This victory was so, so sweet. After years of disappointing race after disappointing race, I entered this season with incredible fire and determination: this was going to be the race I would triumph over the 140.6 distance. I trained harder. I ate cleaner. I pushed myself past the breaking point and then pushed myself a little harder. I threw everything I had into training for this race. What I lacked in natural talent, I made up for with strong will and stubbornness. And boy did it pay off. This past weekend I had a race where everything finally clicked together and ended with one hell of a roar.
The Swim: 1:03:12
As soon as I made my way down the slippery boat ramp I tried to stay on the feet of the guys in front of me, but they took off in the water leaving me far in their wake. I tried to stay strong and waited for more people to come up behind so I could stick on their feet as well, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t stay on feet. Not having feet unnerved me at first. I have never done a swim race without staying on feet for at least a majority of the swim, so I was nervous as to how that would affect my swim time. By the time I made it into the narrow portion of the marina I realized that this swim would all be out me versus myself, and that the only way to have a decent swim was to stay as focused as possible.
I focused on maintaining a long, smooth and powerful stroke with a high turnover and keeping my body as streamlined as possible in the water. I reflected back on those long 4-6k open water swims I did alone at the lake after a hard day of work and reminded myself that if I could stay strong through those, I could stay strong through anything. I used the land (we swam around and island) as a guide and tried to sight only from when I turned my head to breathe to avoid any unnecessary drag from lifting my head up.
When I made the turn into the open water section of the swim, I was feeling good but thought I was moving slowly. I tried to push those negative thoughts aside and focus on what i could control. I continued powering through, counting off 1,2,3,4 yellow buoys before the turn back into the marina to start loop 2. Coming back into the marina there was a bit of a chop. The wind was definitely picking up and I kept taking in mouthfuls of water when I breathed to the left. To compensate, I added extra rotation when I breathed to the left to help lift my head away from the water. At this point I was well aware of my solitude, as I couldn’t see anyone near me. I focused on staying mentally strong and physically powerful.
When I was on the open water side of the swim I started catching up to some of the back of the pack swimmers on their first loop and swam as wide as I could around them. I counted off the buoys and with relief finally made the turn into the marina. By now the wind had really picked up and the marina was getting choppy, so I tried to power through the chop and drink as little as possible of Lake Erie. I even began a 2-4-2 breathing so I would only breathe on my right side, facing away from the chop. As I made my way towards the finish I was wrestling with whether or not I should look at the clock to see my swim time. It felt really slow (over 1:05) and I was afraid a bad swim would put me in a bad mental position. In the end the “I wanna know now!” side won and I glanced at the clock as I got out of the water and saw 1:03:xx. Considering how my best swim of 1:01 was in salt water with a 2000 person draft pack, I was stoked with my time. I powered out of the water, gingerly came up the slippery boat ramp, high fived the race director, and headed straight to the wetsuit strippers.
The wetsuit strippers very quickly yanked off my wetsuit (thank you volunteers!) and then I ran to where I had dropped off my transition run shoes. Due to the change in the swim, we had a half mile run to transition. I left my Pearl Izumi shoes for that run since they are quick on/quick off. Clutching my wetsuit I kept a comfortable pace on the run. I heard mixed messages about my placing: some said I was 5th, others 4th, and others 3rd. Honestly at this point I didn’t care about my placing since it was so early, but it was nice to hear I was towards the front. I ran into T1, grabbed my bag, pulled out my bike shoes, stuffed in my wetsuit, and handed my bag back to the volunteers (thus bypassing the changing tent). As I was in transition, Stu, one of the announcers, started giving me a hard time, which made me smile. I ran to my bike, put on my shoes, sunglasses and helmet and then booked it outta there.
The Bike: 5:27:40
My main goal for the bike was to keep in a safe power range. Based on my successful course preview ride, that would be 155 watts on the first loop and 160 on the second. Since I had lost 2 pounds since the course preview, John and I discussed whether or not to alter my power goals for the race. In the end we decided to keep them the same as the course preview. (For those wondering about watts/kg ratio I was racing at 136 lbs which puts a 155 watt range at 2.51 watts/kg). I kept to my power goal for the first loop, but couldn’t boost it for the second loop (my guess is it was due to the wind and chip seal adding extra fatigue on my body). For you curious peeps out there, here’s my power file:
The first hour on the bike is all about restraint. My legs wanted to fly but I kept my eye squarely on my power numbers and kept everything nice and relaxed. Once my heart rate dropped I took in my first nutrition (around 10 minutes in). Speaking of nutrition, I had planned everything out in advance. my nutrition/hydration/electrolyte plan was based off of many years of trial and error. I’ve had races where I’ve taken in too much, and races where I’ve taken in too little. Based on my experience, I settled on the following: 100 cals every 20 minutes up to mile 90 alternating between Powerbars and Powerbars energy blasts and then gels for the last 20 miles. For electrolytes I would start off with two bottles full of a non-calorie electrolyte drink, then supplement with salt tabs as needed. I planned on front-loading my fluids, ideally peeing at mile 40, 70 and then 100, but making sure I took in little fluids the last hour of the bike (I’ve learned I don’t absorb fluids well and the sloshing destroys me for the the run). I also had planned to get some ginger snaps I packed in my special needs bag since I tried them at the course preview ride and it worked well, but we’ll hear more about my special needs fail later.
On the way out of the park I had the high wind at my back, so I was flying. I reminded myself that this was all free speed and it would hurt later. As I made my way out of town and through the cornfields, I focused on getting my mind in a good place. I focused on maintaining a smooth cadence and consistent watts. By mile 20 I had already passed two girls. As I made the right turn onto the short out and back section of the bike (that goes up a hill and into a cute downtown) I saw a girl ahead of me finishing the section. I made a mental note of her bright red aero helmet, and caught her giving me the once over as well. As our eyes made contact, I had an amazing feeling in my chest. Something screamed “you’ve so got this.”
I estimated she was roughly five minutes ahead, but knew it was way too early to do anything stupid. I kept reminding myself that consistency on the bike is my strength, and that my goal for this race is to have MY race, meaning a race in which I stick to all my goals and aim for perfect execution. Any placing I do on top of that would just be icing on the cake. Despite this, I couldn’t help but get a little giddy when a Rev3 staffer manning an intersection told me I was 2nd female. I believe I let out one hell of a roar.
As the road surface turned to horrible, watt-sucking, spirit-destroying chip seal, I upped the effort to maintain the same watts (are you seeing a pattern here?). Having my power meter helped me stay sane on the bike. It helped me have a metric I could consult and a “rule” to follow. My numbers were my master. If they went to high, I eased off. If they went too low, I eased off the effort a bit. Power kept me honest; power kept me sane.
Before I knew it I had caught up to the half riders and was nearing my second loop of the bike course. It was fun to finally have some company! Everyone was in such great spirits and the speed of the half riders helped motivate me. Needless to say I was a bit distracted. So distracted, in fact, that when it was time to take in more nutrition around mile 60, I reached down to find an empty bento box. For a split second I was confused, but then my heart sank. I had missed the special needs bags. Rapidly my mind started racing: how did this happen? Then I remembered: at the fifty mile aid station, I was talking to Lauren who was working off to the left. I remember a woman yelling something at me, but I thought it was because a car was coming straight for me and I was drifting into its lane. I saw the car and quickly sped away, narrowly avoiding a collision. During all this chaos I missed the person standing with my bag in her hands.
Panic began to set in. How could I be so stupid? I had carefully planned my nutrition and had it down to a science. I quickly saw my PR fly out into the cornfields as I thought I would have to take in gels for the rest of the ride (and I think eating solely gels is what causes a lot of my GI distress on the run). As I started to get despondent, another voice kicked in. With a roar, the voice said “Get over yourself. Snap out of this. You’ve trained too hard to let a little poop get in your way.”
I started thinking of what I COULD do. I COULD ask for gels that are easier on my stomach (anything but chocolate). I COULD ask for solid food (perhaps some pretzels). As I turned back onto the out and back section with the hill I knew an aid station was up ahead so I prepared to communicate to the volunteers. As I climbed the last hill right before the aid station, I was surprised to see a familiar sight: the red helmet. The lead female. I started to get excited but knew my main focus was to get as much nutrition on me as I could. As I came up to the aid station I yelled “I need whatever solid food you have and non-chocolate gels.” I had to stop for a minute to gel everything from the volunteers, but it paid off. I was handed a Powerbar and three gels. With my arsenal of nutrition I sped away.
As I climbed the long hill I started to gain on the girl. Not wanting to do anything stupid, I held back to assess her riding. Her cadence was slow (I have a remarkably low cadence, so anything slower than me is slow in my book). She was rocking back and forth a bit. She was out of aero and stretching her neck. All signs pointed to the fact that she was tired. I thought back to advice I had gotten from John about “seeking racing opportunities and grabbing them when you can.” I realized this was an opportunity. I upped my watts to 190, picked up speed, tucked myself into aero, and sped by her. I kept up those watts for 5 whole minutes (yes, I diligently counted) without looking back. By the time my five minute interval was over, I could no longer see a red helmet. My strategy had worked. I had moved up into first. Now all I had to do was maintain that for the next 6 hours. No pressure, right?
I kept pedaling along with the same robotic mentality as before: Must. Obey. Power. My legs felt great and I kept everything smooth and easy. While I had been tucked away on the bike course, the wind had picked up considerably. Due to where the loop was located, I didn’t feel the full effects of the wind until mile 90. But then? OH. MY. A stiff headwind kept fluttering back and forth to a crosswind and took my pace to a crawl. On top of the wind there was an awful stretch of chip seal. I could feel all the spirit and enthusiasm being sucked out of my body, flung across my rear wheel, and splattered all over the bumpy road. This sucked. Majorly. This was mental endurance in its finest form. I no longer visualized coming into T1 in first, I no longer visualized finishing the race and partying with my friends. My mind was just a sea of red. A sea of red that screamed “get me out of this wind and off these crappy roads NOW!”
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. The final 5 miles or so are on a stretch of road that parallels Lake Erie. The first half of that road I had the wind directly in my face. I switched my Garmin so I couldn’t see my speed, since I knew seeing low numbers would get in my head. I tried to tuck in and get as aero as possible and just keep on pedaling. About 1/3 of the way through the final stretch I made a turn which then gave me a direct crosswind. A direct crosswind that came in and out in gusts, trying to throw me all over the road. This was also the worst stretch of the road in terms of road conditions. Every 10 seconds or so I went along a raised crack that gave my crotch a thorough beating. So here I am, 100 miles into the bike, experiencing crosswinds gusting in excess of 25 miles per hour, trying to maintain a straight line on the road despite the wind, and yelping out in pain with each crotch beating. I kept telling myself “the park is just around the corner!” but OH MY GOSH did it feel like it took forever. Those last few miles felt longer than the entire bike. My heart went out to each cyclist that had to navigate that last section.
Finally I saw the yellow sign marking the turn into the park. I eagerly made the turn and flew across the parking lot. I was so excited to get off the bike and out of the wind and get on with the run! Coming into the park I got lots of cheers from spectators which helped eliminate the sour memory from the last few miles.
T2: 1:34 I crossed the dismount line and with jello legs ran in to rack my bike. I could hear everyone cheering and wanted to desperately look up and smile, but I knew I needed to stay focused on my task. I racked my bike and ran to get my transition bag. I pulled my bag off the rack and dumped it’s contents on the ground. As I started to change a volunteer said “Miss, you need to go into the changing tent.” I said “Oh, I was told I didn’t have to go in!” He replied “I’m sorry, but I was told you have to.” Not wanting to waste another second or risk a penalty I scooped up everything and ran in. Volunteers were waiting: “What can we help you with?” I replied: “Thanks but not a thing! I’ve so got this!” I threw on socks, my running shoes, and a visor, and then put on my race belt as I ran out.
The Run: 3:54:52
As I left T2 a man on a mountain bike came up to me. He said “Hi Laura I’m Lou, and I will be your bike escort today.” I can’t tell you how amazing that felt. I felt like such a celebrity! My own personal bike escort! I also felt a little self-conscious: all eyes were on me. The cheers coming out of T2 were incredible. Rev3 staffers, teammates and volunteers were sending so much energy in my direction. I saw Christine and with tears in her eyes she yelled out “I am so proud of you!” Overcome with emotion, and without thinking, I ran right over to her, took her cheeks between my hands, and gave her a huge kiss smack on the lips.
As I continued out of transition, I saw my sweetie. With arms raised indicating an “I told you you’d have this!” expression on his face, I grinned ear to ear. He asked me how I was feeling. I told him I felt remarkably good and was just going to settle in until I heard how far back 2nd place was. He told me just to keep going and stay strong and that he was proud of me.
When I got on the run course with all the half participants who were finishing I got cheer after cheer. It was so uplifting to get cheer after cheer from the racers who were struggling themselves! Almost instantly I saw Jeff, who was finishing. He gave me a huge “ROAR!” and I returned it with a similar yell. My bike escort yelled over his shoulder “you might want to conserve that energy. You still have a long way to go!” He was right. I was only at mile 1. And I have a history of epic blowups on the run. I decided I needed to conserve energy as much as possible and stay smart on the run.
Before the race John and I talked about a strategy of keeping my heart rate at 145 for the first 13 miles, then 150 for miles 20-26, then balls to the wall for the last few miles. So my goal was to get my heart rate as low as possible. As I tried to get my heart rate down down down I became disappointed that I was running 9:00 miles. My training indicated that I would be running faster. I tried to block out those negative thoughts and reminded myself that there were still MANY more miles to go and to stick to my goal to ensure I would run the whole marathon. I’ve never ran the entire run portion of a full before, so that was my goal for this race.
Although my main focus was on hitting all my goals, I would be lying if I said the thought of winning the race wasn’t in the back of my mind. Going into the race I knew it was a possibility, but I tried not to focus too much on that. But once I got out on the run I started thinking “what if?”. I began to run scared. I know I’m not a strong runner. I also knew that I wasn’t running fast. The chance of getting run down was extraordinarily high. I was running scared.
I told my bike escort “Lou, I just want you to know that I typically get run down and I’m okay with that. If I get overtaken I want to thank you now for being my escort. This has been such an amazing experience and I treasure being in first just for a little bit”. Since Lou wasn’t supposed to talk to me (apparently the half winner got a penalty because the escort was talking to her) he very briefly looked over his shoulder and mentioned something about how I needed to snap out of it and stay strong and run my own race.
Something funny happened after that: my brain simply shut off. It was like it said “Laura, you have a job to do and you’re going to do it.” No negative self-talk creeped in. No “I need to run faster.” No “I should walk now.” I simply just kept my heart rate exactly in the range it should be and put one foot in front of the other. I think having the bike in front helped. Lou stayed a few bike lengths ahead and I simply kept my eye on his tire and forged ahead.
At mile 6 I got my first time split. I found out that 2nd was 8:40 behind. I started to do math and then realized that would just stress me out, so I kept trucking along at my same pace. At mile 8 I got another time split. She was now 6:30 behind. I then very quickly did some math and realized that I was getting run down. I also found out that 3rd place was running 6:00-6:30 miles. I quickly saw myself slip from first to third. Normally this would devastate me and ruin my race, but not this time. Yes, I was sad, but since I was in my automaton state I just kept going. It was the most bizarre thing.
The best way to describe what I felt during the run was that it was an out-of-body experience. I completely disassociated from my body and my mind. I would think “I think I need fluids. I think I need calories.” and then tell myself, “Laura, get some coke at this next aid station.” I remember a few times telling Lou “I think I need some calories”. It was like I was asking permission from myself and people around me to get calories. Looking back on this I probably sounded quite hilarious and slightly delirious. But I think this dissociation is what helped me run the whole marathon. Since I was so “out” of my body and my mind, I didn’t focus on any pain or negative self talk. In fact, I never truly felt pain during the race. The only thing I felt is that I wanted my legs to go faster but my body was shaking its finger saying “nuh-uh, Ms. Laura, we’re going to stay right at this pace.”
As far as nutrition goes, I had no set plan for the marathon portion. When you’re this far into a race you go with what your body tells you. I remember taking in a gel at mile 4 and another at mile 9, then supplementing with a lot of coke. I remember feeling very, very thirsty and wanting to chug water. Since I knew my body couldn’t handle more than a tiny sip at a time this wasn’t an option. But somewhere around mile 14 an idea came into my head that at the time seemed like a Nobel Prize winning idea: I would dump ice in my bra and suck on the cubes continually. Looking back, that was disgusting. The funk that had been festering all day in my sweaty bra was being transferred directly into my mouth. But at the time, it was glorious.
I continued trucking along, but still felt the scare and confusion of not knowing how fast people were moving up behind me. As I approached the turnaround at mile 13, my sweetie yelled out “don’t worry about her, she’s a relay! She’s a relay!” I was so confused as to what was going on. Before I knew it—whoosh!– a way too clean and way too pretty girl flew by me. (Turns out she was on a relay team and ran a 2:40 marathon). Eventually I realized what had happened but I was still scared. From the information I got at mile 6 the second place girl was gaining on me. I thought it was moments before I got run down.
I told my bike escort “Lou, I know you’re not supposed to talk to me but can I ask that you please let me know if I’m about to get run down? I just need to be prepared for it.” He assured me he would and he kept checking over his shoulder. I kept trucking along letting the miles tick, tick, tick away. Around mile 18 I saw an expression change on his face. “Talk to me, Lou. Tell me what you see.” He replied, “is she wearing a red and white kit?” Not remembering what she had on I replied, “I think so?” to which he responded, “then you’re about to get run down.” I felt all my enthusiasm drain. I made it this far—less than 8 miles to go—only to get run down. I started to sink into my head and lose it. Suddenly a thought popped in my head. Excitedly I asked “Lou, does the kit look like a woman’s bathing suit?” He replied, “yes, it does.” WIth incredible elation I yelled out “That’s a dude! That’s a dude!” and remembered seeing his kit earlier on and admiring his spunk and style. As the man with the crazy hair flew by I found a sudden surge of energy: I’m still in this race!
From there on out everything is a blur. I remember hearing at mile 19 that I had now moved to a 9:00+ lead and the second place girl was slowing down. I remember telling Lou I was about to poop my pants and made a 35 second (he timed) porta-potty stop. I remember hearing at mile 21 that I had now moved to an 11:00+ lead. I remember at mile 23 someone telling me I could walk and still win. I remember feeling no pain, but just frustration that my legs wouldn’t go faster. As I made my way back to the park I became emotional. Less than a mile to go. People were cheering. I hear “oh my gosh is that Laura?” Less than a half mile to go. Senior comes up on his moped. I hear him radio back to the finish that the female winner was a half mile away. I remember Lou telling me he was so honored to be with me to share this experience. I remember tears blurring my vision as I make the final turn into the long finishing chute. I remember thinking “why is it so lonely; where is everyone?” on the back side of the chute. I remember turning the corner, seeing the finish, hearing my name, hearing my song, seeing a sea of people. My heart soared. My arms lifted. I threw my head back with every ounce of joy and elation I had in my body and crossed that line a champion.
And then? I did what my heart demanded. I danced.
After the race my dear Christine stepped up to tackle all the dirty work. And I mean DIRTY. She helped me stretch and gave me a post-race massage punctuated by “I need a bathroom NOW” trips. She reminded me that I was quite a little stanky and covered in a fabulous sheen of gels, sweat and urine. Since I was staying at the finish she decided to give me a bath Rev3 style:
The rest of the day was utterly unbelievable. I stayed the entire time right at the finish line cheering on everyone with the rest of my team. Being there for each and every finisher was so amazing: being able to experience their joy in completing the race made my heart swell even more. So many tears were shed that day, but each and every one were tears of joy. There was such an incredible bubble of love and happiness surrounding that finish line. I was so honored that I could witness everyone’s moments. It’s what this sport is all about: joy, sweat, tears and victory.
It’s now been a few days since the race, and I’m still smiling and crying. It’s so hard to put into words the feelings that I have in my heart. Instead of my typical typed thank you, I decided to do things a little differently this time. Since it’s not possible for me to hug each and every one of you, I chose to do a video response and give you my most heartfelt thank you. All your words, love and support have been what inspired me throughout all of my training and racing. This race is dedicated to each and every one of you.
(If you have specific questions for me about my race and/or training, ask below in the comments!)