“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.
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 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 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?)
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 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.
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
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.