Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a student of the sport. I experiment. I trouble shoot. I try. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and most of the time there are lessons to be learned if we pay attention and reflect. I can’t say I know the lesson of this one but maybe if I dissect it enough I’ll figure something out? Plus, I think it’s important to acknowledge our ‘failures’. Part of me definitely wants to call this race a failure. But there were a ton of good things too. And that’s just part of sport.
So the short story is that I trained diligently and in a way that I thought was good. My prep felt solid enough that I had some quiet confidence that I could finally have my day at an ironman. It’s a bit of a minor miracle to show up at the start line of an Ironman fully trained and rested and healthy and in a good head space. But I did that! Standing on the dock getting ready to jump in the water to start, I felt as good as one could hope to feel and I had no reason to believe that I wasn’t going to have my day. And yet, I didn’t have my day.
The swim at Cozumel is in some of the nicest water anywhere in the world. I think even triathletes who have a bit of fear of the ocean could find themselves feeling comfortable in that water. Mostly b/c the visibility is so good. I mean, it’s crystal clear! I think about swims in gross brown reservoirs… Like Vegas, Arizona, Muncie, Ohio… No wonder people don’t like swimming in that kind of open water. You can’t even see your hand pass in front of your face while you pull. But when water is clear and you can see absolutely everything around you, it just feels like there’s no reason to panic. Maybe that’s just me, but I absolutely love ocean swimming in warm clear salt water.
I stood on the dock with the sub 1 hour group. Only like 3 women seeded themselves in this group, but (spoiler alert!) turns out pretty much everyone who entered the race should have done so on that day. Within about a minute of the start of the AG race, I was in the water and swimming. There was no chance to warm up but it was fine… I didn’t feel awesome for the first few minutes, but it didn’t take too long until I felt like I got into my groove and right away I noted that I felt great. I way prefer swimming in my Roka speed suit vs a wetsuit, and I like not being stuck behind 1000+ struggling men that I need to try to swim around with my head up. Instead there were maybe 40 mean ahead of me and they were all strong enough swimmers and spread out enough that I had all the space I wanted to just do my thing. I was never drafting, though I would have drafted had I found a good group to swim with. Instead it felt like I was just little by little catching and passing some of the men who started ahead of me. I saw one guy pass me and I tried to get on his feet but he was moving solidly faster than I was so I couldn’t go with him. Regardless, throughout the swim I felt happy and strong and I just swam and all of a sudden we were at the finish dock. I climbed up the steps and while I missed the split on my garmin, I saw 1:07 on the race clock. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Was that the start of the pro men’s race? I sort of assumed that it was 10min fast so I thought I swam ~57min which seemed about right and I thought good start… Then I glanced at my watch which was showing time of day and it said 8:16 which was confusing to me. I often have a hard time doing math during an Ironman but I was fairly certain that I’d started right around 7:30 so it couldn’t just be 8:16 b/c that’s only 46min. That couldn’t be right? Could it? If it was, shit. #advantagerunner No swimmer wants a short fast swim in an Ironman. It’s so common these days though. I didn’t let it irritate me, which was a small win for the day. Moving on.
The T1 tent was empty save for the volunteers and one other woman. T1 was uneventful and within a few minutes I was starting to eat my snickers bar and running out to get my bike. A spectator told me I was 2nd female onto the bike and I just thought PERFECT and I got on my bike and started riding. Just like the swim, the first few minutes I didn’t feel awesome but I figured I just needed to settle into my groove and I’d come around and start feeling good. Sure enough, within a few minutes I was in my aero bars and pedaling right at my race watts. My goal for the race was to pedal at a steady effort with a quiet brain and eat/drink enough to support the marathon afterward. Coach set a goal of 167w which based on my training seemed like it would be 100% reasonable to hold. I wasn’t watching watts like a hawk but I was checking in and most of the time I was seeing current power in the 160s so it was just like check. Keep doing this. Eat. Drink. Pedal. Quiet brain. Check. I was being passed by some men but they were passing with enough authority that it wasn’t hard at all to stay legal. Honestly, it was all perfect, just as I’d been envisioning it for the past few months. I’d found the gal who was first out of T1 and passed her, so I made an assumption that I was leading the amateur women's race at that point. I didn’t expect that to last, but still, it’s pretty cool to be in that position, even if just for a little while. It wasn’t the first time I’d been in that position… I’ve led CdA and Cabo before as well. It doesn’t last and that’s fine, but it’s not like I’m going to sit up and just wait for them to come. What do those Smash/Dimond gals say? #letthemchaseyou? Oh hey! Coeur/Cervelo gals can say that too! #letthemchase. (I love that hashtag, by the way.)
Not too long after we’d turned off the ‘windy’ section of the coastal loop (mile 25ish?), I’d sort of re-caught a group of 3 guys who’d passed me earlier. They were riding spread enough apart to be legal, but close enough that I couldn’t really just pass one… I sat off the back of them for a bit trying to decide what to do. I saw my watts drop to like 130 and it felt like a dilemma. Are they going to speed back up? Do I sit back here and soft pedal? Or make a pass? Vince and I had talked and he told me to just be aware of how many surges I was making to pass when necessary… some gentle surging should be fine… should I do it or not? I couldn’t decide. Then I saw the guy in the front of the 3 unclip his foot from his pedal and shake his leg as if he was trying to shake off a cramp, which I took as a sign that he probably wasn’t going to speed back up, so I made the pass. Looking at my file afterward, it was ~90” at ~190w. Not unreasonable at all. But like a minute later, BAM. My first twinge of a cramp (adductor- all the way from my groin to my knee). Shiiiiiiiiiit. GAH! Seriously? 25 miles into the ride? Cramping already? Are you kidding me? Crap.
It’s not like I haven’t managed cramping in an Ironman before, so I tried to stay calm. Ease up on the gas. Drink. Eat. Relax. You’ll be fine. Relax. But really, that is EARLY to start cramping. Like, that couldn’t have simply been a ‘fatigue’ thing. It was way too early for that?
From that point on, I scrapped riding by watts. For whatever reason, 167w was apparently too much for me that day. I sort of intuitively knew that if I kept pushing that, I’d end up sitting on the side of the road somewhere watching my muscles spasm in a very painful way. So I went back to racing the way I actually really prefer to race> by feel. I never looked at my garmin again to see watts. I did glance at it when it would beep 5 mile laps at me, which was every 13:30-15:00 for the most part, which meant I was riding fast, even if I wasn’t riding that hard. The wind wasn’t anywhere near as strong as it can be, so the ride was faster than normal. We did have a bit of a tailwind heading out toward the coast (those 5 mile sections were my 13:30 pieces) and we had a bit of a headwind along the coast and after we turned toward town. But even those headwind pieces were 15:xx so I was still able to hold almost 20mph. I feel like that’s a testament to a couple things- my Cervelo P3 is awesome and I’m comfortable enough on it to stay aero all the time, and my Enve wheels are the bomb. Seriously, I love those wheels. So even though I was still having those twinges of cramps in my adductors (both of them), I was able to manage with easing up, eating and drinking NBS and taking a taste of my Base salt.
Here’s where I’ll start to trouble shoot. I’ve lived and trained in Hawaii for 13 years now and I NEVER take salt there. I mean, I salt my watermelon and my oatmeal, and I eat potato chips sometimes, but I don’t take excess salt in training, even when its stupidly hot/humid out. Even on my longest training days- no excess salt. No cramping either. And its not like I don’t put in quality 6 hour training days. I do all that in training. Given that, I’m often skeptical about the idea of supplementing with salt in an ironman. If I don’t do it in training, and training goes well, why would I do it in racing? But so many athletes are dead set on it so I had a few bags of Base salt with me (and in my bags to pick up along the way) just in case. I sort of look at it this way- as long as things are going well, I do what I do in training. But if/when things start going south, then why not try the salt? It seemed like the salt might have been helping, so I kept doing taking it. In all honesty, I feel like if I could have been drinking NBS more, I would have been better off. At home I drink that pretty much exclusively, and it works. But during the race, I really only had access to 4 bottles of it on the bike (2 to start and 2 in special needs, which I stopped for). So since I was drinking more plain water than normal, it sort of made sense that I would want/need to add excess salt to that. So okay fine. Taking salt. And here’s where it gets tricky. How much salt is ‘a lot’ of salt? I felt like I was taking ‘a lot’. But since I don’t do it at home in training (bc I don’t drink much plain water), I don’t really have a good gauge of what is ‘a lot’. I was licking my finger with salt what felt like 'a lot'. I think the Base folks recommend every 5 miles and that’s probably about what I was doing. I’ve raced in Kona though without taking any excess salt and was fine, so I think maybe it just depends on whether I'm drinking Gatorade or water when I run out of my beloved NBS.
I peed 2x on the bike (while I was riding) and then really had to go again at the end but the last 20 miles were into a slight headwind and I didn’t want to stop pedaling into that headwind to take the time to pee. I tried a couple times but I swear if/when I stopped pedaling I slowed so much… I just didn’t want to go that slow. So I held it. That’s prob the hardest thing about that bike course- there really aren’t any breaks. The specific fitness required for that ride is to be able to pedal steady without any breaks for a really long time and to be comfortable in aero for 5+ hours. I had that fitness (4-5 hours non-stop in aero on your trainer in erg mode every week will build that for you!) so it was all good, but damn, a slight downhill at some point so you could stop pedaling and pee would have been nice!
Anyway, for everyone who came to the conclusion that I rode too hard, here are the facts about the ride:
~It didn’t feel like I was pushing above my fitness level that I’d trained endlessly (riding 200+ miles/week) to do.
~My avg watts were 147 w NP 150, which was IF of .68 and VI of 1.02.
~My peak 20min was 167w, which was the goal I’d had for the whole ride and what I’d been training to do.
~I was incapable of surging or putting in any even moderately strong efforts for short periods.
~My avg HR was 153, which was higher than it would be at home for a ride at those watts.
~My avg cadence was 81.
~I drank 4 bottles of NBS and enough water that I had to pee 2x and then again in T2.
~I ate 5x Clif bars, a big snickers, a little snickers, and a gel for a total of ~1700 cal (not including the 100 or so in each bottle of NBS) or ~300/hour.
~I licked salt off my finger what seemed like 'a lot', but don’t have quantitative data on this.
~I battled twinges of cramps off/on pretty much the whole time, but never fully seized up.
~I had no other ‘common’ issues like back or neck or stomach pain.
~I didn’t perceive the conditions to be especially hot nor windy. The air was dry as compared to what I’m used to at home.
~I split 5:28 which was in the range of what I thought I could do on a good day but was surprised it was that fast on lower watts than planned. Based on how I felt like I was pushing, I expected the split to be slower. #aeroiseverything
~I came off the bike 3rd in my AG and I’m not sure where overall women? Plenty of women rode a good bit faster than me. I mean, I got passed by some who were riding like the freight train I wanted to be, but wasn’t on that day.
~For the most part, I’d achieved my goal of keeping a Quiet Brain.
So I got to T2, handed my bike off and headed straight to the porta potty to drain my bladder. In T2 I was not unhappy. I would say I was fairly stoic and focused, as I’d planned to be. All business. I didn’t know the time on the race clock but estimating some math I thought that if I ran reasonably, I’d end up with a PR day, which is always exciting and motivating, even if the swim was so fast and short that it shouldn’t even really count.
Coach had calculated that I could run 4:11. Based on how I’d been feeling in training, I was fairly certain I could run a little faster than that. I didn’t think sub 4 was in the cards, but maybe like 4:05-4:08 if I had my day. So I started jogging out of T2 and after about 10 steps that plan went straight out the window. Both quads completely seized up hard. GAH! Plan B. Walk it off. I’ve got enough experience racing with cramps that I know that sometimes if you just relax and walk for a little bit, muscles relax and can then start running again. So. Walking. Relax relax relax. Drink. Eat. Salt. I’d had another bottle of NBS which I hoped would help, and maybe it did a little because after maybe a kilometer I was able to start jogging, but it didn’t last and I was back to walking. GAH. Shut your brain off. Relax. Walk. Try jogging again. Nope. Oh geez. This is going to be a long ass marathon.
In all honesty, I don’t want to write about the marathon. I mean, what is there to say? My legs didn’t function at all. What was I thinking/feeling? Well, I was trying to not think. #quietbrain I made sure I kept eating and drinking and taking salt, just in case my legs would come around… at the first turn around (mile 4.5ish) I saw Susi and told her that I wasn’t giving up… I still had some hope and was trying to be positive. I mean, what if this was my day to negative split an Ironman marathon? Maybe that was what was going to happen? (LOL> I was still grasping for any sort of possibly positive outcome.) Around mile 9 I sort of knew that it just wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t getting better. It was getting worse. My quads just felt shredded even though I was never actually running more than maybe 30 steps at a time. Apparently even a little bit of pounding on quads that are seizing up cramping is enough to rip those little muscle fibers right up.
Do you know how hard it is to stay positive when you’re walking an Ironman marathon and its like your 17th time doing this and you felt so well trained and can’t for your life figure out WHY you can’t do it? Again? It’s fucking HARD to stay positive in that scenario. Any time my brain started going negative on me, I ate something… I didn’t take any gels but I did eat some chews. I drank pepsi. I had mini candy bars with me and York peppermint patties, which were 100x more appealing than gels. I ate a couple of bananas and an orange. My stomach never felt bad. To be fair, I ate all sorts of crap on my long training days (yo, Pop Tarts #FTW!), with the intention of training my gut to handle whatever on race day. So that part worked. It was hot but not as hot as a lot of my training runs. I felt like it was easy enough to stay cool enough anyway by dumping cold water on myself and putting ice in my bra and holding ice in my hands, etc. I mean, sometimes at home I have these thoughts/feelings of being so overwhelmingly HOT that I can’t function. It wasn’t that hot out (to me) on Sunday so my issue was not over heating. It was strictly 100% bilateral quad malfunction.
So. That’s it. My quads didn’t function and I was never really able to ‘run' more than ~30 steps at a time without walking. (Ok. I'm exaggerating. There were times when I was able to take 40 steps without cramping.) I tried to keep most of my walk breaks super short just like 10 steps then back to 30 steps jogging. When I was ‘running’ it was really just super short little shuffling steps. I counted to 10, a lot. For over 5 hours in fact. I didn’t quit. So that’s it. I got passed, endlessly, and felt exceptionally jealous of everyone who had functioning quads. There were times when I would start to think about what was happening but the frustration around that was so high that I really just had to go back to shutting my brain off. Don’t think. Don’t get mad. That was hard.
On the last trip back toward the finish (~4 miles to go) I had the thought that I wanted to get in the ocean and swim back. Even in the dark, that would have been more enjoyable than what I was facing. And easier. And probably faster. Even in the last mile I wasn’t able to run more than 30 steps at a time without feeling like legs were going to completely seize up again. I had to actively not make eye contact with anyone and just keep my brain quiet and count to 10 again. Can I give a little tip to spectators? I know you mean well when you tell athletes to RUN when they’re walking, but in many cases, that’s really the opposite of helpful. I mean. Trust me. If I was capable of running, I would have been running. I appreciate Susi so much for not saying stuff like that… and for not taking any pictures. She could see how ugly and painful it was and really, I don’t need photographic evidence of that.
So I crossed the finish line and I saw my friend Craig sitting there (he had just finished with a big PR!). I asked the very nice volunteer for one of those space blankets b/c I knew I was about to start shivering. I drank hot tea to try to warm myself. I sat and talked story with Craig and some other guy for a while then eventually went and got my finisher shirt and successfully managed to avoid the people who wanted to take a finisher photo. #nothanks Susi had collected my bike and my bags which was probably the nicest thing anyone could have done for me at that point and we limped back to the hotel and I drank a beer before I even showered. Then I showered, took a shot of spiced rum (mmmm, warm!) then we went and drank beer and ate tacos. #Mexico
The next days my legs felt shredded in the way one's legs would be shredded after you just PRd a marathon. Which seemed weird. I mean, usually what makes me sore is hard running for a long time. Walking/jogging doesn’t typically have that effect. And yet.
So there you go. I don’t have any answers. I wish I did. I really don’t think there’s much about my training that I’d go back and change if I could. I felt very well trained, but not overly so. I felt great all week leading into the race. Peppy. Strong. Solid. Positive. Healthy. My gut feeling at this point is that there’s some sort of like ‘electrical short’ in my neuromuscular system that causes that kind of crazy cramping and it’s not something that more or different training will necessarily solve. Maybe more salt in a drier environment like that would have helped. That’s sort of the only thing that makes any sense at all to me. Some people who care have given me their thoughts and suggestions, which I totally appreciate. I’ve thought about going the Inside Tracker route to see if something is up with my body chemistry that I don’t know about, but seems like if that was the case, wouldn’t I have felt crappy/fatigued more often in training? My training was solid and gave me no reason to believe that there’s something wacky going on with my system. It’s hard to chalk this up to ‘oh it was just an off-day’ b/c this isn’t exactly my first time cramping in a long race. This was possibly the worst seizing I’ve felt, but it’s not like its new for me to cramp. Will I try again? I don’t know. Possibly not. I mean, I’m not quitting triathlon, but I might stick to shorter races for a while b/c this Ironman gig really just might not be for me. Ha! How many times have I said that before?? In good news, I’ve long since stopped associating my self-worth with my race results, so, good race or crappy race doesn’t change the way I feel about myself. I mean, I get frustrated, but I don’t think I’m a failure as a person or whatever just b/c I ‘fail’ at putting together a decent marathon. I've always loved training long and that probably won’t change. Racing long, well, maybe I’ll stop subjecting myself to that… 17 might just be the magic number.
To finish on a positive note, here are some positive things!
~About 1/2 way through the marathon, Alicia Kaye passed me on her way to the finish. She was pretty far back in the pro field, so clearly not having her best day… but I recognized her kit and said out loud… “Alicia Kaye! I’m a huge fan of yours!” She turned around and in the nicest way replied, “I’m a huge fan of YOURS!” That was really sweet given that she actually had no idea who I am. ;)
~It was fun to see my Coeur teammates out on course in our matching kits! Steph and I cheered for each other a couple times throughout the marathon and that was cool. And I got to meet Triny in the airport and had lunch with her while sharing our race stories (she had a great day!).
~I love that 2017 Coeur team kit. I mean, I’m sure next years kit will be awesome too, but that red/white/black kit is SHARP and I was proud to be wearing it.
~I saw very little drafting on the bike and everyone I talked to after the race said the same thing. Rolling starts that spread people out are really the way to go to solve the drafting problem, though I also witnessed people (men and women) actually sit up and stop pedaling to actively avoid being in a draft zone. Super refreshing to see. I saw a total of 2 men blatantly drafting, and both of them were sitting on the wheel of a woman. Have they no shame??
~Cozumel is a great little island and a super venue for triathlon racing. It’s a ridiculously far trip from Hawaii, but other than how long it took, getting into and out of Mexico was easy. I felt safe the whole time and the chill vibe of the island really suited me. I would recommend that race to anyone who wants to do an Ironman that isn’t cold. It’s exceptionally well organized for being a split transition and all. Mexican people are genuinely really nice and they go out of their way to help us, even if our president is an asshole to them.