70.3! SEVENTY POINT THREE. That's the mileage of a half ironman triathlon and that's the mileage I did on Saturday September 7 at the Quakerman Half-Ironman triathlon in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Cutting to the chase: I had the race of my life. Despite being race number 13 (eek!), the stars were aligned in every possible way to make this race simply fantastic. Here's a picture of the race site, Lake Nockamixon, on race morning. thank you to Amy for all the pictures!
Giving it away up front ... I finished in 6:31:20. I was 3rd in my age group, 10th woman overall and 48th of 63 people total. Yes!
I did the Quakerman Olympic-Plus triathlon (.6 mile swim, 39 mile bike, 10K [6.2 mile] run) last year and the experience was not the best. I underestimated hilly course, I did not fuel properly on the bike and I panicked on the swim. I crossed the finish line, but did so completely demoralized and exhausted. That is part of the reason I signed up for the Six Flags Great Adventure Sprint Tri a few weeks later: I wanted to end my triathlon season on a high note. As soon as Quakerman opened registration for 2013, I signed up for the Olympic again. I wanted to crush my time from the prior year. At that time, the idea of a half ironman seemed like a very far off thing ... and a full ironman felt like a pipe dream.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered why I couldn't do the half ironman. I knew the Quakerman course. The lake was perfect: no current, clean, warm and just a great place to swim. Sure, the bike and run were hilly, but I could train on hills. So, a few months after I registered, I emailed the race organizers and asked if I could change to the Half Iron tri. And just like that: I was doing a half ironman.
I've been training all season for this race. New Jersey Devilman in May, Upper Dublin Sprint in May, Parvin Sprint in June, Lake Placid training in July, Steelman in August, a huge (scary) brick in August ... they all led me to this race.
Two days before the race, I decided to enjoy the gorgeous cool sunny weather and do an easy 4 mile run. So easy, in fact, that I left the watch at home so I wouldn't be tempted to look at my pace. About a mile in, I sort of tweaked my knee. It didn't hurt, but it felt "off". I got home and it continued to feel off and ache all night. I iced it, took ibuprofen, used my muscle roller, elevated it and hoped I'd wake up feeling normal. I didn't. I woke up the next day - the day before the half ironman - and my knee was still bothering me. Again, it didn't hurt, but it didn't feel great. Panic. I never have knee issues except when I wear shoes that are too old, but my shoes are new. I babied it all day, continued the ice, elevation, compression and ibuprofen. The only silver lining is all this focus on my knee took my focus and anxiety off of the race the next day. Rather than worrying about whether I could finish, I was focused on the idea of actually getting to compete.
Thankfully, I woke up on race day and felt fine. I'm not sure what the knee was all about, but crisis averted. My friend Bill had decided to do the race, so we drove up together, while his wife/my friend Amy came up to the race later with their kids and our colleague. It was great to have a cheering section!
We left around 5:15 am, and were at the race site by 6:00 or so. Quakerman only has day-of packet pick-up and that opens at 6 am. The half iron race was to start at 8 am and the Olympic would start at 9:30.
Quakerman is a very small field. There were only 63 people who competed in the half ironman and maybe 100 or so in the Olympic. This is good and bad -- good in that the course is not crowded. Bad in that, well, the fear of being last is greater. Last year it was the same: small field. It's a late season race and a very challenging bike and run, so my hunch is a lot of people don't consider it.
Race day conditions could not have been better. The air was cool, the water was cool enough for wetsuits and the sun was shining. There was a bit of a breeze, which felt great on the run and the bike. I was worried that the water would be too warm for wetsuits, like it was last year. 1.2 miles in the water without a wetsuit is possible, but a long way to go. Thankfully that was not an issue.
My goals for this race were to have a strong and steady swim, a strong and steady bike, to have fun and to finish around 6 - 6 1/2 hours.
And now for the recap!
Swim - 1.2 miles: 43:29
Lake Nockamixon is why I signed up for this race again: it is gorgeous. It's very clean, very clear, warm and great for a swim. Quakerman has a triangular course that is .6 mile around - so the Half Iron athletes do two laps of the buoys. The Half Iron race was one big wave of 63 people starting at once. It was a very easy start: I put myself in the back and away from the buoys so I wouldn't get pummeled in the beginning and it worked. Of all the races I've ever done, I had the least amount of body contact at this start. Last year was my first open water swim, so I freaked out and couldn't settle in. This time, I am used to the open water and had a great swim. I had one weird moment about 4 minutes in where I wanted to stop but then told myself to cut it out and just keep going. The key for me to a happy, strong swim is to zone out, sing ABBA songs and for the first few minutes swim "stupid slow" and not really kick my feet. I keep my heart rate nice and low by doing this and then once I'm warmed up and acclimated to the water, I can get moving.
|getting assistance out of the water - a very steep rocky shore!|
I will say that sighting was not so easy. The race organizers had three big buoys for the triangle but only a couple of sighting buoys along the way. It was kind of hard (for me) to sight, and I don't think I was alone because at one point, someone ran into me (they were going the other way), presumably because they got confused about the course direction when they rounded the last buoy for the second lap.
The swim was great. When I rounded the last buoy and headed to shore, I could see people behind me. And when I got to T1, there were still a lot of bikes left in transition, meaning there were a bunch of people in the water behind me. This was very exciting to me. I was also thrilled to, sorry have to use the pun, blow my Quakerman Olympic swim time out of the water. I swam .6 miles last year in 25:10. I am beyond thrilled with this swim. I was 45th out of 63 on the swim. There were almost 20 people behind me!
If you plan to do Quakerman, don't count on it being wetsuit legal. It wasn't last year and I think this year was iffy. We happened to have a couple of very cold nights before the race, which probably brought the temperature down enough to allow wetsuits.
T1 was largely uneventful. I was able to get my wetsuit off easily and threw on my helmet, bike shoes, socks and glasses. I also decided to take the extra 10 seconds and wear bike gloves. The bike is my weakest, and least favorite, part of the tri, so I wanted to be as comfortable as possible, especially if I was going to be on the bike for 56 miles. I got a lot of cheers from my friends and off I went. I was 29th of 63 in T1. I am really good at transition. I think it's because a mommy and I know how to get stuff done fast.
|heading out of T1 and ready to bike 56+ miles|
Bike - 57.9 miles: 3:36:43 (16.0 mph)
Oy. The bike. This bike course is definitely hilly but not impossibly so. And, unlike an official half ironman distance of 56 miles on the bike, the Quakerman is 57.9 miles (those extra 2 miles count!). Because I have done this race before and Steelman too, which has part of the same course, I knew to put my gears in the small ring immediately. There is a steep climb out of the park area, which lasts a good 1/2 mile. Then it's a gradual climb out of the park for another mile or so. This is very challenging right out of the swim. Once you get out of the park, you make a right and essentially ride around the circumference of Lake Nockamixon. The roads are not closed and are very busy at points, but it is marshalled well. I also found the road conditions a bit dicey at points: gravel in the roads, very narrow shoulders at points, some ill-placed road kill and sand in the shoulder on the very steep descent. So, if you do the race, be prepared to ride with traffic. The course is mostly rollers with a bunch of flat spots. There is a really great (and pretty!) descent when you turn off of Rt. 611, which then leads to a pretty difficult uphill. There are a few more rollers until you hit the really steep descent and ascent on Rt. 313. Then you make a right onto Rt. 563 and pass the Quakerman site. I saw a bunch of people on the side of the road with flats, including one guy who said he blew two tubes.
If you are doing the half, you do three laps of this. THREE. Ugh. By the third lap, I was absolutely over it. After my first lap, the people from the Olympic tri were joining the course. I played leap frog with a guy from the Olympic for the remaining two laps. It was actually really great because it made the time go faster. He would pass me, then I would pass him, then he would pass me, then I would pass him. We realized this early on and would joke and chat when we passed each other.
|Finishing Lap 1 of the bike and about to start Lap 2|
I ate a ton on the bike, which is essential for me to have a good run. I ate a Bonk Breaker (blueberry oat - yum), a cookie dough Lara bar, a bag of cherry cola Honey Stinger chews, a vanilla Gu, one full bottle of Strawberry Vanilla Hammer Perpeteum and 3/4 bottle of water. I wanted to do the bike in 3:30, and I ended up doing it in just over that. I was thrilled to maintain 16.0 miles per hour on this rather challenging course, especially since last year on that same course (though only 2 laps instead of 3), I had a 14.8 mph pace. I felt very strong on the bike the entire time.
I was so ready to be off that bike and get running. So after the third lap, back to transition I went.
|Heading into T2 - look how happy I am to be off that bike. Ha!|
The cheering section was waiting right outside transition near my bike, which was awesome. I felt great going into T2. I wasn't gassed - I was ready for the run. My legs were a little achey and my back and shoulders were absolutely ready to be upright again. I put my bike back, changed shoes, put on my race belt and grabbed my visor to put on while running. On the way out, Amy yelled, "WHO WANTS TO RUN A HALF MARATHON!!??!!" LOL and OMG. Me. Apparently, I kicked butt in this transition because I was 8th overall. Again LOL and OMG.
|Heading out of T2 to the run!|
Run - 13.1 miles: 2:08:20 (9:48/mile pace)
The first mile of this run was, as always, tough. My legs felt like jello, I could hear my feet flapping on the ground and my breathing was all out of whack. My plan for the run was to get my heart rate under control and settle into a good rhythm early, to walk at every aid station and drink, to walk the steep hills if necessary and to do between a 9:00 and 10:00/mile pace.
The run is two laps of the same course for the Half Iron. You run the same course as the Oly athletes but when you get back to the finish, you run around a tree and head back out for the second lap. I ended up loving this, because I knew exactly what to expect, I got to see a ton of people and cheer them and be cheered by them and it made breaking the course into manageable bits, vs thinking about running 13.1 miles, much easier.
The first few miles are on a running/biking trail in the Nockamixon Park. It is mostly shaded with a few little up and down hills, but nothing crazy. Nothing crazy, that is, until the climb out of the park -- that is a very steep and long hill with awful bumps and potholes in the road. I walked part of this hill on both laps. I would have barely been running if I didn't, so I figured the time gained didn't make up for the effort wasted. There was an aid station at the top of this hill. Then you are on Rt. 563 (which is also part of the bike course). You run down a very long hill and then up a very long hill. There is no shade on this road, so it's difficult. It would have been brutal on a hotter day. Once you are at the top of the hill, you head left into a very shaded neighborhood. The turn around for the Oly is near an aid station. Half Iron athletes continue a little farther and their turn around is there. Then you head back the way you came and do it again.
I loved the interaction with the other athletes. On my first lap, I ended up running about a mile with the nicest woman who was finishing up her Oly run. We chatted a bit and she was just so encouraging. It made me forget about the fact that I still had half of my run to go. I cheered her to the finish and looped around the tree to head on back. I saw my bike leap frog buddy after my first lap. I was heading out and he was heading to the finish. I said, "Hey! It's my bike leap frog buddy! You go!" And he said, "Yeah! It's the Mini Biker! You go too!" After the turn around in the neighborhood, I started running with a guy that I met at Devilman! Such a small world. We walked and ran a little together and then he told me I was faster than he was (meep meep) so go on ahead. I did and we wished each other well.
I felt really strong on this run. I was thrilled to see my splits on my watch: most were in the 9s. The ones with the uphills were in the 10s. I looked at my total time and realized I was within reach of a 6:30 finish and within reach of a half marathon pace of less than 10:00 miles. This kept me going. The course was marked with mile markers at every mile. I tried not to focus on them, and instead broke the course into more landmark-based markers for me: the trail, the hill of death, the big down and up on 563, the neighborhood, the turn around and back again. When I saw mile marker 12, I yelled out, "MILE 12! I WANT TO MARRY THAT SIGN!" and the guy in front of me laughed out loud. But it's true. I did want to marry that mile 12 sign and make little mile 12 sign babies with it.
The last mile went really fast for me. The next thing I knew, I saw mile 13 and could hear and see the finish and my friends. I saw the clock said 6:31 and went as fast as I could to it. And ... done! My run time was 2:08:20, which was 35th out of 63 people. THRILLED. And mostly thrilled because the run felt good. Such an improvement over my Oly run last year, which was 11:47 pace (because I did not fuel at all on the bike - duh).
|At the finish with Bill|
I am a Half Ironman [please don't call me a Half Ironwoman - it's MAN]! The woman at the end of the race took off my timing chip and gave me a medal and looked at me and said "congratulations. what you just did is amazing and inspiring." Wow. And as if I wasn't already in euphoric bliss, Amy surprised me with an iced towel. HELLO.
I was shocked at how great I felt during and after this race. It was an effort for sure, but I felt really strong. Never, not once, did I think "I can't do this." I just kept moving. I thought I would be more emotional at the finish. I was emotional, but I didn't cry. I was just ecstatic and happy and beaming from ear to ear.
I'd like to thank the following for making my Half Iron a great race:
- the Quakerman race organizers and volunteers
- my friends Amy, Sandy, Nathaniel and Andrew for being the best cheering squad ever (and the iced towel)
- my friend Bill who raced the race with me and who didn't give up
- Lake Noxamixon for being wetsuit legal
- ABBA for making perfect songs to swim to
- my nameless bike leap frog buddy in the grey and red tri suit who made the last 40 miles on the bike a bit easier to bear
- ABBA, John Mellancamp, Don McClean, the Supremes, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Buffett, Jim Croce and the Spinners for making perfect songs to bike to (and sing out loud)
- The lady I ran with from miles 5.5-6.5; the guy I ran from the second turn around until about mile 10.5
- Hammer for making Hammer Perpeteum; Gatorade; Gu
- The Mile 12 sign
- My Garmin - for race day stats and for telling me I burned 4100 calories, which made the gluttony which was my race night dinner much easier to justify
- Hop Devil and Sprite: those were what I was thinking about on the run.
- The announcer of the race, who actually pronounced my name correctly!
And there you go. The longest 70.3 race recap in the history of the internets. And with that, my 2013 triathlon season is done. I'm ready to move on to the Philly Marathon and start Ironman Lake Placid training in earnest in the new year. In the meantime, I am going to ride high on this one for a pretty long time.