Sunday, January 19, 2014

IMAZ Part 5: The Run

                                               IMAZ: THE RUN

In case you missed Parts One, Two or Three or the Ironman Arizona Race Recap:

Click HERE for Part One: The Road to Temp
Click HERE for Part Two: Countdown to Race Day
Click HERE for Part Three: The Swim (and Race Morning)
Click HERE for Part Four: The Bike 

The fact that I’d had a good ride—a PR for the distance—buoyed my spirits going into the run.

Bike-to-Run Bags
As I made my way through the transition area and changing tent, I was once again completely impressed and grateful for the quality and efficiency of the volunteer staff.

Before entering the changing tent, I dropped my Bike-to-Run bag and helmet on the ground and dashed into a port-o-pot. When I emerged from the pot, my bag and helmet were gone! A volunteer standing near the changing tent waved and yelled, “I have your things. Come on!”

Port-o-Pots near changing tents
I followed the volunteer—who was running!—into the tent and, I’m serious, she had my socks and cycling shoes off my feet and my visor on my head before my butt even hit the chair, and I was off and running. Unfortunately, if there were volunteers outside the tent doling out sunscreen (as I later heard there were), I missed them and had to improvise later.

Trying to Beat the Heat on first loop of Run Course

So with the desert sun high in the sky and air temperature hitting its peak, I settled into an average pace of approximately 11:40/mile for the first 11 miles, including 1-2 minutes of walking every mile. Far from blazing, I know, but in my defense: I’d already been racing for more than 7 hours and had covered more than 114 miles, with 26.2 miles still to go on a knee that had been troubling me during the bike; AND on legs that hadn't run more than a few minutes at a time in the six weeks leading up to the race due to a hip injury. So, slow and steady was my plan. The day really doesn't start to feel long until you start to run.

Must keep electrolytes in balance!

My second order of business was to keep up with my nutrition needs. Electrolytes, electrolytes, is all I kept thinking after an electrolyte imbalance in Cozumel sent me to the medics for an IV when, 2-hours post-race, I still couldn't keep anything down. And I didn't even see it coming—I felt fantastic up until the moment I crossed that finish line! 

                                                       IM Cozumel: No clue my electrolytes were out of whack!

Totally loopy post-IV at Cozumel
In Cozumel, though I’d packed a fuel belt with 32 oz of Infinit, I decided—with aid stations at every mile—to leave it behind. Probably a mistake. In Arizona I took a 16 oz bottle of Infinit with me as I exited T2 and sipped on it for the first several miles. With the need for sodium in mind, I tried to eat pretzels but quickly learned that pretzels, cookies and Bonk Breakers were nearly impossible to swallow. So, in addition to Infinit, bananas, grapes, water and Ironman Perform (sports drink) were the most palatable for me. The ice sponges were pretty awesome, too!

Suncreen and electrolytes--must haves in the Ironman desert! 
Forty-five minutes into the run, with the sun beating down on me, I started to feel myself burning. The bottom edge of my sports bra was also chafing my ribs. So, as I approached the aid station near the 4-mile mark, I called out for sunscreen and Vaseline—which had been available at every aid station in Cozumel—and was surprised to find none.

Spectators line both sides of the run course
Here’s another cool thing about Ironman: The spectators. These poor souls hang around outside from sun up to sundown, for the sole purpose of encouraging, supporting and cheering on our sorry butts! Ironman spectators should really get a finisher’s medal of their own! So, as I left the 4-mile aid station empty handed, a spectator who’d heard my request pulled me into her tent and supplied me with both items. (In hindsight--I hope that was legal!?!?) Ironman spectators totally rock!!

All was going reasonably well those first 11 miles and then, at the half-way point, the discomfort in my left knee—which began at the 6-mile mark—intensified, slowing my average pace to between 13:14 – 15:35 for the last half of the run. I hit my low point, rock bottom, at mile 17 which is when my right knee joined the party, sinking my pace to 15:35—my worst of the whole run—for that mile.

Which is the exact moment when I crossed paths with another awesome person—a fellow athlete who saw me hobbling along and offered to share his Bengay—which he said he swears by for IT Band pain. Can’t hurt, right? So in that literally and figuratively dark hour, I stopped to spread the analgesic cream on my knees, while Bengay guy and I watched, with mild surprise and detached curiosity, as a female triathlete squatted down right there in the middle of the run course and peed on the walkway. I am not kidding—and she couldn’t have been more than half a mile in either direction from the closest port-o-pot. In the dark hours of a 140.6, we are all brothers and sisters on the battlefield, fighting our demons and struggling to survive.

Magical Chicken Broth

It is also around this time that I started to feel the dreaded bonk coming on. My energy level was running now and I felt nauseous. I’d heard many stories about the magic of chicken broth and so, as a vegetarian, I hate to admit that the nasty, gamey-smelling broth is the very thing that turned it all around for me. No kidding. A few sips of the stuff and I was golden. Kind of like when you’re a kid and you’re sick and your mom gives you chicken soup to help you feel better. 

The first time I tried it I made the mistake of catching a whiff of the stuff, and the smell was utterly repulsive—I thought I was going to hurl. But I chugged it down and, almost instantly, felt better. So whenever I started to feel bad on the course, I had a little chicken broth—being careful to hold my breath while drinking it—and chased it down with a little cola. Voila! Magic! And, as the evening wore on, I switched from fruit to chips, cola, Bonk Breakers and cookies to sustain me.

During the first loop of the run I saw signs that read, “Don’t slow down—there are zombies chasing you.” I didn't really get it at the time. The “A-ha!” moment came during the 2nd loop when, after more than 12 hours on the course, I hit a turnaround point and ran past the runners behind me—many of whom were limping, staggering, groaning, grimacing, and more or less dragging themselves along the course. Zombies were indeed chasing me.

Zombies are chasing you on the run course
Thanks to my failing knees, I was forced to walk the last 10 miles of the course, adding short bursts of running whenever I could on the flattest stretches of road. The walking meant that my goal of going sub-13 hours had slipped from my grasp so, by mile 17, I was clinging to my second goal of setting a 140.6 PR by beating my Cozumel time of 13:26:14. 

Ironman Cozumel Finish Line
This is the moment I was beyond glad I’d chosen to wear my GPS watch. I checked it constantly, pushing myself further than I should have, beyond what my knees were capable of, to BEAT THAT TIME. I was singularly focused. With 3 miles to go, every second counted. It hurt to run, but I ran anyway, sometimes until tears came to my eyes or could hear myself saying “Ow, ow, ow!” as I pushed on, racing the clock. 

Each aid station on the course had a different theme, which was entertaining and served as a distraction from the pain and general unpleasantness of running. The ones I remember most were the Pirates, Superheroes, 911, 70s, 80s, Dance Party, Disco and Christmas.

Pirate Aid Station
The Christmas aid station, at mile 25, was the last aid station on the course. From this aid station I could hear the crowd but I couldn’t see them, or the finish line, though I knew it was close. The last mile of the course was actually pitch black and completely deserted until there was less than 2/10 of a mile to go. 

Finish line in sight--finally!
I wanted more than anything to run—RUN—across the finish line, not limp or walk or drag myself across it, so I walked the last mile. I walked until I rounded a corner and finally saw the big blue finish line, shimmering like a mirage beyond a finish chute lined on both sides by bleachers filled with raucous spectators blowing horns, ringing bells, waving flags, cheering, shouting and clapping.

The finish chute!
When this sight for sore eyes (and sore knees and sore legs and sore feet) came into view, I ran. During the pre-race meeting, athletes were advised not to sprint to the finish. We were advised to take our time, take it all in, absorb the energy of the crowd, revel in the accomplishment, savor the moment, and hear Mike Reilly announce “You Are An IRONMAN!”

Beating my Cozumel time with less than a minute to spare!
I, however, was doing none of those things. With the clock ticking away, and my goal of beating my Cozumel time drawing dangerously close, I ran.
With Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” blasting, I sprinted through the chute. I did hear Mike Reilly shout those magical words but, best of all, was seeing the clock. I finished my second Ironman in 13:25:38. And it was the most awesome feeling in the world! 



Time: 5:43:58   Average Pace: 13:07/mile
Best Pace: 10:53/mile at 1.9 miles
Worst Pace: 15:35/mile at 16.9 miles
63rd/142 Division (Top 44%)
342/747 All women (46%)

1588/2704 Overall (58%)

Monday, January 6, 2014

IMAZ Part 4: The Bike

In case you missed Parts One, Two or Three or the Ironman Arizona Race Recap:

Click HERE for Part One: The Road to Temp
Click HERE for Part Two: Countdown to Race Day
Click HERE for Part Three: The Swim (and Race Morning)

When I first started the bike leg—out of Tempe Beach Park and through the urban areas of Tempe—my only thoughts were of how happy I was to be out of the frigid lake and how happy I was to have arm warmers. My teeth chattered for the first 15-20 minutes of the ride and the bite of LaraBar I’d taken as I exited transition sat like a wet lump in my mouth. I was unable to either chew or swallow it so I eventually spit it out. I focused on drinking Infinit instead as “calorie load, calorie load” was the next thought to enter my frozen brain once it began to thaw. (The bike leg is all about managing calorie intake to see you through not only the ride, but the long run ahead.)

Me in my arm warmers, heading out of town

Then, as we were finally hitting the outskirts of town, a horrible thing happened. A pack of us had just rounded a corner when some guy came flying up from behind and either lost control of his bike or clipped the tire of a rider in front of him. It was a devastating crash. The guy's water bottles were thrown to the left, the bike clattered to the ground, spun around or flipped a few times, and the cyclist was ejected to the right, bouncing cross the road like a stone skipped across the surface of the pond. He ended up just off the shoulder of the road, lying on his side, his arm—the one I could see in a brief backward glimpse--bloodied. I’m pretty sure that guy was done for the day, and I’d be surprised if he walked away without a broken bone or two.

Random bike crash pic
Unless you are actually involved in the crash, it is hard to stop and lend assistance as stopping or pulling across several lanes of cyclists, all going 20+ mph, can easily lead to a secondary crash. As it was, every triathlete in the vicinity was swerving to avoid running over the cyclist, his bike or the ejected water bottles rolling across the road. 

This all happened right in front of me--I believe my heart actually stopped for a beat, started only again by the surge of adrenaline and fear pumping through my body. I, too, swerved mightily to avoid being swept up in the wreckage. And once the pack of us moved on from the near miss and was able to breathe again, a guy in front of me but behind the cyclist that went down (perhaps even the guy who’s back tire had been clipped?), turned and said. “What the hell just happened?”

It was very scary. And it happens so fast—in the blink of an eye. I saw roaming medics headed toward the scene so I knew my fellow triathlete was being quickly tended to, but I thought of him often throughout the day. Sometimes it just doesn't pay to be so aggressive. Early on in the ride, when the bikes are thick and cyclists are shaking off the swim and tending to nutritional needs, patience is the name of the game.

The IMAZ bike course was not nearly as scenic as I’d expected—or as the pictures of the race lead you to believe. The three loop course is 2/3 urban and 1/3 red rocks and cacti. So for each loop of approximately 37 miles, only 12 miles offered much to look at.

Arizona bike course as advertised: 

All red rock and cacti

Arizona bike course in reality: 

Cars. Lots of cars.

As advertised, the course was pretty flat, with a gradual uphill heading out of town and a gradual descent heading back. Of course, as luck would have it, winds were a bit higher than hoped for—creeping into the low teens—and were mostly in my face or off my left shoulder on the downhill. But the temperature was great: sunny, mid-70s, with low (but higher than average for Arizona) humidity. 

Cyclist heading into the uphill and downhill segments of the ride

I flew through the first loop, my pace ranging from a low of 17.1 on the outbound and a high of 23.6 (my highest of the entire ride at the 27.8 mile mark) on the return, for an average of 19.8 mph. The down side to this was the fact that my left IT Band began to give me trouble as early as the 20-mile mark and was stiff and painful off & on throughout the rest of the ride. When it initially flared, with still more than 90 miles to go, I fretted over whether I’d even be able to finish the ride. I did, but I knew this would mean bad things to come in the run.

Heading back into town, the crowds, music and announcers provided a welcome boost to lift the spirits and, knowing what was to expect of the course for the remainder of the ride, I began to settle in to an average pace of 18.24. I wasn't able to take advantage of the downhill segment on the 2nd & 3rd loops as well as I could on the first because I had to use the momentum to be able to “let if fly on the fly,” if you know what I mean. No way I was losing time waiting in line for the port-o-pot! I know this may gross some people out, but it truly is the nature of the beast in long-distance triathlon racing, especially if you are aiming to be competitive, set a PR, or meet a certain time goal.

The other thing, lack of scenery aside, that I did not care for on the IMAZ bike course was that it always felt crowded. At IM Cozumel—in addition to the gorgeous ocean views and phenomenal crowd support—the course was a loop instead of an out-and-back, so everyone was riding in the same direction at all times and there was always plenty of wide-open spaces.

Ironman Cozumel bike course
At IMAZ, we had one whole side of the divided highway to ourselves (cars traveled on the other side, for the most part), but there were bikes headed in two directions on the same stretch of pavement. So while you were always traveling with a pack going the same way, there was also always another pack of riders coming at you. It made passing more difficult and a little too close for comfort in some cases. I saw, more than once, some of the more aggressive riders nearly collide head on as both were attempting to pass to the left of slower riders on their sides of the road.

Crowded IMAZ bike course
I want to pause here to give a shout out to the volunteers at the Bike Special Needs stop. This is the point about half way through the ride when you ditch any used/unused or unwanted items on your bike and exchange them for all new items, such as full bottles of Infinit and a new stash of gels, power bars, dried fruit or whatever else you’re eating. Extra body lube & sunscreen can be obtained and extra layers, such as arm warmers, can be discarded. The two women who helped me were fab-u-lous—the kinds of volunteers who anticipate your needs before you even give voice to them. They had me out of there—restocked and ready to go—in record time. Bike Special Needs volunteers—You Rocked!!

My third loop, at an average pace of 18.0, was my slowest of all, but not by much. The worst of it was seeing two more cyclists go down, though in a much less spectacular fashion. From what I could tell, people were getting tired. It was the section with the greatest incline. A woman began to slow her pace or maybe weaved a little, and the older man behind her who wasn’t looking—he had his head down and also appeared to be struggling—ran into her back tire. He cursed and they both went down, (seemingly in slow motion--especially as compared to the other guy!), but still hard enough to leave them both bloodied and sporting a little road rash. Fortunately, unlike the first guy, they were both probably in good enough shape to carry on. 

I love my bike, but usually after 100+ miles, I’m more than ready to be finished. In Cozumel, I was actually looking forward to the marathon—I was happy to do anything as long as it meant getting off the bike!

Conversely, at IMAZ, I felt like a million bucks as I finished the ride—relieved as always that I’d made it through without mishap; no collisions, no flat tires—and happy to report that nothing hurt. Not my neck, shoulders, butt, legs or anything that is usually in agony by then. It's that moment when you feel certain that all the training, all the time in the saddle, paid off! I finished the ride in 6:02:37—a bike PR for me—with an average pace of 18.53 and in the top 31% of all women. 

Back at Tempe Beach Park, I handed off my bike to a waiting volunteer and made a dash for the changing tent, grabbing my Bike-to-Run bag along the way. Oh, and there was no line at the pots near the changing tents, so I was finally able to get some sweet relief while not on the fly!

Bike Stats:
Time: 6:02:37   Pace: 18.53
52nd/142 Division (Top 36%)
232/747 All women (Top 31%)
1331/2704 Overall (Top 49%)

PS--Here's two great pics of Tri Dad rockin' the bike ride

Tri Dad on the bike

Tri Dad on a scenic part of the ride

Up Next: IMAZ Part Five: The Run