My Journey to 70.3
A Brief Background...
I’ve only been “tri-ing” for a little over two years. I did my first sprint distance triathlon in July of 2012 and my first Olympic distance tri in July 2013. When I finished the Olympic distance triathlon last summer, I told a friend that I wasn’t yet ready for the 70.3 distance that she was training for. I really didn’t think I was at that point.
Then in December of 2013, the news came out that an Ironman-branded 70.3 event was coming to Princeton, NJ. It was going to be held in Mercer County Park, the same location as the New Jersey State Triathlon, and a location I love. The water is clean-ish or at least seaweed-free, the roads are fairly flat, and it is an hour drive from home.
The problem was, I had just promised my ever-patient husband that I’d take 2014 off from long distance training. I’ve completed one or two marathons every year since 2011, and that training takes its toll on a family. I told him about this incredible opportunity, and he gave me his blessing. The moment registration opened, I was signed up.
My 16-week training plan officially started in May. I sat down with a calendar and a training guide and planned my weeks of training. I’d hoped to hire a trainer to help get me safe and strong to the start line, but sadly that wasn’t in the budget. I was on my own.
Anyone who knows me knows I tend to overbook myself with races and other activities, but I made a concerted effort to scale this summer’s activities back. I did a sprint triathlon in June, an Olympic triathlon in July, and took August off completely from racing.
On the whole, I enjoyed 70.3 training much more than marathon training. Every day called for a different activity, which is a nice change from the monotony of day after day of running. As the training distances got longer, I really started to struggle with balance. Being a midwife, I’m often scheduled to work 100+ hours in a week. Work combined with the important needs of my family left me trying to squeeze in my workouts, having to choose which workouts were crucial and which were okay to miss.
In the end, it was swim training that got the short end of the stick. I am a comfortable but not fast swimmer, and knew that I could make it through the 1.2 mile swim easily with little training. (Notice I didn’t say quickly!)
I did almost all of my training solo, as I knew that I’d be on my own on race day, but my friend Jackie was kind enough to come join me on two of my long rides. She is a stronger cyclist than I am, so her tips and advice were invaluable. I was most concerned about the bike portion of the race, since that is my newest sport. I also had four friends who were seriously injured in bicycle accidents this year, which was never far from my mind on every training ride.
At Long Last - Race Week Arrives...
I was scheduled to work 200 hours in the two weeks leading into the race and came down with a cold the Monday before the race. I rested as much as I could and watched my nutrition and hydration. By Friday I was feeling almost 100% better. I was smart enough to make sure I had four days off from work for race weekend so I would be as well rested as possible and have a day to recover after the race.
On Saturday, Chris, my friend Jackie, and I loaded up the car and drove up to Mercer County Park to check our bikes in and pick up our race packets. My used, entry-level road bike was racked next to fancy tri bikes that probably cost well over $5000. I tried not to be intimidated by the level of athletes I saw in the Ironman Village.
Jackie and I did some shopping for official merchandise and then we dropped Jackie off at her hotel and we checked into ours. Chris and I had an early al fresco dinner at one of my favorite places in the Princeton area and then headed back to the hotel so I could get my gear set up and drink my Osmo Pre-Load Hydration. I was settled into bed by 8:30pm, with my alarm set for 4:45am.
Jackie texted me shortly after we got into bed saying she was ill. I was panicked for her but tried to stay calm and encourage her to do the same. I read a few pages of a book and was fast asleep.
Jackie texted me first thing race morning that she was pulling out of the race. She had been sick all night, most likely from food poisoning, and was too weak and dehydrated to even consider competing. This was a difficult but wise choice. I was devastated for her and selfishly for me. I’d been looking forward to seeing her along the course and accomplishing this together.
Our hotel was only about five minutes from Mercer County Park, so we left at 5:50 – after I’d had my mandatory coffee and a few nibbles from a muffin. I did not anticipate the traffic to get into the park. We were still sitting in a long line of cars at 6:32, and I knew transition closed at 6:45. I stayed fairly calm – for me anyway – and hopped out of the car as soon as the transition lights were in sight while Chris went to park.
I made it into transition without difficulty and set everything up. People were freaking out all around me about the traffic and the difficulty getting into the park. I have never seen so many adults having toddler-like meltdowns.
I ran into a few tri-club friends at the port-a-potty line, which helped calm my nerves. My friend Sherri arrived and she, Chris, and I made our way to the beach for the swim start.
It was only then that I realized that the swim start would not be the same as it was for the NJ State Tri. We had to enter at the beach and swim about 100 or so meters to the start, where we treaded water for about 3-4 minutes.
I was in wave number 13 out of 22, which was perfect. Most everyone was wearing a wet suit – not me. I made the choice a while back not to worry about the wet suit. They make me very claustrophobic and the few moments it might gain me in the water would probably not equal the time I spent panicking.
At about 7:40, it was our turn to wade into the water and head out to the start. I was happy to have a few friends out there with me. The water was 70 degrees, chilly at first, but I was used to it in about a minute and was happy with my choice not to wear a wetsuit. I took my time getting to the start buoy as I did not want to be out of breath before I even started the race. A woman near me had a panic attack on the way out, and I stopped to make sure she was okay and helped calm her down and slow her breathing.
At 7:46 we were off. I really do love swimming in this lake. The water feels clean and there is plenty of room. The course was rectangular in shape, so we were just swimming straight, which I also like. My goal was to finish the swim in 50 minutes, and at the halfway point, I was right on target at 25 minutes.
Once we made the first turn, the younger men in the heats behind us started catching up and overtaking me. I was kicked and hit and smacked more than I’ve ever been in a triathlon. I swallowed water a few times, but tried to keep focused. I knew I was slowing down and was worried that Chris would be worried if I didn’t finish in my goal time.
Finally we made the turn to the swim out ramp. As I got out, I saw Sherri snapping photos and checked my watch – 55 minutes – uhg. Oh well, it was over and now it was time to focus on the bike portion, the part I was most nervous about.
As I walked to transition, I heard Chris screaming cheers for me and he stood right outside the fence of transition so I could chat with him while I was getting ready for the bike. This was really calming and comforting. I whined to him the entire time about the swim, but then was thrilled to glance over and see my cousin Cheryl standing with he and Sherri. I didn’t know she was coming up to cheer!
I grabbed my food and headed out of transition. My mantra for the bike had become “No rain, no wind, no flats,” which is funny since I could control none of those things. But it worked for me.
I rode out of the park and marveled at the perfect weather conditions. The forecast had been an unseasonably warm and humid day with highs in the 80s and sunshine. Happily, it was very overcast at this point and there was no wind to speak of. Once we got out of the park and onto the road it was very bumpy for the first 8 miles. It was nearly impossible to avoid the bumps and maintain good race etiquette. I saw at least 4 people with flat tires in those first miles.
My goal for the entire race was to enjoy it along the way as much as possible. My goal for the bike was not to waste my legs, but to keep my pace steady. After mile 9, the roads got much better. I enjoyed the bike portion immensely. I kept a fairly fast pace, for me, for the first 25 miles or so and then slowed down a bit as I got a little fatigued. I kept reminding myself to take it easy as I still had to run a half-marathon.
The course was really beautiful, despite at least 25 turns, which didn’t bother me as much as it bothered the faster cyclists. I found the hills to be equal to what I trained on – challenging but do-able. There were two really long and winding hills that I struggled with, but I wasn’t alone. I even considered walking my bike up one of them because I was going so slowly. Thankfully there were enough descents to give the legs a little rest and build up momentum.
People in the homes along the course were out cheering us on, which was so nice. There was a group of volunteers from my tri club at the second bike aid station, and seeing them gave me a huge boost at mile 31. I continued to see many athletes with flat tires and crashes along the course, but thankfully, Nellie Bertha (the name I gave my bike) and I stayed in one piece. My nutrition choice of an almond butter sandwich on a potato roll and some bunny cookies was perfect, along with lemon/lime Scratch in my water bottles.
My bottom began to ache around mile 40. I’ve never spent that long consistently riding – even on long training rides, I’d stop for traffic lights or stretch breaks, but I really didn’t want to stop.
Once we got close to the finish, we were again on those terrible bumpy roads, which felt so much worse after riding 50 miles. In fact, it felt a little bit like childbirth. I slowed down quite a bit in these last few miles, just trying to navigate the bumps and potholes. Seriously, it was almost like attempting to ride on cobblestones.
Although the bike was officially listed as 56 miles, every athlete I spoke to agreed that it was more like 57-58 miles in total. We turned into the park at about mile 56 and I started to see people I knew along the course. I spotted Jackie and her husband, with Sherri and Cheryl, cheering me on. I choked up when I saw them, especially Jackie. I saw my friend Jennifer and her daughter, and then Chris, right before I hit transition. I couldn’t believe it - I was done with bike portion and faster than I’d predicted too! All I had to do was run now.
I chatted again with Chris in transition as I prepped for the run and headed out. I debated using the potty in transition, but decided against it, as I felt pretty good.
My plan for the run was to run/walk and take it easy, particularly at the beginning. I didn’t have a set walk to run interval planned, but I pretty quickly decided on a 2 minute run to 1 minute walk ratio. I obviously headed out way too fast, as my first run split was 8:59. All those brick workouts paid off, because my legs felt great and strong. I forced myself to slow down considerably after the first split. I knew I couldn’t maintain that quick of a pace for the whole 13 miles.
I saw some tri-club girls at mile 2 and then again around mile 3, which was great. The run course was pretty boring. I was not paying much attention to the passing miles as I ran them, I just focused on getting through each 2 minute run.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a soda drinker. But when I saw they had real Coca Cola at the aid stations, I was over the moon. Never has a sip of soda tasted so much like heaven. I had water and Nuun in my hand-held bottle, but those sips of Coke and the occasional orange wedge really got me through.
Just past mile 5, I saw Jennifer and she walked next to me for a few moments and encouraged me. At mile 6, I saw Chris, Sherri, and Cheryl. Chris shouted out, “7 more miles until mimosas!” I thought about that a lot for the next miles!
The second loop of the run was definitely tougher as the sun had come out and it was really hot. I was putting ice cubes down my tri suit to keep cool. At mile 11, I decided I needed to walk longer than a minute and spent a few moments walking and giving myself a pep talk. I was so close I could hear the finish line announcers.
The last two miles were difficult, as much of this part of the course was a gradual incline. I took more than a few walk breaks, and stopped to drench myself with ice-cold sponges.
Sherri was waiting for me around mile 12.5, and she jogged on the grass telling me how close I was and snapping photos. She told me where to sprint once I hit the chute (as if I wanted to sprint!).
We made a turn and there it was at long last, the finishers chute! It was a long one, so I waited to “sprint” until I was about 200 meters out. I saw Chris and Cheryl and Jackie and Tom. I heard the announcer call out my name. And then I was done. I happily took my hat and medal!
It took me a few moments to find my crew, but when I did there were hugs all around, despite me being a sweaty stinky mess. Chris told me how proud he was of me and I got teary. I choked up again when Jackie hugged me. I knew how hard she’d trained for this. Chris poured the promised mimosas and we toasted. I grabbed my finisher food and thanked my supporters who’d spent an entire day waiting around. We packed up and headed home – and I really didn’t feel too bad physically.
My goal finish time was 7:30, I finished in 7:24:24. The time I’d lost on my swim I more than made up for in my quicker-than-planned transition times.
A week later and I’m still on a high. I’m so happy I did this race. It was a near-perfect day with near-perfect conditions. I remained injury-free during training and the race. I’m pleased with my performance and beat my goal time. I learned that you really do get what you put into training, as I let my swim training slide and it showed in my time. But the training time I put into biking and brick workouts absolutely paid off. I felt so strong on those portions.
I don’t think I’ll ever do another 70.3 event. I had a great day that isn’t likely to be repeated again. The training is so time consuming. I can’t remember how many times I lamented, “A full-time working midwife and autism mom DOES NOT mix well with half-Ironman training.”
I’m content to work on improving my shorter triathlon times. I’d like to run one more full marathon (NYC) in the next few years and then retire from longer distance events altogether. I don’t ever see myself doing a full Ironman and I am more than okay with that.
I can’t wait to attend this event again - and volunteer or cheer on other athletes. The course support at this race was fabulous – from the volunteers to my fellow athletes. I can say I really enjoyed almost every moment of 70.3. Similar to completing a marathon, I feel like I really accomplished something big – and as my friend Jill says, “I can do hard things.”