Ironman 70.3 Boise Race Report – June 9, 2013

A spindly tree was my only shade as I sat with my friend Laura at the Lucky Peak reservoir waiting for our wave to start. We’d arrived by shuttle at 10 AM, and the sun was already blazing down on us. Sunscreen was our focus for the moment, and we reapplied layers of it, looking at the cloudless sky and our skin that hadn’t seen the sun IMG_4106since last summer. Last year, I’d heard reports that this race was so cold and windy that the bike course was shortened to just 12 miles – long enough to get off the reservoir and back to town.  I’d packed arm warmers, a vest and toe covers, all things I couldn’t imagine using as I baked under the tree that morning.

I didn’t know then that the noon race start, heat and dry air would slowly and stealthily bite me in the rear end within the next few hours. (And apparently I wasn’t the only one.)

My friend and I picked this race due to the time of year and its relative proximity to home, and it was going to be my first coached 70.3.  My hope was to have a more successful race than my previous try at this distance. I wanted to finish happy and feeling strong.

Hot air blew at us while we waited. I didn’t feel like eating, but earlier that morning I managed to get down a decent amount of breakfast: Rice Krispies, milk, banana, a hard boiled egg and coffee. Closer to the noon start I forced down more food: a bagel with peanut butter and part of a bar. The water and nuun and the food (and possibly the heat) left my stomach sloshing during my warmup.

The first plunge into the bright blue reservoir water shocked me. After baking all morning in pseudo-shade, the water felt icy. When the gun went off, I swam hard and got out in front right away. Once we approached the first turn, the water became incredibly wavy, sloshing over my face and bobbing me around. I swallowed water and coughed and kept swimming, eventually passing swimmers in the waves ahead of me, keeping an eye out for some good feet to follow. I began to notice some fatigue as I approached the finish, which was probably from fighting the rough water. I swam until my fingers brushed the bottom, ran up the hill, threw myself down by the wetsuit strippers, and my friend’s husband yelled that I was first in my age group. So far, so good!

Swim time: 31:45
Division place: 1

T1: 3:04. Boise is a two-transition-location race so T1 held just bike gear. All went smoothly, aside from not finding any volunteers with more sunscreen to apply after the swim.

Gusts of wind shoved me around right away as I pedaled off the reservoir. My disc acted like a sail, wanting to push me all over the road. My instinct told me to hammer it down the hill to try to be more stable, but I wasn’t comfortable with a rider in front of me weaving around (probably like me) in the middle of the lane, so I waited to pass him until later. Once I was off the hill I tr0399_06731ied to calm down my too-high heart rate as we began the loops through the desert. I remember two colors from the bike course: the brown hills and the blue sky. The Boise bike course is long, steady uphills and long steady downhills. Some people say it’s a biker’s race because of this, but I hadn’t done enough long-distance riding or racing to determine whether it was my kind of course. The roads were wide open and peaceful, thanks to getting to start in an early wave.  I settled into aero position and pedaled steadily with the wind at my back, feeling good, strong, and smooth. The day felt definitely hot, but the breeze and speed on the bike kept me comfortable enough. I was breathing easily, and my heart rate was a constant 162. This was high, but I didn’t feel I was overworking, so I let it go, even though my coach had a cap of 160 in my race plan. Looking back, perhaps I should have realized that perceived effort at an HR of 162 should have felt a lot harder. I was getting hot and losing fluids, and that’s what was raising my heart rate, but I didn’t think about this then.

On the windy sections, I couldn’t get comfortable. My neck was fatigued from fighting the wind and my saddle wasn’t feeling right. Still, my HR stayed steady: 162. I began to be passed regularly by younger men from the wave behind me, but didn’t see a woman pass me until the out-and-back in the farmlands, so I hoped I might be holding a relatively high age group place. Maybe this type of course suited me!

Eating was the last thing I felt like doing, but I forced down my nutrition as planned: four gels and a bar. I constantly sipped nuun and water. Sipping, however, was the wrong thing to do. I should have been gulping. I exchanged bottles at each station and figured I drank maybe three 20-oz bottles. I poured some on myself to keep cool, so maybe I didn’t exactly drink all of that. I thanked myself for carrying a tiny bottle of sunscreen which I used to spray my back an hour into the ride. (It may have saved me from some deep burns I saw on others later, though I was still burned enough to peel.)

Bike time 3:01:51
Bike MPH 18.48
Division place: 3

T2: 1:36. No issues.

I began to think about the run on the way into town. The last six miles on the bike were tough and long. As soon as I was off the bike and running, I was drenched in sweat and the sides of my ribs were cramping. Remembering a similar feeling at Lake Stevens, I kept my pace around nine minutes per mile and relaxed my breathing. The cramping went away around mile two or three, but my pace had slowed down.0399_11081

The run is two loops near a temptingly cold, flowing river. Part of the run is on a shaded path, and part of it is on exposed roads. I plodded along, the heat weighing down on me and I eyed that cold water just a few feet away. Suddenly, I wanted to quit. I hurt, my legs were heavy, and once we hit the exposed section of the loop (mile 3 to 4 I think), the heat made me feel ill. I could feel my pulse skipping beats, something that happens occasionally, but worried me here. I plodded, one foot in front of the other and I wondered if I would really consider dropping out. It was the first time I’d ever had that thought in any race.

At every aid station I drank, poured water over myself, loaded my top with ice, and held ice in my palms. Every few miles, I saw a teammate or two, and it gave me a temporary lift of solidarity to exchange pained greetings. I could see they were just as hot as me. By mile five I was walking at every aid station to get fluids in and cool off. By mile eight or so, I couldn’t get anything down but small sips of water. Ice – ice was all I could think of. It sounded so good and so refreshing. I finally fished some out of my top and tossed it back and yes, it hit the spot. After one of the aid stations on the second loop, I got extremely ill, feeling like my insides had turned to churning mush. The race time was 4:42 on my watch. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, though that was probably because my brain wasn’t working at that point, except to make myself move forward. Obviously, the heat and lack of fluids were finally taking their horrible toll. My skin felt dry. I felt so nauseous I was afraid to eat or drink anything else. I told myself to run for ten more minutes and then I’d take an inventory of myself and reevaluate. Ten minutes passed and I hadn’t thrown up and was somehow still moving forward. I repeated this until finally there were only two miles to go! At the last aid station, a wonderful, smiling volunteer yelled: “Coke!” Coke! That sounds so cool, dark, and bubbly… I grabbed a cup and downed it. Nothing ever tasted so good. Somehow, I ran until I crossed the finish line, saw my friend’s husband and garbled something about being sick and made a beeline to the hotel room.0399_191671

Run time: 2:05:46
Run pace: 9:36       

Finish time: 5:44:02          
Division place: 5


Back in the room I was afraid to lie down. I was dizzy and short of breath, and severe cramps kept me running to the bathroom. I couldn’t eat or drink anything for an hour, and then finally could sip water. By 8:30 PM I could get a sports drink down, and by 10:00 PM I had part of a milkshake. (A week later, I still didn’t have much of an appetite and felt like sleeping all of the time.)

I was disappointed. I’d hoped that this 70.3, one I’d prepared so hard for, would feel better than my last one. It felt worse.

Still, I was shocked to find I’d placed 5th in my age group, just missing a rolldown spot for IM 70.3 Worlds in Las Vegas. I texted my coach about missing the spot and he replied with two words and a smiley face: Lake Stevens 🙂.

Another 70.3? I couldn’t even think about it.


I’m adding this report to the blog almost two years after racing it.  This race is the reason that the heat at other races over the next year didn’t leave me in such a mess. Boise taught me more about hydration and cooling strategies that I ever would have learned by theory, because I was truly afraid to have another experience like this one!  The biggest takeaway for me was to drink early, often and a lot, and also be aware of how much my heart rate will raise and pace will slow due to heat alone.  I’ve also added salt to my nutrition plan for hot races.

Remembering Escape from Alcatraz

June 7, 2012

Probably the thing I most remember about Escape from Alcatraz is the huge, wavy mass of San Francisco Bay. It’s pitch dark underneath the surface, and so dense that I can’t see the bubbles in front of my face.  I can only hear them burbling past my ears with each breath. It’s chilly too; my cheeks and hands feel almost numb. I bring my head up to sight, level with the waves. I seem to be alone. The other swimmers, thousands of them kicking and splashing, are too far away. I’ve veered off course. Ahead of me is the Golden Gate bridge, impossibly high and bright red. Behind me is Alcatraz and the boat I’ve jumped from.  Five million gallons of water per minute is emptying to the sea and is pulling me with it, away from my destination at the Marina.  I look toward two white buildings in the city, my sight point. I pause for a second of amazement that I’m here, in the middle of the bay, and then I dip my head in and swim on.

San Francisco

America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
Everywhere else is Cleveland.

-Tennessee Williams

Growing up, we’d head to northern California most summers, spending time in sunny, leafy Petaluma with my grandmother, San Francisco, and Oakland where my parents had worked. I still feel connected to the area even though it’s been years since I’ve been here.  Today, it’s a sunny day with a cool strong breeze and high puffy clouds. I can see miles of the pastel Victorian houses, the painted ladies, in the hills. I stroll though the Marina district, Fort Mason where the triathlon transition is being set up, Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli square. It smells like the ocean and the sun feels unusually warm.  I feel like I’m on a cloud of anticipation for the race.

I have a habit of looking at a body of water and then picturing myself swimming across it. So, the Escape from Alcatraz has been on my list for as long as I’ve known that you could. When I was a kid, we’d look at fog rolling in over the bay, and people would say, mock-seriously: Nobody can swim from Alcatraz. The sharks, the current, the cold….

Later that evening, I meet up with my family, and my brother-in-law drives us around the race course and gives us a tour of the city. He grew up right downtown when it was made up of working-class neighborhoods and he would run and play all over with the local kids. What we’re looking at now is ritzy and gentrified: shiny condos and high-end dining, but we can picture what it used to be when he tells us a few stories. We eat too much pasta at Scoma’s on Fisherman’s Wharf, and I start to feel nervous. And, unfortunately, the rekindled romance with San Francisco has left me with sunburn, a blister, and fatigue from walking around way too much for a pre-race day. There’s nothing to do now but try to rest up.

The Race

Every window in Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco – Susanna Kaysen

It’s 4:00 AM in my hotel and I’m nervous. I can’t believe I’m going to do it, all of it – the early morning, the dark, the cold, the waiting around, the worrying about gear, the energy I’m going to expend on the course. I’m almost depressed at the thought of it! Nevertheless, I’ve been race-nervous enough times to know that it’s just that, and has nothing to do with what I really want, which is to be swimming in that bay. I gather my gear and hop on my bike. It’s still dark and shadowy outside. I cruise through the city and Fort Mason with the rest of the triathletes who funnel out of hotels and roll down the streets with their duffel bags on their backs. We’re the only souls out at this hour. I find my transition spot and start setting up. I can smell the sea air and it feels warm. I walk around and examine the transition area, and when I feel like I know the entrances and exits, I drop off my post-swim gear bag and get on the bus to the Pier 3.

It’s light by the time everyone gets wetsuits zipped up and morning-clothes bags dropped off, and the sky is clear. When I shuffle on the boat with two thousand lean, suited-up triathletes, somehow I find a few people I know from swim practice in Seattle. They give me pointers and tell me I should think about joining their tri team. I’m grateful for the sense of community and the time passes easily, though I am still so nervous I can barely eat the bagel I’ve brought with me. The boat cruises along with a smooth hum, delivering us to our fate right in front of Alcatraz Island.

When it’s time to go, we funnel to the doorway of the upper deck and down the stairs. I’m frustrated that I’ve ended up near the back, one of the last group of athletes to go. I already have my goggles on, which is lucky because as I round the corner it’s time to jump off! Go, go, go, the organizers yell. I don’t hesitate. I see the opening in the deck railing and I jump in. The drop is only a few feet, but time expands to many breathless seconds of mid-air limbo. Finally, a splash as I hit, then I swim! I’ve forgotten to start my watch and shoot, it’s gone to power-save mode. I swipe it to turn it on, and then stop my swim stroke a few seconds later to hit the start button. I swim toward the apartment towers as I’ve planned, feeling stiff in the cold water, and edgy from the waves and splashes of people all around me. I regret wearing booties because I feel the water seeping through them and I know they’re slowing me down. Still, I pass other swimmers consistently, sighting every five strokes or so, getting into a rhythm. I start feeling confident and back in my element. I’m tossed around by the waves and every so often, I get a mouthful of salty water. At one point, I’m aiming directly at the Golden Gate Bridge and all alone, traveling with the current that wants to carry me under the bridge and out to sea. I adjust my direction and keep swimming. Nothing seems to get closer until finally, somehow and I don’t know how, I realize it’s time to aim for the Legion of Honor dome and the marina. I angle that way and swim hard. Finally, the beach is in front of me and I stand and walk, almost getting knocked over by a wave. Thirty-seven minutes. I wave to my husband, find my bag, strip my wetsuit, throw on my shoes and I’m off, running to the transition!

Swim time: 37:26
Swim place (div): 2

T1: 6:55 (it’s a long run)

We’d driven the bike course yesterday, so I know what’s coming: a flat stretch, then the first climb into the Presidio. The course is crowded, especially the climbs, but I don’t feel unsafe. I just have some difficulty maneuvering through the technical sections. The downhills are fast and fun. Coming down Sea Cliff is gorgeous and I make sure I enjoy it (how could I not?), flying down the hill with the ocean in front of me, glittering out as far as I can see. Once down that, the course cruises into Golden Gate Park with its nice flat and rolling sections. Next, back up Sea Cliff – can I climb any more? Some of the climbs are steep and difficult for me. I’m not pushing as hard as I can, but I know I can’t, not if I want something left for the run. Finally, I ride through some residential areas, back down through the Presidio and then back to transition.

Bike time: 1:04:33
Bike place: 10
MPH: 16.7

T2: 1:46

I start the run, feeling as I usually do after the bike, uncoordinated and heavy. But, I’m running eight minute miles and if I can just keep it up, I’ll be satisfied. Soon we start climbing, and climbing and climbing. I shuffle up hills, slog up steps on a narrow path. I wonder if I’m going to make it without walking. After forever I come to some downhills, down to Baker Beach. Sand! I take a few steps, my muscles trying to support me despite the unstable give of the sand. It’s so hard to run, but I do it anyway. Then, up the infamous sand ladder, grasping a rope and stepping up and up. Looking back, I wish I would have challenged myself more – it takes me over four minutes to climb. Then, finally I’m done and it’s all downhill to the finish. I feel nauseous and hot, but in a rhythm as I pass the row of beautiful homes adjacent to the transition. I race down the finish chute lined with flags from every country, and it’s done!

Run time: 1:10:32
Run Place: 11
Sand Ladder Time: 4:04
Run pace: 8:49

Overall time: 3:01:09
Division place: 5

Back in the hotel, I think I’ll nap but I just close my eyes without falling asleep. My family leaves town that same day, but I get to spend the afternoon in the room, writing and doing nothing. I go out once to get something from Ghirardelli Square and when I come back to the room, there’s a plate of cheese and wine sitting on the table for me, with a note. It’s from the hotel staff: they apologize for any noise from a wedding last night and hope it didn’t affect my race. I pour myself a glass, toasting the day I checked off one of my longtime race dreams. It wasn’t a perfect race, but it was a perfect experience. I know I’ll want to someday race this one again, and it will be just as amazing, but my focus will be on the known, not the unknown. (I’ll angle straighter across the bay, I’ll get off the boat earlier. I’ll train on trails and sand!) As for today, I enjoy the memory of this one: the immense water, the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the run over every kind of surface imaginable, and finally getting to finish one of my long-time goals.