Monday, September 13, 2010

You CAN Always Go Home: FIRMMan Race Report

Mom & me, prerace - look at that sky!
I know one thing for sure, home is where the heart is. By "home," I don't mean the house in Connecticut in which I grew up. I mean New England. And I returned to my home this weekend to finish up my regular triathlon season with a race that's very near and dear: the FIRMMan Half-Ironman in Narragansett, Rhode Island. The race usually attracts an excellent field of local athletes and is produced by Fiske Independent Race Management (F.I.R.M.), who organize more than 30 events throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The first time I did the FIRMMan was in 2002. I chose the race for two reasons: it was close to my family and I could use it as a warm-up for Ironman Hawaii. That year, the weather was stellar - sunny, in the 80s, and dry. I did my fastest times ever at both the 70.3 distance (4:35) AND the half-marathon (yes, it's true, my fastest 13.1-mile run ever was in a triathlon). I finished third woman overall that year, and after the race, my parents, my husband Jim, and I spent a nice few hours on the beach before we headed home to Cleveland.

The second time I did the FIRMMan was in 2004. Jim and I were going to be in Connecticut that weekend for a party, and I decided to give the race another shot even though I was not training seriously that year. I don't remember much from that year except that the weather was almost exactly the same as in 2002, I finished third, again, and we had a great time afterward with my parents, again. Sadly, it was the last time my dad would attend one of my races as he passed away from cancer the next year.

Despite great experiences, the FIRMMan was not immune to my disasters. Even though I had a great race in 2002, I had two classic Disaster Magnet-style mishaps on the course. I hit a pothole near the beginning of the bike course and lost my race nutrition bottle, and I took a wrong turn on the bike course and lost about 1-2 minutes. Then, when I attempted a third showing at the FIRMMan in 2008, the entire race was postponed until a later date due to a hurricane sweeping north along the eastern seaboard. We learned this after checking into our hotel in Narragansett.

This year, we had planned to stop in Narragansett for the FIRMMan before continuing on to Cape Cod for a vacation. But, as they say, the best-laid plans... Jim found out he has a torn meniscus and needs knee surgery so we decided to scrap our vacation plans because of his limited mobility. The trip was abbreviated to four days -- to drive, race, and drive home. But we did manage to pick up my mom and drop her back off in Connecticut on the way.

This year's FIRMMan would be the last opportunity to assess my training and tri skills before Ironman 70.3 Clearwater on November 13. I didn't plan much of a taper, but I did take several days easy before the race to get the feel of racing fresh -- something I hadn't done since Lake Placid in July. I dealt with my normal pre-race nerves in a different way this time. I drank two glasses of red wine the night before the race and I was out cold by 9 p.m. We woke up at 3:45 on race morning and got down to the start by 5:15. While it was still dark, I set up my transition, got body-marked and complained about the cold (it was around 50 degrees F).

The race takes place at Narragansett Town Beach with a 1.2-mile point-to-point swim parallel to the shore. I donned my wetsuit while we walked up the beach and got in for a quick warm up at the starting line with 10 minutes to race start. The water felt colder than the official measurement of 70 degrees, but it was warmer than the air. With overcast conditions, the day's high temperature would not reach 70.

Swim finish
Because I signed up in the "elite" category, I would start in the first wave with male and female elites and 50+ men. When it appeared I was the only female in the wave, I regretted the decision. All the other women started in the third wave, eight minutes behind me. In years past, the surf had been rough on the way out but the rest of the swim was relatively calm. This year, the opposite was true -- the deeper water offshore was rough and spotting buoys was more difficult than in the past. At the final turn, a course official directed me to "spot the building!" as the buoys were almost impossible to see and the current on the way in was sweeping athletes off course. I realized this when I reached the shore and several swimmers were running toward the transition from the far left. Despite unfavorable conditions, I had one of my faster swims and crossed the chip-mat around 25 minutes. There were very efficient wetsuit peelers just inside the transition zone, making my transition much quicker.

Bike start, adjusting my jersey
The FIRMMan bike course can be described as rolling New England hills and remains the site of my second fastest 56-mile ride ever. The air temperature was in the 50s for the start of the bike leg, and I found myself launching so many snot rockets even NASA would be proud (my husband thinks that would make a good name for a punk band). I was glad I decided to wear my bike jersey, but it did absolutely nothing for my feet which were blocks of ice for most of the ride. I was able to keep my average speed just over 20 mph until we faced a strong headwind in the last 15- to 20-mile stretch.

I spent most of the first hour of the ride jockeying for position with one of the 50+ male riders. He spent most of that time looking over his shoulder at me (or who-knows-what?). At the first major hill, I gave him the old Contador slip when he threw his chain. He eventually caught and passed me, and then I didn't see him again until the last five miles. When I finally caught him again, he had words of wisdom for me: "great way to come back!" (as though I had rallied to catch him). I didn't have the heart to break the news that it wasn't I who sped up, but actually he who slowed down. Only one woman passed me on the bike, but she was on a relay team and I re-passed her before the transition. At 2:46, my bike time was at least six minutes slower than I expected.

In transition, the announcer noted I was the first woman off the bike and on the run course. Neither he nor I had a clue on the performances of the women behind me. And I knew that if any of them were within eight minutes of me, I wasn't actually leading the race.

Which brings me to the run. If I had any designs on winning this race, I had to be at least eight minutes in front of the second woman by the time I finished the run. The run is on gradual rolling hills through neighborhoods and scenic by-ways. The only major hill - a steady incline - begins well before the first mile marker and doesn't end until after mile 2. This hill also leads runners down to the finish. Thus, my strategy was to run hard for 11 miles and follow it with a two-mile controlled fall. On the course, I would gauge my overall lead (if I still had one) at the two 180-degree turns when the course loops back on itself.

At the start of the run, I heard Jim say "relax - go out easy!" I heeded his advice and settled into my classic marathon shuffle step. Based on how I felt and a nagging sharp pain in my hip, I thought a 7-minute mile pace would be my best bet. After the first mile, the hip pain settled a bit and I split a 6:57 at mile 2, the uphill mile. It was at this moment I realized the potential for this to be my best run of the season.

The beach finish
At the first turnaround near mile 4, I kept an eye out for the second woman. She was about five or six minutes back. I had to stay strong. I alternated water and Gatorade at the aid stations with no walking. My goal was to keep every mile under seven minutes. I would have done it had it not been for one equipment malfunction -- my salt capsule container was catapulted from my tri shorts and I had to stop to retrieve during mile 8. By the second turnaround near mile 9, I noticed I was more than 10 minutes ahead of any woman I saw on the course.

The excitement of my lead got me through miles 10 and 11 and into the final downhill miles. This thrill came to a sudden end when I realized my memory failed me. The FIRMMan had one more trick up its sleeve before the finish line -- the "beach quarter." The final quarter mile of the run course is on beach sand. It's almost like acing a multiple-choice exam only to find out there are essay questions at the end. It felt like I would never reach the finish line, but then I was there -- and smiling. I finally hit that sub-1:30 half-marathon that I had almost given up on.

Awards ceremony
It didn't take long after finishing for me to start shivering in the cold. Jim confirmed that I had won the women's race while I changed into dry clothes and packed up my bike and wetsuit. The finish line included a awesome post-race meal (as always here) and luau. Then I remembered yet another awesome thing about this race. All the category winners get to choose their awards from a table full of "stuff" which this year included great items such as Tyr transition bags and triathlon clothing certificates from sponsor V3 Multisport in Arlington, Massachusetts. I chose a bottle of Hammergel that came with a QuintanaRoo wetsuit - you can't beat that deal! We spent a little time meeting and talking to other triathletes before it was time for us to head back to the hotel and get cleaned up so that the non-triathletes (Jim and mom) could have a little fun and dinner before we left Rhode Island.

And it's always hard to leave. Because it feels like I'm already home.

1 comment:

  1. For a second there I thought I was reading an excerpt from the James Taylor diaries. It was as if at any moment you would break into memories of that day, I think it was the first of December, and how everything was covered with snow, including the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston. Lord, the Berkshires seemed dreamlike (on account of that frosting).

    So, with 70.3 miles behind you and god only knows how many more to go, you exit the water in 25-minutes (faster than the professionals), have a “disappointing” bike split and wrap up with a sub 1:30 half marathon (that included a little beach time) to finish first, again.

    I swear that if I was not in a James Taylor induced good mood right now I would be scolding you for complaining about your bike splits.

    Instead, I think I’ll download an application to become a candle maker at Old Sturbridge Village and sit around thinking about women and glasses of beer..

    Congratulations my friend,