This year, I embarked on a hefty challenge: how to prepare for not one but two Ironmans in span of less than 5 months. In all honesty, it’s not something I’ve ever wanted to do. I know the cost personally, physically and emotionally of doing ONE Ironman. You have to be all in: with a solid social support system as well as a sturdy body, will and mind.
In one year?
It seemed an intriguing science experiment. My goal in doing this was twofold; personal and professional. From a coaching perspective, I wanted to more intimately understand how you prepare for an Ironman, recover and then leverage that fitness into a later season Ironman. From a personal perspective, coming off of having baby #2, I wanted to set the big goal of qualifying for Kona at IM Texas. My husband qualified at IM Wisconsin, therefore I would be in Kona anyways. Why not try to race? Though I could answer that with beaches, pina coladas and ice cream – I wanted to set the goal of getting to Kona. To go big. To be all in.
In May, I did just that. IM Texas complete, with a new PR, AG win and one minute off of the win overall. The next challenge had to be bigger – to compete 5 months later at the Ironman World Championship. Again, I wanted to dream big. To dream anything smaller wouldn’t be worth it. Having been to Kona three times before and placed twice in the top 10 of my AG, I had to raise the bar. To chase after the podium – top 5 in my AG. Since I finished ahead of several women at Texas who had done that before, the goal felt attainable. As a long-time athlete and coach, I am keenly aware of the work and numbers you need to hit to reach such a goal. Top 5 was not a goal set unrealistically.
Fast forward to the end result: I didn’t hit my goal. I learned a lot about myself, training and two Ironmans in one year. But as far as the end result, I fell short. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely understand and respect the accomplishment of finishing top 10 in my AG. It is an accomplishment I will not, cannot take for granted. Something that passed through my mind many times on race day: Do you know how many people would love to be here in Kona having your worst day, Liz? Do you know how many of your athletes would love to be here running this pace, hell, walking any pace on the Queen K? As cliché as it sounds, the thought of my athletes kept me moving forward and propelled me to find a way.
Let’s back up to the beginning. May. Recovering from IM Texas. It took about 7 weeks for my fitness to return to pre-Texas levels. Training-wise, Kona was much different than Texas. Foremost, I really enjoyed training for Texas and felt I did the bare minimum to get my big result – an approach that has traditionally worked for me. I found it easy to fit training around my life. It was winter which meant not much else was happening. Mackenzie was still young enough to sleep away a lot of the day and Max was in school. The workload was very, very manageable.
Yet the Kona training was different. Sure, I did a little more. But mostly it started to feel unnecessarily selfish and indulgent. Max was out of the school and Mackenzie was becoming this little person on the go. There were countless other things that I not just needed to do but wanted to do other than Ironman training. I felt guilty asking my mom to, at times, watch my kids daily. With Chris also training for Kona, we didn’t see each other very often nor did we train together. I missed being a normal family.
Looking back, the dissonance my training created, internally, was something I should have taken more seriously. Perhaps that was the end result of the science experiment, one in which I asked myself over and over again – not just can you train for two Ironmans in year while maintaining a full-time business, marriage, two kids and a house but more importantly should you? Are there wiser investments you can make for your time, yourself and your relationships?
Back to summer training. It clicked along, I got faster, fitter. I trained through quite a few races and surprisingly raced quite well; 2nd overall at a competitive women’s sprint, 1st in AG at Muncie 70.3, 2nd in AG at Nationals, 1st in AG coming off of the bike for the IM Wisconsin training day. Going into these races tired, I got used to digging into my reserves to find a gritty competitive spirit to rise up under the duress of training fatigue. Good practice for Ironman.
Three weeks before Kona. You are most vulnerable at this time as your fitness is high but fatigue is also closely trailing. Not surprising, I caught a cold (and I am rarely sick!). Eventually that cold turned into a sinus infection, a round of antibiotics. At a time when I should have been feeling fit and increasingly fresh, I was starting to feel, instead, that my body was on edge. But still I was not ready to abandon my goal: I had put in the work and believed I could achieve it.
Finally, we were in Kona. The day before the race, I completed the usual pre-race activities. Since I’ve last done the race, they’ve certainly made bike check in at Kona more of a red carpet experience! Yet it didn’t feel real to me. I never had that anxious or excited feeling that I was racing. I kept waiting for the pit in my stomach that signaled to me oh my god tomorrow I am doing an Ironman!
Race morning flew by quickly. Before I knew it, we were moving towards the swim. The staggered start was a new experience for me. Chris took off 15 minutes ahead of us which meant Amanda and I spent 15 minutes pretending like we were calmly waiting until I looked at her and realized what she too had to be thinking: we need to get to the front of the line, ASAP. We politely made our way there.
After speaking with someone about tidal forecasts, we knew it was wise to start front line, middle left. We ended up even further left as I felt the group around us was a little too antsy. Directly ahead of us, paddle boarders paddled back and forth, looming like sharks patrolling the waters to remind us to stay back behind the start line of buoys. This prevented the historical “creep” of years past.
One minute to go and what felt like all of a sudden, the cannon fired. I had an amazing lead out from Amanda and rode her feet for clear, clean line of water. A masters season worth of USRPT workouts prepared me for the aggressive pace and fast turnover. Let’s hear it for all out 25s! I found another pair of feet to ride and then set out for what felt like an incredible swim. I sat on the hip of another woman, matching her speed and turnover. I had absolutely no contact and felt fantastic.
I hit the Body Glove boat and knew the way back would be slower against the current so I found the next fastest pink cap, surged to it and sat on feet. When it became too comfortable, I found the next pink cap. I swam pink cap to pink cap until I found myself moving through throngs of slower age group men, trying to avoid their rogue feet and elbows. With the number of pink caps thinning out, I suspected I was having a decent swim. Sure enough, I exited the water with a new PR swim at Kona for me. What a great start to the day!
The course starts up Palani with a few welcome faces shouting my name. The challenges of the day (heat, wind) were becoming real and I was ready to embrace them. The way out on Kuakini is slightly uphill and I noticed my HR was higher than usual. I decided to start drinking more water to account for any dehydration from the warmer swim. Per usual, I was being passed like crazy in the first 10 miles but knew this would be a very long day.
Once on to the Queen K, I settled in for the ride. Full sun, crosswind and miles of black pavement ahead of me. Starting 15 minutes behind the age group men, the course was much less crowded yet Chris had told me to enjoy the legal draft as men passed me on the left. Let them block the wind for you, Liz. Thanks, guys! Just a few women passed me early on and I was able to pick a few to keep pace with legally. I went back and forth with a woman on a red bike which seemed to pass the miles.
About 30 miles into the ride, Amanda came up behind me. She had flatted. We briefly chatted about the swim. She said I had a great swim (which meant a lot to hear from her!) and that I was doing well in the race. I had been passed by only one woman in my age group and my friends told me I had exited the water in 7th – exactly where I wanted to be.
Crosswind turned into more wind at the turn at Kawaihae. Still my spirits were high and everything seemed in a good place. I knew the hardest part was yet to come and I was ready for it. We made the right turn towards Hawi and I felt what I had anticipated – headwind. No sooner did the headwind get joined by pelting rain. I was being passed now by a lot of women. I had no response, no ability to raise power and felt like I wasn’t even moving. Ironman is a long day. Let the race come back to you.
A quick stop at special needs to replace my bottles and take my 5 Hour Energy. Then, white knuckle it down from Hawi in what was now slick roads and a tailwind. The hills back towards Kawaihae felt manageable. Now all that was left was 30 miles back on the Queen K.
Once on to the Queen K, we were hit with a stiff headwind. At this point, the course was much lonelier. I was going back and forth with a man until he settled in behind me (and note, if you are drafting off of me, you are really not in a good place!). While my husband recounted a race report of being out there with enough men that it looked like a single file (legal) line down the Queen K back into the headwind, there was little old me alone with the black lava and some grasses!
Finally, the line of palm trees around the airport was within sight. 10 more miles! I realized I would be on my bike for 20 to 25 minutes longer than I had anticipated but it’s Kona – when it comes to times, ANYTHING can happen. My power had dropped a bit unusually but I still felt in control of the day.
I rolled into transition 12th in my age group. The run is my strength and I had the confidence of knowing I’ve run well every previous time at Kona. But as I ran into transition, I started to feel that something was off. So much so, that I told myself I am going to need a few minutes to gather myself.
I was hot. Chafed. Tired. The thought of running seemed next to impossible which is something I had never felt before. EVER. I spent nearly 6 minutes in transition applying sunscreen, beet juicing, drinking water, wiping my face, asking is it hot out there or is it just me …. hey, it’s not often that two women surround me asking what I need. I was taking full advantage of it!
Once out on the run course, my legs felt heavy. I felt the immensity of a marathon on these legs weighing heavy on me before I even hit the first aid station. Around mile 2, all I could think about was quitting. At a time when I needed to dig into my reserves, I wanted to lie down and take a nap instead. All thoughts so foreign and unusual to me that I didn’t know what to do with them. But I’ve learned over the years to never trust my thoughts. Don’t change the path based on what your head is saying. Just keep moving, the time will pass.
Around mile 3, I saw my coach. I’ve never felt this bad at Kona. He reminded me that everyone was feeling the same way and crumbling with the conditions. I believed him. It was hot out there. But I expected that and typically thrive under those conditions.
Just get to the little blue church, Liz, I said to myself. I could see other women in my AG coming back the other way. Two women in my AG then passed me. I was slipping in places but still I knew Ironman is a very long day. Stick with it. Ride the wave. I continually found myself on a ledge of what the hell is happening, why can’t I get my legs to go any faster? Ignore your thoughts. Don’t listen.
I hit the turnaround on Alii, reassured by the fact that while my pace was slow (for me), my splits were steady. Matthew, my coach, appeared again: steady is all you need to do well on a day like today. I told myself to just make it to my family who would be cheering on Hualalai. Around the 9 mile mark, I saw my family. Immediately, I burst into tears, an explosion of feeling like I was letting everyone down, including myself. I had an overwhelming sense of you dragged these people all the way out to this stupid island for this stupid race, you owe it to them to finish this day. Immediately countered with but I feel so bad, so flat, so heavy. Right then, my brother in law (whom I coached for IM Wisconsin), slapped me on the ass and said, very sternly, PICK IT UP.
Payback for all of those FTP intervals.
It was exactly what I needed to hear at a time when the race was starting to slip away. For no good reason! I had no signs of dehydration. My pace was slow but steady. My stomach was solid. HR in check. The only thing that seemed to be failing was, well, me. Perhaps that is what was most frustrating. On a day when all systems were ok, I was failing to make it happen out there.
Making the left turn to Kuakini, I was able to pick up the pace and pass yet another woman in my AG who had just passed me. I knew if I could just make it on to the Queen K there would be no turning back. Once there, full sun, rolling terrain. A long line of lonely athletes – some running, some walking, one laying on the ground with medical attention. Few spectators. I clicked it off, mile after mile. Keeping the pace steady. I started to feel a little better and was finally starting to find some clarity: finish what you started, Liz. FIND A WAY.
Up ahead I saw an athlete from home, Jacqui Guiliano, whom I knew was struggling. I ran up behind her and told her to come run with me. As I ran off, she said I wish I could, Liz. Moments later, she was right there next to me. Jacqui and I ran together towards the Energy Lab. I told Jacqui to set her sights on the woman in pink socks ahead. Get her. Now, the next one. Talking Jacqui through the next few miles gave me an excuse for talking out loud to myself. I needed to hear something encouraging.
As we climbed out of the Energy Lab, Jacqui ran ahead of me and I continued along the way. It was raging hot, even by Kona standards, and I was taking entire bottles of water to pour on my head which felt so refreshing. Nonetheless, the last 10K is always a challenge in Kona. It represents the final 45 to 60 minutes of your season. A long, arduous season of training and emotions. At mile 22, I ran towards top pro coach – Matt Dixon. He looked at me and said stay on it, Elizabeth. At this point, I was passing the late Kona carnage – the weary, the walkers, age groupers, pros alike. Yes, I was prepared to stay on it to the end.
As I made the right turn on to Palani, I noticed someone downhill ahead of me. A woman in my AG. I had no idea what place I was running in but said to myself – what if that is the one woman who will make a difference today? The difference between 6th and 7th or 10th and 11th? I had to go for it. I am, above all, a racer. And when I stop chasing what lies between me and the next step, I know I am done racing. I lifted my effort, darted down the hill and finally dropped a 7:30 mile (FINALLY?!). And, thanks to Karin Langer for jumping out at me to cheer manically (she will now be my spirit animal) as I finished up strong on Alii. Sure enough, chasing that gap made the difference – I finished 10th in my AG.
I crossed the line in my slowest Kona time yet. Much slower than Texas and (ouch) passed by several women I had finished ahead of in Texas. I realize that time is a poor marker of effort in a course like Kona. But truth be told, I crossed the line feeling a little sad, a little hot and a little empty. I fell short of what I know is possible from myself.
Perspective. On one hand, 10th in the world is a great accomplishment. On the other, the woman who finished 5th in my age group was the same woman I finished ahead of at Texas. I admire her amazing day and ability to put it together when it mattered most. Truthfully, it disappoints me that I was unable to do the same. It would be easier if I had a clear cut reason– an elevated HR, a bonk, a flat tire, cramps, blisters, an episode of GI distress. I had none of that. Perhaps that is most frustrating – why on so many days this summer I was able to rise up in training or racing when fatigued but on this day, when it mattered, my body was off and I wasn’t able to do the same.
But hindsight allows for clarity and I can see I started race day a little tired, a little drained – from life, from training, from doing two Ironmans in one year, from taking big risks to chase big dreams. The cure isn’t signing up for another Ironman or trying to qualify to go back next year for redemption. The cure is to find a place where the sport can exist in my current life while staying in balance. I didn’t have that balance this summer and my body/mind/soul sensed it.
The races where you hit your mark are easy to write about. A story of success and how hard you worked for it. The races where you fall short are not as easy. Yes, I worked just as hard but walk away without the satisfaction of knowing I did what I set out to do. Nonetheless, I don’t regret the dream, the risks or the effort. Having done the sport for 15 years, I am not interested in safe, complacent or guaranteed goals. I want to go out on the ledge, that is where I will learn the most about myself, the sport and life. The lessons I learned as a coach for how to manage two Ironmans in one year are invaluable. As for what I learned about myself? A friend encouraged me to resist feeling like I had wasted a summer in training. Appreciate the journey. That journey confirmed much of what I already knew about myself. When the task in front of me seems insurmountable, I won’t give in. I will persist. I will stubbornly finish it. It is how I approach most obstacles: where there is a will, there is a way. Perhaps it was foreshadowing the day before the race when I texted my coach that although I had a few little things weren’t feeling right, in true Liz Waterstraat fashion, I would throw the biggest smile on my face, adopt a fake it ‘til you make it attitude and find a way.
And now? Journey over. I am off seasoning. When my coach suggested I do two weeks of light workouts to minimize the detraining effect, I laughed and thought to myself: Detrain? I am ready to derail this train. Call me in November. Since the race I have done nothing. Read this: NO-THING. Other than day drinking in Waikoloa, pizza 3 times in a week, declared it Beertober and ate chocolate every day. I have absolutely no desire nor need to engage in any type of training. While I am a proponent of active recovery, at some point, after two Ironmans in 5 months, I feel it’s necessary to shut it down and give the body deep rest.
As for the lessons learned about training for two Ironmans, having a husband who was also training for Ironman while parenting two young children? I believe my 5-year old son said it best. I can’t help but think back to an afternoon a few weeks ago. Earlier that morning, I had done my last long ride. When I got home, tired of training, tired of being tired from training, I decided to take the kids to the apple orchard to simply do something like a normal family. Chris was still out riding and the orchard was a few miles away. He joined us after his ride ended. Finally, we were all there – together. While picking apples, Max looked up at me and said mommy, I like being a family. It is but a short time that my kids need and want me or us this much. And it is time I can never get back.
Choose how you spend your time wisely.
Huge thank you to my family and friends for being with me in Hawaii, Matthew Rose from Dynamo Multisport, Jen Harrison for being MVP of my inner circle, Greg Grandgeorge for the analytical conversations, TriSports.com for over 10 years of support and all of my athletes for reminding me to find a way out there!