Race Review: FirmMan Half Iron Triathlon

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Narragansett Bay

I haven’t posted too much lately since I pretty much spent all of August trying to battle my calf injury and get ready for some fall races. I don’t have too many on the schedule this year, but I had a pretty packed spring so I’m looking forward to a nice long recovery and base building season to follow. FirmMan 70.3 was in the plans for awhile but sneaked up on me quickly, especially since it was just after the start of the new school year. I’d been swimming and biking like a champ (for me, anyway) but struggling with my usual favorite, the run. Race weekend arrived and before I knew it, I was loading up my gear, picking up Emily and heading to Rhode Island.

We stayed in West Warwick and arrived on Friday night. After a good night’s sleep, we woke up and headed out for a shakeout ride and run before heading to the expo. I felt super tired, sluggish, and achy – even though we’d gotten a lot of rest and slept in that morning. After loosening up our muscles, we headed out to find some food and go to the expo.

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The Expo

There are several pavilions along Beach Road in Narragansett, and the race expo was held at the North Pavilion. It’s a beautiful setting, with the beach and the bay as the backdrop. We could see the buoys in the water to mark the swim course, and the water looked a little rough. The current looked like it was going in the opposite direction that we were supposed to be swimming in less than 24 hours. On the beach, the wind was whipping sand everywhere, and it was extremely humid. There was a storm that was supposed to roll through that evening. I was praying the meteorologists prediction would be on point, and the storm would blow through to fix the wind, heat, humidity, and current. Between the conditions and how I was feeling that afternoon, I started to feel nervous and fear that it was going to be a looooong day.

There were several vendors at the event and friendly volunteers handing out the packets. Your packet included your chip, a number for your bike and your running bib. They gave out long sleeved tech tees and water bottles to the participants. We got there just in time for the “course talk” that the race director held. We listened for awhile, but decided to leave and drive some of the bike course to see what we were getting ourselves into.

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Pre-race salt baths

Back at the hotel, we ate our obligatory pre-triathlon meal (a pizza) and got all of our stuff ready to go for the morning. Bags were packed, breakfast was prepared, water bottles were mixed with GU brew and the coffee pot was ready to go. We took Epsom salt baths, and were watching TV and reading in bed before 8pm. All we needed to do now was sleep. Which actually came really easily, until we were woken up at 1 am by a dog barking. A dog. In hotel where pets were not allowed. Long story short, the entire wing of our hotel was awake and trying to resolve the issue, and we lost about an hour of sleep. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really fall back to sleep so 4am came way, way, wayyyy too quickly.

Race Day

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Pre-race!

Even with our lack of sleep, I felt decent when my alarm went off and just needed some coffee to wake up. We were out the door before I even knew what was going on, and in the transition area setting up our stuff in the dark. I could hear the waves crashing on the shore and hoped the water would calm down as the sun came up. There was a chill in the air, and as it got brighter out I could tell that it was overcast. It was a point to point swim, and we had to walk on the beach to the start. I didn’t mind the walk to calm my nerves. Both of us were anxious about swimming in the ocean. As absurd as it sounds, we were terrified of sharks and whatever else was in the water. Lake swims are one thing, but the ocean? I could barely force down my pre-race breakfast – a bagel, peanut butter and a banana – but managed about half of it. I felt like I was going to throw up as we made our way to the swim start.

Swim

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Swim start, a point to point swim

There were two waves – the men, and the women/Aqua-Bike division. Emily made me start up front with her to avoid wasting energy and having to swim around the other athletes. It was a beach start, and we made our way straight out to the first buoy to make a right turn to swim along the shore line. As we swam out, I panicked a little (okay, a lot). It just seemed so vast and choppy, and I knew I didn’t want to have to fight for a space since I was already scared. I swam as hard as I could to the buoy and forgot all about sharks. I realized I had a new fear: the current. The waves were rocking me a bit and I started to feel seasick, which I didn’t expect. I picked a spot on the shoreline to focus on, which worked to calm me down and get my bearings. I noticed the current kept pulling me out to sea. Every so often, I’d lift my head and panic because I was drifting further and further away. I’d swim back towards the pack, and try to focus on a swimmer that looked about my pace but would end up passing them. This went on until I eventually caught up with the first wave, and then swam on the outside to avoid wasting energy by swimming through the pack. After what felt like an eternity, I approached the final buoy and made the turn to loop back in to shore. I was finally with the current for the short distance it took to get back on the land and relief settled in. I felt like I was in the water for hours, and figured it would be a slow swim. I was shocked when I got out of the water and saw that it was actually a PR.

Swim – 1.2 miles – 32:45

T1 – Swim to Bike

Just like at Steelman, I was stoked from the swim and couldn’t wait to start riding. Even with getting disoriented as I came into the transition area, I was able to move around quickly. They had “peelers” present to take off your wet suit, but I bypassed them and kept running to my bike and took my wet suit off myself. I was on my bike and moving before I even realized what was going on.

T1 – 2:28

Bike

Oh, the bike. The turning point in the race happened all too soon. I was so excited to get on my bike. I’d been feeling strong lately and the course looked cool. I came out of transition fast and my legs felt loose and ready to work. The first mile flew by and I saw Emily a little bit ahead of me as she made her way out of town. I turned a corner to make a small loop in Narragansett before heading out the way she was going, and I heard a loud whoosh. Oh no. I could feel it before I could stop and see what it was. My back tire (seriously, it couldn’t be the front?) was flat.

It all boils down to this: I screwed up. Not in getting a flat or in the process of changing it – I let someone help me. I should have just politely (or not so politely) told them to stop. As I flipped my bike over and started to pull the back tire off, one of the guys riding the course on his motorcycle for support stopped and asked if I needed help. I was flustered and told him no, but to stay just in case. I already had the tire off and the blown tube out, and he came over and just took over. In the midst of him taking over, I forgot what I was doing and missed the most important step. I didn’t check the tire for debris. There was a shard of glass in my tire, so as soon as I filled up the new tube I heard the loud whoosh again and panic set in. I only had two tubes. What if I got another flat?

With a string of obscenities flying from my mouth, I grabbed the tire out of his hand and pulled out a tiny piece of glass. He was still trying to help, so he began to pull the blown tube out of the tire. I don’t have CO2 cartridges – I have a pump mounted on my bike – and it was still attached to the valve. Somehow, the guy broke the valve from the tube off in the pump. I just sat on the side of the road in total disbelief, feeling completely defeated and considered the possibility of quitting. But I wasn’t injured. I still had a perfectly good tube. I drove up to Rhode Island to do a triathlon, so I told myself to get my shit together and make the best of the situation. I signed up for this event fully aware that this kind of disaster comes with the territory. You hope that it doesn’t happen to you – but it shouldn’t come as a shock when it does.

The guy trying to “help” me got on the phone to try to get the bike store that was working the event to come help, and I started to try to get the valve out of the pump. I somehow got it out and had the new tube in the tire, pumped up and back on my bike before I had time to process everything that just transpired. As I rode off, I felt completely lost and unsure of how to proceed. How do I come back from this? There would be no way to PR or place at this point. Could I mentally handle at least another 5 hours being in close to last place after I’d been so far ahead after the swim? I figured I had two options: ride conservatively and try to smoke the run, or ride hard to play catch up and pray my legs didn’t get too burned out. I went with the reckless option (of course). I wasn’t going down without a fight.

The next 55 miles on the bike (and the 13.1 running off the bike) were like nothing I’d ever experienced. Not just physically, but mentally. At some points, I was positive and upbeat and completely committed to making the best of a bad situation. Other times, I would feel bitter and ask myself why I was even bothering with the race at all. But I’m not a quitter. Once I got it in my head that I was going to work, I worked hard. I passed as many people as I could and didn’t get passed once on the bike. I pushed every single down hill. My quads burned on every single climb as I fought to keep my cadence and pace steady. I stuck to my nutrition and hydration plan because I knew I needed every ounce of energy I could get. My bike computer (which didn’t factor in the time I’d stopped) told me I completed the ride doing 18.4 mph, but the reality was more like 17.2 mph when the flat tire debacle was factored in. That stop probably cost me about 15 minutes, but as I headed into T2 I realized I was only about 8 minutes off of my time from Eagleman. I started to feel confident and prayed my legs could carry me another 13.1 miles.

Bike – 56 miles – 3:15:08

T2 – Bike to Run

Although I was still bitter, I was enjoying the race. The volunteers, the course, the participants – everything exceeded my expectations. I’d passed a lot of people at that point and physically felt good. As I cruised into transition, the announcer said something like, “The last of the cyclists are starting to come in!” and I was crushed again. I hated hearing that I was still near the end of the race after working so hard – even though it was the truth. I’d come to terms that I’d lost a significant chunk of time, but hearing that was discouraging. Almost to the point where I wanted to turn my chip in and call it a day. I sat for a few seconds and thought about what I wanted to do. I made it this far. Might as well finish what I started.

T2 – 2:03

Run

I started the run with a bad attitude and zero motivation. I had my watch in multisport mode so I had no idea what pace I was running as I left transition. One of the girls I passed on the bike must have left T2 right on my heels, because she caught me and we chatted for a few minutes until she fell behind. I was feeling exceptionally cranky. I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since mile 50 on the bike, and I was about 2 miles into the run. I had gels with me, but was starting to feel nauseous from all the sugar I’d consumed that day. I forced down a packet of Salted Watermelon Gu and started to feel better almost immediately.

My strategy for the run in every triathlon is the same – pass everyone, and do not get passed. I kept focusing on people in the distance and closing gaps. The course is gently rolling hills, and comprised of two different out and back segments before you head back to the beach. I saw Emily on the first segment. I didn’t know how far she was ahead of me but hoped I might catch her so we could run together. I was feeling pretty cranky the first time I saw her and made a comment about my tires followed up by a few choice words, and immediately felt bad. She looked REALLY strong and I could tell she was having an awesome race. I should have just kept it in, but I’d been going for so long without really being able to tell anyone what happened! I kept running and started feeling better knowing I saw a familiar face and with the hope that I might be able to catch her and run with her.

After the first out and back segment, we were somewhere around mile six. The second segment of the course descended what looked like the steepest hill I’d ever seen (in reality, it was nothing I’d normally think twice about) and I saw people running up it. I knew I was entering another out and back and would have to return up that hill. I couldn’t even think that far ahead and just focused on gaining some time on the downhills and continuing to pass people. I saw Emily again, and I was getting closer but knew I wouldn’t catch her before the finish line.

I reached mile eight and started to feel fatigued. I knew it was partially because I needed to eat something again (probably being around mile 65 for the day also had something to do with it!) but felt even more nauseated at the thought of more gels. Nothing sounded good, so I told myself to suck it up and eat a gel, because the next thing I would get to eat would be real, solid food when I finished the race. I managed to choke down a Chocolate Raspberry Roctane GU and washed it down with some water from a water stop and kept going. I returned to the “monstrous” hill that I descended earlier, and climbing it wasn’t as horrible as I’d anticipated. I knew that once I hit the top, it was downhill to the finish line.

Finally, the finish line was in sight. There was a stretch of sand to run through on the beach before crossing the finish line. The race directors assured us that the stretch wasn’t as long as it was in years past but at the end of 70.3 miles, it looked endless. I saw Emily waiting for me, the finish line and the clock. Even after the flat tires, I realized I was going to PR by a little over 2 minutes. I crossed the finish line and immediately started crying. Not because I was happy it was over or relieved that I’d finished, but that I could finally react to what happened five hours ago and relax again. I found a bed in the medical tent and just sat there crying and telling Emily the whole story. She was the one person I wanted to talk to the whole day, and I knew she had an amazing race – but I just needed a minute to shake it all off. Now that I’m not in the midst of it all, I realize how dramatic it all sounds. But in that moment, after racing 70.3 miles while trying to fight a pretty nasty mental battle, all I could do was sit there and cry.

IMG_6932When I finally stopped acting like a little girl, we found out that we both placed in our age groups! I still PR’d with a 5:30:08, got 1st in my age group and 5th overall female. I also found out that my half marathon time, 1:37:42, was the top female run time, and the 10th fastest run time out of everyone (women and men). Emily PR’d with a 5:25:12 and had the fastest swim in her age group and second fastest swim overall with a 28:40! She finished as the fourth female overall, biked 3:00:05, ran 1:52:50, and also won first in her age group! We both left the race on cloud nine.

All things considering, a lot of good came from this race. As a matter of fact, I don’t know that I would change any part of that day – even the flat tires. I learned a LOT. If I’m ever in that situation again, I know I can handle it, and WILL handle it much better. I learned that I can push myself way past my limits and have the strength to overcome obstacles. I loved the race, would return without hesitation – but I spent five hours trying to make up lost time and trying to mentally get myself to the finish line. Of the countless races I’ve completed, this was without a doubt the hardest one. Physically, I felt incredible the entire time, but I didn’t realize that until after it was over. Instead of focusing on that, I had to talk myself into actually finishing the race over and over. There’s always a point in a race where it hurts and you want to quit, and you ask yourself why you’re even doing it. That’s the mental fight, and it’s something you are faced with even on your best days. On that day, when I asked myself why I was putting myself through this, I found I didn’t know how to answer it. Why WAS I doing a triathlon, particularly one that was 70.3 miles? The only thing I could come up with each time was a quote from one of my favorite books, Eat and Run by Scott Jurek…”Sometimes you just do things”. So I did it. I was grateful to be healthy enough to complete the race, thankful for the beautiful weather, and happy to have the opportunity to spend a weekend in Rhode Island with one of my closest friends. What an awesome race and an incredible weekend!
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