The Moment When It All Comes Together

I don’t know whether I believe in the concept of a “perfect race.” It seems there is always at least some small segment or aspect that could have been improved.

But I do believe there are races, and days, when everything comes together for us at the right moment, our bodies reflect that they’ve reached their peak, and we can achieve successes we haven’t had the capacity for in the past, on those not-so-perfect days. Saturday, July 30 was one of those days. And while it wasn’t the “perfect race,” by my standards, it was about as close as it comes — despite its several imperfections.

The last few weeks leading up to Vineman passed quickly and in a blur, and in some ways I felt as though the race had snuck up on me. Nonetheless, I knew I was ready, and faced no shortage of enthusiasm as I packed up my gear, loaded the car and headed for wine country. But when race morning arrived, enthusiasm had channeled into stone-cold focus. I knew exactly what I wanted to do; I knew how to do it; and I wouldn’t let anything stop me without putting up a fight. I had been waiting for that “perfect day,” and I was determined to have it.

Inevitably, the morning was anything but smooth. I frantically checked and re-checked that I had ALL my equipment and race necessities before heading out the door — late, of course — to head to Guerneville for the swim start. When I got there, the transition was already PACKED. I thought I’d found a perfect little spot on one of the women’s racks, and got my transition set up just how I wanted it — only to find out the half of the rack I’d picked was for a different age group. Ugh! So I set off to find a new spot on the even-more crowded racks for my age wave. Ultimately, I had to create a spot between set-ups, as all of us still arriving were scrambling to do. I was relieved to get everything set up, though it wasn’t pretty, and immediately started thinking about the swim. My coach and I had talked about my potential to have a really good swim today, and how I really needed to focus my efforts there and not preserve any energy, as I could recover quickly on the bike. I felt confident I could have a better swim than in the past, as I have been putting in a ton of open-water hours this summer and feeling great. I told myself I was going to push HARD and not hold back, and somehow I just knew it was going to be good.

But I couldn’t have predicted just how good that swim would be. From the moment I entered the water, a spark was on. The river felt amazing that morning: calm, cool but not too cold, and clear. I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than in that very moment. As I awaited the start, I too felt calm and collected, a quiet confidence and focus slowly taking over. I was eager and excited to get the ball rolling. Sure enough, once the gun went off things got hectic. The water got rough and the women got aggressive. But I held my own, streamlining to the front of the pack and steering clear of any major incidents. I swam with a mission; almost a fury of some sort. I was out to prove what I knew I could do. But I exceeded even my own expectations. I felt strong, and my strokes felt efficient and in control. Even as we started running in to the waves of men that had started before us, I worked my way around them smoothly, not giving any of my energy to frustration as I usually do. I focused only on myself, though occasional glimpses of some of the other pink-capped ladies around me reminded me to keep pushing.

When I passed the clock on the first lap, I could see I was having the swim of my life. I didn’t slow down. And ironically, though I was swimming faster than ever before, I didn’t feel tired like I have in other Iron-distance swims, where the race seems to drag on. In fact, I didn’t feel tired at all. I was a woman possessed, making no room for thoughts of fatigue or doubt, but only telling myself to go faster, swim stronger, keep pushing. And I did. As I rounded the buoy to head back for the final time, the water was becoming increasingly chaotic. Myself and the other leading women around me had now caught men up to five waves in front of us, and were trying to navigate our way through the crowds as best as we could to finish up this leg and head out on our bikes. I told myself that this was it; just a few more minutes; give it everything you’ve got. I did my best to outsprint the other few pink caps sprinkled around me, without totally blowing a gasket, as I made my final push. Next thing I knew, I was approaching the finishing arch and running out of the water. I was beside myself when I glanced at my watch to see that I’d swam a 1:02 — more than 8 minutes faster than my previous best time. And what’s more, the swim had seemed far more effortless, and I felt stronger coming out of the water than I ever had. The day was off to a great start!

But it was time to focus on what lied ahead: 138.2 more miles of biking and running. I channeled my energy forward, but continued riding the high I had obtained from the swim. My transition was fairly seamless, as I shoved down a sandwich and scrambled into my bike clothes. It still wasn’t fast, and this is clearly an area where I still need work. As I rode off, psyched to be on pace for a big new PR but still a little overwhelmed at the task ahead, I tried to keep myself calm and in perspective. I focused on riding smooth, keeping my tempo up and my power down. I settled in and set my sights on enjoying this ride and this day, which was so far kept cool from the fog. As we cycled along through the vineyards and over the rolling hills and sweeping corners, I worked to keep the pace up without going too hard too soon.

My goal was to keep feeling strong for a long as possible and turn in a bike PR, ideally breaking 6 hours. I knew I wasn’t going to break any records here or win this leg, as biking still remains my weakness. Alas, more and more women passed me as the bike went on, seeming to fly by. I told myself to just stick to my plan. I was having a solid race and feeling great. My nutrition was on point, and my muscles weren’t showing any major signs of fatigue. As I cruised by mile 45 or so, I saw my support group of family and friends, and couldn’t help but smile and tell them how awesome things were going. I was feeling good, and I was having fun! I loved being in that moment. I finished my first lap in 2:50 — on pace for a 5:50 even if I slowed a bit on the next lap. I was psyched! It was turning out to be the perfect day.

Enter lap 2… where things started to get a little less fun. As time went on, my legs began to feel more and more tired. I stayed focused on riding efficiently, still trying to keep my tempo up and pushing through the pain. I knew I was prepped and ready to have a killer run, so my mission was to make it through the bike without losing too much time and using so much energy that it would take away from my run. This is a fine balance that is perhaps one of the biggest struggles with a long race like Ironman. The pain continued to increase, and I felt more and more tired. More women passed by, now not looking quite so fast. But still I could not keep up.

Each race seems to have its moment of downfall, and this — from mile 75 to 95 or so — was mine. I was hurting. I felt like there was nothing I could do to go faster. I was doubting myself. I was most definitely not having fun. But all I could do was keep going, and look forward to what lay ahead, and hopefully getting a second wind. In Ironman, my energy levels tend to change throughout the day (hopefully as I become more experienced they will get more consistent), so I knew they would come back up at some point. I was still on pace for a PR on the bike (though I had slowed down considerably from the first lap), so I kept on pushing, but was careful to use caution so I didn’t blow my legs for the run. Despite feeling slow, I knew my pace wasn’t bad, and I wasn’t about to give up or get too discouraged. I still had a job to do, and that job depended on the sum of the day, and not merely on the bike, though it was an important part.

As I got closer and closer to the transition zone, passing my family again — this time with much less enthusiasm but equal focus and determination, I remained in pain, but I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I was able to ramp things up a bit as I approached mile 100. “Only 12 to go Kara; you can do it” trying to override “Jesus, get me off this damn bike” in my head. Sure enough, I made my final turn onto the last stretch of road and could see the transition ahead. Hallelujah!

I finished my bike in 6:07 — not under 6 hours and behind the pace I was hoping for and expecting, but still 13 minutes up on my PR and still in good standing to crush my previous PR and even still break 11:30. Once again, it was time to put the past behind and focus on the new task at hand: the marathon. This is my favorite part of the race and my strength, though in Ironman the run is the leg that can tend to bring the most challenges and seem most daunting. But I was prepared, and determined to do whatever it took to overcome any challenges I might face. I was still on a mission, and I was primed to accomplish it. I couldn’t let the day get the best of me now. My transition was again too slow (four minutes), but I got what I needed and headed out for the final leg.

The sun had broken through the clouds and the fog had burned off, and things were really starting to heat up. I knew this run was going to be tough, as it had been last year, but I also knew I could conquer it. I’ve been running great all year, and I was ready. Despite their fatigue, it didn’t take much time for my legs to adjust to the new motion of running, and in fact my muscles seemed to respond with gratitude, pleased to have moved on to this new motion that I am so familiar with and have come to love so much. I told myself to take this thing one mile at a time. And, to my surprise, those miles started ticking by pretty quickly.

I had to take a bathroom break after the first mile, which cost some time, but after that I got into a good rhythm, running smooth and fast and without too much effort over the course’s short, steep hills and exposed flats. The run course is broken up into three out-and-back laps, so you get pretty familiar with the scenery, and it can seem tedious. But today, I liked it. It made it easy for me to break it down mentally. All things considered, the first lap went great. Mentally, it went by quickly. I was able to hold my miles in the 8-minute range, and was feeling super strong. I was drinking a ton, but wasn’t able to eat a lot, as is usually the case for me in the run.

On the way out on my second lap, I continued to cruise along. Once again, I really felt like I was enjoying myself. I took some time to reflect on how well I was doing today, and just how hard I was working and had worked to get here, and really felt proud of myself in that moment. I was still well up on my PR, and definitely still in contention to beat my 11:30 goal. What’s more, I was starting to pass several women, regaining some of the spots I’d lost on the bike. But I knew I had to keep pushing. I knew all too well that things could turn around at any moment at this point in the race, and I continued to want more than I had already achieved. I thought about the satisfaction of breaking 11:30, and then immediately thought about how much more gratifying it would feel to go under 11:15. I ran on, determined.

Another bathroom stop cost me a bit more time, but was necessary (as a relative novice, I’m still trying to figure this part out. I know others have it dialed, but I’m just not sure how!). And as I neared the turn-around point on lap two, I became acutely aware of a pain that was gradually starting to emerge in my knee. I kept running, but was undoubtedly grimacing from the pain. It continued to worsen, sending a sharp pang through my body with each step. In an ordinary scenario, I think this would have slowed me down significantly, or even caused me to start walking. But not today. I was too close to everything I’d been working for. I was doing too well to let anything get in the way. I was too determined to have the race I wanted.

I pushed through the pain, so intent on accomplishing my goals that I was almost able to drown it out in my head. But it was still there, and inevitably I did slow down, significantly. My knee, in combination with the still-rising heat, ever-increasing distance behind me and lack of nutrition on the run made for some much slower miles through the rest of the lap and on into the start of the final lap. I was unbelievably thirsty, walking through each aid station to drink and pour water and ice on myself, and filling up my bottle at every other aid station — I just couldn’t seem to satiate myself. I knew it was slowing me down big time to spend so long through the aid stations, but I felt like I had no other option. From mile 13-20, I turned in many miles in the 9-minute range and a few miles over 10 minutes — way over the pace I wanted to be at to break 4 hours in the marathon, a sub-goal I had set for myself before the race. There were a few scattered moments were I questioned whether the 11:30 goal was still attainable, knowing I was losing time with every mile.

But just when I felt like I was reaching my epitome of doubt, that fighting spirit triumphed again (thank goodness!) and took back over. My goals were still in reach, and I couldn’t let them slip away. The knee continued to ache, but I blocked it out as best as I could and focused on nothing other than: PUSH! I forced myself to run through the aid stations and not fill my water bottle through the rest of the last lap, saving myself tens of seconds over each mile. I focused on turning my legs over faster and faster, and pushing just a little bit harder with every step. I had dropped my pace back down into the 9’s, and was again on target with my goals. And, best of all, I was almost done! And I was smiling again, soaking in all I had already achieved that day, and aiming to achieve more. As the last couple miles approached, I realized that I had really turned things back around.

I was running fast, and I was ready to crush that 11:30, and maybe even get down near 4 hours on the run. That was still a lofty goal, but I gave it everything I had in those last three miles, and even more in the last two. I passed two more women and many more men, determined to prove myself. I got back down in the 8’s, and felt like I was flying. I no longer felt any pain. All I could feel was the finish, steadily approaching, and my desire to leave nothing out on the course on my way there. I sprinted the last half mile, deriving an energy from some unknown source deep down inside, and attaining a speed I didn’t know I could reach. I crossed the line, arms in the air, feeling SO pleased and so victorious with all I had just accomplished. As it turned out, I ran my marathon in 4:00:09 — just shy of breaking the four-hour mark, and my total time was 11:19 — more than 10 minutes ahead of my goal. Happiness is an understatement. There’s a little bit of relief in there too.

All said and done, I can reflect confidently on this race as one of the best, if not the best race of my life. I set a goal for myself, and I exceeded it. Despite the day’s imperfections, I had conquered my challenges with near-perfection. Hopefully next time they will be fewer. And along the way toward achieveing this goal, through the many hours of training and fixating and focus, I had become not only a stronger athlete, but a stronger and better person. This race was symbolic for me in so many ways of a journey I have embarked on, and continue to follow. I have reached a new level — I’m beyond the moments of tears that used to come with this distance; beyond the moments of succumbing to weakness and walking when I should be running. But I have a long ways to go, and I’m more determined than ever to get there. Now that my goals for this race have been attained, I’ve set new, much loftier ones (goals are what keep us moving forward, right?!). And I’m motivated and excited for the journey there. While this race was rewarding in affirming that I can achieve what I set out to do, it was even more so in the fact that it confirmed for me just how much I love this sport I’ve invested so much of myself into these last few years. Now, more than ever, I am a triathlete — for the long haul — and I can’t wait to see what else I can accomplish in that role. The perfect race still awaits…

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