Race Report: Ironman Louisville 2017

Third time was NOT a charm… unless that charm was grit and resiliency.

This particular journey started 8 weeks ago with the conclusion of Ironman Mont-Tremblant.  I was on track to PR that race, until some strong headwinds set in on lap 2 of the bike and left me struggling for the remainder of the day.  But I knew I had the fitness to PR, and more than that, I wanted it.  So after slightly hasty consideration, I decided to sign up for IMLOU to try my luck again.  I had done LOU last year as my first Ironman so I knew what to expect.  My brother was racing it again this year, as was my coach and a bunch of friends, so I took the plunge and signed up.

The lead-up to IMLOU seemed like it would be about ideal for recovery and maintenance workouts.  But alas, life always has plans of its own.  I was sent across the Pacific for two weeks for work, which killed my ability to work out.  No big deal though, part of IM is rolling with the punches and I knew I already had a great base from IMMT, so all I had to really worry about was maintaining what I already had.  Plus, this trip gave me a chance to swim with sharks…. but more on that in a different post!

Anyway.  I hopped in the truck Thursday and headed to my parents’ house in Cincinnati feeling pretty confident.  Actually I was a little nervous that I did not feel nervous.  After some of mom’s famous chicken cacciatore and a good night’s sleep, I picked up my brother and off we went to Louisville.

Everyone was nervous about weather and to be honest the predictions were all over the place.  I convinced myself that weather was going to be awesome.  Ideal.  Because even contemplating that it might not was some kind of bad superstitious mojo that would make it real, and I could not handle that thought right then.  I knew I was going to PR this race.  I knew it.  And dammit I would have if Mother Nature hadn’t invited herself to the party.

Athlete check-in was probably the smoothest I’ve yet encountered.  There were no crazy lines, and other than arguing with someone about weather, it was an efficient and painless experience.  I also got to finally meet my coach in person, which was awesome!!  Sean and I both abandoned dinner plans with friends to just grab something together low-key, then retreated to the room to try and sleep.  I do not often get so much one-on-one time with my brother so it was nice, despite both of us being in the throes of Iron Brain and a little pre-race snippiness.  It’s all just part of the experience and we both recognize it’s not personal, it’s just each of us dealing with pre-race anxiety.

The next morning we hit swim practice.  The water was not as warm as last year, but it was not nearly as cold as practice for Tremblant either.  Much easier for me to get my face in the water and get moving.  That was good for my pre-race mental state and confidence.  After second-breakfast (yes, Sean and I go full-on Hobbit with the pre-race eating schedule) we did a final check of our transition bags, then took those and the bikes down for check in.  I have said it before and will say it again in this post, but the volunteers at IMLOU are truly some of the best.  My volunteer insisted on carrying my bags and guided me to my rack.  No surprises at gear check, Sean and I beat the line getting there so everything was really fast and smooth.  Anxiety-wise, gear and bike check is the worst part for me.  Justin left each of us personal notes on our bike racks, and that was another awesome little bit of pre-race good vibes.  That night, we went to dinner with my sister-in-law and my nieces, and one of Sean’s teammates and his parents.  Lesson learned from last year:  Make dinner reservations way in advance.  A lot of athletes want pasta pre-race and you’re not getting in without a LONG wait unless you have a reservation.  Sean went to walk around with his family after dinner while I went back to the hotel to chill.  My anxiety was starting to take hold and I just needed to go be quiet somewhere and get my head right.  I knew at this point the weather was not going to be as ideal as I hoped, but had no idea how bad it would actually be.

Race morning.  (The part most of you actually came here to read.)

LOU does a rolling start, but this year they moved to a self-seeded lineup by expected swim time.  This was SO MUCH BETTER.  No more waking up at 3am to sit in the cold for hours just so you have a good place in line.  I know there was some dishonest seeding, but those athletes only hurt themselves.  Final bike check, special needs bags turned in, and all looks good.  It was a little breezy, but a pleasant 70-ish degrees.  Once the corrals started moving to actually line up for swim start, my nerves and emotions really went into overdrive.  Sean and I jumped in the water at the same time, and we were off!  Like last year, I did not notice the current on the upstream portion at all, and had a pretty straight and steady swim until the turn to come downstream.  The spread started to bunch up at the buoy and it was hard to find clean water.  I got kicked in the head pretty hard a few times.  This year seemed more full-contact than any other OWS I’ve ever done.  I thought I had a cut on my ear but ignored it since there was nothing I could do anyway.  After the turn downstream, the wind started to make itself felt in some rough and non-periodic chop.    Until you got back along the island, there was a really strong sideways current that almost felt like it was pushing you in a circle.  I saw my brother hanging onto a kayak for a second, but he looked okay and got moving again.  I did not see him again until the run.  It was a good day to know how to breathe bilaterally.. I felt bad for anyone who could only breathe to the left.   That must have been especially unpleasant.  This was the kind of chop that randomly slaps you in the back of the head.  Whether from the cold or from the full-contact swim, I was feeling a little woozy by the time I reached swim exit.  Some amazing volunteer grabbed me and pulled me to the steps, then helped me find my feet getting out of the water.  Some other fantastic volunteer unzipped my wetsuit and pulled it off my shoulders before I knew they were doing it.  The strippers… er… “peelers” took care of the rest and I was off to T1.

Changing into bike shorts, I still felt off balance.  I sat down for a minute to give my body a chance to get itself together.  This resulted in a longer transition time, but well needed.  I saw my family right before the mount line and remembered I was supposed to be smiling.  Felt much better by the time I got on my bike.

There were a lot of accidents early on this year, I passed two or three in the first 10 miles.  My bike did not feel as strong as IMMT, but I reminded myself that I was holding back for the first loop and soldiered on.  Everything was fine until the long straight section leading up to the start of the second loop.  I cannot recall which road this was, but at this point we started to get a little drizzly rain and alternating head and cross winds.  Dangerous crosswinds.  The kind where you white-knuckle your aero bars and don’t dare reach for a water bottle or a snack.  Yes, I was scared.  I started to doubt myself as this point and started furiously reciting my mantra of “just get to the next aid station, just get to the next aid station.”  I stopped at the next aid station to wolf down some nutrition and my skratch mix.

Start of the second loop was better.  The wind was not as much of a factor and by now the sun was out.  My mental state was better now too as I realized my legs were feeling ok.  I definitely felt the effects of trans-pacific travel and the resultant less-than-ideal training schedule, but felt pretty OK despite this.  Not peak, but not under-trained either.  I saw my family at LaGrange or Sligo (I get the locations mixed up) and put in a request for chocolate milk at the finish line before making the turn and resetting mentally.  My memory was fuzzy, but somewhere in this area I thought I had a flat and stopped to check.  Turns out it was actually my back brake rubbing.  I had adjusted the brakes pre-race but something about the bumpy roads or the crosswinds knocked it off alignment just enough.  Easy enough fix and I was back on my way.  Somewhere in this area the wind started to pick up again and the sun went away.

This is where the suck really started and my memory gets hazy.  After the turn onto the really short-steep hilly section, I saw a girl walking her bike up the first of the steeper hills.  I asked if she was ok, she said she was not and was pretty distraught.  I stopped immediately.  Her shifter was broken.  She was a first-timer having an awful day and was on the verge of an emotional breakdown.  I talked to her while attempting to pop a rubber piece for her shifter back into place and got her to calm down.  I don’t know how many times she thanked me for stopping to help, but here’s the thing: Triathlon is a community.  We help each other.  At some point we all find ourselves on the side of the road needing a helping hand.  If we don’t stop to help when we can, how can we expect others to help when we’re the ones in need?  Kona was certainly not on the line for me, and even if a PR had been possible at that point, it was not worth it to me to leave someone in distress.  Ultimately I could not fix her shifter, but I could cheer her up and wait with her until a support vehicle arrived.  When it did, I told her I’d see her at the finish line and continued on with my race.

The triathlon gods of karma rewarded me with about 10 minutes of crazy tailwind as a storm rolled through.  Other than a tree getting blown over right next to me, I did not have the falling branches, hedge apples, crab apples, and hickory nuts to deal with that others did.  The good luck could not last and as I turned to come back onto the dreaded headwind road from earlier, the wind had shifted to a punishing crosswind.  Now it really was dangerous.   Debris all over the road.  I found out later that at this point, the winds were sustained at about 30 mph, gusting to 45 mph.  The temperature was falling and it started to rain.  By the time I finished the loop and started on the long section back, it was pouring.  There were times on descents in particular where I had to come out of aero for safety so I could be ready with brakes.  The wind was driving the rain so hard it felt like needles.  Some people reported hail, but I did not see any.  There were reports of a tornado.  I was in a short sleeve jersey and freezing my tail off.  Now I was really questioning my commitment to this race.  Why was I doing this.  This was not fun.  I can’t open my hands to shift or brake.  This is dangerous.  I can feel the water pooling in my shoes.  This is really dangerous.  The cars can’t see me.  Why am I doing this.

There is one unfortunate section of road on the return journey that is not only open to traffic, but there is no shoulder and the lanes are narrow.  This resulted in cars getting stuck behind cyclists who may or may not be slower than you.  Every other place on the course had GREAT traffic control except for this stretch.  The cars did not know to get over either, so you were just stuck sometimes coming to a complete stop in the rain on an uphill.  The only benefit – car exhaust is really warm!!

By the time I got back to T2, I was borderline hypothermic.  The outstanding volunteers in the ladies change tent were wrapping everyone in Mylar as soon as they got there.  I did not care how long transition took me, I needed to warm up a little before I started to run or I was going to be a cold casualty.  Now I was really glad for my insistence on throwing ear warmers and gloves in my T2 “optional” bag just in case.  The arm warmers and dry shorts and socks were amazing, despite not being able to feel most of my toes or my pinky fingers.  I was so out of it, I kept trying to put my calf sleeves on after my shoes.  The volunteer helping me was clearly a mom, she helped me get my shoes off, turned my socks right-side-out, and helped me get the sleeves on correctly.  Some people were running with their Mylar blankets, I opted for tearing out a strip and wrapping it around my torso under my jersey.  This eventually warmed up my core while I started running.  Eventually I could take off the gloves and ear warmers, but the arm warmers stayed on for the duration.  At this point, the only thing I cared about was beating the cutoff.  I did not care about beating my brother or my old time, I just wanted to finish.  I got some high-energy hugs from my nieces around mile 1 and then set myself to hammer it out – one mile at a time.  I think I requested a pizza at finish from my mom, I really don’t remember what I said.  Hours before I had accepted that this was going to be my slowest race, but that ceased to have meaning beyond the fact that I wanted to finish.

It’s quite a challenge to be alone with your thoughts for 18-some miles.   That is how long it took me to convince myself I was indeed going to make the cutoff.   I did everything I could think of to change the direction of my thoughts when they started getting dark.  I thought about my brother, how far ahead he might be, if I was closing the gap or not.  That gave me something to do for a while.  I made friends with the runners around me.  I looked for the girl with the broken shifter.  I looked for my friend Justin or anyone else I knew.  I spotted the kilt guy and Peter the cycling music man.  By the time I hit mile 18 I could feel the temps dropping again, and the wind was picking up, but I knew I was going to finish under cutoff.  (Plenty under cutoff, but I wasn’t really capable of basic math at that point.)  And I knew I was within a mile of my brother.  Around 10:30 it starts to get really quiet out on the course.  Unless you have still been out there that late, you  don’t realize the different mental challenge of realizing that most of the spectators and people dressed up crazy to motivate you have gone home.  It makes you appreciate the die-hards so much more.

I finally caught my brother right at mile 25.  I wanted to slow down and finish with him but at that point I needed so badly to just be done with the course, I didn’t have it left in me to walk-run with him.  The finisher chute at that hour is incredible.  The spectators were so… exuberant!  They were beating on the signs and cheering so loudly I could not hear the announcer.  But I didn’t care.  I had finished.  The course and the weather and the day didn’t beat me.  The day started at 70 degrees and ended in what felt like the high 40s.  I was a little more unsteady and out of it than I had expected as my catcher put my medal around my neck and escorted me through the chute.  I wish I could remember her name – there were so many volunteers that were truly outstanding, they all deserve by-name recognition.

Mom met me at the exit with a giant hug.  I wanted to wait for Sean to cheer him in, but I needed to go to medical.  Dr. Gray and Suzanne took my vitals and ordered an IV and fluids, then kindly put up with my ridiculous, childish rituals to cope with getting stuck.  I hate needles, especially IVs.  Rocky worked on my calf which had been bothering me since mile 2.  I had taken some Aleve at T2 as my calf was starting to act up, but unfortunately by mile 19 or so it was wearing off.  (Yes, I know how bad this is for your kidneys when dehydrated.)  I dozed a bit in the medical tent.  Not sure how long I was in there.  The bags were kept at room temperature, which meant me and my new friend in the next cot were shivering uncontrollably under our blankets as we chatted.  Suzanne brought me a cup of warm broth, which helped.  Despite the cold, that IV was probably one of my best decisions of the day.  My recovery was faster than it has ever been, and for once I could tolerate solid foods post race.  The chocolate milk and pizza my mom had waiting for me in the hotel room were probably the best things I’ve ever tasted!

If you are still reading, thanks for getting through that whole thing!  This was really long but I needed to write how I felt.  Call it therapy.  I feel like there needs to be some lesson or point to the day.  I PR’d my swim, maybe that’s something.  And I gutted out a lot of adversity.  Maybe that’s the lesson.  2017 in general has thrown me a lot of curveballs and shitty situations.  The only options are to quit or to put your head down and gut it out, get through it.  Every time I’ve chosen the latter.  Everything happens for a reason.  My lesson, my reason from this race has not made itself known yet, but I am confident it will, and I will look back and be so grateful for this experience.

Bonus: Thanks to the IMLOU Facebook page, I was able to find the girl I had helped with the broken shifter.  SAG was able to get her repaired and on her way.  She finished her first Ironman under impressively difficult conditions and I could not be more proud of a perfect stranger.  She later told me that the only thing that kept her going when she wanted to quit was the knowledge that I had sacrificed part of my race for her.  She simply had to finish.  I do not have the words to adequately describe how this makes me feel, so I will have to simply use “awesome” and “humbled”.

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