Well, I did it. And no joke, that was the hardest thing I have ever done. I knew it was going to be tough, but I wasn’t prepared for just how tough. That race scraped me raw and all that was left to cross the finish line was a bundle of nauseated nerves.
And that was on a day with perfect conditions. I can’t even imagine doing it on a day when it’s incredibly hot or windy or rainy (as has been the case for a lot of people lately – thanks climate change).
This is obviously going to be a long race report so get yourself a drink and maybe a snack, and settle in.
We got into Louisville Thursday night, along with Brian’s mother, father and brother, who was visiting from Colorado, and we went straight to our hotel, which was the Hyatt right by Fourth Street Live, where the finish line would be located. We’d selected that hotel because we knew we weren’t going to want to walk very far after we finished, and I will tell you right now that this was probably one of the smartest choices we made.
Here’s another smart choice we made: paying for the services of Premier Bike Transport. The service is similar to that of Tri Bike Transport, but Steve charges considerably less and he provided us with some really great individualized service. We opted to pay a little more so in addition to the bike transport service, he collected our bikes and our gear bags for us after the race as well. I cannot recommend Premier Bike Transport enough. If you’re local and you’re going to one of his races, you’ll want to use his service. I swear it’s worth it.
On Friday we did athlete check-in on the Great Lawn on the banks of the Ohio River, and then we did bike and gear check-in on Saturday. I’m used to dragging all my shit with me to race site early on the morning of the race, so this multi-part process was a whole new thing.
You have bags you put all your gear in and you drop them off in one part of transition, and you leave your bike overnight on the rack in another part of transition. I felt anxious about leaving all my gear in a field like that. That’s a lot of trust to put in the race organizers. One bag goes missing and your race is over.
On Friday night we met up with some of my Coeur Sports teammates for a team dinner at Birracibo. It was absolutely wonderful to spend some time with them, as they’re all smart, funny, awesome athletes, and now I have girl-crushes on all of them.
Plus it’s always fun to hang out with other people who love triathlon as much as I do. At one point Christie goes, “Did you hear what Rinny said about Daniela Ryf at Kona?” and we all lean in and go “Oooh, no, tell us!” That combination of words would probably make no sense to 99.9999% of the world’s population, so I relished the fact that I was among the 0.0001% who not only understood but were super into it.
After dinner ended Brian was like, “I can see why being part of this team means so much to you.”
The next day, we got up early to go take part in the practice swim in the Ohio River. Now, the day before the temperatures had reached the 80s, but a cold front moved in on Saturday and it got seriously cold that morning. Plus it was very, very windy. The last time I had been that cold was six months ago in Boston. Brian zipped me into my wetsuit and I stood there shivering until it was time to go into the water.
Everyone had warned us about the grossness of the Ohio River, and since last year there was a pretty serious algae bloom that put the race into question, I can understand why people were saying that. Also I heard others talk about how bad the water tasted, how it gave them upset stomachs, etc. I had psyched myself up for a plunge into a river of diesel-infused sewage.
But it wasn’t like that at all! Sure, the visibility was maybe about a half-inch, after which it faded in a haze of greenish-brown, but the water was 74 degrees and while I wasn’t exactly gulping it down, the little bit I did taste wasn’t all that bad. A little diesel smell, sure, but that’s to be expected on a major waterway.
Probably the thing that tweaked me out the most was the thought of what sort of creatures were living in the river – thanks to River Monsters all I could think of were massive catfish and prehistoric alligator gar – but I’ve gotten a lot better at shutting down that part of my monkey brain when I swim.
I swam upstream until I reached the last buoy that had been set up – and along the way realized that I was only one of a few who had opted to do that – and then I looked at my Garmin so I could get an idea of how much benefit I was going to get swimming downstream. I swam about a mile, and the first half took me four minutes longer than the last half. That’s a serious assist! I was pumped.
I came out of the water and found Brian, who was talking with Barbara, one of my Coeur teammates. We talked for a bit while drying ourselves off and getting dressed, then we parted ways so Brian and I could get our bikes. (The next time I saw Barbara, it was on the run course, where she was on her way to winning her age group. I told you Coeur ladies are badasses.)
We met up with Steve and got our bikes so we could take them on a quick safety ride. I was still in a damp tri kit and I was SO COLD, so I put on arm warmers and a hoodie and hoped my body could generate enough heat to warm me up.
Instead the opposite happened. The wind penetrated every layer of clothing, and within a mile my teeth were chattering. My fingers and toes went numb after two miles.
Fifteen years of life in Florida means my body’s tolerance for cold is virtually non-existent, and going from 90+ degree air to 50 degree air was a shock to my system I wasn’t anticipating.
We ended up shortening the ride because I couldn’t handle it anymore. I thawed out a bit during our two-mile shakeout run afterwards, but I was a little freaked out by how cold I got during that short bike ride.
I reassessed my clothing plan for the next day. I had planned to wear my team shorts and a sports bra under my wetsuit and then to pull on my aero top in T1, but I decided it wasn’t worth saving a couple of minutes in T1 if it meant possibly DNFing due to hypothermia on the bike. That would be the most annoying reason to DNF ever.
DNFing due to heat, I get. Injury, illness, exhaustion, bike mechanical? I get it. DNFing because things got a bit too nippy for my warm Florida blood? Nope.
So I decided instead to wear a different tri kit in the water and then change into the sports bra and tri shorts I wanted to wear for the rest of the race.
This is probably when I should have realized that racing in temperatures a full thirty degrees cooler than what I was used to racing in might have some effects on the way my body functions, but hey, live and learn, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Anyways, we spent the afternoon with some of Brian’s family who live in the area, then went back to our hotel room and watched the Kona live feed while we settled in for the night. I painted my nails, drank a Neuro Sleep and watched an episode of Gossip Girl on my Kindle Fire, then went to sleep.
I mostly slept well, although I did have one nightmare-y interlude, where I dreamed I went to go get my bike gear bag in T1 and I discovered my gear had been distributed to bags all over transition. I had to go track everything down like horcruxes before I was allowed to leave T1.
I woke up at 2:30 a.m. feeling totally stressed out by the fact that my brain had basically forced me to re-enact Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Fast-forward to 7:30 a.m. the next day. We’d been in line for the swim start for over an hour. I’d eaten my nutrition, peed a couple of times, talked with the people around us, and then finally put on my wetsuit. We heard the cannon fire and the trumpeter play “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the line started moving very quickly.
I cried for a couple of seconds, not out of fear or nerves but out of excitement. Like Kristen Bell crying about the sloth! I was excited because I was going to finally get to do this! All the hard work and the early mornings and the evening workouts when I would have rather been on the couch and missed opportunities to socialize with new friends and the weekends spent on my bike — it all came down to this day.
Fifteen minutes later, Brian and I gave each other a good luck kiss and we leapt from the dock into the water.
The first third of the swim course is upstream but it’s also mostly protected because it’s in this small channel between the riverside and Towhead Island. The river was much warmer than the air, so all this steam was rising off the water and it made everything seem rather ethereal and gorgeous.
That is, until some overexcited dink whacked me in the back of the head and knocked my goggles off. I yelled “What the fuck, dude?” and he apologized sheepishly.
I thought about trying to find some feet to draft off, but visibility was non-existent and besides, everyone was either going way faster or way slower than me, so I opted to just find some clean water and do my own thing. When I made the turn to go downriver, I started passing a ton of people.
I was really careful not to swim over anyone – I know a lot of people who do triathlon are basically white-knuckling it through the swim – so I just swam around them.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve really come to love open-water swimming, and it’s definitely one of the things I enjoy the most about triathlon. This swim was no different. I didn’t care that I was in a river everyone says is gross and that there were probably nine-foot-long catfish lurking beneath me and that I was swimming past industrial barges.
I loved every minute of it. It was easily the high point of the day for me, and I could have happily spent the next twelve hours paddling my way down that river.
I grabbed my bike gear bag and ran into the women’s change tent. If you’ve never been inside an Ironman change tent, let me tell you – it is something else. Everyone is trying to change clothes as quickly as possible and all of the attempts at modesty you normally see in women’s locker rooms, where you’re pulling your sports bra off under your t-shirt and facing a back corner so no one can see your boobs? NOT HAPPENING. And best of all, NO ONE CARES.
I dumped out my stuff, stripped down and pulled on my dry shorts. Because my skin was still damp, a very sweet volunteer helped me pull my sports bra down, then helped me wriggle into my aero top. I jammed my pockets full of nutrition, handed my bag to the volunteer and headed out to get my bike.
My transition was very slow, partly because of my full clothing change and partly because I refused to run. I wasn’t aiming for a Kona qualification spot so why waste the energy? If I do another Ironman, though, I’ll try to do better.
Transition 1: 12:45
Oh ye gods. Where do I begin? Where do I begin.
I knew the bike was going to be a challenge, and I tried my best to prepare, but real talk: nothing in Florida that could have prepared me for a bike course with 5,600 feet of climbing.
All these people were like “the hills are gentle and rolling!” and I was like, “yeah, maybe if you live in NEPAL.”
I certainly didn’t do myself any favors by riding a bike with gearing more suited to flatter terrain.
And here’s the other thing I was unprepared for: riding a bike course with thousands of other athletes, many of whom are extremely intense about triathlon.
The bike course is lollipop-shaped, and you take two loops around the lollipop before coming back down the stick into transition. The first loop was terrifying. I did my best to stick to the right side of the road and to hold a straight line, because guys were flying past me with mere inches of clearance, and I’m sure that did me no favors when it came to conserving energy because it had me totally flipping out.
There were so many other people on the bike course that I didn’t feel comfortable refilling my nutrition while riding and I actually had to pull off the road so I could do it without fear of being creamed by some guy in a skinsuit and a Dimond aiming for a sub-9:00 finish.
I spent the first couple of hours focused on keeping my pace manageable and not getting caught up in the race around me, and I also made sure to stick to my nutrition plan. I felt like things were going pretty well, all things considered.
Until mile 40. By this time I’d been on my bike for over two hours, but it felt much longer than that. I sensed a bunch of shitty thoughts lurking at the edges of my mind and I tried to distract myself by focusing on riding.
I pedaled and pedaled and pedaled for what felt like another two hours, and then I looked at my bike computer. I’d gone two miles.
Commence first meltdown of the day.
This is so fucking stupid. I have seventy miles to go. And then I have to run a damn marathon after that! I’m never doing this again!
Fuck everything. Fuck this bike, fuck these hills, fuck the person who decided you have to spend seven weeks on your bike in an Ironman, and fuck everyone else for just going along with it like it’s a great idea.
And worst of all, fuck me for thinking this was a good idea and double-fuck me for spend hundreds of dollars to do this. FUCK EVERYTHING!
And then I got mad at myself:
You spent all this time training – six months! all those hours on the bike! – and three hours into your race you want to quit?! Quit being such a baby.
I used this potent little stew of self-abasement and rage to power myself to the special needs stop at mile 60. I got off my bike, took a quick bathroom break, drank a Coke, ate some goldfish crackers and reloaded my pockets with nutrition. Then I got back on my bike and pedaled away.
By this time I had consumed two bottles of Infinit, two gels, a bottle of Boost and a bunch of pieces of Clif bar and pretzel. The lack of heat meant I wasn’t really struggling to take in nutrition, which I was happy about, but I also realized I had way too much nutrition with me. I could have left behind two bottles of Boost and a Clif bar and I still would have had too much nutrition. Again, another lesson learned.
I re-focused myself on getting through the next twenty miles. Fortunately the caffeine helped a lot and also there was a lot more space between the athletes, so I could actually enjoy this part of the bike ride. Sort of. Mostly I just couldn’t believe how long I’d been on the bike and how much longer I had to go.
But still, it wasn’t so bad. (That’s the highest praise I can muster.)
Granted, there were a couple of low points – like the two hills I had to walk up because my quads said “nope” and the time I nearly collided with a car, spilling sticky Infinit all over my arms and legs and giving myself one hell of a fright – but for the most part, miles 60 through 80 were pretty nice.
I was especially anxious to get to mile 80 because I’d heard that the last 30 miles of the course were a net downhill. Imagine my disappointment when I got to mile 80 and then 90 and then mile 100, and I had more and more climbing to do.
Cue meltdown No. 2.
Oh my god, really? How is this happening?! I will never get off my bike. I will be on this bike until I die. I’ll probably still be on my bike even after I die. I’ll be on my bike in the afterlife. I will never get off this bike. I will never get off this bike. I will never get off this bike.
The dumb thing is that I had actually cycled my fastest-ever century during all this time, but try telling that to my monkey brain, which just wanted to talk about how much everything sucked and how much of a loser I was.
Finally I was back on River Road and then a short while later, I was in transition. I unclipped and walked my bike over to a volunteer. Everyone was like “run! hurry!” but instead I calmly took off my bike shoes and walked, in my socks, through the grass to get my run gear bag. I had a long run ahead of me; I saw no reason to start now.
Another long transition. I was excited to run but I wanted to make sure I was ready to run, so I went pee, ate a gel and tried to wash the dried Infinit off my arms and legs. Then I headed out on the course.
Transition 2: 9:29
I was so pumped to start this run, y’all. After nearly seven hours of doing the triathlon thing I suck the most at, I was excited for the chance to do the triathlon thing I am best at. I made a major effort to reel myself in, because I know that irrational exuberance has a way of exacting a price down the road, but it just felt so damn good to be running that I almost wanted to cry.
I stuck to my run-walk plan, and for the first hour I felt great. I sipped water, drank Coke and Gatorade, and stayed even and steady. I saw Brian coming the other way, and we hugged and I told him everything was going well. I knew this was going to change in the near future, so I tried to enjoy it while it lasted.
What I didn’t expect was how drastically it was going to change, or how miserable I was going to be. I really didn’t expect that I was going to suddenly start feeling like I was going to poop myself.
I quickly realized I had taken in wayyyy too many calories on the bike. I’d been so excited because I was able to eat more than I used to when training in Florida, but I guess I overdid it. Oops.
I ran to the nearest portapotty and as soon as it opened up, I barged inside and handled my business. And then I felt fine for a half-mile before my stomach cramped again, and I had to stop in another portapotty.
This was how the next hour and a half of my Ironman proceeded: with me racing from portapotty to portapotty, trying desperately not to crap myself. How dignified.
There were a few awesome moments, like seeing my Coeur teammates on the course, being cheered on by the amazing volunteers or running past a pair of cops who were dancing to “Uptown Funk.” Mostly, though, I was seriously, seriously uncomfortable.
The run course is a double loop, and at the halfway point, you come within mere yards of the finish line. I gazed wistfully at the finish line as I made a right turn away from it, then said to no one in particular, “This is so rude.”
The downtown area is packed full of energetic spectators, though, and I accepted the highest of fives from a guy dressed like a taco and another guy in a kilt. That gave me another little boost that lasted for about, oh, three minutes.
At mile 16, I hit a seriously low spot. When this happened at the Keys 50, I’d given myself permission to just walk, so that’s what I did – I walked that whole mile. I’d stopped taking in calories because I’d clearly overloaded my body, but short of stopping entirely, I had no idea how to make myself feel better.
As I walked past the Base salt tent, one of the volunteers saw me clutching my stomach and he ran out with a tube of salt. “Eat too much on the bike?” he asked, and I nodded miserably. He asked if I’d used their products before, and I said only in the heat. So he told me to try putting a bit of the salt on my tongue and letting it dissolve, and doing that every mile. I had nothing left to lose, so I did.
And holy shit, it worked.
Within a couple of minutes, was able to run again. Granted it was not fast, but it was still recognizable as a run. From that moment on, I tried to stick to the salt schedule. Once I forgot to do it, and right on cue, my guts threw a hissy fit. Another lesson learned.
Around this time I saw Brian for the third time. “I’m so miserable!” I yelped as I hugged him. “I am too,” he told me. He said he no longer cared about trying to finish in a specific time, and he just wanted to cross the finish line with me. “I’m about three miles ahead of you, and I’m going to walk. Can you run to catch me?” I told him I would.
Suddenly I had focus. I had a purpose! That purpose was to catch Brian so we could finish together. I knew I needed to keep running – no more walking entire miles – if I wanted to make that happen.
During this time the sun was going down and it was getting chilly. The spectators were leaving, and it was just the athletes and the volunteers on the increasingly dark, quiet streets of Louisville. The aid stations started serving chicken broth, and I gulped it down gratefully. It sounds like a weird thing to have during a race, but really it’s amazing.
During my walk breaks, I commiserated with the other racers. Another first-timer told me he was not enjoying this as much everyone said he would, and I said, “Everyone said this would change my life, but I don’t think I need it changed in this way.”
I spoke briefly with another racer and he asked if I was on my second loop, and when I told him I was, he said, “Oh man, I’m so jealous!” That was the first time I realized that a lot of the people I was out there with still had a whole other 13-mile loop to go. I couldn’t even imagine what that would feel like. I left that conversation with renewed respect for back-of-the-packers.
I’d hoped to catch Brian by mile 22, but mile 22 came and went, and then mile 23 and mile 24. I was feeling desperate and raw.
I walked through an aid station that was playing music, and the opening piano chords of “Don’t Stop Believin'” came on. I started weeping. I wasn’t going to stop believing! I was going to do this! And I was going to find my husband!
I staggered through the streets, scanning the racers ahead of me for Brian’s green and black race kit.
Where is my husband? I want my husband! Where is he? I felt like Rocky screaming for Adrian after having the shit kicked out of me by Apollo Creed. Brian! Briiiii-aaaaan!
Or maybe I was like Tom Hanks screaming for Wilson.
I don’t know. All I know is that I felt like the heroine in a really bizarre romantic comedy, and also that I wanted nothing more than to find Brian.
Finally, at mile 25, I saw him. He’d turned around and was walking backwards, looking for me. I ran to him and flung my arms around him. We kissed and hugged, and after a brief walk, we started running, this time to finish this damn thing once and for all.
We ran the final blocks in downtown Louisville, then made the last turn — and there was the finish line in the distance. It was so brightly lit and so loud, and it beckoned to us with sweet, sweet promises of being able to stop.
I grabbed Brian’s hand and we ran down the chute together.
ETA: WordPress won’t let me embed the video and I don’t feel like figuring it out so you can just watch it here.
I didn’t even hear when the announcer called our names. It wasn’t until later when we watched the video that I heard him say “The Constantines are Ironmen!” I didn’t see the guy who got down on one knee to propose just as we crossed. I hugged Brian and kissed him, then deflated in the arms of the volunteer who caught me.
(The finish line photos are embarrassing. I look like a woman who is welcoming our alien overlords. Which, at that point, I very well could have been. I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens.)
The volunteer helped me collect my medal and finisher’s shirt, and she gave me some water. I must have looked terrible because she kept asking me if I needed a wheelchair. Part of me really wanted to sit down in it, but mostly I wanted to be able to say I finished without medical attention, and sitting in a wheelchair seemed like it would have been accepting medical attention. Besides, I wasn’t that bad off.
We got our finishers photos, and then we left the finishers area and tried to find Brian’s family. As we stood there, though, I felt woozy and nauseated, so Brian deposited me in a chair while he looked for his family. A few minutes later he found them, and he came and got me. I hobbled over and tried to listen politely as they talked about the race, but I felt so wretched – like I was on the verge of puking – that I finally cut everyone off and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk, I need to go right now.”
Brian got me to our hotel room, then left to get our morning clothes and some food. I peeled my tri gear off and examined the damage. I was happy to see that I only had a couple of chafe marks on my shoulder blades (#noangrykitty!) and that I didn’t have any blisters on my feet at all.
The worst thing I’d suffered was a severe case of chapped lips, which made me think of the triathlete who’d been DQed after his wife gave him Chapstick (among other infractions). A bunch of people were like, “Who cares about Chapstick during an Ironman?” but after dealing with seven days of chapped lips after this race, I can confidently answer that question: “Me. I care about Chapstick during an Ironman.”
I stood in the shower and leaned against the wall, just letting the hot water run over me. My legs and arms hurt to the touch. Like, I don’t just mean when I used them to do things like walk or pick things up. I mean, when I touched them.
After ten minutes of standing under the water, I finished my shower and laid on the bed in my clean pajamas and felt sorry for myself. I was so disappointed in the race. I’d heard so many people say such wonderful things about their Ironman experiences and I’d wondered why that hadn’t been my experience at all.
Sure, I thought I’d have a better run, but mostly what I was bummed about was how quickly I’d started struggling and how unprepared I felt for all of it, despite all of the work I’d put into getting ready.
I felt even worse about how badly I’d handled the mental aspect of things. I didn’t expect to be sunshine and rainbows the whole race – low points happen and you deal with them and move on – but I was surprised by how easily I seemed to allow myself to slip into the spiral of suck.
Probably most disappointing of all – I’d hoped that maybe I could recapture the feeling I’d had after doing the Keys 50. It was this all-encompassing feeling of peacefulness and well-being and joy. I felt none of that. Instead, I just felt sort of…meh.
Brian finally returned with some Diet Coke and chicken burritos, and I ate my food while scrolling through my phone and reading all of the loving and positive messages that were left for me on social media. Once I had some food in my stomach and some love from my friends and family, I started feeling better. A little bit.
It’s been a week since the race, and I haven’t done much besides eat and sleep and swim a little bit. My body doesn’t hurt anymore, but I’m not sure how things will go the first time I go for a run or a bike ride. I remember it took Brian several months to feel normal again, and I’m sure that will be the case for me.
I’ve talked a lot with Brian and with other triathletes who have done Ironmans, mostly to try to process the feelings of deep ambivalence I have about the way this race went.
I think I may have been expecting too much out of myself, to think that I was going to be able to figure out how to do a huge, complex event like an Ironman on my first try.
(Brian said he thinks he did me a disservice by making it look so easy, to which I told him that was the biggest humblebrag I’ve ever heard in my entire life.)
I also think that I’ve gotten spoiled in recent years. I haven’t had a truly bad race in a while. I’ve set PRs at a lot of my races, and the first time I tried to BQ, I did it. I’ve stepped up a level and am now racing as a local elite, often ending up on the overall podium. This race was a thoroughly humbling experience. I guess I was overdue for that.
I’m thinking I probably will try again, just because I want to believe that there’s something in this distance for me, but for right now I’m just going to focus on shorter distances and getting stronger on the bike and trying some new things. I’ve got a long-distance open-water swim relay coming up that I’m super excited about. That’s the good thing about this sort of thing – there’s always something else to look forward to.
OK, that’s enough for now. Feel free to share stories about races you spent a lot of time preparing for, only to feel totally whelmed by the race itself. I’ve found hearing from other people who have similar stories goes a long way towards making me feel better about this whole thing.