Two weeks ago, I finished an Ironman, and for the entire first week after the race, I was hungry. For food, yes, duh, because I did an Ironman, but also for something else: another Ironman.
Honestly, that really surprises me. There's a lot I didn't like about training for this race, and I went into the experience as if it were a one-time thing. But as satisfied as I was crossing the finish line in Lake Placid, I couldn't help but think of the possibility of doing better. Still, I think it'll be a while before I take on the challenge again. Training for a race of that magnitude is exhausting, time-consuming, and expensive, so I want to be sure I can give the second attempt the attention it deserves. That means taking a break for a bit. In the meantime, I'm perfectly happy to reflect on the fantastic experience.
the swim // 2.4 miles
Mirror Lake is calm and clear—there's actually a rope a few feet below the surface to which the buoys are tied, kind of like a lane line in a pool—and the swim is the shortest leg. But I dreaded the start. I wasn't looking forward to all the anticipation or fighting the pack in the water, so I really tried focusing on staying relaxed all morning. Keeping headphones in while I set up transition, sipping on coffee, taking pictures of the sunrise, listening to the Beach Boys in the car with my dad—I did a good job fending off pre-race jitters.
Then I left my family to join the masses at the start. Seconds too late, I realized my mom still had the Gatorade I had planned to drink before getting in the water, and I fruitlessly spent a few minutes trying to find her in the crowd. I finally convinced myself it wasn't a big deal, chatted with a few athletes who seemed relatively relaxed and put on my goggles. Every few seconds, they let about 10 more people run into the water, and my start came up so quickly I didn't have too much time to freak out about it.
I planned to swim at a comfortable pace and a little left of the pack, so I wouldn't have to fight with everyone trying to spot the rope beneath the surface. That ended up being harder than I thought it would be, because sighting the buoys naturally led me toward that line, where I found myself repeatedly boxed in by slower swimmers. Pretty quickly, I encountered a bigger problem: leaky goggles.
I had the same problem at the Rev3 Quassy half in June but never had issues in the pool, so I thought it had something to do with putting sunscreen on my face before an open water swim. So, I didn't do that before the Lake Placid swim, but that didn't seem to do the trick. My left goggle continued to take on water, but I didn't want to stop, nor did I want my contacts to fall out, which I felt was a possibility with all that water splashing in my eye. Breathing only to my right seemed to reduce the amount of sloshing in my left goggle, so I did that for the majority of the first loop.
The first thing I did upon exiting the water to finish the first loop was empty my goggles. Then I checked my watch: 32 minutes. After pressing the goggles back on my face with more pressure than usual, I waded into the water to start the next half, telling myself to ease up a bit. The second loop went much smoother.
I had set a goal of finishing the swim in less than an hour and 10 minutes, so I was thrilled when I checked my watch on my way out of the water. My official time: 1:08:58.
Wetsuit strip, run to transition (high five the family on the way), grab gear bags. Socks, shoes, helmet, sunglasses. Load up the jersey pockets. Sunscreen. Bike. Here we go.
the bike // 112 miles
Cycling is my greatest strength in triathlon. Running is my greatest weakness. As I've gotten into longer races, I've had a lot of trouble finding a balance between pushing the pace on the bike and leaving myself enough energy to run long distances. I have enough trouble running half and full marathons when I'm fresh, let alone after a long bike ride. Given the hilly course and my overall fitness, I set an ambitious but seemingly doable goal of hitting a sub-6:30:00 bike leg.
That didn't happen, but I came close-ish. I'm OK with that, because I ran into a few problems on the bike.
It started out well, though it was very crowded, making it practically impossible to avoid drafting (you're supposed to keep six bike lengths between you and other racers). I dropped my chain around mile 8, and it took me about two minutes to fix it and make sure I could shift properly. A few miles after I got back on the bike, I came upon the 7-mile descent into the town of Keene—the most fun part of the course.
During my months of preparation for this race, I talked to several people who had done it, and everyone warned me about the Keene descent. By the time I got to Lake Placid a few days before the race, I was sufficiently freaked out. Because of that, I wanted to practice it a few times before race day. My parents drove me and my friend Gene to the top of the descent on Friday so we could give it a practice run.
It was so over-hyped. Don't get me wrong—it was awesome—but it wasn't the terrifying experience others built it up to be. During the practice run, I hit 49.7mph, and I was pretty comfortable. (It helps that it's actually broken into three descents, not a single 7-mile decline.)
I figured it might be a bit trickier on race day, with so many people on the course, and it was. My first time through wasn't as fast as it could have been, but I still enjoyed it, knowing what was coming up. From there until about mile 40, things were somewhat uneventful. It rained briefly, but I enjoyed the flattest part of the course and focused on fueling. (I set a timer on my Garmin to remind me to eat ever 15 minutes and drink every 10.)
Then I had to climb to regain all the elevation I lost during the huge descent. It went about as well as it could have, I guess. I've made a lot of progress in my climbing skills over the last several months, but I still have a LOT of room for improvement. With my goal of a 6:30 bike ahead of me, I pushed myself to finish the first half in 3:10. I knew that didn't leave me a lot of room for error on the second loop, but I still felt good about the time. I rolled up to the special needs station for less than a minute to grab a pb&j sandwich (I'd already downed one and a half) and a packet of chamois butt'r out of my bag.
I started the second loop of the bike course with confidence—but I really had to pee (and had needed to for about 20 miles). I figured I'd take the next available pit stop so I could apply that much-needed chamois butt'r, as well, so I decided to hop off the bike for a minute around mile 63.
It wasn't quite the speedy in-and-out I wanted it to be. I tried quickly unclipping from my pedals and nearly fell over, because my left cleat had come extremely loose. At some point, I lost one of the three bolts that attaches the cleat to the shoe, and when I finally got my foot free, I had to take the time to tighten the remaining two bolts. I went to put my bike on the aid station bike rack, but it fell over when the person in front of me attempted to rack his bike. I was looking for a place to leave my bike when suddenly there was some dude falling over next to me as he struggled to unclip from his pedals. He yelled, "Catch me, catch me!" (I did.) It took me a few moments to regain my focus amid the chaos.
That mess ended up taking about five minutes, as opposed to the 60-second stop I had planned. Still, that extra chamois butt'r? Best decision ever.
Everyone had spread out by the second loop, which made it a little easier to settle in to a rhythm, but the wind had picked up by then. I happily took the Keene descent much faster than the first time through, hitting a max speed of 47.9mph. SO FUN.
I couldn't tell if it was the wind or fatigue that made miles 70-90 feel like such a drag—probably a little of both—but even so, I felt I should be going much faster. I found myself struggling to get my speed above 18mph, even on flat sections. It was discouraging, and with the toughest climbs ahead, I saw my goal of a sub-6:30 bike leg slip away in those 20 miles.
Later, I'd realize I had a slow leak in my rear tube, but I'm not sure when it happened. My tire was flat after the race. I pumped it up and found a teeny-tiny hole, but the tire held pressure for a few hours, fully deflating overnight. I don't know how much of the race it affected, but looking back at race photos, I think I can see the differences in tire pressure between photos of the end of my first loop and the end of my second.
The rest of the bike was about what I expected: I wanted to get my ass off that saddle ASAP. With about five miles to go, I tried to eat my last bite of pb&j but couldn't bring myself to swallow it. I spit it out, declaring I was done with solid food for the day, and when I dismounted my bike for T2, I decided to walk to the changing tent. I didn't care about the extra minute I could save by running. I finished the bike in 6:47:55.
Shoes. Visor. Water. Salt. Go.
the run // 26.2 miles
Oh, it hurt. I started to "run" out of T2 and even my skin hurt, tired of bouncing up and down for so many hours. How long have I been doing this? I wondered. What time is it? I felt both disoriented and determined, knowing I had many hours to go before it was over.
I'd run two marathons before this, and I remember thinking mile 23 was the worst mile of all, both times. The run leg of this Ironman felt like mile 23 of a marathon the entire time.
I knew it was going to be especially rough. In May and June, my running training took a huge hit: I started experiencing chest pain during high-intensity training, mostly running speed work, and it freaked me out. I knew I shouldn't mess around with chest pain, so I had a bunch of tests done, and while I waited for results, I stuck to low-intensity sessions on my doctor's advice. After several weeks, a cardiologist told me I was fine and could push through the pain. I was thrilled, but I also had to settle for getting to race day with far-from-perfect training, especially on the run.
The run was mostly mental. It was physically exhausting, of course. Hilly. Sunny. Hilly again. But I spent most of those 26 miles giving myself pep talk after pep talk, thinking of all I had put into getting here. Every once in a while, my toe caught the pavement and I worried I might fall down—I had so much trouble keeping my legs going. Otherwise, I tried distracting myself with the scenery or looking for my teammates, and I'm happy I got to see my friends and family several times along the way.
There aren't many more exciting details from the run. I'm happy there were so many spectators and a lot of entertainment along the way, but for the most part, it was slow and painful. I did, however, see a woman sobbing on the course when I was only three miles in (encouraging), and I had to avoid a lot of people who were vomiting at an aid station in mile 24, for some reason. I tried to look away, but there was someone puking in every direction, which is pretty terrible when you already feel like puking. That's about as exciting as it got.
In my mind, I got faster with two miles to go. My GPS data barely supports that (I went from a 12:22/mile to 12:10 OH BOY) but still, I felt energized. It was happening. I was going to finish.
And I did.
I found a little finishing "sprint" in my legs (though I was still worried about tripping) and raced down the red-and-black carpet. I didn't even hear the announcer say "Christine DiGangi, you are an IRONMAN," because I had already started smile-crying. I crossed the finish line, and to my surprise, Matt was there to give me my medal. (Amazing gift, Mom. Thank you.) I couldn't believe I had done it, and now, more than two weeks later, it still feels surreal.
I finished in 13:31:36. I'm thrilled, and I'm energized, because I know I could do even better—after a little break. Right now, I'm happy I took two weeks off, and I'm looking forward to getting back to training for my next race, Ironman 70.3 Atlantic City, in September.