The last time I planned a full triathlon season was 2011. It wasn’t cheap then, but it was still do-able.
Then I quit for a couple years, and then I did a few races here and there, let’s do an Ironman before grad school, and some collegiate stuff — which is still do-able and fun and in the original spirit of triathlon. But now, after the summer pilot project of ‘what would happen if I actually trained for serious and didn’t also work like 70 hours/week,’ I’m actually for real back into triathlon. And I’m trying to put together a whole season and plan for 2016. For the first time in five years.
It turns out in those five years triathlon got terrible and expensive.
First, I wanted to do Oceanside 70.3. A nice, early race to kick-off the year that I can drive to. Hah. Turns out that race now sells out 10 months in advance or something. Who knows. By the time I wanted to sign up seven months beforehand it was too late. Then, I wanted to do Escape from Alcatraz. I love Escape from Alcatraz. Hah. Too bad for me. It’s $750 this year, up from $420, because, I dunno, because they think it can be. Because they think they don’t need triathletes as much as triathletes need them. Because they don’t even really need triathletes at all; in the current endurance sport landscape, they can just make it a destination bucket-list recreational event. Then I thought I’d do Vineman 70.3, since I want to do a half in the summer and it’s really the only big one, and it’s a 45-minute drive from my house. I was determined not to miss registration for Vineman.
Oh, but then Vineman got bought by Ironman (World Triathlon Corporation).
So this Monday I set an alarm on my phone to make sure I was at my computer at 9 a.m. ready to register. I thought this was crazy. What has triathlon become. But I was determined not to miss registration, and every other year setting an alarm would have been enough to guarantee it. At 9 a.m. the site said registration wasn’t open. At 9:05 it still said it wasn’t open yet. At 9:06 it said it was open, but “on hold.” At that point, I checked their twitter and facebook, figured there was some kind of technical problem, and wasn’t too worried about it. I was there; I was pressing refresh; I’d get in, no worries.
At 9:20 a.m. they said all registrations were technically sold out. There were so many people in the process of registering that all spots were “on hold.” You could keep refreshing and maybe a spot would open up, if someone didn’t finish their registration, but that was it. What the hell?? I’d been there the whole time and it never even became available. I spent another hour pressing refresh. At one point, I even got in and a few steps through the registration process and then it said “on hold” again. I was not the only one having this problem. It sounded like with so many priority early club registrations and Ironman All World Athletes, there couldn’t have even been that many spots open.
At 10:20 it was officially sold out, without it ever really having become available.
The extra fun thing is that Vineman used to have a waitlist, and most people would get in off the waitlist as people dropped out. But now that it’s a WTC/Ironman-owned event, there is no waitlist anymore. Because once they sell out of general reg spots, Ironman just wants to sell Ironman Foundation spots at double the price.
I was pissed. I was so mad. What has triathlon become? I can’t afford this. But I want to do a half in the summer and even at double the price, Vineman was still my best option. All the other halves at that time would cost a flight and a hotel and bike transport. What option did I have? But I was so mad, I was close to tears. I don’t want to give them my money. I made Steve make the decision. He said, logically, it made sense to buy a Foundation spot into the race. There really isn’t a better option. So I did.
I think the Vineman crew does a good job with their races and I think their hand was forced here. There was a paragraph in the letter that they sent to past participants to announce the Ironman acquisition that said a lot:
What that says is that you guys did this to yourselves. You wanted Ironman events and now that’s what you have.
It used to be possible to have a local season that hit the big races and didn’t bankrupt you completely. It used to be possible to do triathlon and feel like you were still doing something that was in the original spirit of getting out there and trying something hard, that wasn’t about the backpacks and logos and bragging rights and selling of manufactured dreams. And that just isn’t really possible now. Literally. The sport has changed since I last did a full season, and triathletes have no one to blame for that but themselves.
So, you fuckers better sign up for Wildflower and the back-and-better TriCal Alcatraz race. Because if TriCal goes under, I wouldn’t be surprised if they implement a scorched Earth policy on the way out. This is what you asked for.
I’ve been doing a decent number of stories recently about what athletes eat, like this one and this one. And it’s a topic that people really want to know about. It’s definitely one of the most common things people ask: Do you have to, like, eat special stuff?
It turns out that maybe what is holding me back from being an awesome athlete is my inability to cook anything. If you did a ‘What Kelly Eats’ it would be: burrito, sushi, hamburger, burrito, guacamole, guacamole, guacamole. When I do make food, most of the time — if I’m not making a hamburger — I follow my super secret recipe for eating quickly and without any hassle. Here you go:
- Buy a lot of good frozen meals, so that you always have a well-stocked freezer. Most of these are good and this one and this one are good.
- Select a meal. Put it in the microwave.
- Take it out of the microwave after the directed amount of time. Dump it on top of a bed of lettuce on a plate.
- Cut up half an avocado across the top. Add hummus, to taste.
- Eat with a beer.
There you go. The secret fuel of athletes too hungry and too tired to deal with anything.
I’ve never been a big believer in the whole “death before DNF” attitude. Most of the time when people say they’ve never DNF’d a race, I’m pretty sure it’s just because they haven’t tried hard enough.
But I do understand the value in being able to tell yourself you never quit, especially at that time in a race when all you want to do is quit. It’s a tool. And I understand that sometimes the only thing you can do or take away from the day is not quitting.
The difference, of course, is that a DNF is earned. It’s what happens when there is no other option. Even the people who are able to push themselves nearly to death — and the vast majority of people are definitely not those people — have had to be pulled from the side of the road or taken to the hospital. Quitting, well, quitting is a choice, and it can happen even before you cross the finish line. Lots of people who don’t DNF basically quit anyway. (Uh, speaking from experience.)
It may say that we DNF’d the Spartan Race Ultra Beast last weekend, but we quit. And maybe that’s the part that’s been bothering me.
The Ultra Beast was a marathon-length obstacle race up in Tahoe as part of the Spartan Race World Championships weekend. It turned out it was really more like 31 miles in total. We made it through just under 16 of those miles.
Yeah, it was hard. Mostly it was really cold. At the top of the mountain, close to 9,000 feet, it was in the 20s and winds were around 30-40 mph. That sucked, but it was fine. And it sucked when we had to jump in the cold lake with our clothes on, but I kept telling myself we’d warm up. I’ve been cold getting out of the water before. The real problem was then, before we’d warmed up enough, we had to crawl/roll through a half-mile of barbed wire. Crawl, climb a wall, crawl, climb a wall, crawl, jump in another pit of water. The whole thing wasn’t keeping anyone’s body temperature up enough to stay warm. When I got to that pit of water, I must have looked bad — white and shaking, teeth chattering — because I was like, “Do I have to do this?” and the guy said I could skip it and do the penalty instead. He also asked if I was ok. I said, yeah, I was fine.
By the end of that section, I physically couldn’t climb the rope, my hands wouldn’t hold on.
I warmed up eventually, and by the time we got down to the transition zone area, it was fine. But it was ugly. Mostly, I think there was an over-it-ness to everything. It was hard to do any of the obstacles, because our hands were so messed up. I fell off one rope onto my back. Everything hurt. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Hillary it’s a very acute sense of exactly how “fine” I am when things are really, really awful.
So I couldn’t ignore the fact that I could have gone on. I put on dry, warm clothes. And I could have physically kept going, for at least some amount more. We just chose not to.
The guy who got second, Miguel, I interviewed for my school documentary back in the spring, and he talked to me at one point about this Spartan promo video, about how you have to want it, you have to want it more than you want to breathe.
I thought about this after the race. I definitely didn’t want it that much. We didn’t even want it enough to deal with all the trouble of not quitting.
I probably would not have made it to the finish line even if we hadn’t quit. I was already failing at obstacles I knew how to do easily, so it would have just turned into a burpee trudge. I would have been colder as it got later. I might have fallen on something really bad. Already, every time I was climbing up over the top of a really tall rope net or wall, and hit the wind, and could barely hold on, I would feel blown back, like I so easily was going to slip, break a leg, land on my head. So, yeah, I probably wouldn’t have finished. I might have gotten really hurt. It definitely was not worth it for something that was just supposed to be for fun. But it would have been an earned DNF.
Everyone keeps telling me it was a smart choice to quit. But you don’t really do do these kinds of things because you’re trying to make smart choices.
Since Wisconsin the number one thing people have been saying to me is: “Does that mean you qualified for Kona?” (Or some variation.)
Yes, when you’re the second woman overall, it kind of guarantees that you’ll get a qualification spot to Kona. And yes, I handed over my credit card on the spot and signed up for next year. I’ve never been before and so, of course, I’m interested and I want to see what it’s like and I want to race the World Championships — even though I totally agree with the assessment that when you have the world championships in the same location every year it doesn’t so much decide who is the best Ironman athlete period, as it actually decides who is the best in those very specific conditions, but whatever.
So, yes, I bought into the Kona hype. But I have to say, I don’t understand the hype.
Maybe I’ll change my mind after I go. Maybe it truly is the most important and only worthwhile goal in triathlon. But I doubt it.
It seems to me like people chasing Kona qualification, trying to find the races that’ll be easiest to qualify, signing up for another and another and another, focusing only on that one thing as some kind of measure of their worth are missing the whole point of why they’re doing triathlon. They’ve lost the reason that they made Kona qualification a goal in the first place. It’s like none of these triathletes have ever read Moby Dick.
My goal at Wisconsin was to have a killer race. This was loosely defined time- and place-wise in my head, but rarely did that loose definition focus on how I would stack up in my age group. There was a point when I was running as the third woman overall and I was pretty sure I was third in my age group too (though it turned out one of the women ahead was actually in the 35-39). And that would have been fine, annoying but fine, because I’d rather have done a sub-10:30 and come in third overall than worry about winning my age group.
And that fundamentally is the part of the Kona qualification obsession that is weird to me: Who cares how old the people ahead of you and behind you are?? It doesn’t change how well you did.
If I had been six months younger I’d have won my age group at Wisconsin by over 30 minutes. If the woman ahead of me was three years younger, then the woman who was third overall wouldn’t have qualified for Kona. Does that change what we did in any way? Does it change how good or bad we should feel about our performances?
I’m a big believer in you race who shows up on race day and that’s that. Sure, I 100% get that the 60-year-old woman isn’t really competing with the 25-year-old, but the lines between 34 and 35 or between 28 and 32 are arbitrary. And we’ve let the weird structure of triathlon convince us that they’re not, that they mean something. We let Ironman lie to us that it somehow makes us more or less deserving of being at a world championships. We lie to ourselves.
Steve won Tahoe 70.3 last weekend. It was a big deal, and his first half-Ironman ever. And when I told people he won, every triathlete asked if I meant his age group or overall. I will probably never say that someone won something unless I mean that they fucking won. He WON, as in he was the first to cross the line, went the fastest, no one else went faster. Period.
The other thing people kept asking me about his race was if that meant he qualified for Kona too. Because, you know, that’s the only thing that matters.
– Imodium – that shit (heh) is amazing
– Vorgee goggles – seriously the only ones I wear, which I recognize is weird since they come from the UK, but whatever
– Drinking your calories – specifically in the form of high-calorie doses of Infinit and Gu Roctane (this comes with the ‘don’t be an idiot’ caveat — you still need to drink water)
– Trucker hats – do not even care if they’re not cool anymore; they’re basically ideal for not getting too hot or too sunburned
– Hoka Clifton 2 – I actually am not 100% nuts about these shoes for pure runs, but for long or hard runs after rides, when your legs are already trashed, any cons are totally outweighed by the pro of how much less awful your legs feel
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This was the short version of Ironman Wisconsin. Here’s the long (seriously long) version:
When I wanted to do a fall Ironman, part of why I picked Wisconsin was that my parents live in Chicago and my aunt and uncle live in Madison. I spent a lot of holidays in Madison as a kid and knew it’d be a fun race. And, man, it was a lot of fun. But, on the other hand, when people keep saying ‘everything went right’ for me, I want to be like: Sure, the weather was great, the course is good for me, nothing too bad happened, and it all came together. But of course things went wrong. You just deal with it. That’s how it goes.
In classic fashion, some things had to go pretty wrong in the days before the race. I flew into Chicago on Thursday and then drove my mom’s car up to Wisconsin on Friday afternoon. The only problem was that I didn’t realize the driver’s door handle on her car doesn’t work right. Or, rather, I realized once I opened it at a rest stop somewhere outside Rockford, Illinois and then it wouldn’t close and latch again. I was fiddling with it, pulling it, pushing it, hitting it, and swearing. Nothing worked. Eventually, after about an hour, because I had to get to check-in by 5 p.m., I bungee-corded the door closed and drove the rest of the way with the car beeping to let me know it was still technically open. Yeah, thanks for that reminder.
I made it to check-in with 45 minutes to spare. But then things were so backed up with some to-do about missing gear bags, and I had a work thing I needed to finish (which was why I had stopped at a rest stop in Rockford anyway), that I just sat down in line and opened my computer. The second big problem was that my derailleur hangar had been weirdly loose that morning when I built my bike, so I stopped at the expo mechanic to see if they could check to make sure nothing was wrong. They spent an hour taking the derailleur on and off, fiddling with screws, trying to fine-tune the shifting, which they said wasn’t great, but I said was basically as good as it ever was. Until eventually they decided I probably needed to replace my whole cassette and chain. The day before the race. Uhhhhhhh. No?
Saturday, I went to the regular bike store, which was a really cool place btw, and they agreed the shifting was fiiiiiiiiine, but not great, and I shouldn’t replace all that stuff right before a big race. Then I bought a new aero bottle, because naturally I had ordered a missing part for my old aero bottle, but that part didn’t fit because the bottle was too old and now there was a new model. Naturally. I also hadn’t realized that it was going to be that cold in Madison, and I had packed no pants. So we had to make a trip to the thrift store across the street. Basically, I just kept handing people my money. And eating. And trying not to freak out about the fact that my stomach was NOT happy on Saturday.
My stomach was still not super happy Sunday morning. After dropping off all the different things in all the different places, I was down by the swim start in my baggy thrift store sweats, trying to swallow an Immodium, when all of a sudden I was throwing up off the side of the road median. I thought about that later, when I was in 2nd (spoiler alert) and the crowds were screaming for me. Because there were definitely some people in the morning who saw that and were not sure I was going to last the day.
The swim is still an old-school mass start, which is fun. But it was weirdly aggressive, more than I would have expected for an Ironman. I lined up near the buoys, but far enough on the inside that I wouldn’t be in the crush. I thought. And I swam hard at first to get slightly away from the crowds, but they never went away. The problem, really, was that I kept getting sandwiched between large guys. They’d come in on both sides of me and then try to just ignore the fact that I was there. I definitely threw some elbows and kicked some people. On the way back, it opened up a bit. I was swimming with a group of guys, and saw no women for 20-30 minutes. (It’s weird, when you think about it, how different the women’s race is from the men’s race. I never was by myself all day, not really. But if there had only been women in the race, I would have spent long, long amounts of time alone, which is what the front guys experience. It’s weird. That’s all. How different those two races, that are supposed to be the same, actually are.)
The swim seemed like it just went on and on and on, and I just wanted to be finished and I kept convincing myself that the next buoy was the last turn buoy, but it NEVER WAS. When we finally did get to the last turn buoy, I came around the corner and got kicked in the face so hard that it knocked my contact out. (PSA: DON’T DO BREASTSTROKE RIGHT AFTER TURNING A BUOY!) I came up yelling a string of swearwords almost immediately. I was worried my race was over right there. What do you do with one contact? After 10 seconds or so, I realized the contact had rolled up in my eye, so I treaded water (and swore a lot) and spent about a minute getting it to come back down and settle, so I could see again. In that time, I realized where all the women had been — in the large pack right behind me. Sigh. When I could see out of both eyes, I put my head down and swam hard to catch them back, and eventually we were done.
I wasn’t wearing a watch and there was no clock at the exit, so I had no idea what I swam. I got my wetsuit off faster than the wetsuit strippers could even get to me, then took off up the ramp — which was the first time during the day I started spontaneously laughing, because the crowds were just so nuts and screaming so loud and I felt like the biggest rockstar. By the time I got through the long transition and all the way down the parking lot to my bike, the clock at the exit said 1:05:40-something, so I thought ‘Holy shit, I must have swum a sub-hour.’ Nope. I swam 1:00:01. Actually, originally the tracker said I swam 1:00:00.1, so, you know, got to save some goal for the next race.
Because I’d thrown up a decent amount of what I’d eaten and drank beforehand, I knew I needed to get something down right away. I had half a Clif bar almost immediately and some water, then started drinking my 900-1000 calorie bottle of Infinit, but it wasn’t sitting great. I felt OK on the way out of Madison to where the countryside loop started, but not good. I passed a couple women, got passed back by one. But my stomach was bothering me and I was NOT in love with the weird bike path, sketchy turns, through parking lots, and on sidewalks at the beginning. About an hour in, I just tore the bag of Immodium off the top of my bike and threw back the two pills and I swear to God that saved my race. Around when we started the loop, I started to feel decent.
A woman passed me about then and I thought I should try to just keep her in sight. I didn’t think I could do it, but eventually I actually caught her again and passed her back. Then, on one of the longer climbs, she passed me again. That sort of set the tone for the next four hours. She would pull so far away that I’d be convinced she had finally totally dropped me, then I would catch her on a long descent and pass her. I’d pull far enough ahead that I thought I’d have pulled away for good, then she caught me when I stopped at Special Needs. It was actually really good to have someone to mentally push off. And a few of the times we were passing each other, especially on the long climbs where everything would sort of accordion together, we would talk briefly for a few seconds. Her name was Kelly too, and she had a huge group of friends on the crazy climb that was Tour de France-esque in the crowds and costumes.
It was actually sort of fun? Maybe. For some parts. At one point, the Ironman video crew rolled up next to me and asked how I felt and I said, “Surprisingly, not that bad.”
The only downside was about two hours in, my derailleur started to make this terrible grinding sound in the middle gears. Um, shit? I tried to see if I could figure out what was wrong, but I had no idea how to fix it, so I just hoped it would last. It got worse and worse as we went, so that by the end it sounded like the whole thing was just going to come apart, and people who went by me were asking about it. But it made it 112 miles, so what are you going to do. I also was not doing an amazing job of handling all the turns and downhills. Turns out, I’m still super stressed about crashing, so I was stupidly cautious. But, I made it through. So, again, what are you going to do.
At some point at the beginning of that first lap, it was evident from the people on the sidelines that the other Kelly and I were in 3rd and 4th. Then we passed the girl in 2nd. (Got passed on the second lap by the woman who would eventually win, and who was flying.) When I hit the climb with the huge crowds and the creepy clowns, who would step out of the corn fields randomly, I was the 2nd woman and people were screaming and going nuts. And I wasn’t going particularly hard up the hill, no point in wasting the energy, so I just sort of soaked it in and laughed. This is insane.
On the way back into Madison, I did start to struggle and hate everything. The other Kelly finally put a few minutes on me. I knew I was doing well overall and it was fine. I had drunk a 900-1000 calorie bottle of Infinit and another similarly caloried bottle of Gu Rocktane, plus lots of water. But I was just so tired of biking. Ugh. I pounded a gel and began the process of talking myself into getting ready to run.
When I handed off my bike to a volunteer, my computer said 5:40-ish, but I hadn’t pressed start for about a minute at the beginning, so I didn’t really know exactly what I had ridden. Whatever. I knew I was “crushing it,” as people kept yelling at me. Then I got to the part of triathlon I am best at: transitions. Ironman transitions are sort of fun (in my opinion), because there’s so many people ready to help you and it’s not like if you screw up and lose 10 seconds everything is over. I tied my shoes, while a volunteer shoved gels in my pocket and turned my Garmin on, and then I was out the door. I had come into T2 4th, but started the run 3rd. And, my total Olympic-distance race mentality took over. I needed to pee and was going to stop, but some deep subconscious part of my brain took over and was like: no, get out of sight of the other Kelly, try to lock up 3rd while you can.
Then I just started running “easy.”
A woman was biking in front of me and after a few minutes I asked her if she was biking for me. Yes! She was! And the crowds were screaming as I came around the capitol building. This is awesome. At that point, I just wanted to hold onto 3rd and run solidly. The clock as I headed out of T2 had said 6:50 I think, so I knew I had a lot of buffer time for an OK overall finish. I also was 95% sure I was going to blow up and need all that buffer.
Here’s what was weird: All during the run and the next morning, people kept telling me how great I looked, how fast a pace I was keeping up, how I could catch the girl ahead. They really all thought that it was easy, I think. But the difference between what they saw on the outside and what was going on inside my head could not have been more drastic. I didn’t feel great; I didn’t want to try to catch the girl ahead; I didn’t think I was running fast. By four or five miles in, I was very worried about how this would end. So I took a gel. Every time I felt terrible, I told myself, “Shut up, eat a gel, keep running.” I think I ate eight gels during the run.
I divided the run up into four 6-mile sections in my head, because of course you can run six miles. You can run one, and you can do that six times. So. The first six I just ran “easy” and tried not go too fast. I did mostly 7:45s/7:50s (except for on the steep hill). The second section I tried to maintain an 8:00/mile pace. That was actually a tough section, because I kept thinking about how I had to do it all again and I didn’t think I’d make it. My legs hurt, hurt, hurt. I did not feel awesome or any of the things people kept yelling at me. The third section I just kept repeating the number one Hillary Biscay rule: DO NOT STOP RUNNING FOR ANY REASON. I think I said that hundreds of times in my head. Do not stop running for ANY reason. I told myself I just needed to make it to 18, and then the last six the rule was ‘do whatever it takes to get to 24, it doesn’t matter how slow, just keep running.’
Sometimes I was clearly enjoying myself:
And sometimes I was definitely just deep inside my own head:
Around mile 16 I passed the girl in 2nd and got a new bike lead. I did not really want to pass her. I was totally happy with 3rd, and I didn’t want to have to fight anyone or sprint for anything. I was seriously just trying to keep it together myself. Once I was in 2nd, though, I also did not want to let that go. People were screaming for me. (They get so excited for the top women.) And my name was on my bib, so they kept yelling, “Kelly!” And when I came back by again, they’d cheer “Kelly’s back. Let’s go. You’ve got 2nd now. Come on, Kelly!” And I wasn’t going to let down all these total strangers. Obviously. So I just kept running.
I slowed down that last section of six miles, from 8:00 to 8:20-30, but I kept running. I started drinking Coke at around 19 miles too. But by the time I made it to 24, it was clear that I had a big lead on 3rd and that I was going to run in the 3:30s even if I slowed drastically. Then I really started to enjoy it.
Those last two miles, I high-fived everyone I could and I kept spontaneously laughing. It was just so unbelievable. It didn’t seem like it was me. Me? I usually blow up in situations like this and trudge it in. But not this time. There were a couple section on the run where the road was deeply lined with people, some of whom were college students who had been drinking all day, and they were screaming and screaming for me. And I didn’t know what to do. You just want to jump up and down and wave your arms. Maybe that’s why everyone does the fist pump. It feels right.
I crossed the finish line laughing and laid down a few seconds later, mostly because I had promised myself that I could lay down when I got to the finish. But this made the volunteers very concerned and they swooped in. I told them I was fine, and it was agreed I was fine, but I should sit down and drink some water. I pounded the water, because I was way too thirsty, which made me start throwing up everywhere, which concerned the volunteers even more. And that’s how I ended up in the med tent. The only problem was my veins had shrunken up and they couldn’t get an IV in right, so some of it went into my arm muscles and not my veins (ugh). I got a big bruise as an extra token from the race, along with all the random cuts and sunburn and soreness.
But it was totally worth it.