my first bike-run ironman
Oh what a day it was at Ironman Chattanooga. I was already a bit nervous about how I was going to make it through this only being two weeks out from the grueling Barkley Fall Classic. Here’s a quick race recap-from the revamped start due to the swim cancellation, to some first mile bike issues, all the way to my brain’s non-stop commentary throughout the run trying to will myself to the finish line. Let me tell you, just because there was no swim does not mean this was a walk in the park.
The day started with my alarm going off at 7 am. This was the latest I had ever been able to sleep in for a race. Normally, I would be getting in the water right now, but unfortunately the swim was cancelled due to flooding, high water levels, and elevated E.coli readings (gross). Without this leg, the race wouldn’t start until 8 AM with the pros, then the age group athletes beginning at 8:25. So I got my gear together, parked my car near the finish line, and walked over to the bike start area. As there were close to 2000 athletes, you can imagine they just can’t start everyone off on their bikes at once, so the plan was to send off athletes two at a time every five seconds. We would start based on our bib number. I was 755 so wouldn’t start until closer to 9 AM.
I stopped by the body marking area and had a stranger draw my number and age on me with a black marker then found my bike and filled up my water bottles. I had my trusty new favorite endurance drink Tailwind in two bottles and would get Gatorade from aid stations when I ran out. I also had my zip lock bag of Medjool dates which I now love so much more than those goopy gels for quick sugar and potassium. I topped off the air in my tires, checked my chain and wheels, then stood with the others awaiting our time to head off.
We slowly made our way by twos down the chute to the start. I was actually pretty nervous. For some reason, no matter how many races I do I still have issues with clipping in and mounting my bike around people. Its so stupid but I feel like I need my own space and I was afraid I would tumble into the person next to me. Before I knew it though I was up. I heard a beep and was off! I had my right foot clipped in and pushed off effortlessly, swinging my left foot around and into the other pedal. Ha! Take that bike start! I owned you. Or so I thought.
early bike issues
I made my way up a short incline and then into a gradual downhill. We crossed some railroad tracks that bumped around my bike and water bottles, but luckily nothing flew off the frame. After a few minutes, though, I noticed something felt off. I was pedaling hard and my heart rate was shooting up, but I felt like I wasn’t moving. People were flying past me. Every few second I would here “On your left,” “On your left,” as the riders were letting me know they were going to pass. “What the hell is wrong with me?” I thought. I felt like my legs were pedaling through quicksand. I couldn’t get going at all, and all these negative thoughts started racing through my mind. “I ruined my legs with that 50K two weeks ago” and “I just can’t bike anymore” were a few. Less than ten miles in I was thinking I was going to have to drop out. My Garmin showed my heart rate was in the 170’s, and I was going nowhere. I was already debating what new sport I was going to have to take up, because clearly I was not cut out for triathlons anymore. But then I came to a hill and I knew it wasn’t me. I was in literally the smallest possible gear on my bike and could not get to the top of this tiny incline. Then it hit me. This had happened to me a year ago, on this same course in Chattanooga when I raced the 70.3 World Championships. I had hit the railroad tracks and my tire had jammed up against my frame. I pulled over and sure enough, my tire was hot from all the friction of rubbing against the frame. I released the back skewer, pulled the wheel back, and secured it into place. I walked my bike up to the top of the hill and hopped back on. The feeling when I started pedaling again was glorious! My legs were churning freely and I felt like I was flying. I was a new person as I started flying by the racers that had passed me. What a relief. I was upset about the time and energy I had wasted for the first ten miles, but I was so happy that it was something that was easily fixed early in the race. I still had 132 miles to make this my race.
the bike course
The rest of the bike course at Chattanooga overall was pretty nice. Once I fixed my bike issues I was able to start enjoying the ride…as much as anyone can enjoy a 116 mile trek. We went south of town into northern Georgia and had some pretty awesome views around Lookout Mountain. Before I knew it we were turning around to head back for our second loop! I had been rehashing the beginning of the ride in my mind and wasn’t even paying attention to the distance. This was actually pretty awesome. So much of these long endurance races is psychological, and knowing I was close to mile 60 and over halfway done helped push me a little harder. No matter what, its always going to be physically challenging, but being able to overcome the mental aspect is what really keeps me moving in these races. I grabbed a few dates, sipped some Tailwind, and continued on the second loop. By this time I was running low on fluids so I threw one of my water bottles out at an aid station and grabbed a fresh Gatorade. A few miles out from that I hit a major bump and my dates went flying out behind me. I was pretty bummed but wasn’t about to stop and run back for them so I just hoped I could maintain enough calories with the Tailwind and Gatorade.
The rest of the ride was pretty uneventful. We hit mile 112, the normal end to an Ironman bike, and I was ready to be done. Four bonus miles never seemed so long. Finally we were back to the transition area. I dismounted, handed my bike off, grabbed my run gear bag, and headed to the changing tent. The volunteers at these events are so great. They grabbed me some water and helped me with my run belt and shoes. I took a couple of naproxen for some foot pain I had been dealing with since my 50K at the Barkley Fall Classic two weeks before, laced up my shoes, and headed out.
thoughts during a marathon after a 116 mile bike
Starting to run after the bike leg of an Ironman is an odd thing. Your legs are kinda like jelly, but your body is used to moving fast on the bike. Due to this, my first few miles I always go out faster than I should. Also, the bike ride is much more technical and it requires more focus as you have to watch for other riders, holes, turns, hills, and bumps. You have to be careful of drafting and for people coming up behind you so the time seems to pass more quickly. For me, the run is different. My mind is all over the place during the 26.2 miles to pay dirt. I think the best way to describe my race experience here is to break it down by mile.
Mile 1: Ahh…my legs are Jell-O. Here we go! Seriously…we’re starting uphill? Okay, slowly but surely. What, my first mile was 8:06…that’s too fast! I need to stay around a 9 minute mile to keep a steady pace the whole way.
Mile 2: Alright, nice downhill. Heart rate coming down a bit. Ok cool, aid station up ahead. Water, gatorade, Base salt, check. Ahh…7:46 mile pace..nooooo I’m gonna die. SLOW DOWN!
Mile 3: There’s a guy at an aid station announcing “Mile 3 or Mile 16 aid station.” Man, wish I was at mile 16. Ugh…this sun is unbearable.
Mile 4: Ok, making a turn towards the park. Finally some shade! Pace is down to 8:30-9:15 minute miles counting my walk through the aid stations. I got this.
Mile 5-6: Nice shaded areas on Tennessee Riverwalk. Just an easy training run, right?
Mile 7is or so: Starting to get a little delirious at this point. We’re back on the main highway and I see someone wrote “shut up legs!” in chalk about halfway up a hill. For some reason all I can think of is “Shut up Drew Brees!” from that memorable Marshawn Lynch YouTube video. (Parental discretion advised.) “Ok, I gotta put the team on my back!” I think as I head up the hill.
Mile 8: Starting to get to the hills in the neighborhoods. Lots of people walking but I know if I stop I won’t be able to get started again. I take a couple licks of Base Salt and drink some water at an aid station and start my way up.
Mile 9-10: Someone is playing “Chariots of Fire” from a truck. Instead of thinking of some monumental run finish I think of this 20 second video of Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia throwing a challenge flag against the Patriots. Man, wonder how the Lions are doing against the Cowboys today? (Spoiler alert: They lost.)
Mile 11: A little downhill, more uphills, some scenic views. I don’t know, I’m tired..
Mile 12: More uphill as we make our way back to the neighborhood hills we had just descended. Now, I understand people want to walk up the hills, I don’t have a problem with that. But when they walk 2 wide and don’t let anyone pass its pretty annoying. I weave through the groups of people walking uphill, head back downhill and hear someone playing “The Final Countdown”. All I can think of is the Detroit Pistons and John Mason introducing Chauncey B-B-Billups.
Mile 13.1: Okay, now we’re at the boardwalk. Almost halfway. I come to the division for a right turn for lap 2 or a left turn towards the finish. Begrudgingly I make my right turn. 13.1 miles to go.
Mile 14: Alright…starting the whole course over again. Just keep this pace for a couple more hours…no big deal.
Mile 15-16: I don’t know what happened these last two miles…did I black out? Are we done yet? Gross..10 more miles still.
Mile 17-18: Back to the Riverwalk and some much needed shade. At least I’m not cramping. And my whole body is on fire so I don’t even notice if my foot hurts. Yay!
Mile 19-20: Out on the highway again and up the hill with the “shut up legs” drawn on the cement. Hills are stupid.
Mile 21-23: Second time around up the hills on Barton Avenue and Hixson Pike. Thanks race coordinators for putting a bunch of hills at the end of the course!
Mile 24: Okay, 2 miles to go. Are my legs still moving? I can’t tell, everything hurts but I seem to be moving forward. Oh crap, the hill on Barton is back. I think of Rat Jaw at the Barkley Fall Classic and I realize this is nothing. It took me an hour and a half to go up that monster. This will only take me a few minutes.
Mile 25-26: I’m gonna make it!!! Over the bridge/boardwalk and back towards the finish line. Legs don’t fail me now!
Mile 26.2: This is the longest 0.2 miles in the history of running. They must have measured this wrong. Ugh…it’s downhill and my legs are on fire. I hear cheers and see the carpet and Ironman logos. “Holly Smith, you are an Ironman!” Wow, that was awful….which one should I sign up for next year?
I ended up finishing 7th in my age group, 30th female, and 193rd overall in my fifth Ironman, minus the swim. Still 142.2 miles is no joke. And seriously, which one should I sign up for next year?