The journey to Louisville began in the car. I chose a dumb route going up through Pennsylvania and Amish country with one-lane roads and big trucks, instead of going through Baltimore on the freeway. Durrrr... I listened to a ton of triathlon podcasts and raided my ancient CD collection, even breaking out the movie soundtrack for...Mulan! ("Did they send me daughters...when I asked...for sons?!") I found myself at the doorstep of Kellie and Brian's McMansion after 9pm with an actual time goal for Sunday's race--beat my driving time of 11hrs and 56mins!
I had stayed with the Joneses two years ago, when I was a broke lil pro living out of my suitcase and they were my homestay family that the race organizers hooked me up with. We had a glorious time and kept in touch; I actually meant to race Louisville last year and stay with them again until that dumb Korean driver got in my way. Anyway, they decided I was still welcome to stay in their "basement" (which has more square footage than me and Sherpa's entire HOUSE) even though I gave up my pro status to race as a civilian. :)
Sherpa came on Saturday and it would be his first time accompanying me to an IRONMAN. Hard to believe this would Ironman #22 for me, but I thought of it more as #5--it would be my fifth one as an amateur and first time in the 30-34 age group. (Time flew by and I apparently skipped the 25-29 category.)
My bestie Amy was racing too (one of the biggest reasons I signed up, we had never done an IM together despite all the ones I had done!) and was being trained by my old teammate Brandon Marsh. She even got to borrow Ironman champ Amy Marsh's race singlet! Good luck sweat! We had decided beforehand that we didn't want to get up super early just to get a good place in the swim line. (Since it's a time trial start.) It was all right with us to start in the back and just pass people all day. Confidence booster!
We got to transition at 6am, set up and had plenty of time to walk to the swim start and get a second #2 out of the way. Literally. (Very important!) After having my own separate swim start/head start with the pros for the last 3 years, it would be interesting to see what it was like on the other side of the fence now. I had to line up like all the other "normals"!
I was pretty excited right before the race. I was probably more excited than everybody else. My plan was to stay on Amy's feet as long as possible. She trained really hard for Louisville and also does Crossfit, which means her arms are way stronger than my puny twigs. My swim training was pretty horrible and despite my intentions to swim at least 3x/week I only averaged 1.85 swims per week in the 20 weeks leading up to the race for an average grand total of 1hr 38mins in the water each week (totally ran the stats on a spreadsheet last week like a good lil nerd). Ouch. I used to do a 90-minute swim 5 to 7 times a week! No matter though, I figured I had more "friends" to swim with during the race, i.e. more people to draft off of. We couldn't tell where the end of the line was and squeezed in somewhere, and got in the water about 7:18am. I was pretty excited the whole time just being at the start of an Ironman again. (Wait, I said that already. Like you can't tell from the pictures.) No pressure, no expectations--at least limited pressure and expectations, just enjoy the day and pretend it's your first time. Sort of.
Off we went and I hung on Amy's feet. This isn't so bad. I was even smacking her toes. Aw yeah! I can do this! Hanging onto Amy's feet! Then we reached the end of the island and I don't know where she went. The swim course actually got confusing at this point and there were pink and green swim caps everywhere. Yikes...I was not used to this. Usually there were just a few caps ahead of me that are going in the right direction for me to follow. So despite having more people to draft off of, there were also more people to lead me astray.
It seemed like a long time before we got to the 3 big bridges that we get to swim underneath. I would swim with people sometimes, or on my own sometimes. The course was pretty spread out and I found myself actually reaching back to my short-lived rowing career at Georgia Tech (Summer Olympics had just ended) and yelling at myself to bang out a "Power 10" every now and then to bridge the gap to someone ahead of me. Or if someone caught up and glided by me. I consider myself to be good at navigating and every now and then, it was a little irritating to have someone swimming diagonally into me thinking they knew which way to go. No matter, I just pretended I was a water polo player and that helped.
Finally I was out, whew, that seemed like FOREVER, and I totally wasn't going to look at the clock and subtract 18 minutes, but I totally did. It was around 1:19, which was only 7mins slower than when I used to swim 5-7x more each week. Totally worth it!
I ran through the change tent, even stopped in the Porta Potty to pee (ahhhh, it's so nice to not have to pee on yourself because you are not in a big hurry trying to win or something) and heard Kellie and the Sherpa cheering and yelling for me.
I smiled and waved because that is what a good athlete does when they see their support team.
I was wearing my Delaware TriDawgs singlet for the bike; they are my local triathlon club and have been helping me reintegrate into society as a normal age group triathlete (if there is such a thing). Which just means they are really nice to me and we have fun together and they make me remember all the good reasons why I got into triathlons in the first place.
So off me and White Tiger went. I am still on most of the same equipment I've had since acquiring them during my pro days. Cervelo P3, Token race wheels, even the hot pink taped Profile aero bottle that still says "Wongstar" with teamTBB stickers. I don't really consider myself "The Wongstar" these days, more like the Jocelyn Wong to Superman's Clark Kent. (Did I do that analogy properly?) But I will still respond to "Wongstar". And I was kind of surprised to still hear random people cheer "Go Wongstar!" at this race.
You know what else is different? Age groupers aren't allowed to clip their bike shoes into their pedals. That was weird. I ran with my shoes in my arms up to the mount line because I don't like running in my cleats.
So off we went. (Oh, I said that already.) My plan was to stay in control and be able to hammer home at the end. Not like how I imploded 2 years ago and limped home the last hour. So I kept my effort and pace in check those first two hours. I saw Amy during the out and back and got ready to catch her. Then I heard that familiar pfffft pfffft pfffft sound and yelled "FUUUUUUUUUUUUUdgecicles!"*
*not what I really said
I went over to the nonexistent shoulder of the narrow road (and man was it crowded on that course), and both tires felt fine. I spun them both, and the sound was coming from the back tire. Motherfudgecicles. I started to undo the rear skewer when I looked up and saw that a race number sticker was stuck my rear wheel cutout. WTF-sicles. I pulled it out, secured my wheel and went back on my merry way. I actually assumed it was my own race sticker until I noticed after the race that both my bike stickers are still on White Tiger. So whoever the fudgesicler is that lost their bike number, well, I am shaking my fist at you. At least it wasn't a flat, I heard some angry bike-hating Kentuckian was throwing tacks on the road. But I still lost a couple minutes. Good thing I wasn't going for time though. :)
As the story goes, I was feeling good and in control. I did catch up to Amy eventually and yelled her racing name "Go Amy Fudgesicling* Chow!!!"
*not her actual racing name
It was sort of neat to actually be riding with other people, instead of a more lonely and solo 112-mile time trial, but at the same time it got CROWDED. Many of the roads were narrow and I will say that with 3,000 people on the course, it is hard not to draft, especially when people get bunched up on the hill about three abreast. (Not three breasts, three abreast. Teehee.) This also made it hard to stay on the right side of the double yellow line in some spots. I just tried to pass people as quickly as I could when there were big groups. But my biggest peeve were guys that would pass me on the left, and then stop pedaling and coast downhill, but still stay on the left side of the lane. They didn't seem to understand that if they are coasting down at 25mph I could still pass them going 28mph while pedaling. Sometimes yelling "ON YOUR LEFT" three times in a row didn't help. Sigh. The only solution might be to race smaller races, or... race as a pro again (haha). As far as the PTBCS (Post Traumatic Bike Crash Syndrome) went, I was still a bit apprehensive going really fast on some of those downhills, but maybe less so because I was in "race mode" (despite all my protests about not really "racing") and getting mad at people (GUYS) slowing down right after passing me.
I was averaging a touch over 20mph for a while and at about 5 hours in the saddle was when my lack of training combined with the hot conditions went head-to-head. With a bit of a headache to boot. Again, looking over my training logs after the fact (I didn't want to scare myself before the race but knew I was undertrained), I had only done one 5-hour ride and five 4-hour rides. Oops, oh well. I felt like I was fading during that last hour back into town, but was still on pace to go under 5:40, not too shabby considering I went 5:30 as a pro (well, with a big implosion and all).
Parts of the ride I could tell the temps were heating up, so I tried to stay on top of hydration, although I was dumb and forgot to bring extra salt (boo, lack-of-salt headache, boooo). I also didn't stick with my well-tested professional nutrition plan (Hello Pandas and Starbucks Via's) as I was following what I had been doing in training. Which uh...meant I was not eating enough. Anyway. 20 miles to go, then 10 miles to go, then TWO miles to go and I got the brilliant idea--stop fading! Let's crank it up for the last two miles and bring it home strong!
So I gave my already cramp-prone legs the message to kick it in. And my very obedient left hamstring actually seized up from the effort and locked up my knee. Unfortunately you need to be able to flex and extend the knee when trying to pedal in circles. My knee was stuck at 90 degrees. It was almost funny except for the "oh sh*t you know you still have to run a marathon, right?" feeling.
I had to get off the bike and shake my leg out. Then I bent over and tried to stretch out my hamstring. I kicked it out a few times and got back on my bike. Then pedaled those last 2 miles SLOWLY back to transition. Dear body, just get back there in one piece, please!
I took my sweet time in T2 to allow my defective left leg to chill out. I asked around if anyone had extra salt tabs and a fellow racer generously shared 2 of hers with me. Thank you! I chatted with the volunteers and was not in a hurry. I knew it was hot and did what I had to do in order to get through the marathon without completely blowing up. Which meant, make sure my legs were okay and rehydrate. 5 extra minutes spent in T2 would be well worth it and pay back extra-fold on the run.
I headed out on the run, jogging easily and happy that my leg actually worked. My plan was to stop and walk every single aid station as part of the plan to keep my core temperature down. I didn't have a watch on. I knew I would be slower than when this used to be my full-time job, and didn't want to get discouraged, didn't want to get too wrapped up in the outcome. (And I found myself constantly and incredulously thinking, "How was THIS once my full-time job?!")
I ironed on my own fun logo to my tank top and wore a happy face hat to remind myself to "find my happy place" and enjoy the experience. No sponsor logos for me. I was going undercover as a regular civilian this time. During the aid station walks, I would wet my hat in the trash cans full of ice water they kept for sponges, and throw a cup of ice in my sports bra. (Which didn't always work...apparently my seamless bra from Target does not hold ice all that well. It is super comfy though. Sometimes ice cubes would escape and I would yell "it's hailing!") I would also drink 1-2 cups of the Powerbar electrolyte drink (which required REAL slowing down because I am uncoordinated and basically have to stop or I get it up my nose).
I didn't race in my trademark Camelbak because...honestly I was a bit lazy. I didn't have time to get all the proper "rocket fuel" ingredients or remember my exact formula (it's written down somewhere...), and since I wasn't shooting for a fast time, I was ok with just going with whatever they had at the aid stations. The more glamorous reason I didn't wear a Camelbak was because I had an even better slogan ironed onto the back of my shirt.
Looking back on my training log (again, afterwards), I only did 4x 2hr runs and 2x 2.5hr runs (combine that with what I said about my long bike training, you will see I only got in 6 solid weeks of "longer" training...which we were not 6 consecutive weeks). I didn't have a watch so I didn't know until later that despite my long walking breaks, I was still averaging about 9:00/mile pace for the first half marathon, and crossed the 13.1 mark at just under 2hrs. Not too shabby!
Unfortunately my lack of eating on the bike caught up to me around this half-way point and I remember being HUNGRY. There were potato chips and pretzels and bananas at an aid station that I slowed down to gobble, gobble, gobble. It was neat running by 4th Street Live (the entertainment district by the finish line) because there are lots of people cheering for you like you are still a superstar. Everyone liked my shirt too (both the front and the back). And more people than I expected yelled "Go Wongstar!" like I was still famous. I saw the Sherpa and some of Amy's friends when I started my second loop (which, like everybody else, I wished was my first loop), and that was exciting. I grabbed a Red Bull from my Special Needs bag and drank it down, but had temporary amnesia and forgot that I would have really liked the snack-size bag of Cheetos in there. UGH!!! We are still hungry!
My legs had been sore to begin with, but the soreness in my quads kept increasing and increasing...just big blocks of soreness. I tried to smile, like my happy face hat, and make pain my bitch, like my tank top said to do, but I was getting slower and slower. The weird thing was, it seemed that during the first lap most everybody else was walking, while I was running and passing people, but the second lap I started to get passed. At first I thought it was because I was REALLY slowing down, but later I thought about it and realized a lot of those were people on their first lap of the run! I kept to the plan though, running aid station to aid station. Walk, dip hat, ice in bra, drink fluids, eat snacks, start running again. My feet were sore and swollen and my quads were screaming, but I just kept on truckin' on.
Amy caught me with about 10km to go, which I expected. Actually she passed me and I didn't realize it, as we were both walking the aid station and she was walking in front of me. I caught up and we were very excited to see each other. I tried to run with her for a couple miles, but she was very focused on maintaining the 9-minute miles in order to run her first sub-4 marathon (which she did, by mere seconds!). I couldn't have been prouder as she has been training very hard (even though she totally denies it in her humble and self-deprecating way). Actually I was prepared for this moment, as I had a dream about a week before the race, that she beat me by 3mins and I never saw her all day (except in my dream we went 10:35 and 10:38, about an hour off our real times).
Anyway, we ran together and I'm sad we didn't get any photos of that. "I might burp," she said. "I might fart," I replied. In the months leading up to the race, when we were exasperated with our training, we'd sometimes declare that it didn't matter how we did, we should just do the whole race together, wear matching outfits and cross the finish line together holding hands. I have totally seen married couples do this! Well, racing together is a lot harder than I thought. I found it hard to go by another person's pace, especially since I wasn't racing for time, and she was. So I didn't want to hold her back, and told her to go ahead after a couple miles. She was hesitant, but I promised I would catch up if I was feeling better --which was a total lie, and we both knew it, because my legs were feeling worse and worse!
Other than random Wongstar fans, I'd recognize the pros at the front of the race--Pat Evoe who I met at one of the earlier Ironman Chinas would go on to win his first IM, Bree Wee who I met at Cozumel 3yrs ago who would also win her first IM, Chris McDonald who was an old TBB'er, Terra Castro was the only one cool enough to actually exchange a few words with me, and April Gellatly who used to spank me in my Atlanta days. Then Jason Rice, my old Team Poncho mate, was a friend from the beginning--taking me to Disney World right after I qualified for my pro card at the Florida 70.3 in 2009, and Sam Louie, who was working one of the aid stations and one of my biggest Asian-American fans. It was neat to see Jason (with his fancy camera) and Sam 4x during the marathon since it was a double out-and-back run. By the end Jason had caught my smile turning into a grimace, and Sam had to walk me further past the aid station when the legs didn't want to run any more, I think with 3 miles to go. Thanks for the pep talks guys!
I found myself thinking several times, "just because you can do this for fun now...doesn't mean that it is actually fun!" So yes, there came a point when the legs were reluctant to keep running, but I forced them to. Mind over matter. I think I simulated the "underprepared first-time Ironman" experience pretty darn well, now that I think about it. It was awesome to see the finish line and I broke into a real smile again. I was honestly surprised that most people I was running with ended up turning right to go to their second lap, and I had the whole finish chute to myself!
That meant I got to do airplane arms and high fives, and really soak up the finish line, like I had won the race or something. It was cool. (Special note to spectators: make sure you wash your hands after high five-ing Ironman racers. You don't know what they've been touching all day.)
And Kellie was one of the finish line captains and this time got to be the one to put the finisher's medal around my neck. Yeah!!!
And I had that really awesome sore feeling, where you are afraid to sit down, because you are pretty sure you will cramp trying to get back up. The physical feeling that you actually DID something!
Sherpa and Amy and all the crew were there right at the finish line, which was pretty darn special. I think they were the biggest crowd of people that had ever been at the finish line with me in all 22 Ironmans (even though most of them were Amy's crew, but she can share).
In the end, even today as I write this up 2 weeks after the race, going over my training leading up to the event and the race itself, and talking to the sherpa, I ask myself: Would I have changed anything in my training or my race experience, if I could? Would I have trained more? Gone with a different nutrition plan? And the answer is no. I can honestly say that everything I did, I did with a purpose. Sure, I could've trained more, but after going from "I never want to do another triathlon again" to "maybe I do still want to do triathlon," I didn't want to push myself to take on more than I would enjoy, while I'm still learning to balance how to be a working age grouper again.
Of course, now that I have my "first" one under my belt, of course I want to go faster next year! And if I were to do one next year ("not if, but when" says Sherpa knowingly), I will definitely train more and probably shoot for a goal time. But you know, I did beat my previous amateur best time (12:08) and I did beat my driving time (11:56), with my 11:47. It's funny, because if we erased the last 6 or so years, I think I would've been ecstatic with an 11:47 in Louisville. But the last 6 years really did happen, and I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with that part of my life that no longer exists.
In the meantime, thank you all for your support. Especially thanks to Kellie and Brian Jones and their family for hosting us again in Louisville, Amy and her family for being awesome, and Mr. Sherpa for coming to his first Ironman and being my daily moral support. Love you all!
Photos courtesy of Jason Rice, Kellie Jones, and FinisherPix.