Friday, May 20, 2016

Ironman Texas 2016 Race Report: The Swim

Oh, the swim.  Where to even begin?  It was not pretty, and it was far from how I'd hoped to start my day.  But I survived and moved past it!  So we have that going for us.  I also didn't drink the whole lake and therefore didn't have to deal with nausea for the rest of the day (like last year), so that's a win, too.  :)
Told you there were strong wetsuit swimmers. I got out of the water with ROCKY!  Haha.
Last year, I had a bit of a panic attack in the water during the practice swim the day before the race.  But come race morning, I was oddly calm -- probably more like "numb" really, because I'm pretty sure I'd resigned myself to a certain death in that lake. Like, "Well, I'm going to die here so we might as well get to it."  Haha!  This year, I did fine during the practice swim.  I actually swam a great-for-me-in-open-water pace (2:01/100 yards) for those 15 minutes.  And I figured I'd feel even better the next day because I'd have my Iolite to help guide me (and give me something to look at in the dark lake). Well, race morning arrived and I felt just the opposite! This time, I knew I wasn't going to die... so I was terrified.  Here was the giant lake and this giant swim and I was going to have to do it.  A friend asked how I was feeling, and I answered, "Much better in two hours."  It wasn't normal pre-race nerves like what I feel before a marathon, for example, and I wasn't nervous at all about the bike or the run. But my heart was beating out of my chest before that swim!  I knew exactly what was ahead and I was terrified.

In Ironman Texas 2015, I swam 2.7 miles in 1:44:32 with an average actual pace of 2:13/100 yd (my actual pace swimming my zig zag path; the official pace for 2.4 miles over that time was 2:28).  I got out of that water and swore I'd never swim for an hour and forty-four minutes straight again.  I spent 62 hours in the pool over the last 27 weeks in preparation for this year's race.  Each of those swim sessions required a decent amount of sacrifice -- losing sleep early in the morning or late at night, coordinating who stayed home with the kids, driving various distances to different pools, dealing with random pool closures and having to reschedule, and so on.  But it would all be worth it if I could get out of the water faster and with less effort.

I definitely saw improvements in the pool, dropping 13 total seconds off my fastest 100 time -- 1:36 to 1:23, maintaining a 1:45 average for a 1000-yard time trial, and consistently averaging less than 2:00/100 yd throughout entire workouts (something I *never* did before last year's race).  My goal time for IMTX was 1:35 -- 1 hour, 35 minutes (2:15/100 yd if I swam straight, 2:10ish actual on a slightly crooked path), and I felt like I could be capable of something closer to 1:30 on a super-perfect day (2:08 straight, 2:01ish actual/crooked).  Those seemed pretty fair and conservative based on last year's pace in that lake and the improvements I'd made in the pool.  Basically, I was hoping to swim about the same pace as last year/maybe slightly faster and just go straight instead of adding an extra third of a mile.

Ironman Texas 2016 again featured a non-wetsuit-legal swim with water temps at a whopping 81.5 degrees -- a whole half degree warmer than last year!  But it wasn't going to be like last year's swim.  Fitting with the rest of the last-minute changes this race experienced, the swim course was changed less than 48 hours before the race.  The swim typically turns up a canal for the last 1000M, which is awesome for spectators and nice for athletes to break up the course and actually hear cheers while swimming!  But the water wasn't safe in the canal, so the swim course was changed to a full 2.4-mile loop in the lake.  This change meant Transition 1 (where all the bikes are racked and waiting) had to move to the lake shore next to the swim start.  And that meant that the swim start was super crowded!

With all the last-minute changes, the signs that helped organize the rolling swim start by pace (line up here to swim under 1 hour, here for 1:00-1:10, and so forth) were missing in action.  For those not trying to start at the front of the pack, the swim corral was kind of a mess!  People were clumped together, bleeding into the lanes of bikes, nowhere near organized by expected pace.  For the record, we were super impressed by and so grateful for how well Ironman and especially the volunteers adapted to all the last-minute changes to make the race still happen for us!  This was just one of those things where it happened to create a little more chaos.  Especially once we hopped in the water!  The mix of swim paces getting in the lake at once made for a whole lot more contact than was already expected.

Oh goodness, this is already a novel and I'm not even in the water yet.  Haha!  Bear with me.  I promise the other recaps will be shorter!

Right before Matt and I said our goodbyes, I went to turn the Iolite on ... and nothing happened.  If I thought I was terrified before, that was nothing compared to the panic I now felt!  Matt fiddled with it for a bit and finally got it to turn on.  Phew.  Or so I thought.  Fast forward to 6:47 a.m. as I was walking underneath the arch to start the swim and my feet were just hitting the water ... and the Iolite died.  We'd plugged it in the day before but apparently it didn't actually charge.  Now I'd be doing this swim old-school style and having to sight a lot more than I'd planned.  That's fine and all, of course, and I didn't have one last year either -- it's just not what I was expecting.  And since I counting on the Iolite, I didn't practice much sighting.  My hips still, therefore, sink like crazy when I sight so it takes a lot more energy to kick back up every time, which adds up over 2.4+ miles.  All my own fault, of course, but a bummer nonetheless.  Nothing to do but shake it off and start swimming!

Surprisingly enough for a weaker swimmer like me, I actually enjoy some bumping in the water.  There's something to be said for the crazy!  It definitely keeps things interesting.  And let's just say there was no shortage of bumping or grabbing at that swim start!  But I was handling it just fine and oddly enjoying the madness.  That said, my worst fear leading up to both last year's race and this one was that I'd get my goggles kicked off in the madness and not be able to put them back on.  In a wetsuit-legal race, this is no big deal.  But take away the wetsuit and it's a different story!  I'm not super efficient at treading water -- and if you take my arms out of that equation (say, to bring them to my face to fix goggles), my head turns into a bobbing apple.  Last year, I actually practiced having to flutter kick like crazy to stay above water while dumping and resealing goggles.  So I knew I could do it at least, and I figured if it wasn't working, I could always find a paddle board to hang onto while I took care of business.  I was very aware of feet during that swim start to make sure my goggles stayed put!

But I was just 10 minutes into the swim when it happened.  Some guy punched me hard on the left side of my face, knocking that left goggle off and dislodging the right.  Noooooo!  I tried to dump and fix but the swim was still so congested that I was a sitting duck getting mauled.  It was not going to work.  A semi-seal and one eye open had to be good enough as I starting swimming left from my position on the right -- across the sea of swimmers to a kayak in the middle.  I hung onto the side of the kayak and talked to the volunteer while I dumped the water and made sure to get a good seal on my goggles.  While I was there, I figured I may as well see if I could get the Iolite to work, but no luck.  When I looked up, we'd floated further away from the course (they're not allowed to paddle at all while you're hanging on) so I hurried and thanked the volunteer then headed back to the fray. I made sure to sight far ahead and gradually make my way over instead of swimming straight back to the pack to make a 90-degree turn. I'm learning!

Meanwhile, my left eye was really bothering me.  I wear contacts and my eyes are extremely sensitive right now, after just dealing with some serious corneal neovascularization from August - February.  I have to be super careful to manage it now, and the gunk from the lake was really irritating my eye.  And now, when my eyes get irritated, my vision gets blurry.  I had a back-up pair of contacts in my T1 bag but ended up not switching them out because I expected it to get better once I was out of the water (wrong choice, obviously).  But it never did, and my left eye ended up being blurry for the rest of the day and not returning to totally normal until Tuesday.  Oh well!

Back to the swim, with a LONG way to go.  Before, the course just went about 2/3 of the way down the lake before turning around.  This time, you just kept going... and going... and going... as the lake bends in a subtle S-shape. I was pretty apprehensive about having another goggle mishap and was having a hard time getting back into a rhythm.  I usually breathe bilaterally -- every three strokes -- but was breathing every other stroke instead to see more daylight/the shore/the other swimmers and it just never felt good.  My stroke felt choppy and frantic, which is a pretty stark contrast to the smooth over-gliding I usually do.  The crowds started to thin out more as I got closer to the other end of the lake.  There were still plenty of swimmers around, but it was mostly cordial as I made that first turn, headed East, and then turned to head back up the lake.  I was sighting a lot and swimming pretty straight, at least, but my LEGS were getting tired.  During the SWIM.  Of an IRONMAN.  (Insert burying-hands-in-face emoji here.)  I told myself I had to trust myself and sight less often so I could get into a groove and give my legs a break!

Just then, the wetsuits arrived.  When water temps are between 76.2 and 83 degrees, wetsuits are optional, but if you wear one, you're ineligible for ranking, run the risk of overheating, etc.  Generally not advisable unless you really need it.  Since they are more buoyant in the water, wetsuit swimmers tend to swim right over the top of non-wetsuit swimmers whether they try to or not.  For the slower non-wetsuit swimmers, when they wetsuits catch up, it's like entering a boxing ring after you've already been swimming for an hour -- and the other guys have the advantage.  There was one point in which two strong wetsuit-wearing men were sandwiching me repeatedly and I kept struggling to get a breath. I finally had to pull up, tread water, and go way right to get away from them... all the while making a mental note to disinvite said neoprene-wearing souls (who clearly didn't need wetsuits) from my hypothetical party, ha.

By now, the fog had rolled in. It was pretty cool-looking, actually -- a thick layer of mist over the water.  But it made sighting buoys a lot harder!  There were no more bends in the lake, though, so sighting was thankfully less of a concern.  At this point, I figured I still had probably 20-30 minutes left and needed to just finally find my rhythm.  I started breathing bilaterally (um, like I should have done all along) and singing in my head.  I'd spent the majority of the swim to that point switching between thinking tactically, going through to-do lists for buying the house that we'd just signed a contract on 12 hours earlier (ha!), and promising myself I'd never put myself through a 2.4 mile swim ever again (famous last words!).

Now that I was settling into the swim (at last), a song I sing to my babies was the first to pop into my head, called I am a Child of God.  "Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, help me find the way..."  This song was special to my grandparents who passed away a couple years ago, and my heart smiled as I thought of them.  And then a quote from Jeffrey R. Holland popped into my mind: "Keep trying... keep growing... Heaven is cheering you on."  I pictured my sweet grandparents thinking I was crazy but cheering for me anyway, and my heart smiled even bigger.  I was finally in a good place -- swimming smooth and feeling calm.  And then the fog started to lift and I saw the bridge through the mist!  Hallelujah!  That meant the third red buoy was coming up and I'd be on land soon!

I took the final turn and headed to the shore. Putting my feet down and stepping on the ground was such a relief. I was SO happy to be DONE!!!

Then I glanced at my watch to lap it into Transition 1.  That was one of the most disappointing moments of my life (maybe hyperbole, maybe not).  My watch read 2.51 miles and my official swim time was 1:41:55.  I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was THAT bad.  I instantly realized that 2.51 miles just 2 minutes faster than my 2.69-mile time meant I actually swam a slower pace this year.  In that split second, it all came back -- all of those hours spent in the pool.  All of those sacrifices to even get there.  All of that hard work to make sure THIS didn't happen.  But it happened anyway.  I had just let myself down in the biggest way.

At least it's over, I thought as I quickly hopped onto the ground to get my swim skin ripped off by a volunteer "stripper."  And in the sweetest stroke of luck, my nice volunteer recognized me from Instagram and snapped me out of that bummer train of thought!  (If you are reading this, THANK YOU!)  I ran to grab my T1 bag and ran into the changing tent, ready to rock this thing again!  Seven minutes is easy to make up on the bike, I told myself.  Helmet, sunglasses, socks, shoes, and GO!

I ran to my bike, grabbed it off the rack, and jogged it to the mounting line.  Let's do this!  Time to have some fun.  I was about to play a big game of catch-up!  I was the 1902nd person out of the water and ended up passing 588 people on the bike and another 477 on the run.
2015 zig zags vs. a much-straighter path this year. One improvement, at least!

In the end, I swam a 2:18 actual pace over my slightly crooked path of 2.5 miles, which translated to a 2:25 pace when calculating from the 2.4-mile distance.  So although the overall time/pace looks faster, my actual swimming pace was 5 seconds slower.  All of that is ultra disappointing, until I remember that I had a decent little detour and stop, and then I feel a tiny bit better.  Watch shows about a 2-minute break to fix the goggles, plus I had the extra swimming to/from the kayak and fiddling with the goggles before.  So it's pretty safe to say I would've at least been under 1:40 if not for that.  And I can at least be happy that I swam so much straighter.  But STILL... this one hurts. The reality is that I'll never be a decent triathlete if I can't at least *improve* my speed in the water.  Time to practice some open water swimming, eh?


  1. Hi! So you don't know me, but this post hit home and I really wanted to comment. I have been following you on IG the past couple of months as you have been training for this race. I would love to do an Ironman some day, and my husband has done two full Ironman races. You truly inspire me. I recently swam the St. George half relay and even though it was half the distance you swam, boy can I relate. I just have to say though that you are amazing! And such an inspiration!! I could relate about how you swim to "I am a Child of God," tune because that is my swimming song also. It goes perfectly with a 2:00/100 yd pace right? During my swim, I unfortunately spent 10 minutes in sheer panic mode (thank goodness for the wetsuit-I would have definitely drown). It was so frustrating because I too had been so diligent about training. I swam more my race distance every week for 14 weeks at a decent pace, and thought I was so prepared! In the lake I ended up having a Kayak personally escort me to the finish he felt so bad for me. It is crazy how you think you are so ready and then something hits on race day. I can't imagine swimming 2.4 though. Seriously, way to go! That is such a HUGE accomplishment for sure! Maybe one day I will get up the guts to train for a full.

  2. I loved reading this, every detail! I just did a half marathon on Saturday and reading this today it really hit home for me again just how HUGE an accomplishment an ironman truly is. For me a half marathon feels like a decent accomplishment. By the end I was ready to be done. To think of swimming for the same amount of time I was running, is completely mind blowing to me. And THEN to bike 112 and THEN to do a FULL marathon. I cannot even fathom it! Just finishing is amazing but you get competitive times, especially for a relative newbie! You are seriously incredible! I can't wait to read the rest!

  3. You guys are a great inspiration to me! I don't know how you guys manage work, family, travel, and training. Reading your stories makes me train harder. Thank you. Can't wait to hear your adventure in Konami.

  4. Hi Ash! Thanks for this report, it's really helpful to read about it when you're planning to race it soon :)
    And you made me laugh, which is always a plus ;)