I got up at 3AM, after getting 3 hours of sleep and 3 hours of trying to sleep. I forced down a couple scrambled eggs, drank my usual morning coffee, and ate a muffin on the 45-minute drive to Cambridge, Maryland in the minivan.
I arrived at the parking area in darkness and volunteers directed the minivan into place among the other early arrivals. It was 65 degrees, 95% humidity, and the mosquitoes were awake early. Pumped the bike tires at the car and then schlepped all my gear over into the transition area. I had plenty of time as the sun was coming up to set it all up to perfection and obsess about the position of each item that I needed, and many that I didn’t.
It started getting hot as soon as the sun was up. I chugged down some Gatorade and drank an Ensure to get some last-minute hydration and calories. I delayed putting on my wetsuit until the last minute to keep from getting overheated, but then it was time. I waded into the water once to get it wet inside, and then they were getting everyone out of the water to start the race.
They herded the white-capped folks in my wave back behind the timing mats and started the pro wave. I didn’t see them start, I just followed the herd of perhaps 150 people in the “Senior Wave” (men 55+, women 45+) and got into the water. We waded out to the first buoy on the sandy bottom and soon the gun went off.
Swim (1.2 miles):
I started slow in a breaststroke, to get myself accustomed to the water and get myself warmed up. I stayed far out to the right, to avoid getting in anyone’s way. It didn’t take long for me to be the last swimmer at the back of my wave. They had given the Senior Wave a 15-minute headstart on the other age-group triathletes, so we didn’t get immediately swum over.
I wore my dark-tinted goggles because I had experienced some problems with sun glare with my clear goggles three weeks before at Columbia, and I figured the sun would be low in the sky. However, I discovered that these goggles are so dark that practically all I could see were light and dark shapes, making it very difficult to spot the buoys.
The water temperature and the wetsuit felt reasonably comfortable, although the wetsuit verged on being too hot. The top tugged on my neck at times and rode up around my waist. It was annoying but it didn’t stop me.
I found that I was increasingly far off to course to the right. I didn’t remember until I was nearly swimming in downtown Cambridge that there was a 0.4+ knot (0.46 mph) upstream current, effectively sweeping me away from the line of buoys. Funny, and I thought that current was going to help my swim on the way out. There is no “help” in triathlons.
The volunteers were starting to get concerned about me. “Are you okay?” Two people on a jetski hovered close enough that I breathed their fumes for a while. “Head for the boat with the flag.” Far ahead I could see an anchored sailboat flying an American flag. Okay, okay, I’m getting there. Slowly.
I didn’t feel too uncomfortable, I was just moving very slowly and got way way off course. WAY off course. It’s hard to judge distances when you’re a floating speck in the middle of a very wide river, but I wasn’t anywhere near the other swimmers nor any buoys. I certainly was a freaking long way from the sailboat.
I kept plugging away. I realized if I didn’t get serious and start doing only freestyle strokes, I’d never finish. My initial nervous hyperventilation had calmed down enough that I could do some freestyle with my face in the water, as long as I breathed every stroke. But I couldn’t do freestyle for long without veering further off course. But sighting every few strokes slowed me down and tired me.
I settled in for a compromise – 10 to 15 freestyle strokes, then a couple breaststrokes as I sighted for the buoy - which I couldn’t see very well because my goggles were too dark. I imagined myself following a scalloped path, because I veered off to the right and sharply corrected myself with each set of strokes. I tried veering more to the left, and that just resulted in swimming in the completely wrong direction.
Finally I was closing in on the sailboat. Swimmers in the succeeding waves were now out on course, and I had to get close to them to make the turn. Some people in a kayak directed me: “Go between the sailboat and the buoy.” What buoy? I thought we were supposed to go around the sailboat! Oh, that buoy, I see it now. Okay.
I kept slogging along, finally reaching the buoy and making the turn. The faster swimmers started swimming into my sides, and running into my feet. I tried to stay out of their way, but they were on both sides of me and I couldn’t get far enough away to avoid them. I couldn’t do a breaststroke while I was sighting, or my arms would hit them. I managed to do some sort of awkward Tarzan head-up stroke to keep going and try to sight while attempting to stay out of everyone’s way.
Finally I was able to navigate the turn around the end buoy of the course and turn along the second leg of the course, which went straight along the river into the current. This was just as slow going. I stayed on course a bit better, perhaps 50-100 feet out to the right of the buoys, just slogged along at my slow pace and tried to stay out of the way, although there were lots of swimmers that still ran into me.
I was getting tired. I had been out there a LONG time. I was taking it one buoy at a time, just working to get from one buoy to the next, but each one seemed like it took an eternity. Finally I could just make out a couple tiny specks of buoys that I knew were near the swim finish. I checked my watch hoping for a nice surprise.
1 hour and 5 minutes on my watch, and the time still ticking away. Crap. I’m doomed. The official swim cutoff was 1:10, and I estimated that I had a quarter of the course yet to swim. No way to make the cutoff now. The officials are going to stop me as soon as I get out of the water. This is ridiculous. I’d better get serious and swim hard or I’ll be out here in the middle of the Choptank all day. I put my head down and kept swimming freestyle as hard as I could.
Finally I negotiated the last turn and headed for the dock – straight up a boat ramp between two bulkheads. It was an odd feeling swimming down a chute with spectators standing above me on both sides, as if I was Shamu at Seaworld.
Finally my fingers hit the concrete ramp. I struggled to my feet, my legs heavy. I slipped and almost fell, clambering up the slippery ramp. I normally take my swim cap off exiting the water, but I left it on so the officials could spot me and tell me that I was done for the day. I later learned that I was the slowest of all 1434 people who completed the swim.
As I walked over the timing mats and headed back to pack up my gear, nobody stopped me. The volunteers gave me Gatorade instead of stopping me. I took off my wetsuit top, cap, and goggles along the way. I reached my bike, the last one left on the Wave 2 racks, and still nobody stopped me.
Okay, here we go! Keep going until they make you stop, I thought to myself. I took off my wetsuit bottoms, put on my Coolmax shirt over my jogbra, pulled on a pair of bike shorts over the thin Lycra shorts I swam in, then strapped on my bike shoes and helmet. I unracked Buttercup and we headed out over the timing mats. Still nobody stopped me – in fact, the spectators were cheering me and encouraging me on.
Okay, Buttercup, we’re still in the game, even though it’s 12 minutes after my most awful worst-case pre-race scenario. Let’s go, girl.
Bike (56 miles):
I settled in on the bike course and pedaled through the streets of Cambridge out to the rural roads. It seemed to take a long time to reach the place where 5 miles was painted on the pavement. 51 miles to go.
It was getting hot and the sun was strong, but with a headwind on the bike most of the way out it felt reasonably comfortable for temperature, just slow going. I had hoped to average over 15 mph on the bike leg, but in several stretches I found myself down at 12 or 13 mph going into the wind.
Everybody passed me. Everybody. I didn’t pass a single damn person on the bike that wasn’t fixing a tire. One jerk passed me without warning on the right with about 2 inches clearance, causing me to startle and swerve. I yelled Bad Things at his backside.
Many people spoke words of encouragement as they passed, which I appreciated. A few people passing yelled out my name and even Buttercup’s – which gave me a real boost. I couldn’t recognize anyone – I wondered how they recognized me? I guess they didn’t see too many other fat-butted older women out there pedaling along slowly on a hazmat yellow Felt bike. Certainly I didn’t see any other women that were up close to my weight class!
Every 10 miles or so were aid stations where they passed out bottles of water and Gatorade. I always took a bottle, and I had packed along 2 bottles, so I drank something like 140 ounces of fluid on the bike leg. I also took a salt capsule every so often and ate 2 Powergels.
I stopped at a porta-potty at the 22-mile turn and peed, which told me that I was doing a good job on my hydration. It also gave me a chance to stretch out a little, which helped enormously. I felt refreshed when I got back on the bike.
I tried to eat a Powerbar, but it tasted like sand. I got one down and it did give me some energy, but I couldn’t make myself eat any more than that. Karen Smyers said in the Saturday Pro Forum that race-day nutrition is one of the hardest things to get right in long-distance triathlons. Definitely true for me!
Past the 30-mile marker was unknown territory, since that’s as far as my (under)training had taken me. Fortunately we had a tailwind on the way back and I was able to make up a little time there, but every few miles I needed to stand up to stretch out or even unclip one foot at a time to wiggle it around, and that slowed me down. I was tired of being on the bike, my crotch and back were achy, but nothing hurt badly enough to make me consider stopping. I just kept turning the cranks and tried to keep my cadence and effort level up and eventually the roads led back into Cambridge. Buttercup behaved like a champ the whole way, and cooperated beautifully with everything I asked of her.
On the final stretch, 2 blocks from transition, I passed a corner with a policeman. I clearly remembered standing on that corner five years previously, cheering on the triathletes, being impressed and amazed by them. It felt like a great accomplishment to have finished the 56-mile bike course and be able to think of myself now as one of those triathletes.
The transition was mostly uneventful except I saw Debi Bernardes briefly, who was already all finished with her race. She told me she did “okay” – I later found out that she had won her age group. She encouraged me as I racked Buttercup, took off the helmet, switched to the running shoes, and clipped on the race belt. Oh, yeah, almost forgot the cycling shorts – fortunately I was able to pull them off over my big running shoes successfully and was left with my thin Lycra running shorts. I jogged off through the transition area and across the mats. My total elapsed time was 5:28 – I had made that cutoff with 2 minutes to spare.
Run (13.1 miles):
I was delighted to finally be out on the run! Even though I knew I couldn’t make a sub-8-hour finish, I still felt like I had a big smile on my face the whole way. It was suddenly scorchingly hot – somewhere around 90*F heat index and full baking sun, while the wind had died down. But there were lots of people still out on the course with me, jogging slowly or walking, making their way from one aid station to the next just like me. THIS I knew how to do! My legs didn’t feel too tired from cycling, and after the first couple of miles my feet started to feel somewhat normal again.
I kept taking on as much fluids as I could, taking salt capsules periodically, eating a cookie or a gel here and there. The volunteers at the well-stocked aid stations were kind, helpful, and enthusiastic, even this late in the day.
The heat took its toll, though. I jogged along as much as I was able, but after a while I would simply get overheated and nauseous, which would reduce me to walking. I tried to limit each walk period to 60 seconds, then start jogging slowly again, but each jogging session became shorter and shorter. But this was familiar territory to me – I had done this often on the second half of hot marathons, when my feet hurt much worse than this, so I just kept going along and trying not to be concerned about the time.
At the run turnaround there were still perhaps 15 or 20 people behind me, and I talked to them and encouraged them as much as I had energy for. I was slow, but I knew each step took me a little closer to the finish line.
At the 8:00 cutoff I was still about 4 miles from the finish line. I hoped that I would still get a medal, but I knew I would finish the course no matter what. I was reduced to walking most of the last 3 or 4 miles, just to keep from overheating, but the few people on course that I could still see were doing the same. Most folks still seemed in good spirits and were happy to be close to done.
At one mile to go I took the TRI-DRS dogtag out of my waistpack and put the chain around my neck. I didn’t want it jangling around my neck the whole way, but I definitely wanted to wear it for the last mile to remember the wonderful support that I’d gotten from the online community over the last few years.
Finally I turned that last corner and mustered another jog up and over the mats and finish line. They did have a beautiful medal waiting for me and I took off my visor so a nice young lady could hang it around my neck. I applauded some of the other late finishers and shook their hands. I was tired and had some muscle aches, but nothing hurt as badly as it can at the end of a marathon. My finish time of 8:50:50 was far beyond what I had ever anticipated, and while I was “DFL” among those who crossed the finish line, there were still more than ninety people who had started on course that day and never got there. I had survived everything Eagleman threw at me. I had achieved my primary goal for the day of crossing the finish line upright and with a smile on my face. I felt proud to wear the title of “Half Ironman Finisher”.
Allow me to conclude with one final colossal THANK YOU to all my online triathlete and running pals who supported me throughout my preparations for this event and who cheered me on. And to my beloved husband who watched the babies far more than his share. Quite literally, I couldn't have done it without you. I depended upon you every single day of the journey. You rock.