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Embracing the suck: Ironman 70.3 World Championships

“The more you suffer for something, the more you value it, so embrace the moment.” –Chris McCormack, Triathlete Magazine

Acclimating to the heat in the shade at the Ravella. 
My season of 70.3s has been one of variable extremes. I nearly froze in Boise, the race at which I qualified to race the world championships. Lake Stevens wasn’t nearly as cold, but the rain during the bike leg on a hilly course made road conditions extremely treacherous. I guess it seemed only fitting to end this season with a final 70.3—the world championships, no less—in the incinerator they call Lake Henderson, Nevada. For the last two weeks leading up to Sunday’s race I’d been studying the weather via my iPhone app. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that even at 6 o’clock in the morning, I’d be sweating in 90 degrees.

A quick picture with relatives of Sam and Tanya Piccici,
Bryan and Jayne (taking the picture), Russ and Lora, and me. 

I arrived Thursday afternoon, and upon stepping out of the airport, was hit with a wave of heat. Even the hottest summer days of Spokane didn’t compare to this. The hillsides looked parched and ragged, the only greenery found near the Ravella resort I was to call “home” for the next few days. My attempt to acclimatize to the heat may or may not have been successful, but race day arrived sooner than I would have liked, and little did I know just how interesting this last 70.3 of 2012 would turn out to be.

Stay in the moment. Embrace the suck. Be grateful to be here. Enjoy your day.

The water and the carp. Yuck.
I found myself inching closer and closer to the water, standing in one of the last waves to start. I peered out over the “lake”, feeling incredibly tentative to have to dive into what might better be characterized as a glorified swamp, what smelled like sewage, and what looked like mud. When I say the water of Lake Henderson makes Bear and Medical lakes look crystal clean, I’m not exaggerating. When you look through the water of Bear Lake, you can see the bottom 6 feet down. Here? I couldn’t see my hand 6 inches from the surface. Just off the shore, I counted 6 carp the length of my arm eating off the surface of the water. Let’s be honest. I don’t mind swimming in open water with fish. Perch, trout, and bass signify a healthy lake ecosystem. But carp?!?! We used to throw those in the woods after reeling them to shore when I was a kid fishing with my dad.

Without the security of my wetsuit, I felt vulnerable among some pretty strong swimmers from all around the world. Let’s face it: the swim skin Haley Cooper-Scott let me borrow did more for my mind than it would do for my swim time, and I knew that. Following bubbles proved to be a challenge, simply because of the murkiness of the water. After just over 36 minutes, I finally reached the shoreline on the opposite side of the lake to begin a long run to get into transition and finally make my way out. Another long run up a steep hill greeted me as I made my way out of transition, and Craig Thorsen and Merissa Duncan urged me onward.

Photo by Craig Thorsen. Exiting
transition and about ready to
jump on the bike. 
The first half of this bike course is a steady incline. Even upon exiting transition you begin a 2-mile climb just to get out to the main road. From there, you begin another steady climb to make it into Lake Mead National Park, upon which you start a roller coaster ride over asphalt that guides you through endless acres of dirt and dust. I didn’t spot any cacti, but this reminded me of a desert. It took about 15 miles before my legs started to feel a rhythm. I strategically kept a steady 90rpm cadence to conserve my legs for the return trip toward Henderson. It felt like forever and a day to reach that turnaround point. I played a game of leapfrog with another girl in my age group, chasing her on the downhills only to overtake her on the uphills. (My dad would be proud). I never saw her after that last ascent to the turnaround, but her smile reminded me of the friendly athletes of which this sport embraces.

Over the bike leg alone, I consumed 5 bottles of water, which didn’t even include my 21oz of GU Roctane liquid nutrition. At each aid station, the first water bottle was destined for my aero bottle, the second for my roasting skin. Thankfully, it didn’t take nearly as long to exit the park as it took to get in it. My feet had swelled to the point where my toes jammed into the top of my shoes. The bottom of my feet burned as if I had walked over fiery coals for miles. Once into Henderson, I flew by a man who had walked his bike to some shade and laid himself down on the grass. Seeing someone lying in the fetal position, on the side of the road, with a policeman coming to his aid left me feeling incredibly lucky that all I had to complain about was burning feet.
Pretty and scenic, but hot and hilly. This is just one of the
hills leading into Lake Mead National Park.
My Timex read 54 miles, and then “Come ON Lil’ F---er!” came somewhere from my left. I laughed out loud, because while Bryan Rowe claims he didn’t call me what I knew I heard, I’m quite certain it wasn’t until mile 8 of the run that I started feeling delusional. I thought it quite fitting to wait for a big stage like Worlds to finally use my nickname the way everyone anticipates it should be mispronounced. So Lil’ FAULker sucked it up and said a prayer, asking for a run that wouldn’t feel as bad as I had anticipated it might.
Photo by Jayne. Smiling after just being called
a little f---er.
It hurt. Badly. Even my mantra for the day, Embrace the suck, couldn’t quite get me through it. While my quick cadence on the bike propelled me past countless other participants, both male and female alike, even relatively fresh legs couldn’t overcome the heaviness the heat created for the run. Yet my legs followed suit as I exited transition, white with sunscreen, hot with anticipation. I passed Jayne and Bryan as I made my way downhill to the first aid station. I had planned to use the first loop of the run to fill every free space in my tri top and shorts with ice. I succeeded at the first aid station, but came up short on the next two. Great, here goes the downward spiral I feared most.

I could envision no way to surmount the sun that had sent the ambient air temperatures to a torturous 106° (as I was informed of later) without ice. I pressed on up the hill, 
Photo by Jayne. First lap.  
filled with disappointment, and started to count.

Run for one, two, three…25, 26, 27…48, 49, 50 steps, then take a 20 second walk break unless an aid station is within view. I forced myself to run the entire length of each downhill, regardless of the number of steps it took me to do so. If I felt gutsy, I’d push myself to 100+ steps going uphill, especially if it meant I had the opportunity to walk through an aid station just up ahead.

I walked every aid station, taking in as much fluid as volunteers would hand me, drenching myself with cups of water and sponges. It wasn’t until my final loop that the ever-blessed golf carts with more bags of ice finally arrived. I shoved ice where ice has never been before: primarily between boobs and butt cheeks. Ice became the Heaven to my hell.

By the third loop, I felt so tired that I simply pulled down my top and let volunteers stuff it for me. One guy even took the liberty to pour some down my shorts. I didn’t protest. Volunteers stopped shouting “water, water!” and began asking, “Want a splash?” Hell YES! and one boy unleashed three full cups smack upside my face. Holy Heaven.
Photo by Craig. Erica is finishing up her third lap, and I am
suffering through my second.
I’d reached the final 2 miles, ambling up the hill, and I finally let it sink in. Yes, the finish line is within sight. My stomach had held strong, my muscles had kept from cramping. Two. More. Miles. I reached the final turnaround and started down the ¾-mile hill that marked the homestretch. I ran through the last aid station, grabbing at every cup of water held out to me, washing myself free of all the sweat and heat that had restrained me to a dismal 9 minute-per-mile pace.
Photo by Jayne. Attempting to follow
Bryan's instructions, all with a smile
for the final 100 feet.

There stood Bryan. He reminded me to smile, to fix my number, to suck it up. Jayne took pictures, and I had one girl to catch. (Damn my competitive nature.) I found one last drop of energy, enough to pick up speed, inch by her, and cross the finish line before collapsing into two volunteers. It was finished. My day was done.

Stay in the moment. Embrace the suck. Be grateful to be here. Enjoy your day.

Lance Armstrong once said, “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place.” It’s Tuesday, and I can hardly walk. Even after the massage Libby gave me at Elements this morning, muscles still ache. The tips of my toes are blistered; a couple of toenails are destined to fall off. While my body aches, my mind is strong. I am excited. I am grateful. I am motivated to train harder. That course kicked my butt and left me physically beaten. I am, however, mentally stronger. That…I will embrace. 

Photo by Craig. 
We enjoyed a post-race celebration at a restaurant on the strip
that night. From left to right: Haley Cooper-Scott, Gretchen
Rose-Wolf and her daughters, me, Lora Jackson, Russ Abrams,
Ben Greenfield, and Ben's Australian friend (can't remember his
name).  Bryan and Jayne joined us after the picture was taken.


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