There was no inspirational, or even good, reason that I signed up to do Ironman Lake Placid this year. I registered because I was being hounded – by my friend and faithful swimming partner Karen. She badgered me for weeks, but I hadn’t really given it much thought. On the morning of registration in late July 2010, during a particularly laborious kicking session in the pool, I thought what the heck, why not? At noon that day, I told her, I would try. 10 minutes on the interwebs, I said, and then I am out. 9 minutes in, I got through. Damn.
At Christmas, on a run with my brother Danny in Austin, Texas, I really started thinking about goals for the race. At that point, it was still 7 months and an eternity away. This would be my fourth ironman (and second time to do IMLP – last time in 2005) and part of me wanted to dedicate a big effort over the next half year to see if I could really make a significant jump in fitness. But another part of me didn’t really believe I was capable of the type of training needed to do it.
When he got sick of hearing me hem and haw, Danny told me about a conversation he had with a mutual friend of ours, Jen Stewart, when he was considering trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon (which would mean running a 3:10, cutting a big chunk of time off his current marathon best time). He said he was going back and forth about should he try or shouldn’t he; at some point she looked at him with puzzlement and a bit of disdain and said something like, “Just run a 3:10, dude. Train for it and run it. What’s the big issue?”
So I blame Jen (and Danny) for setting sub-11 hours as my goal going into Lake Placid training. But I couldn’t help but think that in some way they were both right: If you’re going to set a goal, go big – whatever big might mean for you. Why futz and fiddle with all the fretting? Just go for it and see what happens. That’s an adventure, right?
So when I got back to DC I reconnected with my coach Eric Sorensen from CycleLife and, in a muttered, side-of-the-mouth kind of a way, told him my goal. To my surprise, he didn’t recoil in disbelief or shake dangerously with laughter. Instead he nodded, assured me we would set up a plan that could get me there, and told me to get to work.
The subsequent months of training were full of revelations and improvements. More than other years, I committed to the process and the learning. I didn’t hedge, but I also didn’t overreach (much, at least). I did my workouts with commitment, and I worked harder. Over time, I started to gain real confidence in getting stronger. I saw improvements in my cycling, running and my swimming. I ate better (usually), and maintained my commitment to red wine. I vowed to myself to make my training fun, so I sought out training partners, and I actively tried to focus on the positive of the whole experience. In short, I had a blast.
So in some ways, by the time I got to the start line on race day, I had already succeeded. No matter what happened during the day, I remember clearly thinking that morning standing on the beach of Mirror Lake, this ironman go-round had been a success.
But there was still that nagging sub-11 goal to face down. And I was lucky enough to have a gaggle of friends and family, including my parents, there to cheer me on. It was time to go big.
The swim was wetsuit “optional,” which meant that you could wear a wetsuit unless you were vying for age group awards or a qualifying slot to Kona. I did not have a goal to qualify for Kona, for a couple of reasons. First off, you never know who is going to show up on race day, and pegging my goals to others’ performance didn’t seem to be the best aim for me. Second, and probably more important, I didn’t actually want to go to Kona. I know that sounds crazy to some people, but I have never heard the siren’s call for that race, and every time I watch it on TV it looks hot, windy and kind of miserable. (Not in line with my “fun” objective.)
Nevertheless, I decided not to put on my wetsuit on race morning. For some reason I just felt like it was my day to demonstrate bravery, and if you are familiar with my swim skills, you know that swimming without a wetsuit in a mass of 2500 wetsuit-clad cavemen was one of the scariest things I could choose to do.
Turned out I had reason to be scared. During what seemed like each one of the next 72 minutes, I was pummeled and dragged and kicked and most probably bit and chewed and blended. Every time I would find clear water, within sixty seconds I would either ram right into a group of cavemen, or get swallowed up by another group in their neoprene wrestling suits.
During the last 10 minutes of the swim, I lost my temper, which led to some bad decisions. I started fighting back. Yes, punching guys twice my size who were wearing floatable suits. Bashing on their legs like a jackhammer. In my pink cap and naked skin. I probably looked like a mean, bald baby having a fit. I mean, any one of those guys could have dunked me under with their pinky finger and held me there for about 20 seconds until I learned my lesson. Luckily they were paying less attention to my temper tantrum and more attention to the fact that they were … racing an IRONMAN!
Head in the game, Hayes. Up and out of the ring. Match is over. (You lost, FYI.) Headrush. For the first time ever I ran right past the wetsuit strippers, leaping some people on the ground, and headed down the long, long red carpet to T1. I grabbed my bag and headed into the tent. I put my aero helmet on and then stopped for a split second, sitting there and thinking what an idiot I looked like sitting there, all wet and bedraggled, on a church-picnic fold up chair in an aero helmet.
Luckily there were a lot of other idiots in that tent. I looked for my friend Jill, who I knew was volunteering in the tent, didn’t see her, put on my bike shoes and headed out. A volunteer passed my bike to me as I ran by my row, and I saw my friend Emily also getting on her bike. She said something about my ass, which I hoped was a compliment, and I hopped on my bike.
When I got on my bike, I experienced exactly 30 seconds of exhilaration. Count ‘em. Thirty seconds.
I love cycling, and the bike is generally my strongest sport. I have been really putting in the bike mileage this year, riding lots of hills and spending hours and hours in solitude, almost every Wednesday morning on the bike, alone, on long rides. It has been kind of like my church time – or at least what I imagine church time should feel like.
So I was really looking forward to the bike course. I was comfortable and calm. I had my wattage plan and my heart rate plan and my nutrition plan all well-versed and rehearsed and ready to go.
And you know what they say about plans.
Thirty seconds into the bike, still on the downhill out of town, I cramped. And not baby cramps. Big-muscle cramps, in both of my quads and my left hamstring. I have never experienced this sensation before, and at first I wasn’t sure what was happening. I could only pedal with the lightest force on the pedals, because my legs were so locked up. Then I started to panic. I remember distinctly this conversation I had with myself about 20 minutes into the bike:
Crampy baby Janie: “I don’t know what to do. I don’t think I can do this. My ironman might be over. I need to call Jimmy. Where’s my phone?”
More reasonable Janie: “WTH would you have your phone? You’re doing an ironman for crying out loud! And anyway, what would he say to you?”
Crampy baby Janie (morosely): “He’d tell me to keep riding, probably like that time that I tried to quit a 10k and he poked me back into the race with a crutch.”
More reasonable Janie: “So shut it. Take care of yourself, and stop looking for someone else to tell you what to do.”
Crampy baby Janie and More-reasonable Janie duked it out for another 30 minutes or so. During that time, I managed to pound about 10 salt tablets and put down half of the Accelerade I had loaded up for the first loop. By about 45 minutes to an hour into the ride, my cramps had released a bit and my legs just felt sore, like your Achilles does the day after you get a Charley Horse in the middle of the night, but no longer seizing. I was able to phase out of damage control and start to concentrate on actually riding my bike.
Unfortunately, either because of the cramps, the extra round of boxing I had added to my morning swim, or something else, my wattage plans seemed to be toast. I had been training regularly on long, solo rides at about an average of 150w, but during the ironman I was having trouble holding 140w without an alarming rise in heart rate. So I went to Plan B (or was it Plan C now?), which was just to ride at a sustainable pace and enjoy the day. For the last two years, Eric has had just three major bits of racing advice for me: Eat lots, smile, and encourage others. I decided to take this advice to heart, and started chowing down and yelling at my teammates when I saw them across the road on the out and backs.
That was when things started to turn around. The first trip back into town was a giddy madhouse. Jimmy, my brother Danny, and friends Amanda, Sandy, Laurel, Katie and Jill were posted halfway up one of the last two hills into town, screaming like maniacs, and seeing them was like an instant caffeine-plus-sugar-plus-dance-music rush. Oh yeah. They had also written exhortations to us on the road. Jimmy’s slogan to me read, “Janie, your helmet is askew,” which let me tell you is something that will really get you pumped up when you’re feeling down.
The crowds were crazy in the best possible way back into town. I looked for my parents but couldn’t spot them. I stopped at special needs to get my bike bag and reached in to grab the McDonald’s cheeseburger and bottle of Amp energy drink I had been looking forward to for the past half hour. Predictably, the Amp had spilled all over my cheeseburger, leaving it a soggy, oozing mess of pickles, ketchup, cheese and little onions. Undeterred, I grabbed it anyway and started shoving it into my mouth as fast as I could. As quick as I can chow, though, I couldn’t eat fast enough to keep bits of bun and burger from falling down into my brakes and chain ring. Then I couldn’t stop from laughing, which I am sure was a really attractive sight to all the volunteers and spectators I was riding by in town – a maniacal woman in a sideways aero helmet just shoving a Mickey D’s burger into her mouth and laughing hysterically while it oozed between her fingers and down into the mechanically necessary parts of her bike.
Lap two held little of the drama of lap one, and I was thankful for that. I did lose my sunglasses, and bark at some guys for drafting, but I was also able to enjoy the beautiful river. And the mountains. And the mountains. And did I mention the mountains? I really noticed the fact that we were riding in the mountains on this time around. The last 11 mile ascent into town seemed a lot longer than the first time, and it was a big relief to see Travis, one of my DC Tri club mates near the end, and joke around with him a bit. He said something about how it was going to be a relief to run, which reminded me, strangely enough for the first time in several hours, I had to get off my bike and run a marathon now. Yikes. Reality check.
I hobbled off the bike and grabbed my run bag. This is the part of the ironman where, for me, the truth of the whole ironman thing really comes into clear focus. You are sitting there in that tent, with your running shoes on, and you suddenly think, “I have to do what now?!” At this point, I know it’s just better not to even give myself time to answer that question. So I popped up off my folding chair, reminded myself that at least I was no longer wearing an aero helmet that had gone askew, and headed out the tent into the sun.
The first part of the run was almost a replay of Act 1 of the bike. On the hill out of town, I felt absolutely terrible. Every muscle that had cramped in my legs, plus a few others, were screaming at me. None of that, “Oh I’m so relieved to be running” feeling that Travis had promised. (What a traitor.)
Still. Wait it out, I thought, because sometimes that feeling is short lived and running legs come back after 10 minutes or so.
So I waited. Mile 2, mile 3, mile 4. It was lonely on the first turn out River Rd. I tried to buoy myself by watching the people coming back after the turnaround on the other side of the road, but honest to god, not many of them looked so hot, either. I cheered for a few teammates, but I was having a hard time getting the words out with all of the panting I was doing. My heart rate was much higher than I thought it should be since I left transition, so I was back in damage control mode, trying to pound water and slow down enough to rein in my effort without reducing myself to a crawl.
Mile 5, mile 6, mile 7 went by. I was honestly just focusing on trying to finish the first loop. I told myself that I just needed to get back to town and then I could throw in the towel if I wanted to. Crampy baby Janie was threatening, and then I saw Danny and Jimmy just up ahead. They were dancing and cheering. I could see, from a distance as I approached, that they were cheering every single person by name, usually with an additional “Woo-hoo!” or a “Can I get a what what…” or a “Can I get a Hellz Yeah?!” When they saw me, they started yelling. Danny yelled, “That’s my sister right there!” and Jimmy jumped into the road.
As I ran past them, I felt that crack-candy-dance-party rush again, and suddenly the crystal clear thought appeared to me: “I can do this.” I thought about all the time I had spent training, and all the people who were there wanting me to achieve my goals, and how much FUN this really was, when you stop thinking about the pain. I turned right and ran up the hill, and as I got closer to town, my legs started to morph back underneath me. For miles 9, 10 and 11, I felt like I was learning to run again, and it felt darn good.
At mile 12, up the big hill into town, I was lapped by Heather Wurtele, who would go on to win the women’s pro race two miles later. The crowd went crazy, and watching her run up that hill was an inspiration for me to keep pushing (and to imagine I was famous for about two seconds). As Heather ran past me, an 80-year-old woman on the sidelines yelled to me, “You go get her, girl!” I laughed, gave her a thumbs up, and didn’t break her the bad news that I was a full 13 miles behind.
I saw my parents on the way through town, which was another incredible boost, and as I headed out on the second loop, I felt infinitely better than I had 13 miles earlier. For the next 6 miles I had to hold myself back, reminding myself that the race really starts at mile 16 of the marathon. I was nearly exactly on my goal pace, and the miles just kept ticking by. Not that it wasn’t hard – I felt nauseous after every aid station, but if I kept running, I found that the nausea disappeared about four minutes before the next aid station, which was just long enough for me to forget that flat coke made me feel sick, and I would get some more and repeat the whole cycle over again. And over.
About mile 19, things started to get tough, but as luck would have it, I came across Emily (of the indecipherable T1 ass comment), who is a rock star runner, and she ran with me for about a half mile, despite having serious stomach shut-down issues. Then I saw TJ, who started jogging with me, just to pick up the pace and propel me past mile 21. At that point, I knew I had less than a 10k to go, so I just focused on holding on to the best pace I could. Up the big hill into town at mile 24, I started walking, but there appeared Jimmy and Danny from out of the crowd, yelling “Run! Run!” What could I do but run?
The last two miles are a mean out and back that takes you right past the finish and then away from it, down a winding, curvy road that seems like it lasts forever. Luckily this stretch was lined with yard parties and spectators drinking beer and yelling, so it had a little bit of a spring-break feel that diminished, a tinge, the excruciating pain. Passing mile 25, someone pumped up my favorite Kanye West song, “All of the Lights” and I got a little surge of energy to push it to the last right turn and then quick left into the Olympic Oval.
It’s hard to put into words the feeling of those last 200 meters to the finish line. Elation is a nice word, but it’s still too small for the feeling. During those moments, all of the pain disappeared. There was no discomfort, just the sweet promise of total relief. I was slapping hands and cheering and grinning and whooping. I remember being thrilled that it was over, but at the same time I also never wanted that moment to end. I gave a few fist pumps into the chute, crossed the finish line and immediately asked a volunteer, “Is it over?” When she said yes, I asked one more time, just to be sure, “Is it over?”
Run time: 3:48:30
Total race time: 11:05:31
Hugging Jimmy, my brother, my parents and my friends were a few of the happiest moments I have had in recent history. I was five minutes shy of reaching my race goal, but at the time, I didn’t have a bit of regret about it. I think that somehow, even amongst all the sweat and the tears and the pain, I realized that I had learned some really good lessons that day, lessons that were much more important than anything the finish-line clock could say.
Three of them:
• When it’s bad, just be patient. Things do turn around. During this race I faced physical problems that I have never encountered before in an ironman. They plagued me, and then they stopped. Nothing is forever.
• My family and friends are my biggest inspiration. The incredible jolt of energy that I got from having my family and friends on the course and the sidelines was unprecedented and, I must admit, a little unexpected. I consider triathlon racing a pretty solitary pursuit, but this experience challenged that assumption. Family and friends, fair warning: Don’t answer your phones. I am going to be suckering you into a lot more races.
• And Eric Sorensen’s words still stand as some of the best racing, and life, advice I have ever heard: Eat. Smile. Encourage others.
• The finish line of an ironman near midnight is abso-freakin-lutely amazing. The crowd swells, the music is bumpin’, the cheers are deafening, and no one seems to mind if you bring a bottle of wine in a backpack and guzzle it out of plastic cups. Lucky, lucky me, I got to stand at the finish line and dance with the volunteers for the arrival of my friend and swim partner Karen. As she crossed, I got to give her a giant hug while Mike Riley called out, as he is wont to do, “Karen Willard, You. Are. An Ironman!”
• I did end up getting offered a Kona qualifying slot in the rolldown, but didn’t show up to take it. Maybe if the TV coverage is better next year – and they get some better scenery in that lava field, geesh – I’ll try again. Next chance: Ironman Coeur d’Alene 2012!
This 'traitor' also ran a 4:25 marathon. That may have something to do with my excitement to get on to the run (walk?).
Great report Janie. You really captured the experience of such a long event. It was great spending the week with you and the Janie fan club.
You know Janie, this ALMOST inspired me to sign up for Coeur d'Alene. Almost.
Congrats on the great race. Great seeing you out there (and even getting passed by you). And inspiring report given the obstacles you overcame.
You ate McDonald's during an IM then qualified for Kona?? One of the many reasons you're awesome, Janie. Congrats on a great race! And thanks for writing this up - I loved reading your race report.
Great RR. Cheeseburger at special needs is awesome. Impressive performance on the race course. It was good to meet you and yours. See you on the road.