.

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As I was flying toward the finish I saw Mary to my left, and then she yelled out, “Third is right behind you!”

“Really?” Honestly, I didn’t believe her, but I sprinted toward the finish line anyway.

And just like that, it was over.

I finished the marathon in 3:39:19, longer than I hoped, but still a thirteen minute personal best Ironman marathon. Lastly, my overall time was 10:18:59, which surpassed my hopes for the day and served as a fifty minute Ironman personal best. Whew.:) 

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The next few hours were filled with praise, smiles, and uncertainty. I did end up finishing second place in my age group, which was incredible, so my chances of snagging a Kona slot were good, but not guaranteed. I was okay with that, because I did all I could, and now it was out of my hands.

This time last year as I was virtually watching the race, I figured it would be nearly impossible to qualify for Kona because the times were so fast, but as the year progressed, that gap of impossibility started to close. I have taken on and survived gnarly training sessions, completed one of the toughest races on the planet, Alaskaman, and clocked my fastest marathon this year, so by the time I showed up to Arizona I felt like I belonged near the top of the podium, but the reality that I actually ended up there, still seems surreal.

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I found out at about 11:15A on Monday morning that I had qualified for Kona, and had earned my spot to race among the best of the best.

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Like many of you, I revere the history of Ironman triathlon, and am honored that I will be riding Simone along the Queen K highway, and running through the Natural Energy Lab next October, it is most certainly a dream come true. However, qualifying for Kona has never been my ultimate goal in triathlon. I still want to improve in all three disciplines, and push myself as far as I can.

I believe this late thirties bod can get faster, and if she does or doesn’t, I am looking forward to finding out.

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Following is my favorite song from my one of my favorite artist's, Lady Gaga.

Taryn is the author of 35 by 35: A Runner's QuestWatch Taryn talk about her story here.




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