So the season is over and I’m now a four-time Ironman! I only raced three triathlons this year, but after 2.5 years of recovery from injury, I am so happy to be back racing long distance again. A lot has changed—faces, races, and race programs—so in some respects, I pushed the restart button on my journey to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
This was my only ‘A’ race of the year, so while I thought I was ready, I hadn’t proven I was ready. I had to trust my training—even more so than in the past. My approach looked very different this year keep me healthy and to vastly improve my running stamina.
I was less public about my race goals this year because they scared me. And truthfully, I get self-conscious about others thinking they’re far fetched. As silly as it may sound, I still feel like I’m an outsider looking in, not taken seriously as a competitor. Because Ironman North Carolina (also known as Beach 2 Battleship—so I will now refer to the race as IM B2B) is a fast course, I wanted to finish in under 11 hours, with a sub 4-hour marathon, a swim PR, and a controlled bike ride within my targeted power range. Oh yeah, and win my age group so I could race in Kona next year. Easy, peasy.
Now, it’s an understatement to say I’m unlucky with race conditions—oppressive heat,
oppressive cold, ridiculous rain and plenty of shortened or canceled courses. So what could go wrong in N.C.? Oh, just Hurricane Matthew, which devastated large areas of the state just two weeks prior to race day. With four days to go, we were informed that the Ironman course was flood damaged and that safety personnel needed to prioritize helping storm victims. That meant the bike course was now approximately 50 miles.
I was so disappointed. While I worked hard all summer on running, the bike is my strength. I immediately felt stupid to ever think I could be competitive at this distance. Self doubt waved over me. It took a lot of encouraging pep talks to remind me of who is in control (not me!) and that I needed to get mad decisive on a new strategy because I still had a race to do!
It took about 36 hours and a giant bag of Swedish Fish for me to regroup—pretty much the exact amount of time before I boarded a cross-country flight.
Kevin, my husband, was meeting me in Wilmington, but I had about 8 hours in town alone. I checked into the race with zero wait and a room full of smiling volunteers, eager to help me. I sat in the Normatec
booth to flush my legs clean of the red-eye flight and attended the athlete briefing—which I learned I might have to stop for a train during the marathon on tracks the course crosses four times. Haha! I had to stop for a train once at a half marathon in Eugene and it was chaotic. Already, this race has set the scene for ridiculousness.
After a short run and a swim at the local YMCA, I picked up Kevin from the airport. Being awesome, he built up my bike right away so I could do a test ride in the morning. As I packed for the a.m. ride, I encountered my first race challenge. In my haste to cut weight from my suitcase, I thought I left my brand new sunglasses at home. Nooooo!
So the next morning, Kevin and I went on a sunglasses hunt. Most Smith dealers in the area were surfing or lifestyle stores and the expo had zero glasses for sale—which I find odd because it’s an item that’s easy to forget or lose.
So Kevin and I called bike shop after bike shop. We found a pair of Smith knockoffs—the Tifosi Podiums in silver with transition lenses. So dorky in comparison to my sweet neon pink Smith glasses with purple mirrored lenses, but they worked and I needed them to ride. So after running around town, I headed out on a short shakeout ride/run from T2. It all went smoothly, including my practice ride over the metal grated bridge. Good. To. Go.
I was a little nervous that my new custom painted helmet had yet to arrive. On Friday, Kevin the Sherpa Saint, intercepted the deliver at the post office to make sure I got it. He really is the best.
Friday went by so fast—early swim at the beach to test the feel of the water current, saltiness, and temperature. The water was soooo fast! I knew race day’s tide charts were less fast, but it was fun to experience it. So how fast? I swam with a safety buoy (with flip flops inside) at a 1:26 pace with a moderate effort.
Last bike shakeout felt good and it was time to pack all the gear and it to its staging location—which is tricky in a point-to-point-to-point race.
Rain was in the forecast so I double-bagged my shoes and waited as long as possible to check in. Of course, the minute we got back to the AirBnB, the skies opened with a short, hard shower. Out of my control. In my control? Packing for the rain.
For dinner, I ate some rotisserie chicken, beets, and a sweet potato dish from Whole Foods with half an avocado. (Because everything is better with avocado.) I got to bed by 9:30. A little late. I couldn’t sleep. I felt like a horse in the starting gate before the Derby. Let me loose!
Outta bed by 3:00 am with my typical race morning routine—sunscreen, sweet potato/egg/avocado breakfast, hip exercises … with the addition of embrocation for my knees. The race was to be mild—my fave—but possibly a little cold in the wind on the bike.
We dropped off my run nutrition at 4:30 am before heading out to T2 near the beach. We easily parked. I asked a nice volunteer to help me pump tires and I placed running shoes by the water for the more than a quarter-mile run from swim exit to change tent.
Because the swim is also point-to-point, there were athlete-only shuttles to the beach, meaning no sherpas at the start. I used my Morning Clothes bag for the first time. It was strange being on the beach, surrounded by other neoprene clad racers, but feeling pretty alone. I tried to keep my breathing calm as I watched the minutes tick down to the 7:20 am start time.
Prior to the start, I only had enough time to get a feel for the water temp.
The National Anthem was performed as the sun rose; goggles on, time to go!
They started the race and I was one of the first women to hit the water. It was a short run as the beach drops off quickly. It was a rolling start, so no crazy contact, but plenty enough to feel like an Ironman. I was off to a strong start when BAM! Someone kicked my goggles off my face. That has never happened to me before.
The salt water stung a bit and it took me two tries to get them back on properly, but I didn’t sweat it, trying to remember Coach Tom’s words for me—relax into it. I was a little guarded after that and swam to the far right of the group. I think it was the outside line, but to be frank—I have no idea. The swim course is supposed to drift left before taking a left turn into a small channel. From there, it meanders to a dock with ladders to climb out. With few tall options for sighting—I used the buoys but I was very confused about what to do. Yellow, orange, and red buoys felt arbitrarily placed. I thought red meant ‘turn,’ but no one was turning! I had no idea how I was doing or where I was going. I just followed the buoys, saw a dock, and I was done. I felt like everyone was passing me, but I came out of the water in the best position I ever have—3rd AG. Huh. Don’t understand it, but I’ll take it! (The overall winner of the race was later DQ’d for failure to turn at a red buoy. I feel terrible for him. Nothing was clear out there.)
Goals: Limit salt water intake, swim a PR, swim under 1 hour.
Goals achieved! 56:36
I had great wetsuit peelers and I put on a pair of running shoes to get to T1. See, you swim
to the dock, you climb a ladder onto the dock, you run up a ramp and around the corner to more dock, you run down a concrete sidewalk (where I stashed a pair of running shoes thanks to a tip from B2B veterans) then you take a left to where the peelers are (apparently wetsuit strippers have been rebranded!) Then you run through the shower in the parking lot, then you take a right turn to go straight out of the parking lot. You then run across the street, down the sidewalk, and into T1. Then there is the run through the bags in the grass and into the tents. Phew! All in all, the transition from swim exit to bike mount is .4 miles.
I had a great volunteer help me get my jersey in and I put my new helmet on! It is sooo pretty! But as I ran to my bike, the magnetic faring of the Rudy Wingspan 57 fell off. I picked it up and took it for a ride in my jersey pocket.
Once on the bike course, I was able to get some food and settle in. The first part has a lot of turns and they guy behind me was eager to leave me and my snack break in the dust. He came on the inside of a turn and I just prayed that would be the last dumb move I’d witness for the day. They warn you that this course has two drawbridges with metal grates—much like the drawbridges back home in Seattle. One is at the very beginning and one is at the end. I saw one woman taking no chances and walking her bike across. I took a deep breath and confidently crossed the bridge. Little did I know that woman was in my AG. I was now in 2nd in my AG with 55 miles of biking in front of me.
I settled into a great rhythm and steadily picked off the faster swimmers. That guy who pulled the shady inside move would soon become my bike bestie. Riding at a similir speed, we would trade overtaking and dropping back repeatedly. At first I was annoyed because I take drafting very seriously and I wanted to leave him behind. But he kept with me as I made my way through the field. Really, the only time we were more than 20 bike lengths from each other was on a snack break. He introduced himself as I passed by and I asked if we were going to be besties. He got away from me a little and I reminded myself that I needed to race to plan. If he was gone, he was gone. But he yelled out at the first turnaround as I was close behind. Once we made the turn, the changing winds became a consistent headwind. And that’s where the real fun began.
I dropped my bestie. The benefit of my small upper body/big lower body build is that it’s easier to cheat the wind and I have a powerful engine to drive through it. The men have the engine but were big sails in the wind.
So as I rode on, the course got lonelier, and lonelier. I can only imagine what a full 112 would have felt like. No biggie. I just stayed focused on staying compact and steady with my power. Every now and then, I’d feel a gust that I had to lean into, but mostly a nice steady headwind that had me going 18.5 mph on a pancake flat road.
Once I started seeing riders come the other direction, I knew the turnaround was near. They were fairly spread out which gave me hope that the wind was providing for a cleaner race. When I hit the turnaround, the tailwind immediately added 10 mph to my speed. The last 16 miles were fast and zippy, up to 35 mph, and I listened to the sweet sound of a whirling disc wheel. I could now see the train of packs coming—chugging up behind me.
Little did I realize my open road was about to become a traffic jam. I was almost done with the course when the slower half Ironman athletes joined the course to go to the first turnaround. Bikes everywhere. And because of the train tracks, there was now a field of landmines—tons of ejected flat repair kits and water bottles.
I was very loud in calling out my presence and was happy to see the turnaround again—
because while the other racers turned, I went straight which leads over the 2nd grated bridge and into T2. I saw Kevin a couple of blocks out and he told me I was 3rd overall woman and leading my AG.
After the highs and lows of leading then falling to pieces at my last Ironman in Tahoe, I tried to channel my excitement and focus on the moment right in front of me.
The last block into T2 is downhill and I made the mistake of not getting out of my bike shoes earlier. I managed to get out of one fine, but I was still in the other at the dismount line. I awkwardly removed it in front of the cheering crowd. I had a good laugh at myself and soaked up their energy. No time to lament the missing 56 miles now. I had a marathon to run.
Goals: Stay in wattage target. Nail nutrition plan.
Goal Achieved! 2:36:52
Because I was the 3rd one into the tent, I think the volunteers were scared to mess up my race—exactly how I felt when I worked the T2 tent for the first time. I enthusiastically invited them to help me! I told them they were all angels as I put on my shoes and headed out the tent with nutrition in hand.
I was all smiles. I felt good. I felt good enough that I could do something stupid during the marathon. That strong tailwind followed me out onto the run and I ran with it! I tried to relax, but each time I looked at my watch, I was under pace.
As I headed out of town, a group of spectators complimented me on my lip gloss …. Lip gloss? There’s no time for lip gloss in Ironman! And then it dawned on me—I just ate a Beet Clif Shot! Haha! Beet stained lips are apparently a good look when running a marathon.
I was in surprisingly good spirits. Each ache and pain I met with the mentality that ‘this too shall pass.’ Some parts felt better than others, but I let it wash over me like waves. And then, maybe mile 3 or 4, I had company. I couldn’t see her, but I could feel her … breathing. It made me feel two things—one, excited that someone was choosing to use me as a draft so I must be moving okay, and two, terrified she was a someone from my AG, toying with her prey before devouring it.
It turned out to be Janeen, a lovely 51-year old bad ass from Wisconsin. She swam almost 10 minutes faster than me, so she was the last woman I passed on the bike. She ran behind me until about mile 9 or 10 and then pulled ahead of me.
I told her I wanted to be her when I grow up and she gave me some encouragement. But by then, two women in my AG had passed me (both somewhere between mile 7 and 9)—one of them being that woman I saw walking on the bridge at the beginning of the bike ride. My feet were beginning to feel raw from the rough surface of the asphalt road. Janeen went on to win her age group and claim a slot to Kona. I met her and her family at the awards banquet. They were very kind. (Hi!)
At Special Needs, I decided to change my socks. I had some gnarly blisters! The sock
change helped a little, but my feet were looking tough. It was a completely different second half—the good feelings were gone and it was time to tough it out. I reminded myself that the other racers were also suffering and that I needed to stay strong. When I saw Kevin in town next, he told me I was still in 3rd in my AG, that everyone was cheering for me back home, and that if I keep it up, the podium was mine.
The podium was mine. It helped.
As I headed back out of town toward the gator-filled lake, I got a little emotional when I heard a trumpet playing the hymn, “ All Creatures of Our God and King.” It’s the same hymn that I heard while running past a church the day my father died last year. I know he was there cheering me on.
As the music faded, I slowed down as body aches settled in. Prior this race, I had a lot of calf soreness I couldn’t shake since running a Trail Ragnar Relay a month ago. That soreness crept back and threatened complete cramp seizures in my calves. So I tried to keep small, quick steps. The pavement was so rough I thought maybe my shoes were an illusion and I was running barefoot.
Mile 17 was the hardest. I powerwalked the aid station to ensure I got what I needed. The waves of pain came just the same, just with higher swells. But when I got to the far turnaround, the countdown was on—6.6 miles to go!
By then, I had no idea where I was in the race because there were half Ironman racers on course and full Ironman racers on Lap 1. It was congested and I afraid I might fall over if anyone knocked into me. My feet screamed at me to walk, but if Kona or a podium was a possibility, I was going to fight until the end.
A short power walk through the next aid station and then it was all run. I fueled the last 5K with Pepsi and sheer perseverance. A woman stormed past me with less than two miles to go and I worried that maybe I didn’t have a podium spot anymore, but she was fully covered in clothes, so her bib number and age remained a mystery.
The last mile was stupid congested. I was so fragile and had to battle through 2-way traffic on the narrow riverwalk. Its sharp turns made the blisters on my feet scream. One woman just would NOT get out of the way until I finally reached the spot where the full starts lap 2 and the rest of us go to the finish line.
Normally, a wave of adrenaline kicks in and I “sprint” down the straightaway to the finish. But I was already on the rivet so I kept pace and flailed my arms into the air as the Race Director called out, “Carly Tu, you are an Ironman!” (Mike, the voice of Ironman, was taking a break.)
I immediately fell into a volunteers arms, collected my finisher shirt, medal, and p.j. bottoms, and headed to the med tent.
Some Mylar blankets, gentle stretching, and warm chicken broth later, I was feeling a little better. Okay, a lot better, because the nurse looked up my finishing time and splits and informed me I had finished 3rd in my AG!
It seems like I should have felt better since I only rode half the bike distance, but that allowed for some stupid on the marathon.
Goal: Sub-4. Stretch goal: Marathon PR.
Goals unfulfilled, but it’s okay. 4:09:18
TOTAL RACE TIME: 7:53:37
Kevin and I attended the award ceremony and rolldown. I was proud and honored to share the stage with the other athletes. There was only one Kona slot in my AG, so it was a long shot. It didn’t happen for me this time, but this effort and result make me feel excited that I may be very close to my goal.
So now, it’s time to watch UW Husky football, deep clean my house, and spend time with friends. I’ve got my eye out for another full for next year that could be a Kona 2017 qualifier.
Thank you to the village that got me here. Namely …
Kevin: The best husband in the world. Thank you for believing in me and supporting me every step of the way. None of this happens without you.
Coach Tom: For your flexibility with my busy schedule and for making the preparation fun along the way. Thanks for thinking creatively to get me back to racing. I now love trail running! You truly have a gift for this.
My Mom: For listening to all my boring training breakthroughs and ample prayer support. I love you.
Alicia & Carson: For being training buddies, cheerleaders, and dog caretakers. Your friendship means the world to me.
My co-workers: For understanding and being flexible with my training schedule. Oh, and putting up with me while I tapered for the race. I’m sorry for anything said while I was hungry.
Saul: For being amazing with my bike that I never had to worry about it. She worked like a dream. You have been so generous. I appreciate your support.
Caitlin and Annie: For teaching me to use my body better, making me stretch, and helping me earn the strength needed to race this distance. I know a six-pack is in there somewhere! I appreciate the support and regular check-ins.
In Health Staff and Alexa: For keeping my body on track for a great race and knowing what it needs!
My cycling team: For giving me space and grace to focus singularly on this goal. I miss you all and I’m ready for Fall/Winter rides.
Friends and Family At Large: Thanks for believing in me. Thanks for an encouraging social post or text message. Kind words carry farther than you think. I’m so grateful for each of you. I love being in such a thriving circle of inspiration and encouragement.
Now, if you made it this far … WOW! CONGRATS! You are an IronReader!!
Cheers! On to the next age group!