Cycle: A Spectators' Guide to Ironman Arizona
The average Ironman effort by the masochistic athletes who undertake this heroic endeavor takes about 11 to 12 hours - a demanding exhibition of endurance by any friend or family member out on the side of the course cheering their athlete on.
Fortunately for those of us who spectate instead of participate, the main hub of the Ironman Arizona course is set around Tempe Town Lake and within walking or biking distance from five prime viewing spots as well as restaurants and bars to keep our whistles whet for when our loved ones pass by on their swim/ride/run one more time.
The five prime spots to watch the Ironman Arizona race are: 1) Mill Avenue Bridge; 2) Hayden Flour Mill; 3) Tempe Center for the Arts; 4) Lake View Drive in Papago Park; 5) The Finish Line on Rio Salado.
This eighth edition of the grueling Ironman Arizona kicks off Sunday, Nov. 18 at 6:45 a.m., sending the field of more than 2,700 athletes on their 2.4 mile swim/112 mile bike/26.2 mile run journey. While the course extends as far northeast as Fountain Hills, the predominance of the course move in and around Tempe Town Lake with the transition center right in Tempe Beach Park.
For those of you in it for the long haul to root your athlete on, be prepared for quick glimpses of your star buffered by long bouts of waiting for that next time around. Here are five optimum spots to plan on setting up camp at with some nearby break locations to help the day pass.
1. Mill Ave. Bridge
There is no better spot to catch the mass start than right over the water on the east side of Mill Avenue Bridge. The swimmers start just in front and swim east towards the rising sun before cutting around the buoy to head to Beach Park and grab their bikes.
The bridge can crowd up and the air will be quite chilly with temps expected in the high 50's - just be glad you're not in the water. Once the guppies make landfall and push off on their rigs, head down Mill to grab breakfast at Ncounter. Their doors open at 7 a.m. but move fast as the tables fill quicker than your competitor's pedaling cadence.
photo courtesy of Aaron Zuzack
2. Hayden Flour Mill
The bike leg consists of three laps cutting through the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation en route to the turnaround at Shea Boulevard and the Beeline Highway. The course sends them back east at the Mill Avenue/Rio Salado Parkway intersection, meaning the best spot to see a cyclist come in and head back out is right in front of the historic Hayden Four Mill.
For most cyclists, each lap should take around two to two and a half hours. This will be the time you will thank yourself for remembering that hat and sunscreen, but in case they were left at home, check out TriSports, the brand new triathlon-specific store one block south of Rio Salado, just behind Monti's La Casa Vieja, or wander further down Mill to Urban Outfitters.
Runners pass the reflective pool at Tempe Center for the Arts.
3. Tempe Center for the Arts
With the end now in sight, cyclists transition into runners and begin three semi-convoluted loops around Tempe Town Lake, pushing west to the Priest Drive bridge and east to the Scottsdale Road bridge. Instead of bouncing from one end to the other or getting sucked in the vortex of the Ironman transition and expo zone, head a few hundred yards west to the Tempe Center for the Arts and watch the jog past while enjoying the cool afternoon shade of the center and relaxing sounds of the waterfalls.
The best part about this spot is that with the new pedestrian bridge you can see runners pass by on the south side, cross over and catch them head back on the north side. Then fill the time as they run the east end by perusing the various sculptures and exhibits inside and around the center or relaxing on the grassy hillsides.
4. Lake View Drive in Papago Park
As the daylight begins to wane and the runners are moving on fumes, help them get that last wind while also taking in one of the best sunset views in the Valley. Cross over the pedestrian bridge and head to Lake View Drive, a short, downhill road that cuts to the lake from Curry Road. The athlete's knees will be jello so cheers will be like miracles at that point.
This spot also sits up on a hill and looks down over Sky Harbor to downtown Phoenix and what promises to be another postcard perfect Arizona sunset. Just be sure to bring water as amenities on this side are, shall we say, limited.
5. The Finishing Straight on Rio Salado
You've endured a long, hard day out on the course, so why not celebrate your accomplishment along with the ones you've been encouraging. The final stop is the finish line on Rio Salado Parkway. This chute of people get packed fast but families move in and out as their loved ones cross the line and the MC proclaims to each finisher that they are an Ironman.
A good, less crowded spot to give one final yell to "SPRINT!" is on the slight uphill bend section of Rio Salado that runs parallel to the light rail track. Then slide up to the finish line and get ready for a salty, sweaty hug of congratulations. Once it's all said and done and if anyone has an ounce of moxie left, head down Mill for a post-race brew at The Handlebar. Or go home and collapse.
Best of luck to all Ironman Arizona racers this weekend, as well as all other cyclists pinning a number on their jersey for El Tour de Tucson down south.
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