After a few warm up races (Ellerbe Marathon in February and The Intimidator 70.3 in March), it was time for the first big race of the season…Ironman Texas! I’ve now made it my new goal to do at least one Ironman a year, and by picking an early one this allows me the option of still being fresh for a late season 140.6 if I so choose. I arrived in Houston on Thursday to pick up my packet and bike which I had shipped by TriBike Transport. I know that I could get my own bike box and schlep it with me to the airport…but I just don’t trust airlines. When I traveled to Santa Rosa last year they lost my luggage that had all of my race gear. Sure, it showed up the same night, but still…not worth the risk.
Anyways, after landing and standing in line for an eternity at the rental car line, I made my way from Houston to The Woodlands. I had never heard of the place before signing up for this race, but I’m sure I glad I was introduced. The Woodlands is beautiful and a perfect venue for a race. I made it over to the expo, grabbed my race goodies and bike, then headed back to the hotel to relax for the night. Which, for anyone that has been tapering knows, is easier said than done. But I wanted to get some rest and do a quick bike and run in the morning just to make sure everything was in working order.
Friday morning I did just that then headed over to the transition to drop off my bike and bags and get a quick glimpse of the swim course. Seeing the narrow waterway made me a bit nervous for the mass open water swim the next day but I tried to put this out of my head as I headed back to the expo for a visit with my AltRed teammates and a quick photo op. My nerves were starting to set in a bit as I realized how close race time was getting. After getting back to the hotel I preoccupied myself with making sure I had all the essentials for the morning before another restless pre-race night of sleep.
I popped out of bed Saturday morning, threw on my race clothes and timing chip, grabbed my Tailwind water mixes, Medjool dates, and Maurten gels for my bike, and headed over to transition. As always, it was packed with racers and their families. I weaved through the pack to my bike and waited in line to have my tires pumped up. Then after filling up my water bottles and strapping my nutrition to my bike I headed out to the swim start. It was actually nice to have the quarter mile walk over to the start to take a breath and mentally prepare for the long day ahead. The pros went off first, about 20 minutes before the age groupers. I was pretty excited that Daniela Ryf, the reigning Kona champion, was going to be out on the course today-and likely beating me by several hours!
It was a rolling start and I was hoping to finish the swim under 1:20, which is right around my typical 2.4 mile swim time. After shimmying into my wetsuit I joined the sea of humanity between the 1:10-1:20 sign. As it is before any race of this distance, the anxiety in the air was palpable. The gun went off and our group slowly made our way down the chute. Finally I was sent off with a group of three others into the water. I’m not gonna lie, the water was pretty gross and I couldn’t see anything in front of me. Now I’ve raced in quite a few triathlons, but this swim was probably the most stressful. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to move to the outside or away from a group I was constantly being pushed, pulled, kicked, and elbowed. But I knew if I started panicking the race would be over for me before it even started. I mentally blocked out my surroundings and imagined myself back in the pool doing an interval workout. The rest of the swim I just concentrated on maintaining my form and racing my own race. Before I knew it I was coming around the turn and heading towards transition. Finally I made it to the steps and was graciously dragged up by a couple of volunteers (seriously whoever those guys were they were awesome-as were all the volunteers that day). I looked down at my Garmin watch and realized that for some reason it must have stopped and restarted because it only recorded about three-quarters of the swim. I had no idea what my time was, but gauging by the real time of day I figured it must have been around 1:15. With a little help from the wetsuit strippers I was soon making my way to my bike bag and into the changing tent. I slapped on my helmet, sunglasses, and bike shoes, grabbed my bike, and was off onto the bike course.
Looking at the map and elevation of the bike course, one would think this was an easy 112 miles. Really it probably had the least amount of elevation of any course I had done to date, right along with Ironman Florida. But just like Florida, wind was the story of the day. Once we hit the toll road around mile 20 or so, the headwind was there to greet us. Since my legs were still fresh at this point I made it through the next 20-25 miles before the turn around relatively fine. The tailwind on the way back was amazing and I figured if I could just make up my time with the wind at my back, the second loop into the headwind wouldn’t be so bad. Once we made the turn the U-turn around mile 60 I realized this was not going to be the case. The wind had picked up, and for the next 25 miles I felt like I was pedaling as hard as I could and not going anywhere. Add that to the fact that now the sun was blazing down with about 80 degree heat, and the doubts about making it through this race started to pour in. I made it to the last turn around and at least had the tailwind again. However my legs were so fatigued at this point it was hard to take advantage of the push. I was so happy to finally see the transition area coming back into view after that brutal ride that took about 5:45. Only 26.2 miles to go!!!
Running after a 112 mile bike ride is always an experience when you first start. The legs are still Jello, and you aren’t really quite certain how you’re supposed to run a marathon now. But, you do…because damn it you paid a lot of money to finish this race! I grabbed my gels and Base Salt, downed some Gatorade, and headed out for the final leg of the day. It was now at least 85 degrees with no cloud cover in sight. Luckily, the course was flat and the crowd support was amazing. The run was three loops around The Woodlands trails. It was gorgeous and if I didn’t feel like I was dying I definitely would have enjoyed it more. But really, the support from the volunteers, families, and friends was second to none. My highlight of the race came as I was finishing my first lap. There was an announcer by the aid tables announcing names of runners going by. I heard “Holly Smith from Columbia, SC” as I slowed down to grab some water. Then, about five seconds later heard “We have a new race leader…Daniela Ryf looking strong!” I turned around and there was the Kona champ, running like a six minute mile as she was finishing the race, looking like she was out for a jog. It was AWESOME! I scrambled to the side to stay out of her way as she went on to win the race. I, on the other hand, still had about 18 miles to go!
As always, the signs along the route were great. Some of my favorites included:
“Don’t you wish you still had your bike?” (I actually did not-I never wanted to see that bike again after what it just put me through)
“Run like Hillary just found out you’re going to testify” (who doesn’t like some political humor)
One with a picture of Lori Loughlin that said “I can get you into Kona” (If she could I would take it!)
And the one that actually did keep me going-”When you feel like stopping, think about why you started.” I actually kept repeating this one to myself because there were too many times I just wanted to throw in the towel. But pain is only temporary-online race results are forever!
After a little over four hours I finally crossed the finish line, sunburnt, sweaty, dehydrated, and happy as hell! I was an Ironman for the sixth time! I ended up finishing sixth in my age group, not quite good enough for Kona, but still my best age group finish yet. After a hectic swim course and a grueling day in the sun I couldn’t have been prouder of my finish. Now time to get ready for the next one!