Friday, September 25, 2015

Chicago Reflections: 2015 ITU Standard-distance Age Group World Championship

Cloud Gate (Anish Kapoor)
The giant reflecting "bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park
I found out I was a runner when I was ten years old.

Throughout the years, running has been my go-to therapy for all that ailed me. It was the one sport I fully understood. I knew how to train. I knew how to race. And I knew how to get injured. When I switched to triathlon after my fifth stress fracture, I had a distinctive advantage as a fast runner. My race didn't start until I was off the bike. I rarely worried about getting passed on the bike because I knew I would be feeling good when the great cyclists were struggling to get to the finish line.

But that's all in the past - when I was young. And fast. For the last three years, I've been struggling with an injury that threatened to once and for all end my days of being a (good) runner. I've been told my hamstring tendon will never be 100%. And despite working like crazy on the bike, I can never keep up with the really fast women in my age group. I've gotten a little closer to them, but never close enough to put me within striking distance on the run. It doesn't help that I haven't looked forward to the run leg either. Coming off the bike has been akin to a funeral march and I've lost the killer instinct that made triathlon racing so enjoyable. I have been going through the motions hoping something - anything - would change.

And finally, this year, I entered a new age group, and things were on the verge of getting better. I was ready to train hard. All the painful and difficult therapy had finally begun to pay off, and my running became mostly pain-free. I started to enjoy running for the first time in three years, and my speed was slowly coming back. I was thrilled.

Then came my infection, surgery and down time - right at the beginning of racing season - and all my hopes for this new age group year evaporated. I damned myself as the disaster-magnet I was and wrestled with throwing in the towel on the whole year. Dropping out of several already-paid-for races, one of them the ITU Long Course World Championship, and the fear of throwing money away was weighing heavy on my shoulders - especially after giving up my full-time income for a career as an artist (read: no income). Stress got the best of me, and I suffered with insomnia and anxiety for many weeks.

By the end of July, my surgeon still hadn't given me the green light to get back in the pool, but I was still entered in the ITU Age Group Standard Distance Worlds in Chicago on September 19. I was panicking. I kept asking my husband Jim, "How am I going to race a World Championship in the shape I'm in?"

I secretly hoped he would say "drop out," but his answer? "Speed work."

I couldn't come up with a better idea, so I decided to suck it up and make my best attempt to speed up my 10K run with weekly short hard intervals in August. Time was running out and my expectations were low. Two weeks after I started swimming again, I raced the USAT Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee. The snail-like swim pace didn't bother me nearly as much as my run time. I couldn't get a single mile under seven minutes. It was embarrassing to know I once ran a marathon at 6:30 pace.

Although I had been working hard on the bike, I didn't hold out hope to ride with the "big girls" in Chicago. All I wished was to avoid losing time on the run, and at the very least, I knew I could speed up my swim time from Milwaukee's all-time-slowest. This had become a rescue mission. For my mental health, I needed to salvage something from this triathlon season and prove to myself I could still work hard and get results.

When I toed the line in Chicago last Saturday, I knew it would be an all-out effort. I would race with everything I had that day and be happy knowing I did as much work as I could with the hand I was dealt this year.

As usual, my legacy as the Disaster Magnet was on the horizon.

It started with rain and wind in Chicago that was bad enough to alter the races on Friday and move our bike check-in to race morning. My wake-up time and morning nutrition was already less-than-ideal because of a wave start at 12:20 pm. Now I would have to be up and in downtown Chicago for more than seven hours before my race. Ugh.

Race morning was beautiful.
The only thing that made race morning enjoyable was the ease in which we could get into transition and prep our stuff. On the way in, I was met by a smiling volunteer who I failed to recognize as our USAT Mideast Regional Vice-chair Mike Wendorf. I must have looked a little anxious and he said to me "Today, you ARE Gwen Jorgensen." (I would see him again at the finish line where he recognized me and gave me a huge hug. It's always amazing to connect and reconnect with people all over the world in this sport.)

After bike prep, I had to figure out how to spend the next several hours and plan my nutrition to avoid stomach issues during the race. Jim and I relaxed in the car, in the Team USA hotel lobby, wandering around the race site, watching start waves, and figuring out where to hang out between bathroom stops. It seemed like forever. Finally it was time to put on my wetsuit and make my way to the staging area.

Disaster number 2 came - yep - just in time for my start wave, age group women 50-54. We were herded into the start corral, given final instructions on the swim course, and marched toward the starting dock. Except..... WAIT! Something has gone wrong with the pontoon dock! We were herded backwards into the corral, and along came a forklift to fix it. No, I am NOT making this up. We waited, and waited, and waited... trying to laugh about baking in our wetsuits in the sun.

Then came the announcement - the dock was fully broken, and conditions were deemed unsafe to proceed to the start. There would be a modified swim. We waited some more. Then came another announcement. The swim had to be shortened to less than sprint distance. There were outcries. One woman even asked if we could swim further by getting in the water upstream of the start. The slow swimmers were ecstatic. And we waited again.

Disappointment set in. I wanted that 1500m swim. I needed as much help as I could get, and the longer the swim, the better it would be for me - I was born a distance swimmer. But there was nothing to be done. It would be a 700m swim.

See? I wasn't kidding about the forklift.
Waiting... waiting... and waiting.
We had to wait while officials prepped the altered swim course, and around 1:00 pm, about 40 minutes after our official start time, we were finally in the water. The start horn signaled a mad all-out sprint unlike any race I've ever done. The course followed the marina wall at the edge of Grant Park. I did the best I could with my one-speed distance stroke, but I knew I was well-behind the leaders. Jim said I started catching people in the final yards - probably because everyone else went out sprinting. Oh, how I wished we had the whole 1500m.

It was a long run to transition - almost 400m - and I got out of my wetsuit faster than usual and was on the bike course in about three minutes. I knew I had to go hard from the start - so that's what I did.

The 40K bike course was underwhelming for a world championship. There were four hairpin turns and much of the course was in the underground tunnels known as Lower Wacker Drive. Low light made it hard to see road hazards, but I still rode as hard as I could and played leap-fog with the same few women for most of the bike. My speed on the flats was 24-25mph - really fast for me - and surprisingly (to me), I managed to keep myself in the race on the bike. The bike course was slightly short, and the finish came quickly after one turn-around. There was such a frenzy at the dismount line that a woman in front of me went down hard with her bike. I stopped for second to make sure she was ok, then took off on another long run to transition. Transition was a bit slow when I struggled to rack my bike from the handlebars (usually not a problem), but my shoes went on quick, and I was about to find out the worth of a month of speed training.

On the bike course when it wasn't underground.
Except, NO! Instead of hitting the split button, I hit "stop" on my Garmin out of transition. I didn't realize it until mile 2 of the run because I was intent on running down all the women I was with on the bike course.

For the first time in three years, I felt good - really good - on the 10K run leg. That killer instinct came back and I just ran. I WAS Gwen Jorgensen. Once I restarted my Garmin, I was clocking well under a seven minute-per-mile pace - without any of the usual fatigue. I don't know how many women in my age group I ran down, but at the finish, I was only 11 seconds behind fourth place, and I heard the announcement for third.

So. Close. (If only I had another K. Or that 850m back in the swim.) But I wasn't going to lament this. Live and learn. My run was back.

I got that feeling... you know? That feeling you get when you're running well? Like you've broken through some kind of barrier. I had it the year I ran my first sub-2:50 marathon in Duluth, MN. I had it when I ran the eight-mile leg of Hood to Coast at a sub-6-minute pace. I had it the day I ran down the previous-year's champ to win the Quad Cities Marathon. I had it when I ran down all the age group leaders off the bike at the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. And I had it Saturday in Chicago. No, it wasn't my fastest 10K, but felt damn good not to be crawling my way through the fog of fatigue for the first time in a very long time.

The finish.
Imagine my surprise when I looked up the results to see my run leg at 45:45. How could that be? Was my Garmin wrong? I KNOW one of my miles was a 6:32 - and the last four were sub-7. Could I have run the first two over a minute slower? My elation turned to devastation. How could it feel so fast when I was running so slow?

I was in a daze. The walk back to transition to pick up my bike was now the funeral march. Jim was desperately searching for something to say - to cheer me up. I don't remember much until I heard the the question... Someone in transition.. asked.. "Was the run...... long?"


Others had the GPS run distance of 6.7 miles. That would put my pace at... 6:49! Devastation turned back to elation. I couldn't wait to tell Jim! The drive home that night would be long, but it wouldn't be tough. My run was back. And next season looks a lot brighter.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

From the Midwest to Maine: Racing Home

I've raced twice since my last blog post, but I've been feverishly working on other projects and web sites and haven't had time to reflect and post anything meaningful. Here's my latest attempt at that (and perhaps at pulling something meaningful out of a seemingly-lost racing season).

The first of the aforementioned races was the USAT Olympic-distance Age Group National Championship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It came about two weeks after I was able to start swimming after my surgery and while I was still desperately trying to get my running legs back. I had no idea how I would perform overall, but at the very least, I was expecting a decent split on the bike. Cycling was the only sport for which I was able to solidly train. And as luck (?) would have it, the location of my surgical incisions forced me into doing 99% of my riding in the aero position - JUST for comfort. Could I be the first person ever to utter such a statement?

My race expectations were fulfilled: it was my slowest swim split - ever, my fastest bike split - in Milwaukee, and a very slow run - by my standards. Looking for positives, I can say that despite being exhausted after the swim, I "felt" strength in my legs on the bike AND on the run. And I do wish I had pushed harder in the bike leg because, despite my snail-like running pace, my legs felt much fresher than usual in T2.

Photos from USAT Nats in Milwaukee:

Swim wave start, age group: women 50+
Swim-to-Bike Transition
Let's get this thing going.
Starting the run.

My overall time - 2:20:46 - was good for 6th in my age group - my best placing in Milwaukee in their three years of hosting the event. Disappointingly, it wasn't my fastest time on the Milwaukee course.

Immediately, I went back to the grind to spend a few weeks whipping myself into swim shape and lengthening my longest run to 14 miles. I needed a test, and I longed to have something - anything - to hang my hat on this season. I decided to register for a half-ironman distance race - but where? Heading into Autumn (or as my husband Jim "Stark" would say: "Winter is coming."), we were running out of places that were not only drive-able but also made good vacation spots. The latter was necessary just in case the race is a total fail (obviously, you learn these tricks when your nickname is Disaster Magnet). Since my income is almost nonexistent, the location also had to be affordable.

The event appearing to fit the bill was Challenge Maine, a Challenge Family race in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Many things could be accomplished by a trip to New England. We could visit my mom in Connecticut. We could sight-see. We could go to the beach. I could satisfy my yearly craving for fresh fried clams.

Thus, I registered and started researching Old Orchard Beach (a.k.a. OOB). Yes, this was indeed the place of my New England dreams. There was a boardwalk and pier. There was an amusement park on the beach. There were clam shacks. There were lighthouses on the coast. (In fact, some of the best-known Edward Hopper lighthouse paintings were just north of OOB.) The hotels in OOB were old-style and handed down through families - not a single chain hotel among them. And the kicker - my mother told me it was my grandparents' favorite vacation spot when they were young.

We drove to Connecticut, spent two days, then drove up the New England coast with stops in Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester where we ate dinner. When I stepped out of the car in Salem, my first thought was: Oh, how I've missed the smell of the ocean!

Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester are old-style New England fishing towns:

Salem harbor
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables" 
There are piers like this everywhere 
Lighthouses on Thatcher Island off the coast of Rockport 

That night, when we pulled into the town of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, I was instantly transported back in time. To the time of my youth spent on New England beaches. To my grandparents' time, when the hotels were grand and had large common rooms and screened decks where guests could commune or just relax and read a book. I imagined people sitting on their hotel porches in the morning and strolling the boardwalk in the evening. There were no cell phones or air conditioners or TV. There was sun. And sand. And salt water. That was all WE needed for a vacation. Handheld technology did not interfere. Is it coincidental our hotel clerk gave us real keys and the room had only old-style tube TVs (no flat screens here) and no TV remotes? I hope not. I was determined to be renewed on this trip.

The strip of old hotels along the main drag in Old Orchard Beach
The view of the beach from our hotel
Our hotel, the Ocean House Hotel, taken from the sandbar
The ferris wheel at Palace Playland

The weather in Connecticut and Maine - including race day - was unbelievably nice: clear skies, 80s by day, 60s at night. The water temperature was in the 60s. It was perfect!

On to race morning....

Challenge Maine took place on Sunday, August 30. The morning was clear and in the 60s. The 1.2-mile ocean swim was a point-to-point that started on the beach with a run into the water. It was low-tide at race start - 6:30 a.m. - so the race organizers drew a giant starting line in the sandbar (how cool is that?). My wave (women 40+ and relays) was the last of four for the half. There was also an olympic-distance race that started after us.

Here are some great race morning and swim start photos that Jim took:

Sunrise was beautiful
Yes, we have to swim all the way to that pier
The line-drawn-into-the-sand, a.k.a., The Start

All I have to say about the swim leg is this: I love ocean swims! The best part is diving into the waves at the start. Because of the waves, I found myself laughing my way through the first few minutes of the swim, but once I got into a rhythm I was able to focus on the task at hand. The deeper water was relatively calm by the time we turned parallel to the beach, and the swim went by lightning-fast. One of the great things about Challenge Maine is that when you make the final turn towards the swim finish, you no longer have to spot buoys. There's a huge ferris wheel at that amusement park - Palace Playland - and all you have to do is align your swim with that. It leads you right in to the finish.

Swim finish photos:

The low-tide situation on Sunday unfortunately added more running time to an already-ridiculously-long transition run. The transition zone of Challenge Maine was on the road alongside the OOB Chamber of Commerce grounds. To get there we had to run quite a long distance from the beach - past the Palace Playland arcade and grounds and several concession stands and clam shacks. There's even a Dunkin' Donuts along the transition run (we are, after all, in New England - no Starbucks here).

By the time I got to my bike, my legs were toast. But I had a quicker-than-normal exit from my wetsuit, and I was on my bike quickly. The organizers almost made up for the long transition run by putting the bike-mount line only a few yards from the exit of transition.

What I didn't realize was that I put my bike helmet on crooked and I looked like an idiot. I never did fix that. Go ahead, you can laugh.

Bike start

The 56-mile bike leg was amazing. It took us through rolling hills of Maine - nothing major in terms of climbs, but significant enough that you had to be prepared to deal with hills. The air temperature was still cool and comfortable and cloudy conditions for at least the first half of the bike. It also helped that most of the roads were shaded by trees. My nutrition on the bike consisted mostly of about 30oz/hour of Skratch Labs pineapple hydration drink and a couple gels. I didn't need much more than that and I didn't use any electrolyte supplements until the end of the ride when things started to heat up a little. To my surprise, I was able to maintain a speed between 20 and 22 mph for the entire bike course. I was also impressed that all the 10-mile markers were dead-on accurate.

I played leap frog with a few women on the bike. One of them must have stayed in my slipstream a little too long because as she passed me, I heard the familiar motorcycle sound of a USAT official... I looked to the left and saw that her number was being noted for a penalty (at this race, time penalties are allotted after you finish, no serving penalties on the course as in Ironman brand races). Then she finally gave me the slip and I never saw her again. The other one was the girl who would eventually win the women's race. At one point, a guy managed to get away with drafting off her for about five minutes. I couldn't stand that anymore so I sped up to pass them, and as I did, I told him he was "cheating" by drafting off her. He looked at me and yelled "HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" then took off. Don't worry, I made sure to beat him in the race. In fact, I caught him before the bike leg was over so I didn't even have to run him down.

The bike leg was a little short (maybe also making up for the marathon run out of the water), so it caught me completely off-guard when I rounded the last corner and saw the crowd on the lead-in to transition. I was like "wha?" and then realized what was going on... and somehow by the grace of God, I managed to get out of my shoes in time to not launch myself over the handlebars at the dismount line. It was really close, and I saw fear in the eyes of the volunteers yelling "DISMOUNT!" while ducking out of the way.

Bike finish - yep, my helmet was still crooked

I had to regroup mentally once I was off my bike. Seriously, I usually have time to prep for the dismount so I was a little shook up. I racked my bike and struggled a bit to get into my running shoes while a spectator coached me through the transition. She noticed my Punk Rock Racing kit and said "I have a Punk Rock Racing t-shirt!!!!" (Seriously, Ron, we are EVERYWHERE - shameless note to my sponsor).

Once again, I screwed up the splits on my Garmin in multi-sport mode as I was leaving transition, but then I saw Jim and all was ok. He cracked me up when he said "I have NO idea where you are, just RUN YOUR OWN RACE." (He usually tries to keep count of where I am in the age group or overall race). It was getting hot, and I had no idea how long I could last on this run, but my legs felt good, so I just settled into a pace and hoped I could hold it. I passed a few women at the beginning of the run, and the eventual winner went blowing by me like I was standing still.

Starting the run, I was pretty happy to be feeling good for a change.

The 13.1-mile run took us through slight rolling terrain before turning onto a dirt-and-gravel road around the 3-mile point. Temperatures were in the 80s but there were some great cool breezes. I dumped ice and ice-water on myself and drank what they were handing out. My mile pace was relative steady, near 7:30s, until about mile 8 when everything started to fall apart. At that point, it was all I could do to just keep running, and I walked the aid stations. At every mile marker I reminded myself "It's only 4, then 3, then 2 miles to the finish." At the last two aid stations I grabbed coke because my stomach was a little woozy, and I felt much better in the last two miles, which were mostly downhill.

Coming into the finish, I out-kicked the guy in front of me - don't ask me where I got the energy - to finish just under 4:46. And it was over. I managed to clock a 1:42 on the run - looks like I still have a lot of work to before I'm happy with my running, but I had eight promising miles in there.

The finish
Butt shot, only for showing the back of my awesome PxRx kit.

I saw Jim at the finish line. He told me I was 3rd overall. Whoa. Really? I knew there were women in front of me, but I didn't realize there were only two "ahead of me" and I always forget that I started behind everyone else, so I had a 5-minute lead on any women under 40 that I passed.

I also have to mention that this race has one of the best finisher medals I've ever received - it's the KRAKEN.

We hung around at the finish to grab some food and drinks, and while I was waiting to get into transition to pick up my bike, I noticed legendary pro triathlete Karen Smyers was standing in front of me. I got up the nerve to talk to her - she raced in the Olympic-distance race but had some problems with her lungs so I think she dropped out. She asked me about my race, and it came up that I was from Connecticut. She told me she grew up in Weathersfield (I did not know that). I told her I grew up in Meriden. A lightbulb went off... who knew? Of course Karen Smyers swam for the Meriden Marlins - the best AAU swim team in Connecticut back in the day. Everyone who was anyone swam for them. We rattled off names.. recalling some of the great swimmers from the region including Megan Wright and Lisa Zeiser. It was just before my time as a swimmer (Smyers is 4 years older than me, I started swimming in high school just after she would have graduated).

Do I even need to say? It's a very, very small world.

The women's podium

It was a short walk back the hotel to take a shower and run back out to gorge myself on New England fried clams before the awards ceremony. Jim and I spent the rest of the day sightseeing up the coast of Maine and playing skee-ball at the arcade. Jim hit the skee-ball jackpot on Saturday, but all we managed to afford with our ticket winnings was a souvenir mug. Here are photos of food and the spoils of the coastal Maine skee-ball follies of 2015:

Fried clams - they always remind me of my dad.
OMG look at all these tickets. 
What do I do with all these?
Buy this lovely souvenir mug, of course.

Anyone who's grown up and moved away from a place they loved when they were young knows what it's like to feel a longing for home and a great sense of nostalgia upon return. This trip hit me inordinately hard and I don't know why. Even though I had never been here as a kid, when I took a final walk onto the beach in OOB, the tears welled up and I had to fight them off. I didn't want Jim to see me like that. I didn't want him to think we can't come back here or that I had a bad race. I'll have to live with the knowledge that New England is in my blood and even though we live in Ohio, I always know where home is in my heart.
The lighthouse at Two Lights (Hopper painted this one)
Cove at Two Lights 
Lighthouse at Portland Head (Hopper painted this one too)
"I still have some sand in my shoes"
Stupid giant iPhone ruined this shot.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Gory Details: from IM to ER to OR

I'm not sure exactly how to start this post - or how to write the middle or end, actually - but I guess I better start where I left off on my last post.

I said I would write a race report about Ironman Texas.

Indeed.. so I did. Unfortunately, it got almost infinitely delayed because all the analysis in the world could not help me with those important "lessons learned" from my race in Texas. It started out so great. In fact, the beginning and the middle went surprisingly well. I just don't know what happened at the end, although I have a possible explanation now which is something I didn't have a month ago.

Ron and me - before swim start.
I really wanted to have a great race in Texas for many reasons. One of the big reasons was that my great friend, Ron, founder of Punk Rock Racing and designer of the new race kit I was wearing here, surprised me by showing up in my hotel room the day before the race. I was therefore super-jazzed to have extra support on the course and at the start that morning.

Ironman Texas started with a 2.4-mile swim in Lake Woodlands. Before the swim, I was told my more than one person that this would be a long swim and do NOT expect a fast time in this particular swim for many reasons. The swim - a rolling start - did a U-turn, then made a right into the waterway channel. I swam wide, as usual, to avoid getting clobbered, and surprisingly had a rather uneventful swim. My stroke felt great and I took it easy until the U-turn, after which I picked up my pace and passed a lot of people before - and even after - we made our way into the channel.

Swim start in Lake Woodlands
Because the swim was "long," I took it very easy, and I hadn't been able to get in the pool more than twice a week during my build-up, I was expecting to see something around 1:10-1:15 (or worse) on my watch when I stepped out of the water. The 1:02 on my watch was a blinding surprise. I tried to keep a lid on my emotions in T1.

We were encouraged to carry our bike shoes through the transition zone because of ankle-deep mud - it was gross, but we were able to rinse our feet before starting the bike leg. I knew I was in good shape when I got to the rack to see most of my age-group was still in the water. When I finally got on the bike, my legs felt great, again surprised with none of the usual fatigue after the swim.

Leaving T1
So I rode relaxed for the first 50 miles (I was told the second half of the bike course is when the hills show up) and made sure to drink at least a bottle and a half of fluids per hour. My new fuel regimen included Skratch Labs hydration drink mix and solid fuel - mostly rice-based recipes from the Feed Zone Portables cookbook.

I took in about 250-300 calories per hour and as the day got hotter (in the high 80s and very humid), I remained relaxed and didn't push too hard, even on the rolling hills in the second half. I did not feel any thirst or hunger during the ride, and much to my surprise, Texas was the first Ironman bike leg during which I had no nausea. Convinced my fueling was perfect, I was actually looking forward to a good - and strong - run.

When I pulled into T2, my time was one of my best 112-milers, my legs still felt good - albeit a little stiff - and I knew I was in the race although my husband Jim and I decided beforehand that he would withhold from me my position in the age group so that I wouldn't chase anyone.

The first mile off the bike was about 7:40 (too fast), but my legs were feeling great and I was trying to run relaxed. The second mile was right around 8 minutes (goal pace). And that was the last moment I felt good.

Inching along
Then everything seemed to fall apart. My legs started to give and I was overwhelmed with a sense of fatigue that I can't explain. It was like every molecule in my leg muscles was screaming at me that they were tired and I needed to stop. It wasn't the heat. It wasn't thirst. It wasn't hunger. It was just .. fatigue. I had no explanation and I could not will myself to go any faster or any slower.

I inched along - running, then walking, then running again - pouring water and ice on myself - and at one of the aid stations around the midpoint, someone stepped right in front of me, and I went down hard, twisting my ankle in the process. I figured that was it, but the volunteers and medical staff helped me get back on my feet, gave me ice on the ankle and I was determined to get back on the course and finish, no matter how slow.

I was angry, confused, hot, and feeling pretty woozy by the time I saw Jim with about 3 miles to go. He kept telling me that everyone in front of my was slowing down, but that did little to help because I had nothing in my legs. I stopped and proceeded to vomit right in front of him. I can't imagine what he was thinking, but I remained on the course and kept going forward. I was never so happy to see a finish line in my life, and - yes, shockingly - I managed to pull out an age-group 4th even with that dismal almost-five-hour marathon.

By that point, I didn't care about anything except getting my medal. I tried to eat and drink after the race but ended up in the med tent with severe nausea and dizziness.

For a couple weeks after the race, I was still very confused about what went wrong. Was it not enough long-distance training? I had only one 100-mile bike ride but several close to 90 - winter training was difficult in Cleveland this year because of extreme cold. And I only ran 18-20 miles a couple times. I had several confidence-boosting long bricks though. Was it my fueling? Maybe solid food doesn't process as quickly as liquid? I really had no clue.

Now I'm starting to rethink it because of a recent illness that has sidelined me. Here come the "gory details" mentioned in the title. And it's really embarrassing to talk about, but hell, it's the truth.

About 4 weeks ago, shortly after Ironman Texas, I started to get a strange pain in my butt, kind of up near my tailbone and to the right. I was also feeling extremely fatigued - so much that Jim kept insisting something was wrong because I was sleeping so much. I sloughed off the pain as being muscular in nature - maybe from riding my road bike for the first time in a while. I thought nothing of it.

A week later, when the pain did not subside, I started poking around and felt what can only be termed a "lump" - or hardness. Still thinking it was muscular, I went to Google (yep, I Googled "pain in the ass"). Googling is not something I recommend to anyone contemplating a lump of any sort in their body. GO TO THE DOCTOR.

In the second week of butt pain, there were also other symptoms - ones I did not associate with my butt. I had a headache that wouldn't go away, I lost my appetite and was constantly feeling nauseous, and I had pain in my skin (the kind of pain you might associate with a fever but my temperature was only 99ish). When I did a training ride or run, I would get fatigued and be dragging after about 20 minutes. I told Jim I would call the doctor if it didn't go away, but it felt like it was subsiding by that Thursday, so I put off the call.

BAD IDEA. By Monday, I was in severe pain with all the other symptoms and now a larger elongated lump. Scared sh*tless about what it might be, I called and begged my doctor's office for an appointment, which they couldn't provide until Thursday. Tuesday, I called our health insurance "nurse on call" for advice - which was, duh - SEE A DOCTOR WITHIN 24 HOURS. The Cleveland Clinic has same-day appointments, so I took one Tuesday afternoon with a nurse practitioner. I didn't care. I was in severe pain.

The diagnosis? The first diagnosis was that I had a pilonidal cyst - this is basically an infection/abscess located near your tailbone usually caused by a plugged up hair follicle. She gave me antibiotics and sent me home. Two days later, I saw my family doctor. There was still pain. Some fever. Major fatigue. The lump was unchanged -- maybe bigger, it was hard to tell.

She had a different diagnosis: I had a peri-anal abscess. She gave me a different antibiotic in case the first one didn't work and referred me to a colorectal surgeon, just in case - if it needed to be "lanced and drained" it would be a simple office procedure for him. Ok, now I was freaked out - I've failed to mention in this post that eleven days from then I had a trip to Sweden to race in the ITU Long-course Age Group World Championship. My doctor reassured me that the surgical consult was "only for the worst case scenario."

Yep, I went home and Googled the hell out of this one.

My Google findings turned up the following: this type of abscess will not respond to antibiotics. It must be drained, either on its own or by lancing by a doctor.

My surgical consult was Tuesday. By Monday, I was almost comatose with an ever-expanding lump (this thing was now covering about a third of my butt cheek), pain, headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and now a 100-degree fever. I called Jim, he called the surgeon's office -- they sent us to the emergency room "where it could be lanced and drained if necessary." In the ER, I was pumped full of a DIFFERENT antibiotic, pain killers, anti-nausea drugs and given a CAT scan for more information. The ER doc said no way was he touching this thing because of its location - better leave that to the colorectal guy.

(JUST A QUICK ASIDE: while we were chatting with the emergency room doctor, we found out that he was in attendance at my first Ironman, Ironman Utah in 2002 - his brother raced - and he happened to be one of the medical personnel trying to revive the man who drowned in Utah Lake that morning. Talk about bizarre coincidences!)

So... after reading the scan, he gave me the third diagnosis. I had an ischio-rectal abscess that was no longer full of fluid but now had blossomed into a case of cellulitis. It "had not become gangrenous" (yeah, i know, WTF!?!?). I was sent home from the ER with more instructions and info to deliver to my colorectal surgeon. When I got home, my fever went up to 101 degrees.

I had the worst night of fitful sleep ever.

Tuesday morning, I saw the surgeon and found myself in tears just telling him how bad I felt. He took one look, checked the CAT scans, and sent me to the hospital to prep for surgery in the OR at 2pm. No problem, he even said I'd be able to race in Sweden the next week. REALLY?

When I woke up from surgery, the overall feeling of illness was gone. Seriously. The drugs were not masking it.. my headache and nausea and fever were all gone. I still had pain, but now it was from three incisions and drainage tubes sticking out of my butt cheeks.

Jim gave me the lowdown - the abscess was much worse than even the surgeon expected - hence it wasn't a simple lance-and-drain kind of thing. It was deep and extended to my left side (they call it a horseshoe abscess). No, I wouldn't be racing in Sweden - no lake swimming with open wounds.

I didn't care. I was so happy to be free of this thing - and I spent the next three days in bed. We contemplated still taking the trip to Sweden, but I couldn't envision sitting on that plane for many hours and spending the entire trip worrying about gauze and drainage and - omg - what if there were complications?

So, it was a drag to do, but we canceled the whole trip, and I've been recovering from this surgery for one week as of today. I saw the surgeon this morning and - yay! - my drainage tubes have been removed and he hopes it will heal up in 4-6 weeks. But no swimming (Boo!)

I can't help but wonder if my fatigue in Texas might have been the beginning of this illness. Either way, and true to my nickname, I seem to have picked a great way to start out a new age group.