Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Finish Line Disaster: Ironman 70.3 Vegas (World Championship) Race Report

The Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Vegas this past Sunday was an exercise in personal redemption. Although my husband will say (over and over) that there is no need for me to go back to any race to prove myself, it's something that I have felt the need (over and over) to do.

The race I needed to be personally redeemed from was last year's IM 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Florida. My race performance, attitude, and finish had been weighing heavily on me for almost a year. In Clearwater, after a disappointing swim and receiving a four-minute drafting penalty, my motivation spiraled downward in the middle of the race. I managed to regain it by the end and run myself up 20 places into an age group second, but the kicker was that I missed the win by a mere 12 seconds. 12 SECONDS! Everyone who heard the story had the same reaction: "Ouch! That's gotta hurt."

And yes, it hurt. It's BEEN hurting ever since. Every time I toe the line at a 70.3, that second place haunts me. It's the same pain I have felt for 28 years after losing first place by less than 0.1 seconds in the 100-yard breaststroke in the Connecticut high school sectional swim championship in 1982. As a senior, I didn't get the opportunity to redeem myself the next season.

But I did have an opportunity to avenge my Clearwater loss. I just had to go to Las Vegas this past weekend to do it.

We (my husband Jim and I) arrived in Las Vegas late Friday night. After picking up our rental car, we drove to our hotel in Henderson hoping to get at least one good night of sleep before race day. On this trip, we were very fortunate to have our great friend Ron (founder of Punk Rock Racing) joining the J-Team. He made the drive from San Francisco with his daughter on Friday and met us at the hotel. It was weird to me that I had not yet come face to face with Ron - it feels like I've known him forever. After heaping all sorts of wonderful Punk Rock Racing gear on Jim and me (including awesome temp tattoos and one of my favorite t-shirts - the one that says "Chuck Norris never did an Ironman"- get yours here!), we all turned in for some shut-eye just after 11 pm.

After a quick breakfast at the hotel (the Hilton Garden Inn in Henderson has THE best cinnamon rolls ever), Saturday was filled with the obligatory "check out the race venue," "shop the expo," and athlete check-in activities. We picked up my P3 from TriBike Transport then shuffled back to the hotel for a shakedown ride and run and to pack my transition bags. We dropped everything at the bike transition at Lake Las Vegas Resort, then Jim and I headed back to meet Ron and his daughter Cassie for an afternoon of relaxation and fun on the Las Vegas Strip.

This machine makes custom m&ms.
(Ron was making the ones in the photo)
Our first stop was M&M's World! We made our own colorful mixes and Ron and Cassie made custom m&ms with their own messages. We even did a set for Punk Rock Racing (see photo). Our next stop was Coca-Cola World where we tried 16 different carbonated beverages from around the world. Most of them were great, but we all agreed that the one called "Beverly" and the mint flavored one were completely non-palatable. The former was so bad that it elicited the most hilarious facial responses ever. When we finished trying sodas, it was dinner time and we decided to eat next door at the Hard Rock Cafe. Going to a place like the Hard Rock is great fun with Ron because he is a walking rock music encyclopedia. The guy knows (almost) everything there is to know in rock history. Then, on the way back to the hotel I mentioned ice cream, and Cassie took the opportunity to introduce us to the amazing flavors of the Cold Stone Creamery.

Punk Rock Racing
IM m&ms
And just like that, in a few hours, Saturday was over and it was time to pack it in for race day. We decided on wake-up times and said our good-nights. By 9:30 pm Jim and I were in bed only to realize that I had spent very little time worrying about the race. I only hoped it would translate into ease of falling asleep (my usual bugaboo).

All I remember about the night was that I looked at the clock at 11:50 and decided that three hours (alarm set for 3 am) would be enough sleep. Then I realized I had already been asleep and dreaming. I was even able to go back to sleep without any panic attacks. It was a good night - and I felt rested when the alarm went off at 3.

I ate breakfast (orange juice, coffee, HammerGel and soy protein powder), we took showers, I put on my tri suit, prepped my bike bottles with First Endurance EFS, and we met Ron at the car at 4:15.

Pre-race with Ron
We arrived at the swim start at Lake Las Vegas well before 5:00 am. We were early - even though the transition opened at 4:30, there were only a few people there by that time. I set up my bike nutrition, got my tires pumped, then met back up with Jim and Ron to find a quiet place to sit down and relax with my iPod (my favorite pre-race music is still Ether Song by Turin Brakes).

Body marking at 5 am
In a very short time, both the sun and the swim start loomed ominously on the horizon. My wave (women 45+) would start third, at 6:35 am, right after the pro men and pro women. I donned my Blue Seventy swimskin (the water was a balmy 80 degrees F), said goodbye to Jim and Ron, and headed down to the lake. While lining up with my wave, I recognized last year's winner (Lauren Smith) and my nerves kicked into overdrive. I needed this race to be underway after an easy week of training. My hope was that a little rest would trigger a fast race in Vegas even in the midst of training for Ironman Hawaii in October (arguably the more important of the two races).

Wave 3 swim start (I'm in there somewhere)
We had a nice little swim warmup on the way to the starting line, and by the time we got there we only had a minute to go. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the gun went off and we were on our way. The 1.2-mile swim in Lake Las Vegas was clockwise - it started on one side of the long thin lake and came back on the other side. The swim exit was followed by a long run around the end of the lake to the bike transition near the start. I started in a pack but broke free quickly and had almost no trouble spotting buoys because the water was calm and the sun was still low and not in our eyes. My stroke felt long and strong, but I didn't realize I was swimming in second place for most of the swim. By the time we neared the swim finish, another woman was beside me and we had passed a couple pros (I could tell because they were in different caps).

First in T1. Oh hell! WHERE did I park my bike?
I exited the water under 30 minutes (official time 29:48). I grabbed my bag, slipped out of my swimskin and put on my helmet and shoes as quickly as possible, then ran to my bike rack. Upon exiting the transition zone and before mounting our bikes, we had to run with them up a very short steep hill with a hairpin turn. Despite a near-collision with race officials who were blocking the pro racks for media purposes (therefore blocking me from the exit), I managed to get out of T1 first in my age group (it would be a short-lived victory). Because I was also the first first person of any age group to enter the transition zone, they weren't quite ready for it and still had video crews taping the pros. I'm betting my collision won't make the final cut.

Half of the "run" hill at bike exit.
After mounting my bike, I started the gradual climb out of Lake Las Vegas Resort hoping I could keep my enthusiasm in check and not go out too hard in the first few uphill miles. The 56-mile bike course was challenging to say the least. Unlike the flat course in Clearwater, Vegas had long rolling hills. The inclines weren't steep and I managed 30 mph or better on downhills, but my overall pace hovered only around 20 mph. I rode mostly alone for the first half hour.

Between 10 and 15 miles, two women in my age group passed me. The first one was Lauren Smith and I found myself talking (out loud) to remind myself not to do anything stupid like try to chase her down. The second woman blew by me like I was standing still. I stuck with my overall plan to let others make the mistake of going too hard on the hills. I would hopefully capitalize on it during the run.

Finally rolling.
After the turnaround near 20 miles, the third W45-49 age-grouper passed me. Frustrated, I tried to hang within sight of her right up until ...  near-disaster number one! I got stung by a yellow jacket. It flew right down my tri top causing me to almost go mad trying to kill it and/or get rid of it. Surprisingly, I stayed ON my bike and pedaling despite almost tearing off my top. It turned out to be a rather mild sting and I escaped relatively unscathed. (I can't say the same for the yellow jacket.)

By mile 30, I was constantly being overtaken by men in small packs and the temperature had risen into the 80s (maybe low 90s). I kept my heart-rate manageable - what felt like Zone 3 - and I drank about 200 calories (in EFS and Liquid Shot) and at least 24 ounces of fluid per hour. The only thing that worried me was a nagging leg fatigue with some lactic acid buildup. It was more like a smolder than an all-out burn, but it wasn't comfortable. My concern was that I had gone too hard on the early hills.

Wait, which way again to T2?
The last 20 miles of the bike course was more of the same hills, and I tried to ease back to rest my legs for the run. I was surprised, though, to find I began to catch riders who had passed me earlier. When I rolled into transition with a time of 2:52 on my bike computer, I recognized (for the 3rd time that day) last year's winner dismounting her bike just in front of me. Although I had caught her, I knew there were at least two other age-group women in front of me when I grabbed my gear bag and ran into the transition tent.

I quickly worked through getting my socks and shoes on and making sure I had my all-important Thermolyte capsules on me before exiting transition. I thought it could have gone a little smoother and faster, but I was happy I didn't struggle with my shoes like I usually do. I grabbed water on the way out of the tent and heard the news from Jim: I was four minutes behind the age group leader.

OMG, how long was I in there?
Vegas was a 13.1-mile three-loop run that began on a downhill. It was next-to-impossible not to go out too fast. I hit mile marker 1 at 6:12 and decided that was ok for a downhill mile. After the turn-around we had a two-mile uphill that passed the transition/finish and proceeded to a second turn-around. After a downhill mile, it repeated. Two more times. The advantage to the three loops was that I got to see Jim and Ron five times and each time they could give me updates.

And so I chased. And Jim ticked off the minutes and informed me of my gains. By the end of the second loop uphill (between mile 7 and 8), I had the leader in my sights and it was time for the big decision. I was NOT feeling great. I wasn't even feeling GOOD. I still had over five miles of running to go. Should I pass her now and then hang on for dear life? Or should I hang behind her until I started to feel better (if ever) and then make a move? I decided on the former. I mean, heck, it was only five miles, right?

On the downhill into the start of the last loop, serious game-ending fatigue hit me. My legs and my body revolted against my race strategy and they started picking apart my mind. Mentally, I went to that evil place and the following thoughts began: "I need to walk," "This can't be happening again," and "Oh well, I gave it my best shot, but I'll have to settle for something other than winning today." Even my stomach went awry and sent my eyes on the lookout for the nearest porta-john.

Third loop. This is when it really started to hurt.
It was during this time that I saw Jim and Ron again. I heard Jim say "You're leading, now just HANG ON" (he could tell I was struggling). I tried to smile. I saw Ron. I thought about how disappointing it would be for him to come all the way to Vegas to watch me lose after taking the lead. And I remembered a conversation I had with him on Saturday. We had discussed the power of giving up - that once you do it, you've given yourself permission to do it again. I was desperate not to give up.

I assessed the situation. What were my needs?

What I needed was a clear mind and to get a grip on the situation. I was not dehydrated. I had been drinking and was taking lots of electrolytes. But I was fatigued. I needed energy. Sugar, calories, anything. At the next aid station before mile 9, I walked for the first time but only to take in two full cups of Ironman Perform. And then, I ran.

I continued to argue with myself. I was well aware that I had done something incredibly stupid in this race by trying to chase down the leader early in the run. But I was too close. I had come too far to give up now. I had to prove I deserved to win - despite the mistake.

My body was putting up the fight of its life (so to speak), and I now had to beat the demons into submission. I kept running. My pace had slowed substantially by mile 10 - my 6:30-7:30 mile pace became 8:00+. But I was less than three miles from the finish line. LESS THAN A 5K! I visualized making it to the top of that final hill and running an all-out downhill mile to the finish.

And that's what I did. I don't know if my energy came back or if I conquered the demons, but I was able to push up and over that last hill without stopping. After the turn-around, I found I was leading by more than two minutes. The pain turned to elation with only a downhill mile to go. I ran as fast as my legs would go and took the turn into the finish. I high-fived every hand I saw, and then I saw Jim - I wanted to stop and hug him, but I had some finish-line crossing to do.

And this is what I did when I became the Ironman 70.3 W45-49 Age Group World Champ:

It's different than my usual pose of looking at my watch
at the finish line.
You would think it was over with that giant leap. But there was actually a disaster left to be had. As the first amateur woman to cross the finish line (because my wave went first), I got pulled off to be drug tested. They were supposed to test the first-place age-group female (who was actually in the 30-34 age group), but not knowing that for a while, they chose me instead.

Thus, disaster number two became the two-hour ordeal of having to drink enough after a five-hour race in order to give at least a 90 ml urine sample in a plastic cup while in the midst of all sorts of other digestive distress. And unfortunately, while I was in drug testing quarantine, Ron and Cassie had to leave for their eight-hour drive home and I never got to thank him or say goodbye. Yep, that was a huge disaster in my mind.

The silver lining was that I ended up in a tent full of pros that included race winner and my favorite male pro triathlete, Craig Alexander. Surprisingly, I successfully avoided assuming the worshipping pose on my knees. After some time had passed, unsure of appropriate behavior in the drug-testing tent, I actually first checked with the USADA official whether she thought it would be ok for me to talk to him (feeling like a lowly peasant in a roomful of royalty). So I took a deep breath, gathered my wits, and went over to congratulate him on his race.

The Ironman 70.3 World Championship
45-49 Age Group Podium
What I found was that one of my favorite athletes is a really down-to-earth nice guy. My favorite memory of the conversation was when he asked me (he asked ME!) what I thought of the course in Vegas, and I responded with: "It was a really tough course.. for ME." He laughed and said: "It was a tough course for EVERYONE!" He proceeded to blow my mind by saying he admires those of us who work and also do Ironman. *sigh* I wished him well in Hawaii and said I'd be cheering for him to win.

By the time I got out of drug-testing, Jim and I had only a few hours to get cleaned up, grab a bite to eat, and attend the awards banquet at Lake Las Vegas Resort. At the awards, I was shocked to find out that the woman I chased down for the win (the one who blew by me on the bike like I was standing still) was none other than triathlon (and Ironman) age group legend Donna Kay-Ness (and I might add that she is an absolute sweetheart in person). Knowing this might be a once-in-a-lifetime podium moment, I tried to take it all in.

Jim all-knowingly questions my
pre-race ice cream consumption.
Then we caught our 11:30 pm flight back to Cleveland. The last shocker of the weekend was that I actually fell asleep before the plane took off (this is highly unusual and until now thought to be impossible). I guess one more set of demons have been laid to rest and I was at peace with myself.

A big thank you to my team - Bike Authority Fleet Feet Multisport - and Muscle Milk for all the support this year. Also, I was extremely honored to have Ron come all the way to Vegas for the race and keep me in the coolest (and punk-est) threads on the planet. I hope he had as much fun as I did. And hugs and applause go to my husband Jim for being an integral part of my racing year after year - getting me to and from Las Vegas and the race venue while also taking care of my bike, keeping me calm, and making sure I didn't do anything stupid before the race.

On to Kona.

(all photos courtesy of Jim and Ron)

1 comment:

  1. This was a great race report Jeanne. Thank you for letting Cassidy and me be a part of your weekend and for teaching me about race day strategy.

    All the best,