Friday, November 25, 2011

Ironman Arizona 2011

It’s sometimes the toughest to create a race story around an event when your end result is in that ‘gray zone’… it wasn’t the stellar race you had envisioned, yet on the flip side nothing went catastrophically wrong and made it an all out failure. You’re left with a mixed bag of emotions, walking away taking a few positives and a few lessons learned. This is how my Ironman Arizona race panned out. That said, knowing that it came at the tail end of a rather long season, I am trying to really focus on the positives as I look forward to embracing my off-season.

I went into Ironman Arizona feeling great. I had taken solid recovery from Kona, put in a few quality weeks of training in Austin, and felt like my body has absorbed the fitness from October yet also gotten a small bump in fitness from one short final training cycle (notably cycling, as I focused on a number of outside rides in the 60-mile/3 hr range during this time frame). Just as with Kona, I can honestly say that approaching Arizona, everything felt good; there was nothing as I joke that I could have ‘used as my bad race excuse’ going into it. Most important was my mental state; I was genuinely excited to toe the line. This was probably the biggest surprise to me, as I often hit November and all I want to do is think about some downtime. I have to attribute this to likely having not had the race I had anticipated in Kona; I felt like I had ‘unfinished business’ and I was chomping at the bit to get to it.

The days leading up to the race were filled with the arrival of family (my parents, my husband Derick and a good friend from Austin who surprised me at dinner the night before the race!) along with a few race commitments. I did an autograph signing on Thursday and met numerous first time Ironman racers, which is always great to see; and crazy to remember that I was in their shoes just 18 months prior! I also enjoyed a Slowtwitch gathering put on by Tribe Multisport, an awesome tri shop in Scottsdale, and meet many of the local triathletes from the Tempe/Phoenix/Scottsdale area as well as meet numerous others racing on Sunday.

Sunday was the usual up bright and early for the 6:50AM start. It was a cool morning, but a short 5-minute warmup jog and I felt great, making the call to forego any clothing on the bike. I knew the sun would come out and figured that it would end up being an amazing weather day for a race (which it was). I worked my way into my Zoot Prophet full wetsuit (water was at about 61F) at about 6:20 and began to make my way towards the swim start. It was not my favorite kind of swim start, as they would send off the pro men and women together (I still don’t quite understand the rationale behind this, given that we are not competing against one another?) but I figured no sense in worrying about it. We hopped into Tempe Town Lake at about 6:40 and made our way towards the start line.

The gun sounded and we were off. Despite it still being quite dark, I was able to see the yellow buoys fairly well and I seemed to find a nice rhythm within about 15 minutes. The turn came quicker than I had expected, and a group of about 3 of us were swimming together. I knew Meredith Kessler was next to me and I was not sure who else was there, but we pushed on and I ended up leading the small but nicely arranged (read: no fighting) pack until the final red turn buoy to the finish. I’m not sure why, but it felt like forever coming back home! I noticed something for the first time in a race was that my hands feeling were swollen near the end of the swim. Again, I noticed it but as we closed in on the finish, I quickly forgot about it as we had a serious flight of stairs to climb upon exiting. I made it up and headed towards T1 with Meredith, patting her on the back, as she’d had a great swim and I am always happy to compete alongside Meredith; a true class-act professional.

Heading out on the bike, I realized that Meredith, myself and Leanda were just about 2-3 minutes behind stellar swimmer Amanda Stevens. Meredith pulled ahead out of T1 and I settled into my rhythm aboard my pink camo QR CD0.1. I had opted for my Reynolds RZR 92 wheels, which ended up being absolutely perfect for this course and its conditions. We had a 3-loop bike ahead and I was ready to tackle it with all I had. Since Kona, I had put in a fair number of strong longer (~3 hr) rides. I knew that I did not feel quite like myself in Kona on the bike, and I tried to address that in the short time I had between these two races. I knew that to be at the top of a quality field like this at the finish, I could not afford to ride too conservatively; in short, I was going to roll the dice on the bike; ride a bit more risky than I had in the past, take care of myself nutritionally, and hope that my run was there as it usually is. I figured that I didn’t have much to lose and I was hungry for a top finish here in Arizona. No risk, no reward, right?

This plan was working spectacularly through almost exactly 90 miles. A few things happened at this point. I was out of nutrition. How did that happen? I pride myself on nailing my nutrition (thanks to ~15 PowerBar gels and Perform drink) yet I had already blown through 2100 calories on the bike. I had taken 2000 in past races on the bike (and about 100 in transition from swim to bike) and it had worked fine. Suffice to say, it would appear that I am an eating machine when I race. When I found myself out of my 14 gels and 2 bottles of drink, I had no choice but to take a gel from an aid station. Options were chocolate or vanilla (which is precisely why I always stock my own, certain flavors work, others don’t). I had to take one and the one I grabbed was chocolate. I got about half of it down and kept moving along. Unfortunately the stomach went a bit south, but so did my power on the bike. I knew I had taken a ton of calories and I could feel some stomach distress, so I tried to carry on those final 15 or so miles on little calories to hopefully let the stomach calm down. This is when having a power meter is a very bad thing… the numbers were so discouraging! But telling…I knew I had cracked a bit and I was anxious to get off the bike.

Into T2, I tried to just focus on the task at hand… running… which I was excited to do. While I had been doing a good bit of cycling going into Arizona, my run legs had also been feeling pretty great and this was my favorite part of the race! I just knew it would be good (or so I thought). I was out of there in my Zoot Kapilani’s, visor, Oakley’s and my 2 gel flasks (8 gels total).

As with the bike, I attacked it. I left transition quickly but tried to settle into a rhythm within a mile or so. I was not checking my pace too much, as I just wanted to run by feel; focus on taking one mile at a time, and try to tick time off of those ahead. The first loop (8-9 miles) was fairly smooth, gels were going down, and I had finished 4 of them by mile 12. At this point, things started to get a bit foggy. I recall my stomach feeling full and I did something I’ve never done in a race and ducked into a bathroom. After a fairly unsuccessful trip, I exited and tried to keep on running. Every time I took a hit of my gel flask, my stomach turned sour again. What?! This doesn’t happen to me! (which goes to show, even if it hasn’t, it can…) Miles 13-18 were again very foggy. I walked briefly, visited the bathroom again (to little reprieve) and just kept moving forward. I ended up with another first, which was resorting to taking Coke. The thing about Coke is, while it may settle alright, the amount of calories from a sip out of a cup is not as much as I’d be getting from my gels. The body was just not cooperating. Herein came the mental battle.

I knew I had swum fast (51? 52?). I knew I had biked in or around the 5 hour mark, a huge success for me. I was on pace for an amazing race, a PR and the hopes of a race at or under the 9 hour mark. I knew this was possible; I knew I had the fitness for it. But there comes a point in a race when, if your body begins to shut down, you have a choice to make. You either pull the plug, or you gather every ounce you have and you push forward, knowing the result will not be what you wanted; knowing that despite giving it all you have, you’ll cross the line; it may not be a time or a result you were seeking, you had planned for and you KNOW you were ready for, but you’ll be damned if you quit. I, of course, chose the latter. I always have full confidence in my run, but today, it was not happening, no matter what I did or how badly I wanted it to.

I pushed on and miles 22-25 could not come soon enough. I had been moving between 6th and 7th, thanks to the bathroom stops. At mile 25, I decided I was not giving up 6th place and pushed with everything I had for the final mile. I didn’t look back, and I crossed in 9:12, overall 6th place, with a marathon of 3:11. Needless to say, I was pretty toasted by the time it was all said and done.

Upon a few days of reflection, I have come to the realization that I believe I ran with too much emotion and may have cost myself a solid run time and a few spots up the podium. My first 9 miles were run at an average of 6:34 pace (approximately, according to the Ironmanlive split). The first 2.2 miles were at 6:18 pace. That is simply too damn fast. In hindsight, I can acknowledge this… at the time, I had biked with a bit of extra aggressiveness, knowing I had little to lose; in short, I was willing to take a gamble on the bike. I am glad I did and it was a great ride for me. That said, it was not smart on my part to try to also take a gamble on the run and bomb out of the gate. Had I of run this as I did at Ironman Texas and said “It is 3 loops. Run controlled on the first one and build as you go,” the end result may have been different…I say MAY because I am not one to make excuses and place blame on anything. I can just look back and realize that I was not running smart in the start of the marathon, and I do not think I gave it the respect it deserved. Huge, huge lesson learned on my part. I am glad that after a few days of stepping back, I can see this perspective and learn from my mistake. In Kona, I nailed the swim and run but lacked the bike strength; in Arizona, I nailed the swim and bike and crumbled on the run. I guess you could say I am still figuring out this whole Ironman thing! (Thankfully this year, there was Ironman Texas...!)

And so ends the 2011 season. It obviously did not end on quite the high note I had hoped for, but I can also step back and realize that compared to one year ago right now, I am a far better athlete and I have learned so much in the past 12 months. I am thankful for the great races and moments and can appreciate the rough ones as they allow me to become a better athlete. Ironman Arizona was a great event, one that I may be back for in the future. It made it all the better to have so many good friends and family there to support. While I may feel a bit down about the end result, I can hold my head high knowing that I finished on a day when things were not going according to plan; and I knew the result I was capable of was slipping through my fingers. I have said it before and I’ll continue to say it, the days like this when challenges crop up (especially in an Ironman) are the days that we grow ten-fold as an athlete and likewise as a person. A huge thank you to my sponsors for their support all season long: Zoot, Quintana Roo, PowerBar, Reynolds, Recovery Pump, ISM, Road ID, Oakley, Durata Training, Katalyst Multisport, Jack & Adams, Xcis, Hill Country Running, Go with the Flo, and Advanced Rehabilitation. It’s been a good 2011 – Cheers to some R&R and coming back even stronger in 2012. Thanks for reading, and see you next year!