The Biggest Race of Her Life
(Eds. note: This story originally appeared on Lara Parpan’s Facebook page under the title, “Racing Arizona.”)
Age-grouper Lara Parpan trained hard and well for Triathlon #38, the biggest triathlon of her life yet—Ironman Arizona (IMAZ)—a 3.8K swim, 180K bike, and 42K run. But on race day, November 15, 2015, Mother Nature had other plans. The story of her harrowing, nerve-wracking, yet sweet ordeal to finishing her first Ironman.
NOV 15, TEMPE, ARIZONA, 7:27 a.m.: It’s been 28 minutes since I started my swim. I’ve freestyled, backstroked, panicked through 466 meters so far. In training sessions, 28 minutes gets me at 1,100 meters comfortably. But here I was, in the middle of manmade Tempe Lake, with the water temperature at 16C (61F), shivering—despite my thick Aquasphere wetsuit borrowed from my tri coach Ani de Leon and swim coach Nonoy Basa’s Blueseventy neoprene cap—hyperventilating and frantic. The thick clouds overhead made the murky lake look more threatening than usual. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of me when I made a stroke, or the other triathletes swimming around me, or the buoy markers, which made my sighting worse.
For the first time in five years of doing triathlon, I thought: ‘I can always quit’.
I signed up for IMAZ with 12 other Polo Tri teammates in November 2014, when our captain Fred Uytengsu and his Sunrise team scored 50 priority slots for the Philippines for this popular race (which gets sold out in minutes). After finishing 37 triathlons (nine of them half-Ironman distances [1.9k swim-90k bike-21k run]) and ACL surgery and rehab in 2013, it was high time for the big kahuna. I trained well for IMAZ, hardly missing training sessions and sidelined only for a total of three weeks when I came down with flu in June and accumulated fatigue in early October.
I picked Arizona because it enjoys sunshine and mild weather 330 days of the year. The course—a 3.8 km one-loop rectangular swim in Tempe Lake (No current! No waves!), three loops for a 180-km ride from city center to the scenic, cactus-laden, craggy skyline of the Beeline Highway and back (mostly flat with a slight climb approaching turnaround), and two flat run loops totaling 42 km around Tempe Lake—made for a very friendly first Ironman attempt. Or so I thought.
I arrived in sunny, warm Tempe three days before the race with my twin Scho. Walking into the Ironman Village in Tempe Beach Park made my heart beat faster. I was finally here. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: reaching the start line of any triathlon, no matter how short or long the distance, is a blessing in itself. I am already grateful. I was thrilled to see my teammates David Almendral and Gem and Nick Thomas, fellow triathletes I did my long bike rides with—Enrico Menichetti, Jonah Rivera, and Keith Peralta, and friends from Cebu, Jane and Andrew Ong. Picture-taking, getting my Ceepo Venom assembled and tuned up, and attending an informative but barebones race briefing (just an emcee [and an Ironman finisher] explaining the rules; none of the glitzy AVPs and Whit Raymond-type rousing briefings which I was used to seeing in Ironman-branded events back in the Philippines) were the order of the day.
I arrived in Arizona with one huge apprehension: the water temperature. In Manila, I trained in bath-water temps of 26 to 28 C (80 to 82F). Wetsuits were definitely required for IMAZ. I managed a decent 37-minute practice swim of 1,500 meters in 19C (66F) waters in Long Beach, California a few days before race day and forced myself into the small, cold, lap pool of the comfy airBnB guest house we rented in Tempe. At the expo, I couldn’t find neoprene booties to keep the warmth from escaping my feet, but I counted on my practice swim, the wetsuit, the neoprene cap, earplugs (to help lessen nausea from the cold water, a tip I got from swim coach Betsy Medalla), and a sunny day, to get me through.
But Arizona decided to showcase its rare dismal weather on race day: overcast, with a high chance of rain, and temperatures (air and water) in the 16 to 17C (60F) range. My worst fear, the cold, came true.
This was the first year IM Arizona decided to do the rolling start, where you seed yourself according to your expected swim finish time. I lined up in the 1hr 40 min corral. I stood with 2,600 other triathletes, excited and nervous as I was, greeting each other “Good luck” and “Race safe.” At 6:59 a.m. I plunged into the lake. The cold water was a shock as I felt it rush into my wetsuit. I swam, trying to calm myself. But the melee and the freezing water made me unable to catch my breath and my stroke rhythm. I turned on my back and backstroked, then freestyled, then backstroked. I couldn’t feel my feet. It started to drizzle. I felt sorry for myself.
At 450 meters, I looked up and saw a volunteer on one of the orange kayaks fielded to guide triathletes on the swim course. I dog-paddled to it. When I removed my goggles, I was relieved to see in it my friend from high school, Marco Malimban, who knew I was racing. “Marco,” I said breathlessly. “This does not look good.” I could barely hear what he was saying because of the earplugs, but I knew he was reassuring me. I hung on to his kayak for minutes, caught my breath. I resumed swimming.
I found my groove after that pause and swam the rest of the course in mind-and-body numbing rhythm. What kept me going: Scho’s words the night before: “Embrace the cold.” I thought of the kids I was doing this triathlon for, since I tied this Ironman to my fundraising efforts for the Babies and Toddlers Home of the Virlanie Foundation, a child-care and child rights NGO I supported for many years. I thought of my mom, Charry, who braved Stage III lung cancer treatments from surgery to chemo. I thought of my friends Owen and Mitzi, my nephew Robbie, my training partner Tricia and Guy’s son Rory. If they can summon courage and faith in their own battles, then so could I.
I overcame cramps in my left calf in the last one kilometer and as I approached the exit steps of the swim and was lifted out, my goggles fogged up. I was crying. As volunteers peeled my wetsuit off me, through tears and chattering teeth I asked them: “Did I make the cutoff?” You can’t imagine the relief I felt when I heard them say: “Yes! Two hours 15 minutes. You can get on your bike! Go, go!” The Ironman swim cutoff is two hours, 20 minutes. My race was still on. (Post-race, I found out that I swam an additional 750 meters (4.5 km total!) due to poor sighting and cold-water panic.)
A Fil-Am Tri triathlete and volunteer, Noriel Simsuangco, helped me up and walked me for a few meters until I saw Scho and my cousin Mikey Duncan, who flew in from Long Beach to cheer me on. They were screaming out of joy, relief. I laughed. “I made it,” I shouted. I shuffled towards T1 to grab my bike clothes. A woman volunteer helped me carry my gear to the changing tent and seeing I was still shivering, put her arm around me. “Is this your first time?” I replied, “Yes.” She said: “You’re on your way to becoming an Ironman. Believe that.” Tears flowed again.
WHERE’S MY MOJO?
My struggling swim sapped away any energy I was counting on for the bike. As I began my first 60k loop, I couldn’t push past 20 kph. I was just so damn tired. And it was only 10 a.m. The sun vainly tried to shine through the clouds. At km 22, I heard my name. My teammates David, followed a few meters away by Mike Bond, yelled encouragement. They were on their second loop. “Go, guys! Great job,” I shouted back. I found my mojo after downing Snickers bars, Spam sandwiches, Gatorade and cycled at my planned 23 kph.
The only uphill on the bike course was the last 10 km approaching each loop’s turnaround on the Beeline Highway. It was party-time on the bike as I picked up speeds of 40-42 kph on the way back. But I had to contend with freezing rain. Despite my snazzy looking Polo Tri kit, I was anything but the image of sartorial cycling elegance with a pair of thick toeless black tube socks on each arm topped by a cheap $5 pink windbreaker and a rasta-colored beanie under my helmet and full-fingered gloves borrowed from my teammate Geraldine Santiago. The intention was to throw away the windbreaker, tube socks, and beanie at the Special Needs stop as the day got warmer, but it never did. I saw other triathletes cycling in just their tri kits as if dressed for a triathlon in the tropics. Oh well, they live and train in the US, I reasoned. I learned later on that a good number of triathletes suffered hypothermia on the bike and spent up to half an hour in the changing tent of Transition 2 (bike to run) trying to get warmed up.
With 35 minutes wasted on the swim, here I was on the bike, bundled up but damp from freezing rain, racing against the 3 p.m. cutoff for the 2nd turnaround in Tempe, and the 5:30 p.m. bike cutoff.
It was around 2:45 p.m. when I reached the 2nd turnaround cutoff in Tempe. I caught up with fellow triathlete and neighbor Charlie Chua. “Tapos ka na?” he asked. “One more loop,” I said. He urged me to keep going as he headed into the T2 chute. I heard Scho and Mikey screaming my name, and saw them waving the Philippine flag and Mom’s orange-and-yellow good-luck bandanna. As I slowed down to make the turn, a bike marshal stopped me. I unclipped. “Are you okay?” he asked, as he placed his hands on the side of my arms to feel my windbreaker. “You’re damp. Are you warm enough?” I said ‘No.” He said: “It’s 2:45 p.m. You realize you have to be off the highway by 5 p.m. and make it into T2 by 5:30 p.m. Do you want to continue?” I looked at him like he asked the dumbest question ever. “Of course,” I said. “Then go,” he replied, “but you’ve got to pick it up.”
Post-race, Scho and Mikey said that while the bike marshal and I had the exchange, they, and some spectators from Mexico who were cheering in Spanish, were screaming encouragement. Scho asked them what they were shouting. “We said, ‘He (the marshal) is crazy; don’t listen to him. Keep going,'” said the Mexicans.
As I set off on my 3rd and last loop mindful that I had 2 hours and 30 minutes to finish the last 60 km, I saw most of the triathletes ending their bike leg. There were less and less cyclists along the Beeline and I realized I was probably one of the last few triathletes doing the 3rd loop. The proximity of the lanes made it possible to shout at each other. A number of them on the way back smiled and yelled: “You can do this!” “You’ll make it!” “Keep going!” I acknowledged them by shouting back: “Thanks a lot. Great job!”
I was cutting it close, and I knew that the two things that could put a spanner in the works were cramps or a flat tire, which the Beeline was said to be notorious for. I put the thoughts out of my mind, concentrated on keeping a 25-kph average, and riding the return downhill as fast as I could. As in my long training rides, my Ceepo Venom never let me down. I believe I staved off cramps throughout the whole bike because I dared try something new on race day: Base Electrolyte Salt. At bike check-in, the day before the race, I bought a tub of the salts and slipped some into a small plastic flip-top vial. Unlike salt capsules which took time to digest, Base salts, claim to go quickly into the bloodstream to replenish electrolytes and decrease fatigue. I licked the salt off my finger every eight kilometers. That, along with sticking to my nutrition, grabbing Clif bars and Gu gels from the well-stocked aid stations, and being dressed properly for the weather, may have saved my race.
As I approached km 170, I saw around 20 volunteers up ahead gather on either side of the road and form a welcome arch for me. I laughed as I waved and thanked them. I knew I was going to make the bike cutoff. They yelled: “You’re going to be an Ironman! You can do this! Go, go, go!” I slipped into the T2 chute at 5:15 p.m., 15 minutes before the bike cutoff. I saw Scho, Mikey, and some Pinoys from San Diego they had made friends with cheering for me. I felt so embarrassed to be keeping my support crew on tenterhooks by making them wonder if I would make it or not. Post-race, they told me they had discussed what to do in case I didn’t make it. And that was to run away. But then I’d probably catch them. So they decided they would run in opposite directions. Ha ha! Gotta love my family and their sense of humor.
As I started the marathon around 5:35 p.m., it was getting dark, and temps dropped to 18C (64F). Warmed up by chicken broth at T2 and four layers of dry running clothes, I was glad I packed my CWX compression pants instead of shorts, and a fresh pair of Geraldine’s full-fingered gloves.
As I trotted out of the first kilometer, I was happy to see Charlie’s wife and my running buddy Camilla with baby Ollie, along the run course. This was one of the pluses of Arizona: a spectator-friendly course throughout the entire triathlon.
In each triathlon I’ve finished, I was proud of my strong run amid heat and humidity. In the long brick and long run sessions, I comfortably ran 6 min-30 sec each kilometer. For this Ironman, I targeted 5 hours and 30 minutes to do the run leg. But it rained earlier in the afternoon and it was now intermittently drizzling as the sun (what sun?) set. After 15 kms, my socks and Newtons were soggy and my Polo Tri windbreaker damp. I was still spot on with gels, Gatorade, water, Base salts, and chicken broth for nutrition, but fatigue was setting in. I was now shuffling at an average of 8 minutes 35 seconds per kilometer. The cold made it difficult for me to run a faster pace for longer than two minutes, and my run-walk method turned into a predominantly walk-run.
On approaching the 2nd loop at km 21 at around 8:30 p.m., it was pain and pleasure hearing Mike Reilly announce the names of other triathletes crossing the finish line. Fellow triathlete, Giorgia Guidicelli, whose dad Gianluca was doing the race, saw me and I welcomed her words of encouragement as she ran alongside me for a few meters, urging me on. I was all fired up for the second loop when my worst nightmare occurred. My watch died on me. Crap. With three and a half hours to go til the midnight cutoff and another 21 km, plus my dismal 8:35/km pace, how the heck was I going to keep track? I couldn’t believe I was cutting it close again.
I needed help. A little past km 21 was an aid station with volunteers. I approached them and explained my situation. Jerry, the volunteer captain, came to the rescue. After taking down my email address, my name, and bib number, he lent me the Timex watch off his wrist. What a lifesaver! I couldn’t tell my pace using his watch, but I could keep track of time and use the mile markers.
My gratitude to the thousands of volunteers on the IMAZ course is limitless. They stayed for stragglers like us, through the rain and cold, cheering every one of us on. And while their zany costumes got damp, their energy remained warm and unflagging. Scho, Mikey, and my family back in Manila were again on edge, as they could spot me shuffling then running, then walking, via a website linked to a Beacon tracker I wore attached to my top. “Oh no! She stopped running.” “Is she okay?” “There! She’s moving again.” I caused them anxiety and relief.
In the last two kilometers, a bit past 11:30 p.m., I didn’t know what to feel. I just knew I was going to finish. On the last kilometer, I lost count of how many spectators I high-fived as I approached the finish chute. I was crying, laughing, and smiling. For months, I dreamed that I would walk toward the finish line and relish Mike Reilly saying, “Lara Parpan, you.are.an.Ironman!” But that didn’t happen.
All I saw was a roaring, jubilant crowd in the bleachers, banging the barriers ecstatically.
All I saw was my twin Scho among them on the right, waving her flag in joy, as I grabbed her right hand.
All I knew was that the months of hard training, the biting cold, freezing rain, and doing IMAZ for people I cared about were worth it. I did not quit. I did not give up. I proved I was made of stronger stuff.
All I heard was silence, as the bright spotlights above and around the finish arch sucked me in and I ran joyfully into the glare.
November 15, Tempe, Arizona, 11:50 p.m.: I crossed the finish line in 16 hours 50 minutes and 26 seconds.
I am an Ironman.
(Eds. note: By finishing Ironman Arizona, Lara Parpan raised over P400,000 for the Babies and Toddlers Home of the Virlanie Foundation (virlanie.org), a children’s welfare NGO that she has long supported. Lara hopes to do another Ironman after she turns 50.)