The Mission: Ironman Louisville Race Report

(Note: This Ironman Louisville race report is about my experience at the race. If you are looking for a course overview that discusses the logistics of the race, the swim course, the bike course and the run course, please click here.)

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“It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” ~Muhammad Ali

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Ironman Louisville was a mission. I signed up for the race with the idea that my mission was to nab a Kona slot for 2013. It was my hail mary pass for the golden ticket to paradise.

But, IMLou wound up being a different kind mission, one that led me to explore who I am, who I can be, and who I want to be. The experience reminded me – yet again – how blessed I am to be running this life.

The first part of the mission was to kill any doubts about my ability to have a successful race just 28 days after my effort at Ironman Lake Placid.

I began to think of Ironman Louisville as an experiment in my fitness, as well as the opportunity for another race-day experience. No matter what: I would learn something.

I returned to my training logs, and reviewed the hours of training I had put in over the past year. I realized: I’ve trained really hard, and had some great workouts during weeks where I’ve done almost the equivalent of an Ironman. This race would be just like the hard workout at the end of a hard training block.

I also realized that my coach Vince has been kicking the shit out of me. It’s as if he’s been preparing me for just this moment all along.

Since John and I signed up about 10 days before the race (IMLou doesn’t sell out far in advance as other IMs do), we didn’t have much time to obsess over the race. Before we knew it, the alarm clock was going off at 4 a.m., and it was time to begin the race day ritual.

I tucked myself pretty far inside of my head, a.k.a., mission control. At one point, John said, “What’s going on? You are pretty quiet.”

“I’m fine. I’m here to do a job, and I’m just focusing on going to work.”

Mission control: All systems go.

Ironman Louisville has a unique set up, with the time trial swim start. The video below gives you a sense of how it works.

What you can’t see in this video, however, is how far you have to walk from transition to get to the swim start, which is about a mile. If you get to the swim start later in the morning (as we did–around 6 a.m.) you will have about another mile to walk to get to the end of the line. And, after we found our place in line, there was probably another half mile worth of athletes behind us.

Apparently, 3,000 people in a single file line take up a lot of real estate. Who knew?

The gun for the age group race went off at 7 a.m., and 28 minutes later, it was my turn to jump into the 80-degree water. How’s that for an anti-climactic start? It was the opposite of the adrenaline pumping mass swim starts of years past. And, I’m okay with that!

The swim is a point-to-point swim in the Ohio River. The first third includes a swim behind Towhead Island, which mostly protects against the current of the river, and then another 400 yards or so beyond the island to the turn buoy.  (I’ll have more course details in my course overview.)

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My plan was to swim as close to the island as possible, keeping the buoys on my left. Well, that plan was a little tricky in practice because the new safety platforms were also along the island, and there were many skittish swimmers along this way. I took a few breast and back strokes to the head and body, and decided that I would move away from the island just a bit. While I take my motivation from Muhammad Ali (whose hometown is Louisville), I did not want to feel like I was taking body shots from him.

The move to the center alleviated the problem.

As I came to the tip of the island, the glare from the sun made sighting extremely challenging, and I spent long stretches when I could not see the buoys at all. I could see the swarm of bodies ahead of me, so I knew I was in the right direction. I found a tree ridge in the distance and used that until I could find the buoys.

As I cleared the island and came into more open water, I could feel that I was pushing into the current. I began to worry that my overall swim time would be dismal between the current and not being able to sight well.

Eventually, I saw the turn buoy. It took me a little under 30 minutes to get to this first turn buoy, which according to my Garmin 910 is about 1500 yards into the swim. Note: The total swim distance on my Garmin said 2.6 miles. So, distance is a little off.

I knew I would be swimming with the current once I made the turn, but I had no idea what to expect from this extra “push.”

Rather than worry about my time, I thought about my swim form, and imagined myself flowing with the water. I counted my strokes with my breath: One, two…one, two…one, two, three, sight…one, two, one two, one two three, sight…repeat. I repeated, Flow with the river to the cadence of my swim stroke.

Ironman now numbers the buoys, which is hugely helpful. As I came into the current, I noticed the buoys were coming more quickly 4…5…6…(up to 9 yellow, and 9 orange). And I was passing many, many swimmers. But, I still worried that my swim would be about 1:20 or so.

As I came to the swim exit, and climbed the stairs to step over the timing mat, I looked at my watch: 1:07:XX.

HOT DAMN! A swim PR of about 2 minutes from IMLP! Go, little fishie, go!

In a sea of similar looking bags, I couldn't miss mine :)
In a sea of similar looking bags, I couldn’t miss mine 🙂

Into transition I went, grabbed my bag, which I had clearly marked with a large yellow ribbon.

I immediately went to the back of the changing tent (a.k.a. Chaos Central), and emptied the contents of my bag. A volunteer quickly came over and helped. She lathered me with sunscreen while I got my shoes, helmet, etc. together.

It was time to head out on the bike, and see what I had inside. For the first half of the bike, I had two issues: 1) my heart rate was elevated, and 2) the course was dangerously crowded.

To solve the first problem, I had to re-adjust my watt target on the fly. I knew if I held the same watts I held at Lake Placid, I was risking blowing up, as my heart rate and rate of perceived exertion was high, too high if I expected to survive an 11 hour day–in the 90-degree temps, no less.

So, I brought my power down, and wound up riding this race about 10 watts under what I rode at Lake Placid, but with the same average heart rate. Without a doubt, that affected my overall bike time. Without a doubt, I wasn’t fully recovered from LP.

But, that’s racing.

You can’t be guaranteed a perfect day, and you have to be able to adjust your game plan on the fly. This also speaks to the importance recognizing that power and heart rate numbers are tools – not mandates. You cannot be a slave to your power and heart rate, and you need to understand your rate of perceived exertion just as well as your power caps and heart rate zones.

With respect to the second problem, there wasn’t much I could do to thin out the herd. However, I did ride considerably more cautiously than I might have otherwise.

About 17.5 miles into the bike, the course turns for a brief out and back section, which is about 5 miles out and 5 miles back. There are some technical hills on this section, and the bikers were 4 and 5 deep across the road – going both ways. It was hairy scary.

At one point, I heard a rider coming from the other direction yell, “Rider down!”

All of the riders in my area slowed immediately.

For a brief moment, I worried that John might be involved, but as I came upon the scene, it was not John (thank you, God!). But, it was a very unfortunate man, who was barely moving, as the medics tended to him. There was quite a bit of blood, and the scene looked terrible.

This was an even stronger sign that I needed to be careful. No speed in the world is worth risking my life or the life of a fellow competitor. Unfortunately, I saw many riders taking chances that indicated they did not feel the same.

Please everyone: be safe!

At some point during the first half of the bike, I came into one of the aid stations, and I back pedaled a little bit, which caused my chain to slip.

Really?! 

I pulled over, and went to work. I couldn’t see him, but a man came behind me and asked, “Can I help you?”

I literally screeched, “Noooo! Don’t touch me or my bike! You will disqualify me.”

He backed off, but I could feel him behind me, watching. After I got the chain back on (maybe 45 seconds), I stood up, turned around, and saw him. He was a volunteer. D’oh!

“I’m sorry! I thought you were a spectator! I didn’t realize…”

Seriously, I screeched at this man as if he was going to kill me.

He laughed and encouraged, “It’s okay! Go! Go! Go!” And so, I did.

Screen shot 2013-08-31 at 11.49.28 AMBy the time I came through the 60 mile mark, which is where you begin the second lap of the lolli-pop part of the course (see map above), my heart rate was starting to stabilize, and I was able to lift my effort a bit. I was feeling good – finally. My splits tell the tale here. I was able to ride the second half of the bike faster than the first, finishing the ride in 6:04:24. Less than a minute faster than Lake Placid – but a bike PR nonetheless! I’ll take it.

Even still, I knew this time was at least 15 minutes slower than I needed it to be if I hoped to be in the running for a slot. But, I couldn’t dwell on that. It was time to believe in the run.

After Ironman Lake Placid, I lost some faith in my run because I faded so badly in the final 10k. My mission today was to hold my focus, hold my effort, and trust in my ability.

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Signs along the run course. While they were intended for motorists, the work pretty well for the runners also!

Within the first mile of the run, there was a group of spectators playing music. The song? Don’t Stop Believing. 

Don’t worry. I won’t.

I wish I had a recording of the thoughts I had during the run. Mission Control was churning out solid gold in terms of positive affirmations and mantras.

While some were bemoaning the hot sun, I told myself: I love the sun. I’m getting energy from the sun. 

When I wanted to slow down, trying to work a deal that I could run X:XX minute miles, and that would be okay, I told myself, No deals, missy! You aren’t getting to Kona like that. 

If I felt my effort slipping, I admonished myself: Focus… I concentrated on keeping my heart rate at a base minimum. Let it fall too far, and I knew it would be game over.

When I thought I couldn’t take it any longer, I pretended that I was looking in on myself, and objectively took stock of how I was feeling.

I asked myself, Am I dying?

Nope.

Then suck it up, buttercup.

At various points, I repeated: Don’t wake up tomorrow and wish you had done it yesterday. That was a little gem I picked up from a blog or twitter post somewhere along the way (sorry I don’t remember whose!).

I thought about Mohammed Ali, as I ran through the streets of his birthplace.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

I’m so mean I make medicine sick.

I’m so fast, that last night I turned off the switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.

Seriously – the man was a mental master!

Was the run hot? Yes.

Was the run hard? Yes.

Did I want to stop? Yes.

But, I dug into a source of strength inside of my mind – and yes, my heart – that I didn’t realize I had. I pulled from that source the energy I needed to keep on moving, to run the fastest marathon in my age group, and to cross the finish line in 11:07:08 – exactly 2 minutes faster than I had done Lake Placid 28 days previously. It was good enough for a 5th place AG podium slot–my first time on the podium at an Ironman event!

Podium, baby!
Podium, baby!

Did I get the Kona slot?

Nope.

Am I sad about that?

Not even a little bit.

When I finished Lake Placid, I was heart broken. I felt defeated. I felt like the only way to measure my worth was to get that Kona slot. That’s what led me to Louisville in the first place – I just had to have the slot.

After Louisville, I feel quite differently, and the lessons I’ve learned from this mission have been invaluable.

I learned that IMLP wasn’t a fluke. I am a different athlete now than I used to be–and I’m not going back to being that scared little girl who thinks she can’t do it. Today, I KNOW I can do more, and I have a reserve of strength in my mind and body that I can call upon whenever I need it. Truth be told, I have a swagger now that I didn’t used to have. I like it.

My friends Courtney & Kim decorated our house right before we returned. What a welcome home!
My friends Courtney & Kim decorated our house right before we returned. What a welcome home!

I am *this close* to getting a slot, and I will get it some day. But, getting (or not getting) a Kona slot doesn’t define who I am as an athlete. It doesn’t dictate who I am, or what I am capable of. A Kona slot is not the only measure of success that matters to me.

I learned that my family and friends will love me and support me no matter what I do, or how far I am from reaching my goal. I love you so much. Thank you for believing in me, for caring about me, and for being the most important part of this blessed life I am so lucky to live.

I learned that my broader triathlon and running community (which I’ve come to know through my blog, Facebook and Twitter) is incredible. The tweets, the posts, the comments, the emails of support – you all are positively fantastic! You are central to my enjoyment of the sport – and it is a special connection we have to each other. Thank you!

For as sad and heartbroken as I was after Lake Placid, that is exactly how happy and fulfilled I feel after Louisville. This mission is complete, and it has been more amazing that I could have imagined.

 

35 Comments

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  3. josh

    Great report. I’ll be doing Louisville this year and you’re write up really inspired me. I’m somewhat scared of this race because I don’t handle heat and humidity well. But I like a lot if you’re mantras and will try and remember them come race day!

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    1. Thanks, Mandy! One thing I’ve learned about this back-to-back racing stunt is that it’s not impossible to do. But, you have to be smart. Based on my training this season – which was really aggressive – we knew I had the stamina to deal with it. Thank goodness we were right – hahahaha! But, seriously, I was very concerned about injury, and wouldn’t have done it if I thought I wasn’t prepared.

  6. Incredible!!! I could barely run a half marathon 8 weeks after IM CdA and you go out and get 5th place in your AG at another ironman! You are a machine – you are so freaking close to that kona slot and I’m glad that you’ve had a mental shift and aren’t disappointed. Can’t wait to follow the journey to Kona next year 🙂

  7. Jason @ Cook Train Eat Race

    I cannot tell you how proud of you I am as there are no words. You pulled off a feat many, and by that I mean nobody, woul think I doing but you did it and you did it faster.

    I know you know this but still: 5TH PLACE AT A VERY HARD RACE 28 DAYS AFTER A BERY HARD RACE IS FLAT OUT INCREDIBLE.

    I am amazed by your athletic ability yet even more so by your mental strength. You make me proud to call you friend and coach.

    Love ya lady and congrats. I am in IMCT so the work is going to begin soon and I want all your mantras all over TP.

  8. Don Martin

    Way to go Maria. 2 thoughts come to mind from quotes, one new, one old. The fist, “Shut up legs” from Jens Voigt is one I’ve used. The second I just read recently from someone’s post “I don’t need legs I can run the last 5 Km on Heart”. Sounds like you’ve figured this one out.

  9. Regina Jenkins

    Well buttercup here is what I have to say about your endeavors and determination. You are right no one is guaranteed a perfect day….ever, but like your fellow athletes say for instance a good dedicated surfer, well they sit in the water and they watch and they watch and they watch for the perfect wave and then if blessed they catch that wave and have the perfect ride making it maybe their perfect day. Such will it be for you, the perfect day will come with a perfect performance and a perfect outcome leading to a Glory day and that perfect Kona slot. Until then you just have to keep on keeping on watching for that destination while enjoying the journey!
    In the meantime we will all just keep on screaming you on to victory!

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experience!