A five week taper is not necessarily the best approach to achieve what one hopes to be their fastest Ironman to date…but that is exactly what I was facing as I woke up on race morning, June 14.
Because I had to back out of racing Ironman Texas 70.3 in April due to an extreme reaction to seasonal allergies and resulting bronchitis, Coach Cliff and I put the May 17th Challenge Knoxville race on the schedule. I was excited to race Challenge Knoxville, mostly because it meant I got to see my sister, but also, because I love this race course and love racing Challenge Family races. Five weeks out from IM Cairns (one week from Challenge Knoxville), I tapered for the Knoxville race. Knoxville was an unremarkable race for me in that I did not have a great race in the pouring rain; it was just kind of…blah. That being said, I had a VERY remarkable pre-race as I kept the anxiety way under control -- told it to take a hike and it listened this time!
Returning from Knoxville on Monday morning, I had a day of rushing through airports, missed meals, a very hungry belly and a near miss of my last flight. As I was rushing to reach my connection gate, I grabbed a cheeseless pizza, ran onto my flight and then was told that I had to eat the pizza before the doors closed. Ugh. I had no hand sanitizer, could not get up to wash my hands and therefore I had two choices, let them throw out my pizza and endure the 2.5 hour flight having not eaten since early that morning (“hangry” wouldn’t even BEGIN to describe how I was feeling at that moment) OR, eat my pizza with hands that have probably touched every germ in the Charlotte airport. Double UGH. I said a quick prayer and swallowed the pizza whole.
Tuesday morning, three weeks and five days out from IM Cairns, I woke up feeling like someone had taken a brillo pad to my throat. Crap, crap, C-R-A-P. I got up, ate Wellness like it was candy, shoved oranges down my throat two-at-a-time and just hoped a day or two of rest would be all that I needed. I was at the acupuncturist every other day. Meanwhile, those one or two days off stretched into seven days. I have never been so sick in my life. It was the most horrendous phlegmy-cough that kept me up all day and all night, even WITH the codeine cough meds. Clearly, going home from Charlotte airport an emaciated, starving mess would have been a better choice over eating that pizza with my germy fingers. Even as I got back on the saddle, basically giving me one good week of training before leaving for Australia, I had to cut many workouts short and could not go at intensity because I was overwhelmed with coughing fits. The swimming was the worst. Biking and running was fine as long as I didn’t stop, but the swimming was just this: breath/hack/stroke, repeat. I was able to get one or two good runs in and a solid day of bike training, which gave me a boost of confidence as I prepared my belongings for the long journey Down Under.
I am grateful that I was able to fly first class over to Australia, which involved a Benadryl-induced sleep coma, so I woke up in Brisbane refreshed and ready to tackle the three-hour ride scheduled for that day. I was absolutely THRILLED to see that my bike and luggage had made it to Brisbane, and I dragged it all through customs and hopped on my connection into Cairns, eager to meet my lovely homestay hostess, Nerida. I arrived in Cairns at noon, and as Nerida’s house was literally five minutes from the airport, we made it back quickly to her place. She kindly held my bike frame while I built up my bike without trouble. I then set off to ride with my new Cairns training buddy, Nerida’s co-worker, Lena for a good two hour easy ride.
Riding on the opposite side of the road…not necessarily something that I would consider an arduous task, but pair that with a brain that has NO IDEA what time it is and having to go around traffic circles in the opposite direction and that yields a girl who looks like she is riding a bike for the first time in her life. Lena, the most perfect riding companion that a girl with the gift of gab could ask for, led us north on Captain Cook Highway and then into the village of Palm Cove- where the swim start of IM Cairns was going to be. The sea looked: ANGRY. Lena says, “don’t worry, it’ll calm down for race day.” Lena and I chatted the whole way back and then I threw on my running shoes and did a quick 30-minute run on the course. It was dark, but the pier at the Cairns Esplanade was super safe with many families grilling and other runners/walkers taking advantage of the exercise path.
The rest of the ten days leading up to the race were pretty uneventful. Training days were going OK; I definitely felt more sluggish than I usually feel pre-race which made me uncomfortable. I definitely felt like I had lost some fitness from the killer watts I was throwing down right before Challenge Knoxville, but I just shrugged it off as a jet-lag thing. I knew FOR SURE that this race was going to be amazing. I did not have the slightest concern for the powerhouse FPROS I would be facing on June 14. Foof made it into town a couple days after me, which was nice. I quickly realized that not only did I really have THE BEST hostess in the whole world, but also she had introduced me to THE NICEST temporary training partner: Lena (who would also be racing IM Cairns, her first iron-distance race). Nerida made sure that everything was taken care of, and since she worked for the main IM Cairns sponsor, she was very knowledgeable about where I needed to be and when. She even knew that when I came home with nothing but my bib numbers from registration that I needed to get right back up there and get the back pack that I should have been given when I checked in. She drove me on the bike course, which, other than a couple of butt-kickers looked fairly flat-ish. Foof and I took one of the pre-race days to slowly travel 15,000+ feet above sea level (we were at sea level in Cairns) in the Skyway gondola above the treetops of the rainforest, stopping and learning about the rainforest along the way. Then we took the Kuranda Railway back down to Cairns. The first two days I was in Cairns, the weather was BEAUTIFUL. Although it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere right now, going to Far North Queensland in winter is like going to Florida in the winter for us Northern Hemisphere folks. With about a week prior to race, the rain set in, and it just didn’t seem to want to move on.
We made a last minute decision to stay at a nice resort in Palm Cove the night before the race, since the race start was 30 minutes north of Cairns (where Nerida lives), which is where transition 2/bike finish/finish line was. Good decision- this afforded me an extra hour of sleep and the opportunity to just roll right out of bed to the beach start!! The night before, I had my chat with Coach Cliff, we had dinner early and then I prepared my special needs bags and bike/run bottles with my nutrition. I have been doing the same thing for every race and it works for me: all liquid nutrition with Carbo-pro/nuun/Base salt in the bike bottles and then a lick of Base salt and cups of Gatorade and water at every aide station on the run. Mistake numero uno: NEVER TRY ANYTHING NEW ON RACE DAY. You’d think I would heed my own damn advice. I did not do my research, just assumed that IM Cairns would be serving Gatorade on the run course like all Ironman races. You know what they say about assuming. It makes an ass out of…well, it just make me a total ass. Different country, different carbohydrate bevvie on the course. I did NOT want to drink the Enduro, not because it wasn’t delightfully refreshing, but because I was not about to try it out for the first time for 26.2 miles and hope that my stomach was OK with it. Because I was not able to carry enough bottles on my Fuel Belt, even WITH stopping at special needs to reload halfway through the run I decided to make two super-concentrated 8 oz. flasks of Gatorade that would sustain me, calorie-wise, all the way through the marathon run. In theory, my genius Gatorade slime solution was the perfect solution. In the belly, that slime did not operate as I had expected, but more on that later.
As I was preparing to settle down and get some sleep someone I know said some super ugly things to me via text, which ate away at my brain ALL NIGHT LONG. I did not get one wink of sleep in the night before the race and what is worse, I let this RIDICULOUS situation completely erode the pre-race zen-like state I was in. I got out of bed the next morning to even more angry texts, at which point I asked Foof to block the number all together, because I could not be dealing with that horse shit right before I am about to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a damn marathon. Why this person chose to start trouble before I was about to partake in a grueling 9+-hour day of RACING, I will never know. I am not just playing pick-up sticks for over nine hours when I do these races; I am pushing my body to its limits ALL DAMN DAY. Therefore, I ask this of anyone who feels that have an ax to grind with me: could you PLEASE let it wait until AFTER I have raced??
Needless to say, I had a MAJOR setback as far as pre-race anxiety goes that morning. I was in a full-on tailspin into panic attack and despite trying my diaphragmatic breathing techniques, meditation, even a quick jog -- I just couldn’t get the “ick” of everything that had transpired in the previous ten hours out of my head. Foof and I began walking down to the race start and FINALLY I was able to pull back on the anxiety. I felt exhausted from the attack I had experienced, but was proud of myself for being able to eventually pull out of the panic attack before it got to the point of no return.
Staring out at the sea about 30 minutes prior to the pro women’s race start, it looked like it had calmed a bit since that first day Lena and I had seen it. We were called to the beach start and without ANY warning, the horn went off. The start felt jolted -- I was expecting at least a, “OK ladies, you have 30 seconds before the horn goes off.” This swim course was unlike any I have ever done. We swam out and around two buoys in a rectangle fashion to the other end of the beach, run around a timing mat at the waters edge and get back in to head back to where we started; however, on the way back, we followed buoys that traced an “M” pattern through the ocean. Draw a picture during your Ironman swim, check. The first 200-300 yards were not too bad, the water felt calm and I felt that my handle of things was OK. However, for me, it felt like it quickly changed after that. The water seemed rougher, the swells felt bigger. The garmin file from the swim leg shows a SWOLF change, and my pace drop. My mind was STILL swirling with that argument and I was losing that main pack of women. I angrily got through the swim, feeling pretty wiped out. THANK GOD for some of the best volunteers I have ever run into, as they talked me out of giving up. I was fully prepared for that swim to take longer than what I had hoped, since I missed so much swim training in the last few weeks, but was NOT prepared to have to fight through the ocean like that. I ran through, picked up my bike on the glorious red carpet laid down throughout the bike racks and took off on a 112 mile spin.
Swim split: 1 hour 4 minutes
The bike course had us riding north along the coast of the Great Barrier Reef, up ranges that lent glorious views of the South Pacific to the athletes and into the town of Port Douglas, where we met screaming spectators. We then headed south back to a point just north of Palm Cove and turned around to do the Palm Cove/Port Douglas loop again before heading to the bike finish in Cairns. I can’t say I was feeling particularly strong or solid on the bike, but things got far worse when the wind and rain set in. I was very cold -- shivering at times, couldn’t see from the pelting rain and nearly went down several times from slick road conditions. My left adductor was VERY tight and I think it was at about mile 80 that I just felt like giving up. There were no competitors to be seen, except for the female age-grouper that took full advantage of drafting off my wheel. The headwind was so wicked from Palm Cove to Cairns and although I needed to get that last bike bottle of nutrition in, I just couldn’t. I wasn’t sweating, wasn’t absorbing the calories and so there was nothing else going into my system at that point. I FINALLY reached Cairns and got off my bike about 25 minutes AFTER what I had expected to do, and thought for SURE there was no way I would have anything left to start the marathon.
Bike split: 5 hours, 47 minutes
Exiting transition, my legs were surprisingly (or not surprisingly, I guess) fresh and ready to rip off around a 7 min-mile pace. I just figured I would go with this pace for as long as I could. I mean, what did I have to lose -- as far as I knew, I was in last place and out of the money. I saw Foof and Nerida within the first mile; he told me I was in 9th place and at least 7 minutes up on the 10th place FPRO- yay, I might still be taking home a paycheck, I just need to finish! He did not know how far ahead 8th place was. So I continued on my plan of staying around the 7min-mile, hoping maybe it would get me up to 8th place. My original marathon pace was suppose to be around this pace, and although my swim and bike paces that we originally had planned on (prior to the illness) were so clearly not possible immediately after I started each of those portions of the race, my run is SOLID. My heart rate wasn’t out of control and I felt good, almost e-a-s-y. I was consistently getting that squirt of Gatorade and a lot of water after each 1.5km, as well as my Base salt, but I was feeling that left adductor more and more. I maintained my 7 min-mile pace, with a couple 6:50 minute miles here and there. Hearing spectators vocally applaud and praise my obviously strong run was such a boost. I am so eternally grateful for the gift of reliable running legs. I was bombing right through that three-loop course, but somewhere around mile 12, my stomach started that gurgling—gurgling that I am sure could be heard over cheering spectators. I took a quick 20 second walk break, said a little prayer for my angels to help ease my discomfort and took the pace back up. The sour stomach got worse, much worse. I had to abandon my Gatorade slime altogether by mile 13. By mile 15, Foof was giving me the go ahead to dial my pace back because 10th place was nowhere near me. I took my pace down to 8:15 min-miles to see if I could get some of the nutrition to absorb as I had a VERY bloated belly. I was hurting; I hadn’t gotten the nutrition I needed and I could feel it. My legs ached, especially my left adductor and left soleus/Achilles attachment. I came around for one more loop of the run course and have never been so happy to see a finish line. In the end, those last couple of miles were around 8:30 min-miles, I just didn’t have any fuel left and I felt really nauseous. I pushed myself as hard as I could and unfortunately, the loss of fitness over the preceding 4.5 weeks, coupled with an incredibly lousy nutrition plan on the run, did me in.
Run split: 3 hours, 26 minutes
Going into this race, I had such high hopes. My training in Florida this winter was rock-solid and I was running paces and pushing watts I had never seen before. I fought DAMN HARD on race day just to stay in the game and I suppose, all things considered, I didn’t do too badly for having lost most of the training in the final five weeks. Things happen, and that is just the nature of this profession; it can be overwhelmingly ceremonious and rewarding or it can be heartbreaking and disappointing. I am not an excuse maker. I gave what I had for the day and it wasn’t good enough. But a couple of things went right that day: I pulled myself out of near disaster anxiety levels and I was able to hold onto some AWESOME run paces feeling comfortable running them … before I shit the bed. As much as I want to just say forget it and quit, as I type this I am listening to one of my favorite artists -- Peter Gabriel -- sing “don’t give up” to me. And so, I will continue on for another race and see if I can FINALLY pull off that which I know I am capable.
The day after the race, it was nice to spend time with Nerida and Lena at the award ceremony, climb the stairs to take my position on my first ever professional podium spot and know that I was the pro that would be representing my great nation on that podium. As we all stood on stage, Ange Castle (8th place FPRO) turned to me and said, “Hey, yesterday was a tough day…congrats on sticking it out!” Thanks, Ange- thanks for reminding me that sometimes it isn’t about what place you earn, but just about having the guts to tough out what otherwise seems impossible. Impossible is nothing.