My first xtri. A point to point race. 2.7 miles through 48-52 degree cream water. 113.5 miles on a mountain pass highway with 3800 feet of climbing. Finished with 27.2 mile trail run with a hand tram over a river and 6300 feet of climbing including twice up and down a mountain. I was third overall out of the water and finished as the 10th female and 80th overall.
I set up transition at 3:00 and my parents made do with what to do with the car. I tried to troubleshoot the tracking app without success and gave it up until after the swim. I put my wetsuit half on as I waited for a bus. Jarrod appeared, rushed and happy he had made it before the swim start from, picking up Kelly, my other run support, from the airport in Anchorage just two hours before. We talked about swim and bike expectations and him connecting with my parents at T2. He left to sleep and I got in the bus to be ferried to Miller’s Landing for the swim start. There, we sat in a fishing shop to keep warm. Cameramen came around asking us to introduce ourselves. There were all sorts of athletes – tall and lean, a few men with more than enough extra body fat to keep warm... There were athletes in thermal gear, a few in non-threatening wetsuits… There was even a guy in a scuba wetsuit. I started to put the rest of my gear on when I realized I forgot my tats and lube. I found my dad and rushed to the car, find the tats and a small body glide. I found a jug labeled water, and poured it on my tats only to realize after that it was Gatorade. My tats came out a sticky mess, but at least they were on. I dumped my clothes in the car and made my way down to the water where everyone was gathering.
They announced the swim was about to start and requested us make our way down to the water. The national anthem was played and then it was five minutes until swim start. I meandered down, taking my time because I didn’t want to spend too much extra time in the chilly water. I felt the cold water on my feet and slowly walked in, letting the water seep into my wetsuit. Everyone was falling back a ways from the kayaks, so I made my way to the front, positioning right in the middle of the two lead kayaks. I noticed only two or three other athletes at the front line with me. The last sixty seconds before race start took forever, but soon, the flare was shot into the sky and the race was underway. I started swimming with a quick tempo, wanting to get out in front of the crowd. I noticed one swimmer ahead on my right and two on my left. The water was still so shallow, my fingers were brushing against the rocks on the floor of the bay. I adjusted my elbows to get a good pull and kept my sights on the fire truck lights across the bay in Seward. The lead swimmer on my left cut a hard left and made for deeper water. I kept my line, not wanting to zig zag. The two swimmers to the right disappeared ahead with a kayak and I could see swimmers behind me and one keeping pace with me to my left. About half a mile in, I swam into a cold current; it was way too early for this to be the waterfall! The cold shock was short lived as I either adapted to it or it drifted away. I felt my lips and face numb to the cold and I had some difficulty moving my mouth to breathe appropriately. The swimmer to my left cut over and started drafting behind me. I felt my pace slowing and just hoped that I had enough left in reserve that if he made a move I would be able to counter it and beat him even with providing the draft. I couldn’t tell how many more we’re back directly behind me, but I could no longer see any kayaks ahead of me. There was one boat ahead to my right which I thought could have been with the two lead swimmers. My mind drifted from the cold to transition and to the bike. I struggled to keep my concentration on what I was doing. The shore seemed so far away. The race director stated to keep true to the fire truck and when you got equidistant to the Seward shore to turn and follow the shore to the finish. I was having a hard time judging the distance and wasn’t sure where that turn should be. I started to make out docks and buildings and noticed the boat to my right steer further out into the bay. I figured I should follow the boats and adjusted my course to the spotlight at the far tip of Seward where I guessed the swim exit was located. My focus then was on this new shoreline and trying to decipher what I was looking at. There was a light and a tall shadow of something. I couldn’t tell if it was possibly the Iditarod statue at the park or if it was a crane from a boat further in the distance. I slowly got closer, but suddenly, I started taking on water in my goggles. I cursed the huge cheap, last minute purchase and missed my old reliable race goggles. My eyes burned in the salt water, but I kept swimming, rotating which eye to use with sighting. Soon, I couldn’t see anything, and decided it was worth stopping and seeing where I was going that swim blindly to the wrong location. I removed my goggles and can’t explain my surprise when I could see no one – there wasn’t a swimmer for hundreds of hards behind me or a boat for that matter. And I couldn’t see the leaders. I saw maybe one orange cap further toward the eastern shore. I was filled with an eerie dread when imagining all the wildlife in the bay with me and no protection around. I attempted to fix my goggles and start swimming, but I now had to stop every few hundred yards to fix them due to continuous leaks. I finally spotted an orange bouy and two volunteers in bright green shirts standing at the bottom of the exit ramp. I made my way to them and stood up when I reached the orange bouy. I couldn’t feel my feet and I tripped on a metal bar as I tried to stand. They helped me climb onto the ramp and my parents appeared. I stopped my watch and started taking off all my head gear as we walked up the ramp and toward transition. My mom tried to warm me, but I said I was actually pretty comfortable besides my feet. She said my face was black and I thought she meant from the cold, but we wiped off a layer of silt and sand that had gathered on my skin and what had caused my goggles to no longer get a seal. I was the third swimmer out of the water – one male and one female ahead of me. We made it into transition and my parents helped me change from my wetsuit into my cycling gear. I tried to start my phone tracking and I had been unregistered. I had to register twice in order to successfully start tracking, wasting valuable minutes. The lead official checked my lights and told me to take a breath, that I wanted to earn the orange shirt. I told him that that was why I was here and left transition and walked to the bike mount line and started my Garmin.
I biked through town and followed the course to the main drag. I had practiced the first forty miles before and knew what I was up against. I felt comfortable and ready and settled into an easy pace and with a higher cadence. I was expecting my core body temperature to drop with the cold blood from my arms and legs being circulated back into my core and wanted to keep my legs moving. I spent a good chunk of time alone with not many cars on the road. I enjoyed the scenery and the sunrise on the mountains ahead of me. The cloud ceiling was low ahead and I realized I was going to be cycling through them. A few male competitors slowly started passing me and I climbed up the first ascent. My parents finally passed me on the road and my run support crew heading to T2. I felt good until the first climb when I entered the fog and started to get cold and wet. The hand warmers on my handlebars weren’t warm and my fingers started the go numb from the cold. My right hamstring started to tighten around mile twenty and I pushed to get to mile 31 for my first aid stop to stretch it. At mile 21, I was struggling to see over the condensation on my visor and moved it up on my helmet. I could see much better, but it fell off and bounced to the side of the road. The shoulder was too narrow to stop or turn back, so I cursed and pushed on. I made it to keep 31 and found my parents. I handed them my bike to fill and sat on the ground to stretch for a moment before continuing on. The next climb was longer and harder and more cyclists started passing me. It didn’t take too long for me to get to the top at mile 51 to refill. My intake had slowed as the salt water I swallowed started rearing it’s head and I had been belching a fair amount. I was topped off and ready to descend the mountain. However, the descent was short and not followed by a flat. My positive mindset slipped as I climbed. The turnoffs were more and more empty of support cars and spectators. More cars were passing and not having the race stickers on them. My hamstring and gluteus were tight and uncomfortable and I tried to rely more on my left leg and stretch what little I could. I became too frustrated with the continuous dropping of my power meter, so I switched screens to distance and mph. Finally, I reached the top of the pass and enjoyed the descent of the Turnigan pass, knowing the flat freeway was ahead and hoping the wind would be on my side. The comfort of the flats was short-lived when the wind did pick up, but was blowing against me. I put my head down and started grinding away, counting down to mile 88 when I would get my last aid stop. Three or four men passed me and then there was no one in sight behind me. I felt like I was really dragging and thought that I must be in last. I did some math based on my speed and the mileage ahead and realized this was going to be the longest I had ever been on my bike. I was upset. This wasn’t going to plan. I should have been better prepared for this. This hike was supposed to be going better. I made it to the stop and got my clear helmet visor to help with the wind, my bear spray, and the last of my nutrition. I was tempted to ask if I was in last, but there was another support car with a girl waiting with a can of bear spray, and I felt that would be rude if I was in second to last. Two miles later, I passed the Alyeska highway, where I would turn and find T2 and the finish line. I grinded on, counting down to mile post 100.5 where I would finally exit this never ending road. I ascended the next two climbs, still with no one in sight ahead or behind me. I finally saw familiar landmarks signaling that the turn was close. I passed mile post 100 and saw an Alaskaman flag ahead. I made the turn onto a gravel road and road for a good fifty feet before I didn’t see a turn onto the hike path. This just be wrong. I dismounted and turned my bike around. The tears I had welling from the joy of the last 13 miles in sight turned to frustration. I made my way to the highway again and found the turn around the bend. An EMT and a volunteer cheerfully greeted me and I bit my tongue against yelling about the flag at the driveway and showed them my bear spray and they let me on the path. I was finally off that road and out of the wind. I made the first little climb and almost ran over a guy who was entering from the trees. I asked if he was ok and he replied that he was taking a leak. I was jealous. I felt that I could have peed, but was having difficulty while on the bike. I was excited to try in transition before changing. I increased my power and cadence and focused on making it to transition in seven hours. My app was chiming every five with an estimated time of bike finish and I used it as a game. I could beat that. Every five miles it chimed and I said “not today.” I down shifted to increase my cadence and passed a guy ahead of me. The bike path had some recreational visitors, but all were curious and cheered me on while clearing the path. I powered ahead, remembering the path. I counted the number of cyclists on the highway though breaks in the trees and counted 17. Well, at least I wasn’t in dead last. I must be somewhere in the 135 range. I was going to have to pick it up and really get after the run. I wished a guy good morning and realized I had no idea what time it was. I passed the train station and powered toward Alyeska. I emerged from the bike path and was flagged down by a man in a volunteer shirt. He requested I stop to cross the road; I couldn’t continue on the path because of runners. I slowed and looked both ways, asking if I could punch the gap; he said no, that he could not stop cars, but they might stop for me. I started to wiggle and struggled to keep my slow bike upright. I lost the battle and started tipping to the left. All I could think was “don’t land on the bear spray” which was tucked in the back of my jersey. I landed square on my hip. The guy I had passed road by, asking if I was ok and peddling on, crossing the street. The volunteer asked and I struggled to get back up and on my bike. I finally made it across the street, but my momentum was lost and I struggled up the hill toward transition. I could feel the gravel in my hands and I noticed blood on the right thumb. I finally made it to the parking lot and found my mom at the dismount line. I handed her my bike, but forgot my Garmin. I told her to grab my watch before putting it in the car and jogged toward where my dad was ushering me to my things spread on the ground. My support runners were ready and excited; music was pumping and transition was very lively with people. I couldn’t see a Porta-john in sight, so I decided to wait and stop at the mile-7 aid station where I knew there was an easily accessible, quick bathroom. I changed into my run gear and Jarrod was ready to roll. I stopped my Garmin and reset it for run mode. Time for the last tackle.
We walked out of transition and I told Jarrod that I was ready to run for a bit. My legs felt better than they ever had t this point of an ironman and we started jogging down the slight decline of the bike path. It was great having company after the long, lonely morning, and Jarrod was so full of energy. He said he wanted to take on the whole marathon with me, instead of the original plan of trading with Kelly at the mountain checkpoint. We decided to see how things were at that point. The first mile clocked at 10 min. Jarrod asked if we needed to slow to my planned 19:15, but I explained that I wanted to run while the course was flat and easy in town. We ran and walked the bike path and turned around and headed back to Crow Creek Rd at mile 4.5. The road was a long, steady incline for 2.5 miles which we power walked up. My Garmin kept auto-pausing and became way off from the app chiming from my phone at mile makers and Jarrod’s Garmin. Just before mile 7, Jarrod took my waters and ran ahead to fill them. I attempted to stop at the bathroom, but the volunteers said someone was in there cleaning it. I had been looking forward to peeing and clearing some weight from my belly and mind. I grabbed a coke while I waited, but became frustrated and told Jarrod that I wanted to go. We started on the trail. The next three miles would be on a hiking path through a heavily wooded area, with a hand tram one mile ahead. Jarrod was pumped to pull us across. He was antsy to run and rattled on about how I was in the top 50 and his plans of taking out competition to keep me there. We ran-walked thought the trail and to the hand tram. We barely had to wait and a line of hikers cheered and let us pass. Jarrod tried to tell the volunteers he wanted to pull, but couldn’t communicate that to the other side and disappointed, he stood back and allowed them to pull us across before we took off running again. The trail winded down and then turned into wood slatted narrow path. We finally reached the Nordic loop, which ended up being a confusing twisting, wide, gravel path with lots of undulations. I easily became disoriented of where we were. We ran the downs and walked the ups. We talked of crank lengths and dogs and Fairbanks and Jarrod went on with how excited he was to get me more comfortable on my bike before Patagonman and how I was getting him in shape for running. He urged me to call him so he could join my training runs and confessed the longest he had ran before today was three miles, despite accepting to be my support for this nearly two months ago. We kept a very steady pace. He kept just ahead of me and subconsciously pulled me faster with his pace. We made the u-turn at the end of the Nordic loop and went back. The urge to pee was creeping up. I was glad and felt great. The path was crowded and I kept looking for a place to hide to relieve myself. But I couldn’t get Jarrod to shut up long enough to say so. So, we pressed on. We exited the Nordic loop and suddenly emerged from the woods. I cursed as I knew where we were; the resort was just ahead, and transition just beyond that. I repeated again how painful the mountain was going to be. Jarrod admitted that Kelly should go and she would be tougher on me. We ran most of the last mile back to transition. I handed him my pack so he could get my things from it to transition into my other pack. (I had realized that it would be very difficult to drink from the bottles in my double barrel orange mud with hiking poles and had been glad I brought my osprey hydration pack as back up.) I ran to the Porta-potties and finally peed a healthy bladder full of clear urine. Alas! I came out and exclaimed “I peed!” My support crew cheered and others within ear shot stared. I changed my pack and made sure I got my required items and Kelly was ready to go. We rounded up to the mountain checkpoint. One of my smash teammates was there checking bags and Kelly ran back to get her wristband from Jarrod. And then, only the mountain was left to conquer. “Embrace the suck.”
Immediately, the path was steep. Kelly was yammering away, peppering me with questions as I struggled to catch my breath. I changed my watch to show my heart rate and took frequent stops to attempt to keep my respirations and heart rate down. The Advil I had popped on the Nordic loop was kicking in, but I was hurting. This climb was tough. Kelly ordered me to not stop until I had taken at least thirty steps. I counted and stopped for two or three breaths and repeated until the first Crest. The flatter walk was a relief and I used it to make up time before the next climb. I focused on using my poles to take the stress off my aching legs and we climbed to the base of the tram, upwards across a snowbird, and a final up toward the Alaskaman flag visible at the top. It was a steep climb and as I crested the top, I realized it was a false summit. Those fricken flags and their inaccurate designations were gonna be the death of me. Kelly snapped a picture of me resting next to it, exhausted with a beautiful view of half the bike course behind me below. We continued on, over a second snowfield where a pair of foreign athletes were eating it and putting it in their kits. Kelly asked if I wanted some and I declined, though I really just wanted to lay down in it, but I knew I would never get up. I pressed on toward another steep climb. We got jammed behind a line of climbers. Kelly lent a pole to a girl without any, struggling to get up on her hands and feet. I counted my steps and climbed. Finally, we reached the top. I didn’t even take in the view or the victory as I started enjoying the quick descent. We hit a series of switchbacks and I asked Kelly to take my pack and fill me with water at the aid station below; I was nearly out. I wanted to get some coke to refresh my palette from nothing but Infinit for the past 17 hours and nothing but orange Infinit for the past five or so. Kelly rushed down the hill and I was greeted at the aid station by a volunteer with a tray of cups of coke! I tossed one back and it tasted like heaven. I think I forced myself to stop after four more. I knew I would regret it, but it tasted amazing and I felt it was earned by the bitch of a climb. I hurried down and told Kelly that I hoped the two liters and my remaining Infinit would last for the rest of the course. She didn’t realize that was the last aid station and hadn’t refilled hers. She ran back up to refill as I continued down. It felt great to descend. I passed a bunch of runners and used my poles to control my pace downtrend steep gravel. Kelly caught up half a mile later and gave me my pack as it started jingling with yellow brick road and other alerts. I felt great. The hardest part was over. I had only one more climb, but it was 500 feet shorter than that one. I told Kelly that I couldn’t believe I was going to voluntarily put myself through that again as I explained to her the orange shirt goal and the arguments I had had with the race director and my coach regarding it. She replied that it didn’t seem like it was an option then, that I had to do it, and I agreed. So the option was off the table. I was going to finish this thing and finish the whole course.
We had set a lofty goal to make it to the base by 8:00. The cut off to start the next hill was originally 8:45, but I knew I wanted all the time I could get for the climb. We crossed the turn off for the lower route around 8:06. Jarrod was waiting with my pup and had us run back to the arch for a picture. It was official: we were on the orange route. Like the other course, I thought I had done a majority of the route when I visited a few weeks prior, unable to do it all because of snow. I knew what to expect for the first bit. We ran as much as we could of the slow ascent and I tried to power up the first steep climb. The trail leveled off and I slowed as I got stuck behind some other athletes, but they quickly moved aside at my request. I continued to quicken my pace on the gentle ascent, thinking how nice this climb was compared to the one I had just completed. But that was short lived. We crossed another snow field and the trail grew steeper. I slowed. Kelly and I picked out rocks and turns to get to before breaks. We passed some athletes and were passed by others. I dug deep and put one foot in front of the other as we climbed the narrow path through the brush. At least this path was dirt instead of the slick gravel on the main face. We made it to a false peak and looked up ahead. I continued on and Kelly read a sign that said “stairway to heaven.” I kept ahead and soon saw steps. I cursed. The steps were made with what appeared to be 8x8 logs shoved into the dirt. The steps were at least 12-18” steep and short. I used my poles and took one step at a time, maximizing my breaths and little breaks. Just when the steps would stop and I would think we were through, we’d come upon more of them. They went forever. I lost count of how many there were. We made it to another false summit and to the dirty dozen switchbacks. Kelly motioned that there were people running at the top and it must be the summit. I replied that I wasn’t going to fall for another false summit like the one on the other face with the flag and I would believe it when I was there. I counted the dirty dozen: one, one-sixth, one-fourth, one-third… They flattened as we made our way up and finally reached a building at the top. I ran up the last gentle incline and soon we were to a very steep descent. I couldn’t even be happy to no longer going up. The descent was nearly a straight drop. I inched my way down it, my knees and ankles and muscles screaming. At the base, we continued down, but at a slightly gentler slope. Kelly asked if I could run and I replied that one step in front of the other was barely all I could do at this point. I embraced the silence at the peak. We were alone. It was the first time in seven hours I wasn’t hearing bear bells. We had one more gentle climb and we were back on the main descent path. Two more miles of down and the finish line! I moved as fast as I could, my knees screaming with every step. My watch warned low battery. My reservoir felt light on my back. We passed a few men who were walking. “We’re almost there!” I cried. My phone alerted to mile 26. Shortly after, Kelly said we passed the marathon mark. One more mile. I tried to sip from my water. Empty. I ran on. I looked down at my watch to find it was dead. I could hear the finish line. I observed how this was my first full distance finishing in sunlight. Kelly asked how I wanted to finish and I told her to join. As we rounded down the mountain, I threw my pack, poles, and sweatshirt into the grass and started running. I rounded the corner and Jarrod joined us under the arch. I did it! I hugged my support and they took our picture. No medal or award was waiting at the finish line. No announcement of being an Ironman. It felt odd to come to a stop and I felt at a loss of what to do. The joy was there, but emptiness of nothing to move to next creeped in. Only two weeks before the course had scared me and I didn’t think I could do it. Now it was conquered and I reached the long awaited goal of an orange shirt and a feat others didn’t think was possible. Anything is possible.