Sunday, September 15, 2013

IMWI race report

Really I have too much to say - I want to write a book about triathlon, or at least a Kindle Single or similar! But I do like race reports, and I want to write one before I have forgotten the basics.

(I have read and reread Brent's report of his experience at the same race in 2007 many times; mine will be less concise and more rambling! NB that was just weeks before I met Brent for the first time - I had been corresponding copiously with Brent and Wendy by email, having found their blogs online by virtue of my utter triathlon obsession, and I was mighty tempted to get a plane ticket to Wisconsin and join Wendy to spectate Brent's race, but it was not feasible. Brent came to NY at the end of October instead for some theatergoing and conversation, and that was the beginning of a very good new stage of my life!)

It was a lot harder than I expected. Now, that is a ridiculous thing to say: it's Ironman, of course it's hard; if it wasn't, everybody would be doing it!

The swim was much, much more challenging than I expected. It was a windy day, and there was both chop and current on the longest leg of the one-loop swim, to a degree that under other circumstances wouldn't at all have phased me - I am a confident and happy open-water swimmer, mercifully - but that meant I had to work incredibly hard for a pretty long stretch of time, with a grim sense of the toll this was taking and the consequences it would likely have for the bike.

I thought the bike ride would be both physically and mentally easier than my very hot windy last 112-mile ride in Cayman (which took me around 6:40). It wasn't - it was more physically comfortable, certainly (not so hot, and my 'real' road bike is a much better fit than the one I have in Cayman, so my hands and feet don't get so sore), but I was racing the cutoffs the entire time, and not at all sure I was going to make it.

(I had not realized the extent to which it would take absolutely perfect conditions for me to have the nice half-hour or forty-minute buffer I thought I would manage. Conditions weren't terrible, especially in the sense that it wasn't as hot as it had been the day before and would be the day after, but the wind was fairly serious on the bike as well as the swim, which significantly slowed me down, given that it's already a hilly course.)

I made the cutoff for the transition from bike to run by the skin of my teeth - really, literally, five minutes later and I wouldn't have been allowed to continue!

But once I was sitting getting changed for the run, I was in the most blissfully elevated mood, and the whole rest of the evening was perfect - I felt physically strong, my stomach was fine and I was never in any doubt that I was going to make it before the final cutoff at midnight. So in a sense the 'run' (more of a walk-jog hybrid) can be thought of as the reward for having survived the swim and the bike!

My full results are here. I'll give those numbers, then proceed in more detail through each stage of the race. (I've covered some of this in brief posts earlier in the week; apologies for repetition.)

Rankings are by division (W40-44), overall and gender (F). Here's some data on the race more generally - looks like there were 2343 finishers total.

swim: 2:04:49 (123/2412/601)
t1: 10:29 (you run up the "helix" in wetsuit, it is not a fast transition!)
bike: 8:11:13 (13.68mph) (119/2383/586)
t2: 7:44
run: 6:11:11 (14:10/mi.) (118/2306/559)

I only passed 29 people on the bike, but I passed 77 more on the run, and really I was very strong on both of those legs, just slower than I would like, especially on the bike!

130 women started in my age group, and 12 of them didn't finish: 4 didn't make the swim cutoff, 7 more didn't make the bike cutoff (this is where I almost joined them) and 1 made the swim and the bike but not the run. I was 118/118 finishers in my division, and feel very lucky to have come in on the right side of that divide. I gained more than a hundred places over the course of bike and run, which may not mean that I paced well but certainly suggests I paced less badly than others, and that I was sufficiently trained for the event!


Everything went pretty smoothly. I had time Friday morning after I registered and picked up my bike from Tribike Transport to drop my bike at the Trek tent for a safety inspection, which always relieves my mind pre-race. On Saturday, Brent and I had coffee with the Wimmers, who are just as delightful in person as I imagined they would be. I got to bed early on Saturday, and the whole thing was in striking contrast to my experience at the Vermont triathlon in early August, where I was way too frazzled and couldn't sleep at all the night before. It makes a big difference to be able to get there a few days beforehand, and I'm going to try and prioritize that for future high-stakes races.

The swim

It was a one-loop course in Lake Monona. The first leg was uneventful, and in fact easy enough that I thought "Gosh, they really need to make these Ironman swims harder!" Then I turned left around the red buoy at the end of the first line of buoys and had a rude awakening. There was a ton of current and chop, so that you were rising feet into the air with every stroke; it is realistic self-evaluation rather than self-praise when I say that I am a strong and relaxed open-water swimmer (slow but strong), I don't have an elegant stroke but I can swim forever at my easy pace, breathing every three strokes on alternate sides and sighting either every six or every twelve strokes depending on what's needed. I had imagined I'd be able to swim 2.4mi in 1:45 and at very easy effort levels throughout; instead I found myself breathing every two on my left side, working about as hard as I have ever worked on a swim, for close to an hour as we struggled along this stretch across to the second turn. People all around me were clinging to kayaks and buoys; there was a lot of panic. I didn't have any panic, just a grim underlying awareness that this was taking much, much longer than I had imagined, and more worryingly that I was working in zone 4 (maybe even zone 5) to a degree I had not at all anticipated! I didn't look at my watch, as I was frankly swimming as hard as I could, but I had about fifteen minutes where I worried obsessively about whether I might even be close to missing the cutoff. Once I turned around the second buoy, the swimming got a lot easier, and there were enough others still around me that it was clear we weren't right up against the cutoff. The finish itself was uneventful, but when I saw 2:05 on the clock I knew the day was going to be much more precarious in its timing than I had imagined.

(Note: I initially thought that really this meant I was undertrained on the swim, but further reflection reminded me that I had only two priorities for this Ironman training cycle. The first was to cycle at all costs and as much as possible, even at the expense of any swimming or running; the second was not to get sick. Swimming-pool chemicals are one of the two big things that really stress my lungs and immune system - the other is anxiety-triggered asthma on the bike - and really it was right that I shouldn't have done more this time round. To some extent, the fact that I was able to maintain a steady hard effort on the bike and continue to gain places on the run means on the contrary that I was sufficiently trained on the swim - trained for completion rather than for speed and freshness, but it all worked out OK.)

Here is a picture of me looking very happy to be done with the swim!

The bike

The first half of the bike was mentally agonizing. It is a "lollipop" course - you ride out to the west of Madison, then do two big clockwise loops, then ride the lollipop stick back into town. It was unpleasantly clear to me right away (my Garmin wouldn't turn on, which was annoying, so I only had actually HR data after I'd already ridden five miles and the device finally picked up a satellite) that my HR was much, much higher than it had ever been in training. There was nothing I could do to get it back down - even when I pulled back on effort, it stayed in the mid-140s, Friel zone 3. My goal had been low zone 2 for first half of the ride (cap at 135 excluding hills, then let it rise to c. 138 for second half). But it was stuck in the mid-140s; average HR for the ride came in at 146 (my cycling zone 3 is 138-48), and I had a ton of time in zone 4 and more than seems at all desirable in zone 5 (highest HR was 167, which is a few beats higher than I ever usually see in training). It was also clear from the numbers that my pace was significantly slower than I had hoped. The combination of hills and wind was devastating, and very bad for morale.

I am mentally fairly tough, and it's also a strength of mine that I have a very good feel for pacing, particularly considered in the vein of "how hard can I work now and still have that effort level be sustainable for seven more hours." But I hadn't really perused time and place of bike cutoffs closely (I have a good sense of time but a poor sense of geography), and I spent the whole first half of the ride - four hours - desperately worrying whether I was going to get pulled at the halfway mark (there are subsidiary cutoffs at various points on the bike as well as the big cutoff where you need to be into transition by 5:30).

My effort levels probably weren't that much higher than they usually would be on a long ride (i.e. my legs were very capable of doing the work, and I felt extremely strong on the hills, even late in the race), but HR still wouldn't go down. I rode as hard as I could, and stayed hydrated/fueled (I was wearing a Camelbak-style pack with a 100oz hydration bladder inside it - it had the Carborocket "333" Half-Evil, and I remixed a second set of that after picking up my special needs bag. Total consumption of fluids and calories on 8+hr bike: 200oz Half-Evil, a.k.a. 2000 calories, plus about 30oz additional water and 2 lumps of almond paste, say another 300 calories). I felt slightly queasy almost the whole time - more the queasiness of riding too close to lactate threshold than the queasiness of actual stomach distress - periodically I would burp a little and have a few minutes of feeling better, but I did actually worry at several moments whether I might throw up.

Special needs came around the halfway mark, just after the start of the second loop. The only thing I wanted was the sport drink powder - all the snacks I'd stowed seemed revolting - but I was very happy to learn that there was a full half-hour remaining before the special needs area would shut down, which meant I was further ahead of the midrange cutoff than I had feared.

The second half was actually much better mentally. I knew I had four hours and that it would be close, but I also knew that it was feasible and had a much clearer notion of exactly what I had to do. I had some good stretches of "living in the moment." I also had some ongoing stretches of negative thoughts of various kinds.

(Samples: Ugh, this is a vanity project - if I don't make that cutoff, I really will feel like I need to try again, only I can't set aside time again for 2-3 years, and I must have spent THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS on this race once you add up registration, airfare and taxis, bike transport, hotel, sundries - am I really so vanity-driven that I would spend ANOTHER THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS just to try for an "official" Ironman finish? Hmmm, but the upside if I don't make this cutoff - I always think it makes me a better advisor of my graduate students if I have failed at certain things I care about. My academic career has been really joyful and easy in all sorts of ways, when a PhD student ends a multi-year job search and seven years of work with no job offer my condolences may not ring true - but this experience really would be a disappointment of gravity, I have been working towards this for seven years at least, it matters to me a good deal! Oh, God, this is just hard - really if I get pulled at a subsidary cutoff it will be a mercy, I have HOURS more of this otherwise!)

None of the hills individually are as challenging as some I ride regularly, but it's an unrelentingly rolling course, and the wind made it much harder. Great crowd support on the steeper hills, though really I am unlikely to take my hand off handlebars to high-five anyone, especially when I am moving slowly and feel more tippable than normal!

I feel good about my cycling fitness, all things considered. I am a hugely more capable and confident rider than when I started. A high point was seeing professional triathlete Hillary Biscay blast past me on the bike (here is her race report). I've been a fan of her blog for a long time, and got to talk with her in person at the pro panel on Friday - she had asked what I'd be wearing, so that she could spot me on the course, and she yelled out something along the lines of "You work it, girl!" as she passed me. It was a lovely moment!

Around 4:30 the volunteers with the most experience are keenly aware of time running short; a helpful one said to me and the couple gentlemen I was riding near (it's a no-drafting rule, but it's hard to avoid some proximity), "You can still make it, but you need to stay focused. Fifteen miles in one hour - you can do that!" Yes, I could do that - but it was WINDY! We were riding straight into the wind, it seemed like; you'd have a brief respite, then there'd be a turn and it would be brutal headwind again.

I continued behind these other two fellows for a few minutes more, then after having pondered times and numbers called out to them, "OK, guys - we still really can make it, but it's not at all a given. If we want it, it's time to hammer. Anyone with me?"

They just kept on pedaling along, so I overtook them and HAMMERED IT for the last hour!

I passed quite a few riders here, including a couple women I saw again and chatted with on the run. It is interesting the extent to which it is mental. I mean, if you're really undertrained, your body simply won't do what your mind asks. But I was riding behind a racer in an orange shirt who I saw visibly give up. She'd been flagging on hills - I'd pass her riding up (another rider called out to me, admiringly, "You are a BEAST on the hills!," which made me have happy thoughts of Gerald Moore and his "Beast" boot camp), then she'd zoom past me riding down - she still looked very comfortable and relaxed on downhills and flats, but she almost got off on one hill, and then she did get off her bike.

It was just a small rolling hill, not a long way to the crest - I said to her (I have a bossy and comforting teacherly persona when I am racing, it is potentially annoying but also useful for some!), "Just walk it up to the top if you need to - but stay focused, we still can make this, but not if we don't keep riding strong." She did that. And then after a few more hills - it must have been half an hour of riding close to each other - I had fairly definitively passed her - out of the corner of my eye I could see her drop back and come to a halt. Her day was over, unless I am much mistaken, and I felt blessed that I have the kind of grit that really makes it not hard for me to continue when I am already working as hard as I can and feeling mediocre.

(Nothing is as hard as - I remember this moment! - coming home at 9pm the day before your tenure materials are due, after a demanding first week of fall-semester teaching, and knowing that you need to do one more full copy-edit of your book manuscript before handing in the materials by the end of the next day - counting about 18 hours to 5pm Friday and figuring you can afford six hours of sleep/break but that you need to keep up an unrelenting fast work pace in order to have time to proofread the final copy as well!)

So for the last hour, I basically just was working as hard as I could - I needed to be able to slow down for last mile, as there is a slightly less safe area as you navigate the bike path back to the hotel and have to ride up the helix - but it is a strength of mine to be able to make a very good assessment about exactly how hard that work can be, and fortunately for me it was just hard enough.

I came in at the bottom of the helix with six minutes to spare - dismounted at transition with barely five minutes left before the cutoff.


After that it was all good. Stripped off socks and shoes and put cream on feet so that I wouldn't get awful blisters. Always very happy to be on my own two feet and with no worries about mechanical failure etc. I still felt a bit queasy, and my left foot was seizing up from something to do with bike cleat arrangements, so I took the first three miles slow. I had a nice chat with an older man called Gary who said, truly (we were setting off around 5:45, with 26.2mi to go and a midnight cutoff), that if we held a 15:00/mi. walking pace we'd make it. I said this to another racer, Theresa, and she said, negatively but accurately: "Barely!" So once my stomach was settled, I set out to make up the time - I was using the very simple metric (your brain doesn't function so well after these long days, but I like mental arithmetic!) that I needed to "beat the :15" - each mile needed to come in a little "earlier" against the ":15," and I would track pace based on that.

(I'd left my Garmin on the bike, I wasn't sure the battery would hold out and I also really like the simplicity of just using a regular watch.)

I had seen the smiling faces of Jenny and Mike Wimmer as I came in off the bike, and Brent was there to say hello regularly on the run course (including passing on Julie's advice about picking up the pace). My fastest pace for a segment was 11:16, my slowest was the first 3.7mi segment at 16:03. I definitely could have finished the marathon at least :20 more quickly, and possibly more than that (I think 12:00/mi. pace in some future Ironman marathon is feasible), but I wanted to play it conservatively - tripping and falling and banging yourself up, or just overdoing it so that you couldn't walk speedily any more, would be foolish! I took in calories at every aid station (gels, pretzels, coke) and my stomach really felt great in comparison the bike leg. I'd jog downhills and walk briskly the rest of the time - I got a lot of compliments on my fast walking!

I had many very pleasant bits and bobs of conversation. If all you're shooting for is an official finish and you don't mind it that you're walking, it is a lovely experience (at least if you're not feeling sick to your stomach or woozy, as many racers were!). I was in a giddy elated mood, I never had a low, I knew I was going to make it and I am really very happy doing a mix of run-walk - my lungs were rather wheezy when I ran, that was the limiter, but I felt very strong. (Zombie Apocalypse Pacing!)

Joined a little group for the last stretch, and had to talk one racer back into positive spirits and mental focus (a gel helped also), but the last stretch was celebratory, and I came in pretty safely at 16:45:26 - i.e. with almost fifteen minutes buffer, which was enough to make me confident throughout.

Brent greeted me at the finish and helped me navigate the retrieval of morning clothes bag and return to the hotel. I was still talking a mile a minute! Ate cold pizza and drank a beer - couldn't really sleep, too excited.

Elation and happiness continued through next day - everywhere you went in Madison, even the airport, people were congratulating you (I was wearing finishers shirt and wristband still) and sharing stories of volunteering and spectating. My flight was delayed and I didn't get home till almost 3am Monday, which was slightly overwhelming; this week has been a scramble, but hopefully now things are a bit more back to normal.

(Short answer to question of whether I will do another one - yes, but not for a few years, and with a flatter bike course! IMFL or IMAZ in fall 2016 or 2017, I think, depending on when I next have a semester of leave and am not trying to start or finish a book - training for Ironman is compatible with writing, but not with the obsessive kind of immersion in a single project that you need at those particular junctures. Next year: I am back to Survival of the Shawangunks, assuming I can get a spot. It is my favorite race ever! I really love the small bucolic races better than the big corporate ones - the expo at IMWI is a temple of commerce more than it is a temple of endurance sport.)

Madison is absolutely gorgeous. Thanks to Molly for taking me to the Old-Fashioned, where I had "Ironman macaroni and cheese" (tomatoes, scallions and bacon - almost all the restaurants in town had race-related specials, and we were made to feel hugely welcome); to Jordan for buying me a fancy cocktail at the gorgeous rooftop restaurant on top of the art museum and coming to say hello on the run course; to Mike and Jenny Wimmer, two friends and triathletes I've known virtually for many years now and was delighted to meet in person (so great to see their smiling faces so many places on the course!); the race organizers, for putting on what is surely the best North American Ironman race (and also one of the hardest!); the crew at TriBike transport for the amazing service, including the valet service, which means that they retrieve your bike and transition stuff for you and you don't have to worry about it at all till the next morning, which is fantastically good; to all the volunteers and other racers who made the day so special; and especially to Brent, who has encouraged me all along the way as well as answering questions that fall along a continuum from utterly foolish (which foot should I use to clip out with at intersections?) to needlessly complex (won't even go there!) with patience, knowledge and good humor!

My only great regret about this race is that Wendy wasn't there. I know she would have been there to cheer me on if it were humanly possible, and I thought of her very often over the course of the long day. I am grateful to her not just for all she taught me about swimming, though that was a huge thing too, but for her sense of the value of participating in endurance events because of what it shows you about the triumph of the human spirit! My first swim teacher in adulthood, Doug Stern, died only about six months after I first met him; and my inspiring boot camp coach, Gerald Moore, died only a month ago. They were all much in my thoughts.

There are countless others, still alive, who also helped me on my way - I think of my first personal trainer, Paulo, and my beloved NYC trainer Mark Plaisir; of swim teacher Irina and brilliant swim coach Jim Bolster; of Coach Mindy at the Running Center; of Joanna Paterson's amazing indoor cycling classes at Chelsea Piers, which helped me hugely in gaining confidence and fitness riding outdoors; of sometime triathlon training partners and fellow racers Liz and Lauren, and everyone else (Stasi, Craig!) I ever go for a run with - yoga teachers galore - I am sure I am forgetting many more.

But it is especially sharp and painful to think about those I've lost. I don't like it when people confidently impute thoughts or feelings to those who are dead, it strikes me as sentimental at best and often self-serving or even delusional - but in this case I will indulge myself by thinking about how happy Wendy and Doug and Gerald would have been that I achieved this goal I've been working towards for so long.


flo said...

Huge congratulations!

Unknown said...

Congratulations Jenny! We are so proud of you and I must say it was a pleasure to see your smiling, confident face all day long. I knew when you were talking about how ready you felt over coffee that you could overcome any obstacles the day could bring. Hope to meet up with you many many many more times in the future!

Ironmom (Julie) said...

I'm so delighted for you; thanks for writing this up! I'm a little embarrassed that my "advice" was unnecessary, but it was a delight to be able to get a message to you via Facebook while you were racing—and even more to be able to hear back that you had everything well in hand. Those splits were making me nervous. :)

Deb said...

Iain and I are constantly amazed at your achievements. Congratulations!

Brent Buckner said...

Congratulations on unlocking the Ironman achievement - great execution on the day!

Unknown said...

Absolutely AWESOME - period - full stop!!!!!!!!!

Robert Hudson said...

I absolutely loved this.