Blogs tagged with "half-ironman"

I've raced twice since my last blog post, but I've been feverishly working on other projects and web sites and haven't had time to reflect and post anything meaningful. Here's my latest attempt at that (and perhaps at pulling something meaningful out of a seemingly-lost racing season).

The first of the aforementioned races was the USAT Olympic-distance Age Group National Championship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It came about two weeks after I was able to start swimming after my surgery and while I was still desperately trying to get my running legs back. I had no idea how I would perform overall, but at the very least, I was expecting a decent split on the bike. Cycling was the only sport for which I was able to solidly train. And as luck (?) would have it, the location of my surgical incisions forced me into doing 99% of my riding in the aero position - JUST for comfort. Could I be the first person ever to utter such a statement?

My race expectations were fulfilled: it was my slowest swim split - ever, my fastest bike split - in Milwaukee, and a very slow run - by my standards. Looking for positives, I can say that despite being exhausted after the swim, I "felt" strength in my legs on the bike AND on the run. And I do wish I had pushed harder in the bike leg because, despite my snail-like running pace, my legs felt much fresher than usual in T2.

Photos from USAT Nats in Milwaukee:

Swim wave start, age group: women 50+
Swim-to-Bike Transition
Let's get this thing going.
Starting the run.

My overall time - 2:20:46 - was good for 6th in my age group - my best placing in Milwaukee in their three years of hosting the event. Disappointingly, it wasn't my fastest time on the Milwaukee course.

Immediately, I went back to the grind to spend a few weeks whipping myself into swim shape and lengthening my longest run to 14 miles. I needed a test, and I longed to have something - anything - to hang my hat on this season. I decided to register for a half-ironman distance race - but where? Heading into Autumn (or as my husband Jim "Stark" would say: "Winter is coming."), we were running out of places that were not only drive-able but also made good vacation spots. The latter was necessary just in case the race is a total fail (obviously, you learn these tricks when your nickname is Disaster Magnet). Since my income is almost nonexistent, the location also had to be affordable.

The event appearing to fit the bill was Challenge Maine, a Challenge Family race in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Many things could be accomplished by a trip to New England. We could visit my mom in Connecticut. We could sight-see. We could go to the beach. I could satisfy my yearly craving for fresh fried clams.

Thus, I registered and started researching Old Orchard Beach (a.k.a. OOB). Yes, this was indeed the place of my New England dreams. There was a boardwalk and pier. There was an amusement park on the beach. There were clam shacks. There were lighthouses on the coast. (In fact, some of the best-known Edward Hopper lighthouse paintings were just north of OOB.) The hotels in OOB were old-style and handed down through families - not a single chain hotel among them. And the kicker - my mother told me it was my grandparents' favorite vacation spot when they were young.

We drove to Connecticut, spent two days, then drove up the New England coast with stops in Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester where we ate dinner. When I stepped out of the car in Salem, my first thought was: Oh, how I've missed the smell of the ocean!

Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester are old-style New England fishing towns:

Salem harbor
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables" 
There are piers like this everywhere 
Lighthouses on Thatcher Island off the coast of Rockport 

That night, when we pulled into the town of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, I was instantly transported back in time. To the time of my youth spent on New England beaches. To my grandparents' time, when the hotels were grand and had large common rooms and screened decks where guests could commune or just relax and read a book. I imagined people sitting on their hotel porches in the morning and strolling the boardwalk in the evening. There were no cell phones or air conditioners or TV. There was sun. And sand. And salt water. That was all WE needed for a vacation. Handheld technology did not interfere. Is it coincidental our hotel clerk gave us real keys and the room had only old-style tube TVs (no flat screens here) and no TV remotes? I hope not. I was determined to be renewed on this trip.

The strip of old hotels along the main drag in Old Orchard Beach
The view of the beach from our hotel
Our hotel, the Ocean House Hotel, taken from the sandbar
The ferris wheel at Palace Playland

The weather in Connecticut and Maine - including race day - was unbelievably nice: clear skies, 80s by day, 60s at night. The water temperature was in the 60s. It was perfect!

On to race morning....

Challenge Maine took place on Sunday, August 30. The morning was clear and in the 60s. The 1.2-mile ocean swim was a point-to-point that started on the beach with a run into the water. It was low-tide at race start - 6:30 a.m. - so the race organizers drew a giant starting line in the sandbar (how cool is that?). My wave (women 40+ and relays) was the last of four for the half. There was also an olympic-distance race that started after us.

Here are some great race morning and swim start photos that Jim took:

Sunrise was beautiful
Yes, we have to swim all the way to that pier
The line-drawn-into-the-sand, a.k.a., The Start

All I have to say about the swim leg is this: I love ocean swims! The best part is diving into the waves at the start. Because of the waves, I found myself laughing my way through the first few minutes of the swim, but once I got into a rhythm I was able to focus on the task at hand. The deeper water was relatively calm by the time we turned parallel to the beach, and the swim went by lightning-fast. One of the great things about Challenge Maine is that when you make the final turn towards the swim finish, you no longer have to spot buoys. There's a huge ferris wheel at that amusement park - Palace Playland - and all you have to do is align your swim with that. It leads you right in to the finish.

Swim finish photos:

The low-tide situation on Sunday unfortunately added more running time to an already-ridiculously-long transition run. The transition zone of Challenge Maine was on the road alongside the OOB Chamber of Commerce grounds. To get there we had to run quite a long distance from the beach - past the Palace Playland arcade and grounds and several concession stands and clam shacks. There's even a Dunkin' Donuts along the transition run (we are, after all, in New England - no Starbucks here).

By the time I got to my bike, my legs were toast. But I had a quicker-than-normal exit from my wetsuit, and I was on my bike quickly. The organizers almost made up for the long transition run by putting the bike-mount line only a few yards from the exit of transition.

What I didn't realize was that I put my bike helmet on crooked and I looked like an idiot. I never did fix that. Go ahead, you can laugh.

Bike start

The 56-mile bike leg was amazing. It took us through rolling hills of Maine - nothing major in terms of climbs, but significant enough that you had to be prepared to deal with hills. The air temperature was still cool and comfortable and cloudy conditions for at least the first half of the bike. It also helped that most of the roads were shaded by trees. My nutrition on the bike consisted mostly of about 30oz/hour of Skratch Labs pineapple hydration drink and a couple gels. I didn't need much more than that and I didn't use any electrolyte supplements until the end of the ride when things started to heat up a little. To my surprise, I was able to maintain a speed between 20 and 22 mph for the entire bike course. I was also impressed that all the 10-mile markers were dead-on accurate.

I played leap frog with a few women on the bike. One of them must have stayed in my slipstream a little too long because as she passed me, I heard the familiar motorcycle sound of a USAT official... I looked to the left and saw that her number was being noted for a penalty (at this race, time penalties are allotted after you finish, no serving penalties on the course as in Ironman brand races). Then she finally gave me the slip and I never saw her again. The other one was the girl who would eventually win the women's race. At one point, a guy managed to get away with drafting off her for about five minutes. I couldn't stand that anymore so I sped up to pass them, and as I did, I told him he was "cheating" by drafting off her. He looked at me and yelled "HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" then took off. Don't worry, I made sure to beat him in the race. In fact, I caught him before the bike leg was over so I didn't even have to run him down.

The bike leg was a little short (maybe also making up for the marathon run out of the water), so it caught me completely off-guard when I rounded the last corner and saw the crowd on the lead-in to transition. I was like "wha?" and then realized what was going on... and somehow by the grace of God, I managed to get out of my shoes in time to not launch myself over the handlebars at the dismount line. It was really close, and I saw fear in the eyes of the volunteers yelling "DISMOUNT!" while ducking out of the way.

Bike finish - yep, my helmet was still crooked

I had to regroup mentally once I was off my bike. Seriously, I usually have time to prep for the dismount so I was a little shook up. I racked my bike and struggled a bit to get into my running shoes while a spectator coached me through the transition. She noticed my Punk Rock Racing kit and said "I have a Punk Rock Racing t-shirt!!!!" (Seriously, Ron, we are EVERYWHERE - shameless note to my sponsor).

Once again, I screwed up the splits on my Garmin in multi-sport mode as I was leaving transition, but then I saw Jim and all was ok. He cracked me up when he said "I have NO idea where you are, just RUN YOUR OWN RACE." (He usually tries to keep count of where I am in the age group or overall race). It was getting hot, and I had no idea how long I could last on this run, but my legs felt good, so I just settled into a pace and hoped I could hold it. I passed a few women at the beginning of the run, and the eventual winner went blowing by me like I was standing still.

Starting the run, I was pretty happy to be feeling good for a change.

The 13.1-mile run took us through slight rolling terrain before turning onto a dirt-and-gravel road around the 3-mile point. Temperatures were in the 80s but there were some great cool breezes. I dumped ice and ice-water on myself and drank what they were handing out. My mile pace was relative steady, near 7:30s, until about mile 8 when everything started to fall apart. At that point, it was all I could do to just keep running, and I walked the aid stations. At every mile marker I reminded myself "It's only 4, then 3, then 2 miles to the finish." At the last two aid stations I grabbed coke because my stomach was a little woozy, and I felt much better in the last two miles, which were mostly downhill.

Coming into the finish, I out-kicked the guy in front of me - don't ask me where I got the energy - to finish just under 4:46. And it was over. I managed to clock a 1:42 on the run - looks like I still have a lot of work to before I'm happy with my running, but I had eight promising miles in there.

The finish
Butt shot, only for showing the back of my awesome PxRx kit.

I saw Jim at the finish line. He told me I was 3rd overall. Whoa. Really? I knew there were women in front of me, but I didn't realize there were only two "ahead of me" and I always forget that I started behind everyone else, so I had a 5-minute lead on any women under 40 that I passed.

I also have to mention that this race has one of the best finisher medals I've ever received - it's the KRAKEN.

We hung around at the finish to grab some food and drinks, and while I was waiting to get into transition to pick up my bike, I noticed legendary pro triathlete Karen Smyers was standing in front of me. I got up the nerve to talk to her - she raced in the Olympic-distance race but had some problems with her lungs so I think she dropped out. She asked me about my race, and it came up that I was from Connecticut. She told me she grew up in Weathersfield (I did not know that). I told her I grew up in Meriden. A lightbulb went off... who knew? Of course Karen Smyers swam for the Meriden Marlins - the best AAU swim team in Connecticut back in the day. Everyone who was anyone swam for them. We rattled off names.. recalling some of the great swimmers from the region including Megan Wright and Lisa Zeiser. It was just before my time as a swimmer (Smyers is 4 years older than me, I started swimming in high school just after she would have graduated).

Do I even need to say? It's a very, very small world.

The women's podium

It was a short walk back the hotel to take a shower and run back out to gorge myself on New England fried clams before the awards ceremony. Jim and I spent the rest of the day sightseeing up the coast of Maine and playing skee-ball at the arcade. Jim hit the skee-ball jackpot on Saturday, but all we managed to afford with our ticket winnings was a souvenir mug. Here are photos of food and the spoils of the coastal Maine skee-ball follies of 2015:

Fried clams - they always remind me of my dad.
OMG look at all these tickets. 
What do I do with all these?
Buy this lovely souvenir mug, of course.

Anyone who's grown up and moved away from a place they loved when they were young knows what it's like to feel a longing for home and a great sense of nostalgia upon return. This trip hit me inordinately hard and I don't know why. Even though I had never been here as a kid, when I took a final walk onto the beach in OOB, the tears welled up and I had to fight them off. I didn't want Jim to see me like that. I didn't want him to think we can't come back here or that I had a bad race. I'll have to live with the knowledge that New England is in my blood and even though we live in Ohio, I always know where home is in my heart.

The lighthouse at Two Lights (Hopper painted this one)
Cove at Two Lights 
Lighthouse at Portland Head (Hopper painted this one too)
"I still have some sand in my shoes"
Stupid giant iPhone ruined this shot.


A few weeks before the ITU World Champs in Edmonton, my concern turned to the fact that I had no long races coming up to test the waters after all the Ironman training I've been putting of my body. Having a recent 70.3 would be a good test - if only for the racing experience. My last one was great, but it was all the way back in May. But with no more vacation hours left in my work schedule, I knew it would have to be close to home and do-able in a weekend. I hoped I could find something reasonably competitive.

As they say, be careful what you wish for. The race that fit the bill was the Rev3 Cedar Point half in Sandusky, Ohio. At an hour-twenty-minute drive from my house, I declared my intentions, checked schedules with my husband Jim, and registered. I've always had this race in my sights because of its location, the quality of the brand, and the local support - and friends and teammates would be there. The problem was that it always fell on the same weekend as other races that I'd rather do. And, this year.. well, yeah, it was only six days after Edmonton - but I really expected I'd recover in time.

What I didn't expect was that I'd be less than pleased with my race in Edmonton and that I would punish myself with some blisteringly-long and hard workouts as soon as I walked off the plane. (Yes, I do that.) When I registered for Rev3, I was planning a reduced week of training leading into a good race experience. At the very least, I wanted a boost in my confidence and to know all this ridiculous training was working.

So... after beating myself up all week, I was dealing with extreme soreness in my quads that refused to subside by race morning. And to complicate things, my Saturday night Indians game commitment resulted in dinner at Denny's (I'm not proud, I ate eggs and cheese on toast with hash browns AND fries - don't judge me) and getting to sleep around 2 am (because I was second-guessing everything I did leading up to this race).

Jim and I rolled out of bed at 4:45 am, and, despite the lingering muscle soreness, I actually didn't feel bad enough to reconsider the whole thing (there was a distinct possibility that I would just go pick up my bike and slink away quietly with my tail between my legs). The weather made everything a lot nicer - it was a little windy, but skies were clear and air temperature was in the 60s, and it sure beat the hand- and feet-numbing 40s we had in Edmonton.

At Cedar Point, Rev3 hosts both a half and a full iron-distance race the same day. The full distance athletes had already started their swim at 7 am. The half started at 8:30, and my wave (women 40+ and relays) were at 8:50.

My wave - we're faster than you think.

I set up transition, then met up with Jim to walk down the beach to the start. Strangely, my normal pre-race jitters where nowhere to be found. Which was odd, because local races usually produce severe performance anxiety knowing friends and colleagues will be "watching." I ran into two of my teammates on the way to the swim start, and we went for a quick warm-up in the water (or "surf" as it was).

The water was quite rough that morning. It reminded me of the Atlantic Ocean along my beloved New England coast on a good beach day. The 1.2-mile swim course was trapezoidal - with swimmers going out against the current, then turning parallel to the shoreline, and finishing with the waves.

We started in waist-deep water, and it took me a minute or two to get a breathing rhythm going, but after that, the only problems I had were in spotting buoys between the swells. I had to stop a few times, but the course was well marked with huge yellow and orange buoys, so they were quick to spot once I stopped. People were mostly swimming alone because of the conditions - we got kinda scattered in the surf.

The rough water made all the swim times slow, but what I CAN say about the first leg of Rev3 Cedar Point was this: in all my years of triathlon racing, this was THE most fun I've ever had in a swim. It was a blast. It wasn't so choppy that I was afraid, and it was just challenging enough to feel like I had to be a good swimmer in order to navigate it. After the race, someone on Facebook posted that 60 swimmers either bailed or had to be pulled out for safety. That surprised me, but volunteers and officials on the swim course were very vigilant, and they certainly had some work to do that day.

The slowest part of the swim for me was plodding out of the water on a long sandbar. But the run to transition was short and sweet, and I was on my bike in a little over a minute. My watch recorded 32 minutes and change for my swim time.

Bike finish through Cedar Point parking lot.

The 56-mile bike course started out along the causeway to Cedar Point and continued along the Lake Erie shoreline for several miles before turning south and going through a slightly-rolling rural countryside. I rode mostly alone with a small group of leap-froggers. The wind slowed me down a bit, but I maintained a steady hard effort that put my speed around 20-22 mph. At 2:38, my bike time was slower than I would have liked on what seemed like a fast course.

Coming off the bike, I had no idea where I was in the grand scheme of the women's race, but when I came out of the swim, Jim let me know I was the first woman in my wave. Two women younger than me passed me on the bike, so there was a good chance I was leading the age group going into the run. All I wanted at that point was to have a solid, even-paced run.

What I didn't know was that I came off the bike within 9 minutes of the overall women's leader. (Had I known that, I still may not have changed my strategy of a steady-split half-marathon.)

The Cedar Point 13.1-mile run course was mostly flat, without shade, and with a lot of turns. The only "hill" came in mile 2 and 12. During the run, temperatures warmed up into the high 70s-low 80s. By mile 2, I was dumping ice down my top.

I went out in a surprisingly-comfortable 7-minute pace. In the first four miles, I caught one of the women who passed me and was catching the second one. By mile 6, she and I were running together hanging on to a 7-7:15 pace. It was actually nice to have someone to chit-chat with. Her name was Erin, she was from Chicago, and she was coming back from an injury. We ran together, pushing each other to go faster than I suspect either one of us would have done alone.

Around mile 9, my pace was slowing more than I wanted it to, and I needed to pick it up a bit. I surged and Erin hung back. I worried it was too soon and I would eventually die hard, but it was only four miles to go. Besides, all the women I passed had started in the wave five minutes ahead of me, so I had to die really hard to lose my place (believe me, I'm not stupid, I realize this was not beyond the realm of possibility). If I made a mistake, at least I would learn something, and I wasn't making it in my most important race.

A few moments after I picked up the pace, a woman running in the other direction yelled to me that the leader was four minutes ahead. It seemed very precise, and I wasn't sure whether to trust her time measurement or not - or even if it was the "leader" she was referring to. But if she was right, I had a shot at winning this thing. I tried to push that thought out of my mind. I may have just made the mistake of my life by surging too soon. I may have blown out anything left in my legs. And NOW you tell me I can win this thing?!

Run finish

Oh, for cryin' out loud! I mentally regrouped... at this point in my life, I know how rare these chances are. And I could not leave it up to chance timing. I now had to exercise mind over matter because my already-sore legs were really starting to burn and my energy was waning. Somehow, I pushed through the last three miles while slowing and feeling increasingly worse. I even had to walk the second-to-last aid station. With about a mile to go, a relay guy said: "She's gaining on you" (and pointed behind me to Erin - who was catching back up). I told him I had a five-minute lead on her.

Then it hit me - that was NOT the attitude to take into the last half-mile of a race. I imagined I was on Ali'i Drive. I had to defend my lead - my surge - or die trying. I focused my brain, and headed for the finish line. When I turned toward the finish chute and saw Jim, he looked at his watch and said definitively, "You won!"

There was no fanfare or name-announcing... because I was actually the "second woman to cross the finish line." I forgot to hit the stop button on my watch and looked up at Jim in concern. Are you sure? I congratulated Heidi Benson - the young woman who crossed three minutes in front of me (unfortunately, the Rev3 announcer mistakenly assumed she won the race), and then we waited.

About ten minutes later, the announcement came: assuming no penalties, I had won the women's race - and finished tenth overall. Jim had me at 4:51, but the official time was 4:50:54.

With this unexpected turn, we definitely stuck around for the podium and the swag (which blows away anything I ever got from Ironman podiums). We celebrated with the overall men's winner, local standout and super nice guy Nick Glavac, and my SSSMST teammates Mike Schaefer (5th AG 40-44) and Brian Stern (5th overall an 1st AG 45-49).

SSSMST teamies: Mike Schaefer (center), Brian Stern (right)

I was never so glad I entered a race. It may have been just the pick-me-up I needed to get through the final month of Kona training.

Rainy starting line (pink caps = age 40+ chicks)

In March of this year, I was in search of nearby (read: within driving distance) spring triathlons to do once my hamstring tendon healed. At the time, I wasn't sure if I'd be in shape for, say, a half-iron distance, but if I conquered a marathon in May, then it might work - since the running part (the most damaging to my injury) would be only half that distance.


Swim exit, still raining. Me in pink cap. Wetsuit strippers at left.
Guy who missed the wetsuit strippers at bottom right.

Several races were taking place that morning. The half, an Olympic-distance triathlon, a sprint triathlon, and aqua-bike races in all three distances. The half-IM went first, and my wave was fourth - 40+ women - in pink caps. While waiting for the start, a few of us lined up wide, noticing the outside line was actually shorter because of a turn in the swim course. We "smart ones" probably had the easiest time in the water on Sunday, and I made it through the 1.2-mile swim un-clobbered. I didn't get my split time (no watch), but I knew I had a good swim because: (1) I spotted only a couple pink-capped women in front of me, and (2) Jim yelled "nice swim!"

I almost missed the wetsuit strippers. Jim had to point them out because I was oblivious and ran right past them. In less than a blink of an eye, I was on my way - I found it strange that I wasn't as exhausted as usual running to my bike. That was the last I saw of Jim in T1. He missed that I struggled clipping on my number belt in the rain, but other than that, my transition was decent, including getting into my bike shoes, and I surprisingly remembered to hit the start button on my Garmin once I mounted the bike. The only problem remaining was that my helmet shield had fogged up. Trying to wipe it while being careful about what was in front of me on wet roads meant that I didn't even look at my speed for the first five miles.

So I had to do a double take when I saw my first 5-mile split. Hard work on the bike this year wasn't expected to pay off this early in the season, and yet, there it was, the first number (the "minutes") on that display was 13. For the math wizards, that meant I was riding between 21-22mph (note: I did not do the math while riding, I just knew that 5 miles in 15 minutes is 20mph, my usual target). I chalked it up to a relatively flat start to the bike leg.

The great thing about the Grand Rapids 56-mile bike leg is that it only has a few turns. It's an out-and-back course with gradual rolling hills - a few are good climbs but nothing really steep where everyone has to get out of the saddle. Unfortunately, because of the large number of participants and long uphills and downhills, Grand Rapids suffered from a serious drafting situation. I wanted to ride my own race, but it was hard to stomach watching a whole peloton of guys with women just hanging on their wheels. Hopefully the USAT officials on the course were paying attention.

Besides trying not to draft, I spent most of the ride doing two things: blowing my nose and mentally assessing if I could keep this pace and still have a good run. After burning my quads for the first hour, I expected a major slow-down at some point, but I backed off a little in the second half to prepare for the run, still thinking it would probably be in vain.

T2. Wet running shoes are not easy to get on.

When I pulled into T2, I saw Jim and I think I yelled something about it being my fastest bike split ever in a half (it wasn't but I was really excited anyway). I knew several women had passed me and I'm sure some of them were in my age group, but I kept repeating to myself "don't do anything stupid on the run... don't do anything stupid on the run..." knowing I have a tendency to chase. The rain had mostly stopped but I still struggled to get my running shoes on wet - I gave up perfecting it, and decided to run with the tongue buckled under the laces.

Based on how I felt getting off my bike, I expected to start the 13.1-mile run fatigued with wobbly legs and thinking "there's no way I can run the whole thing." What happened was the opposite. I felt pretty good. I heard Jim tell me to ease into it, so I backed off a bit, but my legs were not suffering the way I expected, and I went through the first mile in 7:03.

Finishing the run.

The Grand Rapids run course is a two-loop out-and-back. Everyone from all three races is running the same course with different turn-around points, so it's very difficult to know who you are racing against. I really had no idea. I spent much of the run talking to myself to "avoid doing something stupid," assessing how I felt, making decisions about what to drink and/or eat, and looking for two friends who were also racing.

The course had two substantial hills, but to my surprise, my mile splits were pretty even 6:50-7:10 on the flats and downhills, and 7:20-7:30 on the hills, and I managed to survive on only Gatorade without walking the aid stations. When I crossed the finish line, my first thought was that I felt way better than I should have - I immediately regretted not trying to run faster. I asked Jim how I finished - the live results had me second in my age group. My time was 4:46:21, and we both had my run split at 1:34 (my fastest 13.1 miles since 2011).

It took me a while to digest the whole experience. I hadn't raced like that in a long time... and I was on no sleep and I was sick. I came in second in USAT Nats. I spent the next half-hour walking around trying to figure out what I thought of it. Jim kept asking how I was feeling. My answer kept coming back to "way too good" and "I should have run faster," and "I should have gone harder on the bike." I guess this is what happens when you're out of practice. And I am seriously out of practice at long distance racing.

Hanging out with super-fast people - teammate Brian Stern (middle)
and the 9th overall finisher, Nick Glavac (right)

We gathered everything up and took a long walk back to the car while waiting for the awards. After talking to a few athletes and checking out the unofficial results, we found that there were several mistakes that put athletes and relay teams listed in the wrong races and wrong age groups, and one of the mistakes was in my age group. The preliminary "winner" had competed in the Olympic-distance race, not the half, which meant that I was the age group winner. But even more surprising, I finished fifth overall - and no one was more surprised and delighted than me - except maybe Jim, who was adamant about getting things straightened out in the results (I love when he does that).

And so.. that was how an accidental registration resulted in a national championship. And now I have a big decision to make: to decide if I want to go to Motala, Sweden, for the ITU Long Course World Championship. There are worse fates. And I can't say enough huge thank-you's to the people who helped me in my recovery from injury to getting fast enough to stand on that podium Sunday: my P.T., Mike DeRubertis, my ortho doc, Sam Patterson, my awesome teammates from

Age group winners got very cool Rudy Project National Champion jerseys.

Falling on ice is nothing compared
to falling on pavement.

It's been almost two weeks since my last blog entry but I've really not had much to say. Spring 2011 has brought several weeks of continuing cold rain and snow to the Cleveland area and I have had to remain on my bike trainer for most of my rides. I've also been spending extra time at work in the evenings which translates into very late workouts and no time to write about them. The most significant things to report about the last two weeks are an increase in anxiety about Ironman St. George and a couple near-disasters during my runs in the dark.

I've been focusing on the bike-run transition -- which basically means I've decided that anytime I have bike and run workouts on the same day, I'll do it as a brick. The first one of these short bricks (and by short, I mean 2-4 hours) came a couple weeks ago in the evening. After a longer-than-average work day, I got on my CompuTrainer for two hours and followed it up with a one-hour run.

Everything was going especially well during that run. Temperatures - at night even - had reached near heat-wave status at 38 degrees, and I took off out the door in shorts for the first time in months. My legs were surprisingly "springy" after the ride, so I continued to run hard for several miles around the back roads in my neighborhood. In the dark at night, I usually stay on sidewalks because, not surprisingly, I've found that drivers don't expect to see runners out on the roads at 10 pm. (Seriously, why else would they be driving 50+ mph in a residential area and blowing through stop signs?)

So, yeah, I was running on the sidewalk.. when a forgotten dimension of winter's damage tripped me up, literally. The sidewalk pavements had shifted badly, and I ended up almost doing a face-plant on concrete. I felt more stupid than hurt, and I got up quickly, surveyed the damage to my knee, and started running again. By the time I got home, my leg looked like the photo above.

Six days later, the same thing happened. AGAIN. I went down the same way, on the same side. The only thing that wasn't the same was the sidewalk I was running on. So now I have scrapes and bruises on top of scrapes and bruises, and my arms feel like I've been doing heavy lifting. My right elbow is so badly bruised I can't lean on anything. (The bright side is that it keeps me alert and in good posture while at my desk at work).

The other equally-ridiculous thing I've done in the past two weeks was a 100-mile ride on the CompuTrainer - most of it on the IM St. George Real Time course. It gave me yet another data point in the IMSG analysis. This one was the best yet, although it wasn't as good as I had hoped after all the hard training I've done. The most important accomplishment of this ride wasn't the power output anyway, it was the mental fortitude I had to stay on the trainer for almost six hours - a personal record.

Here's a plot of my best three finishes on the IMSG course (and yes, it does bother me that one of my best rides is from waaaay back in February):

My best three rides on the CompuTrainer IM St. George Real Time Video Course
The darkest line is the latest ride and best average power.

This week, I'm planning a time trial on the CompuTrainer to determine if my FTP (Functional Threshold Power) value has changed at all from January after completing the 12-week CompuTrainer challenge workouts my team was taking part in. After all the training, I'm expecting it to be higher, but lately, I've gotten the distinct impression I'm never going to get any stronger on the bike, no matter what I do. But I'll let the proof be in the TT.

The P3 steps out in spring

Until yesterday, the last time my bike wheels were on pavement was November 13 in Clearwater, Florida. The last time they were on pavement in Cleveland was over a month before that. I've been riding indoors on my trainer exclusively for over five months. But yesterday, spring broke in Cleveland, as it does every year. With no warning.

The temperature went from a high of 45 degrees F on Wednesday to a high in the mid-60s yesterday. I couldn't get out of work fast enough. When my computer shutdown process lasted one second past 4:30 pm, I was panic-stricken. I had to get home, get my trainer tire switched out, and get out on the ROAD - for crying out loud! This was the most excited I have been about biking since I got my CompuTrainer in December.

All day yesterday, I had dreams of crushing my time from last year on one of my common routes. All that hard work on the CompuTrainer would finally pay off. I would, so to speak, leave myself in the dust this time. I called my husband Jim to tell him I would be out on the bike before he got home from work. He said two things to me: make sure you take a blinkie light with you in case it gets dark and be careful. It. Is. Windy.

Windy. It didn't register. He didn't say it was windy enough to be blowing his car around on the highway. But it was. All I could see was the sun and dry road.

I changed my tire in record time, donned a short-sleeve bike jersey and shorts, and ran out the door with my bike. I had to go back in not once, not twice, but three times. Once for my helmet. Once for my sunglasses. And once more for my water bottle. Yes. I am truly out of practice for this road-riding thing.

As I was leaving, Jim pulled into the driveway. Before I was off, he said it one more time: "be careful, it's really windy."

By the time I got to the first great hill followed by flat road, I understood what "windy" meant. The wind was directly out of the south - directly against me with gusts reaching almost 30 mph. So much for my assessment of how strong I had gotten over the winter. My speeds were about 5-6 mph slower than last year and after 32 minutes of riding into the wind, disheartened, I turned around and headed home. My great breakthrough on the bike would have to wait until some other day.

But the return trip was not without its own surprises. I was now riding WITH the wind. On my way back, not only would I reach speeds 5-6 mph faster than the same roads last year, but my my speed on the flat roads reached numbers I've NEVER seen (almost 30 mph). It brought back memories of the day I rode my first racing bike after 10 years of running only. THIS was what biking was all about - the proverbial "need for speed." It's something I never felt as a runner. Even though it's never the thing that gets me out the door for a workout, it IS the thing that keeps me out there even when my workout goes to hell. The speed. The fun of it.

I felt so good about riding with the wind, I decided to tackle the BIG hill - a three-mile climb out of the valley (Note: Northeast Ohio is far from Colorado. Our ski resorts - and subsequent hill rides - are actually made from slopes into river valleys). With the hill, I finally got my spring payoff.

The last time I climbed the hill in 2010, I had to shift into my lowest gear at least once to maintain a pace above 5 mph. Yesterday, that gear never saw the chain. Neither did the second lowest. By the time I made it to the top of the hill, I was trying to recall my fear in the "olden days" when I dreaded it so much. Today, both my brain and my legs are having trouble recalling any sort of struggle at all.

I still have work to do though. I have yet to do my first outdoor 100-miler (planned for this Sunday). But, thanks to the CompuTrainer, I feel I've made progress on the bike this winter. And, to my extreme surprise, I'm developing just the tiniest bit of confidence going into my next race. Which just happens to be my first race of the season. Which just happens to be an Ironman. Which just happens to be in mountainous terrain. Talk about tempting disaster. I'm gonna need all the confidence I can get.

Here's a neat little chart of yesterday's weather, to prove (mostly to myself) that I wasn't being a wimp. Yes, the engineer in me still loves graphs.:

Weather Underground: Akron, Ohio, March 17, 2011
(my ride took place between 5:30 and 7 pm)

And then the shark eats you (post race, 2009 Clearwater 70.3)

It's eight days to game day -- the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Florida. I'm betting everything on this race, and my hope is that if I don't go out in style, I better go out in flames. Because, if I can't have a success story, it better be a worthy disaster story. I'm hoping the former is true. This season is ready to be over (even if I'm not ready for it to be over).

I'm far from an expert on tapering for a half-ironman. It's the one race distance I rarely taper for because it's usually not an "A" race for me. Last year, I didn't take Clearwater seriously because I took a long non-swimming, non-biking vacation less than two months before the race. As a result, I didn't panic until the night before. There were two disasters that day: one was natural, the other was man-made.

The natural disaster was weather-related: high winds sent the swim into the harbor side of Clearwater and we were forced into a time-trial start with no warm-up. The man-made disaster was another one of my bathroom disasters during the run, most likely caused by lack of sleep (note the panic statement above). But, despite the lack of training and a so-so taper (I mean, can you really taper when you don't have much mileage to start with?), I still did my fastest half in seven years.

This year, I'm using my best judgment for taper mileage/yardage based on the three-week 75-50-25% rule that always works for marathons. And, I hate to say this out loud, but I have already made commitments to myself and there's at least one person (you know who you are) predicting outcomes, but I will not mention them here for fear of inviting the disaster gods to come down and thwack me good. All I will say is this: despite my attempts to sabotage myself in the water (i.e., swimming only two times a week), my swimming seems to have made some sort of breakthrough. With my luck, the reason for this is more likely that they've shortened my local pool.

I only have two things left to decide for race day: how fast to ride 56 miles and still have something left for the run and my all-important fashion statement.

I'll tackle the bike question first... Because it's cold in Cleveland at this time of year and Florida terrain is flat, I've been riding indoors and doing speed intervals (those max-effort things that you only read about) on my trainer for many weeks now. I'll know in eight days if my efforts pay off with increased speed in Clearwater. Last year, my bike time wasn't even in the top half for women even though it was my fastest 56-mile ride EVER. The thing I'm struggling with is how hard or fast to go out. The Clearwater bike course is as flat as can be, but I want to have something left in my quads for the run, because, despite also being very flat, the run course has four short bridge-hills. After you've torn up your quads on a fast bike course, this can be deadly.

I'd like to say my plan is to ride fast but relaxed and try to push the second 28 miles in hopes that many athletes make the mistake of pushing too hard the first 28. Could this be the one time I succeed in a race plan?

The second decision... what to wear... and it's not really about fashion, it's more about what will be most comfortable and fast during the race. I just bought a new TYR race top -- do I really want to debut it in my most important race of the year? I also need to decide which wetsuit to wear. Now that I have a new Quintana Roo wetsuit, it seems like a no-brainer because it has that breakaway zipper. But there's a reason I wear my old wetsuit, the two-piece DeSoto T1 -- it's FAST. I bought it because it doesn't bind my shoulders and it has very little drag. However, I always wonder if I cancel out the time I gained in the water with the time it takes to get it off. Thank heavens for wetsuit peelers. If I do wear the T1, I just hope they don't send me on a wild goose chase this year to retrieve the top.

One fashion statement decision has been made. If, by some miracle, I make it to the age-group podium, I will be wearing my Punk Rock Racing tri shirt. That's a sure thing. Stay tuned...

Mom & me, prerace - look at that sky!

I know one thing for sure, home is where the heart is. By "home," I don't mean the house in Connecticut in which I grew up. I mean New England. And I returned to my home this weekend to finish up my regular triathlon season with a race that's very near and dear: the FIRMMan Half-Ironman in Narragansett, Rhode Island. The race usually attracts an excellent field of local athletes and is produced by Fiske Independent Race Management (F.I.R.M.), who organize more than 30 events throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The first time I did the FIRMMan was in 2002. I chose the race for two reasons: it was close to my family and I could use it as a warm-up for Ironman Hawaii. That year, the weather was stellar - sunny, in the 80s, and dry. I did my fastest times ever at both the 70.3 distance (4:35) AND the half-marathon (yes, it's true, my fastest 13.1-mile run ever was in a triathlon). I finished third woman overall that year, and after the race, my parents, my husband Jim, and I spent a nice few hours on the beach before we headed home to Cleveland.

The second time I did the FIRMMan was in 2004. Jim and I were going to be in Connecticut that weekend for a party, and I decided to give the race another shot even though I was not training seriously that year. I don't remember much from that year except that the weather was almost exactly the same as in 2002, I finished third, again, and we had a great time afterward with my parents, again. Sadly, it was the last time my dad would attend one of my races as he passed away from cancer the next year.

Despite great experiences, the FIRMMan was not immune to my disasters. Even though I had a great race in 2002, I had two classic Disaster Magnet-style mishaps on the course. I hit a pothole near the beginning of the bike course and lost my race nutrition bottle, and I took a wrong turn on the bike course and lost about 1-2 minutes. Then, when I attempted a third showing at the FIRMMan in 2008, the entire race was postponed until a later date due to a hurricane sweeping north along the eastern seaboard. We learned this after checking into our hotel in Narragansett.

This year, we had planned to stop in Narragansett for the FIRMMan before continuing on to Cape Cod for a vacation. But, as they say, the best-laid plans... Jim found out he has a torn meniscus and needs knee surgery so we decided to scrap our vacation plans because of his limited mobility. The trip was abbreviated to four days -- to drive, race, and drive home. But we did manage to pick up my mom and drop her back off in Connecticut on the way.

This year's FIRMMan would be the last opportunity to assess my training and tri skills before Ironman 70.3 Clearwater on November 13. I didn't plan much of a taper, but I did take several days easy before the race to get the feel of racing fresh -- something I hadn't done since Lake Placid in July. I dealt with my normal pre-race nerves in a different way this time. I drank two glasses of red wine the night before the race and I was out cold by 9 p.m. We woke up at 3:45 on race morning and got down to the start by 5:15. While it was still dark, I set up my transition, got body-marked and complained about the cold (it was around 50 degrees F).

The race takes place at Narragansett Town Beach with a 1.2-mile point-to-point swim parallel to the shore. I donned my wetsuit while we walked up the beach and got in for a quick warm up at the starting line with 10 minutes to race start. The water felt colder than the official measurement of 70 degrees, but it was warmer than the air. With overcast conditions, the day's high temperature would not reach 70.

Swim finish

Because I signed up in the "elite" category, I would start in the first wave with male and female elites and 50+ men. When it appeared I was the only female in the wave, I regretted the decision. All the other women started in the third wave, eight minutes behind me. In years past, the surf had been rough on the way out but the rest of the swim was relatively calm. This year, the opposite was true -- the deeper water offshore was rough and spotting buoys was more difficult than in the past. At the final turn, a course official directed me to "spot the building!" as the buoys were almost impossible to see and the current on the way in was sweeping athletes off course. I realized this when I reached the shore and several swimmers were running toward the transition from the far left. Despite unfavorable conditions, I had one of my faster swims and crossed the chip-mat around 25 minutes. There were very efficient wetsuit peelers just inside the transition zone, making my transition much quicker.

Bike start, adjusting my jersey

The FIRMMan bike course can be described as rolling New England hills and remains the site of my second fastest 56-mile ride ever. The air temperature was in the 50s for the start of the bike leg, and I found myself launching so many snot rockets even NASA would be proud (my husband thinks that would make a good name for a punk band). I was glad I decided to wear my bike jersey, but it did absolutely nothing for my feet which were blocks of ice for most of the ride. I was able to keep my average speed just over 20 mph until we faced a strong headwind in the last 15- to 20-mile stretch.

I spent most of the first hour of the ride jockeying for position with one of the 50+ male riders. He spent most of that time looking over his shoulder at me (or who-knows-what?). At the first major hill, I gave him the old Contador slip when he threw his chain. He eventually caught and passed me, and then I didn't see him again until the last five miles. When I finally caught him again, he had words of wisdom for me: "great way to come back!" (as though I had rallied to catch him). I didn't have the heart to break the news that it wasn't I who sped up, but actually he who slowed down. Only one woman passed me on the bike, but she was on a relay team and I re-passed her before the transition. At 2:46, my bike time was at least six minutes slower than I expected.

In transition, the announcer noted I was the first woman off the bike and on the run course. Neither he nor I had a clue on the performances of the women behind me. And I knew that if any of them were within eight minutes of me, I wasn't actually leading the race.

Which brings me to the run. If I had any designs on winning this race, I had to be at least eight minutes in front of the second woman by the time I finished the run. The run is on gradual rolling hills through neighborhoods and scenic by-ways. The only major hill - a steady incline - begins well before the first mile marker and doesn't end until after mile 2. This hill also leads runners down to the finish. Thus, my strategy was to run hard for 11 miles and follow it with a two-mile controlled fall. On the course, I would gauge my overall lead (if I still had one) at the two 180-degree turns when the course loops back on itself.

At the start of the run, I heard Jim say "relax - go out easy!" I heeded his advice and settled into my classic marathon shuffle step. Based on how I felt and a nagging sharp pain in my hip, I thought a 7-minute mile pace would be my best bet. After the first mile, the hip pain settled a bit and I split a 6:57 at mile 2, the uphill mile. It was at this moment I realized the potential for this to be my best run of the season.

The beach finish

At the first turnaround near mile 4, I kept an eye out for the second woman. She was about five or six minutes back. I had to stay strong. I alternated water and Gatorade at the aid stations with no walking. My goal was to keep every mile under seven minutes. I would have done it had it not been for one equipment malfunction -- my salt capsule container was catapulted from my tri shorts and I had to stop to retrieve during mile 8. By the second turnaround near mile 9, I noticed I was more than 10 minutes ahead of any woman I saw on the course.

The excitement of my lead got me through miles 10 and 11 and into the final downhill miles. This thrill came to a sudden end when I realized my memory failed me. The FIRMMan had one more trick up its sleeve before the finish line -- the "beach quarter." The final quarter mile of the run course is on beach sand. It's almost like acing a multiple-choice exam only to find out there are essay questions at the end. It felt like I would never reach the finish line, but then I was there -- and smiling. I finally hit that sub-1:30 half-marathon that I had almost given up on.

Awards ceremony

It didn't take long after finishing for me to start shivering in the cold. Jim confirmed that I had won the women's race while I changed into dry clothes and packed up my bike and wetsuit. The finish line included a awesome post-race meal (as always here) and luau. Then I remembered yet another awesome thing about this race. All the category winners get to choose their awards from a table full of "stuff" which this year included great items such as Tyr transition bags and triathlon clothing certificates from sponsor V3 Multisport in Arlington, Massachusetts. I chose a bottle of Hammergel that came with a QuintanaRoo wetsuit - you can't beat that deal! We spent a little time meeting and talking to other triathletes before it was time for us to head back to the hotel and get cleaned up so that the non-triathletes (Jim and mom) could have a little fun and dinner before we left Rhode Island.

And it's always hard to leave. Because it feels like I'm already home.

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