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!

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