I awoke at 3:30 on race day, got dressed, ate about 750 calories, and spent about ½ hour praying, and trying to calm my nerves. I felt surprising calm on the morning of the race. The prior two days leading up to the race I was racked with nervous energy – at times with an almost feeling of dread of the day to come. I wished there were just a few more days before I had to race… It was nice to not feel those emotions on race-day.
The swim start is about 20 miles away from downtown St. George, so the morning of the race, at about 5:30 am, the athletes are bussed out to Sand Hallow Reservoir. On the bus ride, I felt a complete calm come over me. The bus was just filled with nervous energy from other athletes – but for some reason, I felt a total calm. I listened to Kings of Leon on my iPod and began to get pumped up.
We arrived at the swim start in complete darkness and there was a huge, orange Moon shining brightly over the Utah desert. It was a stunning morning. The forecast was calling for nearly no wind, which was a huge relief. Sand Hallow Reservoir is actually in a city called Hurricane – appropriately named for the high winds that can be common in that area of Utah. However, for this day, we would be blessed with a calm lake and smooth swim surface. After arranging last minute changes on my bike and gear, I got dressed in my wetsuit and found my family for last minute pictures and hugs & kisses before the gun went off. It was about 6:45 when I entered the water – waiting for the 7am gun. Water temps were about 62 degrees on Saturday – brisk, but doable. After the initial chilly shock of the water, I don’t remember ever thinking about the water temp ever again. I was now trying to navigate my way through the sea of 1,800 other swimmers – I decided to stay to the far right of the pack, but in the front – hoping my swim fitness would put me out front and I wouldn’t get trampled. I felt strong and I was ready to swim!!!
Picture of the lake 30 minutes prior to swim start. Sunrise over southern Utah.
Very serious – getting ready to get wet!
Swim – 2.4 miles.
Goal Time: 1:10
Finish Time: 1:25
The swim course is a 2.4 mile loop that was very well marked by dozens of buoys for swimmers to sight along the way. As the gun went off – I put my face down in the water and began to swim – sighting the buoys to my left. I also used a ridge in a mountain pass about 50 miles away as a sight. The first 10 minutes of the swim I felt amazing in the water. Calm, strong, and moving fast!
Then – everything changed. As I rounded the first left turn of the swim, I found myself all of the sudden getting thrown around in the water by very large waves. I thought – is there a passing boat? Where was this chop coming from? I found it very difficult to find a swimming rhythm, as my body was getting tossed and turned in the raging sea. Each time I tried to take a breath, I was doused by a crashing wave over my head. What in the heck was going on? After realizing there was no passing ship creating this turbulence, I assumed the winds must have picked up….? I stopped swimming for a few minutes, treaded water, and tried to assess the situation. With my head above the water – looking around, I could feel the howling winds whip my face. Within 10 minutes of the swim start, the wind speed increased to 40mph which created 4-5 waves on the surface of the lake. It was insane! I just tried to keep moving forward – working diligently to make it from one buoy to the next. And again to the next one. As long as I was making forward momentum, I thought, “I can handle this swim”. I still had about 2 miles to go and I knew this was going to be rough. I made it to the 2nd turn buoy – rounding left – and now the waves were coming straight at me. This was the longest leg of the swim – about 1.2 miles and I was heading straight up wind.
Ironman events are well supported by thousands of volunteers throughout the course. On the swim section of the race, it is typical for dozens of kayakers and paddle-boarders to be placed on the perimeter of the swim course in case a swimmer is having difficulty and needs to be helped. The waters became so treacherous this morning that I watched several kayakers get flipped over into the water themselves. It was complete chaos – and panic was setting in for many swimmers. When I would stop swimming to catch my breath and assess where I was going, I would see other swimmers waving down rescue boats with cries for help. I was terrified, but I just kept going. At about 30 minutes into the swim, the wind and waves were so bad, I could not see the next buoy where I was supposed to swim to. I just knew the general direction I was supposed to go – so I kept swimming – making forward progress, albeit very slow. During this leg of the swim, I saw a water-ski type boat taking huge waves of water over the bow of the boat – even the boat was struggling. Getting close to rounding the third buoy, which would be our final turn as we headed for shore, I could feel my arms getting very tired. I was working much harder than I had ever anticipated and trained for. When we approached the final turn, I realized that the swim buoys had all been ripped from their anchored position because of the winds and waves. I saw people swimming in several different directions – no one really knew which way to go – the swim course was in complete disarray. I headed for the final large red buoy – which I assumed was the last marker and back toward shore. Get me the hell out of this lake!
Getting out of the water felt like a huge success and I felt so proud that I was able to make it. Many others did not finish the swim. As I stripped out of my wetsuit, I could finally see and feel how hard the wind was actually blowing. Bikes were getting blown off the racks and the large changing tent that athletes get dressed in was about to blow over. As athletes sat in T1 changing into their bike gear, it was a solace environment. Not much was said – as athletes were contemplating the last 1.5 hours they had just been through. I felt a mixture of feelings. I felt proud to have finished that grueling swim, but also felt worried and concerned for others still trapped out there in a that raging sea that was their own private hell. In all, 350 athletes were either rescued from the water, or swam ashore without completing the swim. Unbelievable!
Bike – 112 miles.
Goal Time: 6:30
Finish Time: 7:56
As I got onto the bike, my body was cold and I was shivering for the first several miles. My body was still wet from the cold water – combined with the howling winds made it very chilly. I passed a volunteer on the side of the road with a sign saying “Don’t worry, it will get warmer!” That made me smile and feel encouraged. I broke the St. George bike course into 3 sections in my mind. First, a 22-mile section of rolling hills from Sand Hallow back into St. George, then, two 45-mile loops from St. George out into the red-rock hills of southern Utah. I had driven the bike course two days prior and realized why Ironman St. George is known as one of the toughest Ironman bike rides on the Ironman circuit. Lots of hills and lots of climbing! However, this day was going to make it a little bit harder. Those same 40mph winds that created chaos in the swim were going to stay with us for the entire bike ride. For about 80 miles out of the 112, the 40mph winds were a headwind.
At about 10 miles into the bike ride, I remember have a dramatic shift in my mental perspective. This no longer became a “race”, and I went into “survival” mode – trying to strategize how I would just make it through the day. I kept telling myself to just keep moving forward – and slowly but surely I would get to the end. I put my head down and started cranking – I went into focus mode and tried to stay present keeping in touch with how my body was feeling. I wore a heart rate monitor to help myself pace correctly, but for some reason, it never worked all day. I would have to rely on my own instincts of feel – being sure to push hard enough to make the time cut-off, but not pushing too hard where I could easily blow-up.
Throughout the bike, there were a few moments that were just psychologically deflating. I saw several athletes get blown off the road because the winds were so strong. Some cyclists actually got blown down – or knocked off their bikes due to gusting side winds. A few portions of the bike course are so steep that several racers dismounted their bikes and walked them up the hills. And the most discouraging of all, was at about mile 80, watching several very fit athletes quit the race and turn the bikes around to ride the tailwind back into town.
Prior to race day – and calculating my anticipated split times for the swim, bike, and run, I never imagined I would be in danger of getting DQ’d from the race by missing the time cut-off’s. But on this day, it was a different story. I was in danger of not making the time cut-offs, which just adds a whole new level of anxiety and mental anguish to the day. This bike ride was the hardest ride I’ve ever done – nothing I could have imagined and trained for – but I finished all 112 miles with 1 hour to spare before the 5:30 bike cut-off time. I saw my wife and family at the bike finish and that was such a sight for sore eyes. I gave my wife a kiss and happily got rid of my bike. Get me off this stupid thing!! Now – I was ready to run!
Run – 26.2 miles.
Goal Time: 4:30
Finish Time: 6:05
I changed into running gear and felt so happy just to not be on the bike anymore! At this point, everything in my body was incredibly sore. My feet were killing me from my bike shoes. My back and neck were completely strained from being in the aero position for so long and my quads were just completely destroyed from all the climbing and wind. And my shoulders and back were sore from the swim. I began the run and within the first mile I realized how spent my body was. My legs had nothing left!
During a training run in mid-March, I strained a calf muscle that had nagged me for the last 1.5 months leading up to the race. Long story short – I entered the marathon portion of Ironman having not run a single mile in 1.5 months leading up to the race. I was hoping and praying that my bike fitness would carry me through the run. That may have been possible on any other race-day, but not on this day. My legs were destroyed from the bike! I tried as hard as I could to run but my legs would not let me. About 10 miles into the run, it became a strain just to walk. But I kept telling myself – “just move forward” and that’s what I did.
I remember my feet hurting so bad – I could feel blisters developing and all I wanted to do in that moment was take my shoes off and rest. I refused to give in because I knew if I took my shoes off, I would never get them back on. I saw my wife and family at several points along the run and that was just so special. It helped me to keep moving forward. At about mile 15, I started to trot with another racer who was moving at a similar pace as me. That helped immensely as we were able to make small talk and motivate each other. JC – from Salt Lake City – he never stopped talking, and I loved every minute of it. As the sun set over St. George, the night became cool and it was such a relief to not be beaten by the sun any longer. It was now night – and my goal of finishing the race before sunset had been out the window long ago – and I was totally OK with that.
I couldn’t believe I had made it this far….going this long in grueling terrain and conditions. I would have cried – but I didn’t even have energy to do that. I was finally approaching the finish line that symbolized months of dedication and hard work – and the end of a special, personal accomplishment – and the end of the hardest physical day of my life. Thousands of people lined the chute toward the finish line and I could just feel the energy in the air. It was electrifying – and seeing all the people line the streets gave me a surge of adrenaline. As I approached the end of the race, I could hear names getting announced over a loud speaker as other racers finished….I was almost there – the end of 140.6 miles. I mustered some last ditch energy stores and ran toward the finish line. My body – totally spent – with nothing left, I crossed under the chute at 15:46, with 1 hour and 14 minutes before the midnight cut-off, and heard, “Quentin Hafner from Costa Mesa, California, YOU are an IRONMAN”!! I couldn’t believe I had did it…
Two days after the race – and I feel great. My entire body is very sore and I’m a little stiff, but I feel really good. Racing Ironman has been a goal of mine for a very long time, and it feels a little surreal to have finally completed it. About 2 weeks prior to the race start, Ironman announced that 2012 will be the last year for a full Ironman distance race in St. George. They decided to convert the race to a ½ Ironman distance because the course was essentially too difficult to attract participants for a full Ironman. I believe this year’s race confirmed their decision. 2012 Ironman St. George will go down in history as one of the toughest Ironman’s ever raced based on average finish times and the incredibly high DNF (Did Not Finish) rate. About 35%, or 620 of the 1,800 participants did not finish the race. It was an insane day and just to cross the finish line felt like an accomplishment I had couldn’t have imagined.
Plenty of reason to smile after 140.6 miles…
A very special heart-felt thanks to all my family, friends and training partners who have been along this journey with me – encouraging me and pushing me. I couldn’t have done it without you and I look forward to returning the favor. And the biggest thanks of all goes to my wife – who was my biggest fan through this 9-month process. She knew exactly when to tell me I wasn’t allowed to give up, and when to tell me that I could throw in the towel if I needed to. I needed to hear both things at different times and I am so blessed by her.
In total, over the last 9 months of training, I swam roughly 128,000 yards, biked 3,840 miles, and ran 576 miles. I’m looking forward to resting and thinking about the next adventure.