... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Ironman Kona World Championships 2017: Race Report

Where to begin… if you've followed this blog up to this point, you know that I started triathlon from scratch in all three sports in 2013. I moved up in distance from sprint to Olympic to 70.3 and finally to full Ironman at Coeur D’Alene this year. Having already signed up for Coeur D’Alene and started training, I was surprised, thrilled, and a little terrified when I was selected for a Kona slot in the Hawaii resident lottery. I took on the challenge of completing my first two full Ironmans within seven weeks of each other with great excitement. My first Ironman at Coeur D’Alene went well (maybe now that Kona is done I’ll finally have a chance to write that race report too!) and I headed into race week at Kona feeling ready for the challenge. 

Race morning arrived and although I felt the usual nerves, I was also overwhelmed with a sense of happiness and calm knowing that I had put in all the preparation I could and that my dream was about to become reality. I was very surprised in both Ironmans how much less jittery I felt than pre-70.3. There was a definite sense of “I’ve done all I can, what will come will come.” I went through the many checklists that I’d made myself, gathered my gear, and headed out in the pre-dawn darkness. 

Body marking was underway when I arrived at the pier. It moved like a finely oiled machine. Athletes were fed into lines, tattooed, and the spit out into the transition area behind the King Kam Hotel where there were bike techs, pre-swim bag drops, port a pottys, and of course 2400 absolutely gorgeous bikes. I took care of my first two concerns, which were checking my tires and finding chain lube, because of course after detailing my bike before bike check in I realized I had forgotten mine. The pier felt electric, charged with the emotion and anticipation of so many athletes. 

I watched as the pros walked through transition toward the water, and even got to talk for a moment with Mirinda Carfrae, who had accompanied Tim O’Donnell to the start. When Mirinda Carfrae tells you to have a good race, you know it’s going to be a good day.

One by one we watched the waves go out -- first the pro men, then the pro women, followed by the age group men. Being a ballerina I found a corner to stretch out a little bit and do a few exercises to get my muscles warm and moving. And then it was time. The sea of pink caps surrounding me moved toward the steps to the sound of the Hawaiian anthem and taiko drums. I looked around at the determined, strong, beautiful faces and saw tears in many eyes. Helicopters and drones buzzed overhead and cheers echoed from the sea wall full of spectators. I have sat on that sea wall as a spectator four times, and it was a crazy feeling to see it from the other side. The sun was rising over the palms and the iconic little church on the bay and I tried to soak in every second. We swam out to the start line, treaded water for what felt like years, and I tried to seed myself back far enough that I wouldn’t impede anyone but not so far back that I’d be having to deal with a lot of passing. Finally, the cannon fired and we were off. I will never forget the roar of the cheers each time I turned my head to breathe. 

My swim went well. I was right on pace despite the decidedly more aggressive nature of the competition and by the time we reached the turnaround point I was surprised at how good my arms were feeling. Let me tell you, though: the body contact in the Kona swim is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Having done Honu, Ironman Coeur D’Alene, and many other races I thought I knew what to expect but nothing I had experienced could prepare me for the punching, kicking, and pushing going on. I usually kind of thrive on the wildness of the body contact in big swims, but this was a little much even for me. I tried to move toward the outside of the group but in my somewhat competitive swim pace group (the swim is my best of the three disciplines) there was no escaping it. Three times I was hooked around the neck and dragged underwater. I had to just relax and try my best to maintain my stroke. Eventually I found two “friends” who weren’t so aggressive and played fair, so I stayed close to them. Around 1.8 miles in my right arch cramped and I had to stop for a moment to massage it out. Every time I tried to kick again it would lock right back up, so I was forced to do the last .6 miles of the swim depending only on my arms. Thank goodness triathletes are resilient.

I love this photo because it shows how much fun I had!
T1 is kind of a blur. I remember carefully climbing the stairs, not wanting to be the one to slip and fall down because I was shaky (totally something I would do!), and I remember running for what seemed like forever to get to my bike, which was waaaay at the back of the transition area. (Clearly they had looked at previous finish times when assigning spots). I headed out on the bike feeling euphoric. In fact, for the first thirty miles or so I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I reveled at the speed after the congested swim, I smiled and waved at the spectators, and I marveled over the wide open Queen K highway after having ridden it so many times when it was full of vehicles. I was passed by many faster riders but each one just reminded me how lucky I was to be out there racing the best athletes in the world. At Mauna Lani the pros started coming back the other way and I got to watch their incredible speed up close. As we approached the climb to Hawi the wind picked up significantly, as it always seems to do. Having ridden this section probably a hundred times, I was ready for it and went to work. This was the only section where I passed quite a few people, several of whom asked me with desperation in their voices how much farther it was to the turnaround. With four miles left to Hawi, the wind was vicious.

... and I love this picture because it shows how much work I did!
I made it to the turnaround, stopped very briefly at Special Needs to grab more gels, Skratch, re-lube my lady parts, and then I was off again. I had two cheer groups at Hawi so it was a great breath of fresh air.  I enjoyed the brief tailwind on the initial descent, then the rolling hills back down to Kawaihae became a blur, with the exception of the swelling emotion I felt seeing Rick and Jamie Hoyt struggling upward on the other side of the road. I may or may not have done a heaving, out-of-breath ugly cry when I passed them. Things went smoothly until we hit Mauna Lani again and the headwind started. Living here and riding in every type of wind it can offer I can say it wasn’t the worst I’ve felt on the Queen K by any means, but it wasn’t pleasant either. Without realizing it I dropped the little group I’d been riding with and suddenly when I looked around I was alone. It was just me, the silent Queen K, and the wind at Mile 90 and the loneliness wore on my tired mind. I did realize at this point, however, that my legs felt better at mile 90 than they had at mile 56 in Coeur D’Alene. I tried to hold onto that as I pushed on through the lava fields, but it was definitely my lowest point of the day. By Mile 103 I was really struggling and starting to feel very nauseated. After an epiphany two weeks from race day that my unfocused, dizzy spells on the bike might be due to electrolyte imbalance, I had made the risky pre-race decision that I would try taking salt pills every 15-20 miles for the first time on the bike during the race. (I use them regularly on the run so it was a risk I was willing to take, and it worked like a charm -- no dizziness!) I pedaled along, all alone, repeating to myself “this is normal, it will pass. This is normal, it will pass. You won’t feel like this for the entire race.” In desperation I took an extra salt pill to see if that might help. Sure enough, within a couple of minutes I perked right back up just in time to reach the Natural Energy Lab, where (ridiculously fast) runners were already making the turnaround for the marathon. The electrolytes, combined with seeing people again, got me checked back in and I ended the bike much like I started it -- flying high with a huge smile on my face.

The run was the greatest surprise of the day. I am a slow runner, and having mentally prepared myself for brutal heat and humidity I was expecting a really slow marathon. Analyzing my performance at Coeur D’Alene I had come up with a few major tweaks to my Ironman run strategy, but given the conditions I was giving them a 30/70 chance of working. I knew that I had a 0% chance of running the entire marathon so pre-Coeur D’Alene I had already decided I needed to choose a run/walk interval. Based off of my run/walk interval at CDA and the fact that my legs had given up my mile 18, I had decided to try a shorter run interval but also less walking  (still resulting in a greater percentage of the course being covered while running) in hopes that my legs would not have a chance to fatigue as quickly. I had settle on 3:30/1:00, with a switch to 3:30/:30 once the sun went down if I was feeling good. 

Flying down Ali'i Dr. 
As I left transition I was still riding the high from the end of the bike and started out all smiles. My dad, who died in 2009 from cancer, was a marathon runner and from the beginning of the run I made a conscious effort to invite him to run with me in spirit. I started out flying (at least for me) and mile after mile I kept my pace. The late afternoon sun had dipped fairly low in the sky and Ali’i Drive, famed for its sauna-like atmosphere, was actually shaded and filled with spectators cheering and shouting encouragement. It was beautiful running along sections of beach and the breeze was pleasant. I actually enjoyed this section immensely and couldn’t believe how good I felt as I returned into town and headed up Palani. When I saw my husband on the sidelines I asked him which pros won and he was so surprised I was even coherent enough to be asking questions he couldn’t even remember the answer! 

Coming up Palani
As I headed out on the highway toward the energy lab the sun was close to setting and the sky was beginning to turn beautiful shades of yellow, pink, and purple. I was, much to my surprise, still holding my pace. Assuming that at some point soon my legs would blow up, I kept calculating “okay, if I run the last X miles at a thirteen minute mile pace, what will my finish time be?” but mile after mile I kept the pace. Each mile I would make this calculation and each mile I would toss it aside. When I reached the Natural Energy Lab it was dark and I was finally beginning to feel real fatigue in my legs, but I kept pushing. One of my ballet students was working the aid station there and she had been waiting for me all day. While she had been waiting, she had apparently told every single volunteer about me so I got a hero’s welcome when I arrived. Right here my “race brain” was showing, as I had calculated that the Energy Lab was at Mile 16, then there was 8 miles back to the finish. As I approached I realized my math didn’t make sense, that 26-8 is EIGHTEEN, not sixteen, and had to fight through an extra two miles that I was not mentally prepared for. Ugh. Luckily at the end of it I got to go through that same aid station again and enjoy my tiniest cheerleader running beside me for a few moments before taking off into the darkness. 

Back on the Queen K the combination of silence and darkness was eery. I had a headlamp but many others didn’t, so even if there were runners around me they were just quiet footfalls in the darkness, impossible to locate. This is where I had to dig deep. With five miles to go I was determined to keep my mile times similar and get the significant PR dangling in front of me. My legs ached, my feet felt like every fiber in them was bruised, and time seemed to be crawling by, but I kept pushing. I had to keep a close eye on my watch to stay at a steady pace, because what felt fast was quickly becoming slow. I asked my dad again to help me. My heart rate and breathing were well under control and my mind was clear, so I ignored the pain and kept going. 

Then finally, the lights of Kona reappeared on the horizon and the finish was within sight. One last hill up to Palani, and then I had it made it. The spectators stopped saying “you can do it!” and instead started saying “congratulations.” I forgot the pain in my legs and feet. Once again I was flying. I turned onto Ali’i Drive and was overcome with memories and emotions. I thought of the first time I tried to swim and had to stop after 25 meters, and how I couldn’t run even close to a mile at my first run workout. I thought of my first sprint triathlon and how uncertain I was that I could finish. I thought of my dad, my husband (also an Ironman), and all the incredible people who helped me get to this point, and I readied myself to soak up every second of the finish line.

Then I was on the red carpet and lights were everywhere. The fence was lined with cheering spectators for a quarter mile. I saw all of my ballet students who had come to support me, and my husband and his family, and my mom. I heard Mike Reilly call my name and say “Crystal Hirst, you are an Ironman!” as I passed underneath the arch and crossed the finish line victorious and with a PR nearly an hour faster than my previous race. Emotion took over and I turned around to look back at the chute one more time, and as I did I heard Mike’s voice say to the crowd, “I think Crystal needs to hear it one more time from all of you. Crystal --” In a thunderous roar the crowd yelled back, “you are an Ironman!” Time stood still. It was a moment I will remember and revisit for the rest of my life.

To those of you who look at an Ironman race and wonder “could I ever do that?” the answer is yes. This process has taught me that our limits are truly only what we allow them to be, and that “can’t” is temporary. You can truly do anything you put your mind to, as long as you are willing to put in the work to get there. 

If you’d like to read more about my triathlon journey starting all the way back from my very first sprint tri training session, my blog is called Ballerinas Don’t Run. I haven’t been great about updating it since Ironman training got serious but I have about a dozen half-written posts that I will be finishing and putting up now that I have more time, so there will be new posts filling in the gaps coming soon. I’ll put the link in the Documents section of this group as well. I have been so grateful for this group’s posts, comments, feedback, and wisdom. Mahalo nui loa to you all. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Ironman Coeur D'Alene: Part 1 (Pre-Race)

It has been a week now since I crossed the finish line at Coeur D'Alene and officially became an Ironman. I've spent those days resting, eating, and mulling over the race and everything it took to get there, and I'm finally ready to try and write my race report. I'm dividing this race report into two parts: the week leading up to the race including our trip over and race prep, and the actual race itself. This is Part 1.

Getting our bike ride done one way or another!
We arrived in Coeur D'Alene (hence to be referred to as CDA in this post) a week early, after stopping in Edmonds, Washington for two days on the way. This little interim time was such a blessing after the previous 8 months of intense training and time management leaving us very little down time. Since we were already in taper our workouts were shorter than they had been in 6 months and removing ourselves from the responsibilities of our jobs forced us to take down time we had almost forgotten could exist. While we were in Edmonds we had one 2.5-hour bike ride but since we didn't have our bikes we ended up running to a local gym and spending two and a half bizarre hours pedaling away on stationary bikes. It was pretty miserable until I figured out I could watch Kona videos on YouTube! When we were done we ran back to my in-laws' house. On Sunday before flying out we did a one hour run along the Pacific Northwest waterfront and spent most of the time marveling at the cool temperatures and lack of humidity. It was fun to smell the sea air, look at all the different vegetation (evergreens! Holly!), and me being me I even picked some blackberries!

Before we knew it we were back at the airport, ready to travel to our final destination. Arriving at the Spokane airport on Sunday afternoon, we picked up our rental car and drove to CDA to check it out, then back to Post Falls to check into the VRBO rental we would be staying in for the first half of the week. It was a cute little place with a nice owner and adorable gigantic labradoodle named Sam who loped around the grounds and greeted us whenever we went outside. Our next step was to get dinner and groceries, and much as we meant to continue our extremely regimented healthy eating we got so excited about all the dining options available that we ended up at Cracker Barrel. I split the difference by ordering pot roast instead of the buttermilk fried chicken and green beans instead of mac and cheese. However, I did get the fried apples and I enjoyed every bite.

In shock over produce prices
Next up was grocery shopping, and because it happened to be right next door to Cracker Barrel we went to check out WinCo, which turned out to be an amazing Mecca of absurdly good prices that blew our Hawaii-dwelling minds. Strawberries that would have been $5.99 in Hawaii were $1.98. Blueberries were $2.98 instead of $6.99. Eggs were $3.48 instead of $7.49, bread that I usually pay $8.99 for was $4.69, and don't even get me started on milk! I wish we had a video of me in the produce section. I got so excited every time I'd look at another price, it was like Christmas morning over and over again! We may have gone a little crazy, purchasing enough food to last a small army several weeks, all for less than our normal grocery bill would have been. Our fridge looked like it was stocked for a family of ten. 

Beautiful Coeur D'Alene
After a semi successful night of sleep (jet lag!) we got up on Monday excited to be there and ready to explore. The solar eclipse was happening around 11am, so we hung around the house until then before going on the 30 minute run that was on the schedule. The next door neighbor even gave us some eclipse glasses to use. Our run that day was really fun and beautiful, starting at a park downtown and running along the lake and past North Idaho State College. The weather was gorgeous (and cool!) and the scenery was beautiful and so different from what we're used to seeing in Hawaii. I have driven past/through Coeur D'Alene many times traveling from Montana to Washington, but it was wonderful to stay there for a while! It is a really great little town, with everything you could want close by and truly spectacular scenery and surroundings. Even us spoiled Hawaii residents were impressed. That night we watched the sun set over the lake and mountains from the roof deck of the Coeur D'Alene Resort Hotel, feeling truly relaxed at last. 

Our wetsuit removal specialist in action! Thanks Mom!
On Tuesday my mom arrived from Missoula to stay with us for a night. The majority of the time we just explored the area and relaxed, but we were able to pick up our bikes (two small scratches on the frame but otherwise unscathed), go for a brief ride, and try out wetsuits in the water for the first time. Both the ride and the swim were somewhat dubious efforts that left me feeling a little nervous. We chose to take off on the bikes along highway 95, part of the race course, accidentally choosing the section containing the largest, longest hill on the course. Because the highway wasn't closed yet, we rode on a shoulder so full of gravel it felt more like mountain biking than road biking and had the bejeezes scared out of us over and over by semi trucks with huge trailers thundering by us at 60mph. It was a less than pleasant ride, and struck a little fear into my heart. The swim was not much better. We made the mistake of not putting our wetsuits on until we were outside in the sun, and the sweat on our skin made the already difficult task nearly impossible. After struggling for 15 minutes, I finally got mine on and we headed down to the water at a little beach called Sanders. Sean reached inside his suit to adjust it and spent the next 3 minutes trying to get his hand back out. We were out of breath from laughing before we even started swimming! 

The swim itself was okay -- the water was clear and I even saw four fish!m. However, between the constriction of the wetsuit and the chill of the water I got extremely claustrophobic the moment I put my face in the water. I basically choked and panicked my way through a 40-minute swim and got out of the water seriously concerned that the swim, usually my strongest discipline, might end up being a nightmare. Luckily I couldn't spend much time dwelling on these thoughts because we had to get the wetsuits back off, another lengthy task resulting in a lot of laughter and providing much needed levity. My mom pulled with all her might and finally we were free! 

After eating and dropping the bikes off at the house, we decided to drive the highway 95 portion of the course so that we had a mental picture going in. While I suppose our thinking was correct and overall it probably was a good thing overall, this drive left all of us in the car with a quiet, ominous feeling. The route was somewhat akin to going over a mountain pass. Hill after hill after hill, and long hills at that. The miles seemed to drag on and on as we waited in vain to see a flat portion of the course, getting more nervous with every minute. No one had much to say as we headed back into town, all trying to wrap our heads around what this meant for our first attempt at 112 miles. I knew going in that the bike course had 6000 feet of elevation gain; I just hadn't been prepared for what that actually looks like!

Headed to one of our last taper workouts!
The next day's workouts went much more smoothly. We headed out to the other portion of the course, this one following the lakeside trail instead of going up into the mountains, and here we found all the other (smarter?) athletes getting their last few workouts in. First we ran 50 minutes on what would turn out to be a major portion of the run course, and we were pleased to find that along with great views of the lake, it boasted very few hills. Then we hopped on our bikes and rode the opposite direction to the turnaround of the 1st bike loop. I felt much more at ease after this and even jumped in the lake afterward to cool off! 

My mom left that afternoon, to return on Saturday, and Sean and I enjoyed a relaxing evening alone -- the calm before the storm. 

Checked in and ready to go
Thursday got off to a strange start for me. The prior morning I had woken up with swollen lymph nodes in my neck, and had been concerned that maybe I was fighting off a cold. Thursday morning clarified the situation -- a huge, angry bump/zit/boil had appeared on my scalp behind my ear and it was so tender and painful that it made the whole right side of my head and neck stiff and sore. This was the first outward sign that although consciously I was feeling good, there was some internal stress happening that my body was reacting to. Sean's parents were arriving that day and we were "moving in" with them, so we checked out of our house in Post Falls and went down to Ironman Village to go to Athlete Check In. It was fun seeing all the tents and booths set up, and we felt like rockstars arriving. It really started to feel real as we entered the check in tent -- no escaping now! The volunteers were amazing. We picked up our packets, swag (awesome backpack!), and got our wristbands -- one general participant wristband and one "first-timer" wristband which lets everyone know it's your first Ironman and assures you many "congratulations," "good lucks," and well wishes -- then ran a few errands around town, feeling excited.  

Sean's parents arrived at lunch time. Their rental house was absolutely beautiful and perfectly located just steps from Ironman Village and the race start in a cute neighborhood bordered on two sides by the park and the lake. 

About this time my body took the next step in its little rebellion, my head and sinuses getting stuffy and making me feel a general sense of malaise. As the day continued I was actually starting to feel very nervous and jittery, more in a physical sense than an emotional one. Panicking that I might be getting sick, I started researching doing an Ironman with a cold and quickly found that what I was experiencing is not uncommon among Ironman athletes. It's called the "Phantom Cold," and the symptoms really are just a physical manifestation of inner nervousness. This made me feel better emotionally better even if my body continued to protest. The rest of the day my head felt strange and uncomfortable but I did my best to ignore it. When I mentioned it to Sean he said he also felt "off," and when we consulted our training schedule even it said that three days out from the race was a common time to feel "out of sorts." We suffered through a short swim, still struggling with our wetsuits but at least enjoying the lake.

Last swim... "wetsuit Barbie"
I went to bed still feeling jittery, and hour after hour passed as I laid there in the dark, feeling anxious. I got up over and over to use the bathroom (clearly I was pre-hydrating effectively for the race!), each time expecting that when I got back into bed I would be able to fall asleep, but I had no such luck. It was only once light was starting to creep back into the room, probably around 6am, that I was finally able to shed whatever was keeping my mind going and get a little sleep. Awesome. 
Night before...

Friday Sean's sister and her significant other arrived, and we attended our athlete meeting. It was our last complete rest day with no workouts, so we tried to really focus on relaxing. After my sleepless night I did manage to get a good nap in, but I still felt somewhat "off" for most of the day. 

On Saturday, after a good night of sleep, I was pretty much back to normal and was starting to feel really excited about the race. We finished packing our gear bags, gave our bikes a last once-over, and dropped them off at bike check-in. My mom, sister, brother, two nieces, and my best friend and her husband all arrived in town and much as I was concerned that I would be feeling antisocial, it was great to see them. Sean and I did one last swim, which felt great and truly put my mind at ease about how I would do with the wetsuit, and then gathered with everyone for a wonderful night-before-the-race dinner. (They had pasta, me and my sensitive stomach had rice, zucchini, and chicken.) It was very relaxing and so nice to see everyone! We were in bed by 9, and after a few hours of lying in a happy awake state I actually drifted off and slept for at least 4-5 hours! A successful pre-race week, in my book.  

See Part 2: Ironman Coeur D'Alene Race Report - Race Day to continue...

Monday, June 12, 2017

Ironman 70.3 Hawaii 2017: Honu Race Report

Since we are over five months into Ironman training, my plan going into Honu this year was really just to treat it as a long training day. No taper, no big changes in schedule except to count it as both a long run and long bike, which meant taking the day before the race off. This worked out well, as the day before the race happened to be my birthday! We had been planning on driving from the house but the week of the race Sean’s mom surprised us by coming over to spectate and by renting a really nice townhouse just minutes from the race finish. We would have made due either way but it was certainly a wonderful surprise to be closer to the race and to have Cheryle there as our support. 

We checked in on Friday and rumors were already swirling about whether the race could go on without modification due to the wind, which was pretty severe. I brushed the possibility out of my mind until the evening, when we sat in the townhouse eating dinner feeling the walls shake violently with each gust. I thought about dealing with crosswinds like this on my brand new bike, having only ridden it on one ride over 40 minutes and still feeling quite wobbly and uncertain on it. Something about this made me nervous, and the feeling of uneasiness stayed with me all night, causing me to toss and turn without much sleep. Luckily when we got up in the morning the winds seemed to have ramped back down to “normal” Big Island level. Still fairly rough but no longer threatening to tear the house down!

Last minute preparations
We got up early, 3:45, and rode the shuttle to the start at Hapuna. This year, unlike when I did the race in 2015, they had instituted a rolling start, meaning that we gathered by gender and age group and then seeded ourselves within those groups according to our projected swim times. While I like rolling starts in general, this one was not well-executed. My group did not begin to enter the water until over an hour after the start time. I took a long warm up -- much longer than usual -- running at a relaxed pace up and down the beach, getting in the water for a short swim, all while watching the water conditions go from moderately acceptable to downright bad. By the time we got in the water it was incredibly choppy and the currents were going every which way. If they continue the rolling start in subsequent years, I hope that they figure out a way either to condense the start waves or to start the race an hour earlier to minimize the deterioration in water condition. I would also like to see the start waves divided simply by swim time, not by gender or age group. Why, as someone who generally swims 35-36 minutes for 1.2 miles, I had to swim through several waves of much slower men, I don’t understand. Anyway, I survived, but I think there is significant room for improvement in how to organize the rolling start. 

Lots of time to take pictures waiting to start...
All this time contemplating and waiting for my start also gave me time to think about the fact that I hadn’t toed the line at a triathlon start for two years! After Honu in 2015 I had so much momentum and motivation I but knew that the next year, in which I got married, bought a house, moved, and changed jobs was not the year to add Ironman training to the mix. So despite my enthusiasm triathlon had been put in hold. This realization both thrilled me (my grand return to the sport I love!) and worried me (did I forget anything? How should I pace this race? Am I really ready?). Having five months of Ironman training under my belt I felt vastly more prepared than I was for my first 70.3 in 2015 and I tried to just focus on that, but much ofthat training was Zone 2 base training and I was concerned that lack of speed training would negatively affect my race. Finally it was my turn to enter the start chute and put these thoughts to rest.

The swim was not enjoyable for me because of the conditions. No matter how in rhythm I got or how hard I pushed, the waves and current made it impossible to have the kind of swim I had hoped for. I was somewhat horrified when I came out of the water and saw 40 minutes on my watch. All my improvement on the swim this year and a 40 minute swim time is what I have to show for it? Blah. I tried to just put it behind me mentally and move on to the next thing: transition. 

My transition was…. unpolished. Looking back on it and the time (almost twelve minutes!) I’m not quite sure what I was thinking or doing in there. Having a sit down breakfast? Getting a massage? I put on my heart rate monitor, I very thoroughly applied sunscreen, I ate a Huma gel… what else was I doing that took so freaking long? I think I might have hairsprayed my hair… so embarrassing. Pre-race I remember thinking “don’t rush, this is your first race back and you’re not trying to win anything so just take your time and don’t forget anything you need.” Post-race looking at my time I was thinking “okay so maybe you should have rushed a little bit!” Yikes. Anyhow I wasn’t at all stressed at the time and I left T1 more prepared for any bike ride than I probably ever will be again. 

The only bike photo where my helmet didn't look like it was about to fall off
The bike. I remember one thought, the whole race. “Push.” Unlike my first Honu where I remember every hill and bump, this one kind of blurs into a memory of just pushing, faster faster, the whole time. Luckily my shiny new bike, which found its name, Beastie, on this ride, performed like a rockstar and we bonded in a big way. Where my Cervelo would lose speed hitting an uphill, Beastie felt like it was holding all the accumulated speed somewhere in its frame and then letting it out in perfectly rationed portions to keep me flying all the way up the hill. This may also have been a reflection of having a new drivetrain, since the one on my Cervelo was so shot. Either way, it was fun. I had a wonderful time flying down hills in my new 11th gear and passing people on the uphills as my bike unleashed its power. It was awesome. For about half of the course I had a stupidly huge grin on my face. The only little bauble was my fault, when I stupidly tried to drink from my water bottle on my unfamiliar bike on the crosswinds section coming down from Hawi going incredibly fast. I got hit with a terrifying gust of wind and, having only one hand on the handle bars, I was suddenly sideways and moved at least three feet to my right, straight off the shoulder onto the gravel. Somehow I managed to right myself without crashing and steer back into the concrete, all within a split second, but it took ten minutes for my heart to stop pounding. Needless to say I didn’t take my hands off the aero bars again until the wind had calmed down. 

The conditions this year were definitely more challenging than in 2015. The wind wasn’t as scary as I had been worried it might be, but that's not to say it was easy either. The headwind into Hawi was much more severe, and the crosswinds were frightening. It also started raining around Mahukona so the whole acsent to Hawi felt like I was riding through a massive storm. There were quite a few crashes, each one sobering. I saw an ambulance loading one unconscious cyclist, and on a less serious but odder note I also saw two women whose bikes had somehow gotten tangled and stuck together. Both athletes were fine but they were desperately trying to pull their bikes apart, swearing up a storm all the while. 

I counted myself lucky to make it to T2 unscathed. I was slow in T2 although not quite as embarrassingly so as T1, and then I was headed out on the run. My goal was to keep my mike pace right around 12 minutes per mile, and I was aiming to keep my heart rate around 150-155. I had decided that I wanted to run he whole thing without stopping to walk at all except through aid stations (since most of the time if I try to drink out of a cup and run the hydration just ends up all over the front of my tri suit. Here I encountered the other major change from 2015 was that the run course has been changed to two loops, so instead of running all around the Mauna Lani resort area runners stay on the Fairmont property for the vast majority of the time. I’m sure this is easier logistically but it also creates a hillier, grassier, hotter run course. 

My first six miles felt good. The course was indeed very, very tough, with constant rolling hills, quite a bit of time spent running in grass, and unforgiving sun and heat, but my training seemed to be carrying me through. I was thinking “wow, what a change from two years ago” as I headed into the second loop. I even stopped to go to the bathroom, which was new for me. This is where I discovered he challenge of a one-piece tri suit, as much as I love them… it does not make a pit stop easy! 

As soon as I hit familiar territory and had to start repeating the course for the second time, my body and mind turned on me. My legs started breaking down (in hindsight, probably a byproduct of going too hard on the bike!) and mentally I was just disgusted by the thought of doing the exact same really hard run that I had just done again. I made it through three miles holding it together fairly well, but at nine miles my body gave up on me and it was nothing but determination that kept me running. My legs were so shot that I couldn’t even keep my heart rate at 75% -- the fastest I could run had my heart rate hovering around 140. It was bizarre. I hated every hill, both the uphill and the downhill, with a fiery passion. People who were doing run/walk intervals were passing me, but since my goal was to run the whole thing I couldn’t allow myself to walk, even if it might have been a little faster. The “Hell’s Kitchen” section of the course, which some people hate because of the heat but I like because it is paved and flat, now appears twice, so for me this was a pick-me-up. When I hit it the second time I knew I only had a couple of miles left, which kept me shuffling along. When I stepped on a rock and twisted my ankle a bit, I barely noticed. Luckily it held for the rest of the race and only got stiff the next day. 

The last mile and a half everyone surrounding me was suffering. It was scorchingly hot and humid, and the course was nothing but hills pounding on our aging joints. There were many words of encouragment and support shared between us; this is one of the things I love most about triathlon. I had been thinking for some reason that I was supposed to be drinking both water and Gatorade at aid stations, rather than alternating like I usually do, so my stomach was sloshing and distended. Gross. (I felt really stupid afterward when I realized my mistake.)

As is always the case, the last half mile I was lifted by excitement, accomplishment, and adrenaline and my pain melted away. The grass suddenly looks green and beautiful instead of squishy and painful and the gorgeous blue ocean sparkles just beyond the black lava and white coral rocks. Suddenly all is well in the world again. Coming to the finish line was such an incredible feeling, as it always is, and this time I enjoyed knowing that I had taken significant time off my PR and that I had put together a better race, even if it was painful. I also had a bigger cheering section at the finish line this year, which was really fun. Thank you to Cheryle, the Wiley family, and the Grigore family for being there to bring me in! 

So Honu is in the books once again, with a 31 minute improvement on my time! The next thing on my plate is The Big One: my first full Ironman! I’m so glad that we chose to do this race to get us back into it. I got to make my stupid mistakes, try some things out, and see where I stand regarding fitness so that I can better plan and improve over the next few months to be ready for Coeur D’Alene! It was also a wonderful reminder of why I love this sport so much and that Ironman will be worth every moment of dedication and training.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Benefits of the Long Road

As we reach and pass the halfway point of our training and our workouts continue to increase in duration and intensity, I have been thinking a lot about how different this approach is compared to our Honu training in 2015. Our training plan then was focused purely on increasing distances -- 3 weeks of build and one week of recovery. We did this for 9 weeks, then tapered for a week before the race. There was no attention paid to intensity, heart rate, drills, or technique. Interestingly, this produced a relatively fast bike split for me, but my run was extremely slow and I remember very clearly being absolutely WRECKED after every weekend long run and long ride. Like, sick-to-my-stomach, dizzy, head pounding, must-sleep-for-hours-to-function-again wrecked. I also remember spending hours at my computer at work during the week with my legs up and ice on my knees, cringing with every step from the consistent stabbing in my IT band. 

Fast forward to this year. On Friday I did my first 60-mile ride of this training. Like the first 60-mile ride of Honu training, it was challenging. There were parts that were painful, parts when I felt anxious, and parts when I wished it was over. The difference, however, came when I got off the bike. In 2015 I would have laid on the floor for an hour or so, waiting to feel normal again and trying to overcome my nausea enough to eat. This year I got off my bike, put on my running shoes, ran 45 minutes, then went to work and did several hours of ballet. When I got home that night I felt energetic and had no joint pain whatsoever. Yesterday I did my 10.5 mile run followed by a 55 minute ride on what essentially felt like fresh legs. 

This is the result of doing a 36-week plan that is based on purposeful, focused workouts instead of just slogging through distances as fast as you can without passing out, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Every workout has a specific goal -- not just distance covered but also the intensity you do it at and the technique you work on. Are you trying to build speed or endurance? Are you trying to improve your cadence or your power output on the bike? Are you pushing yourself to your max or trying facilitate recovery? 

If you had asked me these questions before, I would have looked at you like you were speaking Greek. Now I can tell you with every workout what I am hoping to accomplish, and it is clear both in the improvement I see and in how much faster my body recovers. 

If you are trying to choose a training plan, especially for your first Ironman, take this into account. It is about so much more than just covering the distances, and your experience can be painful or invigorating depending on what you choose. The more months you can dedicate to training your body and building up your endurance, the more pleasurable the process is. Instead of just "making it through" your workouts and ultimately your race, you can thrive and enjoy seeing your body adapt and improve. 

For those of us who are not elite athletes, whose bodies don't seem inclined to run 6-minute miles even after years of training, this is also the most realistic approach. Although my previous "push as hard as you can for as long as you can" method might work for shorter races, I have to recognize that the chances of me going all out for 112 miles on the bike and then keeping it together for a marathon are very slim. Mirinda Carfrae and Daniela Ryf I am not. For this reason, building up a little more slowly and allowing your body to keep up with your mileage is priceless. I might not be the fastest, but I do have staying power. We did 16 hours and twenty minutes of training this week, and I feel great!

So instead of limping around for the next two days after my long workouts, I will be thoroughly enjoying my day off in full relaxation, sans sore muscles and aching joints. Next week here we come! 

PS. If you are looking for an Ironman training plan, I highly recommend the one we're using: Matt Llerandi's 36-week Ironman training plan, originally published on the SuperCoach network. It is made of gold. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Unicorn Run

I headed into my long workouts for the week motivated and ready to go. For my long run I was planning on doing a route that has been in the back of my mind for a long time, a pie in the sky that I fondly call my "Unicorn Run." Background information: Two years ago, when Sean and I were just beginning our Honu training, we were running on a particularly hot day at Puako. Sean was a little ways ahead of me, and I had just struggled my way to the turnaround point at the end of the road when a tan, incredibly triathlon-fit-looking man appeared as if from nowhere, like a unicorn. He hadn't been in front of me or behind me, and then suddenly there he was. He stopped and asked me if I knew if he could get back to the highway from there, and how far it would be to run back to the Fairmont. I gave him my best estimate, all the while marveling at the crazy idea that someone could actually run that far, much less via some mysterious route between Puako and the hotel that it seemed must include running on the beach. He nodded quickly, yelled "thank you!" over his shoulder, and took off again. He was so fast that he was out of sight within seconds. 
Ever since then I have wanted to figure out how he got from the Fairmont to Puako, and I imagined the day when I might be strong enough to run from there to the highway and back around to the hotel. My very own Unicorn Run. 

Fast forward to Thursday night. It turns out that the run is only 9.5 miles, making it perfect for this week's long run, and I was excited despite having several between-the-toes blisters from breaking in pointe shoes. I woke up at 3AM with throbbing pain in my left foot only to discover that one of the blisters was infected and extremely swollen and red. I did emergency surgery and went back to bed. It was still sore in the morning, but I put in my most Unicorn-esque tri suit (brightly colored and patterned) and took off to Mauna Lani. I used New Skin to cover the blister as best I could, slathered my toes in Neosporin, and laced up my shoes. 

I was relieved to feel that the discomfort was mild. It was extremely hot and muggy, but I settled in and got a nice steady pace going. I've been trying to up my intensity just a bit so I kept my heart rate at about 78-80%, which felt good and sustainable. It was a MAF test day so after the first 2 miles I carefully timed my mile splits for three miles, then went easy for three minutes, then timed another 2.5 miles. Despite the highway portion being extremely hilly, I kept good, consistent mile times throughout. The highway part was interesting. Even having biked that section many times, the were a lot of things I had never noticed. The rock walls surrounding the highway in one stretch are quite beautiful, dramatically cut with a variation of colors and layers making interesting looking patterns. The goats were prolific, and I could hear them calling to each other a lot of the way. It was a long stretch but when I reached the crest of the last hill and turned down the hill toward Puako I felt triumphant: Unicorn Run Part 1, completed! 

After the biggest part of the downhill, I felt a little odd. I had the very strange mental sensation that I was abnormally tall. It felt like my head was farther away from the ground than usual, and no matter how I ran or what I focused on, I couldn't shake the feeling. It was bizarre. I had brought a water bottle with me as well as salt tablets and Clif Shot Blocks. I took all of the above at mile 5 before the second part of my MAF test, which basically covered the whole Puako section. Still feeling good, the "I'm a giant" feeling gradually dissipated and I ran all the way to the end of the road, where the unicorn man had appeared, and again felt triumph as I touched the red signs that mark the edge of the culdesac. Unicorn Run Part 2!

I ran back to the Puako beach entrance and entered Part 3 of my run, the beautiful beach trail that I discovered several weeks ago. The ocean breeze cooled me down a bit and I fought the urge to jump in the water. It was gorgeous -- all black and white rocks and blue water and yellow tang swimming around. I had to walk a couple of times to avoid breaking an ankle on the rocks, so my pace slowed down a little, but overall I still felt great as I exited the beach and crossed the Fairmont property, where my MAF test concluded and I downed another salt capsule, another 3 Shot Blocks, and water. 

Part 4 was the run back to the Mauna Lani shopping center, and I had to keep convincing myself to slow down, cool down. It flew by and before I knew it I was back to my car. My training schedule said to compare the split times from the first timed MAF segment to the second (more similar times indicating less fatigue and thus better fitness) and I was pleased that mine were almost exactly the same, within a few seconds per mile until the last quarter mile where I hit the loose beach rocks and had to slow down to avoid a turned ankle. Pretty incredible compared to how my 9-10 mile runs used to feel: starting strong and fighting to keep from walking by mile 6. 

Unicorn Run, completed!  

*I wish that I could say that this was the end of my day, feeling strong and triumphant and awesome, but such is not always the case in triathlon training, unfortunately. My excellent run took enough out of me that within 20 minutes of getting on the bike for my post-run "cool down" (HA!) 
I bonked so hard that my brain and body stopped working resulting in an embarrassing tipping over incident and 10 minutes of me standing on the side of the Queen K waiting for my nutrition to kick in before I felt comfortable continuing. Not the most graceful unicorn, I guess... more on all this in an upcoming post. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Weeks 3 and 4: SICK.

Day one of week 3 I awoke with a little scratchiness in my throat, dreading what that meant. I mostly ignored it for a few days -- feeling a little run down, a little more sniffly, but able to continue. There was an interval run with some fun, short bursts of high intensity, more bike drills and one goofy ride where I wasn't feeling up to riding on the highway so I just rode back and forth between all the resorts... all was well. The Hilo to Volcano Ultra run was on the docket for Saturday, as part of a 3-person team for a total of approximately 10 miles each.

What happens when I play bicycle tourist
Thursday's swim gave us some hiccups. Sean and I were going to try out the master's swim at the pool in Waimea (at HPA), but by the time we got there and found the pool on HPA's sprawling campus we were 25 minutes late and too embarrassed to start. An let's be honest, it was incredibly cold at 6AM and the pool is outdoors. We then decided to go to Hapuna, but only had 10-15 minutes to swim because it was so late. "Oh well," we said. "We'll drive to Kona Aquatics after work tonight and swim." The joke was on us, however, because after driving 40 minutes to get there after a long day of work we found the pool closed for maintenance. Whomp whomp.

Eager to get back to it on Friday, I did my long bike ride on the trainer despite feeling more and more run down. My work day afterward was miserable and I resorted to drinking coffee (a very, very rare occurrence for me!) to keep myself going. I knew that the Hilo to Volcano race was going to be a push in my condition, but I headed home planning to quickly pack my bag, eat, and go right to bed for as many hours of sleep as I could get.

As soon as I arrived home I knew something was wrong. Sean's truck was in the driveway but the house was mostly dark and still locked. Bent over and wrapped up in every blanket we own, he staggered over from the couch to let me in and mumbled, "I have food poisoning."

And it was, indeed, very bad.

I'll leave out the details for everyone's sake, but suffice it to say we both ended up staying up all night and at 3:45AM, when I would have had to leave for the race, I was standing in our yard in the one tiny area that gets cell reception, googling "food poisoning treatments" and pondering whether or not I should be taking him to the hospital. Much to my chagrin I had to tell my teammates that I couldn't leave my husband in that condition and thus wouldn't be able to do the race. Here I would like to give a big huge shout out to those two amazing women, Barbie Nakamura and Melissa Schad, who completed the race without me (adding 50% more miles to their distances) and killed it!

Around 5AM Sean started being able to keep electrolytes down, but he was very, very sick all of Saturday. I had decided to forgo my workouts for the weekend and start again on Monday. On Sunday we relaxed together at the house, still trying to help him recover, then went to sleep. Early in the morning of Sunday-Monday night, I was woken up by a horrible pain in my stomach, along with nausea. I went to the bathroom three times before it got light, but given that I am prone to stomach problems, I didn't think much of it. That is, until 9Am when I started feeling so sick that I couldn't do anything but lie down. Then the vomiting started. Mine was not nearly so severe as Sean's, but still no cakewalk. I had to call out from work and miss yet another day of training, and I couldn't even think about eating or moving. By evening the stomach symptoms subsided but I was hit with awful body aches that made me feel like all my joints and muscles were on fire.

Kona Aquatics
It took until Wednesday for Sean and I both to feel ready to start training again. I started out with a very gentle jog on the road that runs from Honokaa to Waipio Valley -- gradual hills, and unique and beautiful views of eucalyptus forests on one side and blue ocean on the other. It was quite pleasant, and it felt good to be outdoors and moving again. Then I did a 30-minute swim at the Honokaa pool, which went well except for when I tried to perform the "fast 50's" called for in the workout schedule. My body was not having anything remotely "fast," so I let it go and just swam at a relaxed pace. I did my long ride for the week outside starting from the Mauna Lani resort area, and we finished up week 4 with a long swim at Kona Aquatics. It was the first time I've attempted a 1000 yards set in a pool, and although I've swam much longer distances in the ocean without stopping, the repetitive nature of the pool created its own challenge. It didn't help that there was a large group of people smoking cigarettes right outside the gate so that every time we breathed we got a lungful of secondhand smoke. Overall, though, it was a success and we got to see that lovely little notification pop up on our Garmin watches: Longest Pool Swim to date at 2500 yards!

Now that we are finally back to 100% or very close, so Week 5 is starting strong. I promise a much more interesting post for next week!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The First Two Weeks

It's official: it has begun,

Chilly on our first day!
We started our Ironman training schedule on December 19th with the coldest ocean swim I've ever done! It was cloudy and dark, and there was new snow on Mauna Kea, which did not provide the most inviting backdrop as we waded into the murky water. But we did it!

The second day was less successful. First I couldn't do my bike workout despite having prepped it on the trainer the night before because the one thing I hadn't done -- pumping up the tires -- wouldn't work with our new pump because the seal wouldn't lock. After  swearing at it messing with it for 20 minutes I gave up and headed out to run. I closed our gate and headed out and within 30 seconds one of my dogs, Jena,  appeared at my side, having dug under the fence. I took her back to the yard, but the moment I opened the gate the other dog, her brother Paco, ran like a shot out and down the road, followed closely by Jena at full speed. Having gotten a taste of freedom, they ran OVER A QUARTER MILE down the road, with me chasing them and yelling "FUCK YOU GUYS!" at the top of my lungs. When I finally caught them, they refused to walk and forced me to drag/carry them all the way home in a half-crouch, my legs burning. By the time I got home and finished burying a bunch of big rocks under the gate to stop the dogs from digging, I was already late to work. Great training day.

Beautiful Christmas Eve morning swim
The rest of the week went smoothly. The second swim was less cold and we got to share our swim space with a beautiful manta ray, a lovely welcome back. I got my tires pumped up and did my first trainer workouts on the bike, which was a new experience for me (with the exception of my one attempt at using our old trainer, which promptly ended up in the trash after the lock slipped and I slow motion crashed to the floor as I madly tried and failed to clip out fast enough). I did bike drills for the first time and via Isolated Leg Training (20 seconds pedaling with just one leg, 10 seconds transition with both, then 20 on the other) learned that my right leg is comically uncoordinated! I actually laughed out loud at the level of my right leg's spasticity when I first attempted it. By the end of the drills, however, it was starting to smooth out.

Curious cow on my beautiful run
The runs were nothing short of wonderful, soaked in the golden morning light with snow-capped Mauna Kea towering on one side and the ocean sparkling on the other. The air was crisp and the only other creatures I encountered were horses, cows, and curious goats. Around each corner there was new landscape to marvel over. Since these early run workouts specify fairly low heart rates, I never felt overly fatigued and was free to enjoy my surroundings.

It was also new to do two sports back to back almost every day. By Friday of that week the activity caught up to me and I got tired. VERY tired. (This could also be attributed to the fact that I had worked out for an hour and half and then danced for five and a half hours). The night's sleep didn't refresh me, and I made it through Saturday's morning swim before crashing and falling asleep on the couch for two hours. I woke up and did my long bike ride for the week on the trainer (yay for being able to watch Dexter!).

My new saddle -- less pain!
Sunday was Christmas, which we took off, and Monday of the second week we took our bikes in for tune ups and headed to Kona, where we did our swim workout in the Kona Aquatics pool. On our way back we picked up our bikes and did a 50-minute outdoor ride, which felt great and we did at a surprisingly quick pace. I also got a new saddle, and discovered with great elation that my nether-regions do not have to feel like they are engulfed in flames while riding! Such a relief! Ladies, if you have wide-ish hips, may I highly recommend a Body Geometry saddle!

Just more pretty running pictures
The rest of Week 2 was enjoyable, with no major hiccups. I weighed myself on Tuesday and discovered that I had lost 2.5 pounds in the first week in spite of Christmas candy. I have rediscovered my love of post-workout oatmeal, the latest incarnation being made with steel cut oats, lactose free milk, bananas, ground flax seeds, and chopped pecans. I also discovered a delicious smoothie made with all the same ingredients minus the oats and sub frozen bananas. Food is such a delight when you're working out hard!

I have also discovered that I really love drills, on the bike and running. Isolated leg drills, gearing pyramids, and variable gearing sets work the muscles like crazy while making the time pass quickly. We've never done a training plan with drills before because honestly I was intimidated by them, but I am so glad I finally made the plunge! It feels purposeful and I can tell that this method of training will lead to bigger gains with less stress on the joints and muscles. Win win.

Our Week 3 plan, proudly displayed
This week I made it until after the swim on Saturday before getting overly tired. Again I took a nap, but this week it actually refreshed me enough to finish the long bike ride feeling strong. Today, our day off feels restful and productive -- a great start to the new year! Sean also had the fantastic idea to put a white board up on the wall where we can post our week's schedule to motivate and prepare us, which was fun to write out and hang up.

So there it is, the first 2 of what I know will be a challenging and rewarding 36 weeks of training in preparation for this race. I'm ready