This is a guest post by my husband, Zach, who also toed the line at the Boulder Ironman this weekend. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my race recap, he had a few setbacks that ultimately ended his day earlier than planned. He trained so hard for this race, and I am so impressed with his attitude following some rough circumstances. Keep reading for his take on Sunday’s Ironman!
“What are you going to do if you have a setback?” This was a question Coach Liesl asked me a week before I attempted my first Ironman 140.6. My answer was that I’ve experienced setbacks already in races, and I listed examples, such as a fall on my road bike bruising a hip and walking it off until I could ride again, losing an earplug, and another time getting water in a goggle during a swim but powering through. I told her that if I had a setback like an upset stomach or a flat tire, or whatever else, I’d be ok. Racing is the icing on the cake for the hard training I’ve done since January (49 hours of running, 107 hours of cycling, and 46 hours of running to be exact).
The prior two years, I did two Ironman 70.3 races and coached myself, which established a good base, but I knew that I needed help to iron (pun intended!) out a training plan. Liesl, with team MPI, was confident that she could help me peak at the right time without overtraining. I like team MPI’s motto “smarter, stronger, faster” because a smart athlete is one who breaks down his or her body in a systematic way through training and does the right things to not get injured and to be ready for the next workout. I learned some new synonymous phrases for torture this year to include: lactate threshold, hypoxic swim drills, and 80/10 brick. I trusted the plan, and looking back I think I only missed one scheduled workout and that was only because I ended up working late. I thought of it like homework… you gotta do it!
So when race day finally came last Sunday, I felt prepared. I got a solid 6 hours sleep despite the 3:20 am greeting on the hotel clock. Following my cue card orders that I had prepared the day before, I proceeded to take in my pre-race 700 carb calories – one bagel and cream cheese, a banana, Gatorade, and a Gu (yuck!). After all, the day’s work was going to deplete my glycogen reserves and make me dehydrated, especially with the predicted forecast, so I’d been careful with nutrition for the last couple days.
Accompanied by Emily and Sasha (Emily’s leg caddy), we boarded the bus from the Boulder high school to head to the reservoir. A girl next to me was nervously talking about this also being her first full Ironman. Emily, the girl next to me, and myself were 3 of a few hundred first timers in a race of around 1700 people.
After final preparation, body marking, sunscreen, loading the bike with food and fluids, and putting on my wetsuit and tie (just kidding), I dropped off my morning clothes bag and made my way to the water’s edge and a glorious sunrise was shining across the water. It was a rolling start, meaning that we positioned ourselves based on predicted swim times rather than by age group. My open water training times made me feel comfortable in the hour and a half group. Once I got in the water, I had one thing that coach told me to remember: “get control of your breath.” The cold flush of water and panic of people swimming all around you can cause hyperventilation, which I’ve experienced in the past. I gained early control of my breath and eventually the pack spread out and I was able to get into a rhythm of smooth, efficient strokes in a straight line (for once) and an hour and fifteen minutes later (15 min ahead of schedule) was done.
Unlike shorter course triathlons, the transition times are a bit longer and are more involved at an Ironman. Instead of everything taking place where the bike is parked, you grab your bag of stuff and enter a changing tent, where you tell a volunteer, “excuse me while I change into something more comfortable” (saying that is optional, but preferred). I dumped the bag and began to pull on my cycling shorts, jersey, UV arm sleeves, shoes, and my lucky red and white polka dot socks. All the swim gear goes back in the bag to be retrieved at the end of the day. Volunteers outside the tent smear you down with sunscreen, perhaps less carefully than self-application. Helmet on and clipped, bike in hand, I ran awkwardly in my tap dance-esque bike shoes to the bike start and started my Garmin bike time at the exact time my timing chip registered my official bike start time. All was going as planned.
I immediately launched into the nutrition plan to make up for not taking in any calories during the swim and to set myself up for the run. Three hundred calories per hour is a lot more than you feel like you need to eat, but I’d realized the importance of this during some of my longer training rides and bricks. The bike is my favorite event and the course around Boulder reservoir is smooth, scenic, and has blazing descents (45.6 mph was my max). I’d practiced part of the course a couple times so I knew when the next hill or turn was approaching, and so I could regulate my effort. The goal is to even out this effort and save your legs for the run. I thought I was doing a fairly good job at that. It did become hotter on the second lap, and at the aid stations I started dousing a full bottle of water on my shirt as well as grabbing a Gatorade and another water on the fly. I only stopped briefly three times during the five hours and twenty-six minutes I was on the bike, and one of those times was at the special needs area around mile 53 where we were allowed to have a bag of stuff we might need for the 2nd half of the ride. I got to use the bathroom (a good sign of proper hydration), eat my pre-made PBJ sandwich, a sweet and salty bar, and put on fresh sun baked chamois butter (oy vey!).
And then my first setback…. I was on my second loop and my Garmin said I was at mile 88. I saw a sign on the course saying I was at mile 100. At first, I had this feeling of relief that my GPS was off and I was actually ahead of schedule. I started doing the math and realized I was averaging a super fast time and attributed this to my two-week taper. Then I got passed for a second time by the dude in pink compression socks with a pink bike (Adam Sczech, another coach from team MPI). It was funny, I didn’t remember passing him on the side of the road or anything (after all, he is easy to spot), and about five miles later I realized I had messed up. Before the second loop, I missed a 12-mile section of the course. I made a right and I should have gone straight. Looking back, this happened to a lot of people. However, it was a mistake that disqualified me, and I’m completely responsible for not studying the course map enough ahead of time. There was no way to make up the mileage. I simply had to continue the mile or so ride into the transition area.
I went from feeling ecstatic about my ride to feeling completely deflated. All this training, all this effort today was just crushed with a mental error, a lack of preparation, not being smart. My immediate thought was to just quit and not do the run. It wasn’t going to count anyway. If I finished the Ironman, it was with an asterisks. If I got a tattoo, it was with an asterisks, and I won’t get the tee-shirt with the coupon attached to my bib number 1370. But I quickly rehearsed the conversation with coach in my head about giving up, giving in. I thought about my friends and family spending their day on the Ironman tracker, watching Emily and I and waiting patiently to hear from us. I thought about Emily being out there (not knowing her Di2 shifter had stopped working and she was stuck in 1 gear on the bike) and how I probably wouldn’t have signed up for this race unless she did. I thought about the mantra’s coach had me write: patience, appreciation, put one foot in front of the other, breath in & breath out. I had to complete the run. That’s the story I wanted to tell. That’s the spirt of triathlon, the spirit of overcoming adversity that I want to promote with my prosthetic patients.
So it was into the changing tent again for me. It’s a bit like a locker room / hot circus tent / restaurant (sir, would you like a water?). Again, a quick swap out of clothing, and this time self-applied sunscreen. It was getting hot out there at 95 degrees, but I was in good company starting the run as a lot of people were on the struggle bus. My initial plan was to run ten minutes/walk one minute the whole marathon. That plan immediately failed as I had to walk at about 7:30. I did all I could, going from aid station to aid station, taking in water, Gatorade, putting ice in my hat and in my hands. I made deals with myself about walking up hills, walking at aid stations, and eventually also walking in shaded areas. At about mile 12, my body succumbed to the heat, and I had to lay down for a bit. Fortunately, I was near the finish line area and knew I couldn’t complete the rest of the race. This was my second setback. I set out to finish the run, but my body didn’t let me. I would be putting my health in jeopardy to keep going (not smart). I wasn’t used to training in the heat (hard to do with an early season race), and I should have held back a little on the bike to stay more hydrated and reduce my internal body temperature. I should have kept taking in Gu on the run to keep me from bonking. All these were lessons learned.
I obviously felt defeated. I also felt really proud of myself. I was out there for 9.5 hours and had a phenomenal swim and bike. On a cooler day, I could have pulled off the run as well and I remembered to appreciate this level of fitness I had achieved and the opportunity to be here. I learned later that due to the heat, there was an 18% drop rate vs. normal 8%, so I’m glad to know it wasn’t just me. I ran into coach Mark (Emily’s coach) and he told me about her bike ride and said that she’s still going. He didn’t seem too optimistic that she’d make the cutoff of 17 hours for the run since she’d been stuck in a high gear since mile 24 and her legs were already shot starting the run. He said to go back to the hotel and take care of myself, and that Emily had plenty of support between him and Sasha.
I heeded his advice and rested up taking in lots of water and electrolytes. I started tracking Emily’s progress running and joined a group text with our family members. They were loving hearing all the details of my story and were proud of my effort. Watching Emily on the tracker suddenly became an obsession and I relayed any information I got from Coach Mark or Sasha to the rest of the family. Emily was getting close to the lap by the finish line where I threw in the towel. We were on the edges of our seats anticipating her decision to carry on or quit. She’d been in the same heat for 13 hours now and she had to walk up hills on the bike because she was stuck in one gear… And she kept going!!! It was bed time for my family on the east coast, but they all stayed up wanting to know if she would make it.
About 4 hours later, I was down at the finish line with camera ready to take a video as she crossed the finish line. What I didn’t realize when I couldn’t pull up my camera fast enough to take a video, because she was SPRINTING across the finish line, is that she was approaching her final minute. None of us realized that she was so close to NOT making it! Sasha and Mark were there to catch her at the end and were in disbelief. It was such an epic sports moment! I was overjoyed and so happy I got to see this. Emily worked so hard to call herself an Ironman and it was so close to getting taken away. She dug deep at the end and this will be a story that gets told over and over…
Even though it’s been two days and I make sound effects as I get up and walk around due to soreness, I can’t wait to get back to training and come back smarter, stronger, and faster. Setbacks can be really motivating. So can other people’s stories! I want to do Boulder IM again next year and eventually have a story of victory to tell. Regardless of the result, the biggest thing I’ve learned is the answer to the question, “what are you going to do if you have a setback?” The answer is to keep going!