the finish line is everything

“It will end, eventually.”

I know — not the most inspiring mantra. But that’s what got me through my worst race in the last few years. I’m well acquainted with bad days — what athlete isn’t? — but I’ve always been one for positive self-talk to get over it:

Just get through this mile.

You’ve got this.

Come on.

Pick it up.

There it is.

I can’t— Yes you can.

But not even a half mile into the run leg of IRONMAN 70.3 Steelhead this summer, I abandoned my typical mental strategy for a far more practical approach: Just finish. It will end eventually.

Here’s how I got there:

the swim

me & erin before the swim (her first half IM)

the situation: The water looked pretty calm, given how choppy it can get on the east side of Lake Michigan. In a first (for me), the water was too warm to be wetsuit-legal, so I knew it might be a bit slower than usual, but that didn’t worry me. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting a stellar swim, considering I’d only been in the pool about five times in the four months leading up to the race.

what happened: The horn went off, I ran off the beach and I looked forward to getting into a solid rhythm, settling in for those 1.2 miles and getting on the bike. Maybe 50 strokes in, I got a stinger — when you tweak a nerve and get a burning feeling in your head. So that was unpleasant. Took some time to do a little breaststroke (hahahaha) so I could decide if I was all good and, upon deciding I was, eased back into freestyle.

I tried to play it safe from there, but really, that just turned into me rotating my body less than I should have and favoring one side over the other. I didn’t feel great getting out of the water — and I felt even worse when I checked my watch — but I didn’t worry about it too much. It was bike time.

the details: 1.2 miles // 0:40:50 // 38th of 103 in my age group

the bike

the situation: I faced a mostly flat, minimally technical and slightly shaded course. That’s generally about as good as it gets. The big unknown: The whip. I rented a BMC Timemachine TM02  105 from Element Multisport for this race, rather than fly my bike from New York. Why? I don’t have a bike bag or box, I don’t yet have any tri friends in New York (so borrowing was out), and even if I did have a bike bag/box, it would have been just as expensive to fly it out and back as it was to rent. Renting seemed less complicated, so that’s what I went with.

what happened: Oh, how smooth it was. Well, it started out that way. Usually, I’m riding my 2006 Specialized Allez Triple with clip-on aero bars. It is heavy. It is not aero. It is the opposite of fierce. (For the record, I love that bike, and it has worked just fine for me for 8 years.) Compare that to a carbon-mix frame TT bike, and yeah, I was loving the upgrade.

Unfortunately, the fit wasn’t quite right. I should have pressed that more when I picked up the bike and they fit me at the shop, but I didn’t. Big mistake. Only a few miles in, I started shifting around a lot, because I couldn’t get my upper body and my lower body to be where I wanted them at the same time.

Imagine, if you will, how your booty skin might react to sliding up and down a hard saddle (that you’re not used to) in minimally padded, wet, spandex shorts for nearly 3 hours. Do you feel the burn? I most certainly did.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the chafing really got going, before I’d gotten even  5 miles behind me, my stomach turned on me. I told myself it would pass, but it didn’t. That problem took a backseat to another around mile 10: That’s when a bee stung me in the face.

I was riding downhill, about 30mph, when a bee hit me in between the eyes. Somehow, the bee lodged itself between the bridge of my sunglasses and the bridge of my nose. I yanked the glasses off my face, freeing the little bastard, but not before it stung me. (All while going downhill, in aero on an unfamiliar bike — what up, handling skills?)

my nose/eyelid/cheek area is not usually this big.

I told myself that if it really, really hurt, I’d stop. It definitely hurt, but not enough. I didn’t stop.

Face, stomach and butt burning, I flew into T2 with a bike PR. That gave me a mental boost, and I felt good about my ability to hang on to a good time.

the details: 56 miles // 2:46:31 // 14th of 103 (I passed enough people on the bike to be in 15th place going into the run)

the run

the situation: The course itself seemed manageable. Yes, it was hot, but it was mostly flat, and there was a nice little trail section in there. How pleasant. It was two loops, so I got to see my mom and figured I’d see my teammates at some point.

what happened: The thought that I could pull off a good time evaporated quickly. My new priority? Get to a toilet.

Barely a mile in, I made the necessary pit stop, but I knew I was still in bad shape. At the 5K point, I puked on the side of the trail. The bee sting manifested in a nasty headache, but after about 5 miles I really started feeling better (or I convinced myself as such). I started to hit my stride going into the second loop, just when my sister started her first. I wish I could have hung with her, but the good feelings that got me through the previous mile or so started to fade. My stomach launched another protest and I told her to go ahead without me. Another small bit of puking. Another bathroom break.

smiling for the camera. totally not reflective of my actual feelings.

And the chafing. The bloody chafing. (Not opting for British slang — that’s a literal description.) I race with a tube of Carmex on me because my lips get pretty dry, but I can also deploy it as an emergency Body Glide substitute. It sort of worked, but man, I needed this race to END. Shuffling, wincing, barely keeping my eyes open, I crossed the finish line, awash in pride that I’d pushed through this hell of a day. That finish-line feeling never gets old. I promptly hobbled to the beach so I could find some relief in the cool waters of Lake Michigan, but you’d think I dunked myself in saltwater the way that dip burned. Damn, I was so glad it was over.

the details: 13.1 miles // 2:43:32 // 77th of 103 (I mean… wow. Just wow.)

final: 6:16:38 // 43rd of 103

fuel things

before: Hammer Nutrition HEED (strawberry)

bike: Hammer Perpetuem (caffe latte), Hammer Bar (oatmeal apple), pretzels, Hammer Endurolytes, water

run: the plan was to take 2 Hammer Gels but I couldn’t swallow anything remotely solid. Took Gatorade at every station (which I generally don’t like but it’s what was there when I needed a backup plan), plus water and ice.

after: Hammer Vegan Recovery bar, pretzels, cheese pizza, water, water, water

thoughts: I’m going to have to revisit gels as a fuel. I’ve never liked the experience of goop sliding down my throat, but I eventually forced myself past the gag reflex to use gels for the last several years. I don’t think that plan is working anymore. I love the flavors and that they’re extremely convenient, but I hate the texture. I can’t rely on a fuel that I have to force myself to take. Also, I suspect my stomach problems were a result of my pre-race dinner — the only thing out of the ordinary food-wise that weekend. Cracker Barrel, never again. Ya hear me, Kennen Hootman? NEVER AGAIN.


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