my storybook Ironman

I have so much to say about Ironman Copenhagen. One, DO THIS RACE. Two, as I posted on Facebook just seconds after crossing the finish line: “YES, YES, YES.”

I’m basking in a rare breed of unadulterated, almost childish happiness—the kind that doesn’t come around that often, quite frankly. 10:46:09. Ten forty-six oh-nine-oh-yes.

I want to pin Sunday down, like a butterfly on one of those old-fashioned collector’s boards, trapped under glass and frame. But besides my medal and the finisher’s jacket I bought yesterday (my first!), Sunday is intangible, slipping through my fingers faster as the days go by.

Getting things in order.

And that’s part of what makes it so special, like Christmas morning after the tree comes down, or like cleaning up the wine glasses the morning after a party. Somehow, the memory grows sweeter even as it fades.

I wasn’t shy that my goal going into Ironman Copenhagen on Sunday was to break 11 hours. I wasn’t sure how my rush-job training and last-minute foot/ankle/calf issues would pan out, but I still wanted a sub-11, and I wanted it badI’ve wanted it ever since training my ass off for probably way too long? six months last year leading up to Ironman South Africa. Before that, I didn’t have much of a concept of what I was capable of as an athlete. Maybe with South Africa I let Kona qualifying cross my mind too much—lying through my teeth when I’d say “oh I’m not even thinking about that.” (Looking at progress and growth, and not just in sport, by the way, is fascinating to me.)

Photo: Getty Images

At a cafe earlier in the week, I wrote that big, juicy goal down on paper and calculated the times I’d need to crack 11 hours. Even though I’ve read that the loftier your goals the more likely you are to achieve them, I wrote down some medium-sized goals, too, and then lastly, the results I’d be satisfied to have traveled across the world for. Plus, I think being realistic has a place in goal-setting, too. Somewhere.

Swim: 1:03:44/4th AG

My big, juicy goal for the swim was 1:05, my medium-sized goal 1:08-1:10, and my “satisfied with” goal, 1:10-1:12. The swim start was not only divided into co-ed age group waves, but it was a rolling start within the wave, making for a very civilized swim. I looked around and didn’t see many other women, so placed myself right at the front. As it turns out, most of the fast girls in my AG started in the special sub-10 wave, which went off after the pros. Given that none of them actually ended up going sub-10 (I heard later that it was a slower year overall, due to the high winds), I might have been smart to have registered for that wave as well. But I’m not complaining, just words of advice to those contemplating this race.

I wish they’d captured my expression after looking at my watch instead!

The swim takes place in a protected lagoon, making the perfect spot for an Ironman. I woke that morning, however, to a wind that sounded much angrier than it had the past few days. As I walked the 25 dark, lonely minutes to the beach from Angus’s flat, I started to wonder if the wind gods had something against me, as my last two Ironmans were also unusually windy). The announcers assured us that this was normal for Copenhagen, and that a) it would die down, and b) it would be at our backs going out on the bike. (They were wrong on both counts.)

Whereas I’ve historically pursued clean water from the get-go, I was more tactical in this race, chasing feet when I lost them, bridging gaps, worming my way around slower swimmers, sighting every few strokes on what I found to be quite a difficult-to-navigate course. Not only is the lagoon an awkward shape, there weren’t enough buoys and they were far too small to boot. When I pulled back my wetsuit to reveal my watch, it was as if someone had dumped a bucket of glitter over my head, and it stuck to me all day.

  • Pre-race nutrition: 1.5 cups sticky rice with coconut oil and maple syrup, 1 GoMacro bar, coffee 3 hours before start, caffeinated Nuun sipped all the way to the start.
  • Strava link

Bike: 5:25:17/4th AG bike split/1st off the bike (fastest swim/bike combo)

I zipped through T2, popped two Advil for pain I was feeling in my neck/at the base of my skull (excessive sighting maybe?), sucked back a maple syrup packet, and off I went.

Knowing that over biking in this sport (aka: falling victim to my cycling ego/loving to chase) leaves Gus more unhappy than usual, I aimed to ride between 175 and 185 watts, knowing that my actual numbers would come in a bit lower, given sitting up to drink and eat, etc. The first few miles of the course winds through the city center, which is good for finding your legs, but not for harnessing early momentum.

Settling in.

Possibly the dumbest thing I did in this race—and thankfully that didn’t unravel me as much as it could have—was my nutrition. I’m convinced my Gus issues aren’t caused by nutrition, so had decided to go with some old INFINIT powder that I hadn’t raced with in awhile. Further, since concentrating the powder into three bottles seemed far simpler than having to stop at special needs for three new bottles, I packed 550 calories into each of three bottles for a total of 1650 liquid calories.

It was also infinitely (ha ha) grosser. I had never actually thought to taste my brilliant potion, and one sip sent the message loud and clear. As I contorted my face into an expression of utter contempt, I began to devise Plan B. I managed to get through about half of the first bottle, but at the third aid station I threw all my bottles in a giant trash bin and replaced them with pure, clean, deliciously-not-sweet WATER. (Can someone please invent a sports drink that tastes like good old-fashioned H20?? Is that too much to ask?) Apparently the triathlon golden rule “don’t try anything new on race day” hasn’t sunk in quite yet.

Photo: Getty Images

Realizing that I’d just tossed upwards of 1,000 calories, I began collecting aid station handouts and rationing out every last emergency gel I’d stashed. The other new thing I tried, but that went far better for me, was packing a small Ziploc bag of salt and vinegar potato chips. I love eating these in the middle of long rides, and so figured why not do what works? I stuffed the bag in my jersey pocket, and despite probably costing me 3-4 minutes on the bike, damn, were they worth it.

I didn’t know that I was steadily moving through the field until talking to Mark later, but I had seen so few women up until about mile 80 that I figured I wasn’t at the helm of my AG. That’s the thing with wave starts, you really never know where you are, which forces you—probably for the better in my case—to truly “race your own race.”

Photo: Getty Images

The two-loop bike course is simply beautiful. Wind aside, we lucked out on the weather, getting to race under crystal-clear skies and in 24 degrees Celcius (70-something F) max temps. The course takes in seaside towns (smelling of oysters), shady green groves, and storybook villages just like Hillary had promised me.

All along the road, families had come out to spectate. But these weren’t your average American spectators with their Starbucks and boxes of cereal. These families do breakfast: think checkered table clothes, stainless steel carafes, baked goods in baskets, and glass jars of preserves. (Yes, I actually noticed these things from the saddle of my bike. And it wasn’t just one family, it was every household!)

Laser-focused on T2.

Photo: Getty Images

  • Bike nutrition: 2 Untappd maple syrup gels, 2 Honey Stinger gels, 1 High5 gel, 1 banana, ~ 2 bottles High5 energy drink (no idea on the calorie/sodium content of this!), ~ 550 calories of INFINIT, ~ 400 calories of salt and vinegar chips.
  • Strava link.

Run 4:08:44/split doesn’t matter/6th AG

I came into T2 smiling along with the spectators as they witnessed me finding my foal’s legs. A great song was playing that I don’t remember now, a perfectly cheesy pop tune of the sort that motivates me on my treadmill workouts. After a brief moment of respite in the changing tent, I was off to face my arch nemesis one step at a time: the Ironman marathon.

I generally like lapped courses for the spectator support, but I think I would’ve preferred three at this race instead of four. (Picky, picky, I know!) The last two laps unleashed a pretty tough mental battle, awesome spectators aside. One good thing about laps, however, is the way they help break up your run mentally. I set a mantra for each lap, which really helped me focus. Every time I’d start thinking “you always fade on the run,” or “you’re not going to break 11 hours,” or inventing after-the-fact excuses for why I DNF’d (wow the mind goes to weird places in an Ironman), I’d repeat my mantra like a wind-up toy.

Doing what I “love.” So awesome that orange-shirt dude was captured in this, he kept calling me “Canada” as I ran by.

Lap one’s mantra was “relax and settle in.” I noticed paces in the high 8’s, so pulled back and walked aid stations, getting salt, High5 and cola, even though all the eating was, as usual, making my esophagus feel progressively worse. But that first 10K went better than any of my last few Ironmans by far.

Lap two was “celebrate your fitness,” which sounds so cheesy and #fitspo, but I was so elated to be running without ankle/foot pain that I wanted to focus on the rare fact that I was—wait for it—happy to be r-u-n-n-i-n-g. When negative Nancy took over my thoughts, I would repeat some version of that mantra: “enjoy your fitness, you are doing this! celebrate with each step.” It really works, people. I continued to pop GasX and open up salt tabs and dump them in my mouth (apparently this delivers the salt more quickly, as your stomach doesn’t have to digest the capsule. This worked for me in Arizona with BASE salts, but they weren’t available at this race and I forgot to buy some in the U.S. first.)

Jazz hands? Really Jen? Channeling my inner “Winnipeg Youth Chorus” days in the final .5 mile.

For lap three, my mantra was “focus and concentrate.” Again, when my mind would wander, I’d pull myself back to those two words; they became the center in a blurry, kaleidoscopic field of spectators and aid station refuse. (Michelle Vesterby, the women’s winner, blazed right by me on my third lap and I patted her on the back, which was kind of cool.)

For lap four, I stole the mantra that a friend used for his last Ironman (really Ryan?): “Last one, best one.” I can’t say now whether this will indeed be my last, but it might be for awhile. It also worked well for the last lap. I would chant it to myself with the rhythmic clapping of the crowd, sometimes adding “no more walking.” I knew I had enough fuel to get me the final 10k to the finish, so barely stopped at any aid stations over the last lap. Since the course was marked in kilometres, and I wasn’t sure if I’d started my watch at the right point on the course, I never really knew where I was on the course. Thus, the 11-hour mark remained somewhat elusive up until the last 3 miles. At 10:26 on my watch, I realized I had exactly 5k to go. If I could hold sub-10 minute miles, I’d do it. That was enough of a kick in the ass to pick up the pace and hold 9:30’s or better over the final few miles.

Screen grab from the finishline video.

The last .5 mile was one of the best stretches I’ve ever run in my life, with people’s ecstatic shouts of “Kom så! (“come on!”) propelling me forward and the frenetic energy of the most exciting hours of an Ironman race coming upon the crowd. A genuine, I-can’t-help-myself smile broke out on my face as I felt the hard cobblestone turn to soft carpet under my feet. And just like that, it was all over.

  • Run nutrition: Lots of cola, salt, and High5 drink. No solid food.
  • Strava link.

Post race

After lying down on the comfy cobblestone for a few minutes (way more fun than riding and running over it) and gathering my thoughts, I made my way to the so-called “Athlete’s Garden,” where the athlete guide had promised, “here you can pick up your race bags and slowly enjoy the climax of your amazing Ironman voyage.” Ha.

I got a massage from a young (and characteristically good-looking) physical therapy student, and as I lay face-down on the table, his hands digging into my tired muscles, the tickle of happy tears washed over me. Afterward, I borrowed a Finnish girl’s towel and had a shower, and then headed to the food tent. I heard a young woman speaking English so plopped myself down with her crew. And of course, the Danish do post-race food well, too. No pizza and french fries here!


Post-race athlete food.

My new friend and I collected our bags and bikes and shared a cab back towards our respective lodgings. Back at Angus’s, I had a beer with him and some of his Belgian friends who’d just arrived (a family cycle-touring around Denmark!) and then spent a sleepless night on my phone basking in comments from friends, text messages, and emails. (Thanks everyone!)

Of course the cabs here have bike racks.

My post-race antics could occupy a post all their own, but I’m on a roll, so here we go. Monday was the perfect recovery day. I rode my bike to Angus’ shop, stopping along the way for a “cinnamon snail” and coffee at the Torvehallerne market (again!). The ride turned out to be about 90 minutes, no joke after an Ironman, but I went easy and my bike felt surprisingly comfortable. I took the bus back to Rådhuspladsen to catch the end of the awards ceremony, and bought some athlete swag (including my first finisher’s jacket). It started to rain, so I walked to the Mikkeller bar, namesake of the world-famous Danish brewer.

#instarecovery day in food.

At the quaint bar that’s just below street level and decorated like a an old school house, I was lucky enough to meet one of the brewers. After my session IPA, he started pouring me other beers to try. Sours, pilsners, you name it. (With just one lone pastry in my stomach, things got a little interesting!) I also met two members of the Mikkeller Ironman relay team, who promptly invited me to lunch in the uber-hip Meatpacking District down the road.

Before lunch, they insisted on showing me Mikkeller’s sister brewery, War Pig. And then, of course, demanded I try one of the beers. Given that it was still pouring out, in lieu of lunch, we ordered some appetizers fitting of a post-Ironman feast: fried pickles, potato salad, and the best beef jerky I’ve ever, ever tasted. Unless you’re vegan and/or the idea of eating in a historic slaughterhouse (even the street name is called “Slagtehusgade”), I highly recommend this place. The food, and beer by Mikkeller/Three Floyds, is top-notch and the area is full of interesting history.

The cutest little bar, taking refuge from the rain.

At War Pigs with new friends.

I then made the somewhat buzzed choice to walk the four miles back to Angus’s flat, which took a lot longer than I expected. I put on some Be Good Tanyas and cruised all the way home, where I then crashed on the couch and FaceTimed with my parents. Later, Angus treated us to another rooftop feast with the whole crew, and we chatted bikes, beers, and culture. (Noe, this family’s 16-year-old daughter, is on the Belgian youth cycling team, how cool is that?)

Angus, Loke, and the Belgians!

Someone snapped this of me on my phone and I found it later!

And while the soreness still lingers in my legs, slowly fading with the memory of an incredible week, the satisfaction of meeting a goal still runs full strength. Over the next few days, recovery will morph into long days as I work one of the biggest events on our race calendar here in Austria. Thankfully, I’m posted up at the Tauern Spa, and have already enjoyed their all-inclusive, world-class spa and breakfast/dinner buffets.

Auf wiedersehen for now!

Thanks to Mark Barber, Angus Edmond, Nytro Multisport, BikeFlights, Betty Designs, Giro, Bonk Breaker, Nuun, Smith Optics, and Cervelo Bicycles for helping me get the 11-hour monkey off my back. I couldn’t have done it without you. 

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