Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Road to Kona 2018 began in Mar del Plata, Argentina πŸ‡¦πŸ‡·

About 10 miles into IRONMAN Hawaii 2017, I threw myself a pity party, broke into a walk and swore off Iron distance racing while trying to convince my husband (aka Blanco) that he should let me quit the race. Of course, he wouldn't let me pull off my chip and urged me to keep moving forward. Minutes later I came across Jan Frodeno who was having an equally tough day and I snapped out of my momentary misery... since even if I was an unhappy *hot mess*, I knew that eventually "it too shall pass" and the finish line would be upon me soon enough.

Even before toeing the line in Kona, I'd been considering a trip down to Argentina for the new IRONMAN race in Mar del Plata, either to tag along with Sarah Piampiano or to race myself. If I wanted to qualify for Kona in 2018, it was pretty much my best option given work and other commitments... IM Florida has never appealed, Los Cabos and Arizona were non-starters due to my role with the Island House Triathlon and 2018 was already getting booked up with a role at the Purple Patch Kona Camp in April curtailing my ability to race IM Texas or Santa Rosa and my plan to race Challenge Roth in July ruling out most other IRONMAN qualifiers.

Despite the crappy race in Kona, I decided I wanted to try to qualify to race there again and registered for Mar del Plata and booked my flights to Buenos Aires. The race was set to take place seven weeks after Kona so I couldn't just wing the training and depend entirely on my Kona fitness.

Week 1 - The immediate focus was to recover from Kona. I remained on vacation in Hawaii the week after the race and I swam every day and even did a couple of short rides when the wind was not howling a gale... which it was most of the time!

Week 2 - Back in San Francisco and I returned to my regular routine but played things cautiously. Looking back I trained 16 hours that week but nothing was particularly challenging and I wasn't mentally ready to push yet... particularly on the bike.

Week 3 - I was starting to feel better and ramped the training a little more to 18 hours including a 4hr ride (75 miles), a 90 minute run (11 miles) and 20,000 yards of swimming. The ride and run would be my longest bike/runs between the two races.

Week 4 - Another week of consistent training, peaking at 18 hours but nothing super long... I even cut a few rides and runs short as I was beginning to feel a little fatigued.

Week 5 - Hello Bahamas! I left San Francisco for 10 days in the Bahamas as part of my role with the Island House Triathlon. Training was the last thing on my mind for most of the trip as the race typically requires long days, standing around on my feet followed by afternoons/evenings focused on media work. I did less than 6 hours of training and I drank a TON of wine!
#paininparadise with Gwen Jorgensen, Beth McKenzie & Tammy Barker
post-race drinks with Beth McKenzie & Michelle Dillon

#paradise with Blanco
Week 6 - The first three days were still in the Bahamas, vacationing at The Island House Hotel, before returning home. With the Island House race in the rearview mirror, I was able to swim and run quite a bit in the Bahamas, before switching my attention to the bike once back in California. After 10 days off the bike, I decided I wanted to ride 112 miles to prove to myself I still could πŸ˜‚πŸ™„ but at least I did it over three days. Training totaled 16 hours that week and I was feeling pretty good from a physical perspective despite the Bahamas libations.

Week 7 - Race week! Sarah and I flew to Argentina on Tuesday afternoon, arriving in Mar del Plata on Wednesday evening... SFO to Houston to Buenos Aires followed by a 6 hour car ride to Mar del Plata! It's a LOT of travel...

At this point, it would be remiss for me to not point out how I was feeling. I did not feel prepared to race an Ironman... particularly from a mental perspective. While being in the Bahamas with an array of fast triathletes might usually have inspired me, it had been a long season. I started training in January for IRONMAN South Africa and I was beginning to feel a little fried and ready to tune out triathlon for a few weeks. Even upon arrival in Mar del Plata, I was struggling to wrap my head around the fact that I would be racing an Ironman. The weather was unseasonably cold and windy and the surf was up, big time. In fact, I was convinced the swim would be cancelled having being pummeled by the surf in the days leading into the race. There was also talk of a day of mourning being announced in Argentina (out of respect for the missing 44 from the submarine crew) that could prompt the race organizers to cancel or shorten the race.
Pre-riding the course with Sarah
Sharing my newly found course knowledge with Jen
Scenes from the bike course... check out those waves!
Steak (of course!) dinner with Sarah, Jen & James
Lining up for bike check-in... racing was beginning to feel real.
Race day dawned and it was pouring with rain... so once again, I got it into my head that the race would be changed in some way and I wouldn't have to do an entire Ironman. 🀦‍♀️πŸ˜‚ Thankfully the wind and the surf had calmed down a little bit from prior days but the gray, choppy waters still seemed pretty daunting. Just as I did with Ironman South Africa, I seeded myself in the sub-60 minute swim corral and dragged my friends Jen and Maria-Luz with me. Yes, I know I don't swim sub-60 mins but I'm a lot closer to 60 mins than 90 mins so the "60-90 min" swim group is just too broad.

I've become increasingly confident in my swim ability in the last two years so even though the rough water made me nervous, I figured my swim fitness (swimming ~18-20k/week) would help me in the choppy water. Mar del Plata was the roughest swim conditions that I've ever raced in so I was excited to see that I completed the first loop in 32 minutes since it was an intense swim. I was half-hoping they would direct me to transition, telling me that they had shortened the swim to one loop... but no, I was sent back into the water which was getting choppier as the wind picked up. The second loop was slower since it included the "Australian exit run", navigating around more swimmers and rougher waters.
Exiting after lap 1 of the swim
I was fairly pleased to see my overall swim time was 1:07 which was good enough for 6th overall female amateur on the day. After a disastrous T1, which included grabbing the wrong bag and two trips to the bathroom (TMI), I was on my way with the news from James (Jen's beau) that I was about 5 minutes off the lead... of course, at the time I had no idea if that was overall amateur leader in my AG.
Thank goodness I'm out of that water!
It was raining lightly but thankfully not too cold. I started to warm up quickly as I hit the bike course, with the sole focus of riding my bike well, maintaining a good aero position and holding my target watts of 170. I noted that I was mostly passing men, which wasn't surprising given just 10% of the field was women. Having earned the fastest bike split in my AG at almost every race this year (Ironman Hawaii was the exception with the second fastest bike split!), I was confident that I would be able to put serious time into the competitors in my AG... not that I really knew who my competition was! πŸ˜‚ With three turnarounds on each of the two 56 mile bike laps, my only yardstick for performance, beyond watts, was taking time splits to Jen who is more than handy on a bike. We're not in the same AG but we've raced 70.3s together and we always note how similar our swim and bike times are. While I had escaped the Atlantic Ocean ahead of Jen, I could see that I was maintaining a gap of ~4 minutes over her at each time check, and even stretching my lead a little bit.

Gritting my teeth in the rainy conditions
A quick glance at the profile of the Mar del Plata bike course will have most people believing that it's a piece of cake... completely flat and with very few turns. Before arriving in town, I had dreams of getting close to a 5hr bike split but once on location quickly realized  that the winds blowing off the South Atlantic Ocean would be the key determinant of bike times. Race day was windy and the second loop brought many to tears as the final 20km of the bike was straight into a stiff headwind. With speeds dwindling to 15-16mph, I just focused on keeping the watts up and staying aero... as much as possible since my back was starting to tighten a little.

Focused heading out for loop 2
Off the bike in 5:21, I received huge cheers in T2, as spectators were yelling "Mujer!" It made me think that I might be the leading amateur race but I really didn't know since I had seen plenty of women ahead of me, and I didn't know whether they were pro or amateur. It turns out that I was second amateur off the bike.

The start of the run felt GREAT. I saw that I was sub-8 pace in the first half mile and forced myself to slow and focus on 8:15-30 pace out to the first turnaround at 5km. That's when I realized why sub-8s had felt so easy... we had a screaming tailwind!
Smiling... so must have been lap 1!
The headwind back into town was strong... stronger than running to Fort Point on a summer's afternoon in San Francisco. Bay Area locals know what I'm talking about! When I reached town towards the end of the first lap (of three), I heard James yell out that I was in the lead by at least 30 minutes. That was awesome to hear. By the time I passed him again a couple of miles later and heading out on lap two, he confirmed that I was 35+ minutes ahead. My stomach had been playing up so I didn't rest on my laurels, reminding myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

When I returned for lap two, James updated me that the lead was down to 23 minutes. That started to make me nervous as I knew the split was *old news* as it had been three miles since I had last crossed a timing mat around the 16 mile marker. I told myself that I likely had a 15 minute lead with a lap to go so had to keep pushing.

Things are getting tougher...
As I headed back around on the third lap, I tried to scan the few women I could see on the course to figure out who was running me down. I hadn't thought to ask James for a name! My hips were starting to ache but in contrast to Kona less than two months earlier, my mind remained positive, especially having seen and heard that Sarah had taken the overall win for the women.

 Sarah Piampiano IRONMAN Mar del Plata Champion
I was ecstatic when it was finally my turn to head up the ramp towards the finish line, rather than do another lap. Even though I had not quite executed the run that I hoped, I was fairly confident that I had won my AG. I bumped into Maggie Rusch as I entered the post-race area and she was able to confirm my position.
Heck yeah... the finish line in sight!
Post-race sweaty selfie πŸ™Œ
The AG win earned me the opportunity to return to IRONMAN Hawaii in 2018... it will be my 7th visit to the Big Island for the race... and surprisingly for me, it will mark three consecutive years of racing there. My view has always been that you need to be fired up to want to race in Kona so I'll only go if my motivation is high... and for the time being it remains fairly strong with a desire to unlock my heat management and run potential.

There's plenty more I could write about the Mar del Plata race as a first year event, the town of Mar del Plata and the post-race libations and sight-seeing in Buenos Aires with Sarah... but I need to save those details for another post.

Awards with Maria-Luz
Trophy count with Pro Champions Sarah and Matt Chrabot
This is what happens when you race 3 IRONMANs in a season 🀦‍♀️πŸ˜‚

Friday, October 20, 2017

Definition of insanity: IRONMAN Hawaii 2017

A couple of days after competing at IRONMAN Hawaii for the 6th time, I was watching one of the Real Housewives shows on Bravo and one of the women quoted the old adage: "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results..."

Having just had yet another "ugly run" at IRONMAN Hawaii when I was hoping for a four hour marathon, I started to question my sanity! Of course, when I review my training, my preparation and my process for the World Championship race in 2017, I have done quite a few things differently this time, so I'll give myself some credit that I'm not entirely insane to have believed that I would run faster. However, I did just sign up for another IRONMAN race to give myself a shot at qualifying for 2018, so perhaps you can be the judge of my mental state...

But before I start dissecting the run and analyzing my race, I should go back to the beginning of the race. One week out from the IRONMAN, I competed once again in the Hoala training swim. It is a perfect way to physically rehearse the swim start and swim course as well as mentally wrap your mind around swimming 2.4 miles in Kailua Bay. In this year's Hoala swim, I did a 1:07:50, a PR by almost 3 minutes on my swim time in the 2016 IRONMAN race. It was a huge confidence boost that my swim form has continued to improve this year and I was hopeful that I might finally break through the 1:10 barrier.

Practice swim on one of the choppy days in the week prior
There had been a few rough days in the water in the week prior to the race with large swells and chop but race day looked to be relatively calm. I lined up far left and opted to target the third buoy to start the race and hopefully avoid the melΓ©e of the pier and buoy line. It was a relatively clean start and the swim conditions felt smooth and fast to the Royal Kona Hotel. As we neared the turnaround boat at 1.2 miles, the waves picked up and it seemed as if we were battling the current a little bit. I rounded the far turnaround in 33:XX minutes (compared to 30:XX the week prior) so I was a little concerned it might be a slow swim since the return trip to the pier is usually into a current and quite a few minutes slower. At this point the swim had also started to get messy as the AG women caught up with AG men from the wave that started 15 minutes prior. I had gone from following feet to now needing to check the color of the cap and then swim around a ton of men wearing blue caps. I was convinced my swim time was going to be long so when I got to the pier and saw 1:08:XX, I did a little internal fist bump!
New swim PR!
2005 --> 1:24:23
2009 --> 1:20:17
2010 --> 1:18:21
2013 --> 1:11:12
2016 --> 1:10:30
2017 --> 1:08:33

There's no fluke about  my swim time improvement over the years. It comes from swimming a lot  more, swimming a lot harder and finally finding enjoyment from swimming.
  • I swim 4-5x per week, including 2 swims with my coach Matt Dixon of Purple Patch, 1 swim with Team EveryMan Jack (3 tough swim sessions of 4k+) and 1-2 swims on my own which are often just easy 2k swims
  • So far this year, I've swum 570,000 yards so that puts me at about 14k yards/week
  • I make the most of swim toys using a buoy a lot of the time, a swim snorkel in almost every session for part of the workout, as well as fins from time to time. 
  • Paddles have been a big addition in 2017 with much more swimming with paddles in most workouts to build strength
Snorkel swimming
It's no surprise to anyone that the bike is my strongest and favorite discipline in triathlon and my bike training had been going incredibly well in the lead up to the race. I raced IRONMAN 70.3 Santa Cruz 5 weeks prior and recorded my best watts of the entire season (~190w) at the end of a big training week and felt great running off the bike. I also had some strong training rides that indicated I was perfectly primed for a strong ride again in Kona. In 2016 I recorded the second fastest bike split in my AG, a feat I put down to the separate female wave start in Kona. In the years 2005 to 2013, the men and women started together and I knew (witnessed) that the faster female AG swimmers benefited greatly from the male draft packs, and my strong cycling ability was effectively neutralized. With our own wave start, it means that it's mostly fellow women and older male athletes on the race course with me. A much cleaner race for the AG women! Having swam a couple of minutes faster this year, the course felt much more crowded from the start from even a year ago and it was a constant stream of passing fellow athletes for the entire Queen K section to Kawaihae. 
Climbing Palani
The winds were light for most of the way but we did get treated to a decent headwind between the Mauna Lani and the Kawaihae turn. This section was also super crowded on the bike with lots of passing and repassing by athletes. Makes me wonder if many of my fellow athletes don't understand the "drop back rule" as I passed a few women that would then immediately repass me rather than drop back during the headwind section.

The road to Hawi was fairly mellow as the crowds thinned out as the road turned uphill. The winds were relatively light on the way up, though we did have a bit of a headwind in the final 5 miles before the turnaround. I was feeling good and believed I was probably riding my way up through the AG as I passed a couple of women that I knew to be strong swimmers in my AG (Becky and Susanne) and I had also been passed by super-biker Jana, but much later in the race compared to last year. 

Feeling hot on the Queen K
I always look forward to the descent from Hawi to get the legs spinning and to feel the breeze as you crank the bike up to speeds 40mph+. There were some solid crosswinds to ensure I remained focused but nothing so crazy that I needed to get out of the aerobars. I was quickly back on the Queen K and wondering what Madame Pele had in store for the return trip. With clear blue skies and not a cloud in sight, it was starting to feel very hot. As I approached Waikoloa, I noticed the flags were almost still and knew that we would likely be very lucky with minimal headwinds on the way back to Kailua.

In the final 20km, the heat of the day started to get to me and I went from feeling great to feeling very hot. I even started to throw up anything I put into my body. I dialed back the effort level to see if that helped but I knew I was overheating, in spite of pouring cold water over my neck and head at every aid station. Thankfully I was almost back to the pier but I was very worried about the run. My bike time was just over 5:30 and my watts were in the low 160s, in line with past races, but lower than the ~170w I felt I was trained for. 

2005 --> 5:30:37
2009 --> 6:11:27
2010 --> 5:35:21
2013 --> 5:28:19
2016 --> 5:39:56
2017 --> 5:30:50

My transition was slowed by a quick outfit change, exchanging the Betty Designs aero jersey for a matching tank top, and adding more sunscreen. I was also still feeling pretty nauseous so that contributed to taking my time in T2. I started the run feeling pretty negative given the overheating and in hindsight, I counted myself out of the run before I even left T2. I'm not proud of my negative attitude for the first 10 miles of the run. Even when Rich told me I was in third place off the bike, all I could think was "well that's not going to last" rather than focusing on keeping myself cool and moving forward. There was no cloud cover on Ali'i and I just felt like it was getting hotter and hotter... and my mood was turning more sour.
Failing to #RunHappy
IRONMAN shuffle
I survived the out and back along Ali'i and saw Rich again when I returned to town, telling him that I was pulling out. Of course, credit to him for telling me that he wasn't going to let me. I walked up Hualalai to cheers from Beth and Luke McKenzie and Erin Klegstad, and was embarrassed that I was walking. As I turned the corner to head towards Palani, I was still contemplating jogging back to transition and turning in my chip. It was at that point that I saw Jan Frodeno, two-time defending champion, jogging the last mile of the race, getting it done in spite of having a bad day at the office. It was the first time during the run that I erased all thoughts of quitting the race and knew that I had to finish. I walked up Palani then pulled myself together for the last 16 miles of the race, running aid station to aid station and taking my time to cool down as much as possible while still moving forward.

Having run so slowly for the first 10 miles of the race, the legs were feeling okay in the energy lab section but as I exited, I suddenly had the most awful stitch in my right side that would persist almost all the way back to Palani. I desperately wanted to walk until the stitch went away but also needed to get to the finish as fast as possible so it was more of a limping run to minimize the pain. I crossed the line with a 4:27 marathon, a time split which leaves me embarrassed and not proud of my performance. I had trained for better but I mentally quit early in the marathon. I truly believe that I have a sub-4 hour marathon in me at this race, even though 6x Hawaii race experiences would appear to suggest otherwise. What is the definition of insanity?

2005 --> 4:06:35
2009 --> 4:46:17
2010 --> 4:15:51
2013 --> 4:07:24
2016 --> 4:15:47
2017 --> 4:27:10
Not smiling in the finish chute
Overall time:
Having exited the swim in 22nd place, I rode up to 3rd place and then moved backwards through the field to land in 24th place in my AG. If I had run closer to my goal time of 4 hours, I would have achieved my goal of a top ten placing. It's the first time I've ever had a better AG placing after the swim than at the end of the race. As disappointed as I am with the result, I am grateful that I am lucky enough to race in Hawaii, among a group of amazing athletes and with such a fantastic support crew. I really appreciated the cheers on race day and feel bad that I did not offer many smiles in return for your support. Mahalo.

2005 --> 11:11:10
2009 --> 12:55:28
2010 --> 11:19:39
2013 --> 10:58:19
2016 --> 11:15:52
2017 --> 11:16:43

What's next?
Even though I was hating myself and life during the first 10 miles of the run, cursing that I would never return to this race, it took me less than 48 hours to decide that I want to give it another go and prove that I can figure out racing in the heat. In early December, I'm heading to Mar del Plata in Argentina to test racing again in the heat and humidity. With Kona-like conditions, it will be a great opportunity to test my mental and physical fitness and see if I can improve on this year's Hawaii marathon. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Faster at 45

I recently wrote an article for Australian Triathlete magazine about triathlon training and racing as I age. While Ironman South Africa time was not my fastest Ironman, it was my second fastest race and arguably in tougher conditions. I did Ironman Arizona in 2008 in 10:33 to win my age group that year in the W35-39 age group. That compares well with my recent W45-49 age group win at Ironman South Africa in 10:42.

I figured it might be useful to share what I am doing to maintain my times, and arguably, continue to get faster!

Swim – perhaps the biggest area of improvement for me has been the swim. Though the gains in minutes may not be massive over a 10+ year period, I feel fresher on the bike and for the rest of the race for being a strong swimmer.

My first Ironman was at Lake Placid in 2004 and my swim time was 1:13+. Since then my two fastest swims have been a 1:06 non-wetsuit swim at Ironman Los Cabos and 1:05 wetsuit swim at Ironman South Africa. I’ve also raced Kona 5x and my swims have improved from 1:24 in 2005 to 1:10 in 2016.

The biggest difference in training is that I swim with a group 3x each week and I swim more yards at each session. I used to swim 10,000yds/week with just one swim of ~4,000yds and now I swim ~15-20,000yds/week with 3x swims of 4,000yds+ and my longest swim in the 5-6,000yd range. I would describe myself as “swim fit” and it showed in the challenging swells and chop of the Indian Ocean at Ironman South Africa.

Betty Designs keeps me colorful in the pool
I also swim with the pull buoy a LOT! In fact, 80% of my swimming is probably with a buoy. I may reduce the amount of swimming with the buoy over the next several months to see if I can gain further swim improvements, but this “dependence” has not stopped me from seeing gains in open water up to this point.

Bike – I’ll be the first to admit that the bike came naturally to me from the very beginning. While I’ve learned to love swimming and I tolerate running, I truly love riding my bike and I’ve always been a strong age group cyclist.

When I began working with Matt Dixon and purplepatch fitness three years ago, he diagnosed a “lack of range” in my cycling. While I was a solid diesel engine for 70.3 and Ironman racing, I needed to add some top end watts to my cycling range. I rarely saw 250w+ and anything over 200w+ was challenging. That has changed now as I spend a lot more time above 200w and even 300w in training sessions both indoors and out.
A much improved TT position in recent years

My Ironman builds also used to include lots of long 6hr rides prior to working with Matt, and while those are still an important component, I now include endurance work on the bike via double rides in a single day. Typically it’s a challenging 90-120min trainer session in the morning followed by a 2-4hr “endurance” ride in the afternoon. These second rides are challenging since I often tag along with the PPF pros and try my hardest not to get dropped by Sarah Piampiano and Sarah Cameto  - two phenomenal cyclists in the female pro ranks! Overall, I ride less than I used to do 4-5 years ago, but every session is very focused.

Finally, the devil can be in the details on the bike and I’ve paid more attention to the little things in the last few years. By that I mean, improving my bike position to be more aerodynamic, using a lubricated chain in racing and selecting wheel, tube and tire combinations that are proven to be faster for given race conditions. Though I’ve still never ridden a disc wheel!

Run – This element is still my major “work in progress”, and I just began to see some improvements in the final six weeks before Ironman South Africa. In recent years, I’ve struggled with some foot and hamstring issues that have inhibited my ability to train the run properly. I also think my personal challenges with health and anemia show up most quickly on the run (see nutrition below).

My left foot will continue to be a problem, as I need surgery to remove a bone spur. While I have had this surgery in the past on this very same foot, the surgical solution being recommended this time around is a bigger deal with a longer recovery time. It would likely prevent me from running for 6+ months. I’m not yet at the point where I will elect surgery but it may be necessary in the next 12 months.

In 2015-2016 I struggled with a very sore hamstring after any run longer than 3-4 miles and I even had an MRI to see if there was some sort of tear… there wasn’t and I felt like an idiot when my radiologist told me that my hamstring looked absolutely fine! In consulting with my chiropractor and physical therapist, Mike Lord, the recommended solution was to strengthen the hamstring and glutes, as well as activate my core (see strength below). After a year of focused strength sessions 2x/week, I no longer have any pain or aches in my hamstring! It’s been gradual and I’ll admit that I was a bit of a skeptic that it would work but I never feel anything in that hamstring any more.

Strength and conditioning – I’m currently 2 years into a dedicated strength and conditioning program. For the first year I did 30mins 2x/week but have increased that to 2x 60mins a week since last April, working with Brendon Rearick from Movement as Medicine. The sessions are highly functional in nature and are tailored to my specific abilities and range of motion. Every single session begins with activation work focused on the core, hips and glutes. We also integrate stretching into the sessions to work on my specific challenges (tight calves, restricted range of motion through the upper back, quadriceps).

Nutrition – If I had to point to one single area of focus that has had the greatest impact on performance in the last year, it’s nutrition. I thought I had a good diet, balanced but not overly strict, with a decent amount of daily protein, but upon closer analysis, I was falling woefully short. The headline news was that I was under-fueling both my training and daily life and not consuming enough protein to properly aid recovery from training sessions. We could also talk further about my penchant for wine and chocolate but candidly, that’s still a work in progress!

I alternate fish and steak each evening dinner.

Flank steak is my *go to* red meat 
Working with Dr. Phil Goglia of PFC Nutrition, I now have a daily eating plan consisting of 8-9 meals a day and a target of 160-180g of protein. It's a simple plan to follow... in fact, I'd describe it more accurately as "eating rules of thumb", identifying when I should be eating protein, fats, veggies, starches and sugar. What’s more, having had a history of anemia, I’ve worked closely with both Phil and my personal physician, Dr. Kiki Silver, to ensure that I am absorbing the nutrients that I’m eating, and supplementing where necessary, essentially taking an iron pill each day.

Overall, I don't train any more than I have at any time in the past 10 or so years and my weekly training totals remain in the 12-20hr range, depending on where I am in the season. There might be a week or two where I top out at 25hrs (e.g. during Kona camp) for an Ironman build but the norm is closer to 15-18hrs.

Success and Safari in South Africa

In 2011 I purposely DNF’ed after the swim at Ironman St. George. After racing in Kona in 2009 and 2010, I was a little burned out on Ironman. However, Blanco was keen to return to Kona (he first raced there in 2010) so we were hoping to repeat our 2010 plan of both qualifying at Ironman St. George.

The St. George race day coincided with my birthday AND our 1st wedding anniversary and at the start line I felt so emotionally wound up, I just knew that I didn’t want to suffer through an Ironman that day. I completed the swim, soft pedaled my bike back into town and spent the rest of the day on the side of the road cheering and drinking beer. I never regretted pulling out for a single moment, even though I’d banked all those training miles. That year I went to Kona and cheered for Blanco and post-race we made a soft agreement not to return to race Ironman Hawaii in consecutive years. The decision stemmed, in some part,  from not wanting our entire existence and relationship caught up in an endless cycle of qualifying for and then racing Ironman Hawaii. We both enjoy and love triathlon but I didn’t want it to be our life together…

Therefore, it was with some trepidation after Kona in 2016 (we both raced having qualified at Los Cabos in 2015), that I said to Blanco post-race: “I want to race here again next year.” It meant breaking our little promise! I had just finished 16th in my age group in Kona with my best ever relative performance. It was not my fastest time, but after the swim and bike, I was actually in the mix in my age group… though I didn’t know it at the time, I got off the bike in 3rd place. The desire to return in 2017 was a competitive instinct… could I re-qualify and have a shot at the top ten?

Ironman South Africa became the qualifying race of choice after dismissing New Zealand (March race was too early and I’ve already raced there) and Ironman Texas (non-wetsuit swim and unappealing course). After chatting with friends who have raced there previously and with British pro Tim Don, I decided to make a *race-cation* of the trip, spending time in Stellenbosch pre-race to adjust to the time zone and then heading on safari post-race because “why not?” I’ll leave those details to a separate travelogue…

Ironman South Africa is located in Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape. It’s not a particularly attractive destination in its own right so my schedule was *all business* while there. I drove into town on Wednesday afternoon for a Sunday race and that was more than enough time to preview the course conditions, register and prepare for the race.

Race morning was a beautifully clear day with light winds and temperatures heating up to the mid 80s Fahrenheit in the afternoon. Between the lack of race shuttles to get to the start and too few porta-potties, I felt very rushed in transition and was convinced I had forgotten something. So be it. I was hustled out of transition before the pros started and I would have a 20-30min wait on the beach.

As a rolling start race, I was choosing between two swim corrals… sub 1hr or 1:00 to 1:30. As someone hoping to swim a low 1hr swim (1:05-1:10 range), coach Matt Dixon told me to line up towards the back of the sub-1hr group. Fighting my way through the crowds, I think I wound up somewhere in the middle of the sub 1hr group

*Side-note: self-seeding is precarious in these rolling swim starts. 1:00 to 1:30 swim is a huge range so I didn’t want to get stuck behind the 1:20-30 swimmers in that corral and I also didn’t want to be starting the race 20 minutes later in the day on more crowded roads. Sub 1:00 was an unrealistic time for me but joining that group was probably the right call given my race ambitions.

The starters released 7 athletes every 7 seconds into the Indian Ocean… it made for a very clean start. Even after lining up in the middle of the sub 1hr group, I think I waited 5-6 minutes after the gun for my turn. It was a smooth, clean start, navigating a small surf wave at the beginning but then quickly getting into my stroke. The first thing I noticed was that I was passing quite a few athletes… yeah, not many of those in the sub 1:00 group were capable of swimming that time!

The ocean swells were rather large so sighting on the guide buoys is close to impossible. In a pre-swim earlier in the week, I had made a note to sight off the far right most crane during the race and not stress too much if I couldn’t see a buoy when sighting. The alignment worked perfectly and on the way out I found some feet that seemed to be doing the same thing so I was happy to follow as long as I could. I inevitably lost those feet at the far end turn buoys, but quickly established myself in a small group of 3-4 guys for the return journey. Again, I knew to sight off the Radisson hotel rather than strain to sight the orange guide buoys which were not always visible given the chop and large ocean swells.

The swim felt long and having not checked my watch at any of the turns, I prepared my mind to see 1:20 on my watch as I exited the water… seeing 1:05 as I surfed onto the beach was a total thrill, especially given the large swells and choppy water.

I navigated transition deliberately, even asking a volunteer to track down some Vaseline for my chafed neck. Yes, I forgot to apply body glide in my rush out of transition for the swim! However, I’d rather give up a minute in transition to ensure I’ll be comfortable for the rest of the race than be riding for 5hrs+ with my neck burning from the hot sun and the chafing.

Once on the bike course, things didn’t seem too crowded and I was easily able to focus on my pace and my watts without worrying about packs of riders. Within the first 5 miles, an Italian woman from my age group that I knew was a likely contender for the age-group win passed me. I do my homework! I let her go as she was riding pretty hard up a slight incline and it seemed too early to be so aggressive. I admit that I thought to myself that I’d see her in the latter stages of the bike… I never did, she rode 7 minutes quicker than me (it also turns out she drafted).

Heading out on lap 1
The South Africa course is not challenging at all from a terrain perspective with only a couple of small inclines (rollers) on each lap of the two lap course. The challenge is the wind, which changes direction as you navigate your way around the coastline. I did get a flat tire during lap one of the bike but with sealant in the tire, it was a complete non-issue. The course was noticeably quieter on lap two and I found myself riding largely solo. As I climbed Heron Rd for the second time, there was a stillness in the air, and a South African rider that was passing me remarked: “the winds are changing, we are going to get a tailwind on the way home too!” Of course, I thought he was teasing or being hopeful but it turned out he knew his “winds” and having faced a headwind on the return during lap one, we were treated to a mostly tailwind on the second lap.

Checking the athletes ahead of me
My goal time for the bike was 5:20, chosen only because that’s the time I’ve ridden on other flat courses (5:21 at Cozumel and 5:18 and 5:19 at Arizona). Of course, time is somewhat arbitrary given fluctuating conditions but seeing my bike split of 5:27 when I reached T2, I was fairly happy, especially when added to the 1:05 swim!

Can't stop smiling on this beautiful course
I’ve never run a great marathon off the bike but training has been going really well, especially the run, so my goal was 3:45. Admittedly, I was expecting slightly cooler weather when I developed that goal, but the plan called for 8-8:20s off the bike. While the first mile came in sub-8:00 (whoops!), the remaining miles for the first half were just behind target, although they did include a potty stop and some aid station walking to manage the heat. The four loop run course is lined with spectators the entire way so it’s quite different from many other races where there are stretches with few crowds. Wind also plays a factor on the run and the major hill on the run was doubly cruel as it was straight into a headwind!

I ran through the first 13 miles in 1:53. I had passed my Olympic Club teammate, Mary, halfway through loop 2, but couldn’t persuade her to come with me. I’d also seen the Italian girl in my age group well ahead of me and running very well so I assumed that she had first place locked up. My pace had drifted by lap 3 and the mile splits started to come in above 9min/mi as the day heated up.

Both feet off the floor in the finish chute!
The finish line is in the middle of each loop and when I had half a lap to go, I thought I heard the race announcer call out the second place finisher in W45-49. I shoved the information out of my mind and focused on keeping cool and keeping every mile split under 10 and as close to 9 as possible. With 2km to go, I passed Mary heading in the opposite direction for one last time and appreciated her cheers of “you’re so close!” A 3:45 marathon was off the table but I knew I was going to be close to 4hrs. I was trying to remember whether a marathon was 42.2km or just 42km and wondering if that extra 0.2km would deprive me of the secondary sub 4hr goal.

Yeah... happy to be done!
As I entered the finishing chute, I looked over my shoulder and saw that I would have the finish line to myself… I didn’t waste any time over the last 200m but I gave a couple of fist pumps and had a huge smile on my face, glad to be finished and proud of my race performance. As I crossed the line, Paul Kaye, the announcer, noted I was second across the line for W45-49 so that was good news. While I couldn’t be sure there would be two Kona slots, I knew there was a high probability of it given the 75 slots in total.

Swim – 1:05:56 (PR)
Bike – 5:27:33
Run – 3:59:41
Total time – 10:42:31

Finish line reflects first athlete to leave with rolling start
I went to bed that night, sore but happy and somewhat confident there would be two slots in my age group but not entirely certain. When I woke the next morning, I received emails and Facebook messages to say that I had won my age group… I checked the results and saw that I had been promoted to first place and that the Italian girl’s results had been zero’ed out and a DQ added to her name. At Kona slot allocation, the revised results were confirmed and I was named the winner of the age group. There were two slots so I took one and the new second place finisher, a South African, took the other slot.

I also got an update as to what happened with the Italian girl from Andrew Messick, CEO of WTC… she seemed to be a super strong athlete and from my perspective had deserved the win. She finished almost 30 minutes ahead of me, mostly due to a run that was 20mins faster. However, she was awarded a drafting penalty on the bike that she failed to serve and therefore was DQ’ed.

45-49 podium
With that long story… I’m heading back to Kona in October for my 6th go at the Ironman Hawaii World Championships!

This is now so long that I need to save the safari and race-cation details for a subsequent post!