(edited for more detail to clear up a few inconsistencies 3 days after originally posted)
It looked like it was going to be a perfect Ironman race day. Bill
and I woke up at 3:30am to load up and head out to Sand Hollow Reservoir
with our Kayaks and Paddleboards. Had our regular meetings and split up
into group. There were roughly 60 kayakers/Paddleboarders.
Swim Support has several layers of help on the water
1 -Kayakers and SUP paddlers in the thick of the swimmers that usually act as floating bouys to get swimmers to help. Geared with Whistles and PFD's - This was my job.
2 - Lifeguards amonsts the swimmers and paddlers on paddleboards to get in fast and quick to a swimmer in serious danger.
3 - Jet skis with sleds to haul swimmers quickly to a boat. They cannot hang out among the swimmers due to the danger of the fumes and machinery.
4 - there were a couple dozen large rescue boats around the perimeter geared with divers, lifeguards and EMT's as needed.
We were well equipped to handle this race.
We had no idea we were about to experience the roughest swim in Ironman History.
At the early morning meeting we were told that several
hundred were doing their first Ironman and to be ready for those that
underestimate the swim. It is the most dangerous portion of the race
for those under prepared. Our job as Paddle support was to be in the
thick of the swimmers pretty much in the way if necessary and be with
them to pick them up and signal for a jet ski or boat to take them.
We were told to expect
mild wind about 9mph. no sweat, I can do that.
I get into my wetsuit. I normally wear just regular swim wear and a few layers to keep warm. The wetsuit is new for me. I have worn it a few times. It's not a tri suit - it's thicker warmer and more buoyant. It's kept me afloat many times in the water. I don't even think about a life vest. I've never done swim support without a life vest before. I have no idea why the thought didn't even cross my mind. But Looking back now, I am very glad I made the decision to wear the wetsuit I never have worn doing swim support before. Normally I am uncomfortable in it but extra warm and buoyant. However after this day - I will never make the mistake of neglecting to wear a life vest ever again. From now I on I will wear both.
The sun was rising beautifully, I am
on the water on my paddleboard that the night before I was doing Yoga on
the same board on the same lake in calm water. I feel good about my skills on my board. I have bragged often that I have never fallen off my board. I paddle a minimum of 2 times a week on this same lake. I have paddled into heavy winds trying to race my husband in a headwind. I am good on my board.
I have assisted in many swim events as a either a kayaker or stand up paddler on this same lake. The conditions never were more than just slightly breezy. It's usually non-eventful and no more than just a nice day cheering the swimmers on and maybe pulling one or 2 people from the water and letting several catch their breath before going on. In all the races I have done in the past I have only had to really rescue one swimmer that needed to be pulled from the water. I am usually just a floating bouy for a swimmer to catch their breath. Today was going to change all that for me.
Ironman St. George 2012 was about to go down in History as the most dangerous swim and the toughest ironman day in history. But we had no idea it was coming.
Before the race starts the music is going I'm standing and dancing on my
board and enjoying the party. The Ironman speaker system is pumping out
some great tunes and the announcer is having a great time playing it up -
My husband and I are with the big group
toward the starting line. In fact the paddlers are asked to mark the
starting line and push the swimmers into position between the starting
buoys marking the correct place to start. I happen to be the kind of
person that takes my job seriously when we do swim support. After the
Pro racers take off, we were asked to keep the other athletes/swimmers
behind the starting line, between the buoys and those that were warming
up needed to do so in the proper areas as designated. LOL! yeah... try
to tell them that. I did. While most of the athletes follow
instructions and were in the proper starting area, there were a handful
telling me to "chill out lady" "it's not a big deal." Sorry folks it
is a big deal! You are in a freaking Ironman race! If you start out
20 meters in front of the starting line and you get out of the water 10
meters in front of someone in your division - yeah - you suck! Follow
the rules people - this is not a hippie race/free for all. Swim support
was given a job to do and that was to help enforce the rules the
athletes signed a line and said they would follow. Some guy swimming
for his warm up way past the starting line (where he was not supposed to
be warming up) was heading back toward the start I was doing my job
near the start line yelling at athletes to get back and inside the start
lines. when this swimmer is heading my way out of nowhere... I tried
to quickly maneuver out of his way ... and I yelled at him to watch
out. He was in the thick of the Kayakers and he hits the side of my
paddleboard with his head and goes under me flailing. when he gets his
head up he looks at me and holds up his hand in a gesture that says "
$%#@, lady, what the %^&#$" He actually didn't say a word. I
yelled at him "Duude -sorry I tried tell you..." I'm sure he blames me
for any lack of success he may have encountered.
hear the announcer say "Remember athletes - the only thing you have
control over today is your attitude..."
Then the race
starts. The weather is perfect there is only a slight breeze on the water and the swimmers are off...
The Ironman is a tough race. One of the toughest events
in the world. The athletes swim 2.2 miles then get on their bikes and
ride over 100 miles and then finish the race running a marathon. I feel
like I am in Pretty good shape - but I have never done any of these
things on their own. doing them back to back takes someone who is more
than just "good shape" it takes amazing strength, endurance and mental
prowess. It really is a test of mental toughness as much as physical
skill. No one should EVER sign up for an Ironman race without knowing
first that they are in for one of the toughest days of their life. They
sign a waiver that says they are fully aware they could lose their life
doing the Ironman.
Most first time Ironman athletes completely
underestimate the difficulty of the swim. As swim support we are warned
that the biggest danger is not drowning - it is the adrenaline rush and
panicking that is the most dangerous. A few hundred Yard from the
starting line is the BUSIEST place for swim support - not nearly
finished when you would think we would be pulling the most swimmers.
Nope it's at the start when their nerves are too dangerous to be able to
complete the swim.
The athletes are allowed to hold
onto swim support vessels as long as there is no forward motion. We
cannot paddle forward or they are disqualified.
swimmers are off and the pros are way out in front and going strong and
steady. We are in the thick of the rest of the athletes - many never
having done something like this in their life. Swimmers are all over
the place swimming in every direction. We are correcting courses
telling people to turn around and head the other way. I had stop a few
people actually swimming backward and tell them to go forward. One
woman that was swimming back toward the start line and struggling for
breath I paddled over to her and asked if she was ok, told her she was
going the wrong direction and she was bewildered. "I don't know what's
wrong with me, Swimming is MY event. I am an amazing swimmer, I should
be able to do this, what's wrong with me?"
Me: is this your first
Me: are you nervous?
(and she laughs)
Me: Your biggest danger is your fear, you need
to calm down. you have 2 more miles. do you think you can continue for
2 more miles of this?
Her: yes I can
Me: I will be watching you.
She takes some time holding onto my board to catch her
breath, calm down and collect herself...and she heads off.
Then the wind
I am watching these swimmers
really struggle as the wind picks up and produces swells one after
another 4-5 feet high. This is not the ocean, it's worse. Waves in the
ocean give you a break between them. We were experiencing wind around
40 miles per hour.
Someone asked me if it
would have been a benefit to have the wind pushing the swimmers forward
and it must have been nice for them having the wind at their back as
they swam that first leg. The problem was they could not see the next
swell coming their way over their heads as they gasped for air. They also couldn't see in front of them to know where they were going. They
were gulping water and struggling for breath. So no, it was not easy. This quickly become a dangerous situation that no one saw coming.
Boats were rocking and in danger of being capsized
and we paddlers were being pushed around.
The paddlers were struggling as well as we fought the wind pushing us
around and sometimes away from swimmers calling for help. It took
serious arm strength to paddle in hard to assist a swimmer.
a little nervous but I could handle this. I am a strong paddler I am
a crappy swimmer though. I think that's what makes me a better
paddler. I am determined to stay on that board. I have done a sprint
triathlon before in a freezing lake in Wyoming where I came in last
place off the water. But I have this weird fear of deep open water I
have been conquering and I have no desire to swim. Staying afloat and strong is a huge priority for
This is a wind like nothing we have ever had on this lake. I have been paddling on this lake often enough to know this was highly unusual. "Must be the full moon" is the thought that goes through my head.
As I would paddle in HARD to one swimmer after another
checking on their status as they struggled to catch their breath between
swells I would have to back paddle HARD to make sure the wind didn't
push me forward as they held onto my board. I was glad I had the strength and endurance to do this physically demanding job.
I was glad I
was able to help 4 swimmers get to a jetski. I never have pulled that
many swimmers out personally from the water. I was Paddling hard to maneuver in to assist
another swimmer when "WHAM" I was off my board and hit in the head as my
board flipped over me and I watched it get tossed away be the wind. I was pummeled by a
big swell. CRAP! My PFD (personal flotation device) was on the board
not on me and it was gone with the board. I was in the water with
swimmers and now I needed rescued too. Unlike the Ironman athletes I had NOT trained for any kind of swimming event. Since that one Sprint Triathlon I did in a Freezing Wyoming lake a few years ago. although I could survive a swim, I am not confident in my swimming abilities. These Ironmen were struggling, who was I to think I could swim if they were needing help. I panicked.
Thoughts raced through my head in seconds:
This event humbled me. You can be sure next time
I do swim support - I will be wearing that bulky ugly vest of mine.
was embarrassed that I had fallen off my board. That was my first
emotion. Very quickly came the next feeling - Panic!
It's funny how fast thoughts can go through
your head in a manner of seconds...
"I can't believe I was
tossed off my board."
"people must think I am a fool"
I suck at swimming."
"I could drown"
catch my breathe"
all sorts of muddled panicking thoughts
can't swim, I can't swim, I can't swim...."
"CRAP! I am a
These thoughts were quickly replaced by a calming thought.
"what's the first rule kids? (I always ask my kids this when they are freaking out)
I think about Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy and how weird it is that that is the reference I thought of before my first aid and safety training.
"I can swim, I am buoyant, as long as I stay calm and keep my head up, I am good."
I am watching my board fly away in the wind.
"there goes my board... I wonder how much damage it's going to
"I hope my husband isn't pissed at my for losing his board."
wonder if I 'll be able to find it again.
I see 3 kayaks
heading my way to rescue me - one of them is my husband.
they should be doing their job and rescuing swimmers - not me"
I had already been paddling hard and now I
as hard as I could using all my power to try and get to the closest Kayak
to me. He is struggling against the wind and swells to get to me as
I try swimming while
holding onto my paddle and someone's wetsuit swim cap they tossed I had
picked up in the water. It's not an effective way to swim and I am
wasting my energy pushing through those waves holding that stuff. The
wind and waves are pummeling me. I have no idea why I didn't let go of
the swim cap. I didn't even think about it for some reason. That is
kind of funny now that I look back. I was worried about saving a stupid
wet suit cap. weird.
"I could die out here."
I don't think that as a panic, I think that as a reality. I realize the best way to survive this is to stay calm with the knowledge that the reality of death is there if a calm state of mind isn't kept. The thought that I could die was one that was actually - people in general could die in these conditions if they don't stay calm. I knew it and I held myself together.
"stay calm, stay afloat."
Right then I regreat not having my life vest as additional flotation in the water. But I am glad to have my wetsuit in this cold water instead of my normal sweats and jacket I would have worn instead.
The kayaker closest to me throws me a PFD - a large foam square. I
grab it and hold on.
I just hope that my husband can forget about me and just do his job helping the swimmers. One kayak is enough and Bill is not the closest to me. I yell at my husband off in the
distance. "I'M OK!" and I give him a thumbs up. I knew once I had that
floatie - I would be ok. I see him paddle away to assist someone else in the water and I feel a lot better. I am glad he trusts me enough to do what he is supposed to be doing and not trying to take care of me here. I feel a weird kind of calm.
I was now just fine. I think... but maybe
not... not sure. Still not a good place to be out there. My rescuer asks me to pull myself into his Kayak - something I have done numerous times before. I try over and over but I can't seem to find the strength after all that paddling against the wind and then swimming for my life. my arm strength is spent. I am again embarrassed because I know I can do this.
He tells me to just hang onto his kayak while he maneuvers over to
another kayaker that had been tossed over by the wind and swells. It
seemed like forever just holding on and pushing against the elements to
get to the other kayaker in the water.
finally get to the other guy in the water and he is hanging onto his
kayak for dear life. He also can't pull himself back in and is
exhausted from all that paddling against the wind. My rescuer tells me
to hang onto this man's kayak with him and see if we can assist each
other back in while he paddles back out to help more swimmer, lifeguards
and kayakers struggling in the water. It's all we can do to hang onto
each other across the Kayak and help keep each other up. My arm
strength Gone. My husband kayaks over in his 2 seater sea kayak
and says, "Michelle I need your help. Climb into my kayak. I need help
paddling. My arms are exhausted and I could use your help." I try to maneuver myself. I can't. I just can't. I think
about those swimmers and how badly they need our support out there. "I
can't Bill, I am spent. My strength is gone" I feel absolutely guilty and awful that I am
useless in the water. Bill asks me if I will be OK. "I'll be fine. Just go."
I continue to hang onto the other Kayaker's
arm, hoping and praying for my husband that he can do his job and not
worry about me. I am scared more than I have ever been for all those
swimmers. I see kayakers all over getting ssed out of their boats. I
asked the guy (Jon) if he would mind if I prayed. "please do..." "Dear
God, we, are scared. Please help those swimmers out there. and also us
and the other swim support - please bless us all with safety on this
crazy water. In Jesus name, amen." "amen." We decided to let the wind
push us back to land while hanging onto each other. It's a long way
back and we are both in the cold water for quite a while. "Jon" starts
heaving over onto my side of the kayak. His puke landing next to me in
the water. At first I am a little grossed out and then I laugh at the
odd humor of it all. I had been hoping to be hanging out in my
swimsuit and relaxing on my board by now. Instead I have Jon's puke
drifting around me in the water as we cling to each other for dear
life. I am actually laughing and telling Jon "let it out my friend" in a sing song voice. We are cold and exhausted and at the mercy of the wind and waves.
The air was
filled with the sound of Kayakers and lifeguards blowing
their whistles calling over help. NEVER have heard that many emergency
whistles being blown. Kayaks were being swamped by swimmers that were
panicking. One kayaker said her vessel had 10 swimmers hanging onto it
and she couldn't even paddle. She was blowing her whistle over and over
to try and get help when one swimmer panicked and tried to jump in her
kayak with her - capsizing the boat and endangering everyone's lives.
sometime hanging onto each other I finally feel like I have some
strength returning to me and I pull myself into the kayak. But the wind
starts tossing me and using my body like a sail. So I drop back into
the water realizing that we are safer if I stay low and out of the
wind. Jon is just trying not to puke again.
sure how much time passed before Jon and I drift into shore. I see several
big boats and loads of kayaks and paddleboards all lining the beach.
were not the only ones tossed. I am no longer embarrassed. I head to
the sheriff's trailer to get warmed up and out of my cold clothes.
Other boaters and kayakers are there sharing their stories. All of us
are looking at the water and nervous about those swimmers. We realize
that the majority of swim support is no longer on the water.
means that those 1700 swimmer (give or take) covering 2 miles of a tough
swim only have a few kayaks a few jet skis and a few boats. It's not
good and there is NOTHING those of us on shore can do. So we had a
prayer. There was a group of us in the trailer that decided to say a
prayer that there would be no loss of life - a real possibility in these
conditions. We asked God to watch over the swimmers for us since we no
There were tears shed by several swim support
volunteers whose hearts were still on the water. (I'll admit - I was
one of the tear shedders).
I looked around the crowd of
stranded swim support and we started sharing stories.
similar stories are shared. We are hanging out by the south beach ramp
and boats are bringing swimmers in by the dozens. I have never
witnessed anything like this before. The swimmers are waiting to get
on buses to take them back to the transition. I see the woman that held
onto my craft at the start. I go over and hug her. She gives me a big
smile "I guess I wasn't ready for this after all." I point to the crowd
and say "me too!" we laugh a little together. Then I overhear some
athletes say "THEY SHOULD CANCEL THIS! THIS IS AWFUL! NO ONE CAN SWIM
IN THIS!" He's angry and yelling. So many athletes are being hauled
away in buses - This has never happened. 400 athletes are pulled from
the water - some of their own choice and some had no choice but were
asked to get out. Some are angry, some are grateful. Some are just too
exhausted to feel anything for now.
So many different
emotions from all the athletes. again the words of the announcer at the
start come to mind. "remember the only thing you have any control over
today is your attitude." So true.
I look for my
husband among the stranded paddlers, I can't find him anywhere. I see
really experienced kayakers that have been tumbled to shore. But I
don't see Bill anywhere or his kayak. I realize my husband is one of a
handful of kayaks left on the water. I know his physical strength and
his determined spirit is keeping him out there - not letting the wind
I workout hard every day between bootcamp, weights, running and teaching fitness classes sometimes 4 in a day. I have strength and stamina. I
am no wimp. But I am embarrassed
that I couldn't do what I said I could do. I am disappointed in myself
for not doing what I said I would do. I feel like I let people
down that were counting on me to do what I said I could do.
wonder if this is a little of what a Disqualified Ironman athlete feels?
see 3 paddlers coming in - Walt a Professional boater/kayaker, Mike
Caifa the leader of the whole Kayak support crew and amazing kayaking
professional with loads of experience on the water, and then I see
Bill. I run to him and hug and kiss him. I am impressed. Out of 60
kayakers and paddlers I saw only 3 return safely to shore in their kayak
after the race was over. I find out later that 5 Kayakers of the 60 on the water were able to paddle through that wind storm and stay with those swimmers - Those paddlers are IRONMEN!
Bill share his story with me: He is a strong kayaker and a powerful man that loves to outdo the next guy in
push up and pull up contests. On a normal Friday and Saturday afternoon you will find Bill paddling hard on this same water, testing his skill in speed as tries to beat his previous time circling the entire lake twice a week as a minimum. He is used to a good hard paddling event. But the exhaustion of the day and pushing against this storm was too
much. After struggling with all his strength against that wind he came over to me and Ken holding onto that kayak in the water and asked me to climb in and help him out but I couldn't. After I told him to go do his job, he paddled back into that wind to do whatever he could. He remembered a story in the Scriptures that talked about a prophet of God that prayed for strength and was given the strength he needed. So Bill prayed out loud to his Father in Heaven asking to be given strength knowing that he would be given what he was needed. With his Heavenly Father's help he was able to push against that wind in his monstrous Kayak while about 50 other Kayakers couldn't, some with many more years of experience on white water.
Approximately 1700 swimmers
hit the water, 400 were pulled and 1300 made it around and swam the
entire 2 miles in rough water. wow!
There were hundreds of prayers given that day.
I have since heard that it was a miracle no one died in that
water. That is true. God watched over us and protected us that day. BUT we also had some GREAT people working that risked their lives and did all they could to tow people out of the water that needed rescue. Many of those GREAT people humbled themselves enough to ask for God to assist them and the others on the water. Many boaters, divers and lifeguards did an amazing job pulling out a RECORD number of people in a tough windstorm I believe they/we did it with God's help - whether or not they all know it.
a Few days after the event another female kayaker and good friend (another Michelle) and I shared some time together to clear the guilt we felt for not being on that water til the end. As we talked things through we realized that between the 2 of us we had saved a minimum of 10 lives. I needed to remember that so that I no longer felt guilty for not being able to stay on my board and stay out there with everyone in need.
So the question:
Why didn't they cancel the swim portion of the Ironman?
This is the freaking
Ironman. Many of these athletes have traveled the globe to test their
skill. Many are used to swimming in the ocean and have trained in
difficult waters. Over 1000
swimmers made it through that swim. What do you tell those people that accomplished
this. Plus - how do you just cancel after the swim has started without having more chaos? The weather was great when we started. The swimmers are in the water and the support on top of the water in the way of the wind is having more difficulty than the swimmers are. If you cancel the swim - you still have swimmers out
there bobbing up and down waiting for rescue with very little support and they all have to make it back. If they
can swim it- they should swim it!
I hate swimming.
But I plan on open water swimming more this year
and practicing pulling myself up in the water.
It scares the poop out of me. (poop is Utah/Mormon slang for other words I could use there.)
Would I do it again? Absolutely!
After the swim....
Bill and I went
home and took a LOOOOOONG nap. Then we prepped for a night at running
aid station number one - next to the finish line. we gathered up the
kids, packed some food, blankets and water and headed out the door for
our final round of Ironman volunteering. I've never done this with all 5
of my kids. We are signed up for 6-midnight. Let's see if this works.
I love the excitement! I see familiar faces from the water and found
out that the Ironman officials allowed the hundreds pulled from the
water to continue the race without their race chips. They will be able
to cross the finish line but will not qualify for any awards. I thought
that was cool.
LOL! I love that he was inspired by these
athletes to want to cross a finish line. So we start again. I grab his
hand and we run alongside another Ironman athlete that laughs as he
says "I just got beat by a kid and his mom" he was smiling, we were
smiling. We ran as close as we could to the finish line before we
swerved off to the side and went to the stands to watch the other
runners come in. It was awesome! All that cheering, all that emotion,
all that relief and sweat and tears and laughter. Man, I love this
stuff. I think I am a junkie.
Ferrell says "MOM, IT'S TOO LOUD!
LET'S GO BACK!"
Throughout the run
portion I have people telling me "Hi - wow, your everywhere." Bill
comes up to me and and says he almost gave a woman a pat on the butt til
he realized it wasn't me. People all over the place I have never met
are saying HI like I should know them. apparently there is another 30
something woman out there with bleached blonde hair and a pink faux
hawk, wearing silver earrings, no make-up, and athletic build. her name
is Jamie. we find each other. I have a new facebook Buddy. I
recognize her from the running circuit as a woman that has kicked my
butt in another race at some point. and I remember thinking I liked her
hair. But it wasn't pink then.
friend running the Ironman stops by the aid station for some chicken
broth and coke or something - Ben Ford. We start talking about the
swim portion. He wonders what the big deal was. he was just fine.
Sure it was tough but not that bad and he did just fine and finished
strong in the water.
Another runner comes by -I don't
know him but he recognizes me from swim support and thanks me for being
on the water that morning. I walk with him a little way and we talk
about the craziness of the water. He tells me someone died. I feel sick
to my stomache. I am not surprised if that happened but I am angry
that I couldn't have stopped that. I tell my husband and he calls Mike
Caifa and verifies that that was actually just a rumor. All the
athletes were accounted for. some were missing for a while - just
didn't check in when pulled from the water. But they tracked everyone
down and there were No lives lost on the water. I count it as a miracle
and the sickness in my stomache goes away. I wish I could run after
the other athlete and tell him. But He is long gone by then.
14 year old son is all smiles as he works next to a cute girl handing
My buddies show up with DRUMS! YAY!
African drumming starts going and I can't sit still. the party get
started again. The sun is down, the air is cooling and runners are
exhausted. then they hear the drum the Sanderson's brought and they
start dancing past our aid station. I dance with a few of them. It's a
- the last runner goes by but they have another 3 miles to go to the
finish. we are done. I have kids asleep on the ground with pillows and
get home after midnight. What an amazing party. I may not be one of
the elite athletes doing the race. But I most certainly enjoyed the day
and am physically and emotionally exhausted when it it all over. Today
(Sunday) the day after - I can hardly talk and my elbow and legs are
very sore. But I am inspired, excited and motivated by the skill and
determination I saw during Ironman. What a day!