Ironman Silverman 70.3: The Swim

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The road to Ironman Silverman 70.3 required muscle and willpower.  It was physically demanding and mentally taxing.  I devoted 2-6 hours a day to training— open water swims in the Pacific ocean, 3 hour solo bike rides (often in 100 degree heat), and runs on aching joints.   The training took a lot out of me mentally too: tears, self-doubt, meltdowns, panic attacks, anxiety (Why on earth had I signed up for this?)  And of course, it didn’t help being RESCUED by a lifeguard during my warm-up event, the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. I considered giving up more than once.  But after 5 months of training, I had to see what I was capable of.  

On October 4, 2014, I found myself in Henderson, Nevada, less than 24 hours from the start of my first ever half ironman.  The expo and packet pickup were well-organized, but crowded.  It took about an hour to pick up my race packet (timing chip, bike stickers, etc) which was located at T2.  I then immediately headed to T1, located at Lake Mead, to rack my bike.  Seeing the lake only heightened my anxiety.  

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The rest of the day was filled with eating, setting up T2 (which I did not visit on race morning), Ironman shopping (although I feared a DNF and was hesitant to buy too much), more eating, race prepping, my traditional pre-race frozen yogurt and anxiety and meltdowns.  We also drove the bike course so that I could see what I would be up against. I was in bed by 11:30 p.m. and tried to sleep.  Instead, I tossed and turned and thought of everything that could go wrong the next day.  

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My alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.  I was tired, nervous, and to be completely honest, ready for this whole process to be done.  We had room service delivered and I drank some coffee in bed and ate a bagel (half with peanut butter, half with cream cheese).  I was able to take my time getting ready.  I didn’t have too much to do since I had packed the night before.  We were in the car and on the road to the race by 5:15!

The drive to Lake Mead took about 30 minutes, plus an extra 15 minutes for parking.  (There was only one road into the lake.)  By this point, I was so insanely nervous, I wasn’t sure I would even be able to do the race.  I always experience anxiety before my races, but after 5 months of training the stakes were higher here.  

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Once we parked, I walked over to T1 to get body marked and to set everything up.  I had left my bike, helmet, and shoes the day before, but I still had to get organized.  I strapped the little nutrition box onto my bike that I had bought the day before at the expo (so clutch and amazing) and filled it with tons of food (Clif bars, Honey Stinger Waffles, Gus), an extra pair of contacts (in case something happened to mine), chapstick (also so clutch), and some medicine (Advil and Zofran- anti-nausea).  I knew I needed to take in sodium and electrolytes on the bike, but I hadn’t trained with any liquid besides water.  Following the advice of some friends, I popped two Nuun tablets (which provide electrolytes) in one of my water bottles and decided to bring the rest of them with me and make a game time decision on whether I would drink water or water + Nuun.  I laid out the rest of my gear (helmet, glasses, socks, shoes, headband, towel, and extra nutrition) and messed around with my flat kit, adding some tools I also bought at the expo (I don’t know how to even change a flat tire so I’m not sure why I even did this…).  Then I headed over to the port-o-potties for a last minute bathroom break.  

It was now around 7 a.m. and the first wave of pros were off and into the water.  I met up with my parents and Remi and we walked over to the water so I could get myself acclimated.

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The water temperature of Lake Mead varies and there was a lot of debate about whether or not it would be a wetsuit legal race.  If the temperature of the water is between 76.1 and 83.8 degrees Fahrenheit you can wear a wetsuit, but will not be eligible for age group awards or Ironman World Championship slots.  If the water is 83.4 degrees or warmer, wetsuits are prohibited.  It was announced before the race that the water was around 75 degrees and wetsuits would be allowed.

Now, here was my problem.  Wetsuits are great in a lot of ways.  They are buoyant and make you “hydo-dynamic” (yes, I made that up), which can make you swim faster.  But I don’t have that great of a relationship with the wetsuit.  I find them (or mine, at least) constricting of my arm stroke and kick.  And, more importantly, it can be difficult for me to breath in them (helloooooo chest constriction).  Since I already have wicked open water anxiety, this tends to pose a problem.

A week ago, I did an open water swim in Long Beach in just a bathing suit and felt better than I ever have swimming in a wetsuit.  I just felt like I could breathe SO much better and had full range of motion.

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I decided to hop in the water with my sleeveless wetsuit to see how I felt and test the conditions.  I lubed up, slipped into my wetsuit and waded into Lake Mead.  I didn’t go in too deep, just sort of floated on my back and blew some bubbles.  After about 3 minutes, I felt my chest was too constricted, came back to shore, and took off the wetsuit.  Then I headed back out to again feel the water.

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I chatted with some people about whether the water was too warm for a wetsuit.  They said they were going to forgo the wetsuit for fear to overheating…another reason to go wetsuit-less.  (Although now I realize that most people actually did wear wetsuits.)  At this point, I made a bad decision.  I asked a woman exiting the water if she’d seen any fish. Now, a lot of you may know this, but not totally understand it — I am terrified of fish. Why? I have no idea, but I am hard-core scared of them.  Not just like, “Oooh I think fish are gross.”  More like, “If I see a fish in the water, I will have a heart attack, panic attack, inhale water and drown.” (I’m kind of exaggerating, but not really.) So I was hoping her response would be: “I haven’t seen any.”  Instead, she said, “ that yesterday she did her practice swim and she’d seen “I saw a ton of fish during a practice swim yesterday!  One over a foot long!”  Cue panic…

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I bolted from the water and started to cry.  My nerves, the exhausting training, the stakes of this race, and now fish…I couldn’t take it.  First my mom asked me why the hell I had asked a random women about fish.  Then she proceeded to tell me what she has told me 1000 times before…I would not see a fish with that many people in the water. She is a former lifeguard.

Then she said, “If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to.  Don’t get in that water.”  I’m not sure whether or not she was trying to use reverse psychology on me or actually telling me to give up, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to quit before I had started.  I made my way over to the swim start and lined up with my group.  I wasn’t going down without a fight.

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I found my group and almost immediately found my friend and fellow LMU alumni Hannah, also competing in her first half-ironman.  We’ve kept in touch about our training, worries, triumphs, etc.  It was nice to see someone I knew before going into the water.  She gave me a quick pre-race pep talk (“I didn’t see any fish yesterday”…by that point I didn’t know what to believe) and before I knew it, I was making my way into the water to begin my first ever half ironman.

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THE SWIM:

The swim for Ironman 70.3 Silverman takes place in Lake Mead at Boulder Beach, about 20 miles outside of Las Vegas.  It is a wave swim start (thank God) and is a one loop, 1.2 mile swim.  There were buoys about every 100 meters and scores of lifeguards on paddle boards and kayaks (although I did not want a repeat of Malibu).

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I was shaking when the announcer told the light blue swim caps (women 18-34) to enter the water (it was an in water start).  I positioned myself towards the back and on the outer right side to avoid getting kicked.  I put my face in the water, blew some bubbles, looked back and gave my parents a quick and terrified glance and then, the horn blared and we were off.

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I would say that my heart-rate skyrocketed, but, if I’m being totally honest, I think it was pounding before I started swimming.  My plan was to do the breast stroke/doggy paddle to the first buoy and then find a rhythm.  Even though I have bad open water anxiety, I am usually able to gain my composure after floating on my back for a bit and getting my bearings.  I did not get my rhythm this race.

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On my way to the first buoy, I took my time.  I wanted let the fast swimmers pass me and I was already having trouble breathing.  I flipped on my back to float for a few seconds and quickly realized that floating in fresh water without a wetsuit isn’t easy.  I managed to re-catch my breath and began swimming again.

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One stroke. Two strokes.  Three strokes.  Shoot! I can’t breathe again. 

Doggy paddle.  Breast stroke.

Still can’t breathe.

I heard a gun go off and another wave of triathletes hit the water.

I tried to swim freestyle, keeping my eyes closed in the water so I wouldn’t see the supposed fish or anything else that would freak me out but I could NOT calm down.  As I approached the second buoy, I turned around to see a mass of bright yellow swim caps coming at me.

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DAMN!  I treaded water, trying to dodge the 18 to 29 year old males who were propelling through the water.  I looked around and saw some women from my wave that were still swimming along at my pace.  That was comforting.  I breast-stroked, back stroked, kicked on my back, doggy-paddled, free-styled with my eyes closed, and convinced myself that I would find a rhythm at some point (HAHAHA).

Just take it one buoy at a time.  Just get to the next buoy.  You can do this. *Tries to sing song in head*

At some point on my way out (maybe around the 5th buoy), I had to avoid the last wave of triathletes that had entered the water.  I had caught up to some people in earlier waves and was still ahead of a small handful of women in my wave.  The swim was incredibly mentally challenging.  I don’t think that I ever swam more than 50 meters without coming up gasping for air.  I also was getting over a cold and had congestion in my chest.  It felt like I was wheezing almost.  Luckily, there were no waves or current (only some swells).  In that sense, the conditions were good.  But I couldn’t get the thought of fish off of my mind and my lack of buoyancy did not help.  I kept telling myself that quitting was not an option.  If I had to doggy paddle through 1.2 miles, I would do it.

You are an athlete.  You are more than capable of swimming this distance.  *Gasps for air as chest constricts*  You will not quit.  Don’t be a wimp.  *Fights off panic attack and continues swimming*

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When I reached the first turn, I was overjoyed. I had completed almost 40% of swim! I saw a guy from an earlier swim wave holding onto a kayak (you are allowed to stop and rest as long as you don’t make forward progress) and I decided that I would take a quick break to clear my throat and chest.  I heard the guy telling the lifeguard in the kayak that he had swallowed a ton of water (thank God I didn’t have that problem!).  The lifeguard asked if I was ok.  I said I was great, just wanted a quick break.  I was able to clear out some of the congestion (TMI?) and was on my way again.

I don’t care if you’re the last person out of this water, you will NOT give up. 

I must be to the next buoy by now.  I’ve been swimming forever.  *Checks progress*  I might have only swam 10 feet in the past minute. 

I continued my bizarre swimming strategy and eventually made the second turn and began the final 800 meters to shore.  I checked my watch and was surprised.  I wasn’t going horrendously slow! I’m still not sure how that was possible.  I decided to try and keep my eyes open when my face was in the water in hopes that I could finally get in a rhythm.  It worked a bit, but I continued to struggle.  I’m terrible at sighting, so I ended up swimming zigzag quite often and would have to come up to see where I was going.  And that would throw off whatever rhythm I had gained.  The best rhythms that I got in were when I was swimming either directly behind or next to someone.  I’m not completely sure why, but it was comforting.

I think I have been swimming for at least 2 hours…

On my way back to shore, I stopped once more to rest on a kayak and clear my throat.  At this point, I knew I would finish the swim, despite getting caught up in grass/kelp which caused more anxiety for me.  But I was determined to finish this damn swim. And there it was: the shore! 

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I did it! I can’t believe I did it! And I didn’t get rescued by a lifeguard!!!

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I looked up and saw my parents and Remi.  My hands scraped the bottom, and I stood up, so thankful to be out of the water and on solid land.  I had a huge grin on my face as I jogged up the ramp into T1.  When I passed my cheering squad I yelled, “That was terrible!!” and laughed.  I am proudest of my mental toughness during the swim.  It seemed to go on forever.  But I did not give up or let my experience during the Malibu triathlon stop me. In the end, it was my mind driving my body— taking one stroke at a time, one buoy at a time, and overcoming my demons.

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Final Swim Results: 56:45 (2:56/100 m)

10th Age-group / 415th Female / 1515 Overall

I took my time jogging into T1 because I was dizzy after coming out of the water.  There were still a good number of bikes in the transition area, which made me feel good.  I dried off my feet and face and slipped on my socks, headband, helmet, sunglasses.  As I have mentioned before, I wasn’t trying to hit any time goals since this is such a difficult course.  So I took my time in transition (I definitely could and should have moved faster), but I figured being comfortable on the bike was more important than losing a bit of time.  I even took a quick bathroom break.

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T1: 7:09

Before I knew it, I was jogging my bike out of transition, waving to my support crew, and ready to take on 56 miles of hills! One comforting thought: Those hills don’t have no fish!

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