Monday, May 7, 2012

Ironman St George: Part III: The run

You've made it this far (as I had, in the race).  You can read just one more post - I ran just one more marathon.  If you skipped Part I: The swim or Part II: The bike feel free to read them in any combination you'd like.  I think reading the swim last would be a bit of a debbie downer though.

The run:

As I was biking into T2, I saw Meredith Kessler running what seemed like out of T2.  I thought for a minute, is that possible?  Am I that close?  Then I really thought about it, and I realized she was a lap ahead of me.  Ok, now I know where I am.

As my T2s now have a history of doing, I give myself one timed minute to go to the porta potty.  Sparing you most details, my stomach was upset, and really hadn't been too great all day (no thanks to the swim).  So, as I did in Kona, I held up my watch like a track coach timing kids splits.  Except I was timing...well, a minute is a minute and when that was up I was out and into T2.  My race number had ripped off half ways (thank you, wind), so I asked the lovely volunteer to put my spare # (I always keep one in my T2 bag) onto my race belt while I put on my shoes.

Out on the run.  Just so incredibly grateful to be running.  Loving that I am more in control of my body that I have been all day.  Now I can't drown, I can't crash, I can let go of fleeting worries and just feel pavement.  I love running.  

Now at this point, I have been exercising for over an hour longer than I thought I would be.  So, I don't stress whatsoever about anticipated run splits.  I just run and see what happens.  All I can think is I'm so glad all I have to do is a marathon.  I really feel like I can do these on autopilot, and that must be how other people feel on the bike and swim.  I don't even think I would want to be able to do all 3 on autopilot because then it would be too easy.  But I won't lie, being able to come off the bike and have it 'easy' for the next 3+ hours is a treat.

I had only seen one pro woman I had passed early-ish on during the 2nd lap of my bike.  I figured I was behind everyone else, and I wasn't exactly sure how many pros there were left out there running.  I knew Meredith was ahead, but she was so far ahead I couldn't see 2nd or 3rd place for a long time (due to the nature of the course layout).  But I had Meredith Kessler to chase and that was inspiring.  I had lots of guys say "go get her, she's right ahead of you".  It was so warm hearted of them to say that, but I had to respond with a laugh, "yes, right ahead of me by 1 lap".  That was the last thing on earth that was going to get me down.  I was quite happy to be running one lap behind.  But I was starting to look for those girls that weren't quite a lap ahead of me.  I wasn't content to run behind all of them.  

In actual fact, I caught up to and passed Meredith Kessler, congratulating her and ensuring to crack a joke with the lead bike rider to reinforce that I was indeed a lap behind.  Still, for me, it was uplifting to be making progress, even if that means un-lapping myself.

The new course layout is quite interesting.  Lots of little finger sections and then a bigger out and back, which you repeat 3x.  So, you really do get to see how much you're gaining on a person.  That to me, is a huge advantage.  It is, however, confusing as multiple laps mean you don't always know if someone is a lap ahead or behind, unless they have a lead biker in front of them (1-5th have lead bikes).  So I had started to find some of my targets, and despite a couple minor blips (a mile of ab cramping lessened only by jabbing a karate chop hand into my obliques - the muscle which today I realize is fully strained), and one funny lightheaded moment where things started to go in very slow & quiet mo, which is never a good sign.  Nutrition was had and Ironman perform shoved in, and problem was solved.  Phew.  I slowed down a little, but I was able to bounce back.

I have to say one thing.  The volunteers at this race were tremendous, on so many levels, but their aid stations were glorious.  They went the extra mile.  I don't think it was a particularly hot day, but I still required as much ice as I could pack into my suit, sponges, anyone with a hose, anything to stay cool.  I missed grabbing one sponge and one young guy took off sprinting to catch me.  It warms my heart to know how much they care, and I hope they know how much they mean to me.  I am never a great conversationalist when I am running, and my face is pretty dead-pan, but that's how my body works.  So to any volunteer who may read this post, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.  What we do is not possible without you.

my attempt at a wave - so meek! but it's' so hard to raise your hand...
Coming down from lap 2, I passed the first female pro I recognized.  It was very rewarding, to have come all that way and finally get past someone.  It made me feel like I belonged there.  That I wasn't just some big ego'd age grouper who was going to get demolished out there.  I may not be in first, but as my first race as a 'pro', I felt like I was in the right place.  I had people to race and people to challenge me - that is where we should all be.

Back to the run.  I don't know why, but for some reason I thought I should install a sense of discipline and not try any cola before lap 3 of the run.  I never drink it anyways, but today was requiring a bit more of a Herculean effort, and I was starting to think the extra caffeine might help.  So, somewhere on lap 3 I had a cup of the still fizzy cola.  Major result - burping - yes!  Instantaneous feel better sugar/caffeine rush burp combo.  It was helping my (again) distended stomach problems (I really don't have that stomach in real life).   I couldn't wait to get to the next station to get some more.  Talk about your addictions...I think people on narcotics can make it more than a mile without needing a 'fix'.  When I missed a cup at one station I was sad, and even more sad when I tasted the Perform again.  But all was good and there was many more cola cups to be had, so I ran on.

This is where things get a little exciting.  I now know where the 5th place female is because she gets a lead bike.  I don't know, however, if there are girls behind her, or if I am in 6th place.  Now, 6th place actually wins prize money, so already I am quite excited that I might be there, but I really don't know.  No one is giving me splits, but I can only judge by distance on the finger sections which are all about 1 mile in length, which you run down and up (key word: "up"....this was not a flat course).  In going through aid stations, like a crazed monkey for bananas in cola formation, I missed seeing the 5th girl on the 3rd finger and no long knew if I had gained or lost.  It didn't matter, because I was doing everything I could to keep a rhythm and avoid hitting the brakes.

When I got up to the last out and back, I heard Shawn or my homestay Bruce say something about the number 7.  And I thought to myself, ok, I'm in 7th, and I am going to run into 6th if it kills me (reality was they were telling me I was 7 minutes behind at one point).   Then Shawn said, "you have to push HARD".  "Oooh, boy",  I thought to myself.   I am pushing pretty hard. But unlike sometimes when people tell you that from the sidelines and it only makes you feel more weak for being annoyed that you can't get your body to push any harder, I took it seriously, did not give my body any options for the complaints department, and pushed up the hill with whatever I had left.  I was definitely exhausted, and my body would likely have preferred the 'cruise' option, but I pushed harder and found another gear.

I now had a keen eye on where this 5th place lead bike was.  I kept running further and further up the hill (it's maybe 1.5 miles up?) without seeing it.  That was exciting.  Finally I saw the bike and the girl, looked at my watch, and could see the turnaround, not too far up ahead, but not that close either.  I made turn around and I have never took off running down a hill on more battered legs that fast in my life.  I had seen the girl was running also with two purple shirted guys, so I only focused on finding purple shirts.  I found them, but didn't see her.  And then a minute (or less) later, I saw her yellow shirt. It is an amazing feeling to be reeling in your target from a distance, but to have it come up like that is a dream.
the 5th place bike!

The course was getting crowded by this point and it was a bit tricky to navigate (even tricker when you are running on about 5 brain cells) but I passed her, and she said something like "go get it girl".  So classy.  If it was earlier on in the race, I might of said a bit more, but I tried to say "good job" and then I ran as hard as I could, with the biker asking me if I was on my 3rd lap, to which I said yes, and he told me I was now in 5th place (but I came 4th you say?  yes, because amazingly, 3rd place overall was taken by an AG athlete - amazing!....I know what that feels like, to finish ahead of pros but out of the money). 

 In any case, I am running on legs downhill and just praying that when I have to make these 3 last turns, my legs make it.  There was another short out and back section and at that point, I was pretty sure that I was going to make it (I did check over my shoulder before the last turn however).  I was running in with the finish line so close after such a long day and I was elated.  I realized while running that this would be a good time to hand out some high fives (something I've never been good at) but this time it felt really good!  
sweetest finisher chute yet

So I finished 5th overall, and 4th as a pro.  And it was the most hard fought placing I had ever won.  I went back to our homestay happy as clam that I was 5th, and then when I found out I was 4th, I think that was just enough happiness to take away the sting of the desperation of the swim and gutting of the bike, and all I could feel was happy.

My splits, for anyone that is interested and doesn't already know them:

Triathlon Canada Magazine article:

Well, happy and pain.  But we'd all be lying if we said we didn't like that combo.

dear Andrea - you are a gem! She volunteered from body marking, aid stations and then massage - the volunteer Iron-Woman!

I was also notified that I had had the fastest woman's marathon time for the race (and actually would have been 7th by the men's pro standards as well, not too bad).  So that little asterisk is a nice one, because despite giving everything I had to the first two sports just to survive this race, I was able to give that much more and be fully rewarded for my effort.  Sometimes you work hard for nothing, and that is fine.  In fact, that was all I wanted when I was out there bobbing up and down in the lake.  I just wanted the opportunity to race, because at that point, I had given up any sense of anger in not being able to be competitive.  I just wanted to ride my bike and run in my running shoes.  Purely, and simply.

I just wanted to be in the sport, and that reminded me why I'm in this in the first place.  It was a bit overwhelming coming into my first race as a pro, and I intentionally did not make a big deal of it, because I think it's counter productive and I also don't really think it's all that different from being a dedicated and competitive age grouper, as I was last year.  I have always been comparing myself against the pros, and in this race it was a very interesting experience to race against them.  All that really matter is that you love what you are doing and you become a better person for doing it.

All I wanted was to be challenged.  

Ironman St George, you did a pretty good job of that.

To the many people who were involved in so many levels on this day at this course, my hawaiian trucker hat goes off to you.  Some people will be happy, and some will be sad, some people will be utterly confused, and some people will be fiercely focused on whatever it is that comes next for them.

We all have one thing in common, we know what happened on the very last Ironman St George.

Time for rest & reflection, and time to heal all wounds.

Ironman St George: Part II: The bike

Alright.  I think I've decompressed enough from the swim, wrote my peace, and can move onto the bike.

The Bike:

If you read my piece on the swim Part I: The Swim, you probably can appreciate how tired I am getting onto the bike.  Just when the relief and jubilation of surviving such a difficult swim, we rode maybe 3 minutes out of the parking lot and ka-BOOM.  Hit with 50mph+ winds.  All directions except that of the tailwind.

Are you kidding me?

This was funny for about 2 minutes.  Then it wasn't funny anymore.  I was almost blown down onto the road many a time.  A painful red dust was whipping through this wide open & exposed section of land.  I knew how much energy I had used in the swim so was desperate to start getting in calories, but could not let go of my bars.  Oh my.

Really, it was so hard in parts that you didn't even bother about thinking ahead, you just had to deal with getting through that very moment at the time.  To be fair, there was some relief in pockets coming through town, but once you started the loop sections, the wind was fierce.  I just got in as much nutrition whenever it was safe to, that was all I could do.

The top pro's both reported their lowest speed at 6mph.  Both male and female pros got blown off the road and onto dirt & gravel.  I now consider myself lucky to have stayed upright and on the road.  There were people just lying in the middle of the road in sections.  It was also my first time seeing people walk their bikes up a hill in an Ironman.  This was craziness!

As I was biking along in my first loop, solidly at the back of the field, I had been doing quite a lot of self talk, pepping myself up by allowing myself to feel proud about the swim, to feel proud about never giving up, and that as difficult as this wind was, that I could just keep peddling until the end when I was allowed to get off it and run.  At the same time, I'd be lying if I wasn't thinking just a little bit that doing another loop of this would be truly impossible.  Not kidding.  I was wondering whether they would pull us at loop 1 and put us onto a 50km run course.  Obviously this didn't happen, but the sheer difficultly of two laps was so daunting it wasn't even worth worrying about.  Just peddle on...

And you know, the easiest part of the bike course?  The infamous "wall".  Piece of cake.  Goes to show what kind of a race it is when an 11-12% 1mile climb is your 'rest' period.

I now know what those old guys were talking about when they said they walked to school uphill both ways.  That's really what this felt like.  For all the climbing you do (I think about 32 miles of climb) you get a downhill that was so fast (with wicked tailwinds people were flying down 8% grades at 50mph+).  I bruised the inside of my knee pushing it in so hard to the frame to stabilize my bike.  It's the only time I wished I was 200lbs so that I could weigh down the bike and not be so affected by crosswinds.  I'm sure I gained some water weight drinking half of Sand Hollow Reservoir, but not quite that much.  When I could eat, I stuffed my face, only imagining how many calories were ticking off the tape on this one.  I've never done anything this difficult, so I really couldn't assess what I needed, but I knew more was the better option than less.  A Bonk Breaker never tasted SO good.

A lot of this bike race was really a blur, because so much of it was just spend moment to moment, and not thinking about what was ahead or behind you.  The main commentary of the age group men I was biking past was that people were just happy to be alive.  And that was that.  Because it was a two lap course I also saw people heading out on lap 1 when I had already completed lap 2.  Some people had just simply stopped on the side of the road, announcing their retirement from the race.  There was a lot of heartbreak out there that day.

But for me, I pushed on.  I had heeded words of advice from previous winner Heather Wurtele, who advised people to leave a little something for lap 2, so with whatever I had left, I was able to continue on and just get work done around the loop, grateful for every passing landmark I remembered from lap 1.  I think, at best, I maintained my pace, really I have no idea as I don't have a bike computer, but if that is the case, and I managed to stay consistent for the two laps, I'm ever the more impressed that I could hang on.

The top women's bike of the day was done by Jessie Donovan at 5:55.  Yep, 5:55, well over an hour slower than most women's bike splits in most races.  Meredith Kessler came in at 5:57.  I finished in 6:20 and I'm pretty happy with that because that was everything I had to give on the day.  At this point, I'm just approaching the 8 hr mark.  My best Ironman time was 10:01 at IMC, not an easy course by most standards.  I was getting off the bike at 6:45 to start the marathon then, and it's at 8 hours now - incredible.

But, I love to run.  I had been knocked down at my knees to my very roots where I started in triathlon, survive the swim, finish the bike, and get running.  And run I did.

Onto the run: see Part III: The Run !

Ironman St George: Part I: The swim

Where do I start?

I am thrilled with my result.  4th place Pro woman in a come from absolutely last (by far) fight.  It is all that what 'never give up' truly means to me.

My experience in St George is so expansive I am struggling with the picture frame to put it in.  I have had more than a few requests to put a race report, to help people understand what this "toughest Ironman ever" really meant.  I've talked to people about the race, mostly to help release some of stress that occurred to meet the immensity of the task, but I've yet to put it all together in a cohesive way.

Here's my best shot.  Piece by piece, sport by sport, because this was quite the race.

The swim:
It was calm.  I had swam in Sand Hollow reservoir twice before the race, both times it was windy and there was a bit of chop, not the end of the world, but as we were swimming early, I, like many people, assumed there would be not much wind out there.  And race morning seemed perfect - it was a treat to get in the water and warm up (sort of, at 63F/17C the water was as 'warm' as it's ever been), but it was comfortable.  Key word, "was".

average conditions in the 'windy' late morning for practice swims

Pro-start was at 6:45 am and it was peaceful and straightforward - a far cry from all other age-group mass starts I have ever done.  I was at the back of the back, but I was ok with that, and was swimming with a small group of girls until the first turn, about 1km out.

Sign #1 that something was amiss.  As we were swimming out, you could start to feel a bit of a roll, no chop hitting you in the face, but more movement than is normal for what started as a calm water swim.  Then things became more apparent as I turned the first corner.

Waves had kicked up and were swelling to swimmers left, so I did my best to relax and work methodically across the 2nd length of the swim.  It was getting a bit tough to see where we were going as buoys became harder to sight.  At this point I told myself not to worry about sticking onto any packs of other pro women and just focus on doing what I needed to do.  That became increasingly difficult as I rounded the 2nd turn.

To give you perspective, Meredith Kessler finished this swim in about 52 min (absolutely incredible!).  I finished in 1:34, so I was out there about 40 min longer and therefore spent a lot of time suffering in increasingly bad conditions.  Although anything can happen in a race, I had planned on trying to make it through the swim in about an hour or less, that was what I had trained for and was on track for.  But anything can happen.  And this race, at this 2nd turn, was not about time anymore.  It was much more important than that.

It became very unnerving by the time I reached the 2nd buoy.  I was alone, being the last pro swimmer in the group.  The waves were in my estimation, about 4-6 feet tall, and in talking to other people, that seems to be the general consensus (therefore, not a Clayton-'exaggeration').  If you've ever swam in something like this, then you know how challenging this is.  You swim up and down, smash into walls of waves, fall down waves you've crested, and as finding your balance in the water is very difficult.  Reports were that wind on the water reached 40mph+.

(pls let me know if this is your photo & I will credit)

So I was alone, often stopping to tread water, attempting breast stroke to calm down my rate of breathing (as I was tending to hyperventilate a bit), and going no where.  In fact, breaststroke was more tiring at a point than attempting to swim about 15-20 strokes, then hitting a wave and swallowing more water, so I often had to just get swimming to save some energy (ironic).  I was often looking left and right to see where the 'spectator' (which will soon turn to 'rescue') boats where, and I watched a kayak guy dump in and struggle to hold onto his boat (no idea if he got back in).  I watched a speed boat launch off waves going into the wind, I watched another one rolling along in the surf.  It was at this point that I started to worry about my safety, because I was getting really tired.  Panic, I can manage to a point, I know what's happening and I can keep a pretty level head, but there is no way to trick yourself out of energy loss in violent water.  Nor was this particularly warm water, so that also added to the energy cost.

I took on a lot of water, mostly, I think, swallowed.  I have no idea how much of it I might have inhaled.  That also means a lot of air, which eventually leads to burping (if you're lucky), gagging (if the burp won't occur), and then vomiting (the least of my problems).  If you are also somewhat prone to sea sickness & it's symptoms, this water would have caused it.   At one point, while I was doing a combo of all three while treading water and getting hit by waves, I saw a kayaker who was out of his boat and sitting on one of the submerged rock platforms in the reservoir (there are a few but you'd have to be a local to know where they were).  He yelled something at me (which I couldn't hear b/c the wind was so fierce but I knew what he was asking) and then flashed me the a-ok sign as a question, and I nodded and flashed it back.  I didn't feel a-ok at all, but I didn't want to give up.
(if this is your photo, pls let me know)
I eventually came up open a paddler who had managed to keep her board upright and was holding onto a buoy.  She encouraged me to come over and hold on for a minute.  I held on for a while, maybe 3 minutes, maybe 5, I have no idea.  I asked her where were we supposed to go.  Waves were so big it was difficult to sight and the air had a bit of a haze (maybe from dust or sand) to it that made it difficult to see in the distance.  Buoys had blown off course.  She told me where to go, and that there was another boat at the turn (this is about another 1km to go before the 3rd turn).  I asked her how many more buoys.  She said about 4, or 5, she wasn't sure, but it gave me a goal to be able to work on.  I pushed off her boat and tried again, faced with a lot of white frothy waves ahead.

All I could think was, I would just be so mad if I didn't get the chance to ride my bike and run this course.  I would feel as if something was stolen from me.  There were some very difficult moments out there floating in the water just deciding what was the right thing to do.  I'm a sensible person, but I'm also very competitive, and I have a lot of faith in my ability to be tough.  It was hard to know what the right thing was to do.  Then at a point, there really was no other choice but to swim forward and find your way to shore.  I did start to worry about weaker swimmers going down in the lake.  Thoughts like that only amp up your anxiety, so I tried to put it out of my mind and just focus on myself.  Was I worried about drowning?  The thought had crossed my mind.

At this point, the fastest of the age groupers caught up to me.  In fact, the first person I saw was a woman.  She stopped and asked me if I was ok.  Just knowing someone cared helped lessen the stress.  Then more age group men came along.  This was reassuring also, because I had been swimming on my own for a long time and being all alone in the water (as in, no boats even remotely close) was scary.  Everyone was in the same boat, everyone was being respectful of the challenge in the water, giving each other space and just getting through this thing.

New race video can be found here:

One sensation I found interesting was I kept feeling rain splattering on my face and back.  I thought this might have been spray from the other swimmers, but eventually I realized as I was treading water, that the tops of the whitecaps were blowing off and spraying down the waves into us.  New to me.  I think my saving grace in this entire event was that I grew up near the ocean, and have spent a lot of time playing in big surf and rolling around in waves, some time surfing and having to crash and roll and stay composed in the power of water.  If you had just swam in a pool before coming here, this would have been beyond your worst nightmare.

One major red buoy blew way off course.  Because I had stopped to talk to the kayak woman, I knew the buoy was wrong, but there were a lot of people swimming towards it (adding ++ extra distance if they then continued on to the correct turn near the motor boat).  There is some speculation that some people didn't actually complete the full course.  To that I say I really don't think it matters much, if it meant they got to shore safely.  It's just a race, and safety is paramount.  However, after swimming all that way there was no way I would not get to the last buoy.

Amateur video of the race can be found on this link:

In finally making it to the turn with a scattering of bodies we turned and headed back to shore (500m or so maybe?).  Waves were now crashing from the right and rolling us over, but it was 'easier' swimming and your energy cost of swimming was lessened.  It was also hopeful, to know that you were swimming 'home'.  It took a bit of work to swim straight and I felt I was often getting pushed left but the swim exit became closer and closer and I've never been happier to see land.

I was immensely proud of myself getting out of the water, and so proud that I had earned the right to continue on with this race.  I was also absolutely exhausted and mentally drained.  But biking is easy right?  You're not going to drown, you can coast & recover, you can eat, and you can warm up.

Hmm.  Only somewhat true on the day, but I hadn't found that out yet, because I was busy repeating myself in T1 to the transition girls that I was "just really cold, really really cold", and "so tired".  I probably said that 5 times.  They helped towel me off, get sunscreen on, and get me moving.  They were positive and encouraging and so incredibly supportive.  Their empathy was immense.  Writing this experience brings a tear to my eye as I wrote that last sentence.

I have never experienced something like that I hope to never again.  However, I now know that I have the ability to deal with an event like that, and rely on myself to get through.

I would like to again extend my warmest regard to all those 'spectator' boats that soon became 'rescue' boats.  There are a few numbers floating around out there but last I heard was that 275 people were pulled from the water.  Another 50+ finished the swim but did not make the cut off.  It is amazing that nothing worse than that happened, and that is a testament to the courageous efforts by race directors, volunteers and anyone who was out there helping out, including, I'm sure, other swimmers that helped swimmers in the water.

Stay tuned for Part II: The bike.

At least it was so ridiculous that one can only really see the humour in it.  I promise to guide my writing into a more uplifting format.

To all the IM St George swimmers, be very proud of your accomplishment.