Heading into this race, I had a plan which culminated in a projected finish time. Based on training, I thought I could do the swim in 1:00, the bike in 5:45, and the run in 3:30. Add in some extra time for transitions and miscellaneous other miscues, so sure, maybe I could finish in 10:30. Did I expect the race to unfold this way? Absolutely not! I know that in ironman racing there are so many uncontrollable factors that can and often do interfere with your race plan. I expected this interference to come into play. I was prepared for it.
Onto race morning… I was definitely a bit nervous thinking ahead to what the day might bring. So much time and energy invested into training for this one event. It was hard to stay in the moment and maintain perspective. I reflected back on a quote my sports psychology professor in grad school shared with the class from an athlete she had previously worked with. It was a moment this athlete had spent years training for – the Olympic trials in rowing. She had one shot to make her dream come true. That morning, the athlete woke up and exclaimed, “it’s like Christmas morning and now I get to open my presents!” I planted this phrase into my head and it sent chills through my body. So much work put into training for this event. Now it’s time to put this training into action and see what I can accomplish. I was ready to go.
The gun went off and the swim started a bit quicker than I had anticipated. I wanted to get out in the front pack, but quickly got caught up in the masses. Hence the first loop of the swim was much more chaotic than I had anticipated. Many elbows to the head, goggles being dislodged, mouthfuls of water, and people grabbing my feet from behind…. It was like I was swimming in a washing machine. I focused on trying to stay relaxed and just getting through that first loop. I came out of the water and was shocked to see my watch read 29 minutes. So despite the fact I didn’t really feel like I was swimming, the “whirlpool effect” of the first swim loop played to my advantage, as I was ahead of my target pace – nice! I dove back into the water to start the second loop. This lap was more comfortable, as I had several stints of clear water. I entered the zone and the second loop went by quickly. I exited the water with a split of 1:01. Mission accomplished! Onto the bike.
I had a lot of trouble settling in on the bike. I felt tense and my mind was racing in a million directions. I knew I wanted to stay in the moment and not think too much, but I found myself thinking about what I should be thinking about. I wanted to think about nothing, but I couldn’t help but think about everything. It took me about half way through the first loop to settle my body and my mind and relax a bit. I kept reminding myself of a phrase my good friend and fellow coach shared with me: “The ironman is not a bike race. It’s a marathon race after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112.” I was so excited to ride by Mirror Lake after the first loop to see my friends and family. I’m not sure if I imagined it, but it felt like the cheers were magnified 100x when I rode by. I almost shed a few tears at the amazing support. I’m here because of them and they are here because of me. It was so energizing. Then I was quickly off on my second loop leaving friends and family behind in a flash.
About half way through the second loop, I felt like I was fading a bit. I watched my power and heart rate numbers for a bit and began to witness the dreaded “de-coupling effect” (HR goes up, power goes down). This spells BAD NEWS. I was working harder for less output. I couldn’t help think about the ramifications. Perhaps I had blown it. I had ridden too hard in the first lap. My run may well suffer big time. I may have screwed this up… I quickly tried to put things into perspective. I knew there weren’t many women in front of me on the bike, so I was in a good position as it was. I reminded myself “it’s not a bike race, it’s a marathon race.” It’s time to conserve on the bike and save what I can for the run. I turned my focus away from my power numbers and toward my heart rate numbers. I set a ceiling for my heart rate and tried not too exceed it (too many times anyway). Then I kept reminding myself that I’m riding my bike 112 miles. I’m supposed to be tired. This is what ironman racing is all about. I finished the bike leg in 5:41. Four minutes faster than projected. Mission accomplished! Hopefully I don’t pay for this on the run…
Onto the run… the 26.2 mile foot race. My strategy for the run was to stay comfortable and relaxed for the first loop and then give it all that I had left in the second loop. I got through the first loop right on target, feeling energized after seeing friends and family on Mirror Lake Drive. Then I headed off on the second loop. This is where ironman racing can get ugly. A guy on a bike pulled up next to me at about mile 14 and informed me that I was the third amateur woman. He then told me there was a 28 year old in front of me, trying to get her pro card who was fading. “You trying to get a Kona slot?” he asked me. “Well, yeah” I responded. Doesn’t everyone want a Kona slot!? Then he told me that there was a 40 year old behind me that was “moving pretty quick.” “Maybe you three can work it all out,” he said to me and then rode off. I wasn’t quite sure how to process this information. I finally thought to myself, “all I can do is give it my best. If she passes me, she passes me.” Just keep running. Focus on yourself and not others.
I am a firm believer in mind over matter. I knew that if I told myself I was feeling strong (not entirely true…), that I could run strong. I got a lot of comments on that run course such as “looking strong!” or “you make this look easy!” I kept repeating those phrases to myself in my head. No way in heck miles 14-26.2 of an ironman race are ever easy. But telling myself that I’m feeling strong certainly helps me run strong. Mind over matter. I hit the turnaround and saw several women not too far behind me. But what mattered to me was that no one had passed me yet. 6 miles to go.
Stay strong. Light and quick on your feet. Get to that aid station and pour the coke into your mouth and the water over your head (don’t get them mixed up…) The two major hills awaited. But I know no one will run faster than me up those hills. The crowds were at the top of the hill. I was almost there. I saw my friends and family on Mirror Lake Drive. I gave them high fives and forced the biggest smile I could manage. Fake it ‘til you make it. Smiling makes you feel good. One more turn around then I’m in the home stretch. I reached the turnaround. And saw 2 women still not too far behind. How far? Hard to tell. I still have something left in the tank. I know I have more to give. I know I can pick it up a notch to finish this race strong.
And that is what I did. My last mile was by far my fastest. I ran into that Olympic oval and relished the moment of high fiving my kids on the way down the finisher’s chute. I looked up at the clock. It read 10:21. I hadn’t only reached my ideal target time, I had surpassed it. My run split? 3:30 – exactly as I had predicted. But beyond my finishing time and most importantly of all, I finished the race with the biggest smile on my face. Mission accomplished!
I learn the most from the races where I face significant adversity along the way. Don’t get me wrong; the ironman is a constant battle to get through the day, both mentally and physically. Within these “perfect races,” I have to do a bit more searching to come away with takeaways and lessons learned from the experience. The most important lesson that I learned from this race is that hard work pays off. Ask anyone who knows me well, and they will tell you that I trained my butt off for this race. I push myself day in and day out in training and practice my race plan so that when it comes to race day, it’s all routine and familiar. I do this so that I can feel good enough to muster up that smile for the camera and for friends and family on race day. The other lesson that was reinforced for me during this race is how powerful the mind can be. I think my split for the second half of the run was equal to if not faster than the first half. Was I feeling stronger? Heck no! Simply by telling myself that I was feeling strong and focusing on being positive and running with good form, I was able to run strong despite the building fatigue.
Ten years ago, I did my first ironman and I vowed to never do it again. I don’t think I was able to muster up any smiles on that run course, and I spent 3 hours in the medical tent at the conclusion of the race. But deep inside of me, I knew I could do better. I knew I could succeed at ironman racing. I knew I had the determination to get through the training and the mental toughness to push through race day. And I was so happy that on this day it was just me versus the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and the 26.2 mile run. And I finished the race, running strong through that finisher’s chute with a huge smile on my face. Mission accomplished!