Last year I signed up to participate in the inaugural Ironman Chattanooga, actually getting in was a feat in itself. Registration to the public filled in the first five minutes. I was one of the few who got in in time along with a few friends. For the past 8 months I trained along side three other friends who also were racing. Two of my friends got through registration in time and my swim partner has her pro card and registered with the other female pro triathletes. I began February first with my coaching group who prepared me well. Training was long and hard – make no doubt about it. I consider myself blessed to be surrounded by an amazing group of friends to train with and skilled coaches to lead the way. The experience was incredibly enhanced by sharing the ups, downs, frustrations and successes with truly outstanding friends. My coaches made it a very personalized program. No cookie cutter training plan at all – tweaks were made weekly if not daily as I trained and raced along the way. I put in the hours, meters, and miles to get me to the start in Chattanooga on September 28th.
IMChoo, as it is nicknamed, brought a few curve balls to the tradition of Ironman. Since its inception on the island of Oahu, an “Ironman” is made up of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run. The distances total 140.6 miles – hence the many bumper stickers you may see simply stating “140.6” in an oval. The race begins at 7:00 AM and the athletes have until midnight to finish – 17 hours in total. You cross the finish line to hear your name called out followed by “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) owns the Ironman brand. There are many “iron distance” races but only WTC claims the title of Ironman. A few weeks leading up to the race a few differences came to light. First – when we registered we agreed to a race of 16.5 hours, not the traditional 17 since it was later in the year and the sunrise is after 7 AM. I was in a hurry to get my registration complete in those first 5 minutes and must have missed that detail. Why the finish was not moved to 12:30, I do not know since it is just as dark then as it is at midnight, but that was the decision. The swim was scheduled to begin at 7:30 as a rolling start – so only the first in the water get the full 16.5 hours. Then another more critical issue arose. WTC was not able to get the authorization from all of the municipalities it needed to create the 112 mile bike course. Chattanooga is on the southern edge of Tennessee, the majority of the bike course went into the northern part of Georgia. In order to make the course work, it was 116 miles. Now it became a 144.6 mile course and 16.5 hours to finish. Quite a few athletes made issues on various social media sites. The week before the race the athletes were notified by WTC that the cutoff was extended to 12:15 to make up for the extra 4 miles. Now the athletes had from 16:45 to 16:05 to finish as WTC stated it should take approximately 40 minutes to get the athletes in the water.
With this being my first Ironman, I had anxiety going in. A longer course, shorter time, what did I get myself into? Then there was the weather forecast. The week and days leading up to race day the chance of rain would increase then back off. By race morning the chance of rain went from 60% down to practically no chance. One thing to help calm me – a little.
The morning of the race we learned the water temperature in the Tennessee River was 77 degrees. Wet suit legal cut off is 76.1. If I wanted to wear a wet suit I would have to go to the back of the line and be last in. My swim has become my strongest of the three and I had practiced the day before in a skin suit, which is legal, without a problem. The river current was strong and it was 2.4 miles down stream. I got in line probably in the first third of the line. There were 2,500 athletes so it was not easy to count where I was! One of my friends came to Tennessee to help out and she stayed with me in line as long as she could. She is an experienced triathlete and has done two Ironman races. Having her with me was such an encouragement. I was in the water at 7:39 – giving me 16:36 to make it to the finish line. I had a wonderful swim. I felt comfortable with my stroke, I could tell I was making good time, and I passed quite a few people. I exited the water in 59:55 – incredible, under an hour! My ability is good, but that current made my time great. In a still lake I would expect a time of 1:15 to 1:18. That is how fast the current was.
My first transition took me just over 15 minutes. I changed into actual bike shorts rather than wear a triathlon race short. The padding is thicker in bike shorts and comfort is key when cycling 116 miles. The bike is not my strongest but I had trained well on similar elevation gains as the race which gained approximately 4,300 feet in total. I use a power meter and my coach had gone over with me the power ranges to stay within. For the first 40 miles I was on target. The second 40 miles were a bit more challenging as the winds picked up just a bit and dark clouds began to move in. Then what was not forecast to happen, happened. Rain. Pouring rain and it became very cool for Chattanooga – about 63 degrees. So for the final 36 miles I rode in cold rain with wind. I came in to transition shivering with blue fingers, quivering lips and seriously doubting if I would be able to go on. As I went into transition I heard my two friends call out my name. I told them I didn’t think I could go on. I was soaking wet and cold. Then my friend who stayed in line with me that morning did an amazing thing. She literally gave me the shirt off her back and told me to get my ass out there and run. By the time I exited the second transition it was 5:13 PM. I had 7 hours and two minutes until 12:15 to finish.
The run began okay. The first 4 miles I was on plan with my pace. Then I began to get GI distress. Eating when I should was not easy. I was not taking in the calories I should have. I had been drinking an electrolyte mix during the bike and run, but as I realized later it was not as strong as it should have been. The water stops had Coke and I took advantage of it around mile 8 to help my stomach settle. Even then, I had difficulty swallowing food. By the halfway point I really was having a hard time stomaching food. I would chew and chew but couldn’t swallow. It was dark now on the course and the chicken broth came out at the stops. I could drink that. Not much in calories though. I kept an eye on the time. I was doing a run/walk combo. Around mile 19 two EMS guys stopped me to talk. They noticed my walk wasn’t the straitest. I wasn’t sweating much, but it was cool. They looked in my mouth and didn’t think I was dehydrated. I felt like my tongue was swollen and my speech reflected it. They asked me the typical questions – I knew my name, where I was, what I was doing. So they let me go. I was able to jog a bit and made it to the next stop around mile 20. Two more EMS guys approached me. I asked if the guys back a mile called them. One of the guys looked at me oddly and told me they were the same two people, they had driven behind me the entire mile. I was still standing and took in more chicken broth and went on.
As I went along the course from there I turned left to go up a steep hill, then turned right to be met by an official with WTC. She was stopping athletes and taking the timing chips off their ankles. She told me that at that point they were closing the course and not letting anyone beyond that point. It was 10:50 PM and at the 20.63 mile point. I had just over 5 miles to go. My watch race time was 15:14. I couldn’t believe it. I had covered 139.3 mile and it was over. The race was 16:45, I was 15:14 in, I had just over 5 miles to go. It was possible. But it didn’t happen.
It has been a week since the race. I have had time to process. In the 15 years I have been participating in running races and triathlons I had never DNF’d (did not finish) until this race. But I can still say I have never quit. They had to pull me from the course. Were there things I could have done to prevent it? Yes. I took way too long in transitions, there are things I could have done on the bike to improve my efficiency, and my nutrition was not optimal (in retrospect I think I had mild hyponatremia). I could blame the conditions. I could use the long course and short time as excuses. Nothing will change the outcome. I have built a strong base in my athletic ability. I have learned so much from the training experience as well as the race. My sister called me the day after the race and wasn’t surprised when I told her I want to do another Ironman next year. I still want to finish what I started. I know I can do it – I was out there over 15 hours and I basically covered the distance. I am going to pick myself up and go on. I found my bootstraps.