Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mid-Marathon Disaster Recovery: Ironman St. George Race Report

This was almost my St. George scenario,
but I managed to avoid the bike mishap.
(these were posted at the banquet)
For me, Utah appears to be the place where dreams come true (read my race report from Ironman Utah 2002). This year, it's the place I may have finally laid the demons to rest. As far as Ironman racing goes, I haven't figured it all out yet, but I'm a huge step closer to understanding HOW to figure it out. My usual bane, run nutrition, reared its ugly [dragon] head, and like Saint George himself, I had to slay it in battle.

If you've been following my blog, you know all the prep work I did for Ironman St. George, especially on the bike trainer. I only managed to get my bike outside for a whopping three days before the race. Thus, taking on a hilly bike course with very little outdoor riding and temperatures in the 90s, I knew Ironman St. George would be the challenge of my life. It didn't help that the course is considered the hardest of all Ironman courses and has one of the highest drop-out rates. The statistics were downright scary - I posted the bike and run course profiles previously, and you can read the article from RunTri.com for more stats.

I went to St. George with more than just a little trepidation - in fact, "fear" is a mild description of what I was feeling. To make matters more stressful, I would only have about 30 hours in St. George before race day, May 7, because I needed to be in Cleveland at least through the morning of May 5 for my employer, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, to open a brand new exhibit.

Two labors of love in less than 48 hours would really try my anxiety level - and the second one (my Ironman) certainly looked to be the one to suffer due to lack of sleep and stress. I would be unable to drive the bike course (thank heavens I had seen it on the RacerMate Real Course Video), and I would have to digest what I could of the run course only 16 hours prior to the start. My body would have to shake off five hours on a plane followed by two hours in a car, adjust to a two-hour time zone change, and acclimatize from Cleveland's cold rain to desert conditions - dry with temperatures over 90 degrees F. We were lacking integral support personnel. J-Team member Julie (a.k.a. "J3") could not make the trip because of prior obligations. And the race support double-whammy: my good friend Ron (a.k.a. Punk Rock Tri Guy), who was all set to step in as an honorary J-Team member even though his name didn't fit the rules, had a work emergency and could not make the trip. My husband Jim would be alone this time, and my stress level increased a bit worrying about him having to deal with the potential fallout (i.e., my attitude) if my race went badly.

Indeed, conditions were perfect for a disaster.

Before the race, Jim and I had one conversation many times: my goal in Ironman St. George must be singular: "get to the finish line." I was NOT to worry about time or place. After dropping out of Ironman Lake Placid last year with severe dehydration and spending nine months beating myself up about it, it was more important, mentally, for me cross the finish line than to get a Kona slot. And by crossing the finish line, I mean NOT in an ambulance. Extra credit would be given for staying out of the medical tent. Placing in my age group would take care of itself (or not).

Still had time for body marking after "emergency check-in."
We arrived in St. George at 11 p.m. on May 5. The challenge had begun. I would have to get a decent night's sleep and spend the next day checking in (did you know there is an "emergency check-in" the day before an Ironman?), picking up my bike from TriBike Transport (there were only three bikes left and they were calling my cell phone to remind me to pick up my bike NOW), getting in a final spin and run, packing my transition bags, and delivering said bags and bike to the transition zones. And at Ironman St. George, T1 and T2 are about 15 miles apart.

After eight hours of traveling and only seven hours of sleep, Jim and I accomplished all of the above, then drove the run course. By 4 p.m., the only things left to do on May 6 would be to eat dinner (preferably Italian) and try to get some sleep. And if you've read my posts, you already know sleeping is a next-to-impossible pre-race task.

We looked for a restaurant off the beaten path to avoid the pre-race jitters that come with being around other athletes. After searching in vain - both digitally and analog - for a mom-and-pop-type Italian restaurant, we gave up and chose a local sports bar/restaurant called St. Helens after reading good reviews on UrbanSpoon. All I wanted was a bowl of spaghetti and a glass of wine (or two) - and they had both. The bonus came in an extremely friendly and funny waiter. He kept trying to convince me to order the "kids portion," and I kept asking him if he understood what an Ironman was (and that the kids portion couldn't possibly be enough). We had a grand time - it was low-key and very relaxing and my mind was at ease.

That night, much to my surprise (even today), I slept. Like a rock. Maybe it was the fatigue of traveling. Maybe it was the two glasses of cheap Cabernet. Maybe it was the fact that Jim finally convinced me that I "trained for" this and that my worries were completely unnecessary. Whatever it was, it worked. I even woke up twice during the night and went BACK to sleep.

WIth a good night's sleep, potential disaster number one - stomach problems and incoherence due to sleep deprivation - was averted.

The alarm went off at 3:40 a.m. I downed my breakfast - banana, orange juice, Starbucks Via, soy protein and Hammergel, took a quick shower, donned my old Tyr two-piece tri suit and put all my swim needs and race nutrition in the morning clothes bag. Jim drove me down to T2 to drop my run special needs bag and take a bus to Sand Hollow State Park for the start. While on the bus, I chilled out to my favorite relaxation album, Ether Song by Turin Brakes.

Unlike previously thought, the Ironman St. George
swim course actually DOES have a hill in it.
Jim met me at the starting line after taking the spectators' bus - we stayed in touch via cell phone. I set up my transition items, waited in line to use the porta-john one last time, and proceeded to the swim start to don my wetsuit. The water temperature was 62 degrees F. After talking to several athletes, I chose to wear a neoprene cap and swim booties to keep warm on the swim. (Despite these precautions, my feet would remain numb for the first two hours on the bike.) The one thing I forgot to bring to the swim start was BodyGlide. This mental slip up would result in more than one wetsuit problem - both during AND after the race.

The swim was a counter-clockwise near-rectangle (with a diagonal finish) that started in deep water. The seriously-cold water sucked the breath right out of me when I first got in (it was the coldest water I've ever raced in). Because of the cold, many athletes had barely stepped foot in the reservoir by the time the cannon went off. I had been treading water (or hanging onto volunteers' kayaks and surfboards) for about 10 minutes by that point.

The swim start.
I started up front and to the far right of the swim buoys. For the most part, my swim was strong and uneventful. Starting on the outside protected me from the normal mid-pack clobbering, and I swam a diagonal to the first turn buoy. Just after the first turn I started choking from sucking in water after getting kicked and pushed by an angry swimmer. It was the first time I ever stopped mid-swim and considered flagging for help. A fortunate quick recovery got me back on my way. Having trouble finding feet to draft off, I ended up muscling through most of the swim on my own.

I finished the 2.4-mile swim leg in 1:01 and headed into T1. On the way, I stopped to get help from the wetsuit strippers. But with swim socks and no BodyGlide, it became a comedy of errors. The "peelers" dragged me across the ground several times before it was all over. It was so ridiculous, my ordeal managed to get a highlight in the volunteer video shown at the awards banquet.

First step, before "peeler" ordeal, was getting my wetsuit top off.
The wetsuit malfunction made T1 more time-consuming than expected, but I was on my bike in less than four minutes. Judging by the number of bikes still in the racks, I already had a pretty good race position. The air temperature was still cool and first part of the bike course was on relatively flat stretch of road. I started talking (yes, out loud) to myself - what to do and what not to do. I drank only water for the first 30 minutes and then started fueling with a high-carb mix of Carbo-Pro and Infinit Nutritition, First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot, plain water and Metasalt/Thermolyte capsules at a rate of two per hour. After the first hour, I added Ironman Perform to the fluid intake. I tried to maintain a fluid rate of at least one bottle per hour.

Bike start.
During my ride, the weather conditions were almost ideal, with temperatures in a manageable range between 70 and 90 degrees and 20-30 mph winds starting to kick up only near the end. The 112-mile bike leg is a shade-less modified two-loop course, mostly rolling to start, with long downhills and some short steep uphills until about mile 49 when a switchback takes you to what's known as "the wall" - an uphill stretch that lasts less than a mile but reaches a grade of about 11 percent before it levels off. After the wall, there's another long gradual climb followed by over ten miles of mostly (screaming) downhill into town to begin the second loop.

My goal on the bike was to keep my heart rate down, fuel well, and arrive at T2 with strength left in my legs. I didn't know how feasible that was knowing we had to ride up that hill twice. Based on last year's age group winner's 6:17 (17.4 mph average), I predicted a bike time of about 6:30. After a relaxed and easy first loop, I was shocked to notice my average speed was just under 19 mph. I had ridden over 60 miles on nasty hills with absolutely no feeling of spent legs like in the past. Concerned for a moment that I went out too fast, I reminded myself that the 6:30 goal was based on performances in past races. It did not take into account all the hard work I put in on the bike this winter.

Going into second loop.
I refocused my effort on perceived exertion and continued at a pace that felt like "Zone 2" (under lactate threshold). I was a little concerned that Jim, upon seeing my first-loop split, would think I was making a mistake. When I saw him, I tried to shoot him the biggest smile I could to reassure him that I KNEW what I was doing.

My second loop was almost identical to the first in terms of keeping control of my heart rate and pace, and I continued to fuel and intake fluids without problems. By the time I reached T2, my legs were stiff, but I left the transition tent feeling pretty good - without stomach or heat distress. To my surprise, my bike split was 5:59.

Bike finish, still feeling good.
The first part of the 26.2-mile run is a three-mile uphill that begins gradually and reaches a near eight-percent grade before leveling off. It rolls down and up a couple times, takes a little circle on a rolling paved path and then turns around and goes back the same way. On the way back, there's a short uphill detour to a 180-degree turnaround followed by a two-mile downhill to start the second loop. There is absolutely NO shade on any part of the run course.

Heading out on the run. Oh the heat!
By the time I started my run, the temperature was at or over 90 degrees (it topped out at 91). I felt like I was running in slow motion, but my legs weren't overly fatigued. I managed to run sub-8 minutes for my first two miles. At no time did I feel uncomfortable. Jim yelled that he thought I finished the bike leg first in my age group (he was getting electronic updates from Julie, our good friend Nick, and Ron). My pace slowed only on uphills and I took the downhills smooth and fast. I went through mile 13.1 still holding onto a sub-9 minute mile pace (even after stopping at a porta-john).

Going into the second loop, Jim reminded me to "take it easy!" - he said I had a 15-minute lead on second place in my age group based on the electronic tracker. I relaxed a bit and breathed a sigh of relief because I was starting to feel a little stomach discomfort and nausea. I had been drinking water and Ironman Perform every mile and taking one Metasalt electrolyte capsule every half-hour (amounting to over 300 mg of sodium per hour, which would prove to be not enough in these conditions). My legs were feeling very good. The only thing I had trouble with at this point was consuming gel (or anything solid) because of stomach issues.

Heading out on second loop.
Yeah, but it's a DRY heat!
I started walking at mile 15 on the second loop uphill when the nausea intensified. Like the bowl of petunias that materialized above an alien planet in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, all I could think was: "Oh no, not again!" My biggest fear had now become ending up like the sperm whale in the same book - a big splat on the ground.

By mile 17, I found myself slumped over at an aid station vomiting the contents of my stomach. The only positive thing (if there is a positive thing about vomiting) was that not much came up, and therefore fluids MUST HAVE BEEN getting past my stomach. One of the amazing race volunteers helped me to a chair under a tent and talked me through it. Her advice: I was severely dehydrated and needed to get some salt/electrolytes into my system. After vomiting about five more times, I was able to take two capsules and down some water. The med consult came over, took my pulse and told me my skin temperature was good (i.e., cool).

Despite this, I was beginning to panic. The volunteers reassured me I would finish - and I had until midnight to do so. I forgot that I promised Jim I would get to the finish line at all costs and had started imagining an age-group win (and a trip to Kona). For cryin' out loud, I needed to maintain my position. I was nine miles from the finish!!! It was so close! Why was this happening again? I thought I practiced this! How did it all go wrong once more?!? (A rational mind would have realized it was the heat that I was nutritionally unprepared for.)

In times like these, I have always made bad decisions. But with my mental faculties intact (this is a HUGE assumption), I knew I had a cushioned lead, so I forced myself against instinct to stay seated until the nausea passed. And,.... miraculously... it did. After maybe five or six minutes (I think), I was able to shake it off and start running again. I thanked the volunteers for their help and took off. Strangely, my LEGS still felt good.

Disaster number two - averted.

Disaster number three loomed on the horizon.

The fallout from so little carbo intake during the run began around mile 20. I started feeling lightheaded and shaky. I alternately walked and ran - lamenting several ten-plus-minute miles. Realizing what was happening, I managed to choke down a double-caffeinated Powerbar Gel grabbed from my special needs bag at mile 13. My Gu Roctane (my normal gel of choice) was now akin to that one last shot of tequila that puts you over the edge. Just the smell of it would have given me dry heaves.

Finish photo.
Heat? What heat?
That one gel pack was all I needed to get me over the last hill and into the downhill plunge to the finish. I sucked it up and ran hard to pass one woman before mile 24. And with 2.2 miles to go, I looked at my watch. It read "10:42:something-or-other." It was then it hit me. I still had a chance to break 11 hours. I hadn't planned on it. And it wouldn't be easy. I would have to run the last 2.2 miles of an Ironman at a pace under eight-minute miles.

And so I ran. Hard. I didn't even stop for water at the last aid station.

When I saw the roundabout that sends runners to the finish line, I still hadn't yet seen the 26-mile marker but I was within earshot of Mike Reilly's voice announcing the finishers. When I rounded the last corner, the finish was RIGHT THERE! I could even see the finish line clock. It read "10:59:30." I ran like hell. And I smiled. And then it was over.

I ran a 3:52 marathon to finish in 10:59:50, first in the women's 45-49 age group, fifth amateur (women), and tenth overall (women).

After slaying the dragon.
Although I wasn't able to eat for several hours, I got my bonus by staying out of the medical tent and spending the next hour with Jim. We walked around a bit, delivered my bike to TriBike Transport and then went back to the hotel to get cleaned up. After attempting (poorly) to eat dinner, we went back to the finish line to cheer for the finishers later that evening (something I highly recommend doing).

What happens to your neck if you wear a
DeSoto T1 wetsuit and forget BodyGlide.
The next morning, Jim surveyed the damage to my neck caused by forgetting BodyGlide (see photo), I claimed my slot for the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, I bought a souvenir "Ironman Utah" jacket (note: after the race to avoid the jinx), we attended the awards banquet, and then we took a drive out to Zion National Park to celebrate.

And the demons are at rest. For now.

Thanks to Jim for taking all the photos posted here (except the finish line one).

The podium was sweet!

The women and men of the Ironman St. George 2011 45-49 Age Group.
An excuse to wear my Punk Rock Racing tee!


  1. And the award for biggest sandbagger goes to…YOU!!

    The second place female in your AG finished one hour and twenty minutes AFTER you crossed the line. To be clear, you could have watched two episodes of “House” (sans commercials) or any of the “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” masterpieces while waiting for her to finish what took you less than eleven hours to complete.

    I had a blast following your progress throughout the day and was in tears when I listened to your voicemail. You truly are an inspiration and I’m proud to call you my friend.

    Well done!


  2. Impressive! To be in the 45-49 year old age group and be 10th woman overall is not only remarkable, but inspirational! Congratulations (from a 52 year old man who was proud of his 12:45 time:))

  3. You are seriously an inspriation! you rock! I hope to see you do one of these someday in person..don't suppose they have in MI?lol! great job and looking forward to see you do Kona