Monday, November 23, 2015

Finding Kona: Ironman Arizona

I have waited for 3 years to be able to write this post.  It feels very surreal.  Every moment of Sunday is vivid in my mind.  I just haven't absorbed fully the impact of what happened quite yet.

For anyone who hasn't known me for longer than 3 years you can scroll back through my blog for all the gory details, but it was this point 2 years ago that I decided I wanted to try to qualify for Kona rather than apply through the legacy (a special lottery for frequent IM fliers).

Leading up to race day, I had been at a mental low for about 8 weeks.  Here's something a lot of people don't know about me:  Between 2002- 2004 I battled depression.  It took a long time for me to see that there was a problem back then, and once I finally had a wake up call and got help it was a combination of drugs and therapy that allowed me to find remission.  I have been off of all medications and feeling like myself for the last 11 years.  Until 8 weeks ago.  Anyone who has suffered from depression can probably understand, but for 11 years I payed close attention to my moods, my feelings, my thoughts.  I monitored how I talked to myself.  Depression is a slippery slope and I never, ever, wanted to go back there again.  It is a horrible place to reside for the person suffering and everyone around them.  Even though I have felt fantastic for 11 years, I was always looking over my shoulder to make sure that it wasn't going to sneak up on me again.

Unfortunately, it didn't sneak up on me.  It slapped me straight across the face one day in September.  I remember the feeling as though my breath were being sucked from my lungs.  This time it manifested in feelings of extreme anxiety, triggered by certain situations, accompanied by low self esteem and a desire to cause myself physical pain in order to distract myself from the emotional pain I was feeling.  For weeks, I couldn't sleep at night.  I had a hard time eating.  When I am anxious, my stomach feels nauseated and full of butterflies all the time.  I lost 10 pounds in 5 weeks because I was averaging about 1000 calories per day and still maintaining my work and training schedule.  I was a wreck.  I reached out to a friend (who is a licensed therapist but can't treat me because we're friends...) and she referred me to a therapist.  I wanted to avoid drugs at all costs, and so far we've been successful in doing that.  Things are starting to settle down a little though I'm definitely not 100%.  Two weeks prior to race day I halted the weight loss.  And on Tuesday of race week I finally slept for the first time since September.  I woke up Wednesday morning and just laughed out loud because I felt amazing after a full night of rest.

My partners in crime and I checking in for IMAZ 2015!

On Friday, I went to the expo and picked up my packet and gear bags.  I had a few hours to try to get all my stuff together before we were supposed to head to our team dinner.  There was a moment on Friday afternoon when I almost cut the athlete wristband off my arm.  I just could not envision having any type of success on Sunday and I wasn't sure I could handle an average race in my current emotional state.  When I thought about it, I made a conscious decision to stop thinking.  At that moment I went into survival mode, or whatever you want to call it, where I didn't think, I just did.  I stopped thinking about the race- I just gathered my gear and placed it in the appropriate bags.  I bottled up my nutrition.  I packed my suitcase and had everything ready to go for Saturday when we would head to Tempe to check into our hotel.

Delivering dreams around the country... Dimond Van

In some ways, I think my mood actually helped my race on Sunday.  I know that seems crazy, but instead of being really excited or keyed up, my mood was level.  There was no high on race morning.  No pre-race jitters.  When I experience those feelings, inevitably they will come to a screeching halt, usually about half way through the bike ride when discomfort sets in.  It can be very difficult to ride the highs and lows on race day, knowing that at any given moment whatever you're feeling won't last.  You won't feel good all day, and you likely won't feel bad all day (though I swear I've been there).  But riding the wave of ups and downs can be exhausting in itself.  Not experiencing those highs and lows allowed me to just execute.  Not think, just do.

My gem, ready to ride!

I executed my pre-race routine and did my warm up with enough time to get my wetsuit on and lined up at the front for the rolling swim start.  There have been a lot of complaints about the new swim start and to be honest I really don't think my swim is different whether it's a rolling start, mass start, or wave start.  My plan of attack is the same regardless and I seem to settle into the same opportunity in the water regardless of how we enter the water.  I knew my swim time was going to be a little slower than what I had hoped because the water felt pretty choppy to me.  Totally could have been me having a bad day, but I felt like maybe the boats zipping by were creating wake or possibly the wind.  I had very little contact other than the first 5 minutes, which matched my experience with the mass start.  I knew it was not a PR swim but was happy to get out of the water in 58 minutes and change.

Swim exit,

Running into T2 I was looking for my friend, Kristina, who always works the change tent.  She knows how I like to run my transitions and she really helps me get in and out fast.  Basically, I do everything, and she fends off the excited volunteers until I've finished and then they gather up my stuff as I tear out of the tent toward my bike.  Don't get me wrong, I love the volunteers and my day would not be possible without them, but in transition it's easier if I handle everything instead of trying to take my helmet from one person, a shoe from another, etc.  After 19 races, it's kind of a science.
Exiting transition, my swim partner Melody was working in bike handling.  As I got to my rack she was removing Hope from the bar and passed her off to me.

From the moment I got on the bike I felt good.  Really good.  Better than I've ever felt in a race before.  My legs just felt strong and the entire first lap I was consciously holding myself back and just tried to sit right on my target watts.  I've never been so focused for so long a period of time.  Not in training.  Never in a race.  My mind never wandered.  Every second I was focused on that particular moment.  How did I feel?  Is it time to eat/ drink?  What is my power?  Is there someone ahead that I can target and work toward passing?

I fucking love this bike.
I've struggled with my nutrition and hydration- getting enough of both in on the bike to sustain me through the run.  I've worked since May this year on finding the right combination of products as well as the right volume of calories/ fluids.  On Sunday, I had two bottles of my liquid nutrition plus an additional flask of honey stinger gel.  And I took water from every. single. aid station.  Every last one.  I took a big drink of my nutrition heading into the aid station, chased with half bottle of water and then topped off my aero bottle for in between.  My energy was stable all day.

During the ride, I knew I was near the front but I had no idea I was the front of the amateur race.  Other than the first few miles when I passed a couple of pro women, I never saw another female on the bike.  And it really wasn't until the end of lap 2 when some of the faster men started to catch me.  I used them to work off of when they went by me, picking up my effort for a moment to keep them in legal distance for as long as I could.  Looking at my Garmin post race, my laps were within 30 seconds of each other.  I've never ridden that consistently before.  Ever.

IMAZ bike course:  My gem.

Oh!  And I almost forgot.  The rain.  To be honest, the rain was never a factor for me in this race.  I didn't feel like it affected my ability to sit at the edge of my limit on the bike (or run).  I was working hard enough to generate plenty of body heat despite the drop in temps.  And when it first started raining in the middle of my 3rd loop on the bike I actually laughed out loud.  With my competition in mind I thought to myself, let them all just fall apart...  I had my fastest bike split on Sunday by 15 minutes, clocking 21.5 mph for 112 miles.

I was in and out of T2 in a minute and 44 seconds, which is a little long for me but I was also trying to get shoes on over sopping wet feet which was a challenge.  Running out of T2 I heard a friend of mine yell at me that I was the FIRST AMATEUR FEMALE off the bike.  It might have been the only time all day I stepped outside my head but I screamed WHAT?!?!  I could not believe it.  I did not have the fastest bike split, but I had the fastest swim/ bike combination which put me at the front of the race- exactly where I wanted to be.

A mile into the run I saw my coach and she yelled at me to just run my run.  Stay on pace, fight for every mile.  I could not get caught up in trying to run with the girls who were running a 3:30 marathon.  But I could fight for my run pace every single mile.

My Smash-Dimond teammate (and eventual women's amateur winner) Emily passed me about 3-4 miles into the run.  She looked strong and I told her to fight for victory.  It seems silly that early in the marathon to be thinking about victory, but I knew it was on her mind as much as it was on mine.
IMAZ Run course

One of my training partners caught me around 4 miles into the run.  We never talked to each other, but we just settled into a comfortable rhythm together.  We knew this was a possibility as our predicted finish times and pace were so similar.  We ran near each other, sometimes him leading, sometimes me, until mile 18.  Somewhere toward the middle to end of the first half I was passed by several more girls.  I knew at that point I was sitting 3rd in my age group.  My goal for the day was to run (and race) as hard as I could all day long.  Every single mile I thought about what I needed for nutrition/ hydration to keep my pace going.  I checked my pace frequently to make sure I wasn't slipping.  I have never thought SO MUCH in one race about every single moment, but it seemed to be exactly what I needed on Sunday.  I wasn't judging myself.  I never had a single negative thought all day.  I just was constantly checking in on what could I do to go faster.

Check out my sideways glance....

Realized it was my friend giving me bunny ears.

With 8 miles to go, a spectator on the run course told me that 4th place was holding around a minute back from me.  I had planned to wait until the final turn around to pick up the pace, but at that moment I knew I had to trust my training and just go for it.  I knew that I could end up bonking horribly, but I compensated by increasing my gel intake to every 2 miles and continued to pound coke in between.  Shortly after the turn around, where we can see the opposite traffic, I tried to spot 4th place.  It was under a bridge with significant shade, but I swear she was right there, a minute back.

I pushed even harder.  I still had 5 miles to go, including the slight climb up Curry hill.  My thoughts never wavered it was just run, faster, faster, faster.  Eat/ drink/ run.  Coming down from Curry, through the aid station with 3 miles to go I caught and passed my husband.  My coach was there screaming for me.  I don't even remember what she said, but in my mind I heard her advice from last year... You always have another gear.  No matter what, you always have another gear.

I spotted a Dimond kit just in front of me and I settled into a comfortably hard 8:30 pace right behind him.  I probably drove him crazy as I literally stared at his back and ran.  As we passed the 24 mile mark he said something about how we could do anything for 20 minutes.  That's all that was left of my day.  20 minutes.  He pulled ahead and I maintained pace with Dan right behind me.  We crossed the Priest bridge and turned onto Rio Salado for the final mile.  A friend was on the sidelines videotaping.  Matt!  I yelled.  Do you see a girl behind me?  He told me there was no one there besides Dan.  I kept pushing.  In my mind she was still there and we were going to be sprinting to the finish.

Fashion tip:  when you drop 10 lbs, order a small short size so that they don't roll up on you.  Despite that, they were still comfortable and didn't chafe an ounce on Sunday even in the pouring rain!

Up the final incline on Ash I pulled ahead of Dan.  I am about to make the final left hand turn into the finish and I hear him scream RUN!!!  I literally ran like I was being chased by an ax murderer.  For the first time in 19 races, I did not throw my arms up at the finish line.  I just wanted to cross the timing mat as soon as I possibly could.  It turned out, a girl had caught up with him but she was not in my age group- which he didn't know when he screamed at me.

Finish line IMAZ 2015 with friends.

I burst into tears at the finish.  Tears of absolute joy.  So many people say there's no such thing as a perfect race, that's what keeps us coming back.  But for me, Sunday was a perfect race.  I have never executed a race with such exact precision- staying on top of nutrition/ hydration and knocking out my watts and my pace with such ease.  Don't get me wrong, I hurt like never before and I know I can still go faster, but my body was trained and prepared to go to the level that I did.  I had done it a thousand times in training.  Finishing in 3rd place was a goal realized.

Friend and training partner, PR for both of us!

When I heard I finished in 10 hours, 9 minutes I was in absolute disbelief.  Who does that?  In my mind elite women and professionals.  Not me.  But I did it.  I did.  ME.  I hugged every single person I could get my arms around and cried my eyes out for hours.  I have never been so proud of one single thing in my whole life.  I knew that there were only 2 slots guaranteed in my age group for Kona, but I also knew that even if I didn't get one at this race, I had unlocked my potential and it was only a matter of time.

Hug from my coach, and lots of tears!

I slept fitfully on Sunday night, my body too sore to find comfort in any position.  I woke early on Monday to meet with Hillary before the awards banquet.  We talked about the race and what went right (EVERYTHING!!!) and discussed plans for the off season, winter training season, and race plans for next year.  We headed over to the awards banquet so I could stand on top of my first ever Ironman podium and collect my 3rd place award.

IMAZ 2015 35-39 age group podium.  I'm 3rd Female!!

We knew that there was an extra Kona slot from the 70-74 age group which didn't have any official finishers.  But Mike Reilly announced during awards that the women's 40-44 was the largest age group so I assumed that the slot would go to them and I told my friends who were there in support that I didn't get it.

3rd place Age Group Award!

I was standing around talking with some of my teammates when suddenly everyone around me is screaming and grabbing my arm.  I hear Hillary shriek my name.  I look up as Mike is explaining that the extra slot is going to the women's 35-39 age division (turns out 40-44 was already allotted 3 slots!).  I started crying (again!) and was just frozen in disbelief.  1st and 2nd place collect their documents and Hawaiian leis and I start to walk toward the podium (still bawling my eyes out) as Mike calls my name, Mary! You're going to Kona!  I hold the certificate in my hands though I can't see it through my tears.  I hug my friend Dallas (who also has worked his ass off to collect his slot this year!) and I hug Dan.  I line up and start filling out my info when the 1st and 2nd place girls run over to hug me.  You've been before right, they ask?  I smile and shake my head, clearly they don't know me.

I, at 39 years of age, after 19 Ironman races and 10 years in the sport of triathlon, will line up for my first Ironman World Championships in October 2016.  After the amount of work I have put into this single dream, this one goal, it is so gratifying to have earned it in the way that I did on Sunday.  Sometimes I wonder, if you qualify for Kona at your first Ironman, or you have natural athletic talent and it comes pretty easily... do you ever really appreciate it?  I can't answer that, because I'm not that person.  What I can tell you is that this one thing, this one opportunity, means more to me than anything else I've ever done.  When I qualified for Boston, it was me against the clock.  Either I could run the pace or I couldn't.  And my training answered that.  With Ironman, you can have a perfect day and still not qualify because you don't know who is going to show up and have a better day than you.  On Sunday, I was that girl, and I had that day.  And I know there were other's whose dreams didn't come true on Sunday and that's OK, it's part of the process.  Maybe they'll move on to a different goal or challenge.  Or maybe, like me, they'll find something in the sport worth fighting for.

With my plastic Hawaiian lei and KQ certificate.

This dream would not have been realized without the help of my coach, Hillary Biscay.  She took me on 2 years ago, and believed in me from day 1.  She knew my long term goal and never once suggested that it was too big or lofty for me to accomplish.  Day in and day out she gives me honest, realistic feedback and is my biggest supporter.  What happened on Sunday was not a miracle, it was born of hours and hours, days upon weeks upon months of consistency in training and hard, hard work.  In 2 years, I missed only 1 workout.  I don't believe in excuses so I never gave any.  If she told me to do something, no matter how impossible it seemed, I figured there was a reason behind it and I did it.  I didn't always meet the goal first time around, but I always tried.

Hug from Hillary!  (I'm still crying...)

My husband has been my biggest cheerleader for the last 11 years.  A couple of weeks ago we were lying in bed and before falling asleep he said, I can't wait to watch you at IMAZ.  You are absolutely going to destroy that course and anyone watching is not going to know what hit them.  On Sunday when I was smashing IMAZ from start to finish I thought of his words and it made me smile.  Somehow even when I did not have faith in myself over the last 8 weeks, he still believed.

Team HPB at IMAZ!
A couple of people asked me when did I know that I was had 3rd place locked down, and when did I know that I was going to Kona?  The truth is, I didn't know.  Even in the finish chute my mind was convinced that 4th place was running me down.  I didn't realize until much later that I had put 5 minutes into her and actually at the finish, I made my friend Lauren keep checking her phone to make sure that my 3rd place still stood.  With the rolling start someone could finish behind you and still have a faster time.  And literally until the moment you saw in the video above, I did not know that I had qualified for Kona.  I hoped, and prayed, and dreamed but only in that moment did it become a reality.      

My IMAZ medal with my KQ medallion.
 I've had several people ask me if I'm going to change my handle from #findingkona to #konafound or something similar.  I hadn't even considered changing it.  For one, #findingkona has been my motivation and so much a part of the last 2 years that I'm not ready to give it up.  I think it is about more than just the accomplishment of the goal.  To me, it represents the bigger picture-  all the hard work that went into achieving this goal.  And even though I've qualified for Kona, there will always be another goal or dream that needs just as much love and devotion.  I want to remember what it takes to be a champion.  When I have doubts about my ability to do something in the future, I want the reminder of #findingkona so that I can say to myself, this might seem impossible right now but one day it can happen.  One final thought...

This was a quote that a friend shared with me on Sunday!  

Swim:  58:24
T1: 3:41
Bike:  5:12:44 (15 min PR)
T2:  1:44
Run:  3:53:15 (10 min PR)
Finish:  10:09:48 (44 min Ironman PR)

3rd place age group
6th amateur female overall
Kona qualifier

5 comments: said...

Absolutely amazing and incredibly inspirational. CONGRATS!!!!

Dominic said...

Absolutely amazing and inspiring! People, after reading this story, will tell you that... A lot! :)

Dave Lundberg said...

Great post Mary and heartfelt congratulations on achieving your dream. It's been wonderful following you and Dan at races and then hearing your post race thoughts through your blog. Sharing your feelings and thoughts with us along the way is special. You took us along for the ride through the challenges and hard work. And with this blog let us share in the wonder and joy of your dream realized!! Thank You!!

toughasnails1 said...

Congratulations! Hope to get there someday myself! I am sure I saw you cross as I was watching from the sidelines for other friends. You rocked it!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! Well raced and well deserved! Hope to get there someday myself!