Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Vineman Full Triathlon - Race Report

These are the Vinemen. We trained together - with 50 other teammates - for 38 weeks. On Saturday, we raced the Vineman Full Triathlon, the oldest ironman-distance race in the country. Through the hills and valleys and vineyards of Sonoma County, CA, we swam, biked and ran for an entire day. Not just for the sake of a challenge, but also to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma society find a cure for blood cancers, and all cancers.

The Vinemen: Rona, Lisa, Tiffany, me, Marissa, Alex, Amanda, Beth, Marianthe. (Not pictured: Rene, Elissa, Solange, Ben, Naomi)

Back in October, I dedicated my season to my friend, Fern. She's one of my biggest supporters and cheerleaders. I know other folks who can say the same. Despite her multiple bouts with three types of cancer, she shares her warmth, spirit and charity with everyone she knows. And though she does not do marathons anymore herself, she's the first to yell your name on twitter on race day. She deals with insurance and doctors and extreme weather in Colorado. I deal with steep hills, little sleep and temperate Southern California. If she can do it. I can do it. That's why I race for her.

I was especially nervous in the days leading up to the race. When you train for something for nine months and sacrifice important parts of your life for a goal ... that one day that it all boils down to becomes very, very important. And sometimes daunting. As Christine described, I had ants in my pants all week. It was a relief to stop juggling work and packing and my general well-being and just head up to NorCal on Wednesday. Holly and I made the long car drive in 9 hours. We definitely did not PR that trip. But we got there, joined the team, and settled into a few days of light workouts and race prep before the big day.

Pre-Race Thoughts:

The coaches (Holly, Dave, Jason, Amy, Adam and Quinton) would check in with me now and then to make sure I wasn't overly nervous. Simply asking, "How are you feeling?" was helpful. I chatted with Coach Brad, too, about performance anxiety and the pressure I felt. Easy conversations helped keep my butterflies from morphing into monsters. I used a few phrased to help myself get through the lead up time.

"It's just pain." I've been telling myself this for the past couple of weeks, mostly to calm my nerves. When I think about why I get anxious in the time leading up to races, it partially comes back fearing the pain that race brings about. Sure, no one likes to be in physical pain, and I know that I have many years of experience dealing with it. But the anticipation of it nags at me. So I spoke to myself directly about it. It's just pain. It's not fatal. I've survived it up until this point of my life. I will make it through no matter how badly it hurts.

"Identify the problem. Make a decision. Move forward." This is the strategy I try to take with me in any endurance race. We try to prepare so that problems do not arise during an event. We aim for a perfect day. But realistically, shit happens. The approach I've found works best for me is to figure out what's wrong (my stomach hurts or my legs are cramping or my sunscreen is getting in my eyes...etc), make a decision about it (do x or y), and keep going. Reevaluate if necessary. Indecision and wallowing don't get you through the miles. So I mentally prepped myself to be ready for this ID/decide/move strategy. And I definitely used it on Saturday.

"Race hard. Make it hurt. It is for others."
Amazing words from Georgia Ironteam member Adam Heiser. He donated to my fundraising page and left those thoughts in the comments section. They capture so much. I wrote this on my right leg right under my race shorts so that every time I pedaled, I could read it. I repeated it throughout the day.

Race Morning:
Normally I'm a ball of nerves before the race. This time was a little different. Our schedule was methodical so I just approached each task individually (check bags one last time, meet team, ride bus, retrieve bike, check gear, set up transition) and staved off any overwhelming feelings. For the most part. I admittedly spent 5 minutes during the bus ride not fighting back some tears that I was probably harboring for the past couple of months. But other than that, all went smoothly.

My nerves that morning were channeled through my bladder - holy hypo-hydration! I was in the bathroom (or river) at least four times. That's not usual for me. And I learned a valuable lesson about dark port-a-johns that hopefully will save you in the future: The toilets have lids. Make sure the lids are up before you pee. Because if you don't, you will pee on your socks and shoes. You're welcome.

Saturday 5:15am. Time for a Wetsuit Adventure of sorts

Oatmeal and his rented wheels

Some final tunes

After finalizing my area, checking my brakes for rubbing and going for a warm up jog, I hung around with our team at the edge of the water. A quick warm up swim and a few last minute hugs were in order. Oddly, my heart rate never rose in anticipation of a long and grueling day. I stayed very calm, probably in denial that today would be as long as it was. My teammate Marissa and I waded into the water together and hung out before our wave went off. No fireworks, no big count down. Just the announcer sending us off.

Good luck hug from Coach Dave. Marissa's Disney princess hair stealing our moment

The swim is a two-loop out and back section of the Russian River. You swim against the current going out, and with the current coming back. Man, that turnaround buoy seemed so far away! It was only 0.6 miles away ... but it felt like an eternity! I suppose that was slightly due to said current (because the way back felt faster). I got elbowed and kicked a couple times - expected. But I found my rhythm quickly, and the only thing that threw my off is that it felt like I was swimming through hair. Yes, hair. I kept lifting my arm up and looking underwater to see if i was bringing along a glut of seaweed with me. But I saw nothing. Just felt this creepy sensation (particularly up river) that I had spiderwebs caught on my arms and face. Gross.

My GPS report of the swim

Made the full loop turn for one more out-and-back. Peeked at my watch. Felt like 60mins, but was only 35. Swim, kick, swim, kick, all the way down and back. Second time seemed shorter and soon I was heading toward the Swim out arch. Popped up, got my barring and went on my way. My teammate and amazing photographer, Pai, saw me first and cheered me on. Moments later, at the wetsuit strip station, my other teammates were yelling for me.

One sport down. Two to go.

Swim Time: 1:10:26

Things you rarely hear from strangers on a Saturday morning: Volunteer, "Can I help you lube up?" Me, "You know, I think I'm all set." She decided helping me sunscreen was a little less invasive. I wanted to improve on my 10-minute transition from IMCDA '10. So I sped through my checklist, only forgetting to wash my feet with my water bottle. A dirty towel casualty but it worked well enough. I racked at the end of the setup, right next to the rug leading to Bike Out. So soon enough, I was on my way.

PR'd my transition! Never thought that would happen

Transition Time: 4:36

Bike: The theme of the Vineman bike for me was gambling. I didn't set out to gamble. I set out to 'race my plan' as Coach Dave and I had chatted about. I aimed to keep my pace between 17.5-18.5 mph for the first loop, which would hopefully ensure fresh legs for the second half and for the run. Play it safe.

But once I got out among the vineyards, I changed my plan. This was partially fueled by the wheels I was riding. I'd decided to rent some Zipp 808s from Podium Wheel Rentals (which, by the way, I HIGHLY recommend. The owner, Tony, is a great guy and did everything he could to make sure my bike and the wheels were in top shape before the race). I didn't rent them because I wanted to win by any means. But, as Holly put it, "Whatever will get you off the bike sooner." Hey, the less I have to sit there and pedal, the better. So I rented them and figured I'd buy some speed. Oh boy, did they feel great! I felt lighter and faster with the same effort I normally grind along in. I hadn't ridden with these wheels before, so it took me a few miles to adjust to handling them (ie - you need to be more mindful and gripping of the steering), but I easily fell in love with the discs by mile 15.

All morning these guys would pass me on the bike

Trying not to chase the stranger

So, me and Oatmeal and the new wheels arbitrarily decided to go for my 'A-Race" / non-conservative time which in my head was two 3-hour loops, an 18.6mph average for each. I very well knew during the ride that I was pushing pretty hard without the safety-net-knowledge that I could run a consistent and 4:30-ish marathon after this bike. Every couple of minutes, I reminded myself of our coaches words, "Chess not Checkers" meaning that this wasn't a balls-to-the-wall race to win here. Every move you make in the swim and the bike sets you up for the run. Be strategic.

I chugged through the first section of the course - River Rd and Dry Creek - all alone. Some of the faster guys with aero helmets whizzed by me and I fought to keep my cool and not chase. One guy who saw my leg pedaled by and said, "29 and looking fine!" which made me laugh. After climbing Canyon Road - which I didn't realize was a climb so I started to get worried my brakes were rubbing or my legs were shot - I descended into Geyserville. Rode by Jason and Dave at mile 28 - quick cheers from them. Onto Route 128 and eventually Chalk Hill.

I didn't see anyone I knew for a long time. All I saw was a slew of 40- and 50-year old men speeding past me. I'd chase them for a minute, and then return to my "Checkers not Chess" mantra. I saw one woman pass me too. I didn't have a death wish to chase her, so again, I sat back and rode.

Chalk Hill is a .75-mile climb at mile 44 and mile 100. I knew my teammates would be there at the top to cheer us all up. Unfortunately, I arrived a little too early and they had hit traffic getting there from the swim location. So up and over Chalk Hill I went to the clapping of a few strangers. I didn't have any problems on the climb, and a few miles of a descent that followed it cheered me up. More rollers through the last section of the loop.

As I pulled into mile 56 at Windsor High School, I saw a crowd on the sidewalk. And there was my teammate Lindsay cheering me on. It was a little moment that boosted me up big time. Arrived at Special Needs (mile 57) and saw Holly standing across the road. Can't remember our conversation other than I felt okay and proceeded to shove a ball of salted rice into my mouth. A great break from my Cliff Bar bite every 20 minutes. Unbeknownst to me, she was updating facebook and twitter all day with my progress for my friends. That was cool to come back to and read after the race.

Shoveling a rice ball and quietly celebrating the end of loop one

About 15 miles after special needs, I saw two sets of Cheer Squads - in superhero costumes - along some lonely stretches of the course. Not only were they cheering me up, but a few riders thanked me for bringing 'the cool kids out on the course'. I can't say that I went to a 'dark place' during the race, but if I were to pinpoint my low moments, they were here on the second loop. 1) The rough roads started to piss me off. Very few sections of the ride were paved smoothly. Mostly, it was pitted, pocked asphalt that rumbled under the tires. After 3+ hours of trying to steer on the smoothest parts of the grooved road, I was cranky.

Speaking of cranky, my neck and left shoulder were exactly that. I'd been riding mostly in aero and straining my neck. I had to keep rubbing my shoulder so it wouldn't mutiny on me.

And then there was my stomach's refusal of Gatorade around mile 85. I had grabbed the lemon-lime drink at an aid station right before mile 85 (Geyserville, where Jason and Dave were waiting). I drank it without a problem for a while. But as I approached the station, I took the last two sips to finish the bottle and prep for grabbing a replacement. Those sips kind of doomed me. My stomach went sour immediately. It hurt enough that I couldn't get back in aero. Cramped, bloated, uncomfortable. So, I made a decision - water and solids only if I could help it. Kept going.

That pretty much worked. After an hour, my stomach settled. My legs were getting tired and I was ready to be done with the bike. I looked forward to getting up Chalk Hill again because it meant I'd get some downhills and be heading into transition soon. Coach Amy was standing at the aid station before the hill - great to see her! She yelled something about being number 2, but I wasn't sure what she meant and I was tired, so I just kept going. Luckily, the cheer squad was working their magic the second time I arrived. So amazing to see them in costume and running up the hill as we biked. I high fived them, got to the top and sped down and away.

Excited to see my teammates!

Lindsay and Pete and the best cheerers ever

Jared wearing my new favorite T-shirt

Cheer Squad with one of my teammates

Saw another section of cheerers a few miles later. Coach Brad screamed words of encouragement and off I climbed on the last little hill (Faught Rd, I think). An easy 2-mile downhill into town after. Before hitting downtown, I saw Megan and Bobbi cheering. They, too, yelled, "You're number 2" as I passed by. I assumed that meant either I was in second for women, for my age group or for Team in Training participants. Since I was alone almost the entire second loop of the bike (a few guys around, and only two girls), I had no idea where I was in the field. Nor did I care. I didn't show up to race, so I just stayed focus on holding off the pain and fatigue as long as possible. I decided that I'd put placement thoughts aside and just stay within myself.

That smile says: "Oh my god get me off this bike! I'm chaffing! I just peed on this bike 10 minutes ago and I really want to change my socks!

By mile 112, I was ready to be done with the race. But there were plenty of miles to go. I pulled up to the dismount line and breathed out, "It's about time." Another watch glimpse showed I'd pretty much met my A-goal. For better or worse. I had no idea how this run would go.

Bike Time: 6:01:22

T2: The jog from bike in to my actual transition area took about a minute in bike shoes. I heard Holly yell to remind me where I'd set up my Mario Kart cinch bag the day before. Once found, I dumped the contents, made some quick decisions (no new shorts, definitely new socks, no hydration belt, yes nutrition belt, OMG I need vaseline stat!) and got all dressed up for the final legs of the race. She pointed me to the Run Out arch and reminded me to pour water over my head at every aid station and to stick to my interval. As I jogged forward I registered that my Achilles were not on fire, as I anticipated. Happy to be on two feet instead of two wheels!

Transition Time: 4:52

Run: It was a happy run. That's pretty much it. Three loops out and back through some farmlands and vineyards. Less hilly than I remember it being when we ran this course on training weekend six weeks ago. I completed my first loop feeling pretty great. I knew I couldn't have the Gatorade, so I stuck with water, cola and a few shot blocks. In hindsight I could have eaten a little more to ward of some cramping at mile 21. And thanks to my teammate Anabel for suggesting we carry ice in ours hands to keep our temperatures down. I carried ice for more than half of the run. Every aid station (each mile or so) I'd refill. Lifesaver move!

Happy runner!

The cheer squad appeared on my second loop, and having a group of friends to loop forward to seeing - at the finish and at the middle of the loop - was invaluable. Since I don't normally race with people I know in the crowd, the whole spectator-cheering-for-me concept was a little new. But it was so great, and I'm really grateful they made the trip up and staying all day (16+ hours) to cheer us all on.

I ticked off each mile steadily, my pace hovering between 9:20-10min/mile. I walked the hills I needed to, and walked through the aid stations. Other than that, just kept moving forward. I was in great spirits, laughing and smiling and chatting with the volunteers. I returned back to town to start the final loop. I eyed the race clock (total time) for the first time all day. It read 10:13:15. I did some quick math. I had 1hr50mins to go about 8.5 miles. I figured if I didn't blow up, I had a shot at a sub-12hr time. In the least, I felt pretty confident I'd best my IM CDA time (12:42).

Out on the last lap and despite the miles behind me, I still felt good. It wasn't until mile 21 when I hit a steep hill that my left quad screamed with a cramp and I went dead stop. Uh-oh.

Decidedly less happy runner. Muscle mutiny imminent

I was with my teammate Lisa, and she handed me some salt pills. It was too late for them to do me any good then, but I swallowed them anyway. I gritted my teeth and walked through the cramp. Okay, so this is the pain I had been fearing. Hurts like hell, but it's manageable. After a few minutes the seizing ceased. But for those last 5 miles, my body crept toward the edge of total spasm. Calves, quads, hamstrings, ankles even! I made it to the turnaround for the last time (4.8 miles to go!) and headed to the finish. I passed the cheer squad and asked Bobbi to text someone at the finish line that I'd be arriving with all of my cramps ready to take over.I adjusted my gait and slowed my pace just a little. I'd see some Ironteammers from San Francisco, or some of my own teammates, and would cheer them on at a whisper or give a thumbs up. Things were turning south for me and I needed to finish soon.

Still clocking 9:50-10min/miles when I made it to mile 25. I was taking an interval walk break when Brad saw me and yelled at me to run. So I did. Well, I hobbled. Down the street and toward the finish. I took a minute during that stretch to let it hit me that this journey was over. My breathing hitched a bit but I kept my head about me and motored on. My quad cramped with 0.4 miles left to go. I grabbed it with my left hand and kept running. Hell if that quad was gonna make me stay out there any longer! Two turns through a throng of spectators and suddenly I was alongside my teammates Clare, Riz, EWS and Raul. Had to delicately negotiate a speed bump with almost-cramped legs. Approached the volunteer directing folks either to the turnaround or the finish. I told him that I was heading to that finish and he high fived me along. Heard my name, ran as best I could, and crossed the line. My Campaign Director Rachel was standing there to medal me. And then Jason and Dave on either side welcoming me in. Kind of a perfect end to the season.

Down the finisher's chute

Stupid Happy Finish Grin

Run Time: 4:17:24

Finish Time: 11:38:39

By the numbers, I improved over IMCDA by 64 minutes: 7min on the swim, 5min in T1, 42min on bike, another 5min in T2 and 5min on the run. Oddly enough, I thought more 'went wrong' here than at CDA. Stomachache, sore neck and cramping. But no matter, it all worked out fine.

The race continued for hours. I called my parents, ate some chicken soup, and cheered in all of my teammates. In the time between finishers we swapped stories and hugs and I checked my phone to see a billion great messages from friends and family. One in particular, some emails from my Dad, made me laugh. He started this string of emails about 45mins before I crossed the finish line. He and my mom were tracking me on the Vineman site from back home in CT. These made me laugh.

Click to enlarge

Yeah, I finished second in my age group (25-29) and the 9th female overall. Cool? Sure. Do I want to train harder to 'up' those placements? Hmmm...I appreciate balance, so I think the answer is 'not right now.'

Once the clock wound down to 16hrs 30mins, 11:00pm, the Ironteam got together for one last photo and cheer. Transition bags and bikes retrieved. Car loaded. Headed to the hotel. And with that ... the season ended.

Tunnel of Love for Tiffany

Final 'Go Team!'

Final Photo Op

Final Thoughts: I believe you should get a starter's medal at the beginning of race day. Because making it to that start line, through the training and through the stress and through life in general, is a feat. It does not matter how fast you can propel yourself through 140.6 miles. To practice doing so over and over again for so many months in a row is deserving of its own award. Each one of my teammates - Wildflowers, CDAers and Vinemen, did this, regardless of what the clock said on race day.

I have sworn up and down that I'm not a triathlete. I still kind of don't think I am. I'm a bit of an imposter, a runner who happens to go to the pool a few times a week and a little kid who likes to climb mountains on a bike that costs more than most things I own. I'll concede, however, that I'm an adventurer and an endurance junkie. Okay, if my fun comes in three flavors like swim, bike and run ... well then, sure, call me the T word. I can get used to that.

Thank you everyone who cheered me on throughout the day. I read facebook and twitter and text messages on the ride home from the race, and they made me smile knowing that across the country there were people rooting for me to keep going.

Three years ago I was a very different kid. When I completed CDA, I knew I had done something life-changing. I had proven to myself that, with enough effort and desire, I could go after the things I wanted. No barriers. And in the years in between then and now, I realized that what I wanted was more balance in my life. More fun. More love. More kindness and charity. Cheesy, of course, but I stand by it. Perhaps my Vineman race time isn't 'proof' that I've accomplished those things. The clock doesn't measure your quality of life. But looking back on this season as a whole, with the race being a bookend to the whole journey, I am confident that I have made strides. After all, aren't these sports just one big metaphor for life? Year by year, you work hard to get a bit better. Well, I have. Cheers to progress and to the next adventure.


sitbones said...

I am in tears reading this Emily.....LOVE YOU ALWAYS


Javier said...

Love you tons, Em.

Emily Conlon said...

Thank you, Fern, for being a rock in my unpredictable life these past nine months.

And thank you, Javi, for being my family since 2007, no matter what we went through. And what we've been through only we can know the value. I look forward to meeting my little niece-in-training :) Cheers to her.

Carlitos said...

What a great recap Emily! I loved it! You smashed it up there. Hell YEAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

giraffy said...

This is an amazing report. Thank you, for all you do to support TNT!

Unknown said...

My humble teammate and incredible coach...what an amazing thing to read. You continue to inspire even after the season is over. I am so proud to have been on this team with you. Next time, I promise, I'll try to "keep up" ;)