Monday, September 1, 2014

Ironam Louisville Race Report

I went into Ironman Louisville feeling very confident.  I had put in the training and felt well prepared.  I owe much of this to Coach Chad and his training plan.  Since last October, we've been working for this race.

The variety of emotions I had leading up to the race were quite interesting.  Two weeks prior to the race, I was extremely confident.  I seriously thought I "had it in the bag."  Barring any unforeseen incident like a flat tire or a bike crash, I felt like the race was a mere formality (an Ironman just a formality, ha!).  Then came race week and my emotions changed.  As the reality of racing 140.6 miles drew near, self-doubt and anxiety crept into my mind.  How would the swim go?  Is my bike in good condition?  Will I bonk on the run?  All of these questions ran through my mind continuously.  Then came the weather report that temperatures would be in the 90's with a heat index possibly over 100 degrees.  I had been doing some heat acclimation like riding my bike on the trainer with a long sleeve jersey and no fan, but seriously, a Pittsburgher cannot prepare for temperatures that hot.  Furthermore, consider the fact that the two weeks prior to the race were in the 70's here in Pittsburgh.  Despite the self-doubt, I stayed focused.  Coach Chad and others gave me good advice about nutrition, pacing, and mindset.

My parents and I arrived in Louisville on Friday before the race.  We checked into the hotel and the race.  Then, scoped out downtown Louisville.  With our hotel in a perfect location, it was easy to walk everywhere.

Downtown Louisville
Steam Boat on the Mighty Ohio
Louisville puts pictures of famous natives on their buildings.

Saturday morning, I participated in the practice swim.  The swim took place in the Ohio River.  I tried to take comfort knowing the Ohio originates in Pittsburgh.  I thought of it as common waters.  However, the Ohio River in Louisville is about 10 times as wide as the Ohio River in Pittsburgh.  It was pretty intimidating.  My assignment for Saturday included a 15 minute swim.  I entered the water right at 8 am when the practice swim began.  There were a lot of other racers taking advantage of this opportunity as well.  We entered the water at what would be the swim finish on race day, and we swam up stream before turning around and coming back downstream.  Well, I settled into the water at a nice easy pace while imagining race morning's emotions.  After 10-12 minutes I assessed my progress.  "You have got to be kidding me."  Swimming up stream was turning out to be quite the task.  Not wanting to strain myself trying to conquer the practice swim, I humbly turned around.  I put my head in the water and after about 10 strokes, found myself back where I started.  A huge sigh of relief!!!  The current was crazy fast going downstream.  I spoke to another swimmer in the water. We were both very relieved that most of the swim on race day would be going downstream.  Furthermore, the first part of the swim that goes upstream would have us shielded somewhat from the current by an island in the Ohio River.  All this made me feel confident about being able to post a solid swim time.  I finished my Saturday preparations with a 30 minute bike ride on the first 10 miles of the bike course and a short 10 minute run from our hotel down to the finish line and back.  I felt good and was ready for tomorrow's challenge.

The Good Old P3!
Dad and me at the practice swim
Loosen the legs on the bike

I arrived at transition about 4:30 am, double-checked my equipment and headed over to the swim start where we had an hour-and-a-half wait.  Louisville is a time trial start where swimmers enter the water one at a time jumping off a boat dock.  In order to get a good place in line with 2300 other competitors, you need to get in line early.  Luckily, fellow Pittsburgh Tri Club member and first time Ironman competitor, Nicole Stockey, allowed me to jump in line with her because when I arrived the line already seemed so long.

Swim Start
My Uncle Mark ready with his camera
National Anthem
The Swim
After relaxing and getting to know a few other competitors from across the country and Toronto, it was 7:00 am and time to race.  I got to sport my white "All World Athlete" swim cap, which was a cool little confidence builder.  Most other competitors had the routine green caps.  After the singing of the National Anthem and the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home," it was my turn to take the plunge.  I was able to get comfortable within a minute of entering the water and felt like I had a good strong stroke going.  Since we were swimming between the island and the boat docks, there wasn't a lot of water for the competitors to spread out.  Numerous times my stroke was interrupted by bumping into other swimmers.  I kept thinking about the line from "Days of the Thunder," "Rubbing is racing."  So true!

In we go!
As I cleared the island and worked my way upstream to the turnaround, I knew I was swimming against a strong current.  I focused on staying strong and really pushing the water at the end of my stroke.  I reached the turnaround and headed downstream.  The water was more rough, but I also knew the current was helping all of us.  Each time I passed a buoy, I couldn't believe how fast I was going.  It was like passing a road sign in your car on the highway!  What a great feeling!  I exited the water with a final swim time of 1:05:35 (overall rank of 496 out of over 2300).  My fastest swim split ever!  I knew the current had helped, but I was still pleased because in the back of my mind I was okay with 1:10:00.  So I felt like I banked a couple minutes for later if needed.

Out I come!
The Bike
Having a solid swim under my belt, I mounted my Cervelo P3 and went to work.  Coach Chad had given me a target wattage range of 240-260.  I tried to settle into a comfortable rhythm with that range as the goal.  The first 10.5 miles of the bike ride were along River Road.  A scenic flat road with the banks of the mighty Ohio close by.  I started passing competitors immediately one after the other.  My legs felt great and the skies were overcast keeping the morning cooler than anticipated.  At mile 11, the bike course climbed a significant hill that would lead us to a day of rolling hills through Kentucky horse country.  This type of course suits my strengths as a cyclist and that confidence showed.  I was exceeding my power numbers after 40 miles with a normalized power in the 280's.  I cautioned myself out loud at times to stay in the moment, keep riding strong, but stay relaxed and keeping taking in the nutrition.  It will be needed later.

In hot pursuit
By mile 50, I had worked my way to the front of the race and was riding by myself a lot.  For the next 20 miles, as I finished the first of two loops, I began to struggle mentally with staying comfortable and riding alone.  However, two competitors came from behind me on the bike and gave me some company until we reunited with the mass of age-groupers starting their first loop as we started our second.  This was a mental boost.  To again be riding amongst so many people and passing them one after the other was a confidence builder.

Let's get 'er done.
At mile 80, I knew I was having a good day.  I felt strong, and I knew there was about 10-15 miles until the descent back to River Road and T2.  However, the clouds were gone and the day was quickly getting hot.  At this point, I made up my mind to go ahead and make this a special bike split.  I didn't want to break 5 hours by going 4:55.  I wanted to go 4:45.  I decided I was going to go for this in the most efficient manner possible, but nonetheless go for it!  I rode strong and attacked the descent back to River Road.  I was now passing a few professional female athletes so I again knew I was at the front of the race.  Once I hit River Road, I didn't let up.  I focused on being consistent and taking in a lot of nutrition because it was really starting to heat up.  As I pulled into T2, I saw Matty Mo (Mauclair), an accomplished triathlete and Kona qualifier.  I knew he would be proud of my effort on the bike, and his encouragement gave me a mental boost.  My final bike split of 4:48:06 was good enough for the second fastest amateur bike split and moved me up from 496th place to 20th overall (including the pros).

The Run
I grabbed my gear bag and entered the changing tent.  There was no doubt I was fatigued and even a little lightheaded.  One volunteer yelled encouragement to me as I entered the tent.  I remember him saying, "you're right in the mix."  A few other volunteers helped gather my stuff, rub suntan lotion on my neck, and dump two cups of water on my back.  Thank you!!!  Then, I gave myself about 5-10 extra seconds.  Actually, it may have been like 2 or 3, but it felt like forever.  During those few seconds, I allowed myself to quickly appreciate my effort to this point, calm my mind, and refocus on the challenge of running the marathon.  I thanked the volunteers and was gone!

"I'll run the first mile and assess my condition."  This was my thinking.  Ease into this.  Coach Chad had advised me to start out conservatively.  The first mile felt good.  I saw my Uncle Mark taking pictures and shouting encouragements.  I saw my mom a few moments later, and then finally my dad. Their strategy to spread out was very helpful to me.  They also informed me that I was in third place. Whew!!!  Now run the marathon.

I began ticking off the miles.  One...Two...Three...  I was taking my gels every three miles and getting gulps of Powerbar Perform at the aid stations.  I was dumping two or three cups of water on me through each aid station to keep my engine as cool as possible.  As Coach Chad put it, if that overheats the only way to cool it down is to stop.  The run was hard from the get go.  At about mile 5 or 6, I saw the pro men working their way back in the final miles of their first loop.  They looked terrible!  This gave me confidence and also told me that others would be struggling today as well.  I figured that if someone flew by me on the run so be it.  They have something I don't.  But, if it came down to being smart, consistent, and guts, I could endure.

I continued ticking off the miles.  Nine...Ten...Eleven...  As I came around the corner to finish mile thirteen, I saw the finish line.  But of course, I had to do that all over again on this two loop run course.  There was a small bit of comfort in the thought that I was half done, but it paled in comparison to the reality that there were 13 more miles to go and it was HOT!  I found out after the race that the temperature reached the low 90's and the heat index was as high as 104.

I kept ticking off the miles.  Fourteen...Fifteen...Sixteen...  By mile 18 I was walking through each aid station to get as much drink and food down as possible.  My legs were screaming in pain, but they managed to start-up again each time.  At this point, I was running with so many people.  Most were on their first lap, but this made it impossible to know what place I was in.  Did someone pass me.  Did I pass someone.  I had only my self-determination to get me to the finish line as quickly as possible.

I kept ticking off the miles.  Nineteen...Twenty...Twenty-one...  At mile 24 I knew I had enough to finish with a consistent two miles.  I didn't stop at the final aid station, and as I came around the city corner and saw the finishing chute, I was so happy.  I entered the finishing chute and the fans cheered loudly.  I gave a few spectators some "high-fives" and proudly raised my hands as I crossed the finish line with a marathon time of 3:34:19.

Proud and Humble
The announcer said my name and, "a time of 9 hrs 35 min and change."  I couldn't believe it!!!  I did it!!! A volunteer took my arm and put it around him to help me.  I bent over.  My legs were shaking in pain.  He asked if I was ok.  I said, "yes, I just need a minute."  The tears filled my eyes.  The emotion of a year of hard work and countless people encouraging and supporting me came out.  When I finally made it to the end of the finishing chute, my Uncle Mark greeted me with tears in his eyes and a big hug.  Awesome!!!  My time was good enough for 20th place overall, and 4th in my age group.  There was only one question remaining.  Was it good enough for a slot to Kona?

It was 9:35:42, or something.

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