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Thursday, May 23, 2013

This is why we fight-IM Texas race report

    Where do I even start?  When I first started out training for Texas, I had few expectations.  Knowing that it was a P-2000 race, I never really thought I’d have a shot at making it to awards, let alone into second place.  I figured I could just go out there, do my thing, fly under the radar, etc, etc.  In fact, throughout most of my winter training, I was focused on more immediate challenges and goals-pro camp, San Juan, Galveston.  But as camp and the two 70.3s passed by, they turned into stepping stones, and I was gaining a bit of belief in myself along the way.  Ironmans are a different ball game than 70.3s, one that favors my physiology just a bit more.  After scratching and clawing my way through overload, I was feeling more fit than ever, although my biking legs took their sweet time to pep up again.  Still, this was perfect for me-my best races have come when my body’s come around just in time.  I get more concerned when I feel too good, too early. 
   The other X factor of benefit to me in Texas?  Well, weirdly, for this upstate NY girl, a self-proclaimed lover of crisp fall days and snow who has NO desire to ever live down south, it was heat.  When prepared for heat, I have a pretty strong history of holding up better than average-Musselman 2011, Vegas 2011, Placid last year, San Juan last year all ended up being warm to flat out hot days in which I’ve had good performances.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t enjoy heat, and I’d take a 55 degree day over a 90 degree one any time (oddly, I’m also never really bothered by cold in races, either).  But, I handle it.  The caveat though, as previously mentioned, is if I’m prepared.  Florida last year?  Totally was not prepared.  And it sucked.  So, instead of hoping it might not be too hot in Texas, I assumed the worst, and did everything in my power to prepare.  The fan next to my trainer has been off for months, and I have no idea how many loads of disgusting, sweat-soaked shirts I’ve done in that time.  Whenever I ran, I convinced myself to put on that extra shirt, put on tights, leave on the headband-when it’s 90 in Texas, you’re going to WISH you had worn more clothing on this run.  And when all was said and done, those fan-less, multiple-shirted trainer rides just started feeling normal, and I had a sense that I’d done what I could.  As race day approached, the forecasted high for May 18 just kept moving in one direction-up.  I knew we were in for a scorcher, but oddly, I wasn’t rattled by it, nor did it dampen my growing anticipation and excitement.

Love this QR!  I also love that it looks like it's leading a bunch of other bikes.  Go bike!
   Dave and I got out to Texas last Wednesday night, and spent the next couple of days doing all of the normal pre-race prep-packet pickup, meetings, bike setup, team breakfast, and meeting up with/hanging out with college friend Tim, who’d be racing his second Ironman.  As I said to Dave a couple of nights before the race-I was oddly excited about the race, I couldn’t wait to get out there.  Usually I’m either nervous or indifferent, so the excitement, the cagey, ready to go feeling was different for me.  Even as I was setting up my bike in the blazing sun on Friday, I blocked my fears of the heat from my head and tried to convince myself that I knew what I needed to do in order to handle it.  Although I didn’t sleep great in those nights leading up, I woke up Saturday morning feeling ready to go.  Race morning prep went smoothly, and before I knew it, Jesse had shuttled us to the race start (“uh oh, the Hansens have to touch!”), where I was sitting in the grass, putting on my Blueseventy swim skin, and petting the dachshund who was running around the grassy area, and somehow must have sensed that I’d enjoy the comfort of petting a really cute dog at that point.
    We were able to get in a good swim warm up, and after treading for a few short minutes, the cannon almost took me by surprise a little bit as it sounded without any countdown.  We started with the men, but that didn’t matter too much for me, as they were mostly gone pretty quickly anyways.  I managed to swallow/inhale a bunch of water anyways, and went through a brief little panicky moment, finding myself gasping a little bit for air and getting a bit disoriented.  I kept swimming, though, and as the scrum cleared I could see Kim and a male pro just ahead of me to my left, and right near them.  Natasha and I had been formulating a swim plan pre-race, which I promptly blew thanks to my horrible navigational skills revisiting me.  I’d had trouble sighting the day before in my brief pre-race swim, and my right hook had come back, for some unknown reason.  Unfortunately, this decided to come again on race day.  On the initial portion of the outbound leg, which seemed to take an absolute eternity (well, comparatively it did for me), I kept putting in surges, trying to bridge the gap up to Kim and the male.  I was unsuccessful, and kept finding myself looking up at the kayaks trying to keep us on course.  I finally realized that I wasn’t going to catch them, and was only getting frustrated at my zigzagging, so I instead just settled into a rhythm of sighting more frequently until I made it to the turn buoys.  I had no idea what my pace was at that point, but I knew that I was pushing myself, so I tried not to worry.   
   Once I made the turn, I was able to navigate a bit better.  I then caught a glimpse of Natasha swimming basically parallel to me on my left, and I finally managed to straighten myself out more and get on her feet.  I recollected myself on the draft, and after a few hundred meters, I decided to finally execute the swim plan and take over the lead.  I had briefly debated waiting until we got to the canal to do so, because I couldn’t exactly tell where we were supposed to turn in at that point.  Turns out, that would have been a smart choice, but, well, worse things could have happened.  I actually even had it in my head that I was supposed to turn left into the canal, when in reality, it was a right.  I learned this the hard way, when I more or less swam into a bunch of kayaks.  I stopped, they pointed in the opposite direction and told me to swim towards the shore and follow that into the canal.  Genius-it reminded me of the rare occasions that I used to play Mariocart, and how I’d always drive into walls and not be able to figure out which way to turn to get free.  Anyways, I made my way back to the canal (luckily, Natasha hadn’t followed me), and from then on couldn’t screw things up too badly, although Jesse still told me he wondered what I was STILL doing to the far right of everyone else.  At that point, a few age groupers were passing me, but mostly in packs of 2-4, so in a way, the brief periods of draft helped.  The canal took forever, though.  By that point, I was more or less over swimming (it occurred to me that my other IM swims had been two loops), and just wanted to get out of the water.  I can’t say that I was harboring any happy feelings towards swimming at that point (shocking, I know).  I still felt like I was working hard, though.  After what seemed like an eternity, I could see the final buoy and the swim exit.  I was a bit scared of the clock, but when I saw 1:07, I was pleased enough, especially given the non-wetsuit swim and the navigational issues.  Still not great, but a 1:07 non wetsuit beats a 1:09 wetsuit swim, so progress was in the right direction.  Plus, with the increased swim volume, I was able to hit the ground fresher than ever out of the water.  Onwards!

The advantages to swimming a 1:07?  I got to spend like, 10 minutes longer than the other pro women in that beautiful, clear water...wait...
   After a relatively non-horrific transition (translation: I got out of my swimskin relatively easily and only lost 20-30sec on everyone, rather than a minute), I was out on the bike course.  Priority #1 on the ride: FLUID.  Jesse had pounded home to me the day before-3-4 bottles the first hour, make sure you pee (warning: this description of my bike will include me proudly discussing how I peed myself a bunch.  That’s Ironman.  It’s not pretty).  I started immediately, and within 15min, the first bottle was easily gone.  As for the ride itself?  As soon as I started, I was feeling somewhat comfortable towards the top of my wattage target.  Some adrenaline was probably at play, though, because after the first ten miles, I realized that my quads were burning, and I should probably back it off a bit.  I spent the next 20 miles or so reminding myself to calm down-and continuing to pound fluids.  Sure enough, I soon had to pee.  Jesse and Courtney were waiting at mile 28-he asked me how I was doing, so I relayed this piece of information.  Nothing like a play-by-play of bladder status to make a coach happy, I suppose.  Problem was, I’ve only managed the bike pee in one race, which was while descending on a cold, drizzly day at Mooseman last year.  Other than that, I’d been completely unable to succeed, and had just kind of blocked the need as the race had progressed.  I thought about Kim, who I knew had similar issues to me, and wondered if she was in the same boat.  As my discomfort increased substantially, I thought about just pulling over and stopping for a second, but decided instead to stick it out until I reached some sort of descent.  Finally, I got to one steep enough that I stopped pedaling, sat up, and…success!  Of course (as was the case the three subsequent times I repeated this procedure), a male age grouper passed me at this exact moment, but again, that’s an Ironman for you. 
   Once I was a little emptier (ha), I felt immediately better, and brought the wattage back up a bit more.  By that point, I was into the section of the course described to have some rolling hills and chip seal.  Not having seen the course beforehand, I was a little nervous about both, but as it would turn out, I had both conditions overblown in my head.  The hills were nothing more than short inclines, and the chip seal just seemed like rough roads to me (I live in upstate NY, where chip seal means patches of loose gravel flying up all over the place, after all).  I had started on some caffeine, and was enjoying the pick me up and the Texas countryside.  I knew that a headwind would come at some point after the halfway mark, but again, didn’t notice it much when it hit, as I was pacing via power and heart rate, and wasn’t even really paying much attention to my speed.  Except for the few age groupers passing me here and there (the clean, legal riding was such a breath of fresh air after some of my frustrations in Florida-a couple minutes on the swim makes a HUGE difference in that regard), I spend a good portion of the first 2/3 of the ride alone-which honestly, was perfect.  Jesse had stressed to me to just exist within my own little bubble early on in the race-patience and proper execution would be the early keys as the day heated up.  I was able to do just that, I was right on with my nutrition, and I was within myself.  

Rolling, rolling, rolling...

    Finally, somewhere around mile 70 or so, I began to move up a bit in the field.  Despite staying positive even though I hadn’t been moving up at all, it gave me a little boost to finally be making a few passes; I pulled in a few males, as well.  At the same time, the heat was really starting to turn up.  Salt tabs and fluid became my greatest ally.  I tried to further increase the effort a little after mile 80, although I hit a few low points when I ran out of fluid between aide stations.  When I hit 90 miles, I actually noticed my overall time, and figured I’d end up finishing right around 5 hours, but still made the decision not to completely pound myself into the wall trying to sneak under the mark.  It also dawned on me that I hadn’t seen Dave yet-meaning, well, I was probably riding fairly well after all.  I pushed to mile 100, and then just held on until the end of the bike, taking a little extra time to drink, gel up, and splash myself down in the waning miles.  The last half an hour hurt and dragged, so I was more than happy to finally reach T2 and hop of the bike.
  After what seemed like a long, barefoot run through transition (yes, I suffered the bottom of the foot burn), a quick shoe change, and a bunch of water dumped overhead (I’d been feeling a bit light-headed and headachy towards the end of the bike), I was out of T2 and on my way.  My instructions for the run had been simple-start conservative and manage heat early; at mile 10-13, start to come out of the woodwork and get into it.  I started out at what I thought was a slow trot, but still hit the mile around 6:45.  Oops.  I still feel like I’m crawling.  Dial back.  6:50. Dial back more.  I then settled into a 7:0xish rhythm.  By that point, I had learned that I was in fifth, and fourth (Kim, at that point) and third weren’t too far ahead.  I honestly didn’t think I was going to get near Kim, given the caliber of runner that she is, but maybe I could work up to fourth.  Still, I retreated into my bubble for the rest of that first lap, and focused not on turning on the gas to move up, but to giving my body what it wanted.  Hot?  Hold the ice.  Hands cramping from holding ice?  Salt tab.  A little weak?  Gel time.  Hot again?  Back off a bit.  Shade will come eventually.  Ooh, look, there’s ducks in this park!  I like ducks.  I got to where Jesse was standing, I knew the how are you feeling? question was coming, and I knew my answer.   Not great…but controlled.  That was right where I needed to be at that point.  No one feels great running an IM marathon in 95+ degree temperatures, after all.  He advised me to keep it there, to push the last lap if I could, and that Christine was within a couple hundred meters by that point.  I made the pass sometime before the start of the second lap, and pressed on, as she was running strong as well.

Jesse and I in action

  Around mile 10 or 12 or something, somewhat to my surprise, I saw Kim.  I debated for a minute-this is getting tough.  There’s a long way to go.  She’s probably pacing this better than I am.  Do I hang back for a bit?  Make the pass?  In the end, I ran up next to Kim-she told me that she was overheating, encouraged me to go.  I tried to say something encouraging in return, but probably just grunted.  I finally reached the halfway point of the marathon.  “Congratulations, your race just started” read a sign.  Yeah, thanks, jerk sign.  My pace was slowing a bit by then, but I was beyond the point of caring, and was more concerned about getting my hands on as much as I could at every aide station.  Somewhere in there, someone told me that I was 1:30 back…of what?  Last time I had heard, Amy Marsh was 12min ahead of me.  I figured there was some mistaken identity going on.  That was, until in a surreal moment around mile 14, I came up on a group of athletes, I saw a woman wearing a jersey decorated with logos, I saw “Team Marsh” scrawled across the back, I saw a lead cyclist, and my breath caught in my throat a bit as I realized what was about to happen.  I went through an aide station, and I came out on the other side in second place…what??   “Second place female, Amy Marsh of Austin, Texas!” the cyclist proclaimed, until a male running next to us pointed to me and softly corrected him-No, I think she’s in second now.  It had happened so quickly that there was some confusion as the second place cyclist tried to figure out where the third place cyclist was (he had some mechanical problems when he was with Kim, I found out later), and who the heck I even freaking was.  I had to gather myself, collect myself, calm myself-lots of race was left, and this spot was now mine to lose.

P-p-p-poker face, m-my poker face

  I got back to the populated area of the loop, where the crowd support was absolutely awesome and invigorating.  People were cheering for me by name; my cyclist was drumming up all the excitement that he could.  I was both hurting like crazy and holding together well all at the same time; I was simultaneously nervous and confident; I was talking myself into the fact that you can do this s--- moreso than I ever really have in a race.  I thought that I was at mile 16 when I was really at mile 15 (darn it!).  I ran past the Moores, who were screaming their hearts out for me-it brought me back 12 years to high school cross country meets, and it was more or less the greatest thing ever at that point.  I passed Jesse right before the start of the final lap, who told me, you have second locked up.  Just don’t do anything stupid on your last lap.  Don’t do anything stupid?  I had to laugh a bit to myself, as I pondered what the heck I could do at that point that would qualify as stupid.  Drop down to a 6:00 mile?  Not physically capable.  Skip an aide station?  I was living for those aide stations.  At the out and back at the start of the lap, I realized I had at least a few minutes of a lead, and I relaxed a bit.  The inevitable low point came at mile 20, when just a bit of uncertainty entered my brain.  I backed off at that point, and mercifully, was through it within a couple of miles, making a point to block it from my brain.  Based on my previous Ironmans, I thought that I’d be struggling to keep my pace under 8:00 at any point, but although I slowed, I was able to keep it under 7:40-better, certainly.  I knew that I just needed to get myself back to the crowds, and then I’d be fine-they’d pull me through like nothing else.

Don't blow it there, Hansen
    I was right about that fact.  Despite the fact that my body was reaching its limits, I ended up being bound and determined to actually enjoy the end of that race.  In Placid last year, I had been too worried that my body was going to give out at any point to actually soak in the experience over the last couple of miles.  In Texas, once I reach mile 24, I just knew that I was going to be fine.  Natasha, always the sweet, encouraging competitor, gave me a huge smile and a huge cheer as I passed her.  The Moores went nuts.  Sam tried to give me a during-race high five, which we botched, but the thought was definitely there.  Jesse cheered; I dropped the poker face I’d had on all race and flashed a huge smile.  Finally!  I heard him say.  I heard Courtney across the river scream, Heather strong, encouraged by Mary, although I didn’t know it at the time.  I wasn’t sure if I’d heard that correctly, but I sure as heck knew who I was running for.  Half a mile from the finish line, I finally saw Dave for the first time all day as I lapped him.  He informed me that I was lapping him (figured that one out already) and that he’d been in the port-a-potties seven times (just what every wife wants to know 25.5 miles into an Ironman marathon), and then he stopped to clap.  My lead cyclist pulled off as I got to enter the lane that said “to finish”, congratulating me as I continued on.  I ran past Jesse one final time as he offered a high-five (he forgot to tell me to lose the sponge boob look, too!), and then just absolutely soaked in the experience of running through down the (torturously long) final straights (rocking my sponges).  Finally, 140.6 miles was done.  Exhausted and exhilarated all at once, I got my medal and t shirt and hat, and then was whisked away for breathless interviews (where I sort of came across like I was on speed…with sponges still in place) and drug testing (where I impressed the woman who had to watch me pee in a cup with my ability to pee post-IM-go hydration).    


Double yay!!

Stop the Garmin!  But do not remove the sponges!

Umm...what just happened again??  Are my sponges still there?

   After that, Tim (after his top-10 AG finish and huge PR) and I met up again, and limped pathetically to the finish to watch Dave come in.  He didn't have the day that he wanted (I'll spare the details), but still stuck it out to a solid finish.  After sort of eating some food, we returned to the hotel for the dreaded post-IM-everything is chafed and sunburned and it STINGS and is awful shower, and then headed back down to the finish to cheer until midnight.  I know that this was only my third Ironman, but I don’t think that I’ll ever get to the point where watching the last few hours of an Ironman will ever lose its allure to me-definitely one of my favorite atmospheres ever.  It reminded me of why I do this, and I realized how much I love how my life has worked out to this point and how much I appreciate this gift that I’ve given.  A few days later, after having some time to reflect, I’ve come to realize that really, I just had the race that my training numbers indicated I should have had.  The reason that I was able to reach the race-day level that I should have was because my execution ended up being spot-on in terms of nutrition, pacing (my average mile HR for that marathon stayed within a 3 bpm range the entire time-sweet!), heat management, and, most importantly just listening to my body and creating a positive mental state.  I could easily have become discouraged on that ride, when I knew I was working hard, but wasn’t even seeing any other women-but I never even thought about it.  Jesse’s “race in a bubble” instructions had worked to take a lot of self-imposed pressure off.  I swam a couple of minutes faster, biked 10 watts higher, and ran a minute faster than in my last Ironman- modest improvements across the board, but ones that added up to a great day.  In the end, I could have had the same exact race but come in 15th place, and I’d still be happy, because I know that on that day, I’d raced to the limit of my current fitness and capabilities…and at the end of an Ironman, that’s all anyone can ask for, really (although 2nd…was definitely a little bonus in there).

Bringing them in!

  So, to conclude this overly long race report are the thank yous to everyone who makes this journey possible and worth it.  We’re all only as good as our support systems, and I hope that everyone who’s a part of mine knows how incredibly important they are to me.  THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to wish me luck, track me, cheer for me, and congratulate me afterwards-all of your texts, tweets, facebook messages, phone calls, emails, etc were read and so greatly appreciated.  Throughout that entire race, random signs or occurrences kept making me think of people who have been a part of my life and have enriched it in some way.  Thank you to my sponsors, Blueseventy for outfitting my swim (it'll get there, someday!), Quintana Roo for the awesome bike that continues to develop along, Rudy Project for the comfortable, properly fitting aero helmet that still kept me cool enough, and Normatec for the recovery boots that I more or less lived in every night during my heavy training weeks- all of these helped me maximize my abilities.  Thanks to Heather-I like to think that you have a way of seeing this stuff still, and I felt your presence every second of that day.  A lot of people are fighting for your justice right now, and although I can’t help out in the courtroom, I feel like I can do your memory justice by getting what I can out of this mind and body, because you always did.  Thank you to QT2 and to Mary and Jesse, for molding this unsure new pro into something resembling a legitimate long course athlete-I could not have even dreamed of approaching this on my own, your guidance and encourage has brought me here.  And finally, thank you to my closest friends and family, who help me, deal with my habits, and encourage me on a daily basis.  I’m recovering quite well, and I already can’t wait to get back at it again!        

Video of the top 3 women coming in is here

Although it's sort of physically painful for me to watch/listen to what a dork I sound like, here's my post race interview.  I like the first comment..."She looks like she's about to cry".  Classic.  At least I'm still wearing my sponges. 

Kim and I!

Female pro awards!  I finally got to stand on another stage, after 10 months of near misses!

The morning after, the hotel breakfast lady "heard we had an award winner" and brought us champagne, OJ, and treats.  So nice!  Don't mind if I do!

It wouldn't be an Ironman if I didn't develop pitting edema in my feet-don't worry, the left one joined in on the action the next day, as well.

Hey, guess what happens when you forget to put sunscreen on your upper back?  This.  Guess what happens a few days later?  It itches.  A lot. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"I can't" (RIP)

   One fall day, all the way back in 1999, a handful or so of girls, including myself, showed up to Penfield high school donning formal black clothing.  Given we weren't the goth type, we were repeatedly asked one question throughout the day-"are you going to a funeral?" Yes," we'd respond. "Whose?" I can't. "Huh? You can't? You can't say? What?" No. I can't.  At this point, the conversation would generally stop, and the rest of the high school population would have further proof that the cross country girls were, in fact, sort of weird.

   I don't know who came up with the idea-probably Courtney or Leah, since they were the creative brains behind us in those years.  But the concept was simple, yet somehow genius.  The end of the season was approaching (I can't remember exactly when we did this, but it doesn't matter), and we were all finding ways in which to doubt ourselves as the important final meets loomed.  We needed to somehow rid ourselves of these doubts-so we'd do it quite literally.  We'd hold a funeral for our "I can'ts"  The "I can'ts" could be anything-place-related, time-related, or, most importantly, mental outlook-related.  We'd all write down our doubts, dress up in black for school, and meet before practice at our home course.  From there, we'd take turns reading a eulogy to our I can'ts, and then we'd ceremoniously put them in a box, and all take turns digging a hole for that box, and tuck them away in the woods at Harris Whalen Park forever. From that point on, we weren't allowed to utter those words anymore, and if we expressed our doubts, well, we'd just remind ourselves that they were gone.  We could.

   I have no idea what my "I can'ts" were at the time.  Probably things such as "I can't break 20min", "I can't finish top 10 at sectionals", "I can't outkick someone", "I can't not get passed on uphills", or "I can't keep focused in the second mile".  And although it might not have been that year, well, I did do all of those things.  Every year from that point on, we repeated the funeral at some point late in the season, just before those crucial races.  So what does it mean now?  I started thinking of the "I can't" funeral recently.  I had reached a point where I was finding myself a bit frustrated in the pool and on the bike.  My rational self knew that at the end of a very tough three week block, I'd be struggling to hit some of the numbers I'd seen at the start.  My irrational self was starting to project this onto IM Texas, and I was starting to really wonder if I could do what I want to there.  So maybe I need to revisit the concept of that "I can't" funeral.  Because I don't have teammates to dress up in black and dig holes with, I'm going to use this post as my own, personal, grown-up I can't funeral.  In no particular order, then, here's my "I can'ts" for IM Texas.  Writing them out doesn't mean that I will do all these things, it just means that if I don't do them, it won't be because I didn't believe that I could.  With that, here's all the doubts I'm going to spend the next (less than) week burying inside of me.

I can't make the swim group I should be in.
I can't swim under 65min.
I can't hold higher wattage than I did in Florida last year.
I can't manage bottle handoffs well enough to get in all the fluid I'll need.
I can't get off the bike ahead of someone who's a faster runner than I am, and still hold them off.
I can't handle my normal run paces in the heat.
I can't come out on top in a close finish.
I can't make it onto the awards stand again.
I can't avoid slowing way down the final 10k of the run.
I can't feel strong and comfortable on the bike.
I can't keep up up/down hills on the bike.
I can't keep my cadence up in aero.
I can't handle humidity (hello, self, your entire basement was steamed up yesterday!)
I can't keep positive and focused throughout the entire swim and bike; I can't keep up with the others on them, either.
I can't execute the race I should have based on the work I've put in, which is more than what I've done in the past.

RIP, I can'ts!

Lake Placid states, freshman year of high school.  We weren't supposed to win sectionals and make it there that year, but none of us believed that-so here we were!  We might have only beat the pink section once we were there, but that part didn't even matter :)