When people ask, "Could you have gone any faster?" the answer is usually, "No, but I could have gone longer at the same pace." How long, though? That's something I've always been curious about. In Virtual Race Across the West, I finally got an answer to that question.
VRAW is a 950-mile course - the first 30% of Race Across America - and by far the longest event I've ever done. While I was in the shape of my life, I wasn't sure how my body would respond to the distance. The farthest I had ever gone was 400 miles at the Solitary Confinement Ride (see Going Looooong Part 1).
Though riding on the trainer is less interesting than outdoors, the fact that the race was virtual made it simpler. I had a table within arm's reach that had my food, water, anti-chafe cream, etc, so I could reach all of those things without getting off the bike. Distractions were minimized, and I could devote all my energy to finding out just how long I could keep pedaling.
The night before the race, I meal-prepped for the week. I've always been lucky to be able to eat real foods while biking and running. I made several containers of overnight oats, a bunch of sandwiches, and bought some burritos from Trader Joe's. Also Honey Stinger waffles, gels, Clif bars, bananas, and coconut water.
We started at 9am on Tuesday. Normally in a race, you want to go as fast as possible - even in an Ironman, you're racing for ten hours. But in the Solitary Confinement Ride, I'd done well by going as slowly as possible. Now I had to figure out how to balance those two things. I decided to err on the side of caution.
After stage 1, I looked at the leaderboard. I was 7th out of 12 women. Maybe it was okay to go a tiny bit faster. Over the course of the day, I gradually crept up from 7th into 2nd place among the women. I didn't really expect to stay there for the duration, but would hold it as long as I could.
Sleep was one of the big question marks in my race plan. It sounded like in ultracycling, sleeping 90 minutes per night was the thing to do, so I decided to try that. Another piece of advice I'd taken to heart was, "If you feel good, don't stop." In any endurance event, you go through high points and low points. I would wait until a low point, when I felt like I really needed a break, and sleep then.
This came around 3 in the morning. I got off the bike, and set the alarm. I was afraid that if I went upstairs to bed, I would get too comfortable and hit the snooze button, so I slept on a yoga mat on the basement floor, next to my bike. I went to sleep in 2nd, but Sabine "Bean" Bird, from Australia, had been chasing me all day, and I was concerned I might wake up in 3rd.
When the alarm went off, I groggily picked up my phone, and examined the leaderboard. I was still 2nd, but Bean was 2km behind me - when I'd gone to sleep, she'd been 30km back! My brain kicked into overdrive. If she hadn't passed me while I was sleeping, she sure wasn't going to pass me now! I sprinted upstairs, used the bathroom, snatched my breakfast out of the refrigerator, and jumped back on my bike. I began pedaling and eating my overnight oats with just a couple of minutes to spare.
Overall, day two went more smoothly than I had expected. My legs were somewhat tired, but they were on a plateau - not getting more tired. Joanna Sharpe, of New Zealand, had taken the lead in the women's race, right from the beginning, and there were times when I felt tempted to go after her, but held back.
We were 400 miles in - the farthest I'd ever ridden - but I wasn't even halfway there yet. That was a scary thought. As we got into the second night, the going got tougher. I was concerned about my knees. They were not happy about all the climbing we'd been doing.
Fortunately I was using my road bike - a beautiful new Bianchi Infinito - rather than my TT bike for this. I'd chosen it because my shoulders had given my trouble, being in the aerobars so long during the Solitary Confinement Ride. On the trainer, you don't have to cut through the wind, so comfort is more important than aero. But it turned out to be an especially good decision, because the Infinito had a better selection of climbing gears. With the gearing on my TT bike, my knees would have been toast.
The course would normally go from Oceanside, California to Durango, Colorado, but the virtual race consisted of 83 stages on the Fulgaz App, which were all over the country. The Kona Ironman course, Pacific Coast Highway, a road to the Hoover Dam... and mountain after mountain after mountain.
Rather than battling the elements, we were enjoying the luxuries of life in the pain cave. No heat, cold, altitude, potholes, or crazy drivers. To make up for these shortcomings, the race organizers came up with the idea of adding extra elevation gain to the course. We had over 25 kilometers of elevation gain.
When I finished a stage, I would look to see what the next stage was: "Oh, 7 miles, that's not so bad... oooohhhh, 2000 ft of elevation gain - that's terrible!" For some reason we never got to go back down the mountains again. We would end the stage at the top, start the next stage, and it was another enormous mountain.
Day 3, things were getting hard. My left quad was not happy. My butt was not happy. It was getting a lot harder to walk up the stairs to the kitchen. Fortunately my roommate, Chante, was really helpful with refilling water bottles. I hoped my legs would make it the rest of the way.
I took my 90-minute sleep break a bit earlier this time. When I got back on the bike, my legs told me they had had enough. I tried to get them to come around.
Me: Come on, this is what you were born to do. Long distance is your thing!
Legs: Not this long!
Me: You always told me you could go forever, as long as the pace was slow.
Legs: Yeah, but you didn't tell us about all these mountains!
Indeed, there seemed no end to the mountains. Stages 60-67 were the most brutal part of the race, and my body was on the verge of giving out. Much of my left quad had locked up. Within a couple of hours, my left glute and left calf followed suit. I was doing more than half the work with my right leg, which meant my right knee was not happy. In order to unclip my left foot from the pedal, I had to pull my heel to the side using my hand. To mount and dismount, I used my arm to help lift my leg over the bike, to avoid full-blown cramping.
I had signed up for this race with the goal of finding out what my limits were. Now I was discovering the answer. In any other situation, I would have concluded that this was as far as I could go, and called it quits. But this was one of the toughest races out there, and I desperately wanted to stay in 2nd. The mountains had taken everything out of me, and I was running on fumes - but I had less than 100 miles to go, and it was mostly flat. Somehow, I was going to find a way to drag myself to the finish.
Those last 100 miles, I was walking a tightrope between finishing the race and avoiding injury. Early in the race, I had coasted every tiny downhill to save up little scraps of energy I might need later. I didn't know just how badly I would need them. Every pedal stroke hurt. Even on flats, I took a few pedal strokes at a time, and then coasted for as long as possible. I was monitoring the leaderboard. Bean was gaining on me, inevitably, but I had a couple of hours lead. I hoped it would be enough.
Finally, I reached the last stage. Even a 1 or 2% grade felt brutal at this point. We ended by going across the Golden Gate Bridge. It took great effort to do the first half of the bridge. At the centre point, it turned to downhill.
I realized, "That's it. I did it. I can coast from here." With that thought, I started crying. I don't usually get emotional, but I had never, ever worked that hard for anything.
When I reached the finish, I saved the ride, and collapsed on the basement floor. My phone rang. It was my parents. They had stayed up all night to virtually cheer for me. Part way through the night my dad had gotten on his own bike trainer, and announced that he was going to keep pedaling with me until I was done. For each of us, it had been our longest ride ever.
I had signed up for this race with the singular goal of finding out what I was capable of. Now I had an answer: 94 hours, 32 minutes. 950 miles. I don't think I could have made it to 960. It was also the best result I'd ever had at a major race: 2nd female out of 12, and 7th out of 82 including the men. In the process I had completely fried myself. My body would need some serious recovery time - I could barely walk the day after the race.
I'm taking the rest of June as an off season, and will start rebuilding mileage again in July. I am definitely interested to try more ultracycling races, but will have to put some thought into how to balance that with Ironman racing. I will likely go back to my plan of focusing on Ironman the next several years, and then doing more ultras once I get into my 40s. While I was absolutely thrilled with this result, I still have a lot to learn about the sport. The only ultras I have done are on the trainer. I don't know where to start in terms of getting a motorhome and support crew and racing across the country while navigating on unfamiliar roads. I'm toying with the idea of doing RAAM as part of a 4-person relay, since that would give me the opportunity to learn from more experienced racers.
Whatever happens next, this experience has changed my perception of what is possible. Things I've dreamed about, like swimming the English Channel, or doing 100-mile trail races, seem a tiny bit more possible than they did before. My legs still feel dead a week later, and it will be a process to rebuild. But I think that mentally, this will give me a boost when I go back to Ironman racing. Knowing I can go for 94 hours will give me a different perspective on a 10-hour Ironman race.
Of course, I couldn't do this by myself. Thank you to my roommate for cheering me on and refilling water bottles (and not complaining when I ate all her ice cream sandwiches during the race!) Thank you to my sponsors: Honey Stinger for the bars and waffles, and N+1 Cyclery and Bianchi for all your support leading into this. Swapping out my saddle, getting set up with the Fulgaz App, etc. I love the new Infinito; worked like a charm! Thank you to my parents for staying up all night, cheering me on, and sending me good vibes. And congratulations to the other finishers, especially Joanna Sharpe and Bean Bird. It was inspiring racing with you, and I look forward to racing together again sometime!
Throughout my life, there has been a clear pattern that the longer a race is, the better I do. I've always been curious about the limits of that. How far could I go if I tested my endurance in its purist form, without trying to test speed at the same time? Over the last few weeks, I've finally had the opportunity to find out.
Amid a myriad of race cancellations, I read about the Solitary Confinement Ride: a 40-minute loop on Zwift every hour for 12 or 24 hours. Starting at hour 25, anyone still going could continue into the Eliminator Round. No more 20-minute breaks. No getting off the bike for any reason. Just keep going until you can't go anymore, and the last one to quit gets the yellow jersey!
The idea intrigued me, and I immediately signed up for the Eliminator Challenge. During the first 24 hours, we would be going 300 miles. I had never ridden that far, but was in the shape of my life, since I had been doing Ironman training full time the past few months. Publically, I said I wanted to last an hour or two into the Eliminator Round. Privately, my stretch goal was to hit 400 miles, and maybe get the yellow jersey.
I had done my homework on the bike; now I did my homework on Strava, researching the competition. Most people's longest ride was around 110-150 miles. Except for someone named Chris Calimano - according to Strava, his longest ride was 766 miles! Two thoughts crossed my mind: "Crap, no yellow jersey for me" and "If I want to do really well, this is who I need to emulate."
When the event started, my focus was on conserving energy. We had to ride 12.4 miles each lap - but if we finished before 40 minutes, we had to keep riding until we got to the 40-minute mark. My plan was to ride at exactly the required speed, which felt unnaturally slow on such a pancake flat course. Most of the riders were going ahead, and doing extra distance each lap - did they know something I didn't? Out of 50+ riders, there were only a couple of people behind me. Then I realized one of those people was Calimano. Whew - I was doing the right thing after all.
As I settled in for the long haul, I tried to predict any problems I might have, and fix them before they appeared. Drink before you're thirsty, eat before you're hungry. Put on anti-chafe cream before you start chafing. We had to log in for each lap 5 minutes before the lap actually started. Early on, I realized that it made no sense to sit on the bike for those extra 5 minutes. The saddle was likely to become a limiting factor, and 5 × 24 was 2 hours of extra time sitting on it. I adopted the practice of lying on the floor watching the clock until 20 seconds before the lap started. It was all about saving energy, right?
Except for sprint stages. There were a number of laps where the fastest male/female on a certain segment would be awarded a green jersey. I knew it would be stupid to race all of them, and needed to choose my sprint carefully. I sat out the first few, but on lap 6, the 12-hour crew was showing signs of getting tired, so I went for it. It worked!! Now, I needed to not get greedy. One green jersey was enough, and it was time to go back to energy-conservation mode. No more match burning for me.
I was relieved to not be tired yet, but was worried about how I was going to feel pedaling through the night and into the next day. On the Zwift chat, Calimano commented he was going to be sleeping next to his bike starting at 9pm. I decided I'd better do that, too.
At 12 hours, most people finished and logged out, leaving only the 24-hour riders. The feel of the group changed. You know how, if you're out running on a 70-degree day in a residential neighborhood, and you see another runner, you might smile or wave. But if you're out running on a 10-degree day, in a blizzard, in the middle of nowhere, and you see another runner, you somehow feel a deeper connection. I felt that connection with the other riders.
A few weeks beforehand, I had read Hell on Two Wheels, by Amy Snyder. It's a book about superhumans. People who compete in Race Across America, riding their bikes across the country in only about ten days. As the clock ticked on into the wee hours of the morning, I realized this breed of superhumans was the same people I was riding with now. They casually talked about RAAM, and 500-mile qualifying races, and 60-hour training rides as if they were normal things. My legs still felt surprisingly good, and riding through the night felt somehow magical, in a way I hadn't expected. Maybe, just maybe, I could be superhuman, too.
Of course, we still had a long way to go, and a few issues to figure out. The number one question I got before the event, when I described the Eliminator Challenge to people, was "How are you going to pee?!" With 8 hours to go before the Eliminator, I still had not figured this out. Neither, apparently, had most of the guys. I was relieved when a few of them started brainstorming about it. I had thought I was the only one who waited until the last minute to figure out my strategy!
Towels? Soda bottles? Of course, it was complicated by the fact that I was a woman - everyone else going into the Eliminator Round had an anatomy that was slightly better designed for dealing with the issue. Bottles wouldn't work for me. Or, maybe they would...
I got creative. During one break, I found some scissors, and cut up some empty containers that had contained coconut water, making little cardboard cups. I experimented. I found that if I scooted up to the very front of the saddle, and had one hand on the elbow pad for my aerobars, taking much of my body weight, then I could use the other hand to stick a cardboard cup down my shorts. I quickly realized that it needed to be a precise height - so the bottom of the cup rested on the top tube of the bike, and I rested lightly on the top of the cup. During the next break I made more adjustments with scissors.
After several tries, I managed to successfully pee in the cup while pedaling. Though it only worked because the bike was attached securely to the trainer, and I did not have to balance!
Unfortunately, between eating & drinking, trying to get a little sleep, and figuring out how to pee, I forgot to do laundry until it was too late. I ran out of dry clothes to change into, and ended up starting the Eliminator round in wet, sweaty clothes. Hello, chafing!
The Eliminator Round started at 9am on Sunday - 24 hours in. No more breaks from here on out. My legs were doing much better than expected, but my shoulders were not appreciative of the amount of time I'd spent in the aerobars. I thought I'd figured out my peeing strategy, but had forgotten one factor: anyone still going at hour 25 had to set up a webcam. Sticking a cardboard cup down my shorts was all well and good if I was in the basement by myself, but it wasn't something I wanted to do on camera, with an internet audience. Back to the drawing board.
Of the 50+ riders who had started the event, 7 continued into the Eliminator Round. Technically, I could stop any time I wanted to. I had made a wide range of goals, not knowing what to expect. Some I had already achieved: by making it into the Eliminator Round at all, I was the top female! Other goals were not going to happen. Chris Calimano said he thought he could go 72 hours. I had gone into this with the assumption that he would take the yellow jersey, and I was being proven correct. At least I had won a green jersey back on Lap 6. I focused on my other two goals: finishing top 3, and hitting the 400-mile mark.
The group dwindled from seven, to six, to five, to four. One more and I'd be in the top three! My shoulders hurt. I kept sitting up to roll them out, which I should have started doing hours earlier. I needed to pee, and eventually did so in my shorts with a towel under me, hoping it wouldn't be noticeable on camera. By this point I had also developed some chafing, and it was not a good combination. I reminded myself that the other riders were probably having these issues too.
The four of us rode on. And on. Eventually, Cory Weibel pulled the plug. He was another very strong cyclist I'd had my eye on throughout the event. Now it was down to me, Chris, and a rider named Aurimas Sabulis. I didn't know anything about him, but he'd been patiently lurking in the back of the pack, conserving his energy, and showed no signs of getting tired.
When I hit 400, my legs said they could go a bit further, but were outvoted by my shoulders, bladder, and chafed skin. I called it a day. I had achieved almost every goal I'd set for myself. I was top female, top three overall, and had achieved my stretch goal in terms of mileage. I assumed there was no way I could last 72 hours with Chris. I case you were wondering, the yellow jersey went to none other than C. Calimano.
I went home and took a much-needed nap. I had done the ride at Cisco and Tara's house - my support crew from N+1 Cyclery. That way they could check on me regularly, fix any issues with my bike, and deal with setting up the webcam. They were super helpful, and it was amazing to have them there!
After recovering for a couple of days, I did something that had been on my mind the past few months, but had not dared to actually commit to: I signed up for VRAW. Virtual Race Across the West. A 950-mile race, covering the first 30% of the Race Across America Course. It was a stretch, but I still had unfinished business in terms of testing my endurance. In Part 2 of this blog post, read about my experience with VRAW!
Originally, this blog post was going to focus on my last couple of races in 2019, and my racing plans for 2020. It was going to be about putting the pieces together. In Cozumel, I had a particularly great swim. In Daytona, I had a great run. I needed to figure out how to have a great swim, and a great bike, and a great run all on the same day.
But we live in a different world than we did a few months ago. Races are cancelled. The whole world is in pieces that need to be put back together! It seems more relevant to write about that.
They say sports are a good metaphor for life. I remember a few years ago I broke my arm. My swim coach, Alex Snegour, gave me some books to read. He said, "You can't do physical training right now, so it's a good time to work on mental training." One common thread among everything was that people who keep a positive mindset are the ones who make the fastest recoveries.
I think that applies to the situation now as well. Strategies that help us get through a race, or an injury, can help us get through this pandemic. Think positive thoughts. Focus on things we can control, rather than panic about things we can't control. Break things down into bite size chunks.
We've all had our dark moments the last few weeks. I know I have. It's hard to stay motivated. You get into the best shape of your life... for nothing. You question what the purpose of training is, when so many people are getting sick and dying.
I've found that one of the best strategies for staying positive is... training! One one hand, it seems like a rather selfish pursuit, to spend so many hours focusing on it. On the other hand, the best thing most of us can do right now is to stay home. As endurance athletes, we are very, very lucky that much of our training can be done at home.
There will be races again. Someday. In the meantime, this whole situation puts everything in perspective, and makes us realize how fragile our existence really is. Everything can go wrong in a split second. As cyclists and triathletes, we've all experienced that.
A few weeks ago, I wiped out on my bike. Nothing major, just some road rash. But then I went home and read about another cyclist who had crashed and broken his collarbone. We all have a way of thinking things won't happen to us. But I finally got it through my head that it is better to ride inside, at least for now. The least we can do is to avoid taking risks and further overwhelming the medical system.
We are very lucky that cycling technology has evolved so far, in terms of making indoor training possible. Honestly, I've never been very good at technology, though Cisco at N+1 Cyclery was instrumental in not only getting me a smart trainer, but helping me get it set up and linking it to Zwift.
For those of you who are not familiar with Zwift, it is essentially a video game, where you can virtually race other cyclists on different courses around the world. Always the innovator in cycling technology, Bianchi is sponsoring a series of Zwift events, including the Giro Virtual, where people can virtually ride the best stages of the Giro d'Italia. These are wonderful opportunities for those of us whose life normally revolves around racing. And if it is frustrating to not be able to go to an actual race, we must only turn on the news to remember that these are first-world problems.
Like with training, there are no shortcuts in this pandemic, but there will eventually be a finish line. We just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and focusing on the next step.
I had never done two Ironmans with less than a month in between. For that matter, I had never done two Ironmans with less than six months in between. Going into Ironman Wisconsin, just three weeks after Mt Tremblant, I didn't know how my body would react.
Up to that point, I had always gone into races with a "finish at all cost" mentality. It's in my nature. I'm very stubborn, and in many aspects of life, that's a negative. My extreme stubbornness is something I've tried to tone down over the years. But when you're doing something as unreasonable as an Ironman, sometimes the more unreasonable parts of your personality are better equipped to deal.
On the way to Wisconsin, I fought mental battles with myself about what I would do if push came to shove. I was hoping to finish, but this was uncharted territory for me, and I also had several other races to take into account. With great mental effort, I convinced myself that if the situation called for it, I would be okay with a DNF.
Race day, the swim and the beginning of the bike went okay, and my legs seemed to be in decent shape despite their recent beating at Mt Tremblant. But about a third of the way along the bike course, there was a particularly bumpy set of railroad tracks, and I didn't realize how much they were sticking up until too late. WHAM!
Uh-oh... a few hundred yards later, I started feeling a bump-bump-bump. Pulling over to see which tire was flat, I discovered to my dismay that it was both of them! I only had one spare with me, but knew there were bike tech vehicles on the course somewhere. I figured I would go ahead and change one flat, and with any luck, bike tech would show up to help with the second one. I changed the first flat. I waited. I took the old tube off the second wheel, to expediate the process if bike tech showed up. I waited some more.
I started having flashbacks to those mental battles I'd had with myself in the car. I had told myself that if there came a point in the race where I had more to lose than to gain, I would drop out. Clearly that was the case here! I'd been sitting at the side of the road for more than fifteen minutes. I had zero chance of being on the podium. Therefore, I would be better off pulling the plug and focusing on my next few races.
I put the tube with the hole in it back on my wheel, put the wheel back on the bike, and started walking back towards the tracks, where there had been a group of volunteers and spectators. At this point, I was no longer looking for bike tech. I was looking for a ride back to transition.
I rounded the corner and - low and behold - there was the bike tech vehicle I'd been waiting for! The were helping another rider who'd gotten a flat on the same set of tracks. They had spare tubes. I could have changed my flat and continued the race, but I had already made up my mind, and it is really hard to un-make a decision like that.
I got a ride back to transition, with several other people who were dropping out. The first few hours, I was fine with the decision I'd made. My legs would be fresher for my next few races. Running a marathon would have worsened my plantar fasciatis. And even if I'd finished, I would never have been on the podium.
I had a seventeen hour drive back to Boston, which was plenty of time to do some soul searching. I realized I'd set myself up for failure before I'd even started. In any Ironman, there are going to be tough moments. Times when you want to quit. Giving yourself permission to quit, under any circumstances, is a slippery slope that is dangerous to go down.
I realized my decision had been largely motivated by fear. Fear of embarressing myself, and coming in last. That had happened in Boulder, after all. I had thought there were two people behind me, but they both dropped out of the race. In Mt Tremblant, I had thought there were five people behind me, but four of them dropped out.
I believe there are times when abandoning the race is the right thing to do. If you sustain an injury, or you are going to sustain an injury by continuing, it might be smart to pull the plug. This was not one of those times.
It took a while to process the fact that I had actually chosen to quit. Placing last in Boulder had been a sharp sting, but I'd gotten over it. This was like eating a bite of really spicy food - it didn't seem too bad at first, but once it set in, the burn lasted a lot longer.
Now that I'd learned the hard way, I made up my mind that I was never going to quit again, ever.
A few weeks later, I did the Cozumel 70.3 - that race that I'd been saving my legs for when I chose to drop out. The swim and bike went okay, but I really bonked on the run. It was not the race I hoped for, but I was proud of myself for the fact that not once did I consider dropping out.
After that came Waco. My swim split was not what I hoped for. My bike split was not what I hoped for. Everything was going wrong. There was a fire ants nest at my spot in transition, I lost one of my water bottles, and I crashed at the dismount line. During the second transition, I felt about as motivated as I'd felt sitting at the side of the road in Wisconsin, with my two flats. Somehow, about 3-4 miles into the run, I pulled myself together.
During the last ten miles, I ran from 11th place to 7th place, finishing in the top half for the first time since turning pro. Those ten miles are one of the highlights of my season. It is much, much harder to turn a bad day into a good day than to stay positive when everything is going right to begin with. In some ways, it felt like a do-over of Wisconsin. No matter how much your day sucks, keep going, because it ain't over til it's over.
In Part 4 of this blog, I'll talk about my last couple of races in 2019, and plans for 2020!
After my breakthrough at the Mt Tremblant 70.3, I resumed training with a newfound motivation. Maybe I could be a real pro after all!
I just needed to crank up the mileage. Real pros rode their bikes 300+ miles/week. I had never maintained a mileage higher than 220-230, but now I increased that dramatically.
Almost immediately, I started feeling improvements in my endurance. My times weren't changing very much, but what was changing was my recovery time. Even in their fatigued state, I could feel my legs building a durability they'd never had before. What could they do if they were fresh??
A few weeks later, I got the answer to this question. I was hoping for a podium finish at the Boston Triathlon. I had placed fourth on two occasions, but never top three. I really, really wanted a podium finish - but a win was too much to even dream about. I got out of the water first. I got off the bike first. I still wouldn't let myself dream about winning. About a mile from the finish, I started to finally believe it. Running down the finish chute and breaking the tape was a dream come true - though I was very aware that neither of the two most recent champions was racing. In my mind, the win comes with an asterisk, because I'm not sure I would have been able to pull it off if all the usual contenders had been there. Still, I will always have that victory - and it was a 6-minute PR, very much a performance I'm proud of!
After finishing and doing my first ever finish-line interview, I did the run course again - alongside my mom, who was racing her first olympic distance triathlon! After having some food and beer and going to the awards ceremony, I rode my bike to Gloucester (~50 mi), while my parents drove in the van. I had taken the previous week easy, and it was time to get back to high volume training!
Increasing my mileage was working wonders. I cranked the volume up even higher. In my phase of feeling invincible, I had signed up not only for Ironman Mt Tremblant in August, but for Ironman Wisconsin three weeks later, and the Cozumel 70.3 three weeks after that.
Around that time, I started feeling a twinge in my left heel in the mornings. The dreaded plantar fasciatis. Maybe the dramatic increase in run mileage hadn't been such a good idea. But I was going to keep biking 300 miles/week no matter what.
Two weeks before Mt Tremblant, my legs decided they'd had enough. I didn't have any speed, no matter what I did. At least it was taper time. I did a much more through taper than I had planned, and drove to Canada.
The swim went fairly well. I was thrilled to get out of the water in under an hour, right behind Jodie Robertson! I asked the volunteers in the changing tent how many other women had come through before us. They looked at each other with uncertainty, and said "I don't know... three?" I took their word for it. That meant I was in fifth place! Wow - I was having an awesome day! I got on the bike, and started hammering.
A couple of women passed me, but I stayed with them for as long as I could. I had never really raced this early in a full Ironman before. But here I was in the top 30% of the pro field - or so I thought. At the turnarounds, I gradually discovered that the volunteers in the changing tent had been wrong. I had definitely not been fifth out of the water. I didn't know what place I was in, but I wasn't doing as well as I thought. At the halfway mark, my bike split was 2:37 - the exact same bike split I had posted in the 70.3 two months ago. But now I had to do it again.
Crap. I had gone out much too fast. You have to burn some matches in pro racing, but not that many matches. I realized my mentality also played a part. When I solidly believed I was in 5th place, I was riding really well. When I realized I had no idea what place I was in, I lost motivation and slowed down significantly. I now convinced myself that I was in 8th place. I didn't know if that was actually true, but believing in it helped me retrieve some of the energy I'd had earlier.
After all the water and fluids I'd gone through, I needed to pee, and debated whether to stop at a porta potty or attempt to do it on the bike. Peeing on the bike is actually a difficult skill, because you're working against all those reflexes you've developed since childhood. It does save time, though. I eventually got my body to pee while riding - but ooowww! I realized I had forgotten to put on anti-chafe cream that morning, and 5+ hours in the saddle had caused significant chafing at the tops of my thighs. The rest of the bike was really painful - thank goodness I'd procrastinated and not peed earlier!
I made it to the end of the bike, with a split of 5:29. My legs didn't have the magic speed they'd had in the 70.3, but I was relieved that running didn't hurt my chafing nearly as much as cycling did, and that my left heel wasn't bothering me as much as I'd feared.
The first half of the marathon, I held 8-minute mile pace. If I broke 3:30, I could get a PR! As I approached mile 20, I was starting to hit the wall. Shortly before the last turn around, Katy Cargiulo passed me. I dug deep and somehow managed to match her pace. We ran alongside each other - sometimes one of us surging ahead, sometime the other. This went on for maybe ten minutes, and then I wasn't able to maintain the pace anymore, and she pulled ahead permanently.
I crossed the line in 10:06:53 - less than a minute off my PR - and it was by far my fastest time on a hilly Ironman course!
It was a breakthrough performance, just as the 70.3 had been, but for completely different reasons. The Mt Tremblant 70.3 was a breakthrough because it was supposed to feel hard and it didn't. The Mt Tremblant full Ironman was a breakthrough because it felt very, very hard but I kept pushing anyway.
Following Mt Tremblant, I went through some rough spots. A continued battle with plantar fasciatis. Two flat tires. Ironman Wisconsin, where I quit, and Cozumel, where I didn't quit, even though I had a tough day. To be continued!
2019 had its ups and downs. First full year racing as a pro. Honestly my biggest goal was to see if I could compete in the pro field without embarrassing myself. I'd say I accomplished that most of the time. Lots to work on for next year. Bike intensity. Run consistency. And, err, updating my blog more often.
This year I started four Ironmans and finished three of them. Believe it or not, I started the year believing that I wanted to do exactly zero Ironmans this season.
Rewind to 2018. I fell out of love with Ironman distance at IM Texas, where I got my first ever DNF. I decided I had had enough of racing full Ironmans, and would rather focus on shorter distances. I maintained this attitude for the rest of the season.
Then in January my swim team, Charles River Masters, did the 100x100. It's a 10k swim, and I had been warned about how hard it was going to be. You're supposed to bring food and water, and swim on an interval ten seconds slower than what you would normally do in practice. The 1:30 lane was too crowded, so I ended up in the 1:25 lane.
I spent the first mile worrying about whether I'd be able to keep up. I spent the last five miles falling in love with long distance again. The farther I went, the better I felt. At the end, I realized I was supposed to be tired, and yet I was bursting with energy! I went home and went for a long bike ride - and started researching those Ironman races I had said I wasn't going to sign up for.
I signed up for Ironman Boulder, in June, though first I had a couple of other races to do.
In April, I ran the Boston Marathon alongside my mom. It was a priceless experience, though I went into it with the false assumption that running a 5-hour marathon would be easy. I came away with a newfound respect for all 5-hour marathoners, particularly my mother!
Two weeks later, I did St Anthony's Triathlon, an olympic distance race. I got dropped at the beginning of the swim. Age groupers pace themselves. Pros sprint at the beginning, and try to drop each other before forming packs and settling in. I got dropped, and spent the next 2+ hours trying to catch up. But I was pleased to finish in 2:14, which was a new PR for the distance. After crossing the finish line, I immediately ran ten more miles, to make up for some of the training I'd missed while recovering and tapering.
I went into Ironman Boulder feeling optimistic. I hadn't done as many long rides and runs as I'd meant to, but the ones I had done had gone well. Boulder would be my first time racing at altitude, and my first full Ironman as a pro.
The swim went much better than at St Anthony's, and to my surprise, I found myself in 3rd place as I approached transition. This was both exciting and scary - I'd never been in the top three in any segment of a pro race! When I got out of the water, a guy with a video camera chased me all the way through transition, from the swim exit to the bike mount line. I was flustered! Should I smile for the camera? Should I look focused? Should I try to think of something entertaining to say? Most importantly, I had better not trip and break my toe like last time!
Having had my brief moment of fame, the rest of the race went more as expected, and I faded towards the back of the pack. I got passed by several people. Then I made a wrong turn, and added about ten minutes. It became harder to keep out negative thoughts.
When I started the run, my mom told me I was in 9th. "How far back from 8th?" I wanted to know. "Eleven minutes." Oh boy. Eleven minutes was a long time. But then, 26 miles was a long way. Maybe I could close the gap. I pushed the pace, and ran pretty well the first ten miles. When I saw my mom again, I asked enthusiastically, "What's the split time now?" "Ten minutes." What?! I had been pushing that hard, and I had made up one minute over ten miles?! I started losing it mentally. Of course I couldn't catch these girls. They were pros! What was I doing racing with the pros, anyway?
The second half of the marathon was a death march. I finished in 10:43. I had initially thought there were two more pros behind me, but learned they'd both dropped out of the race. I was dead freaking last. I went home with serious doubts about whether I belonged in the pro field.
I was signed up for the Mt Tremblant 70.3 two weeks later. I wasn't expecting to do well, particularly after Boulder, but hey, after placing dead last there's nowhere to go but up!
The swim and bike went fairly well. Then came the run. My legs felt good, but I had no idea what pace I was running, because there were no mile markers. Canada runs on kilometers! But the 10k split meant something even to my metrically-challenged American brain. I looked at my watch, hoping for around 43 minutes. 41 minutes. Holy crap. It was a good thing there weren't any mile markers, because if I'd known how fast I was running when I was only one or two miles in, I would have thought I was going out too fast, and slowed down!
A few minutes later, I got to the turn around - and discovered to my relief that there were several people behind me. Running back towards the finish, I felt like I was flying!
I was 11th / 17 at Mt Tremblant. Even though it wasn't a podium finish, it was a turning point for me, because it was the first time I felt like maybe I did belong in the pro field after all.
Sometimes, like in Boulder, we think we're prepared going into a race, but then we break down, physically or mentally, and don't do as well as we were hoping to. And sometimes - much more rarely - we have a magical day and do much, much better than we ever expected. The 100x100 swim was magic. The run at Mt Tremblant was magic. Both of these times, I was lucky enough to appreciate this magic while it was happening - rather than realizing it in hindsight, while trying unsuccessfully to repeat the performance.
In Part 2 of this blog, I'll talk about high volume training, the Boston Triathlon, and my return trip to Mt Tremblant for the full Ironman. Stay tuned!
Patriot's Day weekend consisted of multiple visits to the Boston Marathon start line, and one very rewarding trip to the finish line - alongside my mom.
The Boston Marathon is special to me. It's what inspired me to start running in the first place. I first experienced the race from the scream tunnel, at Wellesley College. You stand there cheering for hours. First you see all the people who look like runners go by. Then you see people who are older, or overweight, or even disabled. You think, "Huh...if they can run a marathon, maybe I can run a marathon!" I decided to give it a go - first as a bandit (you could do that in the days before the bombings), and eventually as a qualified runner. After running the race five years in a row, I switched my focus to triathlons, and trying to qualify for Kona. But I always knew I would run Boston again. This year, the time was right.
My mom had taken up running in her late 50s. While I was competing in my first ever Ironman race in 2009, she ran five miles on the treadmill at the hotel, thus sharing the experience with me in spirit. It was the farthest she had ever run in her life.
My mom had never thought of herself as an athlete. In elementary school, she was made fun of for being the slowest kid in her class on field day. In her 20s, she injured her knee hiking into the Grand Canyon. She hiked out under her own power anyway. Forty years later, I convinced her to join me for the Antarctica Marathon. Her attitude was "I want to go to Antarctica. If running a Marathon is the price I have to pay for that, I'll do it."
She might not have sprint speed, but what she does have are the determination and grit to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She proved that in the marathon. The last eight or ten miles, her bad knee was starting to give out, so she had to increasingly lock the knee, and make her other leg do the work...but she finished.
After her knee recovered, she kept at it. She didn't just break 6 hours; she broke 5. I told her that if she ever qualified for Boston, I would run with her. Last year in Myrtle Beach, she did exactly that.
That meant I needed to qualify, too. I signed up for a qualifying race. Then I broke my toe, and signed up for a different qualifying race. Fortunately, I was able to make good on my promise.
Going into the Boston Marathon this year, I knew it would be my mom's last. She had told me that no other marathon could top Boston, and that afterwards she wanted to try her hand at triathlons. Triathlons that didn't involve running 26 miles.
Mom's goal was to run Boston in under 5 hours, and I would be there every step of the way. My goal was to make this experience as special for her as possible.
I got creative about it, and planned a surprise. I pulled out the 16-mile marker from when we had done the Antarctica Marathon (they auctioned off the mile markers after the race), and gave it to members of the Greater Framingham Running Club who would be at mile 16, so they could wave it as we came by.
I figured since I was not actually racing the marathon, I didn't need to stick to any pre-race routines. So I did things I wouldn't normally do. I ate a burger at mile 7. We stopped and took pictures with our mile marker. I also stayed up to do the Midnight Ride the night before.
The midnight ride has long been a tradition among cyclists. It is roughly on the anniversary of Paul Revere's midnight ride, which may be how the tradition originated. In any case, hundreds of cyclists take to the streets at midnight the night before the Boston Marathon, and ride along the same route that the runners will complete a few hours later.
N+1 Cyclery, the bike shop I work with and am sponsored by, is located right on the course at mile 7.3, so we organized a ride to the start line and back. The ride was also sponsored by the Bianchi Dama Ambassador Team, which I am a member of. Our goal is to encourage more women to take up cycling, since it is still largely considered a men's sport.
My mom remembers when Kathy Switzer ran the Boston Marathon in 1967, and the race director tried to throw her off the course. Now women are allowed in the Boston Marathon, but a lot of the top cycling events are still men-only. Bianchi is working to get more women on bikes, and the Bianchi Dama Ambassadors are organizing a variety of no-drop rides, to encourage new riders and grow the sport among women.
I was a little worried the Midnight Ride would get rained out, but we had a group of nine, and it was a lot of fun, despite the wet conditions.
We did not do the entire route round trip, since we wanted the ride to be beginner-friendly, but we did have some sizable hills on the way to the start line. My uncle Bruce had made some LED helmet lights for us - in celeste, to match the Bianchi bikes! They also made it easier to keep the group together. Back at N+1 Cyclery we hung out and did some carb loading. Then home for a couple of hours of sleep.
The biking part was finished, and it was time to think about the run. At 5:45, the alarm went off. We weren't starting until 11, but the roads closed hours earlier. My dad drove us there...in what turned out to be the worst weather of the day. Torrential rain was punctuated by thunder and lightning. We were some of the first ones to arrive (thanks to my parents. Left to myself, I am seldom early for anything).
Fortunately, there were tents set up in the athletes village. We had come prepared, with ponchos and space blankets. We lay down on the space blankets, and discovered that running shoes make great pillows. As we did this, I noticed there was a photographer standing a few feet away. "Um, Mom? We're being videotaped." "What?!" She saw the camera, too, and we dissolved into giggles, thinking how silly we must look. The photographer wandered away, to find their next victim.
A few minutes later, another reporter came over. She was from the associated press, and interviewed us at length about our running, and about the marathon bombings. 2013 was the most recent time I had run Boston, and I was lucky to have finished before the bombings took place. Though as I explained to her, it really puts things in perspective. Whether or not you have the race you were hoping for, events like that teach you not to take life for granted, and make you appreciate being able to race at all.
I kept reminding myself of that throughout the day. It was special, running side by side with my mom. These streets were home. I had lived close to the marathon course for most of my adult life - first near mile 12, then near mile 16, then near mile 22, and now I live near mile 7. I knew the course like the back of my hand, but until recently, had never imagined I would get to run it with my mother.
The first few miles, she was grinning from ear to ear. We high fived more spectators than we could count. We pointed out funny signs to each other: "You're running better than the government!" Someone had created a very realistic "Entering Brookline" sign - while we were still in Hopkinton.
Mom had asked me to stay on her left side the entire way, rather than on her right. She has an incredible ability to listen to her body, and feel exactly what she needs to do. She told me before the race that every time her bad knee gave her trouble, she could trace it to something she had done where she was torquing her body to the right. She wanted me to run on her left, so her knee would behave, even if she turned slightly to look at me.
She also paid attention to the curvature of the pavement. A couple of times, she was running on the right side of the road, and her knee started to feel uncomfortable. She moved over to the left, where the road was at a very slightly different angle. Sure enough, her knee stopped hurting.
At mile 7.3, we ran past N+1 Cyclery. My dad was there cheering for us, and so was Cisco - my bike mechanic, bike coach, and sponsor. I stopped to give my dad a hug and take my jacket off. Cisco was grilling burgers. It was lunch time, and they smelled awfully good, so I grabbed one, put some cheese and ketchup on it, and ate it while I ran to catch up with my mom.
We also shared some energy chews from HoneyStinger. They are made with real honey rather than artificial ingredients - for once, dessert was healthier than the rest of my meal!
We had expected rain, but the day was becoming surprisingly warm and sunny. Mom was starting to overheat, and I dumped a cup of water over her head. I didn't know if she wanted it or not, but I knew she needed it. At each aid station for the next ten miles, she asked me for a shower.
We entered the town of Wellesley. The Wellesley scream tunnel marks the halfway point, and it's where you get the loudest cheers of the day. Hundreds of girls stand along the course screaming for the runners - with high fives, kisses, and motivational signs. I have heard anecdotes of runners backtracking, so they could run that part of the course again. Wellesley is also my alma mater, and cheering in the scream tunnel is what got me interested in marathon running in the first place. It never gets old - and it was cool to vicariously experience it for the first time with my mom.
The first half was done. Now we just had to do it again. The miles ticked by, but a bit more slowly now. Sometimes we talked, more often we ran in silence, each of us focused on listening to our body. Mom thought about her knee, and how much of the work she was doing with her right leg vs her left leg. It changed, depending whether we were going up or down hill. I thought about my cadence and stride length. Somehow I had gone into this expecting that a 5-hour marathon would be significantly easier than a 3:20 marathon. Now it occurred to me that since I didn't seem able to slow down my cadence, I would be taking about 1.5x as many footsteps as usual for this distance, and that it might not be so easy after all.
One of my jobs was to pay attention to our split times, and keep mom on pace to break 5 hours. At mile 15 I looked at the clock, and for the first time I started to worry. We still had time in the bank, but mom had slowed significantly over the last couple of miles. We ate some more HoneyStinger energy chews. They hit the spot. We could not afford to slow down any more, and the hills were still to come.
Before the race, I had pulled out the 16-mile marker from the Antarctica Marathon, and given it to Greater Framingham Running Club members who would be at mile 16. I had originally planned to surprise mom with it, but then told her about it before the race. Now I was glad I had. She announced that when we got there, she wanted to stop and take some pictures. As she said this, she picked up the pace.
We entered Newton Lower Falls, where I had lived for seven years, and there it was! Duct taped onto the actual B.A.A. mile marker! We stopped for pictures. Another runner saw us, and decided he wanted a picture with the mile marker, too!
It was worth every second we spent there. Mom suddenly had much more energy than she'd had a few minutes before! We ran past a sign that said, "In Newton and looking strong. Our hills don't stand a chance!" Then we turned right at the fire station, and began our pilgrimage up the hills.
Heartbreak hill is really a series of three hills, with some flat parts in between. The first time I ran this race, back in 2007, I hadn't looked at a course map beforehand. I asked someone next to me at the start line if she knew what mile Heartbreak Hill was at. She thought a minute, and said, "I think it's from mile 16 to mile 21".
When I actually got there, it wasn't as bad as I expected, and mom seemed to be having the same experience. The first and second hills, she only took short walking breaks. At mile 19, I pointed out the statue "Young at Heart". It shows two runners, but they are really the same person. One is Johnny A Kelly when he first won the Boston Marathon at age 27. The other is Johnny A Kelly at age 84...when he finished his 59th and final Boston Marathon. They are holding hands.
We got to the third and final hill. This time, Mom ran the whole way.
Then came mile 22. It is sometimes called the haunted mile. Partly because you run past a big cemetery. Also because more leads have been lost here than any other part of the course.
Mom was bonking. It is not so much the size of the hills that makes them difficult - it is the placement. They create a mental trap. You tell yourself you just have to make it to the top of Heartbreak Hill. And you get there. And then - you still have five miles to go.
The mile markers were much farther apart now. We were still on pace to break 5 hours, but Mom was hurting. I could see it in her face. When I made jokes, she did not laugh. I asked her how she was feeling. She was starting to cramp, and was losing it mentally. She said she might have to let go of her time goal, and just finish.
I wanted to put my arm around her, tell her she was doing an amazing job, and that she was almost there. Instead, I ran a few steps ahead of her, at the fastest pace I thought she could go, so she would have to chase me.
Finally, I saw the Citgo sign in the distance! It is at mile 25, but considered a landmark among runners, because you can see it from so far away. I pointed it out to Mom, but then there was a tree in the way, and she couldn't see it. I felt like I had given her false hope.
We still had a few minutes in the bank. As long as Mom kept running, not walking, we would break five with time to spare. We entered Kenmore Square. The Citgo sign was above us. In the street were the words, "One Mile To Go!"
It was wall to wall spectators. The road dipped down briefly to go under Mass Ave. Directly above the course were a group of people yelling "Welcome home to Boston!"
We turned right on Hereford, and left on Boylston. We could see the finish line. I looked at Mom, and saw not pain, but joy on her face, for the first time since we crested Heartbreak Hill. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I don't cry at movies, and I don't cry at finish lines. but I almost cried at this one.
We crossed the line holding hands. 4:54. Now we could stop and walk. They make you walk a long way after the finish. First to get some water, then your space blanket, and finally your finisher medal.
We found my Dad. He had been cheering for us on Boylston Street, but somehow we hadn't heard him over all of the spectators. He gave us a big hug - and the dry shoes and socks that he had been carrying around all day!
My mom's feet were covered with blisters. She would lose several toenails. My legs felt pounded - really, really pounded. I had less muscle soreness than usual, but had taken far more foot strikes than in any other marathon, and my feet and hips were very sore.
We had a wonderful post-race dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse. Then it was time for my dad to leave. He had to get home for his own marathon - in the form of four back-to-back classes. My mom was staying an extra day. We took the train back home to Framingham. The train runs parallel to the course, and it is much more fun to think "I just ran all that distance" than "I have to run all that distance tomorrow!"
Mom reiterated what she had said before the race: she was never going to run a full marathon again. She would do half marathons. She would do triathlons. But she had done what she set out to do with full marathons, and there was no way to top it.
It seemed fitting, in a way. Her last marathon, Boston, was the first marathon in the world to be held annually. Her first marathon, Antarctica, is officially known as "The Last Marathon" - possibly because it's the last place anyone would think to run a marathon. We met up with Thom Gilligan - our tour leader in Antarctica, and the founder of Marathon Tours - when we were at the Boston Marathon expo!
There is a great quote from John "the Penguin" Bingham, who was one of our other tour guides. He said "The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start." I have tremendous respect for my mom, and how many mental barriers she had to break through to start running at all. I look forward to doing shorter races and triathlons with her, although this may be the only time we do one side by side.
This summer, she will be doing the Boston Triathlon and competing at Age Group Nationals, and I will be there to support her. She also supported me at St Anthony's Triathlon in St Petersburg, FL, two weeks after the marathon. Blog post about St Anthony's coming soon!
This has been a roller coaster of a season. Started off at Ironman Texas in April, where I had an awesome swim, but broke my toe while running barefoot through transition, and had to drop out. Clearly, I had unfinished business in Texas! I'm happy to say that the return trip, for the Waco 70.3, was much more successful.
This time it was the opposite - the swim didn't happen, but the bike and run did! I do think they made the right call with cancelling the swim. I was disappointed, but frankly, the current was flowing so fast that none of us could have swum against it. And the water was murky enough the kayakers would not have been able to see anyone if they went under.
I will say that Waco did an amazing job of not shortening the bike or run courses. We had a full 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run, even though they had to rearrange the course in several places, to avoid flooded areas. Points for creativity!
Since there was no swim, we did a time trial start on the bike. Pros started one at a time, 30 seconds apart. Then a ten minute gap. Then the age groupers, two people every five seconds. They drew numbers out of a hat at the briefing, and I was to start 17th out of the 20 female pros.
It was cool that the start format made for super-simple logistics on race morning. Swim gear stays home. No need to set up bike gear in the transition area. Just put your running stuff in transition, and go with your bike to the start!
I felt really good starting out, but about a mile into the course, I started having some technical issues. We had to go up a short but steep incline to get to a bridge over the river. I shifted into the small ring for just one little minute, and then wasn't able to shift back to the big ring!
I had started having issues with my Di2 (electronic gear shifters) a couple of days before, when I arrived in Texas. When I reassembled my bike, I noticed that when airport security had inspected it, they had not put all of the insulation back snugly, and the weight of the aerobars was pulling on the wires. Something in the wiring seemed to have come loose. I made sure all the wires were pushed in. I recharged the battery. Each solution I came up with worked for a few minutes, or a few hours, but then stopped working. Right before the race, I double checked, and it was working fine.
Anyway, after letting me switch to the small ring at mile 1, the Di2 decided that was it, and it was going to stop working. The next few miles I pedaled along furiously in the small ring, trying to maintain my speed. The women who had started 18th, 19th, and 20th went flying past me. When the last woman passed me, I decided I really needed to do something about this. I pulled over, and made sure all the wires were pushed in as far as they would go. Again. I tried shifting, and....the bike went into the big ring! Whew! I decided then and there that I'd better find a gear I'd be okay staying in for the rest of the race. This turned out to be a very good decision, because a few minutes later, when I tried to shift again, it didn't work.
Fortunately, I had driven the bike course, and knew it was flat enough I'd be able to manage in one gear. However, I wasn't even five miles into the race, and I was already in dead last. After a few minutes, I managed to repass one of the women who had passed me. And then, I didn't see anyone. For thirty miles. I knew there were eighteen more women ahead of me somewhere, but didn't know how far away they were, or if I was gaining ground. A few times I thought I might see a cyclist in the distance, but it always turned out to be a volunteer, or a spectator instead.
That must be what it's like if you're a sailor, and you're anticipating land, after being at sea for a long time. Are those mountains? No, it's a cloud formation. How about that? Just a reflection on the water. If you want something badly enough, your eyes play tricks on you, and you might think you see it, even if you don't.
Around mile 35, I saw someone way up the road in front of me. And then, I saw her turn a corner! That was definitely a cyclist! After several more miles, I managed to catch up and pass her. And then a few miles later, I passed another one. Forty miles of hammering, and I was finally back in seventeenth place, where I started! Around mile forty-five, I rode past a bike tech van, but at that point I wasn't going to stop for anything.
When I made it back to transition, I saw that there were two more people just ahead of me. (According to the official results, I actually finished the bike 15th / 20, and was ahead of them. But since we started at all different times, I didn't know that. As far as I was concerned, I finished the bike in 17th place, moved into 16th during transition, and then 15th on the run.)
Starting the run, my legs felt like jello. I have screwed myself over at other races by trying to force myself to go fast right at the beginning of the run, when my legs felt dead. I decided that the first mile I wouldn't worry too much about pace - just loosen up, and try to get my legs to feel less heavy. Once my legs figured out that I was willing to listen to their opinion, rather than just ordering them around, they decided to cooperate. Good thing, because a couple of miles later, we had some really big hills!
At the top of the biggest hill, I saw a familiar face - Laura, a woman I had made friends with at Ironman Texas, was volunteering here in Waco as well! She recognized me, and gave me an extra loud cheer. Definitely boosted my energy, on the toughest part of the course!
Once we were done with the hills, we were also done with the shady part, and I could feel the temperature heating up. I made sure to stay hydrated, and grabbed fluid at each aid station. I was mostly trying to drink water and red bull, but I don't have a sensitive stomach, and by the end, I was just grabbing whatever cup was convenient. Gatorade - fine! Coke - fine! Of course, water has the added benefit that after you take a few sips, you can dump the rest over your head, and not get sticky.
After finishing two loops of the run course, we got to cross the coolest finish line ever: it was on a bridge over the river!
56 mile bike: 2:28 (15th/20)
13.1 mile run: 1:38 (15th/18)
Total time: 4:09 (15th/18)
15 seems to be the theme of the day! At least I'm consistent. And it looks like a super fast time if you forget that it doesn't include a swim!
I still have a long ways to go, but I'm going in the right direction. It was a much more solid performance than I had in Augusta five weeks ago. Frankly, after Augusta I was questioning whether I had made the right decision by turning pro, and this gives me hope that if I keep working at it, I might be able to keep up.
I think what I'm most proud of is holding myself together mentally when my gears weren't working at the beginning. I wasn't happy about it, but I didn't go into panic mode, either. That was a lesson from Ironman Texas: when things go wrong, life goes on!
Also, for everything that goes wrong, there is something else that *doesn't* go wrong. After finding my mom, and cheering for other athletes for a while, I retrieved my bike from transition. That was when I discovered that...my front tire was flat! I'm pretty sure it still had air in it when I finished the bike course. If I'm going to get a flat on race day, after the race is a great time for that to happen!
Having completed the race, I did not change the flat right away. Instead, I enjoyed a glass of champagne with my mom, Elizabeth (our homestay hostess), and Antoine (the other athlete staying there). I mentioned that 15 was the theme of the day? Well, Antoine was the 15th place male pro!
It was my first time doing a homestay, rather than booking a hotel, and it was a great experience all around. Elizabeth was super nice and generous. She cooked for us each night (much better than anything I would have cooked for myself!), even though it was definitely not her job to do that. Plus, she lived in an amazing historic mansion, that had been in her family for more than a hundred years.
It was also nice to have another athlete there. Antoine and I both turned pro very recently, and, especially with all the last minute course changes, it was good to have someone in the same boat to talk to, to make sure we knew what was going on.
A big thank you to my sponsor, n+1 cyclery. You have been there for me through highs and lows, and I am so excited that we were able to end this season on a high note!
Augusta was my first 70.3 (half-Ironman) race since earning my pro card. There's a John Maxwell quote, "Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn." I knew from the outset that I wasn't going to win, but I learned a lot from it.
In my experience, you don't magically start out at the top of things. You start out at the bottom and work your way up. That was the case with swimming. I started at age fifteen - was never really athletic before that. The first two years, I was getting my butt kicked by nine and ten year olds every day, and my goal at most swim meets was not to finish last in my age group.
A year after joining the swim team, I ran my first 5k, in 35 minutes. Ironically, I started running because in swimming, my kick was the weakest part of my stroke, and I needed to do something to strengthen my legs. After working at it for a year, I was really excited to break the 30-minute mark, and after working at it for a dozen years, I broke 20.
Making the jump from the front of my age group to the back of the pro field is a tough transition, and brought me back to a familiar goal: not placing last.
I wasn't last, I was 13th out of 16 starters, and 14 finishers. I can see I have a lot of work to do. Although when I get intimidated about how far I have to go, I can think how far I've come, and that makes it seem more possible.
The swim was awesome - 24:07! Now admittedly, we were swimming with a bit of a current, so everyone's times were faster than usual. Still, I was thrilled to be in the same swim pack as Rinny (3x Ironman World Champion, and the winner of this race), as well as Lauren Barnett, Alicia Hill, and Jessica Jones.
The first few miles of the bike were what I was most worried about. You go around a little square, where there are six sets of bumpy, sketchy railroad tracks, spread out over less than a mile. Part of my concern with the tracks was that I knew I might be getting out of the water with some of the top contenders, and I was nervous about having to deal with the most technical part of the course during my first few minutes ever of riding in a pace line with the pros. I needn't have worried about that - most of the people in my swim pack got ahead of me during the swim/bike transition. Should probably work on my transitions - and my bunny hopping skills. But on the bright side, it was less stressful dealing with the tracks when there was not someone right behind me.
Once the tracks were out of the way, it was a nice bike course. Flat with some rolling hills, and better paved roads than in Boston! I rode with Jessica Jones for a while, though ultimately she got ahead of me, and there were sections of the bike course where there was no one in sight. It's a no-man's land, behind most of the pros and in front of the age groupers. I actually enjoy going for long training rides alone - I wouldn't call it lonely, so much as peaceful and meditative. But in a race situation, I would rather have someone ahead of me to chase!
My bike split was 2:34. I was hoping for around 2:30, but overall was pleased with how I paced it. One thing I would do differently is hit more aid stations. It seemed that every time I went through an aid station, there was someone ahead, just barely within sight, that I wanted to keep up with. I ride better when I can see someone in front of me, so I was trying to make up time any way I could. That meant staying in the aerobars, and not slowing down to grab a bottle of Gatorade. I went through the two bottles of water and two gels I had with me, but definitely started the run with a caloric deficit.
Chrissie Wellington once said, "You never know if your running legs will be waiting for you in your transition bag." Well, my running legs were nowhere to be found. Maybe I shouldn't have skipped those aid stations on the bike. Maybe I shouldn't have smashed my marathon PR two weeks ago. Maybe I just had a bad day.
I went 1:46 on the run. I did fuel more once I started running, and felt slightly better the last few miles. It also gave me a boost once I started my 2nd lap, and was able to play the game of reeling people in and passing them. It was great to have so many spectators, and thank you to whoever set up the sprinklers along the course!
Total time 4:49. Not my best day, but you live and you learn. Interestingly, my first 70.3 as an age-grouper was 5:49, so this was exactly one hour faster!
Finally got some proper fueling in! After the race, got to have lunch with my parents and cheer for other participants, before going back to transition to get my bike.
A big thank you to my sponsors at n+1 cyclery for keeping my bike in tip top shape, as well as for coaching me and believing in me. Without you, this wouldn't be possible. Next up is the Waco 70.3, October 28th!
2018 has been one of those seasons where you have to take a step back in order to take two steps forward. It has not gone off exactly as planned, but sometimes if you go with the flow, things still work out.
Originally, my plan was to go to Kona for the third time. I was signed up for Ironman Texas, where I qualified the last two years, but the third time was not the charm. I had an awesome swim, and finally smashed the hour barrier (57:22!) However, my excitement was short-lived, because I then proceeded to smash my toe (crashed into the guy in front of me in transition when he stopped to get his bag). My toe was sticking out sideways, and I was pretty sure it was broken, but sometimes it takes a while to wrap your head around these things. I think the back of my mind knew my race was over, but the front of my mind was not ready to accept that. I decided the thing to do was to get on my bike, and I would have 112 miles to think about whether I could run or not. I ended up dropping out at the medical tent at mile 40, and went to the hospital to get X-rays, instead of the finish line.
Not to sound cliche, but sometimes when one door closes, another one opens. My initial urge was to sign up for another Ironman right away, but I realized that cranking my mileage back up too soon after an injury was a bad idea, and I decided to focus on shorter races for the season. For several years, I had dreamed about the idea of trying to earn my pro card someday, and at 33, "someday" had better mean "now". I signed up for the Philadelphia Escape Triathlon, since a top-3 finish (overall, among amateurs) would qualify me to get my elite license.
Philly was eight weeks after I had broken my toe, and my plan, essentially, was to hammer the swim, hammer the bike, and survive the run. I was thrilled to finish first in my age group, and 2nd amateur overall! The other milestone was that this was the first race where I flew with my bike and reassembled it all by myself. No matter how many triathlons I do, there are some things that still scare me, and disassembling my bike before a race is one of them! Fortunately, my sponsor and bike coach at n+1 cyclery, Cisco, was very patient, and spent several hours helping me practice taking my bike apart and putting it back together, so that I would be able to do it on my own in Philadelphia.
Still, it is nice to do local races once in a while, where you don't need to deal with plane tickets and bike disassembly. Both the Boston Tri and the Whaling City Tri fit into this category.
For the Boston Triathlon, it turned out that we did not need a wetsuit, cap, or goggles either, because the swim was cancelled due to rain and possible lightning. It became the Boston Duathlon, starting with a beach run. Made sense, since we were all gathered on the beach, but running through deep sand is hard! The bike was four loops, so a little crowded towards the end, but lots of chances for friends and family to see the race! I felt good on the bike and run. It's a pancake flat course, and can produce some really fast times. I was focused on the people in front of me, rather than on the clock, so I didn't realize until I saw the results that my run split was... 40:01. Really?! I did have a crazy sprint finish, though, duking it out with one of the guys!
I ended up being the 4th place female. One spot off the podium, but it was a competitive field, and overall I was really pleased with it. Anyway, last year I was 8th, so 4th is twice as good, right?
Once I was finished, I got to see my mom do her first triathlon. They didn't start the sprint until after the Olympic race was done, which was cool, because it meant we both got to watch each other's races! She won her age group, in her very first tri! She's also better at smiling for the camera than I am:
The following weekend I did the Whaling City Tri in New Bedford. It was a just for fun race - one of the things I've been working on since my DNF in Texas is putting less pressure on myself before races. No matter how prepared you are, you can't count on having a result to celebrate afterwards, so it's important to enjoy the time leading up to it. Anyway, as it turned out, I had a few things to celebrate at Whaling City:
1) Sunny day, starting with a swim
2) 1st female overall
3) Broke an hour: 59:57 (and yes I was paying attention to my watch, after my 40:01 run split last weekend)
4) Made a new friend: Emily Tato, 2nd place finisher - we realized we live close to each other, and are going to do some bike rides together:
Hanging out with Emily after the race. Notice the family of raccoons in the background - I'm glad they waited until *after* the race to wonder out onto the road!
I don't have any races lined up for August, but September & October are going to be busy, so I need to get a solid training block in. Augusta 70.3, Waco 70.3, and Beantown Marathon. Not sure if it's the greatest idea to run a marathon two weeks before a 70.3, but I guess I'll find out. I haven't run the Boston Marathon in several years, but my mom qualified a few months ago - go Mom! I've always said that if she ever qualified, I would run it with her - so now I need to run a qualifying race, too. In the meantime, time to log some miles!