Everything is bigger in Texas. Serving sizes, rainstorms, pick-up trucks, waffles and possibilities.
Many times I’ve raced in Texas. It’s one of those states where I race well. Arizona – completely off of my map . The entire state makes me itchy. But Texas welcomes me each time with warm hospitality and strong race results. Back in 2006, I traveled to Lubbock to race in Buffalo Springs. When my bike didn’t arrive via FedEx, Chris flew out with my road bike and I rode it to a 25 minute age group victory. It was my first time qualifying for Kona. A year later, I traveled to San Angelo to compete at a long course duathlon. Chris and I won our respective races. I fell in love with amazing coffee, tall grasses and raging winds. Texas, you’ve really grown on me.
9 years, 2 kids and 3 trips to Kona later, I arrived at the 2015 Ironman Texas. The experience was big as was the result. I have so many awesome, amazing memories of race day that I don’t even know where to begin. So I’ll go back to the beginning …
Over 8 months ago. Baby number two, c-section number two. I exercised diligently through pregnancy but anyone who has been through it knows that 9 months of exercising through pregnancy leaves you with strength and perspective but does not magically leave you with fitness. I had a lot of work to do.
I recovered from birth, quickly. I got back to exercising within a week. I was ready to take on focused training 6 weeks later. And ready to set goals. I knew I needed a big, scratch that – audacious goal to motivate myself. I chose Ironman Texas. At first it seemed completely crazy – basically 7 months of preparation for an Ironman with the majority of training done indoors and starting from a place of very low fitness. But after 15 years in this sport, I am not interested in safe, mediocre goals. I’m going all in, I’m saying why not, I’m raising the bar – high.
I enlisted the help of a phenomenal coach, Matthew Rose of Dynamo Multisport. He guided my fitness with precision but most importantly with care. He kept me grounded in my progress, which was never quick enough. He kept me focused on the big picture, which always seemed very far away. Little by little he made me feel like the impossible was very, very possible.
Training went as well as training can go living in Chicago. It’s been a long winter. All but three of my rides were done on the trainer. Most of my long runs were in the frigid cold. Add to that two children. The chaos of my daily life is a whir of meal preparation, baths and laundry. I also run a full-time coaching business. Life is busy but I prefer it that way. I have an incredible support system but more importantly I take it day to day, rocking each day the best I can.
In the final 8 weeks before Texas, each week it became more and more real: I was training for an Ironman. I made those 8 weeks count. I managed my details. I finally committed to physical therapy for the assorted aches you get from 15 years of racing. I got bloodwork done which revealed I needed to address some low iron (remedied by a superb supplement: Floradix). I got down to race weight – not by eating less (which does not work as I get older) but by moving more. I read a lot of race reports to gather tips about the course. I researched heat acclimation. I asked Jana, a top Ironman competitor, about her beet juice protocol. I looked for any advantage possible knowing that at the level I wanted to compete – fitness wouldn’t matter so much as the finer details, the little things that add up and give you that extra edge.
And, mostly, I went all in. I fully trusted my coach, Matthew. Early on, he told me to put these splits into my head: 1:03/5:23/3:27. Times supported by my past race results and performances at Kona, these were not whimsical. At a time when my fitness was nowhere near supporting those, he helped me to dream big and then laid the foundation of fitness to make those dream splits possible. And by race day, my training data proved I was ready to hit those splits. The training approach for this Ironman was completely different than anything I’ve done before and that was scary. I did a bunch of 4 ½ hour rides and 2 rides of 120 miles. I never ran longer than 2 hours. The flow and composition of training was entirely different; more strength, more intensity. Most noticeably, I didn’t carry around the blanket of fatigue I had felt during past Ironman preparations. Was I really going to be ready? Then came the taper. A series of fairly substantial workouts every 3 to 4 days. And the week of the race? I did more than I’ve ever done before. But I arrived on race day feeling fresh, ready and most importantly, confident.
I also heat acclimated. I’ve never done this before (not even for Kona) but after feeling “hot” in San Juan, I wanted to be better prepared. I did my research then started 18 days prior to the race, committing to doing something “hot” every day. Either sitting in the dry sauna for 30 minutes, standing in the steam for as long as I could breathe, overdressing on the bike, not using a fan for up to 100 minutes (supported by research). We had a few very warm days in the 80s where I snuck in my long runs. Of all the things I did, the only things I felt prepared me: standing in the steam room (I actually felt the Houston humidity wasn’t thick compared to the steam room) and riding with a long sleeved cotton shirt – the discomfort and sweating prepared me for the blanket-like thick air. I also read a fantastic article on the physiological and psychological adaptation to heat stress. Something in that article resonated: you can view heat as a challenge or a threat. If a threat, you will crumble both physically and physiologically from the heat. If a challenge, you will rise up confident, composed and in control –in other words, you will be hardy.
All preparations complete, before I knew it, race week arrived.
Ironman Texas takes place in The Woodlands, an upscale developed community with lush greenways, beautiful real estate and high end shopping. I enlisted the Iron-Sherpa skills of one of my closest friends and strongest athletes, Amanda. When we arrived, the Houston area had been under a few days of unusually high rainfall, leaving a thick blanket of humidity, overcast skies and intermittent downpours. Thankfully, I didn’t find it all that uncomfortable. Heat acclimation worked. Or perhaps it was just mindset. I didn’t sign up for Texas with any visions of it being overcast and 60. In fact, I wanted temperatures to burn. I know my strengths and knew that the hotter, windier and nastier the conditions, the more likely I would prevail.
The days leading up to the race were a blur of the busyness before Ironman – assembling all of your gear, thinking through your special needs bags, putting salt tabs into assorted containers. I started to change my diet on Wednesday, increasing carbohydrates. On Thursday, I cut out most fiber (fruits, veggies, whole grains) and stuck to a safe, bland, white diet. On Friday, I did the same (two bagels, peanut butter, banana, 2 bars, 2 eggs, half bag of a BIG bag of pretzels, pasta, chicken, breadsticks). While I did more pre-race workouts than usual and there is always a lot of walking involved in pre-race activities, I also took the time to sit around and do absolutely nothing – I disconnected from my work and my life. I spent 3 hours sitting on a park bench. I got a 2 hour pedicure while watching Man vs. Food. For the first time in a long time, my head was completely quiet and empty.
Race morning arrived. I ate my usual oatmeal breakfast. An hour later, I shoved in half a bagel. Are you sensing a trend here? It takes shitloads of carbs to perform well at long course racing. I had a small cup of coffee. And also a shot of beetjuice which I had loaded for the past 6 days.
Overnight rains left transition as a thick quagmire of wet grass and foul-smelling mud. Amanda dropped me off and my goal was to get in and out of there quickly. I put my nutrition on my bike and then set out for the 15 minute walk to the swim start. I made a new friend. I dropped off my special needs bags. I found Amanda. I petted a Corgi named Loki and declared him my spirit animal. Before I knew it, it was time to line up in the corrals. With a rolling start, you had to position yourself in a corral around the time you thought you’d swim. Matthew advised me to start in the back of the 1 hour corral, to position myself behind a faster crowd and get pulled along in the draft. Just like masters – I envisioned the swim as a giant draft of Marty. While standing in the corral, I finally met Matthew, who was on course to watch a few of his athletes racing.
At 6:40 am, the age groupers started rolling into the murky 81-degree water, a comfortable temperature and non-wetsuit. I chose the far left line along the buoys. I had a fairly contact-free, flawless entry. I really eased into it. Occasionally I would come into contact with another swimmer but would readjust my course to stay contact free. I wanted the swim to be as low stress as possible – no need to waste energy here. I broke the swim into thirds: one third out, one third back and then a right turn into the canal to the finish (a point to point swim). The way out felt fast. The way back, I swam further right. I was entirely alone. The water chopped a bit more and at times I felt like I was making slow forward progress. Finally, the right turn to the canal where Matthew advised me to ignore the buoys and sight on the kayakers instead. The water way became lined with spectators and as the cheers grew louder. The swim felt long and I knew my time would be slower than anticipated. I hit the mat in 1:05:12, not too far off where we had projected.
Amanda and Chris both warned me that though I’ve done Ironman 3 times, 3 times I’ve done Kona. An Ironman mixing with the general triathlon population would be different. They were right. It’s more fun. People are friendlier, more talkative! But it’s also more lonely. They said I would be near the front, less crowds, more service. Sure enough, I had a gaggle of volunteers helping me put on my helmet. With the mud through transition, they advised me to carry my shoes to my bike, where I put them on and set out to ride.
For the first time, I raced with heart rate. Matthew gave me a framework from which to make decisions for race day – mostly which included some HR caps which I then blended with the advice I got from my “bike guy” – Greg. Greg is a former athlete of mine but one of the most intelligently analytical engineers I know. He’s given me guidance in every race for how to pace the course with regards to the weather, the elevation, my fitness and gear. I have a lot of good people in my inner circle. He’s one of them. He ran all of my numbers through Best Bike Split and we had many conversations about how different weather patterns, road quality and power ranges would influence my race.
From training rides, I knew that I could hold my HR at 145-155 bpm for many, many hours. So I worked within that range. Though the week had been rainy and overcast, Texas delivered bright sunny skies, humidity and warm south winds on race day. I knew that on this day, in these conditions, HR would be wiser than power. It would take into account the real work/stress that was going on under the hood of my body. Above all, it would keep me in check. Obviously, then, I kept my range of watts in mind, but didn’t chase it.
The way out is mostly uphill but with tailwind. When you can clearly hear the thoughts in your head, you know that you have a stiff tailwind. Still, I couldn’t believe how many people were pushing the pace – passing me in small packs, aggressively. While they bombed any steeper downhills, I took the opportunity to get out of my saddle, pee and let my HR come down. I grabbed water at every aid station – drinking and dumping it on myself. I stopped at special needs to grab my 2 prepared bottles and 5 Hour Energy. I didn’t get caught up in the race. I was mindful of who was passing me but didn’t let it change my plan. The course rolled through beautiful tree-lined roads up towards the ghost-like town of Richard. At that point, a short while after special needs, the roads became lined with enough chip seal to break your rhythm. Except for a few small packs that would pass every now and then –I was out there, mostly alone. It was beautiful landscapes but felt more like a training ride – I suspected I was racing near the front (knowing I was 15th out of the water) but with passing a few women and getting passed, I lost track of where I might be. But I knew it wouldn’t matter. Chris had reminded me that position wouldn’t matter until the last lap of the run.
Shortly after the halfway point, the course turned south into a fairly strong and consistent headwind. The day was heating up. The sun was out in full force. I kept my power ~10 watts lower than anticipated in order to obey my HR cap. The heat was clearly stress on my body and I needed to be mindful not to let it accumulate above a rate I could handle. Every 10 miles was ticking by, slowly. Not surprisingly, some of those who passed me earlier were blowing up – slowing, sitting up. The last part of the course tilted mostly downhill through some neighborhoods. Along the way, a man passed me and said you must be having a good race. I laughed and said I have no idea. I was just out there following my plan. I finished the bike in just over 5:24, one minute faster than the Best Bike Split projection (as a side note, BBS also predicted my San Juan bike split within a minute!).
And for those interested, my IF was .7, VI was 1.04, TSS was 266. What this all means is that I rode fairly easy, smooth and with my best run in mind.
What did I think about for over 5 hours out there? A lot of things but mostly nothing. Sure, it was boring at times, hot and I was chafing but – I didn’t expect to have 112 miles of sparkly, comfortable, feel good thoughts out there. Instead, I focused on the controllables. I focused on the process. I had my checklist of things I needed to do: eat every 40 minutes, 2 salt tabs every hour, drink 1 bottle of sports drink per hour, drink enough water on top of that to be sure I had to pee, mind the heat and manage my mind. Meaning, keep it empty. Free it up so you can focus on the process. Get caught up in the details of executing your best ride.
I took my time in transition. The day before the race I had gone running and I realized with the humidity that I would be most comfortable free from the confines of tight tri shorts – yup, I changed into running shorts. I took a shot of beet juice. I grabbed everything else I would need, stopped to get patted down with sunscreen and headed out to run. And for the first time in three Ironmans…
My legs felt amazing.
For the first time, ever, I also raced with a Garmin and heart rate monitor. Like the bike, I had my framework from which to make decisions. And good thing – because I hit mile 1 effortlessly in 7:33. Not exactly Ironman pace! I reeled myself in and said slow down, you’ve got 25 more miles. Save your heart beats and energy until the last lap. I also used HR to keep tabs on my energy and hydration. I saw Matthew somewhere around mile 1, he looked at me and said, be patient.
An email he sent a few months ago kept ringing in my head. It was one in which I was frustrated by my slow progress, slow paces. He replied with:
Deliberate patience: process, process, process.
It was the theme of my training journey and stuck with me throughout race day. At the AG level, you don’t race an Ironman. You patiently execute your plan, focus on your process while slowing down as little as possible throughout the day.
I kept my HR in mid to high zone 2 for the first lap. I put the biggest smile on my face – here I am, in Ironman, running. I don’t like running long but I absolutely love running. The first lap was an amazing adventure – the course twists around so many neighborhoods, the running path, parks, it was so many little out and backs which break up the monotony and keep you engaged. Playful signs were posted along the course (“you are NOT almost there”). And then, around mile 5, the course snakes down towards the waterway, enticing you with a sign that says “waterway ahead” and another 3 signs that read, in line, HERE WE GO!
The waterway: a fun, energetic scene along the canal with spectators, crowds, noise, music. I fed off of the crowd who were shouting, playing, clearly over-imbibing and calling my name. I had a spring in my step I hadn’t felt since my early 30s. What has changed? Nothing other than my attitude and confidence. Matthew told me to trust my run, believe that it was there. I hit all of the times I needed to in training, it was just a matter of belief and execution.
Lap 2 the real work began. Time to dig in a bit more. I had been carrying around a 5 Hour Energy and told myself at mile 12 I could finally take it, excitedly. I was getting splits from Amanda that the top two women in my AG were ahead and I was gaining on them. But I wasn’t chasing. I wasn’t hunting, in beast mode or going after them. I was simply out there following my plan, managing my details, running the best I could within the parameters of my HR, my energy levels and the heat. I let my HR drift into the high 150s. I continued to feed off of the energy. I kept my mind empty focusing on the process of each mile – not looking too far ahead. As I approached the 2 hour mark, I had a fearful thought of what happens after 2 hours, I’ve never done this in training. I kept wondering when the bear would jump on my back. Mile 16. Mile 18. Mile 20. It never happened. I felt fantastic. I kept running.
Early in the second lap, I passed the woman second in my age group. And at mile 20, I was now approaching the first woman. I passed with authority, telling her, good job, good race. But I knew better than to think she would just lay up and let me run away. I knew she would dig in deeper. I kept a smile glued on my face and went for my third lap.
Lap 3. At this point, I told myself with regards to heart rate, anything goes. It started to dip into the low to mid 160s, squarely in my zone 3. My pace wasn’t improving but it was consistent. I continued to take ice and water at the aid stations. At times when I didn’t get enough water, I dug into my bra to pull out ice cubes to eat them. I felt challenged by the heat but not threatened. I met the challenge with mindful management and a can do attitude. I want to prove I could be bigger than it, act like it didn’t even matter. I didn’t feel hot once out there.
It also helped to have an amazing on course support/Sherpa crew!
At mile 22, I felt a slight bark in my left hamstring. So I popped a salt tab every mile from there on out. Research is inconclusive as to why we cramp but all I know is that I felt a cramp coming up, I popped a salt tab and it went away. That to me is the only science necessary! At mile 23, I started taking a few sips of Cola as a precaution for any impending low energy (which happened late in my last Ironman).
Then there I was, late in the marathon and I thought about something my husband said to me. He taped a card to my disc wheel, a welcome and touching surprise. In it, he told me not to count the miles until I felt pain. At that point, those would be the miles that would count that would make me a champion. He was right. At mile 24, I finally felt it – the quiver of fatigue mentally but not physically. I had been completely “on” for nearly 10 hours and in the last 2 miles there was no coasting or enjoying the Ironman. Kim was hot on my heels and at the final out and backs, I calculated that she was gaining. In a rolling start, heck in any race, every second counts out there. Like Chris said, these would be the miles that would count. Two to go.
Around mile 24 ½, Emily, who ended up 1st overall, passed me assertively. I had no idea what position I was in and would learn later that she went on to outrun me by a little over a minute to take the overall win for amateur women. A little after mile 25 ½ , when you make the final turn towards the finish line, I had no idea where I was going. I hadn’t previewed the course, it was too confusing. So I did what I knew needed to happen; I sprinted. Full on end of a track workout, arms pumping, teeth gritting sprinting. Looking back at the file, my HR shot into the 170s and I dropped a sub 6:00 pace in the last minute. I sprinted down towards the finish line only to realize I had to make a hairpin turn to go back up the hill to the actual finish line. I kept sprinting, knowing Kim very well could be right behind. When it was all said and done, I ran a 3:29 marathon.
I crossed the line and then in a moment of awkward over-emotional exhaustion, hugged my catcher. A woman came up to me and said that I was selected for drug screening. At first I thought it was random but then realized they also tested 1st overall. Which made me then realize that I had come in 2nd place overall in the amatuer race.
Drug testing escorts you to a tent where you need to provide a sample. I had last peed around mile 15 (actually on myself while running which might be my most impressive feat ever while racing) and consistent hydrating actually left me with the urge to urinate. We walked to a private porta-potty; it was hot, stuffy and this strange woman had to watch me urinate. Lucky for me, childbirth prepared me to drop my pants in front of anyone. Unlucky for me, I only produced 20 mL.
You need to give us 90.
I then had to carry my urine sample out to a tent to sit, hydrate and wait. It took me two bottles ofwater and one Gatorade to finish my sample and then go through the process of pouring it into containers in front of a man who then had me declare anything I’ve taken in the past week (multivitamin, Zyrtec, inhaler, beet juice and Floradix).
At some point during the drug testing experience, Amanda – who is now known to WADA as my “agent” – informed me that I had gone 10:06 – I had no idea, never once looked at the overall running time of my race. I trained with sub 10 hours in mind and training supported that. But on this day, in Kona-esque conditions, it didn’t happen. Regardless, it was a 16 minute PR, I was elated. I had also won my AG. By ONE SECOND. That all out sprint at the end made for some ridiculous looking finish chute pictures but it turns out it mattered, big. I was now the W40-44 North American Ironman Champion.
A few days have passed since the race. I stood on the podium, collected a nice award, an Ironman champion jacket and a ticket to Kona.
All along my goal was to be top 3 in my age group and qualify for Kona but the week of the race, something changed. I was lecturing to my Ironman Wisconsin training group on the Tuesday night before I left, reading some passages from one of my favorite books, Elite Minds by Stan Beecham. In it, Beecham advises you to set goals you are only 80 percent sure you can reach. Anything less is too easy. I revised my goal to win at Ironman Texas. I went into the race not just wanting but expecting to win. For when you expect to win, you free up your mind to actually be in the moment and race your process, focusing on what it takes to win a race.
As for what lies ahead? Kona is the only other race I have planned for the season. It will take a few days to figure out what else is between now and then. Until then, my body, diet and life will get some downtime. Racing an Ironman is not difficult, actually doing the work to get there is straining on many levels; physically, socially, emotionally & life-wise. Not surprisingly, people often ask how do you do it. I lead a very busy, full life. And yes, I just had a baby 8 ½ months ago. How do I do it? It’s rather simple: I just do it – day after day. Day after day, I set about in my life to make it happen. This includes sacrifice on many levels, impeccable organization and an incredible support system (husband/grandma/friends). I nail one day and then move on to the next. That’s called consistency. And if I “fail” a day – whether as a parent or athlete, I don’t dwell. I move forward in the direction of my goals and chalk it up as experience. I realize I don’t have endless time to focus on myself, my workouts and recovery. But I don’t think that level of self-centeredness is necessary – if you do what you can with what you have while maintaining a “can-do” attitude, what you do will count and your self-efficacy will multiply until you feel ready to tap into the awesome potential you’ve built up inside of yourself to let out on race day.
Thank you for reading. And a huge thank you to all who helped to make this happen (you know who you are!).