Before Race As I’m writing this report and thoughts on my IM race this year, I’m realizing it has to begin three weeks before the race. I was SO excited that I had finished my last long ride/run combination having driven to Madison for the VQ ride on Saturday. Then, I got up the next day and ran ten miles! I thought, “Whew, the long stuff is done!” It’s not that you don’t still have difficult workouts to do, but it’s a HUGE accomplishment and feels so good to have that last long six-hour workout out of the way. I looked forward to my Monday off and getting into my taper. I felt strong (as strong as you can feel in the last weeks of IM training), but I had been here before and knew whatever power I lacked on my last ride/run would come back to me by race day. However, there was a new, unanticipated wrench about to be thrown into my training. Monday I had a great day off, spent with family and relaxing.
The Olympics had just started and I was addicted to watching the many sports that were being broadcasted. Monday night, I fell asleep on the couch watching all of the USA’s greatest athletes perform. I woke up at around 2am and started to get up to go to bed but didn’t realize, until it was too late, that my entire right leg had fallen asleep from the way I had been laying on it on the couch. Down I went with a horrifying and suspicious “pop” as I fell over my right ankle. The first sensation was not pain, but overwhelming horror: “what about my run at IM in three weeks?” Immediately, without any further thoughts, I hobbled to the freezer, placed a large ice bag on my ankle and began to sob. I just couldn’t believe it. My coach was VERY encouraging and told me that all the work had been done and even if I didn’t run a step till race day I would be fine. I took that in and kept remembering Chrissie Wellington’s crash ten days before winning the IM World Championships last year. This setback was just that: just a setback. It changed my plan for sure, but I always have felt like things happen for a reason. Even if we can’t figure out what that reason is, there is a reason.
After a few days, I could ride. In fact, even though my ankle felt sore, it was actually less swollen after riding. I tried to take that as a good sign. Swimming was difficult–it’s amazing how much you have to point your toes and that movement was the most painful. Anyway, I chose to take it one day at a time and do what felt ok, but avoid things that were too painful. After a week and a half or so, I finally went for a longer run. I started crying afterward. Not because my ankle wasn’t painful during the run, but because the pain wasn’t so overwhelming and seemed no worse afterward. I had the ankle checked out and was told that if I could get through the discomfort, I wouldn’t be doing any damage. Perfect! I could fight through some pain knowing no long term damage would be done…BRING ON THE RACE! [That was a very LONG introduction to this IM experience, but my ankle was such a big part of my thoughts before the race that an explanation needed to be given.]
Arriving in Tremblant. I arrived in Tremblant (Quebec) on Thursday with my family. I have always liked having people around before the race, it helps distract and calm me and keeps me from being too worked up about the day to come. It’s such a beautiful location, Tremblant, and I felt very blessed to have the chance to race there. I got up early on Friday to work out before checking in. I was a little paranoid about the water temperature having gone to a training camp there in June with pretty cool water, so I was pleasantly surprised when I put my foot in and it felt nice...YEAH, something I could cross off my list of worries. I swam about 45 minutes and was amazed by the chop on the way back in (so, cross one thing off the worry list, but add something else). I didn’t remember any chop in June. What’s up with that? I hate chop! Waves of the ocean I can take. Chop just seems so much more difficult. I tried to put it out of my mind and say that the wind could be totally different on race day, so no worries. After my swim, I went for about an hour bike ride which was great. I tried to keep my power pretty easy, but I kept wanting to see how it felt to be at race-pace power. I avoided that urge and had a nice, pleasant ride. I then, picked up my packet and walked around the expo for a time trying to figure out the transition in and out as it wasn’t well marked. I was having a pain in my back so went to the ART guys at the expo. They did some work on my hip flexors and I felt better afterward, hoping it would last through the race. The rest of the day was spent getting my stuff laid out for my transition bags and relaxing until the banquet that night. I always love going to the banquets even though they take longer than I think they should, wanting just to go, eat, get course updates and get back to my room to relax. I tend to look around the room wondering who’s in my age group and how fast they are. It’s a constant battle not to compare yourself to those around you. We all do that, right? Since this was the inaugural race, there was a lot of thanking and acknowledging--in English and French, so it was a pretty long evening. Mike Reilly was there, which was amazing, and even one of the original participants from the first IM in 1978! I’ll admit though, I was glad when it was done and I could go back to my room.
Saturday, I woke up and did my swim/bike/run combo early. The moment of truth came during the run: ankle was feeling ok, even though it had seemed more swollen and stiff (not exactly painful) over the last few days. Running seemed ok, but in the back of my mind I still worried about it not holding up through the entire 26.2 miles the next day. I tried to push that out of my mind. I also kept worrying about a little tickle in my nose and throat. Was I getting sick? Oh no, not again! That had something to do with my poor IM performance last year. I was in such good shape last year, but the race did not go as planned. Would that happen again? Everyone seemed to have such confidence that I could have a good race, but I had my doubts, and I didn’t want to let anyone down, especially myself! I just continued through my pre-race day checklist, dropping off my bike around 2pm, got my bags in transition and waited in line for about 45 minutes to rack my bike. My bike position wasn’t bad--away from the transition tent, but close to bike out...NICE! I took a picture of my bike and said to myself, “I’m ready. Let’s do this!” I went back to my room, finished laying out everything for the next day, ate salmon, potatoes and veggies, sipped on coconut water, set my alarm for 4:30am and tried to sleep around 9 or 10pm.
Race Day. Sleep was not my friend the night before the race. Typically, I wake up multiple times during the night, but this felt like I hardly slept at all. My mind raced with all kinds of thoughts and what-ifs that I had a hard time pushing out. I just wanted to get started to quiet my mind. I was relieved when my alarm went off at 4:30 and I could get up. Amazingly, once I started getting dressed and moving through my morning, I started to feel very calm. I think I was glad to be moving and starting. My husband, uncle and son all came down to transition with me. It was a cool morning which I wasn’t sure I was happy about. It’s great for running, but not so wonderful for biking. I had arm warmers and a jacket, but not sure how cold I would feel coming out of the water. I got body-marked and looked at the finish line thinking, “Before you know it, you’ll be coming across there and the day will be behind you.” I put all my nutrition on my bike and added my watch to my run transition bag. By this time, it was only 6:10am and with our hotel so close, I decided to return to drop stuff off and then walk the half-mile to the swim start. We left our room about 6:30 and I was one of the last ones arriving, making me feel a little nervous, but oddly calm as well. We all funneled into a big starting area on the beach (my first beach start) and I found a place in the second or third line on the left (buoys on the right). It didn’t look too overcrowded as I waited for the gun. Here we go!
Swim “BOOM!” The cannon fired and off we all went into the water. There’s nothing much to say about the start except that it was a typical IM mass start: chaos! I always just try to keep moving forward and away from flailing arms and legs. Of course, you get hit, kicked and bumped, but that’s the name of the game. Because I’m not a terribly aggressive swimmer, I just try to keep moving forward until I can identify some open water and move toward it. I was somewhat paranoid about my ankle getting knocked or kicked in a way that would twist it again, so I actually wore a brace in the water. I’m not sure that it would have done anything, but mentally it helped. That said, I don’t remember even being aware of my ankle the whole swim, so it was probably only helpful for my mental state before starting. What I do remember is how comfortable I felt the whole time. I got a position within the first 200 yards or so that was close enough to the buoy line that it seemed open and comfortable. I was swimming pretty straight, which is always a struggle for me. I could feel someone drafting off me. This annoys me a little because I would love to be able to do that as well, but have never been able to figure out how to get on someone and stay there. Before I knew it, we were at the turn-around point. While that first half seemed to go pretty fast, the second half took forever. I wasn’t swimming as straight and was drifting too far left. I tried once to get on someone to draft and got clocked in the face...OUCH! (No more of that for this swim!) The swim-out point just never seemed to come. I kept thinking it was a much slower swim than I’d had in the past, but I’d make it up on the bike and run. I finally reached the swim-out...wow, that took a long time! I looked down at my watch to see 1:08-something...YEAH! That was my fastest swim yet in a mass start! Ok, now it’s on to the events I feel more confident in.
T1 Out of the water, I immediately looked for the wetsuit strippers. This was another place I had worried that my ankle would be jerked and hurt again, but don’t remember even feeling it. Next thing I know, I’m running along a very narrow path of carpet for about 1/4 mile to the transition area. Now, this being my fourth IM, I wasn’t particularly worried about transitions. In all my previous races, the volunteers were right on top of us and helped out in all aspects. So, in this race, when no one called out my number for my bag or tried to help me get it, I wasn’t really put off that much. However, when I walked through the door of the girls’ changing tent and no one came up to dump my bag and help me get everything on, I’ll admit I was a little rattled. It just was unexpected. Not wanting to take extra time, I dumped my own bag and starting getting everything together. The arm warmers took a minute to get over my wet skin. I put on my shoes, grabbed my helmet and glasses, the whole time thinking, “What do I do with my bag? Someone has always helped me and then taken the bag and put everything back. What do I do now?” So I asked whoever would answer while I was getting all my stuff around. Finally, someone said “just put your stuff in and leave it.” I did and rushed off, buckling my helmet while fighting the crowds to my bike. As I’m fighting it off the rack, I heard someone yelling, “Madame, Madame.” I do nothing, thinking she can’t be talking to me. But then she gets up close and says, “Madame, your race belt!” I looked down and thought “CRAP!” (actually I thought something worse, but don’t want to put that kind of language into this report). I forgot to put on my race belt in my small panic mode at not having help in transition. Now I was in MAJOR panic mode. She grabbed my bike and I ran back to find my belt. I was like a salmon racing upstream with tons of people coming out of the tent. I tore into the changing area, saying “My bag! I need my bag to get my race belt!” A volunteer helped me look through all the piled bags and finally found it…the belt WASN’T IN THE BAG! More panic!!! I went to the row where I changed. There it was lying on the floor. It must have fallen out when I dumped everything, but I didn’t notice it under the bag. I grabbed it and ran back to my bike, cursing myself the whole way. “How much time did I lose? What if that cost me the race that I wanted?” I was SO MAD! [The funniest thing is the picture of me mounting my bike...my face! If anyone looked at me, they would have said, “Get out of the way! Something’s going to blow in that one!”]
Bike So I got on my bike, and passed about 20 people in the first 1/4 mile. I noticed I was probably doing 400 watts just with the nervous, negative energy of my disappointing T1. “Ok,” I finally told myself, “calm down and just ride the way you would normally ride. The rest of the day will take care of itself. All is not lost.” I paid attention to my power and stayed within my limits even on the climbs when I felt really good and wanted to punch it to make up time for the mistake. There were also a couple of girls I played some cat and mouse with. Every time they passed me, I thought, “I should be 3 or 4 minutes ahead of you.” That only happened in the first 30 to 60 minutes, because finally, I thought, “Stop it. Nothing can be done about the past. Just keep going and keep your mind on the moment at hand.” I focused on staying on task with nutrition strategies. I actually had a hard time getting down the solid food in the first hour. Too much extra excitement, maybe? I decided to let that go a bit and add more of the IMP in that hour, figuring that I would get hungry later (which did come to pass). I also remember feeling good in the first couple of hours (the wind hadn’t picked up yet), so if I was going 28 mph downhill, I chose to conserve energy rather than continue to push my power up. This tactic seemed to work for a while. Around the 50k mark (that was the other thing that threw me off--everything was in km), we went through a town that I didn’t ride on my camp days. I was told it was flat. That definitely wasn’t the case as there was a nice hill to climb going into town. Mentally that threw me for a bit of a loop, but again, I said to myself, “just stay in the moment. Everyone has to climb this same hill.” The last 15km or so of this course has the longest and steepest hills. You have to do them twice. I tried very hard my first time around not to think about the second time I would have to come through. The climbing in that section just seems to go on and on and on. It’s an out-and-back, so you can see who is ahead of you, but I couldn’t tell who was in my age group or even sometimes who was a girl for as fast as the athletes were going downhill while we were climbing. I was tremendously caught up with when I would go to the bathroom and how (on my bike or get off and use a port-a-potty?). I had to go starting at about 2 hours, but pushed it to the 3-hour mark when I finally spotted an unoccupied port-a-potty at a water stop. The water stop volunteers were very supportive and amazing! They had music and were dancing, yelling all kinds of incredibly encouraging things and just over- the-top helpful! During my second loop, I actually started to sing softly to myself, just to keep distracted from how much further it seemed to the end. I always tell myself, “well, this is the last time I have to do that hill,” during the second loop of a two-loop course. It seems to help me. At about 130km or so, I started to feel a pain in the front of my shin on the right side (same as my ankle which I hadn’t even thought about this whole time). I tried changing the way I was pedaling, thinking maybe I was pulling up too much or something. I tried rotating my ankle to stretch it out. I feared the large climbs to come...and what if I felt that on the run??? “STOP! Put it out of your mind and again take one moment at a time.” Which is exactly what I did. The second time climbing that 15km did give me a bit of pain in the shin, but I kept it in check by changing my stroke slightly and knowing there is relief in every downhill no matter how small. Finally, I came through the last of the course and turned into transition once again. Someone was there to meet me and grabbed my bike as I dismounted. I was rehearsing how I was going to take the bike back, when he said, “Ok, I have your bike. Go ahead.” Ahh, that’s right. They take the bikes back for us...YEAH! And I went running toward the changing tent again. T2 I grabbed my bag and this time expected no help, but someone did help me, running with me and asking what I needed from my bag. I put on my socks and shoes and took Ibuprofen to prophylactically treat any pain and swelling my ankle might develop during the run. This time the transition was much smoother with the assistance. I put on my fuel belt stocked with my gels, salt and two bottles of water, grabbed my visor and Garmin, turning it on as I was running out, and quickly stopped in the port-a-potty before heading out on the run.
Run My first thought on the run was that I had looked at my watch as I was running into transition and it said 7 hours exactly. Now, if I could only run a 4-hour marathon, I could come in around 11 hours which would be amazing for me and a PR for sure! I started running and saw my family right at the start of the run which was awesome and a big boost. I broke the run into four parts per loop. Run out to the dirt trail (about 5k), down the dirt trail to the turn around (another 5k), back along that same trail and then back into town where the halfway mark was, then repeat. One of the first things on this course at about 1/4 mile in was a climb up a pretty significant hill (about 1/4 mile long, pretty steep). I honestly don’t remember how I felt on that hill. I do remember that my legs had a comeback after and I kept thinking, “just keep it feeling easy.” From the bike, on that second climb up the hills, I wondered how I’d ever run a marathon. I’ve done this three times before, and I still think that every time. This time, however, I thought, “Running will feel easy after this because all you’ll need to move is yourself, not the bike as well.” That mental game was paying off right now. Once I reached the dirt road we ran for about 10k before heading back into town, I saw my husband, uncle and son. I finally got the nerve to ask what place I was in. I knew I wasn’t as close to the top in my age group as I wanted to be, but I was trying to qualify for Kona, and I knew that the only true assurance I had was to be 1st or 2nd. The answer--I didn’t want to hear--I was in 6th (actually I think I was 9th or so, but he didn’t want to tell me that). I was deflated. All the positive energy that I felt from the run seemed to just be sucked out. Again, an expletive left my mouth. My husband told me to “Go get ‘em! Run them down!” I thought, “How can I do that? I’m sure everyone is running well also.” I’d just run up on another competitor and this was when he said, “Hey, it’s VERY early in the race. You’ve got lots of miles left to make up time and a great pace going. Now go run them down, I don’t want to see you again!” For some reason, this encouragement really helped. I wish I knew the man’s name because his words really hit home. I pulled ahead of him and didn’t see him again, but his words kept echoing in my mind. Everything felt good for that first 6 to 7 miles. I passed a couple of girls in my age group in that 10k section. I thought I was in 4th at that point. I alternated water and IMP and did my gels at around mile 5, sipping on them from a flask, taking small amounts depending on how my stomach felt. I took my salt at around mile 4, 9, 14 and 19. I used the water in my fuel belt so that I didn’t need the water stops. This seems to work the best for me. On the way back, I start to feel weary. My “wall” in an IM marathon is always around mile 8ish. You’re not far enough along to say you’re almost done and your excitement for being off the bike has worn off. It’s a tough period for me. In the past, I’ve used mantras such as counting, figuring out my pace and time for the rest of the race, songs that I’ve repeated over and over, watching other competitors or just telling myself, “Soon this will be done and you’ll be so happy.” I went through a few minutes of each tactic during this point in the race, trying to figure which one was going to help the most. Then, another log was thrown onto the fire. The balls of my feet began to get that familiar warm feeling of blisters beginning. I thought, “you’re kidding me.” My feet didn’t even seem particularly wet as the temperature was relatively cool. I wasn’t even pouring water over my head. I couldn’t believe it. I even spent an extra few seconds in transition making sure that my socks were pulled completely up. I couldn’t believe it. I tried to ignore it, but after a while and stopping once and pulling the socks up again, I had to change my stride a bit to keep the pain at bay. It wasn’t horrible yet, but I still had quite a few miles left. Next thing I knew I was off the trail and headed back into town. I felt like I was really slowing down, but lots of people were saying, “great pace,” so I tried to borrow some extra energy from that. I saw my family again as I came back through the outskirts of town. I high-fived my kids and that really perked me up! Coming through town to go out on the second loop was amazing with the most crowd support I’ve ever seen in an IM race. I was constantly impressed with the amount of support that this race drew from the community, whether they had an athlete competing or not. It was great and VERY encouraging! By this time, my poor feet were screaming, “no more running on us,” which was disappointing since my legs were feeling ok…at least, as ok as they can for 15 miles into a marathon after a 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike. I tried to again use my tactic of saying that I only had to pass this point or do this hill one more time. I made bargains with myself that if I ran to the next water stop, I could stop and walk to get water (which I actually only did a couple of times because when I reached the stop, I would just make another bargain with myself). That seemed to work for me. I kept checking my watch and trying to predict what my finishing time could be if I maintained this pace or that pace till the end. I’m not usually so infatuated by math, but it’s a good distraction during an IM marathon. At about the 22- or 23-mile mark, I just sort of went numb. My legs were screaming, the blisters were in full mode (I feared looking at them after the race), I was having some other severe chaffing issues that I knew I would regret later, but I was on autopilot. I tried to stay in a state of feeling the pain, but not reacting to or caring about it. “Just keep moving,” I thought to myself. “You’re almost done. Three miles is nothing.” At the bottom of the last little climb before going into town and toward the finish, I saw my husband, uncle and son again. I was overwhelmed as I always seem to be at the finish of an IM. Just one more smallish hill (seemed huge at the time), then through town and on to the finish. I felt overcome with joy and pride as I ran through town for the last time. I wasn’t even sure what my place was at that point, and I didn’t really care because I had done the absolute best that I could for that day. I could hear people on the sidelines say, “She’s crying,” and thought, “You better believe it!” I don’t know if the tears come from relief, happiness or pride. I suspect it’s a little of each. I crossed the finish line at 10:45:15, a PR for me by about 37 minutes, but what I’m most proud of is the progression of the day and my ability to overcome the curves that everyone has during IM, because it’s such a long day. You have to take things that happen, let them go and continue to focus on the moment. Ironman teaches us so many things, not the least of which is to persevere when you’re sure you can’t. It’s very easy to keep going when everything is going well. It’s when things all seem to be falling apart that the true test comes in.
I’ve done poorly on that test many times before the experience and doing my homework finally paid off! Sprained ankles, missed race belts, painful shins and screaming blisters won’t get me to give in. What will the next IM try to throw at me? We’ll just have to wait and see.