Blogs tagged with "determination"

Swimming is the most "mental" sport I know. Distance swimming even more so. And I've been struggling to wrap my mind around the really long training sessions I've planned in the next few months (not to mention the swim events). After reading a little article on SwimSwam about the lessons we learn from our swim coaches, I began thinking about all the things I've learned, not only from my swim coach, but from swimming itself.

Swimming is the great teacher. In the pool. With teammates. And especially in open water - where we are always only one breath away from drowning.

I now believe most of my mental control in long distance events like marathons and Ironman races can be traced back to my swimming roots. And having been a competitive swimmer before anything else is likely what influenced me to (prefer to) do most of my long training sessions alone. For many, many years, people have asked me how and why I do it alone: "How do you handle 6-7 hours on the bike all by yourself every weekend?" I have no idea. I set my mind to it, and do it. After all, running alone had always been therapy. It cleared my mind. It made me less anxious. When I started doing longer triathlons, it never occurred to me to subject people I knew to MY long rides (even people who DO long rides). OK, so I'm an introvert. But don't get me wrong. I've truly enjoyed running and riding with others. It's just that I never actively seek out company. And it never bothered me to be alone hammering away for all that time.

How did I get this way? 

Swimming. Every day. Swimming twice a day three times a week. At times, swimming more than ten-thousand yards a day. Swimmers remain swimmers because they don't flinch when the coach says we're doing 10x1000s for a single workout. Surviving those workouts in college made me mentally tougher than that week I had four final exams in two days.

From the moment I walked onto the swim team at 14 years old in high school, never having been coached, never having experienced a single swim workout in my life, everything in the pool was a progressively harder thing to do. After every workout of my freshman year I vowed I would quit. But I didn't. And by sophomore year, I was swimming in Lane 1. With the fast kids. And I had great friends in my teammates. But, unless you're at a swim meet, swimming is not a social sport. You get a few moments to commune (or commiserate) with your lane-mates before the next interval. There's no time to talk, or laugh, or enjoy the scenery (what little of it there is on a pool deck).

It's all mental. Some people compare its boredom to treadmill running.

I remember my first 1650. In practice. I was terrified. I didn't think I could swim that long without stopping. One of the swimmers on the boys team told me something I would never forget. He told me to detach my brain from my body. To imagine I was a machine. And that's what I did. And, whoa! It worked. No pain. Three years later, I would be swimming the 1650 in competition. And loving it. It WAS all mental.

But swimming long distances is also a very, very lonely thing. It's quiet. Like I said earlier, you can't have conversations. You can't even smile if you're enjoying yourself. (To be fair, I HAVE smiled "inside.") Losing focus for a second means you'll suck down water, ram into the wall, or, if you're like me in open water, swim in circles. That's another reason swimming is a mental sport. It's not natural. We were born walkers. Runners. Bikers. Air-breathers. Surrounded by air, not needing to "think" when we breathe. When we're swimming, we're surrounded by water and have to consciously take a breath. We battle an element we're not built to thrive in. Yeah, our bodies may be 90% water, but we don't have fins and/or gills. There's a reason more people have climbed Mount Everest than swum the English Channel. Humans are not made to be swimmers.

But some of us are drawn to water. And that's where I find myself now. Trying to conquer the water again. Trying to rekindle the mind-control I once had. Once again, I'm learning to appreciate the quiet. To nurture the solitude of longer and longer sessions in the water. I'm learning to rein in my enthusiasm at the start and prepare myself mentally for spending more than three hours in the water. I KNOW I can do it. And most of the time I really enjoy it. But, like my younger days, my mind gets in the way when I think too much about it.

And the quiet in a pool is one thing. The quiet in open water... well, that's something entirely different. It can be deafening if the fear seeps in. Fear of currents. Fear of the cold. Fear of weather changes. When I go back to the lake in the next month or so, I'll face a whole new set of conditions under which to practice mind-control. And I will need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It's all mental.

I find that the best way is the old way. Each time I conquer a goal, it's one more thing to convince my mind of the next time. Just don't give up, and eventually, all the mental obstacles will give way to knowledge - knowledge that anything is possible. You just have to train for it.

Swimming is the most "mental" sport I know. Distance swimming even more so. And I've been struggling to wrap my mind around the really long training sessions I've planned in the next few months (not to mention the swim events).

First race in just a swimsuit in 29 years.

Yesterday, I took on the challenge of my first open water swim event. I had decided to start "small" by choosing the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim (GCBS), an event that was "only" 4.4 miles. It is considered one of the top 50 open water swims and is referred to as the "Boston Marathon of open water swimming." It takes place between side-by-side lanes of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge(s) and therefore would supplement my love of bridges with a view from below - even below boat-deck level - rarely experienced by anyone.

There is so much I don't know about open-water swimming strategy. And yesterday, I made mistakes and bad decisions fueled by both ignorance and inexperience. But I'm here to live and learn, and write about it.

My ignorance comes first. Damn my introvertedness! I should have read more. I should have consulted more open-water swimmers. I foolheartedly assumed "I'm a swimmer" and I knew what I was getting into. I assumed I knew how to train for distance. (I swam the mile in competition for crying out loud - who cared if it was 30 years ago?) I assumed I knew how to fuel for a two-hour excursion. (I had the experience of ten years of running marathons for crying out loud - who cared if swimming was a totally different sport?) I also assumed I knew WHEN to fuel. (Who cared if this event started five hours later than my marathons and triathlons?) And finally - I assumed I was completely comfortable in open-water chop. (I had survived some of the worst and most-freakish Ironman swims in history for crying out loud.)

Well, 30 years is a long time - and I've changed a lot since I was "a swimmer." I'm built like a runner now. My arms might be a little more muscular than they were eight months ago, but they're still waif-like compared to real swimmers (or compared to my former swimmer self). I may be a good swimmer compared to my fellow triathletes, but I have a long way to go in the distance-swimming realm. I have a lot (note: TONS) to learn about fueling for long-distance swims. After yesterday, I've confirmed what I hadn't been able to convince myself of yet: that swimming requires way more energy than the same amount of time running or biking. Therefore, I canNOT fuel (and hydrate) the same for swimming as I do for marathoning or triathlon-ing. This would be one of the proverbial lightbulbs I saw go on in the air above my head between the bridges.

On to the race report.

Here's Jim standing (waaay) in front of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge
The swim covers the entire length from left to right.

I was nervous enough beforehand that my old bugaboo - inability to sleep - came back to haunt me the night before. The saving grace was that the GCBS started around noon, so I had time to sleep in. Thankfully, I managed three to four hours of decent sleep. My husband Jim was REALLY happy about the late start. He didn't have to get up at 3:30 AM to go out and find a 24-hour coffee shop.

We were able to grab breakfast at the hotel around 8:30. I had juice, coffee, a bowl of oatmeal and a hard-boiled egg. I grabbed a banana to eat before the start.

Right before start with my trusty
Here's the start showing swimmers headed to the bridge.

The start was on the beach. We ran into the water, and swam out to the very beginning of the bridge, then turned left to go between the bridges. I swam on the left periphery of the mass of swimmers and had a relatively easy time getting to the bridge. I was actually surprised how quickly I made it out to the first pylon of the suspension bridge.

Shot of bridge showing main suspension span/shipping channel

The chop WAS quite bad. It was the worst I had ever experienced in a race - the conditions would surely have resulted in cancelation of a triathlon swim leg. I was mostly alone in the water, and I got a thrill body-surfing the whitecaps, but underneath the suspension bridge (in the shipping channel), we got pounded by surf and spray. It was a bit disorienting at times, and I'm sure it contributed to my eventual fatigue, but I remembered to stay on the left (pretty easy). I even remembered to turn over to look up at the bridges.

The view from there was nothing short of spectacular, and I was thankful I wore my wide-view goggles (the one good decision I made even though they were untested). The sheer size of the bridge pylons, cables, and uprights was magnificent to behold at such close range. It was like heaven for the nerdy engineer in me.

Here's an official shot (from GCBS Facebook page)
taken from one of the boats in 2014

Two miles was on the far side of the suspension bridge, but I never saw the aid station boat - not that I needed it. I felt compelled to check my watch shortly after that, and I misread the figures. I had gone 2.38 miles and my time was 1:22 which surprised and discouraged me. It was actually a 1:22 (/100yd) pace!! (In retrospect, had this been an Ironman swim, it would have been my fastest ever by two minutes.)

Because of the error, I decided I had way-overestimated my abilities as a swimmer and figured I just had to get through the rest of this thing. I kept an eye out for the 3-mile buoy and support boat to stop for water because I was starting to feel a little hot.

I stopped at the boat and drank a couple tiny cups of water and Gatorade, and then checked my watch again. Here's where I realized my earlier blunder (phew!) - and DID notice my pace was still well under 1:30 (my original goal pace).

After this stop, everything started to go downhill. My first mistake: I should have drank more. I was in too big of a hurry to get back to swimming.

Shortly thereafter, I started to overheat in my wetsuit. Somewhere around 3.4 miles, I started to feel a little nauseous - presumably from dehydration and swallowing salt water, although I considered sea-sickness as well. Feeling extremely hot and ill, I began to take intermittent breaks to fill my wetsuit with water to cool off. The greatest feeling was when the water surrounded my arms - it renewed me and I regained the ability to turn over my arms well for about a minute - until I had to stop and cool off again.

The heat was getting the best of me. I started started to feel dizzy and depleted. It didn't feel like muscle fatigue - it felt like complete lack of energy. I needed food or water or I wasn't going to finish. I tried to rest doing breaststroke and backstroke but nothing was easy in the waves, and I was being dragged way right. I noticed a guy near me flagging down a kayak. I took the opportunity to rest and get some water (thankfully, kayakers were carrying water). I drank almost a whole bottle of water and hung onto the kayak so long that the kayaker wanted to "take [me] to a boat" - I think my reaction was "NO! I want to finish!"

I thanked him and finally got back to swimming, very slowly, and had to flag down another kayaker shortly after. He had Gatorade - which I hoped would give me energy. At this point, I was very close to the end of the bridge, right around the corner from the finish. I was almost done - but spent.

The water got even warmer as we approached the finish line, and the water-in-my-wetsuit trick no longer provided the slightest bit of cooling. Fortunately, my energy came back (probably from the sugar), and I was able to swim hard while most people around me were standing up in the shallow water and walking.

Jim's view of the bridge from the finish line.

 

So glad to be done.

It was too little too late, but I got to the finish. As soon as I was on land, I was gripped with a horrible desperation to get out of my wetsuit. I saw Jim and begged him to help me get it off, but he wanted to wait until I was out of the crowd. I was frantic - "no, now!!" I struggled, he struggled, but it was finally off and I could breathe again. I was about to tear it off with my bare hands.

Unlike usual, I was able to drink right away while recovering post-race. Had a random few muscle cramps, the weirdest of which was my ring-finger on my left hand. It locked up, the pain was excruciating, and I couldn't bend it for several minutes. It was so bizarre. Other than that, I didn't feel bad, only tired, and after a short sit-down, I was up and about pretty quickly.

Wait.. what did I just do? All smiles afterward.

I checked my time and place - 2:09, 1:35 pace, 13/35 in my age group - and immediately went into post-race analysis mode, albeit with nice cold beer in hand.

There are many lessons to be learned going forward in this new sport. The most important thing was that the words "never again" we're not uttered. My first thoughts were more like "ok, I have a lot to figure out before my next one," "I love open-water swimming," and "this is a very well-run event with amazing volunteers."

One of my strengths is the most difficult thing about swimming: we must fight an element not part of the natural environment for a human. I love water, I love rough water, and I feel at home in it.

Everything else is a weakness that will need to be addressed and tested during training: not knowing how or how much to eat and drink before and during a swim, not knowing what temperature is my personal wetsuit-cutoff-temp, and not knowing how to pace myself in all conditions.

I've also reviewed my training and preparation for this particular event. The day before the race, Jim mentioned I had gotten "really skinny." I looked at myself in the mirror and realized he was right. I've been suffering some emotional despair lately and had lost my appetite. In two weeks, my weight dropped about four pounds, and I've skipped or abbreviated my training sessions because of low energy and mental fatigue. I suspect that also had an effect on my swim yesterday.

I'm looking forward to many more open-water swims in the future and embracing the learning process. The most encouraging news I got after the race was that conditions yesterday were some of the worst ever experienced at the GCBS, and there were a lot of people forced to abandon the race. It restored a little confidence knowing I was able to tackle it unprepared and push through to the finish.

Here's the official tracking of my Garmin GPS watch.

 

Taken in Memorial Hall while getting a quick tour of the Naval Academy
with great friends the day before the race.

I have several friends in England and find myself journeying there on a regular basis, especially around Christmastime when London streets are festive and brightly lit. This year, my husband Jim and I needed to use the airfare we banked when our trip to Sweden was canceled after my surgery. We chose to use it on a trip to the UK in December.

Besides experiencing the holiday season in London, the other reason for this trip was to see my favorite band, Turin Brakes, play in Liverpool December 4. It was also a reason to visit Liverpool - birthplace of the Beatles - a city we have never been to.
Before the trip, I had been swimming regularly. I didn't want to lose all my swimming fitness while in the UK, so I started researching potential swimming locations. During this research, I learned something I didn't know about British culture.
There are a lot of swimmers. Many of them swim year round. Outdoors.
If I really wanted to "make like a Brit" while in England, I would have to learn how to swim in cold water. How cold? All I knew was that I once saw people swimming without wetsuits in the Serpentine while I was running in Hyde Park in December. Having raced a triathlon there in 2013, I already knew the Serpentine could be frigid even in September. My research also taught me swimming in cold water required acclimating your body over time. Since proper acclimation was not possible, my swimming plans would need modification. I wanted to get a couple real workouts in, but I also wanted at least one attempt to swim in cold water. I would pack my wetsuit just in case I needed it. 
Another thing I learned was that England has recently undergone a sort-of outdoor pool-culture renaissance with the refurbishing of a large number of huge outdoor swimming pools, called "lidos." The "lido culture" was enormously popular in the 1930s, and many of the pools were updated before reopening in the 90s and 00s. Mostly popular in summer, some of the lidos are open all year. A select few of them are even heated. It would be nice - and my plan was - to experience both types while in the UK.

My goal (or hope), then, was to swim in five different locations on this trip. Before we left, I made a list of possibilities. Of course, as both a swimmer and a lover of the sport, I also included the pool built for the 2012 Summer Olympics, located in London's Olympic Park complex (after learning it is open to the public).

On to the trip.

Monday, 7 December was the first day we had no specific plans in London after arriving from Liverpool. After some thought, the location and time available made the Olympic pool the one to do first. It required no acclimation and Jim also viewed it as a tourist destination. We did laundry that afternoon and then headed to the Olympic Park.

The 2012 Olympics took place all over London, but the pool and the stadium complex were in one location, now called Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. When we arrived via the Underground, we were surrounded by shops and restaurants. Walking to the pool, we were surrounded by construction areas with billboards heralding a coming active residential and working community.

The pool building - the London Aquatics Centre - was expectedly grand - it was dark, but we tried to get some photos (below). The cost to swim was £5.20. Swimmers had their choice of the warm-up pool - 50m in length but split into 25m lap swimming - or the competition pool - 50m long by 25m wide by 3m deep, with ten lanes.
Which one would you choose?

The competition pool was quite busy, but not as busy as I expected. (The clerk at the entry DID say they get approximately 20,000 people weekly). There were five or six swimmers per lane with three occupied by a youth swim team and another reserved for a group. The first thing I noticed was the lanes were circle-swimming in the other direction - clockwise. Whoa! So it's not just driving on the left! But after closer inspection, I realized each lane was alternating direction: even lanes were swimming counter-clockwise (here, it's "anti-clockwise"), odd lanes - clockwise. There were marked "slow" lanes and unmarked (fast?) lanes. I wanted to circle-swim clockwise since I've never done that, and Jim told me to get in one of the faster lanes. So I jumped in lane 5 and started swimming. To my surprise, I was one of the faster swimmers in my lane - and in the pool. The swimmers around me were incredibly friendly and polite and slowed down or stopped to let me pass when necessary. It was one of the nicest, cleanest, and fastest pools I ever swam in.

I swam for about 40 minutes - about 2500 meters. I want to note that above the diving well at the far end of the pool were two huge digital pace clocks - not with numbers but with digital clock "hands" - it was all.. just.. so.. state of the art. When I jumped out, I told a fellow swimmer in lane 5 that I was visiting from the USA and would love to dive off the blocks just once. Another swimmer heard me and suggested I do it even thought it was against the rules - he said the lifeguards may yell at me but what's done would be done. They egged me on, so I climbed up on the block and instantly drew a whistle from the lifeguard. I pleaded my case but was denied. Thus endeth my quest for the Olympic starting blocks. (I was also told the pool has never been drained, and it's entirely possible that Michael Phelps' DNA is still floating around in it.)


Pool swim 1 accomplished. Afterwards, I was buzzing for the entire evening. Jim kept asking me what made this pool so great? I guess you'd have to be a swimmer to understand.

Here are a video and some photos that Jim took:

Check out the digital pace clocks!
In there is the warm-up pool, also 50 meters but set up for 25-meter lengths.
Check it!
Michael Phelps might have stood here too.

Diving well
London Aquatics Centre from the outside - looks wavy.
The Olympic stadium.

The next day - Tuesday, 8 December - I set my sights on a second pool. I didn't want Jim to have to spend our entire vacation on a swim search, so I found one near the day's planned events and carried my swim stuff with me. That day, we had a late-morning reservation for the Crime Museum Uncovered at the London Museum. It was a fascinating exhibit of crime history, noteworthy criminal cases, and the Metropolitan police, and by the time we got out, it was well after 2pm. We grabbed a late lunch and hurried to take photos at St. Paul's Cathedral before it got dark.

It was still early, and even though I still planned to swim, we were very close to a pub recommended to us in Liverpool - The Old Bank of England. The interior was beautiful and their menu looked amazing. But I promised myself only one pint, and then we made our way to one of the best-rated outdoor pools in London - the Oasis Sports Centre in Covent Garden. Jim could hang out and/or shop in Covent Garden while I was swimming.

The Oasis Sports Centre was about an eight-minute walk from the pub. It was cold and rainy, and the closer I got to it, the less I wanted to swim. The thing that kept me going was the knowledge that this pool was heated. The Oasis pool cost £5 to swim, and there are TWO pools - one inside and one out. Both were a good size with three lanes each.

I gathered my strength and walked outside in my swimsuit. The outdoor pool - 27.5 meters in length - was busy with four or five people per lane. I noticed swimmers were huddling down in the shallow end to stay warm. When I got in, I understood. It was warm water! I swam laps in the middle lane - they were also alternating circle-swim direction per lane. Again, I was one of the fastest people in the pool. I swam for about 40 minutes and found I was never conscious about the water or air temperature. About halfway through my swim, a new lifeguard came out and started shouting and moving people into different lanes. I got moved to the "fast lane."

Overall, the swimmers in Covent Garden were not nearly as aware of other swimmers' speeds as they were in the Olympic pool. One male swimmer with a horrible stroke refused to back off every time I tried to pass him. He would just clobber me until I could get in front of him. It seemed a bit rude, but everyone was speaking different languages in this pool, so maybe I was having a bit of a culture clash.

Getting out of the water was a shock. The air was in the 50s but it felt frigid - thank heavens for hot showers! I changed quickly, and before I left, I took a quick photo of the pool from inside the building (Note: the lifeguard yelled at me for taking this photo but no-one in it is recognizable.)

It doesn't look big, but this pool in Covent Garden is 27.5m in length.

Pool swim 2: done. My hands and feet took a while to warm up after getting chilled from the air after my swim. Jim and I ducked into several bookstores before I could feel my fingers again. I now started to question whether I really wanted to swim outdoors in an unheated pool.

Wednesday, 9 December, we planned to visit the British Library - a place Jim has been promising to take me ever since he went there a couple years ago on a business trip. Our good friends Andy and Caroline would also be arriving in London that day so we made plans to meet them at the Library at noon. Thus, I would have to swim that morning. And, it just so happens that there is a unique swimming location just up the street from the Library.

This next swim would be so much more than just a swim. It was an opportunity to be part of a living art installation. It's called King's Cross Pond Club, and it's a temporary man-made pond in the middle of a very busy construction zone. When I first googled "winter swimming in London," this place came up at the top of the list. As a location, a work of art, and a swimming destination, it didn't disappoint.

We arrived shortly after 10am, but no one had been swimming yet. I asked the ticket-taker/lifeguard if people really swim in December - he said they did. The cost was £3.50. The water temperature was 7 degrees C. I looked at Jim - he did the calculation in his head (one of his many talents): "45 degrees F." I looked at the lifeguard again: "Can I wear a wetsuit?" He said "Sure. I recommend it." He also said all I would need was a five-minute dip to get the "full effect."

(Whatever THAT meant.)

I paid my entry and went to the changing rooms. While putting my wetsuit on, I heard someone in the changing room next to me. The person was there for only a few seconds and then left. I yelled to Jim, waiting outside the door, "Is there someone else here?" Jim said "Yes, there's a guy." He changed pretty quickly, so I asked: "Is he wearing a wetsuit?" Jim said "No, he's just in swim trunks." Yikes! My first encounter with one of these crazy cold-water-loving English people. I thought about it for a second... and then remembered the lifeguard's recommendation to wear a wetsuit. I, for one, certainly wasn't going to question his expert opinion. That other guy wouldn't last more than a couple minutes.

At least five minutes had passed by the time I walked up to the pond. I even put on two swim caps to avoid head freeze (remembering how bad my face hurt when I swam in 56-degree Atlantic water). When I got up there, the crazy English guy was actually swimming - in 45-degree water without a wetsuit. He wasn't just in for a dip. He swam around and around and around... moving normally - you know, as though he WEREN'T actually submerged in icy water. Was I a complete wimp? I put my foot in. Yep, it was an ice bath. Wait, no it wasn't. It was MUCH COLDER than an ice bath. I rethought the wimp statement and climbed in.

The first thing I noticed - besides the unbelievable cold - was that this was THE cleanest, clearest water I've EVER swam in. Even now, I can still taste it. It was extraordinary. I swam around a little, not quite ready to put my head in (just a note: crazy-English-guy was not submerging his head either). I had to work up to it... and then I was able to swim for a bit. The pond is oval-shaped - 10m wide by 40m long - with plants on one side and a main swimming area. We asked a lot of questions, impressed with the lifeguard's knowledge of how it all works (more information online). The plants actually act as a filter for the pond, and there's a limit on the number of swimmers daily so that this small ecosystem continues to work. I imagine it will attract crowds next summer, and I really hope it becomes a permanent fixture. Despite the cold, this place is a treasure, and I'm unable to conjure up the words to fully describe how completely amazing it was to swim there. The water was so so SO beautiful.

The cold eventually started to get to me - my fingers and feet were not going to last long. I was determined to stay in at least as long as crazy-English-guy-without-a-wetsuit. I can say that after being in the water for a bit, my body didn't go into shock. In fact, I started to get used to it. It hurts for the first couple minutes and then everything starts to feel ok. Numb fingers and toes were the biggest issue for me and I lasted about 12 minutes - for the record, I'm saying I got out because we needed to get to the Library.

While changing, I saw another swimmer on her way to the pond - she wore swimming gloves and booties and a neoprene vest over a regular bathing suit. Now THAT was a SMART crazy-English-swimmer. Surely, I could have been in there for HOURS had it not been for my extremities. Anyway, Jim took some photos and video at King's Cross Pond Club. I highly recommend going there before it closes if you get the chance. Maybe wait until it warms up... like in February, perhaps?

The water was ridiculously clean and clear.

The plants are not only filters, they provide natural beauty to the installation.
From the observation deck.
Zoomed out to show the entire set-up
I like the striped motif on the temporary buildings too.

There it was: three swims in three days. We spent the rest of the day catching up with Andy and Caroline and visited the Natural History Museum. I didn't even TRY explaining to the bag inspector at the museum what I was doing with a wet wetsuit in my backpack.

Thursday would be difficult to get in a swim. We met Andy at the Imperial War Museum while Caroline had a work meeting, and by the time we said our goodbyes and saw them off on a train back to Exeter, both Jim and I were exhausted from being on our feet for so long for two days. We had plans to have dinner with another great friend - Sam - who lives in London (she writes a very interesting blog about London cemetery residents). Thus, my goal of five swims in five days came to an end. I wasn't too disappointed after a four pints and two pubs and great conversation with Sam.

But Friday morning, I was determined to do the one thing that would haunt me if I didn't do it: act like a proper Brit and swim outside in an unheated pool in December. I had to find the right place - something within walking distance from anywhere we needed to go that day. Friday had been set aside for shopping and the National Gallery. But my swim was first priority.

There were three places I had in mind, but only one of them would actually be feasible. The first was the Serpentine Lido in Hyde Park. It wasn't possible because I was not a member of the Serpentine Swim Club (and it took more than a morning to join). The second was the Tooting Bec Lido - the most historic (built in 1906) and second-largest (91m long by 30m wide) of the outdoor pools in the UK. Again, not possible - besides being over an hour away, in the winter it was only open to the South London Swim Club. The third was Parliament Hill Fields Lido on the outskirts of Hampstead Heath. Score! This one was possible - less than an hour away and I could swim for a measly £2.50.

Jim figured out how to get me there in 40 minutes: the Tube and a bus to Parliament Hill, then walk to the Lido. I packed my wetsuit but on the way, I told Jim I made a decision: "If just ONE person is not wearing a wetsuit, I'm going in without it." My fate was sealed, because... you KNOW there would be at least one crazy-English-swimmer. In fact, there were several. And yes, some were men in only Speedos.

Parliament Hill Fields has the true "Lido" experience. It's a huge outdoor pool surrounded by a concrete deck with a cafe. The lifeguard told us the pool is 61m long and 27m wide. This is what we saw when we arrived:

Chilly and rainy. Not really swimming weather - but this is England.
That's Celsius - pool temp in Fahrenheit was 48 degrees.

This experience would be one for the ages. In the change room, I met a girl who was donning a full wetsuit. She told me she swims for 30 minutes and just a week ago she switched to a wetsuit because she couldn't take the cold anymore. I put on my bathing suit (here they call them "swimming costumes") and walked outside to meet Jim on the deck. The air was chilly enough.

The lifeguards at Parliament Hill Lido were the friendliest of all - they were all smiles and gave me tips on how to get in the water. In a nutshell: "start at the shallow end and do it very gradually." They also told me not to overdo it since I had not acclimated yet. The lifeguards were dressed more for winter than for pool weather, and they stayed inside. They were definitely the smart ones, I noted, as I began to doubt my intelligence - or maybe my sanity - when I stepped into the water.

The water was ice-cold, but the pool was gorgeous and really clean and clear. It had a stainless steel liner with little perforations so you didn't slip. I got in up to my knees at the shallow end, and slowly walked towards the deep end. It hurt. Once I waded in up to my thighs, I had to wait for about a minute for the pain in my legs to go away. Then, I took the plunge.

I was in up to my neck for a split second before I lost my breath. It was like having the wind knocked out of me - like being punched in the chest. I remembered the same feeling when I jumped in the reservoir at Ironman St. George in 2011. That water had been in the high 50s - and I was wearing a wetsuit. This was MUCH colder. And there was no neoprene to save me. It took a bit of time, but I was finally able to swim - actually SWIM - for six laps before my fingers (yep, fingers again) had enough. I was actually getting used to it, and, surprisingly, my face didn't hurt this time. While getting out, I looked around. There were women and men in only bathing suits, some with neoprene gloves and booties, the girl in just a wetsuit, and an elderly lady with a full wetsuit, neoprene cap, gloves, and booties. All types. All crazy English swimmers. I loved them all. And I was one of them.

I swam. In London. Outdoors. In December. In an unheated pool. Without a wetsuit. Mission accomplished. Jim took a few photos and video at Parliament Hill Fields Lido.

It's hard to see, but that is me in the shallow end.
Yep, I'm swimming.
I can't talk because my lips are frozen.
I can only gesture. This means "I have NO feeling in my hands."

After my London swimming experience, I understand how people who swim in winter can do it. They swim year-round and slowly acclimate their bodies to colder and colder water. I like to believe they do it because they love swimming. But there may be some benefit to this cold-water life. I found this notice on the way into the locker/changing room at Parliament Hill Fields Lido:

Maybe the winter swimmers are not crazy after all. Maybe, just maybe, they're the smartest ones among us.

I have several friends in England and find myself journeying there on a regular basis, especially around Christmastime when London streets are festive and brightly lit. This year, my husband Jim and I needed to use the airfare we banked when our trip to Sweden was canceled after my surgery.

Cloud Gate (Anish Kapoor)
The giant reflecting "bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park

I found out I was a runner when I was ten years old.

Throughout the years, running has been my go-to therapy for all that ailed me. It was the one sport I fully understood. I knew how to train. I knew how to race. And I knew how to get injured. When I switched to triathlon after my fifth stress fracture, I had a distinctive advantage as a fast runner. My race didn't start until I was off the bike. I rarely worried about getting passed on the bike because I knew I would be feeling good when the great cyclists were struggling to get to the finish line.

But that's all in the past - when I was young. And fast. For the last three years, I've been struggling with an injury that threatened to once and for all end my days of being a (good) runner. I've been told my hamstring tendon will never be 100%. And despite working like crazy on the bike, I can never keep up with the really fast women in my age group. I've gotten a little closer to them, but never close enough to put me within striking distance on the run. It doesn't help that I haven't looked forward to the run leg either. Coming off the bike has been akin to a funeral march and I've lost the killer instinct that made triathlon racing so enjoyable. I have been going through the motions hoping something - anything - would change.

And finally, this year, I entered a new age group, and things were on the verge of getting better. I was ready to train hard. All the painful and difficult therapy had finally begun to pay off, and my running became mostly pain-free. I started to enjoy running for the first time in three years, and my speed was slowly coming back. I was thrilled.

Then came my infection, surgery and down time - right at the beginning of racing season - and all my hopes for this new age group year evaporated. I damned myself as the disaster-magnet I was and wrestled with throwing in the towel on the whole year. Dropping out of several already-paid-for races, one of them the ITU Long Course World Championship, and the fear of throwing money away was weighing heavy on my shoulders - especially after giving up my full-time income for a career as an artist (read: no income). Stress got the best of me, and I suffered with insomnia and anxiety for many weeks.

By the end of July, my surgeon still hadn't given me the green light to get back in the pool, but I was still entered in the ITU Age Group Standard Distance Worlds in Chicago on September 19. I was panicking. I kept asking my husband Jim, "How am I going to race a World Championship in the shape I'm in?"

I secretly hoped he would say "drop out," but his answer? "Speed work."

I couldn't come up with a better idea, so I decided to suck it up and make my best attempt to speed up my 10K run with weekly short hard intervals in August. Time was running out and my expectations were low. Two weeks after I started swimming again, I raced the USAT Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee. The snail-like swim pace didn't bother me nearly as much as my run time. I couldn't get a single mile under seven minutes. It was embarrassing to know I once ran a marathon at 6:30 pace.

Although I had been working hard on the bike, I didn't hold out hope to ride with the "big girls" in Chicago. All I wished was to avoid losing time on the run, and at the very least, I knew I could speed up my swim time from Milwaukee's all-time-slowest. This had become a rescue mission. For my mental health, I needed to salvage something from this triathlon season and prove to myself I could still work hard and get results.

When I toed the line in Chicago last Saturday, I knew it would be an all-out effort. I would race with everything I had that day and be happy knowing I did as much work as I could with the hand I was dealt this year.

As usual, my legacy as the Disaster Magnet was on the horizon.

It started with rain and wind in Chicago that was bad enough to alter the races on Friday and move our bike check-in to race morning. My wake-up time and morning nutrition was already less-than-ideal because of a wave start at 12:20 pm. Now I would have to be up and in downtown Chicago for more than seven hours before my race. Ugh.

Race morning was beautiful.

The only thing that made race morning enjoyable was the ease in which we could get into transition and prep our stuff. On the way in, I was met by a smiling volunteer who I failed to recognize as our USAT Mideast Regional Vice-chair Mike Wendorf. I must have looked a little anxious and he said to me "Today, you ARE Gwen Jorgensen." (I would see him again at the finish line where he recognized me and gave me a huge hug. It's always amazing to connect and reconnect with people all over the world in this sport.)

After bike prep, I had to figure out how to spend the next several hours and plan my nutrition to avoid stomach issues during the race. Jim and I relaxed in the car, in the Team USA hotel lobby, wandering around the race site, watching start waves, and figuring out where to hang out between bathroom stops. It seemed like forever. Finally it was time to put on my wetsuit and make my way to the staging area.

Disaster number 2 came - yep - just in time for my start wave, age group women 50-54. We were herded into the start corral, given final instructions on the swim course, and marched toward the starting dock. Except..... WAIT! Something has gone wrong with the pontoon dock! We were herded backwards into the corral, and along came a forklift to fix it. No, I am NOT making this up. We waited, and waited, and waited... trying to laugh about baking in our wetsuits in the sun.

Then came the announcement - the dock was fully broken, and conditions were deemed unsafe to proceed to the start. There would be a modified swim. We waited some more. Then came another announcement. The swim had to be shortened to less than sprint distance. There were outcries. One woman even asked if we could swim further by getting in the water upstream of the start. The slow swimmers were ecstatic. And we waited again.

Disappointment set in. I wanted that 1500m swim. I needed as much help as I could get, and the longer the swim, the better it would be for me - I was born a distance swimmer. But there was nothing to be done. It would be a 700m swim.

See? I wasn't kidding about the forklift.
Waiting... waiting... and waiting.

We had to wait while officials prepped the altered swim course, and around 1:00 pm, about 40 minutes after our official start time, we were finally in the water. The start horn signaled a mad all-out sprint unlike any race I've ever done. The course followed the marina wall at the edge of Grant Park. I did the best I could with my one-speed distance stroke, but I knew I was well-behind the leaders. Jim said I started catching people in the final yards - probably because everyone else went out sprinting. Oh, how I wished we had the whole 1500m.

It was a long run to transition - almost 400m - and I got out of my wetsuit faster than usual and was on the bike course in about three minutes. I knew I had to go hard from the start - so that's what I did.

The 40K bike course was underwhelming for a world championship. There were four hairpin turns and much of the course was in the underground tunnels known as Lower Wacker Drive. Low light made it hard to see road hazards, but I still rode as hard as I could and played leap-fog with the same few women for most of the bike. My speed on the flats was 24-25mph - really fast for me - and surprisingly (to me), I managed to keep myself in the race on the bike. The bike course was slightly short, and the finish came quickly after one turn-around. There was such a frenzy at the dismount line that a woman in front of me went down hard with her bike. I stopped for second to make sure she was ok, then took off on another long run to transition. Transition was a bit slow when I struggled to rack my bike from the handlebars (usually not a problem), but my shoes went on quick, and I was about to find out the worth of a month of speed training.

On the bike course when it wasn't underground.

Except, NO! Instead of hitting the split button, I hit "stop" on my Garmin out of transition. I didn't realize it until mile 2 of the run because I was intent on running down all the women I was with on the bike course.

For the first time in three years, I felt good - really good - on the 10K run leg. That killer instinct came back and I just ran. I WAS Gwen Jorgensen. Once I restarted my Garmin, I was clocking well under a seven minute-per-mile pace - without any of the usual fatigue. I don't know how many women in my age group I ran down, but at the finish, I was only 11 seconds behind fourth place, and I heard the announcement for third.

So. Close. (If only I had another K. Or that 850m back in the swim.) But I wasn't going to lament this. Live and learn. My run was back.

I got that feeling... you know? That feeling you get when you're running well? Like you've broken through some kind of barrier. I had it the year I ran my first sub-2:50 marathon in Duluth, MN. I had it when I ran the eight-mile leg of Hood to Coast at a sub-6-minute pace. I had it the day I ran down the previous-year's champ to win the Quad Cities Marathon. I had it when I ran down all the age group leaders off the bike at the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. And I had it Saturday in Chicago. No, it wasn't my fastest 10K, but felt damn good not to be crawling my way through the fog of fatigue for the first time in a very long time.

The finish.

Imagine my surprise when I looked up the results to see my run leg at 45:45. How could that be? Was my Garmin wrong? I KNOW one of my miles was a 6:32 - and the last four were sub-7. Could I have run the first two over a minute slower? My elation turned to devastation. How could it feel so fast when I was running so slow?

I was in a daze. The walk back to transition to pick up my bike was now the funeral march. Jim was desperately searching for something to say - to cheer me up. I don't remember much until I heard the the question... Someone in transition.. asked.. "Was the run...... long?"

THAT'S IT!

Others had the GPS run distance of 6.7 miles. That would put my pace at... 6:49! Devastation turned back to elation. I couldn't wait to tell Jim! The drive home that night would be long, but it wouldn't be tough. My run was back. And next season looks a lot brighter.

Ironman Louisville transition zone

2012 has been a crazy roller coaster of a triathlon season. I have made numerous attitude adjustments, goal assessments (and reassessments) and plan changes. I fought race-ending illnesses, race-ending allergy attacks, and one major injury (still fighting). I've beat myself up and picked myself up - again and again and again. I failed to finish three out of six races I started. I had given up on making it back to Kona for the Ironman World Championship. In fact, I searched my soul for a reason to keep doing this thing - this Ironman thing. I've asked myself that question: "am I still having fun?"

Two weeks ago, the answer was "No."

So, then, what could possibly make me toe the line at Ironman Louisville on Sunday? What could possibly have motivated me to go back one more time knowing this distance would destroy me, knowing I would have to willingly descend into that personal hell we all know as the last six miles of an Ironman race?

I'm calling it commitment. Determination. Refusal to admit defeat. And the J-Team.

The J-Team is my Ironman support crew - they all have names beginning with "J": my husband, rocket scientist, level head, baseball aficionado, and fixer-of-anything-mechanical Jim, and my awesome friend, amazing chef, mom extraordinaire, positive-spinner, and attitude-adjuster Julie. Jim and Julie are the intellectual heart of the J-Team. They never miss a chance to direct me on the right path to the finish line. They document everything in photographs, good and bad. They pick up the pieces of races gone awry, and they revel in my (our) successes. I feel comfortable saying I owe my best Ironman races to their hard work on race day. The J-Team has at-home members also, like my good friend Jean who takes excellent care of our needy cat, Hopper, so that I can focus on racing. On Sunday, we added another at-home honorary member, our friend (cycling partner, rocket-scientist, math-obsessor, and numbers-over-analyzer) Nick. (He's an honorary member because only his middle name begins with "J".) My finish at Ironman Louisville had as much to do with them as it did with me - maybe more.

Here are some ways the J-Team kept me on track over the weekend:

  • While I waited in line for the porta-john on race morning, Julie went to make friends in the swim line-up so that I wouldn't have to start dead-last. (For those who didn't know, Ironman Louisville starts in a time-trial format because of a narrow swim channel.)
  • Jim and Nick were in constant contact on race day to determine my location on the course and what I needed to do. Nick was even checking my splits and the overall standings and letting Julie and Jim know when to expect me.
  • When I saw them on the course, Jim and Julie gave me the overall situation in addition to cheering me on. During most of the race, my anticipation remained high because I looked forward to seeing them at the next check-point.
  • Jim's motivator
  • Jim made sure I would stay on pace. After receiving an early birthday present from me - a personalized bat (photo right) from the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum - he gave me the following speech: "If you take the marathon out in anything faster than an eight-minute mile, I will beat you with my baseball bat like Al Capone did to that guy in the Untouchables." (Ok, so he didn't mean it.. but, point understood.)
  • And finally, Julie took one for the team. Saturday morning, in an attempt to avert race day disasters, Julie set off the fire alarm in our hotel kitchen while making her famous lemon pancakes. I think her plan was to have it serve as the weekend's token disaster for the "disaster magnet." The result of this sacrifice meant even more to me after the race when I learned that two potential disasters had been averted: someone threw tacks on the bike course causing many riders to flat, and last week I had eaten several mangoes from a batch that were recalled due to salmonella.
Back to the race report. Louisville is considered one of the toughest Ironman courses (see benchmarking at RunTri.com) and according to Team Endurance Nation's Patrick McCrann (read his report on the TriFuel site), this year's times were much slower than last year due to heat AND wind. High temperatures in August in Louisville can reach into the 90s and 100s - with high humidity. Heat always causes nutrition issues for me, and although I had been training in heat most of the summer, I'd be lying if I said I was confident in my nutrition plan. But I DID spend many training rides and runs this summer working on fueling, hydration, and electrolyte intake to avoid my nemesis, hyponatremia. I put most of my plan together using information gleaned from nutrition guru Brian Shea at Personal Best Nutrition - both from the PBN online forums and his postings on Slowtwitch. And full nutrition plan analysis was another aspect that Jim, the Excel whisperer, helped me out with - he developed a spreadsheet defining my various gels, drinks, and capsules (Gu Energy Roctane products, Gu Brew, Salt Stick, and Ironman Perform) with calories and sodium levels - all I had to do was plug in the amounts, and it would give me the stats. He made me study it, recite my contingency plans (such as, what to do if I don't pick up my bike special needs bag), and commit much of it to memory.
Getting body marked

Race day began after a fitful night with only a couple hours of sleep. Our hotel, the Residence Inn, was so close to the transition at Waterfront Park that we were able to walk there on race morning and avoid parking issues. Air temperature was in the 70s with a predicted high of 93 degrees F. I prepped my bike with nutrition bottles, dropped off my special needs bags, and we headed for the swim start (a mile away). I had no idea what to expect with the time-trial start, but by the time we got there, we understood why people started lining up at 2 a.m. Upon seeing the queue, I realized I would have to settle for a late start. Body marking came first, and then we started our trek to the end of the line.

It was a long walk.

We walked for what seemed like another mile before the crowd thinned out. I waited in the bathroom line while Julie headed to the end of the start line. She located a few Northeast Ohioans who were generous to let me jump in line with them. The plan was for all competitors to be in the water within 40 minutes starting at 7 a.m. We watched the pros swim by followed by early age-groupers. The line moved pretty fast, but its length gave me more than enough time to get into my swimskin (84-degree water meant a non-wetsuit swim), don my cap and goggles, and get hydrated and fueled. I reached the start just after 7:30. We were shuffled along and told to run along the dock and jump in feet first.

After a quick wave to the J-Team, my swim had begun.

descending to start

Right up until the point my feet hit the water, I had been wrestling with doing this Ironman. I was tired. Worn out. 140.6 miles had become such a daunting task. Especially after my all-out race last weekend. I had begun to believe my heart was no longer in it. But on Sunday morning, something happened when I hit that water. Something I hadn't felt in a long, long time.

I enjoyed it.

I was swimming in the Ohio River and I was having fun! I was expecting to hate every second of it, but instead, the water was not disgustingly dirty (as I had been led to believe), and the temperature was not too hot (as I had been led to believe). The time-trial start was more comfortable than the usual mass Ironman start. I didn't get clobbered instantly (don't get me wrong - I got clobbered, but not instantly). I had time to get in a groove while in the channel and there was no need to spot buoys because I could see exactly where I was (island on one side, river bank on other). The swim course rounded the island so that the sun is in your eyes only for a bit until you turn 180 degrees to swim downstream along the far side of the island, under two bridges, and to the finish line.

Out of the water and into T1

I stopped a few moments to gather myself after getting kicked directly in the face near the turn. Then I decided to swim wide for the remainder of the course. With the sun behind us and calm water, the yellow and orange buoys were ridiculously easy to spot - it was smooth swimming the rest of the way and I was very surprised at how fast it went by. I stayed relaxed and stretched out to get the most out of my stroke without further stressing my still-injured right shoulder tendon.

NO ONE on the planet was more surprised than was to look down at my watch and see a time of 1:00 when I climbed out of the water. I had expected 1:05 at best - more likely 1:10 because of the shoulder and lack of swim training. While running to the transition zone, a very uncharacteristic thought went through my mind: "I still got it baby!!" I was elated (and yet baffled by my own response). I decided to go with it - capture the energy - and ran into T1 with a purpose, lacking my usual fears.

See? I wasn't kidding.

I yelled my number, got my gear bag, and outran everyone to the change tent. The volunteers in the change tent were amazing. My shoes, number belt, and helmet were on in an instant. When I got to my bike, I realized there were a LOT of bikes still in transition. Thus, my swim had been very fast comparatively. I felt like jumping up and down screaming. I saw Julie. I saw Jim. I yelled "woohoo" like a 12-year-old, and got on my way. Seriously. Who the heck was I acting like? Certainly not me. This was NOT my usual M.O.

Whatever. My motto had now become... "just go with it."

And so I rode. I rode as I had planned to ride - relaxed, keeping my heart rate low and my cadence even. Navigating the rolling hills required concentration so that I didn't burn out my legs riding too hard on the uphills. A lot of people were getting out of their saddles on the hills. I kept my cool and rode easy.

The Ironman Louisville 112-mile bike course is easy to crush if you're accustomed to rolling hills. But it can also eat you up and spit you out if you don't ride conservatively. I met an athlete on Saturday who referred to the course as a "meat grinder." The shape of the course is a modified loop with a really flat first and last 10 miles and a short out-and-back done once before the loop begins. There are some formidable hills despite (I was told) being only 2000 feet of climbing altogether. I found that "climbing skills" are irrelevant on rolling hills, that being a good shifter and a good capitalizer-on-momentum is more important. And so (at Jim's urging) I tried to channel my effort intelligently into these two things.

Whizzing through LaGrange

Despite my concentration, I was still able to enjoy the atmosphere in Louisville during the ride. On one of the bigger hills, there were no less than three costume characters vying for our attention: the Grim Reaper (who came right up to bikers' faces to talk them into "going with him"), Superman, and the Devil (a.k.a. person-with-horns-dressed-in-red-satin). On another hill was a guy in a speedo wearing an American flag as a cape. This is great support and it certainly keeps the levity up. The looping part of the course took us through LaGrange where crowd support was enormous and they even announced our names to the throngs of people lining the street. It was during this stretch on the second loop that I finally saw Julie and Jim in the crowd, and it gave me what I needed - a huge burst of energy to get through the final 30 miles of the ride.

On the bike, I knew my fueling had to be perfect. I paid great attention to not screwing up this time. I drank three bottles of Gu Roctane and took five Gu Roctane gels supplemented by water, Gu Brew, and Ironman Perform to get 24-30 ounces of fluid per hour. I did one salt stick capsule every half hour. Even though air temperature rose as the day went on, I was never thirsty and never dizzy. I think the shade on the Louisville bike course kept the heat from overwhelming me, and the time-trial start forced me to ride my own race and not chase or try to lead anyone in my age group. For many miles, I leap-frogged with a woman in my age group: every time I passed her, she immediately passed me back, sped up to get way out in front of me for a few miles, then I would eventually catch her and start the entire cycle over again. Strangely, it didn't rattle my cage as all I did was make a mental note that it was happening.

With about 15 miles left on the bike, I started to wonder if I had rode too conservatively. It was ok, though, because I had to tax my system a bit on this last stretch which was into the wind. My back and hips had that familiar stiffness from being in the aero position for too long, but overall I felt relaxed and not overly tired. I was actually looking forward to starting the run and encouraged by the fact I had no nausea this time, even with the heat.

Starting the run

As I rounded the corner to the bike finish and T2, I saw Jim and I knew he would have some words of advice and know something about the overall age group situation. When I dismounted, I struggled to get my body to move in an upright position toward the transition bag area and shouted my number. I grabbed my bag and made my way to the change tent. The volunteer, again, was amazing in helping me get my pockets filled and on my way. Water and sunscreen were offered - I took both and was on my way. Going from hobbling to sitting to standing to running was easier than usual this time, but time would tell if I could hold it together. I saw Julie. I saw Jim. I was encouraged.

The first two miles of the Ironman Louisville marathon is out and back on a bridge. As I approached the bridge, I saw a woman in my age-group coming off the bridge. She was running strong and I wondered if I looked anywhere near that good. When I hit mile 1, I looked at my watch to see the split: 7:30. It was an uphill mile. Yikes! I needed to reign this in. I backed off. I hit mile 2 even faster. This was NOT GOOD. Then I saw Jim. Here's what he said: "Nick says you have a 20-minute lead in the age-group! Go easy!" and then he said the four scariest words: "All you have to do is..."

Get. To. The. Finish(Line).

Coming off the bridge near mile 2 - still smiling

Well, yeah. There's the rub. How many finish lines have I NOT seen this year? I had begun to question whether I would EVER see another Ironman finish line. I was two miles into my marathon, and I was already going down that mental path. I had to shake it off. What to do? Focus on getting from point to point. Ironman champ Chrissie Wellington says she focuses on running from aid station to aid station. Yeah. I could do that.

But it was so HOT. I focused on nutrition and getting ice and cold water on my body in as many places as possible. In my hat. Down my tri top. Down my SHORTS. I ran with ice in my hands. I poured ice water on my face. And it worked!

But there was one problem. My right inner thigh had started talking. It was angry. It was threatening to stop working. I paused a few times to stretch. I made sure I was supplementing with electrolytes. I walked only the aid stations and maintained a 8:15-8:30 pace. I saw Jim again at mile 14. He walked with me for a bit. He said that Nick calculated my age group lead at about 30 minutes. Don't worry about pace. And then those four words again.

Just get to the finish.

No nausea yet - only fatigue and that threatening pain in my leg. The special needs bags were waiting around the corner and to my delight, a volunteer was not only holding my bag, but he was holding out my bottle of Gu Brew for me. I almost cried.

With my trusty Gu Brew

I drank some of it and ran with it. By mile 19, I had passed the final woman in my age group (she let me know this - do all age-groupers do this?) and I was now leading out-right. But my race was coming unglued. My pace was falling to near 9-minute miles and my stomach was now angry. It was saying really mean things to me. I started drinking coke to shut it up - the sugar gave me energy for short bursts. With less than five miles to go, things were coming undone, my leg was cramping, and I needed a pick-up. That's when I made a major mistake. I was so sick of Ironman Perform and coke that I listened to THAT guy. You know, the guy who said: "try some chicken broth."

I would pay for that mistake. Coke and chicken broth DO NOT MIX. At an aid station with just over two miles to go, I was vomiting the contents of my stomach into a garbage can. And it wouldn't stop. I was bent over and started getting the shakes. If I stopped moving, things would surely fall apart in a hurry (because that's what they do in Ironman). Seeing me in distress, several athletes stopped to help. They poured cold water on me. They encouraged me. They were angels with running shoes.

And I turned and kept running. I had to stop several more times with the vomiting. Spectators encouraged me. You're at mile 14. Keep going. Hang in there. I couldn't muster the energy to tell them I was almost done. I stood up, jogged around the next corner only to see the sign: "finish straight ahead... second loop to the right."

Oh my God. WAS THAT THE FINISH LINE??? It was right in front of me!

I had almost given up the Ironman finish line. But Jim and Julie would be waiting for me there. Maybe friends would be watching online. So here's a little video of what happened next (the finish line camera captured by Nick with his Flip camera):

One of those hands was Jim's.

When I crossed the line, I proceeded to get sick one more time (obviously). I had a whole cadre of volunteers helping me move along and they finally put me in a wheelchair. I got all materialistic on them: where was my medal and my shirt and my hat? I must have them. I earned them. I was no longer that person in the medical tent not getting them. I finally finished another Ironman.

Julie and Jim stayed with me while I sat in the wheelchair and fought to overcome the lingering nausea and get some fluids in me. I had my own volunteer, an athletic trainer named Carol (or C.J.). We dubbed her a member of the J-Team - after all, her middle name started with J. While determining whether I should go to medical, it occurred to me that before the race, Julie said she would get a tattoo if I got a Kona slot AND stayed out of medical on Sunday. I was determined to hold her to it. Jim checked the live splits to find out that I had, indeed, won my age group at Ironman Louisville. I looked up at Julie and I said "Guess what!"

She laughed and replied: "We're going to Kona." (I guess she forgot the wager. But I'll hold her to it.)

The W45-49 Podium

ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF TEAM PHOTOGRAPHERS JULIE AND JIM

The Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Vegas this past Sunday was an exercise in personal redemption. Although my husband will say (over and over) that there is no need for me to go back to any race to prove myself, it's something that I have felt the need (over and over) to do.

The race I needed to be personally redeemed from was last year's IM 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Florida. My race performance, attitude, and finish had been weighing heavily on me for almost a year. In Clearwater, after a disappointing swim and receiving a four-minute drafting penalty, my motivation spiraled downward in the middle of the race. I managed to regain it by the end and run myself up 20 places into an age group second, but the kicker was that I missed the win by a mere 12 seconds. 12 SECONDS! Everyone who heard the story had the same reaction: "Ouch! That's gotta hurt."

And yes, it hurt. It's BEEN hurting ever since. Every time I toe the line at a 70.3, that second place haunts me. It's the same pain I have felt for 28 years after losing first place by less than 0.1 seconds in the 100-yard breaststroke in the Connecticut high school sectional swim championship in 1982. As a senior, I didn't get the opportunity to redeem myself the next season.

But I did have an opportunity to avenge my Clearwater loss. I just had to go to Las Vegas this past weekend to do it.

We (my husband Jim and I) arrived in Las Vegas late Friday night. After picking up our rental car, we drove to our hotel in Henderson hoping to get at least one good night of sleep before race day. On this trip, we were very fortunate to have our great friend Ron (founder of Punk Rock Racing) joining the J-Team. He made the drive from San Francisco with his daughter on Friday and met us at the hotel. It was weird to me that I had not yet come face to face with Ron - it feels like I've known him forever. After heaping all sorts of wonderful Punk Rock Racing gear on Jim and me (including awesome temp tattoos and one of my favorite t-shirts - the one that says "Chuck Norris never did an Ironman"- get yours here!), we all turned in for some shut-eye just after 11 pm.

After a quick breakfast at the hotel (the Hilton Garden Inn in Henderson has THE best cinnamon rolls ever), Saturday was filled with the obligatory "check out the race venue," "shop the expo," and athlete check-in activities. We picked up my P3 from TriBike Transport then shuffled back to the hotel for a shakedown ride and run and to pack my transition bags. We dropped everything at the bike transition at Lake Las Vegas Resort, then Jim and I headed back to meet Ron and his daughter Cassie for an afternoon of relaxation and fun on the Las Vegas Strip.

This machine makes custom m&ms.
(Ron was making the ones in the photo)

Our first stop was M&M's World! We made our own colorful mixes and Ron and Cassie made custom m&ms with their own messages. We even did a set for Punk Rock Racing (see photo). Our next stop was Coca-Cola World where we tried 16 different carbonated beverages from around the world. Most of them were great, but we all agreed that the one called "Beverly" and the mint flavored one were completely non-palatable. The former was so bad that it elicited the most hilarious facial responses ever. When we finished trying sodas, it was dinner time and we decided to eat next door at the Hard Rock Cafe. Going to a place like the Hard Rock is great fun with Ron because he is a walking rock music encyclopedia. The guy knows (almost) everything there is to know in rock history. Then, on the way back to the hotel I mentioned ice cream, and Cassie took the opportunity to introduce us to the amazing flavors of the Cold Stone Creamery.

Punk Rock Racing
IM m&ms

And just like that, in a few hours, Saturday was over and it was time to pack it in for race day. We decided on wake-up times and said our good-nights. By 9:30 pm Jim and I were in bed only to realize that I had spent very little time worrying about the race. I only hoped it would translate into ease of falling asleep (my usual bugaboo).

All I remember about the night was that I looked at the clock at 11:50 and decided that three hours (alarm set for 3 am) would be enough sleep. Then I realized I had already been asleep and dreaming. I was even able to go back to sleep without any panic attacks. It was a good night - and I felt rested when the alarm went off at 3.

I ate breakfast (orange juice, coffee, HammerGel and soy protein powder), we took showers, I put on my tri suit, prepped my bike bottles with

Pre-race with Ron

We arrived at the swim start at Lake Las Vegas well before 5:00 am. We were early - even though the transition opened at 4:30, there were only a few people there by that time. I set up my bike nutrition, got my tires pumped, then met back up with Jim and Ron to find a quiet place to sit down and relax with my iPod (my favorite pre-race music is still Ether Song by Turin Brakes).

Body marking at 5 am

In a very short time, both the sun and the swim start loomed ominously on the horizon. My wave (women 45+) would start third, at 6:35 am, right after the pro men and pro women. I donned my Blue Seventy swimskin (the water was a balmy 80 degrees F), said goodbye to Jim and Ron, and headed down to the lake. While lining up with my wave, I recognized last year's winner (Lauren Smith) and my nerves kicked into overdrive. I needed this race to be underway after an easy week of training. My hope was that a little rest would trigger a fast race in Vegas even in the midst of training for Ironman Hawaii in October (arguably the more important of the two races).

Wave 3 swim start (I'm in there somewhere)

We had a nice little swim warmup on the way to the starting line, and by the time we got there we only had a minute to go. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the gun went off and we were on our way. The 1.2-mile swim in Lake Las Vegas was clockwise - it started on one side of the long thin lake and came back on the other side. The swim exit was followed by a long run around the end of the lake to the bike transition near the start. I started in a pack but broke free quickly and had almost no trouble spotting buoys because the water was calm and the sun was still low and not in our eyes. My stroke felt long and strong, but I didn't realize I was swimming in second place for most of the swim. By the time we neared the swim finish, another woman was beside me and we had passed a couple pros (I could tell because they were in different caps).

First in T1. Oh hell! WHERE did I park my bike?

I exited the water under 30 minutes (official time 29:48). I grabbed my bag, slipped out of my swimskin and put on my helmet and shoes as quickly as possible, then ran to my bike rack. Upon exiting the transition zone and before mounting our bikes, we had to run with them up a very short steep hill with a hairpin turn. Despite a near-collision with race officials who were blocking the pro racks for media purposes (therefore blocking me from the exit), I managed to get out of T1 first in my age group (it would be a short-lived victory). Because I was also the first first person of any age group to enter the transition zone, they weren't quite ready for it and still had video crews taping the pros. I'm betting my collision won't make the final cut.

Half of the "run" hill at bike exit.

After mounting my bike, I started the gradual climb out of Lake Las Vegas Resort hoping I could keep my enthusiasm in check and not go out too hard in the first few uphill miles. The 56-mile bike course was challenging to say the least. Unlike the flat course in Clearwater, Vegas had long rolling hills. The inclines weren't steep and I managed 30 mph or better on downhills, but my overall pace hovered only around 20 mph. I rode mostly alone for the first half hour.

Between 10 and 15 miles, two women in my age group passed me. The first one was Lauren Smith and I found myself talking (out loud) to remind myself not to do anything stupid like try to chase her down. The second woman blew by me like I was standing still. I stuck with my overall plan to let others make the mistake of going too hard on the hills. I would hopefully capitalize on it during the run.

Finally rolling.

After the turnaround near 20 miles, the third W45-49 age-grouper passed me. Frustrated, I tried to hang within sight of her right up until ...  near-disaster number one! I got stung by a yellow jacket. It flew right down my tri top causing me to almost go mad trying to kill it and/or get rid of it. Surprisingly, I stayed ON my bike and pedaling despite almost tearing off my top. It turned out to be a rather mild sting and I escaped relatively unscathed. (I can't say the same for the yellow jacket.)

By mile 30, I was constantly being overtaken by men in small packs and the temperature had risen into the 80s (maybe low 90s). I kept my heart-rate manageable - what felt like Zone 3 - and I drank about 200 calories (in EFS and Liquid Shot) and at least 24 ounces of fluid per hour. The only thing that worried me was a nagging leg fatigue with some lactic acid buildup. It was more like a smolder than an all-out burn, but it wasn't comfortable. My concern was that I had gone too hard on the early hills.

Wait, which way again to T2?

The last 20 miles of the bike course was more of the same hills, and I tried to ease back to rest my legs for the run. I was surprised, though, to find I began to catch riders who had passed me earlier. When I rolled into transition with a time of 2:52 on my bike computer, I recognized (for the 3rd time that day) last year's winner dismounting her bike just in front of me. Although I had caught her, I knew there were at least two other age-group women in front of me when I grabbed my gear bag and ran into the transition tent.

I quickly worked through getting my socks and shoes on and making sure I had my all-important Thermolyte capsules on me before exiting transition. I thought it could have gone a little smoother and faster, but I was happy I didn't struggle with my shoes like I usually do. I grabbed water on the way out of the tent and heard the news from Jim: I was four minutes behind the age group leader.

OMG, how long was I in there?

Vegas was a 13.1-mile three-loop run that began on a downhill. It was next-to-impossible not to go out too fast. I hit mile marker 1 at 6:12 and decided that was ok for a downhill mile. After the turn-around we had a two-mile uphill that passed the transition/finish and proceeded to a second turn-around. After a downhill mile, it repeated. Two more times. The advantage to the three loops was that I got to see Jim and Ron five times and each time they could give me updates.

And so I chased. And Jim ticked off the minutes and informed me of my gains. By the end of the second loop uphill (between mile 7 and 8), I had the leader in my sights and it was time for the big decision. I was NOT feeling great. I wasn't even feeling GOOD. I still had over five miles of running to go. Should I pass her now and then hang on for dear life? Or should I hang behind her until I started to feel better (if ever) and then make a move? I decided on the former. I mean, heck, it was only five miles, right?

On the downhill into the start of the last loop, serious game-ending fatigue hit me. My legs and my body revolted against my race strategy and they started picking apart my mind. Mentally, I went to that evil place and the following thoughts began: "I need to walk," "This can't be happening again," and "Oh well, I gave it my best shot, but I'll have to settle for something other than winning today." Even my stomach went awry and sent my eyes on the lookout for the nearest porta-john.

Third loop. This is when it really started to hurt.

It was during this time that I saw Jim and Ron again. I heard Jim say "You're leading, now just HANG ON" (he could tell I was struggling). I tried to smile. I saw Ron. I thought about how disappointing it would be for him to come all the way to Vegas to watch me lose after taking the lead. And I remembered a conversation I had with him on Saturday. We had discussed the power of giving up - that once you do it, you've given yourself permission to do it again. I was desperate not to give up.

I assessed the situation. What were my needs?

What I needed was a clear mind and to get a grip on the situation. I was not dehydrated. I had been drinking and was taking lots of electrolytes. But I was fatigued. I needed energy. Sugar, calories, anything. At the next aid station before mile 9, I walked for the first time but only to take in two full cups of Ironman Perform. And then, I ran.

I continued to argue with myself. I was well aware that I had done something incredibly stupid in this race by trying to chase down the leader early in the run. But I was too close. I had come too far to give up now. I had to prove I deserved to win - despite the mistake.

My body was putting up the fight of its life (so to speak), and I now had to beat the demons into submission. I kept running. My pace had slowed substantially by mile 10 - my 6:30-7:30 mile pace became 8:00+. But I was less than three miles from the finish line. LESS THAN A 5K! I visualized making it to the top of that final hill and running an all-out downhill mile to the finish.

And that's what I did. I don't know if my energy came back or if I conquered the demons, but I was able to push up and over that last hill without stopping. After the turn-around, I found I was leading by more than two minutes. The pain turned to elation with only a downhill mile to go. I ran as fast as my legs would go and took the turn into the finish. I high-fived every hand I saw, and then I saw Jim - I wanted to stop and hug him, but I had some finish-line crossing to do.

And this is what I did when I became the Ironman 70.3 W45-49 Age Group World Champ:

It's different than my usual pose of looking at my watch
at the finish line.

You would think it was over with that giant leap. But there was actually a disaster left to be had. As the first amateur woman to cross the finish line (because my wave went first), I got pulled off to be drug tested. They were supposed to test the first-place age-group female (who was actually in the 30-34 age group), but not knowing that for a while, they chose me instead.

Thus, disaster number two became the two-hour ordeal of having to drink enough after a five-hour race in order to give at least a 90 ml urine sample in a plastic cup while in the midst of all sorts of other digestive distress. And unfortunately, while I was in drug testing quarantine, Ron and Cassie had to leave for their eight-hour drive home and I never got to thank him or say goodbye. Yep, that was a huge disaster in my mind.

The silver lining was that I ended up in a tent full of pros that included race winner and my favorite male pro triathlete, Craig Alexander. Surprisingly, I successfully avoided assuming the worshipping pose on my knees. After some time had passed, unsure of appropriate behavior in the drug-testing tent, I actually first checked with the USADA official whether she thought it would be ok for me to talk to him (feeling like a lowly peasant in a roomful of royalty). So I took a deep breath, gathered my wits, and went over to congratulate him on his race.

The Ironman 70.3 World Championship
45-49 Age Group Podium

What I found was that one of my favorite athletes is a really down-to-earth nice guy. My favorite memory of the conversation was when he asked me (he asked ME!) what I thought of the course in Vegas, and I responded with: "It was a really tough course.. for ME." He laughed and said: "It was a tough course for EVERYONE!" He proceeded to blow my mind by saying he admires those of us who work and also do Ironman. *sigh* I wished him well in Hawaii and said I'd be cheering for him to win.

By the time I got out of drug-testing, Jim and I had only a few hours to get cleaned up, grab a bite to eat, and attend the awards banquet at Lake Las Vegas Resort. At the awards, I was shocked to find out that the woman I chased down for the win (the one who blew by me on the bike like I was standing still) was none other than triathlon (and Ironman) age group legend Donna Kay-Ness (and I might add that she is an absolute sweetheart in person). Knowing this might be a once-in-a-lifetime podium moment, I tried to take it all in.

Jim all-knowingly questions my
pre-race ice cream consumption.

Then we caught our 11:30 pm flight back to Cleveland. The last shocker of the weekend was that I actually fell asleep before the plane took off (this is highly unusual and until now thought to be impossible). I guess one more set of demons have been laid to rest and I was at peace with myself.

A big thank you to my team - Bike Authority Fleet Feet Multisport - and Muscle Milk for all the support this year. Also, I was extremely honored to have Ron come all the way to Vegas for the race and keep me in the coolest (and punk-est) threads on the planet. I hope he had as much fun as I did. And hugs and applause go to my husband Jim for being an integral part of my racing year after year - getting me to and from Las Vegas and the race venue while also taking care of my bike, keeping me calm, and making sure I didn't do anything stupid before the race.

On to Kona.

(all photos courtesy of Jim and Ron)

"Where does it END, Jeanne?" That's the question I was asked on Saturday night. The person asking me that question was someone I put on a pedestal, a musician with talent I could never even hope for. With eight million other interesting things to talk about, how did we get on the topic of my training and racing?

My husband loves it when I try to dodge these questions. He always points out to people how "crazy" I am. Not for wanting to DO Ironman but for wanting to RACE Ironman. He tells them how I ran through five stress fractures trying make the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials. His favorite injury story to tell (incredulously) is how "she read" it would be too painful to run with a stress fracture -- and because "she could" still run 20 milers, "she just assumed" it wasn't a stress fracture. He calls it obsessive compulsive disorder. I call it determination.
So, then, where DOES it end? Is this a rhetorical question? Have I gone way over the limits of normal goal-oriented behavior? Maybe the question(s) should be this: how does one know when determination progresses to an obsession/compulsion? and if it does, how do you undo it before it results in permanent damage (or, in my case, injury from overtraining)?
I've given this almost a week's worth of thought and my conclusion is that I haven't figured it out yet. I used to think it would "end" when I had the perfect race. Maybe that's MY way of not answering the question. Maybe races like Ironman exist as the direct result of people thinking and behaving the same way I do. Maybe the reason I do it, and will continue to do it, is because it's the only way I have ever been able to distinguish myself as an individual. Ironman is "what I do" because I'm useless at everything else. In that case, it may "end" when I find something that I'm good at. Or with the next disaster.

"Where does it END, Jeanne?" That's the question I was asked on Saturday night. The person asking me that question was someone I put on a pedestal, a musician with talent I could never even hope for.

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