Control the controllable. Prior to races I always take some time to practice some sports psychology tactics to mentally prepare for a race. Although this was my “B” race this year, the day before Puerto Rico 70.3 I went through visualizing the race, played out the day in my mind and strategized how to respond to difficulties I might face: a flat tire, a rough swim, heat adaptation. Never in my wildest dreams did I run through how I would react to ducking in the fetal position after a machine gun shooting.
Rewind a couple of days to Friday the 13th, Emma (my sister and professional Iron-supporter) and I pulled up to long term parking at JFK 30 minutes before our plane was due to board. After a bus and a train landed us at the terminal, we charmed our way to the front of the security line and sprinted to the gate. Somehow we made it on the plane and so did our luggage!
We arrived at the host hotel the Caribe Hilton and got in and out of the expo within an hour. The logistics of this race were top notch and one of the reason I picked it. I was really excited because we got this done and picked up my bike in enough time to get my pre-race training session in. I prefer to take the day before the race completely off so I was thrilled to get this in, although other athletes were warning to be careful of biking due to the road conditions.
I set up Emma on the beach as my “transition” area, took a 15 minute swim, 30 minute easy bike and 20 minute easy run with a few pickups. I came back from the run feeling excited, my body and energy felt great, my heart rate and paces were where I wanted them to be and I was excited for my first race of the season. I pulled up to a white faced Emma standing in front of my bike “Milly, I want you to take a deep breath, there is a solution here but you are going to panic.” Yikes! Good prep sis, she had been lying by the beach and said it sounded like a gun went off (ironic!), my tire had completely blown up! We decided to shelve it for the night and made our way to shower and down to Old San Juan for dinner.
The day before the race priority was nutrition and relaxation. We got my bike raring to go, kit organized and heading for the pool. I was a bit nervous, this being my first Ironman race without a kitchen. Being prepared is key, but I found it fairly easy to get what I needed pre-race (plantains, potatoes, fish, eggs) focusing on low fiber, low fat and easy to digest carbohydrates. I supplement this with some snacks that I bought with me, which was key. I definitely nailed this aspect and feel confident I got that dialed in as I prepare for Texas.
Race day morning I set my alarm for 4am. Emma was going to sleep in and meet me post swim. It was actually the first time I had done an Ironman race without having a co-pilot beforehand. I was definitely in my head big time, ruminating over how my season ended last year but reviewing how dialed in I was feeling and aware of the positive energy flowing through my veins.
I ate breakfast and sent some emails to a few clients (Sunday morning ritual!) I made some time to do some mobility drills, open up and even do some yoga and deep breathing aware my heart rate was going like the clappers! This was a good sign, for the first time in my life I was actually nervous for a race, this meant to me it matters, lets do this! This year I have laid off caffeinated products pre-race. Caffeine stimulates the heart rate. It’s just not necessary to do this when you have pre-race jitters and adrenaline. I save the jolt of energy for mid way on the bike when fatigue is starting to set in.
Around about 5:15 I left for transition and got my place situated, mentally practicing my transition (not a strength of mine!) We made the walk over to the swim start, which was about a mile away. I was the first wave of the day with a 7:00am gun time (no pun intended..) We hopped in and had an in water start….boom….were off. The swim was the roughest I have had which was again a good sign to me meaning that I was in the pack. I drifted off of the main route a bit but managed to navigate back in. The last 500 yards or so the current was a slowing factor in and every stroke felt like you were taking 2 strokes forward, 1 stroke back.
I saw the stairs in the distance knowing that the swim ended with a flight of stairs and a 1000meter run to T1. The volunteers yanked me out with a helping hand in 40 minutes, which was 5 minutes faster than my previous half-ironman swim (both non-wetsuit legal). Feeling good.
I kept my heart rate steady as I jogged through the crowds removing my swim skin. There was Emma in the distance wearing my Ironman backpack! She jogged next to me and I chatted to her to ensure I didn’t let me heart rate spike this early in the game. I told her how great I was feeling and she said I looked so strong (picture below). I rushed through T1 and was in and out of there within 90 seconds, fastest T1 to date, let’s do this!
As soon as I took the first pedal stroke, I felt powerful and excited to get into my aero bars after 2 ½ weeks training on my road bike. I did a mental checklist, and settled down after accelerating to get up to speed. 3 minutes in time to hammer and BAM, gun shots. I don’t know how or why but I knew exactly what it was, threw my bike down and ducked and covered next to the wall. Instantly, all that went through my head was, where is Emma, is she ok? All I could think about was her and what was happening back at the hotel.
A Puerto Rican spectator started waving at the athletes to stop as the police yelled to duck and stay put. No one was stopping, people kept biking so I took it upon myself to jump onto course and yell that there had been a gunshot. 3 minutes after transitioning your head is in a million places and someone needed to be clear with bikers of what was happening.
After a couple of minutes, maybe less, my head was still panic struck thinking about Emma, and thinking the worse, could this be like Boston, would there be other shootings? The police waved that it was safe to go; I questioned this to the people nearby me, just because the local police felt it was “safe” who knew what was going on. After others had passed I decided that my only option was to continue on course hoping that they were directing us back to the hotel.
It became apparent after I asked another athlete, who respond with, “What’s the big deal, it’s over?” that this race was going to continue. There was no question in my mind that my race was over. How could I race not knowing if Emma was ok, if another incidence would happen, or even if all was ok but Emma heard the was a shooting and didn’t know if I was ok? The worry would kill her, and I couldn’t race with that in my mind.
My initial thought was fine, ill hammer out the first half off the bike course as quickly as possible to get back to T1 where the hotel and Emma were. Then I spotted an official racecar, pulled over and asked for a ride. The man lent me his phone and I called Emma, who had no idea what was going on. I told her to go back to the hotel room where I met her in 10 minutes after a police motorcycle led us back.
I ran up to our room, knocked on the door and fell into Emma’s arms bawling and shaking like a baby. I lay on the floor, composed myself and we called my Mum who knew would be worried when she saw my tracker stopped. We tried to get a flight back home for that afternoon but for $900 apiece decided to make the best of it and stay put at the resort.
We spent the day on the beach and tried to relax putting it out of our minds. After the race had ended we went to transition to pick up my belongings and drop my bike off a Tribike transport. We chatted with some other athletes, some who had no idea what had gone on, and others who were aware but chose to continue on regardless.
Triathlon as a sport and Ironman in particular is a selfish sport. You have to inherently put yourself first in order to reach your goals. It makes me sick when I see some people at these races seeing what they are putting on hold and what it is doing to their relationships, happiness and life. And yes, sometimes I feel guilty. I feel selfish that my family will do this with me and that I put this sport and this goal on a pedestal. An event like this brings me back to earth and puts things into perspective. Although as a silver all-world athlete this year I am the top 10% of contestants, I still put my sister above my desire to finish this race. It wasn’t even a question in my mind. And for that I know and realize that I am not a selfish person, I am just a goal-driven athlete pursuing a goal to race professionally at a time of my life where I can make those scarifies. Finishing that race in those conditions would not have got me to that end goal and for that reason I have no regret in dropping out. It sickens and saddens me to know that people would continue racing knowing their family would be worried or that something else could happen.
Returning home after this race I felt bittersweet. One half of me feels unlucky that I was one of the few involved in this event. On the other hand, had I not stopped in transition to adjust my sock, which was stuck in my timing chip, things could have been a lot worse. 3 people were shot, 1 died, and the other 2 who were athletes now in stable condition.
I put back in a week of training that was reserved as a recovery week in order to rest from the race. I was expecting to feel great, my body having had a recovery week the week prior for the race but not actually racing. If you reference my blog from Ironman Maryland (another DNF for me) I am a advocate of taking HRV (heart rate variability) I have attached two pictures of my ratings, 1 from a normal Sunday post training, 1 from 2 days after Puerto Rico 70.3 You can see that my resting heart rate is up by 14bpm. The LF rating is indicative of sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system and HF of parasympathetic (rest and digest). On the initial recording the ratio was under 1 meaning that I was very rested, the second shows over 3 which means my fight or flight system was out of control. HRV is measured on a scale of 1-100, 101 being the most de-stressed. It is considerable lower on the second reading. I have felt that in my training and is a reason why I am a advocate of heart rate training, it allows me to continue on and respect these changes by staying in my zones. This knowledge is power that is requiring me to respect myself and not take on additional changes and stresses until my nervous system as recovered. Being aware allowed me to take control and apply some of my witch doctor methods: American ginseng, rhodiola, reishi mushroom tea, by the end of the week I was feeling much better.
My boss and good friend always tells me “Set expectations.” I love this phrase because if you do, you should never be disappointed. Well, my expectations for IM Texas are just to make it to transition 2, if I do that I can consider the race a success!!! Onward and upward, moving on, I will look forward to my own personal redemption May 16th in Galveston, Texas.