Before I start this (long) race report, I just want to start with a reality check. As my friend Bine (rhymes with “Tina”) and I were driving to the race on Saturday morning, I said to her, “This is really whacked that I think this race will feel short.” So if you’re reading this—as I’ve read countless long-distance race reports—and think, “I could never.” I’m here to tell you: I’m whacked, and you could.
Without further ado, 10 things I learned at the HITS Triathlon Series, Grand Junction Half Distance:
1. Make a list and check it four times. I did the former, and even checked everything off, but that method was still not foolproof. As soon as we got to Highline State Park to get our numbers on Friday and I opened up the back of my minivan, I realized I left my helmet back in Denver. I had packed it once, but then my kids wanted to ride their bikes to school—dang those little buggers who would rather pedal than ride!—so I pulled it out for that journey, and forgot to repack it. I went over to the bike shop and asked the very helpful man to bring me a (really affordable) one in the morning, and then I went to ask at the registration tent if they had any extras. They didn’t, but Brian, a super nice guy from Colorado Springs, overheard me, had an extra, and it fit my noggin’. Phew. (I also forgot a towel for transition, but that was NBD: no big deal.)
2. Don’t drink the lake water. Even though Bine and I feasted on Chipotle on Friday night; I ate a big plain bagel smeared with peanut-free NuttZo and a banana at about 5:15 a.m; then I had a vanilla GU around 6:45, I still felt that empty-stomach nausea that stops me cold as I rounded the fourth of five buoys. I definitely hydrated well with the lake water, and that might have been part of the problem, but thinking I’ll need more calories before Ironman. Or maybe I’ll gulp a GU in between the swim laps.
3. Don’t worry about the swim. Everybody gets all worked up about the swim at Ironmans, and while I don’t want to belittle their concerns, I don’t need to feed into that energy. On Saturday, I deliberately put myself in the front middle of the swim pack since I’d never done a mass start before, and even though the 250 people won’t compare to the thousands at Ironman, it was pretty darn close. (In the first transition, a woman near me said, “That swim start was like Ironman. What was up with that?” Bingo!, I thought.)
The first 10 strokes, I even put my head in the water. Had to get my bearings. Then just hands, legs, unintentional groping craziness. But I didn’t lose my goggles, didn’t get kicked too hard, didn’t get swum over, so that’s a win. I just kept moving forward, hoping things would thin out, and they did by the first buoy, when I found some space in rhythm. I settled into a 10-stroke-and-look-for-buoy pattern, I breast-stroked around the buoys to just chill and recenter myself. Thanks to my Zoot Z Force 4.0 WetZoot, which slid on easily and made me feel like a buoy in the water, I finished the swim in 31:XX. A PR by at least 1 minute.
4. Find my music. My marching orders from my coach were to go faster on the bike than the 18 mph I’d anticipated since she wanted my legs to feel a little more like they would during Ironman, so I marched. Or rather, I flew. Bare with me and my nerdiness, but for the first 10 miles, I kept humming, “This course is made for you and me,” a la This Land is Your Land. (You = Lyle, my two-wheeled fly guy.) When I got sick of that, Taylor Swift’s State of Grace popped into my head, and it couldn’t have been more appropriate: distant mountains were sandwiched between Crayola sky and kelly spring green of Colorado farms. I felt so balanced and strong. Like there was no other place on this earth I was supposed to be than smack dab in Grand Junction, pedaling my bike, and just feeling graceful—and grateful.
5. And get it done. The bike course was two separate out-and-backs, and the first one was all grace and Lyle; the second was not. We crossed over a cattle grate, and then there was a sign that said, “Open Range,” which was perfectly accurate. Just dry, open space for as long as I could see. Space, and a 10-ish mile climb, and bumpy pavement with lots of cracks in it, and wind—another springtime feature in ‘rado—blasting in my face. We rode almost to the Utah border. My mood didn’t go totally south, but I wasn’t flying anymore. I just put my head down, told myself it wouldn’t be more than 30 minutes, and that I’d get to come back down every inch I had climbed. With that, I have to give my ride ★★★★★; I averaged 19.8 mph. (Thanks legs and Lyle!)
6. Remember my whole journey. My first half-Ironman was in 2002, shortly after I suffered a miscarriage. (I think my mentality was that I wanted to force body, which I was so angry at, to cooperate…) Anyway, the race was ridiculously hard because I hadn’t trained well, and I remember going into a port-a-potty around mile 2 of the run, sitting down, bare ass on the gross seat, and just crying for like four minutes. It took every thing I had to get myself up, and turn right when I exited to continue “racing” (read: shuffling and feeling sorry for myself), and not turn left to quit. As I took a pit stop before I set off on the run on Saturday, I remembered that moment—I’ve thought about it often during my training—and almost got teary again. I feel like a different person today than I was over a decade ago. Thankful for that.
7. Lube my pits. Before the swim, bike, and run. I love my Saucony Zip Tank but something wonky—my swim stroke or my arm swing on my run—caused some really spectacular chafe in my left pit area that burned with nearly every step on the run. (Right pit? Mostly fine.) I would’ve shot it for you, but decided to spare you.
8. Stick to the plan. My plan for the run: 4 minutes of running/1 minute of walking. I am thrilled with the results: a 2:13 half-marathon that, according to my Garmin, was 13.4 miles long.
Don’t get me wrong: The run was still hard, but it wasn’t an epic slog, as every other long triathlon run has been. Around mile 1, I started chatting with Laura, another mother runner, and I was very tempted to hang with her because I liked her and her rules. (“My #1 rule for the triathlon run: find a buddy,” she told me.) I would’ve loved to be her buddy, but the last thing I wanted to do was run, say, 4 straight miles and then slog it out. So I told her about my run/walk ratio, and let her go. And I stuck with it for most of the run, with the exception of descents (if I was going down, I kept running) and crazy uphills towards the end (better to walk them; my legs were definitely worked enough). The same few triathletes stayed around me for the whole run; sure, they may have been a few minutes faster in the end, but I didn’t mentally defeat myself on the run. That’s worth a freakin’ hour in my don’t-hate-the-run book.
9. I love women. File this under the gross generalization category, but female competitors are just so much cooler than the testosterone-addled ones. Every guy who passed me on the bike: not a word. Sometimes I’d say, “Good job,” and he’d nod. The women? Some combination of Nice job! Looking strong! How’s it going? Woo woo! On the run, the lead woman enthusiastically yelled, “Great job!” to me as she was heading back and I was heading out. I was thrilled. When I later figured out she was pro triathlete Heather “Ironman” Gollnick, my world was rocked. (In their defense, the guys were more encouraging on the run, but the estrogen vibes were still stronger.)
10. There is only one thing I can control: my head. Bine was doing the Full AquaBike (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike) in preparation for Vineman, a Ironman-length race in July. After a stellar swim, she had some serious GI + period issues—I won’t spill her secrets here—around mile 30 of the bike, and she decided not to go out for her second 56-mile lap. I was actually relieved when I saw her at the finish line; when I wasn’t counting how many intervals I had to do on the run (26, if you want to know), I was worried about Bine. The wind at that point was howling, the blue sky was turning black, and I could see thunderstorms in the distance. I didn’t want her to be on the Open Range (mostly) by herself.
She was disappointed, though, and I get that. I also get that the universe was reminding me that there are about a zillion things I won’t be able to control on Ironman race day—the water temperature, the wind, the sun, the attitudes of my competitors, my angry left hip, my left foot that still feels tweaked a bit, my hormones, my intestines, how loudly my husband cheers, my period… (Although I’ll just put this out there: please, please if you’re listening: no Aunt Flo on June 23. Please.)
What can I control? My attitude. My head. The way I take care of and feed my body. And that’s about it.
With a final time of 5:44, I PR’ed by an hour, easily, on Saturday, came in first in my Athena over-40 category, and would’ve taken second in the women 40-45. It was such a win, I almost want to bottle it and call this Ironmother journey a success.
Even though my legs are weary and I’m not yet ready to look at next week’s training plan, I know I wouldn’t really stand for that. A few more weeks of tough training, a rejuvenating taper, and I’ll have my game face on again. And this time, I’ll be even more prepared.