Philosophical question for you: If you race an Ironman and don’t write pages and pages of self-indulgent, navel-gazing thoughts on it, did you really cover 140.6 miles?
Didn’t think so. And with that, here’s my race report for Ironman Louisville 2012.
As I’d mentioned in the weeks leading up to the race, I wasn’t that excited about it, and just wanted race day to arrive so that I could be done with it. That feeling held up until 7 pm the day before the race, when I decided that it would be really cool if the race director would let me do the whole thing right then because it was going to be SO AWESOME and I COULDN’T WAIT ONE MORE MINUTE to do the race.
I only slept a few hours that night. Weird. At about midnight, I woke up hungry, and downed a larabar because I figured I should be keeping my glycogen stores topped off as much as possible. A little more quiet time with the lights out, and it was 4 am. Time to eat breakfast, get dressed, grab my bags, and go to transition, where I ran into Sarah before making our way over to the very long swim line. Luckily, I’d thought ahead and brought three more larabars, a pack of shotblocks, and a water bottle full of Nuun to take in while waiting in line. We weren’t going to be getting in the water until about 7:30 am, which means that a 4 am breakfast, no matter how large, wouldn’t keep my glycogen levels up through the entire swim, and dehydration could easily set in early on the bike leg without fluid and salt coming in until right before starting the race.
It was more than I planned to take in before the race, but I had the entire swim to digest all of it, and swimming almost never upsets my stomach, no matter what I have or haven’t eaten beforehand, so I was happy to have the extra glycogen sitting around at the start.
Even though we got to the swim start around 6:15 am, we found ourselves way in the back of the line, which was at least ¾ mile long at that point. People were apparently quite worried about missing out on precious minutes for the course cutoffs. I’d decided that I wasn’t worried about any of the time cutoffs, and would rather avoid making a long day even longer by getting in line at 2 am, but walking an extra mile and a half round trip to deal with the swim start wasn’t exactly ideal.
Again, thankfully, I had the extra hydration and snacks, because we burned through a non-negligible amount of glycogen before the race even started. Plus, munching on my larabars gave me something to do besides pin on my timing chip and annoy Sarah with irrelevant predictions of how the day would go.
Eventually, we heard something that might have been the national anthem – it’s hard to tell from almost a mile away from the start – and possibly a cannon. The line finally moved, and it was time to walk to the docks and get this thing done.
Swim: 1:08:45 (6th 30-34 Women)
Since we were next to each other in line, Sarah and I wound up jumping off two different docks at almost the same time. As you can see, Sarah went about it the normal way – stop, breathe, think about how you are about to start an IRONMAN, and get ready for a long swim.
I, on the other hand, was on the back dock, yelling “GERONIMO!!!!!!!!” and excitedly jumping in to start on the best leg of the day.
Once I gleefully bombed into the water, I quickly encountered all those people at the beginning of the line who were super-anxious about making the cutoff times. Turns out that most of them are not very fast swimmers, and I spent a lot of time and energy going around, over, and under a few hundred people (not exaggerating). I momentarily questioned my decision to not line up early to avoid this, but remembered how nice it was to be in bed until the nice, reasonable hour of 4 am.
I also wasted a little time meandering around the course. Because of where we were in the line, I couldn’t get a good view of the full course, as there was an island blocking it.
Though my final time was 1:08, still within my goal range of :59-1:10, I was a little unhappy to have been so far from an hour. After the race, though, I found out that only three amateur women broke an hour on the swim, and I wound up ranked 36th out of amateur women and even beat a professional on the swim. There seems to be some consensus that the turnaround buoy past the island was set up a little farther out than it normally is.
Isn’t it odd how people rarely think the swim course is short?
Regardless, the swim went about as well as it could given that I wasn’t very familiar with the course and that I had to swim past so many people. Compared to the rest of the field, my time was pretty good. And even with the momentary disappointment, I had to go get on my bike.
I’m not sure what people do in transition that takes over 10 minutes. Sure, it’s a long ride ahead and you want to make sure you have everything you need, but I had a volunteer who helped me by spraying on sunblock, stuffing my pockets with nutrition, and bagging up all my gear at the end of changing. This is the life, folks.
Bike: 7:03:33 (67th 30-34 Women)
Since the first 10 miles are dead flat, I knew I would be going at a relatively high speed, but when I saw myself pushing 20 mph while keeping my heart rate pretty low, I knew we had a tailwind. I prayed to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for a reversal of the wind direction before it was time to come back into town, because I knew that a headwind at the end of a 112 mile bike leg would not be fun. I was not sure if His Noodly Appendage would be able to do anything about the wind, but it was my only hope.
In the meantime, there was a crowded course to contend with. I diligently dropped out of USAT/WTC-defined draft zones, because, people, rules are rules, but I was regularly sitting just outside of the no-no zone. This means that I was still technically getting some draft advantage, even though I was riding legally, but there were just too many people to stay much more than 10 meters behind the athlete in front of me.
I would imagine that this is kind of how it feels to get married to your third cousin. Sure, it’s legal, but it just feels wrong and gross.
After the flat section, we got to start some climbing in miles 10-25. And I saw people hammering like crazy. Getting out of the saddle, grunting, going way, way above their lactate thresholds. And all I could think was – dude, we have to bike another 100 miles and then we have to run a marathon, that’s a really bad idea. Instead of getting caught up in the race up all of the climbs, I settled in and spun in an easy gear.
I was moving slowly enough that I had time and energy left to high five somebody dressed as Satan at the top of one of the hills.
See what you miss out on when you push too hard too early?
In this same section, I saw Sarah on one of the out and backs, and yelled hello. She didn’t hear me, but I was glad to see she was through the swim and on her bike without difficulty, and was only about 15 minutes behind me. Since she’s a faster cyclist than me, I figured she’d catch up to me at some point during the bike leg, and a quick chat with her would be a nice pick-me-up somewhere around miles 70-112.
My average speed was hanging out at around 16.5 mph as I made my way through the first loop, and everything felt just fine. A good deal of the course is deserted, which gave me brain space to focus on getting in my nutrition and hydration, and calculate how much more fluid I needed at each aid station as the temperatures climbed towards the 90s. Every time I grabbed a bottle from an aid station, that beautiful, cold water mixed with some concentrated perform that I had on my bike made everything right with the world again, at least until the next time I had to ride over an irritating expansion joint in the road.
Aside from the well-run and well-stocked aid stations with chipper volunteers, we got to pass through LaGrange a twice, and the loads of spectators bused in from Louisville cheered us on loudly. My parents caught me the second time around, but the first time around, they were evidently stuck on a shuttle bus with a driver going to wrong way up an interstate exit ramp.
This is real life. I couldn’t make that up, could I?
Still, even without them there the first time, the crowds of people were a nice boost.
But after that, it was back to the loop, including the nasty elevation gains and steep hills on Ballard School and L’Esprit. This section is lonely, and discouraging as it puts a nasty dent in your average speed. People have asked me how I got through some of the rougher and more solitary sections of the bike course without getting frustrated or breaking down in tears. The answer is simple:
Eventually, after finishing both loops in pretty good spirits thanks to an active imagination, it was time to head back to town. My legs were in decent shape, I was well-hydrated, I was well-fed, and I was ready to finish this thing up. Unfortunately, the Flying Spaghetti Monster had not, in fact, reversed the wind direction, and we got to bike into a strong headwind for the last 30 miles. This is just about as much fun as you think it is, which is to say, not at all.
Because biking into a headwind after being in the saddle for over 5 hours without unclipping once is not annoying enough, I had to make this even harder. Enter the collapsing left shoulder! I had a recurring impingement injury in my left shoulder for years, which generally has settled down now that my swim volume is (comparatively) low, but all the time in the aerobars over bumps in the road must have aggravated it. My arm kept rolling in, staying in the aerobars was painful, and did I mention the headwind? Thankfully, this was the net downhill portion of the course, and I didn’t lose that much speed even though I had to shift out of the aerobars and stand up out of the saddle a few times to relieve all the nasty pressure points.
With 15 miles to go, I knew that I would be close to the seven hour bike split goal, but decided that there was no need to throw away the race as a whole to meet an intermediate split goal. Instead, I stretched a bit and made sure I was really hydrated and had taken in all my nutrition and salt. The final miles ticked by, and I was so happy to see mile 108, because that was the point at which I figured I would just ride out almost all mechanical problems rather than bother to stop. Finally, after a couple more miles of bumpy roads irritating every bone in my body, it was time to get rid of this bike and finish it out.
My split was a whopping 3 minutes off my goal of 7 hours. That’s less than half a percent difference. So I’ll take that. In retrospect, I might have overcooked the bike a little bit, since my average heart rate was 145. It was difficult to manage it on a course with rolling hills, as it was never really very stable.
So perhaps slowing down a bit would have been beneficial, but perhaps not. It never FELT like that much effort, aside from the one steep climb on L’Esprit. This is a course where using power as a metric could have been helpful, since power feedback is instantaneous while heart rate feedback lags.
But hey. I was close to my time goal, I got in all my nutrition and hydration as planned, I didn’t have any mechanical problems, and I didn’t get any penalties. It’s a moderate success.
The happiest part of the day! I had finally gotten off my bike after 7 straight hours of not unclipping/dismounting ONCE. It was about 3:45, and I had over 8 hours to cover 26.2 miles on my own feet and still finish the day as an Ironman. No mechanical problems to worry about, AND I got to do it in clean shorts!
Run: 5:48:06 (89th 30-34 Women)
The run leg starts with an out-and-back over a bridge that is about a mile long. Now, “bridge” means a few things. First, no spectators. Second, no shade. The second point is particularly relevant because apparently, it was 94 F by the time I hit the run course, though I didn’t know that at the time. I could feel that it was hot, but thought it was near the predicted high of the day, which was 90 F. Nothing I couldn’t handle after a summer of training in DC, so I went ahead with my plan to run between the aid stations and walk about two minutes at each aid station.
At the turnaround at the end of the bridge, just over a mile into the race, I noticed that I had a debilitating, splitting headache. I decided that it would probably go away soon and should just keep going along, but started to wonder if I was dehydrated. Recalling the bike leg, I definitely wasn’t – I was processing fluids just fine, and had gotten in everything I’d planned. My best guess is that my trapezius was extra tight from holding my left shoulder together near the end of the bike leg, and I had a muscle tension headache. The pain only got worse during the second mile, and I finally gave into the desire to grab an Advil from the little vial I’d stashed in my handheld water bottle.
YES I KNOW THAT TAKING ADVIL DURING A RACE CAN BE BAD FOR YOUR KIDNEYS. I also know that I already have a bum kidney that was taken apart and put back together a few years ago. The headache was bad enough that I was willing to go to the hospital with kidney failure after the race if it meant I could get rid of the headache, and yes, I really did that cost-benefit analysis before I downed the Advil.
Headache situation addressed, I plugged along, and was then SLAMMED with dizziness. About-to-pass-out, experiencing-tunnel-vision, I-can’t-stay-upright dizziness.
So I walked. Not as part of the plan to walk the aid stations. And I knew that if I walked too much, I would be making it hard to meet my goal of hitting 5:30 on the run, or making my overall time goal of under 14 hours. But I also knew that if I passed out on the course, I’d get picked up in an ambulance and wouldn’t finish the race.
And here began my new motto: No matter how you do it, don’t stop moving forward. Ever.
After walking most of miles 3 and 4, I started jogging small bits, and finally went back to slowly running between the aid stations as the dizziness subsided. I’d spotted Sarah about 10 minutes behind me on the out-and-back on the bridge, and figured that with her stellar running speed and my excessive walking, she’d be blowing past me any minute. As I kept moving along, I wondered if she’d passed me and I hadn’t noticed. After all, I’d walked a lot, and I wasn’t running very fast at all when I was running. I started looking for her on the other side of the course, among those who were on their way back to town.
Then I started looking for the turnaround, and couldn’t believe how long it took to get to that glorious point – nevermind that we still had to run all the way back to town and THEN DO IT AGAIN. Just knowing that one chunk was done lifted my spirits quite a bit.
AND THEN I SAW SARAH!!! Probably about 10 minutes behind me, I yelled out her name and asked how she was doing. Answer: about as good as I was. Ohhhhhh bad day all around, folks, bad day.
The dizziness stayed away most of the way back to town, though the headache came back and I took another Advil to control it. We ran right past the finish line – I mean, really, half a block from the finish line even though we still had 12 miles to go – and I blew past special needs, saw my parents shortly after that and told them I’d be done soon -in just about two and a half hours.
It sounded like such a relief, such a short amount of time, but really, it’s ridiculous to say “just two and a half hours to go!” at any point in any race.
This is why sane people don’t do Ironmans.
I was optimistic about finishing up strong, since I’d been running a good bit more. And then the dizziness returned shortly before mile 15 – the exact point of the course where I had to start walking before.
Here we go again.
This time, though, I was committed to walking FAST anytime I was walking. Just slowing down enough to make sure I stayed upright. I latched onto a guy who was walking the whole thing about a 13:30-14:00/mile pace due to a hip injury that rendered him unable to run, and passed through the distance pretty quickly. Eventually, I added in more jogging, and was then met with yet another difficulty.
You see, earlier this summer, while I was in Las Vegas with the kids I coach, I woke up one night at 1 am with crushing chest pain. A deep breath was agonizing. I was pretty sure I was going to die, but I didn’t know what to do, because I hate hate hate hate hate hospitals and particularly had no interest in going to an ER in Las Vegas in the middle of the night. So I laid awake for a few hours, basically unable to move or breathe, and decided that I was not going to die and was probably just experiencing intercostal muscle pain. It went away, but I had periodic heart palpitations and chest pain returning during my sleep throughout July and August.
Now I know you are thinking “what kind of moron doesn’t go and get that checked out by a DOCTOR?” And the answer is: a person who knows that most doctors will have a knee-jerk response to forbid any further exercise without offering any real solution. None of this ever bothered me during exercise, so clearly, sleep is most dangerous and should be avoided.
Well, that changed on race day. At mile 16, I tried to run a bit and my chest tightened up like crazy. Return to walking, breathe slowly, calm it down, try to run again, fail, repeat. It dissipated for a while, but I was scared to go back to running when finally, somebody called out my name.
Mile 18 of the run, and she’s finally here. We ran/walked together until a little after mile 20, chatting about how HOT it was, who else we’d seen on the course, and whether or not we could still make 14 hours (ha). After a couple of miles, my chest tightened up again and I told her to go ahead.
The final 5.5 miles included some long stretches of walking, but the chest pain finally went away for good. The sun had set, and during this section, we were basically power walking through run-down neighborhoods of Louisville in the dark. This is definitely not what people think of when they sign up for an Ironman, but it was our reality. There was nothing to do but embrace it, joke about it with fellow athletes, and keep moving forward one step at a time, whether I was running or walking.
Eventually, downtown was visible, and my watch showed 14 hours exactly. I wasn’t going to make my run time goal, or anything close to it, but I wasn’t going to be far off my A goal for the race overall. The goal that I’d said would be an incredible day of racing in perfect conditions. And running a marathon when it’s 94 F? Not perfect conditions. This was pretty neat. I picked myself up to a slow jog for the end, and ran past the finish line.
Total time: 14:12:45 (65th 30-34 Women)
You know how everybody looks forward to hearing the announcer say your name and tell you that you are an Ironman?
I have no recollection of this happening. I went and rewatched the finish line video, and they definitely called me out and said the big I-bomb, but I don’t remember it. The finish was pretty standard – my catcher told me that I was in pretty good shape, I got my medal and t-shirt, and wandered out to meet my parents.
My mom kindly untied my shoes for me and put my flip flops on me, at which point I discovered that I had a gigantic blister on my right foot. Score.
So I finished. That was the big goal of the day. I was only off my A-goal by 12 minutes, which isn’t that much in a 14 hour race, and the heat probably accounted for the extra time I spent on the marathon. I crushed my B-goal of 15 hours, and out of 125 women in my age group started the race, and I finished 65th. We apparently all battled tough conditions, according to an in-depth analysis of the race results. With all that information sitting in front of me a few days later, it sounds like things went pretty well.
Let’s go with that, OK?
And to wrap up this long, meandering tale, I’ll answer the question that everybody seems to ask of first-time Ironman finishers.