I woke up in the darkness of the early morning (or perhaps late night to some), and I could hear the trees rustling as I pushed down my race day breakfast. Once daylight began to creep into the clouds, the visual confirmed the audio: the wind, a whirling bully, browbeat the trees, with branches bending over, powerless against the force.
Wind is in ample supply in Southern New Jersey, so I wasn’t particularly concerned. I’ve had my fair share of rain, wind, chop, heat and cold. With that experience comes the knowledge that weather doesn’t change a damn thing: you go out there and you do what you came here to do.
The weather would not necessitate a fundamental change to the plan: swim hard, bike strong, and run like my a$$ was on fire. I’m pretty sure that was the in-depth race strategy my coach Vince gave me.
I set a goal back in 2011 to work my way into qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona. At that time, it was an unlikely goal for a girl who had only achieved a 12:51 IM best time. But, it was my BHAG goal, and I had a two-year plan to get there. In 2013, I came just 2 slots and minutes shy of achieving the dream at both IMLP and IMLou.
Unfortunately, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
I couldn’t stop believing in my goal, and my ability to reach it. So, 2014 would have to be my year right?
In the training leading up to this day, I worked harder than I’ve ever worked. I sweat more stink than a skunk, climbed more hills than a billy goat, and ran so hard I’ve only got a few toenails left.
It was time to find out if I was fast enough.
The morning of the race, I was a little more “activated” (read: NERVOUS) than I would like. It was different than last year’s races, when I had an almost surreal calmness before both IMLP and IMLou. This time, I felt those nerves again. I worked hard to keep them in check because when I don’t, they can get out of hand, as they did when I raced IMMT. I couldn’t afford it.
So, I set to work getting my stuff together in transition. When I get nervous, I just need to push PLAY and get the party started. Sitting around and waiting only makes it worse – no matter how much deep breathing I do. MAJOR thanks to my coach Vince who was on hand as the bike pump sherpa, which allowed me to avoid standing in the line for the bike techs. (And thank you to the Mrs. Christine, who was also racing, for sharing him!)
For whatever reason, the pumping of the tires in the morning makes me in-freaking-sane. But, if I have my own pump, and I can control it, it’s all good. Everyone has their “thing”, right? (I only texted Vince and Christine 3 or 10 times to make sure he was bringing it. That’s not too bad, right?)
Tires properly inflated, it was time for one final evacuation in the porta-potty, don the wetsuit, and head to the lake. John and I walked down together, but there was a throng of people, and he wanted to take his time. I had to get moving because I wanted to do a quick warm up before the start.
“I gotta get moving if I’m going to make the warm up,” I said.
John nodded. We did our ritual fist bump and a kiss for good luck, and I headed to the lake.
As I walked down, I spotted Vince and Christine, and as I did, the speakers blared Journey’s song, “Don’t stop believing.”
I swear – I can’t make this stuff up. You see, I’m that small town girl, living in a fast triathlon world, trying to take my bicycle to Kona, yeah.
Oh, those aren’t the lyrics, you say? Hmmm, if you read this blog, then you know you have to switch up the lyrics just a bit, people. C’mon, let’s make it work!
Anyhooooo, so there’s my coach, the man who made me the triathlete I am, and there’s the speakers blaring “Don’t Stop Believing,” and there I am, weeping with the recognition of the symbolic magnitude of the moment.
Yup. It’s official: I’m ready to race, folks!
I made it to the lake’s edge with plenty of time to get used to the temperature (61 degrees) as well as the waves and the white caps, which were brewing up a frothy mess thanks to the 15-20 mph winds.
Given the choppy conditions and my “activation”, I decided I would start the swim just outside of the buoy line (buoys are on your left shoulder and you swim counter clockwise) to avoid getting caught up in the swarm of bodies herding along the buoys.
I relied on my ocean and rough bay swimming experience to adapt to the waves, which were using my head as a shorebreak. I started off just under full race effort to settle into a rhythm and to avoid panic. If I start too hard, I notice that I increase the chance of an involuntary freak-out response. The strategy was perfect for this day, as was my positioning, even if I did lose out on the full advantage of the draft.
Fairly uneventful, I found my way to the end of the swim in 1:13, not my fastest by several minutes, but I’m pretty sure the chop had a lot to do with that, as John was also about 4 minutes slower than predicted.
The transition from swim to bike is one of the shorter ones I’ve had to run. And, thanks to the Ironman All World Athlete program, I had the money position for my gear bags and my bike. So, I didn’t have to waste much time at all find my gear bags, and hustling to my bike, which was maybe 4 rows back from the bike exit.
Prior to the race, John wanted to bet me on who would have faster transition times. He pretty much thought he would beat me.
I didn’t take the bet, but I should have. 😉
The day before the race, Vince took out his #JunkStrong crew (John and I, Tina, Larry and Christine) in the #LoserCruiser for a course overview. It’s definitely helpful to see the course, so I had a sense of the general outlay of the course. But, it’s one thing to ride in a minivan across the course and quite a quite to ride on a bike across the course.
As the course is laid out, it’s harder on the way out of town than it is on the way back into town. This difficulty was exacerbated by the now 20 mph winds that were blowing straight into our faces as we did the bulk of the climbing.
That’s just a cruel trick, right? Climbing PLUS a fierce headwind. Adapt, adapt, adapt.
I got as tightly into aero as I could get and just rode. In fact, I think I spent more time in aero on this course than I have on some flat courses due to this wind! When you sat up even for a second, you could just feel the wind pushing you back like a billboard. It was better just to stay small going into that wind. If I sat up, I only did so with the tailwind.
Unfortunately, I made some tactical errors in terms of the effort I gave the first half of the loop, taking it more conservatively than I needed. I was worried about burning too many matches, but given the way the course is laid out, I think you can afford to ride a little harder up the hills and into the wind because you will have some opportunity to recoup that energy on the way back into down as you descend. The descents are steep and fast enough that it doesn’t pay to pedal at some moments (for me that means about over 30 mph). I hit an all-time speed high of 46 mph, which is plenty easy enough to do on this course since there are almost no turns. The descents are pretty much straight shots.
In looking at the data, I undershot my effort – by a lot. Like a ton. Like a complete and total mess up. All of that work – to make a tactical error like that?
When I got off the bike, I knew my bike was slow. But, I didn’t know how much slower than the rest of the field. Given the wind, I was hoping (praying?!) that the other women faced similar difficulties. I knew I was going to have to run HARD.
As I pulled to the dismount line, I stepped off the bike and a wonderful volunteer grabbed my bike. Honestly, that is one of the best moments in an Ironman – when they take your bike away. Relief!
I started to run toward the gear bags and I could just feel them. My legs. They were ready, and they were just busting to get out on the course.
I knew I could not stop believing now.
It was time to get the race started. I came off the bike in goodness-knows-what-place (benefit of results page analysis says it was 11th place). I knew if I was going to get the slot, it would have to be from one of the fastest runs I’d ever had.
I saw Vince about 2 miles into the run. He held up a sign, which I only caught a quick glimpse of, but it was enough: “Plow Horse the Village Wheel.”
I asked him how far back I was. He said, “I don’t know but you have to do the work NOW!” He face screamed urgency. So, what you are saying is that I’m really far back, then?
So, I ran fast until I wasn’t fast anymore, and then I just ran hard. I kept repeating on a loop: Just keep running. Be efficient. Let it come to you. Don’t stop believing.
As I began the second loop, I saw Vince again. He looked excited: “You are in 7th place and they are FADING. You are mowing them down – keep it up!”
Just keep running. Don’t stop believing. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
The course has a set of climbs at the mid-way point of the 2-loop course. In discussing the race with Vince, we talked about this being a spot where there would be plenty of carnage. And, it did not disappoint. Some people weren’t even trying to run the hill; they just started walking.
I sang to myself: It’s going down. I’m yelling Timber! You better move! You better RACE! (Almost don’t need to change those lyrics…)
I was running steady, and passing plenty of women (and men). But, there were quite a few competitors without their age on their calves or with compression socks, so I didn’t know if I was passing any women in my age group. As far as I knew, I was still in 7th place.
Then, in the final mile, I saw Vince for the last time.
“You’re on the podium, I don’t know where you’ll end up. Don’t f*** it up.” Ah, words of inspiration from my mentor. (Note: See Vince’s comment as an addendum. I’d rather leave my original interpretation for humor’s sake.)
I’m on the podium?! Oh, crap. How far ahead, how far behind? So many questions, but I just pushed them out of my head and ran. HARD.
In the final half mile, I ran into the chute marked: “To the Finish”, which takes you for the final turn on to Sherman Avenue, and about a quarter of a mile downhill to the finish line. At this point, I was running as if a Kona slot depended on it – oh, wait, it totally did depend on it.
Sadly, I didn’t get to enjoy much of this finish because I was running so hard, but I couldn’t stop believing – not when I was so so so close.
I crossed the finish line, wheezing heavily at which time they promptly ushered me into the medical tent where I was evaluated to see if I needed oxygen.
No! No oxygen – just a kona slot! Please – the slot?!
John found me in the med tent.
“What’s my place? What’s my place?!” I could barely breathe, but I could get that sentence out. We eventually found out it was 5th in my age group.
While Ironman Coeur d’Alene was not my best IM time (11:10 overall), it was my fastest marathon ever, and my best placement in the field in terms of overall females (27th) and overall participants (210th).
But, it wasn’t fast enough.
My fifth place age group placement left me one place and 90 seconds (yes seconds) shy of nabbing the Kona slot.
So, yeah, that sucks.
But, I’m not going to stop believing. Some will win, some will lose, some will keep on trying until they get the freaking Kona slot. So, until next time, race fans, the hope never ends, it goes on and on and on and on.
*Fade out to the Journey song (with appropriately adjusted lyrics, of course)…*
Top Takeaways (in no particular order):
- How to spell Couer d’Alene from memory
- Every single second counts. You can’t make even one mistake. I thought it was close at IMLP last year with 4 minutes and 53 seconds. Ninety seconds is absolutely soul crushing. SOUL. CRUSHING.
- You have to trust – really really really trust – in your training and go for it. Don’t start second guessing your effort – the effort you KNOW you can sustain.
- Perpetuum with honey is the correct fueling potion on the bike. Clif Shots and coke remain the gold standard for the run.
- I need to stop focusing on the outcome. Push play, do the work and enjoy the day.
- Even after the 6th Ironman, the excitement and the sense of accomplishment remain.
- It’s fun to race the same course with John, who is an absolute beast – second time qualifying for Kona, with his second place AG finish. BEAST MODE!
- My friends Patti and Danny, who drove all the way to Coeur d’Alene to cheer us on, are the best! Thank you so much. P-C FOREVER!!
- My coach is the bestest coach in the world. Crazy value-added service at IMCdA!!
- Hanging with great people before, during and after is good for the mind, body and soul. Much love to John, Patti, Danny, Christine, Vince, Tina, and Larry.
- People who volunteer at Ironman races are saints. Full-on sainthood – especially the ones in the changing tents. Wow. That’s a nasty job.
Looking for a course overview? It’s coming. Check back here for the link!