Monday, September 24, 2007

Ironman Wisconsin

First and foremost I would like to thank everyone who sponsored me for this event. Your generosity resulted in a donation of approximately €1500 for the Irish Heart Foundation and over $1000 for the American Heart Association.

As a reward you get to read my race report. Since there’s a strong possibility it will bore you to tears I’ll give you the short version also – a text message I sent to just about every number in my mobile phone the morning after the race:
“11:59:43 I am an Ironman!!! It was an amazing day. Swim was chaos, bike was brutal and the run was a blast!! Can’t sleep this morning. Legs feel ok, sore but no injuries. A long race report to follow!”


It started like many a mid-week training run with friends. As we set out on the 8-mile loop around Medicine Lake in the middle of last summer little did I know that by the end I would have committed to an ironman. Sure, it was something I’d dreamed about, having done a few short triathlons and having heard stories from others who’d done it. But the ultimate triathlon experience was definitely one of those “someday” goals that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get around to. Kami had other ideas - and this is a girl who didn’t even own a bike at the time. But considering she signed up for a marathon before running a 10k I shouldn’t have expected anything less. A month later we’d survived our first half-ironman and a few weeks later while Kami was running a marathon in Maui I was cursing at my laptop when it told me registration for IM Wisconsin 2007 was full 45 minutes after it opened. Yes, IM places at $450 a pop go as quick as U2 concert tickets. There are all sorts of crazy people in this world. However, for another $550 “charitable donation” additional entry slots would we available later in the week. So sure enough I was back online a few days later and we had our places confirmed. Just the training now...

Fast forward twelve months to a warm September morning in Madison, Wisconsin. The day was finally here. After a summer of pretty intense training broken up by a fun trip home in July that involved lots of non-ironman training activities, I found myself walking down a parking lot helix to the swim start just as the sun was rising over Lake Monona. It was a beautiful sight and I felt surprisingly calm as I passed tons of cheering supporters lined up on each side of the helix, and was delighted to see a few familiar faces among them. We got into the water about 5 minutes before the start, getting comfortable in our wetsuits and moving out towards the center of the start line, staying towards the back of the pack. The swim course was 2 loops of a rectangle with the start line perpendicular to the shore, and the first corner buoy about 300m out from shore. The excellent event organization that would continue all day had everyone in the water by 7am and so with the sound of the cannon we started right on time.

My biggest worry about the swim was that I would get totally bored being out there for so long and would start to drag in the water. No chance. A human blender of elbows and ankles is about the best description I’ve heard. 50 meters into it, just as I was thinking to myself “that wasn’t so bad”. SMACK. One of those elbows hit me square on my nose. I was expecting a few knocks in the head and kicks here and there but this completely stunned me. I honestly thought it was broken for a few seconds. The tears started as a reflex – but I quickly realized that crying while wearing goggles is a really bad idea. The pain eased off pretty soon and I was left with a dull headache for the rest of the swim and was regularly reminded of the incident throughout the day. I have a habit of blowing my nose constantly while biking or running (hence the reason my training partners keep a good 3ft clearance from me) and as the day wore on and my coordination skills failed me, I kept knocking my hand awkwardly against my nose. Ow. That hurt. Again. In any case, it forced me to keep alert for the rest of the swim as I did my best to avoid stray limbs. Not easy with 8800 of them in the water but thankfully no further injuries were sustained. And unlike a few unfortunate souls that I passed I managed not to get my goggles knocked off. Though at one point I got a hit from the right and thought they were going to come off and next thing a hit from the left and they were back in place. Nice one. Lots of swimming under and over people as we all dove towards the buoys, especially the corner ones which had magnetic appeal. I stayed on course reasonably well except for rounding the second corner on the first loop and heading diagonally out from the line. At the end of the first loop I checked my time and was at 37 minutes. I was very pleased with this and figured I’d definitely make my goal of 1hr30m. I swam alongside a guy for the whole length of the rectangle as we headed out on the second loop. This really kept me on a good pace and I was sorry to lose him in the scrum as we rounded the corner buoy. However, I continued to swim pretty strong and focused on pulling while continuing to sight every few strokes. No shoulder aches at all which was great as even the day before in our warm-up swim I’d felt my right shoulder the whole way. I’ve managed to avoid any serious injuries all year but tightness in my shoulders had been a problem most of the summer. On the home straight now, a quick check of the watch, a little sprint towards the end with some strong kicking to get blood flowing to the legs. And I was done. 1:20. WOW – where’d that swim come out of? My best half ironman swim was 41 minutes! No time to analyze it now as I open the zipper of my wetsuit and pull it down halfway. The kind volunteers did the rest - just one of the many quirks at ironman - the swim volunteers have the fun job of helping you pull off your wetsuit as you lie on the ground. The transition area was at the top of the parking lot so I jogged back up the helix with wetsuit across the shoulder. As I look back on the day this was absolutely the most fun part of the whole experience (well ok, apart from crossing the finish line). It was incredibly cool. I felt like I was running on air as I passed the hundreds of supporters who were now cheering at least ten decibels louder than on the way down to the swim.

We’d dropped off our transition bags the day before and had a chance to look through them that morning so I knew the layout of the area but I honestly didn’t have the worry about anything like that as the volunteers were so well organized, calling out numbers as we came through so that someone had grabbed my bag and ran with me into the changing area. Even though I had a change of gear if needed the weather forecast was excellent for the day so I just pulled on my tri top, socks, bike shoes, helmet and sunglasses. Out the door, quick visit to the portaloo (note to self: incorporate into open water swim practice next year) and off to find my bike. Again, a volunteer had it off the rack and waiting for me. Sweet! In the excitement of seeing my swim time I’d stopped my watch by accident and only realized halfway through transition so looking at the clock as I got on the bike I figured it was somewhere around 4 minutes off. This would be important later as I tried to calculate my time over and over again in my head trying to figure out if I would hit 12 hours.

I was familiar with the bike course from a training ride a few weeks before so I knew that I needed to control my speed for the first few hours and save something for the hills towards the end. The course was a 15 mile ride out to the town of Verona followed by 2 loops with a lot of hills on the back end, and then back to Madison. I really had to keep an eye on my speed as I was finding it so easy to stay over 20mph but I knew I would pay for it later so I tried to keep around 18mph. The first two hours seemed to go by pretty quickly. I’d settled into a good pace and was riding with generally the same group of people, trying to avoid illegal drafting which was a bit difficult for most of the first loop given the number of bikers. The big climbs weren’t so bad first time around. In large part due to the support – there were people literally lining the course all the way up the hills. It was very cool to have people screaming all sorts of amusing stuff including one sergeant major roaring “Get up that hill! Your Mama can’t help you now! Move your ass!” OK. Further along myself and a guy I’d been over and back with for a few miles got a great laugh from a girl holding a sign that read “I’d still be swimming”. I thought it was best sign ever.

To keep the energy levels up I’d been munching on cola and cranberry Clif blocks, which I had in a baggie along with an odwalla bar that I’d smushed up. This turned out to be a very smart idea as the blocks got coated in bits of the bar and were very tasty indeed. But as I got close to the halfway mark I was beginning to hallucinate about the iced coffee and banana sandwich waiting for me in my “special needs” bag at around the 60 mile mark. Sticking to the mantra of never try anything new on a race I’d trained with coffee all summer – and have developed a nice habit that I’ll find hard to kick. Before the stop we did a quick tour through Verona, with tons of loudly cheering supporters to greet us. Just after leaving the town the line of volunteers began. They were shouting our numbers as we approached the bags so that the lady had mine in her hand by the time I reached her. COFFEE. Heaven. Followed by an exchange of water bottles and off again. My training partner Tanya had whizzed through while I was enjoying my break so I went in search of her and tried to keep her in my sights for the next several miles. This strategy worked until we ran into some headwind - and I ran out of steam. I was getting really frustrated as I struggled to maintain 13-14mph – on the flat! I so wanted to be off the bike at this stage. Though I realized I was still surrounded by the same, now familiar, faces which that made me feel a little better. It was around this time that I began to rethink my goals. When I first signed up for IM I talked about just finishing within the 17hr limit and feeling relatively good. That quickly got revised to 14hrs and after two good half-ironman races during the summer I figured 13hrs was a definite possibility. But you always have to have a dream goal and for me that was 12hrs with an important part of that being a sub-4hr marathon. I just knew that no matter how the rest of it went I wanted to feel good on the run. But now, with legs that felt like lead and another 40 miles ahead of me, including a few big climbs, I was quickly revising upwards. I figured if my legs were this tired on the bike there was no way they could recover for the run. My quads were screaming at me from the bottom to the top of each of the big climbs. I was so glad to see the last of them. The ride back to town wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I think all of that cursing on the hills cleared my mind a little. It was much quieter now as most of the supporters had headed into town to watch the run. I tried to keep a pretty steady pace, saving my legs as best I could but trying not to drop my pace below 17mph. My spirits improved with every mile and soon I was back in the city, along the waterfront and up the helix to the transition area. I was so happy when the volunteer took my bike from me right at the line and told me I didn’t need to rack it myself. I was okay with not seeing it again for a long long time!

Not knowing exactly what time I’d started the bike at I figured I’d done it in around 6:40 so I was happy enough with that. I would definitely like to have felt stronger on the second loop but I know that it is just down to training. And having gained some time on the swim I knew that 12hrs was still a possibility. I zipped through this transition much quicker than T1, just ditching the helmet and exchanging bike shoes for running shoes. Stuffed a few energy gels in my pockets, quick drink of water and off I went. Man it felt sooooo good to be on two feet again. I hope to someday enjoy biking as much as running but I don’t see it happening anytime soon! I passed the first water stop without stopping as it was quite close to the start but thereafter I walked though each one making sure I got enough fluids and food. Amazingly I didn’t consume a single energy gel the entire day. I would normally take 4 or 5 during a marathon but today the array of grub at each water stop including pretzels, grapes, oranges and bananas was much more appealing (just missing gummi bears…). I had water at each stop and a little Gatorade every second one. And I took a cup of ice from each stop to carry with me which is a great way to keep cool and I find it just gives me something to focus on, chomping on ice-cubes. The run course was pretty nice. I was familiar with most of it from our training weekend here. I wasn’t too keen on the circuit around the college stadium (it would have been okay if the seats were filled with supporters!), nor the many sections of pavement but of course I loved the section of trail and also quite enjoyed the few hills as they required different muscles which felt pretty good. And the support was fantastic. There wasn’t more than a few hundred meters stretch every now and then that didn’t have a band of supporters. And with our names printed on our bibs I made sure to have move my race belt so it was visible every time we came to the busier areas. There’s nothing quite as motivating as complete strangers yelling your name! Except friends yelling your name… it was a real boost to see a familiar face every couple of miles along the course. I am so grateful to them all for traveling to the race and I hope to repay the favour in the future.

Mile 15 - Having fun on the run!

I tried to keep a pretty even pace for the first half of the run and was happy with around 8 minute miles followed by 30-40 seconds walking through the water stops. I figured if I could keep this up I would comfortably hit 4 hours. Which led to calculations and re-calculations as to whether or not I’d hit 12hrs! But halfway is early in a regular marathon so it was certainly too early to be thinking about the finish line just yet. I had another caffeine fix at mile 14 where we had our special needs run bag. Not sure it made much difference but I was able keep up the same pace for a few more miles before slowing down towards mile 18. Still my legs felt ok and thankfully no stomach issues at all. While it sounds sort of cruel I can’t deny it felt incredible to be running strong and passing people all the way. My little sister who was following me online in Sydney summed it up in a text message later that night… “Well done helen you did so class can’t believe your run time…you passed bout 600 people since the cycle ya lunatic! Congrats il ring u soon xx”. I laughed so much. It was just one of many text messages that night and the next day that made every moment worthwhile. I do all of this for myself, for reasons I can’t quite explain. But knowing that so many friends and family are supporting me is a real help during these longer events.

In a previous race report I wrote that I didn’t believe I had any natural running talent. I meant that at the time. And I absolutely believed it five years ago when running 5km on the treadmill was a struggle. But having run a 3:17 marathon earlier this summer it’s probably time to ditch the modesty. And while it mostly comes down to training I am definitely blessed with an endurance (stubbornness, some might say) that seems to be improving each year. And this certainly kicked in for the last few miles. Knowing I was risking the 12hr mark I made a quick pit stop at the portaloo at mile 22 and emerged knowing it was worth the 30 seconds. I was able to pick it up for the next 2 miles. But I knew I couldn’t keep this pace for much longer. Part of me wanted to walk so badly. But that was not an option and so I tried to focus on just getting closer to the finish line. Around endless corners and then finally the Capitol building was in view. Trying to remember how many sides of the square I had to go around, was it 2 or 3 or 4… huge crowds now… I knew that I’d given everything I had on this day and whatever my final time I would be immensely proud of this achievement. Of course, I can say that now… remembering how I felt rounding that final corner and seeing 11:59:35 on the clock. Woo Hoo!! I sped down the home straight. Crossing the finish line to the sound of the announcer screaming “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”. It was the best feeling in the world. The crowd was amazing. I felt like a rock star.

A huge thank you to Kami for convincing me to do this. And to Tanya for her dedication to training, some of which rubbed off on me.

Make today your someday.