It is not everyday that you can say that you had a perfect race…but I had the most perfect race that anyone could have dreamed of!
Mind you, a part of this journey included: a (minor) black eye, a painfully popped blister on my pinky toe, 30MPH gusts of headwind and crosswind, and a potential bout of dehydration.
Regardless, it was still a flawlessly executed race.
The night before a new distance, I get incredibly nervous and anxious. They say that sleep the night before a race is pretty much a write off. From experience I know that to be true. I got plenty of sleep during the two nights prior, but during the night before my race I woke up every hour, on the hour, between 10pm and 3am. I eventually gave up on sleeping and got up to head out to the race.
I left my hotel at around 4:30am and got to the race site in record time. I snagged an awesome parking spot, steps from the start, and headed to transition to set up my gear. I had a separate bag packed for the changing tent, which was a totally new experience for me. All of my races prior to this were in warm months, so I was used to being able to continue racing with a tri-suit. The weather was way too cold for that this time around, so I had to put on proper cycling clothes. 56 miles is too long of a leg to tough out cold weather! (For me, at least.)
After things were neatly set up, I snuck back to the warmth of my car. I brought my music with me, so I spent some time trying to get into the zone. By the time 6:20am rolled around, I decided that it was time to wriggle into my wetsuit and to drop off my jackets and windbreakers at transition. The plastic bag technique ensured that I didn’t spend an hour sweating into my suit or getting too frustrated.
Afterwards, I headed lakeside to get some practice in, and before I knew it, I was ashore for final announcements!
My heart nearly leapt out of my body when we watched the men swim off at the sound of the horn. I high fived a girlfriend who was also racing, and when our horn went off, it was game time. At the sound of the horn, all anxieties melted away and I set out to execute on the plans I’ve made during training…no deviations, not pushing out too hard — just doing everything exactly to plan. The night before the race, I did one last mental rehearsal and wrote out, step by step, how I was going to execute my race. It helped to review that in my head leading up to the race. This was also something I practiced for Ironman Louisville, so it wasn’t new to me.
The swim was a mass beach start. Maybe 250 or so females got in at the same time, so for all intents and purposes it was not as crowded as it could have been. The swim was two loops, with the first half of each loop along the shoreline and the latter half of each loop in the deep end. Swimming in the shallow end was interesting. Every once in awhile when I tried to sight (navigate) into the sunrise! I saw people standing and walking. Needless to say, it was strange and distracting, but not as much as the blinding sunlight. (Next time I’ll be sure to opt for tinted swim goggles!) I kept my head underwater as much as I could to focus on my breath and form and before I knew it, I glanced up and spotted a buoy about two feet in front of me. My reaction time was a bit slow but I swam into this large metal anchor, which proceeded to ram itself into my goggles. It completely startled me. I felt around for blood and maybe a crack in the goggles. Nothing. I pressed my goggles back on and continued swimming.
After the ten foot buoy (which, by the way, totally blocked out all that blinding sunlight!) I took a sharp turn and continued down the next set of buoys. At each buoy, a group of swimmers would realign themselves around it, effectively creating an environment akin to a washing machine. Aside from these momentary churns, the water was relatively calm, and definitely not as frigid as the other racers made it seem. (Thanks, Lake Union and Puget Sound!) The water was a beautiful shade of aquamarine, and I spent a good deal of time admiring it while managing my swim.
And then the evil thoughts came creeping in. What was I doing? Why was I breathing on only one side? Had I trained enough? What would happen if I just stopped racing? What were my alternatives? As my mind looked for an escape, I reined in my emotions and began thinking through my list of mile dedications. I wasn’t even 1.2 miles into the swim yet and I began thinking of my mom, and eventually the charity that I dedicated the swim to, RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network). I thought to my earliest memory of sexual assault at the age of six. I thought about the long ten years I endured from my attacker. Just like then, I knew that I was in the deep end now, and that the only way out of this challenge was to work through it. I had too much on the line — the support of my donors, my closest friends who made it out to the race, but most importantly, I had something to prove to myself. I got my mind under control, began breathing bilaterally again, and zoomed past the other racers.
So, two loops around the lake completed my distance for the morning. It was interesting having to run up on shore only to get back into the water. Indeed it was strange, but it was actually kind of nice being able to take a quick breather before continuing. As I finished my first loop, I thought to myself “Awesome! Only 50% more to go!” (Breaking up the distance would be a mind game that I would continue playing all day long.) Taking the second loop around, I knew what to expect and worked it to my advantage.
Reach, pull, reach, pull, reach, breathe, pull, sight, repeat. I kept going and before I knew it, I was running up the beach on my way to T1. I headed over to the changing area and managed to wriggle out of my wetsuit and into my thermal cycling kit, headed over to T1 to fuel up, and head out.
The first mile of the bike was also interesting. I wasn’t too disoriented but my feet were frozen cold. I couldn’t really get a feel for where my feet were, if they were clipped in, or if they were even on the pedals, so I dismounted my bike. I came upon a small hill and went ahead and took the liberty of walking up it since I didn’t want to fall or crash or do anything stupid because of something so minor. Once I got to the top, I shook out my feet a bit, slapped my calves around, and headed out on a long ride. In the first mile outside of the park, the road was quite narrow and the pavement was a bit bumpy. Per the race instructions, I took it incredibly slow, fluttering my brakes the entire time. The street eventually widened up and I loosened my death grip on my brakes.
I was incredibly thankful for having done that short test ride the other day. It really mentally prepared me for the scenery and change in terrain. Don’t get me wrong — the course was primarily flat, but the pavement quality changed frequently, and there were landmarks and winds to get comfortable with. The ride was pretty, in its own way — flat lands, scenic mountains, palm tree farms, kale farms. No wild dogs on the course as I had previously feared. For the entire bike leg, I had company — between 3 to 7 racers at any given time. We took turns passing each other, cheering each other on, and more.
One of my best friends, Kaylee, managed to pull together a cheer station of other random lookyloos. I recognized her car, and her, but no one else. At first I thought that maybe I was so tired that I was already spacing out, but no, it turned out that I genuinely didn’t recognize anyone there. It was helpful having her before the turnaround, which meant I saw her three times before she had to bail. (The bike portion was also a two-loop course.)
At the last turnaround point, I decided to dismount for just a minute to take in some gels and to drink some water. The last leg would surely be a challenges, and I didn’t want some of the basic physiological things to get in the way. I knew I’d be in for a mental challenge. I quickly glanced at my phone for the first time to see that I was making excellent time, and that I would definitely not get sweeped from the race. In a cheerful and chipper mood, I mounted my bike, clipped in, and rode off. The winds were surprisingly absent from this portion of the ride, so I knew that I’d better not coast. After all, just like life, there is calm before the storm. I increased the intensity and cadence, knowing very well that the end of this rather comfortable ride was near…and I was right.
I’d say I was about five miles out from the finish, when the wind finally picked up. The wind whipped me back and forth a bit. It wasn’t quite sure which direction it wanted to blow. I was, more than anything, scared that I would get blown off my bike and into oncoming traffic. Alex had told me the night before that the chances of that happening, with my smaller bike frame and all, were pretty slim. I hung on to that thought with a sliver of faith and pedaled on. I turned my last corner near the residential area and knew that the roads would be well maintained, but I did not anticipate the dust storms and the gusts of wind coming off of the base of the mountains.
This was the hardest part of the race, hands down. The sidewalk blocks creeped along, rather than flying by like during the last fifty miles of my ride. I thought about the merits of dismounting my bike and just walking through the windstorms. I cursed at the wind, quite literally, not yelling too loudly in an effort to conserve what little energy I had left to push through. I tried some positive self-talk and some inner singing as well, and when I ran out of juice (demoralization really drains it out of you) I thought back to my dedication list. My brain was mostly disorganized so instead of trying to remember everyone, I went through a mental slideshow of faces and thought about what each person meant to me. (Admittedly, a few people flashed in my mind more than once.) I thought about Diana Nyad’s mantra (“Find a way”) and James Lawrence’s mantra (“I get to ride my bike”) and so, through the power of crowdsourced motivation, I made it back to T2 in one glorious piece.
Lots of bikes were already racked. I think the guy next to me had already completed the race. He saw me coming in and I wonder if I looked disoriented or something but he began helping me try to rack my bike. It didn’t require much precision and as thankful as I was to have an extra set of hands, it was exactly that…an extra set of hands that I couldn’t manage. I sat down to peel off my bike shoes and took the liberty to change into a fresh pair of running socks. So cushiony! So luxurious! I have a weird sense of what true luxury is, apparently…
Towards the end of the bike, I made a pact with myself that I would walk and jog the run portion…nothing more, nothing less. Walk and jog my way to the finish. Finish easy, finish strong, finish with a smile on my face and enough energy to enjoy the evening with my friends. Lucky for me that I made that pact because had I started out too fast (like I’ve done historically) the race would’ve had a much different outcome. I eventually came up on the first aid station outside the park, and stopped for some gels and Heed. At that point I felt like I was going to overheat, wearing effectively two windbreakers that I rode the bike portion in, so I took one of them off and tied it around the leg of the aid station. I would come back for that jacket later, since it was one of my favorites. I plodded along, flashing smiles and the occasional “good job!” at the athletes who were rounding their last lap as I was beginning my run. Everyone looked so good, and I was truly happy for them. The woman in front of me was donning a sparkly skirt, which I’m pretty sure was giving her the legs to jog out this race.
The run was flat, and mostly uneventful. I wasn’t too tired, but by the time the next two aid stations had rolled around I began getting a metallic taste in my mouth. I felt parched. I thought that I’d been having enough water and gels, but then a wave of cramps began settling in. I downgraded from a jog to a walk so that I could let things settle. I glanced at my phone really quick. I was making great progress and according to my calculations, I would definitely make the cutoff if I hustled for just a little bit longer.
I saw one of my girlfriend’s girlfriends zoom by and gave her a big cheer to send her off. I caught up with another guy who was just ahead and chatted with him for about a mile or so about his start in triathlon, and she did for a living. When things seemed settled enough I continued my strategy of jogging and walking.
Right around the 11 mile run mark, I caught back up with the sparkly skirt girl. She and I exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes before we came up to the last race photographer on the course before we headed in to the finish chute. He asked if I could run for a few yards so that he could snap an awesome race photo, and I said the equivalent of “Sure! Why not?” I picked up my feet and my pace, flashed a smile, and actually felt pretty good so I kept going…Forrest Gump style.
At this point I began thinking of my dedication list and began feeling quite emotional…I was actually doing this thing, finishing it like I had dreamed of doing so many times before. My eyes watered and I tried not to choke up, since I needed my breathing to be pretty steady if I were going to knock this thing out of the park. I thought about that list and realized that this last mile was indeed, for me…so I kept running, feeling my footfall transition from the streets to the trails of sand, eventually to the grassy path that would take me home. I cheered along the iron distance triathletes who were in the lane next to me, knowing that this time next year, I would be on the other side.
I crossed the mile 13 timing mat and was met by my support group. My friends were there, wildly cheering me on, and for a second I stopped running out of confusion. Was this it? No, it turns out…I actually had another tenth of a mile to go, and so sheepishly I flashed a grin and kept going. My friends ran the rest of the way there to meet me underneath the finish chute, and before I knew it, I was announced as a finisher and a medal was placed around my neck.
I felt energetic and coherent. The fatigue had not settled in to my bones yet. (Ironically, it never did.) There was a sense of warmth, accomplishment, happiness, and almost a longing for more. My first half ironman was behind me. It went by so quickly. I treasured the experience. I felt like a caged tiger that had just been let out. I wanted to swim a victory lap in the lake. I had so many thoughts that raced in my head and honestly, the biggest and goofiest smile to show for it. We posed for a few photos, but I remembered that my friend wasn’t too far behind me. She had been so supportive of me along the way and I really wanted to see her finish. This had been a goal for her for so long.
She came through the chute all right — her big smile beaming brightly. She looked great, fresh, and ecstatic as I did. We hugged it out at the finish line. Thankfully I still had my sunglasses on or she would have seen me tearing up. We finally did it. This moment was two years in the making for us. We had sacrificed so much. We had gone through so many changes. And now, we were here together, celebrating yet another training season well done.
After the celebrations were over, I packed up my stuff and wheeled the bike and gear back to my car. It wasn’t until I got into the driver seat, inhaled a thing of butter sugar cookies, and took off my glasses to see a nice, small black eye greet me back in the rear view mirror. I examined my eye…no blood clots. It looks like smudged eyeliner, which I guess I may have to even out when I head back to work. Or I could just rock the mini black eye.
So, that’s the story of my first half ironman. The day felt like a training session….one super long brick workout, executed to perfection. The conditions may not have been perfect, but it always goes back to how you manage the way you react to a situation, right? After all, that’s the only thing you can control. I am thankful for all the obstacles I faced on this journey. I am thankful for every demoralizing ride, every frustrating swim, every panic-ridden open water swim, the uncomfortable runs, terrible weather, training cramps, misplaced flip flops. Without the discomfort I would have never known what a flawless race looked like.
I can’t wait for next year’s 140.6. Let’s do this!