Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Learning the Hard Way: Ironman Lake Placid Race Report

I went back to Lake Placid this year to even the score. The score, as you may remember from last year, was:

Ironman Lake Placid 1
Jeanne 0

This year, I vowed it would be a different race. A different me. A different attitude. A different plan. But not a different disaster - in fact, it would NOT be a disaster.

That was my vow.

The vow was the reason I signed up for Ironman St. George in May. I was desperate not to make any mistakes this time. When I toed the line at Ironman Lake Placid, the knowledge of how to complete a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run would still be fresh in my mind.

What I found out on Sunday was that, despite my best plan and my best race-day decision-making,  mistakes can and will be made. Stupid mistakes. Mistakes accompanied by a phrase that has now become part of my husband Jim's vocabulary: "I KNOW what I'm doing!"

Unfortunately (or fortunately), in triathlon, especially Ironman, it's difficult to ever know if you have the perfect race plan until you're in the midst of it. Executing that perfect race is what keeps many of us coming back to this sport. There are always places for improvement (or for things to go wrong): in the swim, on the bike, on the run, AND during transitions. And don't get me started on the weather... or that old Disaster Magnet bugaboo - NUTRITION.

So this year, with the near-disaster at Ironman St. George fresh in mind, I tweaked my nutrition to the point that I now believed beyond a doubt that... I KNEW what I was doing.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back.

Julie (J3) and me with my awesome new
Punk Rock Racing jersey
On Wednesday night, July 20, after a nine-hour road trip in the newly-dubbed "J-lopy" (my friend Julie's Ford Expedition), the J-Team -- Jim, Julie and I -- arrived in Lake Placid. Thursday morning, we went to race check-in, took a stroll around the race expo, and did some grocery shopping. Thursday afternoon, Julie and I went for a bike ride so I could remind myself of the hills at the beginning and end of the bike course. I was very relieved to find it wasn't nearly as difficult as I remembered from last year.

Disaster Magnet with Brian Shea of PBN.
That night, we ate at the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery  -- with props to them for letting us watch the Tour de France on their wide-screen TVs! On the way out, I was fortunate to run into Brian Shea -- the nutrition mastermind behind Personal Best Nutrition (PBN). I had always hoped to meet him and we had an opportunity to chat for a while. In addition to being an athlete, Brian is very humble and ridiculously intelligent about all things nutrition-related. And he was kind enough to let Julie take a "look-at-me-I-met-my-idol" photo for me (see photo left).

On Friday, we revisited the expo because, after talking to a Blue Seventy rep the day before, I had my eye on one of their wetsuits to replace my nine-year-old DeSoto T1. While trying it on, a woman walked up with news that the water temperature in Mirror Lake was over 76 degrees, and the race would likely be "wetsuit optional." What this meant was athletes choosing to race with a wetsuit would not be allowed to compete for age group awards or Kona slots. Well, THIS was completely unexpected. For a LOT of people.

My thought process went from considering a new wetsuit to seriously considering a speedsuit. It's not something I wanted to shop for in a hurry, but there we were. AT the Blue Seventy tent. AND they told us their swimskins were being FedEx-ed to their hotel that day. It didn't seem like an everyday coincidence.

Then came the second one. My Bike Authority Fleet Feet teammates happened onto the scene (embarrassingly while I was dripping with sweat trying on a wetsuit in 85+ degrees). After a few questions and a phone call, the Blue Seventy rep had generously agreed to honor our Fleet Feet store discount! With the water-temp news, I suspected they would sell out of speedsuits as soon as they arrived. So I jumped in Mirror Lake for a quick lap on the swim course, and then we sped back to the expo to purchase a newly-un-boxed Blue Seventy swimskin.

And kablam! Just like that, by day two, our Ironman Lake Placid trip had become a random set of unexpected, and opportune, occurrences. But so far, no disasters. At this point, the only things left to do before race day was to attend the race meeting Friday evening, pack and deliver my transition bags, and rack my bike.

We went back to our hotel (we rented a cottage at Wildwood on the Lake), I did a quick run, and we decided to get out of town for a bit. One of my biggest problems is pre-race anxiety, and the usual prescription is to stay as far away from the race venue and other athletes as possible to avoid getting nervous and unsettled. I felt a little guilty because I didn't socialize more with the rest of my team, but I hoped there would be time for that after the race. After having visiting the Olympic venues in 2010, we decided to visit The Wild Center in Tupper Lake -- it's a beautiful natural history museum of the Adirondacks in a very peaceful setting, perfect for relaxing. That night, we attended the pre-race meeting and then grabbed dinner at a Mexican restaurant near our hotel.

Then came Saturday. The day before. Unlike the rest of the week, time went lightning-fast on Saturday. We finished the day with an early dinner at our cottage (cooked by Julie) - again, to avoid the hype. And we went lights-out around 9:30 p.m. All I really needed was one dream cycle of sleep and after tossing and turning until 12:15 am, I finally dozed off. The alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. and just like that, race day was upon us.

Body marking at 5 a.m.
I ate my usual pre-race breakfast before 4 a.m. (race start was 7 a.m.): a banana, orange juice, coffee and soy protein powder mixed with Hammergel. I would also down a caffeinated PowerBar gel and water within 15 minutes of the start. We drove down to the start, prepped my bike with race nutrition, and dropped off my special needs bags.

Did you say you want to know what I put on my bike and in my special needs bags? Well... it's funny you should ask that question. Because this time, I KNEW what I was doing. Based on experience, I decided to use all First Endurance and Gu products for race nutrition. On the bike and in my bike special needs bag, I had First Endurance EFS Drink and Liquid Shot. For the run, I had Gu Roctane in my transition bag and EFS Drink and a long sleeve shirt in my run special needs bag.

But there was one more thing. Recalling the run in Ironman St. George, I decided to include an extra shot of something caffeinated in my run special needs bag. I chose to do this with First Endurance's Pre-race formula and Liquid Shot. Upon announcing this, Jim immediately raised a red flag: "Don't do ANYTHING you haven't done." I insisted this was tried and true. I KNEW what I was doing. After all, I had used it between the bike and run legs of my bricks in training. (OK, so I had never used it mid-stride on the run.) Jim urged me to stick with what worked in St. George -- caffeinated PowerBar Gel. I strongly refused. Again, I KNEW what I was doing.

Saying goodbye to Jim before the swim start
With about an hour to the start and my special needs bags in place, the only thing left to do on race morning was relax, stretch, use the portajohns, put on my new swimskin, and get in the water. I was determined to wait as long as possible to avoid getting cold and tight. At 15 minutes, I said my goodbyes to Jim and Julie and made my way to the beach, finally getting in with 7-8 minutes to go. From where I was treading water, it was obvious that more than half the competitors had opted for wetsuits (I have no doubt it had something to do with the fact that over 1300 were Ironman first-timers).

The 2.4 mile swim is a two loop course in Mirror Lake. Because my swim went so well last year, I moved over to the right hand side of the start line and at the front. I met up with one of my teammates, Ed, who I was happy to see had followed my advice about start location. Treading water without a wetsuit was definitely more taxing, but it wasn't long before the cannon went off. And in an instant, we were on our way.

The swim start
To my delight, like last year, I didn't get clobbered right away and found I was swimming mostly out of the melee until the second turn buoy. But on the back leg of the first loop, I got kicked and smacked and decided to move to the outside. At one point of the swim, there was a huge wave that came by - I have no idea where it came from but it caught several of us off-guard and I noticed a few people had to stop and regroup. I was expecting about 35 minutes for each loop because my training yardage has been dismally low (under 3000 yards/workout) since I broke my rib in a bike crash in mid-May. Much to my shock and surprise, I came out of the first loop in about 30 minutes, I hit the split and entered the water for my second loop.

The Mirror Lake swim course is unique in that there is a cable lining the course about five feet under the water surface. If you can swim along the cable, there is no need to spot buoys. That's a BIG if. Last year, I managed to swim right along the cable, but this year it was next-to-impossible. Every time I tried to get near it, I got pushed and kicked. By the time I could hear the announcer at the swim finish, I had already stopped twice to fix my goggles after being kicked in the face.

Out of the water finally, searching for a familiar face in
the crowd.
I exited the water and looked at my watch. It read 31+ minutes. In complete disbelief, I ran toward the transition, stopping for a wetsuit peeler to help me out of my swimskin. On long run into the transition, I helped another athlete who was struggling to get out of HIS swimskin (he probably also bought it in a panic that week). Then I grabbed my bag and ran into the tent. With temperatures in the high 50s, it was chilly enough to don arm-warmers, at least for the first hour of the bike. I took my time to get everything on and adjusted and ran to get my bike -- this Ironman was the first one in which I've witnessed volunteers in the transition zone helping us retrieve our bikes. Being in the rack furthest from the exit, I had to run the furthest with my bike, but it all went by pretty fast.

The beginning of Ironman Lake Placid's 112-mile two-loop bike course is a severe downhill. Last year I launched my water bottles (the first time) at the bottom of the hill. So I rode very conservatively at first while everyone else went blowing by me. After a quick trip through and out of town, the bike course has a rough series of climbs that begin at the Olympic ski jumps. The climbing is followed by what's affectionately known as the "screaming descent into Keane." This all happens before 20 miles. After that, the course is relatively flat -- with two out-and-back sections -- until you get near Whiteface Mountain (the Olympic downhill ski venue). Then it begins to climb again with several significant rollers until you reach "the Three Bears." The bears are a series of three hills - baby bear, mama bear and papa bear. My belief is that papa bear suffers from the "Heartbreak Hill" syndrome. It's mostly difficult because it comes so late in the race when your biking legs are toast.

Obviously this is early because I still
have my arm warmers on.
My goal for the bike leg was to maintain a very easy aerobic state (Zones 1 and 2) for the first loop and then keep it as low as possible on the second loop while still maintaining similar speed. Lake Placid bike course is notorious for deceiving bikers because one of the steepest hills is in the first five miles. Going hard at that point is barely noticeable and it's where everyone should consciously hold back. Last year, I went too hard and paid later on the bike course. This year, I spun up it. I paid no attention to athletes passing me and tried to keep my heart rate down and my legs spinning. By the time I reached Keane and the 20-mile mark, my average was well over 20 mph. From there, I was able to comfortably maintain 20-23 mph until we hit the final hills. Again, I spun up them.

This year, I was determined to enjoy the experience on the bike. And I was fortunate that a large group of triathletes from my local area were competing and spectating on the course. It was a great feeling to be part of this larger group -- their cheering was integral to my day. I heard my name several times shouted not only by my own Bike Authority Fleet Feet Multisport team members and support crew but also by other Cleveland-area athletes from the Spin Second Sole Multisport team. But by far, the most hilarious thing I saw on the course (I almost fell off my bike laughing) were two guys dressed in nothing but speedos with a Union Jack design. They were yelling my last name but mispronouncing it ("DeBoneees!"). I was baffled. Who the hell were the two weird British guys on the bike course? And how did they know my name? I found out later that they were my own teammates, Dave and Matt. Now THAT'S support! The final hill on the bike course looked like a block party. Crowd support was incredible there, and spectators were cheering as though they were at the Tour de France. Upon finishing my first lap, I was already looking forward to getting back to that final hill and its crazy crowd.

Bike finish (note arm warmers gone)
When I got back to town to begin my second bike loop, my bike computer read 2:54. I saw Jim and Julie and I remember telling them I was thinking of pushing to try to go 5:50 on the bike (last year I did a 6:10). I was almost dead on that pace. If I picked it up only a little bit, I might even go sub-5:50. Indeed, I KNEW what I was doing. I took the second loop very similar to the first, determined to save my quads for the hills on the run. Nutrition-wise, throughout the bike, I maintained about 200 calories and 20-24 oz of fluids per hour and felt no stomach or GI distress. And by the time I reached the finish, I had slowed just a little -- I pulled into transition with a time of 5:51.

Climbing off the bike was not nearly as painful as it has been in the past. I actually tried to stretch out my legs as I ran barefoot to grab my bag in transition. As I ran into the tent, one of the volunteers yelled to me that I was carrying my bike bag! So I turned around to go back and grab the RED bag. I don't think I lost a lot of time with that mistake -- in fact, I think I was laughing about it the whole way to the tent. The volunteers in the tent helped me locate everything I needed for the run -- I loaded my pockets with Gu packets and Thermolytes and was on my way. On the way out of transition, I took two Thermolytes and put on my hat. Just as I started to run, the velcro closure on my hat popped open and I had to stop and fix it. The funny part was that the spectators at the run start were with me every step of the way... they quieted down when I stopped running, and as soon as I put my hat back on and started back up, they erupted with cheers. And I was off.

It all starts here, at "run out"
The Ironman Lake Placid 26.2 mile run course is an out-and-back loop done twice -- the loop begins with two miles mostly downhill, and finishes by coming back up those hills followed by a flat out-and-back in town. I saw Jim at the start of the run and he reminded me of my plan: to go out at an 8-minute mile pace. I settled into my marathon shuffle only to realize that I felt very very good. My heart rate was well within an aerobic zone and my legs were not tired.

It's easy to make a big mistake on the first downhill by going out way too fast. I held back on the way down the hill to save my quads from the pounding. Seriously, I held waaaay back and I went through the first mile in 6:59. NO! That was NOT the plan. It felt SO easy, but I backed off anyway. I didn't want to make that mistake. Or worse, I didn't want Jim to yell at me (for making that mistake). I jogged, ingesting water and PowerBar Perform at the first aid station. When I got to mile 2, there was more bad news: 7:05. NO WAY! I backed off even more. Mile 3? 7:07. SLOW DOWN! (but I felt so good and I still wasn't breathing hard at all). Finally, by mile 5, I managed to slow to around 7:20-7:30.

By the time I was well into the run, the temperature was hotter than the predicted high of 74 degrees (it felt like upper 70s or lower 80s). When I got back to town, my pace had slowed a bit on the uphills. And then I saw Jim and Julie. I prepared for the chastising, but all Jim yelled was: "How are you doing?"

My prepared response? "I KNOW what I'm doing!" (Although Julie maintains that I "never actually answered the question.)

Finishing the first loop of the run, feeling good
and still smiling
I grabbed the nutrition from my special needs bag and managed to down the bottle of EFS in the next two miles. By the time I was heading into the second loop, I was back on a 7:10 pace. But by mile 17, I had slowed to 7:45 pace and I was starting to feel fatigue in my legs. All the while, I had run free of nausea and stomach distress. I maintained one Gu Roctane every 30 minutes, sips of water and Perform alternated every aid station and four Thermolytes per hour. It was around mile 18 that I decided to take the Pre-Race/Liquid Shot mix hoping to wake up my system and get me through the final eight miles. Yes, I KNEW what I was doing.

By mile 19, I was doubled over at an aid station vomiting the contents of my stomach. Thanks to my experience in St. George, I knew I could recover from this, so I sat down and waited for it to pass. For assistance, I had two wonderful aid station volunteers -- one of them named Ryan. He helped me with ice water, determining if I was in trouble, and then urged me to get back out there running as soon as I felt better.

After about 7 or 8 minutes, I got back up and started jogging (my two-mile split was 22 minutes). My stomach distress was gone and I settled into an 8-8:30 mile pace. At mile 20, my watch read a total time of 9:39 and I started doing some calculations. I almost couldn't believe it... but if I ran an 8-minute pace, I might be able to finish before 10:30. But on the final hills, my pace dropped to near the nine-minute zone. The final out-and-back to the finish was the longest 1.5 miles of my life. I kept looking for mile 25 (where was it?!?!!), and even after I passed it, I had NO energy to pick up the pace. On the downhill homestretch, I looked at my watch to see 10:30, and I didn't even care.

Coming into the finish - still smiling.
I heard Mike Reilly's voice announcing finishers as I rounded the last corner to the finish on the Olympic speed-skating oval. I took a deep breath and smiled. Ironman Lake Placid was over. I crossed the finish line in 10:32:46 -- my Ironman PR -- and finally laid to rest the demons of Lake Placid.

Shortly after I crossed the finish line, I was struck with nausea and volunteers insisted I take a break in the medical tent. I didn't want to, I just wanted to go celebrate with Julie and Jim, but I was feeling very ill and at least I could get medical help if necessary. After a bout with vomiting and chills, I was up and out of the medical tent in record time. It was my second PR of the day.

No explanation here
By the time I found Jim, he already had the news -- I won the women's 45-49 age group. Jim knew because he and Julie were getting text updates from our friend Ron in California who had quicker access to the internet tracker (our iPhone reception in Lake Placid was sketchy at best). What we didn't know until Monday night was that I also broke the age group course record (after comparing the results from the past 13 years).

Although I reached my goal of finishing Ironman Lake Placid and did it in my best time ever, I still had to learn the hard way one of the cardinal rules of endurance events. Never EVER do anything on race day that has not been proven in training. I THOUGHT I knew what I was doing. I had executed a great race right up until I got stupid. I thought any caffeine-containing substance would be the same but it was a mistake that could have cost me much more than 7-8 minutes. Despite being the Disaster Magnet, I got lucky this time. Next time it may be a disaster. And if I attempt to do anything stupid again, I'm sure Jim will remind me of the time I said, "I KNOW what I'm doing," when in reality, I was being an idiot. Jim and Julie have a knack of keeping accurate historical records of these things (and documenting it in photographs), such as the arm-warmer vs. hypothermia incident of Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2009 that they will never let me forget.

All I have to say about that is: what is a support team for anyway if they can't keep score?

There are a few more things I want to write before wrapping up this race report (sorry it's so long). At my age, I never thought I would be capable of finishing an Ironman in a time even close to 10:30. In my mind, the best-case scenario was 10:40 -- and not on a course as difficult as Ironman Lake Placid. And certainly not 1.5 months after fracturing a rib in a bike crash and two weeks after racing a hard 70.3.

Happy Birthday J3
My race at Lake Placid would never have been possible without the support of Jim and Julie. They do so much more than just cheer for me on the course. They keep me sane and healthy during race week. They try their best to help me avoid making mistakes (especially when I KNOW what I'm doing). They look out for me (even though they can only laugh when I punch myself in the face while trying on a wetsuit). Julie even came to Lake Placid despite it being her birthday on race day when she should be home celebrating with her family (I hope our custom chocolate raspberry whipped cream cake was a good enough substitute).

In addition to the J-Team, there were a few more people involved in making Sunday's race as successful it was. My good friend Ron (Punk Rock Tri Guy) has been an integral long distance member of the J-Team. With his positive attitude and enthusiasm, he has kept me motivated through some of the toughest moments of the past year, and he's been very generous with his time and Punk Rock Racing gear. My fondest hope is that I am as good a friend to him as he's been to me. I also want to thank my incredible orthopedic doctor, Sam Patterson, and my massage therapist, Mike Hale, who have gone above and beyond the call to keep my body healthy and intact. Speaking of healthy, I also want to thank Olly Knights (that's right, Olly of Turin Brakes) for reaching out with some of the best nutrition advice I've received this year. Finally, I'm thankful for my new BAFF Multisport teammates, our sponsors, especially Muscle Milk, Bike Authority's Sherman McKee and Bill Dieter at Second Sole for the type of support that makes racing these triathlons even possible.

(All photos courtesy of Julie and Jim)

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