Thursday, October 23, 2008

October 11, 2008

The day after the race, the Ali'i Tropical Hideaway clan (Coopers and Debenhams) headed to Hapuna beach to swim with beautiful fish and to meet with the Nelsons and Piccicis. It was a typical post-ironman gathering. Hideous tan-lines abounded (mine mostly), and small talk was dominated by total race digestion, complaints about the weather, and personal moments of triumph and tragedy. I lamely tried to explain away my 4:30something run split, still confused as to what exactly went wrong. Sam proffered my favorite explanation:

"Well Coops, if I were you, I wouldn't have even raced."
"Well, your number was obviously terrible. 139?! First of all, it starts with a 13, and if you add all the numbers together, you get 13 again!"

So nutrition/pacing/heat issues/etc. didn't foil my race after all, it was just my number. It's so easy! Unfortunately I don't believe in superstition, and the reality is that I'm responsible for what did and didn't happen in Kona this year. Besides, my number in Sooke was 1309 and I had a great time there. Just to prove to myself that the whole 13 thing is BS, I booked seat number 13C on my flight to Phoenix next month. It was one of the few aisle seats that didn't incur an additional charge - go figure.

Before getting into the gritty details of race day, I should first mention how awesome it was to return to Kona. I got in on the evening of Saturday the 4th, with less of a delay than most others I know. It was so deliciously familiar and exciting. Picked up the Ford Focus rental and headed straight to my favorite Thai restaurant for veggie curry before checking into the Seaside for the night. I was excited. I knew that the time change meant I would wake up super early the next morning and get in pre-dawn swim with fish and coral and turtles and (hopefully) dolphins.

Everything contrasted with last year's experience wherein I arrived after dark in a foreign landscape with no idea where I was going and really no idea why I was bothering to race on zero fitness. Last year, I was really not excited for race day. This year, I couldn't wait. Last year, I was the recipient of the amazing hospitality of Rick and Karen Rubio who wholeheartedly took me in an introduced me to the town and its people to an extent that I never would have known otherwise. This year I was initially flying solo and doing so with a naiive confidence.

I wasn't really alone though. The next several days were spent training with the Lifesport Kona camp, picking up a continual stream of friends and family from the airport (including fellow athlete Aubre), and running into friends and acquaintances everywhere. In fact every errand, training session, meal, etc took way more time than I allotted for such activities because I always ended up talking to someone ad largum.

And then it was race day. Aubre and I got up at 4:00 am to eat breakfast, have a moment of pre-race calm, and take the Ali'i shuttle into town. Aubre's enthusiasm is contagious and we both headed for transition with high hopes and focused excitement. Body marking and setting up T1 was smooth and easy. I got a pre-race hug from a body marker named Lu who was Shelby's boss back in her skydiving days. It was sweet. I then found myself with nothing left to do. I usually rush around until the absolute last minute with a panic that I carry through the swim start, for better or for worse. With all of the pre-race details taken care of, I plopped myself down next to Craig Alexander to keep my feet up until my swim warm up. Why not begin the day seated next to an incredibly talented athlete, I thought. Poor guy had cameras in his face the whole time. He's obviously good at dealing with the pressure.

As per my coach's insistence, I did a much longer swim warm-up than I used to do (which was basically none), and was feeling pretty good in the water in my hot new 20" Speedzoot. Right before I headed to the start, a giant turtle swam underneath me. Linsey wasn't far away, and I waved her over. It was so peaceful floating over huge turtle right before the insane beginning of what would be a long day of racing. Katya joined us to gawk, and we all surfaced grinning. "It means we're going to have a good swim," Linsey said. Linsey did have a good swim. In fact, she had a good race. 5th place is pretty darn good, I'm told :)

I found a good start position towards the inside, but because the pro start is so much smaller than the mass start,, crowding really isn't an issue and it's much better to seed oneself aggressively. My start was the best I've ever had and after pushing 200 m hard, I settled in with a good group of about 12 people. We worked well together, bu there was the inevitable fighting for feet and more contact than I like. As swimmers battled me for a draft, I kept dropping back to get on the feet of the aggressor. We made it around the far turn buoys pretty uneventfully, and just after we turned to head home I felt like our group slowed substantially. I looked up to see what happened to realize the the swimmer whose feet I was on had lost the group. Panic set in and I tried to catch the group, but it was all for naught and they steadily pulled away until out of sight. It was the two of us for a while until another group of swimmers caught us. Yay! I repeatedly tried to cut into the paceline of swimmers, but, understandably, people weren't too eager to let me steal their drafts. Fair enough, I thought, and tacked myself onto the end of the paceline. Bad idea. Not 100 m later, the exact same thing happened, and the person in front of me dropped off the back of the pack. I didn't do a very good job of learning from the first experience! I stayed on her feet for a while before realizing that we'd probably be better off I just sucked it up and pulled us in. So I did. And I was really, really angry with myself. 1:10 in the water. Four minutes slower than last year, and I know I'm a better, fitter swimmer.

I at least had confidence in my ability to ride a bike. Of all 3 disciplines, I've improved the most in cycling this summer, and I was sure that with smart pacing I would ride back into the mix. I'd been dealing with an SI/piriformis issue for a while, and was expecting an uncomfortable ride, but discomfort shouldn't slow a person down in a race. My focus for the first 10 miles through town was to get my heart rate to settle and not get caught up in the insanity of riding through town on fresh legs. I think I did a good job of that. As people stood to power up Palani, I stayed seated and felt like a dork as I lazily pedaled up to the Queen K. There weren't many distinctive moments during the ride. I stayed pretty focused on not over-riding, as can be my tendency, and spent a great deal of time dropping back and dropping back and dropping back as huge packs of age-group men streamed by. It was frustrating to have my rhythm continually broken by trying to follow the rules on the crowded course, but I trusted that all that dropping back was better than a 4 minute drafting penalty. There were motorcycles everywhere.

Conditions on the bike course were much tougher than last year. Granted, last year my goal was to survive rather than to race, but the heat and winds this year were much more intense. I was SO thirsty the whole ride. Normally, I have to force myself to eat and drink when riding, but on this day, all I wanted was ice water all the time. I knew that the gut can only absorb so much fluid, especially in extreme heat and under extreme physical exertion, but it was hard to refrain from constantly chugging water. I supplemented with Gatorade and my tried and true nutrition plan of a GU every 20 minutes. I'm not sure what stimulated such a strong thirst reflex, as I thought I had done a good job of hydrating all week prior to the race.

With screaming glute and a raging thirst, I put my head down and ground through what for me is the toughest part of the bike - the last 30 miles along the Queen K. A super strong quarter wind, lava everywhere, and an SI joint that was less than thrilled at the thought of another 1.5 hours in aero position. I was proud of how focused and positive I was able to stay, especially now that the field had spread out and fewer AG men passed.

With less than 4 miles to go, I approached another cyclist who had slowed on the hill. I moved left 2 meters to pass him (pros are not allowed to slipstream like AGers are). I probably moved to within about 8 m (10 m is the legal distance) when he sped up. I decided that I wasn't worth killing myself with so few miles left to ride and moved back to the right and abandoned my effort to pass. I heard a motorcycle behind me the whole time, but didn't think I would get in trouble, because I hadn't actually moved in to the draft zone, and if I had, I would have barely done so. Besides, there is the rule (no riding within a 10x2 m zone, 20 seconds to complete a pass once initiated) and the spirit of the rule (don't gain an unfair advantage by slipstreaming behinds someone), and I certainly hadn't violated that latter. Nonetheless, I violated the former and got pegged. My first ever red card. Did I deserve it? Probably, I broke the passing rule. Had I gained an unfair advantage? Certainly not, but everything I've learned suggests that arguing with the referees is pointless, so despite being devastated, I tried to make it a positive experience. I would be able to spend the 4 minutes in the penalty tent cooling down, getting medical assistance for my bleeding heels, stretching and fueling . . . what a joy!

Part of me wished that I had just sat in the middle of those giant packs of men during the ride out to Hawi - the ones that the motorcyclists just told to "break it up," because it's too hard for them to single out and penalize everyone. Herd mentality. At least then I would have felt genuinely deserving of the penalty. Instead, I was really discouraged. Especially when I got to the penalty tent and we weren't allowed to eat, drink, go to the bathroom, get medical assistance, or do anything useful. So I swung the stopwatch in circles and listened with great compassion as everyone told their drafting sob stories. We were a grumpy bunch, and we were obviously all innocent :) I really do understand that the "spirit" of the rules can really only come about by enforcing the technicalities, it's was just a tough lesson to learn. 5:29 for the bike. 11 minutes faster than last year, and average HR was 4 bpm lower than Cd'A. It was still slower than I had anticipated, but maybe I'm just crazy.

After the penalty I thought I would be really refreshed and that my heart rate would have calmed down for the start of the run. My goal was to really build through the run, even if it meant running 9 minute miles at the start while my HR settled. Running up Palani out of transition I saw so many familiar faces. Aaron, Cassy, Andy, Bri, Manny, Teri, Tanya, Heather G. . . . I wanted to explain to them that it was okay that I was so slow, I was going to speed up later and pick off all of the women who went out too fast and suffered as a result. Dropping down to Palani, going slower and slower, and the HR just kept rising. Run slower, HR rises. Repeat over and over. By mile 2 I was running 9:30s and feeling increasingly awful. Then my stomach started to cramp and heave. Oh boy. A bit of undigested bagel. Really?! That was like almost 9 hours ago! Mile 3 aid station and all I want is ice water, but should probably try to get some Gatorade down. Heave it all up. I wanted ice water. Shuffle to the next aid station and go through the exact same thing. Who said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

Did I mention that it was really effing hot? The clouds that had shaded and cooled Kona all week were absent on race day, and I was roasting. Around mile 5 I faced my greatest fear. Walking. "The more you walk, the more you will walk" is advice that I really believe in, but my stomach and lethargy left no other option. I thought that if I walked long enough to get my HR down, I might start to absorb some nutrition and get back into a groove. No dice. Until about mile 14, I settled into a eat, walk, jog, vomit routine. Then the chicken broth came out. I'm willing to put aside my vegetarianism for chicken broth in the latter stages of an IM. The stuff is magic. By mile 16, the vomiting had stopped and I was actually running 8:30s down to the energy lab. I had known from mile 2 that my competitive race was over, but it finally became evident at that point that I would at least be able to finish the event. And even though I had very little to give, I wanted it to be finished ASAP, because I was really not having a fun day.

Coming out of the energy lab I was happy to see Dewain's txt message "Run like Ashenafi." I smiled for the first time all day, even though I'm quite sure Ashenafi would be killing me if he were racing. I even found a buddy to run with for several miles until the 22 mile marker when I was abruptly stopped by another wave of nausea. I am amazed and disgusted by how much coke, chicken broth, and ice water, I had consumed in the previous 6 miles. It gave me a whole lot of respect for my stomach capacity. But that was my last puke of the day. Even after a slow, discourging, painful day, 4 miles seemed like no problem. They were slow and ugly miles, but I got them done. And I ran down Ali'i drive towards the finish line with a whole new respect for the course and the conditions. Run time: 4:34. Yup.

I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I finished that race, and ultimately, I think I was too scared to quit. Scared to learn that I might be the kind of person who chooses the easy way out. Scared of how disappointed I would be at the awards ceremony the next night, knowing full well that I would be disappointed regardless. I was scared about what others would think. Rachel Ross, who flew by on the run and encouraged me to (briefly) run with her. Liz Fedofsky, who rode her bike along the course and made me stick to it. The random spectators and aid station volunteers who watched me vomit and then offered the glib, albeit truthful "keep going, you can do it." Kona kicked a lot of people's butts' that day, and a lot of pros were smart, pulling out of the race and saving their bodies for Florida and Arizona. I honestly don't think any less of them. From a career standpoint, there is absolutely no reason to beat oneself up on a course that won't offer any prizemoney or glory, especially when a DNF will look better on the resume than an 11:23. But then there were the pros like Belinda Granger, one of the fastest girls in the sport, who trotted down the Queen K chatting to friend. I saw Hillary Biscay ask a walking male AGer to run with her "I'm not going very fast," she offered. And it was inspirational to see Rutger Beke finish 3rd after walking the marathon last year.

We all have good days and bad. It's what keeps sport interesting and passionate. Bad days aren't fun, but they're amazing learning experiences and they make me truly appreciate the good ones. I'm going into IM AZ with one motto: "have fun!" Granted, having fun for me usually involves being competitive, but this one is really just the icing on the cake. It can't be my "A" race because that happened rather unsuccessfully on October 11th, but I can run with a smile on my face.

These are the only race photos so far. When I get my act together, I'll show pictures of Hawaii and my lovely family and friends.



Run, Walk, Shuffle, Puke, Scowl

Bike boxes make great tables in long airport queues