Coming in to the full Vineman, I honestly had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t been training specifically for Iron-distance at all, but I knew having several 70.3 experiences under my belt this year would certainly help. Vineman came as the third of a strategic three-weeks-in-a-row monster racing block for July. And while I’d had a great race two weeks before at Vineman 70.3 on almost the same course, I had a terrible race the next week at Xterra Beaver Creek. But I did some serious “recovery work” the week of the race, and by the time it arrived, I was actually feeling pretty fresh, and optimistic about the possibilities.
Vineman was my first ever full Iron-distance race four years ago, and I’ve done it every year since, with the exception of last year when I had to skip out due to my knee injury. This race truly has a special place in my heart, and the staff, crew and volunteers do a phenomenal job each year creating a top-notch racing experience. After missing out last year, I was really excited to be back. Coming in to 2014, I decided I was not going to focus on Iron-distance racing at all, but that I’d still do one or two races to help build more experience and add some volume to my training. It was a no-brainer for me that Vineman would be one of them, and I’m so glad I got to return this year!
Developing an Iron Mindset, and Honing In on The Goal
Despite knowing this race as well as I do, there’s something about Ironman that still always seems daunting – especially when they’ve been so few and far between for me. I hadn’t done an Iron-distance since IM Tahoe last September, which was my only one in 2013. Even though I seem to do well with the distance, given the time between I always find myself feeling intimidated by the task, and questioning whether I can really race 140.6 miles! This was no exception, but I reminded myself that I have a history of strong races here, and I came in with an open mind, ready to embrace all the experience had to offer.
That being said, I did have some specific goals. Primarily, I wanted to break 10:30. I felt this was very attainable for me on this course, and it would also qualify me for a share of a $4,000 time bonus. Given my many expenses this year and the fact that I’m now in a position where I need to start looking at triathlon from more of a “business perspective,” this was a big focus for me. I also like having a time goal because it’s relatively controllable, rather than a place goal that depends on the performance of others. Of course I also hoped to place well after getting 3rd here two years ago, but I knew there were some really strong women on the start list, including some very competitive pros and a few elite amateurs who have historically done amazing at this race (including the two women who went 1-2 ahead of me in 2012). So, I knew I was facing great competition, but I kept in mind that anything can happen in a long race like this, and reminded myself to focus on controlling what I could control and having the best race possible for me on that day. I hoped it would be enough to get me under the 10:30 mark!
But while a time goal is within our control to a certain extent, outside factors can come into play in a BIG way, and sometimes these can affect our race plans, and ultimately our performance, dramatically. When that happens, it’s so important to be able to modify your plan — and sometimes your goals too, as you go. This is where adaptability, perseverance and downright grit have to take over. Vineman 2014 was one of these days!
I’m definitely not a person who obsessively checks the weather before races, but I knew coming into this one it was gonna be hot. A wave of high temps had come through Northern California, and I was practically melting in the days leading into the race, even up in Tahoe. It’s not new news that I really struggle in the heat, but I told myself it was the same heat for everyone, tried to be as prepared as possible and hoped it wouldn’t be too bad. Coming in to the race I didn’t stress about it, and I still wasn’t expecting my race to be affected all that much. But I knew this would be an interesting day when the sun was already out by lap two of the swim. In the several times I’ve done this race, I’ve never experienced a day where the marine fog layer didn’t stick around through the morning. It usually lifts sometime near the end of the first bike loop or beginning of the second — so not until almost 3ish hours into the race. But this time, I could already see that sun shining bright through the quickly dissipating fog by the time I was mid-swim. Yikes!
Just Keep Swimming!
But sunshine aside, I had a really strong swim. As usual I loved swimming in the Russian River, with perfect water temperature and great visibility. The race organizers started the pros and the top-seeded amateurs in the first wave, so we were around a lot of the younger, fast men. This turned out to be beneficial for me, because while I lost contact with the top two pro females, I was able to find a couple male swimmers who were really well-matched with me and stay on their feet through most of the swim. I came out of the water in 1:06, less than 3 minutes back of the top two females. I was really happy with that, but I knew they’d be working together throughout the bike, so I would have a tough task being on my own and out of contact.
The Ride I’ve Been Looking For!
Onto the bike, I really wasn’t sure what to expect from myself. I haven’t biked anywhere close to 112 miles this year, but I’d put a lot of work in on my biking in general, and I mainly just wanted to feel strong throughout the ride, stay consistent, and come in with enough energy for a solid run effort. A PR on the bike leg would be a nice bonus, of course! But I ended up being surprised with how good I felt out there. I knew I was losing time on the leaders, who were working together and absolutely crushing that bike course, but for myself I was having a great ride. I stayed calm, happy (most important!) and super consistent, not losing much time at all on my second lap. I got to see my family a few times throughout the bike course, and this always got me super fired up and full of gratitude. I was so glad they could be out there!
I was really pleased with how I was riding, but most importantly with how in control I felt both physically and mentally. With such a big task still ahead on the run, it’s so important to bike hard but stay within yourself. There will generally be a few low points, but for me I know that if I’m not feeling happy through the majority of the bike, I need to back off big time because it’s a long day ahead. But today I was able to find that happy medium between pushing the pace and staying relatively comfortable, and I made a conscious effort to enjoy myself out there. I also made sure to focus on fueling, hydrating and staying cool, as the heat was already starting to crank. I was surprised with how quickly the ride went by, and before I knew it I was on my way into T2 to get ready to run.
I ended up biking a 5:44:12 — a PR for this distance! I averaged 19.5 mph, which is less than 1 mph slower than my Vineman 70.3 effort. I guess Ironman really may be the distance for me, as I didn’t slow down much at all from my 70.3 ride over double the distance. (Or, I just still have lots of work to do on getting my speed up!). Regardless, I was very satisfied! Most importantly, I felt I had arrived at T2 with sufficient time to complete the race in sub-10:30. I had about 3:35 left to make it in time, and I was confident I could run a sub-3:30 marathon, especially after running a 1:29 half in the 70.3 just two weeks before.
The Run — Where things got HARD!
So I set out at what I felt was a pretty comfortable pace en route to that sub-3:30 run, but by the first turn-around at about 4.4 miles (this is a 3-times out-and-back course), the heat started to set in, and I knew my day was about to change drastically. The sun was out in full force and the run course was absolutely blazing, with zero shade on the hot asphalt. Temps were quickly climbing into the high 90s. I’d been able to block it out those first few miles, but when the heat hit me it came down like a ton of bricks, and it didn’t take long for me to start suffering, BIG TIME. I had to back the pace wayyy off and immediately switch my focus to doing everything I could to stay cool. I started walking through the aid stations to make sure I was getting down all my liquids, and grabbing as much aid as possible so I could keep drinking and pour as much water on myself as possible.
As I came through to start lap 2, I could see I was already off the pace to meet my time goal. It would have still been reachable on a normal day when I could run to my potential, but based on how much my body was already suffering in the heat, I was pretty certain the day would only get harder from there. I knew at that point I had to adjust my goals and expectations and just keep moving forward to get through this. With such tough conditions, it literally became all about survival. But I was still sitting solidly in third place, a ways back from the top two, but well ahead of the next woman. I knew I just had to grit this one out and keep fighting as best as I could. It was time to dig deep and summon all the inner strength I had.
And that’s exactly what I did for the next 18 miles. The temperature continued to rise, we all continued to suffer, and things got uglier and uglier on the course as the minutes ticked by. No one was exempt from the struggle, and everyone’s hurt was pretty apparent. People were dropping out of the race left and right; stopping to sit or lay on the side of the road; getting carted off the course by the medical team… you name it. In fact, the guy who was winning the men’s race ended up having to drop out at mile 24 (yes, mile 24!!) because his body totally shut down. Frankly, keeping one foot in front of the other, no matter the pace, was a huge success out there, and consistent running was a rarity among the majority who’d been reduced to walking. It. Was. BRUTAL. It was a different kind of suffering than I’ve ever experienced, and I was miserable. I thought I might pass out at any moment, and honestly a part of me kind of wished I would so I could just be done! I felt envious of everyone I saw who’d dropped out, which included some of the top returning women. I wanted to put an end to this suffer-fest SO badly. But as terrible and slow as I felt, I was hanging in there, and actually moving my way up the field, so I knew I had to just suck it up and keep on keepin’ on!
My strategy was to just keep running and only walk through the aid stations, where I repeatedly doused myself with as much water as possible and furiously shoved ice down my suit and sports bra. I was trying to keep the calories coming in, but it was hard to find a balance between staying quenched and actually getting in much-needed sugars. There was absolutely no method to the madness at that point, and I was desperately grabbing (or, more accurately, completely thrashing at) anything I could from the aid stations, alongside the many others crowded at each one on the 3-loop course. These volunteers were seriously ANGELS, and I’m so sorry for my desperate state that kept me from mustering a single smile or thank you — I cannot imagine how hard that job must have been! I stopped looking at my watch altogether because I didn’t even want to know my pace. I just wanted to Keep. Moving. Forward! I felt SO slow, but I (deliriously) continued to pass people as the run went on. One very sweet woman said to me, “You look like a gazelle!” to which I muttered, “Oh my gosh, I feel like a hippo!” ☺ It’s so important to remember that it’s all relative on race day: even when you’re feeling awful, you can still be achieving success, so you’ve just got to keep pushing! Indeed I felt more like a hippo, but I tried to find that inner gazelle, and I really drew a lot of strength and positivity from this and many other nice comments I got from people around the course — not to mention the amazing encouragement from my family. I told myself that while I didn’t feel strong, others were still seeing strength in me, so I must be doing okay… and I tried to embrace that. I searched my mind for every possible positive thought and mantra I could dig up, read every affirmation on my arm, and repeated them over and over. I needed all of it to get to that finish line.
It wasn’t until within 2 miles of the finish that I really felt sure I’d make it there, and it wasn’t until the last mile, when I could sense the relief of crossing that line, that I was finally able to smile and realize the joy of my accomplishment. I found an energy I didn’t know I had to kick it in that last mile, so happy to know I was about to be DONE! I crossed the line as the 3rd place female, and 11th overall, which would have put me 8th in the men’s field. The top two females, pros Whitney McCain and Sarah Jarvis, were absolutely incredible, finishing 4th and 5th overall(!!!), both easily eclipsing the 10:30 barrier and going on to break the course record! As tough as the day was, they made it seem easy, and I was beyond impressed. Thank you for the inspiration, ladies! While I fell short of my initial time goal, I finished off the day in 10:51:19, which is actually 3 minutes faster than what I did on this course two years ago, and a new PR! I ended up running a 3:54:40, and although that’s much slower than the 3:30 I was aiming for, given the severity of the conditions I’m actually really happy with it. The fastest run of the whole day was 3:28, so I guess 3:54 isn’t so bad!
In The Books!
All said and done, I’m super pleased with my performance and result at this year’s Vineman. It was a humbling day in many ways, but I rose up to the challenge as best as I could, and am so happy with the outcome! I’m not sure what it is about me and the tough races, but we always seem to find each other, and as painful as it may be, I seem to thrive on the hardest of days. Most importantly, I think these are the days that we ultimately benefit from the most, and I know I’m a better athlete because of all I had to put myself through for this one. That being said, heat is pretty much the most difficult element possible for me, and I hope I won’t have to face it to that extent again for a while! To put the day into perspective, I calculated the DNF rate for the full Vineman, and it was a whopping 26% — well above the roughly 20% DNF rate at Ironman Tahoe last year. Pretty nuts! Given that these are my last two Ironman experiences, it would seem that I’d never want to do another one, but there’s something about it that just keeps pulling me back in, and I know there will be more Iron-distance races in my future – hopefully on easier days! This was a huge highlight for me this season, and I’m so grateful to everyone who helped make it happen. To the Vineman crew, staff and volunteers, you are simply amazing! To my family, and of course August, for keeping me going out there and believing in me even when I was doubting myself, I can’t say how important that was for me! To everyone who gave me encouragement before the race or along the way, or sent positive energy to me in any form — you helped me get to that finish line, and I’m so grateful. Thank you for making this day possible, and a HUGE congrats to everyone who conquered this challenge! Vineman 140.6, I’ll be back for that sub-10:30!