Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ironman Puerto Rico 70.3- Never, Ever Give Up

This month's travel destination-- beautiful San Juan, Puerto Rico, for my first big triathlon of the season, the Ironman Puerto Rico 70.3 (that's secret code for half ironman).

This wasn't my first time doing this race.  In 2012, I opened up my triathlon season with what was then called the San Juan 70.3.  Up to that point, I'd participated in triathlons, but not really raced.  Come late 2011, I decided to take things a little more seriously, made the (amazing, awesome) decision to hire my (amazing, awesome) coach, actually listened to her, and followed the training plan to a 't' (amazing, awesome coach is now thinking, oh, what happened?).  The months before the 2012 race, somewhat in a test to see if I had what it took, I did a little experiment.  Let's call it Operation Do Everything Right.  I gave up gluten for months.  I gave up alcohol.  I gave up diet soda (perhaps the toughest one).  For the last two weeks, I gave up caffeine.  I heat trained, flawlessly, for 3 weeks.  My thinking -- let's go all in, just for a little while, and see what happens. 

What happened, back in 2012, was that I had a race that far, far exceeded my wildest expectations.  Going in, I thought on a good day, I could crack the Top 5 in my age group.  Instead, I ended up third overall, qualifying for my pro card (I had no idea until someone told me days later and did not, even for a moment, actually consider making the leap), and shocking myself to pieces.  The best part?  It felt effortless.
Flashback to 2012.  Spoiler Alert: I did not look this happy after the 2014 race
 That race was the first time I really started to think that I might be able to do something cool with this sport.  Looking back, I'd say it was a start to a whole lot of changes in my life and in my priorities.  Whether that's good or bad is up for debate (I'd say that's it's good and has made for an ultimately happier person, others may disagree), but what's not debatable is that San Juan 2012 changed me. 

Fast forward two years, and I was back in San Juan, ready to race, and a totally different girl.  But this time, I had expectations.  This wasn't an "A" race for me, those are coming, but I did want to do well.  This time, I had a little fear-- the fear that after two years of training and development, I may come back to the race that "started it all," and do no better than I did in 2012.   And this time, I made none of the sacrifices I made in 2012.  I didn't consider giving up caffeine for even a split second. I gave up gluten for all of a day, I may or may not have overindulged on alcohol on the Monday before the race, I skipped my heat training sessions, I set myself up to fail workouts and then panicked about those failures, and, perhaps most embarrassing, I was sucking down diet sodas like nobody's business.

In other words: 2012- Operation Do Everything Right.  2014- Operation Do Everything Wrong.   Let's go ahead and call it what it really is-- self-sabotage.  Honesty.

Not sure why I'm recounting all that other than because, looking back, it all seems so stupid and like such a waste of energy.  My blog's a lot like my personal journal, and I need to leave a message for future Amanda--don't do that anymore, dummy.

Anyway, fast forward to San Juan.  I flew there on Friday.  I traveled with Blaine, who was also racing.  Blaine always has a tremendous calming effect on me, and it was so good to have him there.  At some point, I can't really even pinpoint when, I made the conscious decision to stop the self-sabotage and the fear and put on my game face.  I started to feel oddly confident, and by Sunday morning, I was ready to roll.  A friend from home texted, "I know you'll do great."  My response: "I don't know how I'll do. But what I do know is that I'm going to fight like hell." 
And now, the race:

There's so many cool things about the San Juan 70.3, not the least of which is the transition, which is set up right in the middle of a soccer stadium.   Being the procrastinator I am, I signed up a little late for this race, and thus was assigned a transition spot that was not only way, way far away from where the other girls in my age group were racked, but also amidst the other procrastinators, who for whatever reason happened to be a whole bunch of incredibly fast-looking Latinas. No one around me spoke English, they all looked incredibly fit and tan, had racing kits with their names and countries and all sorts of sponsor logos.  For some reason the rapid-fire Spanish that surrounded me felt intimidating.  Game face or not, all it took was 5 or 6 minutes in transition for me to be fairly well convinced that I was going to get last in the race.

So I set my stuff up, scooted on out of there, found Blaine, and went back to the hotel (right by the swim start) to chill out a little before heading down to the start, and got the game face back on.

The swim at San Juan is just one of the best out there, as far as I'm concerned.  Set in a protected lagoon that allegedly is also the home of several alleged  manatees, the water is warm (no wetsuits)  but not too warm, salty but not too salty--- just great.
Pretty Swim
2013, for me, was the year of many, many crappy swims. Somewhere along the way, what had once been my strength and my favorite part of the race became a weakness and something I dreaded.  The mojo was gone.

Well, happy to say, swim mojo is back.  I went into this swim with an aggression and excitement that I completely lacked last year.  When the gun fired, I sprinted off the line, drafted off another girl for maybe 400 meters until she started to veer way off course, and then I went at it alone, enjoying the open water, forcing the tempo, working hard (maybe too hard), and coming out of the water first in my age group.  Actually, that's the first time that's happened for me in a long course race.  Later, I realized I also had the fastest overall amateur swim.  Score.  2014 swimming, game on.

Transition 1 might as well have been called Run 1-  more than a third of a mile through streets over to the soccer stadium.  Not the most fun, but I waved to the lady who runs the bodega where Blaine and I had bought many, many bottles of water as I passed by, and that kept me entertained.

I hopped on the bike, spent the first several minutes zig-zagging through town and trying not to crash (I had nowhere near enough outdoor time on my new bike and simply was not comfortable handling it), and realized within minutes that this was not going to be the effortless day I had in 2012.  I felt stiff, a little tired, already hot, and thirsty.  The few rolling hills there were heading out of town (mostly on-ramps), hills I don't really even remember noticing in 2012, felt tough.  My perceived effort and power were not really matching up, I was working too hard for power numbers that should have been easy.  But, just because a day's not effortless doesn't mean it can't be good, so I decided to disregard the power,  focus on executing my fuel plan, and chill out.  

The course was fairly empty at this point and had the potential to be a little lonely, but I had a few good things to keep my mind occupied.  First, the view-- gorgeous.  I looked.  Maybe a little too long.
Second, trouble-shooting.  I had a fuel plan all set up, and priority one for me, a heavy sweater with inadequate heat adaptation, was staying hydrated.  I really needed to get a bottle of water, or maybe two, at the first aid station.   But Butterfingers McGo-Through-The-Aid-Station-Too-Fast here apparently forgot how to properly execute a bottle hand-up, and I went through the aid station grabbing for, and completely missing/ dropping not 1, not 2, but FOUR water bottles.   Commence panic.

Third, my motorcycle friend.  Maybe 10 miles into the race, a motorcycle started riding right next to,  but a little back of, me.  I assumed it was a course marshal, watching for drafting.  But there was no one around me.  I figured it'd be one of those "nothing to see here" situations and the motorcycle would move on up the field, looking for the next guy.  But no, he stayed.  And stayed, and stayed.  I got paranoid.  What could he be looking for?  I ran through all the rules in my head.  What possibly could I be doing wrong that he's watching me like a hawk?

10 minutes later, it dawned on me.  I had an escort.  I'm still not sure why.  I was the first amateur woman coming through, but since when does an amateur get a motorcycle escort?  I was also the fifth overall woman (small pro field)-- maybe that was why?  I still have no idea.  At any rate, it was cool and once I figured out what was going on, I was pretty stoked and, related or not, I started to get more in a rhythm and my power went up. 
The second loop got a lot more crowded and it became tougher to dodge the many potholes and rough spots in the road.  And, I lost my escort (too crowded).  I got a little cranky with all the people and more than a little sporadic riding around me, but then I ate and felt better.  So far, so good.

And then we got to the last hour, and things fell apart.  First, I hit a very rough patch of road and launched my last (full) bottle of sports drink.  I was already behind on fluids from the botched hand-off and (my only complaint about the race), the really crappy on-course water bottles with incredibly leaky nozzles, meaning for every bottle, probably 1/2 of the water went in my mouth, 1/2 spilled all over me.  I couldn't afford another loss in the fluid department.  Then, where I expected one last aid station, there was none.  Great course reconnaissance on  my part.  So, for the last hour of the ride, I had about a half of a bottle of fluid.  Not at all OK for me -- not ever, but especially not in the heat and humidity we were experiencing.

I've never had a ride that ended so poorly, and the last half hour, I had switched to damage control.  My power plummeted.  I couldn't get the thought out of my head - I am in big, big trouble.  I was so hot, dehydrated, parched, cranky.  This was not good.

I finally finished the bike, and knew as soon as I got dismounted that things were going to be rough.  The run through transition was shaky.  I had about a third of a water bottle sitting at my transition spot, and I slugged that down, taking my sweet time getting moving.   Don't give up, I pep-talked myself.  Problem solve, do what you have to do, just don't give up.

I've truly never, ever felt so bad starting a run.  And worse, from my 2012 experience at this race, I knew what was ahead of me.  The run course in San Juan is no joke.  Incredibly hilly.  Completely exposed.  Hot, stagnant, humid.   As I staggered, truly staggered up the first hill,a big, big thought resonated -- there is no way I'm going to finish this run.

That big thought, however, was followed by an even bigger one:  never, ever give up.
Holy bloat, Batman
The crowd support in San Juan is truly amazing, and the cheering spectators pulled me through that first mile.  At the first aid station, I completely stopped, drank several cups of water, grabbed ice, threw it down my top and my shorts.  A volunteer gave me a bag of ice to hold (can't say enough about how well equipped these aid stations were).  And then I trotted off, slightly renewed.

The rest of the run was a lot like that.  Every aid station was pretty much a complete stop, drinking, drinking, drinking, ice, ice, ice, and then trot on to the next one.  I think once you get deep enough in a dehydration hole, it's next to impossible to get out.  I can't explain why I got so dehydrated, even with my bike mishaps, but I've never suffered so much.
At first, I tried to remember when it rained.  No, there was a cooling hose here
The course had some out-and-back sections, so I was able to see within the first 4 miles that I had a very sizable lead in my age group and, I was pretty sure, the overall amateur race.  It was miserably hot, everyone was suffering, and no one seemed to be running fast.  I knew as long as I didn't completely stop, I'd hold on to the lead.  My mantra became, "you don't have to be fast, you just have to keep moving forward." 

So I did.  I trudged on, I got through, and I won.  This was not a fast run for me, at all.  But in a way, it's among the runs I am the most proud of, because I fought far, far more than I ever have before.  I suffered badly, but I didn't give up.  That's actually progress for me.

But in a way, it was sad to be suffering so much.  My only other 70.3 overall win was in Racine last summer, and during that race, once I realized what was happening, I was giddy, smiling like a big dork, on a high.  Here, I knew I was winning from mid-way through the bike.  I don't take that for granted, ever... winning a race, any race, is a big deal!  But I never really enjoyed it because I was hurting so bad.   That sorta sucks.
So much for the Perma-Grin

The End
Finally, FINALLY, I crossed the finish line, and my legs promptly buckled under me.  That's a first.  Two kindly volunteers picked me up off the ground, essentially carried me straight into the med tent, and got the IV drip going before I had a chance to catch my breath.  Another first.   Gotta say, that med tent was ready to go and it was a full-service operation.   One medic was pouring Gatorade in my mouth, one was packing ice packs around my body, while another was (without request) lancing my blisters.   

I laid there for a little while as the IV emptied, not sure how to feel.  Actually, I know how I felt - very lonely.  Blaine had started several waves behind me and was still on the course, and I was sad to not be at the line to greet him.  I borrowed a phone from the wife of the athlete getting an IV next to me to check the results, and verified that I had, indeed, won.   But there was no one there to celebrate with.  I handed the phone back to her and said kind of sheepishly, "I won the thing."  It felt like bragging or arrogant, why would these strangers care, but I just sort of needed to tell someone, to celebrate a little.  Luckily, they were the nicest couple, and gladly shared in my happiness.   That was nice.  IV friends forever.  

Finally, I was released and hobbled out to find Blaine.  We were both completely spent, but happy.  I retrieved my phone, started answering texts from my family and friends, and then, finally, probably an hour after the race, there was the joy.
Don't judge the swollen face.  The IV went straight to my cheeks

The rest of the trip flew by, and would have been a whole lot more fun if I hadn't felt like death for so long after the race.  We went to the awards ceremony.  After a little hemming and hawing, I took my slot for the 70.3 World Championships in Mt. Tremblant, Canada.  We ate mofongo,  we ate (multiple) proper brunches at Denny's, we drank fruity drinks (far fewer than I intended, that dehydration is a killer), we soaked up the sun, and we got badly sunburnt.  It was a great trip, and a great return back to the place where it "all started".  And fortunately, by the time we landed back in Chicago, almost all of the snow had melted.  Enough with the winter, already!
Denny's Eating Fools
And now, on to the next!  Thanks for reading, friends!

(The "next," in case you're wondering, is in Muncie, Indiana in a few weeks, and I tell you that ONLY so I can implant this amazing, awesome, favoritest YouTube video ever.  You're welcome).


  1. When I grow up I want to be as fast as Amanda.

  2. So much of what you wrote resonated with me. This was my first 70.3 and I suffered dehydration like never before. I learned a lot about myself and how to handle setbacks during this race. That's the victory I am holding on to. I'll be going back to shorter distance races now. Good luck to you!

  3. This was my first triathlon ever and now I'm hooked. Six hours of pain and the entire time I was wondering why that guy's bike handle bars are so different and low. It was an amazing day and the volunteer support was phenomenal. I hired a coach through TrainingPeaks and we started May 1st. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  4. Amanda - best of luck in Kona. We will be with you in spirit and watching your race via internet. Very proud of you just for getting back to Hawaii. Lots of love

    Sally and Jud