Photo Credit: (c)FinisherPix.com
A full Ironman. It’s not a thing you do by accident. And yet there I was about 120 miles in, saying aloud, “I don’t even know what I’m doing out here!” which I suppose could have been interpreted a number of different ways by the other runners within earshot.
It all started a few weeks ago, as I was swimming laps on a lovely Boulder afternoon, when an idea popped into my head. Sometimes I do my best thinking while swimming.
Since relocating, I had set my sights on the IM Boulder 70.3 as a good choice for the season’s “A” race. It’s in August, and it’s practically down the street from where I live, so the logistics would be super simple, leaving me to focus solely on the work of racing hard.
So I was swimming, and thinking about August, and about training, and I suddenly realized – hey, there’s a full Boulder Ironman some time in June. Maybe I should use it as a big workout day. What a perfect way to prep for the 70.3! Get in a solid open water swim at the same venue. Seize the opportunity for a supported long ride, where fresh water bottles magically appear in my hand at regular intervals. And then I could just skip that stupid marathon, because who wants to do all that extra running anyway? Not me!
I was a little nervous about bringing up the idea of entering the Ironman to my coach, because we have a focused plan we’re working on for the summer, and the long post IM recovery is not part of that. But he was thrilled. He said it would be a great day of quality training on the bike, and we planned to even include a few miles of run before I surrendered my timing chip and headed to brunch. Because a little brick run is the cherry on top of every great cycling workout.
I kept the plan on the down-low because I didn’t want people to be disappointed when they found out I didn’t finish. And I had to constantly remind myself – it’s not a race, it’s a training day!
Ironman makes that hard, though, with all their pomp and fanfare.
For a training day that was supposed to be light on logistics, this ended up being a lot of running around. I managed to make three individual trips to the Ironman Expo downtown, plus the trip out to the reservoir to drop off my bike. Pros were granted the privilege of driving in with their bikes on race morning, and I assumed I’d just bike the two miles over to the reservoir, but we were told NO bike commuting to the race site (because it was too dark). Since Brad and I are a car-free household, this presented a problem, both for getting my bike to the reservoir on Saturday, and for getting myself to the race site the next day. Athletes were told to take shuttles out to the race, but I was pretty sure I could walk to the reservoir in the time it would take me to get downtown, wait in the shuttle line, and sit smooshed in that school bus for the six mile ride out to the race start.
This training day was turning into a bit of a headache!
The night before the race – er, training day, I looked up the final version of the pro roster and saw that there were only ten women on the list, including me…and prize money for this race goes ten deep. Basically all I had to do was finish before midnight, and I’d go home with a paycheck. But finishing was not in the plan. I’m fit enough for the distance, but this is not what I’m training for, and more importantly, I’ve got plans for July and August, and they don’t include sitting around waiting for my legs to bounce back from a marathon.
I asked Brad what he thought I should do. He shrugged, “Is it worth it to finish for $750? I think the answer is pretty obvious, but then again, I pick up pennies off the ground.”
I thought about how exhausting it would be to pick up 75,000 pennies off the ground, and that put things into perspective.
Deep down I know you can’t have it all ways, but I was still brainstorming how I could finish an Ironman without the inconvenience of post-race recovery.
I came up with the new idea to do my hour swim, 5 to 6 hours on the bike, a half hour of run, then just walk the remaining 22 miles, snacking on fruit, Clif bars and potato chips while cheering on all the people actually trying to run.
Coach responded to the new plan with “LOL! Up to you,” which definitely meant it was a Go.
Despite the low pressure of prepping for my big workout + very long walking buffet, I found myself buzzing with the standard pre-race anticipation and sleeplessness, and I ended up getting up around 3am on Sunday, impatient for the day to start. After checking and double checking all my gear, I summoned a Lyft ride out to the reservoir.
“Headed to work?” The driver asked when I climbed in the car.
“Um, you could say that. Guess I’ll be putting in some overtime today…”
The early bird gets to sit around and wait for everyone else to show up.
Apparently I was a little trigger happy on calling that ride, because I ended up at transition WAY too early, sort of at a loss for what was left to prepare.
As I stood around in the darkness watching other people get ready, I realized that the two bottles of Base Hydro that I had so lovingly prepared for the bike ride were still at home in the fridge. I rescued myself from full panic mode with the reminder (for the fortieth time) “just a training day!” Luckily I could depend on the Gatorade provided on course.
Then I realized I had also forgotten sunscreen, which is kind of a big deal when you’re about to spend literally all day in the sun. Wow, any more early morning crises to reveal? Man, you’d think I’d never done this before! Sunscreen is also provided on course in T1 and T2 (a fun volunteer job if you like putting your hands all over sweaty people’s muscles) so I again assured myself I would survive.
As the ten of us women lined up at the start, we congratulated one another on our guaranteed slots on the top ten podium and joked about walking in to the finish line together. Word got out that it was my first pro Ironman, and suddenly I was surrounded, not by competition, but by big sisters, gushing about how much fun I was going to have, and how I should savor every moment. It was all a little surreal.
With such a small field and such a long distance to go, I was apprehensive that the swim might be really lonely. But I needn’t have worried. Five of us locked into formation moments after the starting gun, and swam in a tight pack for the entire hour. Uli Bromme and I were so closely matched in pace that we were bumping elbows for the first thirty minutes. My brand new Roka goggles are amazing, and I could actually see where we were going for the first time ever! The group was setting the perfect pace, and there was no struggle to stay with them. I almost felt guilty for how much fun I was having, cruising along in their wake, but since the whole point of this day was to work on my cycling fitness, it was best I didn’t get too carried away in the swim.
In the T1 changing tent, the volunteers didn’t even get the chance to pull my wetsuit off for me because my legs were on auto pilot and had already kicked the thing off. Two volunteers stood ready for action, “What can I do for you?” they asked, voices full of urgency. I stood for a second and blinked at them. Then I pulled my helmet on and said, “Hm. Can’t think of anything!” and I dashed out the door. I must have run right past the Sunscreen station, but I never saw it, and didn’t think about it until about thirty miles into the bike, when I realized I could see my shadow on the pavement. It was still early in the morning, but I planned to be out on that ride until at least noon, and there was no way around the fact that leaving even well-bronzed skin out in the sun for four hours was absolutely going to result in an epic sunburn. The bike was three loops and I spent the entirety of the second loop obsessing about this error, until I rolled up to the Special Needs station. I knew I hadn’t put sunscreen in my bag, but one of the volunteers must surely have some on hand, and I was desperate. I called my special need out to the megaphone guy, and he bellowed “SUNSCREEN!” to the crowd of volunteers, and one immediately leapt forward with a bottle. My Savior!
I left the aid station smeared in a hasty lather and a smile so big it was practically climbing off my face. Never in my life has sunscreen brought me so much joy.
I continued on my third lap with renewed vigor and the repetitive little messages my body had been sending me throughout the ride (“My ass hurts! My legs are tired! My neck is sore!”) faded away as I picked up some speed and finished that 113 miles like I meant business (yep, it’s supposed to be 112 miles, but we got to do one extra, just for funsies).
After a quick T2 and another slather of sunscreen, I tore out onto the run course at a seven minute pace. It was unbelievable how good my legs felt. I had no worries about reeling in my speed, since I only had a few more miles to run before I could retire to a pleasantly sustainable walk.
Brad was cheering for me at the second mile, “You’re in SIXTH place!”
But it was true, Danielle Mack and Uli had passed me about three minutes into the bike, and I hadn’t seen anyone else since. There were still four behind me?! Wow, that bike workout must have gone even better than I thought!
The run course’s multiple out and backs confirmed it though. I had a comfortable lead on Carla Schubiger, but with more than twenty miles still to go, she had more than enough time to catch me. Particularly if I stopped to walk.
About that walking thing… Suddenly it wasn’t sounding like such a great idea after all. I mean, what’s twenty more miles? Why not just get this whole thing over with sooner? And sixth in the pro field!! How amazing would that be?! I tried not to get too excited, as I know all too well that a lot can change in the course of three hours of running. I was still feeling halfway decent, so maybe I should just run a few more miles and then reevaluate.
My QT2 coaching team had given me a pretty explicit nutrition plan to follow, and for the most part I had been right on target all day (excepting that little issue with my Base Hydro bottles in the morning). There was just one problem. I hadn’t read the plan past Mile 4 of the run. So after that I was on my own trying to decide what and how much of each thing I needed at the aid stations. And once you’re that deep into an Ironman, the body is really no help at all. Banana? No. Cola? No. Water? No. Potato chips? God, no.
After Mile 13, I moved into less familiar territory – only figuratively speaking of course. The run was two loops, so I was in the midst of a hotter and more painful rerun of where I just was two hours earlier. But I so infrequently run more than thirteen miles in a single day that I was unsure what the remaining thirteen would look like.
In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming.
My pace slowed slightly, and the run became a matter of just hanging on. For two more hours. For ninety more minutes. For one more hour… Somehow I was still holding on to my sixth place, and I found that the longer I clung to it, the more stubbornly I refused to surrender it.
At Mile 21, Brad called out “almost there!” But it was around that point that one of my ten little toes decided to rebel. It was the long one. I have one toe on my left foot that is just a fraction longer than any of the rest, and it routinely draws embarrassing attention to itself by turning black or occasionally shedding its toenail. It’s the only toe that doesn’t support my decision to be a professional athlete. And now it was giving me piercing pains with each footstep. I tried walking and discovered that walking and running were exactly the same degree of pain and discomfort, but one took twice as long as the other. Screw that.
I scrunched up my toes inside my shoe and plodded forward with a bizarre gait and the pain moved up my shin because you’re not actually supposed to run like that.
Mile 24…ow. Mile 25…ouch. So close, yet still so far. I could hear the finish line.
As I rounded the corner leading to the giant finish arch, the crowd roared a deafening cheer, fireworks shot into the sky, and the opening chords of Chariots of Fire played as I joyfully leaped in slow motion down the long red carpet to seize the career highlight of a lifetime. Brad’s finish line video of me confirmed that actually none of these things happened, not even the slow motion running. Tears were streaming down my face and as soon as I crossed the line I kicked that offending shoe right off my foot. Be free, Angry Toe! We did it!!
Admittedly it had turned out to be quite a struggle at the end there, but I am still so thrilled with my pro debut at Ironman! Wow.
I walked (slash hobbled) away with a sexy M Dot shaped wall decoration, an even more respectable paycheck (whoa that’s A LOT of pennies) and I learned one very valuable lesson that day:
Maybe you should know better than to enter an Ironman unless you’re prepared to finish the damn thing.