I’ve never quite understood it when people say they are “going to defend their title” upon returning to a race as the previous year’s winner. It seems more appropriate “I’m going with the goal of defending my title.” So when many asked me if I was ‘going to Ironman Texas to defend’, I guess I just saw it differently. The goal was, as with any race, go out and execute the absolute best of my ability; if that landed me on top, all the better. But I’ve often found it dangerous to become too focused on the top step of a podium, especially in an event such as Ironman, with so many variables that come into play. Becoming too fixated on a ‘title defense’ to me just seems misguided.
While I found it a huge honor to return to The Woodlands after last year’s race, I knew that wouldn’t make the task of a similar performance any easier. I’ve often said, resumes don’t matter when we toe the start line; it’s about focus, preparation, execution, and how much fight we’re willing to bring to the table. I came into this race with excellent physical preparations; I’d hit the workouts I needed to, and as I said in an interview a week prior, “I’m healthy, strong and grateful for the opportunity.” It wasn’t until the 3 days leading into Saturday that I realized perhaps I had shot myself in the foot by saying ‘healthy’.
There’s no need to overdramatize it, and I’m not one to make excuses; but I am one to recount a race with utmost honesty. The Tuesday before the race, Derick and I were doing my final speed work run, one of my favorites; 6 miles with 8x400s on the trail. I felt a mild sore throat mid-run; but I figured ‘This can’t happen, I was sick in March; it’ll go away.’ Unfortunately the next day it was worse, and by Thursday it had turned into tightness in my chest and a nasty cough. I saw two fellow competitors have to withdraw 2 days out, and I feared I may be next. Thankfully I got to Friday no worse for the wear, and I knew I’d toe the line; while the body physically felt strong and my mind prepared, the immune system wasn’t along for the ride. As we all know, such is life; what would an Ironman be without a little added challenge?
Race morning dawned the day I had asked for; hot and humid. I did my warmup jog, zipped up the Zoot speedsuit; headed to the water’s edge and gave Derick one last hug before I took off. I found myself tear up a bit; this doesn’t happen often, but I know when it does, it means that I really want something; probably more than I realize. We took to the warm waters of Lake Woodlands right at 6:30am. I have to say, the professional women’s swim start was rather friendly! When the canon sounded, my stroke felt strong and relaxed yet I felt a bit guarded. I worried about my breathing going too shallow too quick with the tight chest, but at the same time I really tried to stay near strongest women I could see drifting up ahead. Unfortunately I lost contact, and found myself leading the second pack of women the majority of the swim. Overall, the swim just felt “eh”. I recall seeing someone on a paddleboard thinking “That looks like fun.” At that point, I (mentally) kicked myself in the ass and tried to stay focused. Soon enough we were in the canal and nearing the exit; not the first woman as I was last year, but history rarely repeats itself. Two minutes back wasn’t ideal, but it’s a long day. I told myself no need to worry.
Onto my Felt IA and I simply tried to settle into what felt like a good steady effort level. While I know I need to give away as little as possible on the bike, I also realized it was going to be a scorching day and there would be people who left their race on the bike; I just didn’t want to be one of them. I definitely had some frustration watching more than I prefer pass me throughout the first half, but I tried to stay positive realizing the back half would be windy and tough. I rarely looked at my power meter, but when I did, I was seeing numbers that indicated I was riding where I should be. By the time we hit miles 70-90, the winds had picked up substantially, and I just tried to keep on the effort; as well as the hydration, salt pills and gels. It was a welcome sight to see the Mile 100 marker. It had felt like a long and challenging day on the bike, and I still felt a bit unsure as to how my body was going to react today when things really got tough; knowing that while the run is where I usually excel, I was skeptical as to how deep I’d be able to dig. I figured I’d probably lost 15-20 minutes to some women, and I’d need to push pretty hard to gain that back and get back into this race.
Off the bike and onto the run, the legs felt ‘good’; not great, but definitely not bad. I knew I still had the fight in me when I asked Derick soon into the run “How much time?” He replied “About 20 minutes.” Right what I had suspected, so it was time to put my head down and go to work. 26 miles is a long way; a lot can happen.
The first few miles were in the range of 6:30s. Given the conditions, I thought that was a bit too fast. I tried to dial back miles 2, 3, 4… they all stayed in that 6:30 range. While I felt strong there, I knew that pacing was crucial on a day like this. I assessed how my body felt, and I was having a tough time breathing; just getting a deep breath was very challenging. When I came through the aid stations and yelled “Water”, I noticed that I barely had a voice! It was then that I realized how hard I was pushing a body that wasn’t quite fully 100%, and I just really needed to be smart. The first loop (~8 miles) felt decent, but the second loop was extremely tough. Numerous times I felt I was close to walking. I knew I was picking people off but I was concerned that at any point, the body may stop cooperating. I told myself to pull the effort back and just ‘sustain’ through at least mile 20. If I got there feeling good, then I could try to push a bit more. I think this plan worked, because by this point, I told myself “Just two 5k’s. You love 5k’s!” I didn’t know what place I was in, but I knew I was nearing the canal and that the crowd energy from that point on would get me to the finish. When I passed mile 23, I was told I had about 3-4 minutes to Rachel. I knew I’d likely not put 1 minute per mile into her, so I tried to simply maintain from here forward. It wasn’t until about mile 25 that I started to pour on whatever I had left. By now I realized I would have to settle for 4th place; but considering that I had been in the back half off the bike, and given the caliber of this field, I’d take it. Needless to say the finish chute was not quite as sweet as last year, but I was so thankful to see it, feeling proud of the fight I managed to find within myself.
This may not have been the race I’d dreamed of; I really believed I was (am) capable of a better swim, a faster bike, and a much faster run. But even to us control-freak triathletes, we simply cannot control everything. I felt like my body was firing on about 9/10 cylinders on the day. Given the incredible strength of the other women racing, I definitely needed every single cylinder in my arsenal. But that’s ok; life (and sport) is about playing the cards you’re dealt. I’m proud of myself for staying relaxed despite some uncertainty and almost more proud of the result because I overcame a lot of questions as to if my body would cooperate prior to the race, as well as immense self-doubt based on how I felt during the race.
One thing I’ve always loved about triathlon is the unpredictability of it. I grew up a swimmer; controlled environment, controlled distances; little unknown factors you have to deal with. Triathlon is full of ‘factors’. Weather, winds, water conditions, road conditions, shorter course, longer course…incredible competition; lighter competition…but the one factor we are always in control of is how hard we’re willing to dig; how much we’re willing to risk, how we react to the situation, and what we put on the line. I feel like this race was executed less on physical strength but a lot more on heart; I had to fight very hard for every minute of it, and I’ve always believed when you can give your best on the days it doesn’t come quite as easily, you gain so much strength, physical and mental. The days you feel good and you have stellar performances are the rewards for toughing out the others; and I can say, I’ve more of the latter than the former!
So, what’s next? After 4 incredible days of indulging in a Cancun girls trip with my mom and sister, and a second round of antibiotics for 2015 (nothing like antibiotics, sun, and alcohol!)…it’s back to work. With the points I acquired from this race, qualifying for Kona is within reach but I’m definitely not there yet. Rather than bust out another Ironman just to secure more points, I’m opting for some 70.3 races. Having raced this event somewhat sick and already having been through this in March, I’m fully going to respect my body right now and aim to stay healthy; the shorter races allows me to keep the training load down a bit, and also work on some speed over the coming months. What’s meant to happen will happen. I may even hit up one of my all-time favorite old school races, Buffalo Springs 70.3.We’ll see where things fall come July but I’m excited about the shift in focus…and it is important to remember, it isn’t ALL about Ironman, right?
Huge thank you to my sponsors for their ongoing support: Memorial Hermann (especially for getting me in to see a doc immediately post-race!), Zoot, Hops & Grain, Road ID, Felt, Rudy Project, Recovery Pump, Nulo, ISM, Jack & Adams, Profile Design, Endurance Shield, Durata Training, Zipp, SRAM, Quarq, and JSM Rodan & Fields.