When I first started this endurance sport business, long before tracker and weather apps, I would fret and freak out about each race. Back then my freakouts were centered mostly around the burning desire to have every one of my races be a PR. At some point, my freakouts gave way to checking weather apps, course profiles, starting lists, times for the course - these were added to my desire to get my fastest time EVERY TIME I raced. While I did race my first Ironman at Lake Placid and have raced a ton in what I have come to realize are hard courses due to growing up in the Northeast, I would worry about terrain as well. A hilly course would have me up at night thinking I was going to be walking my bike or crawling on a run. So basically racing was a total freakout from the time I hit the button to pay for the race until I got in the water, all due to a very intense focus on my times.
And then somewhere along the way, perhaps due to becoming a mom or a coach, or most likely a combo of the two, my perspective on racing shifted. I let go of times, of places, of weather, of terrain fears and now have switched to just doing the best I can with the course that I am on. I actually now welcome the hills, and the heat, and see any challenge as a new way to test my mental fortitude. i still get nervous AF, but now that is more about being mentally weak when I am tested on the course. And in that spirit, two weeks before Ironman Florida 70.3, I decided to test myself and sign up.
Here are some important things to note - it has been a cold and awful winter for most of the country, which meant that I had ridden outside exactly twice before the race since September of last year. I had swam open water once, and up until the race I was running in the cold with a ton of layers.
If you have never raced in Haines City, it is not the flat and fast course you might think of when you picture Florida. The swim is in a tiny lake which requires many turns, the bike has some rolling hills (for me there was no need to ever get out of my big chain ring - so nothing terrible), and the run is a three loop hilly course - which was a little different this year as they decided to add a few more little hills before you got to the real hills. To be honest, I cannot think of a hillier half marathon that I have done to date - perhaps Vegas back when that existed, but those were steady climbs and Haines City is either up or down.
Oh and the weather - it turned out to be 91 and full blown Florida humidity! And I guess I should also mention it was very windy - I think winds were steady in the teens with gusts a little higher.
So I was certainly in for a test!
Pre-race I stuck to my usual routine. I like to lay very, very low and minimize any human contact in the days leading up to a race. One of the best parts of this race is that you are not required to drop your bikes off the day prior, so I was able to hang out at the condo and read and wait for the hours to tick by after finishing my workouts.
Race morning, as it always seems to, came quickly and I made my way down to the race start. We had about a 15 minute drive and were able to park very close to the race venue. The transition was super packed and after a less than friendly human and I had some words about how she had her stuff sprawled all over the place and that was somehow okay, I decided to get the f out of there and head to get a warm-up swim in. The cool thing is that there is a pool right by the lake and you can hop in and swim for a few. I think this is one of the most important things you can and should do as an athlete, it allows you to raise the HR, and lower the nerves. At the pool I ran into coach Scott and we both hopped in and swam in the dark. I still had my transition bag with me and didn't really want to trudge back to the car, so I ditched it behind a row of shrubs and made my way to the lake. The sun was coming up and there was that wonderful feeling of all these humans ready to get the day started.
This year the race had returned to an Age Group Wave start and I think I was in the 7th or so wave to go off. Which meant that we had a ton of work to do to get around the slower swimmers in front of us. This is a notoriously slow swim, and it proved to be so as I had to make my way through the previous waves and navigate the many turns on the course. Here’s a strategy that I use and most of our athletes do as well - I count. It starts in the swim - before I get in the water I count the buoys - my swim is simply about getting from one buoy to the next and working to the best of my ability as I navigate from one to the next. I never got clean water but I swam the back half a little harder. When I finally could see the swim exit arch, I swam until I hit the ground - walking through water is way slower than swimming, so I always try to swim as far as I possibly can. Which when you are 5’ 3” is pretty close to shore. When I exited the water I felt like the swim had been slow. If I had time on my watch I would have known that it was indeed slow in comparison to my usual non-wetsuit legal swims. 36:4x was my time. Why no time on my watch? Well I have found that my reaction to times can set me up for a long day. The swim felt slow, technically for me was slow, and if I was in my old mindset of chasing a clock then I would have already been in a deficit and a negative head space. The truth is that the swim was slow for all, and my time was good enough for 3rd in AG which I would not know until after the race. Something I don’t think I ever thought was capable when I first started this sport.
Off into T1 - nothing eventful there other than the fact that my rack was super far and I had a very long run with my bike.
I mounted my bike and off I went. Again, on the bike I ride only with HR, power (no power at this race as my meter never paired with my watch) and RPE. I know how my lungs and legs should feel and I got to work. The course was really crowded and I spent most of my time navigating past other cyclists. It was cloudy and I knew that staying on my fueling plan would be key - The number one rule of a cloudy bike is that it will surely be full sun on the run. Many athletes underfuel in these conditions and pay for it on the run. The roads on the front half of the bike are windy and at times pretty tight and unlike my last few races which were not Ironman branded I was surrounded by cyclists. Which meant that I was often playing leapfrog with a few men who I could out climb and then they would pass me again on the flats. This went on and I did my best to ride legal, and I remember being worried about being too close to others, but also feeling like I was trapped on the narrow roads with so many people who were riding at times side by side and then on one of the windier roads where we were all bunched up, I was given a blue card. I remember thanking the ref as if I had just been given a gift and was kinda in a fog. I was not the only one who was too close, but I was the lucky one that day. Plus, I like to have refs on a course and to know that people are being monitored. I want a fair ride - so I had mixed feelings about the penalty. And after about a minute, I felt all of the energy drain out of me and thought that I should just call it a day after the bike. Then I decided that I would run, but not really focus on the race. Then I decided that I was being dumb and I better get back to being focused and get to the penalty tent and stop the self sabotaging. I think somewhere around mile 25 you come to a town where there is a steady incline, and it was there that I passed one of our athletes who I told that I had gotten a penalty and he would see me real soon!
I was the first of a huge bunch (but none from my pack) to arrive at the tent and yelled out my number and the timer started. Five min seems like a lifetime, but I made sure to use the time well. I decided it would be best to turn my back to the road so that I wasn’t aware of all of the people passing me and instead I filled my aero bottle, stood in the shade of the tent and made sure to not be tempted by looking at the time on my watch. The reality is that if I over-biked the back half of the course I was going to be in for a very long run.
The time ticked by very slowly, but I did get to make friends with a sweet older gentleman who told me that he hadn’t gotten a penalty in 37 years of racing and I told him that this was my first in 20, and so we commiserated in our mutual penalty sorrow. And then like that I was released from prison, but not before Eric rode by and yelled to me with a big grin - hope you’re enjoying your time out.
The back half of the course flew by until about mile 52 when I hit a very exposed and open windy section and it was pretty desolate. I knew it was close, so I just tucked in and stayed strong until I was back to town. Which after the fact I was reminded by coach Nick’s mom who was there spectating that I was nearly hit by a car when the car failed to stop for a police officer - I don’t even really remember this, so I guess I was in the zone.
Back to transition and I suited up for the run - put my shoes on, stepped through my naked belt, pulled it up and grabbed my cooling towel, hat, and fuel and off I went. The first few steps felt awful. My legs felt heavy and I felt like I had never run off the bike before. This feeling is pretty natural for the first 70.3 of the season, so I shrugged it off and off I went. The course was a little different from years past, as we went around the pool area, hit two little hills, and then hit the infamous hills on the front stretch. I had made myself a promise - I would not walk outside of aid stations. I have walked two hills in two 70.3s in my life and they still haunt me to this day. The hard part is that I knew that most would be walking - the bike was hot and windy, and the run was going to be hot and hilly. This tends to lend itself to walking on the run for many, which can be tempting to join in on. The first big hill hurt, but there just happened to be some really awesome penis graffiti on the middle of the hill, so I just said to myself - listen you stupid dick of a hill, I will not give in - I am strong and I can handle this. At the top of the hill, I was a little surprised to see that they were having us go into the little neighborhood that was part of the Full race in November - this added another little bitch of a hill, before we headed back up the second part of the hills on the front of the course. The good part was that after I realized this I also realized that one of my Tri friends Tom was standing there and as I approached him, I threw my watch to him. He told me I looked strong, which probably was a lie, but lifted the spirits. It is never good when you pass people you know and their cheers contain things like - okay, okay, you can do this. Or - are you okay?
Why take off my watch? I knew at this point that this was going to be a slow run. My legs felt horrible and the heat and humidity were coming on strong. I also knew that if I got bogged down by metrics, I would set myself up for an even longer run. I run with HR and cadence on my watch, but I know that if my cadence is low than I am going slow. Over the years, I have found that nothing good comes from negative self talk and it was best for me to just let go of data and move as fast as I could.
Out of the neighborhood, we hung a right and hit the second of the big hills. When I crested the hill, I was flooded with memories of standing on that corner when the rains came during the Full in November. I was able to use the strength of the athletes who ran in that awful rain to power me through the next neighborhood part of the course and then to the final 1.5 miles of the first lap.
My goal for the first lap was to run steady, the middle lap was to stay strong, and the last lap - do what I could with what I had.
Back by transition I got the much needed boost that comes from the crowds. One of my awesome athletes had made the drive from Tampa to cheer and I was boosted by seeing him. And then seeing a few other friendly faces on the course. My family always jokes that seeing me for 15 seconds is the worst thing ever after waiting all day, but I cannot tell you how much energy it gives me to see people I know.
Onto loop two, up the dick hill, back through the neighborhood - at this point, I made a deal that I would walk the aid stations on the last loop and drink all the coke. My legs felt like mile 24 Ironman legs and I knew that my whole meditation had to just deal with picking my legs up and putting them down. My run at this point was still faster than the power walkers and I was passing a few men who had passed me on the bike or run so I knew that I just had to power through the pain.
At the start of lap three I saw Tom and Nick’s mom again which gave me a boost, and then I spotted coach Scott. I hit the first aid station and grabbed a coke and ice and hit the hills again. If I could go back and do this again, I would remind myself to stand tall. I know that my form had gone to hell at this point and I was slouching - not good for race photos or for running well. One last time for Mont Dick - I think this time I actually said aloud - see you never DICK. A little after this point, just after leaving the neighborhood, I caught up to Scott and we exchanged a few words. He had also gotten a penalty and had crashed his bike. Scott and I hit the second aid station together - grabbed some more coke and ice, and then I think I said to him, I can’t talk - so you do you! The remainder of the run was pure quad pain - I assume from all the downhills on the run. There were two more aid stations - at the next one I grabbed more ice and went on and I ran through the last one. Remember when my plan was to do all that I could on the last loop. Well in my visualization, that involved some speed, but in reality, that just involved moving faster than a walk.
And as always, just like that I hit the final stretch of the run and hit the turn into the chute as the skies opened and started it started to pour.
So if I lay out the times - it was one of my slowest races. And in fact my slowest 13.1 ever - that seems to be a theme lately.
Bike (with 5 min penalty): 2:47:44
Total time: 5:40:47
But if I look at my placing then it wasn’t awful.
Swim: 3rd AG
Bike: 7th AG
Run: 11th AG
Final Placing: 7th
So my point is - the times and paces tell one story. But the end result left me feeling like I had done what I set out to do - test myself, learn, and live to eat some vegan ice cream.
There are of course some things that I wish I had done better -
Not get a penalty
Concentrate more on form on the run - STAND UP TALL!
Run harder - I say this because I was able to pick up my pace in the last half mile stretch - which means that I was physically capable of more speed, but was limited by my mind.
My wish for myself and for my athletes this season and beyond is that we can focus less on times and pacing and more on working hard every second of the race. This type of focus is actually really hard, and I am far from perfecting it - but I love that I am able to keep plugging away each year at learning to suffer more and embrace the feeling of pushing myself and finding new limits.
Oh, and if you are still reading this - my tri bag was safe and sound tucked behind the hedges when I went to retrieve it :)
Thanks to all of my athletes and colleagues who inspire me to be a better version of myself each day - you are constantly on my mind when I race and for that I am beyond grateful.