Saturday, October 17, 2015

On Searching for Peace… And Not Finding It. (Ironman Louisville 2015)

I feel like I need to preface this post with a comment about how it comes from the perspective of an athlete who has been racing Ironman for 18+ years. Sometimes I read blogposts written by athletes newer to the sport and it makes me a bit jealous at how they define and feel success… Like when you're newer to the sport, improvement somehow comes more readily… vs 18 years later, finding improvement can be like trying to squeeze blood from a rock. Anyway, here's the perspective 18 years later. I hope it doesn't come across as me being too jaded. I do tend to be quite hard on myself. 

I have a vivid memory from the finish line of Ironman Cozumel in 2013. Nalani had a good/satisfying race there and she said, "I'm at peace." I didn't feel the same way. While I'd gotten myself to the finish line, I didn't do so in a way that felt like I'd had "a good day". That was frustrating to me because I felt like I'd earned the right via hard training to have a good day... One of the reasons I feel attracted to Ironman is that, for the most part, you get out what you put in. But then again, not always.

I waited almost 2 years before going after Ironman again. I think I needed a whole year (2014) to get over the disappointment of my race results in 2013. This year, I felt hungry again. I felt ready to train and I was motivated and all year I did the work. I dotted my i's and crossed my t's and with Marilyn's help, got myself to the start line of this race feeling fit and healthy and rested and ready. I really had no excuses which left me feeling quietly confident that I was set up to have a stellar day out there on that Louisville course. Deep down what I wanted was to finally feel like I could be at peace with the Ironman distance. I'd done this Ironman thing 14x before and while some of those races had been decent, none left me with the feeling of YES! I DID IT! That was the feeling I was seeking. 
Because of the concern about the possibility of toxins and bacteria in the Ohio River, I didn't do the practice swim the day before the race. It just didn't make sense to risk getting sick when I was feeling totally healthy. While I knew I would feel better on race day if I had the opportunity to get familiar with that water first, I opted to play it safe which meant winging it on race morning. And while I would guess that *most* would be like Wow great swim! (57:40), I definitely expected more from myself (my swimmer friends understand!). I felt sloppy while I was swimming (having not swam in my long sleeve wetsuit for who knows how long!?! Years. My fault, yes, but in my defense it was freaking HOT this summer!). I thought lining up middle/back of that time trial start would be fine and swimming around people who started ahead would be fine, but in reality I felt like I did the whole swim head up tarzan style b/c the brown water didn't allow me to see anyone without lifting my head.  Excuses excuses it is what it is and I got out of the water not knowing my time but thinking that it wasn't great… but whatever. It was fine and I wasn't tired and that's all I felt like I needed from my Ironman swim. If I could go back and change anything about my execution of this race, I would have done the practice swim the day before and lined myself up more toward the front. While I can't say I really enjoyed swimming in the Ohio river, it was fine and the 'nastiness' of the water was really over-hyped. ("Fine" seems to be the appropriate description of that swim.)

In T1 I opted to put on my vest b/c I felt cold. Looking back I think I probably could have gotten away with no vest, but again, fine. I did stop briefly on the bike at ~mile 35 and donated that vest to some spectators. :)

Onto the bike I remember thinking that I really felt no sense of 'urgency'. First 10 miles were fairly flat and I was just riding. Not super easy but not hard at all and people were FLYING by me like I was riding backwards and all I could think was have you people not ever heard about how important it is to pace yourself in an Ironman?!? I was definitely holding myself back there but it felt like the right thing to do and I kept reminding myself that this is a LONG day and that being patient early on was important. Did I hold back too much?? Maybe. I don't know. I race by feel so I don't have any concrete data to look back on and tell me if I was doing the right thing or if I was just being a pussy. I did feel like I was getting stronger as the ride went on. I fueled and hydrated well (~1800 cal & ~7x bottles of Osmo & water), peed 3x. I felt better on the 2nd loop than I did on the first, and in the last 20-30 miles when we had a decent headwind I was still happy enough, thinking that the end of most of my training rides I have a headwind stronger than what we had there. In the last 10 miles I caught back up to a couple of gals in my age group who had passed me in the first 10 miles so that was reassuring that my pacing strategy had been good. I had been glancing at my watch when I saw mile markers but wasn't micro-managing it… the running time on my watch though seemed loooong to me b/c it was saying it was almost 7 hours into the race by the time I got off the bike… to be completely honest I was expecting to be off the bike more like 6.5 hours into the race but I've been around long enough to know that some days are slower than others so I really tried to let it go and kept convincing myself I was doing well. Physically I'd say I felt ok at the end of the bike, except for the fact that my eyes weren't focusing anymore. I was seeing double and it was weird and I had a feeling it was due to being in that aero position for so long… like maybe an optic nerve was impaired or something? That was disconcerting and it made me want to be done riding for sure. Otherwise, I really had no problems on the bike. My Cervelo worked flawlessly and as I rolled into T2 I was grateful for my mechanical luck!
I have to say, that Louisville bike course was pretty awesome. Much of it had recently been repaved so for the most part we were riding on super smooth roads… Fun hills like roller coasters going up/down for the bulk of it. This course is advertised as 'rolling' but that's a bit deceiving. There are some legit hills on this course and a few that were short but very punchy and required some WATTS to get up/over. Because of the nature of the course, riders had to go out of their way to draft. That didn't stop some from trying- I didn't see any big pelotons like you see on flatter courses, but there were a bunch of little groups of 3-4 riders- including some women in my AG- working together (cheating!) and that was frustrating- if unfortunately standard- at times. On the plus side, I think I did about the best job I've ever done of not giving any of my energy away to that (Look Mom! No swearing!). Toward the end of the ride when I was sort of trying to calculate splits, I knew mine wasn't anywhere near my fastest (at 5:51 it was actually my slowest in probably 10 years?) but I did feel a sense of pride that it was 100% mine with no draft assistance from any other riders.

Finally after what felt like forever I got off my bike and as soon as I stood up I was able to see again, so that confirmed to me that the vision issue had more to do with being aero and wasn't about hydration or anything like that. (Phew!) T2 felt like it took forever but ~5' later I had taken care of business and was out on the run course. Right away I saw Scott and he ran with me for maybe a minute as I was chatting his ear off about how the bike felt (LONG!). Then he left me on my own and I settled in for the long run. I really tried to just turn my brain off and don' On purpose I held way back that first mile, just trying to get my legs under me and steel myself to the fact that I was going to run every damn step of that marathon. Somewhere in that first mile I saw Marilyn as well but I had turned my brain off by then and I did not recognize her! When you're wearing your name on your bib number a lot of people you don't know cheer for you by name and I felt like I couldn't acknowledge everyone who yelled GO MICHELLE!! but after I passed Marilyn I was like hmmm… I think that was my coach?!? Lol. When I saw her a few miles later though I perked up and was able to smile and tell her I was all good.

The first 13 miles went by just like that and before I knew it I was back near the finish and smiling like crazy b/c so many people were around and I saw Moana and Scott and my mom and Moana made sure to point out my name she'd proudly drawn on the road in chalk… 
It was all super fun at that point and I was stoked thinking YES I AM DOING IT and while I knew maybe my swim+bike weren't exactly stellar today, I had the thought that I was going to salvage this race with a decent run at least! I still hadn't walked at all- not even through aid stations- and I really felt about as okay as one could feel at mile 13 of an Ironman marathon. It made me think that maybe my relatively "slow" bike was a good thing...
After that it started to get harder but my self talk was (mostly) still quite positive… telling myself stuff like yep this gets hard which is why it feels like such a great accomplishment at the end… I could feel myself slowing a bit but was still running every step so it was fine. I had my watch on but I never looked at it b/c I genuinely like to run these long races by feel, just constantly assessing the pace/effort by feel… Is this a pace/effort I can keep up all day? Yes. Can/should I go faster? No. That's all I really needed to know. When the negative thoughts started coming in stronger around mile 15-16 (This is stupid. Ironman is stupid.) I combatted them by taking in more sugar… then the negative thoughts would subside (at least briefly). Somewhere around mile 18 I really had to go to the bathroom. TMI probably on this but one of my worries before the race was that I was not on my regular bathroom schedule (6 hour time change from HI to OH meant I was pooping in the afternoon vs morning each day)… So when I saw the porta-potty I knew I needed to use it and was trying to figure out if it would count that I still "ran every step" if I stopped and used the bathroom? I decided that if I started running again right away after that yes it would still count. I wasn't having a problem in the bathroom, it was just normal business in there (my stomach was fine all day), but it prob took ~2minutes. I don't know I didn't time it. But resuming running again after was VERY hard b/c my legs were hurting pretty badly by that point.

It was about a mile later that I got the first twinges of cramping, and not long at all after that when my adductor just completely seized up. If you've experienced an adductor seize like this you know what I mean- it's not possible to run through. Shoot- it wasn't possible to walk through! GAH! It just sucked. I was almost at the far turn-around but I couldn't even make forward progress b/c I was just stopped there bent over stretching and waiting for this thing to relax. This is not the first time I've had this happen in races, in fact it happens with a fair amount of regularity. 19 miles is actually the furthest along I've gotten before it has happened so if there's one positive to take away its that… but still… UGH. Again I don't know how long I was stopped- several minutes I think before I could walk, and while I was bummed to be walking, it felt like a better option than standing or sitting, and those were essentially my other options at that point (Quitting was never an option- it honestly never crossed my mind). A couple times I tried jogging but immediately I could feel the seizing coming back on, and then I was pissed. And then I was sad because there it went I couldn't even salvage this race with a decent marathon… And then I was pissed again. It all sort of spiraled out of control at that point and then I started thinking my swim was not great, my bike was slow (for me), and even without extending myself too far swim/bike I still couldn't pull off running 26 miles. I suck at this. Ironman is not for me. I am done even trying.  All that training and I still can't do it. Those were the super fun thoughts going through my brain from mile 20-22ish. 

Then I saw Marilyn. She yelled at me to RUN and at that point I just burst out into tears. For sure that was the low point in my day because it felt like not only am I letting myself down, I am letting her down as well. I sort of remember telling her "I can't". It really didn't feel like lack of will at that point- it felt like mechanical malfunction. I was watching all these other athletes run by me and their legs were working (so jealous!) and I was just like WHY WON'T *MY* LEGS WORK?? I think somewhere around mile 23 Marilyn came back and told me to jog 5 steps walk 5 steps. Jog 5 steps walk 5 steps. I tried that and was somewhat capable so then she said jog 10 steps walk 5 steps… Ok not capable of that. It was like I could jog 6-8 steps then felt cramping coming on so 6-8 steps at a time was my max. I think I settled on a 6/6 pattern that went jog 6 steps walk 6 steps jog 6 steps walk 6 steps and I did that the rest of the way in. I think having that task to focus on at least kept my brain from spiraling out of control about how much I was sucking at this.

To be honest I was worried about the finish line b/c with all those people surrounding you... How does one not RUN on that red carpet with all that loud spunky music and so many people cheering for you? I knew if I tried to jog more than ~8 steps my legs would just give out on me, so I didn't really have a plan for how I was going to tackle that finish line. 

Somewhere around mile 26 was actually the highlight of my day… One of my really good friends from high school (Scott P, not to be confused with my husband Scott) had told me that was going to come out for my finish (He lives in Louisville and was the one who planted the seed in my brain years ago to do this race one day) and as I was approaching the turn before the finish line, there he was, smiling with his arms stretched out ready to give me a big hug and that was so exactly what I needed at that point. I had long been done "racing" or even caring at all what the clock said (11:49, it turns out, over an hour slower than I was hoping to go), so when I saw Scott I just stopped and stood there and I let him hug me and we just talked… and he laughed with me and agreed that Ironmans are long and stupid and at the time that was funny and then eventually he was like you need to go to the finish line! Oh ya… so I can't remember if I resumed my walk/jog thing or not, but Scott told me where my family was on the right hand side near the finish so I stopped again when I saw them and hugged all of them and then I think I attempted to trot across the line but I stumbled and almost fell flat on my face. In all honesty that would have been a classic ending to this Ironman. My legs hadn't been functioning for the last 7 miles so its not surprising to me that they didn't function at the finish line either.

I spent some time after the race feeling really sad and frustrated but mostly confused. I feel like I know what it takes to prepare for and execute a good Ironman race. Shoot- I have taught tons of athletes how to do it over the years! But when its my turn to give it a shot, my legs fail me. Cramping on the run aside, why the hell did I ride so slow?? It didn't feel like I was soft-pedaling, my brakes weren't rubbing (I checked!), execution of the ride felt strong/solid… At least on the swim I could say ya I felt sloppy so when the split shows that it makes sense (that makes it easy to let go!). On the bike I felt like I was working as hard as I should have but the split being 15-20' slower than I think it should have been is just flat out baffling… Until I consider that actually, every race I've done the last few years I've felt like effort on the bike was good/solid but my split was slower than what I would have expected for the effort. The problem is that I have this memory of being quite strong/fast on the bike (because I used to be!) and I still think of myself as that strong cyclist but my race results these last few years tell a different story, so I don't know. I thought my training on the bike had been good but apparently not good enough to meet my own expectations of myself on race day. Coach keeps encouraging me to not compare myself to other athletes (or even to the athlete I used to be) but I find that to be nearly impossible to do… The bike used to be a place where I could gain time on people and I still think of it like that but the reality is that recently it's been a place where not only am I not gaining time but I am actually losing time and yikes that just does not sit well with me. Do I need to change my mindset and expectations to meet my new reality? Do I just accept this situation that I'm just not the cyclist I used to be? Am I too old now? (I don't think so!!) Coach also continually encourages me to race with a power meter but interestingly I find myself resistant to that. I know it would make analyzing the race afterward easier, but I've never raced with power (I train with an old/heavy power tap) and I've had some really solid bike splits in the past (there I go again living in the past!) so I know it's possible to put together a good ride by feel. Plus, getting a new power meter would require a hefty investment $$$ and at this stage in the game for me I'm not sure it's a viable option. Maybe I'm just an old dog in this regard. 

The reality is that the way I felt on that ride last week makes me think that what I did was actually the best I could have done that day… so how can I be upset if I did the best I could? Well, I guess I'm just not satisfied with the fact that 5:51 is my best effort. It's all relative I know. But in my head I am a 5:30 IM biker (4x I've ridden 5:3x so I don't think I'm delusional in this regard). I don't know if that makes sense but therein lies my frustration with my recent riding.

So what now? I'm not sure yet. Its tough b/c I have been feeling like I am nearing the end of my Ironman days. I'd really just like to wrap up this ironman phase (the 18 year "phase" I've been in since 1997) and my hope was that this day in Louisville would wrap things up for me in a way that would leave me feeling satisfied. The reality is that Ironman takes a toll on my family (I don't half ass Ironman training). It's also super expensive b/c racing one requires not only a ridiculous entry fee but also a long trip to the mainland (or to another country)… I'm trying to figure out if I can be happy putting Ironman to bed knowing that I have not reached my potential at the distance? I want to be at peace with it, but I am not at peace with it. So shit, do I really have to go through all this again? And if I do, what do I need to change to get myself physically to a place where I could execute a super long day and finish feeling like I DID IT!!? I truly thought I had it right this time… Trained long/hard but not so long/hard that I felt like I was in any deep holes… I felt rested for the race. I was consistent with ZERO injuries this year, hardly ever got sick, ate appropriately clean, etc. I don't have the answers to these questions. I don't know if I am going to try it again. I'm experienced enough to know that I should never say never (though of course I said NEVER AGAIN at the finish line on Sunday- my family wanted it on record!)… I do enjoy training so I can see myself training and staying in reasonable shape and doing shorter races even if I don't do another Ironman… I don't know. 

I'd say that finding 'peace' with ironman might be too elusive but Nalani got her peace so I know it is actually possible. So the question becomes, What do I need to do to be at peace with Ironman? Are my expectations of myself too high? Have I already hit my peak so will be unable to be the athlete I once was? My gut says I still have a good Ironman in me. It's just a matter of figuring out if/when/how/where/why to pull it out.


JB said...

I think of you as a 5:30 biker... so when I checked in on the race that day, I was surprised to see your bike split and wondered if you had had a mechanical.

Why resist racing with power? You can always cover up the numbers during the race? I race with power but don't let it rule me... And I appreciate the data post-race. Heck, I was looking back at my 2013 Kona power file and comparing to my ride file in Kona the other day in some sort of mental trickery to assure myself that I was in reasonable enough shape for next weekend's Ironman... I do not feel fit!

My other thought for all of this is whether you are in optimal shape... I struggled last year and this year with anemia... just like I did back in 2007 and it's a total game changer in terms of performance for me. An iron pill here and there makes all the difference personally. But the weird things is that I can't tell when I'm anemic... my running feels just a little bit off in training but then it shows up big time in racing.

Just some thoughts... I think you're an amazing athlete and I don't think you should settle for a "new norm" of abilities!

Steve said...

I wouldn't over-analyze your swim and bike, cuz your body failed you at mike 19-ish if I remember correctly during the run. Going faster in the other two probably wouldn't have helped that.

26.2 ain't no joke. I used to train for them, and have like a 35% success rate showing up to the race due to injuries. A lot of stuff has to go right.

I know many people have good races at that distance, but we all are made different physically. I doubt you can slam dunk a basketball like Michael Jordan used to do. :)

I don't know how you find peace at the Ironman distance. It would be sad if you can't find peace with you without that.

Take care Michelle. :)

My best to you and your family. :)


Trigirlpink said...

You are WAY WAY too hard on yourself sister! TOOOOO HARD!! Did I make that clear??? :-)

Look.... You are an amazing athlete. You've accomplished some seriously hard shit and at the top of your game/ age group no less with LOTS of wins.

This is just my .02, but the swim is the swim, regarding Ironman. As swimmers, ( and you are WAY better than I) It's just something we need to get out of the way to get to the meat and potatoes. Drama free, exiting the water feeling fresh, and having a decent time are all that should matter. I don't think I ever see anyone that wins their age group, being first out of the water anyway. When I'm watching results live, and I see that a friend had a great swim, the first thing that comes to mind is "Well that's great and all, but let's see whatcha got for that pesky bike and run"

I think you did an amazing job like many others have already said. It's frustrating when things arise that you can't fix out there. UGH. There are soooo many variables on the run. It's like a minefield. You can be well prepared but it's no guarantee you will have the run you want or worked so hard for. First comes being prepared, then comes maneuvering around those mines and THAT can almost be like winning the lottery.

eugene said...

Wow! Michelle! Wow! First I think your amazing! that was hard to write I am sure but that is what makes you so incredible! I think I know a little about how you feel. I think at peace to me means the perfect race for me. I have often thought the same way. I am elusive as to why I was unable to qualify for the big race, what i consider perfect for me or the one I would be at peace with. At one point, I thought I am in the best shape of my life and thought I would get it in Canada or Florida. I too, have coached a lot of athletes who had the race they wanted and a few who made the big race. I wondered how I could do that and not make it myself. So how do we do the perfect race ( the one we are peace with). Well, I still believe the perfect race exist in each of us but we may never know it until well after it happens. It is there and we will find it or maybe have already done it but just don't know it. The sport sorta is a part of our life. maybe when we have the perfect race we don't know it, because, even the race of our dreams is something people like us would still try to improve upon. That is why we may never know it when it actually happens. But we will continue to try again and again and again to be better then the the last one we did.

Casey said...

You had a tough day. It was a really tough day. There isn't one thing you can say "this is why it happened." You were prepared and the race result wasn't fair. Something didn't allow your training to come out on that day. It's still in there ready to come out. If you aren't at peace you can't quit on it. This doesn't sound like the Michelle I know. You will bounce back from this... I know it. You will enter the arena again soon, or later. The hardest fight in an IM is the one that doesn't go well. It builds big-time strength, character and grit. It's all part of the training too. It makes you stronger and faster. I just hope I'm there to see it all come out during your next race!

Christine Nichols Cross said...

Nice race Michelle. The IM Lou bike course is a lot more honest than anyone describes it to be. I'm willing to bet a lot of the people who blew by at the start blew up. People forget its a long day! Hope recovery is going well!

Jackie said...

See if you can borrow a power meter or buy a used one.
Try a walk-run schedule for the run from the start. Don't be so stubborn/egotistical to avoid walking until you are forced too. Great things might happen!
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome.