I’d be lying if I said I’ve been back in Portland for weeks, processing this experience. After a couple days of wallowing in self-pity and what could have been, I did my best to completely forget about the whole thing and move on to a standard 25-year old lifestyle of being with friends and drinking whiskey. Unfortunately my road rash has served as a physical reminder. Nearly three weeks later and I still had not downloaded my Garmin file or looked up a single Ironman result. But, I felt like I had a responsibility to myself, my coach and anyone else invested to reflect on the event. Sharing elicits community, I truly believe.
Let’s back up a bit. All the way back to Ironman Coeur d’Alene back in June where I sat in the chilled hotel room the next day, plotting my next Ironman adventure because the 105 degree heat had ripped me off of a performance I knew I had in me. All other late season Ironman races were either sold out or had a travel expense way out of my small budget. What if I somehow pulled off a few weeks at altitude and raced in Tahoe, the cursed race? Time to use my network to figure out how I can work remote and live at altitude for a while.
It was almost too easy. My annual Labor day weekend trip to Denver for a few nights of Phish was the perfect excuse to spend a week in Boulder beforehand. In fact, back it up to July, and Phish tour had me training at altitude in Bend end of July. I was so fortunate for Garren and Lisa to not only open up their Boulder home to me, but also spend time training, eating, drinking and hanging out with me. My curiosity for the place was satisfied and interest officially sparked. It quickly felt like home. Following the shows in Denver, I flew straight to Tahoe where fortune struck again and I was able to stay with a close family friend for a couple of weeks until race weekend. July through September I had trained in Portland, Bend, San Francisco, Boulder, Denver and now Tahoe, a whirlwind of fortune and adventure.
Race morning came unbelievably fast once I had moved over to the Squaw Valley condo with Garren, Lisa and DJ. The day and night before the race felt more casual than ever. It was pitch black when we arrived at T1 in the morning, and freezing cold. Word spread quickly that a bear had gotten into the T1 bags, so I went to check that mine was unaffected. Knowing to not leave food items outside overnight in a place where every garbage can has a bear lock seems fairly obvious to me. I pumped my tires up since there was a sufficient enough temperature swing between the prior afternoon and the morning to effect the pressure, put my Garmin on my bike and headed down towards the water. Still freezing and dark, I stripped to put my wetsuit on so I could jump in for the warmup swim. “Warmup” being a dubious term. Garren and I walked in together and swam out a bit. We got out and lined up according to expected swim time. It was still pitch black outside and I was questioning my dark tinted goggle choice, hoping for that sunrise to begin any minute.
The starting arch was on the beach, out of the water, and we had to run at least 25 yards in foot-deep water before being able to dive in and swim. Trying to be careful of my footing and rocks, many guys passed me just on this start. Once finally swimming, I was able to find my groove and move up packs fairly easily. Pretty soon I was fighting for one foot with a few others, and then was on my own, out of a draft. I knew I was pulling others, and did so for a good stretch but didn’t really have a choice since the pack was so sparse. The water was crisp and clear, and it was hard not to enjoy the swim.
We had to run out through knee-deep water for what felt like forever, grab our T1 bags, and run another 20 yards up a dry sand hill. There were kiddy pools to wash sand off our feet, and then what had to be the most clueless Ironman volunteers I’d ever experienced just stared at me instead of stripping my wetsuit. I pulled on arm warmers, something I’d never done in a race before, and ran the quarter mile from my bike rack to bike mount clomping in my shoes. I got into a rhythm on the bike quickly and felt good. Every spectator lining the streets was telling me I was first woman — a position I had never taken in an Ironman event. I wasn’t confident it would last long, but had mentioned the day before that it was my goal to lead the race at some point. Satisfying that goal felt great.
The course felt empty of people. It wasn’t until we had settled in a bit that we hit a long flat stretch all in the shade that chilled me to my inner core. My Garmin recorded a shocking 32 degrees for a long stretch, which is hardly the temperature ideal for being wet in a tiny kit, going 23mph on a rocketship bike. I couldn’t squeeze my nutrition bottle and had zero confidence I could refill my water bottle without stopping completely to use two hands. My confidence in the heat of the sun that would eventually hit my skin got me through this stretch. Having been at a high altitude for a few weeks now, I knew that the sun’s warmth was intense as soon as it was present.
We had a steep hill around 30 miles in, and then the long stretch of bike path. It was somewhere during the bike path stretch that a woman passed me and I was no longer first woman. She was 48 years old, though. No where near my age group. Coming off the bike path had us heading straight up a good 20% grade, with a short reprieve, followed by another. A few miles later and the long 5-mile climb began. I had done it three times already and knew it was long and became quite steep at the end, reaching some 10 percent grades. I stared at my watts and kept it right at my hill cap. After the summit, we come screaming down a fast three mile descent, and back towards the beach to begin another lap. part way through the second lap my legs were feeling a bit more tired than I wanted them to feel at this point in the race, and I backed off the watts. I had Dave’s words of “treat it like a marathon” in my head the whole time, and really wanted to run well.
The long climb on the second loop was much harder than the first. I kept it steady and grinded up the thing, still with loads of encouragement from spectators. It had almost a Tour De France feel, with spectators hanging out all over the summit, heckling and waving signs. Another athlete passed me and as he did commented “wow, you’re way up here. You’re definitely going to Kona.” My first reaction, and a correct reaction as it turned out, was “don’t jinx me!”
A few miles after shooting down the hill again and coming towards the last aid station, I took a 90-degree turn too quickly, that in turn took my race. Before I could think twice I was lying on the ground against the curb bleeding, staring at an EMT. My first big road crash, and I saved it for about mile 95 of an Ironman that I had spent so much time, money and emotion on.
The EMT was quick to question my mental consciousness, asking my name, where I was and other basics. I don’t remember feeling pain, only shock and concern for my race and the state of my bike. He took my vitals and I was thrilled when he asked if I lived at altitude. Apparently I had already completely adjusted to competing at 6500 feet! He wrapped my leg and shoulder with gauze and a neon green wrap, confirmed that I was refusing medical attention, and let me choose my next steps. My head hurt and I felt woozy and out of it, but my decision to at least ride back to T2 was already made. After sitting on the curb for quite some time, I thought maybe a salt tab or excedrin would help my head. Too bad they had spilled out of the pouch that was taped to my bike and were crushed into the pavement. Oh well. I finally stood up and quickly discovered my front tire was close to flat. Maybe it had rolled? I wheeled it up to the aid station where the volunteers helped change it, pinching two tubes in the process. No, I’m pretty sure their help was not legal, but I didn’t care much at that point. I left my spot after nearly an hour and soft pedaled back to T2, too scared to get in my aero bars.
A volunteer racked my bike, I wandered into the change tent woozy, and sat down. Two women began pulling my socks and shoes on and I started crying. I wasn’t sure if I could run a marathon. My heart said yes, and every other inch of my body said no. Without any lubricant, the gauze the EMT had wrapped on was completely stuck to the open skin already. It hurt to move my right limbs at all. After a bit of fuss with a med volunteer, I was walked off course to the med area, stopping for a breakdown with Lisa on the way.
The med room was a terrible, dark experience that is somehow so fuzzy and so vivid at the same time. First, the gauze that had dried into my raw skin had to be peeled off. On my knee and all the way down my calf, and a deep one on my shoulder. They used water and ice, and tore slowly, but that didn’t help me from acting like a five year old. After this came the sanitizing and cleaning of pavement. This was probably even worse. At this point I was nearly hyperventilating and clenching my fists. Ironman med does not have Ibuprofen, tylenol or any pain meds, so that nice topical numbing gel was a “yeah right”. The nice nurse let me know that I could catch my breath, but that next up was scrubbing. I cringed. They took a rough sponge, soap and water, and scrubbed my raw skin. Today with my fast healing wounds, I am unbelievably thankful for their thorough cleaning, but I wasn’t sure any pain could be worse at that moment than scrubbing into all of those nerves. At this point I was woozier than ever and took quite some time to regain composure, sipping on veggie broth and going over my day on repeat. A very sweet, older man came over to me and asked if I had been leading the race for a while and said him and his daughter noticed me each time I went around. This set off a few tears of sadness again.
After 2–2.5 hours down there, I needed out. I walked out, ate a piece of pizza and found Lisa to cheer Garren in. Still in my kit and race number, people were congratulating me left and right, and I needed to get out of that kit. We walked back to the house for a quick change and came back to see DJ finish. At this point I felt like an entirely different person.
The amount of messages I had received by the time I was reunited with my phone later, and for the next 24 hours, was truly overwhelming. I’ve managed to hit the jackpot of all communities. Feeling the love, concern and encouragement dug me out of the sad hole of disappointment I quickly fell into. Thank you.
Every athlete has an experience like this at some point. I have no one but myself to blame for it. I didn’t break any bones, didn’t have a concussion and my bike was okay. The disappointment in myself for stopping was the deepest wound by far. On to the next adventure, whatever that may be.