Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dual Exploding Disasters in the Desert: Ironman 70.3 Vegas Race Report

Out of my element in time, space,
AND temperature.
An old saying goes: "There's a first time for everything." In the world of Ironman - or triathlon in general - this is the oft-spoken response to those who say things like "whoa, I never DNFed before," or "I never peed on my bike before," or "I never flatted in a race before." But on Sunday, just like that, one of those things-that-will-eventually-happen-to-you-if-you-do-this-sport-long-enough finally happened to me.

Yes, I flatted - in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas. In fact, it wasn't your run-of-the-mill flatting. It was an old-fashioned blowout, right at mile 3 of the 56-mile bike leg.

But before I talk about my blowout at mile 3 of the bike leg, something else - much less likely - happened to me this weekend. Something SO unlikely and so downright bizarre that it would NEVER prompt that old response: "There's a first time for everything." It did, however, invoke that expression's not-so-common cousin: "Now THERE'S a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing."

We're calling it the Great Exploding Glass Disaster (GEGD) of 2012. And unlike the Great Smoke Detector Incident of 2012 (in Louisville, KY), the J-Team was the innocent bystander in the GEGD. Freakish events like the GEGD have usually been pinpointed as reasons for my nickname "Disaster Magnet."

GEGD glass carnage: this was only the
immediate area of the end table but the
blast radius reached much further
And so it happened in the wee hours of Saturday morning, without warning, my husband Jim and I were awoken by a loud crashing noise. We lept up and scrambled to turn on the lamp next to the bed. What we found was mystifying. The sheet glass cover on the bedside table in our hotel room had seemingly just "exploded." But infinitely worse was that it sent glass schrapnel everywhere. Several chunks of broken glass resembling a shattered car windshield were still lying on the table. There were tiny shards of glass in the bed, on the floor, in our luggage, and clear across the room. And all the objects from the bedside table (except the lamp) were now on the floor - the telephone, my watch, and my jewelry.

We glanced around the room in disbelief. What just happened? And how? And what should we do about it? Realizing the importance of sleep two nights before my race, Jim immediately started to clean it up to get me back to slumberland. But the cold hard truth was that glass was EVERYWHERE. We were unable to walk around or touch anything in the room without fear.

We called the hotel desk. They said they would send someone up. The bellhop arrived first and we showed him the disaster area. He was equally mystified - and intrigued. His explanation: there must be a ghost in the room. He called maintenance with instructions to bring a vacuum while he moved us to another room. I was almost done gathering up our unaffected belongings when the maintenance guy arrived. He had NEVER seen anything like it, but his technical assessment was a hairline crack in the glass set off a chain reaction. Seriously, though, I thought the ghost explanation was more feasible. Whatever the cause, it was hard to do anything but stand there scratching our heads.

I was eventually sent to the new room with instructions to go back to sleep while Jim and the maintenance guy tried to eliminate glass from my race gear. It just so happened (as it does with most disasters) that my most important race necessities - my transition backpack and bike shoes - were right in the line of fire below the end table. But miraculously, about 1.5 hours after the GEGD, I was able to put the whole thing out of my mind so that I could get up early for a practice swim.

The Hoover Dam: amazing feat of modern engineering.
The next day, although we found little conversation that wasn't directly related to the GEGD, we did some sightseeing. We visited the Hoover Dam in 105-degree heat and then spent the evening with my great friend, fellow athlete, and founder of Punk Rock Racing, Ron Harvey. It was Ron's first time at a World Championship event and hanging out with him and his son Nick was one of the highlights of our trip. I usually like to "get away from it all" the night before I race by finding a restaurant far from triathletes and the hype, and Ron had no problem honoring that wish. He's also a good person for me to be around because of his totally chill attitude (although, I think he's just as jittery as the rest of us and its just an act).

Race morning with Ron (before the flat): note that you
can see Ron's teeth in that smile - this is not his usual
pre-race "I'm cool, mellow, and collected" pose.
And so we had no more (exploding) disasters until race day. At mile 3. When I was struck by the aforementioned exploding tire incident. Thus the question became, and remains, were the two events related? (Was it the ghost?) Or was it a mere coincidence?

The most unfortunate thing about getting a flat in this particular race was that I had decent swim (29:50 for 1.2 miles) and was leading my start wave (and therefore my age group) out of transition that morning. I had no expectations on Sunday because I was looking at no taper and only two weeks of recovery since Ironman Louisville. But leading my age group out of the water was a pretty good start for a race with no expectations.

(Blog Interlude, Jim's photos from the start and T1):

Lake Las Vegas Bike Transition at 3:30 a.m. (from the hotel balcony)

My wave start at Lake Las Vegas
Last year's winner, Craig Alexander
(I have no doubt that Jim took this photo just for me) 
Craig Alexander's custom painted lid
Yes, that's me, all alone in T1 before anyone else got there.
First amateur up the hill, super happy, but not quite as cool as Crowie.
The blowout changed everything. I went from no expectations to high expectations to low expectations in a matter of minutes. It was the worst sound I ever heard while riding my bike. At first, I thought it was a gunshot (coincidentally, there was a police car right there when it happened). It was my front tire. I stopped on the side of the road and hastily went about fixing it. A lone spectator wanted to help me - he talked me through it, and he even called Jim (at my request) to tell him I flatted and would be slow getting to T2. It was a new tire and I struggled a bit with the long valve stem and getting the tube out. Then, by time I had the new tube in, the mobile tire/wheel support guy had arrived (the policeman called race officials). He was ready with another wheel, but I was almost finished with this one, so he helped me get the tire back on the rim, pumped it up, and I was on my way after many thanks.

I think I lost about 11-12 minutes to the flat, but mentally, I lost a lot more. When I got back on my bike, I had to regroup and reassess what I came Vegas to do. It was the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. My body was fried from Ironman Louisville two weeks prior. Upon learning the temperature would reach 100 degrees on race day, Jim's statement on Saturday was: "your goal tomorrow is to survive." I had been given over to Vegas being a training race, but until the blowout, there was that little part of me wondering if I could rise to the occasion despite the fatigue and no taper... that little voice saying: "what if?"

That voice was now saying "ok, raw deal, Jeanne-o, so NOW what are you going to do?"

My answer was, simply, to enjoy myself. I didn't want to chase. I wanted to get experience in the heat for that big race in Kona. I worked on the same fueling regimen from Louisville (Gu Roctane drink and gel and Gu Brew), hydration, and hill riding - because the Vegas bike course is full of long rolling hills. And I prepared myself for a run in 100 degrees. And just when I thought I had everything under control, one more thing went awry - with 10 miles to go, I hit a bump and launched my only remaining water bottle.

Ok, I lied, there was a slight shoe-launching disaster
as I dismounted my bike (note, I had to pick up and carry my bike shoes)
With the flat, the bike leg took me over three hours (last year it took 2:51), and when I pulled into transition, I had no idea where I was in the age group. Jim said he thought I was fifth - and 10 minutes down from the leader - surprisingly, I was in a lot better shape than expected.

Because of the dropped water bottle, I approached the run dehydrated. The 13.1-mile three-loop Vegas run course was challenging enough in 90 degrees last year, but this year it would be much worse. So I focused on getting rehydrated as quickly as possible and fueled properly. My only goal now was to hold a pace that could be termed "running."

That was warm water I dumped on myself.
The biggest issue in Vegas besides the heat this year was getting ice and cold fluids. People (including me) were asking for ice and when it wasn't available, we took to grabbing it right out of the buckets being used as coolers. At one aid station, kids were handing out (yelling) "warm sponges!" I think it just got worse as the day went on (Ron said he had trouble finding anything cold at the aid stations while he was out there).

There were more people walking and struggling through aid stations than I've ever seen at a race. People even got desperate. At the aid station about a half mile from the finish line, a guy yelling for ice water jumped right in front of the group I was running with. He slipped on a cup (or wrapper), strained his hamstring, grabbed it in pain, and then almost took us all down with him. Obviously the heat was getting to people.

Finish line (finally) - still managing a smile.
By the second loop, I was actually feeling better but not running much faster - my pace was about a minute per mile slower than 2011. I didn't really try to catch anyone, but I know I passed at least three women in my age-group. My keep-running attitude was working - two of them had given up and started walking. The only time I tried to run fast was in the last downhill half-mile to the finish. When I crossed the line, all I wanted was to get out of the heat. I found Jim in the crowd and he told me I did no worse than fourth in my age group. We found out later that I finished third. Not bad for no expectations and a flat.

More photos from Jim's camera:

Men's pro race winner, Sebastian Kienle (again, way cooler than me)
Andy Potts, another one of my favorite pros.
(Do I have to keep stating how cool these guys are?)
Happy but wasted. Ron had enough energy for that pose, then he
"had to go lie down." The medals rocked.
Vegas was a good experience for me to have five weeks before Kona. I know there's no such thing as miracles. I now know I can recover from dehydration to feel good again during a race. I know I need to work on changing a flat faster. And with this race and IM Louisville, I now have a better understanding of how to race in severe heat.

And so... yeah, um... bring on Kona.

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