... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Ironman 70.3 Hawaii 2018 Race Report

This year marks my 3rd time doing Ironman 70.3 Hawaii (“Honu”), and just like years past, this year the race presented new challenges, new experiences, and new accomplishments. We knew this year would be different and special because Sean’s sister, Ashley, had decided to “tri” with us. It was her first 70.3 and first triathlon in almost ten years. In addition, Sean’s race buddy from Ironman Coeur D’Alene, Stephanie, was here racing from San Francisco. And, to top it off, the race also had the special distinction of being on my 32nd birthday! 

Because of what has been going on in our lives in the past few months (traveling in Europe with Sean’s family, organizing and dancing in a ballet performance, and then leaving my ballet teaching job to start classes of my own) my focus has been elsewhere. Although I had trained pretty intensively from January to the beginning of April and picked up again with relative focus after returning from our trip I was feeling a little out of sorts triathlon-wise. To add to that feeling, I dislocated my left shoulder two and a half weeks before the race and had barely been able to swim since then. My goal had gone from “go fast” to “have fun and finish.” I did, however, somewhere in the back of my head, want to go for my goal of really pushing myself on the intensity, past what I’d done before. I knew that wasn’t going to be possible on the swim, but I told myself I’d push the run and see what I could do. 
Hanging with Mike Reilly at the expo


The expo and athlete meeting, like always, got me a little more mentally checked in. To add to the fun, Mike Reilly was there so I got to thank him for giving me the double-call (having the audience tell me “you are an Ironman!”) at Kona and get a photo with him. I also felt very fancy checking in at the special Ironman All World Athlete check-in table, and got a good giggle when the volunteer working asked how much it cost to get the VIP check-in. The guy next to me explained the All World selection process, followed by a decisive “we earned that shit.” All of my missing toenails (which have finally grown back!) agreed with him wholeheartedly. 


Race eve came and we carefully gathered our gear for the morning. Sean and I applied Ashley’s race number tattoos and I almost cried looking at her eager, excited face and realizing how much I hoped she’d finish. Other than that, I kind of kept to myself. I’m realizing that I’m kind of anti-social pre-race.


One of the most dramatic benefits to becoming more experienced in the sport is the ability to actually sleep well the night before a race. Whereas in my earlier triathlon days I would toss and turn or lie in bed the whole night staring at the ceiling, I now go to bed around 9:30pm, fall asleep without issue, and get 6 hours of solid sleep before my alarm goes off at 3:30am. It’s quite lovely, and something I will never take for granted. 


Much to my delight, they had moved the start time up by half an hour this year, from 7am to 6:30. I was hopeful that this would eliminate the issue that I had battled with last year when they instituted a rolling start without taking into account the fact that water conditions deteriorate dramatically between 7 and 8am, resulting in some nasty waves and chop for those of us starting later. I went through my morning routine – get up, eat, shower, tattoo, braid my hair, and double, triple, quadruple check my gear – and then it was time to head for the shuttles to the start. 


T1 pre-race is always fun. So many excited people, so much energy! Apparently, they mentioned my birthday over the PA system but of course I was too focused to hear it. At 6:15 we all headed toward the start, and at 6:30 the first wave took off. We were excited to see the legendary Karen Aydelott in the start area, along with Mike Reilly and Ironman god Mark Allen. Sean’s wave went out around 6:40am. After watching him start, I tried to get Ashley settled, then took off on my own to warm up. I ran up and down the beach, then hid and did my weird ballet warm ups that seem to do more good for me than any conventional exercises. Time went by quickly and before I knew it I was joining the women in my age group in the start corral and . I seeded toward the front, not so much on purpose as that I was talking to my friend Sara and she’s a really fast swimmer, and then there we were at the start gates with the signals beeping and so off I went!

My mantra for the swim was simple: “slow and steady,” I told myself over and over again. “You dislocated your shoulder less than three weeks ago and you haven’t swam more than 1500 in three weeks. It’s not going to be a fast swim, but that’s okay. Just stay on the outside so no one knocks your shoulder out again and be slow and steady.” Oddly enough, this swim felt the best of any Honu swim yet. I never got to the point of feeling totally exhausted, and because I was just trying to stay steady I didn’t really leapfrog with any other swimmers. When I passed someone, it was because I was decidedly faster, and when I got passed, it was clear that I was not going to gain my position back. It was kind of a peaceful mindset to swim in. About halfway through the swim my shoulder started tiring – not crunching or clicking or popping or hurting, luckily, just tiring – but it manifested in a definite tendency to drift off to the left, which I had to keep correcting for. I was certain I must be swimming a sine curve.

On the final stretch, I started getting passed by the fastest of the female 20-24 group. There was one girl who was so fast that at first peripheral glance I actually thought she was some kind of sea creature or mermaid. Her movement was so graceful, smooth, and powerful, and she passed me with a kind of speed I still can’t quite comprehend. It was so beautiful to watch I was transfixed, then within moments she was gone. 


Soon enough I was rounding the last buoy, hearing the announcer and the crowd, and heading for shore. I exited the water, did my best to run gracefully with a non-double chinned smile for the cameras, and then walked through the showers before running for T1. I couldn't believe it when I glanced down at my watch and saw my swim split - 36:30, three and a half minutes faster than last year!
 

Another goal of mine for this year was to reduce my transition times. Last year I did this race having not done a triathlon since 2015 and with my focus being on Ironman in August, so I had told myself to take my time in transition and set myself up well on the bike. I had taken my own advice a little to literally, however, and spent an eternity in T1 putting on sunscreen, hairspraying my hair (yes, seriously. What the hell was I thinking?), loading my gels into my pockets, putting on my heart rate monitor, drying my feet… eating breakfast? I honestly don’t even remember what else I was doing but my T1 time was a mortifying 11:xx minutes! This year I vowed not to repeat that performance, so I had applied my super duper waterproof sunscreen pre-swim and taped all of my nutrition to my bike so that all I had to do was put on bike shoes, helmet, and go. And that’s what I did! Shakily, but successfully, I took six minutes (six minutes!) off of my T1 time.

The first little 8-mile out and back to Mauna Lani felt good. My legs felt okay, by breathing was normalizing nicely. I saw Ashley on my way back and she looked like she was doing well, pumping away, so I started the trek up to Hawi feeling optimistic. My first few 5-mile splits were fast -- easily on pace for my goal pace of 17.5mph. The course conjestion was much more noticeable than last year. It seemed that on every hill I was having to slow down and dodge people to avoid getting in the drafting zone. I do want to give credit to the race officials, who were very present, keeping a close eye on the crowds but making very careful penalty calls only to those who were clearly drafting intentionally, not those merely caught in the mayhem and trying their best to leave proper space.

The weather, thankfully, was mild this year. The vicious, frightening crosswinds of last year were almost non-existent, and for this I was very grateful. From the beginning of the bike, though, I could tell that my nutrition was a little off. This wasn’t surprising to me because before our Italy trip, it seemed that I had accidentally fat-adapted myself to the point where I hardly needed any fuel during even long training sessions. Runs and rides where before I would take upward of four gels I could do on Skratch and water alone, and somehow my pace was still faster. Then we went to Italy, where I spent three weeks eating pasta and gelato twice daily. When I came back, I was slower and back to needing fuel on my workouts. Although I made efforts to get back into fat adaptation before the race, it just wasn’t enough time and I was left in a strange no-man’s-land of needing some fuel but not as much as normal, and never being able to tell exactly when I would need it until it was too late. 

This was the case during this ride. I would try to eat on my normal schedule – a gel every 40 minutes or so – but it seemed like way too much, and I think I ended up taking one every hour or so instead. I was also insanely, insatiably thirsty from the moment I got out of the water to the moment I crossed the finish line. I didn’t want Skratch, I wanted gallons and gallons of pure water. A big part of my nutrition strategy is listening to my body’s cravings, interpreting what they mean, and fueling accordingly but I also know that drinking only water for a 3+ hour ride going into a two and a half hour run, both in sweltering sun and humidity, is a bad idea. I watched Jodie Swallow’s 2013 Ironman Kona performance where she was hospitalized for hyponatremia and I have no desire to experience it. 


So I kept guessing, trying to combine what my body was telling me with what I know to be necessary to get through this kind of race. It was semi-successful. I got a big surge of energy right before the long six mile climb to Hawi, which worked out nicely, but after flying down the (wonderful) descent I just ran out of gas. My legs felt like they had nothing, like they were big blocks of cement, and mentally I felt a little fuzzy. It didn’t help that we picked up a decent little headwind heading back, either. I had been on target to PR by over five minutes, and usually the return is faster than the ascent, but it took the opposite pattern and I got slower and slower as I rode on. It was quite irritating and put me into a somewhat negative head space as I neared the end of the bike course. I pushed hard for the last five mile split, determined to hang on to my PR, and managed to get in one measly minute faster than last year. Not bad, but very disappointing considering the kinds of paces I’d been riding in training. 

Into T2 I went, with the same goal in mind as T1 – get in and get out, FAST. No nonsense. I even had a race belt, even though I hate them and usually spend the extra time pinning my number on just to avoid it riding up and flapping around over and over. Helmet on, shoes off, shoes on, belt on, hat on, and out I went! I took off fast, hoping to hold a 9:00 to 9:15 minute mile pace during my planned 4-minute run intervals before walking 1-minute, resulting in a 10:15-ish mile pace on average. 

I was quickly reminded of why running at Honu is nothing like running in training. About three quarters of the run is on golf course grass and steep little golf course hills. There is no hope of finding your rhythm, no hope of getting a good stride going, it’s just squish, squish, squish, up and down and up and down. And it’s hot – not just normal hot, but a steam room-like hot that seems to be frying you from above while the evaporating moisture from the grass smothers you from below. Can you tell how much I like this run? 


Pushing through the yuck
Having started the run a little frustrated, I was just hating life for the first few miles. Around Mile 3, for the first time in my racing career, I had to truly talk myself out of quitting. “I just really don’t want to do this,” I thought. “I’m not going to do this. I’m going to stop.” I pondered this option for a minute, thinking back on all those torturous speed sessions I’d run, all the hill repeats on the bike… did I do all of that for a DNF? “Okay, I won’t stop, but I’m just going to walk the rest of the race.” That was my next bargaining chip. Again I thought back on my runs – intervals I didn’t think I could make it through, paces I didn’t think I could hold, fourteen mile paced runs fighting headwind and midday Hawaii heat… I kept running. I also remembered that when I start to feel this way on long bike rides it’s usually due to lack of calories, so I reached in my pocket for the gel I hadn’t been able to get down on the bike and sure enough, within minutes, I was feeling better. 

Once I made it through that dark place, things actually started to improve. It was very uncomfortable, but I was able to hold very close to my goal paces in all but two spots on the course. The Hell’s Kitchen section, a stretch of flat, paved, sun-exposed road that most people dread, actually provided a welcome respite. It’s paved, it’s flat, and when we got to it on both the first and second loop I was able to pick up my pace significantly and make up for some lost time. The second time I went through that section I came up on Ashley, on her first loop, seeming a little frustrated that she was walking but still powering through. She was in the company of another athlete and they seemed to be doing okay. I was so happy to see that she was still going! I used my one minute walk interval to walk with them, then wished them well and fought onward. 

Based on the conditions I had adjusted my goals a little – hold 9:30 or faster paces during the run intervals for an average of sub-10:45 minute miles. A little disappointing, but still over a minute per mile faster than last year. I powered on. It felt very different from last year, in which I felt great for the first lap and then completely fell apart on the second lap. This time I was actually feeling better and better (all relative, of course!) as the race went on, and the miles ticked off steadily rather than dragging by. I think with six months of Ironman training, two Ironman races, and six months of intensive speed and power work, I am just a little more used to suffering this year than I was last year. I was still fighting the overwhelming desire to drink six cups of water at every aid station, trying to control my liquid intake while taking care of my body as best I could. As a random and fun surprise, there were a couple of friends out on the course who knew it was my birthday, and told me happy birthday every time we crossed paths. The unexpected result of this was that complete strangers who heard them started saying it too the next time I saw them, which was an excellent pick-me-up as the race went on.


Soon enough I was at Mile 12. I felt like I could run more than my specified interval, but decided to save it for the last set and speed up a little if I could. Up and down and through the grass we went, but now the end was in sight. Once I passed the last aid station my watch showed that there was about a half mile left, and I decided I could run it all and pick up the pace a bit. This wasn’t an “I’m feeling great and have extra energy” kind of being able to pick up the pace, more of an “I promised myself I would push to my absolute max and leave nothing out there” kind of thing. It took everything I had. I finished the last stretch around the grass and savored taking the right turn to the finish instead of the left turn for another lap. As I approached the finish, I saw Sean’s mom and dad. I ran under the arch feeling absolute relief that it as over. I hadn’t looked at my overall time on my watch once during the race, nor had I added up my individual splits, so had no idea what my time was. Given how the race felt, I was just hoping for 6:30 or under, which would take over 20 minutes off of my time from last year. I was still feeling a little disappointment at how things had gone. 


When I looked down at my watch for the total time and saw 6:18, the weirdest thing happened: I started to cry. There were some tears at Ironman Coeur D’Alene and a few more at Kona, but this was an uncontrollable flood of emotion, overwhelming relief that it was over and a release of all the pain of the race. It wasn’t the 6:15 I’d hoped for, but it was pretty damn close. Close enough to make me happy. It meant that I had taken 33 minutes off of my time from last year, and that I had been 12 minutes faster than at the much easier Mini Monster race I did in February, giving me a new 70.3 PR. It also meant that all the grueling work I put in since Kona had actually paid off. I had to stay in the athlete finish area for a couple of minutes before going out to meet people just to get my emotions under control. 


Sean had a rough day. His stomach went bad almost immediately on the run, leaving him only able to walk most of it. He fought through like a warrior and finished. Ashley kept up her steady work, pushing through the heat and the pain, and crossed the finish line of her first 70.3 victorious! Congratulations to both of them as well as all the other finishers, and thank you to my mom and Sean’s family for their support, my dad for being with me in spirit on many a long run, Michelle Suber and Krista Graves for being run/adventure partners extraordinaire, Melissa Schad for being by swim race buddy and awesome inspiration, and all of the athletes I coach for inspiring me daily with their hard work and determination.



Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Delicate Tightrope Walk of Training-Life Balance

After the incredible honor and amazing experience of completing Ironman Kona last year on a Hawaii resident lottery slot, I sat down to think about what my goals for the upcoming year would be. I had just finished ten months of absolute -- and I mean absolute, a total of three missed workouts out of approximately five hundred scheduled -- dedication to Ironman, and I knew that I would feel a little lost afterward. Having made the mistake in prior races of not having any direction afterward and wandering off into the never-never-land of no training, I knew I needed to put something on paper.

I have always considered myself a slow triathlete, one who was happy just to be out there with everyone, to get to the finish line, and to gradually improve my own performances, even if those improvements still landed me solidly in the middle of the pack. Finishing an Ironman was such a huge goal, a long and monumental undertaking, that other goals seemed to pale in comparison. I was also fairly surprised by my performance at Kona, in which I took nearly ten minutes off of my bike time from Coeur D'Alene and over fifty minutes (!) off of my marathon, for a total of 59:15 faster, obviously a huge PR. Combining the seemingly lackluster appeal of non-140.6 endurance goals with my piqued interest in my ability to get faster, I essentially came up with a goal that can generally summarized as "get fast."

I should note that when I analyzed where I fell in my age group in Coeur D'Alene and at Hawaii 70.3 last year (I left Kona out of these calculations because I was clearly way out of my league!) I was in the top quarter in the swim, the top third on the bike, and in the bottom quarter on the run. This clear trend made me wonder if I could improve my bike a little and my run a lot and end up in the top quarter of my age group. So I sat down and wrote down the times I thought I might be able to do with a whole lot of work, and sure enough when I added them up it put me at number 13 in my age group compared to number 34 this past Honu.

I made some aggressive training plans -- the most notable was including the Run Less, Run Faster half marathon as part of my triathlon training. I also schedule weekly hill repeats on the bike and a weekly power-focused ride in addition to regular long rides. I did this fairly successfully starting in January. I got up at 5AM every day and was out the door in the dark. The running was crazy... so much harder than what I'm used to! At least every other week I was sure I wasn't going to be able to hold the paces the plan dictated, but somehow I always did, even if it almost killed me. Weekly interval runs that left me breathless and panting but feeling accomplished, and sure enough it started to show. My legs felt much stronger, my stride got longer, my "springs" were much more effective, and the unofficial PRs started coming almost weekly. My 10k PR improved by almost three minutes in the four months I did the program. My cycling was also improving dramatically with my weekly hill repeats, averaging 18+ mph on rides without putting in much extra effort. It was hard work but it was awesome. I felt on-track to kill it at Honu.

Sean and I NOT being triathletes!
Then in April we went to Italy for three weeks. The week before the trip my training was mediocre, both because I had a lot to do before leaving and because my mind was already flying over the Pacific. I struggled with it for a few days, but after talking to Sean I realized that this year is just not the time to try and get super serious. Two Ironmans and two other 70.3s have taken their toll and I need a break physically and mentally. I decided it wasn't worth it to say no to pasta and gelato in Italy for the sake of saving two minutes at Honu. It wasn't worth forcing myself to keep a strict training schedule while we were there. My husband and I need time together, my pets need attention, my non-triathlon life has to be given some time to exist too.

So, as I return to my training post-Italy with five weeks until the race, I am taking a slightly less rigid, more moderate approach. I will still work hard, I'll still train and do what I can, but life comes first, at least for now. I have so many good things in development (coaching, most notably!) that I want to put energy into them and see where they can lead. 2017 was an extraordinary year in triathlon for me. 2018 is going to be an extraordinary year in the rest of my life.

It doesn't come easily to us Type A athletes to back off, and that is one of the reasons I believe it's important. It's great to improve and to be disciplined and focused, but sometimes I think that for people like us that is almost easier. It's almost more of a challenge to take a step back and be a little less structured, a little less intense. It's a lesson I'm learning and working on, sometimes with more success than others.

So here's to Honu 2018 -- hopefully faster than previous years, hopefully fun, and hopefully a complement to my life as a whole rather than the focus of it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

"Aerobic-Focused:" Code for "Really Long"

Week five was what our training schedule innocuously referred to as an "aerobic-focused" week. Our long run jumped up to an hour and ten minutes, our long bike to 2:15, our swim to an hour, and all of these things were to be performed at under 75% of max heart rate. Per the schedule, I had been doing quite a few runs under 75%, so that wasn't too much of an adjustment. In fact, my ability to run in an aerobic state is showing dramatic improvement, something that encourages me greatly! When I first started I had to walk frequently to stay under a heartbeat of 150 beats per minute. Now I can run at a half-decent pace (half decent for ME -- don't get too excited) for what seems like forever at 138! When I started this heart rate training I had hoped that it might solve the riddle of why I am so exceptionally slow, and I think it's working!

As it turns out, what I thought was a moderate run pace was actually jacking my heart rate way up -- high enough that I couldn't maintain it for long distances. In the short term slowing down seems counterintuitive, but I'm discovering that as my body gets better at processing energy aerobically (using oxygen and burning fat rather than glucose) my pace is picking back up and I can hold that pace for distances that used to demand walk breaks. It's encouraging.

That said, I do feel like each workout lasts forever. The runs aren't too bad, but the bike this week was brutal. I decided to ride with my friend Barbie down in Kona, despite the fact that they issued a high wind advisory for the area. We started out and immediately it was just like a bad joke. Determined to follow my training plan, I down-shifted and down-shifted trying to find a gear that allowed me to stay within the aerobic heart rate zone. Barbie probably thought I was crazy. In my two easiest gears, I could barely keep my heart rate where it was supposed to be, the head wind was so bad. It howled in my ears, it felt like I was cycling dragging a beached whale down the highway.

Knowing that the return trip would be significantly faster with the tailwind, I added an extra 20 minutes to the trip out. Turning around felt like losing 100 pounds and growing wings! We flew back to Kona! Even with the time adjustment, we arrived back over 10 minutes early, meaning that the trip out had been over 50 minutes longer than the trip back! I did a little cool down to add some extra time, and then we filled up on some delicious post-ride burritos. All in a day's work.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Honu 2018 Training - Week 4

As I finish up Week 4 of my training plan for Honu 2018, it is becoming remarkably clear that either doing two Ironmans in a row resulted in some pretty remarkable strength gains, or allowing myself to train at higher intensities is simply unleashing the result of last season’s endurance focus. This week I ran ten miles for my long run, at a pace much faster than the 70% of max heart rate pace I did most of my Ironman running at, and it felt excellent! My legs hurt less, I never reached that point where every step felt like a battle… whatever it is that's happening, it's fun and I’m enjoying it. Also of note, Sean and I signed up for the Mini Monster 70.3 on February 11th on a whim, so apparently I’m going to be doing a half Ironman in six weeks. I always have to keep things interesting...

The first three weeks of my re-entry to structured training were purely run-focused, getting accustomed to my Run Less Run Faster half marathon plan while incorporating just two very low key, easy bike workouts to reintroduce myself to structured training and feel out my schedule. This week (after missing a week due to a really fun stomach virus), I amped up one more level, adding a bike workout focused on hill repeats, several power intervals to one of the other bike sessions, and two swims -- one at the pool and one in the ocean.

Since changing jobs, I have to get up much, much earlier to get my workouts in. However, it also means that I am home much earlier and that I have a lot more time to put toward coaching, both of which make me feel a lot better overall. I hated getting home at 8pm for the last two years, rushing to make dinner, eat, and quickly get to bed before getting up the next morning to do it all again. I am a much happier person when I have a little more time in the evenings, and it only took a few early mornings to remind me that awful as it feels when the alarm goes off, I really do enjoy being up to watch the sunrise. There is something special about seeing starlight turn into a wash of pinks, yellows, and purples.

Training itself this week went well. My tempo run (6 miles) felt great and although the speed interval run on Thursday of 5 x 1000 in Zone 5 felt like it might kill me at the time, I made it through and felt great afterward. Puako is a great place to do intervals as it is flat as a pancake, and provides a welcome respite from the monotony of the track. Hill repeats on the bike were actually fun in a sick sort of way (what has happened to me?), and getting on the bike after the tempo run helped in avoiding sore muscles.

Getting back to swimming was… cold. The Ka Milo pool felt like there might be chunks of ice floating in it -- something I truly don’t understand given that it never gets below 70 down there. I jumped in, gasped for air for a bit, did my 1800 yards, finally finding my stroke after about 600, and then promptly ran to the hot tub to reheat myself before showering. On Friday I swam in the ocean, and it took me a full 40 minutes to convince myself to get out of the car and into the water, it was so windy. Indeed, the water was choppy, murky, and full of weird currents that pushed and pulled me every which way, but getting back into the ocean always feels good on some level.

I also had the revelation this week, as I took the three minutes to warm up in the hot tub, that it has been far too long since I took just a little tiny bit of time alone to just soak up the beauty of my surroundings and not think. My mind has been so completely taken over by triathlon -- planning, training, strategizing, analyzing -- that I don’t think I’ve just sat and thought of nothing but how beautiful it is around me since May or June of last year. Now, I love thinking about triathlon, that’s no secret, but I remembered, sitting in that hot tub listening to the wind in the palms and watching them sway above me, that sometimes it is also important to quiet my ever-busy mind. I scheduled 10-15 minutes of this into my days the rest of the week, and it gave me peace like no amount of rest has -- a peace that has eluded me ever since Ironman training kicked up last spring and my schedule became packed down to the minute, constantly frenzied and driven and rushed.

The weekend arrived and I hit my long run: ten miles, eight of which were to be held at a pace between 10:15 and 10:35 per mile. I had also decided that I wanted to negative split the last three miles. For my sanity more than anything else, I ran from Waikoloa as usual but went out the opposite direction on the highway, away from Mauna Lani instead of toward it. This meant that when I turned back toward the resorts all I had to run was the hotel loop (4.75 miles) instead of passing the turn off and running additional distance. I don’t really know why more people don’t run that direction, because it’s actually quite pleasant. Gentle grade, nice views… anyway it was a good run and I felt strong. As I passed King’s Land I saw Sean on his golf cart and after trying in vain to muster enough breath to yell at him, I chased him down instead, adding an extra .1 miles to my route. The hug was worth it. (He may disagree, given how sweaty and smelly I was).

Sunday we are back to doing our “long” ride together, although for now long is only two hours, which after months and months of Ironman training feels like a lovely little jaunt. As usual, I told Sean to go on ahead if he wanted to go faster than me, since I generally like to keep my long rides in a solid Zone 2. He stayed with me until the big hill, when I again encouraged him to go ahead, assuming that he would blow me out of the water on speed. Surprisingly, though, I found myself hanging with him, at which point I decided that since it was only a two hour ride I may as well push a little more than usual and see if I could hang with his pace. Sure enough, I could, and not even pushing big gears to do so! I tried to keep my cadence fast and light rather than mash the big gears, and I made it through the whole ride feeling good and averaging 18mph, above my target pace for Honu this year. Most interestingly, I felt like I got a glimpse of what my cycling can be, much like years ago when by accident I found my perfect running stride. It’s an odd feeling to feel exactly what it should feel like, yet to know that you won’t be able to replicate it consistently quite yet. For the running it took over a year before I was able to reproduce that feeling on demand. Hopefully for cycling I can capture this feeling and technique a little faster, given where I’m at in training compared to back then. Either way, it motivates me to know that it’s possible, it’s out there. My body is capable of it, somewhere in there.


Despite the challenge, I am looking forward to next week. More hard runs, more hill repeats, more (cold) swims, and more learning. Gotta love this sport. 

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. 


Saturday, September 2, 2017

Ironman Coeur D'Alene RACE REPORT

The Morning
My alarm went off on race morning at 2:45am and I set about eating, showering, and the having my mother-in-law kindly braid my hair. I had actually managed to sleep soundly for about five hours, a new record for me on race day! Time absolutely flew and before I even knew what was happening we were almost late to the start. I wiggled into my absurdly tight wetsuit as fast as humanly possible. The race started at 6am and I think we left the house at 5:10am, speed-walking to the transition area. I got body marked, practically jogged to drop off our special needs bags, searched desperately for a bike pump, and then slid out of transition and toward the start just as the announcer on the PA started getting really insistent that all athletes exit now.

I found Sean again and together we walked down onto the beach and joined the crowd of athletes gathered on the shore. It was just pre-sunrise, the sky getting light but the sun still not showing itself. We hugged goodbye and wished each other well one more time, (there may have been a few tears --- it was emotional after a year of training together to send him off to do the thing we’d been focused on for so long!) then lined up with our respective swim start groups -- me with the 1:15 group, Sean with the 1:30 group. I felt the cold sand under my feet and looked around at the athletes surrounding me for clues about how they were feeling. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, no one seemed particularly panicked. I was very surprised by the calm I felt. Unlike 70.3 starts where I inevitably feel nervous and jittery, this Ironman journey has been so long and intensive that all that was left was an overwhelming sense that whatever would come during the day would come, and that I was as ready as I could be.


Also, I had to pee, but I decided i’d just have to hold it.

A very wise older gentleman, an Ironman veteran, was standing next to me and told me to enjoy my first Ironman to the fullest. He advised me to take time throughout the day to take “mental pictures” that I could relive in the future. He had a very peaceful presence and I was grateful to make my way toward the front of the line standing next to him. Before long we were fed into the start chute and then it was my time! I still had to pee but clearly this was neither the time nor the place. I was awash with excitement and happiness as the timer went off and I ran into the water to begin my Ironman.

The Swim
I kept the kind stranger’s advice in mind throughout the swim. On the way out I looked at the sun slowly appearing above the horizon, splashing golden light across the glassy water, interrupted only by the splashes of the swimmers’ arms, and seared it into my memory. The first loop went by quickly and easily, with the exception of a few patches of “lake weed” grabbing at my arms. The buoys were numbered 1-8 on the way out and 8-1 on the way back, giving me a mental focus point. I checked my watch as I approached the end of the first loop and was surprised to see that I was swimming faster than my regular 70.3 swim pace. (Six minutes faster than my God awful Honu swim time this year, by the way. Redemption!) I exited the water, crossed the timing mat, heard someone from my entourage scream “go Crystal!” and reentered the water for the second loop. I thought I would hate getting out of the water in the middle of the swim but it ended up feeling like a nice little opportunity to get mentally checked back into reality before continuing.


Somewhere in here I started second guessing my pace and form and things got a kind of weird. I lost my little pack of swimmers and then started getting passed. I assumed I was just fatiguing until I got about a quarter of the way back in and realized I was tensing my hips, putting my legs in a position that created drag. As soon as I relaxed this it was like I had turned on a propeller. I flew by the people who had been passing me and caught up to the group that had dropped me. It was a pretty awesome way to close out the swim. I reminded myself to slow down a little at the end to catch my breath before getting out of the water. I also reminded myself not to look like a total spaz getting out of the water in hopes of breaking my bad swim exit photo curse (it worked!)

Transition 1
I easy-jogged to the wetsuit strippers, who everyone had promised could get even my stupidly tight wetsuit off in a matter of seconds. I laid down on the grass as instructed as an older man and teenage girl grabbed the suit and gave a strong pull. But instead of the wetsuit sliding off, I just went sliding across the grass, suit and all, about three feet. I had suspected this might happen so as they apologized over and over and tried to figure out a plan B, I just laughed and told them not to worry. After a couple more botched attempts off it finally came off. I thanked them and then off I went to get my T1 bag.

The changing tent was a new experience for me. My volunteer was so incredibly helpful -- loading my pockets as I struggled to pull my bike shorts on, helping me put on my DeSoto skin-cooler wings, and making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. I was so appreciative of her calm, warm presence. Always paranoid about cramps on the bike after my first two Olympic distance tris, I made sure to chug some of my Skratch as I jogged to my bike and put my helmet on. I still had to pee, but decided I could wait until I was out on the bike. I clickety-clicked my way out of T1 (note to self: learn flying mount!) and I was off!

The Bike
As I pedaled through town, the streets were lined with spectators. I saw my family and Sean’s family and Kate and Jordan, and tried to pretend I was cool even though I was actually struggling to get my helmet’s eye shield to stay in place, having forgotten to put in down before getting on my bike. Oops. Then a strange feeling started creeping into my consciousness… cold. Like, really cold. Living and training only in Hawaii, it had never occurred to me that I might get cold bombing through the morning air at 18mph still soaking wet from the swim. But I was freezing! I pushed it to the edge of my mind since there was nothing I could do about it, telling myself I will warm up as soon as I get out of town and shade and get into the sun. My legs felt great, I was energized, and the first loop along the lake was beautiful. I passed some people, I got passed a few times, and was generally pleased with how I was feeling. After about six miles it was time for a Huma gel, and I strategically decided that this would be the optimal time to take one with extra electrolytes to avoid any possible cramps on the upcoming hills. I reached into my pocket and immediately fumbled it (and another gel) in my frozen, numb fingers and dropped both of them. For a moment I looked back and considered stopping a) not wanting to litter and b) only having so many gels to last me through the 112 miles but it was a downhill, it was congested behind me, and in my post-swim shaky state all I could picture was getting run over by fifteen angry cyclists. So with a silent “shit!” to myself I kept going.


Clearly during one of my bursts of energy
There was nothing too eventful until I went through town and out onto the intimidating highway section of the course. Even then I suppose I can’t really call it “eventful,” just hilly. Soooo hilly. The first big hill, just as it looked, was steep and seemed endless. I will never forget spinning away, trying to keep my cadence high and torque low, and looking upward at the endless single file line of cyclists curling up and around the mountain. No one seemed to be in any particular hurry. My focus was purely on not annihilating my legs so I was content just to keep my place in line. Up, up, up. Beautiful, surrounded by mountains and pine trees, and silent, with the air palpably full with the athletes’ focus and intention.


The problem soon became clear: there wasn’t an end to the hills. I knew this from driving the course, but I had allowed myself to believe that somehow it was going to feel different on the bike than it looked in the car. It wasn’t. It was freaking brutal. The uphills seemed to last forever and the downhills seemed to be over in a matter of seconds. At this point my having-to-pee problem was reaching crisis level. At each aid station I planned to stop and then decided against it at the last minute, not wanting to lose precious time, but finally there was no more denying it and my legs were getting so tired that a break sounded pretty damn good.

As soon as I went I realized I should’ve done it much sooner. I hadn’t realized how much “holding it” had been tensing all the muscles in my upper legs and pelvis until I got back on my bike. I felt a million times better, at least for a few miles. The nagging pain I get sometimes in my upper calf and lower quad has kicked in early and I was concerned what it might mean for my run, but I had little choice but to keep going so I tried to ignore it. I had one little burst of energy that lasted about 40 minutes but other than that I don’t remember much about that first loop except that it hurt, and that I was short on gels due to my early fumble and very worried about whether I’d have enough nutrition to make it to Special Needs. I couldn’t remember whether I’d put two or three extra gels in my bag and I prayed it was three. Somewhere in the 48-mile range my legs got that deep, irreversible ache that signifies absolute fatigue and usually appears somewhere around Mile 95 on training rides. I was terrified that it was happening already, before I’d even made it to the end of the first loop. I felt awful and lightheaded and I had taken all my gels, so in desperation I accepted a Clif bar mini from an aid station. Luckily it seemed to be okay on my stomach and did perk me up a bit, at least enough to make it up the last few hills.

 No more than a third of the way up the last long, 1-2 mile hill was an unmanned sign reading “Almost to the top!” I swore at it under my breathe for the next ten minutes as I fought my way upwards. As I crested this final major hill and relished the thought of flying down the long descent that had terrorized me on the way up, I was dismayed to find myself stacked up in a long line of cyclists all stuck behind one very, very slow guy. He appeared to be coasting, although I don’t know how he was coasting so slowly! For a mile or so everyone gamely stayed behind him since this was a no-pass zone, but finally everyone’s frazzled nerves won out and one by one we broke the passing rule to get by.

Now I was headed back into town. I felt like I should be feeling relief, but all I felt was dread that I had to do this whole thing again. My legs ached in that deep, tired way and had no power whatsoever, and the thought of seeing spectators made me anxious instead of excited. I honestly didn’t know at that point whether I’d be able to get through the second loop, but I reminded myself of my race motto (“the only way I’ll leave the course is with a medic because I passed out or a course marshall because I missed a cut off”) and kept pushing. I tried with moderate success to enjoy the easier, scenic first out and back of the second loop. As I passed the point where I dropped my gels I spotted them lying untouched on the road and once again considered stopping to pick them up but decided against it for the same reasons as I had the first time. When I reached Special Needs, I almost cried with joy when I saw that there were three gels. Still vastly insufficient, I knew, but a relief. I actually got all the way off of my bike and stretched my legs for a few minutes, trying to come to terms with how I was going to get through repeating the Highway 95 section of the course. There wasn’t really a good answer, so I just got back on and kept going. I saw my mom, sister, niece, Kate, and Jordan at the corner going back through town and for a moment felt a little happiness.

The quiet, focused energy that I had found so mesmerizing the first time up the big hill was gone this time. It just hurt, and it seemed to go on forever. All of the uphills seemed longer, and the gears I had ridden them in the first time around were much too hard this round. I was in a very negative head space for much of this portion of the ride, to be honest. I didn’t really want to keep going… in fact I didn’t really want to ride my bike ever again, but I knew I’d regret it forever if I quit so on I went. I gave up trying to keep any particular pace and just focused on the “forward is a pace” idea. Someone had told me to remind yourself that whatever you’re feeling during an Ironman, it probably won’t last, so I clung to that thought, hoping that I would start feeling better again.


My memories of the second loop are vague -- a cyclist/vehicle crash with ambulances present as I came down a hill, pain, feeling lightheaded and having to stop at an aid station and sit stationary for a moment to regain my bearings, more pain… I finally made it to the aid station at the bottom of the final big ascent and stopped one last time to clear my head and ready myself for the climb. A volunteer who appeared to be no more than ten years old ran to get me water and another mini Clif bar, and I gave her my red volunteer appreciation bracelet as a thank you for her kindness. Her excitement made me smile for the first time in 80 miles.

Resolute and at least temporarily refreshed, I got back out in the road and hit the hill. It was hard, but my pitstop had drastically improved my mood and suddenly it seemed manageable again. A quarter of the way up the hill my mood got another boost when I saw that the inaccurate and taunting “Almost to the top!” sign that had driven me so crazy on the first loop had been dismantled and thrown in the bushes. The thought of an irritated, exhausted athlete taking the effort to get if their bike and tromp through the weeds in their bike shoes just to throw that stupid sign into the bushes made me giggle for the rest of the race. Whoever you were, dear Angry Athlete, I salute you.

A little more riding and I hit the last major descent. This time there were not many other cyclists around me so I relished the thought of flying down the hill at high speed, but before I could get going I saw another ambulance parked on the side of the road in the middle of a sea of shattered bike parts. I couldn’t see the cyclist , but the sheer destruction of the bikewas sobering. A newly planted Ironman sign warned cyclists to come off their aerobars on this hill to avoid high speeds, so I popped up to sit.

Suddenly it kicked in that I had only a few more miles to go and no more big hills. I was going to make it! There was no one around and I cruised down that huge hill feeling the wind in my face, looking at the scenery, and smiling a big goofy smile. The dry heat, the landscape, and the smell of hot ponderosa pines reminded me of going to my grandmother’s house up in the hills of Montana and I felt her athletic, warrior spirit carry me. This is another one of my “mental pictures” from the race.

So happy to be off my bike!
Then I was back in town to cheers and cowbells, and the moment I had dreamed of had arrived: I got to get off of my bike! I bid farewell to Beastie and handed it to a volunteer, then headed for T2. My family and friends later commented on how good I looked at this point, smiling and happy. What they didn’t know was that I was only smiling because I was so thrilled to be off my bike!


Transition 2
Many athletes I spoke to before the race had stressed the importance of staying in the now -- don’t think about the run while you’re on the bike, just focus on the mile at hand. Well, I had so effectively conpartmentalized the race that this was literally the first time it occurred to me that now I had to go run a marathon, and the only thought that appeared in my head was, “how the fuck am I going to do this?” Slightly nauseated and with legs feeling like aching anchors, I ugly-ran out of T2. It felt awful. Again I dreaded what was ahead, and again I reminded myself that how I felt would probably change.

The Run
My plan had been to run 5:00 walk 1:00. When I looked down at my watch I was doing an 11:00/mile pace, which I judged to be too fast, so I forced myself to slow down a bit. I still felt like death. I trudged along to the first aid station where I took a big gulp of warm, chlorine-filled water that made me gag a little. I prayed that it was an isolated incident and that chilled, fresh tasting water was not a Hawaii luxury. Luckily, the rest of the aid stations were great.


#uglyrun
You can see how I was feeling in my first few race photos. I couldn’t even be bothered to smile for the photographer. Somewhere around Mile 9 my body started to settle in and cooperate, but the first 8 miles were very, very rough. Pain and nausea aside, the run course was actually very pleasant. I had been dreading a three loop course, but as it happened an 8 ½ mile loop is actually very manageable and gives you the illusion of being in control of each repetition. 8 ½ more miles is much easier to stomach than 26.2. The first part of the loop wound through the lakeside park, then into some neighborhoods before hitting the scenic boulevard skirting the lake to the turnaround. The views along the lake were really breathtaking, with sparkling blue water and wooded mountains. I do remember that it was very hot, however, as there was little shade on that first loop. It took every ounce of self control I had not to jump into the lake, shoes and all. I reminded myself that I trained almost exclusively in 90+ degree weather and put it out of my mind.


Way too much pain to smile
The neighborhoods were where Coeur D’Alene truly shined as a race venue. Hundreds and hundreds of local residents had turned the entire residential section into a giant party, with music playing, hoses set up on ladders to provide cool showers as desired, and constant kind words from the spectators. These people were not volunteers, mind you, they were just the amazing residents of this wonderful town. The “Happy Fun Corner” provided a constant stream of jokes, laughs, and commentary courtesy of a guy who had set up a microphone and speaker in his front yard, and the increasingly intoxicated inhabitants of several houses played Ironman-themed drinking games while providing boisterous encouragement.

I had been concerned about Sean coming off the bike because he’d been fading farther back each time I’d seen him instead of catching me as expected, and at Mile 7 we crossed paths and my fears were confirmed. He had started throwing up at Mile 26 of the bike and hadn’t gotten any nutrition, including water, to stay down since then. He was walking and looked like death. I was so nauseated, tired, and in pain that when I actually cried a little bit. After the sweatiest, most disgusting hug in the history of our relationship, we parted ways and kept moving.

Finally smiling, loop 2
Finally at Mile 9 the nausea went away and my heart rate and breathing were fully under control. My legs were still like anchors, and would remain so throughout the run. The bike had simply taken all they had, but as almost any Ironman will tell you, finishing is more mental than physical, and I once I was feeling better mentally I dragged my anchor legs mile after mile with a big smile on my face. My 5:00/1:00 interval had turned into a 5:00/2:00 interval somewhere along the way, but I was still moving. I saw Dexter Yeats, a new acquaintance who at 73 years old is an incredible inspiration -- she was steady and determined. I was stopped by a man with one leg who was balancing on his good leg while he adjusted the prosthesis on his other one. He asked me if I’d hold his leg, and handed me the prosthesis, which I took without hesitation, totally in awe of his badassness. Then he started laughing and said “just kidding! But thanks!” and grabbed his leg back. I couldn’t help but laugh back! I danced my way through the Base Salt Tent where they had awesome music blasting. The second loop was fairly enjoyable, all things considered. The only concern I had was that Sean had faded so much I hadn’t seen him all the way up until the park, and I actually worried he might have been pulled off by medical. When I finally saw him, I resolved to do whatever I had to do to catch up to him (by getting ahead a lap) so that I could help him along.


I tried to pick up my pace, but about a quarter of the way through the third loop I was hurting a little again -- mostly my feet, which felt beaten to a pulp. The sun was setting over the lake and it was mindblowingly beautiful, and I was trying to focus on that instead. At Mile 14 I felt a riiiip and bid adieu to my left big toenail. At Mile 18 I walked almost the entire mile, briefly succumbing to the pain, and this was when I started talking to fellow athlete Josh. Josh had a mechanical malfunction on his bike and had completed that entire God awful bike course with only his three middle gears. He was, understandably, quite irritated and said he was just going to walk the rest of the race, telling me that we had plenty of time to make it to the cut off doing so. Talking to someone was a wonderful respite for my tired mind but I kept picturing Sean back there somewhere suffering, so at Mile 19 I told Josh that I had to go get my husband and took off once again on my raw, bruised feet.
As I neared the neighborhood section I came upon an older woman who was standing, apparently immobile, and crying out in pain each time she tried to move. I stopped and asked her if I could do anything for her, and she told me that she had suddenly started having blinding pain each time she tried to take a step with one leg. Despite this she kept trying to move, each time making the most horrible noises… After staying with her for a few minutes I asked her if she wanted help to a medic station and she said no, she wanted to keep going. We hugged each other before I started running again. I later found out that her leg, which had a stress fracture she wasn’t aware of, had completely fractured due to the repeated impact and she was flown out for surgery the next day. Thinking of her, and of Sean, I pushed as hard as I could possibly push all the way through the neighborhoods. At one point, just when I felt I might pass out an incredibly adorable, fluffy golden retriever puppy was thrust into my face by one of the residents who had been outside playing music all day.
“You look like you need a puppy!” He said.
WIthout a word I cuddled my face into the soft fur and looked into its soft little eyes, and then Mystery Puppy Man pulled it back and said, “Okay, now get running!” So I listened.

It was dark now, and I made one last push. I passed the beach where we had struggled to swim in our wetsuits earlier in the week and marvelled at how beautiful it looked with the moonlight dancing on the water. The streets were quieter now, and had a unique and special feel. Then out of the darkness came Sean, well in front of where I expected to see him! He had made a friend and seemed much better. I was so relieved I almost cried again. After a hug and a few words of encouragement between us, he took off for his last loop as I headed toward the park and the finish line.

I was a mile from the finish when I heard a “hey!” from behind me and turned to see Josh! He had changed his mind about walking! We joined a little group of people walking the last hill, realizing in awe and surprise that we were at Mile 25. We were going to make it! Our group all broke into a run, excited and energetic once again despite our tired bodies. The trail through the park that we had traveled three times reached the fork, and this time we turned right toward the finish. Over a little bridge, and then we were in town, running down the main street lined with cheering people. I could hear music and Mike Reilly’s voice, and the lights began to come into view. I slowed down a little to savor every moment, to take my final mental pictures of this epic day.
As I came down the finish chute I heard someone scream “CRYSTAL!” at the top of their lungs and there was my mom, jumping up and down and waving her arms like a madwoman. I ran to hug her and no hug has ever felt so good. I honestly can’t remember a time I’ve seen her more excited. I turned back to the finish line and ran the last few steps to become an IRONMAN.

Somehow as soon as I crossed the finish line my mom was there too! I asked her how she got inside the chute and she said, “I don’t know! I was so excited I just ran! Am I not supposed to be here?” It was awesome to have her with me as I got my timing chip removed, received my medal, and had my photo taken. I checked the tracker and saw that Sean was making better progress and that he was projected to finish within the cut off. I limped as quickly as I could back to our rental house, took a quick ice bath and shower, put on my finisher shirt, and limped back to the finish line to cheer him home.



I have never been prouder of my husband than I was watching him come down that finish chute to cross the line, knowing the battle he’d gone through to get there. I took a lesson from my mom and just ran past the security people without a word into the finish area to meet him. Being reunited after this feat felt better than our wedding day.

So there it is! We did it! Hard to believe that this journey we began eight months ago has reached this victory! It was worth every second, every moment, every workout. I AM AN IRONMAN.


Friday, September 1, 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...