June 8, 2002 Ironman Utah!

Bike Run Swim Total
Today 0 0 0 0
Total to Date 956 117 13.5 1086.5

distances in km.

It was insane.

How many times in your life have you actually feared for your life?

On Saturday morning, shortly after the cannon blew at 6:55 AM, I was not so subtly reminded of a dream that I had about six months ago. Someone on a sea-doo was pulling me from a lake. I had drowned. That dream has haunted me ever since.

On Ironman morning as I battled 6-foot swells in Utah Lake, swallowing lung sized gulps of dark brown Utah Lake water, I feared that perhaps that dream just might become reality.

Unfortunately it WAS reality for fellow Ironman swimmer John Boland from Redondo Beach, California who lost his life in Utah Lake that day. The only swimming fatality in the history of Ironman happened in that Lake that day probably no more than a stone's throw away from me.

It was a horror story I shared with about 1400 other swimmers that morning, and if you think I'm exaggerating, find another Ironman competitor or spectator and ask them what happened that morning. Amazingly I have spoken with dozens of fellow survivors since then and we all share almost the exact same story.

Here is my story:

I awoke at 4:00 AM after a restful sleep - a bit odd because most triathletes fail to sleep well the night before Ironman, but I always sleep well.

After a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, and a kiss goodbye from sleepy Helen, I headed down to the hotel lobby to catch the bus to the BYU campus to hop aboard another bus that would take me to Utah Lake Park where the swim start was scheduled to take place at 7:00 AM sharp.

It was a warm morning, and very calm. I suspected that the weather forecast for the day (windy and cool) was wrong.

I immediately headed to the bike transition area when the bus arrived at the park. As I had suspected, my new tubular tires were almost flat. After a brief 5-minute wait in the tire pump line, I headed out to the swim start area confident now that my new wheels were at full racing speed pressure.

I sat on the rocks by the waters edge enjoying the gentle breeze and contemplated some advice my coach Steve offered me once:

"In preparing for Ironman, the things that you worry about are almost never a concern. It's the things you don't even think about that will most likely become problems for you".

I was worried about the mass swim start in the dark, murky water. How long would I be bashed about? Will I lose my goggles? How can I spot other swimmers under the muddy water? - I couldn't even see my hand in front of my face during yesterday's practice swim!

At 6:30 I changed into my wetsuit, de-fogged my goggles and went to look for my buddy Greg Bradley who was nervous about his first Ironman.

At 6:40 we were told to enter the water for the deep-water start. A deep-water start is where swimmers wade out to open water some distance from the dock and tred water awaiting the start cannon. I remember being a bit concerned as the waves crashing up onto the dock were soaking me as I walked toward the edge of the dock.

As Greg and I bobbed up and down in the swells I was thinking that something just doesn't seem right here - I was having difficulty relaxing enough to empty my bursting bladder, and I could tell that Greg was starting to freak a bit.

Then I looked out to the large inflatable buoys that were to be our course markers and noticed something that caused me even more concern - an area far off toward the middle of the lake looked like a distant sand storm blowing in. I pointed it out to Greg and said: "Hey - that looks pretty scary". He just shrugged his shoulders and ducked under a large wave coming from behind.

Unknown to me at the time, Ironman pro and eventual winner, Tony DeBoom, for the first time in his career, stood up, took his goggles off and started yelling for everyone to stop and not swim.

So - when the cannon blew early at 6:55, (due to the noise of the wind and waves, many of us never actually heard the cannon) like the cattle that we humans can be sometimes, and against everyone's better judgment, we proceeded to plow forth into the cresting waves toward the first buoy a bit less than a kilometer away.

It was awful almost immediately and proceeded to get much worse. I got bashed around by advancing waves, inhaled and choked on water as my breathing frequency inconveniently intermeshed with incoming crests and strained to keep my head above water so I could watch out for the next Greg smashing water wall. I started to breaststroke so I could dive into and through each wave. After struggling for what seemed like 45 minutes, I finally reached the first mini-van sized orange buoy. It was then that things got real freaky.

Soon after passing the first marker, I realized that I did not really know where I was going. I could not see the next buoy because the wind had blown it away. I did not know that at the time, and thought that the swells were hiding it. Looking back, the buoy I had just passed was also gone. And also gone was the shore that I can come from, as well as any kind of marker in front of me to swim to. And where were the support boats? I found out later that many of the small kayaks and canoes that patrolled the swim course perimeter had capsized and the unfortunate occupants of which had to be rescued. The few boats that remained returned to shore except for one large search and rescue boat that was far off in the distance in front of me. So - like everyone around me at the time - I swam toward that thinking that the next orange buoy was hiding around there somewhere.

With the only visible marker in sight, we continued to flail about and plow forth like the brave and fearless Ironmen that many of us had hoped to become that day. I started to feel sick and I wasn't sure if it was due to swallowing so much water or seasickness. Attempts to calm down and relax were met with more anxiety as conditions worsened resulting in even larger waves engulfing me.

I remember thinking that someone might die out in this mess today (an unfortunate prophetic thought). In fact, at that point I was regretting even starting the swim. It was a fight or flight situation for me. Do I make the most of the distance I had accomplished so far and continue toward the boat where I thought the turn around Buoy was, or do I turn around and go back? Certainly going back would be easier, as I would be riding the waves and current (or so I thought…). So I did what everyone around me was doing - continue to swim forward.

And everyone else seemed to be just as confused as I was - during wave troughs we would poke our heads up like a bunch of wet gophers, cough and spit a few times then someone would scream "Where the F%$# are the buoys? Does anyone know where we are going? What the hell is happening here?"

We had no idea. The swim had been cancelled minutes after the start cannon blew. Swimmers were being rescued by the search and rescue boats, scuba divers were throwing out life preservers and swimmers were being told by megaphone from hovering helicopters to turn back. Over the howl of the wind and crashing of the waves, we heard none of this.

I talked to survivors later who said that at times they were TOTALLY lost - could not see land, boats, or any other swimmers - anywhere. Nothing to guide them but the random movement of the helicopter way off in the distance, the general direction of the waves, and the morning sun. Scary. I also heard about people who swam through pools of vomit from fellow seasick swimmers. And groups of swimmers just floating in the water screaming and yelling for help.

Finally a green cap appeared from in front of me and shouted: "Turn back - the swim is canceled!" So I happily complied and headed back the direction I thought shore was, navigating only by following the direction of the waves. Of course, we started to collide with swimmers who were behind us still blindly pushing forward toward the boat.

My feeling of slight relief that I was now riding WITH the waves was soon replaced with a growing concern about my rate of progress back to land. There was another boat way off in the distance that we were using to sight by, but it wasn't getting any closer. I started to pull harder and harder, but with each wave that shoved me forward, I could feel a strong undertow pulling back at my feet and ankles.

About 20 minutes later I was exhausted! I still could not see any land and the boat was still a fair distance away. Then someone yelled: "Turn around and swim to the rocks!" I turned around and magically there appeared land! The rocky shore was covered with people frantically waving their arms and hundreds of little green caps climbing the rocks to safety of hard ground. We had been blown and pushed around a finger of land that jutted out into the lake - not the same finger that we launched from, and not even the finger next to it, but 3 fingers away!!! I still can't figure out how that strip of land got behind me, or how we ended up so far away from our start point. I had been in the water for just over an hour, but it felt like 2 hours!

Thank god! Back on sweet ground! Dazed, tired and confused, hundreds of frazzled swimmers climbed up the rocky shore and made our way to a road where we piled into trucks who delivered us to teary eyed, but relieved friends and family members.

The scene was like a hijacked airliner returning it's stressed passengers to the embraces of loved ones. Lots of crying and hugging. I searched the waiting crowd for my family and ran to my hugs.

We were all corralled into the bike transition pen and made to step over the timing maps to ensure that everyone was accounted for. In an attempt to salvage the remaining race, organizers decided to cut the bike and run in half. We had come to do an Ironman and ended up doing a half Ironman-length duathlon. Nobody was happy.

I enjoyed the remainder of the day, and I suppose I did well enough - even surpassing some of my expectations. But it didn't really matter - I didn't get my picture taken in front of the American flag with my Ironman medal, I didn't join in the closing festivities, and I forgot to pick up my finisher's tee shirt.

As time dims the drama of that morning, the thought of what John Boland was dealing with as he struggled to hang onto his life haunts me more and more. He and I and about 1800 other athletes I feel very close to now, shared the same dream that day. For some of us, the dream of becoming an Ironman. For others - an Ironman for the 2nd, 3rd or even 30th time. To battle nature. To battle ourselves.

Nature won that day, and I consider myself very fortunate to be able to tell the story.

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Following are some quotes about the event from a couple of local newspapers:

"Jenny Tobin, who won the woman's race, said she crawled out of the water onto the rocky shore when she realized what was happening. "The water was rough at the start, then it got rougher," Tonin said. "I went around the first buoy and felt like I was by myself. Finally, I stopped by one of the kayaks and asked them where land was. It's the worst swim experience I've ever had".

Darnell Dickson - The Daily Herald, Provo

With course-marking buoys blown away by the wind, the field quickly fanned out as athletes battled swells of at least 3 feet while trying to figure out which direction to head. Others didn't start or turned back immediately.

"It was unbelievable," said winner DeBoom. "I've never experienced anything like that."

"It was scary," echoed Tim Luchinsk, who finished 54 seconds behind DeBoom. "The water was so stirred up that it would wash over you and it'd go dark. I looked around once and I couldn't see another swimmer".

"It was like swimming in the white water," said Sergio Correa of San Diego, who finished 32nd. "You went airborne. It was really scary."

The Salt Lake Tribune

Photos from Ironman Utah and the swim are on this page:

Ironman Utah Photos