The pro women’s field at this year’s Ironman Wisconsin was to be the most stacked one I had ever faced in this race. In five finishes in Madison, I had four podiums, including a win in 2008; and I had raced with some very strong women here, but never the number of them that would toe the line this year. When I told Coach this, she gave me some advice that would prompt an invaluable mental reset in my approach to racing: “You should just decide what time—given “normal” conditions—would be a good race for you on this course and focus on making that happen.”
I thought about this. I had only ever broken 10 hours on this course once, when I won (9:47), so I figured that, barring any exceptional conditions, anything under ten would be my definition of a good race. I imagined how I could feel if I were able to break ten hours on this course again; I asked myself if I would still be happy if this didn’t put me on the podium this year. And I realized that I would be, which meant this: success was within my reach, regardless of what anyone else did. I had the power to make this goal happen (or not) no matter who was in the race. This might seem painfully obvious, but for me this was a new way of looking at things. This was an amazingly empowering revelation.
The question was, could I do it? I must admit that the first few hours of my race required a considerable amount of very forceful beating back of mental demons. Two confidence-tainting memories were haunting me: the disaster at Ironman New York City four weeks earlier, and visions of my most recent experience on the course in Madison (2010), which was my one and only “bad” race there.
My swim was none too impressive. I got off to a slow start and it seemed to take ages before I found myself in a group on our own. The pace felt, literally, slower than warmdown pace, but I couldn’t seem to make any headway on my own and the next group of guys up ahead were soon too far to chase anyways. The thought, “Why did I even bother doing all those hard swim workouts?!” did occur to me from time to time.
I tried to replace it with, “You did all those hard swim workouts so that being stuck here could feel this easy and you could have a nice hour of energy conservation here.”
I guess that is what the swim was. It felt like 50+minutes of waiting for the race to start. I was the first woman out of the water, but not by much! Indeed I don’t think I’ve ever felt that fresh running out of the water up the helix, but what was usual was the roar of all of the awesome spectators lining the ramp. I got goosebumps, couldn’t stop smiling, and actually almost started to cry as I was just so flippin’ happy to be back at my “home” race after missing it last year.
Onto the bike. Kathleen Calkins and Kate Bevilaqua were hot on my heels out of the water, and Kathleen went trucking past me just a few miles into the bike. She was gone, then Kate came by about ten miles later. I was able to follow her for several miles but eventually got dropped and thus began the overload of time inside my own head. The extreme battles with demons. This period lasted for roughly, oh, 60+miles.
Eventual winner Elizabeth Lyles also flew past me mid-way through the ride, but other than that, I didn’t have a lot of contact with other athletes for hours. Finally on the second loop I had a few age group men who seemed to pass me and then blow up . . . I found it so odd that they would have put 10+ minutes into me to get there and I had to re-pass some of them, but hey, it was fun to pass anyone at that point! Somewhere around mile 80 it occurred to me that I actually must not be having a disastrous race (note the implicit assumption there—those are the mental demons I was talking about!), as I was riding in fourth and hadn’t seen any of the other women yet—and I knew there were some really strong women behind me.
Then around mile 92 Kate Bevilaqua reappeared! I knew at one point she’d been at least two minutes ahead of me, so this gave me a big boost of confidence. Besides a questionable stomach and a Polly-Pregnant belly, I was feeling alright, and it occurred to me that I might be holding it together better than many on this course. I was able to pass Kate, and she followed me all the way into T2.
I came off the bike in third, but Kate passed me in T2. My bike split wasn’t as fast as I had roughly estimated I’d need to hit my goal time, but it wasn’t too far off, and I wasn’t sure how fast or slow a bike day it was out there. I switched my focus to the running race I was about to have against myself—or more accurately, my garmin.
That I had embraced this mental strategy was particularly handy given that I had a few speedy runners transitioning behind me. Feeling like a sitting duck has never helped me to get the most out of myself on a run; instead, I was chasing . . . the pace on my garmin.
But first, it had to find a darn satellite! It took 5 or 6 minutes for this to happen, then a few minutes later, I looked down to see 6-something-per-mile pace on that sucker. What the what?!? I don’t “accidentally” run 6-something pace ever in an ironman. I actually had to back off—to control myself . . . and it has been a long time since I have had to do that.
I passed Kate just over a mile into the run, and eventually my garmin recorded its first mile (really sort of the second mile) for Polly Pregnant and I at 6:58. Again, I’m pretty sure that’s a first . . . Super runners Beth Walsh and Charisa Wernick passed me, flying, not long after this, and given the split I had just seen on my watch, I knew I couldn’t let it faze me.
I was just on a mission to stick with my pace and what felt like the appropriate effort level, mile by mile. My best run ever on this course was a 3:24, and I had twice run 3:26. Wisconsin is not a fast run course, probably in part because most people are pretty wrecked after the gnarly bike course, but also because there are so many turns and up and down sidewalks, etc. that a rhythm is hard to attain. Anyways, I was running faster than this pace, and felt great, but tried not to get too excited as I have had too many blow-ups during ironman marathons in the past two years.
Still, as the miles ticked over, my garmin beeped each mile with consistent splits, my body did not fail me, and my confidence grew. As usual, the crowds carried me through this run course. The many trips along State Street are always one of my favorite parts of this race and this year I had my friends Kerry and Eric to look forward to seeing every time I hit there. They had come all the way from New York City, and this was their second ironman in four weeks, and they aren’t even triathletes. This can only mean one thing: they are true and dear, dear friends! So it absolutely made my day to see them all over the course.
There were so many friendly faces lining the streets of Madison—faces of people I have come to know just through my years in this race, which is so cool to me! And then there were new faces and people who were no less enthusiastic—THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH. Truly every time I hit State Street, by the noise, you would have thought I was winning the darn race.
And indeed it was a personal victory for me. For the first time in a long while, no wall appeared during the marathon. I crossed the finish line in fifth place in 9:57 with my fastest marathon ever on this course (3:21).
Thanks to my sponsors for supporting me through the highs and lows: Smash, PowerBar, TYR, Recovery Pump, Rudy Project, Zipp, ISM, Vega, FSA, CycleOps, and the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows. And thank you to Ali Engin (endurancepicture.com) and Matt Rice (mattricephotography.com) for the awesome race photos here!