race recap #4: two-point-four miles of epic open water speediness (aka, killin’ the swim)

This year’s Ironman CdA had a new swim start – called their Swim Smart initiative. You’ve probably seen photos of Ironman’s mass swim starts where there is a mssive wave of people running into the water simultaneously where they then proceed to duke it out, arms, legs, elbows, feet, and fists for a rowdy, aggressive and potentially dangerous 2.4 miles. Some people think this start is most epic. From a spectator’s point of view, I would definitely agree.

But let me tell you, I could not have been more relieved to learn about the revised start. And I say this as one 2318 athletes who started the race and as someone who is NOT afraid of long swims in open, chilly water (most days). And I say this as a strong swimmer who has mixed it up with the boys in numerous race day swim starts and swim drills and mass start practices. But I also say this as one of just 636 females who signed up to compete in IMCDA this year. Just look at these pictures and look at how many pinks caps you see…

green, green, green, green, green, green, pink!

green, green, green, green, green, green, pink!

before the start...

the beach beginning to fill up before the start…

swim start  5

And what do we know about boys? (Besides that they are bigger than me?) Boys are mean and aggressive. To each other, yes, certainly. No guy I know likes to be beat.

Now, put a pink cap on and go swim with the boys. They’re fine with it, really. They’ll play nice – they want to pat you on the head and console you that the swim is not going to be that scary and the water isn’t that dark and you’ll be just fine. Cute little girl. That is until you start swimming past them.

What do guys hate more than being beat? Being beat by a girl.

My swim time of 1 hour 10 minutes is not good enough to beat the pros, not even close. But it does put me in front of 75% of all the competitors.

And that means I beat A LOT of guys, some of whom got downright nasty when they realized it was a girl passing them. Grabbing, pulling and generally trying to swim over me. Some of it was probably an accident – absolutely, it comes with the territory of open water swims. But I have a hunch there were more than a few non-accidents. A handful of times, I did have to be more aggressive and take wider strokes to literally push people off of me.

The worst of it was in the first half of the first loop.

Anyway, I should back up. The new swim start went smoothly – no one knew quite what to expect, only that athletes were to “self-seed” like in a marathon. So each person would have 17 hours from the time they crossed into the water to finish the race. Volunteers held signs – 60 minutes, 1:00-1:15, 1:15-1:30, 1:31-1:45, etc.

self seeding

self seeding

Hubby and I had agreed to start the swim together and thought we’d seed ourselves at the front of the 1:15-1:30 mark. We had both swam the Coeur d’Alene Crossing last August, a 2.4 mile swim across the lake so we had a good idea of what our times might be. We figured I might be just a smidge faster than 1:15 and he might be around 1:20 so this seemed like a good plan.

Not knowing what to expect from the swim conditions and crowds, I had honestly told myself that as long as I was on the bike by 9 a.m. I would be “fine” (i.e. I would still probably make the cut offs throughout the rest of the day). For those of you who don’t know, the swim cut off for the 2.4 miles is 2 hours and 20 minutes. We were both confident that, excluding any extenuating circumstances (like getting hard-core kicked in the face and needing stitches or drowning), we’d be comfortably under that mark.

Mike Reilly

Mike Reilly gives some last minute instructions and words of encouragement. (Or possibly he’s just telling this guy next to him how to get to the restrooms…)

I found hubby on the beach near the warm up area and he had some pretty bad news (already). Someone had stepped on his watch and he hadn’t realized it until he got to the beach. The screen was cracked and neither of us thought it would make it through the swim, let alone the rest of the day. He didn’t feel like he had enough time to swim upstream to drop it off at his bike (at this point transition was closed anyways), so he was just going to have to keep his fingers crossed it would survive the swim and keep functioning throughout the day. (This was on top of the fact that he was competing with a broken wrist – an injury he had picked up just 16 days before race day when he took a tumble off his bike during a taper ride.) The watch issue would prove to be a really major complication and hurdle for him throughout the day (but more on that later).

We each took our turns “warming up”. The worst part of open water swims for me is often that initial shock of getting into the cold water and I find myself spending the first 500-600 yards slowing down my breathing and adjusting to the cold, especially as it hits the back of my neck. So my warm ups, including for IMCDA really only consist of putting my face and neck in the water and floating face down in the water for a minute, focusing on keeping my breath outwards slow and steady and calm. After I got out, we had a few minutes to hold hands and stand, in silence, surrounded by hundreds of others dressed in black neoprene wetsuits, inching up towards the start line as the people in front of us crossed the starting line and entered the water.

I was surprised at how calm I was – again, I think it had a lot to do with the revised start. I mean, just look how peaceful it looks.

the calm before the storm

the calm (wayyy) before the storm

crowds at swim start 2

When we got close, we kissed each other and wished each other good luck. And for some reason, my eyes welled up with tears. I’m really not even sure why. It was just one of many somewhat overwhelming moments where I realized how much we’d been through and sacrificed and put ourselves through to get to that point and perhaps realized that **it was about to get real and maybe also had a feeling about how much we both might endure throughout the next 13 or 14 or 15 or 16 or (hopefully not) 17 hours. I looked at hubby and he seemed a little overwhelmed too. I wiped the stray tears from my eyes (so as not to fog my goggles!), gave him another kiss and we were off!

swim start - under the arch and over the timing mat

swim start – under the arch and over the timing mat

I fought the crowds for the first half of the first loop and had some close encounters with fists, elbows and people trying to swim over me or pull me down. Right before we started, I heard Mike Reilly, the announcer, say that the left and right sides seemed crowded but the middle looked pretty open, so I decided to stay somewhere in the middle. I tried to stay wide on the turns as those get sloppy in any race.

ows2

After the 2nd turn, heading back into the beach, I noticed the sun was out and traffic seemed to clear up a bit so it was cruising time. I’ve already spilled the beans about my time – I was out of the water and running across the halfway timing mat on the beach just under 35 minutes with a dozen or so people. I heard my name as I passed over the mat and dove back into the fray for round 2.

The first part of the second lap was clear, but then all of a sudden we hit of all of the 1:45ers and 2:00+ers who had gotten in the water behind us. A few times, there was just a wall of people and no clear path through. I took more than one little detour  just to get around the slower crowds of people.

swimmers as far as the eye can see...

swimmers stretched out as far as the eye can see…

At the start of my 2nd lap, I also realized that my neck was burning, chafing on my right side. I cursed the stupid pocket sized bodyglide and tried to breathe mostly on the left (I’m an ambi-breather, haha, is that a term?!) to try to keep it from getting worse, but I had a good sized wetsuit burn-owwee by the time I was done with the swim.

Other than that, my second loop was just a tiny bit slower, just over 36 minutes for a total of just shy of 1 hour 11 minutes.I ran up onto the beach, through the arch and over the timing chip.

tick tock tick tock...

tick tock tick tock…

Wetsuit strippers are awesome. You take your top half off and lay down and they do the rest and pull you up and hand you your wetsuit and send you on your way in a matter of seconds.

The rest of the transition was pretty smooth, thanks in part to the dry run we had done when we dropped off bags and in part thanks to the volunteers.  I found the change tent and ventured in. It was still fairly quiet, not too crowded yet and people seemed in good spirits. No crazy negative war stories. So I found a chair easily and a volunteer came right over to help me with whatever I needed. I was pretty low maintenance though. I opted to leave my jacket and sleeves behind, so all I needed was some chamois cream, my socks and bike shoes, my race bib, and my helmet and sunglasses and I was on my way in what felt like a jiffy (but was really more like 9 minutes…)!

As I ran towards my bike, I could hear the people along the transition fence cheering but it is so hard to distinguish whether it’s people you know or not until a familiar voice yells your name!

With that, I jumped on  (ok, gingerly and cautiously mounted) my bike (I have been known to be a little too over-eager with this part only to get tangled up and nearly eat it right in front of all of those fans – trust me, it’s way more embarrassing to do that than to take an extra 30 seconds to gracefully avoid any unnecessary close calls with the pavement) and had only a mild sense of trepidation for the next 112 miles…

IMG_6081

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Race recap: sprint tri #1

6:30 a.m., hubby’s alarm goes off.

6:39ish – hubby’s alarm goes off again. SNOOZE. C’mon!

6:48ish – hubby’s alarm goes off and he rolls out of bed to start getting ready. I roll over and doze off again.

7:00ish – my alarm goes off, and I finally get up. Swimsuit under sweats and a beanie. Sandals, no socks. Old swim team habit.

7:20ish – start loading up all of the gear we’d packed up the night before (so as not to forget anything as I’m wont to do early in the a.m.)

7:27ish – eat a PB&J I had prepared the night before. Force feeding myself is always part of race day. I need to fuel, my stomach, full of nerves and not much of a first thing in the a.m. eater anyways, never agrees with me and my brain’s awareness of the fact that I will need my energy before too long. Thus, the force feeding.

7:35ish – jump in the car…and take off. Surprisingly, no “turn around, I forgot ________!”

7:55ish – arrive at event parking. Hubby glances at temperature gauge (clearly a mistake). It reads 47. Push hubby out of the car into the cold. Quickly close the door as to keep all of the cold air out there. Hunker down in the passenger seat as he makes faces at me… just kidding, I didn’t lock him out of the car in the cold.

8:05ish – bikes off of the car, pump up the tires, port gear to transition area. Wish for a sherpa or a horse or a wagon or something. (Ok, ok, I’m being dramatic. It’s not that far, but still…)

8:12ish – arrive at transition area at the same time as all other athletes. 33 minutes till pre-race meeting, announcements and instructions. Wander through transition looking for the “just right” bike rack to suit our needs. Begin unloading all the gear with fingers crossed that we didn’t forget anything crucial.

8:25ish – Gear’s unpacked, bike’s on the rack. Off to find volunteers with ginormous permanent markers who will write race numbers on your left bicep and your age on your left calf. (More on that later)

8:25ish – On the hunt for a portapotty… preferably a clean one, without any significant lines. Success, relatively quickly. Good news. It’s a quick stop. Bump into someone else I know, she sporting booties. Man, in hindsight that seems like SUCH a good idea… too late now. We exchange well wishes and head back to the transition area.

8:35ish – People are beginning to squirm into their wetsuits. Some people are even in the water. Hmmmm. Maybe time to start thinking about that… then someone stops by to say hi. We chat for a few minutes about – what else – the water temperature and we swap suggestions on how to brace for the cold. Oh heck, there’s no big secret. Ya just gotta get in. Lots of whispering of numbers – all seem to be in the low 50s. Are they talking temperature?! Someone mentions peeing. Sure. A nice temporary warmth.

8:40ish – ok, wetsuit time. I hope it still fits… squirm squirm squirm… there’s no good way to do this. Zip and stretch. No body glide used this time… I don’t remember if I should have used it or not so here’s hoping not!

8:45ish – time for a Gu. Espresso flavored. Wash it down with water. Race director (or maybe it’s just the announcer guy) is talking constantly now. Who knows what he’s saying. I think he’s calling the white caps to the beach to start – hubby’s in the first wave.

8:52ish – walk with hubby down to the water’s edge. He puts on a brave smile, gives me a kiss and jumps in, prepared to meet his maker, from the looks of his face.

9:00 – white caps are off to the races, including hubby. I don’t see him bailing for shore right away so I take that as a good sign. So far so good.

9:09ish, or maybe 9:12ish – Lots of folks in full wetsuits. Plenty of people with booties and neoprene swim caps. And a couple in straight up speedos and nothing else. I see two girls in bikini tops and briefs – certifiably crazy, all of them. I jump into the lake to get ready for my own wave start… Holy $@%#!*$^! New personal goal  for today – break world record for ½ mile swim. Get out as quickly as possible! I already can’t feel my feet and my hands. My chest is constricted and I’m trying so hard not to hyperventilate.

The Swim (.5 miles):
Too soon, I hear “GO!” and we’re off. I quickly find my way towards the outside of the group, desperately trying to control and calm my breathing while avoiding a foot, fist or elbow to the face. The downside to swedish goggles is that if I take a hit to the goggles, I’ll probably need stitches. At least it’ll give me a good excuse to get out of the water early…

Soon I find myself with just 2 pink caps in sight – one right next to me and one just in front of me. We’re quickly catching the silver caps, then the red, and a few hundred yards out from pulling into the beach, some of the white cap stragglers.

Transition 1:
I hear people yelling at me as I’m running out of the water towards the transition-

“Way to go!”, “Watch your step!”, and “#2!” Huh, could I have been the 2nd pink cap out of the water? I realize it may be possible. That means lots of people will be passing me now that we’re on dry land again. Being a fast swimmer isn’t all its cut out to be…

Pulling off my wetsuit  was easy enough. It was the small actions- putting on socks and shoes  – the things that required numb, frozen fingers to work that I had a hard time managing. It was a slow transition for me. Or at least it sure felt that way…

The Bike (14.4 miles):
Here’s where I realized I’ve definitely been training for an endurance distance race. 14.4 miles should be a walk in the park. I came hauling out of the gates, clipped in and quickly chugging along at 20 mph (fast for me). And I soon realize that it’s going to be a long ride if I run out of gas too quickly.

Here’s where you realize just how awful it is to have your age on your left calf… suddenly, everyone’s a target, including you. I was distinctly aware of the fact that the person in front of me for a good part of the bike was 21 – a full ten years younger than me and by gosh, I was out to prove that slightly older (more seasoned and wiser) is better (and definitely faster) than her . And on the flip side, I’m equally brutally aware of the fact that the 56 year old who just passed both me and the 21 year old like we were both standing still is older than the two of us put together. Yes, I will win my age group when I’m that old, I think to myself. You know, I’ll be retired and there won’t be anything else to worry about.

I think I held it pretty close to a 17 mph pace overall (I’m still waiting for the official results to be posted). But let me tell you, am I ever having some serious biking attitude issues. Anyway, since my bike’s been hurtin’ me for the past few weeks,I’ve been avoiding it like the plague. Not a good strategy. And it’s given me SUCH as negative attitude about biking. Yikes. So I finally went out and got a professional bike fit. Moving things around made me realize that the biking I’ve been doing has been on muscle groups ever-so-slightly different than the ones I was using during the race. Eep.

Headwinds a couple of times really made me groan to myself about how awful biking is. See what I mean? And that 21 year old was still just in front of me. I kept pace, knowing I would catch her at the end…

More headwinds, some less than fabulous pavement, but all in all relatively uneventful. I have GOT to fix my attitude! Now, buckle down and take that 21 year old! (You’ll be pleased to know I got her in the last 2 miles and improved my lead over her in the run portion as well, finishing several minutes in from of her.)

Transition 2:
Good, pretty quick. Jacket off, pull-on sleeves on. Quick swig of water and I’m off. Nothing much to say here.

The Run (5k or 3.1 miles):
I quickly realized 1) that I should have fueled more on the bike even though it was just a sprint distance. I could have used the fuel. And 2) my feet literally felt like bricks of ice. This is a strange sensation as you have no idea how your form is, how your foot is striking the pavement…plodding along.

The run is a comfortable place for me. I’ve spent a lot of time training for everything from 5Ks to a marathon, so I know what running feels like to me under all types of conditions and situations. While I’m not particularly fast, I think my experience is a strength for me come race day.

At mile marker 1, I stopped for water. I didn’t feel like I needed it, but I thought I probably hadn’t been drinking enough. I walked a few steps, drank some water, and started running again, only to have an immediate hammie cramp threat that lingered the entire run. This kept me from kicking it up a notch – not wanting to cramp and have to walk at all, I kept my pace quick, but under control.

I didn’t feel my feet until 2.5 miles into the run. They thawed slowly and strangely. But it was like magic when I finally did!

Hubby was at the finish line when I crossed, saw me come down the home stretch. I was happy to see he was smiling and that he didn’t succumb to the monsters of the deep during the swim. In fact, he was 4th in his age group without even trying.

And my final time was good enough for a 1st place age group finish.

All in all, a good race to get under our belts and a confidence booster for us both as we enter Week 13. Now all we have to do is keep training…

race day prep… warm up race #1

English: IronMan 70.3 Pucón 2009 (Start) Españ...

IronMan 70.3 Pucón 2009  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tomorrow’s the 1st race of the season… a “warm up” race that, as of this moment today promises to more chilly than anything. It’s been raining all day. Heck, it’s been raining all week. A week of wet, chilly runs and spin classes. Ugh. I don’t know what I was expecting. I may or may not have already mentioned that the vast majority of my races back in 2010 were in the cold or (and often AND) rain. Those race included multiple sprint tris, a half-Ironman distance triathlon and a full marathon run in the rain. Yes, it rained the ENTIRE 26.2 miles. Every last one of them.

Tomorrow’s tri is a brick workout in week 12 of the 70.3 training plan – we managed to time this first race perfectly. Except for the rain part. So, while the race tomorrow is just a .5 mile swim, a 14.4 mile bike and a 5K run, I will spend my evening steeling myself against the idea that I will be spending yet another few hours of my life submersed in water chillier than most normal people would tolerate, and then biking and running in 50-60 degree weather and into potentially driving, pouring rain. Hooray.

But I digress.

In the meantime, it’s prep time. Time to make sure I have all of my gear. Fortunately, the internet is chock-full of sample prep lists … what, oh what did we ever do before Google? Here’s my own preliminary version:

Swim / for the morning:

  • Warm clothes for setting up your transition area
  • Towel
  • Wetsuit
  • Swimsuit / tri suit
  • Goggles (plus an extra pair just in case)
  • Swim cap (including a neoprene cap to go under the race cap in case you’re swimming in water cold enough to freeze your noggin)
  • Baby powder for your swim cap
  • Timing chip
  • Watch
  • Body Glide, vaseline or other lube of choice – apply pre-swim and leave at transition area for shorter distances (may want to also include in bike to run transition bag if there are 2 separate transition areas)

Bike:

  • Bike
  • Bike Shoes
  • Socks
  • Bike Shorts
  • Sunglasses
  • Helmet
  • Water bottle / hydration
  • Race belt with bib # pre-attached
  • Arm warmers and leg warmers or Jacket and pants
  • Bike gloves

Run:

  • Running shoes
  • Hat or visor or headband
  • Socks
  • Water bottle

Other:

  • Snacks – bars, gels, chews, whatever you use for race day fuel (remember not to try anything new…)
  • Clothes for after the race
  • Advil or pain killers (depending on the length of the race and how prepared you are of course…less prepared=more pain killers)
  • Wet wipes – I usually have some of these or use a towel at transition that I dump water on and wipe my face off after I get off the bike. You know, to get all of the bugs off my face and outta my grill and all…

I fully expect I have forgotten something here. And I fully expect that even if I didn’t forget ANYTHING on this list, I will probably  forget something tomorrow. Hopefully it will be something really unimportant (though I’m not sure that on this list I’m willing to give up… baby powder, I guess.)

Anyway, recognizing this is the 1st race of the year and I’ve probably definitely forgotten how to do this, my other race day advice for myself and any other 1st race of the year individuals?

  • Give yourself enough time on race morning to do everything you need to do. Don’t forget to get up early enough to eat and let your stomach settle. What is that your mom always said about swimming after you ate?
  • You’ll probably have to park a little ways away and cart your stuff, so be prepared for that – bring a backpack or a gym bag or something (not like me, one of the first race I did, I just threw everything in the car and had to hand-carry it all in multiple trips back and forth from the car to the transition area. Not the recommended course of action).
  • Getting there early also means you’ll have plenty of time to set everything up so you can find it when you get out of the water and are running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to minimize your transition time.
  • And of course, getting there early will also mean you’ll have time to squirm and wiggle your way into your wetsuit in a more relaxed fashion. You know, with some dignity. Like the rest of us. Ha.

Good luck, have fun, and happy racing everyone!

open water swims…

A few years back, I signed my mother up for her first triathlon. She had been saying for years and years that she always thought about doing one, that she thought it’d be fun. And she never signed up. So one year, for her birthday, that was her present. Happy birthday, Mom! Now before you deem me to be an evil child, you should know 1) that I flew home and did the race also, and 2) my mom was perfectly capable of finishing a sprint tri, probably without even training for it (she just needed a little push. You know, in exchange for all of that love and support she gave me when I was growing up. Oh, how the tables had turned, haha).

Having said that, my hubby put together a training program for her to follow. Which she did, to a T. Except for the part where you have to get into the open water. Despite my strong encouragement to go find a lake, ALL of her swims were in a pool. Which is fine, except that race day open water swims are not pool swims. Dark, murky water. Cold, sometimes chest-freezingly, brain-numbingly cold water makes you gasp for air. Makes your lungs freeze up. Makes you want to get back out (the same way you came in – the short way!). Add the hundreds of other people splashing and kicking around (and the stress of potential fist or foot to the face hazards) and the open water swim can be enough to sink anyone. Now my poor mom learned this the hard way. She made it through and she completed the race, but not without some emotional scarring. She has since completed a half marathon and last year, a full marathon. But I’m not sure that I will ever get her in the open water again…

English: Open water swimmer

Open water swimmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Determined not to face the same traumatic experience as my mom did, my hubby’s taken a different approach and yesterday faced the freezing cold lake for the first time. Mano a mano. Fifty-five frigid degrees seemed not to deter him though I’m not sure why. Perhaps one part of why he has already hit the cold water is because he knows that he might well be facing the same conditions on race day. When I went through this two years ago, with the exception of 1 Olympic distance race, every single one of my race day lake swims was in water temps between 55-58 degrees – not exactly tropical soaking temps. Regardless, I’m proud of him for facing the open water swim. And not only that, but for spending a full 25 minutes in it! He goes into this weekend’s 1st tri, and the tri season, wiser and more experienced than those who haven’t yet braved the cold, dark open.

It’s funny, the things that wear you out when you’re swimming in the open water. It’s tough to fight your natural instincts to gasp for air as your chest and lungs submerge. You can’t see the black line on the bottom of the pool because the water is dark and gloomy and murky. Mentally, it is exhausting to try and NOT lose your cool when you see something dark and shadowy below you. Especially if it’s big. Or moving. Toward you. Even perfectly logical and rational people like myself can easily imagine the fictitious black octopus of death swimming menacingly towards you with its eight poisonous legs ready to grab you and drag you to the depths so he can eat you for dinner. You’re such easy, unsuspecting prey. Oh wait, that’s just a tree branch. Safe…? For now…The point of all of this is to say, I highly recommend you don’t make race day your first open water experience. First of all, if you live in this neck of the woods, you can wait for the water to warm up, but really – there’s a chance the water really might not be any warmer on race day and you’re certainly going to have to deal with it then, aren’t you?

And perhaps most important (at least as far as I’m concerned), you’ll want to learn what your personal reactions to things may be – both physiologically and mentally. For example, I know I need to get in to the water and submerge myself just before the swim starts. So that initial panicky cold has faded enough for me to control my breathing. If I don’t, I spend the first leg of the swim trying not to hyperventilate. Also, you will probably want to check out your wetsuit before race day. I have a friend who didn’t and found out at the start of the swim that the neck of her wetsuit were like tiny little angry toddler hands strangling her as she swam. Joy. At least it was just a sprint distance. It was not her most favorite triathlon experience.

And I know that I’m comfortable in the (pool) water, but open water makes me J-U-M-P-Y! But the more I’m in the open water, the more I’ve “survived” the open water – maybe it IS safe after all? And I’ve found that orangey-amber colored goggles literally brighten my view. Rose colored glasses. Think about it- nothing bad or scary ever comes from somewhere bright and sunshiny. Yes, it’s a total head game. Mock all you want, it works.

Sure, you may get a little cold venturing out into the cold, dark. But all of these little things could really save your tush on race day. Doesn’t that make it worth it?