Ironman St George, Utah, race report

Ironman St George is known to be a tough race course. This was to be its last year, dropped because the course intimidates too many, hitting sales. That is a shame, it's an epic course, with a challenging bike course in particular, that I know many people would love.

It was the 5th ironman distance race I started, assuming bar any major catastrophe it would be my 4th finish (I DNF'd my first).

Swim
[caption id="attachment_655" align="alignnone" width="330" caption="The swim exit"][/caption]

The reservoir was perfectly calm at the swim start at 7am. I was relieved, having found the slight choppiness on my first practice swim encouraged my open water swim fears. I'd since had a calm practice, gathered much advice from strong and experienced athletes, and was mentally ready for the swim. "The crowd is my friend", my coach reminded me, go with the hussle and bustle as it will pull me along faster. I joined a group of pink swim caps (women) towards the front outer edge of the start line. Bold move for me, but… the crowd will be my friend, and I trust women swimmers more than the flailing limbs of middle aged men.

Around twenty minutes into the swim, I was flying! I was thinking "this is amazing! The crowd thing must be really working!". Then I realized I wasn't really in a crowd, and the push was a strong undercurrent. Waves started hitting the back of my head, and making me miss the odd breath, lifting me and propelling me forward. It felt like someone had turned on the wave machine. When I lifted my head to orientate myself, all I could see were waves. Almost at the turn, I was nervous about turning side on the chop for the next few hundred metres. After that turn, there was a 1.8km stretch, straight into the waves and wind. My breathing started to get short, and I treaded water and tried to calm myself. I just couldn't see how, with my strength and skill level, I could get myself even to the next buoy. I raised my arm to call the rescue kayaker who was already watching me. "Can I just rest with you for a minute?" I asked. He agreed. I said I was just scared, but didn't want to quit, I'd gather myself. He advised that I'd never make it going against the current and waves. It wasn't worth the risk and he was pulling me out. A rescue boat of volunteers pulled me aboard. I sobbed. A kind stranger wrapped me in a towel, gave me a hug and reminded me that it was a good thing to be alive and that you can't argue with Mother Nature.

Our boat then tried to rescue other people. I say try, because we could see other swimmers clinging to kayaks, but even the boat had difficulty getting out to them. We picked up another two swimmers. Other boats hopefully got everyone else. Some kayakers were rescued, unable to stay upright in the waves. I noticed an abandoned kayak as we headed to shore. We were unable to fight the waves back to the start area, and were dropped at the opposite end of the reservoir, along with around another thirty swimmers. After much shivering and consoling one another, we were eventually trucked back to the swim start. Now disqualified, we had to hand in our timing chips. No amount of foil wraps countered the chill of standing around in wet clothes. I was shivering and hungry. I couldn't get my warm clothes, as they'd been loaded onto trucks, to be taken to the finish area, 20 miles away.

(http://connect.garmin.com/activity/175129255)

Bike
At around 9am, a race official announced that although we were disqualified, if we wanted to we could still ride the course - we just wouldn't be timed. Or we could be bused back to town, to the finish area, and could collect our warm clothes bag - in an hour. Some decided they had gone too far beyond 'race mode' and were done for the day. Some poor souls were getting medical attention for serious reactions to the cold. I was too cold to wait, but felt too weak to 'race'. I decided I'd start biking, to warm up, and could decide on the 20 miles into town what to do next.

Apart from a gel before the swim, it had been nearly 6 hours since breakfast at this point. I was starving and my carefully planned nutrition strategy changed to a 'just eat whatever, NOW' one. I felt like a fraud, as the other athletes shouted "Good job getting through that swim!". I admired their strength, and was disappointed at my lack of.

About 1.5hr later, I started to warm up (and realised I was beyond town, properly out on the course). The headwind was strong, but the sun was shining, the scenery was spectacular and the supporters along the route were so enthusiastic.. "You go girl!… Looking good girl!… Go 215!" - how could you not enjoy training to that?! I thanked the volunteers and smiled or gave a thumbs up to the cheerers. I half-remembered the quote about there being 3 things you can control in ironman: your nutrition, the thoughts inside your head and… something else. I'd focus on those two for now.

Around 2.5hrs in I thought, what the heck, I'd push through and do the whole bike course. 3.5hrs against the headwind later, I started to ponder what was the smart thing to do. I can do the stubborn, push through it approach… but should I? What would I learn today if I just did the bike, and part of the run? Could I do all of both? No. I definitely didn't want to do all of both, and break myself for weeks. This race was already a DNF. Maybe I could be fresh to do a half next month, or just fresh to train harder.

I thought to myself "What would Cat do?" - my sporting heroine and friend, who famously managed to win Ironman Lanzarote in 2010 despite a broken chain putting her out for 45mins. I remember her post-race analysis including the thought "What's the next best thing I can get out of today?". I decided the next best thing for me today was to do 1 lap of the bike course, and 30km of the run. The run had been the center of my race aims. I had desperately wanted to get a good run time, as I'd worked so hard and was making good progress in training. I didn't want to run the full distance now - the time would be meaningless, if not off a full bike. I want to be a better triathlete, not a better runner. So I would do a long training run. The targets had to change, but the processes didn't.

So I did 110km of the 180km bike course (http://connect.garmin.com/activity/175129460), in a sluggish 5hrs. The highlight was flying through the final descents, with a tailwind (finally!) - reaching a high speed of 81km/h (51mph)!

As an amateur woman taking the turn for the 'finish', instead of 'lap 2', at this point I felt like I stood out… the spectators, and even other athletes, cheered me on "Woah you go girl! Nice work!". I felt like a total imposter, and wished my missing timing chip had been replaced with a scarlet DNF so it was obvious I was merely doing my own thing.

Run
Always a relief to be off the bike, or just change disciplines… I felt good starting the run. Again the supporters lining the streets and volunteers manning the aid stations were just wonderful. I ran reasonably well for the first ~15km, sticking to my process goals with a firm mind and willing body.

Despite eating and drinking well on the bike, I think the couple of extra hours of fear, hunger and cold around the swim rescue & recovery took a lot out of me. I drank at aid stations, but had little desire to eat, occasionally forcing myself to have my favourite cola gels.

In my efforts to move past the aid stations with minimal stoppage time, I was drawn to grabbing a constant supply of cold sponges that I stuck under my shoulder straps, and ice that I threw down my top, back, shorts, under my hat, held in my hands, chewed. I maybe just took drink at every other aid station.

The camaraderie in triathlon, an individual sport, is a wonderful part of the experience. My old coach, professional athlete Meredith Kessler, was storming ahead in first place. As she passed me on her final lap, she made the effort to shout over "Going good Keavy! How's your legs?". Later, even the woman in second place, who I have no connection with, gave me a "Doing good, keep going!" as I faltered. On one uphill, as I caved to the temptation to walk a fellow runner shouted "KEEP GOING!" so loud, it made me jump… and carry on running. We had been running at the same pace and I think I disrupted his flow!

I overheard a runner say to his friend "Stay in your box. Even if you need to create a new box."

At around 20km, the wheels were really starting to come off. It was more of a struggle to keep my temperature and breathing (what felt like high heart rate, but usually wasn't really) down, I walked the hills, then some flats… if I could just make it to the top of the last climb, I would have a downhill/flat remaining 5km. I couldn't. I changed my box from 30km to 3hrs. I was done. I sat on kerb under a tree and hung my head. Then lay back… ahhh, such comfortable concrete. My impending nap was interupted by a police officer, who asked if I knew where I was. Between my still wheezing breath and my slight bewilderment as to what the correct answer might be… he decided to call the medics. I assured them I wasn't hurt, just a little tired and weak, and yes maybe a little dizzy. They whisked me on the gurney, into the ambulance and we sped off. They took vitals and started an IV drip. I have heard IV drips are like a magic revitalising potion, so I was quite excited about this. Although I apologised to the medics, explaining that I had actually been disqualified first thing this morning and I was probably totally fine and maybe someone else needed help? She simply said "You guys are amazing. We're happy to help." The siren blared so we could zoom through the traffic. If they didn't mind helping an imposter, I decided it was kinda awesome.

Another little while in the med tent, absorbing my IV, being warmed up, ensuring I was OK and then I was free to go. Without a medal or finisher's t-shirt, but with a dressing where my ambulance rescue squad inserted an IV!

(http://connect.garmin.com/activity/175129263)

Next?
I do feel good about the choices I made today, so I know I got the most out of the day I had.

It is still disappointing to have DNF'd. A day that I've spent around 450 hours over the last 6 months physically training for, much of the last 3 weeks mentally preparing for, thousands of dollars getting and being here for, more on coaching fees, effort controlling diet to reach a better race weight etc. etc.. It's not easy to enter an ironman as an age group athlete - with the most popular courses selling out in a matter of hours, if not minutes, you generally have to plan a year in advance. Of course there will be other days, but they are financially, physically and emotionally expensive days.

I am signed up for Challenge Roth, a full distance race in Germany in July. I'd like to do something else soon, likely a 70.3. We'll see.