Start of the Journey
On November 14, 2014, I received an email from Ironman telling me I was selected to compete in the 2015 Ironman World Championship from the Ironman Lake Tahoe lottery after the race was canceled due to a forest fire. I was beyond excited, but I really wanted to qualify to compete there. I thought there was a chance I could do it at Tahoe, but as fate would have it, I’d never get to find out. So I talked to my coach, Jorge Martinez at E3Training Solutions, signed up for Ironman Wisconsin 2015 and set a goal of qualifying there just one month before competing at Kona so I could go to Kona again in 2016.
Life doesn’t always go as planned and on July 1, 2015, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my hip. Wisconsin was out and I was initially told Kona was also not possible. Since I don’t give up easily, I found a new doctor and worked with Jorge to make it to Kona with the ability to complete the race and enjoy the experience, albeit on the slow side. It was beautiful. And it made me want to get back to the Big Island more than ever.
We sat at Lava Java before the race and decided again that I would aim to qualify at Ironman Wisconsin the next year. And that officially started my journey to back to Kona.
I chose Ironman Wisconsin as my goal race for a number of reasons. It’s where I did my first Ironman, I’d raced it four times and love the course, my family lives in Madison so it’s my adopted hometown, and the race was on the 15th anniversary of September 11, which had extra special significance for me as a New Yorker.
The first phase of training kicked off over the holidays with a heavy swim focus. Having averaged 1-2 trips to the pool a week at best in the past, it was a rude awakening to be going 5-6 days a week, especially in the cold, dark months. I often hated it, but I did it, and for once I did the drills and followed the workouts and waited for the pay off.
I also did a lot of work on the bike over the winter, aiming to get my FTP back up to my pre-injury level and develop strength. I spent many early mornings on my KICKR, riding 4-5 days per week. I actually enjoyed this, which helps a lot!
In the build to Wisconsin, I also raced at Ironman Lake Placid as a tune up and test. I had done well at my last couple races placing 10th AG and finishing between 11:17 on a flat course, and 11:46 on hilly courses, but had never truly raced to compete and was still about one hour short of the top spots. I needed to put the plan to the test and see if I was capable of being a contender so we went into Lake Placid with a goal of top 5. While I’ve had some big goals in past races, it was my first time racing against competition, rather than against a time goal, and I was lucky enough to have Jorge and my teammate, friend and Ironman idol, Jana, to support me on the course and keep me updated on where I stood. I came off the bike in 6th, but quickly passed into 5th, and made my way to 4th near the halfway point of the run, finishing in 4th place AG. I had the 3rd fastest bike split, but my run was not what we were aiming for. I was overjoyed with my first Ironman podium and had a lot of learnings to apply to Wisconsin.
Recovery and Final Prep
The 7 weeks between races consisted of a week of deep recovery with some days off, some easy swimming and spinning, and my first run just four days after the race. Then I ramped back up into a moderate week with a 65 mile bike and a few shorter runs, before going back to high volume for the next three weeks. I was started to feel the fatigue of the long season and I was also struggling to get back into the game mentally even though WI was my goal race. Work was really busy and at times I was barely staying afloat, but I kept at it. While it felt like everyone else was tapering, I was still going strong and had a 70 mile ride and 12 mile run on the schedule a week out from the race, but thankfully Jorge pulled the long run and declared my taper to officially begin with a much more pleasant 45 minute run. I was feeling good, but was so happy to get some rest!
Heading into race week I felt way better than I did before LP. I was much less fatigued, but was still sleeping a ton and feeling the benefits of the rest. I focused on getting my head into the right place, doing a final analysis of my competition, and reminding myself every single day that I had the ability to be at the top of my AG and earn my Kona spot. Someone had to win, and there was no reason it couldn’t be me. Since I started this sport, I’ve found that if I boldly share my goals it feels more likely I’ll achieve them. I spent the past year telling anyone who asked that I was aiming to qualify for Kona at Wisconsin. As race day drew nearer, this goal weighed heavily upon me, but it kept me focused and motivated. I realized I was as ready as I was ever going to be and it would come down to how well I could execute the plan, and how well my competitors executed their plans.
Race morning arrived faster than ever and it was time to go. I had my usual 3am breakfast of an English muffin with almond butter and honey, as much of a banana as I could stomach, coffee and two bottles of Ensure. I woke up feeling more calm than I’d anticipated, but also very reflective. I scanned the news and social media posts about 9/11 and spent the early morning hours feeling grateful to have the chance to do what I love surrounded by family and loved ones. I was staying with my parents as always, and Scott had flown in Friday night to be there for the big day. The only thing missing was my sister and her husband, who’ve been at every IMWI I’ve raced and even a couple that I didn’t, but this time they couldn’t make it. I had their support from afar though and literally could not have asked for more. My heart was really full that day.
IMWI is one of the last Ironmans to have a mass start, which I still really love. I got beat up badly in LP with my aggressive start position that served me well pace wise, but I paid for it with heavy contact due to my less than great swim execution. Wisconsin is also one big loop so you don’t end up swimming into slower swimmers like you do on a two-loop swim.
I got into the water about 10 minutes early and swam all the way out to the buoy line. It was surprisingly not crowded and I asked the people around me for their goal times to be sure I was in the right place. Most were aiming for 1:05-1:10 so I settled in and floated until the gun went off.
At the beginning of the LP swim I was so nervous I felt sick and was flooded with adrenaline for the first 500 yards or so. But at WI when the gun went off I felt really calm and in control. I took some typical mass start contact, but nothing major, and within a few minutes I was in relatively clear water and feeling strong. I migrated slightly inside the buoy line and was focusing on swimming straight. The first stretch was a little crowded, but for once I was passing and holding my position when others passed me. There was a bottleneck at the first turn buoy where people stop and moo like cows (for Ironman MOO, as the race is often called), but I navigated through and only slowed a bit.
The next stretch was straight into the sun and full on contact so I just tried to get through it as best I could. As soon as I made the turn for the long back stretch I settled in and was swimming what I thought was my best race ever. I occasionally glanced at my watch and my pace was consistently 1:37-1:39/100, which is really good for me. I felt great, my sighting was strong and I was handling the crowds better than usual. I was certain I was on track for a big swim PR.
As I exited the water I looked down at my watch and saw 1:14 and change. I was a little disappointed. I swam 1:14 in LP and was hoping for 1:10-1:12 in WI, but I didn’t let it phase me. A big part of my race plan was to finish each leg of the race, forget about it and keep moving forward regardless of whether or not I was on goal.
I made a quick stop for the wetsuit strippers and ran for the helix. Ironman Wisconsin is pretty unique in that the transition takes place inside a building. And not just any building, but a Frank Lloyd Wright building with a curly-cue parking ramp leading up from the swim and down from the bike, referred to as the helix.
A lot of people came out of the water with me so it was jammed, but I managed to pass a few people and keep the momentum going. I found my bag quickly and ran into the change tent where I stood off to the side and put on my socks, stealth top loaded with nutrition (which took a lot of struggling with the help of a volunteer), helmet and sunglasses, a spritz of sunscreen that cuts through water, and grabbed my shoes for the long barefoot run to the bike. The transitions in WI are incredibly long, particularly T1 which has the run up the helix, then a run the entire length of the bike transition area in both directions.
I quickly put on my shoes when I reached my bike, ran to the mount line and cruised down the opposite helix. I felt like I had moved as quickly as I could, but would later discover I was about a minute slower than my last time racing at WI.
The big learning coming out of LP is that while I rode what appeared to be a perfect bike effort exactly at 70% normalized power, my average power was low and my variability was high due to a lot of power spiking as I passed on flats and started climbs. Lake Placid has just a few big climbs so it’s much more manageable than Wisconsin, where there are nonstop rollers that often hit 8-11% grade in spots. These short, steep bursts can lead to major burn out. The course tends to be faster than LP on the bike, but a lot of people pay for it on the run. I’ve ridden it multiple times in training and racing so I felt pretty well prepared, but needed to focus on not burning too many matches.
Jorge broke the course up into 4 segments for the first loop and 3 for the second, each with an average power, normalized power and maximum power target. The beginning of the course is always really crowded and not 500 feet off the helix, some guy nearly sideswiped me. Sadly it wouldn’t be the only time during the ride due to the increasing number of people racing Ironmans with very limited bike handling skills. There is a long no passing zone just a couple miles into the ride so I knew I’d be losing some time there. I was also trying to keep my power conservative so I felt I was getting off to a slow start and was feeling a little frustrated.
Best Bike Split predicted my Lake Placid ride at 5:49 and I rode it in 5:49 on race day. So I was rather excited when it had me at 5:39-5:41 in the days leading up to the race, adjusting slightly as the forecast changed. The last time we looked was Saturday night and I was looking good for 5:40 so the goal was 5:40-5:45. However, as it often does in Wisconsin, the forecast changed overnight and we ended up with a windier day than anticipated. It wasn’t intense wind, but just enough to make the effort a little harder and a little slower, but I wasn’t aware of it in the earlier miles. I was expecting an average of 19.5 or higher and was barely maintaining 18.9.
I hit the end of the “stick,” the section leading out of town to the loop, and my power was a bit low and my pace was far from a PR. I was well into my nutrition plan of one bottle of Skratch/Gatorade, one gel and two Clif blocks per hour and overall I felt really good. My legs felt fresh, I wasn’t depleted from the swim and the temperature was absolutely perfect.
I headed out onto the loop and got ready for the hills, gaining some speed as I passed through the first, flatter part in Verona. There were a couple hills to pay close attention to in this next segment – a roughly 5 mile climb into Mt. Horeb that starts as a false flat and gradually increases before a steep climb at the end. I’ve always thought this is a section where people blow themselves up without realizing it so I paid attention to my numbers and was exactly where I needed to be. I started leapfrogging with a lot of guys and this would go on for miles. I was riding a steady power and they clearly were not, so I just ignored them and focused on my own race. I saw more than a few of them walking on the run.
The next hill was THE hill that had everyone talking for two months leading up to the race. Due to road work, they had to take out the famous three climbs that make the IMWI course so challenging, but also so much fun since they are lined with spectators, tents and people in costumes. The new route took us up a beast of a hill called Barlow Road that was around 1.5 miles of heavy climbing with a quarter mile section of 12% or more grade, with bits in the 18-22% range. It was such an all out effort that my head and arms were burning. I love climbs like this, but not so much in an Ironman! The reward was a very fast downhill and another long descent after on Mineral Point Road. I tucked into aero and took advantage of the free speed and recovery time.
A few miles later we had the third of the original three hills. It was absolutely packed since everyone had to condense from three hills to one. I saw my parents and then Scott. As I passed him I was averaging around 18.9-19 and was way below the anticipated plan. I said I wasn’t having a very good day, which I meant speed-wise, not how I was feeling. He told me my average was among the fastest in my AG and I was doing great, which was such a relief to hear. I finished the climb feeling much more confident and figured we were all a little slower than planned. I zipped through Verona and got a nice boost from the crowds before starting the second loop.
I treated the second loop as one big segment and aimed to maintain my pace and stay on the power plan. The wind was steadily picking up and on the long rolling/false flat section into Mt. Horeb I was about 2mph slower than the previous loop at the same effort. I didn’t want to overdo it by trying to push harder against the wind so I let my power drop a bit. I knew the climbs would bring my normalized power up, but I’d have a bigger variance than we were hoping. I didn’t want a repeat of LP where my normalized power was dead on, but my average was way off and my legs were heavy and shot by mile 10 of the run, so I was a little more conservative while keeping up a strong effort.
The big climb was only on the first loops so the second loop was shorter. The wind was strongest heading back into Verona and was mostly crosswind and tailwind heading back into town so I pushed as much as I could to make up time with low power thanks to the net downhill.
As I approached the Helix my average speed was at 19mph, about .6mph slower than the Best Bike Split prediction. I finished in 5:52, which was three minutes slower than my LP ride. We would later discover that BBS had me at 5:51 on race day due to the change in the forecast. This is a great example of how easy it is to let the data get into your head and potentially ruin your race. I was feeling pretty down and felt like I was blowing my chance until Scott told me my bike was actually going well. It’s great to have estimates, but you have to remember that race day is unpredictable and a million things can change.
When I got off the bike and started running to T2 my legs were burning, but luckily it faded quickly as I ran to the changing area.
In and out, that was the goal. I never sit down, I just grab what I need and get everything situated on the run out – pulling on my race belt, getting my visor on and loading my pockets up with gels. This transition is much shorter as we only have to run the length in one direction.
I spotted my mom and dad right away along the first part of the run. My mom shouted out that only a couple of the women we were tracking were ahead of me, but I would find out in the coming miles that the tracker stopped reporting bike splits after mile 61 so we didn’t have much accurate data for the first part of the run. I was feeling really great and running well, and was hopeful I might already be in the top five and have a shot at making my way to the top two.
Scott was waiting around mile 1.5 for the first update and as I ran by, he told me I was in 7th, which was a little disappointing. The next stretch has a short out and back on a bike path and I saw one of my competitors was only about .4 miles ahead. My race plan was HR and pace based for the first 18 miles, aiming for 140-145 bpms and roughly 8:30s. My HR was spot on and my pace was a little faster in the 8:20s due to some downhill, but I didn’t want to risk speeding up for the pass only to blow up later so I kept her in my sights and stuck to the plan. The temperature was perfect and I was feeling pretty great. At times I lost sight of her, but didn’t let it worry me. I knew I’d see Scott around mile 5.5 for another update.
I tackled the first run up Observatory, the only steep hill on the course, and managed to keep my HR pretty controlled. Scott was just past the bottom and told me I was in 7th off the bike, but was now in 4th or 5th. We would later discover I came into T2 in 7th, but started the run in 5th, passing two women in transition. I knew at least one of the women was right in front of me so I figured I would at least be able to grab 4th or 5th place as the worst case outcome. I saw my parents right after near the State Street turnaround and the reiterated that I was definitely in the top five.
The next section has a longer out and back along Lake Mendota so it’s a great opportunity to see where your competition is. I spotted the woman right ahead of me and realized she was slowing down, only about .25 ahead at that point. But I had yet to see the others, which worried me a little. I continued on and the miles ticked away. I stayed focused on my pacing and nutrition, which was water at each aid station, sometimes a little Gatorade, 4 gels spaced out about 4-6 miles, and around mile 12 I had Coke at every aid station with an occasional gulp of Red Bull. I had stomach pain, which I also had in LP, but it was not enough to slow me down or keep me from getting my nutrition in.
As I neared mile 12 I saw the woman right ahead of me and as we went through the aid station, I passed her. She didn’t try to catch me and I didn’t speed up, I just continued my steady pace and hoped it would be enough. About a half mile later I saw Scott again and motioned behind me so he would see I had passed her and he gave me a big smile and said I was now in 3rd place! The woman in 1st was way ahead and 2nd was about 4 minutes ahead. I was so happy. It was a big gap, but I was steadily gaining ground and I still had half the race to go.
Shortly after, I finally saw the woman in 1st and she looked strong. I didn’t see 2nd, but Scott saw her and said she looked like she was suffering. I started to feel like there was a chance I’d be able to pull it off, but I still had 13.1 miles to go.
The next several miles were pure focus. The pain started getting more and more severe and fatigue was building, but I couldn’t afford to slow down. I couldn’t wait for mile 19 where I’d get another update. As I headed into the State Street turnaround, Scott said she was slowing down and I was maintaining. Then, just a few hundred yards later, I finally saw her for the first time and she was no more than .25 miles ahead of me. I got the biggest jolt of adrenaline and it took every bit of control to maintain my pace and not make a stupid move. As I made the turn toward the Lake Mendota path, Scott pointed just ahead and said she was right there, to go get her.
We passed through an aid station and as my Garmin beeped for mile 20, I made the pass. I was at once the most thrilling and most terrifying moment because I wasn’t sure how she would react. Almost everyone’s ages had come off their calves, but of course mine was still on so she would know we were competing against one another. I ran a mile or so before the first glance over my shoulder and I didn’t see her there. At the next turnaround, near mile 22, I was able to see how far back she was and I had gained about .4 miles on her. But I still didn’t consider it a certainty. I realized it was going to be the hardest four miles I’ve ever run in my life!
My HR was up to 150 and I was in tremendous pain. My pace had slowed around 5-10 seconds per mile, but I gave it everything I had to speed up a little and keep putting more distance between her and I. I looked over my shoulder at every turn and while didn’t see her, I was so worried someone else would come out of nowhere and pass me in the final moments. I was overwhelmed by emotions and wanted to get to that finish line more than anything. I saw Scott at the usual spot one last time, just about a mile from the finish and he told me she was down by a lot and it was mine. I couldn’t believe it was really happening. But I had to stay focused because so many things can happen in an Ironman.
The race ends with a loop around Capitol Square where you can hear the finish line on the other side, but still have about .5 miles to go. When I reached that corner I looked over my shoulder one more time, and finally let the emotions take over. I had done it. I was in 2nd place in my age group, which meant I would qualify for Kona. I had the finish chute completely to myself and it was such an incredible moment. I crossed the finish line in 11 hours, 4 minutes and 20 seconds and punched my ticket to Kona. I was 10th amateur female overall, I had the 3rd fastest bike split in my AG and 2nd fastest run.
I raced my first Ironman in 2009 on this same course and it took me 15 hours and 45 minutes to finish due to an injury right before the race. I did the same two races in 2010 that I did this summer, finishing LP in 13:31 and WI in 12:48. A few years later I came back to Wisconsin and did 11:46 and placed 10th. I was so excited. I did it again at Coeur d’Alene and while I still had a long way to go, I started thinking that I could do more. The Tahoe lottery spot to Kona was the push I needed. I knew it was going to be incredibly hard work and I knew there was a chance my best wouldn’t be good enough. But Jorge believed in my goals, he build the right plan to get me there, and I did the hard, consistent work needed whether I felt like it or not.
In the end, it all came together and I achieved a huge dream at my goal race, where all of this began for me 7 years ago, with my family and friends there to share it with me. To say I’m grateful is the biggest understatement. I didn’t sleep at all that night and as I sat at the awards and waited for my name to be called for the Kona slot allocation, I was still in disbelief.
If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough. I am proof you can set a goal that everyone might think is crazy, and if you work hard every day and don’t lose sight of it, you can achieve that goal. I can’t wait to set a new goal and see what happens next.