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!

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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!