So, then, how do tell this story? It didn't really start out a disaster-in-the-making. It started out a smart race strategy playing out exactly as planned, an almost-perfect execution backed up by strong fitness and brain-work. I did not enter IMLP to "finish" -- I entered with the goal to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
Upon arriving in Lake Placid on July 21, the J-Team (my husband Jim, my amazing friend Julie and I) had a plan. The plan was to stay calm and relaxed and scope out the area, transition zone and course logistics to ensure no surprises on race day. The rest of the time would be spent sightseeing in the little Adirondack village that had the distinction of hosting the Olympic Winter Games not once, but twice, in 1932 and in 1980. My parents-in-law, who also wanted to see the Adirondack region (and the race, bless them), would meet us there.
The plan worked well. By the end of the next day we had taken care of the vitals:
- the race registration
- the "scope out"
- the "course drive" (viewing the bike course)
- the yearly tradition of eating (and drinking) at a local brewpub -- this time we hit two: Lake Placid Pub & Brewery and the Great Adirondack Brewing Co.
- the grocery shopping at the local Price Chopper (in college, it was affectionately known as a "Chopper Run")
- the Olympic Museum -- which displayed such things as medals from different games, Sonia Hennie memorabila, and bobsleds throughout time
- the ice rinks -- including Herb Brooks Arena, the legendary place where a bunch of USA college kids shocked the world by beating the Soviets and winning the Gold Medal in 1980
- the massive towering ski jumps
- the ski-slopes of Whiteface Mountain (via gondola)
The 2.4-mile IMLP swim is a two-loop counter-clockwise course in Mirror Lake with a deep-water mass-start. Jim - the engineer - had already determined that the geometry of the course -- a very narrow rectangle -- provided just a small distance penalty for swimmers starting wide to the right. Using my husband's geekiness to my advantage, I started on the front line and my swim went perfectly. I stayed relaxed, found a set of feet to draft off and experienced none of the usual crowded Ironman swim clobbering, despite warnings from other athletes about this particular swim. The result was my fastest time -- just under an hour.
The swim-to-bike transition at IMLP is a long run from the lake, but it went very quickly, and I was on my bike in a flash. It did help that I had my bike racked at the very end of the bar, adjacent to the run path. (That was luck, not skill.)
The 112-mile bike course is also two loops. It starts with a very short steep downhill followed by a left turn. Here's where the fun began. In classic Disaster Magnet style, I hit a bump in the road at the bottom of the hill and launched both my nutrition bottles -- this, after SPECIFICALLY replacing my bottle cages with new "no launch" models a few days before. I had to stop and retrieve them for two reasons: littering is prohibited on the course and all my race calories were in them.
The bike course leaves Lake Placid via the road past the Olympic ski jumps -- another steep, short downhill. At the bottom? You guessed it -- another bump in the road. My bottles became projectiles a second time. Retrieving them took a few moments longer this time because a state trooper decided to help out by tossing a bottle back to me. Doesn't he KNOW I can't catch? The rest of my ride would be characterized by constant bottle checks. In fact, I got so paranoid about bottle catapulting that I almost didn't notice when my gel flask was ejected out of the pocket of my bike shorts. I am NOT making this up. It was a comedy of errors. At one point, I even collided with someone else's bottle left in the road. Fortunately for anyone behind me, the impact with my front wheel gave it a perfect spiral and sent it into the grass.
So yeah, the IMLP bike course. The difficulty of this course is matched only by its beauty. It follows scenic hills, rivers, gorges and even takes in the slopes of Whiteface Mountain. Stunned by the scenery, you may reach a point of bliss during which you happily forget the 13 miles of hills coming in the latter part of each loop. The best part of the IMLP bike course is the aptly-named "screaming descent" into the town of Keene. Except, I was the one screaming -- from fear of spontaneous combustion upon reaching speeds I'd never seen before. The descent comes just after the climb out of Lake Placid.
The climbs on the IMLP course are deceiving, and I believe a five- to ten-minute deficit in the two loops is almost inevitable, irrespective of your ease of effort or biking prowess. I stayed in an aerobic state and finished the second loop about seven minutes slower than the first even though my bottles stayed put. I arrived at the bike-to-run transition feeling relatively relaxed and exactly where I wanted to be time-wise. OK, maybe not exactly. I had hoped to be a little faster, but I refused to panic. My bike nutrition had been flawless -- no nausea, no light-headedness, no dehydration.
The bike-to-run transition seemed like a maze, but all I had to do was follow the finger-pointing of the volunteers. They sent us right by a wall of porta-johns. This is a good thing if you have to "go." This is also a good thing if you DON'T have to "go" but want to give other competitors the slip because they DO have to "go." When I got to the change tent, I had yet another projectile awareness. As I grabbed my socks, shoes, hat, Gu Roctane and Endurolytes, I noticed I had lost one more thing on the bike course: my asthma inhaler. I started repeating the revelation: "my inhaler? my inhaler is gone!" The poor volunteer helping me dove desperately into my transition bag to find it. "No, no! I LOST my inhaler on the bike!" She was not amused, but, as I can say about all the volunteers, she is a saint.
The 26.2-mile run starts on a downhill, rolls a bit, then continues on a downhill -- the same downhill that the bikes follow past the ski jumps and out of Lake Placid. It would have been easy to hammer that hill, but I held back and listened to the voice of reason, the one that studied those "how to race Ironman" books, blogs and articles for six months. Jim and Julie informed me I was 12th in my age group and the leader was only 15 minutes ahead. I went out relaxed, took in water, sports drink, and Gu exactly as I trained. My pace was around 7:15-7:30 per mile on the downhills but then settled around 7:35-7:45. The run course is also very scenic, but eventually it's an uphill battle back into town. My pace dropped to 8:30 on the uphills.
Heading into the second loop, Jim and Julie yelled to me that I was now running in fourth place in my age group. After the downhills, I started to feel a bit bloated so I interspersed electrolyte tablets in my feeding regime. I had to walk a bit from the bloating, and noticing my distress, another athlete asked if I was ok. I said "I just need to throw up." His response? "Just GIT'R DONE!" Some people apparently have a much better grip on these things than I do -- that was NOT my first thought. Around mile 17, it got itSELF done. My stomach distress vanished instantly, and I was back on pace, feeling good aerobically but beginning to feel some fatigue in my legs. I continued to drink well and managed to pass two more women in my age group. The leader was all that was left. I was at 19 miles.
Little did I know that my race was about to come apart. The nausea came back, and at the next water stop, I was bent over vomiting many times. Out came the entire contents of my stomach -- basically, a LOT of liquid. The volunteers at the aid station sat me down and tried to work through it with me. They surmised I was severely dehydrated. They also noticed I was shivering. They gave me sports drink, pretzels, a wind-breaker jacket and a mylar blanket. I got up and tried to start running again. I managed to walk-jog to the next water stop, but I was losing focus and I decided to seek medical help. That was the end of my race.
The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground wrapped in blankets with tremors in my body and begging the medical volunteers to help me finish. Instead, they stuck me with an I-V and put me in an ambulance to the finish line. At my request, one of them called Jim to tell him what happened and to meet me at the medical tent.
This was NOT how it was supposed to end. I was supposed to hear my name as I crossed the finish line. I was supposed to get my Kona slot. I was supposed to get my Ironman P.R. How did this happen?
At this point, I'm lost in analysis, determining where to go from here, what signal I obviously missed, and what I might do to avoid having the same thing happen next time. Did I say next time? Oh yes. There will be a NEXT time.