Ironman Wisconsin 2016: The DNF

This story has a happy ending. I won’t be writing about that today because it isn’t the end yet.

The in-between parts have a LOT of happy too. Some of them, however, are raw and real and dark.

My husband and I arrived at the scene of Ironman Wisconsin in Madison on Thursday, 9/8/2016. We went through athlete registration and briefing and did some shopping at the expo and Ironman Village. We had a leisurely dinner and were way ahead of schedule. The next two days were similar. Aside from our light workouts, we had one major race-required thing to accomplish each day and then had time for whatever we wanted, but mostly we spent time with our feet up in our room.

To say we were calm is an understatement. We were zen. It was freaky. Being fully prepared and ahead of the crowds was huge for our state of mind. We met up with friends, attended the athlete banquet, received cards and gifts of support.  By Saturday, bikes and bags were checked in, our daughters had arrived in Madison thanks to the care of an amazing Sherpa, and we met up with our huge Zoom Performance team for a bit. I felt complete. And, completely ready.  We even ran into and chatted with Mike Reilly in line at Starbucks. He promised to wait for me at the finish to call me in. I was on cloud nine.

The nerves kicked in more on Saturday night.  I lost the ability to answer simple questions and started to feel anxious and easily annoyed. All normal stuff for the task at hand. A good friend and training partner came by briefly with some love and well wishes in the evening. It’s just what I needed. I relaxed in an epsom salt bath and lights were out by 8:08 pm. I slept surprisingly well for 6 hours. By 2 am I was pretty much awake for the day but I stayed in bed until the 4 am alarm.

We were ahead of schedule yet again. By 5:30 am we had been into transition, pumped bike tires, placed nutrition on bikes, and had some time to kill before going to the swim start. Back to the room for a few more minutes of feet up time and an opportunity to put wetsuits on in the room. The convenience of staying in the host hotel was worth the cost, although based on the hotel service and food during our visit, I wouldn’t recommend it unless that convenience is your priority. It was for us.

Walking down to the swim start, the excitement was building. Pink and green swim caps were everywhere; excited and supportive spectators drowned out the deafening silence of nervous athletes focusing on the journey ahead. We found our team, our family, our friends, and the calm started to return. Coach told me that my Superhero “S” was going to come out today. In a way, but not the one I expected, he was right. More on that later.

2881 athletes registered to participate. Somewhere between 2500-2700 made it to the start line of the most amazing swim I have ever experienced. Wisconsin is one of the few IMs on the circuit that still does a mass start. That is exactly what it sounds like. All 2700 (give or take) athletes filter slowly into the water and find a position then tread water or stand, depending on location, and wait.

At 7 am, Mike Reilly boomed into the microphone in his iconic voice, “Have the best day of your lives!” and the cannon sounded. We were off. Like freshly fed Koi in a zoo pond, we were off. It was violent, it was fierce, it was a washing machine, it was glorious. I planned to stay further away from the most violent part of the crowd, but cut my line too sharp or got pushed in, I don’t know which for sure. I know this probably slowed my time in the beginning at least, but I’m not disappointed it happened. It was a blast, and I was able to find my rhythm in spite of it. I felt confident and knew I could handle it. I took in plenty of water that initial 800 meters to the first turn, but coughed it out and breathed on, every three to five strokes, keeping sighting to a  minimum, catching drafts when I could, fighting my way through bodies, claiming my space and moving forward in the pack. At the first turn buoy I almost forgot to engage in the traditional “MOO-ing”, but I did remember and got in a little “moo” of my own.

On the long, straight back half of the course, I hit every sight buoy faster than I expected. Things happened out there. Things like literally being grabbed on the shoulder by a woman twice my size and being pushed down, as if she was just trying to crawl over people instead of swimming. I don’t know, maybe she actually wanted to drown me, who knows. I thrashed at her, let out a yell and moved on. Things like my right goggle being kicked against my face so hard I couldn’t open that eye. I swam like that for awhile, then it got annoying. I flipped over on my back, adjusted it and kept going. I found my true happy place about a mile or so in. The crowd had spread out a bit, I was warmed up, and I had a little more space but was still close enough to find some good wakes to draft. I believe I literally smiled while I swam. When I reached the last turn buoy I was sad it was close to over. The time FLEW. I know a lot of people who had times close to mine thought they were horrible and slow, but I was proud of what I did for me, and that’s that.

When I made it past the swim exit and wetsuit strippers and started running up the helix (a tall, cylindrical, winding parking ramp entrance leading into the changing area) I felt like I could fly. I was grinning ear to ear. I had previously worried about running up this area in bare feet. Pfft. What feet? The spectators were so thickly lining the helix you couldn’t see past them. With cheers of dauntless support from complete strangers and seeing my friends and kids along the way, the energy was so strong I made myself take it down to a slow trot and enjoyed the moment. I looked around, I took it in and thanked people. I do not regret one second of it.

Past the first transition (I knew that part well–I volunteered there last year so it was really cool being on the athlete side and knowing how hard those volunteers were working for us) and running for the bike racks, I screamed “1128!” over and over again as I ran toward my rack and a volunteer brought my bike to the end of my row. THAT was a special thing. In shorter distances you’re on your own for this part. No way was I losing my bike location this time, even in the massive number of bike racks.

I mounted and was off. One of my favorite memories early on the bike is a nod to my last training ride. My coach had taken the time to ride with me and help me gain confidence with my handling skills–my absolute weakest area. We rode through several tunnels that day, which really mess with my vision, and he had me singing “Daylight come and me wan go home!” to relax me. The early part of the Madison bike took a trail in the city and went through one short tunnel. What did I do? Oh yeah, that song got belted out, and I didn’t care who heard me. A lot did!

Getting out of town, I followed my plan. Steady, my pace, ride safely and let the faster cyclists get past. The way people were riding I admit I ended up getting a bit bossy out there. I noticed and experienced several people getting impatient with the crowds and either pass or try to pass on the right (where I already was riding) in way too small of a space. When I heard wheels coming I just started yelling, “Pass on on the left please!” I deterred a more than a few potential rule breakers, and probably pissed off a few others.

As it goes with Ironman, you never know what you’re gonna get. In nearly every case, not everything goes to plan. I had no room for error when it came to stops. Due to some nagging health issues that started in late February after I was well into training and fully committed to this special kind of crazy, my neurological system just doesn’t currently allow for the speed I would like to have on the bike no matter how strong my legs may be. At mile 12, I stopped to help a group involved in a bad accident. STOP. At a mile 40, I reached a particularly steep hill that I had climbed in training and had no intention of walking on race day. Many made walking that hill part of their race plan, clogging the road on the right. No problem, I’ll go around. But then, spectator cars (on a supposedly closed road–grrrr, thanks for the support but DON’T do that ) happened to be lining the left side of the road when I arrived, making it practically impassable. I had to hop off and walk. STOP.

Halfway point…YES…made the 1:30 cutoff with plenty of time to spare, whew. Special needs shortly thereafter was a planned stop, but still a stop that I no longer had time for. My nutrition was in that bag so it was non-negotiable. The clock was ticking and the wind was picking up. The combination of wind and downhills on my personal neurology at this point of my life is tricky to say the least. My speed was slowing. I couldn’t say at which mile, but a teammate came up beside me at one point when I was doing a little mid-bike vomiting (it happens) and gave me some words of encouragement. I am so thankful she showed up when she did.

At this point I could no longer safely reach for my bottles of INFINIT to refill my aero bottle without stopping. STOP. STOP. At mile 80-ish, when I stopped to refill, my balance was so jacked up that I tipped over when I went to re-mount. I lost my solid foods all over the road and had to pick them up. An athlete kindly stopped to help me. Yes, there were still a few behind me! I looked at the time and said, “there’s no way I’m going to make it by 5:30, I don’t know what to do”. He said, “Train harder next year, that’s what I’m going to do”. Little did he know the fire that would light in me. The next 10 miles I spent riding in anger: “I did train this year!  I trained my ass off and a lot of miracle-working people did everything in their power to get me here!” 

At mile 90, I hit the last really significant hill of the day. The first time around it was lined with people, Tour de France style. By this time, people were sparse and the race sheriff was slowly riding my tail in his car,  just waiting for me to stop. Any time now…tick-tock. I did not expect to see some of my support crew at the bottom of that hill. The verbal lashing that ensued was a barrage of words that are a complete blur. What I know is those were the most loving f-bombs to ever come my direction. I truly had no intention of quitting, but again I was saying, “I don’t know what to do.”  I was not thinking clearly but still knew time was running out.

Ultimately, the words that really set my mind in the right place again were “Your girls are still up there at the top. Now go show them what their mom is made of”…and then something about being made of nails and maybe rocks…I’m not sure.  I had no idea they were still out there on the bike course, waiting. For the last 8+ hours. I assumed they were in downtown Madison watching the run at this point. I was moved beyond belief.  By the time I reached the girls I was moving as fast as I could and screamed, “I love you and I’m not getting off this bike till they make me!”

This, friends, was when I think the Superhero “S” came out.  I knew that unless a tornado carried me back I wasn’t making the cutoff time, but I was going to get as far as I could and see. Just see. There was no quitting, no stopping to “not put myself through it”. This was my IRONMAN day. I was seeing it through for every minute I was allowed. I blew through the last aid station to cheers from volunteers like I have only heard at the midnight finish line. I knew that barring a miracle my day would be done soon but I still had plenty of legs left and with no highly technical moves ahead I was gunning it. I was giving it all I had with no realistic hope of finishing in sight. For me, this was the biggest mental victory of the day.

And then, at mile 101-ish, when I dropped my chain with less than 20 minutes till cutoff I had to get off the bike to fix it. The race sheriff was there again but this time got out of his car. When he politely cajoled me into agreeing that it was over, I was still working on fixing my chain. He helped me. He called the sag wagon and sat me down with a couple of volunteers who had a chair on the side of the road. (Seriously, where did these volunteers come from out of nowhere? Madison is amazing.)

When the sag wagons (two pickups, full of people and bikes) arrived and showed me to a truck, one very nice man from Race Day Events said, “I’m sorry, but I have to take your timing chip”. Well, isn’t that just a punch in the gut. Believe it or not, the tears didn’t really start until then. Before he bent down to remove it from my ankle, he spoke words that indicated he has done this job before: “Can I give you a hug first?” I bawled like a baby on his shoulder before he took my chip. This can’t be happening. I was SO close. I have plenty of legs left to run. I WANT to run. I would finish. I would finish well before midnight! I just ran out of time!

Thinking back, I have to laugh at my little silent denial/protest/whatever it was. I sat on the side of the road for quite some time, then got in the truck, and still hadn’t removed or even unclipped my helmet. USA Triathlon rules state that if you even touch your bike with an unclipped helmet that’s a DQ. It’s burned in my brain to not touch my helmet until the bike is racked. This was serious denial.

From here, the rest of the day took another, completely unexpected turn. Sitting in the back of the sag wagon with me was an accomplished Ironman athlete who had a bad day on the bike course. He had already been going through his own personal hell. We commiserated, shared stories, and I told him that today, because of this,  I would finally be able to watch my husband finish a race. We generally race the same races, and he is faster.

My new friend had been raising money for the Ironman Foundation this year. As part of that, he was gifted a medaling package. His girlfriend was to be at the finish line waiting to place the medal around his neck. As that wouldn’t be happening now, he chose to give this massive gift to us. Arrangements were made and just like that I had a new focus for the day. Find Eric’s location on the run course and be at the right place at the right time to make this happen. Our girls even got to slip into the finish line area on the sidelines to watch up close. This. Was. Priceless. Amidst the tears and the beginning of my grief, we got the most beautiful moment we could never have planned. I watched from the ideal location as my love ran into the finish chute with Mike Reilly (even pronouncing our name right) shouting, “Eric McGarrah, You Are an Ironman!”

My feelings since have been mixed up, full of deep searing pain and grief, tears beyond measure; happiness and pride. I can’t say any of those are gone yet. Feelings of worthlessness, anger, fear of having disappointed so many who have supported me…and yet the proud wife of a man who finished his first Ironman with a great big smile, tremendous attitude, strong and healthy! I have immense gratitude for the way the day ended and feel relief and comfort in falling back into the arms of my loving family and dear friends.

There really aren’t words to describe how much a DNF hurts when you’ve put your heart, mind, soul, and body into something for this long and sacrificed so much to get there. From what I’ve learned in speaking with others, it doesn’t matter if it’s your first or your 5th, the pain is real and deep.

Now it’s time to keep putting one foot in front of the other, deal with the grief, and reconnect with things and people that I miss. Will I try it again someday? If you have ever met me, you already know the answer.

 

 

 

 

Four Days Out

Four days. In four days I will toe the line at Ironman Wisconsin. I will tread out to the swim start, the cannon will sound, and my 140.6 mile journey will start. I will swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 technical, hilly miles, and run 26.2 miles before midnight.

Current mood? Scattered mess. Don’t get me wrong; I’m fully prepared, packed, all appointments completed, out of office reply is humming, and I’m ready to load the car and drive to Madison tomorrow. But I’m a flibbertigibbet. One minute I’m crying for no reason–and lots of reasons–the next I think I desperately need to purchase and hang long overdue bathroom curtains tonight. It is time to sit, collect my thoughts, center, and calm down. And BREATHE.

Knowing I’m saying goodbye to my kids tonight and won’t see them until Saturday night for pre-race dinner has hit me with a big fat dose of reality. I’m hugging them like there’s no tomorrow and thanking them profusely for their support and love this past year. Teen/pre-teen girls could have been horrible about all this, but they are not horrible girls. They are great, and they have been beyond accommodating with our training schedule and the odd meals that sometimes end up being served. I can’t imagine doing this without them.

While we are on the subject of family, can we just talk about how incredible it has been to go on this journey with my husband? While our training plan and pace is not identical, so we don’t exactly train “together” all the time, at least we can discuss every exquisite/intricate detail of our pace, watts, and SWOLF (What the heck is “SWOLF”, you say? Read more here.) after workouts and have the other on the edge of our seats hungry for more details. We understand each other, and we cut each other slack when we know it’s needed…because we have been there or are there currently as well. Aside from the occasional couch night because one of us is too sore to sleep (ahem, usually me), this has brought us closer as we have seen each other in the heights and depths that training brings. That said, I am really looking forward to reconnecting in other ways post-Ironman (wait, what is POST-Ironman???) and remembering what other things interest us.

Am I ready? That is the question on repeat. I don’t know; I’ve never done this before. Here are the facts. Since November 1, 2015, my data shows me the following:

I swam 100 miles.

I biked 2103 miles.

I ran 562 miles.

I have torched 156,018 active calories.

Honestly, I was surprised at these numbers. It felt like more. Add in prep time, drive time, recovery time, and cooking/eating for refueling, and you’ve at least tripled the hours involved. I simply took one day of training at a time, and somehow I’m told it will all come together.

My Coach, Physical Therapist, Occupational Therapist, Massage Therapist (“The Miracle Worker”), Chiropractor, Acupuncturist, and M.D. have all signed off that I am physically ready for the final 140.6 miles of the journey. Yes, that’s a lot of people, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg for the village it takes to make this happen.

So, looking at the facts, my answer has to be YES, I am ready. My body feels good. Taper has done its job of repair and recovery. I am filled with emotion and am eager to arrive in Madison and feel the buzzing energy of a city filled with athletes, volunteers, and support crews.

I am excited, anxious, nervous, confident, pensive, terrified, grateful, tearful. On Sunday, I’m leaving it all on the course, and will cross this glorious, beautiful finish line:

imfinish.jpg

 

 

Bigger Than Me

A great many of the countless hours I have spent this past year alone with my thoughts during swim/bike/run are spent writing in my head. The words rarely make it to paper or screen because, let’s face it, I’m probably either sleeping or nodding off in my downtime.

As I approach Ironman Wisconsin in about a month (gulp), my first 140.6 mile journey, I have given more and more thought to my “why”, which I have written about before, but I have more clarity now. The early morning alarms, the grind of the two-a-day workouts, the ten months of saying “no” to friends, the cold, the snow, the rain, the heat, the hills (seriously–the HILLS), all make you question yourself, your decisions, your abilities, and your sanity over and over and over again.

I have realized my why is pretty broad and difficult to pinpoint. There are a hundred very personal reasons I’m traveling this road to Ironman, not the least of which is my daughters and the example I want to set for them, the reaching for something bigger than what you really believe you can do and following through. But as I consider all these reasons, there are two that stand out above and beyond the rest, and they are bigger than me. Then it occurred to me: if I don’t talk about these reasons they aren’t going to help or inspire anyone, and that’s completely missing the point.

I am going to now speak to two very specific groups of people, but even if you don’t fit into these groups, maybe you can see yourself relating somehow.

  1. Former Jehovah’s Witnesses or those looking to get OUT.  I am doing this for you. I am doing this to prove that in spite of what we were told, “bodily training” is beneficial for a LOT! They told you if you left you would be a degenerate, that it would destroy your life (and they aren’t going to talk to you ever again just to make the point), that you would become a lowlife of society and that basically you are already dead. When I race on 9/11/2016, I will be respectfully calling bullshit on behalf of us all.
  2. Those suffering or recovering from an eating disorder. I know your pain. I have felt your pain. I spent a good portion of my 20’s lying in bed wasting away, and the rest of them and much of my 30’s I spent getting fat because after three rounds of hospitalization I was so afraid of being judged or scolded for not eating that I just ate anything to avoid that. My message to you is: be strong, not skinny. Be afraid and do it anyway. Let go, don’t control. Contrary to what I once believed about training to this level, Ironman is teaching me to be patient with my body and accept the changes that happen. Accept my thicker body; it is strong. Accept the hard days; they build my mind. So I say to you, find joy in the good days and celebrate.  Listen to and respect your body. Hear it when it asks for nutrition, honor it. Honor it when it says stop eating too. Honor it when it asks for rest. Find something to love about yourself. Then find another thing. I’m doing this to show you that you can fight this and be bigger than the hold it has on you.

On race day anything can happen in those 140.6 miles, up to 17 hours, and so much of it is out of my control. So, I focus on the fact that this journey has been absolutely life-changing. There’s no stopping now.

far

 

Ironman 70.3 Racine: My First Half Ironman and More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About It

This is the story of my first Ironman 70.3  (Half Ironman). Race distance:  1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run.

Actually, this is about 25% of the story.  There is no way to fully verbalize in a blog all the agony and ecstasy of everything leading up to this experience.

In the 18 months preceding this race, I had two planned surgeries, then a third emergency surgery to repair an artery that burst 11 days after the second surgery; a rare but possible complication.  I lost nearly two liters of blood in that incident, couldn’t walk on my own for, I’m guessing 7 days, but I’m not really sure.  It’s all fuzzy. I was totally out of training for over two months then slowly came back.  A few months later I managed to end up with rhabdomyolysis.  After I recovered I signed up for this race.  A few months after that recovery, I started limping. A lot.  An MRI revealed a stress fracture in my left foot cuboid bone.

Geez, I sound like a maniac when I write that.  Maybe I am.  But really, I’m trying to explain so it’s understood that this race was truly my “fight song”.  And fight I did.  It was also my declaration to myself and to the universe that I hereby refuse further injuries, so don’t even think about it!

July 15-16, 2015

Packing.  I really thought this would be a more stressful project than it was, but evidently I’ve done enough racing now that I don’t have much to say about it.  The Definitive Ironman Packing List was hugely helpful and saved me ridiculous amounts of time.  I highly recommend it.

July 17, 2015  (Friday–Two Days Pre-Race)

My husband and I loaded our bags and bikes and set on the road from Waukee, IA to Racine, WI.  We hit the road at 7:30 am with our youngest daughter and took a detour to drop her off at her grandparents’ house in Illinois. Aside from checking to make sure our bikes were secure on the rack, oh–I don’t know–1042 times, it was uneventful. We wore our compression leg sleeves proudly into every gas station along the way.  (I think this embarrassed “the tween”–but she refrained from saying too much and was supportive.) There were a lot of gas stations. After all, we were hydrating.

Hotel arrival at Harbourwalk Hotel Racine was somewhere around 4 pm Friday. This place is less than a mile from the race venue, so if you can get a room there, it is ideal.  We went to packet pickup and visited Ironman Village on Friday evening rather than Saturday, which was probably my favorite decision of the entire weekend.  We got through the process without a huge crowd, went to the athlete briefing with no stress, and were able be deer-in-headlights-newbies with fewer witnesses.  And I’m sure I wouldn’t have walked out with the ridiculous bargains that I did had we waited until Saturday.  The clearance rack surely would have been picked through by then.  And lord knows this girl loves a hot $5 t-shirt!

We had an especially great dinner that night.  Per Coach’s orders, this was carb night.  We went to Mike and Angelo’s with a super fun and supportive group of athletes, spouses, and sherpas. Food was good and reasonably priced.  Good choice if you head up there to race. Some of our dinner companions we had met and trained with previously, some are new friends, but I’m just glad to have shared pasta night with them all!

I was winding down by 9 pm and asleep before 10 pm.  This was the night for sleep.

July 18, 2015 (Saturday–One Day Pre-Race)

To the end of getting extra sleep Friday night, this was a no-alarm morning.  I still woke up at 6 am. Of course.  Totally ok with how that worked out, because my very good friend and training partner for the last few months was racing a different race back home in Iowa that day, and it killed me not to be there for her, so the least I could do is be awake in time to wish her well.  I did, however, manage to go back to sleep for an hour or so after that.

A short swim-bike-run workout on the race course was on the plan for Saturday.  Lake Michigan is COLD.  Even in a wetsuit, it was shocking.  Day before race it was 64 degrees, and those who have swam this course before will tell you–that was a very warm day in that water.  Be prepared.

There’s a hill right out of T1 on the bike, so you’ve got to be in granny gear to deal with that effectively.  We practiced riding that, rode a few miles of the course and left our bikes in that easy gear at bike check-in.  Seriously folks–there were big dudes falling over in front of me on race day on this hill. Don’t forget to get in your small chain before you even start.

Ran a bit, felt good, stopped, saving it for race day.

This course is gorgeous:

racinecourse

At bike check-in, we were lucky enough to have a friend and fellow athlete offer us straps for our bikes to tie them down.  There was a storm rolling in.  We got that done and got back to the hotel just before the tornado sirens started.  Thankfully, it was a lot of rain and wind but the tornadoes didn’t hit Racine directly.  Can’t even imagine the bike carnage there would have been.

Saturday late afternoon/night was feet up, compression socks, movies, reading, a gentle dinner of chicken and vegetables, hydrating, (yes, a glass of wine too–don’t change anything on race day; it’s the rule!) and early to bed.

July 19, 2015–(SUNDAY–RACE DAY!)

I slept well, and didn’t have to wake up until 5 am because of the close proximity of our hotel.  I will always try to repeat that scenario!

I had my usual race/training day breakfast (quinoa/steel cut oats combo mixed with nut butter and fruit) that I had brought with me.  Don’t screw with your nutrition on race day.  Period.

All set up in transition by 6:15 and ready for the mile walk down to the swim start.  Take throw away flip flops for that, by the way.  Glad I was told to do that.  I drank a bottle of my usual electrolyte supplement (EFS) between transition setup and swim warmup.

Here I am before the race.  Don’t look nervous, do I???

Racine Pre-Race

Swim:

The water temperature dropped from the storm and was 60 degrees race morning.  I used a trick from my coach and slathered Vaseline all over my face and tops of hands and feet to stay warmer.  I also and two swim caps–one for cold water, and then my race cap over it.  It was very cold, but after about 500 yards I was used to it.  The swim felt really good.  The water is clear and I moved along just fine.  Not record setting, but I met my goal.  I was staying on course really well until the final turn and somehow I think the current pushed me out after the turn buoy.  Not sure how much I added, but anyway, grrrrrr.  Unnecessary. I stood up a little too early because my hand hit sand but I was still farther out than I realized. Still within my goal time, but there was opportunity to cut some time for sure.

T1:

Holy long run from swim exit up to transition! I didn’t know there were wetsuit strippers at a 70.3, but there are!  I didn’t exactly need them; I could have gotten the thing off myself, but I was caught up in the experience and let the nice volunteer help me. I didn’t rush, just wanted to have a good start on the bike and not forget anything.

Bike:

Granny gear was successful on the hill out of T1!  Thanks, Coach.

My stomach cramped almost immediately on the bike and lasted for 30 miles.  I still don’t know why, but this was the key to how difficult the rest of the day was.  I didn’t get enough water or nutrition in on the bike by any stretch of the imagination, so by the time I got to the run it was just too late.

Seven miles in my bike chain fell off so I had to pull over.  I think I figured out why that happened—I need to be more careful about how I go from small to large chain.  Lesson learned quickly and didn’t make the same mistake the rest of the bike.  Cost me some time though, so I started pushing to make up for it.

Ironman promotes this as a flat course.  I am here to tell you it is NOT flat.  I’m sure some of that is perspective, and it may be flat compared to other courses, but from where I sat, it’s hilly.    And wow—those rough roads!  I was warned about those, but no amount of warning could have prepared me for the pounding that bike route gives you.  There was some construction going on too which made for an interesting narrow stretch of the course.  I started getting pretty verbally aggressive with the rule-breakers.  Yelling at people passing on the right, or in groups, or being way too close. Don’t scare me on my bike!

Somewhere around mile 30, I heard a loud “I looooove myyyy wiiiiiiiife!” flying past me.  Eric had a later swim start than I did, and he was catching me here.  That. Was. Amazing.  I needed it about then.

I was three miles from the finish and I felt my seat give way, tipping downward.  It kept getting looser and looser so I finally pulled over (AGAIN!) to be sure it wasn’t going to completely fall off.  It didn’t seem like it would, so the last three miles were just a slow balancing act to get back.  It was like riding a see-saw on my bike.  Interesting, but I made it in.  Did I mention the roads are ROUGH???  Take your lube, folks.  Your girl/boy parts will thank you.

T2:

Felt really good about this, and fast, but my official time says over 8 minutes to transition.  Guessing I didn’t know the right place to hit the button on my watch.  I didn’t see timing mats like I am used to.  The only issue was racking my bike with the loose seat but I managed that pretty quickly and moved right out of there.

Run:

Just brutal, brutal, brutal.  I couldn’t catch up on hydration and nutrition.  There were good moments where I found my pace but it was difficult to maintain for long.  The really good news is my body held up structurally. By Mile 8 I had to stop at the porta potty, but wished there had been one available sooner.  By Mile 9 I had a little internal celebration because that was the farthest I had ever run–EVER EVER!  And in the past several months since before the stress fracture in March, I had not run more than 5 miles. Not even once.  It had been aqua running and bike intervals to get ready.

Miles 6-10 were probably the “best” for me if there was a best.  At mile 10 I had 40 minutes left to make my personal “secret” 7:30 goal.  On a normal day, no problem.  On that day, I knew it was going to be close.  I tried to maintain a steady 12-13 min pace but couldn’t quite get there.  My feet were absolutely screaming at me with every single step and I had to dig about as deep as I ever have for anything.  My last mile was my fastest of the entire 13.1, but I chose to enjoy the finish line and miss my goal by two minutes rather than push harder and vomit in the finish chute.  I preferred to delay the vomiting to when the cameras weren’t rolling!

I hate this picture; I really really do.  But I’m growing to appreciate it.  The emotion it captures is as real as it gets. My body was heavy, I was in pain, and the finish line was just steps in front of me.

runhater

Finish:

A sweet little girl put a medal around my neck, and an adult woman gave me my finisher’s hat.  I hugged her and bawled on her shoulder like a baby.  She was very sweet.  Never met the woman!  It was incredible.  Found my people, hugged and cried more and puked on the grass.  Glorious.

I love this man, who by the way crushed the goal for what was also his first half iron distance and finished in 6:15!  Photo credit:  Doug Staudt.  Great shot!

racinehug

Recovery:

I nibbled on food, but couldn’t keep down my margarita or dinner—booo!  My visions of celebration that night were foiled. I had some really disgusting and scary things happen to my body Sunday night that I’m not even going to talk about, but I did research and found out they are normal-ish for my circumstances.  My gut was just not right on any level.

But one must still suck it up for a Bite-The-Medal-Selfie.

medalbite

I finally got a good meal in me by Monday noon on the long drive home.  Tuesday I tried to go to work and again started vomiting before I got into my office.  I went home, drank a lot of water and Nuun, and slept for 4 hours straight in the middle of the day.

By Wednesday I felt pretty normal and did a recovery open water swim that night.

I haven’t done much as far as training for the last two weeks.  I’ve stayed active but nothing on a schedule as I recovered.  I’ll be getting ready for my end of season Olympic distance over the next 4 weeks.

In September, I, along with my husband and a slew of local athletes and friends, will be volunteering at Ironman Wisconsin (full Iron distance). The day after, I plan to sign up to race Ironman Wisconsin 2016.  Gulp.

Keep fighting!

Finding My “Why”

When you participate in endurance sports (I struggle to say I’m an athlete), there are questions and comments that present from people who do other sports, or no sports at all. Most often, things like, ‘Why would you put yourself through that?’, or, ‘I can do anything for 10 minutes, but for that long…no way’.

For the last few years I haven’t questioned that I have a deep-seated desire to do triathlon, on whatever level works for me, but I have had trouble articulating my responses to those questions and comments. I just KNEW, in my gut. Maybe I thought the answer is that I’m a bit crazy. And the reality is, maybe I am. Maybe we all are. But as I reflect on the past 16 months of getting knocked down and getting back up, it’s all starting to make sense.

Since January 2014, I’ve had two surgeries, the latter of which resulted in a burst artery and a third emergency surgery.  I couldn’t walk on my own for several days due to blood loss. I’ve gotten through rhabdomyolisis. And now I’m recovering from a stress fracture in my foot.  Did I mention my first Half Ironman is Racine 70.3 in July?

My training this season was progressing along quite nicely prior to the stress fracture, aside from one minor (major) detail. I couldn’t get my head on board. Motivation?  What’s that?  Why am I doing this again?  BAM–stress fracture–you’re down.

As soon as I got into the very fashionable boot, two weeks ago, something started to stir in me. Amidst words of ‘Are you ready to quit now?’,  ‘That’s why I don’t work out’, and ‘You need to take it easy’, a fire started to build.

BOOT

I don’t do this so my body looks a certain way. If I wanted to be skinny, I know how.  I’m in my 19th year of recovery from anorexia/bulimia (another blog for another day–or a book). I don’t do this for a beach body, although I would really like to have one. I don’t do this to win; my feet are firmly planted in reality on that one. And then I realized, I do this to overcome. I’m never stronger than when I either have no choice but to move forward or to give the ultimate answer to all the people and things in my life that ever told me “No”, my body included.

The environment in which I was raised was an overly restrictive, religious extremist society and there were more “no” responses than I can count, in every way.  (That could be even another book, but others have written similar stories). So, when I hear “you can’t do that”, all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I fight like a cat about to get a bath.

I sincerely hope I can learn to pull those demon feelings out from within me on command without perpetual injuries to arouse them, but in any case, at least for today, I can see the finish line in front of me. I want to overcome.

Everyone who is “crazy” enough to begin down the path of endurance sports has their “why”. If you don’t know what yours is, figure it out. And in the meantime, feel free to borrow mine if you need it.

CRAZY

My Run-in With Rhabdo

Rhabdomyolysis.  I had never heard this word in my life until December 14, 2014.  Those who follow football may have heard about the group of Iowa Hawkeyes who went to the hospital with it a few years back after some intense conditioning work. Thanks to Google and an online group of fellow triathletes prodding me to get treatment, I was educated in time.  Rhabdo does not have to be dangerous as long as it is treated quickly, but it can be extremely dangerous if ignored for too long.  If you are an endurance athlete of any skill level or if you are beginning a training program as many are with the arrival of the New Year, listen up.  While rare, this can and does happen to regular people, and you need to know what to do if you see the signs.

Thursday, December 11, 2014:

Group workout night.  Offseason circuit training for triathletes.  The workout was called the Dirty Dozen, and it was intense, as it was intended to be, and I loved every minute of hating it.  It was a good size group, perhaps 20 people of multiple skill levels, and while I’m at best a below average triathlete, I was keeping up.  Most of the exercises were very familiar to my body.  The anomaly was the pull-ups.  Four sets of 12 to be exact.  Since I’ve never completed a pull-up in my life to this point, these were assisted. And it was hard.  Insanely hard.  But again, that’s what I signed up for.  I was, I believe, hydrated and fueled appropriately for a one-hour workout.

At no point during the workout did I feel any “bad pain”.  I know that if this body is going to hold itself together to reach my ultimate half and full Ironman goals, I have to listen to it.  It’s a skill I’ve learned the hard way at times, and continue to develop.

I left the gym feeling something beyond the customary, satisfying kind of physical drain.  My head was cloudy and I had trouble expressing my thoughts to my husband who was thankfully driving.  I refueled as quickly as possible, but felt nauseous.  At the time, this seemed plausibly “OK”.  I had worked hard.

Later that night I found my arms so sore I could barely hold my cell phone comfortably. Even something that small felt heavy.  Nothing a good night’s sleep couldn’t fix, I thought.

Friday, December 12, 2014:

I woke feeling sore all over with a particular concentration on my arms, but again I didn’t think it was out of line all things considered.  My husband was sore, as were my other fellow triathletes.  At work that day I moved a little slowly.  My evening workout was an easy recovery swim.

Saturday, December 13, 2014:

7am spin class.  Walking into the Y, my husband bumped into my left arm slightly, which caused an over-the-top “OUCH!” out of me.  I spent spin class in my aero bars, which is typical.  But the reason I chose that position this time was that my arms were too tired to hold me upright.  I chose to skip the second hour of our workout.  Strength training was not in the cards for me that day.

Throughout the day, my arms felt tighter and tighter.  I wasn’t quite sure, but I thought they looked big, almost like I had suddenly gained weight.  I could not fully extend them.  I was still dismissing this as normal post-workout soreness but hadn’t experienced any swelling like this before.

Sunday, December 14, 2014:

Christmas shopping day with my daughters.  Throughout the day, I did not feel pain but the tightness and heaviness in my arms got worse and worse.  Carrying bags from the mall felt like carrying weights, and I sensed my shirt was getting tighter.  By the time we got home in the evening, I was exhausted.  I noticed the size of my arms through my long-sleeved shirt when I looked in the mirror, and I managed to peel the shirt off to find my arms nearly 1.5 times their normal size.

Finally, I believed something was wrong.  A quick internet search immediately returned information about Rhabdo.  You can read more about it here http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000473.htm or any number of other places.  It is often associated with CrossFit, which is not my sport of choice, so I spent about two hours sitting at home in denial, promising myself I would see the doctor the next morning.  My urine was clear and never got to the dark color mentioned online, so I thought this surely couldn’t be what was going on.

As the evening wore on, my arms and hands grew larger and I started to feel tingling in my hands. It was time to take this very seriously based on what I was reading. Compartment syndrome is a risk which can require surgery, and kidney damage or failure is possible. I was not prepared to for Santa to bring me a dialysis machine.  Off to the ER I went.

After a few hours in the ER, I still felt good enough to send a reassuring photo to the hubby and kids:

photo 1

The diagnosis was Acute Exertional Rhabdomyolysis.  During Thursday’s workout, presumably during the pull-ups, I had torn my muscles to such a degree that dangerously high levels of proteins were released into my system.  When those proteins travel through to your kidneys, that is what can cause major problems.  When I arrived at the hospital, my Creatine Kinase (CK) level was 44,000. Normal is somewhere between 100-200.  My kidney function was totally normal and I truly felt fine overall.  It was hard to believe I was being admitted, but I needed constant IV fluids to protect my kidneys and flush my system out.

This is what my arm looked like on the morning after I was admitted:

photo 2

And my normally very small hand the second day in the hospital (think Wreck-It-Ralph):

photo

I really want to emphasize my overall health was excellent through this entire process.  I felt fine and just spent three days of boredom in the hospital. My body is generally very healthy and it knew how to fight off further damage, but most of all I got treatment as quickly as I understood something was really wrong.  Admittedly, I almost waited longer.  I am grateful I listened to the internal nudge that told me not to wait. You may not be able to prevent something like this from happening to you–I don’t believe I would have done anything differently if I had to do it over–but you absolutely can prevent long-term damage if you take it seriously and get help as soon as you realize something is wrong.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014:

CK level was down to 14,000 and I was allowed to go home and continue to hydrate orally to continue the flush.

Four days later, a retest showed my CK count was down to 449, and it normalized fully not long thereafter. Immediately after I got home from the hospital and then again the second week after hospitalization I had some really extreme headaches for about three days.  A massage helped, but I also needed to replace the electrolytes I had been flushing out with the massive amounts of water I was drinking.

A follow up with my family doctor uncovered that the antibiotic Cipro may have made me more susceptible to injury.  I was taking Cipro at the time of the workout to treat a urinary tract infection.  It is a quinolone and can have negative effects on tendons and muscles.  I had no idea this was the case at the time, of course.  I was released to ease back into training last Monday, December 29.  It will be awhile before my arms are ready for work.  My left arm still feels achy and tires easily, so it needs more time.

My ultimate goals haven’t been changed by this experience, but I certainly will change my approach to strength training, and I’m not sure I ever need to do a pull-up again!  I can still cross that IM finish without them.

Safe, Happy Training to you all in the New Year!