Thursday, December 1, 2011

*Happy dance*


"You'll live many lives in an ironman. Coward, survivor, optimist, pessimist, superhero. Halfway through the marathon, you'll swear you'll never do this again. At the finish, you can't wait to do another."- random quote from slowtwitch forum

I saw this quote on slowtwitch a while back and really liked it.  One of the unique aspects of racing an Ironman is that you truly do live many lives during the course of the race - it’s a gear-intensive endurance sport and your performance is a ultimately culmination of countless variables.   Weather, training (too much or too little), nutrition and mental state all can impact the outcome of your day in a blink of an eye, never mind endless factors that are simply out of your control. It is not a matter of if things will turn sideways, it is a matter of when and whether you will be able to right-side it before it is too late.

Ironman Cozumel delivered on this promise.  I experienced pure euphoria, anger, joy, fear and pride in equal shares.  Training, experience and drive got me to the finish line, but faith also factored substantially in the day. 

Traveling to Mexico for Ironman #3 was a gamble.  I have never been one to openly share my race goals, but had worked with Coach Bjoern to develop my training plan based on some pretty aggressive time goals for my final race of 2011.  As race day approached, I was quite cognizant that these goals might be a bit overzealous.  Whereas the conditions in Vancouver were decidedly winter-like for the last few weeks of training, race day weather in Cozumel brought heat, humidity and wind.  To make matters worse, I was nursing a seriously inflamed soleus, hadn't had a pain-free run in three weeks and had been fighting off some type of flu or cold.  Alas, there is no sense in giving up before you begin so when the hot sun rose above me and 2300 other age groupers on November 27, I was ready to give it everything I had.

SWIM
Goal time 1:10; Actual 1:07:47  

Ironman Cozumel is organized as a split transition, with the swim located about 9k south of town at an eco-park called Chankanaab.  The swim course is a single, counter-clockwise loop in the amazingly clear, aquamarine water of the Caribbean Sea.  Forget wetsuits – the water temp on race day was 82 degrees!  I am not a strong swimmer and my previous non-wetsuit swims in Las Vegas and Kona have not gone well.  As such, I had a lot of pressure on myself to put up a reasonable swim time so I could expend less effort chasing on the bike and the run.   

Mass start at Chankanaab
The start is in deep water, so along with the mass of age groupers I jumped off the dock to tread water shortly before 7am.  The 2300-person field was predominately male (with only ~ 550 female participants!) and I knew it was going to be a rough swim.  I had really hoped that the chaos would clear after the first turn like it did at IMC.  Unfortunately, this was very wishful thinking - the swim was turbulent and congested pretty much the entire 3800m.  Since the mens' swim caps were the same orange as the buoys, sighting was almost impossible. I’d like to say that I picked the most efficient line around the buoys, but I certainly didn’t!  The last 600m felt like forever – I had drifted too close to shore and wasted a lot of effort fighting the current.  I also did not realize that I needed to be left of the last buoy instead of right (wtf?!), so ended up swimming upstream to correct my error.  That mistake cost me a couple minutes, but upon crawling out of the stairs onto the dock I saw a 1:07 on the clock.  My first "life" of the day was indeed a happy one.  

Despite my rookie mistake on sighting, I’d have to say this was my favorite triathlon swim ever.  Coming from me, that's saying a lot!  Though not without challenges – the mass start, ocean swells, tricky sighting, as well as some jellyfish and stinging coral - the clear blue water was simply stunning and it was absolutely fantastic to see the bottom the entire way!    

I happy danced through the showers and into the ladies change tent, but had a frustratingly slow T1.  The officials did not allow compression sleeves during the swim so I struggled to get my calf sleeves and arm coolers over my wet limbs, and took an extra few seconds to ensure that I was doused with sunscreen.

BIKE
Goal time 5:30; Actual 5:23:19 

Getting onto the bike is always the best part of a race for me.  Even knowing I had a shitty transition, nothing was stopping the happy dance at this point.  It was time for me and Miss Daisy to do our thing!  

The three loop bike course covers the south half of the island and is flat, fast and scenic.   I’m more of a hilly-course girl so was very interested to see how I would fare on this type of course...no small ring required!  Cozumel is always windy so I knew that my speed would be variable, and pacing on the first lap was kind of an experiment.  The plan was to go out at a conservative but quick pace and hold my effort, but the sheer joy of being on the bike just overcame me - I went out hard and was having an absolute blast.   

Despite getting slammed with a crosswind along the section along the east side of the island, that section of the ride was breathtaking.  Windswept, pristine white sand beaches with crashing aquamarine waves.  Big wow factor.

The ride into and through town was also fantastic.  The crowd support was incredible and they absolutely went off the hook, particularly for female riders....CHICA CHICA CHICA!!!  It was awesome.  The first two laps were definitely the "superhero" part of the race. I saw my parents in the crowd, waved, yelled, smiled and had a lot of fun.

Happy times with Miss Daisy, riding along the gorgeous east coast of Cozumel!
Then, around 135k on the bike, the happy dance abruptly ended.  A massive peloton swallowed me up, and I was swarmed by rider, after rider, after rider.  I'm guessing there were 30 or 40 riders in the pack and they were blowing past me on both sides. They weren't moving just a little quicker than me, they were moving a LOT quicker.  Passing them was not a viable option so dropping off the back was the only choice I had.  I righted myself into my base bars and kept shoulder checking as I dropped back.  The only way to describe my state of mind at that point is rattled - I have never seen anything like this in any triathlon.

I was miserable as I let rider after rider pass me, with many of them acting like they were on a Sunday group ride.  I had no idea what my relative position in my AG was and was too disoriented to be certain how many women were in the pack, but suspected that my chances for a Kona slot had just ridden away from me.  I kept trying to rationalize in my mind that playing fair always wins, but even knowing I was doing the right thing I still felt totally defeated.  I choked back tears, yet involuntarily they started streaming down my face.  Wow, how's that for mental toughness?  A couple other riders who had also been passed and chosen to drop off the back were kind enough to console me as they passed me, but I was pretty despondent at that point.   I kept dropping back further and further while I tried to get mentally back on track from this setback.   I had nothing in the tank and no will to get back in the game.

Then the Pissed-Right-Off phase kicked in - although my reaction was to hammer out the remaining bike leg, a little voice reminded me to stay focused on the big picture.  High cadence, save the legs, take down all my remaining nutrition, go to the bathroom, wiggle my toes, relax.  It was time to run like hell.
  
RUN
Goal time 3:40; Actual 3:39:31 

While I'm sure that most coaches would not advocate anger as a strategy for racing, coming out of T2 I was intent on running down every single woman in that peloton.  I literally came blazing out of transition, my first kilometer tracking a way-too-fast 4:36/km.

After a few kilometers of this, I realized that running like hell was a gut reaction, but probably wasn't the best strategy.   A marathon is a long way and a lot can transpire. Despite my anger, I needed to run a little smarter so I settled into the pace that I had agreed upon in advance with Coach Bjoern - 5:10/km.

Lap one, almost done!
The run is a three by 14k loop through the centre of town.  The course is pretty much pancake flat and runs seaside.  It was lined with enthusiastic fans and the atmosphere was incredible.  The first loop passed very quickly, but I remained intermittently angry about what had happened on the bike. I chatted with a few of the other runners and there were a few standout athletes that really helped me get past my mental negativity out on the run - a girl named Laura who I went back and forth with several times during the run, Sarah who dropped off the bike pack and still ran her way to an AG win, and a fellow named James who was running in a cowboy hat.  Known as the "Iron Cowboy", he is aiming to do 30 ironman races this year while raising awareness for a famine relief charity.

Chatting with these athletes, even briefly, really put my anger into perspective.  I realized that the focus on vying for an age group position as a relative indicator of my performance was misguided.  Racing an Ironman is a personal event - me against myself, the elements and the distance.  It is a journey to get to race day, and a challenge to see if I could do what I set out to do.  There is an extreme amount of personal responsibility to play fair in sport and it is a choice to do so.  At the end of the race, you can only know if you accomplished what you are capable of because you gave it your heart.   Anger is a weak way to fuel oneself, but giving it everything, playing fair and knowing you succeeded on will alone is potent rocket fuel.  And so began the "Optimistic" phase of my race.

And, as though the heavens sensed my change of heart, the sky opened up and it started pouring rain.  Beautiful, refreshing, crazy tropical rain.  Flash flood!  I loved it.  I laughed, I smiled - it was perfect Vancouver conditions.  All those long days training in the humid west coast rain were paying off!    The run course was totally flooded and we had to wade through knee deep water and streaming rivers of yucky, muddy water - it was so irreverent and a lot of fun.

As the run wore on, nasty blisters formed on the bottoms of both soggy feet and the humidity was stifling.   Despite my initial amusement with the flash flood, the last lap was hot and painful.  I counted steps to 100, repetitively over and over until I was down to the last 7k leg.  But even though it hurt, it was a good hurt.  There were crowds everywhere and their boisterous enthusiasm was incredible and infectious.  The sun goes down at 5pm in Cozumel, so based on the dusk I guessed that I was around a 10:30 finish time and reverted back to my happy dance.  There was a blissful satisfaction in those last few kilometres, knowing that I had achieved my goal.  Nothing else really mattered.

I made the final left turn into the finish corral and had two surprises waiting for me.  1. I saw pink directly in front of me.  2. I saw 10:18 on the clock.  

As background - a few years ago, I was outsprinted at a Five Peaks race in Whistler to lose by 1 second.  You don't need to be taught that lesson very many times before it becomes ingrained in you to sprint if you see anyone in front of you at the finish.  This reaction applies even more so if the person in front of you is wearing pink and happens to have a "R" on their right calf (the age groups were marked with letters, not numbers..."R" was W35-39).  In my happy delerium, which even included stopping at the last aid station, I had failed to recognize that I was almost directly behind someone in my age group.

My friend Greg Welwood taught me that if you are going to pass someone, you don't think, you just GO!!!!  So guided by the wisdom of my good friend, with 20m to the finish line, I executed the Welwood sprint to finish Ironman Cozumel in 10:18:52.
Sprint finish....for the AG win!
The Icing-on-the Cake moment came about two hours later when I checked the results.  That hail mary finish line sprint ahead of woman-in-pink had garnered me the AG win by 3 seconds.  I couldn't have dreamed up a better finish.  


I owe huge thanks to a lot of people who have supported me on my journey to this incredible day and throughout what has been a fantastic season.
  • Ironmom and Irondad for supporting me not only in Cozumel, but day in and day out as I pursue these crazy dreams.  
  • Coach Bjoern for believing in me and helping me be a stronger athlete, both mentally and physically.  Your dedication to your athletes and your knowledge is unsurpassed.
  • My incredible teammates and training partners at Speed Theory, LifeSport and Pacific Spirit Tri Club.
  • Particular thanks to Stephanie, Geoff, Gregg, Jeanne, Rachel M., Rachel K, Doug, Sarah and Genevieve.  You are inspiration to me and I love you all for it.
  • Everyone at Speed Theory, and especially Jeremy, Doug and Murray.  I know I say this over and over again, but you are truly awesome.
  • My swim coach Dale for putting up with our chatty, not-so-serious lane at Canadian Dolphins and still trying to help us improve. It's not an entirely lost cause! 
  • Dr. Aaron Case and RMT supreme Greg Welwood.
  • Susan, for being a role model and so incredibly grounded, and for reminding me to focus on the positive above all else.
XO,
R.

6 comments:

  1. Great write up! Good job on the AG win. :)

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  2. Epic! I loved reading your race report

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  3. Congratulations!!! What a wonderful race!! :)

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  4. Every time I read your posts I come away inspired. Congrats!

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  5. epic finish. and having the finisher picture to prove it is amazing. I hope you blow that sucker up and hang it on the wall to remember that feeling for the rest of your life.

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