||A newbie's road to Ironman
As some of you may have heard, I survived my first attempt at Ironman Coeur D'Alene (yipeee!!!). After sharing my race report with some fellow LATC friends, it was suggested that I share my race report with the rest of the club. So if you've already heard some of this, I apologize, but I wanted to share my experience from a newbie's standpoint (and I even added in some more detail so this report is now even LONGER!). Despite my coach Konrad's standpoint that you can't be a newbie if you do an Ironman, I disagree since it's still not even a year since my first triathlon. I mean, don't you get a full year to be considered a newbie??? So for all you newbies out there, if you question whether or not you're ready to do an Ironman, let me tell you that you can if you really want. Believe me, if I could do it, so can you. But please, PLEASE hire a coach. I couldn't have done this without him.
Let me preface this report with a bit of a back story, and warn you:
THIS IS A REALLY LONG REPORT!!!! :-)
I signed up for my first triathlon in May 2006. I was in a workout rut, and could NOT get my butt to the gym. So I figured if I signed up for a triathlon (something completely foreign to me), I would have to workout somehow so I didn't look like a complete idiot on race day. So what if I hadn't run since injuring my knees at the NYC marathon in 2003? So what If I didn't know how to swim? And so what if I'd only ever been on a mountain bike? So I joined the club last year on June 17th, 2006, and bought a road bike.
I tried teaching myself to swim through the internet shortly after. Well, that wasn't working so well, so I took a few Master Swim classes with Triathletix. And I took every other Triathletix clinic that was available. But I was still so horrible in the swim that I realized I needed personal one-on-one coaching since my first triathlon was coming up. It was Santa Barbara Sprint-Women Only at the end of August. I picked this race not only because it was the shortest swim leg I could find in any triathlons around that time (500 yards), but I also didn't want to have to get kicked in the face by men at my very first event. My goal for this first race: "to not have to be rescued out of the water". So two weeks before the race I took a private coaching session with the swim extraordinaire, Coach Konrad Ribeiro. I think he got a kick out of watching me splash and scramble through the pool. I was a mess, I admit it, but I did learn to swim on my back.
Somehow on race day I found myself surviving the swim (although when I went for a practice swim the day before, I took so long in the water that my friend, whom I was swimming with, thought I had drowned). I ended up placing 5th in my age group, and had so much fun. Within weeks I let Jen Kramer (another newbie) talk me into signing up for Ironman Coeur D'Alene. Hey, my first one went so well, how hard could Ironman be??? In hindsight, I think I took the idea of an Ironman a little too lightly (you think???). I guess the first sign of was when I received an email from Konrad say that he had "heard through the grapevine" that I had signed up for and Ironman and politely suggested that *maybe* I should consider hiring a coach. I can just imagine how the conversation went about how I was absolute naive (or stupid) for signing up for an IM so soon, especially when I was so new at this triathlon stuff.
The next several months I did sprint distance triathlons. I learned from the Triathletix guys the importance of buying a bike that actually fits you so I bought a new bike, a Cervelo P2SL. Funny how the bike store from which I bought my first bike forgot to mention that the bike I was buying would better fit a six foot guy and NOT be the right bike for me (I'm 5'8). Finally, between a bike that was right for my height, and a proper bike fit by Ian Murray, track workouts from Jamie Silber, and the decision to hire Konrad as my Ironman coach, I was golden!
I began proper IM training in Nov 2006 (which was 7 1/2 months before my IM). Konrad said that most people would not necessarily need to start so many months ahead but since I basically had NO base training I better get started!
Fast forward to May 2007. I did Wildflower Long Course. This was my first "anything-longer-than-a-sprint" triathlon. I had an absolute blast, and was stoked that I actually swam 1.2 miles without drowning. But right after this race I developed patella tendonitis and bursitis in BOTH knees. My coach decided that the most important thing was to get me to Ironman race day as healthy and healed as possible. I did everything I could to get better. I got massage, acupuncture, ultra-sound and strengthening exercises. He cut down my bike workouts, and completely stopped my running workouts. I was devastated. I was freaking out that I was missing all my long runs (15, 17, and 19th milers), and my bike workouts were slashed in half. I had measly 'Long Marina Loops" and all flat rides on my schedule (I apologize to ALL of my friends who I whined and complained to at this point in time). Let me tell you, it was really hard to accept, especially knowing that IM CDA had some tough looking hills. I spent more time in the pool, and started aqua-jogging. Despite all the wisecracks I got from a lot of my friends (yeah, you know who you are!!!), I am now a believer in aqua-jogging. Not only did it allow me some semblance of running and some sort of muscle memory workout, I think it actually improved my speed when I actually got back to running on the road (which was finally allowed about two weeks before Ironman).
I will admit that I was still a bit of a wuss when it came to swimming in the ocean. Come on! The ocean was still FREEZING in May, and IM CDA swim is in a lake! Although I swam longer distances in the pool, I never did swim longer than 1.2 miles outside of the pool, and that was actually at the race at Wildflower. I did attempt a pier to pier swim once, but my goggles fogged up really bad, and I was just too cold. I think I escaped the water after barely a mile (Yes, Konrad, I admit it!).
So basically by race day, I had not swam more than 1.2 miles, had done only 4 bike rides that were over 100 miles (none in the preceding month), and had not run over 14 miles in all my months of Ironman training. Oh, but I think I did about 6 total hours of aqua-jogging!
NOW TO THE RACE REPORT (Finally!!!!)
Jen and I headed to the airport on Wed morning (June 20th) at 4:00am and met with our friend Peter Brantley who was also traveling at the same insane time. We arrived in Spokane after a short stopover in Portland and drove into Coeur D'Alene by 1:00pm. We quickly got settled in our hotel and since we had strict orders to stay off our feet we decided to go do a little shopping at Ironman Village. Hey, we had our priorities! We were told that all the good items sell out early, and since this was our very first Ironman experience we wanted to check out all the action. We figured we could rest later (yeah, right!).
Thursday and Friday involved the arrival of our IronFANS. They included my brother, Fabian, my sister-in-law, Rese, my mom, my cousin, Elaine, my two best friends, Charlene and Andréa, Anna Wills (another LATCr), Jen's parents, her friend Michelle, Markus, and Winston. Our coach, Konrad, even flew in to support us and his other superstar athlete, Stacey Stern (who, by the way, placed 7th in her age group!). Fortunately for us, he stayed in our hotel room. Unfortunately for him, we probably drove him crazy with our incessant questions, concerns and worries. Nevertheless it was so awesome to have all of our IronFANS there and knowing that they were going to be with us throughout our long-ass day!
The next couple of days involved spending time with our friends and family, making sure we were hydrated and fed (Jen's dad's favorite comment was "Pasta again??!!"), and making sure we were well rested and ready for our big day. I think the most stressful thing for us was making sure we had all the right stuff in the 5 bags that were handed out for all the athletes. One for each of the transitions, two special needs (one for the bike, and one for the run), and an extra bag for clothes we wear morning of and after the race. Our hotel room was a war zone with bags laid out in our own areas, having to switch certain items back and forth, while other items were duplicates in each of the bags. I don't know how many times we'd go over what was in each of the bags, worried about missing things, all the while ending up with the same items in each of them. But by Saturday, we had everything figured out, dropped off our bikes in transition, dropped off the bags at the designated areas, and had an early dinner (3:30pm!) with all of our friends and family that had come in to see us. I think Jen and I went to bed by 8:00pm!
We woke up at 4:00am and the day began with an outside temperature of 48 degrees (read: FREEZING!!), and some super choppy waters in Lake Coeur d’Alene. The race organizers decided to offer the option of a duathlon (bike and run portions of the race only) to the 2,200 athletes. A small group of about 57 people actually opted for that, some even before testing the waters. Those who chose this option would not be allowed the title of Ironman. It was certainly choppy, but not THAT choppy. I didn’t hear about this till after the race, but I couldn’t believe that anyone would take this option after so many months of training, and money spent. But I guess since we train in the ocean here (I mean most of us, that is ;-), the choppiness wasn't too bad.
I had been told over and over that if I was not a strong swimmer, I should stay near the back of the crowd at the beginning of the race and let the majority of competitors go first. I’m really glad I did because although it may have added a few minutes to my swim time, I was happy not to get swarmed by the crowd of people scrambling and clawing over each other in the water. It was bad enough to be in a mass start of 2200 people (both men and women) but to be hit and kicked in the face was not what I considered a good start to a long day. I did still get knocked around a bit, but nothing serious. I have to say that in the event of choking on water (which i did a few times), there's nothing better than having it be fresh water over salt water. At one point someone kicked my goggles and I had to stop to re-adjust, but other than that, the only issue was how FREEZING it was! We had to swim 2 loops of a 1.2 mile course, and the first loop went by pretty fast. It was during the second loop that I got really cold and even felt myself shivering as I was moving through the water. I had to pee, and was trying SO hard to go in my wetsuit because I was so cold, but try doing that when you're swimming as fast as you can. Not an easy task. By the time I got out of the water, I couldn’t feel my feet or hands, but I still had to pee.
[Swim time estimated time: 1:45]
[Swim actual time: 1:31:50, 2:25/100meters]
I ran up the beach and saw my coach, Konrad, on the sidelines. He looked totally stoked (or was that shocked?) to see me out of the water so soon as he had estimated me to be in the water for at least 1:40-1:45. I ran to the “strippers” lined up at the entry of transition. They are the volunteers that literally strip your wetsuit off for you. All I was supposed to do was pull my suit to my waist and sit on my butt while they yanked the wetsuit off. Unfortunately, I was so cold coming out of the water that I hadn’t been able to get my suit down by the time I reached them so they had to help me take entire thing off. I then got up and stumbled to find my “swim-to-run” bag and went into the changing tent. Unfortunately I was still so frozen that I could barely do anything. I was shaking so hard a volunteer had to help me put on my cycling shoes and socks as I tried to put on my helmet, bike jersey, arm warmers and gloves. I ended up sitting there for a few minutes hoping my body would stop shaking. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced being that cold. I almost felt like I was having a seizure. Finally when I calmed down a bit, I put on my sunglasses, ran out of the tent and got slathered with sunblock by volunteers. Unfortunately, they didn't do a very good job, and I looked like someone had thrown a cup full of white paint on my thighs. I had to use some random dirty towel on the ground to wipe that stuff off. I then ran to the outhouse and finally peed, and off to find my bike. BIKE
By the time I headed out for my first loop of the bike course, I felt a lot better. The bike course is basically two loops of 56 miles, that goes out around Coeur d’Alene Lake, then back through town, and heads up north to rolling hills and Hayden Lake. It’s a very scenic route, but also has some challenging climbs. I slowly warmed up as I rode through town, and out around the lake. As I came back through town, the crowds of people cheering along the side of the roads were unbelievable. It was so awesome to see everyone in such great spirits. I reminded myself to hold myself back on the bike, and not go too hard, especially since this was the first loop. I found myself at a good speed, and even passing people on the hills. My nutrition worked out perfect in that I went with an all-liquid diet of Perpetuem (Hammer Nutrition) and felt great. I had trained with that during my long training rides, and realized that consuming actual food was not a good idea for me. I HIGHLY suggest that you train with what you're going to race with. Different things work for different people, so you really need to figure it out for yourself.
The first loop took me about 3:10; however, when I headed out for the second loop, the winds picked up, and I had to push harder to keep up my speed. By the time I hit the hills, my quads started cramping really badly. I had been taking Endurolytes (3-4 caps per hour), but it didn’t seem to help. So I ramped up the quantity (6-8 caps), and opened a packet of salt that I had for emergency. I started to lick the salt out of the package (all the while trying to not fall over as I'm crawling up these hills) and although it seemed to help a little, I couldn’t push up the hills like I did before. I felt like my quads would lock at any second so I had to drop my speed completely, and just take it easy. It was frustrating to see all the people pass me, but I didn’t want to risk having my quads lock. Cramping is bad enough, but locking would prevent me from being able to run the marathon that was to come. I did see some people having to walk their bikes up the hill, and I refused to do that. At one point another rider suggested that I just get off the bike at an aid station, take a break and stretch out. I wish I could thank that guy for his advice because that's exactly what I did and I think it really helped.
By the time the second bike loop was over, it wasn’t soon enough for me. As I came back to transition, I remember the volunteer asking me if he could take my bike from me, and I think I almost threw it at him in happiness. This second loop took me almost an hour longer than the first!
[Bike estimated time: 7:00-7:15]
[Bike actual time: 7:16:57, avg pace:15.4]
I made a point of moving slowly to get the crampiness (is that a word?) out of my legs knowing that I would be now running the marathon. I got my “bike to run” bag and sat down in the changing tent. I had a small wet towel in my bag (something I highly suggest everyone have in their bags) and wiped all the grime off my face. Boy did that feel awesome! I then took a few seconds to stretch, put on my running shoes, grabbed my visor, slathered on sunblock, and headed out for the run.
The run was basically a two mile loop out one way, and then it came back, and went through town and around the lake for the rest of it. The crowds that lined the sidewalk were amazing. Once again I was in awe of the energy and spirit that surrounded me. Although my legs felt pretty tight, I found myself running at a faster pace than I expected. I was running between an 8:30-9:15 pace for the first 4 miles, and then I purposely dropped my pace because I knew I had a long way to go. And at this point, my knees started to hurt so I figured I'd be good to them. Yeah, that is, as good as possible after biking 112 miles, and now doing a marathon.
There were aid stations at every mile, stocked full of Gatorade, water, Powergel, flat cola, pretzels, bananas, oranges, and the famous lukewarm “chicken broth”. Now everyone who has ever done an IM talks about the chicken broth on the run and swear by how amazing it is. Every bit of that is true! The saltiness and warmth was a perfect, and it was really the only thing I took other than water at this point. I don’t think I’ll ever look at chicken broth the same. It was SO yummy!! And the volunteers were absolutely amazing. They were so highly supportive and spirited that I just wanted to hug some of them. But I decided it probably wasn't a good idea.
I have to say that the run was probably the most fun for me, which was extremely surprising as I had quite a bit of knee pain. I fully entertained not only myself but also the crowd by being a complete dork for the entire 26.2 miles. I had a "perma-grin" on my face. I said “Hey, how are ya!” to most of the runners I past, and I cheered like nuts as I passed groups of people who were along the side of the roads. And since we were doing loops, we would see the same people on the side of the roads at least four times. There was a big group that were wearing the Maple Leaf on their shirts (Canadian symbol), so I would run by them and yell, “Go Canada!”, and they would all jump up and start cheering for me (I'm Canadian too :-). And I would dance through the little sections where Dj's and music was playing, and even just throw up my arms and yell "great job!" when I ran through the residential areas where people were on their front lawn. By the second time around, people would recognize me and cheer for me. It was definitely what got me through the run and the knee pain that I was dealing with. I had my name on my bib, so everyone could see it. And boy did they like screaming it like in the movie. At one point, a guy who was running behind me asked how I knew SO many people on the course since they were cheering for me, and I told them I didn't. The trick was to throw your hands up and cheer as you're running by, and they'll start cheering for you. He tried it and it worked. I think he had a great run from there on in.
I realized during the second loop that if I could keep up my pace, I could do a sub 14 hour race, but in the last 6 miles, my knee pain was so excruciating that I did not want to seriously injure myself. So I dropped my pace back even more and just really enjoyed that last six miles of the run. The sun was starting to set around the lake, and the temperature was just perfect. I started taking some of the flat cola at the aid stations (I was told that if you start drinking it, you needed to continue to keep up the sugar rush). At this point, Banana HammerGel was just not cutting it anymore, and I started thinking about the cold pizza from last night in my hotel room. I couldn't wait for the race to be over so I could get back there so I could scarf it down (which I did ;-).
The good thing was that I really did run almost the entire marathon (other than walking through the aid stations), and I’ve heard that if you are still running by the time you get to the last 6 miles during an IM, you’re in good shape. There were many people on the side of the road puking, some sitting down, and I even saw a few people with medics around them, and IV's in their arms. It was a little freaky, knowing that anything could happen at this stage. I was happy that I didn't even feel any issues other than my knees. By the time I headed in for my last two miles, I realized most people were walking, while I was still running!
As I turned the corner to head to the finish line, there were people cheering like crazy on the streets and from the restaurants along the way. I think most of them were just drunk by now, but nevertheless, I was reveling in it. I also saw Konrad as I turned that last corner and he started sprinting through the crowd so he could catch me finish. He later said he had just been wandering around because he hadn’t expected to see me for another half hour or so.
Running those last few yards were absolutely surreal. The energy and support of the crowd was so unbelievable and touching. Here I was, a complete stranger to most, and they seemed just as excited for my accomplishment as I was! I had to really make a conscious effort to watch my step as the last thing I wanted to do was to trip since my legs were feeling like lead by now. But I still ran my heart out till I crossed the Ironman finish line.
The realization that I finally accomplished something I never ever thought possible, to have my family, friends, and hundreds of strangers cheer me on in my last steps, and to hear those words, “STELLA TONG....YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”, will be something I will NEVER forget. It's truly one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had.
[Run estimated time: 5:30-6:00]
[Run actual time: 5:04:04, avg pace11:37]
Total Ironman time: 14:13:14
Next Ironman: IRONMAN Canada 2009. Who's in????? :-)