Sunday, August 13, 2006

Steelhead Ironman 70.3: The race I needed

This turned out not to be the race that I wanted, but rather ended up being the race that I needed to continue my preparations for a full Ironman attempt in November. The Race Gods have been good to me.

Short results:
Swim 1.2 miles: 50:05
T1: 9:16
Bike 56 miles: 3:43:54
T2: 3:18
Run 13.1 miles: 3:01:38
Finish: 7:48:10

Overall place: 1401 out of 1430
Athenas over 40 place: 4 out of 4
Gender place: 418 out of 437

Long, windy narrative results for my third half-Ironman:

This race was in a convenient location for me to take my twin 3-year-old girls on a visit to their grandmother, as well as enjoy a destination triathlon. I was expecting the moderately-sized small town triathlon event that was held last year, with 518 triathlete finishers and a smattering of relayers and aquabikers. Nope! This year registrations exploded, and it became a mega-event with 1430 half Ironman-distance triathlon finishers. Maybe it's because they were awarding slots to the half Ironman championships in Clearwater, Florida this fall, or maybe it's just an indicator of the increasing popularity of triathlons.


Packet pickup went smoothly the day before and I was delighted to be able to meet Shelley McKee finally, though we were running in different directions and only had a brief minute to chat.

Race morning began early in my mother's driveway and we fired up the 31-foot RV to drive the 22 miles to the race site. When we arrived there things were totally crazy - it was still pitch-black and volunteers were directing vehicles into a dozen parking lots at some distance from the transition area, triathletes were zipping dangerously among the lines of cars on their bicycles in the darkness (despite supposedly mandatory bike-racking the day before), and we were all getting quite stressed out circling around several times in our 31-foot behemoth RV after several mis-directions in our attempt to find a parking place that we reasonably might be able to maneuver into.

After much delay in the parking process, I hurriedly gathered up my wetsuit, bike helmet, bike shoes, running shoes, and all my other transition gear and carried it on a long walk to the transition area. All of that was heavy, and I found my arms shaking from a combination of fatigue from carrying all the gear, plus a fair amount of nervousness. I reminded myself that feeling like I was going to puke was a normal and anticipated part of my pre-race anxiety, and I tried not to let it bother me.

I was racked in with the relayers, and there were lots of people milling around and there was way too little space for all of us. My rack number was facing a nice wide end aisle at the edge of transition, so lots of people from the other side decided it was a good idea to put their bikes on the opposite side of the rack from their number so they could use the nice wide end aisle too. The result was a nasty tangle of bikes and barely space for me to lay out half a towel directly in front of my bike wheel with my shoes arranged on it. I ended up having to put my gear bag about 30 feet away by the outer fence line (along with many other people, as the announcer directed us).

I wheeled my bike over to the bike help tent and borrowed their pump to inflate my tires. Everything seems good. I ask the guy to check the bolts on my bike Buttercup's chainring, and they're all tight. Good.

I was in the last swim wave at 7:30, so I waited until most of the people had cleared out of transition at 6:45 to catch the shuttle bus to the swim start, which worked fairly well. I arrived at the sandy beach area with about 20 minutes to go. I pulled on my wetsuit, and went out into the water to try to get comfortable. The water temperature was perfect for me in my sleeveless wetsuit, about 76*F or 77*F. I watched the preceding waves jumping off the pier. I tried to estimate the drop to the water - perhaps 6 feet? My nervousness increased with every minute. I told another athlete, "This is freaking me out!" I reminded myself of something that Fe-lady had posted on my blog the day before: ". . . you will be in your element(s) as soon as the gun sounds!" Don't project. Stay in the moment. You'll know what you need to do when you need to do it.

Soon enough it was me lining up on that pier facing the rising sun in a crowd of other wetsuited triathletes with orange swim caps on, looking out at the line of buoys extending into the distance and then down at the water below. We counted down the seconds and I started my watch timer with a few to go. The gun sounded, and I waited a few seconds for a clear space in the water to take the plunge. Then I held on to my goggles and JUMPED!


Perhaps I should have held my nose instead of my goggles. I ended up underwater, disoriented, with a noseful of water. I looked for the light and came up sputtering and stressed out and trying to find my bearings again.

Then I started swimming freestyle. With a perfect water temperature, I didn't have a difficult warm up, I was able to start swimming comfortably right away. The water was surprisingly calm. I was glad to see that the buoys were closely spaced and I was able to see them clearly almost all the time. Just settle into a steady swimming stroke.

After a few minutes I had the surprising realization that I was having FUN! I *was* in my element! I *did* know just what to do when the gun sounded! I was keeping steady pace with several other swimmers and even passing a few! My stroke was comfortable, my breathing was comfortable, I was just going along on a lovely swim in Lake Michigan on a beautiful August day and having a great time! This was a total shock to me, since it's the first time I've felt truly comfortable in a triathlon swim. Happy day!

I just kept it up, concentrating on my stroke technique, repeating my mantra. Long. Smooth. Reach. Reach. Tick off the buoys one after the other. Oooh, there are a few big swells in the water. Is it going to get rough? No, there are no waves cresting, it's probably just a boat wake.

Just keep swimming.... I spot one woman with another color swim cap from a preceding wave, hanging on to a buoy for a breather. Poor girl, I can sympathize. Keep swimming. Along the way I pass people struggling through the water with two other different cap colors. COOL! The good thing about being in the final swim wave is that you know for sure you are actually AHEAD of everyone that you pass!

Just keep swimming.... I'm passing each buoy in the straight line about 30 feet to the left, well out of traffic but sighting well. This is my good side for breathing and I can spot the buoys without too much effort. I look ahead and there's still a cluster of swimmers in sight to follow. I try to get behind another swimmer a couple of times to draft, but the water is too murky to see underwater and I quickly lose them.

Just keep swimming.... Whew! How many buoys ARE there, anyway? Two or three more? This is getting monotonous. I look at my watch. 36 minutes and a long way still to go. Ugh, how am I ever going to swim twice this distance? Push those thoughts out of my head and try to think of a song to amuse myself and pass the time.

Just keep swimming.... Finally I reach the final buoy for the single turn in the swim leg. I'm away from the other swimmers and pop my head up for a moment and shout out to the people sitting on surfboards inside the turn, "Thank you, lifeguards!" They yell, "No problem! Good luck!" and I head in to shore with a smile on my face.

Soon I can touch the sand with my fingers, attempt to breast stroke or dolphin a couple of times in the shallows, then stagger to my feet and head in. Check my watch when I hit the beach: 49:05. Hurray! That's a big PR for me, 6:25 (11%) faster than my swim at Eagleman in June!

Swim to bike transition:

I stagger up the beach through heavy sand. It's too deep for me to try to run without tiring myself too much. Plod through it up to the boardwalk, where I think I crossed the timing mat. Then trot along the boardwalk, which seems to go on forever. Grab a cup of Gatorade. At some point Habeela passes me and says hi - how she recognized me I'll never know! Pull off my wetsuit top as I go.

Finally after a long, long way barefoot on tender feet I'm back in the transition area. Dump my wetsuit by my bag next to the fence. Back to the bike, rinse the sand off my feet, pull on socks and shoes, then stand up for my jersey and helmet, then trot the bike out the exit. Somehow over 9 minutes has elapsed since I crossed the mats.


We start off on a rough little backroad. I start out casually and get myself settled in for the long ride. About a half mile along I approach some photographers and hunker down on my aerobars for a proper shot. Not long afterwards I start up the first of innumerable hills and OOPS! My rear derailleur begins popping out of the easier gears, forcing me to climb with a lower cadence and muscling the pedals around. Ugh! I think the derailleur has been bent during transport or the cable has gotten too loose and I'd need a pair of pliers to adjust it (which I didn't have). I briefly consider bagging it and heading back to transition and calling it a day.

No, I refused to quit. I made it up that hill okay, let's just keep going and see how many others I can get up. I think of Bob Mina reporting on some other long triathlon where he had a broken cable or something, but where he ended up surprising himself by riding a good time. Nancy, you're no Bob Mina, but maybe you have enough leg muscle to power it up these hills too, like a fat female Jan Ullrich or something. Well, you're no Jan Ullrich either, but just keep pedaling.

I test the gears on each hill, to see what I have available to use. The larger gears on the back wheel are all gone, and I have maybe 2 or 3 of the middle gears to play with that don't slip. The front derailleur is working fine. (I had forgotten about the tightener ring on the cable, and it just never occurred to me to stop and try to adjust that, unfortunately. Yes, that might have helped. Lesson learned.) Okay, I may have to use some bad gearing combinations here and destroy the chain, but let's work with what we have. I muddle my way through most of the course by shifting between front gears and then shifting in back when it works.

I get through most of the hills without standing up. I still end up popping out of gear countless times on the uphills, which is jarring and tiring, but I make it up them. They're short enough that works okay, and I try to work up some speed on the downhills and flats. I even pass a few people on some uphills, which is really unheard-of. The hills keep coming, one after another.

The roads are terribly rough, compared to what I'm used to. There are almost no wide shoulders, on much of the course cars whiz by dangerously close, and the rural backroads are worn-out, bumpy asphalt. The bigger craters are marked in paint, but I can't always spot them in advance and still travel over lots of big bumps. Part of the way feels as jarring as cobblestones.

About Mile 41 I'm scouting out the bushes for a likely pee spot (having been unable to pee on the bike previously), when the bike starts getting increasingly wobbly. Is it bad pavement again? No. I stop and get off and take a look. The back tire is getting soft. I take the opportunity for a pee break and check the rear tire. No obvious damage. I give it some air. Maybe it's just a slow leak and I can limp back to transition. Only 15 miles to go.

Two more miles and it's soft again. Damn, I'll have to change the tube. I roll over a hill to an intersection with a traffic cop and stop out of the way on the outside of the turn. The cop asks me if I need help - no, I'm fine, just have to change this tire. Lay the bike down, take off the rear wheel, and set about swapping out the inner tube. Everything works reasonably well, as it's supposed to. I don't actually check my watch, but I know my PR time is now gone, but I'm pleased that I'm able to competently change a flat out on the road without getting flustered.

I get riding again and the tire holds air. I dump the old inner tube at the next aid station (I hate course litterers!) and in due time I finish the course.

I had knocked my bike computer out of alignment during the change and so it stopped timing at 43 miles, but it recorded a 16.1 mph pace up until my second stop. If I had been able to maintain that pace, I would have finished the bike leg about 16 minutes faster. Even so, I finished the hilly course 28 seconds faster than I finished the flat Eagleman course in June (also including a flat, but no inner tube change).

Bike to run transition:

Trot my bike back into transition, and lose a little time trying to safely wedge my bike into the packed rack in the last half-inch of space. I don't change into a new shirt for running, as I sometimes do, which saved me about half a minute. Slip into the running shoes and go go go.


I jog until the first mile marker and check my watch again. Mile 1 in 12 minutes. But UGH! It feels terribly hot! We're on a road in the middle of the woods with full noonday sun but no breeze. I realize this is the time to set aside all finish time expectations and just work on completing the course and avoiding heat stroke. I get to an aid station and start my routine - one cup of Gatorade for the insides, pour one cup of water over the head, and pour the ice down the front of my jogbra. I was doing this totally unselfconsciously until a guy coming the other way said to me, "That looks good!", which made me laugh. The fluids and ice perked me up enough to keep going, but I realize that I'm going to be doing a lot of walking on this course. I see Habeela again and we start leapfrogging the entire rest of the way, encouraging each other from time to time and putting one foot in front of the other. There are still a number of people out on the course with me and I keep mentally encouraging myself by thinking that I'll beat each one that I pass in the overall rankings.

The run course is kind of bizarre - lots of strange twists and turns up and over drawbridges and through underpasses and past what looks like a Needle Park and up into a wealthy neighborhood to finally reach the turnaround. Fortunately it clouded over about that time which kept it much cooler. I passed a bank thermometer twice which read 82*F, and I doubted that it was that cool at the time, but sure enough that's what the official weather reports say.

Lots of hills and few level stretches where you can get a consistent pace going. I'm trying to maintain a jog and just walk the uphills and aid stations, but I end up walking most of the final few miles. I suppose I trashed my legs a bit grinding up those hills on the bike. I didn't feel motivated to push very hard when I knew my final time would be much slower than my last half Ironman.

On the return leg, it seems that everyone is getting in their cars and leaving, which is always a bit discouraging. One woman wearing a medal yells to me, "You can still make the cutoff! Keep putting one foot in front of the other!" Um, I'm aware that I still have plenty of time, I'll finish well before 8 hours are up. I just smile and wave and keep going.

Back down through the woods and on to the finish line with lots of friendly congratulations along the home stretch. Cross the finish line and I'm done! Get my medal and Habeela and I congratulate each other and I head back to transition to collect my things.


I pack up my gear and back to my husband who has been minding the twins in the RV in the parking lot all day long. I retrace my steps and when I arrive the girls are actually napping! Fortunately, they had an opportunity to visit the lovely beach and had a much better day than I had been imagining. One of the best parts of the day was being able to shower up, change my clothes, and get a snack right in the parking lot.

All in all, a great day with lots of valuable lessons learned! I was especially pleased to enjoy what I consider my first triathlon swim that actually felt GOOD, and a reasonably calm rear flat tire change. Onward!


Mojo said...

Great job and race report!

Jumping off a pier for the race start? Wow, way to go woman. Great swim PR.

You are my hero because you can be calm and change a tire. I have a hard time getting my chain on, calmly. If I were in your shoes, I would have talked to the nice policeman and ask for help. :) Are you allowed to do that?

You should have peed on the "cut-off" woman!

Nice Half, it must feel good to go into the Ironman feeling confident in the water. You're gonna do do awesome.

gecko said...

wow! that sounds amazing! well done!

Spokane Al said...

Great job on a challenging day. Between the gears and the flat and the jumping off the pier at the start, you definitely overcame some obstacles with great grace under pressure.

If this was a test for your upcoming IM, you definitely passed with flying colors.

Geek Girl said...

wow. just--wow. I can't believe those profiles; they make my nauseated and tired just seeing them. You rock!

Habeela said...

Ok. So I thought the cutoff was 8 hours too so why do the finishing times run up to 8:45?

nancytoby said...

Um, I guess the RD took pity on them? I've been on the receiving end of that before! says 1:15 for the swim (2 finishers were over), 5:30 to finish the bike (?), 8:30 for the finish line (4 finishers were over).

I couldn't find the cutoffs on the Steelhead site, though. Also not sure how many DNFs there were, they don't seem to have kept those folks in the database.

nancytoby said...

And Mojo: You're allowed to ask for outside help all you want. You can get disqulified if you *receive* it, however!!!

Peter said...

Congratulations on a great effort.

jeanne said...

That first jump would have FREAKED me out! Wow, what an amazing day. You coped so well with all that bike stuff. Well, with EVERYTHING that was thrown at you. That's the lesson, I guess? and yes, road races ARE waaaaay easier than triathlons! GREAT JOB!

Iron Pol said...

Great race report. There's always going to be something that slows us down. When there isn't, it's called a perfect race.

And how did you get blogger to take more than one picture? It seems to dislike me, lately.

Awesome job on the race, too.

Cliff said...


Congrats. Definitely what u need in prep for the full IM.

Steven said...

Jumping off a pier to start a tri? I see Escape From Alcatraz in your future!

Congrats on a well-executed race. You are well on your way to being ready for IMF.

the Dread Pirate Rackham said...

eeep! I was feeling nauseous just reading it!

Way to stick it out -- good for you for not quitting!

Ashley said...

Great job! Sounds like you pushed through! Hope you have continued success! No picture of you smiling during the run so I could mock you as you did me? HA HA You probably wouldn't have had your shirt off like me and you would have been wearing a bra like you asked me to wear! HA HA

Good job and report!

Comm's said...

good job nancy. I am proud of you.

Ellie said...

Totally superb race and report! You're doing so extremely well... you're not going to have any trouble with IMFL!