Ironman Arizona: Expect the Unexpected in an Imperfect World
I ran past a girl around mile 6 of the marathon, noticed on her calf her age of 23 and proclaimed to her we were now best friends because we were both under 30 but not in the same age group competing! I followed this up with a monologue about why I love Ironman racing. Ironman’s are like life, there is no such thing as a “perfect” day or when everything goes your way. It is not how we respond and perform in perfection but how we persevere through adversity.
I felt more mentally, physically and emotionally ready for Ironman Arizona than I have done any race, including my running career. I was genuinely excited, knew I had finished off with a progressive and consistent 6-week block of training and that I had focused on the restorative techniques to leave me feeling fresh but sharp. My training paces put me at an estimated finishing time between 11:07-11:22, which I set my head on, perhaps too much so. I always preach to my clients about being honest about race goals versus secret goals, aka goals that aren’t really attainable but you have “hope” they might happen. When secret goals don’t come to fruition, disappointment sets in, so I try to vocalize these beforehand to prevent that.
Mumager and I left for Arizona on the Wednesday morning and arrived in Phoenix late that night. We stopped at Mad Greens, which was a blast from the past, a salad bar style restaurant that was a frequent hangover spot for me in college. The area was very close to ASU and I began to feel very old, looking at all the students meandering around. We checked into the Candlewood Suites, crucial full kitchen, and even had a separate room so we had a place to relax.
People are always fathomed at why you need 3 days to prepare for an Ironman. We made it our mission on this trip to try and slash this down to 2…. impossible. I decided to be a penny pincher and not add a second driver to the rental car so Mumager was also on chauffer duty (very lucky, I know). She dropped me off at the pool first thing where they were blasting familiar (and naturally highly motivating) boy band tunes. After my swim (I should mention didn’t have my glasses or contacts on, in other words wearing a blindfold) and accidently grabbed someone else’s bag, went to return it, left my bag, went back to get it, left my towel…it was evident race brain was ON!
Next stop on the list was Trader Joe’s where we successfully did a one and done grocery shop. My friend and client sent me a text message laughing about the obscene quantity of food she knows I devour the days before so I sent her a shot of the overflowing cart. We unloaded and headed off to the expo to check in and do the ever-anticipated tri bike transport bike pickup. All looked to be in working order so I headed out for an on-course spin (thanks to directions on my Garmin 20) followed by an on-course run. Nice, warm temperatures with no wind, it felt like it was going to be a FAST one, feeling the adrenaline bubble inside of me, just what I was looking for!
The next day was back to the pool, back on the saddle, and a short run for the last workout, which is a beyond easy pace with a few pickups to keep the muscles firing. I went to the bike mechanic tent just to get my chain lubed and to wash off the frame (apparently fluorescent yellow shows dirt….) Before Ironman Texas we met a really nice young couple who were both racing that gave me amazing reassuring advice about my goals. They were so kind, my Mum spectating saw Caroline on course in Texas and discovered she was Pro, a very modest one at that! Well funnily enough there she was standing right in front of me at the mechanic tent! We exchanged numbers and met up on Monday after the race when she gave me such inspirational advice about how to make my vision a reality.
Saturday morning was back to the expo with bike and run bags packed and to drop off the bike. The practice swim was that morning and I was anxious to feel the temperature, a bit colder than Milly the inferno would like. BUT I forgot my timing chip and couldn’t go. We secretly heaved a sigh of relief; the water quality was pretty abysmal and knowing the sensitive flower that is my stomach a practice swim could have ended in a long night in the bathroom pre-ironman. I headed over spend some time at the Base tent, run by Matt Miller. I met Matt at Ironman Boulder where I infamously rejected his salt pre-race wanting to stick to plan and then after taking it mid-run proclaimed it was “rocket fuel.” Base is one of my sponsors this year and I swear by the combination of their amino and Hydro for sport drink on the bike. They were on the run course and Matt was kind enough to give me a bottle, which I ran with for a bit. It doesn’t sit heavy in your stomach and no matter how much I drink I never get sick of it.
Race day morning I was excited, no better word to describe. I was ready to get in the water and give my all. I lined up between the 1:15 and 1:20 expected finish time with my goal being around 1:20. First Ironman swim I haven’t had buyers remorse! I tend to get in after about 3 minutes and think, whoa girl what are we doing here! Not today, Chris Coffin was in my head “keep you head down” he would say. We worked a lot on my stroke over the past 6 weeks and minimizing my kick, as it tends to create a fish tail effect. I was confident in my stroke and in my efficiency. When things got a bit physical out there I assumed the position of protecting my stomach like a man covering his crown jewels. After being kicked in the stomach in Texas resulting in some early port-a-potties moments I was determined to keep him safe! I finished my swim in 1:18, time clocked at 1:19 with the stairs, but I was elated to PR my swim, got my wetsuit ripped off and got focused on a fast transition (this tends to be a weakness of mine.)
I made an impulse decision in an adrenaline filled warm moment to neglect arm warmers, vest and just grabbed my gloves. As soon as I got out of the changing tent I saw Tawnee and a few steps down Mumager cheering me on. I could not wait to get on my bike. I spent a majority of my training this block in the saddle. Not only that I had worked on bike handling and overall confidence on two wheels, being prepared to handle things that might creep up and not being scared feeling like the bike was going to explode on me at any point.
The bike was 3 loops of just over 37 miles; I love loops and sometimes even do my long rides in that fashion trying to make each loop a little faster than the last. It also meant there was some crowd support and not a lonely course. My goal for the bike was somewhere between 5:58-6:03 (in good conditions) and I ended up going 6:08. Considering the unexpected rain, which turned into a very “freezing” cold day. We all know by now how I handle the cold! The wind was much stronger than on the previous days but not a scratch on the ones at Montauk so I felt well prepared, although being freezing with rain in a headwind doesn’t exactly boost morale for the most positive of people!
The last 30 minutes of the bike were pretty brutal. A couple of weeks before leaving for Arizona, some cold temperatures set in over in the North East and I contemplated heat training like I had done last year for Texas. Well I found that a really good laugh when I was borderline hypothermic coming in to the second transition! My teeth would not stop chattering and my skin was a lovely shade of blue (matched my eyes….oh and my helmet ;)…)
The volunteer in the changing tent, Lisa, was a rockstar. I literally had zero use of my hands; I couldn’t get my helmet off at all. She told me to just sit back and she put on my socks, shoes, and even pre-opened my shot blocks before placing them in my back. I told her she was amazing, we hugged and I got out on the run course, still shaking, but hopeful that the run would return some circulation and heat to my body. The first 2 miles my pace was on target, I was shooting for between a 3:40-3:48 and was right on track feeling good. However, the other runner’s were laughing at my teeth chattering and eventually a kind man gave me his aluminum heat blanket. I tucked this into my sports bra, looked like I had angel’s wings, but by about mile 7 started to feel warm.
The rest of me was feeling pretty good at this point but my stomach had done enough. Eating on the biking was a challenge with the conditions and I had gotten a little behind schedule. My stomach was feeling like a rock and before I knew it I was the port-a potty girl yet again and had to stop about 3-4 times. Doing so as efficiently as possible, I walked the aid stations and did not stop running apart from that. But my pace was way off. Way off where I had been running in training and way off what I would have expected. I was frustrated. I had done all the right things, prepared well, practices race nutrition, recovered well and here I was running a minute per mile slower than anticipated and dodging in and out of the port-a-potty. I got so frustrated that despite being the data driven athlete I am, actually turned my watch off (well not off I wanted the data for later of course!) but to a screen that showed actual time not pace or heart rate. I just ran. I pushed hard when I could, I backed off when I needed to take in nutrition or shack out a muscle cramp.
The sun started to set, it got cold, and rain started falling again. Time for the sun to set on Ironman Arizona for Milly. I came into the finish line running strong and feeling strong physically but disheartened in my 11:35 finish time despite achieving a 40-minute PR, placing 9th in my age group and 493rd overall of almost 3,000 athletes. I maintain my silver all-world athlete status this year and am very proud to say I am the top ranked out of 83 Great British Ironman triathletes in my age group (41st world wide).
This is where I need to take my own advice I give my clients, set goal A, but when goal A fails due to unexpected circumstances (handlebars coming off bike, rain, freezing cold, sickness etc.) have goal B. I didn’t have goal B. I was confident in my ability to achieve goal A and naive to think that everything would fall into place. That’s what separates a half and a full ironman. In a half ironman everything might go your way and you might have the perfect day, you can get away with making a few mistakes. Ironman will not let you hide. Ironman will not let you get away with getting off track on nutrition or preparation. It’s not about how well you can do; it’s how well you can do given whatever circumstances you are presented with. And guess what? You can’t prepare for those! Dealing with uncertainty has always been a weakness of mine, and Ironman will continue to call me to rise to the challenge of facing that. I am confident that my physical preparation was strong but perhaps overlooked my goal setting in the mist of the excitement of my training progression.
I can hardly call a 40-minute PR a setback, but even so a race that doesn’t met your expectations can be de-moralizing. To me, I am hungrier and as my friend Caroline said, “my vision is clear.” I know what I want, and I know what I need to do to get there. Focusing on smart training and long term progression and making educated decisions about my racing will get me there. I had multiple people in Arizona ask if I was a Pro, and commented on the bike and run that I made it look easy. I know I have what it takes; the confidence is there- perseverance, patience and respect for how far I have come will get me there. For now, at least two weeks of full R&R, addressing the neglected during high training time and focusing on everything non triathlon to keep motivation high during the winter months before going back to the start line at Ironman Texas in May…….bring on the heat!!