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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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

What I’m Bringing to Kona

I leave for the Big Island in three days and although I haven’t packed yet, I have a good idea of what I’m bringing along. As I get my gear organized (in carry on luggage only!), I thought I would share the essentials on my packing list for the Ironman World Championships and my Hawaiian vacation afterwards:

My bike! I ride a Quintana Roo Illicito with a Zipp 404/808 wheelset with powertap. I don’t have to pack this item because it is already on its way to the Big Island with TriBike Transport. TriBike Transport is a large expense, but it was worth it for this race because I am traveling out a few days ahead of my bike mechanic husband and our travel arrangements are complicated, involving two flights per leg and an overnight in Los Angeles on the way back. When I factored in the bike fees for my separate flights, it wasn’t much more to use TriBike Transport and, best of all, it is hassle free! Huge thanks to my shop, KompetitiveEdge, for getting it tuned and race-ready.

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My road helmet: I am not going for podium spot or placement in Kona. Instead, I am trying to set myself up to run well. After some internal debate, I decided I might improve my odds of making that happen if I can stay cool on the bike. If it is good enough for past world champions (Crowie, Chrissy), it is good enough for me.

(imagine a pic here of an LG road helmet. I’m too lazy to walk down to the garage to grab it and take a pic)

Lots of Nuun: I’m a Nuun Ambassador, but I would drink it even if I wasn’t because I love turning a plain, ol’ glass of water into a tasty serving of electrolytes with no added sugar or calories. I’ll drink a lot of Nuun on my long flight to Hawaii and I’ll drink it daily once I get there to make sure I am fully hydrated and my electrolytes are topped off.

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Race nutrition: I use several products on the bike. Osmo in my bottles and Picky Bars, Honey Stinger chews, and Bonk Breakers to eat. I know it seems like a lot of different products, but I find I can take in more calories if I mix it up a little instead of sticking to one thing. Luckily, Bonk Breakers are also served on the course, so I don’t have to worry about running out of my preferred fuel.

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Loads of electronics: My birthday is about one week after we return from Hawaii, but I received an early birthday present from my family – a new MacBook Air! I love my old 2008 MacBook, but the battery is shot and I can’t use it to watch movies on the plane because the battery dies after about an hour. I am excited to bring my new MacBook Air instead. I am also bringing my nice SLR camera, which I almost never use because it is heavy, but it takes awesome pics, and my Kindle, which I cannot live without.

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Planet Sun sunscreen: I burn easily and have a family history of melanoma. The last time I raced in Kona, I had the outline of my tri kit on my back for the entire winter. Several people turned me on to Planet Sun and I have been using it successfully with no burns for my long training days and races. Since I am packing entirely in carry on luggage, I bought several travel sizes to take with so I don’t have to hunt for Planet Sun once I get to Kona.

Does your sunscreen company send you personalized notes?

Does your sunscreen company send you personalized notes?

Oakley sunnies: aviators for hanging out, Commit for racing, and Miss Conduct when I am feeling sassy.

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Betty Design bikinis: I am not a SoCal surfer girl, but wearing Betty Designs makes me feel like I am! I always get tons of compliments on the skulls.

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My trucker hat collection: yes, I am on the trucker hat bandwagon, although I will probably race in a visor instead. I like to think I look like my tri-crush Bree Wee in a trucker, but in reality, I think I look more like Mike Myers in Wayne’s World. That doesn’t stop me though.

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Family cheer shirts: last time I raced in Kona, I made the kids custom shirts, so naturally, they wanted shirts this year, too. I ordered from Custom Ink for the first time and I would not hesitate to use this company again. Very easy to create your design and great customer service. The only glitch was they would not let me print the word “Ironman” on my shirts because of trademark issues. I decided that we all know what “Kona” means in the triathlon world and “Hawaii 140.6 triathlon” sounded too silly.

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I look forward to getting all of this stuff in my suitcase, getting over to Big Island, and letting the fun begin!

Ironman Boulder Race Report

With a little extra time on my hands this week, I thought I would tell more about how race day unfolded. I find the usual race reports a little dull and prefer to tell stories about things that happened on the course. So, if you came by looking for all of the info such as the details of my pre-race routine – what time we got to the High School, how much I ate, how long the lines were at the porta potties – you are probably going to be a little disappointed. Sorry!

Swim – Time 1:13 (I always scroll down immediately to read someone’s time, so I will save you the trouble)

I don’t have much explanation for how I shaved 3 minutes off my Ironman PR and swam better than anyone expected. I can tell you that I have continued to work in the pool, went to long course masters a few times, and did a practice 2-mile race in the Rez two weeks before the race. Beyond that, I am as mystified and amazed as anyone else.

I was unsure what the swim would be like with the new rolling start procedure. It ended up feeling like a normal day at a 70.3 as far as the congestion in the water, without the added element of swimming over the slower swimmers or getting swum over by the faster people. I’m a fan. I can also tell you that I pretty much stuck to the buoy line, tried to draft when possible, and swam in a full-sleeved wetsuit.

Bike – Time 5:40

Out on the bike, I immediately noticed my heart rate was sky high. Scary high. I ignored it and assumed it would calm down within 20-30 min, but it took a full 90 minutes at least for me to see a heart rate that seemed more normal for me for Ironman. I’m not sure what the story was with the high heart rate other than the adrenaline of the day, and possibly the fact that I may have taken it out a little bit hot. I didn’t know my swim time since I don’t wear a watch in the water, but I realized fairly quickly that it was probably pretty decent (for me) since I was getting passed on the bike by people who I assumed were much better swimmers.

Lots of people went by me in the first half. It felt like the whole race was passing me by – mostly dudes – but quite a few of them came back to me after mile 80 or so.

I had a mental shift from “just doing my thing” to “hey, I might actually do something here today” around mile 60. That’s when I saw Sonja on the side of the road cheering and she told me that I had been 12th out of the water and was making up ground quickly. I felt great at that point, so I got to work riding hard.

Happy to see Sonja at mile 60

Happy to see Sonja at mile 60 – photo courtesy of Sonja Wieck

The rest of the ride was uneventful until I arrived at T2. I knew from watching the awesome pre-race videos from the Race Director that the dismount line was on the east side of the high school, but we were supposed to run with our bikes along the back of the school, across a bridge, and onto the track where the T2 bags were located. Honestly, not the greatest set-up I have seen. I have never tried to master mounting and dismounting with my shoes clipped in, so my only options were to run in my bike shoes, or stop, take them off and run in my socks. I went with option two and ran to the track in my socks with shoes in one hand and bike in the other. I didn’t have issues with burning my feet on the track while getting my T2 bag, but apparently a lot of other people did. I’m confident they will come up with a fix for that next year.

Run – Time 3:41

One of my big goals in Ironman is to run a 3:30 marathon, something I fully believe I am capable of. I thought I had a great shot in Boulder because of the flatter bike and run, but I was only about 5 or 6 miles into the run when I realized a 3:30 was probably not in the cards for me. It was in the mid-80s by that time, and the run course – which is 100% on bike paths – didn’t have many flat spots. Having biked harder than I had planned on, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to hold myself together and was legitimately concerned things might turn south at any given moment. On the other hand, I feel like I don’t have a ton of talents in this world, but running well off the bike, in the heat, is one of them.

My bike nutrition plan is pretty specific, but my run nutrition is much less so. I can run a stand-alone marathon on just 1 gel – but at some point on the first lap, I realized I was going to need some calories and started considering what to eat. Nothing seemed appealing. My stomach felt ok, but it was one of those times when I felt like the slightest wrong move could cause me big problems. I settled on orange slices, water, and an occasional handful of grapes. I tried to hold off on Coke as long as possible because I worried about energy highs and lows, but I was already into the Coke by the halfway point.

Lap 1 is when I realized I had not done a perfect job with my course recon and had failed to preview the biggest hill on the course, an overpass on Pearl Parkway on the northeast side. This was an out-and-back section, so we were treated to that hill 4 times with the fourth time occurring after mile 20. Pro triathlete Tim Don was on the side of the path cheering on this side of the course, and I remember thinking it was funny that Tim Don was cheering for me instead of the other way around. I tried to think of something clever to say to him when we headed back. I ended up yelling something that I am too embarrassed to repeat here, but which made him laugh, so that was a fun moment. Sadly, he was gone by lap 2.

Lap 1 was harder than lap 2. There was still so much running to do and I honestly wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out. I was holding a solid pace, but it was definitely hard and I was having to use all of my mental tricks to make it through. In the run, I try to give myself a lot of positive self-talk, and toward the end of lap 1, when I was feeling hot and struggling a bit, a thought popped into my head – “it was hot like this in Cozumel and you ran well.” Yes! It was true. Cozumel remains my fastest IM run and it was a hot race. That thought sustained me for a while. I knew from Sonja that I was in 8th place out of T2, but at this point in the race, people’s body marking had worn off, and I didn’t know what was what.

Around mile 16, Sonja was right about where she had been on lap 1 and she gave me the low-down: “Jen, you are in 4th place and 3rd is about 90 seconds up. You are running 30 seconds faster per mile. Go get her!”  She told me who I was looking for, and not long after, I made the pass and knew it would be for good. Now I was in 3rd place(!), but still doing damage-control by walking all of the aid stations and I still had to get up and over the Big Hill two more times. Luckily, that all went pretty well, and by the time I passed back through town again, I was just hoping the race would end soon and I could stop running.

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Doing the hard work with my race face on

If you were out there and cheered for me, I apologize if I didn’t acknowledge you. I tried to wave to friends and acknowledge some cheers with a point or a head-nod, but this was hard work for me and I had to to focus exclusively on the task at hand. I wish I was happy-race-face girl, but that’s just not me.

I had seen Mark on all of the out-and-backs. He was ahead, but not by a lot. Back through town the second time, Sonja told me he was just up ahead, and I knew I would catch him. Some people have asked if he was mad or if he cared that I beat him and I want to clarify that the answer to both is NO. Even though I used to think he was sometimes competing with me and used to feel like we were racing each other in workouts, I realized this summer that he doesn’t care if he is ahead of me or not, so I started not caring either. He is 100% supportive of me and understands the goals I have, although it may bug him a tiny bit that I don’t have to work quite as hard at it as he does. I have said many times that if you were to combine Mark’s work ethic with my ability, you would have one kick-ass athlete. My success in Boulder was his success too, and we were thrilled to be at the finish at almost the exact same time to celebrate together. Also, he let me ride our new 404/808 Zipps with power tap, and if that is not a selfless act of love, I’m not sure what is.

That said, no, it did not occur to me to slow down to run in the last 1.5 miles with Mark. I am always trying to run one of the fastest run splits of the day, and I was trying to do that in Boulder. On Pearl Street with the finish line in sight, I considered whether I might pull off an amazing finish line jump, which I don’t usually do, but it looks really good in photos. I couldn’t do it. The best I could do was smile, wave my arms like a lunatic, and high five a few strangers.

Time: 10:43:33 – 3rd AG; 12th OA (PR)

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My finish line catcher served her purpose and dragged me away from the line as I kept repeating that I just needed to sit down. The finish area was pretty empty and they let me sit there and wait for Mark. The photo we took at the backdrop in the chute was not cute, but we had Ryan of Kompetitive Edge take this one later.

Mark's shirt was a crowd-pleaser

Mark’s shirt was a crowd-pleaser

I need to say a few more words about Sonja and what she did for me last Sunday. When Sonja first starting coaching in 2011, I was one of her first athletes. When we parted ways in 2012 (I may also be the first person she fired), she told me she would always have my back and support me, even if she wasn’t my coach. True to her word, we have remained friends and occassionally train together. When I have something hard on the schedule that I really want to nail, I know I can call her up and she will try to be there for me if she can. She had five athletes she was supporting in Boulder, so I did not assume she would be focusing on me, but I sort of knew in the back of my head that if I was lucky enough to be “hunting” on the run, she would probably help me out by giving me placement info. It’s possible I might have executed the same race without all of the info Sonja provided, but there is no doubt having her there was a huge help. I am extremely grateful for her support on race day and all of the companionship leading up to it. Hopefully I can repay the favor some day.

A last thanks goes to the littles. At the risk of sounding in my last post like I was some sort of supermom whose kids didn’t even notice her training all summer, please know that my kids spent quite a few hours sitting on the pool deck, entertaining themselves while I rode the trainer, and even accompanying me on some brick runs (after a bit of begging on my part).

Ironman is our lifestyle and it is pretty much all they know, but I am grateful to have the support of the kids in the long months leading up to a big race. I can’t wait to make more memories in Hawaii with these two.

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How I got myself back to Kona

I had a post all tee’d up in my head last week that I was going to put up in advance of Ironman Boulder. It was going to be titled “Confessions of a (former) Kona Slot Chaser.” I was going to talk about how I had finally moved on from slot-chasing and in doing so, had actually found more happiness in the sport than I had in years. I assume that most of you reading are friends of mine in real life and know my “story,” but in case anyone is new, I will give you a quick recap:

I started doing tris in 2010 and Ironman Coeur d’Alene that year was the second tri I had ever done. I love the marathon and I knew that my place in tri was in Ironman. After two Ironmans in 2010, I qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona at Ironman Canada in 2011. There were 75 qualifying slots at that race and it was my first year in W40-44. We had 4 slots and an additional slot because Sister Madonna started but DNF’d. Incredibly, the slots rolled to 9th, which was me.

When I arrived in Kona 6 weeks later, I had convinced myself that I didn’t really belong. Back then, you could still pull up the Kona qualifiers in the results, and I think I had the slowest qualifying time from Canada, except for a few 65+ men and women. I spent the week worrying about feeling out of place and not enjoying the excitement because I was scared, intimidated and embarrassed. Not surprisingly, I had a terrible day on the course – maybe my worst performance from a mental standpoint. I started the swim in the back and too far wide (scared), never got it together on the bike course, and started crying to my family at mile 5 of the run that it was too hard and I couldn’t do it. I yelled at my husband late on the run course when he was trying to motivate me to finish in sub-12 . He got frustrated with me at the finish and we left the whole scene in a huff. I spent the rest of the vacation stewing about how terribly I had performed, beating myself up mentally for days.

I knew how to erase the bad memories from 2011. I would re-qualify (ideally without a rolldown) and I would have one giant do-over in Kona. It would all be different the next time around. I would enjoy the pre-race activities and excitement instead of hiding from them, and I would be a different person in Kailua Bay and out on the Queen K. I would prove to myself that I was a good triathlete, a feeling that had always eluded me. People close to me told me that I should be happy with myself and my accomplishments and I knew they were right, but I never felt it. I decided another Kona slot would change everything for me.

I got down to the business of re-qualifying. I jumped into the field at Ironman St George in 2012 without having trained for that event. Everyone knows how that went (terrible). My next Ironman was IMAZ in 2012 and I had a breakthrough day, achieving a new PR and finishing just off the podium in 6th, my highest placement to date. After that, I set my sights on Whistler. To drum up support for the inaugural race, WTC allocated 100 Kona slots to Whistler. I figured all I had to do was finish 6th and I would be Kona bound. Whistler ended up being much harder than I anticipated and I got out biked by a lot and couldn’t make up the time in the run. I was 10th and devastated. It felt like my last chance at Kona and I had blown it. I talked a lot about quitting the sport and returning to something that I was good at and made me feel good about myself (running), but in the back of my head, I knew I could be better than I had been in Canada and I wanted to give it one more shot.

After Whistler, I started working with a new coach, Vince Matteo, who I met through twitter (@felog). Vince is very data driven and analytical, which I liked because I am not those things. I had been using a power meter since 2011, but I didn’t really understand it and didn’t feel like it had helped my cycling in the way everyone claims it does. Vince was all about the power meter. He also didn’t mind that I wanted to do most of my bike training indoors on the trainer.

I was going to target Arizona, where I had had my best performance. But on the day of registration, I fumbled with my Active login for about 30 seconds and by the time I got onto the registration page, registration was already full. I didn’t have a backup plan. Cabo seemed too early in the year. The swim at CdA still scared me. My ideal criteria was a wetsuit-legal swim, flattish bike, and warm weather. It hit me like an epiphany…Boulder!  Mark was already registered and I had originally resisted signing up because it’s hard when we both do the same race and I had vowed I wouldn’t do any more summer races because it was a challenge to train with the kids out of school. But the more I thought about the idea, the more I liked it. I could train on the course and train with other friends who were doing the race. We wouldn’t have to travel. I didn’t think I could be competitive in Boulder, so I set other goals. I wanted to be a better swimmer and biker. I wanted to run a 3:30 marathon. Those were my goals – to just be better.

Winter rolled around and I put in a lot of long hours on the trainer. By spring, I had already done more long runs than I usually did in an entire Ironman build. My mindset had shifted from being completely results oriented (Kona, podium) to just focusing on my performance. Vince and I never talked about Kona. He knew that I dreamed of going back and having one more chance there, but it was never discussed. The closest we came to talking about it was in a phone conversation in late spring. I think I had been missing workouts and moving things around on the schedule like I typically do, and he said something like, “I know what it takes to achieve the goals you have and you are not really doing that work right now.”  He was right. I was not 100% committed and it showed.

Sometimes (a lot of times) I would tell Mark I wasn’t going to do the race. I didn’t feel like I was going to be good and didn’t want to try. Mark always gives it to me straight, and he said it was ridiculous to put in all of the time I had over the winter just to quit in summer when the weather was finally getting nice. He told me that I could be good, I had talent, but I was wasting it by not fully committing. In March, they announced a change in Chicago Marathon registration and I had an automatic qualifying time. My sister and I made plans to do the race. Chicago falls on the same weekend as Kona. I decided that I was moving on and made plans for the fall that did not include Hawaii or triathlon. It was a small thing, but making that plan to do Chicago gave me a lot of peace of mind.

Just at the point in the year when I usually fall apart with the kids out of school and no set schedule, I pulled myself together. Very much a night owl, I forced myself to do some training in the early morning so that it had less of an impact on my family. I asked for help with the kids from sitters and friends so I didn’t miss important workouts. I stopped drinking alcohol almost entirely because I wanted to nail my workouts every single day.

All of those small choices added up, and by last weekend, I was ready. I wanted it to be hot, and it was. I wanted to wear a wetsuit in the swim, and I did (after a scare the week prior). I hoped the bike course wouldn’t be too windy, and it was a very calm day.

I had some time and data goals for Sunday, but my biggest goal was to stay in the moment. I would not allow myself to think about the other girls or how I might finish. I would only focus on the work that needed to be done at that exact moment. Even throughout the entire marathon, I did not allow myself to think about qualifying. I simply wanted to run the best I could and pass as many people as possible.

Here is the result:

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In some ways it was a complete surprise, but in other ways it wasn’t. I had trained to swim around 1:15, bike around 5:45, and run a sub 3:40. Those were almost my exact splits (1:13/5:40/3:41). I focused on myself and my own performance and the results happened, just like some wise people had always told me they would.

Ironman Whistler Thoughts

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I started this report with a lot of the usual stuff, but it wasn’t flowing easily and I realized that the actual racing wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. Instead, I want to write about what I learned on Sunday and where I am going from here. So if you landed here hoping to hear about the two-loop swim, the gorgeous but brutal bike course, or the “over the river and through the woods” run course, my report might be a disappointment.

We came home from Whistler late Monday and yesterday I was home alone. I was crying off and on and texting, emailing and tweeting friends of mine. Some I have known for a long time and others I only know through the internet, but all of them are girls who compete and many have been in my shoes.

I was trying to process my feelings about the race and what I am going to do now.  My first reaction was to quit – to give up and throw in the towel.  Sunday was as good as I am – I had a great race – and it still did not feel like it was good enough.  I talked to Mark about returning to running, something that comes easier to me and that I am still reasonably decent at, or even returning to the sport of my youth – tennis.  I’ve thought of selling my bike, quitting my team and closing my social media accounts, which are almost entirely full of tri-related friends and news.  I told my friends that I am not doing Ironman next year or perhaps ever again.

Then a day passed.

In that time, I spun out my legs on my road bike in the rain and went for an easy swim in our neighborhood pool. I started to feel like myself again. I put my bike back together and wiped it clean. I watched Trevor Weurtele’s awards ceremony speech – twice – and cried each time. You should watch it yourself, but in it, he talks about how long he has been in this sport and the sacrifices he and his wife have made to be the best triathletes they can be.  Big victories haven’t come easily for him. Sunday was his first Ironman win.

I cried to Mark that I put everything I had into Sunday’s race and I came up far short of where I wanted to be (about 18 minutes short to be exact). He told me that’s how he always feels. He will likely never see an Ironman podium, but he works harder at improving his swim-bike-run than almost anyone I know.

The bottom line is that I love this sport too much to give up now. I know where I need to get stronger and I have some notions of what it will take to get there. It’s not something that’s going to happen in weeks or even months. I now realize that my progress might be measured in terms of years. I’m not a patient person. I want my results yesterday. But this sport is teaching me that patience and hard work are usually rewarded. And maybe, just maybe, the rewards will be that much greater because I had to work so hard.

I’m not sure when or where I will race again, but I can promise that I will be back out there.

Thanks to everyone who has sent me a kind word in the past few weeks. A special thanks to my husband, who probably saw me more times on Sunday than any other spectator saw their athlete. He’s always there to support whatever crazy dream I come up with – unless the dream involves buying another Ironman Foundation slot.

P.S. It occurred to me that some might be stopping by just wanting to know how I did, so I thought I would save you the trouble of clicking over to Ironman.com.  I had a great day. 1:18 swim (2nd best for me); 6:04 bike, which was 10-15 minutes better than we thought I would ride, and a 3:43 run, which was somewhat of a miracle after 6K of climbing on the bike.

Total time: 11:14:57; 10th in AG.

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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.