... 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. 

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.

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...

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.