Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ironman Coeur d'Alene: an Unplanned Disaster, a New Data Point

It would be a lie to say I'm not disappointed with my race at Ironman Coeur d'Alene. My goal was to finish under 11 hours and hopefully qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Missing a goal in an Ironman race is particularly problematic because it is next-to-impossible to get a second chance until the next year unless you have the cash to enter several races in the same year. Ironman races sell out quickly and at $525 per race, my earnings make that scenario impossible.

But an additional, and perhaps more important, goal of every race is to learn something new, something that will make me a better runner or triathlete in the future. The reason I go back to triathloning time and again is because there is no such thing as the perfect race. If there were, I would have no reason to continue doing it. I must address what I did right, what I did wrong, how I might adjust my expectations, and how I can improve race strategy and prerace planning for future success. And, before I start my review, let me note that most of what went wrong was directly related to the ONE thing I had NOT planned for: the COLD.

Ironman CDA was not a complete disaster. I am not going to complain about how terrible I swam, biked, or ran. My mistakes were based on assumptions, and we are all familiar with the cliche: "Hindsight is 20-20." Had my assumptions been different, I would have executed my race differently. But my assumptions were based on a lack of information, and most of that information could have been gathered well before race day. The most important information was how the weather would affect me. We knew the morning would see temperatures in the low 50s and the afternoon would see the mid to upper 60s followed by rain and a temperature drop in the evening. I was lucky to have with me my husband Jim and my good friend Julie who somehow has managed to get away from her very busy life and support me whenever I've done an Ironman. Team J, as I call them, helped me immensely in deciding which clothes to pack for race morning.

I'll start at the start: the swim. The water was around 65 degrees F and comfortable with a wetsuit. I opted to wear my one-piece 2XU tri suit throughout the race. I expected to complete the 2.4-mile swim in 1 hour or less. My actual swim time was 1:05. Based on the conditions in Coeur d'Alene Lake that morning, five minutes is nothing to fret about - I was relieved to get out of the water in that time. The swim course was two loops and on race morning, the wind made the lake very choppy. We swam out against the current. The waves were a bit disconcerting and I swallowed water quite a few times. But worse than that was the thing I had forgotten in the six years since I did an Ironman: the mass swim start. 2500 people all in the water converging on a single point is no laughing matter. Bad swimmers get clobbered. Good swimmers get clobbered. I got clobbered. I got kicked and whacked in the face, pushed under, and grabbed (how is it that people's hands always end up wrapped around my ankle?). I have always been amazed that everyone makes it out of this mass chaos alive. By the back stretch of the first loop I was out of danger and swimming in my own space. My first loop was 31 minutes, the second was slower, due in part to what seemed like rougher surf by that time (confirmed by other racers the next day).

My Live-and-Learn swim lessons from this race would have to be the following:
  1. If your race is in a large body of water (such as a lake in which current or waves will be an issue), always practice swimming in open water, simulating race conditions the best you can. I did not have much opportunity to do this because my race was in June and I live in Cleveland - our Great Lake, Erie, has been too cold to swim in (or I was too much of a wimp).
  2. If you are a strong swimmer (and by "strong," I don't mean "fast"), start in the pack and muscle your way through the swim.
  3. If you are a fast swimmer, either start in the very front and sprint like hell to STAY in front, or make your way to the periphery, and angle in to the first turn.
  4. If you are expecting a time of 1:30 or slower, let the mass chaos begin without you, then jump in the water and enjoy your swim.

The bike leg was also two loops, nice and flat in spots, rolling in spots, and relatively hilly and technical in spots, but nothing to get too worried about. We drove the course two days before the race so I could see what to expect, and I read information online about how to approach it. Since the bike leg has always been my weakest, I planned to hold back for the first loop, go a little harder on the second loop, and save most of my energy for the run. That's exactly what I did. I let several of the women in my age group power by me early on the bike and thought to myself that I would see them either later on the bike or on the run. Before I saw the course, I expected to be able to finish the 112-mile bike ride in 5:40-5:50. I trained very hard on my trainer over the winter and did several long rides both indoors and out, three of which were over 100 miles. On hills. I finished the bike leg in 6:11, not even close to my goal. But the second half of each loop was into a stiff wind, and the hills seemed worse than they looked from the car so I took it easy. In retrospect, I think I took it too easy. When I got off the bike, I was feeling a little too good.

Based on the weather report, I expected the bike leg to begin in the upper 50s and end in the 60s. To handle the temperature range, in my transition bag, I packed both long and short sleeve jerseys, both wool and cotton socks, and gloves. And before the race, I bought a pair of arm warmers to throw in for good measure. All conditions covered. In T1, I went with the short sleeves and gloves which was perfect. I took off the gloves about 2 hours into the ride and had no trouble with cold. (It got quite sunny and warm at times). My nutrition and water consumption went exactly as planned. No nausea. No dehydration. No disorientation

Live-and-Learn bike lessons (without discussing the run yet):
  1. Learn more about the course beforehand -- perhaps ask someone who's done it before.
  2. Be willing to push it a little harder when you know you've done the training.
  3. Add a second mid-to-long, slightly harder bike ride to my weekly training schedule (most people do this already, but I wasn't able to train outside much this winter/spring because of extended cold/wet weather -- and I got sick of the trainer).
  4. Do more long bricks, with runs of at least 1.5 hours after a long ride (again, because of the weather, I had more difficulty with my brick training this year compared to the last time I trained for Ironman)

Which brings me to the run. As with the other two legs, the IM CDA run course was two loops. It starts with a short, flat out-and-back in the park that serves as the race site, passes the start, heads out of town via residential roads that are mostly flat, runs on a paved lakeside trail with long gentle hills (also part of the bike course), turns around midway up a steep hill, then goes back the same way. It's extremely spectator-friendly. Family and friends can cheer for their athletes three times without ever leaving their spot. With seven "blocks" to go, finishers are split off the main route and directed to the finish line. Not that I remember much about it. I do remember seeing the finish chute the day before the race. Thank goodness I took a picture of it.

I came off the bike leg as expected, feeling a bit stiff. Running in my bike shoes is always difficult, and although I was slow, I don't remember feeling the characteristic "wobble" from my Ironmans past. I grabbed my transition bag and headed into the T2 change tent. In my bag, I had dry shorts and a singlet, Gu, Gu Chomps, Hammer Endurolytes, vaseline for my feet, dry socks, and my trusty Adidas racing shoes. I put on the socks and shoes, stashed the food in the back pocket of my tri suit and took off. I never considered putting warmer clothes in my transition bag. I checked the weather that morning. Why would I need something warmer? It's a run. It's better to dress down. I'm going to sweat no matter what I wear. My singlet and shorts wouldn't be warmer than my tri suit -- I only packed them in case it rained and I needed something dry. But that's beside the point -- it was at least 50 degrees out there. I've run races in shorts and a singlet in 35 degrees! Running races. Not Ironman.

Here's where advance planning, knowledge about myself, and training in all conditions might have come in handy. I stress the word "might" because I can't say that I could have simulated in training the race conditions at IM CDA. Had I known that it would start raining and the temperatures would drop rather early in the evening, I might have put something warmer to wear in my run transition bag or my "special needs bag." (Note: Ironman events give you special needs bags that you may retrieve halfway through the bike and the run -- it's kind of like having insurance.) But, at 13.1 miles, I'm not even sure I would have considered putting on something warmer. I wasn't feeling cold.

Back to the run discussion. I left T2 feeling relaxed and very fast. I heard Jim yell: "nice and easy! you have a long way to go!" I heeded the advice and settled into a comfortable shuffle stride. I was surprised to see a 7:10 in my first mile. (Note: this is why I think I went too easy on the bike.) I backed off, but based on how comfortable I felt, a 7:30-8:00 pace was reasonable. At the half, my pace had slowed a bit, but I still felt good and had already passed many women in my age group. The only thing that was bothering me was a slight disorientation. When I saw Jim, I told him I felt a bit out of sorts, but after the short out-and-back in the park and increased calorie intake, it seemed to have passed. On the way back out of town, it started to rain, a cold wind kicked up off the lake, and my disorientation came back. To combat it, I began walking the aid stations to consume more gel/water/gatorade. It had no effect. Two women in my age group passed me. I let them go. Walking the aid stations caused my calves to turn to cement, and by the second loop turnaround, my mile pace had slowed by over a minute, I was in a dead spiral toward a 9:30 pace, and there was a new problem. I started feeling what can only be described as electric shocks in my upper arms and shoulders -- it was the cold.

Some runners were now wrapping themselves in those silver plastic blankets being handed out at the aid stations. With about 7-8 miles left, I waved them off. I was almost finished. I didn't need to stop for something ELSE, and least of all, a blanket(!). I kept moving forward, mostly running, and then I saw it. The sign. It said "Finish Line" with an arrow pointing to the left (I think). The course marshall said: "second loop this way! finish line that way!" I hesitated. She said it again. Louder. While pointing in the two directions. I knew my way was toward the finish line but I don't remember much after that. I rounded a corner and heard a spectator yell: "SEVEN BLOCKS TO GO!" I looked in front of me. Where was the finish line? If it's seven blocks away, why can't I see it? Where were the lights? Where was the crowd? I kept running. I don't remember much else. I don't remember the cheers. I don't remember the announcer telling the crowd to give me extra support because I was struggling coming down the chute. I don't remember crossing the finish line. I do remember wondering why I was being told to stop. Jim said I asked him if I qualified -- then I became blank and unresponsive.

I had hypothermia. The ONE disaster I had NOT planned for. I spent 2.5 hours in the medical tent. I don't remember much of it. I do remember people looking down at me and asking me questions. I do remember trying to answer them and that my brain couldn't form words with my mouth. I do remember being told my body's core temperature had dropped to 90.3 degrees F. Is that even possible? I don't remember getting an IV. I don't remember bleeding all over the cot after a bad IV stick. I do remember wondering what Jim and Julie were doing. Julie told me they were freezing and that Jim stood out in the rain for 2.5 hours with no update on my condition (although she tried desperately to get information). One of the volunteers offered his cell phone for me to call Jim -- he said they would pick up my bike. When I was finally sitting up and drinking warm liquids, I noticed my hands were shaking. I had warmed up to the point of shivering. When my blood pressure returned to normal, another volunteer walked me out, called Jim on her phone, and waited for him to come get me. It was over. We headed back to the hotel. It was almost dark. There were still people finishing.

So, what can we possibly learn from this run? A few things:
  1. When the temperature is in the 50s and you are doing an endurance event that will deplete your energy stores, respect the cold.
  2. In Ironman, make use of your "special needs" bags to pack something dry and/or warm, even if you don't think it's necessary.
  3. Disorientation is not only a symptom of dehydration. Don't keep running, get a medical assessment. (Had I done that, race medics may have told me I was struggling from cold and made me take a blanket.)

Would I have done things differently had I known the temperature would drop into the 40s or 50s on the run? Probably not. But now I have that data point. For next time

My time? 11:13.
My place? 6th in my age group

Not really much of a disaster afterall. But not what I had planned for either. I am just thankful to have finished and to have the greatest support crew ever: Jim and Julie. Team J! After they showed me my finish line photo, I wonder why they keep coming back to these things. But I don't think I could do it without them.

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