Monday, November 14, 2016

Long Course Nationals

Though I failed to meet my first goal of the year (qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship), I still had a chance to meet my second goal: qualifying for the ITU Long Course World Championship in Penticton, Canada.  The qualifying race is the Long Course National Championship, which this year was hosted by MiamiMan.  This is a quite a bit easier than IM 70.3 Worlds qualification because there are 18 spots for my age group instead of just 3, but since it's a national championship, it draws some of the top age groupers in the country, so it was definitely not a given that I'd get a spot.  I also wanted to end my season on a positive note, and I was feeling a bit more pressure than I'd anticipated when I'd decided last December to add this race as my 3rd 70.3 in seven weeks.

I flew down to Miami on Saturday morning and was pleasantly surprised to find that my hotel room was ready at 9:30am.  So I dropped my stuff, changed into my cycling gear, and took the hotel shuttle down to the race expo.  Check in was really fast and easy, which was a pleasant surprise after the hour long line at IMNC.  From there I went over to the Mack Cycles tent to pick up my rental bike.  Since this wasn't an A race and it's only a 56 mile ride, I'd decided to save some money and trouble by renting a bike rather than flying with mine.  I contemplated bringing my wheels because I knew they would be faster and so I would have my power meter, but given my goals for this particular race, ultimately decided the extra few minutes wouldn't be worth the expense of a second checked bag.  I'd emailed my measurements ahead of time, but they hadn't made the adjustments, so that took some time, but eventually I was set up and ready to go out on a test ride. 

My ride for the weekend
By two miles in, I already missed my di2 shifters, aero wheels, and power meter, but overall it was fine and I felt comfortable enough on the bike to be confident that it would get me through the 56 miles.  When I got back to the expo, I racked the bike in transition, sat in on the athlete briefing, and went down to check out the swim course.  

View of the swim from the swim finish
By the time I was wrapping up with that, my dad and Mary were arriving from Punta Gorda, so they picked me up and we went back to the hotel.  The rest of the day was nice and relaxing, and I had plenty of time to review the course maps, get all of my gear together, hydrate, and rest.

Race morning I was awake well before my 4:00 alarm, so I got up, put on my race tats, and went down to get coffee (our hotel kindly offered a continental breakfast starting at 3:45!).  I got the rest of my gear together and my dad drove me down to the expo around 4:30.  It was a beautiful morning, with the supermoon shining brightly and only a nice breeze.  This was the only of my four 70.3 this year that had T1 and T2 in the same location, so it was nice and easy to just set everything up without having to deal with gear bags, drop off, and getting from point to point.  

I made the long walk from transition to the bathrooms a few times, chatted with other athletes, and made my way down to the swim start around 6:15.  There was a bit of a breeze, but nothing awful, and though it wasn't the glass surface that it had been when I viewed the course on Saturday, it was almost as calm as I could hope for in an open water swim.  

I bought a sleeveless wetsuit for this race, knowing that it would probably be too warm for the full suit, so I put that on for the first time (I was already going to be riding a new bike, so why not).  The water temperature was 76, so I was happy to have the sleeveless suit and it felt a lot more comfortable, so I think that was a good decision (mostly - more on that later…).  The swim was two loops, with a short beach run across the timing mat after the first lap, and the first lap was a little different than the second because the start was located in a different location that the lap mat/swim finish.  I was in the second wave, and it seemed odd to being starting so early after being in the 10th wave in Augusta and the 6th wave in Wilmington.  We watched the first wave go out and then were off.  It's a beach start, and I was somewhere in the middle.  I tried to stay calm, but being in such close proximity to so many other swimmers still causes me so much anxiety.  Just after making the first turn, I got hit in the face, just enough to unseal my goggles.  The left one never really sealed right and I had to stop throughout the race to mess with it, but it was mostly ok if I would breathe to the right, so I just stuck with that.  The way out and across seemed to take forever, but the way in was much better, with the only problem being that it was really hard to see the buoys with the sun coming up on the horizon and the steam coming off of the lake.  Even though I finally felt like I settled in, I thought that the first lap would be well over 20 minutes given my anxiety-initated breaststroke breaks at the beginning and fiddling with my goggles.  So it was a pleasant surprise to get out and see 18 minutes.  I really wanted to finish the swim in under 40 minutes, so even with the second loop being a little longer, I was happy that my goal was still within reach.  The second lap was much better, since I had a lot more space and had the confidence boost of finishing the first lap on target even though I'd had some struggles, and I was out for the second time in about 38 minutes.  Even though I'd posted faster swim times in Augusta and Wilmington, those were current-assisted, so it's hard to say what I would have done in still water, and this was by far my fastest half iron lake swim.  

Official time: 38:06 (14th AG, 65th female)

I had a little difficulty getting out of the wetsuit, but was not feeling hugely rushed so I didn't stress out about it.  The transition area was really long (about a quarter mile according to my garmin), and I was fortuitously on the third rack from bike out/bike in, so I was able to do most of that distance carrying my wetsuit as opposed to running with my bike.  When I got to my rack about half were still there, so I figured I was about in the middle of my AG coming out of the swim, which, given the field and my (lack of) swimming ability, I was perfectly happy with.  I took the time to wipe the grass off my feet, put on my bike shoes, and threw on my helmet.  GAH!  My visor was completely dew-covered and foggy, so I couldn't see a thing.  I took my helmet off and tried to dry it with my little towel, but visibility was still not great.  But I could more or less see where I was going, so I called it good enough and hoped it would clear once I got moving on the bike.

T1: 2:53

After a few miles, the bike was through a very rural area of farms and fields.  The pavement wasn't that great, but it was flat and though there was a little wind, it was nothing compared to Wilmington.  The ride was about 13 miles out, two 15 loops, and then the 13 miles back.  The first wave of the swim was open/pro and men 34 and under, and most of the women out ahead were strong triathletes all around, there weren't very many people to chase.  I passed a few people, and some guys from the waves behind me would go flying by, but for much of the first lap I felt like I was out there riding by myself.  Since I normally ride by power but didn't have that data, I settled into just riding comfortably around 20 mph.  My goal was to finish by noon (under 5:20) and at that speed I'd have 1:50 to get through T2 and finish the run, so I didn't really feel the need to push it.  As I started the second lap we merged in with later waves starting their first lap, and suddenly there were a lot more people, which was great because now I'd have people to chase!  Shortly after that merge, I saw my dad and Mary, and that was a nice boost as well.  Just like that I found myself riding along at 22+ and the second lap was much more enjoyable than the leisurely, lonely first one.  I saw my dad and Mary again at the end of the second lap and then headed back toward the zoo.  We'd talked the night before about where they would be on the race course and approximately what time I expected to go by each spot.  I gave a best case scenario estimate of 9:20, which my dad noted on the spectator map, and he told me later than I went by at exactly 9:20!  Once we passed the turnaround for the international race with 11 miles to go, it went from a nice amount of people to chase to insanely crowded.  A few times it was almost like a three-wide paceline, and I threw in a few surges when I could to get out of the congestion and avoid a drafting penalty, even though it was nice to be able to tuck in, especially since it was a bit of a headwind on the way back.  With about 53 miles showing on my watch, one spectator (out of maybe a dozen that I saw the entire time, which included the two who were there to cheer for me!) was cheering to finish strong, only a mile and a half to go and I thought that couldn't be right, but with 54 miles on my Garmin I was at the dismount line. 

Official bike time: 2:38:33 (15th AG, 63rd female)  

Results note: I placed better on the swim?!!?  Though I've improved my cycling considerably over the last two years, I think there's definitely potential for me to pick up some time here, and I'm looking forward to doing some serious work on the trainer this winter!

T2: 1:53

I made a quick shoe change and took off on the run.  Thankfully, my heel pain was at a tolerable level and my knee pain has not returned since it's disappearance at IMNC.  My biggest concern at the moment was the underarm chafing that had resulted from wearing the sleeveless wetsuit for the first time and, only having used a full wetsuit in the past, failing to consider putting glide under my arms.  It had been burning on the bike as I started to sweat, and I assumed they'd have vaseline on sticks or something of that nature at the transition exit.  Unfortunately they had nothing of the sort, so I continued on running with my arms out to avoid further damage.  I'd also assumed they'd have volunteers with sunscreen, since the spf 30 I'd put on pre-race was not feeling particularly effective in the Florida sun, but I had no luck on that front either.  Chicken wings and red shoulders it is, I guess. 

Going into the race I was shooting for something around 1:45.  If I could keep a pace with 7s at the front I'd be happy.  With a couple minutes under goal time from the swim and a few more because of the short bike course, I realized I could run a two hour half marathon and still be done by noon, and that helped me just run comfortably without feeling the need to try to do anything crazy.

The run is two loops on a combination of pavement, gravel, dirt, and grass.  The cool part is that is runs through the Miami Zoo, and in the first two miles I saw antelope, giraffes (two of them were actually running, which was neat), and a few other deer-like animals.  I was feeling very comfortable at a pace in the high 7s, and drank a little water or gatorade on the run at each aid station.  There were a lot of people out because the international was just one loop of the same course, and I tried to say something positive to everyone who passed me, whether they were running really fast or looked like they were struggling.  There was a long stretch without any shade over the last couple miles of the loop, part of which is through a big parking lot and part on grass and dirt, and I was starting to get warm.  By the 6th mile my pace had crept into the 8s, and I decided I'd start walking through the aid stations on the second lap.  The beginning of each lap is definitely the best part, as there is some shade and this time I saw zebras.  I was starting to feel like I was running really slowly, but still saw low 8s on my watch, which was surprising given how I felt.  I walked though each aid station, putting ice in my trisuit and pouring cold water over myself.  I tried to keep drinking fluids but my stomach was unhappy so I probably didn't drink as much as I should have.  I was really starting to feel bad, but somehow passed two women in my age group on the way out to the 10 mile turnaround.  At that point I had gone from feeling really hot to being cold, and realized that I wasn't sweating.  I knew that was not a good sign, but told myself that I only had 5k to go and I was not going to give up in the last 3 miles of what has been a very long season.  I continued to take the walk breaks for ice, but I did not want those two women to pass me back, so even though I really wanted to walk in between aid stations I managed to keep running.  Not running fast, but running.  By the last mile I was convinced that the woman behind me was going to catch me, and was determined to give everything I had to prevent that from happening.  I was audibly breathing (apologies to the guy who was running next to me and probably thought I was having an asthma attack) even though I was running around 8:40 pace, but I managed to keep all of my splits under 9, hold off those two women, and "sprint" to the finish at a sub-7 pace, so despite feeling awful I was really happy with my effort. 

Official run time: 1:47:57 (6th AG, 23rd female)

Finish time: 5:09:23 (7th AG, 23rd female)

Photo of the finish line from Saturday
On Sunday this was a beautiful sight
After a few moments of wondering if I was going to pass out or throw up, I saw my dad and Mary in the finish line bleachers, collected my medal and water (maybe the best water ever), thanked the woman behind me for the motivation (I held her off by only 37 seconds), and wasted no time in getting to my phone to check the results.

I just needed to see that I was in the top 18 in my age group, and the athlete tracker said I was 8th!  It was a great relief and I am so excited to race with Team USA in Canada next summer!  Official results later had me finishing 7th, but in either case I hit all of my goals for this race: (1) Qualify for Penticton, (2) Top 10 in my age group, (3) sub-5:20.  

I returned my rental bike (it's actually really nice to not have to deal with your bike after a race other than to roll it across the transition area), gathered up my stuff, and sat with my family near the finish line for a while.  They had a results area where you could print out your time, so my dad and I walked over there to confirm my placing.  As we were heading back to the finish area, a woman approached me and said, "Thank you for telling me I looked strong out there.  I just finished cancer treatments a few months ago and was feeling rough at the time, and you saying that really inspired me, so I wanted to say thank you for that, it really meant a lot."  I can't imagine a better note to end the season on.  I had a solid race, mentally stayed tough when I felt awful, accomplished all of my goals for the day, got to spend some time with my dad, and had a positive effect on someone else's day.  I couldn't ask for more than that. ♡

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ironman 70.3 North Carolina

After having an amazing, beyond-expectations, did-that-really-happen kind of day at Beach 2 Battleship last year, I was excited to return to Wilmington and try to finally break that 5 hour barrier.  Having raced the full in 10:27, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable goal.  After a slightly disappointing race in Augusta, I was determined to leave it all out there and really give this race everything I had.

After getting on the bus to T1 from my hotel a little before 5am, I had more than enough time to set up in T1 and take the shuttle over to the swim start, and nothing about the morning felt stressed or rushed.  I spent some time in the changing tent to stay out of the cold wind, hopped on the shuttle (my first time on a party bus!), and walked down to the public beach access to watch the sunrise.  It was actually a bit warmer on the ocean side, with beach houses blocking some of the cold wind, and I practically had all of Wrightsville Beach to myself (another first!).  As I watched the sunrise I mentally went over the course, revisited my race plan, and reflected on all of the training I'd put in this year.  It was really a perfect start to the morning and I was feeling calm and confident as I made my way back over to the swim start.

I walked down to a public restroom to avoid the long porta-john lines, put on my wetsuit, and hung out on the street a little ways down from the parking lot where all the athletes were gathered since  it was much warmer out of the wind.  Around 8:00 I walked over to the channel to watch the full distance athletes swim by before being herded back over to the athlete staging area where we were to start lining up by swim wave.  I ate a Clif shot, dropped by morning bag at gear check, and joined the other yellow capped women waiting for the 8:50 start.

Unlike the full, the half is an in-water start.  I got on the outside of the group and my plan was to try to get out hard and settle in so people would have to pass me, rather than my usual approach of starting toward the back and being in the middle of the washing machine.  This started out pretty much as planned, but a stray foot to the face dislodged my goggles and they took in some water on the right side.  I stopped to fix it, but couldn't get them to reseal properly until the 3rd or 4th try.  By then I was pretty much right in the middle of my swim wave and was a little frustrated to have lost time already, but literally just put my head down and forged ahead.

The water was a bit choppier than last year, but didn't seem bad and I felt like I was moving along pretty well.  After making the turn, that quickly changed, and there was pretty significant chop as the wind was blowing directly in our faces.  I had to shift my breathing from bilateral to just one side and tried to time my strokes with the ebbs and flows, but other than taking a few nice mouthfuls of salt water when I looked up to sight, I thought I adjusted to the conditions pretty well (for me, that is - it's all relative).  I noticed a few other yellow caps around and was passed by a couple of swimmers from the wave behind me, but was surprised to see mostly pink, which was the color of the wave that started ahead of me.  I sometimes catch the tell end of preceding waves, but have never found myself in what seemed to be the heart of an earlier swim wave, and that was definitely a good confidence boost after having lost the time with my goggle issues out of the gate.  I'd settled into what felt like a comfortable rhythm with the waves and before I knew it was climbing the ladder onto the pier and my swim was done.  I looked at my watch and saw the time of day rather than my race time - apparently I didn't hit my start button hard enough at the start.  Based on clock time, I knew my swim was around 31 minutes, which was a little slower than my pace last year, but last year we didn't have to deal with any chop or headwind and was only a couple of minutes off of my goal time, so I felt ok about it.

Official swim time: 31:57 (8th AG, 39th female)

I made fairly long run on asphalt, grabbed my bike gear bag, and headed to the changing tent.  Since I didn't actually need to change, I just plopped down near the entrance, threw on my helmet and bike shoes, and started toward the entrance to T1, dropping the bag with my swim gear with a volunteer along the way.  Jogged over to my bike, which was unfortunately racked very far from bike out, and was out of T1 in 5:48.

I got on the bike knowing I was a couple minutes behind my goal scenario, but felt good and was ready to put in some work on the bike.  It was pretty crowded and there are a few sharp turns in the first mile, so I was just trying to spin easy until we got out to the main road for the first long stretch.  After losing the top of my built-in Felt bento box at the Raleigh 70.3 in June (it's a terrible design and I have seen many Felts in transition without bento covers), I have just been setting my stuff in the open space and to date that had been fine.  Unfortunately I hit a bump and two of my three packages of shot bloks and both of my honey stinger waffles went flying.  I thought very briefly about stopping to grab them, but it was crowded and just didn't seem like a viable option.  So 5 minutes into the ride I'd lost almost all of my nutrition and had only the one pack of shot bloks and the powerade zero in my hydration bottle to get me to the first aid station, around mile 28.  Not an ideal way to start at all, but things happen, so I put it out of my mind and refocused on the task at hand.

After all of the turns and congestion of the first mile, the course is mostly nice long stretches of flat road.  I was in swim wave 6 of 10, which is a little better than my recent assignments near the very back, so there were fewer people already on the road and it was less congested than I'd expected.  Though last year there was a little headwind on the way out, this year it was sometimes a challenge to just stay upright.  So my concentration was on fighting the wind and maintaining steady power in the 160s, despite the fact that I felt like I was going nowhere.  

I was steadily moving through the field, but noticed that most of the women I was passing were either the 30-34 age group or in their 50s.  I normally catch quite a few of the women from my age group on the bike, so it was discouraging to only see a couple.  I thought maybe others were dealing with the wind better than I was, or riding to stay on a speed target despite the wind, which I hoped would mean they were working too hard and would come back to me eventually.  It seemed like a really long way to the first water bottle handoff, and I'd been out of fluid and nutrition for quite a while, so I was happy to finally see the aid station.  Unfortunately they didn't have chews or gels, only gatorade and water.  So I grabbed a gatorade, squeezed what I could into my bottle, and soldiered on, telling myself that it wouldn't be as far to the next one, and that this had to become a tailwind eventually (right?).

The ride continued as much of the same - fighting the wind, trying to stay steady, realizing how far behind my time goal I was, and passing a bunch of people but failing to catch any women in my age group.  At the second aid station I grabbed another gatorade and a gel, and was happy to at least get a few more calories into my system.  Finally around mile 42 the headwind and crosswind that I'd been battling for hours became a tailwind.  At the same power level I went from 16-18mph to 26-28mph.  Now this is fun!  Though I was flying by people and knew I was making up time, I was a little frustrated in both my time and in the fact that I had seen very few 35-39s.  But I told myself to stick with the plan and hoped that it would somehow work out.  

Official bike time: 2:47:04 (20.11 mph; 3rd AG, 6th female)

I got off my bike with about 3:24 on the race clock and knew I had no shot at breaking 5 hours, so that was a little disheartening.  I also had no idea how my knee would hold up.  After some pain about two weeks out from the race, I took time off from running in hopes that it would work itself out.  My Thursday test run indicated that it had not, but I tried not to worry about it since at that point it was out of my control.

T2 included a very long, wobbly run in bike shoes, but went smoothly and I was out on the run in 3:47.  As I was running around the bike racks, I realized I'd forgotten to take the ibuprofen that I'd put in my run bag.  I also realized that my knee did not hurt!  After hopping along for 15 painful minutes two days prior, I was really just hoping for tolerable pain… the possibility of running pain-free hadn't even occurred to me, so that was a very pleasant surprise.  I wasn't sure how long it would last, so I decided to go out hard, despite the lack of fuel on the bike.  I figured if my knee locked up, running out of energy would be a lesser problem, and I felt good at the time, so I went with it.  

Hearing friends out cheering and seeing so many people I knew on the course added to the adrenaline, my knee felt ok, and the weather was perfect (in the 60s compared to 90s in both Raleigh and Augusta), and I was determined to leave it all out there, so I just ran.  The first 4 miles averaged just under 7:20, and I still wasn't catching any women in my age group.  Where are they?!  

I started to feel the effects of having done about 4 hours of exercise on very few calories, and decided to walk the aid stations to get in a full cup of coke.  Suddenly it felt like a struggle, and I had to work to keep my legs moving.  My time goal was shot, my body was failing me, and I figured I had to be so far down in the race standings that my chance for a podium or Worlds spot was nil.  As mile splits in the high-8s continued to flash on my watch despite how hard I felt like I was working, I started to think that maybe I'd made a mistake in setting such ambitious goals.  I was running slower than I did last year in the full IM distance and I wondered if I'd already tapped all of my potential.  I regretted having already signed up for the May 70.3 in Chattanooga, thinking maybe triathlon is just not for me.  So those last few miles were tough, both physically and mentally. 

Official run time: 1:45:36 (8:03/mile; 7th AG, 17th female)

I finished the race in 5:14:12, over half of the time that it took me to do the full last year and nowhere near my goal of sub-5.  Part of that was bad conditions, with the wind causing a choppier swim and wreaking havoc on bike times.  Part of that was bad luck, losing nearly all of my nutrition in the first mile of the ride.  And part of it was bad decisions, going out too fast out of T2 and failing to take in more calories sooner on the run.  But I'd finished.

My friend Kate had come down to Wilmington to cheer and then (hopefully) celebrate with me, so after finding her we retrieved my bike and gear bags and went back to the hotel.  I took a shower and then checked to see if results had posted, but the athlete tracker still wasn't working.  I told Kate that based on my time and the fact that I passed very few ladies from my AG on the bike, it was unlikely that I'd be on the podium or have even a remote change at a roll down slot, but that I'd kick myself if I was wrong about that assumption, so we walked back down to the finish area for the awards ceremony.

Results weren't posted anywhere, so it was just a matter of wait-and-see.  When they finally got to my age group, they called 5th place and I recognized the name as the woman who'd placed fifth in Augusta, two minutes ahead of me.  Ugh!  I bet was sixth again!  And then, to my surprise, they called my name.  Fourth.  I'd finally made that Ironman podium!  

It was a crazy feeling to go from thinking I should probably give up because I am not very good at this to standing on the podium a couple of hours later.  That turn an even crazier turn when I found out that my age group had three slots to Worlds.  So if just one of those women had already qualified or didn't want to go, I could walk away from this race with an award and a ticket to Chattanooga.  GAH!  I was initially skeptical because very few slots rolled down in Augusta, but as people in some age groups passed and spots rolled down to 5th or even 7th, I had some hope.  Unfortunately all three of the women ahead of me accepted their slots, but I still felt so much better in knowing that I was at least close.  When results finally came out, I learned that three of top five overall finishers in the race were in my age group, and though I didn't qualify, I was the 9th female overall.  I also realized that with a good run, I would have been in contention for 3rd AG/5th overall (5:09:25).  So though I was still dealing with some disappointment, maybe I hadn't set completely unrealistic goals.  Maybe I do have a chance of doing well at this.  It may not have come as quickly as I would have liked, but it's not out of reach, and that's what I will take away from this and what I will drive me to work even harder in 2017.

Thank you to my dear friends for making it feel like a celebration despite my mixed feelings on the day!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Still a work in progress

It's been a busy couple of months, including a trip north to visit my family, two Ironman 70.3s, and a quick weekend trip to Colorado.  Even with the travel, taper, and recovery, I managed over 30 miles in the pool, over 700 miles on my bike, and 150+ running miles.  Though neither of my races worked out perfectly, I have positive takeaways from both and overall it's been a good fall.  That said, I am looking forward to taking a little break after MiamiMan!

Swim - 16.6
Bike - 361
Run - 86
Total time - 42:34:00
Total miles - 470

Swim - 18.9
Bike - 350
Run - 68
Total time - 44:40:10
Total miles - 467

Not all of my travels are race-related! ;)

Sunset on Lake Champlain
Burlington, Vermont
Hiking in Colorado
Blue Lake - Above 11,000 feet
Adventure, beer, repeat