Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ironman Arizona 2014- Redemption

Despite having to really drag myself through several weeks of literal and figurative darkness and fear and all that stuff prior to Ironman Arizona, by the time we arrived in Tempe, I was actually in quite a good state of mind.  I knew (I'm learning!) that in order to have a successful race, I needed to do whatever I could to keep the pre-race anxiety very, very low.  My method of doing that?   I made the trip short and sweet, not flying into Phoenix until Friday morning.  I kept my head down, focused on myself, and tried to stay away from the noise, popping in to Ironman Village only to check in and handle the necessities but hustling out of there and staying away from the buzz as much as I could.  I mostly did my workouts away from the race site, skipping the pre-race practice swim in favor of the local Y and riding/running from my hotel.  And mostly, I surrounded myself with close friends and family and people who could keep me laughing
Spotted on pre-race ride.  I knew it'd be a good day.
My mood the day before the race and the morning of was ridiculously good, almost to a bizarre extent.  The pre-race mishaps, of which there are always some, were significant this time (among other things, I forgot all of my bottles of nutrition, not noticing until we'd already parked, and had to send my dad back to the hotel for quick retrieval) but for whatever reason these things barely raised the stress level.  It was quite strange, really.  The fear I had of this race was so substantial that I had anticipated being near tears with nerves beforehand.  Not so much.  I got my bike set up, I joked around with Karin and Dusty (who had all-access passes as they were handlers for a physically-challenged athlete), I celebrated when my wetsuit, which I hadn't put on in two months, still fit, and most of all, I just felt happy and excited.  Was it my lowered expectations (I truly, truly just wanted to finish)?  Was it excitement of being able to "redeem" myself?  I have no idea, but if I could bottle up that good mood for future races, I would.

Headed out of transition, I found training buddy Kristy, which was good, as we had planned to swim together.  The line to get to the water was huge and I just wanted in, so I pushed and elbowed my way up to the front of the line with Kristy following closely behind and apologizing to everyone for my rudeness. We jumped into the dark and murky water, swam the 300 meters right to the front line, towards the right but not all the way.   And wouldn't you know, with 3,000 starters, I ran into a familiar face treading right in that space-- Jerome Harrison, Jennifer's husband, who made me feel a little better about not having swum a single stroke in my wetsuit in 2 months when he confessed that he hadn't been in his for three years.  The three of us chatted and joked and observed that the race was starting way late.  The nerves never came.

Without much warning, the cannon fired, I put the head down and churned out a good 60 hard strokes, then took the effort down, lifted my head to look around, and practically cheered out loud upon realizing that somehow, I'd managed to find myself almost entirely in open water.
It was about this dark when we got in
I'd heard talk on Slowtwitch, and gotten confirmation from male amateur champ Steve Johnson, that the best line in this swim was not along the buoy line, but farther right,  as the course curves a bit ("it's kinda like a banana," said Steve).  With this knowledge, I aimed myself wide right towards the shore, settling in maybe 10 or 20 feet right of the sea wall, where spectators were walking along.   And then, lo and behold, there were my parents, walking right along with me.  This made me almost giddy.  I kept waving at them as I swam and at one point they waved back.  Three cheers for my extremely "distinctive" (or ugly, whatever) straight-arm swim style that made me recognizable in a sea of black wetsuited competitors!
Love the mass swim starts.  Really
After a little of that, I realized it'd probably be smarter if I stopped waving at my family and smiling like a dork and got to work, so I spotted a couple green caps swimming close by, adjusted my angle, and hopped into their pack, riding the draft as much as I could until the turnaround.

Coming back in, I continued to blindly trust the advice of bunch of strangers on Slowtwitch and stayed far right, way out in no man's land, swimming alone.   I felt good and strong but I was so isolated out there that I feared I was way off course.  Yet eventually, the course curved out to meet me, I celebrated the smart line I'd taken, and enjoyed the easy effort all the way in and out of the water.

Swim: 59:02/ 5th in Age Group

I didn't see a clock getting out of the water and hadn't started my watch, so I had no idea how the swim had gone.  A very helpful spectator shouted "you're under an hour!" which widened my smile as that is always the goal.  T1 has been a weakness of mine this year, I've gotten lost so many times, so when I arrived to the bags and a volunteer already had found my bag amongst the piles and was holding it out for me, I was perhaps overly thankful ("thank you, thank you, so much for not making me find this on my own!").  I got through the transition pretty quickly and then was happy to see All-Access Karin as I exited the tent to find my bike.  "I found my bag!!!"  I yelled to her.  Small victories.  She jogged behind me as I turned down the correct  row for once and ran straight to the volunteer who was holding my bike.  "And I found my bike!!!," I continued to narrate.  Has there ever been anyone so damn happy about getting through transition?  I am not so sure.
Mutual Friendly Feeling Friend Livetweeting My Success
If there's one word to describe my plan for the bike it was:  conservative.  I had power targets, but after the Kona meltdown, my primary goal was to ride as easily and in-control as possible so as to give myself the best chance to digest my nutrition properly and to set myself up to have a good run, which I have never been able to do at the Ironman distance.  This was not, in any way, a day to take anything even remotely resembling a risk.

Once I started rolling, it became immediately apparent that this was going to be a much tougher day than anticipated.  The wind was already gusting strongly, and I knew it would only get worse.  So I hunkered down, prepared myself mentally, and set out at a sustainable pace, repeating over and over "easy, easy, easy."   I settled in, tried to take it all in, had a little Fan Girl moment when I saw World Champ Mirinda Carfrae out doing a training run along the Beeline, laughed at how pretty much every guy that passed me was wearing the same damn race kit, and just had a grand ole' time.
Who wants to help me get aerodynamic before next season???!!  Yikes.
At the turn-around for the 1st of 3 loops, an amazing spectator let me know that I was the third female amateur coming through, about 1:50 down from the lead, which was good news but didn't change anything-- I was still trying to be conservative and do my own thing.  At this point, the course was still quite empty, with only much faster guys flying by me from time to time, so I let it rip on the downhill, staying as aero as I could and trying to get the speed up.  I passed Girl #2 pretty quickly and figured Cathy Yndestad was the leader.  I've never raced Cathy before or even met her, but if you race in the Midwest you know Cathy.  She's been tearing it up for years and by all accounts is a really, really nice person, too, and those are the sorts of individuals who people just know.  She's also a very strong swimmer, it was no surprise that she was leading the race, and as I told someone the day before, "there's a good chance I won't see Cathy all day-- she'll be off the front from the gun."

Making the turn-around to start Lap 2, I was still in an awesome mood, smiling and waving when I saw first my parents, then Katy, Carolyn & Bill, then Jennifer Harrison, then Karin & Dusty, then my parents again, with my dad now yelling out "P-2, P-2" which has become a joke between us ever since Mont-Tremblant.
Grand ole time.  For now
Lap Two was harder, with the wind picking up and things getting a bit more crowded as I caught up with the back-of-packers starting their first loop, but I kept to the plan, still felt decent, and was surprised that it wasn't worse. 

Lap Three was even worse, with the headwind making the gradual 18-ish mile climb feel like one of the mountains I tackled while riding in Spain in 2012 and sucking all of my will to live.  My power dropped, my whole body ached from trying to steady my bike in the winds, and that climb to the top seemed like it would never, ever end.  I started watching the pro race coming back down, just really, really wanting to see people I knew descending back into town because it would mean I was at least getting closer to the top.   I knew Maggie was ahead, racing in her first pro race and wearing a bright pink helmet and at moments, all I wanted to see in the whole world was that damn pink helmet because it'd offer tangible proof that this stretch would, in fact, end at some point and I wouldn't be climbing into that wind for the rest of my life.
I did buy the pictures and will replace this
Close to the turn around, I looked ahead and spied a girl wearing a black Lifetime Fitness kit (with a guy riding just inches of her back wheel).  It was Cathy.  That moment shocked and excited me, as I thought I was going so slow that there was no way I was making ground on anyone.   I took a minute to let the guy that was clinging to her wheel know that it was pretty pathetic to be blatantly drafting off a girl (I'm not usually confrontational like that at all, was pretty pathetic), and passed, knowing that Cathy was a great racer and there was no way she'd just let me go.

We turned around finally and as we got a tailwind combined with a downhill, it's like the whole world shifted.  My will to live immediately returned, but that last climb had taken so much out of me that I decided that I needed to take the last 18 miles nice and easy.   I settled in, taking in nutrition and trying to relax.  Cathy flew by, at which point I reminded myself not to relax too much. I hung a legal distance back from her for a few minutes and then passed again, half expecting that leap frog game to go on for the rest of the ride (it didn't).  By the time we reached town, I thought I'd dropped Cathy, but as I getting off my bike slowly and like a total rookie, she rolled right past with an expert flying dismount, got to the line first, and bolted off to transition.  Game on.

Time: 5:19:07, 1st in Age Group, 2nd off the bike, and about a million (or 10-15) minutes slower than anticipated due to the wind 

Entering transition with Cathy and knowing that we were both 1-2 in the Amateur race and 1-2 in our age group certainly lit a fire under my ass.  We both transitioned in under 90 seconds, no messing around. I'm pretty proud of that one, especially because that included actual tying of shoe laces for me (no speed laces in this race, the first time I've ever done that).  

As Cathy and I headed out for the run right with each other, part of me was excited (this is real racing and it's what I live for), but a bigger part was absolutely terrified.
Photo by Kerry Yndestad.  Right out of T2
With Kona fresh in my mind, and with a history of pretty epic blow ups in Ironman marathons, it's fair to say I was confronting some serious demons during this race and especially this part of it, and I absolutely knew that the only way I was going to successfully fight this battle was to start slow, so very slow, manage my emotions, and put the blinders on.  I knew that's what I needed to do.  But given where we were, running right together in first and second place,  putting the blinders on was way easier said than done.  Honestly, at first, I was just saying over and over in my head, "shit, shit, shit."  I didn't want a race like this, and I was panicking, knowing that starting neck-and-neck with my closest competitor and getting involved in a "race"  with 26 miles still to go, could very, very easily cause me to make huge mistakes that would ruin my day.    
We ran this close for a loooong time
Shortly into the race, we ran past Sonja on the sidelines, who I've raced but never actually met.  I knew her as pretty much one of the top (and certainly most experienced) amateur Ironman racers out there, and she had simple words that really resonated (and I'm paraphrasing because I don't remember the exact quote):  "this is the front of the amateur race here, but just settle in, take it nice and easy."  I started repeating those words in my head.  Just settle in.  Nice and easy.  Stay calm.  Then I saw my parents, who reminded me of the exact same things, "find your own pace.  Just run your own race."

That's what that whole first 4 miles was, as Cathy and I ran step for step -- doing whatever it took to settle into a sustainable pace and stay calm and happy.  At one point I started talking to Cathy, chatting really, telling her she'd killed the swim, commenting on the windy bike.   She wasn't much in the mood for talking, I get that, and after the race I sent her a note to apologize for what may have been perceived as playing head games (I absolutely wasn't, I just was trying to find some way to distract myself from what was really going on).   I gave the thumbs up every time I saw my parents, waved at Liz, Chris, Jennifer and Karin when I passed them at mile 4, I thanked almost everyone who cheered for me, I chatted more with other runners I encountered, and I smiled and smiled and smiled until I could smile no more.   In hindsight, I did overcook the first 10 miles a bit and I could have paced better, but I felt really, really good, and I just went with it, stretching the lead to about 2 minutes or so in that first 10 miles.
Still lovin' life at mile 4
 At mile 13 or so, as I started the second loop, things started to hurt.  It's hard to explain, but suddenly I just felt tired, slow, and like something wasn't right.  My pace slowed, my mood plummeted, and frankly, I freaked out.  This was a very familiar feeling for me, and I just knew it was happening again.  I was melting down.  I was losing it.  AGAIN.  Just like every other Ironman.  I started having those horrible thoughts, wondering if I was going to finish or if I'd have to walk it in.  I could feel myself starting to give up, to give in.   I almost cried.    At mile 14, I ducked into a port-o-pot, took a really long time contemplating life, contemplating Ironman, and trying to convince myself to hang in there and to ride it out.

Once I got going, I saw my parents (they were everywhere), and again, they knew exactly the right thing to say:  hang in there.  Keep moving forward.  Just get to the next aid station.   And so I did, moving slowly, my head filled with cranky thoughts, but moving forward, nonetheless.

Somewhat less happy (Photo by Kerry Yndestad)
My low stretch lasted for several miles, and it was a huge mental battle between the voice saying,"yup, you ALWAYS melt down in Ironman racing and you're doing it again," and the voice saying, "this doesn't have to end badly just because it always has.  Problem solve.  Figure out what you need.  You can do this."  As this battle raged on, I just kept moving forward, at moments feeling cautiously optimistic that I could pull through, but at more moments feeling on the brink of defeat.  When I saw Liz at mile 18, she was cheering loudly and telling me I looked great, and my response was to give a big ole thumbs down.

Shortly thereafter, I passed my friend AJ, who was starting his first loop.  He asked how I was feeling, I either said "bad" or "horrible" or "this totally sucks,"  I can't remember, but he offered me a container of BASE Performance Salts, assuring me that he had plenty.   I know, I know, I know, nothing new on race day, but I was pretty desperate at that time, had dropped my own stash of salt at some point, and had heard good things about this product, so I took the chance and started using it.

Maybe it was the BASE, maybe it was the Coke that I'd just started taking at every aid stations,  maybe it was the short walk breaks I'd started to take as I was drinking that Coke, maybe it was just seeing AJ, but starting at mile 19, everything turned around.  It was like some miracle from the Ironman gods.   For the first time ever for me, I managed to pull myself out of an Ironman run funk.  My pace picked back up, my mood improved, the smile came back, when I saw my parents again they said, "oh, you look so much better."
Drama on the Ironman Blog (which is so cool!)

I spent that last 10K thinking of nothing more than continually moving myself forward and staying smooth.  I'd been cautious all day, to be sure, but after that low, low several mile stretch, I was now downright scared, acutely aware of the little "Black Cloud of Failure" that was hovering over my head.  Even though I felt pretty good, I held back hard, anticipating and expecting another low that could be even worse.  I was getting updates that my lead was extending, but at that point, I really didn't care.   I wasn't racing anyone else anymore, and in a way, I'm not sure I really was, all day.  I was battling myself, my own demons,  my own fears, and my own past, and while I was winning that battle, it just wasn't quite over yet.  
Head down, grinding it out (Photo by Kerry Yndestad)
It wasn't until mile 25 that I truly believed I was going to finish.  I did pick it up at that point. I ran through the last aid station instead of walking, I let myself really work. All day long, I never let myself think about the sub-10 goal that had been the original impetus behind doing this race.  I didn't have a watch with my total time running, I never calculated my splits, I never asked anyone if I was on track....that really wasn't what today was about.   But as I approached the very end, maybe 100 meters from the last turn that would take us to the finish line, I saw Liz on the side of the road, jumping up and down, as excited as I've ever seen her.  "You are so close to ten hours!"  she screamed.  "You can do it but you have to go!  Go now! Go!"

I had a moment of shock but then I took off like a bat out of hell, recalling my days as an 800 meter runner and countless quarter and half mile repeats I'd done on the track this year.  I took that last corner hard, I got up on my toes and pumped my arms, seeing 9:59 on the clock and sprinting, sprinting, sprinting as fast as I could, eyes glued to the clock, watching the seconds tick by, sprinting more, not even pausing long enough to remember to fist bump or raise my arms or jump or do any sort of celebration whatsoever, but just trying to cross that line before it clicked over to 10....

And, nine hours, fifty-nine minutes, and thirty-four seconds after I'd started, I crossed that line, grinning ear to ear, thrilled about the time, thrilled about the win, but so much more than anything, thrilled that I'd defeated my own demons, that I'd hung tough when the fears threatened to defeat me, and that I found the strength to fight and to bounce back from the lowest of lows, not just today, but in all the days before.
Bonus points for both feet off the ground (Photo by Kerry Yndestad)

I don't know who it was (and if you're reading, please tell me) but seconds before I crossed that line, I heard someone yell out, clear as a bell, "redemption!"  And really, that's what this was for me.  Sweet redemption.  I couldn't be happier.

Run:  3:36:20
Total:  9:59:34, 1st in Age Group, 1st Overall Amateur

Too happy to remember to pose

The After
And that, finally, is a wrap on 2014.  As for 2015, I have new ideas almost every day but am leaving a lot of question marks on my calendar for a while.  I'm too busy eating pizza and drinking wine.   With the extent to which I've been gorging on pizza, you'd think it was a food I'd deprived myself of in some way during the season-- not so much.  Pizza was my night-before long ride dinner all season long.  What can I say, I just really like pizza.   Kristy said it best when she wrote that she'd be taking a "fat and happy offseason."   Indeed.
Speaking of Kristy, who has been a great training buddy this year, she won her age group by over an hour, and will be heading to Kona next October.  And.....after a little hemming and hawing (the memories are still a little too real), I decided to take my slot, too.  At least I have one training buddy lined up (with more likely to come)!  So, ALOHA!