I thrive on challenge. Moving through life comfortably without really having to push yourself might be appealing to some, but feeling like I am constantly growing and expanding my own possibilities is what keeps me energized. Plus, I believe that creating challenges for myself, and learning to overcome them, helps me be better prepared to tackle life’s challenges that I don’t control. It’s the reason I love burpees in fitness classes: when you get that feeling of “ugh, I don’t know if I can do this” … and then you do it, you know you can do so much more than you instinctively believe. Or, in the words of Brendan Bruchard:
“Challenge is the pathway to engagement and progress in our lives. But not all challenges are created equal. Some challenges make us feel alive, engaged, connected, and fulfilled. Others simply overwhelm us. Knowing the difference as you set bigger and bolder challenges for yourself is critical to your sanity, success, and satisfaction.”
So, last September, when extreme plantar fasciitis (plus 6 other diagnosed foot injuries) forced me to take a break from running in the thick of half marathon training and get in the pool for cross training, I decided to make the most of it. I’ve never been a natural swimmer. When I first got in the pool in September, I swam 25m (one length of the pool), came up for air, and literally said to the guy next to me, “Wow! That was hard!” But swimming and upper body weights were my only option for a while, so I took it as a challenge. And as I built up more and more distance (getting up to and sometimes over 2 miles in a workout), I figured that the only appropriate challenge to keep me motivated and positive during recovery was a triathlon. And it’s not like me to set small goals, so I figured, why not a Half Ironman? 😊 A Half Ironman involves a 1.2-mile open water swim, a 56 mile bike, and a 13.1 mile run. What a challenge!
From December 2018 (when I was cleared by my physical therapist to run again, and literally shed tears after my first 20-minute run because I was so happy to be back!) through April 2019, I trained for the Ironman 70.3 Texas in Galveston. The training involved lots of ups and downs (including a literal panic attack during my first open water swim in 56 degree water and high winds, and having to get rescued by a kayak that pulled me back to shore), but I went into the race feeling prepared and confident. Exiting the ocean after a successful swim, I yelled “I did it!” (which you totally don’t do during a triathlon … just shows you how excited I was 😊). I battled really tough winds and stormy conditions on the bike, but I made that, too. By the time I got to the run, I knew the storms were threatening. There was lightning, torrential rain, and extreme wind all around. I ran my heart out, but when I was at mile 8.6 of the 13.1 mile run, the race was officially cancelled, all athletes were shuttled into a tent and given no choice but to stop (some fast people did finish! But not me, sadly).
You might think I would be so frustrated that I’d give up on the sport, but it was quite the opposite. After Galveston, I knew I had what it took. I knew I would have finished if the weather didn’t decide otherwise. I was not about to have sacrificed so much in training and not cross that finish line! So, I took a few months to train however I wanted (which mostly meant more strength training and yoga, but still keeping up with the running, biking, and swimming), and then jumped back into triathlon training full force in July.
All of this to say, it was a relatively long time coming. It is safe to say that I thought about crossing this finish line every single day for over a year (and many days, I thought of it for hours on end). It was a challenge in itself (see this post on Facebook or Instagram to learn about my lack of natural athletic talent!), but made even more alluring by the anticlimactic end of Galveston.
My Waco 70.3 Review
Overall, my Waco 70.3 review is very positive. The race was well executed, there was plenty of support on the course, it was super convenient coming from Dallas, all three segments of the course were very nice, and the crowd support was great. The main drawbacks of the race are the transition areas, hills, and difficulty for spectators.
Logistically, triathlons are always complicated. When I made a list of things to pack for the race, it numbered 92 items (just imagine bike, bike shoes, helmet, gloves, fuel, bike pump, towels, wetsuit, running shoes, socks, water bottles, etc.). Like most long distance triathlons, you drop your bike the night before, then leave the rest of your gear in your designated area on the morning of the race. This was all smooth, but after setting up your area, you have to walk 1.2 miles to the start of the swim. It was probably fine to have a good warm up, but felt like unneeded time on my feet before a long day. Similarly, once you exit the water after the swim, you have to run over 1/3 mile to your bike, which seems like a small distance, but for someone with plantar fasciitis, running barefoot on cement (while simultaneously trying to peel off a wetsuit and get feeling back in your legs after swimming) is not too comfortable. I didn’t love this part, but aside from that, logistics were smooth.
After the 1.2 mile walk, waiting for the swim to start was exhilarating. I focused on breathing deeply to slow my heart rate and calm myself down. I visualized each part of the race and gave myself positive pep talks! They worked! It was 46 degrees in the air, and the water was 64 degrees. I had been VERY nervous about the cold, but it didn’t turn out to be nearly as big of a factor as I had presumed. I wore neoprene arm sleeves with my sleeveless wetsuit (trying to save $20 that way instead of renting the sleeved wetsuit 😊), and they kept falling down, so I wouldn’t do that again, but aside from some literal cold feet, I felt fine. The swim is a self-seeded start (so you line up according to your predicted pace, and the faster swimmers start first with the slower swimmers starting last). I lined up with about 38:00, and felt ready to go! I chose to swim on the outside of the allowed path, meaning I swam more distance than was required. I did this because, in the thick of it, it gets aggressive! It is not uncommon to get kicked in the face, have someone grab your head and dunk you under, or get swum over. Because of my previous panic attack, I decided I’d rather swim a bit extra but not have any panic-inducing encounters, and I probably only collided with 6-7 people the entire time, which was great. The wind was blowing the opposite way we were swimming, so even though the race was technically downstream, the current was going against us instead of with us! I thought that, if I really swam well, I may be able to get as fast as 35:00 (my finish in Galveston was 39:35), but it didn’t happen – maybe due to the extra distance, the current, or me just trying to stay calm. Either way, my finish of 38:42 put me 18th out of 74 in my age group, 115 out of 654 females, and 524 out of 2927 overall participants. (Yes, that means only 22% of Waco 70.3 finishers were female! I’m not sure if this is because of the time it takes to train or some other factor, but it makes me sad!). Although I can often get on the podium (1st-3rd place) in smaller sprint or Olympic triathlons, this still feels like a huge accomplishment, since Half Ironman races bring out the best of the best!
After the swim came T1 (the first transition), which is definitely my biggest regret of the day. As I mentioned, the long barefoot run wasn’t great on my injured feet, and I was struggling to “get my legs under me” after the cold swim. Still, I took entirely too long here (9:38, when I predict I could have been under 5:00 even with the run!). In my excitement, I missed the wetsuit strippers (who help you peel your wetsuit off), and I took the time to unwrap and apply hand warmers in my shoes, as well as putting on a jacket, gloves, socks, shoes, and double checking my fuel. Of course, you want to be careful here – if you forget something important, you won’t see it again for 56 miles – but I was way too cautious and slow.
I felt amazing during the first portion of the bike. In hindsight, I know I could have pushed harder, but one of the big challenges of long distance triathlon is not pushing too hard on the bike (because, after all, you have to run a half marathon when you get off!). The course was well marked and well policed at intersections, and the roads were relatively smooth. It was a gradual climb for the first half, with rolling hills and a gentle decline in the second half. While I know how to change a bike tire, it takes me a LONG time to do so, so I was comforted that I saw bike techs every 5 miles or so sweeping the course. I had significantly increased my time on the actual bike (vs. stationary bike) since training for Galveston, so I felt more confident in this portion. I went about 14 minutes faster in Waco, despite the 1499 ft elevation gain and very windy back half of the course (3:17:56, or 16.98 mph, for 27th in my age group).
T2 (the second transition area) was also slow, and I spent 4:59 there, including running with my bike to rack it, changing shoes and socks, putting CBD / menthol cream on my feet (lots of extra time, but worth it!), putting on my race number, grabbing running fuel, and taking a swig of water.
Although I’ve run over 50 half marathons, I was nervous about the run, mainly due to my feet, which had become very painful in the last 10 miles of the bike. I yelled to Kevin right away, “this will be messy!” because I thought my feet would slow me down. While the pain stayed through most of the race, though, I don’t think it significantly slowed me down. What did slow me down were those hills! Although the race only gained 509 ft of elevation, it sure felt like a lot more! I walked up most of the steep hills, but kept a pretty steady pace otherwise. It was incredible to see Kevin, my sister, and her boyfriend on the course (more on that below), and the crowd support in general was great – everything from funny signs to passing out shots of Fireball on the run. I had a HUGE surge of emotion when I finished the last hilly section with about 3 miles left to run, and knew I was about to cross the finish line I had dreamed about for over a year. And when I made it onto the bridge that leads to the finish line, I ran with my arms up basically the entire time, so proud, and celebrating such an amazing day. My run was 2:02:57 (9:24 / mile), putting me 15th in my age group for the run and with an overall time of 6:14:12.
Lessons I Learned from Finishing a Half Ironman
I learned enough from training and finishing this Half Ironman to fill an entire book, but given the length of this blog post already, I’m going to keep it to 7. Here are the top lessons I learned from finishing a half Ironman:
- Nothing beats the endorphin rush of a challenge. Again, I thrive on challenge, and this was so clear during the training and racing of Waco 70.3. Chapter 2 of “The Passion Paradox” is as close an explanation to how my brain works as I’ve ever read. It describes the rush of dopamine we experience when confronting a challenge, and says, “We don’t get hooked on the feeling associated with achievement; we get hooked on the feeling associated with the chase.” This is SO true in my experience. Dreaming of the finish line every day was almost as amazing as actually crossing the finish line. Plus, a race or other physical achievement is one of the rare times when it feels OK for me to be fully self-centered and proud of myself. I (as I know many of you do, too!) spend most of my life focused on others, and constantly think about how I can make their lives better. I am not great at celebrating my achievements in business or in life; I’d rather push on to the next task on the list. But last Sunday was a day when I was fully focused on ME, and fully proud of my accomplishment.
- My body wasn’t very happy with the extreme amount of cardio I put into training. I’ve always said that for “results” (meaning, a toned, lean, strong look), strength training is your best bet. Even better if you can achieve a balance of strength training, cardio, and flexibility / recovery. But I wasn’t after physical results here (which is good, because I actually increased body fat during training, despite being incredibly particular about my nutrition the entire time. I firmly believe, and have science to back up, that many women end up gaining fat during endurance training, and while that is another blog post entirely, it bears saying here).
Anyway, I used to be fine with more cardio (in fact, from 2006-2014, I basically ran exclusively, with few injuries), but now my body just doesn’t handle it as well. I took great care of myself, meaning that I averaged 1.5 yoga classes per week, foam rolled every SINGLE night, used my Rapid Release tool every single night, had massages every month or more, had cryotherapy every month or more, and had acupuncture about every night. Still, my feet were screaming most of the training cycle, and I had a bout with overtraining (which, again, is an entirely separate blog post, but basically landed me in a heart ultrasound just to make sure everything was OK, which thankfully, it was. I’m extra cautious about my heart since I had heart surgery in 2001, and while cardio is generally good for your heart, pushing yourself too hard without enough rest is not). From a recovery perspective, our bodies have to balance the stress from physical activity with stress from environment and mental / emotional stress, and even though I adore my job, being an entrepreneur who works 70-hour weeks is a source of stress that compounds the physical training.
Back to The Passion Paradox for a moment, this quote sums up my experience: “People who are insensitive to [dopamine] (and thus need more of it to feel good) embody persistence, demonstrating unwavering determination and relentless drive. The more dopamine someone needs to feel good, the more willing she is to strive for and chase after ridiculously challenging rewards, even if doing so turns out to be detrimental to her in some way.” While my ego, pride, and stress levels LOVE long bouts of cardio, my body really prefers a balance of strength, cardio, and flexibility, so if (OK, when) I do another Half Ironman, I’ll find a way to lower the hours of cardio I put in.
- That said, executing your training plan well builds confidence. As mentioned, I trained December 2018-April 2019 for Galveston, averaging 18 miles running, 84 miles biking, and 5728m swimming per week during the 18-week program that I created for myself based on researching many other programs. Because the plan would have gotten me to the finish line without the weather’s interruption, I decided to follow a similar plan, with a bit more biking, this time. During the 15 week build up for Waco, I averaged 25 miles running, 103 miles biking, and 7034m swimming each week. While, as mentioned in #2, this was too much cardio for my body at this particular point, it gave me extreme confidence that I could finish the race strongly. I will never be the type of person that says “I haven’t trained, but I hope I can make it!” (In fact, I’m stressed just writing that 😊).
- Nutrition really is the 4th discipline. A common phrase in triathlon says that nutrition is the 4th discipline, and I’m lucky that this one was the easiest for me. I’ve dealt with a ton of digestive issues in my past, and they often hindered my running races, but through practice, research, and experimentation, I nailed my nutrition. I had made notes of every single thing I consumed for the three days leading up to the race and during the race in Galveston, and I copied it exactly this time. Not fueling well for a 5K or half marathon is probably fine, but not fueling well for a 6 hour race could lead to your demise, so I’m glad I’ve got this one down!
- All the little things matter. I mentioned how my only regret is going so painfully slow during the transitions. I missed the wetsuit strippers, took way too long assembling gear, and generally was relaxed in transition. I also stopped around mile 43 of the bike to remove my jacket and take the hand warmers out of my shoes, and this cost me another 90 seconds. Even if I had pushed just 5 seconds per mile faster on the bike, my overall time would have been significantly better. These little things separate the newbies (me!) from the experienced racers, and these are the things I’ll hope to improve in the future.
- Support makes a GIANT difference. In Galveston, my Mom, sister, and husband were cheering me on (even standing out in the storms to support me!), and their support truly made it one of the best days of my life. In Waco, Kevin and Lindsey returned, and Lindsey’s boyfriend also joined in (my parents were in Spain and couldn’t make it). Although I probably only saw them for a total of 3 minutes during the entire 6 hour race, I can’t even describe the boost of energy and determination they gave me. Every single time, they were encouraging, positive, and so helpful. At one point in particular, Kevin stood at the bottom of a hill, and yelled, “just run to the top of this hill!” It wasn’t one of the bigger hills, but I was at a low point in motivation and likely would have walked otherwise. When I heard his encouragement, I decided to run up, and immediately felt empowered. From the top, I gave him the “muscle” sign, and from that point on, I knew I had the energy to finish. Aside from those physically cheering me on, I knew I had so many people sending positive wishes and tracking me online. So, THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart, for pushing me on!
- Physical achievements are 90% mental. I think back to the panic attack I had during my first open water swim, and compare that to my confidence in swimming 1.2 miles both in Galveston and Waco, and I know the difference there is not physical training, but a ton of visualization, calming breaths, positive self-talk, and belief in myself. I think about the cold temperatures (46 degrees when you’re wet from the swim and getting wind-whipped on the bike is COLD!), and realize that it didn’t impact me – because I was focused and determined. I think about how many times, during training and racing, that I wanted to quit, and the fact that I didn’t, and I know that’s 100% mental. Here’s the lesson for you: you CAN truly do anything you set your mind to. There’s no such thing as a physical limitation (I was obsessed with watching this amazing athlete at the Ironman World Championships in Kona. What you want to achieve, you will, with determination, hard work, and persistence. I did … now it’s your turn!
Now it’s your turn … What is something that would challenge YOU? It can be physical, mental, or emotional, but I encourage you to find a challenge for yourself in the next few months!