Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Boise 70.3 Race Report

I am 70% confident that I am the short gal on the right (next to blue goggle lady) in the orange cap, pink goggles. Photo credit: Ironman Website

Please, God.  Just get me through this swim.  Keep me safe.  I am a mom.  My family needs me.  Please don't let me die, have a panic attack or be pulled out of the water by one of the swim monitors.  I will be a better person.  I won't complain so much.  I'll watch my language.

Even with all my training, including open water swimming in lakes of varying degrees in temperature, I was petrified.  This was my first open water swim competition.  I knew I could do the distance.  I had several times before in training.  I had timed myself at 32 and 40 minutes.  I didn't care to be in the cold lake any longer than humanly possible.  Competitors are seeded by age group rather than swim times.  I would start with the 40 to 44 year-old women.  We were called to line up at the boat launch.  We stood there a good ten to fifteen minutes shivering in the cold.  Neither the rain, nor the wind had let up.  Queen's "We will rock you" was blaring over the PA.  My age group gals were awesome!  We bobbed up and down to the beat of the music, nervously chattered and snuggled together like sardines to keep warm while the Pros and previous waves began.  The energy was palatable.  Several women were clever enough to coordinate their manicures and pedicures with our orange swim caps.  Why hadn't I thought of that?!

Our wave was finally permitted to enter in the water.  The water actually felt warm when we first got in.  We walked in and tread water for a few minutes.  I burped my wetsuit and realized that the water was indeed colder than anything I had been in before.  I splashed water on my face to help my system adjust to the temperature.  There were two minutes delays between the waves.  My heart was racing watching the wave in front of me.  Ready or not, here I go!  Off went the bull horn.

Damn! This water is cold!  Long, languid strokes.  Keep calm.  You're fine.  Stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, sight, stroke, breathe.  All is well.  You got this!  I was falling into my rhythm.  It felt awesome that the race had finally commenced!  Then next thing I know, I got clobbered in the back.  What?!  I came up gasping and looking around.  A fellow swimmer had run right into me.  You're okay.  Keep at it.  My rhythm and breathing was thrown.  My nerves were rattled.  I still hadn't made it to the first turn.  I wasn't even a third of the way through and I was being overtaken by the 40 to 44 year old men.  They weren't quite as accommodating as those in my and the previous waves.  I was in their way.  I was kicked, hit and otherwise rammed into many more times.  One blow knocked the wind out of me.  If I wanted to survive this swim, I was going to have to learn to be a more aggressive swimmer.  I decided that I needed to be more territorial about my space.  My strokes became more forceful, my legs kicked harder and I increased the times I peeked out of the water to sight.  This was exhausting!  I kept having to mentally talk myself out of panicking.  With all the action in the lake, I accidentally swallowed several mouthfuls of water.  Who knew I would hydrate in the lake?  Don't open your mouth so damn wide when you breathe!  Tilt your head up higher!  Suck down a quick breath and get that face back down in the water.  I finally made it to my first turn.  Praise the Lord!  Keep it up.  You're a third of the way there!

I spotted a trail of bubbles in front of me.  They came from a swimmer who was going the same pace as me.  I decided to draft her/him for as long as possible.  I was still being decked here and there.  The wakes caused by the wind, grew bigger.  It made sighting and breathing trickier.  Swimmers were starting to get tired.  I saw a man who was no longer making forward progress.  He had a look on his face that I'll never forget.  It was one of absolute terror.  I wanted to cheer him on.  To let him know that he could do this.  I could have easily have been him.  I wanted to support him but barely had enough in my reserves myself.  Guiltily, I swam on.  The swim monitors were watching carefully.  I had seen them pull a swimmer who had raised his hand up on a jet ski and speed away.  I have read reports of swimmers drowning in triathlon.  Four died in one race alone.  This was serious business.  I felt so vulnerable out there.  I no longer cared about my time, form or what happened once I reached the shore.  I just wanted to get the hell out of this frigid mosh pit.  This was taking forever!

When I reached my last turn buoy, I felt relief and defeat.  I still had a long ways to go and I was beat.  I still had a bike ride and half marathon to run!  Maybe it was a blessing that I had only 15 miles rather than 56 to ride.  Hang tough, Leah.  You can do this.  You've done this several times before.  The wakes were the biggest on the way back to the shore.  My form was sloppy as hell.  I getting there, but it wasn't pretty.  Before I knew it, I was there at the shore!  I had made it!  A concerned volunteer saw me wobbling about with a dazed expression.  He asked me three times if I was okay.  Did I look that bad?  Yeah, I was okay!  Fuckin'-A, I was alive!  That was INTENSE!  One of the top three scariest things I've ever done in my life!  I had no broken nose, fingers or toes!  The bike ride and run would be a piece of cake!  I ran out of the water, up the boat ramp peeling my wetsuit down to my waist.  I was greeted by a pair of wet suit peelers. I laid down on the exit rug, lifted up my legs and they proceeded to yank my wetsuit off in one fell swoop!  It came off like a slingshot and was returned to my arms.

I was so delighted to be out of the water that I missed my window of opportunity to enter the warming tent.  I considered turning around, going down the hill to warm up and drink some hot broth but decided against it.  Darn!  I ran to my bike, put down my wetsuit, cap and goggles and proceeded to dump out the contents of my T1 bag.  I was shivering violently.  My fingers and toes were frozen and here I was in the elements in my skimpy, wet tri kit!  I toweled off and looked around to see if folks were going to ride into town in.  There was quite the variety.  I was SO cold.  I pulled on a couple biking jerseys, a windbreaker, socks, cycling shoes, a beanie, my helmet, race bib and gloves.  It must have looked comical to see me attempt to navigate my jacket zipper.  It took me several tries and nearly falling over to get my frozen feet into my socks and shoes.  I finally sat down and got those darn things on. Thank goodness I did because while down there, I spotted my Garmin  which I had forgotten to strap onto my bike.  I wouldn't be needing sunscreen today!  I noshed on a couple Shot Blocs and drank some water.  I couldn't wait to get my body moving again and hoped that I would warm up a little while riding.

I ran out the transition area, mounted my bike and rode away from Lucky Peak Reservoir.  The roads were wet.  Cyclists rode on the wrong side of the road.  To my left, was the cycling passing lane.  Cyclists were FLYING by me!  I kept as far right as I could.  To my right were orange pylons.  Just to the right of them was vehicular traffic coming at me head on.  We were riding downhill which I thought would be fun.  It was anything, but fun!  At high speed, with bikes flying down me one side and head-on cars the other side, the wet slippery roads and wind, not being able to feel my frozen hands or feet, I just wanted to stay upright on my bike and arrive safely to T2.  Please, God!  I haven't prayed this much in a LONG time.  For much of the ride, I was too nervous to take my hands off the handle bars to hydrate or fuel.  It was only fifteen miles, right?  Spectators and cowbell were welcome sights.  They were telling us that we were amazing.  It was just the boost that I needed to bring me back down to earth.  I was doing this!  After all that training, planning and envisioning, this was my race day.  It was time to start enjoying it!  Blue sky and sunshine peeked out from behind the clouds as we entered downtown Boise.  I was so grateful that I wouldn't have to fight headwinds and endure rain the entire half marathon.

My T2 area was in a great spot right closest to the bike dismount line.  I ran my bike in, hung it on the rack, pulled off my gear bag, yanked off my cycling clothes, pulled on my running hat and shoes and strapped on my Garmin.  I was off!  Yay! It was time to run!  No fear here.  I was safe, on my own two feet and most importantly, out of the frigid water and flow of traffic.  In roughly two hours, I would be greeted by the finish line!  Thunk, thunk, thunk.  Huh?  Those are my feet?  I couldn't feel them but they were there.  They were still numb from the swim.  Over the next four miles, they went from frozen to tingly to finally feeling normal.  The run course was beautiful.  It reminded me of running in my hometown, Eugene along the bike paths by the river.  I wasn't sure of my pace.  My Garmin had blipped out into a funky screen.  Rather than messing with it so I could monitor my pace, I decided to go by perceived exertion and my mile splits.  My goal was run between nine and ten minute pace, remember to hydrate and fuel and not take walking breaks. 

The weather was quite nice during the run.  Thank you for replacing the wind, cold and rain with spring-like conditions Mother Nature!  I had finally warmed up!  YAY!  It was fun running with and interacting with my fellow competitors.  They were a friendly group.  I found a couple gals that were members of a tri club in Spokane who were running my pace and hung with them for most of the race.  I wasn't running as quickly as I had hoped but I was pushing myself as much as I could.  Standing out in the cold all that time and the previous swim and bike had taken a lot out of me.  The question was would I see my family on the course?  Had my husband learned that the bike portion of the race had been greatly reduced?  Would I have someone there at the finish?  I kept running.  I was nearly half way done with the run and was feeling great!  I munched on oranges, tried to choke down a few pretzels for salt, sucked down as many packets Gu as I could tolerate and drank at nearly every water station.

My plan was to think of the half marathon as four 5Ks.  The first was my warm up.  Then the last three would be run as a progression run.  I would start and maintain a decent pace for three miles then crank it up a few notches the next 5K.  The last 5K, I would put the pedal to the metal and lay it all on the line.  I would not finish this race with any extra gas in my tank.  What I didn't plan was having to take a bathroom break in the middle of the race!  Oh well.  Running with a full bladder is so dang uncomfortable and there was no way I was going to try letting go and peeing while running.  I might need to include that in my next training cycle.  Around mile 5, I spotted the most welcome sight ever, my family.  I had to choke back tears.  I wanted to tell them about all my day's adventures and thank them for being there with me.  I gave them the "I love you" sign, blew kisses and ran on.  Their presence lifted my spirits and re-energized me.  My legs felt lighter and my breathing came easier.

For the first portion of the run, I was being passed left and right by other runners.  It seemed like I passed very few folks that first half.  It was a little disheartening but I was enjoying the warmth and scenery too much to let it get me down.  The second half of my run was another story.  Whew!  All my distance running, progressions runs and training had come in handy!  I focused on the task at hand and kept moving.  It was fun people watching and listening to conversational tidbits.  One of my favorites was a man who stopped, dug in a pocket and pulled out a plastic baggie.  He hollered to his buddy who was a several feet in front of him. "Hey bro, I'm still here.  I just need to grab some... some... some [he trailed before retorting] crack cocaine or something."  Got a good laugh over than one.

MP3 players were forbidden for the entire race.  I tend to use them for longer distance road races.  It would have come in handy today but at the same time, it was awesome being so tuned in with the other runners.  The spectators and volunteers made my day.  Lots of kids had been recruited.  They took up long lines along the path offering all sorts of fuel.  One especially cute girl didn't have any takers for Gu for a long stretch.  She said "Gu?  They're really good!"  Even if it was my least favorite flavor strawberry/banana, how could I resist!  I took it and stuffed it in my back pocket to save for later.  My girls have been begging to sample Gu.  This one was all theirs.  Perhaps we'd put it over top their ice cream.

I see my family for the first time!
The last 800 or so meters of the race took us off the bike path and onto a road in the middle of downtown Boise lined with spectators.  I cranked it up to my final gear, spotted my family cheering and opened up my arms like an airplane and sailed through the amazing blue Ironman inflatable arch.  I heard the announcer say "That's Leah Willow, teacher from Oregon finishing.  Those teachers sure know how to have fun!"  Chills!  My Boise 70.3 adventure had ended.  I finished.  My husband and kids found me through the crowd. It turned out that the woman who I borrowed the phone from at Lucky Peak had called and informed him of the change.  I was delighted that he was there to see me cross the finish line strong. 

This isn't quite how I had planned the day but I'm HAPPY and more importantly DONE!
I wanted nothing more than to take a long hot shower, eat a good meal and lay on a soft warm bed all bundled up.  I didn't linger for the complimentary post-race meal nor did I attend the Ironman 70.3 World Championship lottery.  I just didn't think I had a chance to be offered one of ten slots they were offering for each age group.  After this race and all the training and expenses related to it, I wasn't in a hurry to write another $350 check to Ironman for a September  event in Vegas.  To add insult to injury, I discovered that I would have been offered a slot at the event!  CRAP!  I will never miss another award ceremony for as long as I live.

Emotions ran high from the time that I crossed that finish line.  I am still struggling with them today, two weeks after the race.  I was terribly disappointed that I didn't have the opportunity to bike the full half-Ironman course.  I was pissed as hell that I had invested so much of myself and my family's limited financial resources to an event that didn't take place in it's entirety.  I would not be able to check a 70.3 off my bucket list.  My culminating event didn't happen.  I would have to find another race to do.  The sooner the better while my conditioning was still fresh and I had the summer off work.   Yet, I wanted to be done with the whole thing.  Could I possibly wear my 70.3 finisher's t-shirt and cap if I had only swam, biked and run 26.3 miles of it?  I would feel like a fraud.  Every time I looked at my finisher's medal, it would be with regret.  The event that was promised, that was so carefully trained for and planned, never took place.  How would I respond when folks at home asked me how the race went?

On the other hand, I was damn proud of my training.  In the right conditions, I could have done it!  I know I could have.   Did I really need the full meal deal?  Couldn't I just accept the fact that shit that's out of everyone's control happens?  Couldn't I just let it go and try again next year?

Monday, June 18, 2012

T-Minus Two Hours to Boise 70.3

Trying to act brave
I stood in the wind and rain, soaked to the bone.  This was not how I had envisioned my first 70.3.  Temperatures in Boise were record low.  There were reports of temps ranging from thirty to forty degrees depending on the wind chill factor.  All around me were shivering athletes, some with blue lips, crouched behind dumpsters, tucked under trees or huddled together trying to stay warm.  Most of us put on our wetsuits early in attempt to stay more dry and warm.  This wasn't the typical jovial pre-race scene.  It felt more like a funeral march.  We were all in for a day much tougher and longer than we had anticipated.

Lucky Peak the day before
T2 Race Day

Heading out to Lucky Peak on race day
My husband and I had used up our precious personal days from work to attend this event.  We spent nine hours driving ourselves and our two kiddos 850 miles to Boise where we would stay in a hotel for three nights.  This was my A-Race of the year.  I had thought, trained, talked and planned for this event nonstop.  It was finally here and frankly, I didn't want to do it in these shitty conditions.  It was cold, wet, windy and miserable out there.  WTF?  Did Mother Nature miss the memo that there was a race today?  Race directors had urged athletes to wear booties and neoprene caps on the swim for extra insulation.  I had neither.  They cautioned against disk bike wheels due to the high winds.  They created a warming tent for folks to drink warm broth and thaw out in after exiting the lake.  I was supposed to swim/bike/run 70.3 miles in this?  What the hell was I thinking? This is insane!

We parked here then walked almost a mile up the hill on to T1 and the start of the race.

I'm sorry but what am I doing here and why didn't I pack my and the kids' suitcases more carefully?

This is not a smile. I'm clenching my teeth to keep them from chattering.
It certainly wasn't a place for my seven year-old daughters and husband.  I urged them to leave me and seek warmth and shelter.  I would see them at T2 or on the bike or run course if the weather decided to calm down.  At the very least, I would see them at the finish line.  I knew that my husband was reluctant to leave me alone in these elements but with two little ones, he had no other choice.  He zipped up my wetsuit, snapped some final pictures and with the tightest hug ever, bid me farewell. 

My sweet girls when they were dry and warm and exciting about cheering their mom on.  One daughter requested that I come in at least second place. *snort!*

I had approximately an hour and half to kill before my wave started.  I had no shelter, raincoat,  umbrella or garbage bag to protect me from the elements.  Very few of my fellow competitors did.  I found what looked like a friendly group tucked between a pair of dumpsters and decided to hole up there, until the race.  I looked out into the rainy, fog-banked Lucky Peak Reservoir.  Big yellow and orange buoys marked what seemed like a ridiculously long swim course.  Jet skis zoomed about the lake in an onerous manner.  Kayakers and paddle boarders flocked the edges of the swim triangle that we would soon be making our way around.  Things were so urgent, gray, drizzly and surreal.  Was it really race day or was this a bizarre pre-race dream from which I would soon wake? 

The more I chatted with the fellow athletes, the more real it became.  We were all in this together.  We would face the same elements.  We were in for a heck of a day.  There were lots of first time triathletes.  Some hadn't even done sprint triathlons let alone half ironman distance ones.  Others had never swum in the open water.  One advantage I had was I trained like an obsessive compulsive beast for this thing.  I had a great group of folks to keep me honest about my workouts, accompany me while I swam, biked or ran and encourage me along the way.  I appreciate them SO much!

Jen helped me build my speed, endurance and sighting skills in the pool.  She gave me the fantastic advice to circle swim without breaks or touching the sides of the pool in my final stages of pool training.  The other Jen enthusiastically joined me and helped me out for my first open water swim and was there again when I plunged into colder lake waters and followed a long swim with a long run.  Kristi, my half iron friend and I swam together twice a week.  We compared notes and vented about how hard it was juggling full time jobs and motherhood with our multi-sport training schedules.  With so many hours in the saddle, I relied on my cycling group GEARS and cycling pals for motivation, safety and companionship.  Lastly, my half marathon training group and coach were key in my gains in speed this last year.  They, along with my various running buddies kept me running and excited about running.  I had blabbed to them, co-workers, family, friends and social networks about this race.  I had to do it.  I would give it my best shot.

1700 of us were voluntarily standing around in the cold, wet, wind waiting for the chance to swim 1.2 miles in 57 degree lake, ride up and down hills in the blustery wind for 56 miles and then run 13.1 miles to the finish line.  We actually PAID $300 to $350 to do this?  A trip to Vegas, would have cost less, been more relaxing and enjoyable.  What was I thinking?  I was scared.  Could I possibly pull this off?  My confidence was wavering.  My spirits were plummeting.  We waited for what seemed like forever.  A half-hour before the swim started, the race director came on over the loud speakers.  He announced that due to 45 mph wind, risk of hypothermia and overall safety of the athletes that the bike course route and distance would be reduced to 15 miles.  We would go from Lucky Peak directly down to downtown Boise.  Dumbfounded silence followed the announcement.  My half Ironman dreams were crushed.  I had trained so hard and long for this event.   Through no fault of my own and for reasons completely out of anyone's control, my opportunity had been snatched from me.

We had twenty minutes or so to get used to this new shortened bike plan.  Bike portion would be the same or shorter than sprint distance.  Some athletes were celebrating the fact that their day would end forty one miles and several hours sooner.  Considering how cold we had been for so long, perhaps this was a blessing in disguise.  Many, like me were mourning the loss of the true half Ironman distance and already trying to figure out how they could get a second try at the distance while they were still 70.3 conditioned.  Those with cycling strengths and fancy bikes, were bummed that they wouldn't have the opportunity to hammer out the miles and edge their way up in the pack.  Runners were thinking they had an advantage because they would have fresh legs to make those miles fly.  Once I wrapped my brain around this, I realized that my husband and kids weren't aware that this change had been made.  They wouldn't be expecting me three hours earlier.  I borrowed a cell phone and tried to call but was out of range.  My honey is a pretty smart, resourceful guy.  I assumed that he would check the Boise 70.3 webpage or follow me on the Ironman site.  I prayed that he and my daughters would at the very least be at the finish line for me.

The rain and the wind were relentless.  I couldn't wait to get my body moving and warm.  I wanted nothing more than to get out of these elements.  Let's get this race started already!

It's so wet.   I'm so wet.  Would anyone notice if I peed now just to keep myself warm?