I’ve written and rewritten at least five introductions to this post and deleted all of them, so I’m just going to go straight for it in the most indelicate language possible. Here we go:
Ironman training is fucking hard as shit.
Oh, I know, you’re probably like, “Duh, Caitlin, what did you expect? You’re training so you can basically spend half a day working out. Of course that shit is hard.”
I guess I just didn’t expect it to be quite like this.
What does it tell you when I say that I’m eight weeks out, and I’m only just now feeling like I might actually have a shot at completing this thing? I’m not even talking about meeting some sort of time goal or trying to snag a spot on the podium or qualifying for Kona. I’m talking about just being able to finish under the seventeen-hour time limit.
I’ll be even more specific – it’s not the run or the swim that has me freaked out. I’ve already swam 2.4 miles – in the ocean, sans wetsuit – and loved the whole experience. And I’ve run very long distances before.
If this race was just swim a bunch and then run a bunch and then go swim some more, I’d be like, “YEAH DUDE, LET’S DO THIS!”
No, my issue is that damn bike leg. On what planet does an hour-plus swim and a four-hour run seem like even remotely equivalent to a six-hour bike ride? They should let me redesign the Ironman. I’d make it a 5K swim, a metric century on the bike and a marathon. This whole business of riding 112 miles on the bike is just garbage. Total, stinky, baking-on-a-hot-day garbage.
But, because no one died and made me queen of Ironman (yet), I’ve been training my butt off on the bike so I can spend six hours hunched over my aero bars with a skinny saddle wedged against my hoo-ha and hopefully still have enough strength in my legs to shuffle my way to a respectable finishing time.
And that is where the Saga of Self-Doubt, the Spiral of Suck, whatever other S’s of S might apply – this is where I tripped and fell face-first right into their gaping, hateful maws.
My bike training has been pretty standard: two trainer rides during the week (one tempo, one intervals, both powered by my intense dislike of Serena van der Woodsen) and then a long ride on the weekend. Sometimes I go alone on the roads and trails around my house, and sometimes Brian and I pack up our car and head to the Suncoast Trail about 45 minutes away.
One thing is always certain, though. As Brian put it, “Caitlin + long ride = meltdown.” I’ve cried. I’ve dry-heaved. I’ve told Brian to commit obscene acts with himself as I’ve furiously pedaled away from him. No matter how promisingly the day started out, 3+ hours on the bike had a way of turning me into a giant, profane toddler.
And then about four weeks ago, things got even worse. I’d noticed my right knee felt a little tender while riding, which was tolerable, but when I’d go run, it felt like someone was stabbing me in my kneecap. I adjusted my stride and tried to deal with it, thinking this was just my body doing the standard freakout that it always does when I step up my training volume, and that it would eventually pass.
But it didn’t pass, and finally about two weeks ago, it became so bad that I turned around after about a quarter-mile and tearfully limped home. I was so frustrated that later that day, my oldest cat Sasha jumped up on my bathroom counter and knocked over a bottle of lotion, and I responded by shrieking, “FOR FUCK’S SAKE SASHA, WHYYYYY?” and then burst into tears as my poor cat stared at me in terror.
There was no way in hell I was going to be able to do even a neighborhood 5K in this situation, let alone an entire Ironman, but after I calmed down, I came up with a plan. I took a full week off from everything – even swimming, as I couldn’t kick without pain and I wasn’t about to do 2800 yards with the pull buoy three times a week – and I iced the crap out of my knee every night and did PT exercises with such focus and dedication, you’d think I was going to clamshell and leg-lift my way across that finish line.
I also talked to Mike at the local bike shop, and we decided that I should move my saddle up a bit. So that’s what Brian and I did – we cranked it up about 1.5 centimeters.
After that no-training week passed – during which time I cleaned my house in a way it hadn’t seen since the weeks after the Boston Marathon – I eased my way back into training. I started with short, easy runs and easy spins on the trainer. Everything seemed OK, so I ramped things up a little bit…and a little bit more…and a little bit more…
Everything seemed…fine? I allowed myself to think that maybe everything was going to be OK, and that this wasn’t going to be the end of my Ironman dream.
But the real test came this past weekend, when I was scheduled for a 4-plus hour bike ride on Saturday and a two-hour run on Sunday.
Before we left for the ride, Brian suggested that I start using these rides to figure out my nutrition on the bike, telling me that I should try to take in as many calories as possible on the bike because I was probably not going to want more than liquids on the run. I agreed, remembering how I spent the last 2+ hours of the Keys 50 not even wanting to drink water and how he had to basically force Mountain Dew and Boost down my throat so I wouldn’t bonk before I made it to Key West.
My Garmin is set to beep with my splits every five miles, so we decided that I was going to eat something every time it beeped: either a gel or a piece of Clif bar. That’s in addition to the nutrition I have in the Torpedo between my aero bars and on the cages behind my seat. (For the record, I mix Infinit’s Speed for Women with scoops of Base Nutrition’s Amino Acids and Base Salts – a very…interesting flavor combination that took me a minute to get used to.)
We set off for our ride, and as the hours passed and I kept jamming calories in my face-hole, I realized something – that I actually felt surprisingly OK. That’s when it occurred to me that my meltdowns were probably 50% due to severe underfueling. Which makes sense! You can’t expect your body to do much of anything – let alone perform athletically for a sustained period of time – when your tank is empty.
And because I had the mental clarity provided by adequate caloric replenishment, I realized that the other 50% of my difficulties were due to something that’s a little more out of my control – specifically the fact that it is as hot as the surface of the sun outside these days. We’d been finishing these rides around 12 or 1, with temperatures in the 90s and feels-like temperatures in the low 100s.
I was trying to do these rides while it was hot as balls and without nearly enough nutrition. No wonder I felt like a mountain of refried crap.
So this last ride, I was basically eating the whole time, and even though it was really hot and most of the last 40 miles was almost directly into a headwind, I actually felt fine, if sweaty and filthy. After we finished, I stripped off my jersey, pulled on my Hokas, and ran-walked with Brian for 30 minutes. Again, it was stupid hot – hello, midday August in Florida! Might as well be running directly into a blast furnace! – but I hung in there until the end.
I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to do a marathon after getting off my bike, but I’m optimistic that knocking the temperature down by about 20 degrees might actually help me out here. I mean, it’s not like it is up in the East Coast – you guys have my sympathies and then some, because that shit looks miserable – but it’s still pretty wretched right now. Even the mid-70s feels like a welcome break from the otherwise unrelenting summer hat.
(Can I just share one of the most sadistic quirks of summertime training in Florida with you? You’d think that stopping during a run would be a relief, but no, it’s actually worse. At least when you run, you have air moving over your sweaty-ass body, but when you stop, it all just stagnates and bakes against your skin. It’s truly better to just keep moving.)
My knee didn’t bug me at all during the ride or the run, and in fact, I was pretty sure the higher saddle was allowing me to pedal with even more power than before. I experimented with riding in the big chainring on the flats – something I haven’t done since I first started riding a bike – and noticed that my legs actually seemed to be capable of handling it.
So maybe my knee situation – as completely aggravating as it was – did me a favor by forcing me to adopt a stronger bike position. Who knows? Such is the magic of bike geometry. A centimeter can mean the difference between agonizing pain with every stroke or a full mile-per-hour worth of speed.
The following day, I somehow managed to peel myself out of bed so Brian and I could run-walk for two hours around the trails and parks near our house. And again, I felt fine. I mean, I was literally dripping with sweat by the time I finished and I spent the rest of the day alternately wanting to eat and sleep, but physically I felt fine. I actually felt better than fine. I felt healthy and strong and totally capable of handling anything.
Now, on Monday, I’m actually feeling like I might be OK during the race – like I might actually enjoy the experience. Here’s hoping I can sustain that feeling of optimism for most of the next eight weeks, because I’m going to need it!