Ironman Wisconsin & Ironman Maryland 2015 – Race Report(s)

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Last fall, Rachel Weeks and I decided to race Ironman Wisconsin together in 2015. Rachel and I hadn’t competed in a full IM together since 2013, when we raced Ironman Texas.
Since I guided my first ironman in 2010, I have averaged about one per year, but there was a 2.5 year gap between Texas and Maryland. Some people are under the impression that I do Ironmans all the time, which is simply not the case. I was excited to guide another Ironman, as Rachel and I had so much fun in Texas,  but I took a much-needed a break from long races after my move to Texas in July of 2013.
Shortly after Rachel and I decided to race Wisconsin, Tina Ament approached me about competing in an Ironman. She suggested Ironman Maryland, because the course seemed tandem-friendly (not very hilly) and the race was within 2 hours of her home in Alexandrai, VA. Tina was well aware that IMMD and IMWI were close together. We were both a little bit apprehensive about having me guide a second ironman within a month of the first. I wanted to make sure that Tina had the best race she could possibly have- I didn’t want to be impaired after my first IM. I talked to a number of experienced athletes and coaches to see if it was possible to complete two Ironmans in a month and do race them both well.
The general consensus was that I should do basically nothing between the two events. Brad Williams, who is a pro triathlete and the Team RWB Tri Director, said that I might even be stronger for the second race.
I enlisted the help of Jessica Jones Meyers, another incredible pro athlete (who just became a guide for soon to be paralympian, Patricia Walsh). Jessica is an amazing coach and I trusted that she could help me prepare for both races.
After four months of dedicated ironman training (I focused on training for bike races throughout the winter/spring before I switched to IM training), Wisconsin race week arrived. The month leading up to Wisconsin was intense. After a work trip to DC, I guided Rachel in a half IM in Michigan and Ashley Eisenmenger in the Chicago Triathlon.
I didn’t want to taper for too long, as I knew I would have a three week taper between the two races.
Ironman Wisconsin
I was so excited to meet up with Rachel in Chicago, to start our drive to Madison. Rachel is such a wonderful woman. She’s the mother of two young girls and is an advocate for vision/hearing impaired athletes. She has been living with Ushers Syndrome since the age of 19 and became the first vision/hearing impaired athlete to complete an IM in 2013.
IMMD Registration
Leading up to Texas in 2013, neither Rachel nor I were training as well as we should have been. The fact that we finished the race within the time limit was really incredible, given how rough our training had been and due to the oppressive heat. I think that both Rachel and I wanted to have a really strong race in Wisconsin. We both put the work in and we knew we could PR by a significant amount.
On race morning, I felt good. I had been surprised by my good friend Ashley, who got her dad to drive her up from Tolono, IL (I don’t know where it is, either). Danny Craven, a fellow Team RWB member and guide, helped coordinate the surprise. I have never been more excited the morning of a race!!!
Swim
Rachel and I got to start the swim 10 minutes ahead of the able bodied age-group athletes, which is pretty standard in Ironman races.
The 10 minute head start gives us an opportunity to find a rhythm, but it also means that we get passed by the majority of the field at some point in the race. When I’m guiding, I love those first 10 minutes, though it is a little nerve wracking to watch a wall of 2000 ironman athletes swimming towards us when after the age-group gun goes off. We had almost made it to the first buoy when the fastest swimmers caught up to us.
When we turned around the first buoy (Where everyone starts mooing. Because, Wisconsin), we were in the thick of it. Wisconsin had one of the most aggressive fields of athletes I’ve ever experienced. Rachel handled the swim like an absolute champ. She didn’t let the people elbowing her in the face distract her during the swim. In fact, on a couple of occasions, she popped her head out of the water and laughed out loud!
It wasn’t as fast of a swim as we thought it might be. Some swim courses are like that- no matter how strong you feel, you just don’t go as fast as you think you’re going.
We got out of the swim in under two hours and were all smiles.
IMMD Swim Exit
After running up the helix and doing a full change into Tri kits in transition, we were ready to hit the bike course.
Bike
Both Rachel and I love the bike. I knew that Madison had reputation for having the hardest/slowest ironman bike course, but I kept hoping that the athletes reviewing the race were exaggerating. I mean, every ironman is hard, right?
No one exaggerated. Wisconsin’s bike was brutal.
Rachel’s bike had some issues shifting into the easy ring at the beginning of the ride, so we had to stop for mechanical assistance a couple of times. I don’t think it cost us too much time, but it certainly was frustrating.
20 miles into the bike, we were averaging 14-15 miles an hour. I found out later that both Rachel and I were about to lose it. I’ve never wanted to drop out of an ironman bike course before, but the thought crossed my mind more than a few times in Wisconsin. The first 3/4 of the first loop felt like a terrible false flat. Any time there was a downhill, the course would turn sharply, so we couldn’t even enjoy the momentum advantage we get on a tandem.
The end of each loop of the bike includes three steep climbs, appropriately called “The Three Bitches.”
Ironman Wisconsin Bike 2015

Suffering on the “three bitches”.

The good thing about the climbs is that spectators line the course. It feels like a European bike race, or like crybaby hill (for those of you who have done Tulsa Tough). We saw Danny and Ashley on the third hill, which provided us with some much needed motivation. I’ve never felt Rachel push so hard. She was on a mission!!! It was incredible.
I felt better going into the second loop. I knew we would make the time cutoff for the bike, assuming nothing else went wrong.
Then, something went wrong. At mile 75 or so, our bike chain snapped. That was a mechanical issue I couldn’t fix myself. Thankfully, the chain that broke was of normal length, so the mechanics would at least have a chance to try and fix it.
Unfortunately, because it was getting later in the day, the mechanics were helping other people out on the course. We had a marshal radio for help and proceeded to wait for about 20 minutes for help. The mechanics in Wisconsin were awesome. They were helpful, fast, and friendly. As soon as they had a chance to get to us, they grabbed a brand new chain and put it on the bike.
We didn’t have to drop out!!! I was so relieved to be able to continue with the race, it didn’t even matter that my legs were absolutely trashed. I love Rachel’s attitude. She could have just thrown up her hands when the chain broke, but she was patient and focused. I knew she would become an ironman for the second time, at the end of the day.
We suffered through the rest of the ride. I’ve never been so happy to get off of a bike in my life. Rachel cried with relief when we finally got to transition.
Run
When you get oIMMD Runff the bike in an ironman, the best feeling is knowing that your equipment can’t break any more. We knew our legs could get us through the marathon.
Rachel and I started out with a 4 min run/1 min walk strategy. We have found that it’s faster than trying to run the whole race and I like the fact that it makes time go by faster.
The Wisconsin run course was wonderful. We got to see tons of our friends out on the course. The energy of the spectators helped carry us through.
Rachel got stronger throughout the marathon. I felt so lucky to be a part of the experience.
We crossed the finish line in 16:35. I am so proud of how the race went. Going into the event, we both thought our time would be faster, but given how tough the course was (including mechanicals), I couldn’t be happier with how it went! The next day, I found myself dreaming about which Ironman we would conquer next.
IMMD Finish

At the finish of Ironman Wisconsin, with Ironman cheerleader-extraordinaires, Ashley and Danny.

Taper #2
But, I wasn’t done for the year. The day after the race, I flew home to Austin and packed for my next work trip to NYC. I took the entire week off of training, but I basically didn’t stop moving the whole time I was there.
So, when I got back to Austin, I focused on sleeping and resting.
There were 21 days between Wisconsin and Madison. I had a taper in place, thanks to Jessica. I felt ready to go.
When Maryland race week rolled around, we started hearing reports of hurricane Joaquin… There’s no way it would affect Maryland, right? Wrong.
The Wednesday before the race, the race director decided to cancel the event. They tentatively planned to hold an alternate race on 10/17 (two weeks after the original race), but there were no guarantees.
I immediately got on the phone with Tina. We started trying to figure out what our best course of action would be. Tina’s attitude was awesome. Tina is an incredibly accomplished ironman triathlete/endurance athlete. Last year, she became the first blind female to compete the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and a month before Maryland, she crushed a 12 hour bike race. Tina makes me feel lazy!
We discussed possibly racing Florida or Arizona, but that would mean waiting another month to race. Ultimately, we decided to proceed as though the backup race were going to happen. The biggest challenge for me was figuring out how to un-taper and then re-taper for the race. I felt like I hadn’t done anything (except one ironman) for over a month. So, Jessica figured out a plan for me to ramp up training for a week and then taper again.

One unexpected bonus

_Kellys century

On the Congress Street Bridge, after Kelly hit the 100 mile mark. What a great day!

was getting to accompany my good friend, Kelly Krause, on her first century. I’m so glad that I was able to be a part of such an important day for Kelly! Riding with her and my friend, John Montesi, infused me with positive energy and helped power me through the rest of my training/taper until Ironman Maryland.

Ironman Maryland
Finally, race week (take 2) arrived. I’m really grateful to work for a company that understands and supports my racing schedule. A lot of people assume I don’t work, or that I get paid to guide. Neither of these things are true. I have a job in finance that I love and I have never made any money coaching or guiding athletes. I tend not to take actual vacations, because I spend so many vacation days racing, but that’s a decision I’m happy with. Some people want to sit on a beach and relax, I’d rather race an ironman as a guide.
I met Tina and Pamela Ferguson at Reagan International Airport in DC the Thursday before IMMD. Pamela is a super strong, Houston-based cyclist, who is perhaps the best cheerleader I’ve ever met. She welcomes everyone into the cycling and is beyond generous with her time and energy. I was so grateful that she was part of our race crew for the weekend. Also, Tina and Pamela are teaming up to race Ironman 70.3 Longhorn in Austin on November 8th. I absolutely cannot wait to cheer them on!
Tina and I met in 2010 and have raced together in a number of events, including 2 Ironmans. Tina is a true friend. She’s supported me through some really tough times in my life, without judgment or reservation. She’s the kind of person who will show up at the finish line of Race Across America at 2am to watch you finish. Yes, Tina showed up in Bethesda in 2012 and surprised me at the finish line of RAAM. I hope everyone who’s reading this has a friend like Tina.
The drive to Cambridge took a long time; there was no way to make it to packet pick up on Thursday. We settled into our home stay, grabbed some dinner and went to bed.
Friday was a whirlwind. We registered without any issues, but soon learned that Pamela’s bike had not arrived from Houston. Tri Bike Transport (TBT) does an amazing job transporting bikes to races, but with the confusion surrounding hurricane Joaquin, Pamela’s bike was lost in the shuffle. Thankfully, TBT offered to have an employee drive a sweet demo bike up from North Carolina. The only catch was that Pamela would not get to see, let alone ride, the new bike until race morning. Pamela was an absolute champ. Her attitude about the whole experience was amazing. She prepped as much of her stuff as she could and just went with the flow.

IMMD Transition

In transition with Tina and Pamela, after dropping off our gear bags.

Every time I race with an athlete, I have to adjust my position on the tandem bike to make sure it fits me. I always worry that I will mess up my bike fit and have to stop and change my saddle position during a race. Imagine how bad a poorly positioned saddle would feel after 4 hours of riding… I thought about how Pamela was riding a completely new bike in her race, and I stopped stressing out. I had no right to complain!

Swim

The morning of the race was freeeeezing. I think I was most nervous about how I would stay warm on the bike. Since I moved to Texas, I have completely lost my ability to tolerate cold weather. I know, I know… I’ve gotten soft.

The wind was intense when we got to the swim start. The announcer indicated that the course might change, so we huddled together in our sweatshirts and waited to see what would happen. After announcing that the swim would be cut in half (this news was met with cheers from the crowd), the officials finally decided to shorten the course to 1.89 miles, rather than 1.2.
Tina and I lined up at the start and I tried to figure out what the new course looked like. I was still trying to get a handle on where I was supposed to go, when we were ushered into the water.
I’ve mentioned the fact that PC athletes normally get a 10 minute head start in Ironman races. It seemed like this time would be no different. I imagined that the time between our start and the start of the fastest men (Maryland had a self-seeded wave start) might be a little shorter than 10 minutes, due to the race’s delayed start time, but I was not prepared for what happened next.
Ironman Maryland Start 2015

Swim start on the boat ramp.

Tina and I hadn’t even made it past the boat launch, when the first wave of swimmers began their race. The effect was a bottleneck of swimmers all vying for the best position heading towardMaryland Swim Exits the first turn buoy. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by ridiculously strong athletes, trying desperately to get past us. I cannot imagine how that experience felt to Tina. But I was blown away by how well she handled the chaos. After a few minutes, we were able to figure out a good line to take and got into a good rhythm. 
*I should note that the announcer found us after the race and apologized for what happened at the start. He was not expecting the age groupers to go off as soon as they did and said he was “so relieved” when he saw us exit the water. I thought it was very kind of him to apologize. 
I’ve never had a better swim with Tina. She finished the course as strong as she was when she started. Pacing is a challenge for most athletes and it can be even harder to determine what speed to swim when you’re battling for position with a bunch of Kona-hopefuls. I couldn’t contain my excitement when we exited the water!
The transition area was a total madhouse. Normally, there are enough chairs for everyone to sit down. In Madison, transition was inside the convention center. It was downright civilized! We ran by the men’s tent and heard volunteers telling male athletes that there was no room and that they would have to change outside. I couldn’t stop laughing!
The women’s tent wasn’t much better. It’s absurdly difficult to change into cycling/triathlon kit when you’re wet. It’s even harder when you’re standing in the middle of a group of half naked women, all digging through their gear bags, trying to change clothes and get out of transition as quickly as possible.
Tina and I decided to wear jackets over our cycling clothes. I changed into full cycling kit, which I don’t normally do, because I was so concerned about the cold. We also wore toe warmers, arm warmers and gloves. The announcer joked the next day that the race director learned that you can hold an Ironman race in the winter! (Ha.)
Bike
Finally, we were out of T1 and onto the bike. I was grateful for a flat course. Tina is a wicked fast cyclist. In May, at Ironman 70.3 Texas, Tina and I posted a 2:28 bike for 56 miles (which translates to just under 23 mph). I didn’t even know that was possible on a tandem!
So, my goal for the ride was to break 6 hours. If conditions were perfect, we wanted to break 5:45, but the wind in Maryland can be intense and unpredictable. It turned out to be a very windy day.
_Maryland Bike out

Heading out on the bike at Ironman Maryland.

My Garmin didn’t start working until about 12 miles into the race, which wouldn’t be a huge issue, except that I wasn’t completely sure how much time had passed. I estimated how long we had been riding, by looking at the elapsed time on my watch, but I knew there was some room for error.
It’s hard to maintain intensity and focus during a 112 mile bike. Tina and I worked together to stay on track. I kept her posted on our current speed and tried to break up the race into segments, which can help make the distance more manageable. We were cruising for the first 40 miles or so and then the wind started to pick up.
Thankfully, we both dressed appropriately. I wasn’t cold at all during the ride, but I didn’t take off my arm warmers until our one bathroom break at mile 75 and kept my jacket on the entire ride.
We remained on track (at least, what I estimated was “on track”), for the entire ride, though I knew we didn’t have a ton of room for error. Tina was a blast to ride with. She works her ass off in training and it pays off. Tina really is a force to be reckoned with.
Because Tina has dealt with a number of injuries, she wasn’t confident that her run would be “competitive” (her words, not mine), so I put a lot of pressure on myself to help her get the bike split she wanted. I knew that she would be happy with the race, if we could meet our bike goal.
The course was beautiful, the road was flat, and my legs felt good. I could tell how much effort Tina was putting into the ride, which made me want to work even harder. 
I only remember one female cyclist passing us; to our delight, it was Pamela! We passed hundreds of riders on the course and were both psyched about how the race was progressing. There was a strong headwind on the course, but we were able to power through, most of the time.
Towards the end of the ride, the wind kicked up to a degree I had never experienced. At certain points, were riding as hard as we could into the wind and were barely going 15 mph. I desperately begged Tina to give me more, knowing full well that she was going as hard as she could. I think we both wanted to cry at that point.
I kept calling out our speed and letting Tina know that we could still break 6 hours, but that it would be close. I needed every ounce of strength she had. I certainly left everything on the course.
Finally, we got to the bike dismount line. Again, I wasn’t exactly sure how much time had passed, but I was pretty sure that we had broken 6 hours. I took my feet out of my shoes and called for Tina to put her foot down, but I didn’t give as much time to prepare as I should have. Her cleats were stuck in the pedals! I was exhausted from the ride and was caught totally off guard, so I wasn’t able to stop the bike from tipping over when she couldn’t get unclipped.
A volunteer shouted, “What should I do!?” as stepped away from the bike (almost knocking the volunteer over). “I’ve got this!” I yelled, as I reached for Tina’s foot that was still clipped into the pedal. I grabbed her shoe and in one movement, I twisted HARD and heard the “crack” of her cleat breaking free from the pedal.
Within a moment, Tina was up off the ground and we began running towards the bike racks.I found out later that we broke 6 hours by ONE MINUTE. If we had wasted any more time getting unclipped, or taken a slightly longer bathroom break, we wouldn’t have met our goal. I am so proud of the work we did on that course. 
Run
Tina and I were in good moods when we began the marathon. We were excited about how the bike felt and we had a huge time cushion; we could have slowly walked the marathon and still broken 17 hours.
The temperature began dropping pretty early on in the marathon. I changed into a dry triathlon kit and kept my arm warmers on. Again, I’ve never worn arm warmers in an ironman. I didn’t take my gloves off the entire run.
_Maryland run smile

All smiles all the time.

Tina kept a steady pace during most of the run. We went with the 4/1 method, like Rachel and I used. Running 26.2 miles is never easy, especially after you’ve already been swimming and biking for 8+ hours. But one major bonus of guiding is that you’re never alone. This can be a drawback, depending on whose company you’re in, but I had a blast racing with Tina.
We always try to cheer other athletes on as we run; it’s fun to make friends throughout the race.
After the sun set, it got even colder. At special needs, we both grabbed the long sleeved shirts we packed, though they didn’t help as much as we wanted.
_Maryland run sunset
I was excited to pass by the special needs station because David Trossman, one of the advisors I work with, decided to volunteer at the race after he heard that I was guiding it! I was really touched by the gesture. It was so fun to pass by his station a few times on the run. I always made sure to shout out his name so he wouldn’t miss us. The Ironman Maryland volunteers were absolute troopers. I was frozen during the run- I don’t know how volunteers stayed warm enough all night!
Tina began hurting when we got past the half way mark of the run, but every time I asked her to run, after an aid station or a walk interval, she responded. At one point in the race she turned and said, “You don’t take any shit!” I laughed so hard when she said that! “I thought you knew that already, Tina!,” I responded.
The final hour of the race was challenging. The course was pitch black. I hate running with a head lamp, so I never make it a priority to pack one in special needs. I have decent night vision, but I was certainly straining to see the road ahead of us.
We saw Pamela a couple of times during the run. I knew she wasn’t having her best day,  but she always had a huge smile on her face, which makes me love her even more.
Every time we passed Tina’s Team Z teammates, we got a boost of energy. I’ve never seen anything like Team Z’s energy at Ironman races. They are always out in force, until the very end. Thank you, Team Z, over and over again, for your motivation and support.
The last mile of the race was a challenge. Tina had trouble navigating a section of brick road on the course, so we had to walk most of it. It’s incredible how long one mile can feel, after you’ve already traveled close to 140 miles…
_Maryland finish
Finally, we could see the finish. Tina pushed through the pain and completely dominated Ironman Maryland!!!
We ran across the line holding hands and hugged each other.There is no better feeling than finishing an Ironman. We crossed the line in 14:15. It was Tina’s 3rd fastest Ironman to-date and the fastest Ironman I’ve guided.
The volunteers handed us some warming blankets and we shuffled to the finisher’s tent. The inside of the tent was an interesting site. All of the athletes put on as many articles of clothing as they could find. I had on a scarf that Patricia Walsh knitted for me, a fleece, and my full tri kit. Later, Pamela gave me some spare running tights to wear because I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to survive another minute outside with bare legs.
Obviously, my main priority when we finished the race was finding FOOD. Anyone who knows me, is well aware that I eat constantly. My normal state of being is “hungry.”
_Maryland Pizza
That pizza tasted even better than it looks…
My primary goal for Ironman Maryland was to make sure that Tina had an awesome race experience. When she emailed me after the event and said that she was proud of our performance, I was overjoyed. Tina is notoriously hard on herself, so to hear her say that she was proud of a race, surprised and delighted me. Though I know that I am not responsible for how any of my athletes feel about their performance, it can be hard not to feel responsible when a race doesn’t go they way they want.
Ironman Maryland Awards

Tina received an award for her performance in the para division.

Rachel and Tina became Ironman finishers this fall, once again. Finishing 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running in one day is a massive achievement, no matter how many you’ve done before.
Thank you, Rachel, and thank you, Tina, trusting me to guide you in these challenging races; sharing these experiences with you adds tremendous meaning to my life. I am so glad that I can call both of you my close friends and cannot wait for our next races together!
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Amy Dixon’s report from her first triathlon: I am a Para-Triathlete Officially!

Take a moment to read Amy Dixon’s account of her first triathlon! Amy is now officially a paratriathlete. This was her first major athletic accomplishment since losing her vision 5 years ago. I am honored that she chose me to guide her through her first tri!!!

I am a Para-Triathlete Officially!.

IRONMAN TEXAS 2013 RACE REPORT

On May 18, 2013 I guided Rachel weeks, a vision and hearing impaired athlete, in Ironman Texas. This is a recap of our race.

What many of you do not know is that Rachel Weeks is not only vision impaired, but also hearing impaired. Rachel has Usher Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder that causes her to lose both senses. Rachel is the first athlete with Usher Syndrome to complete an ironman.

I met Rachel last year at the Chicago Triathlon. We communicated via Facebook and twitter over the summer and I convinced her to do the race with me. From the moment I met Rachel, I knew I liked her. After an outstanding performance at the Chicago Tri, Rachel decided to sign up for an ironman. I have always hated hot races, so I swore I would never do Ironman Texas, but when Rachel told me which race she wanted to do, I didn’t hesitate to sign up.

Many people ask me whether we have to pay two entry fees for our races. The answer is no, we do not. Rachel pays for herself and I get a link to sign up as a participant- for liability and safety reasons. When I guide, I am, for all intents and purposes, a piece of equipment. I cannot stress this enough- this was Rachel’s race. When I guide, I act as the eyes for my athlete. I get a chip time, but all of my effort in the race goes toward helping my athlete run her best race.

Rachel and I do not train together during the year. In fact, I had not seen her since the Chicago triathlon when I met up with her at the Ironman Texas expo. As the case with all of my close friends, I felt like I had just seen her, even though it had been over 8 months.

I have been competing in triathlons since 2001 and guiding since 2008. I have guided athletes in 17 triathlons, including 3 (now 4) ironman races. No matter how many races you have guided, or completed solo, there is always a level of uncertainty going into a competition. You can never predict how you will feel on race day, which can be nerve wracking!!! Rachel and I are not the same pace. It is important to try and race with athletes whom you could (theoretically) beat in a race. As my friend m David Adame, director of the C Different Foundation, says, a guide should “have gas in the tank.” I have been in races where I totally blew up and had to slow down my athlete. It is the absolute worst feeling in the world. So, the way to reduce the odds of a situation like that occurring, the best thing to do is race with someone whom you are significantly faster than. That being said, chemistry is also incredibly important, especially in longer races. Keep in mind that Rachel was literally connected to me for an entire Ironman. Can you imagine how that would have felt if she and I weren’t also good friends?

Pre Race

Rachel and I flew in separately and met at the Ironman expo in The Woodlands on Thursday, May 16th. We walked through packet pick up together and then went shopping for race day nutrition and gear that we still needed to purchase. After putting my seat and pedals on the bike and making doing a quick eyeballed bike fit, we went back to our homestay before the mandatory athlete meeting/welcome dinner. Race prep began the next morning.

Ironman Texas offered athletes a two hour window during which they could practice swimming on the actual swim course the day before the race. We were told that the water would be warm- most likely wetsuit optional. If the water is above 78 degrees, athletes have the option to wear wetsuits, but they cannot qualify for Kona or other age group awards. If the water is 84 degrees or above, officials will not let athletes wear wetsuits because there is a risk of overheating. Having overheated in a number of races myself, I encouraged Rachel to make the call to not wear wetsuits. I think it’s worth having a slower swim time (wetsuits can cut significant time off of swim splits), if you can make it up elsewhere in the race because you haven’t overheated!

Rachel and I did a 20 minute practice swim on Friday morning. Rachel is a great swimmer, and we swim well together, so we mainly decided to practice because she wanted to get rid of her pre race jitters. When we hopped in the water, she had a couple of moments of anxiety, where she would stop in the water and almost laugh at herself. She wasn’t having a full blown panic attack, but I know she was trying to convince herself to start swimming again.

After a while, she overcame the open-water nerves and we headed to shore. Next, we went to Tri Bike Transport, so that I could fit the bike and we could go for a practice ride. After our ride, we dropped the bike off at transition… Saying goodbye to Rachel’s tandem for the night made everything seem real. The next time we would ride her bike would be after the swim on Saturday morning. I was nervous that I hadn’t tightened everything down or that my fit would be uncomfortable! A lot of things can start hurting over a 112 mile ride.

We relaxed at our homestay after dropping the bike off. The only thing we had left to do was put our race bags together.

Before bed, I laid all of my nutrition out on the floor and divided everything up between my bike, run and special needs bags. I made sure to freeze four bottles of perpetuem before bed so that we would have relatively cold drinks the next day. Tina Ament taught me the best ironman special needs trick- I bought a cooler for my bike special needs bag. If you stash a couple of bottles in a soft cooler, you can have extra bottles of liquid nutrition on the bike!

I felt like I was ready to race… so I headed off to bed.

Swim

We waded into the water that was teeming with what seemed like thousands of age group athletes. I imagined them bearig down on us, 10 short minutes after my race would begin. As a PC athlete, Rachel is allowed to start directly behind the pro wave, which would give us a 10 minute head start on the field. I can only imagine what we look like when we start swimming. The entire lake is watching the pros quickly pull away, while our little orange-capped heads bob slowly along in the water.

When the gun went off, I counted a beat and then told her to start swimming. Our race had begun.

A few strokes into the swim, Rachel began having a minor panick attack. When Rachel panicks, it has more to do with the fact that she can’t catch her breath than anything else. When this happened in the Chicago Triathlon, I had her tread water for a few seconds and then count to 10 strokes and tread again. We started swimming like that until Rachel heard the national anthem playing in the background. The age groupers were about to start swimming. We had about 10 minutes to swim alone before they would come up behind us. She was overcome with emotion when she heard our anthem. It was all I could do not to cry.

I knew that we couldn’t make 2.4 miles in 2 and a half hours if we stopped every 10 or 20 strokes, so I told Rachel to try breathing every stroke, instead of every three… It worked!!! I had seen Aaron Scheidies, one of the fastest triathletes I know, swim like that in the Chicago Triathlon, so I figured it wouldnt slow her down too much!

The course was easy to navigate, so we got into a good rhythm. I knew that any moment, thousands of aggro age groupers would be upon us. I must admit, tge thought scared me a little bit. as confident as I am in the water, and as confident as I was in Rachel’s swimming, I wasn’t looking forward to getting dunked by a bunch of hyper competitive dudes.

Rachel, it turned out, enjoyed battling the age groupers! The more we were in the middle of things, the more fun she seemed to be having! I did have to move us out of the center of the pack because it became too difficult to stop every few seconds to grab someone’s head and tell them not to swim through us because we were “tied together”.

The rest of the swim went relatively smoothly. I was really proud of how Rachel handled the crowds of athletes knocking into us. When she began to get a little tired (about an hour in), she started veering to the left a bit. I had to pull on our tether to rein her back in!

I felt really good during the swim. I was very happy with how things went. Because we chose not to wear wetsuits, I knew that our time wasn’t going to be insanely fast, but I was happy that everything went as smoothly as it did. When we got into the channel, I started getting really pumped. At one point I even thought to myself, “I am superwoman!” That’s a good way to feel during a race.

We got out of the swim in 1:46:16. I felt such a rush of adrenaline when we started running towards transition. I couldn’t wait to get on the bike! T1 took 11:50, which isn’t bad. I made sure that we had everything we needed in our jersey pockets. The last thing you want to do when you start an Ironman bike is forget your nutrition. Another thing that I like to do is bring a little spray bottle of sunscreen. If you’re as pale as I am, you need extra sunscreen for a ride that long.

Bike

As usual, riding with Rachel felt AWESOME! Rachel trusts me on the bike. I can tell that she trusts me because she never makes any sudden movements and she doesn’t tense her arms. When I’m piloting a tandem, I can feel almost every movement my stoker makes. If I’m riding with a nervous athlete, the front of the bike can start moving back and forth if the rider has a death grip on the bars. Sometimes I’ll ask an athlete to pretend that the bars aren’t there. I don’t have to give Rachel any tips. She is super comfortable on the bike. The only thing I will say is, “Focus on your pedal strokes. Don’t get lazy when you get tired.” But I’m saying that as much for myself as I am for her!

The first 40 miles were a breeze. It hadn’t gotten too hot yet, and the wind seemed to be at our backs. An official motorbike pulled up alongside us and interviewed Rachel, which was really exciting. It seemed like the ride was too good to be true…

Turns out, it was.

Our average pace for the first 30 miles was 17.48 mph. This pace felt incredibly easy for us, as it should feel at the beginning of an ironman. If you are fatigued 30 miles into the bike leg, you did something wrong. I used one of Tina’s tricks to help us focus on the bike. I dedicated every 10 miles to a different person or group of people. It helps to focus on the 10 miles you’re in and to not thing ahead to the ground you still have to cover.

We dedicated 10 mile to Richard Hunter, a visually impaired athlete who works tirelessly to get visually impaired individuals into athletics and Diane Berbarian, another VI athlete who coached Rachel for the Ironman. 10 miles were dedicated to Rachel’s daughters and to our mothers. 10 went to the victims of Boston and to our nation’s veterans.The hardest 10 miles were the ones we dedicated to the fallen members of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. It seemed appropriate to suffer at that point. It was the kind of pain that makes you think about what REAL pain is… I knew that anything I was feeling wasn’t CLOSE to the amount of pain our grunts feel when they’re patrolling in Afghanistan. So we pushed on…

By the time we hit mile 50, it had started to get really hot. We knew that the heat index was supposed to be in the mid 90s, which meant that it would feel like it was over 100 on the dark asphalt. After mile 50, I began looking forward to Special Needs, which was at mile 56. We had been doing a great job with nutrition thus far. I made sure to remind Rachel to drink and take salt tabs. I would set hydration goals for each part of the race. For instance, I would make sure that we both finished at least one bottle of water and half a bottle of Powerbar Perform. Miles 50-56 seemed endless. We were riding into the wind, and the heat had started to take it’s toll. Finally, we arrived. I made baggies of salt and vinegar potato chips for both of us, which have gotten me through a few Ironmans before. When Rachel tasted them, she was elated. It was probably the best moment of the race so far. When you’re exercising for that long, it’s amazing what the body craves (and on the flip side, it can be amazing how much the body won’t tolerate when it comes to nutrition). `

The boost from our salt and vinegar chips didn’t last long. I felt like we were really dragging. Then I heard a high pitched squeaking noise… that’s never a good sign. I told Rachel I was going to pull over to check the brakes. As it turned out, both of our brakes were rubbing! We speculated that the heat had someting to do with it. The metal disc brakes could have shifted because of the extreme temperature. We could have been wrong, but it made sense at the time!

After fixing the brakes, we set off again. Throughout the ride, Rachel had been in good spirits. We talked throughout much of the early part of the ride because we were in a low endurance zone. But as we got further into the ride we becane much less chatty. When Rachel stopped responding with as much “energy”, I began to worry a bit. We saw dozens of athletes on the side of the road. One man had stopped at a spectator’s home and was lying on the side of the road holding an ice pack they had given him. I was feeling pretty good, but I have done a bunch of races in the heat. I learned from my mistakes in Panama (I did the 70.3 Panama in February) and was very conscious of hydration during the race. Rachel is a new triathlete. It’s impossible to predict how your body will react in extreme conditions and it’s even harder to predict when you don’t have a ton of racing experience.

I assumed that most of the aid stations had someone to administer first aid, so I told Rachel that we were going to stop at the next station and find her an ice pack. She didn’t protest. By some miracle, the next aid station actually had a kiddie pool filled wth ice. There was a woman sitting in the pool who looked as red as a beet. We took off our cycling shoes and helmets and got in the pool with her. It was so hot outside, the water didn’t even feel cold. I couldn’t believe it.

I don’t know exactly how long we stayed at the aid station, but I am convinced that the ice bath saved the race for us. When we began riding again, I could feel the difference in Rachel’s riding. She was pushing harder and seemed to have a lot more energy. I felt better for a while, but the heat started to get to me with about 30 miles to go. When you’ve already gone 80 miles, 32 shouldn’t seem like many, but it felt like an unconquerable distance.

I found myself getting very, very quiet. I hoped Rachel didn’t say anything. She was quiet too. I told her that I would do whatever I could to get us to 112. I knew that she was working as hard as she could, but we still had a marathon to go, so I didn’t want to risk pushing Rachel too hard. There were points in the race when I fantasize about quitting. I thought to myself, “It wouldn’t be so bad if Rachel wanted to stop right now.” But in the back of my head I knew that it would be worth it to keep going. Shortly before mile 90 pick up truck filled with bikes passed by. After racing for 13 years I’ve seen a lot of things, but I have never seen so many abandoned bikes.

The heat was dangerous. It was crippling even the fittest athletes. The aid station at mile 90 was sent to be seen. As we approached, I asked Rachel if there was a party going on. There appeared to be dozens of people just hanging out at the aid station. Rachel and I needed to use the porta potties, and when I was waiting for her to finish I noticed a group of very fit looking athletes sitting under a tent. It was obvious that they had all thrown in the towel. This might sound twisted, but seeing a bunch of in shape athletes who had decided to drop out somehow we had our job is to me. Maybe it was a case of schadenfreude. Either way, I was determined to get through the bike.

The last hour of the bike was pretty quiet. I had to stop and fix the brakes again. I think I had to fix them a total of three times during the ride. I don’t know how much the brakes rubbing slowed us down compared to the heat, but the combination of those two factors really did a number on us. When we finally got to the Woodlands, I was thrilled. It felt like we were home again! I realized that we had spent almost 8 hours on the bike, which is pretty astounding considering the pace we held for the first half of the bike.

I let Rachel know that we were approaching the bike dismount line. After so many hours in the saddle, I think there was a disconnect between her mind and her feet, because she was unable to clip out of her pedal as I stopped at the line. So of course, the only mishap we had, was in front of hundreds of spectators at the finish of the bike. Rachel was not hurt, so it was actually pretty funny. But I felt like a terrible guide!

Run

I cannot describe how excited I felt when the volunteers took the bike from us. Rachel and I walked as quickly as we could to the changing tent to prepare for the run. We took just over 14 minutes in T2. We spent a little bit of time putting our compression socks on, but I maintain that it is worth the extra time. Rachel was still recovering from the ride, so we started out walking. The heat was so bad, it was almost impossible to run. After a few miles we started to job in the shade, but there was very little shade to be found. I just wanted to make it to aid station for, where I knew our RWB teammates would be waiting. One of the most exciting parts ofWas passing the RWB aid station with our tents and flags boasting the Team Red, Whire & Blue Eagle. Ironman volunteers are an incredibly tough bunch. Our volunteers began the day at 5 AM and did not quit until after midnight.

Both Rachel and I are talkative and friendly so we made a lot of friends during the run. One of the first friends we made was a Marine officer based at Camp Lejeune. As he passed us he asked me what exactly Team RWB was. I used the opportunity to try and recruit him. I hope he remembers to look us up. Talking to the officer motivated me because I dedicated my race to our active duty servicemembers and veterans.

Coming into our second lap, I did not think we were in any trouble as far as meeting the 17 hour time constraint. We were very conservative during the marathon, because I felt that being conservative was far better than pushing ourselves past what our bodies could handle and ending up like a countless people who were forced to leave the event and ambulances. All throughout the race heard sirens going off and we knew more and more people were forced to quit. We moved a lot quicker on our second lap than we did on the first, but we still were not able to run very quickly. I felt shockingly strong during the run, which made me very happy. My biggest fear is having to make my athlete slowdown because I cannot go any faster. It has happened to me two times, and both of those places are still painful to think about. When I racing, 100% of my focus is on the athlete with whom I am competing. I wanted nothing more than to allow Rachel to run the race SHE wanted to run. i still encouraged her to drink, taking calories, and consume salt tabs. Anything can happen during an Ironman marathon. You can never be too careful when it comes to nutrition.

However, the types of foods we ate during the marathon are pretty funny. The most exciting thing that I found at in a station on the course with pickles. My two favorite foods during the run at Ironman Texas were chicken broth and pickles. I choked down a Gu or two, but it was tough to eat anything at all. It was still blazing hot even after the sun went down. When I felt Rachel’s arm, she was hot to the touch.

Some people on the course remembered us from the bike and asked us if we had been on the tandem. Many people let us know how inspired they were by what Rachel was doing. On occasion, we got an, “Oh, how cute! You guys are tied together!” I suppose that if you did not know that Rachel is visually impaired you might think that we were using the tether as a gimmick. I used every opportunity I could to explain that she was a physically challenged athlete. I would love for it to be commonplace to see visually impaired athletes in triathlons, so I believe that spreading awareness is of the utmost importance.

As it got dark, I began to realize that Rachel probably never trained in the dark at home. I mean, why would she? I asked her if she had run in the dark before. She confirmed my suspicion, that this would be a first for her. So during the final 9 miles of the marathon, not only did Rachel have to battle extreme fatigue, but she would be forced to run in pitch darkness for the very first time. In addition, we began to realize that we would be cutting it very close to the 17 hour time limit.

I did some quick math, and noted that we would need to go about 15 minutes per mile on the last loop to make it to the finish line before 11:50 PM. Midnight is the cutoff for age groupers, but because we started with the pros we had 10 fewer minutes. Rachel was wearing a Garmin watch, but it was not reliable. We had to just run as much as possible and pray that we would make it.

We ran some of the last lap with a fellow RWB member, Boonsri. He would stay with us for a while, get tired and walk, and then catch back up a few minutes later. This race wrecked everyone in it. The Team RWB aid station fell just before mile 22 on the third lap. By this point, I was getting a little nervous. The race could have gone either way. As we passed by our team members, I saw Hailey Lanier, the four year old daughter of my good friend, Allison, whom I stayed with earlier in the week. Seeing Hailey pumped me up! I couldn’t believe she was still awake, and cheering!!! Next, my friend, Hailey, ran up beside me. She said, “I have Jared on the phone! He says he loves you and that you should kick it into the next gear!” Getting a message like that was the final push I needed…

I was in focus mode. Rachel and I speed walked the next two miles. At that point, running and speed walking were so close in pacing, we thought walking fast might be more efficient. Boonsri caught up to us and let Rachel hold his arm for a while. At that point, it was so dark that Rachel had to hold my arm at all times. We turned each mile to the session we did not have time to stop it, so I would call to the volunteers and ask them to hand us fluids as we walked by. If they didn’t react fast enough, we would keep walking and usually someone would run up to us with a cup of water.

As we approach the final 2 miles we passed by the home of two new friends whom I stayed with the Thursday before the race. John and Nancy walked with us for close to a mile. Boon and I chatted with them, but Rachel was dead silent; she was totally in the zone. Just before 2 miles to go, I reminded Rachel that her daughters were waiting at the finish line for her. It was time to fucking GO! Rachel started running and didn’t stop.

We were still cutting it incredibly close. Rachel kept a really good pace. I stayed silent and tried to match her stride. There was nothing else to say. We were pushing it to the end. We got close to the second to last aid station and I noticed a sign that said, “Mile 7, 16, and 24 here.” A few minutes before, I told Rachel that we were almost at mile 25. I couldn’t believe it! Had I just lied to Rachel? If we had been at mile 24, we wouldn’t have made it. Thankfully, the sign was wrong. About a quarter mile after that aid station, we hit mile 25. We had less than 15 minutes to go 1.2 miles. The last mile seems very very long. There was an out and back along the water that messed with my head. I just wanted to be at the finish line already! Heading into the home stretch, about a half mile before the end, Allison handed me her American flag. At the Chicago triathlon last August, the only other race I had done with Rachel, I ran five of the 6.2 miles carrying an American flag. When Allison handed me the flag I got goosebumps. I remembered why we love racing. This meant more than both of us. This Ironman was about overcoming obstacles that Rachel at one point believed were insurmountable.

I had not seen the finishing stretch, so I was unsure of all of the turns. I relied on volunteers to steer us towards the finish line. I did everything I could to hold the flag high. Rachel seems to be running better than she had the entire race. The energy of the crowd at an Ironman finish line the last few minutes before midnight is unparalleled. I’m glad I got to experience the energy of this group of people. I told Rachel to grab the flag with me and we ran across the line. We headed into the shoot and picked up speed with every step. I began crying before we even crossed the finish line. I was overcome with pride for Rachel and filled with a feeling of utter joy. I wrapped my arms around her in congratulations. We had finished 140.6 miles in 16:58:14. One minute, forty-six seconds to spare.

Rachel said the only thing I could possibly hope to hear after an Ironman. She told me, “I wouldn’t have changed one thing about that race.”

I’m already trying to convince her to do another…

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Ford Ironman 70.3 Hawaii – Race Report 2007

After writing the report about my recent experience at Ironman 70.3  Panama, I revisited a race report I wrote after competing in Ironman 70.3 Hawaii in 2007. The contrast between my Panama and Hawaii  reports is interesting. When I competed in Hawaii I was 23 years old. I had never guided a visually impaired triathlete, and I had no experience working with veterans. When I raced, and I only focused on my own results. I wanted to set personal records and qualify for higher level races. Looking back, I realize that I raced like I had something to prove. I enjoyed competing; I always have enjoyed the sport of triathlon, and I always will.

With six more years of racing under my belt and experience racing with members of the para-triathlon community, competing in triathlons has a much greater significance. When I’m having a tough day, I think about the men and women serving in our military, suffering overseas. Even if they want to quit, they cannot. I think about the para-athletes who compete with immense physical challenges. The people I have been fortunate enough to meet through this sport over the past six years have enriched my life immeasurably. Since 2007, have learned many things. I now understand the adage, “racing is 90% mental and 10% physical.” I believe that no matter how much you prepare for a race, it is inevitable that an unforeseen variable will force you to alter your plan and you must take it in stride.  Most importantly, I have learned to appreciate racing. In racing, as in life, you should live in the moment, focus on getting from one mile to the next, and never worry about how much farther you have to go. With persistence, determination, and resilience, you will get to the finish line eventually.

In 2007, I called this writeup, “The Hardest Race of My Life.”

Thursday, May 31, 2007

I left work at 11am to catch a 2:35 flight out of JFK. I was petrified that my bike wouldn’t make the connection from LAX to Kona. I could barely sleep on the flights (I didn’t want to take a sleeping pill because I knew I had to be alert on Friday).

At LAX I started to get really lonely. I made a few phone calls while eating dinner, but I just felt even worse. I met my first racer before we boarded the flight to Kona. Though he warned me how incredibly tough the run was, I still felt more at ease knowing someone else was there with me. He told me he normally runs a 1:35 half marathon after a 56 mile bike (1:22 with no bike), and last year he ran 1:59 on the course.

We landed in Kona at 10:00 PM, which for me, felt like 4am. At this point, I had been awake since 6:00 AM Thursday. 22 hours and counting…

Thankfully, my bike and wheels landed with me – intact (or so I thought). I decided to rent a car to avoid having to take cabs from my hotel to the race hotel.

I was able to shuffle to the Hertz van with my bike box, wheel bag, race bag and carry-on bag in tow. I’m glad I’ve had so much practice getting my bike box in and out of cars… I had no trouble fitting the box into my tiny Ford Focus. I almost passed out on the way to my hotel. The only road in Kona is a straight, dark highway that literally circles the entire island. I was imagining a road with a strip of well-lit resorts, with easy-to-read signs displaying their names. I didn’t notice any hotels on my drive. I was lucky enough to spot the sign for the Hapuna Beach Prince. I don’t know if I could have made it another 5 minutes without falling asleep.

This hotel was, without a doubt, the nicest place I’d ever stayed. When I first stepped into my room, I was already bummed out that I couldn’t stay longer than the weekend. I was certainly relieved that after a day of traveling, I was finally in Hawaii.

Friday, June 1, 2007

I woke up early because I was absolutely famished. I NEVER pack enough food for my flights. I’m the freak on the airplane who always asks for two of everything…

A buffet brunch was included in the price of my hotel, so I stuffed my face full of potatoes, eggs and French toast, before I headed to my room to unpack my bike. I was planning to get my bike tuned up by the official bike shop, and had made a reservation at the store. However, when I called the shop, they informed me that they were located an hour from my hotel and that there was no way for me to get my bike checked out at the satellite store (at the race expo) because the list of people needing help was too long. I decided to put my bike together and take my chances at the expo… I wasn’t about to drive an hour for a tune up. I silently vowed that I wouldn’t stress out about details on this trip.

The drive to the race hotel (the Mauna Lani) was much farther than I thought. It was at least 5 miles away from my hotel. Thank goodness I decided to rent a car!!! I had to park in the event parking lot, which was essentially a huge lot of crushed lava rocks. I took the shuttle bus to the expo, and spoke to a guy in the Navy who normally races on a beach cruiser (they wouldn’t let him in this event) and a guy who does adventure races who is currently recovering from skin cancer. The doctors removed most of the skin from the bottom of his face. He said he’d be easy to spot because he had to race in a black mask to block out all of the UV rays (during the race I saw him three times on the course). He said that with this type of cancer, 1% of the people who get it have a chance of recurrence… he happened to be in that one percent. This guy was so hard core, he was even camping out near the race site. Everyone you meet at these races has some kind of cool story.

I got to the expo as soon as it opened, and approached the bike mechanics to see if they’d have a chance to look at my bike. The line was really long, so they asked me to ride my bike first to see if I had trouble shifting. First, I wandered around the expo and bought some CO2 and yet another pair of goggles – I have HUGE issues with goggles… every pair I own leaks. I think something is wrong with my face.

After dropping off my bike to run bag (there were two separate transition areas), I went back to the Hapuna Beach Prince to test out my bike. About 5 minutes into the ride, my lower gears started making a terrible noise. I also felt like the cleat on my right shoe was seriously out of whack. I was getting a little nervous about my chances of posting a good bike time. And I don’t even need to mention the heat. The lava rocks make the island feel like an oven. I was sweating my ass off after an easy spin on the bike – awesome.

I drove my bike back to the Mauna Lani to get help from the bike guys. I asked a mechanic to see if my front wheel needed to be trued… This is when I found out that my incredibly expensive Zipp racing wheel was cracked!!! Since I’ve never crashed on those wheels, it was most likely broken during the flight to Kona. Andy (the NYC mechanic) took some of the pressure off spokes near the cracks and told me I could race on the wheels for 56 miles, but that I probably wouldn’t want to go much farther. Thank goodness I promised myself I wouldn’t stress about the details. These things always seem to work out. I went into this trip knowing full well that something would go wrong—something always does. I get annoyed when people think I’m being negative when I prepare for the worst case scenario in every situation. To me, preparing for the worst is the most positive thing to do! If you are ready to handle even the worst outcome, you can tackle any problem. I definitely consider myself an optimist.

Dropped my bike at T1 and went for a quick swim to test out the water—and my new goggles. The beaches on Kona are absolutely beautiful. I didn’t want to leave the water.

After dinner, I went to a market to purchase some Red Bull, and I was finally able to go back to my hotel. The night before a race I like to decompress for at least an hour before going to bed. When I got to my room, I put all my race gear in a pile on the floor and wrote a list of what I needed for the morning. I set my alarm for 3:45 and went to bed.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

In the morning, I drank my quadruple shot of espresso that had been sitting in the fridge all night and attempted to organize all my crap for the race. I was able to walk to the swim start from my hotel, which definitely cut down on my stress level.

I got to T1 with plenty of time to spare. I ran into my bike mechanic friend, who wanted to take another look at my broken Zipp. He determined that the Zipp was fine, but then proceeded to break the valve extender on my rear wheel, which meant he had to deflate my tire to remove the extender from the tube. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a replacement for the part and had to tape the extender back on the tube. I’ve never had so many things go wrong with my bike. The mechanic promised to take pictures of me during the bike if he could get back to his hotel to pick up his camera. I was really pumped to have someone to cheer for me on the course!

Ironman logo races are pretty cool because you get your number stamped to your arm. I was number 1136, so my number stretched all the way to my elbow. I did feel pretty badass with my speedsuit on and my number stamped to my arm—I would soon feel much less badass. I should have been more nervous, considering the fact that it was only 6:45 and I was already sweating.

Kona number

As we stood on the beach waiting for the start, a girl told me we’d tread water for a bit before the gun went off. My goggles weren’t on… I was just chilling out. Suddenly, everyone made a mad dash for the water!!! I guess someone jumped the gun, which prompted the whole field to start the race prematurely. I don’t think it would have been possible for the race directors to call everyone back… I guess they just started the clock when everyone started running. I sprinted towards the first buoy, watching people fall all over each other. I was just praying that my goggles wouldn’t leak—which, of course, they did.

The water was gorgeous, but it’s hard to enjoy a swim when you’re knocking elbows with 1000 other competitors (I can’t believe it was a one wave start!). Also, the leaky goggles issue didn’t help. I had to stop at least 4 times to fix them. And holy crap, I never realized how much water I swallow during races. In transition, a girl standing near me said, “I feel like the inside of my mouth is a salt lick!” If only the gross taste was the problem… my stomach started hurting a few minutes later.

I exited the swim at around 38 minutes, which isn’t terrible (for me), considering how many times I had to stop. I ran up through the showers and into transition… I was just happy to get started with my favorite part of the race.

The first mile of the bike was pretty much straight up hill. Because I’m an average to slow swimmer, there were TONS of people starting the bike at the same time I was. Within 2 minutes of my ride, I had already scratched my leg on the plastic tie that was holding my number on my bike. It was already incredibly hot out, and my Gatorade and Red Bull mixture (usually the thing I look forward to most during the bike leg) tasted like shit.

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Instead of putting my tubes and C02 in my bento box, like I’ve done in the past, I made the mistake of shoving them into one of the rear bottle holders on my bike. They seemed to be pretty secure when I was setting everything up in the morning, but about 15 minutes into the bike I hit a bump and everything went flying! One of my tubes almost got caught in my rear wheel. I watc20130213-040517.jpghed it hanging on my frame, inches from the spokes of my rear wheel. Had it gotten caught, I would have gone flying over the front of my handle bars. A woman who rode by me as I stopped to remove the tube shouted, “Boy, are you lucky!!!” Thankfully, I didn’t crash… but I did have to ride 53 more miles without any materials to change a flat tire.

My stomach started hurting pretty early on in the bike. I thought it would go away towards the end, but it actually got worse. I wish I had known to carry Pepto Bismol tablets with me.

The bike course was along the main highway on the island. The entire ride is part of the Ironman World Championship. The turnaround was at the top of a 5 mile climb at Havi. It was so hot outside; I couldn’t stomach any of the food I’d taken with me. During my entire 2 hour 55 minute bike ride I managed to choke down 2 Espresso Love GUs, 1 banana and 1 cookie. At the Devilman Half, I ate 4 GUs and an entire snickers marathon bar—at the start of the run in this race, I was already at a 700 calorie deficit.

Thankfully, the aid stations in Kona were well stocked. I grabbed cold waters at every station on the bike course and poured as much as I could on my head. This bike ride was incredibly painful. My stomach hurt too much to remain in the aero position for more than a few minutes at a time, and I was dizzy and nauseous most of the ride. I really couldn’t push myself as hard as I wanted to because I was so dizzy I was afraid of falling off my bike. I hoped for some wind to cool the course down, but whenever I felt a gust, it was almost hotter than the air temperature. The wind just circulated the heat from the black lava rocks. It felt like and oven!!!

I definitely made up some ground on the bike. Someone told me I was the 66th woman around mile 50. By the end of the bike, I was really starting to get worried about my chances of finishing the run.

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Head down, powering through the course.

I rolled into T2 and saw that there was one bike from my age group already in transition. I passed a bunch of girls. At this point, I wasn’t even thinking about qualifying for worlds. In fact, all I could think was, “I don’t ever want to do an Ironman on this island!”

The last time I did a really hot race was 2 years ago – the Tinman Half Iron distance race in Tupper Lake, NY. I walked more than half of the run… My overall time was 6:22 (30 minutes slower than my first Half). I knew I had to come to Hawaii because there was such a good chance that I would crash and burn. I’ve done really well this season in smaller east coast races. I just think it’s way too easy to get a big head when you choose races that aren’t very competitive and where you know the weather conditions will be in your favor. I’d rather race in pouring rain or 35 degree weather than in the heat. I’d rather do a race that’s entirely uphill than race when it’s super hot out.

The run course took place entirely within the Mauna Lani Resort. In order to fit 13 miles into such a small area, the course had multiple turns and loops. We ran on grass along the golf course, on sand, and on hot asphalt next to fields of lava rock.

My stomach actually felt better during the run, but the heat prevented me from running faster than a 10 min per mile pace. I tried to keep a steady, slow jog going (I didn’t want a repeat of Tupper Lake—I have nightmares of the part of that race when I was literally crawling on the ground—while crying, of course. The Kona race packet did say that running, walking and crawling were all acceptable forms of locomotion. But really, who wants to crawl?). I walked every aid station and shoved handfuls of ice into the front and back of my sports bra and into the back of my shorts. I’m sure I looked totally ridiculous, running with ice in the back of my pants. Also, because I was totally soaked from all the water I was dumping over my head, my shorts kept getting air pockets in them… just to add to the hilarity of the situation. It was pathetic: barely running… soaking wet…ice bouncing around in my uniform… with huge bubbles of air in my pants.

So there I was, shuffling around this painful 13.1 mile course. Sometimes I’d pass really fit looking men who looked like they were going to collapse. But other times, I’d watch as these old women motored past me… there was nothing I could do about it. For most of the run I battled it out with a 61 year old woman (Who, by the way, was so tan her skin looked like leather. That means she trains in the heat… which means it’s ok that she ended up beating me, right?). Her system was to walk the steep golf course hills and walk the aid stations. I tried to do the same, but couldn’t keep up with her pace—I’m laughing out loud as I write this.

A 24 year old Japanese chick passed me around mile 3 on the run. At that point, I was in the race to finish. I’m not saying that I’d given up on trying to place in my age group, but I knew that if I started focusing on other competitors, I would completely break down. I just kept thinking to myself, “It’s a long race… anything can happen.”

A little before mile 5, I ran past a woman with whom I’d played cat and mouse on the bike. She looked really strong on the bike, but I guess the heat on the run did her in. She had collapsed and was foaming at the mouth. I don’t think she was fully conscious. A volunteer was trying to revive her and was frantically calling for the paramedics. There was nothing I could do, so I shuffled on.

The run was interesting to me because it seemed like how well people did had very little to do with fitness. The people who were successful in Hawaii were just good at racing in the heat. I saw some really fit looking people getting their asses kicked. My friend in the face mask—who can run a 7 min pace for 95 miles…or so he says—was a couple of miles behind me on the run.

At mile 6 I remember looking at my watch, which read 5:12. I joked to a guy running past me that in my last race, I was done 7 minutes ago! The absurdity of that thought made me feel better for a while.

Racers looked TERRIBLE! I saw very few people who looked like they were running at a normal pace. Everyone was soaking wet, and you could hear peoples’ shoes squishing up and down the course. At mile 8, I saw the girl who had entered T2 before me. She looked about as bad as I did… For the rest of the race, I tried to catch up to her, but she remained a half mile ahead until the finish. As it turns out, she ran 2 seconds per mile slower than I did on the run.

At every aid station I would ask for ice, cola and orange slices. I was unable to eat anything except the oranges. The RC Cola they provided was probably the only thing that gave me enough energy to finish the race. I would get desperate if the aid stations weren’t located every mile. After my ice melted, I could feel a significant change in my body. Between miles 8-10, I couldn’t get enough ice, and I had to walk for a few minutes. It got harder and harder to talk… I probably sounded like I was grunting when I asked for things at the aid stations. My skin was so hot I actually had goosebumps.

By mile 10, the pain in my body was so extreme I was just trying not to stop moving forward. Several people referred to the last three miles of the race as the “death march.” The last section was on an asphalt road, without any shade whatsoever. Miles 11-12 were mainly uphill. When I hit mile 11, I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder if I can run these last two miles in under 25 minutes…” I needed go faster than 25 minutes to break 6 hours. Mile 12-13 was the best mile of my race. I grabbed as much ice as I could at the final aid station and shoved it wherever it would fit.

I was able to run most of mile 13 at a pretty decent pace. These long races are really interesting, because your body and mind will go through so many changes. Sometimes there would be a 10 minute stretch where I felt like I could actually run, but 5 minutes later I was ready to quit the race and go back to my hotel. At the end, the race just became a mental challenge. I told myself the pain was ok. I tried to convince myself that I enjoyed it. I had to focus on getting from one aid station to the next. It didn’t matter how slow I was moving. It didn’t matter that this race was going to take me close to an hour longer than the race I did a month ago. It didn’t matter if I placed well in my age group. I just needed to cross the finish line.

My finishing time was 5:54:10. Swim – 38:42; Bike – 2:54:29; Run – 2:13:43.

I won’t say my finish was anti-climactic, but it was a little sad that there was no one waiting to greet me at the end of the race. I hobbled around for a bit, picked up my finisher’s shirt, and realized that I had no way back to my hotel. The Prince was right next to the swim start, but the finish line was at the Mauna Lani… The race directors did not provide any shuttle vans from the Mauna Lani to the swim start.

As I was walking back to T2 to pick up my bike, I ran into Michellie Jones, who placed second in the race. I had actually met her before, when she made an appearance at an all women’s triathlon in Illinois a few years ago. It was the summer after my freshman year of college. I have a photo of us after the race. I was chubby, sweaty, and pasty white. She, of course, is tall, thin and tan… Anyway, she’s a very nice person. She claimed that she remembers meeting me, though I highly doubt it. She asked me how I had avoided getting sunburned during the race. Aha!!! That was the only thing I did right during this race. I brought a tiny bottle of spray on sunscreen and reapplied every half hour on the bike. There were countless people walking around the post-race party with their race numbers burned into their skin. I’m definitely proud that I avoided getting burned… I get the funkiest sunburns most of the time.

I went to collect my bike and transition bags from T2—I still didn’t have a ride home. I asked a bunch of people along the way but no one could help me. My toes hurt like someone had smashed them with a hammer. I took off my shoes, to find that my feet were shriveled like disgusting, white prunes. I guess that’s what happens when you run 13 miles in wet shoes. My transition bags were so gross. My bike shoes smelled worse than ever. Everything was all wet and all of my food had melted. It was difficult to walk my bike with the two plastic bags full of race crap. People told me I should ride back to my hotel, but I would rather have slept on the sidewalk than gotten back on that thing.

I ended up calling a cab at the Mauna Lani. While I was waiting for the cab, I talked to a 22 year old kid who I’d seen walking on the run course. He told me his Ironman PR was 10 hours. Talk about a bad day… his Half Ironman time was well over 6 hours. He complained about getting passed by an old woman. Yeah, that was a little hard for me to take too.

The races that don’t go the way you want are almost more important than the races that go really well. I knew I was going to have a sloooooow time. It was hard to accept that the course was kicking my ass. But it is way too easy to just pick the safe races. I admit it—I got my ass kicked by a 61 year old woman. I was 3rd in my age group. I might have been able to beat both of the other girls if it hadn’t been so hot. But you know what? I don’t KNOW if I could have beaten them. I lost this race. I’m done making excuses. It’s ok not to have a great race every time. And it’s also ok to have a great race and still get beaten by someone in your age group. These statements may seem obvious, but I spent too many years stressing out about all of this. I ruined so many great races by fixating on the fact that someone beat my run split. I felt like no matter how good my performance was, if someone beat me who I didn’t think should have, I no longer felt that my performance was acceptable.

After my conversation with the 22 year old guy, my cab driver pulled up. I explained that I had no cash, no phone, and no way to get to my hotel. I thanked him for coming to get me and asked if he’d mind waiting while I ran (hobbled) to my hotel room. This cab driver was really interesting… Turned out he was from Brooklyn, but never considered himself to have found his “home” until he moved to the Big Island. He moved to Hawaii after his brother passed away a few years ago. He just married the woman of his dreams, and seemed to be living the most blissful life. He also leads tours around the island, and gave me some random facts while we drove home. It was fascinating to see how his life could change so dramatically in such a short time.

I only had a few hours between the race and the after party, so I took a bath (while eating potato chips) and tried to recover a little. The party was back at the Mauna Lani. I sat with a group of Navy and Air Force servicemen, and spent most of the time playing with an adorable little girl named Sarah.

I got an award for placing third in my age group and got to go up on stage. The Japanese chick won the race entirely on the run. Somehow she managed an 8:23 pace for the half. I was about 4 minutes behind the second place girl, who got an entry to Kona. I thought the Japanese girl would get an international spot at the Ironman World Championship, but I guess they didn’t have any in our age group.  She took the only qualifying spot in our age group for 70.3 Worlds in Clearwater, Florida. Maybe I’ll qualify at Timberman.*

All in all, my weekend in Kona was incredible. I loved traveling alone because I learned a lot about myself—how I interact with people, how I handle stress and pressure, and how completely capable I am of taking care of myself.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

I woke up, went to brunch, and started packing my bike. I had three hours of actual vacation time before I had to leave… I felt empowered because I had to take care of all the details myself. I loaded my bike box into the car and drove to the airport. I was exhausted, but when there’s no one else to help you get everything taken care of, you just do it yourself. If I’d had friends with me, I probably would have asked them to take care of driving and carrying my bags! I had two minor meltdowns on the way back to NYC. I found myself crying in the Honolulu airport when I realized my flight was delayed (I had a 45 minute layover in Chicago, so I was going to miss my flight to NYC).

Monday, June 4, 2007

Though I missed my 6:00 flight, I was the last standby passenger to get on the 6:55 to LaGuardia. I had a middle seat at the very back of the aircraft. The doors shut as soon as I boarded. Unfortunately, there was very little room in the overhead compartments by the time I got on the plane. So, when I found my seat, an uppity male flight attendant was already starting to harass me about putting my backpack away so we could leave. He kept telling me to take my bag apart. At this point, I’d been traveling for 16 hours. I was dirty, hungry, tired and dehydrated. And this f*cking flight attendant asks me in front of the whole plane, “What don’t you understand about ‘start taking your bag apart?’” Needless to say, I completely broke down. I started bawling in the middle of the packed plane. A nice female flight attendant gave me a plastic bag to transfer some of my clothes.

While hyperventilating, I managed to say, “Please…tell…him…that…he…doesn’t…need…to…be…so…MEAN. He…just…shamed…me…in…front…of…the…whole…plane!!!”

And I cried my way to my seat. I sat with my award on my lap, because there was nowhere else to put it. I think the male flight attendant felt bad, because he avoided me for the rest of the trip. I just felt bad for the two guys I sat next to. I didn’t stop crying until after we took off.

Miraculously, my bike and wheels were waiting for me when we landed. It was 10:00AM and I’d been in-transit since noon the day before. I sped to my apartment in a cab, showered, changed, and was at my desk before 12.

I still can’t believe I made it through the weekend.

*Footnote: I did not qualify for 70.3 Worlds at Timberman. My finish time was 5:11:33 and I placed third in my age group. If a spot had rolled down, I was next in line to qualify.

Ironman Panama 70.3

I had reason to be afraid of competing in Ironman 70.3 Panama race. For four months, my training had been inconsistent at best, I was not accustomed to the heat, and I lacked mental focus and confidence. I had been struggling with a lack of motivation for what seemed like a very long time. Perhaps my years of racing had taken a toll on me. I feared that I would never regain the drive I once had.

I have been racing since I was 17. In 2008, I began racing as a guide for visually impaired athletes, which has become my passion. Over the past five years, I have mostly competed in triathlons as a guide. Though guiding is often more challenging than racing solo, at some point over the past few years I stopped feeling like the strong athlete I used to be. I know that I have created mental barriers, which cause me to doubt myself. However, my fears of failure and inadequacy seem very real to me.

In order to regain my sense of self, I know that I must train and race for myself, not just for the athletes whom I guide. Guiding will always be my number one priority in athletics, but I am doing a disservice to my athletes if I race when I am not functioning at my best, both physically and psychologically. Panama 70.3 would be the first Half Ironman triathlon that I would race solo in almost three years.

Though I registered in October, I did not fully commit to compete in Panama 70.3 until the week before race. After a conversation with a good friend I realized that I needed to complete this race in order to conquer my irrational fears.

Setting a personal record in Panama was out of the question. My goal was to avoid completely blowing up due to the heat and my lack of fitness. I knew I had to get to the starting line and smile for 70.3 miles, no matter the outcome.

The morning of the race, I felt surprisingly relaxed. I boarded the shuttle bus to transition with my mom and my new race buddy, Dana (whom I met 6 years ago at 70.3 Kona). Race setup was smooth, and Dana and I made our way to the pier where the race would start. I was thrilled to be walking along the Panama Canal. I knew that in a short time, I would swim in one of the Seven Wonders of the World. How could I not feel grateful for such an unbelievable experience?

Lining up to start

A 30-minute delay in the race start time made me a bit anxious. In a race that was guaranteed to reach 90+ degrees Fahrenheit, every minute delay at the start meant another minute racing in the hottest part of the day. Despite the long wait, I enjoyed the company of my fellow racers.

What a positive, energetic group of people! There seemed to be dozens of photographers, perhaps in part due to the presence of the former Miss Panama, a strong triathlete in her own right. Women were dancing, laughing, smiling, and chatting with fellow competitors. One spunky triathlete said, “It’s simple: nadar, pedalear, correr…” She was right. It was simple. All we had to do was swim, pedal and run. Why did it seem so much more complicated than that?

IMG_3678

All of a sudden, the wait was over. The announcer called the pro wave to the starting line. I could see the professional triathletes treading water between the buoys. In the background, huge cargo ships were sailing up the canal, making the swimmers seem incredibly small and fragile. When the pros went off, I knew that I only had minutes to prepare.

The women in the 18-35 age groups jumped into the water with 2 minutes to go and swam to the buoys. The water was cold, a pleasant surprise. I always prefer cold water to warm; there is nothing worse than exiting the water overheated.

The swim was a straight point-to-point course and there was plenty of room, so I didn’t have to throw any elbows (sometimes my high school water-polo-player self comes out in crowded swim starts). I swam conservatively and stuck to my own rhythm.

Swim exit

Before I knew it, I was making the left turn toward the stairs bringing the athletes out of the water and back to transition. With the current, my swim was relatively fast. I still finished middle of the pack, but my body felt good and I began to feel optimistic about the race.

Cycling is my favorite leg of a triathlon. I consider myself a cyclist. One reason I like guiding so much is that I can get on a tandem with a visually impaired athlete and ride a course without holding anything back. Confidence is critical. You have to respect your bike and the conditions of the road, but there is no better feeling than flying down a hill at 40 mph, passing jacked-looking men who are gripping their brakes…

Twenty kilometers into the race, I looked down at my rear tire and thought the pressure seemed a little low. I asked a guy who rode up next to me if it looked flat, but he said it seemed fine. I pressed on. I don’t mind being a mediocre swimmer because it’s really fun to catch people out on the bike course. And for a while, I seemed to be doing pretty well.

Bike leg

An hour into the race, however, the familiar feeling of my rim rolling against the pavement confirmed my earlier concern. My rear tire was flat. My first ever in a triathlon! Thankful that I had decided to pack a spare tire at the last minute, I pulled over and quickly removed and inspected the tire…. No glass or sharp objects. That meant I must have been riding with a very slow leak for a while. I don’t know how much time I lost riding with a deflating tire.

Crap! I had forgotten a CO2 cartridge. You can’t fly with CO2, so I didn’t put one in my bike box. I had to wait for the course mechanics. When they came by on their motorcycles, they helped change the tube and were preparing to pump it up when a second problem came to light. The stem on my tube wasn’t long enough. My Zipp 404s require either an 80mm stem or a valve extender. What a rookie mistake! I had assumed the tube I packed had the long stem….

Luckily, after searching through their gear, the mechanics produced a valve extender. What a relief to know that a minor equipment issue hadn’t meant the end my race!

While I waited for the mechanics to fix my flat, I watched dozens of athletes pass me. I was highly (in retrospect, overly!) motivated to catch everyone who passed me while I stood helpless on the side of the road.

I hopped back on my bike, motivated further by cheers from spectators on the roadside. For a while I was moving at a good pace, but the temperature was climbing.

I was able to drink water and finished a bottle of Perpetuem within the first 20 miles, but I couldn’t stomach much else. The discomfort from the heat, not having trained enough on my TT bike, and wearing an inadequately vented aero helmet were getting to me. I was passing competitors at regular intervals, but it was discouraging to see so many people heading back from the turnaround when I was still on my way out. With about 10 miles to go, I wanted nothing more than to stop my bike. With so much salt crusted on my shorts, I knew I was in trouble. I tried to enjoy the beautiful scenery, but I was unable to ignore the pain in my neck and shoulders and the suffocating heat. I focused on keeping a smile on my face, hoping that if I looked like I was enjoying myself, I might start to have fun.

Heading into T2After more than 3.5 hours on the bike course (my normal time is well below 2 hours 50 minutes), I reached transition. At this point, I felt so terrible I was hoping that an official or volunteer would physically remove me from the course…. Please tell me I’m severely dehydrated and need an IV! But I knew that unless I was actually putting my health at risk, I couldn’t quit.

But boy did I want to. I have never started a run feeling so defeated. After a few minutes on the course, I saw my friend Dana finishing her first loop. She looked so strong…. I felt so weak.

But I began my 13.1-mile trek, still hoping that someone would tell me I was too dehydrated to go on, but knowing that I could suffer through the rest of the race. After about 6 hours, I turned my watch off. There was no point in looking at the time any more. In my wildest imagination, I did not dream that a this race would take more than 6.5 hours, even on a TERRIBLE day*. It just goes to show that you can never predict what will happen during an endurance race like this.

On my second lap, I met an entertaining Brazilian lawyer named Edison. We both complained about the difficulty of the course and I mentioned how slow my time would be compared to my normal performances Edison said something that resonated with me: “This is your new PR- your perseverance record.” What a wonderful way to look at a race like this. It would have been so much easier to quit, but we all carried on. If I finished, this would be my new perseverance record.

There were no mile markers (which might have been a blessing)- only markers every 3-5k. I couldn’t focus on anything. I had no rhythm. I ran when I could, but every time I was out from under shade, I felt my body shut down.

At the start of my second loop, I saw my mom again. She asked if she should meet me at the finish. I said yes, knowing that it would be a long time before I saw her again. I felt short of breath and tried to fight back tears. I wasn’t crying because of how I felt. I was crying because I was thinking about now hard it had been for me to even bring myself to show up for this race.

I look a lot happier than I feel.

I look a lot happier than I feel.

When I signed up in the fall, I did so with the hope that it would motivate me to get myself together, to start training and enjoy athletics again. Unfortunately, there was no race that could have pulled me out of my slump.

I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. I was grateful to be out on the course, no matter how slowly I was moving forward, I was making forward progress. Lately I have felt like my life is moving in slow motion. Often, I have have even felt like I was moving backward, regressing to a state of helplessness while everyone around me was moving forward and bettering themselves.

I realized at that moment that I have not been moving backwards. Slow progress is still progress. My finishing time in this race was the least important aspect of the event.

I would like to say that this revelation filled me with energy, that I ran the last 6 miles feeling stronger than I had at any point in the race, but that’s not how it happened. I continued to walk, running on occasion… Letting the minutes and miles pass by, trying to reach the seemingly unattainable finish line.

Finish Line Smile

But the finish line did come.

After 7 hours and 12 minutes of swimming, biking and run/walking, I crossed the line. Yes, my time was more than 2 hours slower than my PR of 5:05. Yes, I wanted to quit at least 5 times during the race. But I had finished. I even managed to smile almost the entire time, which is what I promised my friends I would do.

This was a new start. There may be more setbacks to come, and I may have to start over a hundred more times, but I will start over. Again and again… Until I have the momentum to continue forward and pick up speed along the way.
*So the reader can better understand why it was hard for me to come to terms with racing a 7+ hour Half IM, I have put together a comparison of my times for Panama 70.3 versus the times from one of my best Half IM races. See below:

Panama 70.3 vs. Timberman 70.3