Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Don't Give up the Ship: Ironman Louisville Race Report

Ironman Louisville transition zone
2012 has been a crazy roller coaster of a triathlon season. I have made numerous attitude adjustments, goal assessments (and reassessments) and plan changes. I fought race-ending illnesses, race-ending allergy attacks, and one major injury (still fighting). I've beat myself up and picked myself up - again and again and again. I failed to finish three out of six races I started. I had given up on making it back to Kona for the Ironman World Championship. In fact, I searched my soul for a reason to keep doing this thing - this Ironman thing. I've asked myself that question: "am I still having fun?"

Two weeks ago, the answer was "No."

So, then, what could possibly make me toe the line at Ironman Louisville on Sunday? What could possibly have motivated me to go back one more time knowing this distance would destroy me, knowing I would have to willingly descend into that personal hell we all know as the last six miles of an Ironman race?

I'm calling it commitment. Determination. Refusal to admit defeat. And the J-Team.

The J-Team is my Ironman support crew - they all have names beginning with "J": my husband, rocket scientist, level head, baseball aficionado, and fixer-of-anything-mechanical Jim, and my awesome friend, amazing chef, mom extraordinaire, positive-spinner, and attitude-adjuster Julie. Jim and Julie are the intellectual heart of the J-Team. They never miss a chance to direct me on the right path to the finish line. They document everything in photographs, good and bad. They pick up the pieces of races gone awry, and they revel in my (our) successes. I feel comfortable saying I owe my best Ironman races to their hard work on race day. The J-Team has at-home members also, like my good friend Jean who takes excellent care of our needy cat, Hopper, so that I can focus on racing. On Sunday, we added another at-home honorary member, our friend (cycling partner, rocket-scientist, math-obsessor, and numbers-over-analyzer) Nick. (He's an honorary member because only his middle name begins with "J".) My finish at Ironman Louisville had as much to do with them as it did with me - maybe more.

Here are some ways the J-Team kept me on track over the weekend:
  • While I waited in line for the porta-john on race morning, Julie went to make friends in the swim line-up so that I wouldn't have to start dead-last. (For those who didn't know, Ironman Louisville starts in a time-trial format because of a narrow swim channel.)
  • Jim and Nick were in constant contact on race day to determine my location on the course and what I needed to do. Nick was even checking my splits and the overall standings and letting Julie and Jim know when to expect me.
  • When I saw them on the course, Jim and Julie gave me the overall situation in addition to cheering me on. During most of the race, my anticipation remained high because I looked forward to seeing them at the next check-point.
  • Jim's motivator
  • Jim made sure I would stay on pace. After receiving an early birthday present from me - a personalized bat (photo right) from the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum - he gave me the following speech: "If you take the marathon out in anything faster than an eight-minute mile, I will beat you with my baseball bat like Al Capone did to that guy in the Untouchables." (Ok, so he didn't mean it.. but, point understood.)
  • And finally, Julie took one for the team. Saturday morning, in an attempt to avert race day disasters, Julie set off the fire alarm in our hotel kitchen while making her famous lemon pancakes. I think her plan was to have it serve as the weekend's token disaster for the "disaster magnet." The result of this sacrifice meant even more to me after the race when I learned that two potential disasters had been averted: someone threw tacks on the bike course causing many riders to flat, and last week I had eaten several mangoes from a batch that were recalled due to salmonella.
Back to the race report. Louisville is considered one of the toughest Ironman courses (see benchmarking at and according to Team Endurance Nation's Patrick McCrann (read his report on the TriFuel site), this year's times were much slower than last year due to heat AND wind. High temperatures in August in Louisville can reach into the 90s and 100s - with high humidity. Heat always causes nutrition issues for me, and although I had been training in heat most of the summer, I'd be lying if I said I was confident in my nutrition plan. But I DID spend many training rides and runs this summer working on fueling, hydration, and electrolyte intake to avoid my nemesis, hyponatremia. I put most of my plan together using information gleaned from nutrition guru Brian Shea at Personal Best Nutrition - both from the PBN online forums and his postings on Slowtwitch. And full nutrition plan analysis was another aspect that Jim, the Excel whisperer, helped me out with - he developed a spreadsheet defining my various gels, drinks, and capsules (Gu Energy Roctane products, Gu Brew, Salt Stick, and Ironman Perform) with calories and sodium levels - all I had to do was plug in the amounts, and it would give me the stats. He made me study it, recite my contingency plans (such as, what to do if I don't pick up my bike special needs bag), and commit much of it to memory.

Getting body marked
Race day began after a fitful night with only a couple hours of sleep. Our hotel, the Residence Inn, was so close to the transition at Waterfront Park that we were able to walk there on race morning and avoid parking issues. Air temperature was in the 70s with a predicted high of 93 degrees F. I prepped my bike with nutrition bottles, dropped off my special needs bags, and we headed for the swim start (a mile away). I had no idea what to expect with the time-trial start, but by the time we got there, we understood why people started lining up at 2 a.m. Upon seeing the queue, I realized I would have to settle for a late start. Body marking came first, and then we started our trek to the end of the line.

It was a long walk.
We walked for what seemed like another mile before the crowd thinned out. I waited in the bathroom line while Julie headed to the end of the start line. She located a few Northeast Ohioans who were generous to let me jump in line with them. The plan was for all competitors to be in the water within 40 minutes starting at 7 a.m. We watched the pros swim by followed by early age-groupers. The line moved pretty fast, but its length gave me more than enough time to get into my swimskin (84-degree water meant a non-wetsuit swim), don my cap and goggles, and get hydrated and fueled. I reached the start just after 7:30. We were shuffled along and told to run along the dock and jump in feet first.

After a quick wave to the J-Team, my swim had begun.

descending to start
Right up until the point my feet hit the water, I had been wrestling with doing this Ironman. I was tired. Worn out. 140.6 miles had become such a daunting task. Especially after my all-out race last weekend. I had begun to believe my heart was no longer in it. But on Sunday morning, something happened when I hit that water. Something I hadn't felt in a long, long time.

I enjoyed it.

I was swimming in the Ohio River and I was having fun! I was expecting to hate every second of it, but instead, the water was not disgustingly dirty (as I had been led to believe), and the temperature was not too hot (as I had been led to believe). The time-trial start was more comfortable than the usual mass Ironman start. I didn't get clobbered instantly (don't get me wrong - I got clobbered, but not instantly). I had time to get in a groove while in the channel and there was no need to spot buoys because I could see exactly where I was (island on one side, river bank on other). The swim course rounded the island so that the sun is in your eyes only for a bit until you turn 180 degrees to swim downstream along the far side of the island, under two bridges, and to the finish line.

Out of the water and into T1
I stopped a few moments to gather myself after getting kicked directly in the face near the turn. Then I decided to swim wide for the remainder of the course. With the sun behind us and calm water, the yellow and orange buoys were ridiculously easy to spot - it was smooth swimming the rest of the way and I was very surprised at how fast it went by. I stayed relaxed and stretched out to get the most out of my stroke without further stressing my still-injured right shoulder tendon.

NO ONE on the planet was more surprised than was to look down at my watch and see a time of 1:00 when I climbed out of the water. I had expected 1:05 at best - more likely 1:10 because of the shoulder and lack of swim training. While running to the transition zone, a very uncharacteristic thought went through my mind: "I still got it baby!!" I was elated (and yet baffled by my own response). I decided to go with it - capture the energy - and ran into T1 with a purpose, lacking my usual fears.

See? I wasn't kidding.
I yelled my number, got my gear bag, and outran everyone to the change tent. The volunteers in the change tent were amazing. My shoes, number belt, and helmet were on in an instant. When I got to my bike, I realized there were a LOT of bikes still in transition. Thus, my swim had been very fast comparatively. I felt like jumping up and down screaming. I saw Julie. I saw Jim. I yelled "woohoo" like a 12-year-old, and got on my way. Seriously. Who the heck was I acting like? Certainly not me. This was NOT my usual M.O.

Whatever. My motto had now become... "just go with it."

And so I rode. I rode as I had planned to ride - relaxed, keeping my heart rate low and my cadence even. Navigating the rolling hills required concentration so that I didn't burn out my legs riding too hard on the uphills. A lot of people were getting out of their saddles on the hills. I kept my cool and rode easy.

The Ironman Louisville 112-mile bike course is easy to crush if you're accustomed to rolling hills. But it can also eat you up and spit you out if you don't ride conservatively. I met an athlete on Saturday who referred to the course as a "meat grinder." The shape of the course is a modified loop with a really flat first and last 10 miles and a short out-and-back done once before the loop begins. There are some formidable hills despite (I was told) being only 2000 feet of climbing altogether. I found that "climbing skills" are irrelevant on rolling hills, that being a good shifter and a good capitalizer-on-momentum is more important. And so (at Jim's urging) I tried to channel my effort intelligently into these two things.

Whizzing through LaGrange
Despite my concentration, I was still able to enjoy the atmosphere in Louisville during the ride. On one of the bigger hills, there were no less than three costume characters vying for our attention: the Grim Reaper (who came right up to bikers' faces to talk them into "going with him"), Superman, and the Devil (a.k.a. person-with-horns-dressed-in-red-satin). On another hill was a guy in a speedo wearing an American flag as a cape. This is great support and it certainly keeps the levity up. The looping part of the course took us through LaGrange where crowd support was enormous and they even announced our names to the throngs of people lining the street. It was during this stretch on the second loop that I finally saw Julie and Jim in the crowd, and it gave me what I needed - a huge burst of energy to get through the final 30 miles of the ride.

On the bike, I knew my fueling had to be perfect. I paid great attention to not screwing up this time. I drank three bottles of Gu Roctane and took five Gu Roctane gels supplemented by water, Gu Brew, and Ironman Perform to get 24-30 ounces of fluid per hour. I did one salt stick capsule every half hour. Even though air temperature rose as the day went on, I was never thirsty and never dizzy. I think the shade on the Louisville bike course kept the heat from overwhelming me, and the time-trial start forced me to ride my own race and not chase or try to lead anyone in my age group. For many miles, I leap-frogged with a woman in my age group: every time I passed her, she immediately passed me back, sped up to get way out in front of me for a few miles, then I would eventually catch her and start the entire cycle over again. Strangely, it didn't rattle my cage as all I did was make a mental note that it was happening.

With about 15 miles left on the bike, I started to wonder if I had rode too conservatively. It was ok, though, because I had to tax my system a bit on this last stretch which was into the wind. My back and hips had that familiar stiffness from being in the aero position for too long, but overall I felt relaxed and not overly tired. I was actually looking forward to starting the run and encouraged by the fact I had no nausea this time, even with the heat.

Starting the run
As I rounded the corner to the bike finish and T2, I saw Jim and I knew he would have some words of advice and know something about the overall age group situation. When I dismounted, I struggled to get my body to move in an upright position toward the transition bag area and shouted my number. I grabbed my bag and made my way to the change tent. The volunteer, again, was amazing in helping me get my pockets filled and on my way. Water and sunscreen were offered - I took both and was on my way. Going from hobbling to sitting to standing to running was easier than usual this time, but time would tell if I could hold it together. I saw Julie. I saw Jim. I was encouraged.

The first two miles of the Ironman Louisville marathon is out and back on a bridge. As I approached the bridge, I saw a woman in my age-group coming off the bridge. She was running strong and I wondered if I looked anywhere near that good. When I hit mile 1, I looked at my watch to see the split: 7:30. It was an uphill mile. Yikes! I needed to reign this in. I backed off. I hit mile 2 even faster. This was NOT GOOD. Then I saw Jim. Here's what he said: "Nick says you have a 20-minute lead in the age-group! Go easy!" and then he said the four scariest words: "All you have to do is..."

Get. To. The. Finish(Line).

Coming off the bridge near mile 2 - still smiling
Well, yeah. There's the rub. How many finish lines have I NOT seen this year? I had begun to question whether I would EVER see another Ironman finish line. I was two miles into my marathon, and I was already going down that mental path. I had to shake it off. What to do? Focus on getting from point to point. Ironman champ Chrissie Wellington says she focuses on running from aid station to aid station. Yeah. I could do that.

But it was so HOT. I focused on nutrition and getting ice and cold water on my body in as many places as possible. In my hat. Down my tri top. Down my SHORTS. I ran with ice in my hands. I poured ice water on my face. And it worked!

But there was one problem. My right inner thigh had started talking. It was angry. It was threatening to stop working. I paused a few times to stretch. I made sure I was supplementing with electrolytes. I walked only the aid stations and maintained a 8:15-8:30 pace. I saw Jim again at mile 14. He walked with me for a bit. He said that Nick calculated my age group lead at about 30 minutes. Don't worry about pace. And then those four words again.

Just get to the finish.

No nausea yet - only fatigue and that threatening pain in my leg. The special needs bags were waiting around the corner and to my delight, a volunteer was not only holding my bag, but he was holding out my bottle of Gu Brew for me. I almost cried.

With my trusty Gu Brew
I drank some of it and ran with it. By mile 19, I had passed the final woman in my age group (she let me know this - do all age-groupers do this?) and I was now leading out-right. But my race was coming unglued. My pace was falling to near 9-minute miles and my stomach was now angry. It was saying really mean things to me. I started drinking coke to shut it up - the sugar gave me energy for short bursts. With less than five miles to go, things were coming undone, my leg was cramping, and I needed a pick-up. That's when I made a major mistake. I was so sick of Ironman Perform and coke that I listened to THAT guy. You know, the guy who said: "try some chicken broth."

I would pay for that mistake. Coke and chicken broth DO NOT MIX. At an aid station with just over two miles to go, I was vomiting the contents of my stomach into a garbage can. And it wouldn't stop. I was bent over and started getting the shakes. If I stopped moving, things would surely fall apart in a hurry (because that's what they do in Ironman). Seeing me in distress, several athletes stopped to help. They poured cold water on me. They encouraged me. They were angels with running shoes.

And I turned and kept running. I had to stop several more times with the vomiting. Spectators encouraged me. You're at mile 14. Keep going. Hang in there. I couldn't muster the energy to tell them I was almost done. I stood up, jogged around the next corner only to see the sign: "finish straight ahead... second loop to the right."

Oh my God. WAS THAT THE FINISH LINE??? It was right in front of me!

I had almost given up the Ironman finish line. But Jim and Julie would be waiting for me there. Maybe friends would be watching online. So here's a little video of what happened next (the finish line camera captured by Nick with his Flip camera):

One of those hands was Jim's.

When I crossed the line, I proceeded to get sick one more time (obviously). I had a whole cadre of volunteers helping me move along and they finally put me in a wheelchair. I got all materialistic on them: where was my medal and my shirt and my hat? I must have them. I earned them. I was no longer that person in the medical tent not getting them. I finally finished another Ironman.

Julie and Jim stayed with me while I sat in the wheelchair and fought to overcome the lingering nausea and get some fluids in me. I had my own volunteer, an athletic trainer named Carol (or C.J.). We dubbed her a member of the J-Team - after all, her middle name started with J. While determining whether I should go to medical, it occurred to me that before the race, Julie said she would get a tattoo if I got a Kona slot AND stayed out of medical on Sunday. I was determined to hold her to it. Jim checked the live splits to find out that I had, indeed, won my age group at Ironman Louisville. I looked up at Julie and I said "Guess what!"

She laughed and replied: "We're going to Kona." (I guess she forgot the wager. But I'll hold her to it.)

The W45-49 Podium

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Looking Up: USAT Age Group National Championship Report

USAT Nationals in Burlington, VT
I always dreamed that the first time I entered a race in another country, it would be England. In this dream, I also imagined the specific race: it would [most definitely] be the London Marathon. I imagined running those 26.2 miles on the streets of one of my favorite cities in the world. But to my surprise, two months ago, my dream race changed.

Of course, it still had to be in England. But when I learned that the 2013 ITU Age Group World Championship would be held in Hyde Park, London - I now knew this was THE international race I was meant to do. Hyde Park was a place I knew. A place I loved. The one urban park I've spend more time running in than any other. And there was one way to get there - with a top-18 finish in my age group at the USAT National Championship in Burlington, Vermont.

In a season that had become a deluge of pitfalls, downfalls, unfinished races, illness, injury, and general beating up of myself both mentally and physically, I decided that if I could do ONE thing right this year, it HAD to be this.

Getting to London would come at a price, though. It would mean letting go (mentally) of my Ironman goals. After racing in Burlington last year, I knew it would be next-to-impossible to excel at both short- and long-distance triathlons and work full-time. Discussions (with family members) were had. Big questions were asked. Priorities were rearranged. Sanity may or may not have been restored.

I did not emerge unscathed.

But I did emerge with priorities. The first one was to get to London. I knew from last year's seventh place finish that I couldn't take anything for granted. Age group nationals is no joke. Everyone is fast. I was a year older, a new bunch of super-fast 45-year-olds were now in my age group, and I had spent the last two years training at long slowness. Two short races this year further underscored the fact that my speed had left the building long ago and would require major coaxing to return to my life. But I wanted this bad enough to redevelop that love-hate relationship with my watch and the track, I didn't have a lot of time, and I still had Ironman Louisville in my future. (But that's another story. I'll save it for next weekend.). So I did short speed work during the week and saved the weekends for just enough LSD work to get me to the Ironman finish line.

This might just be the best Italian restaurant in Vermont
By the time we arrived in Burlington Friday afternoon, although I didn't feel "fast," I thought I could at least beat my time (2:20) from 2011. But my early week confidence had been replaced by felt soreness, fatigue, and sluggishness - the taper doldrums. I needed a mental boost, so I went back and read my assessment of last year's race. It had been a disaster: "felt out of sync and discombobulated the whole swim," "legs burning the whole ride," "fatigued, just tried to hang on for the run" - indeed, I KNEW I was better prepared this year.

After racking my bike Friday evening, my husband Jim and I got out of town for dinner at the same restaurant we ate at last year - the awesome Sarducci's in Montpelier. Two glasses of wine with dinner was enough to send me off to a good night's sleep.

Morning on Lake Champlain
Race day started at 4 a.m. - we arrived at the Lake Champlain waterfront early, but my wave (women 45-49) would not start until 8:23. Like last year, we did a lot of waiting around after I set up my transition. The transition zone was huge in order to accommodate the largest field ever at a USAT Age Group Nationals event. I spent more time than usual setting up and making sure I knew exactly where my bike was in relation to obvious landmarks.

My usual nerves didn't kick in until I was in the lineup and on my way to the start. The wind was pretty strong and the water was choppy to say the least. I chose to wear my wetsuit this year unlike last year because the water temperature was measured at 73 degrees. (In retrospect, I wish I hadn't because the water seemed much warmer.)

Pre-race rituals
While I was warming up, the women in my wave were called back for a delay. We saw a boat screaming towards the dock where we were treading water. Within seconds, medical personel were performing CPR on someone. We had no information except that there would be a delay. Sadly, after the race, we learned it was a 50-year-old man who had been pulled from the swim - medics were unable to resuscitate him. It was the first fatality at a USAT Championship in 30 years.

My wave was further delayed and we were advised to get out of the water. It was the only time during the day that I was happy to be in my wetsuit because the air temperature (low-to-mid-60s) was cooler than the water. My wave was finally given the go-ahead to get back in the water, and within about two minutes, we were lined up and the starting horn was fired.

The start is on the other side of that building
(purple caps = women 45-49)
The 1500 meter swim is shaped like a Z with a long top. This year's swim was much choppier than 2011, and there was a stiff current that we swam out against. Jim said he noticed the current was pushing people off course from the side when swimmers looped back. The water in Lake Champlain is very clear, and it's easy to see people on either side, but I struggled mostly to find a clear path and although I didn't get clobbered, I had to work to stay in the mix and my wetsuit was way too hot. My only mishap came in the last 100 meters when I a large strand of seaweed attached itself to my goggles and every time I turned to breathe, it hit me in the mouth. To avoid suffocating, I had to stop and remove it, but I was out and on my way to T1 about a minute later with a time that was almost two minutes faster than last year.

The transition zone this year was a very long rectangular shape. Because I practiced, I had no trouble finding my bike. The only thing that slowed me down was having to sit for a second to get my right leg out of my wetsuit. Shockingly, I beat several women out of transition who beat me out of the water.

Once on the bike, I had no trouble getting into my shoes and by the first stretch, I could tell I already felt better than 2011. The 40K bike course is mostly rolling hills with quite a few turns. There were two big obstacles to overcome. The first was the wind. The back portion of the ride was mostly into the wind. The second obstacle was a moving truck. Yes, there was a semi-truck ON THE COURSE. I don't think it was supposed to be there, and I don't know how it got there, but it took up the entire side of the road on which we were riding. I couldn't pass him on the right because there wasn't enough room. I couldn't pass him on the left without risk of crashing head on into other bikers. There were spectators yelling and waving their arms at the driver, but he just stayed his course. The female biker behind me was yelling but I couldn't hear her. My mind was screaming. Finally, against my better judgment, I managed to get past him on the right (with about six inches to spare), and tried to get back (mentally and physically) into the race. Yep, it was the first time THAT ever happened to me in a race.

Coming into T2 looking confused (probably about my slowness)
At least three women in my age group passed me on the bike, and I think I passed only one. In the last mile, just as I got passed by another age-grouper, I realized I would not beat my bike time from last year. For an instant, I was so disappointed in myself that I almost threw in the towel and chalked another one up to a "bad year."

I had to FOCUS.

Riding into T2, I was struggling to shift my mental energy from a slow bike (that already happened and there was nothing I could do about it) to a fast run (that could still happen if I just got my head out of my butt). Think FAST.

I was thrilled that I got my running shoes on faster than usual (but still slow) - another age-grouper passed me in transition. I was forced to quickly run her down right out of the run start. Then I saw Jim. He gave me the news: in my age group, I was likely 7th or 8th with the leader about four minutes ahead. Ok, so, I always knew this was going to hurt.

The first thing runners face in Burlington is a ridiculously steep hill. I backed off and tried to maintain some sense of humor on the way up. The spectators seemed to appreciate it - they gave me several rounds of applause for being the only one smiling. But at the top, it was all business.

This was as fast as I could go at the finish
I was determined to run this 10K under 40 minutes. I didn't pause to recover from the hill - I just stretched out my stride and got in my rhythm. After the hill, the well-shaded and scenic course was mostly flat or slightly down-sloping. The last three miles are on a paved path. I ran down every woman I saw, only to find that all of them but two were not in my age group. With less than a quarter mile to go, I saw one final age-grouper in front of me. I was tired and I was pretty sure I made top 10 at this point, but I still wanted to win one final battle. I chased, I passed, and I ran like hell. She may have tried to hang with me, but I never turned around. I just ran. Like hell.

When I crossed the finish line, I no longer cared what my place or time was. I knew I had found the monster. It was still down there. Mostly dormant - or just lurking - but yes, it was still there. And it would now be coming to London with me.

I finished fourth in my age group, 17 seconds out of third, and three minutes behind the winner. My 10K was, sadly, not under 40 minutes, but at 40:19, it was more than a minute faster than I had run in two years. I came away from this race with a bike split (1:12:05) two minutes slower than last year, a swim split (23:44) two minutes faster, and an overall time (2:19:23) one minute faster, and plenty of room for improvement.

And perhaps, best of all, I'm finally able to look forward to a new year and not back at a bad one.

Standing on the podium: free 

Signing up for Team USA for London: priceless