Just one year ago I walked myself to the finish line in Lake Placid in the pouring rain after suffering through the worst Ironman performance of my career. I thought that was it, there would be no more good finishes. I had surely messed things up too badly, and permanently. I didn't think I had it in me to fight my way back. Yet for whatever reason, I still signed up for the 2009 race. I wasn't sure what might happen in the next year, and I definitely didn't think that things would change as much as they did....
The night before the race I turned out the lights at about 8:15. I was tired, and definitely needed the sleep. I actually did manage to sleep for a good portion of the night, but was definitely awake when my alarm sounded at 3:30. Time for breakfast. Blech. Once again after weeks and months of dreaming about eating all sorts of delicious things, I was so sick of eating by that point. Of course, copious amounts of applesauce definitely wasn't something I had in mind. I shoved it down without giving myself a chance to think too much about it, downed by banana and protein shake, sucked down a bottle of sport drink and went back to bed. I didn't fall asleep again, but it was nice to just lie there and relax for a bit.
My alarm went off again at 4:45 and this time I would be up for good. I used the bathroom as many times as I could before I left the room, knowing how the lines for the porta-potties always were, got dressed, gathered up my stuff and headed down to transition. The forecast had not changed, 50 or 60% chance of showers and possible severe thunderstorms. The forecast for last year was pretty much the same, and look how that turned out. I decided not to worry about it.
I got body marked and spent about 5 minutes in transition setting up my bike. Here's a note to the good people at WTC: when setting the heights of the bike racks, please consider those of us who are taller than your average triathlete, especially since we are forced in these races to rack our bikes by the saddle and not the handlebars. Most people's bikes hung off the ground from the rack, but my bike actually had to lean over to the side in order to rest on the rack. Even as I left my bike there, I really had no idea how I was going to get it out when I exited the water. I hoped maybe a volunteer would help me, but there was really nothing I could do at that point. So I put my dry clothes in my bag, checked the transition bags and headed towards the water.
Just as I was heading for the lake, it started to rain. I immediately decided to put my wetsuit on because those things get a whole lot more difficult to put on when you are wet, and of course it would keep me warmer under the circumstances. When I got to the lake I went over to the side to see if I could find my parents. They are spectator pros at this point, so they know the best place to sit and I found them in about the same spot that they've been every year. I also got informed that my friend Trent, who was volunteering as a kayaker, had already managed to tip over and go for a little swim of his own. I hoped that nobody expected him to save them during the swim!
I said goodbye to Mom and Dad and went over to get into the water. It was really pouring at that point, and I wondered if we'd have a repeat of 2008. I didn't care that much if it rained, but I did hope that it wouldn't be too bad on the fast descent, because that can be just a little scary on wet pavement. I waited on the shore for a few minutes and took in one last gel and some water before I heard the pros go off and decided that I'd better get in. I think I may have almost teared up at one point when I thought too much about how much I had gone through in the last year to get back to where I was, and how this was where everything would be tested again.
The swim start still makes me nervous, but only in Lake Placid. There is quite simply just not enough room for 2200 people to safely mass start there. Somehow last year I managed to find a good spot to start and didn't feel like I was going to die, so I tried to seed myself in a similar area. As I was treading water there at the start, I tried not to think too much about the long day ahead. I like to take things one step at a time, and right now all I needed to think about was getting off to a good start on the swim and hopefully not feeling like I was going to drown. I actually saw a couple of people I knew right next to me at the start line. The national anthem was sung, and now we just had to wait for the cannon. It was time to go.
My 10th Ironman had begun. I had been instructed to start out hard to try not to get trapped behind slow swimmers. I tried, I really did. But no matter what in the beginning, even just starting two or three rows back at the start (depending on who kept drifting in front of me) left me with not much choice but to flail my arms in some sort of forward progression and try and keep up with those around me. I had no idea what direction I was going in, I just tried to stick with the flow of people around me. I saw nothing but swim caps and neoprene-covered arms. My chest felt like it was tightening and I was having a hard time breathing. This is not a good way to start the day. I immediately started longing for the end of the swim when I'd be safely on dry land, able to breathe whenever I wanted to, but knowing how incredibly far away that time would be. I felt like I had no choice but to try and relax and slow down a bit. I just couldn't conceive of keeping up that pace any longer and not starting to hyperventilate. I have never had any serious issues with panicking in the water, but I opted to play it a bit more conservative and not set myself up for disaster so early in the day.
I continued swimming forward, and pretty quickly things got better. There was certainly the occasion when I'd be going along and swimmers to my left and right started closing in on me, and I had nowhere to go but to bump one or both of them, but I managed to avoid any real disasters or painful bumping. I had no idea how far to the right of the buoys I was, but I could tell at least that I was headed in the right direction and saw the red turn buoy approaching. I even managed not to get killed as we all clustered up and rounded it, and as we came around the second one to head back I immediately made my way to the inside, where I had tried to swim every other time I've done this race. It has always paid off with minimal contact with other racers, and this time was no exception. I cruised in towards the shore and the completion of my first lap. I saw the clock at almost exactly 32 minutes when I got out to start my second lap. I had been hoping to swim 1:04 or better, and of course seeing a 32 on the clock would make you think that was a definite possibility, but experience has taught me that the second lap always goes slower, so I wasn't so sure I'd be able to pull it off.
One more lap to swim. I stuck with the inside line once again, trying to swim at a good pace and finding some open water. Somewhere along the way I noticed the sun was coming out. I didn't have high hopes for it sticking around. One thing that was driving me crazy at that point was the definite feeling that I needed to go to the bathroom. And not the kind of thing that can be taken care of in your wetsuit, but rather the kind of thing that necessitated a trip to the porta-potty in T1. In all of the races I've ever done of any length I have never had to use a porta-potty except to pee when I hadn't yet realized that triathletes seem to take great pride in just peeing their pants at various points in the race. But this time, I knew I was going to have to stop. I had forgotten my own rule: no matter how many times you use the bathroom before the race, always go one more time than you think you need to, and sit there until something happens. Too late now.
The remainder of the swim was uneventful, just stayed on course and was ready to get out and on with the rest of the day. I was finally approaching the shore and exited among the masses in... 1:07? Seriously? Again?!?!? I have some issue with Ironman swims, apparently. I don't know what it is. In Lake Placid, all six of my swim splits are within 48 seconds of each other. This one was the second worst. The worst one happened the year that I won, so I chose to completely ignore the bad start, not worry about maybe 3 minutes over such a long day, and just move on.
I had some good wetsuit peelers and ran my way through transition, glad to see that it wasn't raining at that point. I grabbed my transition bags, made my pit-stop and felt instantly better, hoping that that would be the last time I would have that issue. The tent was crowded, and I seemed to take way to long to get all of my stuff organized and ready to go. Shoes and helmet on, gels in the pockets, sunglasses ready, off to the bike while securing my number belt. No volunteer had grabbed my bike, so I had to get it myself. Tilt it to the side... nope, can't get it out. Other people's bikes in the way. I actually had to lift the bar up, tilt the bike as far to the side as it would go without knocking over other people's bikes or spilling the contents of my aero bottle, and just barely slid the bike out from under the bar. Again, someone please either make the bars taller or let those of us with such high seat posts rack our bikes by the handlebars!
I exited transition and was not excited to see that every single person in front of me crossed the dismount line and stopped immediately and directly in the middle to get on their bikes, so there was no room for anyone behind them. At least I was able to get on without incident and start my bike ride. The very beginning of the course has a series of steep descents and sharp turns, and I was taking no chances so early. But as soon as we rounded that last, hay-bale-lined corner, I finally started pedaling away.
The Lake Placid bike course is known for its hills, most notably the last 12 miles back into town. But one of the parts that nobody ever seems to talk about is the first 10 miles, which is also a lot more uphill than it is down. It takes a lot to be patient so early in the race, and you learn very quickly that almost nobody is patient. The leg-straining pedal-mashing going on is incredible. It's to the point where you almost want to warn these people because you feel so bad for what they are sure to feel like by the second loop, but instead I just let them hammer on by while I spun my legs comfortably, knowing that sooner or later, they'd probably crack and I'd never see them again.
The course was quite crowded early on thanks to my typically-mediocre swim. As I approached the infamous descent into Keene I had hoped not to encounter too many people to have to maneuver around, and luckily it wasn't too bad. There were certainly some people who were off to the side taking it a bit easier, but I had no trouble staying in my aero bars and cruising the whole way down. I'm not sure exactly what my top speed was, but I can say without a doubt that that descent is a lot less treacherous when the roads are dry and it isn't pouring rain. I was relieved to make it to the bottom in one piece as I turned left to continue on.
This next section is my favorite part of the course, mostly because it is the flattest section of the course and you can really gain some speed here without killing yourself. I felt great, just cruising along at a nice, high cadence, passing lots of people and loving how good my legs felt. You never know how you're going to feel on race day, and so far I was not disappointed. That flat section is over all too quickly though, and it was time to turn and head towards Jay, which meant more hills. This is another section that nobody really warns you about, because once again it is uphill for quite a while. Once again I was getting passed by groups of guys who were attacking the hills like they were in the Tour de France. Standing, grinding up as fast as they could go. Did they not realize that we still had like 87 miles to go before the marathon? They would all grind their way past me on the way up the hills, and I'd slowly reel them in at an identical effort level as the road headed down or flattened out. There were a few people in particular that I just knew eventually I'd pass for good and never see again, and I was right.
When we hit the out-and-back the first time, I was still feeling really good. That section is freshly paved and I just felt like I was flying. I saw some of the pros coming back the other way and started looking for my teammates. First came Tim Snow, then Cait. Then came Chris Casey, who would surely have a great day. Then I saw Jesse, my coach come flying by down a hill in the opposite direction not long before I saw Pat Wheeler, on his way to an age group win and a Kona slot. I have never thought the out-and-back was so short until this year, but it just seemed to fly by and before I knew it, I was making the left to start the hills to head back to town. At this point I had already dropped a ton of the guys who were mashing up the hills earlier, but still there seemed to be a few new ones hanging on at the end of the first loop. Once again, I just kept on spinning, trying not to let my heart rate get too high, drinking, eating my gels and knowing they'd soon all be gone. The wind had picked up during that last stretch and of course was blowing right in our faces. I tried not to think about how much worse it might get the second time around. Also at some point in there I had a guy ride by me going up one of the hills and ask, "Molly, what's your last name?" I told him. "You won this one year, didn't you?" I really can't help but smile a little when I remember that, even if there was no chance of a repeat.
Little Cherry snuck up on me, so I knew I was getting close to being back in town. Big Cherry, Mama Bear, Baby Bear, and there was Papa Bear looming in the distance. I couldn't believe it was one lap down already. It's hard not to feel a rush of excitement as you blow through town and see the crowds. I heard my name yelled and most of the time had no idea who it was coming from, except teammate Brian McGowan, who I definitely heard. Everyone else was a blur. I was extra-careful coming down the hill that I crashed on in 2007 and rounded the corner to start lap number two as I heard Tom Ziebart announcing something about first or second age-group female. Of course at that point I had no idea, but I am pretty sure I passed at least four women as I made my way to start the second loop.
The sky had earlier looked like it still might rain, but all threat of that seemed to have disappeared. I was thrilled to see that the hordes of people I had seen in front of me on the first loop were now long gone and I got to ride mostly by myself the second time around. Actually, almost eerily by myself at certain points. You'd think there weren't 2000 people in the race. It's a lot more comforting to head into the descent with hardly anyone around you, so I was going along quite nicely for a while. Then I rounded a corner and saw a racer down by the side of the road, in very obvious pain, but at least conscious. This particular section was without a doubt the steepest, fastest part of the descent. I was probably going close to 50mph at that point. I cannot even imagine falling at that speed. There were two other cyclists with him, not sure if they were racers or not since I went by so fast. I honestly don't know if I could've even stopped at that speed if I had wanted to. That definitely scared me more than a little, and I was a bit more cautious the rest of the way down, and thankful to see an ambulance headed back up towards him. I really hope that he was ok.
On to the flat section again, this time no sign of the pedal-mashers from the first loop. I was almost completely alone. It was sunny and warm by that point, and although there was wind it was actually at my back for a bit. I knew that wouldn't last long. Somewhere between miles 75 and 80 I passed a few of the pro women, including Hillary Biscay who was having mechanical issues, unfortunately. At least she probably has like 10 or 11 more Ironmans this year to make up for it. On to the out-and-back I was still feeling good and amazed at how fast the miles seemed to be going by. Still by myself, cruising along, having a chance to wave to my teammates coming back in the other direction again. It also appeared that there were no other women left in front of me who weren't pros, and upon heading back in the other direction, it didn't look like anyone was close, either.
The last stretch back into town was pretty lonely and windy. Except for racer #443, Joe, who would pass me going up and I'd pass him back going down, usually exchanging words of encouragement. Thanks, Joe. Wish I could've run with you! The wind was a pain, but I just tried to stay in my aero bars no matter how slow I was going, knowing that sitting up would only make the wind worse. The last hills came up slower than the first time, but at least I knew I was almost done, and I knew things were going well. I passed Kim Loeffler just before T2, took off my shoes and got off my bike. It's a bit of a rough run on the cement in bare feet, and of course I was wondering if my legs were going to hold up for the run. At least this time I didn't have to use the bathroom. I grabbed my bags and headed into the transition tent. This is when I especially love being a fast biker. I had every volunteer to myself, all asking if there was anything they could do for me. I just told them not to let me forget anything that I had in my bag, and they held out my things for me as I put on my shoes, stuffed my pockets with gels, Clif Bloks and salt tabs, grabbed my banana and visor and headed out on the run course.
As I stuffed a banana down my throat and started the marathon, pretty sure I was the first female age grouper on the course. As I ran down the hill I saw a few people I knew cheering, and heard my name but didn't always see where it was coming from. I was feeling pretty good and just concentrating on keeping good run form and not going out too hard. Apparently I didn't concentrate hard enough, because the first mile was gone in 7:25. So was the second. I couldn't seem to help myself. My heart rate wasn't high and I just felt great. I really didn't know what to expect that day. The year before I was running so slow already at that point that I didn't even bother looking at my splits because I knew how much it was just going to upset me. This time though, at least to start, it felt effortless. I saw a little girl cheering with a megaphone and as I ran by I heard her yell, "Beat the boys!" That made me smile.
As I approached the turn-around, I started seeing my teammates again. Tim, Chris, Cait, then coach Jesse who asked me how I was feeling. I told him I felt great, and I really did. I didn't even feel like I was breathing hard at that point. I ran the first 7 miles at a sub-8 pace and wondered how long I was going to be able to keep that up. I figured I wouldn't be able to hold it the whole time, but it was nice that it had at least come so easily at the start. I know for most of my teammates that is way too slow, but for someone coming off a 4:43 marathon just a year ago, it was a dramatic improvement. Plus, I knew I had padded a nice lead coming off the bike and it wasn't going to take an incredibly fast marathon to hold off the field. Now if only I could learn to further pad that lead starting with the swim!
I came back into town and got to climb the really fun hills between miles 10-12. I couldn't believe I was almost halfway done with the marathon and there was no sign of imminent disaster as of yet. I hit halfway in about 1:45, which was great. I think last year it was over two hours. The year I won it was 1:39, but I slowed down a lot in the second loop and I can assure you that it is a lot easier to run faster with the adrenaline rush that goes along with being the race leader. I also knew that even if it took me two hours to do the second lap I'd have a very respectable (for me) 3:45 marathon, well within the goals we had set before the race. I headed out of town just wanting to hold on and not slow down too much.
This is always the toughest part of the race. The thrill of being halfway done is replaced with the realization that you still have over 13 miles to go, and that is a long way to run. I passed the sign for mile 14 and was a bit overwhelmed at the thought of 12 more miles of running. I again just tried to focus on keeping good form and not slowing down too much. I continued eating my Clif Bloks and got down the last of the gels I'd be taking on the day. I was so sick of taking in sugar that my teeth were starting to hurt. I was contemplating swallowing the remainder of the Clif Bloks whole to avoid the whole chewing thing, but instead I would chomp down twice and gulp them down. At that point in the afternoon it actually seemed kind of hot out. The sun was finally out, the humidity was noticeable and there were an awful lot of people out there walking. I'm happy to say that I didn't walk a single step of the marathon, something I don't think I've pulled off since Kona in 2007. My mile splits were definitely deteriorating, but I just continued to think about moving forward. At one point I stuffed down half a banana to try and get rid of the tingly feeling that had started into my arms and it at least helped a little.
I saw all of my teammates out there, everyone appearing to have a great day. Cait was closing in on Sam McGlone in the final miles, Tim was yelling at me to keep my eyes up, Chrissie was all smiles in her first Ironman, Pam was looking strong, Andy had blown by me, Mark was in the zone after having broken a rib in the swim (which I didn't learn until later) Keith was hanging on after suffering some respiratory issues, but you'd never have guessed it by looking at him, Paul was closing in on me, Nicole was running strong in her first Ironman, it was just an incredible thing to be a part of.
I passed the sign for mile 22, knowing that after I crested the hill after the bridge, I was going to have some nice flats for a bit to get my legs back. I actually think I started running faster, knowing that I could hold on until the end. As town got closer, I felt my left foot start hurting. It felt like almost the exact same pain I had experienced the year before, only this time it didn't start quite as early. With less than three miles to go, I forged ahead, ignoring it and knowing that it would all be over soon. There would be no limping death-march to the finish this year while everyone and their grandmother passed me on the run course. I was going to make it.
I think I "ran" up the last hill towards mile 24 at about a 15-minute pace, but I wasn't going to walk. I choked down my last Clif Blok and was thankful to be free of taking in any more calories and making my teeth hurt anymore. I turned to run along Mirror Lake, thankful that the road levels out at that point. I didn't know what my overall time was going to be because I must've accidentally stopped my watch during one of the swim laps, but I didn't really care at that point as long as I still remained in the lead of my age group. Actually, at that point I wasn't positive because there was one girl who ran by me but I had no idea if she was on her first or second loop. Angie Defillipi was running strong behind me, and I know she runs much faster than I do, but as I made the final turn after mile 25, it didn't look like she had enough room to catch me. I couldn't believe I was actually going to win my age group.
I didn't get to savor that thought for too long because with probably 4 tenths of a mile to go I somehow managed to trip over a cone - hard. I didn't even have a chance to brace myself as I went down on my right knee first, then the shoulder, and then the right side of my head smacked against the pavement. Seriously, who gets road rash on the run? Oh, I do. Can't let a race go by without a little bit of drama, apparently. There weren't a ton of people around at the time, but another racer was nice enough to help me up and hand me my sunglasses while I tried not to look to ridiculous in front of the onlookers. Yep, that one hurt, but it wasn't going to hurt me enough to not be able to run to the finish line. I took one last glance behind me to make sure that Angie wasn't too close for comfort and I saw ahead of me the sign for the finish line. The volunteer there asked, "Are you finishing?" I just smiled and nodded as I rounded the corner to head into the speed skating oval.
I had the oval to myself at that point and saw the 10:35 on the clock up ahead of me. Certainly not very close to the 10:11 the year that I won, but because of how things went last year, I consider it to be nothing but a complete success. I crossed the line in just over 10:36, after a 3:51 marathon, winning my age group and coming in third female amateur after two other women passed me on the run.
I saw coach Jesse and Cait right at the finish and everyone was all smiles. I sincerely doubted my ability to come back to getting race times like that, and I'm amazed at how things turned around in just a year. And the best part is, I already know that I can do better. It is so nice to actually have fun racing again.
I saw my parents who confirmed that I had won my age group and would now be heading back to Kona after a year off. It was so nice to be able to finish and feel good about myself instead of just wanting to go back to my hotel and hide for the rest of the night. I had to keep moving though and get some sort of solid food in because although I wasn't in the slightest bit hungry, I knew if I didn't eat something, I'd probably be near passing out in a just a few minutes. I got a massage not so much because I wanted it for my muscles, but because I really liked the idea of getting to lie down for a few minutes, and it did not disappoint. Once I crossed the finish line my foot was killing me and I was forced to limp around, but I tried not to focus on that.
I grabbed my stuff and headed back to my hotel with my parents who were then released from their tri-sherpa duties and free to go out and get a nice dinner. After a much-needed shower and change of clothes, I met several of my teammates for some celebratory nachos and anything else that comes with french fries. By the time dinner was over, it was about 11:15 and I limped back upstairs, got some ice for my foot, crawled into bed and watched the live video feed of the finish line until midnight. The final finisher sprinted across in 16:59.85. Talk about cutting it close!
I tried to sleep, but after a day fueled on sugar and an immense amount of caffeine - for someone who almost never has caffeine at all - I don't think I fell asleep for even 5 minutes. But who cares, I had a great race and there would be plenty of time to sleep later. I gave up completely at about 5:30 and put on my bike clothes and headed out for a little bike ride. Oh, didn't you hear? I had to ride my bike the day after the race. Only for 30 minutes, and it wasn't actually as bad as you might think, but I still seriously was almost embarrassed to be seen with my aero helmet and race number still attached riding around the lake the morning after the race, with people passing me surely thinking I was completely insane. It's all Jesse's fault. I averaged 14mph and didn't break a sweat.
Later on I met up with the teammates for breakfast and then we headed down to claim our Kona slots. I forget exactly how many of us raced, but we had one second place pro female, one tenth place pro male, three age group wins, one second and one fourth. I had an insane thought as I walked down to the gym to get my slot of what would happen is someone came along and abducted me just long enough for my slot to be lost to the rolldown, but luckily that did not happen before I got a chance to fork over my $550 in the form of the last check in my checkbook. Also close to that last money in my checking account, but totally worth it.
That afternoon I got to collect my award for first place in my new age group. It's been a while, and it feels pretty good. It never would've been possible without the help of friends and family who have supported me throughout my training this year and even last year when things weren't going so well. But especially my coach, Jesse. It was just a year ago I sent him an e-mail just congratulating him on Cait's win in Lake Placid (before I really knew Cait) and he responded back that he wanted to coach me. So he took on a fat, out-of-shape, injured, demoralized has-been and brought me back. I still don't know how it all worked out so well, but I'm glad it did. And of course the rest of the QT2 team, the ones who raced and the ones who cheered. I'm so glad that I was given the chance to be a part of it all. Last but not least, Mom and Dad, backing me up the whole way, who stuck it out in the rain last year for my worst finish ever and still came back again. I'm glad I didn't have to make you wait as long this time around.
I suppose it might be safe to say at this point that the comeback is officially complete. There are lots of improvements left to be made, but it can only get better from here. For now though, it's time to get lots and lots of sleep and rest up. I've got less than 11 weeks to get ready for my next Ironman!