Strength does not come from the things you know you can do, it comes from overcoming the things you once thought impossible.
I need to preface this race report with a little back story - about two weeks prior to the race Trish contacted me and asked me what she should do about the race. She had done a TON of work travel that we were not expecting in the months prior to the race, and she knew that the course was going to be far harder than those she had previously raced, she was naturally very nervous. Perhaps much to her dismay, I encouraged her to race. I knew that this would be one of the biggest challenges of her life in terms of physical feats, but I also knew that given the right day, she would be within the cut-off and have an official time along with her medal and that this challenging course would take her to the next level as an athlete. Unfortunately as the race approached and the weather was looking less and less ideal - VERY hot and windy, we knew we were in for a long day. I am sure (although Trish never brought this up to me) that she wanted to pull out at times in the week or so before the race, but we both knew that in the end the time itself is not what matters - sure an unofficial finish would sting, but what Trish gained out there on the course on the hills and heat, taught her more than any training day could have, and watching her daughter run alongside the course as Trish headed into the finisher's chute up the final hill is worth the entire day of suffering. Trish is not a quitter; Trish exemplified grit and determination on Sunday and showed both of her children that no matter the challenge you do your absolute best until the end.
Last weekend I completed my third Half Ironman, Wisconsin 70.3. This was the first time I’ve done a Half Ironman with an entire team behind me and what a difference it made.
I went into the race with mixed emotions. I was really happy to be racing up in Madison. I love Wisconsin – I went to boarding school at Wayland Academy which is about 40 minutes outside of Madison. Wayland will always feel like home to me, and I was excited to be racing nearby. I, however, am not great at riding hills. I’m very reluctant to ride my bike on open roads, and so the vast majority of my long rides are done on the Madison County Trails, which are lovely and safe, but flat as a pancake. I knew when I signed up for the race that the course was going to be “hilly” and that it was going to be a challenge for me. I rode what I thought was the course with my high school friend, Nikki, in April. It was difficult in April and I had to get off my bike and walk up two of the hills. I was a bit discouraged after that April ride. To build confidence, I rode the hills at Babler with my team a couple of times in May. Thank goodness I did.
Ironman has various cut off times for the three disciplines. You must finish the 1.2 mile swim within 1 hour and 10 minutes, you must finish the bike within 5 hours and 30 minutes of when you started the swim, and you must complete the entire course in 8 hours and 30 minutes. I’m experienced in these cut off times, because I’m what can lovingly be called a “back of the packer.” There are some things in my life that I excel at – I am a really great lawyer, I am crazy smart, I am incredibly persistent. But God did not make me a gifted athlete. I’ve had an autoimmune disease since I was 18 and I am mostly just thankful that my body is capable of completing triathlons, and getting better over time. The first time I completed a Half Ironman was in Augusta, Georgia in 2015. I did not have a coach, and I was not as well trained as I should have been. To my astonishment, I finished Augusta. It was the most proud I have ever been of myself, because I could not believe I had done it. But I finished in 8 hours and 32 minutes. Which in Ironman world, is a technical “DNF” or Did Not Finish. (Which is bullsh*t because I did finish and I have the medal to prove it). I came back to Augusta to get my revenge the next year. I was actually well trained for the event, and despite the 100 degree heat and humidity, I was able to get an official finish of 8 hours and 24 minutes.
I knew going into Wisconsin 70.3 that making the cut off time would be difficult. Augusta has the benefit of a down river swim, so my swim times in Augusta were around 20 minutes faster than a normal swim. In addition, at Augusta I was able to average around 14.5 miles per hour on the bike, and when I rode the Wisconsin course with Nikki, I averaged 12.5 mph. And, after I rode the course in April, Ironman changed the course and added at least three extra really freakin’ steep hills. So, I knew that my swim and bike times would be slower than in Augusta, even though I was better trained. I was hopeful that my run time would significantly improve - I had a 10k PR on my last training run.
We drove up to Madison the Friday before the race. I went up with a great support crew – my husband, Jason, and my two kiddos John (12) and Patti (8). John and Patti are excellent cheerleaders and Jason is an amazing Sherpa. On Saturday, after packet pick up, we drove the bike course and I got in a practice swim. I was slightly alarmed by the addition of the new hills on the bike course. We had a fun dinner with high school friends Nikki and Andy, and I was in bed (and actually asleep) by 9 p.m.
I woke up at 1 a.m., and I could not visualize myself completing the bike course. I just couldn’t picture in my head me conquering those extra hills. After about 90 minutes of freaking out and looking at my historic Garmin data on hilly rides, I was able to fall back to sleep. I woke up on race morning at 4:55 a.m. – five minutes before my alarm went off. My daughter Patti was awake and played motivational music to get me going (“500 Miles”). I met my Evolve teammate Chris and we walked over to transition together.
One amazing thing about this race was that so many St. Louis triathlon club members were doing it that we had our own bike racks in transition. I was surrounded by friendly faces on race morning. After getting transition set up, and checking in with Coach Sam, I went over to swim start. My family managed to find me, and we hung out until it was go time. The swim start was self-seeded, meaning that athletes went into the water one by one. When I got in line, I happened to be next to several Evolve teammates, including Kim Y. and Betsy, which helped keep me calm.
The swim line moved faster than I expected and the next thing I knew, I was in the water and it was time to go. I love open water swimming. I grew up swimming in a lake at camp and I am just at home in the water. The swim was beautiful, with the Madison sky line in the background. Because of the self-seeded swim start, I did not get kicked around much on the swim. I got out of the swim and looked at my Garmin – right on time: 54 minutes and 39 seconds, despite swimming an extra 250 meters. I knew I need to be fast in transition and I was in and out in 6 minutes – an improvement over my Augusta transition times.
Onto the bike. The bike was windy, and hilly, and did I mention it was windy and hilly. Because it was. Seriously. It was also gorgeous. I love Wisconsin, I love farm land, cows and red barns, and the bike course was full of those. Another nice thing about the Wisconsin course was that it was not crowded. In Augusta, I was constantly passing and getting passed by other cyclists. In Wisconsin, the racers were much more spread out. I knew that the bike was going to either make or break my race. I also knew that I need to stay hydrated and fueled if I wanted any chance of finishing. I gave that bike ride my all. I can sleep well knowing that I could not have tried any harder on that bike. Around 5 miles in, I caught my teammate and friend, Kim. It was so great to see a friendly face. The real hills started around mile 15 and I was thankful to get to them to see what I was able to do. To my surprise, I was able to climb them all. I’m not sure that my grinding out the hills in my lowest gears was any faster than walking up them, but I was damn proud of being able to do it. At around mile 35 I got stuck behind a tractor. It was almost comical. I made myself stop twice and get off the bike to take in salt, so that I would be okay later in the day. In addition, I dumped water over myself at the aid stations which helped keep me cool. Unfortunately, I also soaked by bike shoes and socks. By mile 40 my feet felt like miserable blistered messes. Must be careful not to get my shoes wet next time. I knew that the last big climb was around mile 47 and I was so thankful when I was over it. I had been expecting a nice tail wind to push me back to transition. Unfortunately, the winds shifted and it seems like I rode against the wind all day. At mile 55, I rode past my friend Nikki and contemplated getting off my bike and getting in her car. I decided I could at least make it back to transition.
As I rode into transition, I had convinced myself I was going to quit. My feet were miserable. It had taken me 5 hours and 21 minutes total from the swim, transition one, and the bike. To make the 8 hour and 30 minute cut off, I would have to complete transition two and a half marathon in 3 hours and 9 minutes. My half marathon PR time is 3 hours and 15 minutes. The half marathon at Augusta in similar heat took me 3 hours and 42 minutes. So I knew going into transition two I was going to be a technical DNF. But there at transition were my kids, cheering their hearts out and completely confident I would finish. Because I’ve never quit a race. And so off I went onto the “run.”
My plan was to do 2 minute run: 30 second walk intervals for the run. I walked the first mile to get reoriented and made a Canadian friend (Who at one point said to me, “Let’s run for a bit, eh?” Which made my day!) Kim Y. caught up with me and we ran/walked together for a mile or so. Kim is a super strong runner and so I sent her off on her way. Around mile 3, Coach Sam found me and seemed relieved when I promised her I was going to finish. Although I intended to do 2 minute run: 30 second walk intervals, I had to flip them and do the opposite. I was able to keep those up for most of the course, which was a huge improvement for me over the “run” in Augusta. Around mile 5 my friend Nikki found me on her bike and kept me company. At the hill at mile 8, the last hill of the course, I found Coach Sam and teammate Cory. Who were AMAZING. Coach Sam negotiated with me to convince me to keep up the run/walk intervals. Cory blocked the wind. Literally. And I actually had fun. It was the most pleasant half marathon I’ve ever done.
At the end of the day, I didn’t make the 8 hour 30 minute cut off and I got my second technical DNF from Ironman. But I did my best on a tough course under harsh conditions and I am proud. Lessons learned: (1) Keep your feet dry; (2) Keep going – I felt 1,000 times better on mile 1 of the run than I did on mile 55 of the bike and I’m so thankful I didn’t quit; (3) Listen to Sam... she really knows what she’s talking about. My next experiment: Ironman 70.3 North Carolina in October – what will happen if I apply that “consistency” thing Sam’s always telling me about. I had a ton of work travel in the months leading up to Wisconsin 70.3, which made it hard to get in 100% of my work outs. My work travel has slowed down (Yay!) and I’m excited to see what can happen when I take some of my stubbornness and point it in the direction of completing ALL my work outs and following my nutrition plan.