Closing the Chapter, But Not the Book

It’s dark. It is so dark on the Queen K that I am worried about running into people head on as they run towards me, but there aren’t many of them out there now. There is no moon and I am not yet to the hill with the street lamps – the famous “Dave and Mark hill” where they had the Iron War. Spectators are riding their bikes in the opposite direction, looking for friends whose days maybe have not turned out as planned. I am expecting Mark to pop out of the darkness to yell at me. He has been watching the tracker and knows I have been run-walking for miles. I remember 2011 when he appeared along this stretch to try to get me to break 4:00 for the run and salvage some of my pride. I’m slower than that today. Mark isn’t there. I am both relieved and sad.

I am wearing a glowstick, but I refuse to wear it around my neck, instead, clipping it to my race belt so I am less aware of it bouncing around as I run. I once dreamed of finishing this race in the daylight (which requires around an 11-hour finish), but I never have. I will chuck the glowstick in dramatic fashion a mile from the finish and the people who see me do it will cheer.

I get to the final aid station on the Queen K. I have been walking the aid stations for the entire marathon and I’m sure I walked this one, too, although I don’t remember. The volunteers are still offering to spray us with water, but it is dark and not that hot anymore, and I politely decline. A volunteer says to me, “there are a lot of people waiting for you just down the road,” and I almost start crying thinking about Mark, my kids and my sister waiting for me. The thought of keeping them waiting is the thing that has kept me running, at times, for the last hour. I feel badly that I am making them wait. I crest the hill and turn right on Palani, which was filled with people a few hours ago, but is deserted now. Everyone has made their way to the finish.

I turn left on Kuakini and almost make the wrong right turn before Hualalai, but luckily someone tells me before I head the wrong way. I am pretty much on my own and people are walking all over the place and I have forgotten this part of the course.

I turn right on Ali’i. I am running fast now, with solid form. The way I wish I had for the prior 25 miles. I run fast enough to feel like me, but not so fast that I don’t try to take it all in. The things that had hurt enough to make me walk much of the past 6, 13, 24 miles don’t hurt anymore – a strange finish chute phenomenon. I move toward the right side of the road and high five everyone for at least a block. I smile.

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We are in the water, the other pink caps and I, and I am holding onto a buoy to save energy, reminding myself that this is the last time I will be cold today. I am nervous about the swim and I hate that. This is my 11th Ironman and I wish I was used to it by now, but I’m not. Mike Reilly is standing on the pier, counting down on the loudspeaker, and I can still hear the drums from the pier and the helicopter overhead. The sunrise was beautiful and it is going to be a clear, hot day.

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I start on the buoy line but in the back, and that seemed like a great idea until about 200 meters into the swim when all of the people who had started wide merged over and I become completely boxed in. I am nervous because it feels so crowded now and for a few moments, I think I might panic and have to DNF. I try to gain control of my breathing and heart and I pretend I am in our neighborhood pool, swimming masters. The panicky feeling passes and people swim up ahead and I am o.k. for the rest of the swim.

I exit the water and the clock says 1:20, which is a Kona swim PR for me and the same time I swam in the practice race the week before. I feel good.

The bike is a blur of wind, heat, pineapple Skratch, sunburnt legs, and trying not to get too down about the wind, heat and the fact I am in the back of the race. There are no draft packs in my part of the field – it’s too sparse – and I know the big obstacle on the bike won’t really be the wind, but it will be me, and whether I get discouraged and give up before making it back to town.

Amy passes me near Kawaihae and I wish I can stay with her for the company, but she is riding a completely different pace and she disappears up the road. It is not as windy as last time and I ride to and from Hawi in an uneventful way, not feeling too terrible, but it’s the Kona bike, so I am also not feeling great. A couple of aid stations on the Queen K are out of water (this was true for the bike and the run), and this makes me way more unhappy than it should have. The soles of my feet feel like they are on fire – they are inexplicably burning – and I think a lot about pulling to the side to loosen my shoes but I never do.

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I decided before the race that I would try to ride my best bike split (if conditions allowed) and I roll into T2 at 6:30, which is nearly 30 minutes better than my disastrous split in 2014, but not quite my best, although I don’t know that at the time. I rode my best bike split in 2011 when I was brand new and not much of a cyclist. It is one of my unsolved Kona mysteries why I have not been able to beat my time from that year despite more experience and training.

I take my time in T2 because there doesn’t seem to be an urgent reason to rush. So far, I have swam and rode pretty much what I expected and now all I have to do is run sub-4:00 and I will have a Kona PR. I’ve joked all week that all I want on this day is to make it to T2. Then it is easy. Or at least that’s how it usually goes. I have done ten Ironmans and only run over 4 hours once, in St. George, and I don’t count that one since I didn’t really train for the race. I have trained for this run. I don’t think it will be a 3:30 day, but 3:45 doesn’t seem out of reach. 4:00 should be a breeze.

I am running up Ali’i. Friends are heading the other direction, spectators soak me with water, and I try to figure out how to solve the problem that my head doesn’t quite feel like it is fully attached. I drink Coke and eat oranges and walk all of the long aid stations and try to find my run legs, but they never come. A stranger gets me running around mile 4 by telling me he will wait right there for me until I turn around and come back. This sounds reassuring so I pick up the pace again. When I am running, I am running well (8s), but I can’t do it for very long. Not even a whole mile. Every time I start running, I get abdominal cramps, and while it is not the worst pain in the world, it is enough to slow me to a walk. My family comes into view around mile 4 and I feel bad that they have to see me struggle.

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The guy is still there when I run back by at mile 6-ish and he yells and I smile and it helps for a bit. Someone else yells, “We’ve got a runner in the house!” and that helps me pick up the pace and hold it for a while. Yes, I’m a runner. This is the part I can do. Lots of times, it feels like the only part I can do. My running is the reason I’m here.

I reach Palani and don’t even try to run it. Jack walks next to me, trying to get me to run. I start running at the top and he is there with me, keeping pace in his flip flops. I tell him it might take me a while to reach the finish and he says, “I know.”

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Out on the Queen K there is a breeze and even though there are no spectators, I am happy to be out there and away from the swamp of Ali’i Drive. Somehow I make it to the Energy Lab and, once again, the sun is setting. I see Amy at the turn and she says I am going to catch her but I never do. I make a few friends out there as I pass people running and then they catch me when I walk and we walk together. I tell my new friends that it doesn’t matter that we are walking because “we get to enjoy the course longer.” Some laugh and some don’t. Everyone is consumed with their own struggle and by now, we all are struggling.

We fly home the next day and I know it will be a while before I come back, if ever. In the past, I always felt like I wanted another chance to be “good,” but I have a way of setting the bar so high that I can never reach it and I am not sure why I can’t just be satisfied to have been there, part of the show, and this makes me feel guilty, but it’s just how I am.

It is 48 hours after the race and I am back at my desk, trying to determine if I have dropped any balls over the past few weeks trying to get ready for the race. I wanted to see if I could work full time, be a mom, and race Kona. I was able to do all of that, but some things had to give this year and the choices I made revealed themselves out on the race course. It was too much, but also not enough, and I certainly didn’t train hard enough for the day, but I also don’t regret the other ways I spent my time.

We have so many wonderful family memories from our trips here, especially this one. We swam with mantas (well, some of us did), rode in a helicopter over the volcano, saw the waterfalls near Hilo, hiked the Pololu Valley, saw a reef shark, drove up to the Mauna Kea Visitor’s Center, enjoyed sunrises over Hualalai and sunsets into the Pacific.

If it weren’t for the lure of this place, and this race, I wouldn’t have been to so many other cool places and met so many great people. Thanks to my real family, my triathlon family, my Coeur family, and everyone who has been there throughout this journey.

Mahalo,

Jen

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Finding the Joy

When I first stated doing Ironman, I was newly unemployed with kids who had just started going to school full-time. I had time on my hands and wanted to try something new, something other than running. I didn’t care how I placed or what the time on the clock was. I was just so proud to get out there and conquer my swim fears and hopefully finish with a fast run split.

That lasted for one season.

Then I decided to get more “serious.” I hired a coach, followed a plan, and started the quest to see just how much I could improve. And in just five years, I went from newbie to vet, from novice to Kona, from not knowing much about triathlon to a ten-time Ironman.

Along the way, I’ve realized that triathlon has given me a lot – fitness, friends, confidence, new experiences, to name a few. But I also started to realize it couldn’t give me everything that I was looking for. It couldn’t substitute for voids in other areas of my life the way I thought it might. That’s why sometimes even after having a great day in training or on the race course, I didn’t always feel fulfilled in the way that I wanted. Something that started out fun and new had become just another area in my life where I felt like I didn’t always measure up.

Last year I was pretty sure I was going to stop doing Ironman in 2016. With nothing left to prove to myself and no real desire to put in more work than I had been doing, I felt like I had reached the end of my journey in the sport. But then, as I like to say, the tri gods had other plans.

I embarked on the world’s longest off-season, which has included tons of organizing and purging of junk, a home renovation project, and many days on the slopes with my husband and kids.

I’ve done a bunch of running since December when I thought I might try to run 100 days in a row – I made it 22 until I got sick and skipped two days – but the runs have been mostly slow and short. There have been zero bikes or swims.

I’ve spent some time this off season (yes, I’m still in the off season) wondering what I want from triathlon and what it can realistically give me. And the conclusion I’ve reached is that all I really want this season is to regain my fitness and have some fun. I want it to feel more like it did when I was new and less like a job or something I am doing out of a hard-to-define sense of obligation.

It’s easy to forget when you immerse yourself in our world, but if you step back and think about it, it’s a pretty amazing thing to accomplish, covering 140.6 miles all in one day, oftentimes in less than ideal weather or on challenging terrain. It’s special. I’ve needed some time away to remember that.

So my wish for 2016 is this: I hope to continue the quest to find fulfillment and joy outside of sport. And if I make some progress on that, I hope to allow myself to approach my training and racing with the joy and wonder of someone just discovering it.

If you have recently felt like our sport is not bringing you joy, I challenge you to ask yourself what you are trying to get out of Ironman and if you are asking for more than the sport can deliver. If so, you can do what I’m doing and try to figure out how and why other areas of your life are lacking and hopefully find a way to stay in triathlon that makes you feel good about yourself. That’s what I hope to do.

I am not quite ready to delve back into a training plan just yet, and if I believe what social media says, it feels like I’m the only one. But I hope when I am ready to return to more structured training, I will have an appreciation and renewed drive to face the 2016 season and be my best. Or if not the best, then to have a smile on my face and continue to enjoy this privilege we call Ironman.

Gratuitous ski pics since that’s mostly what I’ve been up to lately

Change, Sameness and the Untaming of My Wild Spirit

I don’t know when the idea first started to percolate in my head, but I realized within the last year (or longer?) that I had started to feel stagnant. The idea of making a big change when you have been married for twenty years with two kids and a house you are not leaving anytime soon – if ever – started to weigh on me. There didn’t seem to be any path to change that I could wrap my arms around. Instead, the days and months unfolded one after the other, with no real differences or excitement.

I’m a believer in the idea that kids need stability. They need predictable adults who aren’t going to uproot them across the country just because the adult has decided they would rather do their daily run on the beach than in the mountains. That didn’t seem like a decision that a mature, dependable adult would make, even though the old me, the single me, would have happily made the choice to move across the country for something seemingly arbitrary like a better view or warmer weather.

In trying to decide what it was about the sameness of my life that bothered me, I thought back on my past and how I had lived when I was younger. Change was a constant for me back then. I loved the idea of fresh starts and new opportunities and those desires led me to transfer high schools and colleges and move across the country to a city where I didn’t know anyone.

One result of pulling up roots easily is that you don’t have a lot of people around you who have known you for a long time. You are constantly reinventing and having to establish new connections. Exciting, yes. But not necessarily the best way to establish a career or raise a family.

As a person who thrives on change and newness, the lack of both in my life started to feel like a drain on my spirit. Mark, on the other hand, is a person who thrives on sameness and stability – he hates change. Yes, I married my polar opposite in so many ways. While it is not uncommon to seek out someone who compliments your weaknesses, it also can lead to some frustration when you are feeling your spirit squelched by the other person’s needs.

I’ll use where we live to illustrate this point.

We live on a breathtaking lot with 180 degree, panoramic views of the mountains and the city. It’s high on the side of a mountain and you can see for about 50 miles in every direction. Deer, elk and fox are almost a daily sight. Despite all of this natural beauty, I often feel a bit isolated and the reality of having to drive at least 20 minutes (in good weather) to get anywhere drains me. I would love to move into town for proximity to everything and warmer weather, but Mark and the kids are completely resistant.

Looking southwest from our deck

With the realization that I will probably live in this house forever (and believe me, I realize there are worse things in life than staring at that view all day long), I’ve tried to figure out ways to satisfy my need for change and newness without actually going anywhere. So, I am trying to figure out some changes I can do to the house, mostly small things like paint and furniture, to give me the invigorating feeling of new that I only recently realized I was missing. This week, for example, I bought a new wreath for our front door for the holidays. A new wreath! Stand back everyone! I know that seems like a completely trivial thing, but trust me, a collection of trivial moments such as this one start to add up to something else.

My athletic and social lives – which, believe it or not, are not actually one in the same – also felt in need of reinvention. Finding new training partners and friends continues to take some effort, but I am hopeful that the connections I am building will help keep life feeling new.

I went to an amazing presentation last night organized by Vela Adventures, a company that organizes adventures for women in the Denver-area. There were three speakers, including our own Sonja Wieck, who was as funny, warm and relatable as you can be when you are a 15-time Ironman and Ironman champion.

L to R: Sonja Wieck (Rising Tide Coaching), Kelly Kocher (Vela Adventure), Carlyn Shaw (Strangers to Friends), Niki Koubourlis (Bold Betties)

One of the speakers, Carlyn Shaw, spoke about overcoming the diagnosis of MS at the age of 19 to live a life of adventure and connecting with others. Carlyn was amazing and I felt like she had lived a life I might have lived had I not gotten married super young and followed everyone else’s rules and expectations. I went up to her at a break and said I wasn’t sure how a person like me – completely tied down in every way – could live a life of adventure. Carlyn responded, “do you have a hula hoop? You need a hula hoop.”

Now, I have no idea if a hula hoop will create a sense of fun and adventure for me or not, but you can bet I am willing to try.

My big takeaway from the evening was that changes do not have to be big to feed an adventurous spirit like mine. The changes can be as small as buying a new type of coffee or running your usual running route backwards. And continuing to make the effort to connect with new friends and strangers who just might turn into friends. These are all things I had been overlooking and didn’t realize I missed until they were mostly gone.

Adventure on friends. If you are up for something fun and different in 2016, call me. I promise I’m game.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Being a Brand Ambassador

I recently wrote about the different tri teams out there, including the companies that have teams of brand ambassadors. With many brands announcing their 2016 teams, it’s a good time to turn to the topic of what makes for a successful relationship between an athlete and an athletic brand.

Here are my Do’s and Don’ts of Being a Brand Ambassador:

DON’T act like a jerk while wearing team gear. Once you put on that kit, realize you are representing the entire team and company while you train and race. A bright kit with logos all over it is also going to be more memorable to people, and you don’t want to give people a reason to say, “wow, that guy in the ___ kit was riding like a jerk in the race today.”

DON’T expect a lot for nothing. The company sponsoring your team is in the business of making money and likely cannot afford to give away a lot of product. Freebies are nice, but I consider them the exception and not the rule.

DON’T publicly disparage the team or brand. Even if you are unhappy with your kit, gear, or some aspect of the team, disputes and grievances should always be addressed privately.

DON’T confuse everyone about your team affiliation by posting lots of pics of yourself in other brands’ gear. Many of us own apparel from different companies or use a variety of products, but you don’t have to go out of your way to advertise that fact. Stick to pics that promote your team’s gear and sponsors.

DO take advantage of your team’s partnerships. Most teams have put together a family of sponsors for the team, and there are usually explicit or implicit rules you will at least try these products.

DO participate in your team’s forum or Facebook group. The more people who contribute, the more everyone gets out of being a part of the team.

DO read your sponsorship/ambassadorship agreement and make sure you understand it.

DO share important news from your company, such as the release of new product lines or sales.

DO something to express your gratitude when you receive a freebie. Throw your company some love on social media if they have done something nice for you.

DO communicate openly and honestly. Ideally, the brand will let you know what they expect from team members, and the athlete will feel comfortable raising any questions or concerns with the company. Keep the lines of communication open!

Have more ideas about a do or don’t? Post them below.

Your Guide to Navigating the 2016 Team Application Process

It’s 2016 team application time! This is the time of year when teams and brands select the athletes they will partner with for 2016. With that in mind, I thought I would prepare a little guide explaining the types of teams that are out there and how to select the right team if you are thinking of going the team/ambassador route in 2016.

Just a few short years ago, it was relatively uncommon for an amateur to be “sponsored” by a brand and this privilege was usually reserved for the few and fast “elite amateurs.” Times have changed.

Before you leap in with an application, it’s worth your time to do a little research into what’s out there and what the membership entails. Does the team have a selective application process or can anyone who pays the fee be part of the team? Is there a fee to join? What’s expected from you – the athlete? What can you expect in return for your agreement to be a human billboard/marketing machine?

Some of the following info was a little hard to come by and, despite being really good at Google, I had to, in some cases, do a fair amount of digging to find the 2016 application. If you are having trouble, check the company’s Facebook and Twitter feeds which may have more current info than their website. If after doing your due diligence you are still unsure about the application process, reach out to the team and ask!

Performance-Oriented Teams

Many teams accept athletes of all abilities and don’t necessarily look for a roster of podium winners, but for a few teams, results matter, and questions about your recent results are right on the application. Examples of these teams include the Timex Multisport Team (not to be confused with the Timex Factory Team), Trisports.com Elite Team, Team Zoot, and, for the guys, Team Every Man Jack (who were everywhere this year).

Timex application open now. The oldest and original tri team. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t figure out if there was a fee or when the application closes.

Zoot this longtime tri apparel company currently sponsors a pro and an age group team. Historically this was a more front-of-the-pack team with a smaller roster, but it was expanded last year to include over 100 athletes around the country. Application for 2016 should open soon, but spots might be limited.

Trisports.com this is a national team of faster athletes who rep the Tuscon-based (and large on-line) store. Application is open until 11/20.

Team Every Man Jack I thought this was open until 10/30, but the app link from Facebook says they are no longer accepting responses. Annual fee of $125 (I think this includes the kit, but I couldn’t tell for sure). Again, this is a guys-only team.

Maverick Multisport this team has a pro division and a small, selective age group team, which is currently open to 12 athletes for 2016. They are looking for strong results and a social media presence. No fee if accepted to the AG team. Application open until 11/15.

Company Ambassadorships

This category of team is near and dear to me because I am currently on Team Coeur, the ambassador team for Coeur Sports. An apparel company ambassadorship might be the best route for you if you really like a certain brand, are active on social media, and want to be part of a national group.

How do you pick a brand to apply for? If a certain style, messaging or attitude speaks to you, that is probably your best bet. You should already own some of the brand’s gear so you can speak authentically about what you like about their stuff, Many of these types of teams have created partnerships with other companies who offer product discounts to team members. For example, Team Coeur is partnered with Argon 18 bikes, Smith Optics, ENVE wheels, ROKA wetsuits, and Osmo hydration.

Some of these applications have already closed (Coeur, Betty DesignsSOAS ), but some – Wattie Ink and Smashfest Queen – are still open or are coming soon. Check your favorite brand’s website and social media for more info on their team. Note that most of these applications ask about your social media activity because they count on members to support the brand and its partners on social media.

Friends With Benefits

I call this next category of team “Friends with Benefits” because these teams likely do not care how many Twitter followers you have or how you placed in your most recent Ironman, but are geared towards putting together a like-minded group of athletes who want the camaraderie of a team and access to brand discounts, but may not want the responsibilities of reping a certain brand.

Team TRS Racing application open now until 11/15 (or sooner?) There is a $250 fee to join, which includes a sweet Coeur kit for female members! Even if you aren’t interested, I think Ben’s Donald Trump spoof on “Making Triathlon Great Again” was pretty funny. I think this was more of a guy’s team in 2015, but the Coeur kit shows they are actively trying to recruit some women.

Timex Factory Team application always open. Their site says this can be a possible stepping stone to the 50-member, performance-oriented Timex Multisport Team. Looks like you get some free stuff, along with access to partner discounts. I thought there was a fee to join this 250+ person team, but I can’t tell from the website or application.

Rev3 racing is back for 2016! They used to have an active and passionate group of ambassadors and will probably put together another great team. There’s no fee for this team, and it includes a kit, free race entries and sponsor discounts. Their app closes tomorrow (10/24).

Big Sexy Racing $240 fee if selected to the team, which includes kit, sponsor goodies, and access to team-only site. This is another big, national team that looks like they have some fun.

You Are Nuts for a Product or Service

Sometimes a single, non-apparel brand has its own ambassador team. If you are always trying to get your friends to try a certain product because you love it so much, this type of ambassadorship might be for you. If you’re not sure if a company sponsors ambassadors, it never hurts to reach out and ask. Examples of these types of teams include TriBike Transport (closed for 2016), Cobb Mobb (Cobb cycling’s tri team), and Hammer Nutrition.

I’ve been a Nuun ambassador since 2012 and they have a well-organized, sizable, multi-discipline ambassador team. There’s no fee to be part of their program and it entitles you to some product discounts and occasional Nuun swag. They have a very active member Facebook group with people from all over the county in all different sports. This is also my sole opportunity to be a teammate of Kara Goucher.

Charitable Teams

A lot of athletes combine their love of sport with fundraising for a charity and joining a charitable team is a great way to accomplish that goal. Eleonore Rocks is a fundraising team created around the mission of donating rocking chairs to hospitals and providing support to families with sick or terminally ill children. Their application for team members is open until 12/25.

The largest and best known of the endurance sports charitable teams is Team in Training, a fundraiser for the leukemia and lymphoma society. Team in Training usually focuses its fundraising around certain events and is a welcoming group for athletes who are newer to endurance sports.

Your Local Tri Shop

Your local tri shop may sponsor a roster of athletes or have a paid ambassador team (or both). Examples of Denver-area shops with teams include TriBella Women’s Multisport and KompetitiveEdge. The advantages of being affiliated with a shop are that it can be a one-stop-shop for all of your tri needs, including – if you’re lucky – bike services! A downside might be that the shop doesn’t carry your preferred brands.

These types of teams may require volunteer hours to support races the shop sponsors, and if that is the case, make sure the requirements are all stated upfront, and you enter the arrangement with your eyes wide open.

Like a company ambassadorship, you shouldn’t be a stranger to the shop when you apply for the team, and the shop will likely expect you to do most of your tri shopping with them, as well as send potential customers their way.

If you weren’t selected to the team of your dreams this time around, start working now to create a relationship with a brand or team for next year. Buy their gear, get to know their members, and start participating in the community, because after all, creating a sense of community is the reason most of us joined these teams to begin with.

Up next, my Dos and Don’ts of Being a Brand Ambassador

The Biggest of the Big Days: Ironman Louisville Race Report

This is the story of what happens when you race all out, from gun to finish, without worrying about time, placement, slots, or whether you might have to walk the whole marathon. You just race with your heart and head, keep your wits about you, don’t make any mistakes (well, not many mistakes), and have a little luck on your side.

Backing up for a minute, I never had my sights set on this race, but when I got shut out of Arizona registration last fall, it seemed like a good alternative. It was in the fall, which I like, and it was wetsuit-legal, which is practically a must for me. Beyond that, I didn’t give the course too much thought.

I don’t want to bury the following info about Louisville at the end (in case people get bored and stop reading by then). Louisville – the course and the town – exceeded all of my expectations. There are towns that host Ironman, and then there are towns that are proud of their Ironman. Louisville is definitely in the second category. Everyone I encountered all weekend, from the residents, to the other racers, to the outstanding volunteers, was exceedingly polite. This race is popular with many first timers, and their excitement was contagious. There is a lot to do and see in the area, and the course is pretty phenomenal across the board. The Ohio River is much less gross than everyone had made it out to be. The bike is scenic and honest. The run is on roads with not a single step of bike path. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Back to the race…

My plan for this race was pretty simple. I knew I would have to not panic in the swim, ride super hard on the bike, and then run as close to 3:30 as possible. I have a good history of making it through the swim and running fast, but the bike felt like a huge, gaping unknown. I didn’t feel like I had biked very well at the one and only race I did this year before IMLou, and once I saw the course by car on Friday, I felt pretty nervous about it.

Despite plugging away at my bike training for several years now, it still feels like a weakness, and I knew that to stay in the race on Sunday, I would have to take a risk on the bike. Vince and I rely a lot on power and heart rate metrics in training, but after talking to Michelle Simmons at our Team Coeur gathering on Thursday night and hearing how she didn’t race with data, I started to get an idea: maybe I wouldn’t race with any data either? Not even a watch! This idea started to gel in my head and I was actually really excited about it. No power numbers to shame me during my ride, no heart rate to keep track of. By Saturday night, I decided it would be throwing the race away to ignore my data, so I decided to have it available, but let my instincts dictate the ride.

The swim. Holy crap was I nervous about the swim. I had completed exactly one open water swim since last October (Harvest Moon), and I hadn’t felt like that had gone very well. I not-so-secretly hoped the swim would be cancelled due to the water quality issue, but by the beginning of race week, it was looking like it was a go. They let us in the water for one practice swim on Saturday morning, and I decided to take advantage of it, not wanting my first dip in the Ohio River to be on Sunday morning. That all went o.k., but I wasn’t feeling great about the swim and it was consuming a lot of my pre-race thoughts.

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Ohio River – no worse than the Boulder Res

A cool thing happened on Saturday after I checked in my bike. I was killing time at the Expo before going to the airport to pick up Mark, and I decided to spend a little time sitting in some Normatec boots at the Normatec tent. Towards the end of my session, a man and woman ran over to the tent to sit in the boots. The woman was wearing an Ironman Boulder shirt and I asked her who had done the race. She said she had, and we started chatting about all things Boulder and Colorado. Some things she said started to ring a bell, and I asked her her name. She said “Ovetta Sampson,” and I realized she was the subject of an interesting profile in the most recent issue of Swimmer Magazine (the free mag you get for being a COMSA member). I can’t find an online link to the article, but the gist is that Ovetta, who grew up, in her words, “a poor, black girl on the South Side of Chicago,” had overcome some fears of open water to become an avid open water swimmer and triathlete who now coaches other women who were once like her – not the most likely triathletes, but embracing the sport. She did a TED talk in Chicago about “Making the Impossible Possible,” in which she tells the story of how she got into triathlon.

I was so interested that I remember looking her up on Twitter because I wanted to make a connection to this cool woman, and here she was sitting next to me at the Expo, chatting about swimming. Right before I left, I asked her for one open water tip she could give me for race day. She thought for a second and said, “long and strong. Long and strong, all day long.”

Long and strong all day long

I loved it.

We said goodbye and I went to get Mark, and my mood was ten times better. For the first time since arriving in Louisville, I actually felt excited and happy. Mark and I chatted about my race plan Saturday night, and he reiterated that I had to ride hard to stay in the race and we talked about shooting for a 5:50 bike. Then I would have to run like hell, but that part I thought I could manage.

I slept great Saturday night and my stomach wasn’t upset in the morning like it sometimes is on race day from the nerves. I got in the hotel elevator and my Coeur teammate Michaela was there (we hadn’t planned to meet). Everything at transition was smooth and when I lined up for the swim – in the longest line I have ever been a part of – I met two really cool women who immediately felt like friends. Thanks Jeannine from Louisville – you and your friends were great to hang with!.

The gun went off and we started to move towards the dock. A few minutes before jumping into the water, I spotted Ovetta and I was super happy to see her smiling face again. We yelled “long and strong!” at each other and a few minutes later – I think it took me about 13 minutes from the gun to when I entered the water – I jumped in.

The Louisville swim start is really unique. Apart from the time trial start off of two docks, the swim starts in a narrow canal with an island on the left and the shore on the right. The island creates some protection from the current, so there’s nice calm water and not the usual mess of bodies. I was actually enjoying it a little. I was a bit confused on the way back about where the final turn buoy was and If I was on course or not, and I spent some time wishing I had studied the course map a little better and wishing that I had worn goggles with more tint since I breathe left and was looking into the sun with each stroke.

I exited the water with hoards of other racers, got my bag, flew through the change tent, saw Ovetta again right outside the tent, then I got out on my bike with no issues.

Since I had started at least halfway back in the swim line, I had a lot of people to weave through during the first 20 miles. I was able to pass people pretty easily and I knew I was pushing really hard, but it seemed more important to try to get some clear road.

I glanced down at my Garmin to look at my heart rate, and it was super high, but that is standard for me starting out on the bike, so I wasn’t too concerned. My watts were an issue though. They were reading under 100, which, even for me, seemed freakishly low. It became clear early on that the power tap was not working properly, but rather than disappointment, I actually felt a big sense of relief. I could now ride by feel – just like I had wanted to!

Mark was on the side of the road on a climb on the early out and back part and he told me I had swam 1:10, which was shocking since it hadn’t felt that clean (I had popped my head up a lot to check for buoys and the line). I started realizing that maybe I was having a good day.

The Louisville bike course requires a lot of focus and concentration. You have to keep looking ahead on the descents to get into the right gear for the climbs and I was focused on maximizing my speed on the flats and descents and trying not to drop my chain or do anything stupid on the climbs. Almost everything you read says not to pay attention to speed and time in an Ironman, but those were the metrics I was using – speed and time. I went through the halfway point in a time I would be happy to ride for a 70.3, so that started to make me nervous that maybe I was overbiking, but I wasn’t about to back off, having decided early in the ride that I had nothing to lose. I didn’t want any regrets about not riding hard enough.

The last part of the ride is a flattish stretch back to town, and there was a headwind on this section, but living in Colorado and being used to some wind, I didn’t really think the wind was a big deal. Through all of the flatter sections, I focused on holding my aero position and making myself low and small, like Mat Steinmetz showed me back in January.

I’ll quickly note that I have never passed so many guys in a race riding expensive bikes and a rear disc who were sitting up on the bullhorns. Guys, if you are riding a super bike worth more than my old SUV and you are sitting up on the bullhorns in a race, you need a better bike fit. Or you need to spend more time staying aero in training. Something.

Coming back to town in the final 10 miles, I started to let off the gas a tiny bit and tried to gauge if my legs were going to be there for the run. I hit the run course feeling not quite as peppy as I would have liked. Mark was near our hotel at about the 2 mile mark, and he yelled to me that I was in 10th place off the bike (it was actually 12th) and I knew I had already passed some of those girls in the first few miles. I started to settle in, and the entire run became a crisis management situation where I was running o.k., but felt like things could turn south at any moment. I alternated water and coke with some oranges, which is pretty much the sum total of my nutrition for the run. Less is more for me as far as eating on the run.

Running through downtown at the end of lap 1 was a big boost because there were tons of spectators and I felt like I was holding the pace pretty well. Mark claims he told me at this point that he thought I was in second place, but my memory of that is foggy, and I can honestly say that I was less focused on picking people off than just running my race and seeing how it turned out.

Lap 2 was a lot more crowded with all of the people who were on lap 1. By this time, my quads had started screaming at me with a pain I hadn’t experienced since my first marathon back in 1996. I tried to block out the pain and just focus on my form and my running cues (chin down, shoulders down, hips forward), and it was a mile-by-mile, aid station-to-aid station progression. That’s how I have to do it. Thinking of anything more than the next mile is too much to handle.

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Thanks to teammate Jacqueline Brill for the action shots!

Mark was unexpectedly on the course at mile 22 by Churchill Downs. He was yelling that he thought I was in second (the time trial start made it impossible to know for sure), and he was screaming “only four more miles! Only four more miles!” It was fun to see him so excited, and I was happy to be running well since one of my fears in having him come to the race was that I wouldn’t race well, and we would both feel like it had been a waste of time and money for him to be there. The truth was, I got a huge boost from seeing him on the bike and run course, and I don’t think I would have had the same day or result without the encouragement he gave me.

After he yelled to me at mile 23, he took off down the sidewalk, running towards the finish, and because the course is so flat, I could see him, trekking along in his loafers about 100 yards ahead of me. He later told me he tried to get our car out of the hotel lot, but because we were right on the course, he couldn’t move the car, so he had someone from the hotel drive him out on the course. After getting out there, his phone died and he couldn’t take Uber back to the finish, like he originally planned. So he ran back. On the sidewalk. In his loafers.

The finish line on Fourth Street in Louisville is really loud and festive – one of the best I have seen. Once the line came into sight, I trucked to the finish, crossed making the Coeur heart with my hands for the video and camera (sadly, none of those pictures turned out well), and tried not to cry too much from the pain I was in.

Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Brill

There was all kinds of uncertainty after the finish about my placement. The tracker had me in first, but because of the time trial start, it was theoretically possible that someone who started later could have a better time and I wouldn’t have passed her on the course. That didn’t happen and after about an hour, it started to sink in that I had won my age group, something I had dreamed of doing, but which hadn’t seemed like a possibility, given my state of mind all year, which seems like a topic for a separate post.

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I cut off the bottom: 10:36:50-ish

Even though I told a lot of people this would be my last Ironman for a while, I knew when they called my name at slot allocation, I wouldn’t be able to resist the chance to race in Hawaii again. The fact that Kona is a year away makes it a lot easier to think about, and I am excited and grateful to have the chance to compete with the best in the world for a third time, including a lot of friends this time around.

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Much thanks to my Coeur Sports family and the teammates who were with me in Louisville. I loved meeting all of you and sharing the weekend. Thanks to Nuun Hydration for always supporting me and keeping me hydrated. Special thanks to my swim coaches and lane mates from Elite Multisport Coaching (no, this does not mean I will lead the lane). Thank you to Vince Matteo for your guidance and wisdom in coaching me to a result that once seemed like a crazy dream.

Huge, special thanks to my partner in sport and life for going above and beyond on race day. I will take you to the Waipo’o Valley next October as a thank you.

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Mark’s happy place

Dolomites Trip Days 1 and 2

Hello from Italy! We are in the Dolomites in Northern Italy for a 10-day cycling trip. Mark likes to tell people we are on this trip as a 20th anniversary celebration, but the trip was actually coordinated by our friend Mike to celebrate his 50th birthday and it was organized by Mike and Emily Kloser from Vail, who are awesome.

Mark had to twist my arm pretty hard to agree to the trip. A European cycling trip has been a long-time dream of his, but it wasn’t really a dream I shared. He refused to take the trip alone, so I finally agreed to go with him, and here we are.

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Dolomites view – different from the Rockies for sure

Sonja is currently blogging about our recent cycling adventure in Colorado, which was my main preparation for the trip. Other than three long days in the mountains near Denver, Vail and Aspen, I spent the spring primarily on the trainer or riding the flats. I did a few rides on Lookout too, but I really didn’t do much training specific to this trip. The smart thing I did do to get ready was to swap my rear cassette to a 12-32. This was no easy task and involved a derailer change as well, but it has been well worth it.

So what are the Dolomites like so far? They are steep. Much steeper than the mountains in Colorado. I’m not sure I could have done much training to prepare, since we don’t have 10-15% grades anywhere near us, so I focused on preparing my bike instead, which was definitely the right call.

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Right now we are based in a town called Canazei and yesterday and today we did ride of about 45 miles each day with around 6K of climbing per ride. It’s pretty much only up, up, up, or down, down, down. No flats, which is a little sad for me because I excel on flats, relatively speaking. But I am really trying to embrace the challenge and attack my weakness. And maybe, just maybe, after these 10 days are up, I will finally feel like a “real” cyclist.

The past two days have been filled with crushing climbs, unbelievable scenery, new friends, and…a lot of rain. Apologies to the people of Northern Italy for bringing our wet, cool weather with us, but that’s exactly what it feels like happened. The trip is a collection of friends and acquaintances from Denver and Vail, so we all feel right at home in the damp, cool weather, but I am fervently hoping it warms up soon since I didn’t pack the right clothes.

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Day 1 group: Mark, Jen M, me, Dylan, Roy

Tomorrow we are off to Merona. The steeper rides are later in the week and I am hoping I get stronger as the week goes on.

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Mark riding out of town on Day 1