Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ironman 70.3 World Championships

There aren’t enough words to describe the emotions and excitement I felt leading up to the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championships. I had a good season and was confident that I had a legitimate shot at  a poduim place for the Overall Amateur title. However, there is only one word that can describe the outcome…mulligan. I'm not a golfer but people I know that golf say that when you have a bad first tee shot you can call a mulligan to do it over again and that you are allowed one per round. Since this was the first Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas, I would like to take my "do-over", please. As I type up this race report I still reflect back on how such a perceived insignificant turn of events can literally “derail” a year’s worth of meticulous training and preparing for one event.  Regardless, there is a story to be told and some lessons learned that can be applied to future races.

I began my journey to the legendary Las Vegas the beginning of September to spend a couple of weeks training in the elements and on the actual race course. I was excited for the course because I love to ride and run on hilly courses. This year with the venue change from the flatlands of Florida to the desert hills of Nevada, I was going to be in my element. Heat had been my achilles heel last year and I had spent this season focusing on my nutrition since it had been my demise at more than one race last season costing me the coveted overall title. This year  Boise had been hot, mid to upper 90’s, for most of August but I was still a little concerned because I really hadn’t tested myself in the heat at any of my races since Kona last year. I had done my share of race day simulation training during the heat of the day focusing specifically on my nutrition and I felt comfortable with my plan.

Arriving in Las Vegas I was greeted with the desert heat and essentially nothing else, because there really isn’t anything else there. This is the ideal place for the true test of an Ironman World championship. People that live there are like vampires, only coming out before the sun rises and then only reappearing once the sun has set. I quickly learned that only the slightly insane ventured out during the day and I even had a police car stop along side of me at a stop light while I was riding my bike one blistering afternoon and asked if I was ok. Not the kind of “ok” like, are you lost? Do you feel safe? But more of the are you ok like, are you insane? It's a 108 degrees out here! Had I been carrying a camera they would have thought I was a crazy tourist but being on my bike they almost certainly surmised I was from Phoenix, which would have instinctively answered the insanity question. They even offered me a ride or a bottle of water from the cooler they carry with them. Had I any idea the type of neighborhood I was about to ride through, I would have taken them up on their offer. Everyone was so nice and some of the racers from the local  Las VegasTriathlon Club even let me crash some of their early morning workouts. Bill, Eric & Jill, you guys rock! I think they were just happy to prove to their spouses that there really are other endorphin-starved junkies out there and they don't need counseling.

Race morning came faster than I had anticipated. After the 4:00am alarm, the culmination of hours in the saddle, nearly a dozen pairs of running shoes and countless bottles of Ultragen were about to be realized.  My swim wave didn’t leave until 7:00am but I was becoming visibly stressed because Jeremy was stressed about getting me there in time. He's so organized and manages his time so wisely it always makes me more relaxed when he's at the race to make sure things are in order. Walking into T1 I felt a sudden adrenaline rush that sent chills up the back of my neck. I’m at Worlds and these…these are my peeps. People who understand what it means when I say I’m doing a BRIC on Saturday. People who don’t look at me weird when I wear my CEP Clone under my dress at church because I raced the day before. These are the World’s most elite triathletes that are all here for one purpose, conquer the hills and desert heat of Las Vegas.

 I dropped off my nutrition on my bike, donned my TYR Torque swim skin and headed for the swim entrance chute. I had all of my cycling gear set up from the night before, shoes and helmet were already on my Speed Concept, I was ready to roll. I made my way to the staging area and waited the 45 minutes before my wave was to start. As I jumped in the water, the smell of stagnant 80 degree water filled my nostrils and almost made me gage. I had swam in this lake water the day before and swam in similar water a couple of times up at Lake Mead with the local Tri junkies but I still hadn’t got accustomed to the smell. The 73 degree morning was calm and cool with thousands of spectators and racers anxiously awaiting the start of each wave. Swim waves were scheduled about 5 minutes apart and as each one would start they would move the next wave into the water. Except, they were a little overzealous and the swim coordinators were moving each wave in too early. Even with 5 minutes between waves they were moving the waves in so that you would tread water for 5 minutes while you waited for the wave in front of you to start and then tread water for another 5 minutes while you waited for your wave to start. After about 8 minutes of treading water and out of total excitement, I could feel my heart pounding in my ears. I was getting too excited and needed to slow down my heart rate before I blew an artery. I rolled over on my back, just floated and tried to relax until I heard the announcer say “1 minute”. Next thing I knew the air horn went off and I was left wondering where the 30 second marker was and the countdown from 10 seconds.

There were about 100 girls in my swim wave and there was plenty of room to swim with only minor modifications to accommodate for drift [I call it drift because I’m confident I swim in a straight line]. As I approached the halfway turn buoy I was with the lead pack and feeling good, then all of the sudden I felt the girl next to me hit my left arm and then felt the sickening sensation of the weight of my Garmin shift, like it was falling off. Aaahhh! That’s a $300 critical piece of equipment that I couldn’t afford to lose because I would not be able to see my heart rate, cadence or watts on my bike or run. I reached up and felt for it right as it fell into my hand. Somehow she had hit it just right, with enough force, to knock the pins out of the wristband. Luckily I was able to catch it before it sunk into the slimy green abyss below. As I sat there wondering how that happened and how to hook it back on I came to the realization that I’m in the middle of a race, throw it down your front “pocket” and move! I was now on my own without the benefit of the lead pack to swim with which meant I had to do more of my own sighting and would need to work harder to hit that 30-32 minute swim time. As I swam I started seeing red swim caps from the swim wave in front of me which made me feel good about how I was doing but then I also started seeing green swim caps. Where are these green caps coming from? Is that the wave behind me? Am I doing that bad? Yep, I later found out that those green caps were from the male swim wave that started 10 minutes behind me and I sucked it up with a 35:06 swim. I had been beating myself up all year over my swim time and kept trying to cut that down but then I couldn’t help but think of some of the elite women like Natasha Badmann and Lori Bowden who won a number of Ironman World titles and  rarely, if ever, exited the water in the lead. If I can crush the bike and follow it up with a killer run, I just need to come out towards the front of the pack, right? Still to be debated.

Knowing I could safely assume I was at least a couple of minutes behind the lead women I figured I would just concentrate on catching up and adding distance to them on the bike. TYR swim skin off, a quick rub down of sunscreen and I was off and running through T1 to my Speed Concept. I was pretty lucky on my rack assignment this time, my bike was almost exactly half way through T1 and only a couple of bikes from the inside lane. I practically ripped my ultra light Speed Concept off the rack with anticipation and made my way up the switchback path up the hill to the mount line. I’m not one of those athletes that stops to throw my leg over and then push off to go, I’m like a gunfighter trying to jump on a horse at full gallop. No time to kiss the maiden or smell the roses here, I have rubber to burn on those tires. I had a pretty good head of steam going as I jumped on my bike and put both feet on top of my shoes and start to pedal. There will be time to put my feet in the shoes after I’m moving. I have done this type of mount dozens of times during training and other races but this one was going to be different than any other and throw something I could never prepare for. As I pedaled, I didn’t even get a full revolution before my chain completely seized up and almost caused me to endo my bike. It almost felt like someone had stuck a stick in my spokes as it caused me to lurch forward. I was now in a free-spin and  looked down to see that my chain was hanging. I thought I had simply thrown my chain but as I came to a stop I almost broke into tears when I saw what had happened. As I pedaled and broke the rubber bands that held my shoes in place and kept them from flopping around as I left T1, one of the rubber bands broke and shot back into my rear derailer and then proceeded to entangle itself amongst my SRAM Red components. My mind immediately began to go a million miles an hour trying to figure out how to remedy this situation. I immediately attempted to pry the pieces of rubber band out of my chain with my fingers till I bloodied them trying to get the rubber band free, which proved much more difficult than I make it sound. 5 minutes later, according to my Garmin but I swear it seemed like an eternity, my chain and derailer was free of rubber band parts. A nice gal asked if would like some wetwipes or needed to use her phone. Huh? I'm racing here! Like I have time to clean up or call ahead of carry out, I'm racing here. I let out a sigh of relief and took my first breath…until I jumped back on and tried shifting gears. The bike techs at McGhie’s Bike & Boards in Las Vegas had meticulously dialed in my shifting when reassembling my Speed Concept after the plane ride but now it was jumping around like my kids on Mt. Dew. I hammered through my gears trying to find one that worked which wasn't many. As I started my climb out of Lake Las Vegas I saw Jeremy & the kids; the kids screaming and cheering, Jeremy with a look of bewilderment, like “What took so long?” They were on the road directly across from the swim exit and I knew he had calculated about 3 minutes from swim exit through T1 but now I was pushing almost 9 minutes. Trying to act calm and not break down in tears of disappointment, I told him that my derailer was messed up as I raced by. In reality it was more than messed it, it was completely jacked! I had 56 miles to go and I was only able to find 6 gears to do it in. Nothing like handicapping myself at the start. I began to think about calling it a day. How could I do the nearly 2,600 feet of elevation change in 6 gears? My hopes of an overall amateur win were now a distant dream and I knew I was now mentally defeated. I had never quit a race in my nearly 10 years of racing Tri’s or road racing and the only DNF’s that blemish my race stats today were because race course medics pulled me due to health reasons. I then thought of the PC racers that were on the course missing legs and arms that live every day with handicaps and it doesn’t slow them down. I was physically capable and my bike was still working, for now, so I was going to put it all on the line and see what I could do.  

56 miles and 2:51:30 later I grinded it out on the uphills and free-spun the downhills but I can hold my head high and say I did it on my own, with only 6 gears. I didn’t jump behind anyone to draft on the downhills as men were blazing past me [yes I saw you ladies as you passed me] and I didn’t try to form a pace line [yes I saw you too pro men] to improve on my situation. All-in-all I came in only about 20 minutes behind my goal time and improved my standing in my AG by 12 places. As I came into T2 I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me if there was any chance of even making an AG podium.

The run was a 3-loop, 4 mile course with about 2 miles of uphill and 2 miles of downhill and you’re either going up or you’re going down. The original plan was to negative split each lap. With almost no shade on the course I needed to get off the course before it got too hot. The first mile was almost entirely downhill and I was just slightly off my pace but typically that first mile takes some adjustment after coming off the bike. Mile 2 is a long grind uphill and I almost immediately started to feel the effects of not having additional gears on the bike section. I realized I had pushed too hard. My quads and hip flexors began to scream at me so I thought if I slowed down by :15-:20 each mile then maybe I could keep things from blowing up. As I completed my first lap the course started to get a lot busier with other athletes finishing the bike and I began to notice that I was unable to close on people in front of me. It was getting confusing not knowing whether people were on their 1st, 2nd or final lap and whether I needed to push myself for the pass. By time I started my final lap I was getting frustrated because I was missing all my paces and with the sun beating down, it was starting to get really hot. I just wanted to be done with it and forget about the whole thing and start focusing on the ITU Long Course World Championship. I just wanted off the course. I was taking as much water on that last lap as I could grab at the aid stations and just pouring it on me to keep my core temp down. At this point I was hoping for a little breeze to help cool me off. 

I finally crossed the finish line with an overall time of 5:17:16; about 30 minutes over what I knew I could do on a good day. The run was a lumbering 1:45:40 but felt like I had been running for days. I couldn't help but think that I had let my kids and husband down. They had traveled so far to cheer me on and sacrificed so much "mom" time over this season and now I was walking away with very little to show for it.

This was the most mentally challenging race I have ever had. What keep me going? Sheer will. I feel I let myself and others down if I quit. Sure I was not having the day I had hoped, planned and dreamed of for the last year. You all might be wonding what I did with that broken Garnin for the bike & the run. At the expo I stopped by the "Blazeman" ALS booth to chat with John Blaze's family and offer my support. As some of you may, know I have rolled the line a couple of time for my brother-in-law's father, Jack, who is currenty battling this disease. I was given a "ALS Warrior poet" awareness braclete to wear in John Blaze's honor. I used that to attach the Garmin to my wirst. I kept thinking about people who are disabled or suffering from ALS and how greatful I am to have the body that allows me to do what I want to do and when I want to do it. That kept me going mile after mile. Quit was not an option, I had to keep going.

What I did right. I nailed my nutrition. It got hot on the run course and I still didn’t have any GI issues like in the past. I’ve become a true believer of VESPA and am continually amazed at how I feel when I race and train on it. Even today, a full day after the race I’m not even sore. If you are interested in learning more about VESPA I can help. I’m not pushing this product because I work for them or because I’m paid to endorse it because I don’t. I don’t get paid to endorse any of the products I use. I’ve simply spent the time and money doing my research and truly believe the products I use are the best out there. VESPA works, as odd as the product may sound, it works and I plan to take it with me next year when I race at Kona again…redemption!

As for the course, it was awesome! Race support was top notch and everything was well organized. I can’t wait to race this exact same course in November for the ITU Long Course World Championship. The only difference will be twice as long swim, about 20 more miles along "scenic" Lake Mead on the bike and then 1 more loop on the run. Now I know what modifications I need to make to my training routes to simulate the course.

As for accommodations, I arranged a home stay in Henderson which is the host city and where the race finish is but if I didn’t have that I would still stay in Henderson. Logistically staying in Henderson works better on race morning to drop off nutrition for the run and then head to Lake Las Vegas which is a short drive on wide, multi-lane highways. Not to mention the expo is there at the Rec Center, there are more places to eat and places to stay.

The biggest let down for the day, other than the mechanical issues, was that there wasn’t a finisher’s shirt. I would have thought that for the World Championship that there would have been some kind of finisher’s shirt. You’re starting to get less and less swag at WTC races. For the price you pay to race, I would expect more, but then maybe I was spoiled by Rev 3.

First thing I'll do when I get back to Boise, love on my kids for a little bit before they head off to school and then head in to see Dr. Dave at Physio Therapy and then Dr. Jim at Boise Valley Chiro for some adjustments. Then, no rest for me, I'm back to the focused training to get better prepared for the ITU Long Course World Championship on November 5th.

See you on the race course!