Full Ironwoman Race Report
Friday morning I packed the girls off to school and headed south. My first stop was Gorham Bike and Ski in Portland where I picked up a nice pair of zippy Zipp rental wheels. I don’t know how much a pair of these cost in real life but driving west on the Mass Pike on a Friday afternoon with these carbon-fiber creatures clinging to the Nashbar discount bike rack on the back of my rusty, dented Mazda was a little like flying Southwest, packing the Hope Diamond into your check-in luggage and expecting to see it on the other side. I made it to the Catskills without getting rear-ended by a tractor-trailer and just when I thought I could start breathing again the road started winding uphill. Really uphill. There were no shoulders, and three cement trucks came barreling down the road toward me. I thought “I will die tomorrow. These roads are insane.”
Just then Sam texted me from packet-pickup “Are you sure you registered and paid, they can’t find your name anywhere”. Several deep breaths later I figured out what had likely happened. Jerome and I registered and paid for the race together in the spring but then Jerome decided last week that trying to do this race, for which he had not even pretended to train for, in the middle of starting a new job at a new school would be stupid. So he deferred his race registration until next year and somehow they must have accidently deferred mine as well. It turned out this is exactly what they did. By the time I got to packet pickup they had re-enrolled me in the race and given me a bib number from one of the many cancelled racers.
As the race grew closer the weather forecast deteriorated. Scattered showers in the afternoon turned to 80% rain starting in the morning with a low of 39 and a high of 53. Apparently many other registered racers looked at the weather forecast and decided to stay home.
But Sam and I were here, we were trained and we weren’t giving into a little fall weather event. I still hadn’t ridden my bike after putting the fancy wheels on so after I registered I zoomed around the parking lot a little bit and then realized I hadn’t put my bike computer magnet on the new back wheel. I put it on and rolled around a little more but my computer refused to cooperate. Fortunately the friendly bike repair volunteer got it up and running and I racked it in transition where I nervously patted it good night, promising to be back in the morning.
With only an hour of daylight left we drove into Hunter and quickly checked into our hotel, where a much-anticipated package was waiting for me. The little square box sent overnight from Washington State contained none other than my dream wetsuit, the Helix from Blue Seventy. Let’s just say that I have some amazing friends that have some amazing friends that made this miracle happen. I was dying to strip down right there to try the suit on but we still needed to drive the bike course before sunset so I reluctantly tossed the box into the car and off we went down the road. Which was looking much better than the road I had come in on. In fact, it looked great! Nice pavement, good shoulders, no sharp turns. Things were really looking up. After reviewing the course we headed to dinner at the Last Chance restaurant in Hunter and though I wasn’t at all hungry I thought it unwise to arrive at the beginning of a race having not eaten since 3pm the previous day. I ordered a grilled portabella, goat cheese pita sandwich – a happy compromise between an all out pre-race carb fest and nothing at all.
We returned to the hotel and of course the first thing I did was try on the wetsuit. It fit absolutely perfectly. The only weird thing about the suit is that somebody at Blue Seventy thought it was a good idea to reverse the zipper on this suit design so that it zips down instead of up. This is somehow supposed to make it faster to unzip during transition. But this also means you need to bring a friend with you every time you go swimming because there’s no way you can zip it down yourself. Or at least I couldn’t figure out how.
We spent the rest of our pre-race evening sorting and distributing gels, water bottles and warm clothes between all the various transition and ”special needs” bags. And finally got to sleep around 10:30pm. I slept well until about 2am, when the pre-race-demons got the better of me and I restlessly and unsuccessfully tried to meditate myself back to sleep for the remaining 3 hours.
We got out of bed at 5:15am, packed the car and made some tea. I ate a few slices of sprouted Mana bread and tried to drink a quart of water but it was cold! I would have loved my usual quart of hot water but the hotel kitchen wasn’t fully functional yet and the tea water tasted like stale coffee. I was too nervous and distracted to notice I wasn’t really eating or drinking. We headed to the start line in Sam’s car when five minutes into the drive I remembered I had left my bag of running shoes in my car. We turned around, I grabbed the bag from my car and off we went, again.
We had 35 minutes to finish setting up our transition areas – barely enough time! I still didn’t have a special needs bag because of the registration mix up from the day before and they wouldn’t let me use my own plastic bag so I had to go up the hill to packet pickup to get one of their bags but they only had the smaller half-ironman bags left which meant I had to repack all my special needs gear and re-label the bags and re-decide what should go where. Finally just as transition was closing I got it all sorted out and ran down to the beach, wetsuit in hand. I met Sam at the beach, wriggled into my suit, applied Glide and she zipped me down as we listened to the last bit of the pre-race meeting. There seemed to be about 100 racers on the beach and it looked liked a third were wearing the dark blue caps for the full distance. Sam and I were trying to suss out the competition but there wasn’t much time.
At exactly 7am we were off! The swim consisted of 4 loops around a shallow lake. The water was lovely and warm though the air was a chilly 41 degrees. Because we all started in one wave the first lap was crowded and I narrowly avoided several foot-in-mouth kicks. By the third lap we were more spread out and I was really enjoying the swim. I kept thinking, “this wetsuit is so unbelievably comfortable!”. I felt like a sleek seal cutting through the water with long efficient strokes. We all know perception is more important than reality. In reality I was way at the back of the pack. But in my perception, this was the best race swim I’ve ever had.
I completed the 2.4 mile swim in 1hr 21mins and ran up to the transition area to change into my biking clothes. I decided that because it was so cold I should put on entirely dry clothes, which was tricky to do with my numb hands and wet body. I used a skirt to cover myself while I put on a dry bra and dry bike shorts. A friend had lent me her wool bike shirt and I pulled on the rainbow arm warmers I wear in honor of my twin brother and Georgia – my two favorite rainbow lovers. I spent 8 minutes in transition, twice as long as I planned, but it’s hard getting dressed when you’re cold and wet!
The bike starts with an uphill so I warmed up and little did I know, it would be the last time I would break a sweat all day. About five miles in the course starts a 20 mile downhill and that’s when it proceeded to dump torrential, ice bucket challenge rain on us and continued to do so for the next seven hours. As I finished the first 56 mile lap I was getting colder, even though I had just climbed back up the 3,300 ft mountain to the turn around. When I got there Mark the race director greeted me and told me I was the second woman (hah! little did I know . . .) He refilled my water bottles and handed me my fleece arm warmers as I headed back out for the final lap. It continued to rain and the stiff tailwind going downhill was lovely but just as I was hitting 42mph I saw something black coming out of the woods and onto the side of the road. I yelled “Oh Shit!” out loud and watched in horror as a black bear ducked under the guardrail and onto the shoulder. The thing about Zipp wheels is they are essentially break-less. Even more so when they are wet. I had literally no stopping power and very little quick maneuverability so I tightened my grip and prepared to hit the mid section of a bear going 40mph. I yelled again, it looked up. I’m always surprised at how fast and agile bears are. Somehow with its back legs still on the other side of the guardrail it whipped a 360 and retreated back into the woods. Ok, now I had some serious adrenaline going.
At the turn around point on my second lap I realized I was running out of fuel. I think I was burning through 1/3 more fuel than I had planned just to stay warm. I grabbed a couple of disgusting Hammer gels. I finished those off in the next 12 miles and still had another 16 miles to go – all uphill and into a head wind. Somehow I must have miscommunicated because Mark had only refilled two out of my three water bottles and the packet of Tailwind powder in my back pocket was useless without water. I could feel my legs hitting empty the last ten miles but I was still passing other racers. I passed one guy going so slow I thought maybe he was injured. I asked if he was ok and he muttered something about running. He was wearing a tank top singlet, shorts and nothing else. I thought for sure he was hypothermic. I was cold too. My hands were so cold I couldn’t shift. I tried sucking my thumbs to warm them up but it didn’t work and I had to get both hands onto one shifter and then lean all my body weight onto that thumb to get it to press down hard enough to shift. I finished the bike in 7hrs and 12min. Far from a personal best but definitely the hardest and most satisfying 112 mile ride I’ve ever ridden.
Once in the transition area I became aware of how ridiculously cold I was. All I could think about was getting dry warm clothes on. I tried to gulp hot tea from my thermos but my hands were numb and I spilled much of it down my shirt. I was starving too and I tried to chew cookies while changing clothes. With two bear paws for hands I kept my compression socks on because I couldn’t figure out how to get them off (that would have required thumbs) but I was determined to get a warm shirt on. Somehow it took me a whole 15 minutes to get my bike shoes off and running shoes and tights on. I have no idea where the time went, I just know that I was really really cold.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that running on frozen brick feet wasn’t so bad. I was excited just to be running. Surely I would warm up now! The first part of the run is on a rocky trail but then there’s a nice two mile climb. I have never been so grateful for a hill. By the top I was no longer shivering and on the way down my hands started to throb and tingle as they warmed up.
The run was the first time I got a handle on who else was competing in the full distance race and I was surprised to discover there weren’t very many of us left! There was a young woman ahead of me by a few minutes and gaining. And there was Sam, a few minutes behind me. And there were about six men in front of me and five behind.I wasn’t going to break any speed records on the run but I was running, I was pain-free and I couldn’t be happier!
I completed the first two loops (13.1 miles) in 2.5 hours. Just three days before I couldn’t even walk my kids up the driveway to school without limping and here I had just run a half marathon. I was psyched! My stomach was queezy but I forced myself to drink a cup of coke at every aid station. A few hours in I was able to choke down some chunks of green banana and with one lap to go I got out my headlamp and a water bottle with Tailwind from my special needs bags. As I started to add water to the bottle from a thermos on the aid station table a volunteer told me it wasn’t water but hot chicken broth. Oh well, nothing like a little sweetened lemon-chicken water to keep you moving!
Sam passed me about 14 miles into the run, she felt bad but I didn’t. She was racing well! She was a little slower on the bike, but she was smart and put her rain coat on at the half way point and so stayed warmer which probably helped her have a faster transition time. That’s what makes triathlons fun, there are a lot of decision points and they all add up. Focus and efficiency count as much as fitness and keeping your head is a big part of triathlon success. Not to say Sam isn’t fit as well! She did a ton more running than me this summer and was keeping a great pace. The 4-loop run course made it easy to cheer each other and the other racers on. I can be a bit of a lunatic cheerleader when I race, hooting and yelling at everyone – even if they aren’t in the race. By the end of the night I had an entire campsite drunkenly yelling my name every time I ran by.
By 9pm I was done eating. Nothing else was going to stay down and I knew the clock was ticking. I had about 3 ½ miles left and it was time to dig in. I kind of live for this point in a race. I start talking to myself and anyone else who will listen (deers, crows) . . . I don’t think about what’s ahead as much as what’s behind. What I have to build on and what I don’t want to loose. I love the pure grit, the focus and single mindedness required to get to the finish line from this point. I’d been racing for 14 hours straight, my legs were on empty (again), but I was still running. It stopped raining. The stars came out. I forced myself to pick out and talk to the constellations, Sagittarius, Corona, Hercules, Cassiopeia . . . The wind picked up and it felt good. It reminded me of all the nights I’ve spent alone camped on the edge of wild lakes, feeling the wind off the water and watching the night sky turn overhead. I felt tremendous gratitude for the freedom I’ve had my whole life to live this life style. Gratitude that I love being outside and that I have the rain, wind, stars and bears to keep me company.
I didn’t sprint to the finish line but I am proud to say I still felt like I was running strong at the end (again, perception is more important than reality!). It took me 5hrs and 45mins to run the marathon for a total of 14 hours and 43 minutes to complete my first Ironwoman distance triathlon and it felt like a real accomplishment.
As soon as I finished I knew I needed warm dry clothes so Sam and I went back to the car to change, then we cleared up our gear from the transition area. We didn’t get to the post-race food for nearly another 40 minutes. Which was a big mistake. By then my stomach was in full revolt. I tried alternating bites of pasta with sips of hot water but I could barely manage a single serving. At the same time my blood sugar was so low I kept thinking I was going to pass out. But at least I was warm – I had put on a full compliment of winter gear including my down coat. We gave up on trying to eat and opted to try to sleep instead. Which wasn’t difficult, until about 4am when I was simply too hungry to go back to sleep.
Even though we had left over gels and race food in our hotel room the thought of even one more bite of sugar repulsed me. Finally at 8am the hotel’s advertised “hardy breakfast buffet” opened and we immediately ordered one of everything. Still feeling queasy, the only thing I could stomach were the various salty breakfast meats and scrambled eggs (I don’t want to talk about it). The starchy potatoes were hard to choke down and the coffee smelled awful. My body was clearly telling me “give me fat, salt and protein, but please no more caffeine or sugar!!”.
An hour later we packed up and headed to the awards ceremony. After all, we were the 2nd and 3rd overall female finishers. Ok, so only four women actually finished, but given the course and the conditions I think all 15 finishers deserved a special award. (31 participants started the full race and 16 finished).
After receiving our awards and taking several group photos with our newly bonded group and the nicest race director ever, we watched a few of the Olympic distance racers cross the finish line. We overheard several of them complaining about how cold it was and how numb their fingers and toes were. Hah! It was sunny, dry and practically 60 degrees out. If only they knew what it had been like the day before . . .
The drive home was uneventful except for a much needed stop at Whole Foods in Portland for a large green juice. I returned my fancy wheels no worse for the wear and got home late that night.
Perhaps the most remarkable outcome of the race is that I am not sore. At all. I was fatigued of course, but not sore. Not only that but my left foot feels better than it has since June. It does not hurt at all. I wish I had a good explanation, a recovery plan that I could repeat next time – maybe one that doesn’t require completing a long distance triathlon? I am so grateful to be comfortable and healthy in my body. Here are four potential causes for the miraculous healing: 1) Dick Bartlett’s help with shimming up my left bike shoe. 2) Gerry Bracht’s ripping my calf fascia apart on Thursday. 3) Boiling my foot in epsom salts every day for a week before the race 4) The two Aleve I took during the run (maybe they disrupted the inflammation cycle and my body forgot to return it’s pre-race pain pattern? I never, ever take NSAIDs, but after this incident, I may not be so reluctant next time!)
I have a few races coming up but nothing I need to specifically train for. The VT50 is in ten days and I promised myself I will only run if I am still 100% pain free. Just to be on the safe side I switched my registration from the 50mile the 50k. The following weekend is the Cadillac Challenge Century which is a 100 mile ride around Mount Desert Island and up Cadillac. I won’t be using carbon brakes on that one. Then finally the Mount Desert Marathon in mid-October and a couple of short fun trail races in early November. Hopefully soon after that there will be snow . . . and you know what that means!