I’d moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1996, two years out of college, and the time I spent in Louisville and the surrounding Kentucky countryside with its humid summers, rolling hills and Southern culture were filled with new experiences, not least of which was meeting my future husband. Louisville held a special place in my heart, so was a natural on my Ironman list.
The lead-up to Louisville, unfortunately, turned out to be harder than any lead-up to a race I’ve done. I muddled through post-race blues after racing in Kona in October, and looking at my forseeable future filled with nothing but long rides, long runs, and constant driving to the pool seemed too much to contemplate. As I was squeezing in workouts where I could, I rarely coordinated with others. Family schedules just seemed to get busier and busier, and my motivation creeped lower and lower. Finally, sometime in late August, I received a note from my coach telling me I was currently completing only 60% of my workouts. I was skipping swim sessions, cutting my rides short, and trying to train in ways that just don’t work for me, like riding on a trainer in front of the TV at night: I’d start pedaling, turn on a show, and 15 minutes later I’m zoning out, barely pedaling.
However. I tried to remember that at one time this was an exciting and well-thought-out race registration. Sometime, months ago, I chose it. In this moment though, I certainly didn’t seem to care what I’d chosen when I was coming off the high of another race. But, having been here before, I should know: six to eight weeks before an Ironman is no time to make any rash decisions. A lot of hay is already in the barn, and it’s time to put your head down and get through it.
So, there I had it. I wouldn’t back out. No matter what I had or had not done, I made myself commit to doing 100% of my workouts from now until race day. I started getting up early for the swimming, planned my long rides well in advance so I don’t have to cut them short. I found some partners for my runs so we could keep each other going.
My motivation slowly came back. It was not through talking myself into it, but through making myself do the things I did not want to do. This is something that people who are experts in how our minds work already know, but I hadn’t experienced it so fully before. Motivation can follow behavior; it’s not always the other way around.
As race day approached, there was a lot more to do than I ever expected. The Wine To Water founder, Doc Hendley, was coming into town a couple days before my departure. I put together an event and a luncheon. My trip to Ethiopia immediately following had to be organized and packed for. I arranged things with Brian and the girls for me to be gone for the longest time ever from them – over two weeks. It was a full few of weeks leading up to the race, but once I got organized, I was finally ready: excited, positive, and somewhat grounded.
There are always various mental turning points leading up to a race: stress, nerves, excitement, dread, joy, energy. I just never know when they will all hit me. The night before race day, I tried to sleep through the stress, and lucked into at least a couple hours of unconsciousness in my hotel room. Finally, race morning, I turned the corner to feeling mostly excitement. Lisa dropped me off at the transition area, I pumped my tires and walked the transition route, then made my way upriver in the dark, where I found the lineup of one-hour swimmers already in a chute waiting for the 7:30 start. At 7:15 it’s still dark as we start funneling us down to a small dock with boat slips. I am standing next to a man who says he has done this race ten times, so I asked him about the swim direction. I couldn’t really see where we’d be going in the half-light, and was thankful for his explanation.
Just as the sky began to lighten, the cannon went off. Athletes quickly began moving toward the end of the dock, and I dove into the still-dark water just a few seconds after the start blast. The water was 71 degrees: cool and comfortable. I started swimming easily in the slack water between the island and the docks, and then we made our way out past the island into the middle of the river where we turned and headed downstream. The water felt like an ocean, with big, wavy rolls to it. The ten-time finisher had said to aim for the second large truss on the bridge, so I looked at that and didn’t worry about trying to sight the buoys. I thought of nothing but “swim easy.” I made sure my strokes were solid and complete, but stayed relaxed. The water didn’t seem crowded, though I did almost bump up against some swimmers a few times. The cheers of the crowds grew louder and clearer as the end of the swim approached, and a row of volunteers pulled us out of the water onto steps.
Swim time: 54:55
Swim place: 1
I heard Brian and the crew yelling for me during the long run from the swim exit to the bikes, but I couldn’t spot them in the crowd. I grabbed my bag and ran toward the line of volunteers ready to help. I found a chair in the empty changing tent, stripped my wetsuit and changed into shoes, leaving my arm warmers and jacket behind. Quick porta-potty stop, then grabbed my bike and ran, seeing and hearing Patti and Taylor yelling for me. As I left for the bike leg, the sky was cloudy and the air felt warm, but not smothering.
A tailwind started me off, helping me get into a good rhythm on the flat roads leading out to LaGrange. I kept my heart rate in a conservative zone, and still finished the first 20 miles in under an hour. Once the 30-mile loop started, the course became hillier and more challenging, with the wind picking up and even a light rain starting. The loop was long but the rolling hilly countryside was pretty and enjoyable. I saw the support crew twice: in town and at one other location, and heard later that they found a ride in someone’s pickup to get around. They seem to be having fun and I loved knowing that they were there and I would be able see them multiple times. It was fun to see BASE athletes on course, and both Paul and Vlad passed me in the middle of the ride. Then, sometime on the second lap the support crew shouted at me that I’m in third.
I dropped my salt and halfway considered getting off my bike next time I see a salt tube on the ground that someone has dropped. I don’t do it, knowing my gels have some sodium in them and the weather is cooler. One of my gel containers spilled all over my kit and drove me crazy with the stickiness. I probably consumed about 1000 calories or even less on the bike, and drank just over four bottles of water.
I also took a risk and pushed my pace, something I had been considering but not committing to doing. All of my previous Ironman bike legs have been conservative and I wanted to flirt with pushing a little harder to see what would happen. It could work in my favor today, with the totally flat run and cooler weather. My run confidence was high, so I went for it, bringing my watts up until it was just a little uncomfortable.
The 20 miles back to town were harder than the way out, with a headwind, light rain and then huge gusts of wind as I came into transition, making me swerve all over the place. My hips felt tight from my new, lower aero position on the bike.
Bike time: 5:52:16
Bike place: 3
Feeling very ready to run in the wind and rain! One stop in the porta potty (I did not stop at all on the bike) and then off to the run.
Out on the run, feeling fantastic, despite the slightly tight hip flexors. I have come to enjoy starting an Ironman run, settling into the rhythm, sucking down gels and water at regular intervals. At mile 4 the wind whipped across the course and I became chilly and even uncomfortably cold. BASE folks were the first familiar faces I saw. Danny was kind enough to jog with me for a bit and report on how everyone was doing. Then Brian and the girls found me around mile 6ish, again on the other side of the road, then the BASE people again. Everyone told me I had to run fast: I was in solid second, but the girl behind me was running a faster pace, and I wouldn’t likely catch first as she was too far ahead and running fast. I had some passing stomach cramps around mile 7, but thankfully they were short lived and I kept moving as fast as I could.
When I saw Brian again on the second loop, I found out that the first place girl was slowing and if I could keep my pace, I could run her down. I decided I’d have to be fearless. I have been racing too conservatively and now I needed to hurt! I picked it up 5 more seconds per mile, then 10.
During the second half of the second loop, I was the zone. I was hurting, but I was not slowing down. The only time I looked up and talked was when I saw the crew. Norah and Josie ran beside me at one section and were smiling the whole time.
I physically passed the first place woman but was still behind her 6 minutes due to the rolling swim start. Mentally I thought I might have first place secured, but I kept running hard, just in case. I see Laura as I’m finishing the second loop.
I’d been waiting for the moment I couldn’t keep it up, and that came at mile 23. My legs suddenly became dead weights I was forcing into each step. They would not move any faster. Lisa, near the finish, yells at me that every second counts. I keep my dead-weight legs moving and do a non-sprint-like sprint to the finish – and end up with the AG win by only 17 seconds!
Run time: 3:35:34
Finish time: 10:32:57
Finish place: 1
The finish line was incredible. It was lit up, with spectators lining the chute, beating on the sides. The energy was incredible.
I immediately started shivering from the cold, drank part of a beer someone handed me, then back to the hotel to shower and to go dinner. The next day I’d be en route to Washington DC via Shenandoah National Park and then to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I loved every minute of the whirlwind race, and the support crew made my day completely. I’ve had many amazing race experiences, but this one met and hugely surpassed all of my expectations. I’m grateful for all of those who supported me along the way, and the other women I race against who continually push me to become a better athlete.