Monday, 1 August 2011

Antwerp Ironman 70.3 - Run to the Finish Line

I finally made it to the second transition zone.  The cyclist I was “chasing” – more like following –  disappeared ahead of me when the course took a couple turns.  Riding up, I saw so many people wrapped in silver space blankets. They had already finished and gave me big cheers of encouragement. I was excited and a tiny bit discouraged at the same time since they were done and I still faced a half-marathon run.

Then suddenly there was the entrance into T2.  A wonderful volunteer at the entrance asked me my number in order to direct me to the proper rack. I couldn’t remember, so she checked my bib and pointed.  I found my spot very quickly and was pleased to see my blue and black garbage bags –  the one from the lake with my wetsuit and backpack and the other with my running gear. I had read terrible stories about another race (one in Germany) where all the bags were mixed up and athletes had a terrible time finding their stuff.

I racked my bike and took a deep breath. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. It was surreal. I was so happy to be finished with the bike that I never had another thought of quitting. I did some quick time calculations and told myself that I had enough time to finish even if I had to walk the whole way. Well, on second thought I realized that wasn’t exactly true, since walking takes 10 minutes a kilometer and I didn’t actually have 210 minutes. But it was reassuring to know that even if I took a lot of walk breaks, I’d be able to finish before the course closed.

I have to explain this fixation I have about finishing in time. I learned to run distance only two years ago. In March 2009 I ran my first 10k race, which took something like 76 or 79 minutes.  Before then I had never run more than five kilometers – and then only because I was training for sprint triathlons. I had tried running in the past and had never progressed to the point where I enjoyed it. I found it too difficult. I took a big scary step at New Years 2009 and registered for a learn-to-run course that included a local 10k race. I loved it!  And I wanted to continue to run.

By September, I ran 16k from Paris to Versailles (10 miles) (2:22), and in October, I ran the Amsterdam Half Marathon (2:42).  I enjoyed it so much I set my sights on a marathon, selecting one in December that had a 5 hour time limit. It was quickly apparent to me that the required pace was beyond my ability so I chose instead the Rotterdam Marathon, with a 5:30 limit, the following April 2010.  I wasn’t last, but I was nearly, finishing in 5:30, which was my plan.  

The short course limits here have created a good deal of anxiety for me since I run “slowly” in comparison to others on the course.  In a half-marathon in March 2010 I got behind the sweepers early and got so upset when I was asked to leave the course at 7km that my race fell apart and I didn’t finish within the 2:30 time limit. I felt devastated even though I had cut about 10 minutes off last half-marathon time six months earlier.  Learning to finish last and validate my own finish have been some serious character-building lessons for me, a perennial over-achiever Type A personality.

So when I realized I had met my race plan for both the swim and the bike, I felt like I had already crossed the finish line. But I still had to put on fresh socks and my running shoes. My feet were numb getting off the bike. And my wool socks were wet with you-know-what. I was very glad to have a nice dry pair of running socks to put on my feet. I had planned for rain and “treated” myself to some dry socks  for the run. I was partly right.  The sun had come out. I started chatting and joking around with the race volunteer who had guided me to my spot. I had no sunscreen! But I had a hat.

When your feet are numb, it’s hard to feel whether your socks are on right. I got the right sock all twisted up in the process of putting it on my damp, numb foot, and had to straighten it out. Then I realized there was something in the toe of my left shoe.  I pulled my foot out and checked – and found the two salt capsules I had stashed in my shoe early this morning.

The capsules were part of my nutrition plan. Endurance racing is as much about fueling as it is about pacing. Pre-race planning required a lot of decisions:  how many calories an hour to eat (300), how much water to drink (about 500 ml an hour), and how to get enough electrolytes to avoid cramping (take capsules during the week leading up to the race, then two before the swim, two before the run).  All this I had practiced in earlier races and during training sessions.

I had also decided I was going to run “commando” – naked – that is, without a fuel belt.  In the past, I’ve looked like a running tourist with the amount of stuff I’ve carried (fanny back, hat, coat, camera, dual water bottles).  Once, when I was running home after a race, someone commented that I looked like I had strapped a BBQ on my backside. To be honest, I hadn’t run with that pack! It held my race kit.

The race instructions promised aid stations every two kilometers with water, Isostar (yuck), Powerbar Gel (edible), oranges and Coca Cola. I decided that I would rely on these rather than carrying my own stuff, except for a bottle of Gatorade that I would carry at the beginning of the run and then toss.  I planned to drink coca cola and water and eat gel. (Just the mention of that now makes me shudder. Seven and a half hours of eating pure sugar is gross). So the plan was to run between aid stations and walk through them as a reward.
The run course was three laps winding around the old quarter of Antwerp.  At each lap, runners pick up a wrist bracelet. When you have three, you enter the finish lane.  

When I left T2, the course did not seem clearly marked and I was a little worried I had missed a turn since I didn’t see any runners at first. Then the little road I was on fed into a stream of runners. I joined in and matched up with another woman, Liz, who was running at a similar pace. We started talking. She was running at about 6min/km (10 min/mile), which was faster than I had planned for the first lap, but I could keep up while still being able to talk.  She mistook my yellow Livestrong bracelet for a lap marker and thought that I had, like her, already run a lap. She kept telling me she thought we had already run 7km. I had just gotten onto the course, worried I had missed a part. At some point I realized she was simply a lap ahead of me.  I felt disappointed that she was going to finish sooner. She helped me to run well. I don’t think I could have pushed myself so consistently by myself. Actually, I know I could not have since I cut myself too much slack! And have a mental barrier about running faster than a 10 minute mile (6 min km).

My Garmin was giving me very strange pacing numbers, so I stopped looking at it. Talking with another runner who’s running at the same even pace makes the miles just fly by. It definitely helped me break through a mental barrier. I went from “I don’t think I can run this fast after swimming and biking” to “I’m doing it.” So we just kept going, walking through the aid stations and running to the next one.

I saw my husband and my two boys during the first lap. What a great boost that was. And besides, I could shed the hat I was carrying that ended up being too hot and unnecessary. I looked for them again throughout the rest of the race, and saw them just before the finish.
Next time I will comb my hair or something!
On my second lap, Liz’s third, we took a couple walk breaks. It’s funny how well we were motivating each other without saying a word. It’s as if we were passing silent messages of strength.  We got to the dividing point on the course where I would continue and she would finish. I teased that she should run one more lap to keep me from walking. (Silently in my head I’m thinking I can’t wait to get rid of you so I can walk).  Liz is saying to me, you better not walk or I’ll have to scream at you from the sidelines!  We gave each other a big hug and said goodbye.

I felt really strong. I had clearly reached my goal of finishing before the course closed. I just needed to keep moving, and here I was, one lap away.  I switched to cola at the aid stations and used the water to cool off. I tucked sponges on my neck, beneath my tri-suit. And squeezed water over my head. Shocking, but effective.  The aid stations, by the way, were NOT two km apart. I don’t know how they were organized, but they seemed few and far between.   

Bye Liz, hello Sue.  I continued running by myself and saw another woman, Sue. I paired up with her. She was celebrating her 50th birthday and was eager to join her husband, who had already finished the race. She seemed a little out of gas and I asked her if she wanted to run the last lap together.  She was walking a lot and I encouraged her to run a little more and run a little faster between walk breaks.  She wasn’t quite running next to me, but just behind. I kept encouraging her. I wasn’t sure how hard to push. I didn’t want her to become discouraged or annoyed, and what do I know about racing anyway. But I thought she needed some cola and encouraged her to give it a try. She was discouraged about how tired she felt. She told me she had run a 2:10 half marathon but felt quite tired after the bike leg.  She kept telling me to go on without her and not to let her slow me down. But I had already met my goal mentally and I was enjoying running together. Helping Sue kept my mind off the blister that was forming in the usual spot on my right foot and the chafe on my inner thighs from my tri-suit that was beginning to bleed.  I liked running an easy last lap.
Me and Sue!

When we got to the finish chute I started to run as fast as I could. I put my hands in the air as I ran across the finish line and yelled as loudly as I could. 
I felt so happy to be done. Now I could sit down. My quads and my glutes were feeling pretty tired. Sue finished about five seconds after me.

 I turned to clap her across the finish line. We did it! 

Then I got my HUGE finishers medal and walked along the end of the course, clapping and cheering for the people behind me.

I met Sue’s husband and congratulated him on his finish. Then I spied my kids and husband and got some great high fives and hugs. 

Then we made the long walk back to T2 to pick up my bike. Ouch Ouch Ouch.  On the way to the bike, I met up with Liz and her husband and congratulated them. I thanked Liz a lot for helping run a good race.

After finishing the race I was suddenly really tired and hungry. I confess we stopped at McDonalds off the highway on the drive home. I liked the burger but the fries had no salt. So I didn’t eat any. Salt is what I was craving. That and coconut. I think the fatty acids in coconut attracted me.

I feel so proud of my effort and so very satisfied.  I raced without any injuries. I kept a patient pace on the bike and pushed myself harder than I thought I could – without blowing up. 

While out walking the dog the next day, I caught myself wondering how much faster could I finish next year. And wondering if there was something wrong with me since I preferred an enjoyable slower lap and running with another athlete to speeding off alone.  No. I’m just fine. My desire to push myself evaporated once I realized my goal (“just finish”) was in hand.   That was enough for this race.  I ran this half in 2:33, after swimming 1.9 km and riding 90 km.  Not so bad for an Athena! 

PS After the race, we went sailing for a couple days. This proved to be the perfect way to recover from the race.  I took a lot of naps - not much moving. Some swimming when I felt ready.  I wrote my friends:
About the half ironman,I learned the most important lesson about myself. I can do the most extraordinary things if I will only reach a little further, push a little more, and believe that it's within my capacity. Throughout the race, I had to control my negative thoughts that were telling me to quit, that the next stage would be too hard. When I focused on just what I needed to do at that moment, and kept myself moving forward, I eventually crossed the finish line. Dozens of people who started didn't finish. I FEEL SO PROUD OF MYSELF.


  1. i'm curious if the posts are out of order but whatever which way, i've thoroughly enjoyed reading through all three installments. i especially loved to hear about the friends you made. thank you for sharing (always).

  2. Your friends are proud of you too. You ROCKED that tri. Amazing. I'm going to remember the bit about drawing a smiley face on your hand.

  3. Thank you SO much for sharing this Chris. I loved reading about the friends you made along the way. I especially love the pictures of you and your family. They are clearly very proud of you.


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