Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant, filled with odd waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don’t always like.
Hello, my old friends!
Here we are, on the eve of Santa Cruz Ironman 70.3 2017 and somehow I have lost two years. Well, not lost, per se. A year off triathlon becomes a year off writing, and somehow apathy settles in. 2016 was a year of other adventures (learning to rock climb, learning to mountain bike, conquering the Brazen trail half-marathon series: seriously, who says triathlon is hard? I came closer to dying in each of those races than at any Ironman).
In 2017, I climbed back on the iron horse and started another season of triathlon. I want to tell the stories, and yet somehow have not been able to commit myself to write; to pour out the emotion. Writing, like speechmaking, singing, and cycling uphill, is mostly a case of overcoming inertia; so bear with me. It’s a case of writing something or not at all: Imperfect words are better than none.
It hasn’t been the most unsuccessful season, but it has been one of upsets, incidences, highs and lows; a Lemony Snicket kind of year. 2015 seems (in retrospect) a golden summer of racing, with age-group podiums at my three big ‘A’ races (Wildflower half Ironman; Ironman Canada, where I came tantalizingly close to a Kona slot, and Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz). This year’s training has been significantly dented by an almost non-stop work travel schedule has which put a lot of stress on my body and made it hard to train consistently at volume. On top of that, I’ve been running on an emotional roller-coaster this year. Call it a post-40 mid-life crisis; with a few of my solid California inner circle of friends (and training partners) moving away and the constant flux of the work travel, I have found myself in somewhat of an existential void, questioning my life decisions. Cap that off with the usual Type-A race anxieties and it’s a miracle I have toed a line this year at all.
I bought the Lesley Paterson book “The Brave Triathlete” which is helpfully subtitled “Calm the F$%k Down and Rise to the Occasion”. The book is well written, and helpful not just for the psychological tips, but for the fact that it helps knowing there are enough crazy athletes out there to warrant writing a book about it. I also just read Devon Yanko’s race report on winning this year’s Leadville 100 mile race, overcoming some psychological demons on the way. Her tip is to treat each adversity point as a Plot Twist. Dropped your nutrition into a ravine? Plot Twist! Just flatted both front and back tires? Plot Twist!
I find the best way to deal with race nerves is to put it all into perspective. In the end, racing is a privileged hobby, and I’m not reliant on it for rent or food; so that bounces me back into focus. At the end, whether I personal-record my race time, or win a prize, or limp over the line in a snot-pasted bundle; life will go on – there will be dinner, and friends to post-mortem with, and Monday morning I will go to work and deal with Real Life. I decided, in the Plot Twist vein, to categorize my season into First World Problems and Real World Problems.
Throwing up in my mouth at the South Bay Duathlon in March on my way to a third place female finish: Plot Twist!
Draft penalty at Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa: First World Problem [Although I dealt well with the penalty well during the race to push to an overall solid finish time, right on performance; I really took it to heart. It was lack of concentration on my course position and probably the luck of the draw on the overcrowded bike course but I felt like I had somehow failed as an athlete; the draft penalty severely pinched an emotional nerve. At the same time, it was otherwise a solid weekend building on friendships with team-mates].
….then missing an Ironman 70.3 World Championship slot at Chattanooga by TWO SECONDS because of the draft penalty: First World Problem. [I did cry bitterly. Pro tip: don’t drink beer after a 5 hour race and a pizza lunch and expect to be in stoic control of your emotions at the championship roll-down. ].
Losing my car-key in the Grand Canyon on the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim 42 mile hike on my birthday the week after Santa Rosa 70.3: First World Problem. [It was a rental, nobody died and the whole saga could be resolved to greater or lesser expense with money…but it was a helluva long 10 hours before we retrieved the key. Now THAT’S another story. And what an amazing weekend of adventures with my Minnesota friends, otherwise.]
Having my lovely Cervelo P3 race bike stolen in the Whole Foods parking lot (the same day that my friend Norm crashed badly on our ride): A toss-up between First World and Real World problems – devastating to have my bike stolen but I was lucky enough to have another bike and the resources to replace it.
Riding to a second place Age-Group podium at USA Duathlon Nationals with a brand new replacement/ refitted Cervelo P3 exactly one week after my bike was stolen: Plot Twist! [With many thanks to Rob Mardell at La Dolce Velo in San Jose for fixing me up].
….but missing first place Age-Group podium at USA Duathlon Nationals by FOUR SECONDS because I didn’t realize the girl ahead of my was in my age-group and I (frankly) phoned in the last few miles because I didn’t believe I would be that close to first place: First World Problem (and a life lesson in always, always committing 110%).
My coach (and good friend) crashing badly the same weekend we were at Duathlon Nationals; one day into his two-man Ride Across America race attempt: Real World Problem. Luckily he was safe, and recovered quickly.
Getting my first ever California Highway Patrol bike escort into Healdsburg on the way to winning Barb’s Race (a small women’s charity triathlon in Sonoma) in July: Plot Twist!
….nobody capturing me with in my pink speed suit whizzing behind the CHP: First World Problem
Planning logistics for two long, bone-crunching days in the saddle on my August 200 mile RSVP ride from Seattle to Vancouver: First World Problem
…Spending a day and a half of our planned two days of riding in the ER with Joe, our friend who had a bad bike crash: Real World Problem. [Postnote: He’s healing remarkably well, and now has a bionic plate in his jaw.]
If you read this before Sunday afternoon: send me good juju for my half Ironman in Santa Cruz. I’ve been polishing my Big Kahuna Tiki Guy in preparation. By this time tomorrow, I’ll be eating good Italian food and regaling friends with tales of racing. Good or bad. There will be laundry to do, and bags to pack for work travel. And the off-season will begin; with a task from my coach: to reflect on why I do triathlons and how it brings me happiness. I’ll get back to you on that one but I have a couple of hours tomorrow to think about the answer.
Our mother wisely never allowed us (six grimy, chocolate and grass stained country kids) to wear a lot of white growing up; a recipe for extra laundry and possibly a short track for being taken into welfare. We inevitably ended up in our boy-cousins’ late 1970’s hand-me-downs, chocolate-brown-and-polyester Fair Isle patterns; robustly defensive against grime. This has stuck with me as a grown-up, a messy eater; I always bear pen marks and coffee stains and salad dressing down the front of my clothes. Somehow I’ve ended up adopting the policy: White is for Special Occasions only and Patterns Don’t Show the Dirt (1). So I’m not sure why I thought adopting a white speed racing bike/ triathlon shirt for this season was a good idea. Coach Wes is a huge proponent of adapting all time-saving technologies, and there are lots of interesting recent studies which show that covering up more skin saves bike watts, making you go faster for the same effort, and the trend of pros racing Kona in shoulder covering speed suits supports that.
I decided that Every Watt is Precious, and hastily invested in a white Castelli triathlon shirt before Ironman Canada (the only women’s cut I could find online). After only one wear at Ironman Canada, it already bore some interesting stains and yellowing armpits. Grubby or no, it needed another few outings to pay its debts to society.
Cut to the inaugural Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz in September. I had a good chat with Wes before the race. Only six weeks after Ironman Canada, he emphasised that this race was a bonus to the season, where Wildflower and the Ironman had been my big A races. Santa Cruz 70.3 should be the ‘icing on the cake’ – a no-pressure local derby. Of course, local races are the ones that feel most important; a stage to prove your calibre to your friends and competitors. I agreed with him, but flounced a little internally. Fine, it’s the icing on the cake. I WANT FROSTING! I managed to recover pretty well from the Ironman and squeeze in some good (read: excruciating) half-Ironman paced workouts up and down the race route on HWY1 in preparation. The women’s start list for the race looked huge – and fast, as I recognised a few local and out-of-state Ironman stars.
Race day was low key – I was able to sleep at home and get a ride down to the start on race morning with training buddies Mel and Marek. My wave start went off quite late, about 40 minutes after the first wave, so it was an unhurried start to the day. I was surprisingly nervous, weighted a little with self-expectations after Canada, and the thoughts of all those friends cheering on the course. Nerves and all, there was something wonderful and comforting about hanging out on the familiar beach, watching the pinkening sky and surrounded by friends both racing and supporting. The sea is a constant in Ireland, and one of the things I miss about Galway. I feel incredibly lucky to have Santa Cruz, with its honking sea lions and hippy surfer population right on my doorstep and this race epitomized a lot of the good things about my new home in California.
I prefer sea swimming to any other kind, and after pulling off some kind of miraculous swim at Alcatraz a few weeks previously (2) I was quietly confident of blazing my way through, figuring choppy conditions would be better. Alas, it was choppy but my new magical swimming powers had evaporated, and I thrashed and gulped my way around the wharf, the course marker buoys difficult to see in the surf. The course seemed a little long, but clocking in at 39 minutes, and starting on the long 400m run back to transition a sub-5 hour finish was already against the odds.
There is almost no better place in the world to ride a bike than down Highway 1 from Santa Cruz with crashing surf on your left all the way out. It’s mainly fast, flat and rolling with one long, significant hill on the new 70.3 course at Swanton Road about 20 miles in adding about 5 minutes racing time to the old ‘flat’ course. I’d negotiated a pretty generous taper for the race, as I’d felt a little burnt at IM Canada, so my legs felt fresh.
One of the disadvantages of being in one of the late waves is that there is no clear space and I ducked and weaved and jostled all the way out to keep my nose clean out of the draft packs. There was a strong wind towards Santa Cruz, so turning around to head back to town was a joy; clear space on the road for the first time, sea in the air and the wind at my tail. I rolled into transition once again exactly to the minute on my self-predicted time split (3), which makes me wonder if I am placing artificial limits on my cycling based on what I think I can do. The mind is a powerful thing.
At Ironman Canada, I had one of those days where I felt like I could run strongly and at pace forever, so I thought that the Santa Cruz run would be a breeze. Only 13 miles, f’Gawdsake! As soon as I started running, I thought differently. Up the sharp hill out to Cliff Drive and my legs creaked and heartrate soared. My Race Day Prediction (3), now a self-prophesying fulfilment of all kinds of torture, meant I needed to run around 7:30 mile pace to hit my goals and I knew this was going to be ugly. Wes was hanging out to cheer around mile 1, and I could tell from his doubtful face that I didn’t look great. He had clocked me as sixth in my AG and three minutes back from fifth, which initially disappointed me a little – then I realized that this was not a bad position at all for a strong runner with 12 miles to go. One scalp to reach a podium spot. Game on! I had been excited for the beautiful run out Cliff Drive and to Wilder State Park but it suddenly became a war of attrition. Hold this pace. As I inched my way out towards the turnaround, I envied the women in the earlier waves, the race leaders thundering back towards the wharf. I picked off one 40-44 woman. PODIUM! Steady forward progress. Then another. Fourth place. At this point I was close to the turnaround, a mile or so of dirt trail at Wilder and we suddenly popped out onto the cliff edge. My heart soared at the sight of the cliffs and the endless expanse of sea. Rounding the turnaround – they had trucked out the giant Big Kahuna Tiki Guy as the turnaround marker, which gladdened my heart no end – I started to feel a bit better (if only because I had got used to feeling desperate and knowing I only had 10km left).
Following my new discovery at Ironman Canada, I started slamming Red Bull at every aid station, chasing with water to dispel the revolting taste. I had to see the funny side at one aid station where half-asleep volunteers looked bemused as I ran through, hands out, bawling: RED BULL! WATER! (Are my instructions clear enough, confused people?) I nearly choked myself trying to drink a cupful of pretzels that someone handed me instead of water.
I couldn’t wait to return to Aid Station 2, where a gang from Silicon Valley Triathlon Club were handing out drinks. I felt (and looked) grim. My friends cheered me on enthusiastically although our wave was so far back that it was hard for them to tell if I was doing well. With less than a mile to go, I spotted one last woman from my age-group and made a manful bolt for victory, powering past with a bluff of confidence and without looking back. I passed Jerrold from our club at around the same time and later had to explain to him the Irishism of ‘Seeing Jesus’ on the run (4). A downhill cruise to the beach, and then an excruciating, churning quarter of a mile along the sand to the finish, desperately trying to maintain pace, find hard ground and dodge spectators, all the while hoping that I was staying clear of my pursuer. I held her off to finish in third place in my age-group in 5:08. Not a personal best, but a hard-fought race. And to hit a second IM branded race podium in one season was probably beyond my highest expectations for this year.
The race awards were disappointingly low key. I love my Tiki guy (the wooden award from the Big Kahuna) but this year the awards were replaced with $1 bits of red Ironman plastic. The presentation was also a little fragmented as they just called up each individual athlete without any official podium or group shots, but we managed to pull the W40-44 women together to get a group shot, and Kathy even squeezed an ‘Ironman award thingy OVER THE HEAD!” picture (now a running joke from Ironman Canada). Dear Ironman Corporation, please learn how to celebrate your age-group athletes, and spend an extra couple of bucks on proper awards.
When I downloaded my Garmin data, I understood why the run felt so tough. Average heart rate for 13.1 miles: 175 BPM. I texted this titbit to Wes. We had an amusing exchange (reproduced here as it’s funnier):
Tom Davis, a sharp photographer from the club, captured me on the run in the kind of photo that celebrity magazines use to show how bad famous people look without their makeup. Red faced and grim, my face and shirt are shining with layers of sweat, sea salt, snot, drool, energy gels and Red Bull. This was an opera of exquisite suffering.
Afterwards Kathy (who had been volunteering at the station) commented on the photo: “I love the way you race, Deirdre! Snot-dripping, red-faced, full-stride, leave it all out there!” We are primed as women to be pretty, to be photogenic. This was everything but. Is it better to run slowly and have good hair and race pictures? No. I am not the fastest athlete but I have learned how to give 100%, to fulfil my goals, and to lay it out there on race day. Suffering is a skill as important as swim stroke or bike handling, and I handed this in as the last lesson of the season. To borrow the triathlon gear Betty Design’s great slogan: Badass is Beautiful. And don’t forget, people: coloured race kit hides a multitude of sins.
- Saying that, I made it all the way through my 40th birthday party in May in a white J. Crew dress, through copious consumption of red wine and chocolate cake, without any mishaps. Maybe this is the dawn of a new grown-up era.
- Finishing the Alcatraz sea swim in August 3 minutes behind Coach Wes, I am going to paraphrase his analysis of my excellent results as “How the hell did you pull that off?”
- Race Day Prediction (as sent to a few good friends):
|Discipline||Predicted Split||Actual Split||Comment|
|Swim||36:00||39:XX||Optimism based on last year’s smooth fast BK swim.|
|Bike||2:42||2:42||Woah! Should I start predicting faster bike splits for myself?|
|Run||1:39||1:37||Run was a little short as they subtracted the T1 400m run to transition.
But: I could not have run a second faster.
I’ll admit I have a bad memory for the unessential. Sometimes I surprise myself by finding some uninteresting, if necessary document I’ve written at work a few months before, of which I have entirely no recollection. For triathlon trivia though, I have the proverbial elephant’s recall. So I was surprised when I got a distracting Friday afternoon message from my Irish Muddy buddy, Ciaran, last week.
Did you get a Kona slot?
Eh, I didn’t get a Kona slot! Didn’t we have this conversation?
I check Messenger and yes, we did have a bouncing conversation about my Ironman Canada race four weeks before. Podium, yes. Fifth place in AG yes. Kona slot – no roll down, no dice. Tough luck but great race.
Jeez, Ciaran, you have an even worse memory than I do!
To end my productivity for the week, he sends me a link to a thread on the discussion forum Slowtwitch, with a long, looooong discussion about an apparent age-group athlete who may be disqualified for cheating at Ironman Canada.
Now, let’s step back a couple of weeks. For brevity, I omitted from my race report that while I initially showed as fifth athlete in my age-group, after an hour I was upgraded to fourth, as the first woman had no chip, and an inconsistency in her marathon time which showed as 3:17. My eagle eyed friends Helen and Pam had been somehow managing (via the dreadfully unwieldy Ironman Live Tracker) to follow my progress through the 40-44 AG ranks, and had already spotted and commented acerbically on the unusually fast marathon time.
I was delighted to move up the podium, so announced my improved result to all and sundry. When I saw at the awards ceremony that there were three Kona slots for my AG and I was fourth, I was disbelieving. It seemed like an almost sure thing. Surely of the top three, one of them would have small children, a teaching job or financial commitments that meant they would let a World Championship place roll down…to me. Of course, when I lined up to receive my award, I’d been demoted to fifth. It seemed the first place girl, who had lost her chip, had been reinstated. I was disappointed both for the lesser position and for the greatly reduced chance of two roll downs occurring. In Europe there are only three podium spots. While I was happy to receive an award, somehow fifth place is just a little too far down to taste the champagne, while fourth feels like I’m hanging in there – just – with the contenders.
As I’ve already recounted, there were no Kona roll downs. I was philosophical about my position – close, but no bananas. Coincidentally the first placed athlete in my AG was standing in front of our vantage point for the awards and both she and her coach vigorously and noisily defended her performance and running capabilities (her coach had put in a protest against her DQ on no chip and her finish time was formally corrected via video footage). It sounded plausible. I shrugged and asked no questions. (1)
Back to Slowtwitch. Now you may not be familiar with Slowtwitch but one of its main attractions is an open discussion forum, where you can chew the fat on everything from gel flavors to the latest DI2 electronic gear shifters. When there’s a good juicy scandal, though, some of the gossip-mongering thread contributors (jokingly but accurately monikered as ‘Twitchhunters’) really get going. To get a flavor of the discussion you’ll need to take a glance at some of the threads (it seems to be requiring a login now after all the heavy discussion traffic last weekend so I can’t post the link here).
At the time of my first reading the thread, Ironman had not officially announced a DQ or updated the race results, so as the Twitchhunters circled the wagons, the poor forum moderator got so stressed about a potential defamation suit for allegations on a named athlete that he locked the thread from comment. I was greedy for information. There were locals in the discussion, and someone close to one of the displaced athletes further down the podium, who had made an official complaint. Everybody seemed to know what was going on! Except me!
To save you the pain of wading through the full discussion, here’s the final potted summary from more than one source. I’m not even going to mention the DQ athlete’s name – you can see it on the Evernote analysis below. She has posted some other impressive race results (including ITU Long Course world AG champion in 2014) which are now heavily in question.
- The athlete ‘lost her chip’ in T2, allegedly because she changed her clothes. As someone pointed out, it seems unlikely that someone trying to KQ would do a full clothes change including shorts and compression socks. One of the big sticking points on the Slowtwitch forum is that the DQ athlete had “lost” her chip not once but TWICE, also ‘losing’ it in 2013 on the same course at Ironman Canada.
- Proof of her finish time was provided via the video camera on the finish line, but of course she had no formal mid-run splits since she had no chip.
- She never passed the second placed 40-44 athlete on the run course (she was aware she was leading off the bike).
- Due to some excellent detective work by an interested party (I think the husband of a podium athlete in our AG), an assessment of the athlete times passing specific photographers out on the run course was done. They were able to locate the photographers at specific distances on the run course, and link our DQ friend to a specific time of day based on the athletes around her also passing the photographer at that time. Check out the summary of this on Evernote:
To summarize: her times show a staggering (and men’s IM world-record-breaking) time of 1:22 for the first 13 miles of her IM marathon. This of course leaves her with an interestingly pedestrian 2:20 for the second 13 miles – around 11 min/ mile pace to finish at her official marathon time of 3:31.
The Twitchhunters are fantastically probing gossips, and everything from her coach’s knowledge or otherwise of her actions to the size of her thighs are called into question. I’ve never considered cheating, but if I had, the stone throwing of the Slowtwitch forum and the public contemplation of my cellulite (alone) would make me think twice. It’s hard to understand the motivation of an apparently serial cheater, particularly at our level – let’s face it, a comfortably long way below the professionals, and where the grand prize is an M-Dot shaped piece of plastic.
Oh, and since we’re mocking the podium shots, here’s one that actually came from my phone:
It would have been lovely to end this post with the call from Ironman offering me the roll down slot, but before the news of my place upgrade could even sink in, I noted from the forum that someone local to Squamish, BC confirmed that the originally fourth placed athlete had already been offered the third Kona spot, before the official results were even corrected online. Ha.
I stomped off to Sports Basement that evening to look ostensibly at renting a wetsuit for my Alacatraz swim the next day. I was flustered and crestfallen all over again. I kept stabbing at the Slowtwitch link, hoping the moderator would re-open it for comment. While I’d settled that I was fifth and ten minutes off a Kona slot, now I was fourth and FIVE minutes off a KQ. It was like I’d lost something I didn’t know I had. The third time the poor Sports Basement rep. mentioned ‘your Team in Training discount’, I snapped at him.
I’m not in Team in Training! (2)
Five minutes off third place which also included three fumbling stops to reattach my repair kit (3) (worth 2-3 minutes) and a couple of portapottie stops. I couldn’t have cut the portapottie stops (sometimes a girl’s gotta do etc.) but eliminating the repair kit stops and a little more surge on my somewhat conservative bike split would have had me on par with third place.
Woulda, shoulda, coulda. I could have done it, and that is bittersweet. So close….I’m wary of falling into the ‘just one more go’ trap that so many aspiring KQ athletes fall into, racing Ironman year after year for that tantalizing golden ticket. Next year? I’ll take some philosophical fall off-season time first and we’ll see.
Some happy endings: while I don’t get to change the Ironman podium shots, IM Canada did formally DQ the athlete that evening so I’m officially fourth.
I e-mailed the Ironman Canada race director to upgrade my award to fourth place and – full credit! – they are ordering me a new one which I should get in the post shortly. If I’m going to race fair and square for a piece of red plastic (4) I’m going to make bloody sure it’s the right one.
- Technically, no-chip (aside at all from any hint of impropriety) is a disqualification offence as you don’t have proof of your official time.
- While I appreciate and respect the introduction to triathlon and solid training foundation that Team in Training and their ilk provide new athletes, they are not exactly known for cleaning up world championship slots.
- My saddle is so far forward because of my shorty legs that none of the regular repair kit bags fit on the rails. I jerry rigged it for the race but it didn’t work well.
- And spend thousands of dollars in race and travel fees for the privilege.
T minus 18 hours, and I am sitting enveloped in a comforting bearhug at IM HQ in the Whistler Olympic Plaza. I can’t help thinking wryly of Temple Grandin, the fascinating autistic woman who developed a hug machine for calming cattle being sent to slaughter(1). How apt. Despite my best intentions (third Ironman, totally calm, blah blah blah) – the animal brain has taken over, and mild panic has set in. The hug machine is totally accidental. I’d been complaining about my knotty, tight back, and after bike check in I dragged my race buddy Suzanne over to the ART(2) tent for a free 15 minute consultation. After the (handsome, 30-something) therapist made some impressed noises about the state of my knots, I found myself tucked into his arms as he manipulated my ribs back into place. Of all the stuff Ironman charge exorbitantly for, this is free? How did they miss this outrageously obvious source of revenue in their business plan?
Ironman Canada takes place at Whistler, BC – said to be one of the most beautiful Ironman courses. It’s also pretty hilly by Ironman standards, with 6,200 feet of climbing on the bike. Suzanne(3) and I had long ago signed up for the race but delightfully our training buddies Mel and Marek, who are Canadian citizens and who moved to the Bay area from Vancouver two years ago, offered up their cabin in Whistler for the race. Serendipity! Then our triathlete friend Kathy (who takes Iron Sherpa-ing(4) very seriously) joined us for the weekend, along with Suzanne’s boyfriend, Brian. In terms of athlete-to-sherpa ratio, this was pretty deluxe (particularly compared to my first Ironman, where I tearily dragged my post-race vomit-spattered self, my bicycle and my three filthy gear bags the two rainy miles back to my hotel on foot).
Aside from the spectacular chocolate-box scenery (snow capped mountains, green lakes etc.), Whistler, as a ski resort, is ideal for an Ironman race. Six hours to kill while your athlete is risking near-death hypothermia out on Pemberton? Plenty of choices for coffee, brunch and maybe a cheeky beer. No hurry, darling.
I had some clear personal goals in place for the race but I was unsure that my fastest race day would get me to what I thought was realistic (a lower podium spot), let alone a coveted Kona World Championships slot (which I didn’t think was realistic based on IM Sweden where there was only one Kona slot for each female age group). The night before, Kathy made us complete some split estimates for the race so that the gang could track us easily on the course. I gave her my swim estimate (1:15 to 1:20), bike estimate (6:00 to 6:15) and then she asked me about the run. There was no window; I was going to run 3:40. She gave me a Look, and wrote it down.(5)
One of the risks of a mountains-based race (see also: two years of Lake Tahoe IM weather disasters) is that it can be very, very hot, or very, very cold. Four weeks out from the race, it was topping 100F (38C) on the long nasty 10 mile Pemberton climb which comes 90 miles into the bike leg of the race. As race day approached though, the temperature forecast kept plummeting and the likelihood of rain spiraled to what was going to be a Long Wet Cold Dark Teatime of the Soul.
The swim was possibly the warmest part of the day (a pleasant 70F), and uneventful apart from the ritual tiny pre-start panic, a salty tear shed into each goggle at the heaving behemoth of bodies about to potentially smack me to the bottom of this Big Green Lake. I beat my previous swim PR by 7 minutes at 1:16, thanks in no small part to my coach, the ever-patient Wes, who spent a lot of time coaxing me mentally into being a better swimmer, technique aside.
Properly epic races are afterwards tagged in my head: (Hottest; Hilliest etc.) Ironman Canada will be filed under Maybe the Coldest Race I Ever Did.(6) Now, technically I have done colder training days in Ireland on a bicycle (more than once weeping and taking my hands out of my ski gloves to lick my icy fingers once the Connemara Coast), but for race misery, this was up there. I had thought a lot about my gear on the bike, and went with arm warmers, toe warmers and a cycling vest over my very light new aero racing jersey; a hairsbreadth balance between staying warm enough, not getting too warm (and having to discard very expensive gear on the course), and not spending valuable minutes in transition doing a full change. It was raining heavily straight out of the gate, and an hour in, I was freezing and struggling to concentrate. I sniveled my way along the slippery, waterlogged course for another hour or so, fantasizing about dropping out, and quietly wailing “I’m sooooooo cold!” over and over.
My hands stopped working, and I couldn’t manipulate my food out of my storage bag so I started to grab the on-course race nutrition (Honey Stinger waffles), which luckily worked well. A Macgyver moment ensued as I stopped to rip off my ailing bike repair kit which had come loose, and ended up opening the velcro with my teeth as my frozen hands were useless.
I think (and talk) a lot about mental toughness but cold is a particular Achilles heel for me (I don’t stay warm well and I don’t do well in cold races, except maybe for running, where your body temperature looks after itself). Hence a long internal battle began. Now, I fantasize about dropping during every race, usually in the first third of the bike leg when future suffering is laid out on the roadside like a long smorgasbord all the way to the finish. The trick is to postpone the dropping as long as possible until the feeling goes away (well, or until I tip over from hypothermia/ heatstroke, whichever comes first). I had a long internal dialogue about the pros and cons of dropping out. I had packed my new Ironman Canada hoodie into my dry clothes bag at the finish, and the thought of Suzanne and I celebrating our finish, and the stupid hoodie, which somehow symbolized everything that had gone into the preparation for the day and finish, kept me on the bike until I warmed up.
Around 70-80km into the bike course, it stopped raining. At this point (including a couple of brief stops for my errant saddle bag); I was convinced I was having the Worst Bike Split Ever, until I met Brynje(7), a friend and amazing athlete from Colorado who I know through Coach Muddy on the course. She’s a stronger biker than me, so meeting her made me realize that I wasn’t the only one struggling out there and gave me a jolt of focus. There was a long fast flat stretch out and back from Pemberton to the turnaround and back, which cheered me up a lot as I started gaining time and picking up places. I was mentally prepared for the big 10 mile Pemberton climb, but my legs felt tired and strained, and I was a bit worried about how they would feel on the run.
I had one plan for the run: to run like Rinny (Mirinda Carfrae), the pocket-sized Aussie Ironman double World Champion, who swims passably, bikes well, and runs like a monster through the ranks onto the podium. I had no idea how I was doing position wise (I figured I might be running my way into tenth place), so the plan was to run fast, efficient even splits and mow as many women down as possible. Once running, I felt terrific. I love to run off the bike, and the Whistler course was a treat, two loops all run on cycle paths and trails, circling one lake, and with a long out-and-back along Green Lake, which is picture-postcard perfect. I tick, tick, tocked off each kilometer, with the vision of even splits dancing like sugar plums in my head. My ‘Special Needs’ bag held a sugary iced espresso drink at km 25, but by then IronStomach had set in, and Kathy snapped a picture of me running with intense focus, looking suspiciously at the contents of my Starbucks drink. I had a moment of fabulous clarity then, and started drinking Red Bull (which I loathe, but which is full of sugar and glorious, glorious caffeine which I tried to inhale at each aid station without tasting).
I didn’t really start to suffer until the last 10km, during which I passed a last woman from my age group, so I was running scared (if only I knew! That scalp bumped me onto the podium). My Vancouver buddy, coach Andrew, rolled up alongside me on his mountain bike at km 40 and started cheerfully shouting encouragement. I was deep in a cave of just-hold-on suffering and bellowed something like “I can’t talk now! Jaysis! Go away!” Held on, held on and crossed the line at 11:16 (with an official marathon time of 3:40) (8).
As soon as I had staggered away from the finish line, I made Kathy look up my place. She announced I was fifth in my age-group, and at first I was bitterly disappointed until she pointed out that there are five podium spots in North American races. My first Ironman podium, and I was going to celebrate every minute of it. Ironically, having moved up an age group, the 35-39 AG was unusually slow this year for some reason, and I would have placed first in it with my 40-44 5th place time.
I was ready for the podium shot. It was an official bucket list item: win a podium spot at Ironman, get an M-Dot shaped award thingy, HOLD THE M-DOT OVER MY HEAD. Somehow one of the girls on the podium had not got this brief, and failed to grab the vision. So there are lots of shots of me enthusiastically brandishing my (cheap, plastic) M-DOT thingy OVER MY HEAD while the official photographer patiently explains to the bemused 4th Place 40-44 over and again where to hold her award.
There were three Kona World Championship slots for my age-group (the biggest women’s AG with 122 finishers). Just like my fourth place finish at IM Sweden – near and yet so far. I was somewhat philosophical about a Kona slot: I had raced the best I could; what would be would be. Breath held – at 5th, with three slots, I had more hope of a roll-down than in Sweden, but in the end, the slot awards lacked drama; the first three girls grabbed their leis and places before I exhaled.
First thought: Crushing disappointment.
Second thought: Well, just saved myself $3,000 and the pain of training for a second (very hot) Ironman this year.
Third thought: Now I am glad I bought the expensive Merrell IM Canada jacket; I’m winning by $2850.
Next up: IM 70.3 Santa Cruz in September, and I’m finally confident of a clear run at < 4:59:59. The more races I do, the more I believe I have to believe (and I am not sure I did this year). Next stab at IM and a lei (on the now established two-year IM cycle) will be 2017. I’d better start believing.
(1) Okay, I’m obsessed with public radio/ NPR but check out this interview of Temple Grandin by Terry Gross on Fresh Air:
(2) Active Release Therapy. It’s an awesome physio Thing. Check it out.
(3) You can also read Suzanne’s (somewhat more descriptive) race report here:
Suzanne’s ‘Fabulous Campaign’ Blog – IM Canada Report
(4) Being a Sherpa for a race is not a term used in Europe for some reason, but it means traveling to the race, schlepping around other people’s stuff, cheering enthusiastically and generally satisfying all of the outrageous demands of the highly-strung, overstimulated athlete you are accompanying.
(5) You can ask Kathy, she has the piece of paper.
(6) I’ll say it once and again, Ironman racing is a wimp’s sport compared to trail running – I’ve just read my friend Alicia’s entertaining report of her attempt to break a 5-day unsupported trail record in Vermont, and am still reeling from Valeria’s nail biting 47-hour Hardrock race finish. Except maybe for Norseman 140.6 which sounds legitimately miserable, and which I would probably not survive cold-wise. Respect to Sonja!
(7) Brynje’s day was made pretty challenging by her carbon rims which are pretty useless in wet weather, making all the descents absolutely hair raising.
(8) I originally had a somewhat ambitious plan to double up a Boston Qualifying marathon with Ironman (it’s technically allowable if the organizers will certify the course) – the IM Canada organizers did not have the marathon certified to road standards so I wouldn’t be able to use it… but I did BQ!
Sometimes I wake up in the morning (or mid-workout) and ask myself, a la Talking Heads: “How Did I Get Here?” It’s three weeks until Ironman Canada, and I’m tired. Physically tired, yes, that goes with the territory, but also mentally. My house is grubby (and I have no cleaning products to clean it with. I spend a bemused fifteen minutes trying to buy laundry soap en Espanol in nearby Felipe’s Mexican food store because, you know – it takes too long to drive the single mile to Safeway). I do not have time to volunteer at the Stanford kids’ triathlon, because five hours of volunteering on a Sunday morning is not compatible with a twenty mile run. My life is a round of work and gear bags and careful packing of endless Tupperware’ed meals and snacks to be consumed before/ during/ after workouts which seamlessly top and tail the working day.
Racing Ironman triathlons is a way of creating First World Problems to keep people with no proper troubles of their own out of mischief. The concentration of stereotypical Type A overachievers that seem to make up the bulk of the sport is multiplied here in Silicon Valley, which has its own special gravitational field for the over-accomplished. Of course in triathlon circles, the Ironman race distance* is somehow considered, in the ‘more is more’ world of endurance sports, to be the pinnacle of the sport; longer being a greater achievement. To finish an Ironman is certainly a great achievement, but after that, longer is just longer. It can be harder to race short and really, really fast than to slog around a just-under-the-cutoff 17 hour Ironman. Of course, being a Diesel Engine, Ironman racing (and half-Ironman racing) play to my strengths – I don’t have to go very fast, just perform the underrated party trick of sustaining 70-80% of my top speed for a very long time.
Ironman training is a funny thing – a mix of highs and lows, the onerous and the triumphant. Coach Wes keeps reminding me: “Enjoy the journey”. Because if you’re not having fun training, the Ironman journey is an exquisitely long and painful slog to a single day of racing. I still love to train – I am unsure whether racing is the stick and training the carrot (or vice versa). I wouldn’t have survived 10 years in the sport if I didn’t. And yet there are big disadvantages to it. Ironman training can leave the body on a knife edge of fatigue, and I’ve wept more than once in the last few months, brought to enraged crankiness and sleep-deprived desperation, usually by some tiny trigger like a flat tire. If I were to advise one key to successful and enjoyable Ironman training (if that’s not an oxymoron) – it would be: get enough sleep. My career and training quality (and my relationships with my long suffering friends and training buddies) depend crucially on it, being someone who is not good at operating under sleep deprivation. It’s really hard to manage so that I have the mental energy for work, and sometimes more than one training session a day (and l don’t even have kids – like I said, First World Problems), so I’m glad to be training on the Less-is-More principle. If I get fired, I’m not sure how I’d pay for that ticket to Kona anyway.
I am thankful that, while my swim training has been much more focused on technique and improving my speed this year, that my workouts include nothing much over 3,000yd (way short of the kind of obscene pool mileage that I know some Ironman trainee swimmers put in). Although I’m still heartsore at the thought of every swim workout, much of which involve swimming 50’s or 100’s at bile-inducing intensity, at least I am not dangling my feet in the water mournfully while contemplating the 75 minute Existential Void that is 6 x 500m (or 3 x 1000m or 1 x 3000m) Steady, of which workouts made up the bulk of my last two Ironman journeys. Is this enough swimming to be Ironman ready? I figure my swim time cannot disimprove from the Existential Void years. Watch this space.
I love and anticipate the big weekend IM rides, with mountain passes and redwoods and coastline (and century ride aid stations with pie). This year, I’ve been doing much of my riding at prescribed power intensity to mimic half-Ironman to Ironman race pace. This is a double edged sword – it can be fun to go out and hammer the pedals (in a controlled fashion) for speed; shooting up and down Highway 1 or Portola Road; at other times, I long for the only vaguely pace-controlled meanderings of previous years. I’ve been lucky enough to have company for a lot of the epic interval rides, but they are still pretty anti-social: aero position, 10 meters apart, pedal furiously: GO! See you in 30 minutes for the next easy spin break…
Which brings me to this year: how do I feel about the big day coming up? Well, there are many ways to skin a cat, and as many to train for long-course triathlon (lots of long, slow low-intensity training; low mileage high intensity interval training; low technology, high technology). I’ve tried a few different approaches (all erring on the side of low mileage though). My coach’s approach this year has been a bit different than in the past – very specific to Ironman (no showboating at the Thursday triathlon club ride, no track running, and a lot of pace-specific long rides), designed to bring me to peak fitness just for the big day and not before. I think it’s important mentally to believe in the program you are training to, so I am closely following the plan and drinking the Kool Aid.
Last week I did my final big workout. Minor meltdown before: 3:45 bike ride at half-Ironman to Ironman pace, followed by an 18 mile Ironman-pace run? (Bearing in mind that I’d had three big weekends of peak workouts already, as coach moved this one to facilitate my travel to Ireland the following week). After a bit of grumping and hedging about the bike pace, I realized that it was really almost the same peak workout I had done for Sweden (and Frankfurt) under Coach Rich: the Metric Ironman (112km bike ride and 26km run at race pace). This kind of workout holds an enormous mental challenge; as luck would have it I had to do it all by myself. It’s a long day, but I found myself calm, not over-fatigued and falling easily into ‘flow’ mode on the bike, working on holding power, and filtering the thoughts from the week. Off the bike, fueled with Bluebottle New Orleans style Iced Coffee** I knocked out 16 miles at Ironman run pace. I now declare myself Fully Cooked and Ready.
The next question: how do I think I will do? Well, mechanical snafus and nutritional mishaps aside – who knows? I’ve been asked more than once if I think I’ll qualify for Kona. Right now based on studying the past age-group competition results at Whistler, and my own race results, I am simply not fast enough. There’s another quantum leap I need to make on the bike to ride sub six hours on the kind of hills that Whistler brings. (Not to mention the crucial 10 to 15 minute swim handicap I am still carrying). That’s not to say I won’t try my dangdest. I’ll still ride like a monster (the only way to ride. Good Monster!) and I’ll still run my way up the ranking; the question will just be – how far? I don’t know what next year will bring. I need time and energy in my life for other things aside from training – for singing, for dating and socializing, for cooking meals that are not Trader Joe’s pre-grilled chicken; for writing***; things that require time and energy which Ironman training currently consumes. Chasing the Kona dream (unless I am very lucky) would take years, to make the kind of improvements I need (and I hope are in there somewhere); I’m not sure if I want to eat up some of the best years of my life with such time-consuming training. I am sure I’ll be racing next year, just maybe shorter. Ask me again in August when I see you on the other side.
*Whaddya mean, how far is an Ironman triathlon? Of course you know! 2.4 mile swim/ 112 mile bike ride/ 26 mile run OR 3.8km swim/ 180km bike ride/ 42km run. In that sequence, since you’re asking.
** You can buy the pre-cartoned Blue Bottle coffee in Whole Foods; there’s quite a bit of sugar in it so the caffeine/ sugar/ protein combo replaces a gel perfectly (and tastes a lot better). This stuff is delicious dynamite; I may be packing some for my special needs bag at IM. Caveat emptor, though, I do have an iron gut for coffee products.
***I only seem to have energy and time to write at the moment when trapped on a plane. Hello from over the Atlantic.
After the royal exercise in self-flagellation that was the Boston Marathon last year, I had no intention of doing another marathon this spring, especially as it’s bad timing for building up a good triathlon base for a summer Ironman. When the Russians announced they were coming to town, though (okay, not just the Russians, they also brought the rest of my Minnesota running buddies, Kami, Vale and Eric), I couldn’t resist. A weekend in Napa with some really good food and wine after the race, a nice resort hotel and a low-hassle fast course that I could use to knock out a Boston Qualifier for 2016….it would be a winner.
The Russians are collectively the Igors (yes, Igor and Igor), and their smart, lovely wives Yelena and Tatiana. They’ve all lived in the US for over 20 years, but retain robust Russian accents. Igor E has a tendency towards pithy non-sequiturs: [“What is your experience of winter survival racing?” “I am from Minsk.”] As it happens, Igor E was the only one of the Russians running the marathon; while he’s an experienced ultra runner and Ironman, his success as CEO of his own software company has diminished his opportunity to train, so he went into the race on less than a skeleton training plan. More of which later.
I’d kept up reasonably long runs over the winter with some tagalongs on the CIM (Sacramento Marathon) bandwagon training up to December, and was doing a weekly track set, so I figured that two runs a week and a lot of aerobic base from long bike rides would have to do. I did a couple of weeks’ bike build in January to a one-day butt-numbingly long coast ride (127 miles), and then switched back to running. That left five weeks of ‘marathon’ training (three runs a week which included a 30 minute brick run off the bike and a longest run of 14 miles). I wasn’t panicking – the pace I needed to hold for a Boston Qualifier was about 8:20 for a 3:40 finish time which was eminently doable at my long run pace, so even if the wheels started to fall off, I figured I’d hold on.*
The Minnesotans arrived into town the Friday before our Sunday race, and I swept into San Francisco en route to Napa on Saturday morning to meet the gang for brunch and to pick up Vale and Eric for a catch up on the drive up. I was surprisingly highly strung with pre-race nerves (or maybe it was the three very strong coffees I’d had), so I was glad to crash out at our hotel (the Silverado a few miles outside downtown Napa) for the afternoon with Vale after packet pickup. My room mate Kami rolled into town literally just in time, arriving to the hotel at 10pm ready for a 4am alarm call.
People expect California to be Warm All the Time. Yes. Maybe if you live in San Diego, a stone’s throw from Tijuana but NorCal is not. Being Irish, I forgot this, and found myself at a bitterly cold (3C) dawn start in the Sonoma countryside at 6am. Luckily it was a small race with about 2000 runners, so I hastily shed my warmup layers about 10 minutes before race start and huddled in a few rows back from the front, substantially underdressed for the occasion in a singlet and shorts. The Napa marathon is a fast point-to-point course starting in Yountville and running south on a net-downhill rolling course to Napa city on the Silverado Trail (a paved road). Aside from some burning regrets about my lack of clothing and my freezing hands, the first few miles slipped by uneventfully. On my tenth or so road marathon now, the race always unfolds in the same way. I fuss and fret and generally do not enjoy the first few miles, worrying about pace and why my left foot hurts, and other trivia. I usually settle into a rhythm by the half way point and start enjoying myself. Today was no different, although I found myself running out at 8 min/ mile pace instead of the planned 8:20 I needed for a safe Boston qualifying time. I couldn’t rein myself in enough so I though – well, I’ll just have to pick it up with a fast finish at mile 19 (as was my race plan) from 8 minute pace instead of 8:20. It’s a beautiful course, lined with bucolic country views of vineyards and rolling countryside, and just enough elevation change to make it interesting.
No epic one-more-mile here. Marathon reporting is boring unless the wheels start to fall off. I stayed out of mischief, held an 8 min pace until mile 19, whereby I started to pick it up to sub-8 pace as much as my limited long-run training would let me. The years of marathon running stood me in good stead – I have long-distance-running ability helped out by triathlon training that belies my low run mileage – and I held a good pace to the finish line in Napa, picking off the fading 3:30 wannabes one at a time with a (surprised and pleased) 3:26 finish. Probably a little more damage to the legs than intended for a training race, but nowhere in the vicinity of Boston-Marathon-crawl-upstairs damage. Vale arrived in shortly afterwards with a 3:40 BQ under her belt and Kami a little later.
After pottering around for a while enjoying the post-race food and sunshine, we started to search for Igor E. Eventually we discovered him with Igor K in the gym at bag pickup, catatonic with the most distressing cramps** I’ve ever witnessed. Plying him with Gatorade and salt tablets didn’t seem to help a lot, and eventually he was escorted in a wheelchair to the med tent by six handsome, attentive volunteers in scrubs (they were clearly having a quiet day by this point). With some more electrolytes he recovered enough to hobble back to the car to head home. “How long was your longest training run, Igor?” “Ten miles. In October”.
After some post-race dozing by the hot tub at our hotel (looking like hoboes), we had a splendid dinner and some local wine at Celadon in Napa. The Russians were sufficiently recovered (Igor E from his cramps, everyone else from the shock of rescuing him from the med-tent) for some early wine tasting at 11am the next morning. When in Wine Country…
BQ done, back to triathlon training: Next up – Wildflower!
*I am not recommending this as a marathon training strategy, folks. I am always mystified by marathon racing and how differently people’s bodies respond to the distance.
**Post Wildflower Triathlon note: I’m on a Threepeat with the medical tent for the last three races – please, Honu 70.3 people: hydrate and race safely!