Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ironman Texas 2015 Race Report: How Do You Race an Ironman?

I registered for Ironman Texas almost immediately after I crossed the finish line at Norseman last summer. After finishing that event, I knew I was ready to race an Ironman. Not to survive one (IMTX 2013) or have an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience (Norseman 2014), but to Race an Ironman.

So, how do you race an Ironman? I've talked to Dawn about this many times, because for years I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Her answer was simple: it’s just like racing a 70.3. You just have to focus for longer. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but it’s true. My goal at Ironman Texas this year was to race the whole race and to never lose focus.

Since I've done the event before, I knew what to expect. In 2013, I lost focus on the swim, relaxed too much, fell out of the draft pack along the buoy line, and freaked out when I exited the water 20 minutes later than expected. Mentally, I fell apart an hour and a half into that race. After that experience, I knew I couldn’t let it happen again. But this year, I could tell immediately during the swim that I was doing the same thing – there was a train of swimmers zooming along the buoy line, and every time I looked up to sight, I was frustrated to find that I had popped out of it. I had to continuously swim back over, in a ridiculous zig-zag fashion. I could tell by my breathing that I wasn’t working hard enough, but I couldn’t correct it. But experience was on my side, and although I came out of the water at 1:18 instead of closer to 1:10, I didn’t panic or freak out. It’s just the beginning of the race. The swim sucks at this race. Focus. Get on the bike and go.

More than anything else last Saturday, I was determined to race the bike. For me, in full Ironman events, the bike has been more about survival than racing. Just get through it and don't crash (IMTX 2013). Just get up the mountains, the time doesn't matter (Norseman). This time, I was racing.

So focused that I didn't even know my friends were there at Bike Out.
My plan was to ride at 140-150 watts, but it had to feel easy, especially in the first half. After the initial adrenaline-filled excitement of riding out of town, I settled down and realized that in the heat and humidity of the day, 140 didn’t feel easy. Again, experience worked for me – I remembered what it felt like to be at mile 80 on this course, once the sun has come out, and the rolling hills have done their damage, and the wind has picked up like a furnace on that exposed concrete highway. I needed to conserve energy. I dialed it back to 135, forced myself to stay there, and reminded myself not to lose focus. Racing Ironman requires patience.

I realized how much discipline it takes to keep it easy and not burn yourself up in the first half of the bike. There’s a reason people overdo it on the bike – it’s just SO BORING not to. But I forced myself to stick to the plan, stay in my aerobars, and not to chase people as they passed me. The doubts bubbled up. What if I ride easy now, and then I blow myself up anyway, and my entire bike is slow? I had been told that if I raced smart, I’d pass all the people who went by me in the first half of the bike, but what if I didn’t? Would this pay off?

Sure enough, as I turned into the headwind in the second half of the bike, my patience at the beginning began to work in my favor. I was passing people. Lots of them. I was able to hold my watts. I was getting tired, but still able to push. In fact, as I calculated math in my head, I realized that a sub-6 hour bike was possible, and I picked up the pace in the last 20 miles to try to achieve it. (I did! Barely: 5:59:48!)

However, in the last 20 miles, something else happened: I choked on a piece of banana. I ended up violently trying to cough it up for the last hour of the bike. And – my feet started to hurt. Because the transition had been muddy, I opted to run through it without my shoes on. Although flying mounts were allowed, I don’t know how to do them, so instead I ran across the mount line, put on my shoes, and started the ride. I usually wear socks, but to save time, I decided not to use them. This was probably a mistake, because my feet have always been uncomfortable on sockless training rides.

Muddy transition.
As I approached T2, I remembered walking sadly through the transition back in 2013. This time, I tried to run. But the moment I dismounted the bike, my lower back locked up and both feet screamed with pain. I had no smiles for the spectators who were yelling encouragement as I jogged through the muddy transition. When I tried to sit in a chair in the changing tent, my back was too inflexible for me to bend over to put on my shoes. I think all the coughing caused the back pain, although fighting the wind in my aerobars for 6 hours may have also played a part.

With my first few steps on the run course, it crossed my mind that I might DNF this race. My back and feet hurt that much. I had a goal of finishing under 12 hours, and at the snail’s pace that I was running, the goal seemed further away. Everyone just gets slower as the marathon goes on. If I’m running 10:30s in the first mile of the race, I’m screwed. Then I made up my mind to just run until I couldn’t. What was there to lose? Just Run. It felt terrible, slow, painful. But I ran.

A few thing propelled me forward. I knew that my friends were waiting around mile 2 with cheers and love. I had tickets to the Dave Matthews concert after the race, and doors opened at 7 pm; I had to get to the finish line before that. And I was wearing Hillary’s Sunrise kit – I wasn’t about to embarrass her by walking on the run course. As long as I could keep running, I would.

In the first 2 miles of the run, another athlete that I had seen on the bike came running up next to me. Her name was Angie, and she joked that she was running in slow motion. “I think I overbiked,” she said, and I laughed and said that of course I did too. I told her that our job was to run past my friends looking like we were having a great time, so when we ran up to them at mile 2, that’s what we tried to do. Then she left me behind. I know how bad I looked when I ran past them, hunched over and gritting my teeth with every step. I knew they were worried about me. I muttered to Shelly that my back hurt, and then I ran away, my heart sinking as I understood that I’d have to run past this point two more times before I could call it a day.

Lap 1: Me and Angie at mile 2.
Then, something weird happened. After about an hour of running, I started to feel better. Much Better. This shocked me, because it just doesn’t happen. My feet felt better, I was able to ignore my back, and I began to smile. I laughed and high-fived spectators. I looked on in awe as the pro females ran past me: Angela Naeth, Leanda Cave, Rachel Joyce. They were so fast. Leanda even gave me a thumbs up as I shouted encouragement when she passed me, and I thought “How cool is this?!” For an entire lap, I picked up the pace, enjoying the day, singing out loud to myself, “I love this shit!” And laughing. I remembered how Dawn talked about one thing being certain in Ironman: however you feel right now is NOT how you’re going to feel in a few minutes. As always, she was right, and it goes both ways.

As I ran past my friends on the second loop, they swarmed me, offering Motrin, water, (diet!!) coke, and encouragement. I laughed and joked with them and was proud that I felt better than the first loop. But almost immediately after I ran away from them, the pendulum swung the other way and it really began to get tough. I forced myself to keep running. I didn’t want to let my friends down; I didn’t want to make them stand there any longer than they had to – some of them were going to the concert, too, so we all needed to get to the finish line.

I’m so proud of that last loop. I kept it together and stayed mentally tough, didn’t let myself fall (too much) off the pace. When I ran by my friends for a final time before heading into the last 6 miles of the marathon, I had to work hard not to cry. Then I used every bit of positive self-talk to get myself to the finish. I can’t remember a race where I wasn’t talking to spectators throughout the run. At this one, I couldn’t even acknowledge people as they cheered for me. I knew I had the Ironman zombie stare as I ran those last 3 miles.

My incredible friend Bree Soileau ran with me for nearly a mile, telling me everything I needed to hear. And turning heads as she did it. :)
Approaching the finishing chute, I caught up to Angie, the girl I’d run the first mile or so with. We ran together to the line; she encouraged me to beat my PR, and even though I already had by more than 2 hours, I raced for the finish. We crossed together smiling. I finished this race in daylight with a 4:51 marathon. My new Ironman PR is 12:19, and I raced for every single one of those minutes. I’m really, really proud.

Post-race was a blur; I was so happy as I talked with my friends who had both raced and spectated, exchanging stories about the day. Then a few of us headed over to the Dave Matthews concert, where I spent most of my time lying on the grass smiling giddily to myself about the day, reveling in the music of one of my favorite bands. A perfect day.

The thing that stands out most in my mind is that although triathlon is an individual sport, for me, it’s so much about people. Knowing that most of my friends were there on the course cheering for me, and that others were following me online and rooting for me from home – there’s nothing like it. Seeing my training buddies out on the course was amazing too, to share the struggle and joy of the race day with the people I’ve trained with for months – that was incredible. Sharing this experience with the people I've met in various tri events like camp, and knowing all the different battles they were fighting on the same race course as me - some of them trying to qualify for Kona, some trying to win the race, others just wanting to finish - meeting new friends, feeling the encouragement of perfect strangers who are experiencing the same thing that you are – it’s impossibly cool and difficult to explain. I don’t feel very eloquent as I try to describe this, but oh my God, I love love love Ironman.

So lucky to have these girls in my life.
As always, huge thanks to the people who help me in chasing this dream: Dawn Elder, Emily Cocks, Hillary Biscay, Bicycle Heaven, blueseventy, and my incredible family and friends, thank you for being such an amazing part of my journey! Congratulations to everyone who raced last Saturday! And thank you for reading.

I find it hard to explain how I got here
I think I can I think I can
Then again I will falter
Dream little darling dream
- Dave Matthews Band "You Never Know"