Well, I did it. My first half-Ironman is officially in the books. I enjoyed myself tremendously, even during the bike leg. Actually, let me amend that – especially during the bike leg. If you’ve read a few of my last posts, you’ll know that I’ve had a hell of a time learning to ride a bike with clipless pedals, so the fact that I really enjoyed that part of the race was a surprise to me.
More about that later. Let’s get on with this race recap, shall we?
Before the race
Ironman 70.3 Princeton was held at Mercer County Park, which is technically not in Princeton but actually West Windsor Township. (Or as Brian and I like to say, “Twip,” because the highway signs abbreviate “Township” to “Twp.”) I guess Ironman 70.3 West Windsor Township doesn’t have quite the same ring, which is why I assume they fudged it a little bit.
We had picked the race because one of Brian’s sisters lives in Princeton, and another lives in Manalapan, which is about 40 minutes away, which not only meant we had a place to stay but that we’d also have a built-in cheering squad. His sister Jill, brother Dave and brother-in-law Art were all racing as a relay team, and planning for it all snowballed until it basically turned into a family reunion, with people from as far away as California and Colorado coming out to New Jersey for the race. Someone made matching custom T-shirts, a bunch of the nieces and nephews made signs – it had become this whole thing.
I am already kind of high-strung in the days leading up to a race, and that’s even more true when I’m looking at a new kind of race or a new distance. I’ll vacillate from being effervescently excited to being so nervous I can hardly speak, and this race was no different. I was giddy during packet pick-up and when I bought myself a 70.3 run visor, then that night I slept maybe 90 minutes total. We woke up at 4:30 a.m. and Dave, Jill, Brian and I piled into the car with all of our gear. My stomach was so tied in knots that I was basically force-feeding myself my standard pre-race food: PB&J, two hard-boiled eggs, a banana.
My pre-race anxiety was not helped at all by the mile-plus line of red brake lights leading into the park. Someone had apparently fucked up something with the logistics, and I watched as the digital clock on our dashboard ticked closer and closer to the time when transition would be closing. Finally we got close enough to transition that we pulled over, and Jill took over driving duties while Brian and I grabbed our gear and ran to transition to set up.
A bunch of other stuff happened between getting set up in transition and my swim start, including Brian’s swim start and finish, an exceptionally long wait in a port-a-let line during which I stood in front of the girlfriends of two Australian pro triathletes, and more self-imposed force-feeding. This whole time the needle on my internal anxiety meter was creeping upwards, eventually reaching its apex right before my swim. Had Brian been around, I would have tucked my face into his neck and cried, but because he wasn’t, I just furrowed my brow and looked stricken.
Someone took a photo of me at this time, while Jill fastened my wetsuit for me and…well, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:
And then it was time to get in the corral. A few minutes later, we were in the water, swimming out to the starting line.
Predicted finish: between 40-45 minutes
The swim was set to take place in Mercer Lake, which is a manmade lake used by the US Olympic Rowing team for training purposes. The lake is pretty shallow, between eight and twelve feet deep. I was actually looking forward to this swim for two reasons:
1. No jellyfish
2. No alligators
My wave (women ages 35-39) was pretty huge, as I’m hitting the age where women have had their kids and their kids are not babies or toddlers anymore, so they can dedicate their time to training for something like this. We all floated around like human-shaped corks in the water while we waited for the start, hooting and hollering and cheering to psyche ourselves up for the race ahead.
And then we were off.
Over the summer, I spent quite a bit of time working on swimming, including attending group swims in open water where I was coached on improving my stroke technique and even taking part in my first open-water race. I focused on my technique, on sighting the buoys, and on keeping clear of the feet in front of me, and immediately calmed down.
The swim course was shaped like a rectangle, and the first long leg of the rectangle was fairly uneventful. Just twenty-five minutes of stroke, catch, pull, stroke, catch, pull. The buoys were easy to sight, especially as it was overcast, and large numbers on the buoy made it easy for me to know how far I had to go.
I rounded the edge of the rectangle and started making my way back to the finish. Up until this point, I had been in a sea of yellow swim caps, but then suddenly I found myself swimming through a whole Skittles-rainbow of swim caps. It wasn’t a big deal, though, until I caught up with some middle-aged men, and not just any middle-aged men, but punchers.
Triathletes, you know what I mean when I say “punchers.” These guys will punch the water, they’ll kick their legs hard, and in the process, they punch and kick me in the face and chest. Now, I get that sometimes a kick and a punch to the face happens when a group of people are swimming together. I also get that a fast, strong swimmer is going to have a stroke that can feel like a punch if it hits you in the back of the head, but if you are the kind of swimmer who is being caught by a mediocre female swimmer who started three waves behind you? Maybe consider that flailing at the water as hard as you possibly can isn’t going to make you go any faster, and also maybe consider a swim lesson. It’s just a thought.
So I caught up to a couple of punchers, and spent a few minutes trying to figure out how I was going to get around them. I finally got past them, but discovered a few minutes later, much to my dismay, that one of the punchers had kicked my wrist and turned my timer off. Boo. I spent the next five and a half hours guessing at my time and my splits. THANKS OBAMA.
I finished the swim, then climbed up the boat ramp and ran to the wetsuit strippers. The first of many of the day’s wonderful volunteers – seriously, Ironman, your volunteers are THE BEST – peeled my wetsuit right off me, then sent me off with a smile and “good luck!”
Actual finish time: 44:08
Projected finish time: 3:10-3:20
When I parsed out the source of my anxiety leading up to the race, I realized that it all came down to the bike. I had managed to do two fifty-mile bike rides during my training, but I’d never done the full distance, nor had I spent a solid three-plus hours with my butt on the saddle. Fortunately I’d gotten a new saddle a couple of weeks earlier – a Cobb one with the two-prong fork – and my forty-mile bike ride had been actually quite pleasant. So I told myself that if I just paced myself, using my bike computer to keep my pace somewhere around 17.5 mph, then I would be okay.
The first eight miles of the race were nothing great. Lots of turns and super bumpy, which made me nervous about possibly getting a flat. I had a kit and a new tube but I’d never changed a tire before, so if I got a flat, all that equipment would be about as useful to me as a flux capacitor. Fortunately it never became an issue.
Once we got out of West Windsor and into neighboring Hamilton, the roads smoothed out and we headed off for a forty-mile loop through countryside with lots of rolling hills, forests, horse farms and all sorts of other idyllic scenery. And this is where I officially fell in love with my bicycle.
At first it was a bit tricky, as I’m used to straight, flat bike courses. All my hill training came on bridges. Here, I’d descend one hill and then immediately start climbing another. The first time that happened, I didn’t get out of my big chainring in time, and ended up climbing a steep hill while in my big gears. I came to such a slow crawl that I thought I was going to have a zero-speed fall right there, but I managed to get to the top unscathed. After that, I learned my lesson, and started changing my gears properly.
There were a lot of hills on this course, and what I discovered was that I could use hills to my advantage. As you can see from the photo above, I’m a tall, sturdy woman, with a build not particularly suited for climbing. But descents? Ooooh boy. I had so much fun tucking myself in and using gravity to help me careen down those hills as fast as I could.
I had a huge grin on my face for most of the bike leg. I waved at all of the spectators, thanked all of the cops and volunteers, joked around with the other triathletes. I felt like a kid out there. And my clipless pedals, those blasted things that made me cry and gave me nightmares? They never gave me a moment’s stress.
(I did have a bit of an issue with another triathlete after I watched her eat an energy gel, then deliberately throw the wrapper on the ground. I cannot describe how angry this made – and makes! – me. If I’d had the power to DQ her, I would have, but because I don’t, I settled for trying to beat her, which I eventually did. But seriously, DON’T LITTER OMG WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE &*$&(#!%&)
It was only when we came back into the suburbs and back on those shitty roads that my giddiness started to fade. And when my bike computer switched over to mile 56 and the park was still nowhere to be seen, I got cranky. The bike course ultimately ended up being 57.5 miles long. That 1.5 miles doesn’t seem like it should be a lot, but it felt like the distance between the earth and the moon.
Finally, though, I got into the park and passed our family, resplendent in their mint green shirts, and waved at them as they all screamed my name. I slowed down and rolled up to the dismount line, then got off my bike and clomped into transition on my cleats.
Actual finish time: 3:19:40
Projected finish time: as close to 2:00 as possible
I slammed half a Boost in transition, then pulled on my gear and ran out of transition. I passed Jill, who was waiting to start what was going to be her first ever half-marathon, on my way out and she cheered me on. I was happy to see that my legs didn’t have that weird rubbery feeling, and that I could start out running strong.
My strategy for the run leg was to do a 5:1 run-walk, mainly because I had no idea what to expect and I figured a run-walk would be a good way to get my ass through the run course with minimal damage. I’m only just now getting to the point where I can complete the run leg of a sprint triathlon in a time that’s close to my straight 5K time, and so I had no illusions that I was going to be able to run one of my best half-marathons. I just wanted to be able to finish strong.
The two-loop course took us on recreational trails through the park and then on a route through the parking lot and sidewalks of next-door Mercer Community College. In some places the trails were quite narrow, with triathletes going in both directions. I was delighted to see Brian on his second loop, and when I passed him, I yelled, “Baby! I love you!” and squirted him with my water bottle because…of reasons. (I don’t know.)
I felt really great during the run for the first loop, taking advantage of the flat cola, the water and the sports drink. I was actually on track to break two hours when – dun dun dun – the sun came out. If I’d had a thermometer, it would have given me a reading of “balls.” Plus all of the hills from the bike course caught up to me, and I felt myself wilting.
I dumped a cup of ice in my sports bra, which made me feel like I was running with a castanet on my chest, and then started playing my Mixtape of Empowerment and Positivity in my head. (Because, you know, no headphones.) My mixtape was basically several hundred repetitions of things like, “Only four miles to go, you warm up with four miles” and “Less than forty minutes, you can withstand anything for forty minutes.”
As it got hotter and my legs continued to tire, I pulled out the big guns: “You’ve done ultras before. You’ve run fifty miles before. You’ve done this in the summer in Florida. You came in first in your age group. You are a total badass. Stop whining, you know you’ve got this.”
I slogged through miles 10-12, which is when I saw the family cheering squad for the last time. Brian was with them, and he ran out to cheer me on and hug me. At that point I was so emotionally and physically spent that when I saw everyone and heard them screaming my name, I started to cry. This time, though, they were happy tears.
My nephew Joe came out to run with me, carrying a sign that read, “Go Caitlin!” and started barking at me like a drill sergeant. “Get those knees up, come on, you got this!” I was still on the verge of tears and could barely breathe, and I was like, “Dude, I have to walk, give me a second.” He goes, “Oh, okay.”
Joe gave me about 20 seconds, then pointed out a cluster of racers ahead and said, “I want you to pass those people.” So we started running again. All the spectators saw the sign he was holding and yelled, “Go Caitlin!” which made me run even harder. And yet…it felt like the finish line was actually getting farther away. It was because we were running on a slight incline – how sadistic is that?
Joe eventually got me to the finisher’s chute, where I saw a woman in my age group up ahead. I summoned my last bit of energy and ran past her across the finish line. In my mind I felt like I was running like a cheetah, but I saw the finish-line video and I looked more like an exhausted, bedraggled Yeti.
No matter – I had finished my first half-Ironman! I collected my cool medal and my finisher’s cap, posed for my photo. Brian had materialized at the finish line, and I gave him the biggest hug I could manage. Then we posed together for another photo.
We waited around to see Jill finish her half-marathon (!!!) and then we all went home for showers and lots of food, all of which was eaten while wearing my medal. In all, it was a pretty special day.
Actual finish time: 2:07:06
Total finish time: 6:21:15
30 out of 87 finishers in my age group
So I’m thoroughly recovered now, and I’m already thinking ahead to next year, when I’d like to try another half-Ironman, possibly the 70.3 in Augusta. But for now, after a year of training for monster events, I’m enjoying a bit of downtime for the next month or so.