Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Southern Oregon Outback 50k


I didn’t die!

Preamble
When I saw my work schedule gave me the day off, I figured I could survive in the woods for 31 miles and not die, even on limited training.  So I signed up.  The SOB 50k averages about 6500’ elevation • has about 5000’ of climbing / descending • is mostly single-track • and is run in late-July.  None of these things is my strong suit and all of them together with a lack of training could have added up to a complete cluster f*.

Training
Mid-March I was hitting long runs of 14-15, then crazy work / life schedule kicked in.  I didn’t hit another run over 12 miles until June 16.  I did manage bike rides of 2-5 hours once a week during that time and many other shorter runs, but nothing that was going to fill me with confidence.  Oh and I was running most of this time on flatter roads rather than trails or climbing trails for that matter.

June 22 to July 13 I got long runs in of 16, 17, 24 and 14 with climbing and some single track.  The 14 was an out and back on the first 7 miles of the racecourse.  This would be one of two runs I did on the course (at altitude).  The altitude made me feel like I was running on two flat tires.

On one of my runs I was out at first light before a baby deer had woken up:


Weather
Forecast high wavered between 85 and 105 the two weeks leading into the race.  In any scenario there would be suffering.  Wind kicked up with 12 hours to spare and we got some reprieve from the worst heat, but lightning sparked many fires the night before the race.  Driving to the start it tasted like burning.  Temp on race morning at my house was 62 (it would be 48 the next morning, damn).  I’d say high temp on the course for the race was in the mid to upper 80’s.

Course Profile
Not really a walk in the park.

A single drop bag would be left at the two low-points you see (mile ~9 and ~22).  I froze three water-filled handhelds rock solid.  Two went into the drop bag along with two small frozen containers of chicken broth, two mini-cokes (8oz), a set of pop tarts, some beef jerky and extra sunscreen.  With me I carried one hand-held of water, three vanilla powergels, two sets of cliff blox and an iPod nano for after the first ten miles.

Start
I had asked over email to have an early start but got the nice version of ‘no’.  Met a few friends at the start.  Field was 300, but I think there were some no-shows.  The race director told people they could step-down to the 15k if they wanted (I declined this – go out in a blaze of glory!) 

The first ¾ of a mile makes you feel like a God of Running, so I was careful to slip to the back of the pack.  After the ¾ of a mile we hit the single track.  I was at the back of the peloton with maybe eight people behind me 100 meters back.  Perfect.  I hate getting run down from behind on single track. 

For the next four miles the course climbs progressively steeper up.  As this happens about a dozen over-zealous folks drop behind me.  Once at mile 4 the trail drops down for three miles of quad burning decent.  I’m still far enough back that I’m not in many peoples way. 

I was hoping to hit the mid-point of the race quickly so I could manage the second half before the heat of the day got out of control.  I hit mile seven at 1:22.  We hit the drop bag area at mile nine.  I trade my hand-held for a chilly hand-held.  I slurp down about four ounces of coke, start up my iPod and back onto the course.

Mile nine to fifteen ladders up jeep road and single-track while rather exposed to the sun.  You can see the saddle we are headed toward for miles.  You can also see folks who are doubling back on the jeep road (fast bastards).  Volunteers at the aide stations are super nice.  They have your bottle out of your hand quickly and are asking what you want in it before you know what’s happening.  I ask for a salt capsule and they try to hand me three.  I take one.  I don’t use these in training and haven’t ever felt the need for one in a race, but something is telling me one is a good idea at the mid-point.  Porta-loo break (yay, my kidneys work!) and back on course.

Mile 15.5 at 3:22, about 10 minutes slower than I thought I might manage.  From 15.5 to 17.5 the course drops down steadily but not too steeply.  I take this opportunity to eat half a pop tart and chug down most of a water bottle.  At 17.5 before going back onto the single track we hit an aide station where they are OUT OF WATER.  I have four ounces left.  Next aide is in 3.5 miles.

18-19 is a bitch of a hill that we all have to walk.  It’s surreal red clay that I’ve never seen in this area.  After we top out at 19, the trail turns rocky and along the edge of a ridge for three miles.  This is an unexpected nail biting decent.  Half way down my hips and knees are aching and people are passing.  Oh and the first 50 mile racers start flying by at warp speed.  I’m starting to get cranky from my inability to make gravity my friend and the lack of water.  This would be my low-point for the race.  At ~21 a truck appears with just water.  I fill up my bottle ½ way since we must be close to the drop bags at 22.  A mile later we hit the drop bag area.  I grumble a bit about my under-hydration as I tear into my bag – then I let it go.  Shit happens. 

The next thing I do will either be the smartest or dumbest thing I have ever done during a race.  In my drop bag are the two semi-frozen containers of chicken broth.  I peel back the tab on one and drink about half (4 ounces); I think I hear an aide station volunteer gasp.  I could have as easily asked for another salt capsule I guess, but hey this comes in fluid form.  I set the rest of the container aside on the table (for anyone else to use later) and chase the chicken broth with about 6 ounces of coke cola.  Yeah, I did.  I have either done something wicked smart or very stupid inside my stomach.  My experience is that my guts are really really good during a race (Ironstomach) and get a bit green right after I finish.  Last semi-frozen hand-held in hand and I squirt onto the trail.  Time ~4:50. 

If I can make it to ~23.5 by 5:00 race-time I have a chance of going sub-7 for the day.  Get there right at 5:10:00 on my Garmin.  Now before me is the 2.8 mile / 1200’ climb up to the marathon point aide station. Fortunately it is shady.  I put on my best Jason power-walk and run the few sections that I can hope to finish this section in less than an hour.  My race has started.  I quickly pass three people who are strolling along.  The chicken-coke mixture seems to be working magic on my insides.

About a mile in I see a friend of a friend who had passed me at mile nine.  She was walking very slowly up the hill.  I ask if she’s okay and it’s clear she has been watering the trail with her face.  We are two miles from aide in either direction.  She’s talking okay, but her eyes are a bit glazed over.  I give her a gas-x tablet and tell her I’ll let the aide station know.  I tell her to, “manage the situation, keep moving and stay out of the sun when possible”. 

I power on. 

At the top of the climb I hit the final aide-station, which is manned by volunteers dressed as pirates.  They refill my bottle with ice water as I check my Garmin.  6:09 a new personal worst marathon time.  Woohoo!  I mention that there is a lady on the trail in need of assistance.  Luckily, friend-of-friends husband is there and asks after his wife.  I suggest he go down the trail after her (he had long since finished top 10 in the 50k) and off he went.

I ask for additional ice for my bra.  The heat of the day is biting hard right now.  Without blinking the volunteer hits me with ice and wrings freezing cold water over my head and chest.  I almost have a heart attack and want to marry this volunteer at the same time.  Invigorated, I return to the race for the last full measure.

Four point six miles left of mostly mild downhill single-track.  Likelihood of making sub 50 minutes on this section is dim.  With classic rock tunes screaming into my ears I plow on.  There is a fallen tree making an archway over the trail with one mile to the finish.  I don’t check my watch until there.  At that point I have exactly ten minutes to make sub-7.  That ain’t gonna happen.  There is a ½ mile climb once you come off of the single-track, which takes you to the parking / finish area.  As I hit the parking area I see friend of friend safe and happy at her car.  Besides two fast 50-mile finishers, I haven’t seen a living soul ahead or behind me for about an hour.  I am the end of the middle of the pack / beginning of the back of the pack.  With that I cross the line in 7:02.  Job done.

Glad that is over.  Wish I’d had a better chance to train. Not sure I’d race this course again as it’s relatively difficult.  I’m looking forward to reaping the cardiovascular benefits of having done this race over the rest of the summer and fall.






Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ironman Arizona 2012 • Three's A Charm!

Backstory

2010 – Trained like crazy, was in the best Ironman shape of my life, got hurt the day before the race at the practice swim.  Weather was also a factor, with a crazy crosswind on the bike. IMAZ 2010

2011 – Somehow managed to register after the race was ‘closed’, started to train.  Training sucked, went to doctor.  Needed surgery.  Had 89 training days prior to race and was pretty sure I’d die on the course.  Managed to make it to the start line and finish ahead of my 2010 time.  IMAZ 2011

Training

This being the third IMAZ in a row, to some degree I was burnt out.  So in April I decided to try some shock treatment and signed up with my local Crossfit gym for a few months.  Holy cow!  What a shot in the arm that turned out to be.  I got more from 3-4 hours at Crossfit per week than I was getting with twelve hours of Ironman training.  I saw improvement in core strength, flexibility and balance.  It also brought into strong focus where I was weak.  Along with this stint at Crossfit, I did a Whole 30 challenge by turning to a paleo diet for four weeks.  Michael joined me in this particular adventure and we both found it to be very positive.  Better energy, sleep and mood and I was down ten pounds from 2011.

Once July hit, I dropped the Crossfit for the pool, bike and running shoes.  There simply wasn’t enough time for both to co-exist.  The diet had to be modified as well.  Strict paleo-diet works, but for me doesn’t co-exist well with exercise that takes longer than 90 minutes at a time. 


Mid-summer I went away from my usual long TT rides and focused on some of our local climbs I hadn’t been able to enjoy the past few summers (due to IM training).  In September I hit a strong point with my bike by setting new PR’s on three major climbs over the course of ten days.  Would this translate into a faster bike time?  Had to get on the TT bike to find out.  In Oct / Nov my long TT rides were ‘fine’ but not as fast as the ones I had thrown down in 2010.


Taper / Race Week

Got to Tempe nine days ahead of race day.  There was a 3k-swim race eight days out from the race and it would take place in Tempe Town Lake.  After two days of driving I wasn’t sure how this race would shake out, but any open water swim practice has to have benefits.  Managed to make it through the race without dying.  Found the water to be ‘warm’ (67) by comparisons with other years (59) and rather clear.  After that a Phoenix friend and I went out for a one-loop ride of the bike course (37 miles).  Roads were good; wind was just like 2010, we felt like gods on the way out and like gnats on the return.  The next day I did one loop of the run course (8.6 miles). 

A few 20-30 minute sessions the rest of the week around the usual hoopla of registration, family arrival, gear bags, blah, blah, blah.  I managed to get a lot of quality sleep race week due in some part to the race hotel mucking up our reservation, which they corrected by giving us a SECOND ROOM FOR FREE. 

Race Day

I wake up at 2:38am, lay in the dark for an hour and get up for good after that.

5:15a leave for transition.  Drop of liquids at the bike, check tire pressure, drop off special needs bags (Bike and Run) and head for the change tent.  While wandering around I run into Sarah Reinertsen the first female amputee to finish Kona (2005).  She’s doing IMAZ with the help of Challenged Athlete’s Foundation, who I happen to be raising money for as part of participating in this race.  I wish her well and she is genuinely bright and warm – all well before dawn. 

6:20a stuff self into wetsuit. 

6:40a  Waddle out with the other 2514 folks dressed as seals and slip into the lake.  Pee one last time while hanging onto the surfboard of a volunteer.  Seed myself to the right and front.

SWIM             PR 1:23:27 • Goal sub-1:30:xx  •  Realistic sub-1:35:xx


I set my watch to buzz every 21:30 in the hopes that I can make the far turn buoy in 43:00 and be on track for a 1:28:xx.  I do this!  I hit the giant return buoy (which according to Garmin connect, is the mid-point of the course). I hit 86:00 as I emerge from the Mill Avenue Bridge with the final turn for home buoy in site.  And then it’s like a Hitchcock movie where the swim ladder gets further and further away.  It feels like FOREVER for me to hit the swim stairs. 

Time   1:34:43 :< • Overall Rank 1943/2515 •  Gender 464/700  •  Division 89/144

T-1                  PR 8:04 •       Goal sub-8:00  •       Realistic sub-9:00

A thing about Ironman is that for long stretches of time you are alone in your own quiet headspace and then BAAM light, noise (so much cowbell), questions from volunteers.  Just as I cross the timing mat, I hear my name screamed like someone’s life depends on it.  I look through eyes that are not used to seeing very well and see fellow Ironman veteran giving me an amazing Iron-war cry! 

I scoot off to grab my bag and throw myself down in the grass to change.  I implore (if shouting is imploring) a volunteer to help me.  She gets the can of SPF 100 sunscreen, and I do everything else.  Swim socks off, Injinji socks on.  Shoes, race belt, jersey.  Wait!  Jersey, then race belt, helmet.  Volunteer is gone.  I shove my wetsuit in my gear bag and leave it in the grass (I figure, it will find its home somehow).  Glasses in hand I run through the women’s change tent (UNSEE!   THE HORROR!) and to my trusty steed.  What the fuck?  Where did all of the bikes go?  Damn you swimmers! I will hunt you down…

Time   7:54

Bike                PR 6:13:47  •  Goal 6:06:00  •  Realistic  sub-6:10

The bike route is three loops of 37.33 miles, out and back.  I’m looking forward to taking back some time on the hoards of people who swim faster than me.  Shortly after the start, I pass Sarah Reinhertsen.  We exchange a few words, wishing each other a good day.

I have enough fluids onboard for 56 miles (34 oz of Perpetuem) and reserve powder to refill that afterwards.  For the first time out to the turn-around I try to calm down and stay within myself.  Toward the turn-around (18.66 miles) I pull out my 7.5oz can of Coke Cola – liquid victory.  The last three miles out are a bit of a climb, so while climbing I slurp down this sweet nectar of the gods.  Someone laughs at me at the turn around as I’m holding the mini-can with my teeth so I can ditch it after the turn.  Look lady, I’m trying not to wreck at slow speed and I don’t want to litter.  Make the turn in 1:06:xx.  I’m glad I didn’t know this in the moment, cause I’d hoped for 1:02. 

Relaxed and in my element I pour it on and head back toward town.  Getting passed by the pro men = cool.  Getting passed by the guy with the prosthetic leg = cooler.  Getting passed by the guy wearing Crocs = not so much (I pass him every time we go uphill / he passes me back as we go downhill). 

Back in town – lots of noise and shouting.  I keep calm and don’t take too much energy to search for my family.  I figure they will find me.  Goal of the day is to focus on the task at hand.  I don’t see them and as I would find out later, they miss me entirely during the bike.  I make the turn in 50:41 (1:57:30) an average of 22.1 mph for the leg. Might be able to make a six-hour ride if I focus!

Shortly after the first loop is over, my power meter stops showing up on my Garmin.  Drat.  Okay, adjust.  I focus on keeping a cadence of 80-90 in the highest gear possible.  Also in here my race number comes undone from my race belt.  It’s clinging to me by one snap and flapping in the wind.  In an effort to reattach it while biking it comes off the belt, so I stow it in my pocket and hope to remember to reattach it in T2.

Half way out on the second loop me and two other guys (this race is 75% guys) are approaching a right hand turn.  Coming the other way, completing the turn from the other direction is a lady rider.  Just as she completes the turn, with no one around her front wheel pops up in the air (throwing her hands off the handlebars) and turns 90 degrees.  At about sixteen miles per hour she is thrown to the road landing heavily on her left side.  She doesn’t move as we pass.  First guy in front turns around; next guy starts to sprint to the aide station 100m ahead.  A volunteer is already jogging back toward us.  WTF just happened?!  Second guy and I have no idea.  From our perspective she just went down.  On the way back through that intersection I would later see a 75m long and three-inch wide gash in the road.  Her front wheel must have fallen into the crevice and then locked up on the sides.  Note to self:  Stay attentive.  Second loop done in 1:59:07

During the final bike loop, I focus on being aero as much as possible.  I see many bikers who have spent thousands of dollars on expensive triathlon bikes but are unable to hold the aero-position.  Yo, do some ab work, elsewise the slow-swimmer broad will pass you.  Somewhere in here I go to look at my Garmin on my wrist and accidently hit LAP (@#$%^&*()!  My Garmin now thinks I’m in T-2, while I’m at mile 85 of the bike.  Fuck it, gotta let that go.

On the way back in we see the aftermath of another crash.  The ambulance is parked partially on the racecourse and traffic cones are squeezing the riders into a narrower area heading out toward the far turn around.  The guy next to me and I share a few words because the accident looked rough. 

I’ve finished eating all of my gels, clif blox, chex mix and the special mini-big hunk I’d stowed aboard and am switching to water only.  I’m yo-yoing with two other ladies as we push for home.  One lady is a particularly strong rider on a sweet BMC special TT bike.  The other lady is a Tri-Arizona rider and an azz-hat who continues to draft off of me and BMC lady.  I am displeased by this. 

Last time I had a good IM race; I started the run course right at eight hours.  It looks like I’m going to crack the six-hour barrier on the bike and hit the run start way under eight hours.  Coming into T-2, I hear my dad exclaim my name, with a bit of surprise in his voice.  It’s the first I’ve heard from my family all day.  Bike done (without incident, thank goodness), I pass 729 people on my way to an eighteen-minute bike PR!

Time   5:55:45!  Overall rank 1214/2515 • Gender 212 / 700 • Division 44 / 144

T-2                  PR 9:04 •       Goal sub-7:00 

Volunteer takes my bike; I waddle toward the gear bags.  A volunteer hands me my bag.  Usually I use the porta potty during T2, but feel no need at this point.  I run into the women’s change tent and I take the very first chair.  A volunteer runs in with me and she gets SPF 100 duty as well.  Shoe switch (no sock change – a gamble, but a time saver), jersey off, race number!  I ask the volunteer to reattach it while I put on my second shoe and running hat.  Handheld water bottle (which is now lava hot – eww).  Hit the lap button on the Garmin (stupid Garmin) and I’m off!

Time               4:09 – woohoo!

Run PR 5:12:26 • Goal 4:49:38 (my 1st stand alone marathon time)  •  Realistic  sub-5:00:00

It’s 2:42pm, which is ten minutes earlier than I had hoped for.  The run course is three figure-eight loops, a 3.1 mile section and a 5.5-mile section.  Plan is to cruise the 3.1-mile section and unfold the legs from the run.  Then do minor cadence pick-ups for fifty meters at each mile from miles 4-24.  Pixie goal will have me finish as sub-11:00 / mile pace.  I can cruise at 10:40’s in almost any weather – so with a late fade, I’m hoping this plan is possible.  The plan needed almost immediate adjustment.

Totally stoked I burst onto the run course.  Adrenaline is flying!  Holy cow, I’m so far ahead.  For six hours I’ve been riding at 19mph on the bike and used to seeing the scenery fly by.  Within 400 meters I notice that my bib number is still only semi-attached, my hot water bottle feels heavy, it’s 82 degrees outside and there is zero-wind (a blessing on the bike and a curse right now).  Garmin buzzes at mile one and I’ve just clicked off a 9:13.  Hold the bleeping phone.  In a stand alone marathon bad pacing can destroy a race late in the game.  In Ironman it can kill you quickly and early.

At no point did I plan to stop during the marathon, but with the 9:13 I stopped cold.  Okay Gwen, regroup.   Finish your transition.  I pour out half of my hot liquid mixture to lessen the annoying weight.  I clip my bib number on and take a few deep breaths.  Before I’d stopped I was light-headed and getting the preamble to nausea from the lower regions.  This stop probably takes 30-40 seconds, but it may well have saved me 30-40 minutes.

With a deep breath I resume running.  I tell myself to be smart, don’t get greedy, don’t do anything stupid.  A few beats later I realize that my Garmin had stopped.  Fuck, did I pause that shit when I stopped?  I restart it and it declares that my race is ‘complete’.  Fuck you Garmin, fuck you.  On the bridge at 1.5 miles I see a victim of the poo-monster. This is why I doubled down on the Imodium at 6am.

Making the right-hand turn a bit later I’m relieved to feel a slight breeze.  Ahh, there it is.  Okay, so in this direction there is some relief.  Sweet.  The rest of the first loop goes by without incident or need to stop.  I grab some ice a few times and toss it under my hat.  Feeling better.  Toward the end of the first loop the leading women pass me.  Lindsey Corbin, Meredith Kessler and eventually world champion Leanda Cave.  I want to ask them if margaritas will be waiting at the finish, but I’m chicken. 

At mile 11, I ask a volunteer to point out an empty porta potty.  He points one out and I’m in and out in less than a minute.  I pass the marathon halfway point in 2:28.  Math is suddenly not my strong suit.  I have Iron-Brain, the inability to calculate splits.  I shake it off and keep moving forward – no walk breaks.  At an aide station I hear the words, ‘Chicken broth!’ and grab some, sniffing it to test the waters.  Down the hatch it goes and I start to perk up. 

Second time up the Curry Road ‘hill’ and I see my dad!  I hand him my sunglasses, because they continue to hinder me when I put ice under my hat – and the sun has just set.  Dad relays that my brother is waiting for me, ‘at the next downhill right-hand turn’.  I thank him and move on.  Left-hander downhill pours me into a very loud aide station (too much noise).  A few minutes later I wonder what the hell downhill right-hand turn my dad could be referring to.  I don’t see my brother until after the race.  My family’s battle strategy is a bit vexing, but I love them!

I’d like to say that I was paying very close attention to my splits here but I wasn’t.  I was relentlessly moving forward as best I could.  Miles 15-18 are clicked off at 11:00/m pace.  At 16 I manage to remember one thing I wanted to focus on.  In my previous four IM’s the last 11.2 miles is where the fade happens.  Fastest I’ve been able to gut out this last 11.2 miles has been 12:09 pace at IMFL in 2007.  Even though my sub-11:00/mile dream is done, I know I can maintain and try to finish strong.  The chicken broth allows me to try to do some math.  Soon I’ll have eight miles left.  At 11:00/m that’s 88 minutes, plus two minutes for the .2, plus two minutes for twenty seconds per mile to hold the pace I’ve got.  That’s 92 minutes.  At seven miles it’s 77 minutes plus four for 81 minutes.  At six miles it’s 66, plus four for 70 minutes . . . and on and on.  I keep that four minute pad in there knowing I’m gonna need it. 

The drain and strain are upon me.  The speedsters are off of the course now.  In the final lap anyone passed is passed.  Unlike other years, I don’t let myself walk with folks.  No talking, just wogging.  At every other aide station I’m grabbing something: ice, coke, broth or oranges.  The ice is melting in my handheld and giving me cool sips in between stations. 

My final time up Curry Road hill I pass the fight fighter in full gear:  boots, tank, and helmet.  He is doing the whole marathon like this.  I thank him as I pass.  Down the hill into the ultra-loud aide-station just before mile 24.  I toss my handheld down and ‘take off’ as best I can.  I would learn later that mile 24 was an 11:14 mile, which may as well have been a 9:13 for how if felt.  I pay for it on 25 and 26.  The last 1.2 takes forever.  People are screaming and holding out their hands to be high-fived.  I have no energy for this.  The relentless sound of cowbell is caustic to my ears.  I envision finishing covering my ears and pleading for two minutes of silence.  Under the Mill Ave Bridge for the last time and my legs have NOTHING left.  As much as I desire, there is nothing left to sprint with.  Lefthander to the last 200m and the finish.  My breathing is labored, I’m praying that I’ve managed the sub-5.  Make the turn for home and the last 50m.  I see the clock turn to 12:43 but I don’t know what it means.  Everything is lights and sounds.  I hold up my hand to indicate the fifth Ironman finish – something I never would have believed ten years ago.  And I finish.



Run Time      5:01:00 • an 11 minute PR

Total Time    12:43:31 • Overall 1097 / 2515 • Gender  211 / 700 • Division  45 / 144


Aftermath

I (re) stop my watch and it says 4:59:47 for the marathon.  Woohoo!  I wander toward the catchers and suddenly there is HUSBAND!  Holding a finishers medal in his hands.  He puts it around my neck and I immediately ask for its removal, as I believe I may hurl at any second.  Two volunteers grab me and after a few seconds I’m okay.  Finisher photo and off for food – and tales of the day.  Walking back to the hotel I’m hit by a massive wave of the chills.  Teeth chattering.  At the hotel I take a warm shower and then dunk my legs in an ice-bath.  The ice melts in less than five minutes.

At 11:30p I meet a friend and we watch the last finishers.  Walking to the finish line, my legs feel the best they’ve ever felt post-race.  I just miss firefighter and Sarah Reinhertson finishing, but we see lots of other gutsy athletes complete their day. 

Post Mortem

I’m so glad to have this race in the rearview mirror.  After so many challenges, logistics, and money spent it’s good to have the sub-13 Ironmonkey off of my back.  I know I gave it my all. 

Yes, I wish I’d been one to four minutes faster on the marathon.  There were definitely sixty one-second places I could have saved time.  I’m usually very good about watching splits and staying with my plan on the marathon, but I think I paid for the fast bike by having Iron-brain really early on the run.  But hey, I passed 115 people on the run and only one person in my AG passed me!

I’m satisfied and looking forward to adventures that don’t include Ironman. 

Onward!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Ironman Arizona 2011: a miracle start to finish

This report is long.  Ironman takes a long time, so do the race reports. 

Registration

I didn’t sign up for this race at the expo.  I signed up 10 days after the race was ‘closed’ to online entry.  I was so disgusted with how my 2010 IMAZ had gone (link here: IMAZ 2010) that I surfed over to the website for registration and the page opened and asked if I wanted to register for 2011.  I kept answering yes, and entering numbers figuring that at some point a window would open with a laughing skeleton face and tell me to go away.  When I got my credit card and plopped down my $600, I still figured this wasn’t real.  The next day when I got the confirmation e-mail and saw from my bank that indeed money was gone, I thought, ‘wow’. 

But I wasn’t going to tell anyone.  Not this time.  Last time I had set unreasonable expectations for myself.  This time I would wait until I was healed from injury and training was going well before I told family or friends of my intentions. 

Training

In June I started my usual Ironman training build up.  Once that training began, I hit hiccup after hiccup.  I felt drained, tired, weak, slow, sluggish and unhappy.  Frustrated, I saw my doctor, who sent me for a scan and a referral.  I was pleased to learn that my referral doctor was not only really good at what she did, but she was a runner and Hood to Coast veteran.  So when she gave me the news that I would need to have surgery, I knew it was the logical diagnosis.  This surgery would entail removing an organ (trying to be vague for privacy here) through several small incisions.  This organ was one that I hadn’t given much thought, but was suddenly wondering if I’d miss it.  The date was July 27, my mom’s birthday.  I didn’t call her to share the news, obviously.

Ironman evaporated from my radar . . . I drafted my withdrawal letter to Ironman Arizona, but didn’t need to mail it until the end of September.  Ironman doesn’t give refunds or deferrals, so I figured why rush mailing it.

Surgery was scheduled for August 23.  One line of thinking would be to train up to surgery day and recover quickly.  That lasted until I read what this surgery would entail, and I said, ‘screw it’.  I did no training between August 9 and Sept 13.  Surgery went well with an overnight stay at the hospital.  Doctor said no swimming, biking or running for two weeks.  But, I could walk as much as I wanted.  By the end of the two weeks I was up to five or six miles of walking per day. 

Two weeks after surgery I went for my first ‘run’.  It was four miles and took me 67 minutes.  It was really just ¼ mile jogs with ¼ mile walk breaks.  With the first ¼ mile ‘run’ effort I could feel my internal organs reorganizing themselves to the new world order.  It wasn’t a painful sensation, but one I’d care to never repeat.

Two weeks later, Sept 20, I had maxed out at a 2100 yard swim, a four-hour bike ride and one eight-mile run.  I decided not to mail in my letter to Ironman.  It was the four-hour ride that did it.  I decided I could start the race, do the swim and one loop of the bike course (37.33 miles) and call it a day.  Ironman races have been filling up faster and faster these days, so going to the race site to register for IMAZ ’12 in person would make the drive / DNF worth it. 

I continued to train informally and unconventionally, figuring I wasn’t going to finish anyway.  I focused on the swim and bike and tossed a handful of runs.  I had one ride that was 98 miles, but several three hour trainer rides.  My longest run was fourteen miles and it was on Oct 22.

About eight days before the race I had a bit of an anxiety attack when my realistic self said, ‘WTF do you think you are getting yourself into?!’  Then I asked myself if I thought I could do any of the three disciplines the very next day.  The answer was, ‘yes’ (but it wouldn’t look pretty).  I packed up the family fun wagon and drove to Arizona.  I’m usually a fan of the fifteen-day taper, this time I went for the 6 day hoping my body would respond well to the sun of Arizona. 

Taper / Race Week

Managed to make it to Tempe in sixteen hours over two days of driving.  Last minute I’d found a nice condo to rent, which was closer to the finish line and cheaper than the hotel I’d booked.  I did wonder if there was a webcam in every room, but I figured they were going to lose money on any video streaming of me.  After I arrived I did a three-mile run around part of Tempe Town Lake to unfold from the drive.

Thursday check-in went smoothly.  I was happy to see it seemed like the expo was about 50% bigger this year.  Hopefully this is a good sign for the economy.  I got a new pair of Newton’s (last years color) for 35% off and they came with a free pair of flip-flops. 

For lunch I met a Facebook friend, Dave.  We had a friend in common from IMAZ ’10 and were both limping into this race.  He had had limited training in the summer (having moved to a different state and changed jobs).  As a bonus he had dislocated his kneecap nine days before the race.  We smiled and figured we would be seen Monday morning walking around Tempe Town Lake.  

After lunch, I cruised the expo some more.  I met Jon Blais’ dad, Bob Blais.  Jon Blais suffered from ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease and managed to finish Ironman Hawaii in 2006.  He passed away in 2008, but his parents and a small band of warrior athletes continue to raise money for research and awareness. If you want to learn more, please watch this moving link:  Jon Blais  It was an honor to meet and talk with Bob for a few minutes.  Afterwards, I met friend, DR as she checked in for registration.  She was focused and ready to make IMAZ her first IM finish (having DNF’d at IMSG in ’10).

Friday was mainly about shoving gear into various transition bags and putting my nutrition together for the bike and run. I went through the motions, but figured somewhere along the line I wasn’t going to be seeing any of it. I treated this task as part of my training for IMAZ ’12.  Optimistically, when will I have another chance to treat a race as an Ironman Fun Run?

Friday was the athlete’s dinner.  DR, Dave, Dave’s friend Bryce and myself settled in for some pasta, chicken and salad.  We stayed for as long as we felt necessary.  As part of the evening’s entertainment, we learned that one gentleman would be doing his 62nd Ironman.  That is a lot of $$$$.  Also race announcer, Mike Reily brought the two youngest competitors onstage.  The two 18 year olds made the rest of us feel unmotivated and weak.  I mean really who registers for such a thing at age 17? 

Saturday was the one opportunity for athletes to practice swim.  I decide to do this.  Open water swimming is so different from pool training.  It’s like cyclo-cross vs. road riding with bikes.  As I was gearing up I ran into another friend Luis, who now lives in Dubai and would be racing Sunday.  It’s hard to fathom what that amount of jet lag would do to a person getting ready to race IM.  After putting on the seal suit, I hopped in the water and was physically shocked by the cold water, lack of sighting and dozens of other people.  After about ten minutes in the water I was glad I had gotten that out of the way.  Hopefully it would allow me to separate physical shock from mental anxiety on Sunday morning. 

Race Day

At 5am I leave the condo and a black cat runs in front of me.

DR and I meet at a darkened street corner and wander down to the transition area.  She checked her tire pressure; I put liquids on my steed.  Following that we wandered over to get body marking (race numbers on each arm and age on left calf).  Then we headed to the women’s change tent to ‘relax’.  She is focused and ready to get down to business, and takes time to help a fellow competitor zip into her wetsuit.  Time went rather quickly as we loaded into our wetsuits, turned in our warm clothes and were left holding our goggles and swim caps. 

6:45 and we waddle toward the swim entrance like cattle.  Stepping over the timing mat in throngs, the computer makes a constant, ‘EEEEEeeee’ noise. The cannon for the Pro’s goes off at 6:50 and the race director starts screaming at us to get in the water.  I watch DR sit on the seawall and slip into the water.  It’s the last we’ll see of each other for some time.

I follow, shocked once again by the temperature, but remind myself that this is a physical response and try to relax.  I ooze, float and crawl under the two bridges.  For about a minute I turn on my back and float, looking at the dawning sky and wondering where the day will take me.  Before I’d left the condo, I’d written on my left hand S.F.R. and on the right hand D.G.U.  Hopefully these will keep me grounded. 

The cannon fires and the world explodes in movement.  I manage to seed myself near the front, but half way between the buoy-line and the seawall.  After about ten minutes I’m no longer fighting for my life.  I can see the stream of swim caps 25 yards to my left.  While that’s the right spot to be to grab feet and make time, I’m content to merely sight off of them. As we approach the far bridge, I somehow think the turn-buoy is just on the other side.  It is not.  I’m still 25 yards to the right of the scrum.  As I see the big red turn-buoy, I ease closer.  Manage to get though without too much contact.  We make the turn for the return leg and I ease to the right, hoping again to avoid the silliness.  Somewhere in here I ooze too far to the right, since I see a kayaker lurking over me.  Stupid.  Sighting to the left now is more difficult, since all I see to the left is GIANT SUNBALL.  I switch to single-sided breathing and try to not keep wishing that this is over.  Don’t wish your life away, not even the unpleasant parts.  After forever I return under the Mill Ave Bridge, I know I’m running long on time.  As we turn toward home, I kick hard. With every breath I hear, ‘water, cowbell, screaming, garbled announcer.’  I hit the swim ladder and carefully place both feet on the lower step (a fellow competitor broke three toes here last year).  A volunteer scoops me up and I am born a biped. 

T-1

Up the ladder and a photographer takes my photo, I mug for the camera (fun run, remember?).  I pick a volunteer, and we quickly get me stripped.  Somewhere in here I would later learn I lost my brand new pair of $35 swim goggles.  Drat.  I ask a volunteer what time it is and he say’s 8:30.  I think, cool, faster than I thought.  We wog about 300m to get our bike gear and funnel toward the change tents.  I settle on the grass outside the tent, I know what steamy craziness is inside.  Starting with my feet and working up, I don: bodyglide, socks, shoes, racebelt, arm-warmers and helmet.  It takes time to stuff my wetsuit into my bag and hand it off to a volunteer.  I enter a porta-potty and multi-task inside, putting on my helmet and starting up my Garmin.  That’s when I see it’s about 8:45.  That guy lied.  I exit the potty, run through the women’s change tent and toward my bike.  Swim Time 1:36:58, T-1 Time 11:24, what took so dang long?

Bike

Somehow I manage to mount and cruise up out of transition without killing myself or anyone else.  It’s a tunnel of noise.  I descend a ramp and see on my right, two GIANORMOUS Hello Kitty banners.  I point and laugh.  These are for DR and they are great. 

The bike route is three loops of 37.33 miles, out and back.  I have my Garmin set to power, not speed.  If I’m going to last, I have to stay within myself.  I try to keep the numbers easy and start sipping Perpetuem and let my heart rate settle down.  At about mile five, we see the pro men coming back, wow.  This is my element, my strong suit and I’m hopeful the bike race environment will carry me forward on the day.  My comfort on the bike also leads my bossy self to emerge as a lady rider of 50 crosses in front of me and immediately slows to take water from the aide station we are passing.  When she looks back at me I say, ‘I’m not moving.  You shouldn’t have passed me and slowed down.’  She squeaks an apology and we carry on. 

I get to the far turn with my left handed mantra (S.F.R.): Strong. Focused. Relaxed.  I’m passing hoards of good swimmers.  At the turn, I’d averaged a modest 115 watts on the way there.  After I start back to town, I try to maintain this easy effort and am quickly in my largest gear pouring out 28mph.  Ladies and gentlemen, we have a tailwind, get the f**k out of my way!  I make it back into town in 51:50, at 21.6mph avg.  Am I up for another loop?  You bet your lily-livered ass I am!

At the turn-around close to transition, I showboat waving to the crowd and slapping my ass like I’m riding a bucking bronco.  A girl still has to have fun right?  Plus, my parents and family aren’t there, so I can do what I want.  What happens in Tempe, stays in Tempe.  The crowd reacts and we zoom back out toward the desert.  I take it easier on the way out, figuring to duck the now headwind.  I also know that this loop will be the challenging one.  Miles 38-74, neither here nor there.  I cruise up toward the turn and see DR!  She has just finished the turn and is 200m toward heading back toward town.  I scream something incomprehensible, but she doesn’t hear me.

We did not have the same glorious tailwind on the way back to town for loop two. Whaa, whaa.  I try to spy DR ahead, but don’t see her.  Around here I take my regular (every 45 minutes) nutrition.  It is here that I realize, wait, I just rode 56 miles in 3:04!  I have a shot at a bike-leg PR, IF I can hold this pace.  With a bit of renewed focus I head back for town.  Strong. Focused.  Relaxed.  I never see DR on the return to town.  At the second turn-around near transition I repeat my stupid behavior from the first loop, if for no other reason than to stretch my back.  I push aside the idea of not finishing the bike leg. 

During the final bike loop, I was trying to live in my happy place and focus on being aero as much as possible.  After the far turn, I remember seeing DR on the other side, this time when I scream, she returns my garbled pain-call.  About five miles from town I’m yo-yoing with a lady of 47.  She and I have been seeing each other this whole third loop.  When I ate, she oozed past me and likewise.  As she passes me with five to go, she turns her head and clears her snot-wagon.  I laugh, because this recalls my days for road-bike racing and I know it’s inadvertent.  She realizes it right after and sues for apology and I giggle, this must be a ‘blessing’.  The wind picks up just a tad and I wrestle my stead in an attempt to log an 18.0 mph average for the bike leg.  As we run into town, I think, just run one loop of the run course (8.5 miles).  You can run eight miles.  You’ve run eight miles dozens of times.  Then we will see what happens.  Bike Time: 6:13:47, a four minute IM PR.  I managed to pass 550 people. 

T-2

My legs have turned into jello-trunks.  Blessedly the distance from bike to tent is shorter during this transition.  I take up my spot outside the tent again.  I switch socks, shoes, and remove helmet, jersey.  I draft a volunteer to add sunscreen where needed.  I revisit the porta-potty, once again multi-tasking by adding visor, switching Garmin screens and putting my sunglasses back on.  Handheld water bottle in hand I burst forth from the porta-potty and zoom through the women’s change tent and onto the run course.  Time:  9:26, WTH, how did that take so long? 

Run

It’s 3:12pm, my IM PR is 13:12, and I’m super sure I won’t be running a sub-five hour marathon.  Just run the first loop, pay no attention to mile splits.  First split is at mile 8.5 as far as I’m concerned.  On the run course, I happily realize I’m in much less pain than I was this time last year (with a smashed foot and lake water sloshing though my stomach).  I’m able to smile and be joyful that I’ve somehow made it onto the run course. 

D.G.U. – Don’t.  Give.  Up.

As I finish the first half of the first loop of this figure-eight course, we approach an evil little grade. It’s only 150m long but it feels like 10-15% grade, even though it probably isn’t.  This is where they place one of the timing mats to ensure athletes complete the entire course.  And there, just past the timing mat looking past me is Bob Blais.  I stick out my left hand to get a low-five from Bob.  Instead he gives me a life-gripping grab that stirs me deeply from my pain cave.  In that instant I knew this hill was toast.  I cruise to the top and make the turn across the Mill Ave Bridge toward the second half of the first loop. 

The second half of each loop begins with going through the Run Special Needs area where athletes can get resupplied from their drop bags.  Friends and family congregate here as well because they can see athletes heading each way on the course.  It’s here that I see Hello Kitty girls again!  Fun.  So much fun.  At mile 5.5, we meet the other ‘big’ hill on the course.  One that on a normal day wouldn’t be a problem, but yo, we’ve been working here for nine-plus hours.  I take a short walk-break twice on this hill during its two steepest grades.  Except for here, I manage to run the entire first loop.  I reach 8.5 miles in 1:38, not terrible, but it won’t be repeated in the subsequent ones for sure. 

The second loop begins and I continue my unabated ‘running’ through the hill that Bob Blais was holding vigil over earlier.  Heading up again, biped athletes like myself are passed by a man pushing a hand chair used for racing marathons.  He had finished the bike course around 4:30p and was now making quick work of passing through the field.  And he’s doing a great job of it.  At the end of the Mill Ave Bridge the course pours athletes down a hill toward transition and under the bridge.  Gingerly I run this in the final moments of twilight and take the right toward the second helping of the second half of this loop.  I’m ignoring my race nutrition at this point, my stomach is declaring ‘No. More. Cliffblox or Gu devil woman’.  Okay, how about an orange slice?  My stomach reports that an orange slice tastes like unicorn tears.  I grab a few more at the next aid station, still taste good.  At mile 14, I reach the bottom of the steep section I had used walk breaks on last time. I grab two cups of chicken broth and sip them as me and my fellow Iron-herd power-walk up to the top of the hill.  Once at the top, athletes pour down quickly toward the very LOUD Tri-Sports aide station.  While they have great entertainment for athletes, my brain is beginning to rebel at the input of loud noise and flashing lights.  I manage to finish the second 8.5-mile loop in 1:50, so yes, slowing, but not crumbling. 

As you begin each run loop you come to a volunteer who point’s ‘lucky’ athletes to the finish chute 300m long.  The rest of us razzle-berries are going to have to keep going.  I, for one, am going to make as quick work of this course as possible without lying on the ground at some point.  Low on energy, I’m having a hard time finding much that my stomach is still willing to put in.  Orange slice was met with spit out on the sidewalk.  I tried some soda, but that wasn’t as much of a lift.  If I came across a hill, I’d happily power walk until the level terrain returned.  In doing this, I was kissing this course ‘Good bye!’ 

For most of the run I was chanting my motivation in my head.  Strong. Focused. Relaxed.  Don’t. Give. Up.  Each thought coming as each foot hit the ground. I was deep in my own cave of pain.  At the last trip through the the run course, around mile 19, I was saying my mantras in my head and this happened; ‘Strong. What? Relaxed.  Don’t Give. Up.  Strong.  What? Hmm, what is that? Relaxed.  Don’t. Give. Up’.  This is where the wheels on the bus were getting wobbly.  Crossing Mill Ave Bridge for the last time, I saw a sign that said, ‘Chuck Norris – Not an Ironman’.  Nice.  With the dark I take the grade down the grassy hill slowly before taking the turn for the final 5.5 miles.  My brain was playing tricks on me and I could feel my gait wobbling a bit.  I tried to up hydration where I could, but food was still giving me a, ‘no’.  At 22, I ditch my trusty handheld water bottle, no more ballast needed.  With four miles to go I decide to walk that final oppressive hill.  There was some power walking in there, but it wasn’t fooling anyone.  At 23 we have a screaming downhill toward the Tri-Sports aide station.  This time the music and lights are really too much for my head.  The push-rim rider comes back though, passing me for real.  Nice job!  He’s fifteen minutes from being done.  My brain-fog and racing heartbeat lead me to walk minor up hills and jog sections ¼ mile at a time.  At 24 I have only one more bridge to cross under.  I can’t believe that this is all happening.  I can’t believe I’m going to finish this race 89 days after surgery.

I wog along and come to one of the final aide stations.  There I and another athlete are tossing something in the trash together. He reads my bib and say, ‘Gwen?  Gwen!  Gwen, it’s John from Tulsa!’  He wraps me in a friendly Iron-hug (light, easy) and introduces his friend Dr. Rex.  Rex and John are best friends from Tulsa.  Last year John and I met on the run and finished the last run loop together.  And here, at mile 25.5, we are reunited.  Amazing.  As a trio we run ahead, catching up on the last year.  John and Rex are best friends and this will be their first finish together.  Dr. Rex is completing his first and performs the surgery that I had in August as part of his work.  Crazy.  John and Rex ooze ahead as we travel under the Mill Ave Bridge for the last time.  We make the glorious turn through the parking lot, up a short side road and then the left onto the carpet of lights, screaming and party.  Our party.  I stop at the carpet in the middle, and do my best imitation of the ‘Tim Tebow Gesture’.  I figure this will bookend my fun for the day.  Run Time: 5:28:45.  Total time is 13:40:13 and my second best IM time. 

Aftermath

Quickly, a volunteer scoops me up, and I beg for the opportunity to sit down.  I feel my blood pressure crashing and I don’t want a trip to medical.  I need help getting my warm clothes bag, which contains clothes, my phone and a recovery drink.  The support team offers much else, but I explain that this is what I crave right now.  It takes me (and a volunteer) 30 minutes to make it the 250m to the morning clothes bags.  I can feel the lurking eyes of the medical team eying me.  Unfortunately this means I miss seeing DR finish in 14:08.  I’m bummed about that, but we will meet up soon. 

After calling husband, putting on warm clothes and sipping some recovery drink, I feel like my bad patch has passed.  I’m now faced with getting my bike and transitions bags back to the condo a half-mile away.  If I don’t do this now, it might never happen and some of it could be stolen.  Slowly, oh so slowly, I pack it all up and walk the half-mile to the condo.  I nearly ask to borrow a cane from an older man as we both attempt to make it up a curb.   Using the bike as something to lean on, I make it back.  At 10pm, I leave to meet DR.  She is still in her race gear and completely glowing with her Iron-journey complete.  She had eaten a bit, so after a snack we wandered over to watch the last finishers from 11:30-12a.  We must have just missed Bryce who finished in 16:29!  Staying for the last ones to cross the line was very moving and inspirational.  Topping it off with one guy being carried in by two other competitors and another lady getting shoved down the line to cross with one second to spare 16:59:59!

It was a really good day out there.  Dave managed a PR, breaking thirteen hours despite the dislocated kneecap a week earlier.  This was by far the deepest I’ve dug mentally, but the payoff was worth it.  I'm in shock that it happened.  It feels like a dream, but then I remember that it's true.

I look forward to relaxing for a while before gearing up for IMAZ ’12.  This time raising money for the war on ALS, the Challenged Athlete's Foundation or some other charity.  Bob Blais and I discussed the possibility of me raising money for the Blazeman Foundation.  He said, 'Deciding should be slow, but commitment complete.'  See you out there.

Strong. Focused. Relaxed.

Don’t.  Give.  Up.