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

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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