Monday, October 12, 2015

Ironman Louisville Race Report


The Ironman Louisville swim is in the Ohio River, and swimmers file into the water first come, first served. The swim start was 7:30 am, and when I got to the line at 6:30, it was already a mile long, and clearly people at the front had camped out for their spot.  We were lucky to swim at all; for the weeks leading up to race day “algae bloom” threatened to keep us out of the water, but someone finally decided we wouldn’t start glowing green and sprouting mystery appendages if we jumped in.  The water temp was perfect, at 69 degrees, and I jumped in at 8 am.  The first part was against the current, but it was a protected inlet, so it wasn’t bad at all.  The parts with the current did include some cross current, so not as easy as it sounded. 

 

I’m a weak swimmer, and I usually seed myself out of the fray.  Because of the way the swim was structured, there was no “out of the fray” in this event.  Three quarters swim/one quarter MMA.  I discovered that even though my kick is not good enough to propel me forward, it is sufficient to let the guy holding on to my feet for a tow know that I’m not having it. 

 

Yet again in a tri, as if I needed more evidence that my body is not designed for swimming, my swim cap popped off, necessitating a trip to the kayak to put it and the goggles I knocked off trying to fix the cap back in place.   It tried to peel off again, but I forced my way to the finish before it dislodged.  My head is now actually physically rejecting this swimming habit. 

 

Transition to the bike was long, because there was a quarter mile from bike out to the timing mat/mount line, all on concrete, and since I haven’t figured out how to get into shoes on the bike I had to do this on cleats.  I had driven the bike course on Friday, and I was really intimidated by the hills, which are my biggest bike weakness.  About 20 miles into the ride, there was a turn onto a road with 3 miles out, 3 miles back, all twisty hills on a narrow road with no shoulder.  This is where the late swim start and the slow swim and transition times actually helped me.  As I was climbing on the out, I saw how congested the back part was, and I passed four crashes, two of them apparently major, in just that 6-mile stretch. 

 

The perfect weather helped on the ride, and while the hills weren’t easy, I handled them well and had a blast on the descents.  The course was beautiful, and everyone was incredibly friendly.  The only real issue was that the roads were not closed to traffic, and they were single lane roads with no shoulder.  At one point, an F350 tried to take me out because he wanted to get away from the traffic, but since I commute on a bike, I’m used to cars trying to kill me and I managed a quick adjustment and an appropriate hand gesture. On the way back, I got stuck a couple of times behind cars that could only move as fast as the slowest cyclist of front of them, which was super frustrating.   The last 10 miles of the course were flat, and I time trialed them back to the finish (a couple mph slower than my TT pace, but I don’t typically warm up for TTs with a hilly 100-mile ride).  I passed lots and lots of people on the second half of this ride, which always gives me a bump, especially considering how many riders cheered me on as I overtook them.

 

I felt really good coming off the bike.  My legs felt heavy starting the run, but they always feel that way until I get going a bit.  I was confident that once I got underway, and more importantly once it started cooling off outside, I would feel stronger on the run.  Unfortunately, my right Achilles tendon was really painful right from the start, despite all the ibuprofen.  I kept moving, and was hanging on ok until about mile 13, then I started fading.  At mile 15, I started feeling really dizzy and shaky, and I was started to wobble as I walked.  I made my way to the mile 17 aid station.  I used the portajohn, and had fun trying to pull my sweaty trisuit back up in this condition.  When I left the john, I felt like I was going to pass out, so I sat on the curb, shivering and sweating at the same time, and put my head in my hands.  All I could think about was how much I didn’t want to DNF.  A volunteer noticed me, and he kept bringing me different food items and fluids until I started to feel better.   The solid non-GU type foods helped, and I was able to get up and start moving again.  I started with a slow walk and settled into a brisk walk to get through the rest of the race. 

 

My final time was significantly slower than my objective, but given the mile-17 issue, I’m thrilled that I finished.   Most importantly, while I definitely suffered, I really enjoyed and had fun at this event.  I hurt, and there was a time when I felt like I was dying (and still was more concerned about a DNF), but I was reminded throughout the day of how much I love this sport and the people who participate in it and support it. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

USAT Age Group Nationals!


Below is the report I am sending to the super-talented members of my tri team, Philly Pro Tri:

Most of you guys don’t know me, or if you do, know me well.  A bit about me.  I did nothing athletic growing up.  I was the chubby awkward kid who was hopeless in gym class, and was always picked last for every sport.  My biggest sports accomplishment through high school was helping the water polo team pass math.  I started running in my early 30s and did a bunch of road races, including marathons.  I did not start getting serious about getting faster until about 2008-2009, and then after that I slowly stumbled on to a couple of age-group podiums in small 5ks.  Podiums are a super nice bonus for me, because they would have been unthinkable to my young self, but I mostly race against myself, aiming for improvement and PRs.  I work hard, and I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of both in the past few years. 

 

I picked up triathlons starting in 2011.  I was terrified of the swim, because I was never good in the water and I’m afraid of fish and drowning.  I do, however, love riding my bike, and that is definitely my strength.  Since I started, I’ve had steady improvement in the sport, thanks to great coaching, a support system of awesome tri friends and stupid amounts of money spent on equipment. 

 

Qualifying for Nationals was a really big deal for me, especially since I’ve been struggling a lot with my running this past year (injuries and lots of new female-over-45 issues).  I was really excited to go and thrilled to be able to share the experience with my friends Ashley, Mark and Denise.  The race organization was spectacular and the venue was perfect (except for the water temp).  I have a bunch of thoughts on both the trip (I drove with Denise and met Ashley and Mark in set spots along the way) and race, listed below in no particular order.

 

Most Memorable:

 

Touring Ashley’s Aunt Sharon’s absolutely beautiful historic home in Illinois, and then promptly dumping a cranberry iced tea all over the impeccable dining room table on which she was serving us a lovely brunch.

 

Cheese.  Cheese!  Visting Mars Cheese Castle.  Delicious cheese giveaways at the Wisconsin welcome center rest stop (and bunnies to pet!). 

 

Watching two 78-year-old men in Team USA kits battle each other to the finish in the sprint tri for a chance to go to next year’s world race. 

 

Getting chicked on the bike.  I am not used to this.  I can live with guys passing me (well, the right guys), but I am no longer accustomed to girls passing unless they are clearly elite/pros.  I had to remind myself that this was a different crowd. I am using this experience as inspiration to up my bike game and see how close I can get to hanging with these top women. 

 

Luanne.  Luanne was a triathlete in the 60-64 female age group in the sprint tri.  The course for the sprint swim was just under a half mile in cold water (65 degrees), and the swimmers had to go under an overpass about a third of the way into it.  There was a current at the overpass pushing the swimmers back toward the start, but that current would break in the swimmers favor as soon as they made it through.  Luanne was struggling, and got seriously stuck in the current.  She was getting pushed from side to side and backwards at certain points, and she wasn’t making progress.   And then as she was struggling, she got swum over by the wave of men behind her.  The lifeguard on the kayak was poised to pull her at any moment, but she wasn’t giving up.  Everyone on the bridge joined together in shouting encouragement to Luanne to fight to the other side.  Finally, she found a backstroke and starting making progress.  She went under the bridge and all the spectators ran over to the other side to see her pass through.  We all broke into massive cheers and got to see a huge smile on her face before she flipped over into a freestyle stroke and made her way forward.  We found out later that she did finish the triathlon, earning lots of people in her corner along the way. 

 

One of the best Italian dinners I’ve had in my life, and I spent a summer in Italy and live in South Philly. 

 

Ashley, standing at the board looking at the results, “Denise knows Lori Beck.”  Woman standing next to Ashley, “I am Lori Beck.”

 

Swag!  So much good stuff.  We got a USAT AGNT half-zip jacket, tech hat, compression sleeves and a shoe bag. 

 

Not finishing in the bottom 10% of my age group.  When I first started triathlon a few years ago, I was consistently bottom 10% of my group in every event, even the little local newbie-friendly tris.  2015 was the first year I managed a triathlon podium in any event, and while I had placed in running events, I never had a first-place finish in anything.  I was ecstatic when I won my age group at the Hammonton Sprint Tri in May – both my first “first” and my first tri podium.  The email inviting me to Nationals was a shock and something I never would have believed I could accomplish before.  Just being at Nationals is amazing for me, so I would have been ok even if I was dead last, especially when I saw that all of the race participants looked like they should be auditioning for a super hero movie.  My previous Olympic PR put me in the bottom 5% of finishers in the 2014 field for my age group.  That clearing the bottom 10% goal may seem arbitrary, but it was my hope going into this race.  I also wanted very much to be in the top half of my age group on bike, which is my strong leg and how I qualified for the race.   Of the 151 women in my age group, I finished at 124, and was number 57 on the bike, so I met both goals easily.  Might have even been top third on the bike if I could get on and off of the thing in less than 4 years (a recently identified weak spot in dire need of practice). 

 

Sub-3 hours.  My Olympic PR before this race, achieved at Philly Tri last year, was 3:06:19.   I wanted to break 3 hours on that race, but fell apart on the run in the heat.  I also wanted to break 3 hours at Rock Hall earlier this year, but swimming off course so badly that I ended up doing 1.3 miles instead of .9, and then walking the run in the blistering un-shaded heat turned that wish to dust.  The course conditions in Milwaukee were favorable.  Swim was cold, which definitely slowed me down in the beginning, but easy to sight and wetsuit legal.  Bike was flat and fast, with roads closed to traffic making passing a lot easier.  Run was in cool temps for August (70s) on flat roads with overcast conditions.  Transitions were long (my transition spot was not in a good location, and the run from swim to bike was not short).  I was doing well through the bike, but then fell apart on the run (pretty sure it was a nutrition screw-up on my part).  I was only holding an average pace of about 10:20.  At the six mile marker, I looked at my watch and realized I had less than 2 minutes to cover the last .2 or I wouldn’t get my sub-3.  So I started my sprint.  I saw Ashley and Denise right before the line, but only growl-yelled rather than nicely acknowledge my friends and charged across the line.  Final time was 2:59:37, which means I was going at a good clip for that last .2 and I got both my sub-3 and a nice PR.

 

Mark confidently walking into one of the diciest beer stores I have ever seen for some Miller High Life (yes, really). 

 

Touchdown Jesus.  This was after the brick ride on a trail so narrow that I thought Ashley might have to dive into the drink alongside the trail to rescue me.   Brick and bike handling clinic all in one. 

 

Finally, and most important of all, having the opportunity and ability be part of such an incredible event in a great venue with friends I love.  It was so great to relax and hang out with Denise, Ashley and Mark, and then each of us had great race experiences.  This is a reminder that I am truly blessed to be able to do this and to have such fantastic people in my life to do it with. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Boston -- Yeah, Let's Try It

In 2014 I will turn 45.  That 45th birthday is unsettling because it seems that 50 is closing in, fast, and I would be lying if I said that didn’t freak me out.  It does, however, yield a bonus:  a new age group.  I tumble out of the bottom of women 40-44 and to the top of women 45-49.  This does not necessarily put me in a better competitive position at many races.  There are lots of women in their middle-late 40s in this region who kick serious ass.  Hell, Cecily Tynan is exactly my age and can still sustain a six-minute mile through a 10k course.  What is most spectacular about the new age group for me is the birthday present from the Boston Athletic Association.  Ten minutes, all wrapped up in a pretty bow.  The qualifying window for the 2015 Boston Marathon is now open, and since I will be 45 on the day of that race, I get to use the age-45 qualifying time now.  The maximum amount of time I have to complete a marathon to qualify for Boston jumps from an impossible 3 hours and 45 minutes, to a probably still impossible 3 hours and 55 minutes. 

The Boston Marathon.  The holy grail.  An event designed for people with actual athletic ability.  The only marathon that restricts entry to those who have proved they can run fast (except, obviously, Olympics and championship races).  Any athlete that qualifies either had a brutal training regimen or has an innate athletic gift.  The bulk of qualifiers have both. 

The blessings I received at birth include good hair and the ability to collect things on a high shelf.  Athletic prowess is not on this list.  I compensate for this with the ridiculous-for-a-mid-packer training plan.  I sign up for events that are tough, but achievable for me if I do the work to prepare.  Ironman is a great example.  I don’t have a gift.  I have a drive that pushes me to do the last few 100-meter swim drills when my body feels desperate to do the dead-fish float on the 16th one, and to do crap like this for up to 17 hours per week.  To push through heat and cold and pain and stomach issues and lack of time and watching people who trained half as hard as me walk toward their cars with their finishers’ medals on while I’m grunting my way through my final miles. 

That drive may not be enough for Boston.  I may need the gift too.  My current best marathon time is 4:20:42, achieved in perfect conditions in Chicago when in the best physical shape of my life (fully Ironman-trained).   To BQ, I have to peel off nearly 26 minutes, lowering my pace a minute per mile. 

I’m going for it anyway.  I have to try.  How can I not try?  Boston is my fantasy; my number one bucket list item.  So I’ll take my shot at the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach on March 16.  To get ready, I’ll train super hard, which I’ve done before.  And I’ll do things I’ve stubbornly refused to do before, like an appropriate diet (boo!) and planks and other core work (double boo!).  I’ll try to force my mind to overcome my body’s limitations, and to force my body to teach my mind to stop talking me down.  And I’ll have accountability by going public with this quest.  


So there.  I’m out.  I’m taking this sorry collection of genes out for a BQ attempt in just 14 weeks.  Time to see what sheer will and 45 years of stubbornness can accomplish.  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ironman Mont-Tremblant Race Report

I’m now officially an “Ironman.”  Though I did a 140.6-mile distance triathlon in October (the glorious Beach to Battleship), that race wasn’t Ironman-branded and didn’t have all of the dotman craziness.  That really shouldn’t matter.  B2B was a spectacularly organized race in a beautiful location with amazing volunteers, and the distances were still 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run.  Apparently, I’m more of a sucker for corporate branding than I thought, because something still felt missing.  

So I registered for a “real” Ironman, Ironman Mont-Tremblant (“IMMT”), in Quebec. The race was on August 18.  Besides the logos and booming tones of the famous voice-of-Ironman Mike Reilly (more on him later) announcing your name as an Ironman at the finish line, this race offered something else B2B didn’t:  a tough course.  B2B featured a point-to-point swim, with the current, meaning you could float on your back and still beat the swim cut-off.  Better yet, the bike course and run courses were pancake flat.  I know it makes me sound like an asshole to say the B2B race was too easy, but…..  IMMT was not easy. No fun swim current towing you into the finish, a seriously hilly bike with a wind bonus, and some (though not many) hills on the run. 

Training

I did not anticipate when I signed up for IMMT that the year leading up to the race would be comprised of one horrendous disaster after another.  I took nearly two months off of training this spring to care for my sister as her cancer overwhelmed her body.  She passed on April 20.   I also lost my beloved dog, Sadie, and Annabelle, the cat I had for 18 years.  These are just the lowest low lights.  As I continued to train and race after all of this, I realized the emotional effect was as if I was strapping on a 50-pound weight for each effort.  Racing and training had always been my release for emotional pain, but that wasn’t working anymore. 

I also did not anticipate that this summer would pose the most non-Jill-friendly training conditions possible:  stormy, hot, humid with a helping of a massive new project at work requiring all of my evening and weekend time.  On bike, I am not a natural climber.  I have extreme difficulty at high-percentage climbs.  I knew the only way I could tackle the hills at IMMT was to spend a lot of time practicing on hills.  What actually happened was that conditions forced me to do almost all of my bike training on my trainer at home, and when I could get out, I rode on flat roads near my house. 

As I closed in on the race, I compared my training and progress to that of B2B, and I knew I was falling far short. 

Pre-Race

So, Mont-Tremblant is absolutely beautiful.  What a spectacular location for a triathlon!  I drove up the Tuesday before with my niece, Allison, so we got to enjoy the town for a few days before the real race stuff began.  Mont-Tremblant couldn’t be more triathlete friendly.  The roads and shoulders are baby-bottom smooth, and the locals are encouraging and respectful to runners and cyclists sharing their roads.  And there’s lots of great food. 


Ashley, Sue, Heather and me at the pre-race dinner


I really enjoyed that food until I got a good look at the bike course.  A two-loop course, and the hills at the end of each loop were just ridiculous.  I rode some of what the athlete’s guide called the “easier” section of the course, and I had a lot of trouble.  My anxiety about the race was at its zenith when I realized I was in the last swim wave, giving me only 10-1/2 hours to complete both the swim and the bike or be disqualified.   Properly prepared, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but I knew I wasn’t there. 

The venue was magical, however.  The race organization was outstanding, and the town was overflowing with Ironman pomp and circumstance (parades, fireworks, signs everywhere welcoming us, etc.).  My friend Ashley and I went to dinner the night before the race with her family, and we got to meet Mike Reilly, who was incredibly friendly and encouraging.  I told him to spare his voice, because he would have A LOT of names to reel off before he’d get to mine. 

Mike Reilly! As Ashley said, this had to be a good omen.
 
The day before the race I tried to fuel up for a long day.  Without getting graphic, however, let’s just say the fuel didn’t take, and I finished the day with no nutrition and some dehydration.   I was terrified, and even the reassuring words of my amazing coach, Jack Braconnier, didn’t calm me
down. 
 
The Swim

Don’t you just love a race that starts off with a cannon blast, fireworks and Canadian fighter planes doing fly-overs just for you?  The water was perfect.  Clear and about 70 degrees.  My time goal for the swim was 90 to 95 minutes.  I felt comfortable in the water, and I was swimming on course.  At times, I felt I was going too slow, but I was swimming in the wake of another swimmer, and every time I tried to pass her I couldn’t, so I figured the slowness was just the effort I was saving myself by wake swimming.  I learned this was not so when I looked at my watch while I was exiting the water.  Swim 1:46:57.  With a long transition, I was already at the two-hour mark when I got on my bike.
 
 

The Bike

Each lap of the bike course was really broken down into four sections.  The first, the Montee Ryan had a couple of tougher rolling climbs.  Then you hit an out-and-back on Route 117, which also had rollers, but they were more gradual.  You then got a fun little jaunt through the village of Saint Jovite, which had lots of fantastic crowd support.  Back through the Montee Ryan to get to Chemin Duplessis, about five miles out and five miles back to the next loop or the finish.  The “out” on Duplessis is a Sisyphean nightmare of a road, with constant climbing of percentage grades all the up to 17%.  I got through the first hill.  Then I did the second.  At the crest of the second, I had to stop, lean over my bike and gasp for breath for a few minutes before I could move at all again.  That’s when I realized I couldn’t get up the rest of the Duplessis “out” portion on my pedals.  I did what I really, really did not want to do, which was dismount and walk the bike up the next few hills. 



Can you tell how excited I am to start the bike?

The “back” on Duplessis almost made up for the out.  Those were the most fun descents of my cycling life, done on a combination of beautifully paved, debris-free, straight roads.  I cracked the 40-mph barrier for the first time ever, and had a blast doing it. 

I hit special needs going into the second lap and jammed down as much food as I could.  While winds weren’t a factor in the first lap, the winds were blasting you in the face no matter which direction you turned on the second lap.   It was 86 degrees out with no shade on the bike course, so these were hot winds, making a hard course just plain stupid.  While I hate headwinds, and I actually yelled at the wind a few times, it didn’t slow me down that much.  My split for the second lap was only a few minutes slower than my first.  Ten hours and nine minutes into the race, I pulled into T2, absolutely ecstatic that I survived the ride and was allowed to continue to the run. Bike:  8:09:15 (for context, my bike time at B2B was 6:48, and I felt like I was holding back through the whole B2B ride).   I spent another 10+ minutes in transition, and off I went for the run.




The Run

I was so happy to be off the bike that my joy fed my legs, which actually felt pretty good.  I started running, and it wasn’t miserable, even though it was still really warm out.  Here’s how the run went:

Mile 2, past the hills to get out of town:
Legs:  “Hey, this isn’t bad at all!”
Brain:  “Lots of time to finish, though it is warm out.”
Stomach:  “Remember me?”



Mile 4, on the trail:
Legs:  “Still feeling good!”
Brain: “It’s starting to cool off a bit.”
Stomach:  “No.”
 
Mile 6, still on the trail, nearing the first turn to get back into town:
Legs: “Hey, we can do this!”
Brain: “I like this trail.”
Stomach:  “No means no.”
 
Mile 7, after the turn:
Legs:  “Still going!”
Brain:  “Thank you, sun, for dropping.”
Stomach:  “Ok, seriously.  I should not have to tell a woman who has required the care of a gastroenterologist since age 11 to heed me when I am unambiguous. Stop. Running. Now.” 

Upon which, I switched to power walking. Happily, I can power walk fast, and I can sustain it for really long periods.  So, even walking 19 miles, I managed to cover 26.2 miles in under five hours and 40 minutes.  Run 5:39:33.

Googly eyes heading into the finish

The Finish

The last quarter mile of the race is a sharp downhill, through a finishing chute in the ski village.  As I passed into the village, I heard a “GO JILL” roar from my friends, who had already finished, showered and fed in time to watch me pass.  Though just about 11pm there was still a huge crowd cheering me all the way down the chute as I ran to the finish line.  I crossed, threw my arms up and heard Mike Reilly say those magic words, “Jill Sterbakov, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”  The lady handing me my medal looked very familiar, but standing right behind her was Allison, who had been volunteering at the finish line.  I threw my arms around Allison, and she escorted me through.  She then informed me that the woman who put the medal around my neck was Mary Beth Ellis, who won the women’s race much earlier in the day and is the favorite to win the world championship this year.  One of the things I love best about triathlon is the camaraderie of the athletes and the support from the pros and elites for us mortals.  It has become a common thing for the winners of championship races to come back and bestow the finisher’s medals on the athletes coming in at the end of the race. 




So I did it.  My final time was 15:56:58, more than two hours slower than B2B, but just surviving this one was the real victory here. 

Big thanks to Allison, for escorting me through this race, Jack for coaching me, my friends for encouraging me and the race volunteers who were just spectacular all the way through.  Congratulations to my friends Ashley, Sue, Dan, Shawn, Cindy and Heather for finishing IMMT!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Meltdown

So last summer, while I was swirling in a vortex of race-junky tendencies, enabler friends, and social media reports of limited remaining availability for Ironman Mont Tremblant, I succumbed and registered.  IMMT is a “real” Ironman, meaning it is Ironman-branded.  Unlike Beach to Battleship, the Iron-distance race I did in October, the swim does not boast of a current that would push a boulder into the finish within the time limit, and there is very significant climbing on the bike.  IMMT will be held in Quebec in August.

I registered for Rev3 Quassy as an afterthought.  Quassy is a half-Iron distance race held in Connecticut in June.  It is conducted by Rev 3, which is establishing itself as a competitor to Ironman.  I picked it because if I was going to do IMMT, I wanted to get a half in first before the summer got too hot, and because I felt I needed the hilly bike experience that Quassy would provide. 

A few things I didn’t count on. The first was that the first real it-gets-ugly-hot-in-this-area heat wave would hit on Quassy weekend.  Second, that because of all of the extra family time I needed this year, I would take a good half of March and the entire month of April off of training, and still be limited after that.  I thought I’d be hill-ready by Quassy.  Doing that, however, actually means taking your bike outside and, I don’t know, riding on hills.

I should also mention that the stress of this past year has carried over into my racing.  I did a marathon in Cape May in March, and I was miserable with every step, instead of my usual dimly content plod until the pain sets in between miles 20 and 22.  I am grieving, anxiety-ridden and tired, and this mix does not create happy and strong athletic performances.  

At the expo the day before the race, the pros, including some of the top athletes in the sport, gave a Q&A.  At that session, they described the course as one of the toughest on the circuit.  The bike had over 4,000 feet of climbing, including all varieties, e.g., long and slow and steep enough that you have to get out of your saddle to tackle it.  The difficulty, they said, was that you never get a break.  You are always ascending, descending or dealing with sharp turns, meaning precious little time to settle down and regroup. They also talked about a very difficult run course, but I tuned that out because I was so concerned about the bike. 

This news, in combination with my drive-through of the bike course and the threat of severe thunderstorms for race day, did not put me in a very peaceful state of mind for the race.  Before the weekend hit, I knew I was undertrained, but I conned myself into thinking that since I had completed a full, a half shouldn’t be that big a deal.  The absurdity of that notion began sinking in on Saturday.

Still, I did lots of stuff wrong that day.  I ate a big breakfast, and then didn’t eat again until a big dinner right before bedtime.   Worse, I did not hydrate well at all. 

Sunday morning I woke up thirsty and with an achy stomach.  I drank a good amount of water, but could only eat half of the bagel I set aside for breakfast.  I drove to the race start, tugged on my wetsuit and went to the water for the warm-up swim.  I did a very brief swim in the lake, which had beautiful clear, calm, 72.6-degree water.  While waiting for my wave to be called, I realized that I was in trouble for this race.  I was thirsty.  I was thirsty before a very long race on a very hot day even began.  I knew I’d be ok for the swim, but I was under-hydrated and poorly nourished for the bike and run.

The swim was great.  I felt comfortable all the way through and got in a good push to finish strong (still slow, but happy).  I took my time, however, exiting the water and I strolled slowly toward the swim exit timing mat, because I was not looking forward to the bike. 

As is usual for me in T1, my bike was easy to find because it was very lonely.  The plus side of this is that I always have lots of space to spread out to squeeze my way out of my wetsuit and gear up for the ride. 

The pros were not wrong about the Quassy bike course.  You get slammed with hills early, and they never let up.  I knew I needed nutrition, so as soon as I was on slightly level ground I tried to eat a Honey Stinger waffle.  I could barely choke half of it down, because my mouth was so dry it felt like paste.  I hit my water and sports drink bottles, but that didn’t help.  I switched to Gu Chomps and gels for nutrition, less than what I needed to get me through the day. 

I remembered the seven-mile continuous climb from the course elevation chart, from my drive-through and from the discussion of it by the pros at the Q&A.  I knew climbing for that long at once would hurt, but it seemed like more of a gradual than steep climb, so I felt like I could handle it.  What I didn’t pay attention to in the drive-through was the lack of any shade at all on this climb.  Halfway up, the heat felt like it was choking the life out of me, and by the time I was finished I didn’t have much energy left. 

But, of course, there was still lots more climbing to be done, and both my physical capabilities and mental faculties were deteriorating fast.  My max speed even on the easiest climbs after 40 miles was about 7-8 mph. 

I think I was about at mile 53 when a woman on the sidelines yelled out that there was a “huge, nasty hill” ahead.  I rode about a half mile and then it came into view.  It started out as a sharp out-of-the-saddle climb, and then just leveled off slightly but kept going for another half mile.  The combination of that woman’s voice in my head and the realization that my legs had morphed into overcooked fusilli noodles hit me hard.  I went into this race really, really not wanting to have to dismount and walk the bike up any hills.  But I broke, and that’s exactly what I did. 

My legs burned walking up that hill.  I got back on the bike, and spent the remainder of the ride wondering how the hell I could possible run after this.

Usually I’m excited to get to T2, happy to have completed the bike.  This time I just felt broken, and dragged myself and my bike slowly in to change gear for the run.  I pulled off my helmet, put my running shoes next to me, sat on the ground and pulled off my cycling shoes.  I then pulled off one of my cycling gloves, and then just sat and stared, and started to cry.  I didn’t have anything left.  I didn’t even have the energy to get both gloves off and put on my shoes.

In all of the races I’ve done, I’ve only quit two.  The first was the Ugly Mudder, a vicious “trail” run in Reading (there’s no trail, you’re just meandering in the woods). This was my first race after an achilles tendon injury, and about the seventh time I fell after twisting the already injured ankle, I realized the tendon would snap if I didn’t stop.  The second was right before the second loop of the bike in Quakerman tri, when I recognized enough thunderstorm clouds to realize a 13-mile ride through a wooded area with no place to take cover would not be a wise move for me.  Both times were choices I made to protect myself.  I have never quit a race just because it was too hard or miserable. 

So, still crying, I pulled off the second glove and reached for my running shoes. 

I walked out of transition.  I grabbed water and Gatorade at the aid station, and tried to run a bit when I saw some shade.  That lasted about 20 feet.  I walked slowly forward, pausing about every minute to try to catch my breath, because I was so despondent and overwhelmed at the task ahead.  About a half mile in I saw a course arrow and took a turn.  A bunch of runners were coming right at me, and it didn’t register immediately that I didn’t see anyone going in my direction.  Finally, at least a third of a mile down the road, I realized all of the arrows on the ground were pointing in the other direction, and I realized I had made a wrong turn and gone off course.  Worse, I now had to climb up a hill to get back on course. 

I had been under the impression that we had 8 hours from the start of the last swim wave to complete the course, or our effort would be considered a DNF, or Did Not Finish.  I was in a late swim wave, so that meant I had 8 hours and 10 minutes to complete the race.  Considering I finished my full Iron-distance tri in 13 hours and 53 minutes, I hadn’t really worried about the time limit before.  But now this was a real concern.  I was also worried that the later I finished, the more likely it was that I would encounter thunderstorms as I was trying to drive home. 

The wrong turn set me off again, crying and hyperventilating.  I was a wreck by the time I stumbled onto the next aid station.  The volunteers here were amazing.  They swarmed around me getting me whatever I needed and insisting that I would be ok.  So I started walking again, and began to calm down a bit.  I started to pick up the walking pace at mile 2, and kept a better pace until mile 5. Unfortunately, since I did not study the run course before the race, and I only remembered the pros saying it was really hilly after mile 3, when I got stuck on that nasty, horrible, twisty, can’t see the top hill at mile 5, I had no idea when it would end.  I went about 100 feet past an aid station, and hunched over.  More volunteers came over to help, and I asked about how much longer the hill went.  They said I was very near the top.  I started walking again, and a volunteer driving a SAG wagon pulled up to me and asked me very gently if I wanted to get in.  My malfunctioning brain was slightly insulted at this, but I was alert enough to realize I must have looked like I really needed help.  I politely declined and kept marching forward. 

I hit the aid station and timing mat right before mile six and started chatting with another runner.  John, whose right calf told me he was 25 years old, said that he remembered the race directors saying that the hills weren’t as bad from this point on.  He then told me this was his very first race.  Ever.  Of any kind.  This blew my mind, and got me thinking about something other than how much my present world sucked.  This and all of the water and Gatorade I had been guzzling at the aid stations made me feel better.  I picked up my walking pace, and even ran some of the downhills and shady flats.  John and I were passing each other back and forth, and would chat intermittently.  He was very upbeat and cute, and I kind of want to introduce him to my niece. 

With about three miles left, I calculated that as long as I kept a decent walking pace, I would beat the time cutoff.  I crossed the finish line with a time of 8:02:55 (would have been under 8 hours except for that stupid wrong turn), a very pathetic number but finishing this one at all was something of a miracle.  I collected one of the few remaining medals and finishers’ tees, and ate a couple of bites while watching the dismantling of the race structures. 

 

I immediately hopped in the car, and luckily made good time home, avoiding any bad weather on the way.  

So here’s what I learned:

I shouldn’t hate myself for quitting by walking a hill on the bike or walking too much on the run, and instead remember that I didn’t give in when every single molecule I possess begged me to stop.

You can’t phone in a half Ironman, particularly a tough course.  

I have to remember that races on hot days are unlikely to be competitive for me, and just go with the flow.  Probably 90% of the time I run in the heat, it’s an awful, slow and demoralizing experience for me.  Conversely, 90% of the time I run when the temps are between 40 and 60 degrees, I love the run and do great.  

I have to cut myself some slack for being off my game this year, and have a little more respect for the impact of all this stuff I haven’t even begun to come to terms with.
 
People can make the difference between breaking completely or recovering enough to survive, if you let them.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

2012: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times


A short time ago, I was so excited about all of the things I would write about in my review of my 2012 athletic endeavors.  My racing accomplishments completely crushed the expectations I had, expectations that I had considered lofty in comparison to my abilities.  But then just when I was waving my arms and hopping up and down on my peak, the bat of perspective whacked me on the head.  So here I sit, on a big pile of personal records, new milestones reached and also fear and heartbreak, just trying to make sense of all of it. 

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that my race schedule over the past two years has exploded beyond anything rational as a method of self-medicating my way through stress.  I never managed stress well, and the news from June 2011 that my sister’s (Shelly) breast cancer had returned and spread to her liver shook me to my core.  This is my big sister, who taught me everything.  I love her.  I need her.  Watching someone you love that much go through the physical torture of weekly chemo and try to deal with crushing emotional fallout among her husband and kids, people I also love deeply, is too horrible to do without an outlet.  My reaction was to rev up my training and race schedule, and pile on a bunch of over-the-top goals. 

Shelly and Me at the Run with Donna Half Marathon in 2011
 
In 2012, I spent 380 hours either training or racing.  For a full-time lawyer with an absolute need for a minimum of eight hours of nightly sleep, this is a huge amount of time.  But it was great time.   A lot of it was spent with friends who share my passion for racing.  It yielded numerous occasions of pure joy and one of the most thrilling of my life (Ironman!).  It also kept me as grounded and functional as I am capable of being in light of the other stuff.   However, it also severely limited the time I could spend with my sister and her family, with my dog, with my cat, with all of the other parts of my life. 

The dog.  The hours spent apart from Sadie are killing me in retrospect.  Two and a half weeks before my Ironman and two days before the Chicago Marathon, I noticed she was limping.  She was 11 years old and arthritic, so I was concerned but not afraid.  The day after the Marathon, she could barely walk.  Her vet noticed a growth on her leg when he examined her that day. 

Still, it seemed likely that the growth could be benign.  I continued on with Ironman prep, even when my sister required an emergency hospital stay.   
 
When I returned from Ironman, Sadie’s leg was worse, yielding a few more vet visits and finally surgery to biopsy and remove the growth.  Now I was afraid.  It turned out this fear was justified.  The growth was a very aggressive cancer, and no treatment would be effective enough to balance out the pain it would put her through.  
 
Sadie:  the love of my life, being spoiled after her diagnosis

I learned this the week of Thanksgiving.  This was the same week my 18-year-old cat, Annabelle, passed, and we found out Shelly’s cancer had spread further.  I spent every moment I could with Sadie over the next few weeks.  My other time was at work or with Shelly.  I squeezed in some running and swimming here and there, but nothing in comparison to my regular training schedule.  I lost my Sadie on December 27. 

380 hours.  It kept me sane.  It deprived me of time with those I love the most.  Looking back, I can’t bring myself to say that the balance I struck was wrong.  I also can’t say it was right. 

 I’ve laid out the sad stuff.  Now, with that context, here’s the stuff I was excited to crow about before November took my wind away.

2012:

*  Turned 43
*  Completed two full marathons as individual events
*  Completed  two half Ironmen triathlons
*  Completed my first full Ironman triathlon (which included the third marathon of 2012), beating
    my goal time of 15 hours by an hour and 7 minutes.
*  Set a personal record at every single running distance, as follows:

             Half Marathon – Shamrock, 3/18.  Previous PR: 2:02:53. 
             New PR: 1:58:05

             10-Miler – Cherry Blossom, 4/1.  Previous PR: 1:31:11. 
             New PR: 1:29:06

             4-Miler – Out and Back Party Run, 4/27. 
             Previous PR: 35:20.  New PR: 33:23

             Marathon – Chicago, 10/7.  Previous PR: 4:28:26. 
             New PR: 4:20:42.

            10-k - Run the Bridge, 11/4.  Previous PR: 53:46. 
            New PR: 52:42.

            5-k - Haddon Twp Turkey Trot, 11/24.  Previous PR: 25:48. 
            New PR: 25:37 (3/30 in age group).

I don’t know what any of this means for 2013.  I’m poised to take on another big race year.  I feel like I need the racing; it’s my drug of choice.  Hopefully I’ll find balance that allows me to look back with more pride than regret. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I Am Ironman! B2B Very Long Race Report


Nearly 600 wetsuit-clad athletes are standing on a North Carolina beach, hopping around both from nervous energy and because of the cold sand beneath all the bare feet.  It is five minutes from the start of the Beach to Battleship full distance triathlon:  2.4 miles of swimming followed by 112 miles of cycling and then 26.2 miles of running.   Everyone is at their peak fitness, having trained for many months to be prepared for this.  The majority of the field is comprised of first-timers for Iron distance, and is 70% male, 30% female.  The swim is set to start at 7:30 am, a mass start, meaning all the athletes will charge into the water at the same time.  People are jockeying for position, the strongest swimmers up front, people who hope to just survive it in the back.  Conversations are happening about the water temp, perfect at 71 degrees, and equipment issues, often expressed as hopes for goggles that don’t fog and swim caps that don’t peel off.  The speakers are turned on and the anthem is played.  And then Eminem’s Lose Yourself is pumped out (nice choice, race directors!), and everyone breaks into smiles and head bobs.  It’s time to begin.

 
I’m among these people, and before I describe the day, I have to talk about what it took to get there.  Friends who have done Ironmen have told me that you are an Ironman by just arriving at the start, because getting through the training is far more challenging than the race.  When I decided to do this, I felt ready for the physical difficulties the training would pose, but looking back I was either blindly na├»ve or willfully ignorant about the emotional challenges.   For the past few months, my life has been work or train, and nothing else.  My house was a mess, my mail was out of control, I haven’t watched television, read a book, gone to a movie.  At times, I’ve squeezed in a visit with family or a dinner with friends, but each time I was secretly stressed about time, because there simply wasn’t enough of it.  Through September, when I was training for 15-17 hours a week and working more than 50, I felt like everything was slipping out of control, and I was failing at all of it.  Work was overwhelmingly busy with emergency after emergency.  Every bad workout was loaded – how can I run a marathon after 114.4 miles when I could barely get through 10 miles of jogging on a hot day?  I was completely physically exhausted from the never-ending string of super-early mornings that do not suit my natural sleep tendencies.  Each day that passed it became harder, but as each of those days progressed I felt I had invested too much to walk away. 

Jack Braconnier, my absolutely brilliant coach at Walton Endurance, talked me down from the ledge more than once.  His coaching gave me the confidence to look past the struggle and simply stick to the plan.  And while September and early October were crushingly brutal, it was also the time period in which I got to see the results for the first time.  One of the final weekends, my “epic weekend,” consisted of a 3800-meter swim on Friday night, followed by a 104-mile pre-dawn ride on Saturday and then an 18-mile run on Sunday.  To that point, those run and swim distances were to be the longest of my life.  In the pool on Friday night, I was struck in the last few laps by how good I felt, as if I could keep going.  And then the next day on the bike, part of the City to Shore ride into Ocean City that I’ve done in the past (albeit a shorter distance option), I charged the two bridges at the end that I had always suffered through like they were wind-free flat roads.  And during the 18-mile run I felt so strong I went out of my way to add a nasty hill at mile 13.  A week later I beat my marathon personal record by more than seven minutes at the Chicago Marathon, and I felt like most of the race was easy.  I couldn’t believe what I conditioned my body to do.

Race week itself was rough.  Some very significant issues with my family surfaced.  Work was crazy.  Also, health issues for my dog, Sadie, became very apparent, which terrified me.  I was not in a good frame of mind.  I decided that I was allowed to worry about all of that until Friday, the day before race day.  Starting Friday morning, I would push all of that out of my head and be completely selfish and race-focused.   As stressed as I was about everything else, I felt ready for the race.  Every once in a while I had what I called a “holy shit” wave when I realized what was ahead of me, but I was confident that all of my hard work meant I was prepared.

The good news was that the weather was expected to be perfect, sunny and in the low 70s, and both Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington were beautiful.  And so it was on race day.   When I charged into the water that morning, it felt fantastic.  It was warmer than the air, and between the buoyancy of the salt water and my wetsuit, I almost felt like I was hovering above it.  I typically panic quickly after I hit the water in a tri, but this time I just felt really good.  I started slow to get my bearings and kept building through the swim.   The 2.4 miles were easy, both because of my training and because of the strong current pushing me toward the finish.  When I got out of the water, I looked at my watch and realized the swim took me 1 hour and 12 minutes.  My best tri swim this year was 48 minutes for 1.2 miles, so this seemed amazing to me.

At B2B, one of the places in which you pay for the helpful swim current is in the 400-yard hike to T1.  I was not fast at all with the process of getting from swim to bike with the clothing change and porta-john stop.  When I exited the tent, I realized that while my swim was good for me, it wasn’t good.  My bike was very lonely, because almost all of the other bikes were gone.  At least it was easy to find. 

My strategy for the bike was simple:  1) take the first half easy and push it in the second half; and 2) eat and drink a lot. After a lot of trial and error in my training rides, I had settled on a combination of Smucker’s Uncrustables peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, honey stinger bars, honey stinger waffles, bananas and gu chomps for bike nutrition.  I decided that I would have to have some kind of nutrition at least every 10 miles to try to get the calories I would need to survive this. 

The ride was tough.  It was flat, but windy.  Flat sounds great, but it also means you are peddling for all 112 miles, since you don’t get the break that a good descent will provide.   The first 30 miles were a bit of a battle, because the athletes participating in the half-distance event started to catch us (they started later, but had even a stronger swim current).  The first group of these athletes passed well, but some of the next group seemed to go by a little more recklessly (e.g., while I was being passed properly by a few cyclists on the left, one zipped by on the right without calling out his passing, a big no no for this ride).  Indeed, I saw one wreck about 50 meters in front of me when a rider hit a traffic cone while trying to pass another rider.  Because I was passed so frequently and closely, I was nervous about grabbing my water bottle and my aero bars, because I can still get a little wobbly when I do either.  The half athletes split off at about mile 40, and I continued on to the rest stop at mile 55 that had our special needs bags, which contained the stuff we had stashed before the race that we might want to access at this point.  To the lady who gave me her extra packet of chamois butter – thank you.  I paid that forward by giving another woman some of my Tylenol.  I spent 10 minutes at special needs, stuffing all the food I could manage into my system, and off I went.  

At mile 56, I checked my watch:  3 hours, 30 minutes with the stop.  My goal for the bike was to break seven hours, so it was time to drop the hammer.  This is where it got fun.  As I picked it up, I started dropping riders all over the field.  I, on my little roadie with regular wheels, chicked lots of guys on top-of-the-line tri bikes with $3000+ wheel sets.  Yes, I hurt – I was achy in lots of places, but nothing that slowed me.  The worst pain was in my girl parts ( I need to change saddles, I think) and my feet.  The headwinds were tough, but I tucked into aero position and punched through them. 

This is when I realized that an Ironman is a lot like bipolar disorder.  One minute you are miserable and you hate the world, the next you are ecstatic because you see yourself getting through it, and that finish line fantasy becomes more tangible with each pedal stroke.

My final bike time was 6:48.  This means I did the ride in negative splits (the second half faster than the first) and easily cleared my goal time.  And I felt great!  Hardly spent at all.  After another eternity in T2 changing into my run gear and enjoying the perks of a real bathroom with sinks (T2 was inside the convention center), I took off on the run.  At this point, it was nearly 4:00 in the afternoon, and I had been racing for eight and a half hours.  My goal for the marathon was to complete it in less than six hours, but I was hoping to hold it to under five and a half. 

The run course was lovely.  Wilmington, NC, is a great town, and the volunteers along the course were some of the best I’ve ever encountered. The course was two loops, and it wrapped around the waterfront and through a park.  There was an aid station every mile, stocked with sports drink, water, pretzels, cookies, donuts, pizza, oranges, bananas, chicken broth, Pepsi, Vaseline, electrolyte pills, and lots of other helpful stuff.  I ran at an easy pace until each aid station came into view, and then walked through each, grabbed some stuff and walked a bit after.  This had me at about a 12-minute mile pace, which is what I was hoping to maintain at least to mile 20.  I felt really comfortable, which surprised me.  The course was confusing (again, this is where the volunteers were excellent, and essential), but it didn’t feel like a lot of distance. 

At 6:30 pm, I was nearly halfway through the run and still feeling good, though my stomach was starting to send some error messages.  I collected my glow necklace from a volunteer (they asked the runners still going after dark to wear these) and kept moving.  The halfway point was both fun and bad.  The bad was that at the turn you could see the finish line (so tempting to just turn there!), but the fun was that all of the spectators for the finish line were there cheering us on. 

As I was heading into the aid station at mile 18, my legs started to feel a little wobbly, so I grabbed a banana, some broth and some Pepsi at the stop.  I ran for a bit and realized my stomach really was not happy with that combination so I had to incorporate some more walking. While walking, my legs felt very unsteady.  This was the only point in the entire race in which I was concerned I might not finish.  I knew mentally I could get through the rest of it, but I worried that my legs would just give out.  Walking for a while helped, and at mile 19 I decided to try to run to 20, and then reassess. 

I hit the timing mat at mile 20 and looked at my watch.  I realized that if I could do the remaining 6.2 miles in under an hour and a half, I could break 14 hours for the race.  Of course, it took me quite some time to figure this out, because it is hard to do math in your head when you are so addled you can’t correctly spell “cat.” 

Breaking 14 hours in an Ironman for me was incomprehensible.  My evolution of thinking about this race went from “I could never do it at all even over the course of days” to “I just want to finish before the 17-hour cutoff” to “maybe I can break 16 hours” to “I think if I have a great day I can break 15 hours.”  Sometimes I fantasized about a sub-14:30 race, but I pushed that thought out of my head because I didn’t want to be disappointed at the finish if I couldn’t achieve that. 

I knew that if I ran, the inevitable and increasingly lengthy walking breaks would not be fast.  I also knew that I am capable of power walking at a very strong and consistent pace, even when really tired.  I decided to switch to power walking, and I maintained a bit over a 13-minute pace all the way to the end.  In those last 6.2 miles, I passed a lot of people who were doing the run/walk effort I had considered, which seemed to validate my decision.

The last miles clicked by quickly. I was focused and determined.  I wanted that finish and I could smell that sub-14. 

I headed into the stretch along the waterfront that I knew would take me into the finish.  A volunteer yelled out “a quarter mile left”!  I turned the corner and there it was – the giant “FINISH” banner.  A huge wave of emotion hit me and I almost started crying.  But then I checked myself, because I didn’t want to cry.  I wanted to roar, and I wanted to run to the finish.  And as I started to do both, all of the spectators along the way broke into huge cheers.  I came up to the line and saw the race clock:  13:53:05.  The clock, for months my worst enemy was now a source of elation.  I flung my arms up and screamed some more.  It was a rush of the most intense feelings: amazement, disbelief, jubilation.  I was an Ironman, I did it well, and I felt tremendous.  If this was not the biggest moment of my life, it was certainly in the top five. 

 

In the days since, I’m still riding the buzz, and I’ve had some time to reflect.  This was a life-changing experience.  I wrote a post recently for the ACS Determinators’ blog about achieving things that I previously thought were impossible.  There has always been a voice in my head saying “you can’t do this.”  During the 13 hours and 53 minutes of this race, however, my inner voice had a different message:  “you’ve got this.”  I wanted it, I worked like hell for it, and I took it.  I am an Ironman, and nothing or no one can ever take that away from me.

 

The P.S. to this is now that I’m a few days out from the race and have studied my splits (1:12 swim, 6:48 bike, 5:27 marathon and 25 minutes of total transition time), I’m starting to see the places in which I can shave time. The obvious place is transition, since during B2B I had enough time there to watch Ghandi, the director’s cut.  But I also think there’s room to grow on both the bike and the run.  I hope to do another one, if I can find a way to train for it without risking my livelihood.  If so, Jack - you better be ready, because there’s no way I’m doing this without your masterful guidance.