Fuel and Gruel: 1st time iron distance

So cool how everyone gets to break some tape!

First-time ironman. Alright, first time iron-distance triathlon (same thing, but not quite the same ring). The journey felt never-ending at times, but mostly I never wanted it to end. In hindsight, we must have been crazy, or at least temporarily delusional, when we signed up for what was easily the most mammoth endurance challenge for either of us to date. Dave and his business partner were just launching their own company, smack in the middle of what would arguably be the worst economic crisis of our generation, and a financial management business (but sustainably focused!) at that.  Add to that a hefty amount of stress stemming from numerous other hurdles and setbacks called life that happened along the way, including injury. Dave tore his calf a mere 8weeks out, and then again just 1 week prior to the big day, and I struggled a bit in the last month with an old injury flare-up. Oh yeah, and Dave couldn’t swim. I mean, really couldn’t swim, not even a full lap of the pool! On reflection, however, although all the time, energy, and money invested in training and planning amounted to some sacrifice, a decimated social life, and occasional angst, the goal also provided focus, motivation, and shared commitment that pulled us both through a momentous and challenging year with strength, joy, and no regrets.

We decided to drive out to Sonoma County, two-full days driving on either side of our biggest race ever, and a journey deserving of its own write-up, but at the same time not worth going into detail on. Let’s just say, it wasn’t too bad, though the joints suffered on the way back more than they did throughout the entire iron-day. It was a relief, however, not to fret about bike transport, car rental, or any of the other small but accumulating details that accompany flights.

One of the many amazing things about Boulder county, the high concentration of ultra athletes here is incredible. If there’s an epic or otherwise excitingly challenging athletic event, anywhere, you’re sure to see fellow Boulder folk at the starting line. Almost as soon as we arrived in Windsor, CA, we began meeting people from Boulder, including a couple from the Boulder Triathlon Club we hadn’t met yet, Tony and Janelle. We also saw fellow BTC-er Rebecca Green and her boyfriend, finally meeting in person after e-corresponding throughout the year, and Seneca, whom we’d just met at the pool the day before beginning the drive out, and her boyfriend Greg. It was so fun and reassuring to have many friendly faces around, which instantly became warmly familiar.  Actually, by race day the course was teeming with people I felt genuinely excited to see. The sense of camaraderie was incredible. We befriended people everywhere, in the hotel lobby, on the elevator, at the swim beach. A few women I stood with in line for packet pick-up and I really bonded during a half hour of waiting, quickly bypassing a little obligatory complaining at how slowly our one line was moving to genuinely connect with each other. The next day, we cheered each other with real gusto throughout the day.

Although I was really nervous (I’m always really nervous!) for the big day, all things considered I stressed much less about this race than any other. Strange, because in retrospect, the whole year really hinged upon this one day.  But in spite of the weight a goal like that carries, once we were on our way out there, I couldn’t help but relax and enjoy a little…a lot, even. The scope of this challenge was so big, it was pointless to worry. I couldn’t really think about the usual fears of slow times, faster competitors, being last…it was just about staying in the moment, being in it and experiencing the journey. The day before, we drove out to the swim beach for a light swim (when Dave got stung by a wasp…the day prior to that he’d had a flat while previewing the bike course, but we were determined to put a positive spin and block out what looked like negative omens), went to the expo for packet pick-up, and otherwise relaxed. I wrote out a pre-race plan using Amanda’s awesome organizational template, we ate an early dinner downstairs in the hotel, and were in bed insanely early (like 8), though not sleeping. When I did fall asleep, it was much more settled than I’m accustomed pre-race. I felt kind of a half-wakefulness, sleeping with consciousness of the upcoming day, but drifting through this light slumber were thoughts that I was enjoying the rest. When the alarm went off at 4 am, we were hesitant, and a little put off by the darkness, but pretty much ready to roll.

Swim

Vineman is unique in that the race starts a half hour drive from its finish, making for a little awkwardness regathering your things and organizing transport. The swim took place at Johnson’s Beach in Guernneville, a laid-back, rustic sort of setting which was a relaxing first-time venue. The Russian River is calm and inviting, and almost ridiculously shallow in places, another encouraging aspect of the event for a first-timer. Because of the restricted space, the swim went off in waves. Dave started with men under 35 and all pros at 6:30, and I started my day with all women doing the full iron-distance (Barb’s race, a women’s only half ironman was taking place at the same time, in later waves) 15 minutes later.  I saw Stephanie, one of the women I’d met the day before, near me in transition, and BTCer Rebecca. Chatting with them helped unwind any nerves that were budding uncomfortably. As we walked over to the water, Rebecca bubbled cheerfully about the importance of relaxing, and emphasized what a fun day I’d have. She’d already completed an Ironman (Florida) but was really nervous herself about making cutoff times. I really appreciated her cheer-leading when I knew she was facing just as big a day as I was and more, having had surgery just a month or so earlier. We were prompt to begin. Once we set off, there was the usual amount of shoving and positioning, but overall I think the women wanted to be courteous of one another. There were many comments to that effect as we waded into the river. The most jostling occurred when our wave began catching stragglers from earlier waves. These tended to be, from my perspective, rather burly men who obstinately refused to let women pass them, even though they were obviously going slower. First I focused on not panicking, and not letting anyone swim on top of me, kick my face, or knock off my goggles. As time passed, I began to concentrate on relaxation, pulling through (something new for me, since I’ve had a tendency to go through the motions of swimming, while really just floating in the water), and hip rotation. The course was a two-time out-and-back route, and approaching the first turnaround I could see everyone was walking. No wonder, the river was beyond shallow at that point, about 2 feet deep. As I stood to walk around the cones, I heard Rebecca saying to me, “This is fun, we have to swim together more often. Hey, do you want to do Horsetooth in Fort Collins? It’s a 2.4 miler”. I was kind of surprised to hear her chirpily chatting away as if our last conversation hadn’t been separated by the start of an ironman, but once again her voice relaxed me. It also made me think, man I need to turn it on a little. It was a long day, but we probably shouldn’t be moving leisurely enough for an ongoing conversation, really, not in the middle of the swim! I think I murmured something like, “I’ll definitely think about that–but not till after today”, and launched back into the water. The way back was really nice, aided just slightly by the gentle current in this direction. By lap two, though people were still concentrated, there was more room to maneuver, and I felt in  rhythm.

Though it didn’t feel like it was going fast at the time (and I wasn’t ), once I reached the beach, it immediately felt like the swim portion had been just a blip in the day, so short. I NEVER feel that about swimming! I mean, I enjoy it, but working at it is a new thing, and I typically feel the impact of my efforts afterwards. Rubbery. But not today. I was actually happy with my time, and faster than I’d predicted. Transition was set up on the gravelly parking area overlaid with mats. Volunteers (oh, there were so many awesome volunteers at Vineman!) helped pull off my wetsuit, and directed me to the bikes as, overwhelmed or disoriented already, I had started heading out the wrong way…to I have no idea what). I tried to clean my feet of gravel and sand on my towel, and was less than successful, but I didn’t really mind and gave myself a mental thanks for putting clean socks in both the bike and run transitions; the marine layer fog kept the morning chilly, so I pulled on arm warmers and set off.

Bike

Immediately after exiting transition, cyclists had to go up a steep little hill to get from the beach to the road. I ran my bike up, however, because I needed the port-o-potty. No one else needed to go already, of course, since they’d all gone in their wetsuits, but an unexpected visit from Aunt Flo (pardon the uninteresting euphemism, but it was relevant and really kind of sucked), I couldn’t do that, and didn’t really want to, anyway. At least I didn’t need to wait in a line.

Once I got on my bike, I settled into patience mode. Pace, pace, pace, not race, race, race, I kept thinking, peppered a little with drink, drink, drink (thanks, Cindy, for the reminder!). This was going to be a long day no matter what. The road from Johnson’s Beach out towards Windsor was winding and hilly. Actually, all the roads we encountered throughout the two 56-mile loops were winding and hilly. Living in Colorado, you’d think hills wouldn’t be much of a problem, but unlike mountains that go UP….then DOWN….this was a relentless kind of rolliness that turned out to be very taxing. The roads reminded me of living in England,  narrow and twisty. Being unforgivably cautious, I couldn’t come close to making up for slowed pace climbing in descents, but even strong descenders would be challenged by the sharp turns, especially at the bottom of each hill. The surfaces were much rougher than I’ve been used to as well, and the course was lined for mile after mile with athletes changing flats. Please, I prayed to my trusty  Cervelo, love of my life, my wonderful little bike, if you can get me through this without a flat, I swear I will learn to take better care of you! I’d never actually changed a flat on my own successfully. Dave had been way too good, or enabling, to me, and I had let him shamelessly. So, I prayed with astonishing industry, and amazingly, it worked. My Cervelo was looking out for me, although I did lose my chain quite a few times. The continual ups and downs of the course required constant shifting, and I think my chain fell off about 8 times throughout the day. Luckily, 3 out of 4 times it fixed itself when I kept pedaling, but it was a definite distraction. I also had trouble getting my left cleat back into my pedal after leaving aid stations. I was deploring this heading into the second lap when I suddenly realized, why the heck was I getting off my bike in the first place?? Throughout the first lap, I stopped at every aid station (4). I did not take advantage of the time to stretch, go to the bathroom, or even grab food, however. Sure, I replenished my bottles, but I’d essentially packed enough for the day, with the exception of grabbing a banana piece here and there, and anticipating my special needs bag, which held lifesaver Advil tablet (I did let myself get a bit too dehydrated than I should have, preventably…not again). For whatever reason, each time I saw an aid station I stopped, took my left foot out of my pedal, and just stood there. I cannot for the life of me remember what I was thinking. Maybe I was soaking in the moment. Maybe I even saved myself by doing this, unconsciously. When I realized I did not have to stop, however, it simultaneously occurred to me that the clock was not stopping for me! OH NO! I had so thought I was on pace. I mean, the goal was just to finish, just to finish, and I had humble but realistic expectations of what pace  I could handle for 112 miles to still be in shape for a marathon. However, the course was tough, and I was only just maintaining the pace I hoped for. What’s more,  to imagine completing the bike leg in much longer than what I conservatively expected was extremely distasteful. So, with that realization, and the fact that Barb’s Race competitors were no longer out on the course with us (no more excuses that fit, fast women passing me were “just doing Barb’s Race”), in lap two I started to pick it up, just a little. Still maintainable, I hoped, but bearing in mind that today was a journey with myself, but it was also still a race.

My cyclometer was set to time nearly the whole day, and every hour gave myself the diversion of planning out how I was going to take in 250-300 calories. This was mildly entertaining, but less enjoyable than I expected. All the foods I’d loved during training were suddenly unappealing, with the exception of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which I grabbed from my special needs bag, eating part and tossing the rest in its smushed-up sogginess away. Fig Newtons, the snack packs with two long bars stacked on top of one another, were also still pretty good, perhaps more so because these Fig Newtons were illicitly pocketed from a workplace (thanks, Mary!). Clif Bars were lumpy and dry. Gels were sickly and runny. Banana pieces, doled out at aid stations, went down pretty well. But the big surprise was Infinit. A densely caloric drink you can tailor to your own preferences and needs, I had practiced with Infinit out of a sense of obligation to Dave, who raved about and had utter faith in its capacity to fuel. When I used it in training, though, I found it a little salty, mostly tasteless, and somewhat heavy. I also found it didn’t begin to satiate me, even though a bottle packed in 300 calories. It left me, generally, with this annoying gnawing hunger plus bloating. I took a bottle of Infinit dutifully with me on the bike for Vineman, however, and packed another bottle in my special needs bag, which I eagerly grabbed when I finally got there. On the day, Infinit was a trooper.  It went down oh so well when nothing else seemed right. It’s funny, because I never really fully appreciate during training how difficult it can be to eat on the go. In fact, even on the day, in spite of a lack of enjoyment, I was pretty faithful when it came to getting the calories in. I was actually marveling at myself about 5 hours or so into the ride, thinking how well I could pack in the solids when I had to, and finding it a mix of being praiseworthy and a possibly disturbing. Of course, just as I allowed myself the compliment, however, my stomach switched off with a thud. Power out. I do not want to take any more of this, it seemed to be telling me. It was like night and day. I knew I’d likely feel every emotion imaginable on this one day, but I didn’t expect such extremes within seconds of each other. Almost instantly, with my stomach’s instigation, almost everything shut down. My mood plummeted. I had JUST been euphorically taking in the scenery, the sweeping vineyards, the expansive hills. Now, suddenly my body didn’t want to work, AND I was hit by a headwind, and I really hate the wind.

That first and only real bonk occurred not too long before approaching the infamous Chalk Hill section of the bike for the second time. The first lap, it really wasn’t too bad. Being so talked up, it inevitably seems less than a big deal. Lap two, however, Chalk Hill transforms into a monster. It really, really sucks. Once up, though, I knew it would be mostly downhill and flat to the finish, and the start of the run. I couldn’t wait to get to the run. Though my stomach was done, I knew I needed more fuel, and forced some chocolate chip Clif bar down my throat once an uncomfortable period of vomity-burping had stopped. This felt a lot like stuffing cheap fuel in the form of engineered product into your system to get to the next fuel stop, but it seemed to help almost immediately. I felt my muscles re-galvanize just a little, and my sense of purpose and focus regrouped just in time to get me to the bike-run transition at Windsor High School, where the crowd support was deafening and so energizing. Included in the crowd were my friend Emilee, her husband, and her two little girls, Mary and Laura. I hadn’t seen Emilee in two years, and it was so special to have her standing there as I rounded the corner into transition. Her little daughter Mary was adorable! Now 4, there’s no way she could have remembered my face, but she was cheering away brilliantly, with this exuberant, infectious smile. I was about to get off the bike, and feeling on top of the world.

Run

Easily my favorite of the three disciplines, and my favorite part of the day, I could go on about the run forever. But I’ve also gone on just about forever already, and really, the run can be summed up pretty quickly, so I will. The route was out-and-back for three tough, hilly loops. Heading out is harder than coming back, though you are hit with the hilliness both directions. I couldn’t believe how easy the marathon felt, however, at least to start. Even when I was really hurting towards the end, it was so much easier than a straight marathon. For one thing, soooo many people just walk the whole thing. I even saw people talking on cell phones. I was buoyed up by constantly passing people. Also, by this time, I was just so intensely elated to be off the bike and on my feet, I may as well have been floating for a while. Emilee helped me, too, running alongside with me for a good 1/2 mile at the start of laps 1 and 2. “You look so strong,” she told me, as she, an ironman herself, graciously overlooked the crusty salt stains caking my arms and the greasy slime around my neck and armpits from the melted vaseline I accidentally splashed on myself in transition. “You look like you’re just out for a regular old run.” I felt like that, too. And I actually really liked the out-and-back format, as rough as it can be on your morale at moments. I’d spent a good portion of the bike leg worrying about Dave and how he was coping with his not-yet-healed calf. Had he dropped out? Was he walking? Was I going to be driving the whole 20 hours+ back home while he nursed devastation and a ripped up leg? But with the route as it was, I got to see Dave, and so many other people, each lap, and with each supportive cheer, the energy glowed. The sense of camaraderie was at its peak as each person made his own way to the finish line, step by step. As the day began to wind down, the temperature dropped slightly, though not enough to really explain the occasional sudden chills I felt, a little taste of the shakes as my body began to reach its max load. Lap 1 and most of lap 2, I was pretty sure I could shoot for a 4-hour marathon, which I’d be so psyched to finish an ironman with. Lap 3, though, my calf started to really seize up, and I had to slow to something of a shuffle for a bit on the way out. I could feel my leg pronating to compensate, and sure enough, I really hurt my ankle, which looked like a big old cankle later on…but it was worth it! The aid stations were brimming with all kinds of cookies, fruit, chips and Clif bloks,  but I stuck to liquid the whole way, with the exception of a few grapes and the most delicious and fresh peach slices I think I have ever tasted. Mostly, though, I alternated between water and Gatorade, until mile 22. That’s when I let myself try Coke. People always say, never try anything new on race day, but there seem to be two clear exceptions to this rule–Coke and chicken broth. There was no chicken broth that day, but Coke soooo did the trick. I held off because I wanted to be sure that once I started, I could keep it up and avoid a caffeine bonk. Turns out, once I started, it’s all I wanted anyway. I slowed a little more at the aid stations to accommodate the bit of bubbliness, but the sugar-caffeine combo felt like it went instantly into my veins and spurred on my stride, as well as a relative obliviousness to the pain my ankle was causing. When I reached the finishing chute, my stride was strong and fluid, and I was beaming ear to ear. I loved the unexpected touch of each finisher getting to break through tape flanked by massive wine barrels.

I finished my first iron-distance tri in 13 hours and 6 minutes, which I was ecstatic with considering I don’t think I worked the bike enough…but then again that’s probably why I so enjoyed the run. My sister Susan, who lives outside of San Fran, came up to see us finish and was ready with home-made brownies (my grandmother’s special recipe) and pumpkin muffins, my favorite. I didn’t immediately feel like eating anything, but I so appreciated Susan’s show of support, especially as the whole thing probably seemed like expensive massochism on a large scale to her. When I did take one of those brownies, too, it was absolutely heavenly.  Dave was right there by the finish, having valiantly completed his first ironman, and 2nd triathlon ever, in 12 hours 40 in spite of a serious injury! I was so proud of him.

Any journey like this comes with its share of letdown at its conclusion, sort of a post-Christmas kind of bluesiness. I was chomping at the bit to get signed up for another one, but was gratefeul for the down time, too. I think I’ll definitely be starting another iron-adventure in another year, after a marathon or so and other “stuff”, but no matter what’s next, the first-time experience will be one I can look back on as one of the most enriching things I’ve ever done. You can’t spend all that time with yourself along the way, the long runs, the century rides, the big bricks, without learning a little more about yourself, for better or worse. And the price you pay can be more than made up for by whatever you choose to take away. It’s up to you, in the end, and that’s really what it’s all about.

  1. Morag
    August 13, 2009

    Great read Wendy – big congratulations! I’m so impressed and humbled by you and Dave. I’ve done a few endurance events (mainly mountain biking but also did El Tour de Tucson last year) and would love to build up to doing a triathlon but I will never, ever be able to attempt a Ironman distance! Well done girl! Morag x

  2. Christina Gillen
    August 13, 2009

    WOW! I am so proud of you! You have accomplished something most people only dream of doing. It was a very entertaining piece to read in spite of all the blood, sweat and tears involved in this Herculean effort! Hats off to you.

  3. Ann Remmers
    August 13, 2009

    Wendy,
    Thanks for sharing! You and Dave were truely bold to venture into an Ironman. So glad it was a positive experience for both of you.
    From a BAD swimmer who is older and wiser who will never do an Ironman 🙂
    Ann

    • Wendy McMillan
      August 13, 2009

      Thank you soooo much for your thoughtful comments!

  4. Sally
    August 13, 2009

    Brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing your experience. I am going to covet your words and new wisdom as motivation for my upcoming personal challenge. Congratulations on this victory in your life.

  5. Stephanie Murphy
    August 13, 2009

    Wendy,
    Thanks so much for sharing your experience. You and Dave are an inspiration to all. I can’t even fathom running a marathon after throwing down 112 grueling bike miles. You absolutely rock!! I know I’ve told you this before, but you’re also a terrific writer. So when is coffee?? 🙂

  6. michelle
    August 14, 2009

    I think your next writing projectis a childrens book, ‘RUN, WENDY, RUN’.

    …….I’m kinda not kidding here. 🙂

  7. Peggy
    August 24, 2009

    Congratulations, Wendy! Wow! I am not only impressed that you did it, but that you remember so many details about it and were able to tell us- I felt as if I was there! Good job on both accounts- the race and the re-telling. So glad you were able to see Emilee, too!

  8. Cindy Hamilton
    August 25, 2009

    Wow Wendy, You brought me to tears at times. What a great Race Report and exhilerating experience. I am so proud of you. You are an inspiration.

  9. Grandpa Schuyler
    October 15, 2009

    It makes me feel like running again even at 93. A great story Wendy (and Dave).

    • Wendy McMillan
      October 15, 2009

      Grandpa, at 93 you are definitely one of my heroes (and you always have been)!

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