I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga on a whim several months ago, after finding out that Keara had also signed up for it, which was a big deal as it would be her first half-ironman. And then a bunch of other people we knew signed up, and I convinced Brian that we should do it as well.
It’ll be fun, I said.
Problem was, Chattanooga was about a month after Boston, which meant I was going to be going into Chattanooga with less than optimal training and/or recovery time. I mean, I used the Run Less, Run Faster program, which means I swam and biked plenty during my training for Boston, but I’m a weak cyclist and I knew that 1-2 trainer rides a week with a couple of long rides on the weekends wouldn’t be sufficient to let me really drop the hammer for 56 miles of rolling hills in northern Georgia.
So I did the next best thing and adjusted my expectations. I was just going there to have fun. I wouldn’t go hard on the bike, and maybe I’d still have my run legs left over from Boston. But even if I didn’t, it was no big deal. This was just for funsies. Right? Right.
BEFORE THE RACE
Can I just say that I thoroughly adored Chattanooga? The city is filled with public art and walkable spaces and wonderful places to eat, and I did not hold back while I was there. I ate ribs, fried pickles and a sloppy joe for the first time in years, had dessert every night (including a to-die-for banana pudding cupcake), tried all kinds of local beer, and in general just made a total glutton of myself. #worthit
We also had the chance to meet with Lacy from the delightful yet sadly under-updated blog Modern Sauce. Lacy is as charming and hilarious in real life as she is on her blog, and even if Chattanooga *wasn’t* such a great little town I would want to come back just so I could hang out with her again. Fortunately both Brian and I agree that we would like very much to come back, whether it’s to do the full Ironman or just to spend a week doing outdoorsy stuff. (Oh, who am I kidding. We’ll probably come back for the Ironman.)
The race venue was set up at Ross’s Landing, right on the banks of the Tennessee River. We checked in on Friday and picked up our race swag, which included a big branded swim gear bag that I actually needed quite badly because the bag I’ve been using – a mesh sportsack from the 2010 Disney Marathon – isn’t big enough for everything I take to swim practice.
Afterwards we met up with a bunch of local people for beer and BBQ, and then Brian, Keara and I split off to go eat cupcakes. We were walking back to our hotels when we heard a fantastic band – which we later discovered was called the Ballroom Thieves – playing under a bandshell in Miller Park, so we wandered over there and listened to them play for about a half-hour.
The next day we brought our bikes down to transition, and we were scoping things out when Brian noticed someone who looked familiar and shouted, “Hey Sebastian!” It was Sebastian Kienle! He was really friendly and – if I am being perfectly honest – sort of goofy in an endearing way. Later, after he’d loped off, we talked about how funny it was that an Ironman World Champion could just walk around on the streets and maybe like five triathlon nerds would know who he was.
We spent the rest of the day scoping out the course. At one point Brian asked me how I felt about the idea of swimming in the river, and when I said “fine” he noted that three years ago I would have been anything *but* fine at the prospect of swimming in a major river. Then we drove the bike course. Y’all, there were SO MANY people riding the full course. Maybe it’s just because I come from a running background, but I can’t imagine a taper that involves basically doing the entire race the day before the race.
I noticed this at IM Florida too – people just going out and hammering it on the bike and run the day before. It made me think of Missy in “Bring It On” when she yells at a squad still practicing the night before nationals: “Give it up! If you don’t have it now, you’ll never have it!” Indeed, Missy. Indeed.
Anyways! We met up with Lacy for dinner, then went back to our hotel room and fell asleep by 8 p.m. For the most part I felt pretty relaxed about the upcoming race, although I was a little anxious about the hills, but that didn’t keep my brain from playing a Greatest Hits of anxiety-laced imagery all night long. Thanks, brain. I finally managed to fall asleep about three hours before the alarm clock went off at 4 a.m.
We dressed – I was wearing my Coeur Sports team kit for the first time in a race, which I was very excited about! – and mixed up our nutrition – Brian likes Accelerade while I’m a fan of Infinit’s Speed for Women formula – then headed out the door. I did my pre-race calorie shove as we walked, as we took the shuttle to the swim start and as we waited in line for the rolling swim start to begin. I call it a “shove” because I’m basically forcing food down my throat. This is not eating for pleasure. This is eating for fuel.
BTW if you ever do a race with a rolling swim start, my advice is to get there early. The line was literally a mile long. Ain’t no one got time for that.
This was the first time I’d ever taken part in a rolling swim start, and while there were some things I didn’t like about it – specifically how it meant I spent the first half of the bike leg getting my doors blown in by fast cyclists who’d started behind me – I did find it much more relaxing than a mass start. We made our way down to the dock, and I pulled on my goggles, adjusted my wetsuit and jumped in the water.
The swim course took us upstream for about 300 yards before having us turn around and swim downstream for the rest of the course. I spent a lot of time looking for clean water to swim in. Coach Matt had tried to teach us drafting, but drafting was not happening here. I kept getting stuck behind people who were breaststroking and thus doing a frog-kick, or people who were backstroking.
Finally, after we passed under the first bridge, I found some clean water and was able to just focus on swimming: keeping my pull strong and powerful, using the full length of my body, engaging my core so my legs didn’t drag. I used to be a shit swimmer but through hard work and consistency I’ve become a decent swimmer. (For a triathlete, of course. Compared to real swimmers I’m still pretty shit.)
I do have my moments, of course, but it’s almost always related to sea life. Like, swimming in a big group full of thrashing arms and legs? No problem, I’ll just thrash you back! But a fish touches me and I about lose my damn fool mind. And as we were swimming in the river, I started flashing to episodes of “River Monsters,” which Brian loves watching, and my brain started categorizing all the things that could be in the water below me. I hate that show. I tell Brian all the time that it threatens to undo all the progress I’ve made with open water swimming, and that I wish he wouldn’t watch it when I’m around.
Finally my rational brain prevailed over the scared-monkey brain, reminding me that everything in the water for miles around had probably peaced out a long time ago. As far as all those fish were concerned, a 1.2-mile-long river monster with 11,800 limbs had just invaded their waters and they were even more afraid of us than I was of them.
The water was a little on the murky side – sort of greenish-gray – but it was really refreshing and it didn’t taste weird whenever I accidentally drank some. Like, I was pretty sure I was not going to emerge from this river with a third eye in the middle of my forehead. I really appreciated that, as I know many major rivers – especially the Ohio and the Mississippi – can be rather sketchy about this.
After a little over a half-hour, I saw the flags indicating the end point of the swim. I grabbed a volunteer’s hand and lifted my feet way up onto the bottom stair – seriously, that thing was really high up! – and pulled myself out of the water.
Swim: 33:48 (1:44/100 yds)
After what felt like literally the longest T1 – I think I ran a third of a mile just to get there – I hopped on my bike and started riding. I was targeting an average of a little over 18 miles per hour, which I knew would get me through the bike course in about three hours. Almost immediately I had to restrain myself because I was getting passed by people who were hammering it in the first 5-6 miles. It’s tempting to try to catch up and stay with them, but I was adamant about racing within myself and my abilities this time. I overcooked the bike in Hutchinson Island last year and it destroyed my run. I didn’t want that to happen this time.
The first few miles of the course took us out of Chattanooga and into northern Georgia. For the most part I found this section of the course to be not that great. The railroad tracks were bumpy and I saw tons of people fail to slow down, only to have to stop because they lost their bottles. It was only when we got into the country roads alongside Lookout Mountain that I really started to relax and enjoy myself.
It was a tempered relaxation, because the bike course was damn crowded. Ironman has a rule about six bike lengths between cyclists on the bike course to prevent drafting. I am a total rule abider but six bike lengths was impossible to maintain. Now, I wasn’t blatantly drafting like a lot of cyclists were, but I often got stuck in packs, which I don’t really care for. There would be times when I’d start climbing a hill and I’d get stuck behind three cyclists riding abreast who were going slower than I was, or I’d be descending as much bigger men blew right past me and then I’d have to ride around them on the climbs again.
(That said, I’m sure I annoyed other cyclists too. There were plenty of times when I was busted by other cyclists for not riding on the right side of the lane. Sorry about that, everyone. I know better than to do that, and I’ll do better next time.)
I loved the first half of the bike course. I rarely get to ride on empty country roads, especially ones with gorgeous sweeping descents, where you just tuck in and let go. The sun was up by this point, I could hear birds chirping, and sometimes we rode under canopies of trees or alongside meadows, and it was really all quite spectacular.
At some point I noticed I was overhydrated, which kept me from getting into aero because doing so meant pressing on my bladder, which…no, so at the first aid station I pulled over and hit the port-a-potties. After literally the longest pee I’ve taken in years – seriously, I must have accidentally swallowed half the Tennessee River – I got back on my bike and was able to ride much more comfortably.
(Brian and I later discussed the pros and cons of peeing on your bike. I am Team No Way. I think it’s like flying mounts/dismounts, in that if I really want to save those few seconds or minutes, I would be better served training harder on the bike. He thinks it’s worth doing to save the couple of minutes. Anyone want to weigh in on this?)
The climbs got bigger as we went into the second half of the course, and then as we came up to the midway point, we hit the infamous Andrews Lane climb. The course takes you on a descent, and then suddenly you have to make a 75-degree left turn – which brings you to a near-halt – before heading up a climb with a grade of about 12 percent. It’s a pretty fucked up little climb, if you ask me. I was prepared for it, though, so when I saw the turn I started hollering at people all around me to warn them. The big dudes who were bombing down the descent didn’t hear me, though, and they hit their brakes so hard I literally smelled burned rubber at the turn. WTF guys? Anyways, I was prepared so I switched into my little chainring and spun my way all the way to the top. It hurt and it was hard, but I was rewarded at the top by a massive descent that let me rest my legs and recover for a little bit.
All previous race reports I’d read indicated that the last half of the course was mostly downhill, with one really long climb into Chickamauga at mile 40, so I was ready to pick up some speed. But what no one had counted on was that we would be riding into a headwind the whole way. I tried to get into aero multiple times, but the wind knocked my bike around and so I ended up sitting up with my hands on the handlebars just so I could keep control of my bike.
After about a half hour of this, I started getting cranky. I was annoyed by the race-related litter I was seeing – which makes me so angry that flames…on the side of my face… – and by the guys who would bomb past me on the downhills only to block me on the climbs and by the packs of people blatantly drafting and by this one driver who was towing a boat that blocked our ability to ride past him and by…ugh, by everything. Everything was annoying me! I couldn’t even appreciate Lookout Mountain, I was so annoyed.
By the last ten miles I was fucking over it. My pace had dropped dramatically thanks to the headwind, my hands hurt from clutching the handlebars and everything was sticky from my nutrition bottles. By the time I rolled into T2, I was so ready to get out on the run. I saw Keara, who had passed me on the bike after getting out of the water several minutes behind me, and we commiserated about how much the last half of that ride sucked.
As I was leaving T2, I heard the announcer talking to Heather Jackson, who had won the women’s race. That really put the pros into perspective for me. She’d only started about 20 minutes before me, and she was already done. And on my way out onto the run, I passed Amber Ferreira, who was hauling ass towards the finish line. Pro women, I salute you!
Bike: 3:10:39 (17.36 mph)
I’d been told the run was challenging, with lots of little hills, so I was hopeful that my Boston training would help me. At first it did. I locked into a pace of around 9:00 per mile, which I hoped would help me finish the run leg in about two hours, and I started doing my thing where I count to 100 over and over again as a way of focusing my mind. I took water at every aid station, tucked cold sponges around my neck, ate a gel, took some Base salts. The sun was out and it was hot. That wasn’t a big deal when we were on the Riverwalk, which was shaded by trees and was cooled by the headwind I had been cursing out not an hour before, but there were some stretches that were exposed along a highway, and it took a lot of focus to keep myself from falling to pieces on those sections.
After a couple of miles along the shaded Riverwalk, we turned into a neighborhood where we were greeted by the Battery Place climb. I maybe ran about five steps up it before I said “fuck this” and decided to power-walk it like an ultrarunner. I finally got to the top and started running again.
By this point, I started focusing on the overall time, and I realized that if I could maintain what I was doing, I could be on target to PR. Brian had said as much before the race, but I will admit that I was less confident in that, if only because I knew my training had been totally half-assed – in the words of my friend Ryan, we’d done a Couch to 70.3 program – and I wasn’t sure about my base level of fitness. But yet here I was, halfway through run, on course to set a new PR, provided I didn’t fall apart, which I didn’t think I was going to.
We ran across one of the bridges, where an aid station was thankfully playing loud music (Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling”), and then through a neighborhood on the other side of the river, where the aid station was run by students and staff from a local high school who were dressed up in an ’80s theme. I thanked every single volunteer I encountered that day, as well as all of the law enforcement. Without them, our races would not happen, full stop.
Then it was back across the pedestrian bridge for the second loop. By this time my stomach was feeling kind of gross, and I thought maybe I’d taken in to many calories, so I stopped eating for a while and just drank water. My legs were shelled so I opted to power-walk up all the hills and run the flats and downhills. I distracted myself by cheering on everyone around me: a woman named Sonia in Coeur’s Hapuna kit, a guy with his arm in a sling (I later learned the man had separated his shoulder on the bike; you can read more about him here), anyone and everyone who was willing to exchange a few words with me.
By mile 11 – the last Battery Place climb – I noticed that I was running out of time for my PR, so I finally decided to grab some cola. Well, that put some jet fuel in my engine, and I somehow managed picked up the pace for the last two miles. The final stretch was a big downhill, and I took advantage of all the free speed I could muster and flung myself down the finisher’s chute and across the finish line.
The volunteer who caught me quickly fetched me some water and asked how I was feeling. “I feel terrible,” I told her, and she laughed. She handed me my medal, my finisher’s hat and an ice-cold soda, and in exchange I gave her the rubber bracelet we’d been told to give to a volunteer who really helped us during our race. And then I hobbled over to the KLR tent and sat in a camp chair and zoned out for about 20 minutes until I felt like a human being again.
Run: 2:02:42 (9:24/mile)
Total: 5:56:43 – a PR of nearly three minutes!
(Hahaha you thought I was done with this race report, didn’t you?)
This was definitely a tough race, and while I would have liked to have gone into it with better training, I still can’t complain about it too much. I mean, for one, I PRed. It would be completely obnoxious for me to be upset about that.
I also managed to finally have an OK run during a half-ironman. I think that’s because I finally have a bit of experience at this distance to draw on, so I knew when to pull back and when to push and how to manage my nutrition. That said, I still have a LOT to learn. Which is great! It makes for a fun adventure.
And then of course there’s the fitness side of things. I’ve noticed over the years that my level of base fitness has gradually increased to the point where races I used to have to train my ass off for – like, say, half-marathons or Olympic distance triathlons – are now things where I can go out and race pretty hard without a ton of preparation, and I’m apparently starting to reach that level with even longer events.
I have to say I’m pretty pleased by this. I enjoy feeling strong and fit and healthy. I like being capable of doing hard physical shit. I particularly like seeing how my body and my mind continue to develop into a person who would have been unrecognizable to previous versions of myself.
I also had a lot of thoughts/feelings about other people, not just myself! I was so grateful for all of the people I saw out on the race course. I saw people from the KLR team: Keara, Ryan, Grisel, Chris and his fiancee, Sydney, who played team cheerleader all weekend long. I saw friends from the Outspokin racing team: Lucy, who was stung by a stingray the weekend before (!) and Hugo, who always makes me smile whenever I see him out on a race course. That dude is just always happy to be wherever he is.
And I saw a couple of women from the Coeur Sports team, which is always a delight. (Seriously, that team is full of some flat-out studs, and I am constantly in awe of them.) I feel so privileged to be part of this weird little subculture of ultrafit dorks in full-body Lycra. Suffering doesn’t hurt so much when you can share it with other people.
That said there were also reminders that, as important as racing is to us, it’s not even close to the most important thing in the world. I was really saddened to learn about Col. Gene Montague, who died after suffering a heart attack at the beginning of the swim leg. (This came shortly after Tampa Bay Times outdoors editor Terry Tomalin – whose writing I always loved – died at the age of 55 from a heart attack. It’s hard not to look at my 54-year-old husband and want to wrap him and his heart in bubble wrap and keep him safe forever.) In addition, a lot of Chattanooga-based triathletes – including the man with his arm in a sling – had the name SAM written on their calves. It turns out this was in honor of a triathlete named Sam Land, who had suddenly died the week before the race.
Yes, I’m happy that I PRed at this race, no doubt. But I’m also happy that I got to spend a lot of time with Brian, that I got to hang out with Keara and Ryan and Chris and Sydney some more, that I got to meet Lacy, that I got to give high-fives to little kids and volunteers, and that I hopefully helped motivate other racers who were out there suffering on the course alongside me. PRs are nice and racing is fun, but what matters most to me in the long run are the people I know and care about, and even if I hadn’t been able to pull a PR out of my undertrained butt with this race, I still would have loved the experience because of all the people I got to share it with.