Pescara Ironman 70.3 — WE FINISHED!!!!

The long road to an intense and amazing race ended last weekend when Lauren and I both hit our goal to complete the Pescara, Italy Half-Ironman.

The course was a bit more intense than either of us had anticipated, with a choppy swim, hilly bike, and a hot, unshaded run. However, the race scenery and setting could not have been more idyllic — a gorgeous ocean, vineyards and Olive groves, and beautiful seaside parkland. The race supporters, fans, and volunteers we’re all high energy and awesome, and the after-party spread had the most decadent local nibbles and treats. It was an amazing experience and an awesome chance to compete with a small international field.

We both finished with a better understanding of just how challenging it is both physically and mentally to cover 70.3 miles in one day, and gratitude that we both have the stamina and grit to accomplish our goals despite a multitude of setbacks. Here’s a breakdown of our race experiences and what we learned to apply to our next challenge!

Rachael’s Race:

First reactions: I am so thrilled to have finished the half! I’m still in a bit of disbelief that I even crossed the finish line considering I had an emotional breakdown the day beforehand. I was so convinced that I would miss the time cutoff for the swim and be disqualified, and the whole trip would have been for naught.

I am not an ocean swimmer. Waves freak me out, and the water in Pescara got progressively rougher after we first arrived. After 2 days of poor practice swims I called my beau in tears, terrified that I would fail the swim, angry at myself for not practicing more, and anxious that I wouldn’t get to finish the race.

This is when having a supportive partner and is crucial. He recognized that I had gotten into my own head and had become my own worst enemy. He then talked me down, told me that he believed in me, and that I should come up with a plan to make it through the course.

So I went home and put in my journal my exact plan for finishing the swim course. I wrote down what I would physically do, how I would manage my emotions, fears, and reactions during the race.

Sunday morning we went down to the beach for the race start and I burst out laughing. The waves had gotten even worse overnight. There were now 5 foot waves crashing on the breakers off the shore, and athletes in the water were being tossed around. The coast guard forced the race officials to alter the course for safety concerns.

My goal instantly shifted from being able to finish in under the time cutoff, to just attempting to complete the swim. Surprising, I had to LOWER my expectations to feel like I could even attempt to get in the water. This mental shift gave me just what I needed to have a successful race, finishing 6th in my age group with a total time of 6:32:59.

Race strategy: Beyond the immediate goal of surviving the swim, my strategy was to stay light and easy on the first loops of the bike and the run. That way I could “test out” the course and get a sense of the difficult spots, where to push hard and where to rest for the second loops. I have a strong, though not super-fast bike, and as long as I don’t blow myself up I can hold an even pace for the run. The strategy focuses on conserving enough energy to hold a consistent speed strong finish.

Mental game: During the swim, I stuck to the plan I had written out the night before. My mantra was literally “just keep swimming, just keep swimming,” and the image of Dory circling in my head. As soon as I was about to turn the last buoy and knew that I would finish the entire course, I was ebullient. I knew that I could conquer the rest of the course handily as long as I kept my pace.

Keeping my strategy to stay relaxed on the first land loops requires constant vigilance. The temptation to catch up to or pass others comes up with each athlete on the course. However, I would completely crush my strategy and my legs if I abandoned my focus and got caught up in the short-term competition. This worked well on the bike, but I probably stayed a little too relaxed/slow for the run — it was hard to motivate myself to move any faster after the first lap.

Nutrition Plan: I am happy to say that I have been successfully sticking with natural fuel options like dried fruit, date rolls, ginger candies, and nut butters. This time I sprinkled some salt into my bag of sweets for extra electrolytes and to aid hydration. I felt fueled, sated, and stable throughout the entire ride. Unfortunately, as soon as I got off the bike my stomach shut down and I couldn’t take in any more calories. The volunteers on the run provided amazing support with biscotti, pretzels, bananas, and gu on the course but I was scared to take in a single bite.

Learnings and Race Review:

START: Swimming more!! I knew this swim would be tough, but I had no idea how unprepared I would feel. I absolutely want to start swimming more frequently, and with a coach, to get better at form and efficiency. Also start practicing more long bricks to get used to nutrition on the run.

Being more open about my excitement, fears, and anxieties with other athletes. We met another athlete, Elena, and bonded over our shared fear of the water. It was awesome to hang out with her, explore the course, and support one another during the race. And we never would have gotten to connect if we hadn’t first bonded over our fears!

STOP: Critiquing my own training decisions and plans when talking with other athletes. We met several other athletes leading up to the race and each had their own reasons for racing, hurdles they’d overcome, competitive backgrounds, tactics, resources, and training strategies. Since I was insecure about the swim, I heard their stories and immediately started criticizing my own path. My insecurities led to missed opportunities to learn from and connect with other athletes in this community.

CONTINUE: I LOVED the practice of writing down my plans, especially for how I would address difficulties. Having that in place made me feel much more confident and capable to overcome barriers. I have even started to adopt the practice into my daily living, and take a few moments to write out my plans for the next day and how I would address a trigger/stressor/anxiety point. It’s been a huge help to reduce my anxiety and feel more comfortable. I am going to take this approach to write out how I will tackle my daily challenges.

I’m also going to make an effort to be more grateful to the amazing no people who make up the support structure in my life. I would not have made it through without knowing that Lauren, Elena, my beau, my family, friends, and several others were cheering me on.

Conclusion: I am so happy to have a strong half-ironman performance under my belt. This felt like a huge accomplishment physically but also a huge win mentally. I would definitely do another race like this with the right course, team, and training.

Lauren’s race:

I may have been overly confident going into the swim, with minimal swim time in the log but a childhood of competitive swimming behind me. After swimming most of the race course the day prior, I was sure I had this portion under lock. However, the surprising change in water conditions changed my mind.

The bike was a challenge — though I still managed to get in speeds of 17–22 mph for some portions. The run: well let’s just say, it was the hardest, slowest half marathon and proportional run to bike time in a tri race I have ever done. The run made me realize that it is a LOT to expect myself to be competitive in 3 sports at a time. I’m ready to go back to just cycling for fun and swimming for fitness and cross training.

The race humbled me. Reminded me how much life is all about mind over matter and keeping our emotions as well as attitude in check o that the mind doesn’t spiral into a negative self defeating direction.

To give you a sense of just how challenging this race was — I have NEVER walked in a race EVER and with the exception of one high school cross country race where I passed out due to heat and overexertion I’ve also NEVER not finished.

With tremendous back pain and tightness from the hills on the bike, in the transition to the run, getting off the bike it was clear that my back was going to be my limiting factor and if I wanted to finish the race I might have to choose between the tradeoff of “I never walk” with “I always finish”.

Race strategy: Go out early on the swim with the fast group to get ahead of the pack and leverage the energy of the race leader while improving odds of having more competitors to pace with during the bike and run. Minimize transition time by not changing out gear. Hold a steady and even cadence on the bike with a 15–17mph pace, manage gears and muscle tension by switching frequently to minimize effort and maximize potential back tension from big gears. Hold steady and even on the run, allll about pacing!

Mental game: Stay in the present moment! One of the blessings of opening a new venture (announcement coming next week!) while running and existing business and training for an endurance competition like this is the constraint of time and energy. Luckily, having a very full life has kept me on my game to stay present and on what matters most immediately and in the near future.

Second, Focus on what’s realistic and doable with an eye towards best case vs goal state to manage expectations and responses as the race and its potential hurdles unfold. I focused on hacking the waves and my fellow swimmers in the choppy water. I enjoyed the beauty of scenery and a constant eye on my pace in the bike. And by the time I knew my back would be yelling on the run, I just needed to stay focused on the end goal to finish (ideally within the ironman sanctioned time limits)

Nutrition strategy:Focus on hydration a couple days out and early morning prior to race. Use espresso pre-race and energy supplements during race to stay energized and focused. Stay with what I know and don’t overload the sugar with energy blocks (as I learned from the stomach pain in my 2014 marathon).

Learnings and Race Review:

START: Waking up early to hydrate 2.5–3 hours prior to the race to help hydration levels and emptying the tank prior to the swim

Building in extra time and buffer pre-season/off-season for base strength and speed training; I was soooo focused on self care last fall with my low back pain and herniated disk flaring up again heading into base training in Sept that when acupuncture had me off cardio and weights until Thanksgiving I was so far behind I wasn’t prepared enough for all the training to come

STOP: Giving two shits about other people’s opinions and recommendations; I can listen to them and evaluate what’s useful but most people don’t do an 8 hour three sport race.

Setting massive work expectations and deadlines that directly conflict with race dates and training; try to create some space to enjoy the lead up to and the day prior to the race without having massive work distractions and pressures (if and when possible)

Avoiding looking at the logistics and time cut off details until the last minute

Looking at my goal list as all or nothing propositions — I had wanted to really be conversationally fluent in Italian by this trip. With the demands at work, travel, and training I dropped the priority instead of just cutting back on the expected outcome and thus the energy investment in it

ADAPT: Test and Iterate: 1. I MUST find a workable solution for chafing…. be it another new saddle potentially a really padded seamed to not race worth but comfortable edition, wearing cycling shorts I wear on long rides during the race, or some other solution, and/or any other solution or combination of that doesn’t have me miserable in the saddle 2. Race nutrition — sooo much better than during my marathon and easily found a solution that worked and stuck this time around but more tinkering is necessary.

CONTINUE Trying new things on race day: an age old rule, and especially enforced and recommended by endurance sport coaches and long time competitors, is to never try anything new on race day. But sometimes you just have to do something new to avoid something you know won’t work or would yield a negative outcome given the situation. In my case this meant 1. Buying and racing in the new Kona Ironman race suit with sleeves (I already had some shoulder redness from time on the beach. My Orca suit wouldn’t cover the burn and it was a thinner material not well suited to be used standalone in the swim as well as bike and run) 2. Throwing out part of the plan to just wear the race suit and rushing back to grab my wetsuit when I saw the waves crashing and the need for added buoyancy was clear3. Espresso two hours prior to race time for energy and elimination 4. Renting a bike locally instead of dealing with the hustle and logistics of shipping and dragging a bike case around 5. Biscotti crackers during the run after my stomach was turning from eating three packs of blocks and two bottles of double tab electrolyte water

Conclusion — I am tremendously grateful to be back to triathlon competition after a number of set-backs and to have such an epic half-ironman experience in the Abruzzo region where my mom’s side of the family is from. With a back strain aggravating the herniated disk in my low back just two weeks before the race and international travel prior to, this race was an amazing confirmation that much of what we achieve in life is mind over matter. Said another way: with enough determination and grit to achieve what we set out to achieve, most things in life are truly possible and the only thing standing in the way are our own fears, reservations and hurdles to overcome.

I would definitely do another race like this with the right course, team, and training.

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