entering the Ironman fold

I’m not the personal race report writing type. Never have been, and after this, probably never will be. But last night, after pouring a glass of pinot (OK, three) and sitting down to read my good friend Lisa’s account of competing in last weekend’s inaugural Ironman Mont Tremblant course, I was inspired.

Finishing an Ironman—a day spent swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles— is an achievement worth commemorating with words beyond status updates. So I’m going old school and putting this up the only place I have to publish it: my backslidden food blog.

I blame this one.

When I decided last summer that I wanted this new Canadian race to be my first Ironman, I thought it would be perfect to have one of my first tri mentors there by my side. Back in 2007, as a fresh transplant to Syracuse, Lisa’s spin classes and passion for triathlon carried me through a relocation funk and sparked my urge to do a tri. By early 2008 I’d signed up for the Cazenovia Olympic-distance triathlon. Three years and a whole bunch increasingly long races later, 2012’s docket held two half iron-distance races (Wildflower and 70.3 Hawaii) and a local sprint triathlon in the spring, and last weekend’s Ironman Mont Tremblant in Quebec. It’s a typical path for a triathlete; the bug bites quickly and the sting goes deep.

I somehow managed to convince Lisa to trade her usual July Ironman in Lake Placid for this new, unknown Canadian race, and as our respective training programs kicked off in January, we began, totally unplanned, to exchange weekly emails about our training. We asked each other a million questions (“Does X happen to you?” “Do you feel like X too?”), shared advice, and wove the highs and lows of Ironman training into our correspondence. I felt like I had a training companion three time zones away. To bring closure to this seven-month journey, I’m going to step out of my comfort zone just this once and pound out my first race report, even if nobody reads it but me.

A few ounces of red at my aunt and uncle’s condo on race eve, fingers and toes freshly painted to match my bike.

Race Day Arrives

My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. on the heels of a fitful sleep (no surprise there, adrenaline and sleep do not make good companions). A new race day nutrition plan from the good people at QT2 Systems dictated an early morning meal of 2.5 cups of unsweetened applesauce (low glycemic index but also low fiber), protein powder (I used a Tropical Energizing Smoothie mix from Vega), and a banana. I’d blended the powder and the applesauce together the night before using the hand blender I’d packed, so all I had to do was open the fridge, scoop a ridiculous amount of pureed mash and a banana into my mouth, and hit the pillow for another 45 minutes of precious “I’m trying way too hard to sleep” shut-eye.

At 4:15, Mark prepared the contraband mug of coffee my nutrition consultant had declared off-limits. Even though I did end up trying a few new things on race day (one of triathlon’s biggest no no’s) a morning without coffee was one I simply wasn’t willing to try on my first Ironman. I was about to put my body through enough. How much more could I really ask of it?

This shot contains many of the essentials for a good race.

I suited up for battle in my Long Distance Tri Shorts and Singlet from 2XU, secured my timing chip around my ankle with safety pins, and tied my hair in a ponytail. I put full compression tights and a warm hoodie overtop of my ensemble, as it was chillier than it’s been in SoCal for some time. Having dropped off everything I might need for the bike and run portions the day prior (bike, helmet, cycling and running shoes, sunglasses, etc.) all that was left to cart down to the transition area was a backpack containing the two special needs bags I’d receive mid-bike and mid-run, and my swim gear (blueseventy googles, swim cap, Brave Soldier body lube, awesome new Doc’s surf earplugs, and pre-race nutrition). Phew, Ironman’s a mouthful. There’s so much to remember, and if I hadn’t had my lists and notes on my phone, I would’ve been a disaster waiting to happen. Not to mention my awesome pack-horse husband.

The perfect day began beautifully.

After dropping my special needs bags, pumping my tires in the bike corral, and throwing a last-minute pair of arm warmers into my T1 bag for what looked like a cooler-than-usual bike. I downed an Apple Pie Bonk Breaker at 6 am, an hour before I’d hit the water, and promptly got in line for the porta potties. Silently singing the praises of coffee, I emerged with a big smile for Mark. Despite the new day-before-the-race nutrition plan I’d tried (a HUGE carbohydrate-rich breakfast, medium-sized lunch, and tiny serving of pasta for dinner) things seemed to be working somewhat normally. We met up with Jordan, a friend who’d driven up from Ottawa at 3 a.m. to watch me race (!) and headed to the beach. I was freezing, so Jordan lent me his Syracuse University hoodie, which kept me warm and gave me a nice little nostalgic boost to boot.

Athletes and spectators poured onto the beach, to the usual upbeat Ironman soundtrack, and it was hard not to get distracted. I ran into a friend from SD, and pulled my wetsuit over my shorts and jersey while chatting with her, Mark, and Jordan. Then I stuffed my tights, hoodie, and walking shoes into the green plastic bag given to each athlete for their “morning clothes,” and tossed it into another bin. (Volunteers would later sort them out and return it to the transition tent.)

All kinds of colorful fun down at the swim start.

The clock inched closer to 7. Heading for the beach, an unplanned meeting with my parents surprised and delighted me. Seeing their faces stirred the emotional pot already teeming with both new and recognizable varieties of anxiety and excitement. I walked over the timing chip activator and found a spot on the soft sand. At 6:45, I ate the Raspberry-Chocolate GU Roctane I’d tucked under my wetsuit sleeve, pulled on my green cap, spit in and then rinsed my goggles with lake water, praying they wouldn’t fog up. And then–Lisa! A familiar face on a strip of sand packed with athletes, yet that was starting to feel surprisingly lonely. I noticed some moisture in her eyes, too, as the fighter jet fly-over signalled the arrival of our day. I never actually cried on race day, but I definitely didn’t expect to be closest to tears at the start. Maybe you’re more vulnerable at the beginning of a journey than you are at its end.

Love this shot! Thanks Jason Ward Studios for this and many other great edits.

The swim: just breathe

I’d been advised to start on the edge of the beach, but running into Lisa distracted me and we both ended up starting dangerously near the front and center of the pack. I ran into the water, dove in, and proceeded to get plowed over by what seemed like hundreds of bodies. About five minutes in, I had a mini freak out moment. Not a full-fledged panic attack, but I swallowed a bunch of water and my heart rate skyrocketed. I actually started looking around for a kayak to rest on, but instead put my head down and let the motion of a familiar activity soothe my nerves.

Another mental strategy that kept the chaos at bay was bringing to mind the countless open-water swims I’d done with my training partners (and good friends) Robert and Dane. As I focused on the tasks at hand—hips rotating, arms reaching, head turning—I just kept saying to myself, “That’s Robert right beside you.” “You’re just out swimming in the Cove on a Friday morning.” “It’s just like swimming Masters at the Y.” Little thoughts like these made the “big” moments of the race seem more manageable. I’ve read about the pre-race strategy of reviewing one’s training log for an extra kick of confidence, but what worked best for me on the day was reliving the moments of training in as much detail as I could.

Chaos.

I eventually found my rhythm in the water, and after what seemed like a very long time, began to hear the din of the crowd grow louder. I swam until the sandy lake bottom appeared beneath me, stood up, and ran over the timing mat at the one-hour, 12 minutes, and 16 seconds mark. I ran over to a crew of volunteers, laid down on the grass, and had my suit peeled from my legs in a flash of neoprene. It was my first time at a wetsuit stripper equipped race, and I loved it. I stuffed my goggles, earplugs, and cap into my wetsuit sleeve as I began the quarter-mile jog over soft red carpet to the transition tent. A nasty yet familiar cramp sunk its teeth into my right quad, and I made a mental note to take extra salt as soon as I hit the bike.

The bike: a trusty steed

I tried to take my time in transition, having heard that calm breeds success in Ironman. I found my bag easily (thanks to the strips of bright-blue towel I tied to the top) and carried it into the women’s change area. I put on socks, my helmet, and Oakley Commits as a helpful volunteer sprayed me with sunscreen. I grabbed my shoes as the volunteer insisted on putting all my swim stuff into the bag for me, shooing me off with an insistent “go go go!” I found my bike, put on my shoes, and wheeled Amelie out for her victory lap.

Mounting the saddle is one of my favorite parts of a race. Only the last 100 yards of the run and the finish line itself can compete with the feeling of climbing on a well-oiled machine you’ve spent so many hours riding through the countryside in the company of friends. As my strongest leg and the one I enjoy most, the bike always feels like a solid, trustworthy companion propelling me farther and faster than I could ever go alone. If the ancient elements (Water, Earth, Air, and Fire) applied to this sport, the bike would be my Air. Light and swift, cycling is a constant play between smooth efficiency and pure, fierce strength.

Matchy matchy! (Photo courtesy of FinisherPix.com)

One thing that I didn’t expect was how quickly the bike leg flew by. The rolling hills thick with evergreen and the freshly paved roads were a welcome change from parched San Diego county, and I soaked in the scenery with every passing mile. Riding through the town of St. Jovite, its narrow streets lined with spectators, was how I imagine riding in Europe must be. The wind picked up but was never unmanageable, and looping past the crowds in town four times brought me fresh energy each time.

My Garmin 910XT reminded me to eat every 40 minutes—all I had to do was look at the piece of paper I’d taped to the bottle between my aerobars to see what was on the menu. Bike time 00:00 and 00:40 each brought half a peanut butter Powerbar (race day “new thing” number … ?) At one-hour 20 I ate a Honey Graham Halo Bar, and starting at 2:00:00, I began to taper off the solid food, switching to a caffeinated gel and salt pills only (extra of those given the annoying quad cramp that wouldn’t go away.) These solid food sources were in addition to the three full bottles I started out with on my bike, each containing either two scoops of EFS mixed with water, or a NUUN tablet/CarboPro combination. (Each of these mixtures provided the same electrolyte/carbohydrate combo as the sports drink my nutrition consultant had recommended given my sweat rate. I’d never used that drink in training, however, and I didn’t want to try something that major for the first time on race day.) What you consume on the bike is actually more important for setting you up for a good run, not just fueling the bike leg itself—another thing I learned from my coach, Mike Plumb.

At the halfway point I received my special needs bag, which I’d stocked with two fresh bottles of fluid, a Kona-Mocha flavored EFS Liquid Shot, and a Ziploc bag of Korean seaweed. It was something I thought might make me smile (something a friend had encouraged me to think about when packing that bag), and I must say, it was fun jamming that salty, crispy, green stuff in my mouth as I passed hoards of spectators on the sidelines.

I can say now that my QT2 fueling plan worked remarkably well, despite not having much time to practice it in training, which was no fault of theirs. I got a jarring abdominal cramp around mile 85, which made breathing difficult and slowed me down considerably. I’m guessing this was just from loading my body with more than I’d conditioned it to in training. Given the seven or eight times I peed on the bike, I was adequately hydrated, despite finishing the bike one full bottle short of the six I was supposed to consume altogether. By mile 100, I was really ready to be vertical again—strange for this cycling-focused triathlete. A few more deceptively steep hills on Chemin Duplessis to put under the wheels, and five hours, 38 minutes and 58 seconds later, I was back where I started. And thanks to some key trainer workouts from my coach (and his 180-190 watts range guide for race day) not much worse for wear.

The marathon: taking care of business

I dismounted, passed my bike to a volunteer (gotta love that about Ironman) stopped to remove my shoes, and hobbled back into the transition tent. I grabbed my bag, exchanged cycling shoes for my Pearl Izumi Kissakis, popped a visor on my head and stuffed my bike gear into the bag. A row of portapotties appeared like a mirage, and two volunteers slathered me with sunscreen while I waited for a vacancy. It was clouding over, but you can never have too much sunscreen (right Baz Luhrman?) I was in and out of that portapotty in a flash, emerging with an even bigger smile than my morning stop had warranted. The abdominal cramp was a thing of the past. I saw Jordan in that first few hundred yards, and his cheering giving me much-needed boost. A few steps later, a large black man was bent over the fencing yelling “Go Jennifer! Go Jenny!” in a thick French accent. My grimace broke into a huge smile, which seemed to whip the spectators into even more of a love-fest. I kept on trucking, trying not to let the thought of a full freaking marathon get me down. Just a long, slow, easy run. Take your time.

Running (and talking) in some light rain.

Mark, my parents, and my aunt and uncle surprised me on the hill at around mile one, their ecstatic cheering providing yet another boost. This wasn’t going to be a boring 26-miler. There was a huge family here to pull me through, and I was going to milk it for all it was worth. I’ve heard it said that an Ironman marathon is about 80 percent mental. I’d up that to 90. If it weren’t for some of those spectators—one of them looking right into my eyes and saying “you are an inspiration, Jennifer!”—I’m not sure where I might’ve gone, mentally. A massive thanks goes out to all of them, and their shouts and signs: “Allez allez allez!” “You’re part of the 0.01%!” etc.

It’s always hard for me to consume calories on the run, hence the importance of getting in enough on the bike. I often develop acid reflux—an incredibly painful tightening of my esophagus around mile 14-15, a problem I still haven’t solved. I ate half a banana at the first aid station, which sat well, and sipped on the on-course drink (Ironman Perform) and my Liquid Shot when I could. I felt surprisingly strong on the first 10K, but at the half-marathon point back in town, noticed that an on-again, off-again pain in my left knee had flared up again—the chief physical niggle of this particular race. Thankfully, the right quad cramp was long gone. Yay, salt and seaweed!

On the advice of a pro triathlete friend, I had put a bottle of Ensure Plus in my run special needs bag. Channeling my inner 80-year-old, I downed it, along with two Advils, in hopes of staving off the knee pain. (Both were additional race-day firsts, but they proved wise decisions as I dug into my second half-marathon.) At one of the next aid stations, I pulled my left calf sleeve up over my knee and jammed some ice cubes in. Eventually the Advil kicked in and it never got any worse. Thanks to the 300-plus calories in the Ensure, I didn’t need to take advantage of many more of the aid stations from then on in.

The miles between 13 and 18 formed the toughest chunk of my day, mentally. Once I hit the final turn-around at the end of Le P’tit Train du Nord (an old railway bed converted to a cushy recreational trail), I was charged by how little there was left to go: “It’s just a six-mile run around Cardiff.” (Beep and buzz of the watch.) “It’s a five-mile run on your lunch break!” (Beep, buzz.) “It’s an easy four-mile recovery run with Mark.” (Beep, buzz).

And finally, the last two miles showed up like honored guests at a party, and the roaring crowds began to break the grip of my fatigued muscles and run-zombie brain. My cadence slowed and I began to take huge strides forward on the cobblestone, feeling like a professional athlete as hands reached forward to high-five me in my last push. Borrowed energy carried me to the illuminated finish arch. I heard the author Paul Auster say the following on NPR interview yesterday: “Some people take their bodies for granted. They just sort of live in them.” It’s hard to be an Ironman athlete and be that kind of person.

Off the ground.

It took me 11 hours and 19 minutes on the nose to enter the Ironman fold, and suddenly, as quickly as it had arrived, it was all over. Mark medalled me, and escorted me with another volunteer to the finisher’s area where beer, pizza, and all sorts of of other necessities were on offer. Cuddled up in my foil blanket, all I wanted was an ice-cold Coke. I immersed myself in the sweat-soaked moment I knew would fly by so quickly. As I hugged my dad I thought back to the first long run (seven miles) he convinced me to do with him years ago in Birds Hill Park. I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. As I hugged my mom, I thought of the model of health and fitness she’s been throughout my life. As I hugged Mark, I thought of all the post-workout lattes, bike maintenance help, much-needed company on runs, and the great interest he’s taken in the sport and my participation in it. These types of achievements don’t happen in a void, and I am very grateful.

Smiling and still upright.

Six days later, I’m back in our Cardiff apartment, coming down gently off the high something like that infuses into your life. My recovery has been easy—I haven’t been as sore or broken as I thought I might be. As per usual, I’m taking one solid week to eat whatever I’m craving, which always makes me return to healthy eating with a new appreciation. Save for a quick Cove swim yesterday morning, I’m waiting one solid week to swim, bike, or run again, and I’m trying not to think about my next athletic goal. Ironman is so much more than a day, it’s a many-month journey; the feeling of all that coming to a halt is jolting. Hopefully by focusing on the things that got waylaid by my training I’ll be able to temporarily fill the hours once occupied by swimming, biking, and running. But after having completed an Ironman, I can confidently say that for as long as my body will put up with it, I’d like to keep my membership to this club, thank you very much.

So here it is, down on “paper:” my account of 11 hours and 19 minutes doing three of the activities I love most in the great outdoors, with some of the people I love most—and a whole bunch of like-minded strangers—along for the ride.

Taking a bite out of 140.6 miles.

17 thoughts on “entering the Ironman fold

  1. Lydia Brown
    August 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Love this account Jen! So proud of you! Glad I got to see you the days before… sad I missed the actual race! XO

  2. Anonymous
    August 25, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    So proud of you and happy that you posted this so we could share what we were trying to follow from afar! Beautifully written.

  3. Anonymous
    August 25, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Jen, you are an inspiration…beautifully written account and I feel as though we were there with you…! Love you!

  4. Amanda Spaulding
    August 25, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Well done!! I’m very impressed!

  5. August 25, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    Way to Go! Very inspiring – you should be very proud of yourself!!

  6. August 25, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    I’m very happy you decided to write up this personal race report, Jen! You’ll be glad you did. :) It was nice to be able to join you a bit on the journey and go through your highs and lows, especially because I know nothing about what it really takes to complete an Ironman.

    I have just one question: how do you pee on a bike?

    1. Jen
      August 25, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      Thanks Meg! I’ve gotten embarrassingly out of writing practice, so it was a welcome challenge to put my experience down in words. To answer your question, there’s no real secret! One day we’ll go out for a ride and I’ll show you. :)

      1. August 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm

        It’s funny – I just never thought about the fact that you’d have to do that! I’ll learn from the pro sometime, though – I’m sure there are some techniques.

  7. August 25, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Jen, this entry was so interesting to read since I am very far removed from what it takes to accomplish this monumental achievement. I am extremely proud of you, and reading about the preparation, emotional mindset, and step by step progress of the race was thrilling! WELL DONE!

  8. Anonymous
    August 25, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Great account of the race Jen, congratulations

  9. August 26, 2012 at 1:50 am

    Awesome race report. You are an inspiration.

  10. Meredith Ward
    August 27, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    I am so thrilled that your Uncle Doug and I were part of the spectators and cheering section along with your parents and Mark! An unforgettable experience, and truly inspiring to see what you achieved, Jen.

  11. Evelyn Ward de Roo
    August 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    you are amazing.

  12. Judi
    August 31, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Jen….I had no idea what was involved with an Iron(wo)man race…holy cow…I was so engrossed in reading your account that I actually had a little tear in my eye when you crossed the finish line and hugged your family…..even tho I couldnt stop wondering how to pee on a bike…. wow!!!

  13. June Gruber
    September 17, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Amazing Jen you are!!!

  14. May 3, 2013 at 3:25 am

    Awesome account! You make it sound so easy. Well done and keep racing :)

  15. July 17, 2013 at 4:06 am

    I read that you like to use EFS for your electrolyte supplement. Have you ever tried Recovery e21. It is an all natural supplement that I hear is great!