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 RunTri.com) 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):

video

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
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF TEAM PHOTOGRAPHERS JULIE AND JIM

2 comments:

  1. If this means I need to burn something in Kona, then consider it done !! :-)

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  2. Jeanne, this was positively inspiring!!!! I've got Rev3 full in 10 days and I'm trying to get mentally prepared. Your race report really infused a lot of what I know, what I've experienced, back into my memory and reinforced that I know I can do this!! While I'm not near the athlete you are, it's a personal journey!! Additionally, I struggle with hypoglycemia (bouncing between 90 and 40!!) on the second half of the run in my experiences. I love, love, love the Coke (and it's the ONLY time I drink it!), and I've ALWAYS passed on the chicken broth ... I'll be sure to continue that!! Your emotions are similar to how mine go when I have a "good" race ... And your mental adjustment - focusing on the FUN of this, the personal pride, the pushing yourself to your limit ... well, that's what makes this so amazing for every single person who starts a 140.6 race!!! You've been SO hard on yourself ... it's hard to watch (but I salute your honesty!) sometimes. Your athletic talent, your hard work - well you are gifted and clearly you push yourself to be the best. Anything short of that, it seems, and you seem to feel like you've failed. You've NEVER failed!!! You've encountered obstacles that have kept you from your goals ... but hey, that's life, that's Ironman!! Getting back to the basics is sometimes what we need. Your RR has me literally welled with tears, energized, and excited for Rev3. I needed that!! I'm an "average" age-grouper. I will never podium place. But when I die, I want my picture at my funeral to be of me crossing that finish line - feeling like the most amazing person ever!! :) That day - it's a roller coaster of emotions!! It's heaven. It's hell. My mantra (or one of them) is "don't wish it away" ... I used to just wish the (fill in any leg here) was DONE and I could be on to (what's next). But I purposefully chose to live in the moment and take it all in. ENJOY it. Even the pain. Make good choices. Adjust to adversity, and keep moving forward. Sometimes the RIGHT thing to do is to stop (DNF) ... I've had one - IMSG. I was fortunate to be hit by a European cyclist and get a concussion!! I say that because the honest truth is I would not have made the bike cut off. I wasn't going to quit - I'd go until pulled, but I did not have NEAR the bike fitness to do that course. I was walking my bike WELL before "the wall". I got hit from behind and tossed into a wall of rock JUST before my first visit to the wall. The guy that hit me was on his second loop. My day was done (thankfully) ... but I'm very honest that I just wouldn't have made the cut off. But I remember doing a lot of self-talk: keep going, keep pushing, keep positive, do your best and that's all you can do. It was not a bad experience!! I had hoped to tackle that venue again down the road (this was my first year doing IM), but now, that will never be :( Regardless, my point to you is that I can feel a whole different attitude from you in this, and your recent FB posts! Don't loose that perspective!! This should be fun!!! I see you beat yourself up emotionally, and it's heartbreaking ... things don't always come together all the time!! :) I'm SO glad they did on this day!!! Congrats Jeanne!!! You are amazing!!! :)

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