Ironman St George – the run

After over 7 hours of riding, I was relieved to finally hand my bike off in T2 and start the part of the day I had actually trained for. I had really been hoping to have a good run at IMSG. I knew they had changed the run course this year and for some reason, I assumed that they had made it flat to give racers a break after the punishing bike course. It was only on race morning on the way to the swim start that someone clued me in that the run course was not flat. They said it was all either up or down. I didn’t really believe that though. I assumed it was going to be a piece of cake.

The run was three loops of out-and-back, which meant that we ran the same streets over and over. As I ran through town at the start of the run, I scanned the side of the road for Audra’s husband, Clint. I had joked with Clint a few days prior that he was my only spectator and I expected him to make me a sign. Sure enough, when I made my first pass by Clint, he held up my sign, which said “I didn’t come here to see you walk“, the preferred wording I had told Audra that I liked. I have a little issue with my running. I am either running at my intended race pace or…I am walking. There isn’t much in between. It’s something that has plagued me in my last two Ironmans and I was hoping to excise the demons today and actually run the whole course.

I mentioned in the start of this report that I learned some things at this race. One of the things I learned is this: if I don’t think I am doing well, I have a hard time pushing myself to hold a certain pace. So when I ran through town the first time and saw Clint and Audra (who I was initially shocked to see since I didn’t realize she was no longer in the race), the first thing I asked them was “how am I doing? What place am I in?” Audra said that Ironmanlive had me as 22nd, but she wasn’t sure if that included the bike. I quickly decided that I was too far out of the hunt to push myself really hard on the run so I made a deal with myself. I told myself that I would walk the uphills and run the downhills. I wasn’t alone in coming up with this plan. The course was full of racers doing this exact same thing. Since I didn’t think I was going to place well and I knew my time was far from a PR,  I decided to enjoy myself on the run. When I walked, I would find someone to walk with and talk to. Then we would try to run together when we came to the downhills. It was new to me to have so much camaraderie during a race. I think everyone was friendlier at this race because of everything we had been through so far. I noticed that during the bike. People would congratulate you on your pace if you passed them and encourage you if they did the passing. I kept this up on the run, deliberately trying to spread good race karma wherever I could. It made me feel better to talk to other people during the run, so I kept it up until mile 18 or so.

Around that time, I realized I had been running for a while and I was actually feeling o.k. I swung back through town again and looked for Audra. She ran up next to me to see how I was doing and I told her that if I was close to the top 10, I had a little more to give. She said, “start running like you’re in the top 10 and I will find out and let you know!” So I started moving at a bit faster pace. I came to an uphill and started to walk, the way I had been doing since mile 2, and Audra appeared next to me on her mountain bike. “Jen! You better stop [explicative] walking! C’mon, let’s go!” And with that, I started running again. For the next few miles, Audra was right near me on the bike, yelling out encouragement and telling me how good I looked. Then she told me she had talked to Sonja and Sonja had said I was in 8th place. That lit a fire under me and I was running for real now. Like I meant it. Now I was hunting and I was looking for all of the women on the course and trying to run them down. It was impossible to tell what lap people were on, so I pretended they were all on the same lap as me.

I made my last trip up the diagonal at mile 24 and turned around with only a mile to go. I was really cooking now, like the previous 13 hours had not happened. The spectators were excited to see someone running so hard and their encouragement made me run a little faster. I ran faster and faster to the finish, hoping one or two girls might be right in front of me and worried that someone would come up from behind. Then I entered the chute. It was over and I had owned the last few miles.

I knew right then that it didn’t matter at all what the clock said. I had kept going on one of the hardest courses on it’s hardest day and I hadn’t given up. Even when I thought it was all over for me and I would just walk it in, I had found a little bit more. I hadn’t PRd or qualified, but I felt immensely satisfied. Every bit of suffering, doubt, pain and frustration was worth that feeling of knowing that I had left it all out there when I thought it mattered.

And Clint never did see me walking.

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Ironman St George – the bike

The Ironman St George bike course has a reputation of being the most difficult bike course of any of the North American Ironman events. The reputation was not undeserved.

Normally I like to ride portions of the bike course and preview the whole thing from the car, but for this race, I decided to skip my usual course recon. When I got out on the course on Saturday, I wasn’t sure if that had been the right decision. On the other hand, if I had driven it beforehand, I’m not sure I would have had the nerve to show up on race morning. I would have been too intimidated because the course was hard. After leaving the reservoir and heading back towards town through some rollers, we started the loop that we would repeat twice. The loop was a non-stop, steady uphill climb from mile 25 to mile 50. The climb was broken up by some portions that were actually much steeper than a steady climb. My Garmin says the elevation change was 5404 feet, but I assure you it felt like more than that. It’s fair to say I was in over my head.

We live in the mountains and I have to ride a steep 2.5 mile hill if I want to ride anywhere from my house, but I don’t actually enjoy a lot of climbing. I’m not particularly good at it, although I have been working to get better. I do my share of hilly rides, but I think Sonja would wholeheartedly agree with me when I say that I was not really prepared for this ride.

And I haven’t even mentioned the wind yet.

On Friday afternoon, when it had been so windy, I started to become concerned about the bike. I really was not all that concerned before then because I was planning to race by heart rate and I felt like I could tackle the hills, even if I had to ride them slowly. But the wind was a new, unwelcome variable. I know everyone hates wind, but I really hate wind. When I saw the wind on Friday, I announced to Audra that night, “if it is windy like this tomorrow, I am going to bike 7 hours.” She assured me that was ridiculous and I was not going to ride 7 hours, and besides, it was supposed to be much calmer on Saturday. The wind was going to be a non-factor.

At some point towards the end of the first loop, I began to calculate my pace and the distance we had ridden and it occurred to me that I had been right – I was on track to ride over 7 hours. I was riding within my target heart rate and felt like I was doing a decent job with the course – I was passing lots of people and not getting passed too much – but it was still an ego blow to realize I was going to have a 7-hour bike split. As I’ve mentioned, I hadn’t really prepared for that.

Most of the course is a blur to me now of headwinds, refueling, and gorgeous scenery, but there is one amusing moment that stands out. As we rode past the aid station in Gunlock, I saw a sign that said, “4 miles until the Wall!” “I wonder what that means?” I said to myself. Then about a mile later I saw it – a stretch of road that was much steeper than anything we had ridden so far. I had heard there was a gnarly, steep climb, but I had assumed we had already ridden it because there had been so much climbing. At mile 50-something in the first loop, the Wall was not such a big deal. But by mile 90, it had grown steeper and longer. I think I was riding less than 6 mph and was at definite risk of toppling over because I was moving so slowly. A guy in front of me was riding zig-zag across the road, paper boy style. I’m sure behind me, some people probably dismounted their bikes and walked. But not too long after the Wall, we reached Veyo and then we were treated to a screaming fast 15-mile descent back into town. Many people coasted this descent, but I peddled as fast as my legs could spin, trying to keep my heart rate high and hoping to make up some time.

I actually enjoyed the bike course. Sure it was windy and had a lot of climbing, but it was beautiful and I mostly stuck to my plan and road comfortably hard the whole time. My splits for the loops were almost exactly even. I have a lot of work left to do with my bike training, but I feel like I am getting stronger.

Ironman St George – the swim

I went to St George last weekend hoping to learn some things. The lessons ended up being slightly different than I thought they would be, but it was a learning experience just the same. Let me just say, I am so happy I went to this race. I had my slowest finishing time by an hour and the course chewed me up and spit me out – or rather, tossed me around and blew me sideways – but I am a better athlete because of it. I had my proudest Ironman finish and had a day full of moments that will not soon be forgotten.

The Decision to Race

“I didn’t know you were doing St George.” I heard this a lot last week. It’s because I wasn’t. I never planned on doing this race, although Mark had first suggested it over spring break in March after I had a particularly good run workout. Instead, I was supposed to run the Colorado Marathon on Sunday, which was going to be my first “stand alone” marathon in two and a half years. I was going to try to run a good time to get back to my roots and feel like a runner again. 26.2 miles without walking the aid stations and shuffling along. I started to taper for that race and then the announcement came from WTC that this would be the last Ironman St George. The race had failed to sell out and they were going to turn it into a 70.3 going forward. Mark raised the issue again, telling me that I should go there and see what I could do. There would be almost the same number of Kona slots at IMSG as Wisconsin, which I’m registered for, but about 1000 fewer athletes. It was supposed to be hot, which is good for me, and the water was supposed to be unusually warm, which is also good for me. I thought Sonja would laugh, but she liked the idea, too.

I had never considered going to IMSG before because I hate really cold water and I am not the strongest climber on the bike. The IMSG bike course was considered very challenging. With the first variable removed, it was starting to seem like a good idea. I was already planning to run a marathon that weekend – why not just tack on the swim and the bike and see what happens? I had been doing long swims, so I wasn’t worried about that part, but the bike had me a little concerned. I had only done two rides over 5 hours and one of those was back in February. I realized I might be a teeny bit unprepared for the bike course, but Ironman is a long, unpredictable race, and I was willing to give it a go and see where I stood.

Pre-Race

I was heading to the race by myself, but Sonja had several other athletes racing, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone. I ended up adopting Audra, her husband Clint and their friend Aaron as my “race family” and they provided great company and support leading up to the race. Audra and Aaron were both first-timers, but they both seemed more relaxed than I was. Audra was vying for a Kona slot in her AG and I was excited to see how she was going to race.

I had some nervousness about the race and the course having only signed up four days before the race, but those feelings were mixed with a relaxed attitude that I usually don’t bring to these events. I hadn’t planned my whole season around this race. I didn’t have a lot of time or money invested in it – I drove to Utah by myself to keep the costs and chaos factor to a minimum. I didn’t have a lot to lose.

After I checked my bike on Friday, I went for a little swim to check the water temperature and demo Sonja’s TYR Freak of Nature, which she had graciously lent me for the race. I was relieved to feel that the water was pretty comfortable – it was 63 degrees. I was a little nervous about the wind. It was blowing in the afternoon, but everyone I chatted with about it assured me that the forecast for Saturday was for calmer winds – 7-10 mph.  Everyone was convinced that the weather was shaping up to be perfect.

Sand Hollow Reservoir on Friday

“White lightning” racked and ready to go

The Swim

On race morning, I met Audra and Aaron in the hotel lobby and we took the van to the shuttle that would take us to Sand Hollow. While walking to the shuttle, I spotted James (the “Iron Cowboy”), another athlete coached by Sonja. I was excited to run into him because I had been following his quest to complete 30 Ironmans in one year – a world record. On the shuttle, I sat in front of James and we talked about racing and the day ahead. He was excited because it was his 7th Ironman this season and he said the weather was going to be perfect. This was the third year of IMSG and the first year had been cold, last year had been hot, and this was going to be a Goldilocks year – it was going to be just right.

As I was going about my race morning preparations, I ran into Emily, another one of Sonja’s athletes who lives near me in Colorado. Emily is an experienced Ironman athlete and this was her 11th Ironman. It was great to see a familiar face and we decided to line up in the water together. Feeling confident with my swimming recently – especially wearing the Freak – I decided I was going to swim the inside buoy line. Mark had taken this line in Canada and had assured me it was the way to go. The water felt calm. As we treaded water waiting for the start, a guy looked behind us and commented on the cloud of red dust in the distance. “Look at the wind,” he said. I kind of laughed and told him I was going to focus on one thing at a time, and right now, I was thinking about swimming 2.4 miles.

Men had green caps – the field was over 80% men

Right before the cannon went off, the announcer said “Remember, all you can control today is your attitude.” And with that, we were off.

Things got ugly at the bottom left buoy – less than halfway

There was some jostling at the start, but for the most part, I was pleased with how I had seeded myself and the line I had picked. I was swimming on feet and passing some people and trying to maintain a solid effort. Things were going pretty well. As we neared the first turn buoy, I noticed that I was starting to get tossed around a bit. I heard a motor underwater so I figured a boat had just passed by. Then the waves kept coming and I was reminded of Ironman Canada, where the water started to churn near the buoy from the force of all of the swimmers turning. “Maybe that was what was happening,” I thought. I got around the buoy and was immediately smacked from the right side by huge waves. Spray was coming off the tops of the waves and it felt like it was raining. People were shouting to kayakers and asking which way to go. The buoys were no longer visible. I saw a kayaker in the water. My predominant feeling was confusion. “What was happening?” The sky was still sunny but these huge waves had appeared out of nowhere. It was a shock. I can’t really say how big the waves were. I have very little open water swim experience and even less ocean experience, so I don’t know if they were 2 feet or 4 feet. All I know is that they felt similar to the waves in Hawaii when we were out there on a rough day before the race.

I bobbed around for a while trying to calm myself and get oriented. There was a man next to me also bobbing around and I asked him, “Are we going to make it?” “Yes, we’re going to make it,” he assured me. He sounded really confident so I got my head down and started swimming as best I could to the next turn. On the long straightaway, we were swimming directly into the waves. I was alternating breaststroking with a little bit of freestyle. I would see a wave, dive under it, pop my head up for a breath and repeat. I wasn’t wearing a watch, so I had no idea how long this was taking. I started to get concerned I might miss the 2:20 cut-off. The waves weren’t coming in a rhythmic fashion, so I couldn’t time my breathing to coincide with the waves. When I did freestyle, I turned my head towards the sky to get a breath to avoid getting a mouthful of water. Mostly, I tried to stay near other swimmers, but by this time, people were spread out all over the place. I didn’t feel very scared since I knew I could breaststroke all the way back to shore if I needed to. I was more disappointed. I had been excited to see how my swim was coming along and the swim felt like it was going well until the waves kicked up.

I now know what was going on all around me with other swimmers: people were clinging to boats, boats were sinking, rescuers were getting dumped into the water. But at the time, I wasn’t aware of any of that. I was just concerned with getting myself around the course and back to the boat ramp. Finally, I was close to the island and I could see swimmers standing on it. The final red buoy appeared to have drifted and people were swimming everywhere. A woman was yelling from a boat, but I wasn’t close enough to hear her. “She’s telling us that the swim has been cancelled and to swim back to shore,” I thought. I rounded the final buoy and turned towards the shore. Now the waves were pushing me in and the shore was coming close. I reached the ramp and stumbled out of the water. I looked at the clock and saw that the time was in the 1:40s. I didn’t care. I noticed two things. A lot of bikes were still on the racks and it was unbelievably windy.

I ran into the changing tent and two terrific volunteers helped me out of the Freak and into my bike gear. I was shivering and could barely talk because my teeth were chattering so hard. One of the volunteers said, “I bet you weren’t planning on that happening!” Everyone was commenting on how crazy it had been. I was proud I had made it. Two years ago, I would have needed a rescue from the water. Last year I might have made it, but it would have been questionable. Today I had made it through and hadn’t lost my head. I was relieved because I assumed the hardest part of the day was over.