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A first timer’s take on the biggest half-ironman race in North America, Ironman 70.3 Augusta
It’s time. bring on my first im70.3
The training was done. The miles were in the bank. The spectacular bike tumbles had been tumbled. The shoes had been worn through and replaced. And replaced. AND REPLACED AGAIN FOR THE LOVE (thank you for not updating your shoes this training cycle, Mizzuno.) The time had come to stop imagining the heat, the crowds, the alligators, and the pride waiting for me at Ironman 70.3 Augusta, Georgia. It’s time to race. Giddy up.
My real true goal was to finish the race officially, so under 8 hours and 30 minutes, and to enjoy the day. I didn’t want to set myself up for failure because I really didn’t know what to expect. I expected to be under 7:30, which was totally doable. I’d just have to be conservative and follow my plan. My stretch goal was under 7:15.
Quick note about the race crew
Ok, before I really get started, I need to brag about this family of mine. Not only did the crew that is cursedblessed to actually live with me during heavy training blocks support all of my insanity, my ride-or-die crew, my mom and sisters, SURPRISED ME THE NIGHT BEFORE WE LEFT with the announcement that they sold Dave Matthews Band tickets to come watch me race. Yes. Really. Driving to Augusta from Northern Virginia, I couldn’t help but allow myself to be swallowed up by gratitude for this life, this opportunity, and these people.
THE VERY BEST HOTEL
I couldn’t even guess how many times the Holiday Inn Express Augusta Downtown had been recommended in the facebook groups for this Ironman 70.3 Augusta.. It is booked for next year’s race before this year’s is complete. Yes, a Holiday Inn Express. I didn’t understand it, but I put my name on the waiting list anyway and crossed my fingers. A few weeks before race day, I got the call that my name was next! You bet I whipped out that credit card faster than pro does a bottle grab and secured a room at this hotel with the massive crowd following.
When we first arrived, I’ll admit that I gave it a bit of a side eye. It was about 1 am. Let me just tell you: Downtown Augusta isn’t much to look at in the middle of the night. The hotel has a small parking lot surrounded by a high fence as a deterrent to break-ins, and you get the feeling this was a necessary measure. Now, I certainly never felt unsafe. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t expect to be dazzled.
Whatever it lacked in outward appearance, it more than compensates with the absolute best staff on this (or any other) planet. Bar none. Disney Parks and Resorts – you should really learn from this staff. They could host a master class on making Guests feel welcome, appreciated, and (yup, I’m going here) loved. More on this later.
Absolutely exhausted from this long, post-work drive, we checked-in. I took the girls and headed upstairs with the Tetris-perfected luggage hauler while Matt parked the car.
Bonus: Holiday Inn Express Augusta Downtown has plug-in spots for hybrid vehicles! Free power FOR THE WIN!
As soon as jammys were on, teeth were brushed, and my beautiful bike was elevated to her place of high honor (only the critical, adult-y things) we crashed. Hard. The next morning was going to be big.
Day 2: The Ironman 70.3 Augusta expo, the meltdown, the letter
The next morning were were up and ready to explore. As soon as we stepped into the hallway, we knew this was different. There was something in the air. There were bikes in the elevator. Already I knew that was going to be unlike any other race weekend.
Ironman Augusta 70.3 Expo
We ate the typical hotel breakfast in the lobby. Armed with full bellies and a map to the Convention Center in the Augusta Marriott, the Ironman 70.3 Augusta host hotel, we started the 15-ish minute walk to the expo. The sidewalks were a little crumbly; invaded by tree roots.
There. Were. Bikes. EVERYWHERE.
I mean, fancy bikes. Bikes that cost more than my first few cars combined. People were whizzing through traffic with their pointy aero helmets and full kit. I was surrounded by Supers. They were fit. There were tattooed with the branding that means so much to me. They were confident and strong and fearless and clearly totally un-phased by the challenge (Ha! Not for them!) ahead. It felt like I must have been the only first-timer in the entire city. At first, I was totally dazzled. All this talent surrounded me!.
Then I was terrified. All this talent surrounded me. And I was here to race with them tomorrow? Me? The gal who is going to wear sneakers on the bike because I haven’t mastered being upright with clipless pedals? The mom with the speedfil because I don’t think I’ll ever get my own bottle out of the cage without stopping? What was I thinking? I don’t belong here. Ironman 70.3 Augusta is clearly out of my league.
There it was: I don’t belong here.
From the time that thought first appeared until my toes first found their way into the gorgeous river the next morning, I allowed that ugly thought to nearly paralyze me. If I could do anything differently in the entire experience of this race, from the dream years before to crossing the finish line, it would be to forcibly shove that no good, dirty, rotten, joy-thief of a lie straight out of my consciousness. I can’t, but I will learn from it.
We walked around, found the line for check-in, and quickly picked up on the Ironman packet process. As you would expect, there is much more to it than the regular marathon or half-marathon events. There is a waiver, a stop for your bib, a place to get your wrist band, a table to pick up your colored swim cap (this race allowed you to pick any color you want. They just write your Bib number on it with a sharpie) a crew with your swag bag, and finally, a volunteer giving out red wristbands. These are for you to distribute to volunteers that help you the most from here on out! It’s a way to show your appreciation when your energy stores are too low for much else. Brilliant!
Then the shopping begins! Oooohhh do they have opportunities for you to drop some cold, hard cash. Since I absolutely believe in “Nothing new for race day,” I bought myself something brand new for race day; a clearance swim skin that miraculously didn’t cause me any problems, a t-shirt with my name on the back, and a coffee mug. Done and DONE.
I caught a few minutes of the Ironman 70.3 Augusta race briefing. I left when I discovered that it was anxiety inducing. It was information I’d heard a million times before from my obsessive need to pour over every document/tweet/blog post/facebook rant ever published about this race: out of your aerobars (ha!) and slow down on the many train tracks, enjoy that sweeping downhill about halfway through the bike, hydrate…the usual.
On my way out the door, we stopped to take a picture in front of the branded step & repeat banner when a volunteer offered to take a picture of the whole family. He asked me if this was my first time (it was probably obvious) and then launched into the kindest words. He reminded me that nothing is impossible. He assured me that I was ready. He gave some great advice about living in the moment and told me he’d see me back for Ironman 70.3 Augusta in 2019. For that kindness, he snagged my first red bracelet.
The Bike Drop
We walked back to the room to grab my beloved bike to bring her down to the racks. For some reason passing my understanding, I thought this would be the perfect time to switch my pedals to the clipless that I have never been able to operate. (You can see where this is going.) After being surrounded by thousands of for sure Olympians, I needed better pedals or I’d be O.U.T.
We changed the pedals, and I had this ridiculous idea that I should hold onto the bed in the hotel room and practice clipping in and out. I know! I am having a hard time even writing such an insane series of thoughts right now. Nevertheless, I persisted.
Until I didn’t. It didn’t take long to realize that a) this new learning method is clearly flawed and b) that I’m not ready to be in this race tomorrow because I am a complete and total fraud. Everyone should just pack up and go home because I’m destined to bring dishonor on myself, the family, and my cow in just 24-hours. This was going poorly.
So the flat pedals went back on, where they belonged.
The Melt Down
I went to let some air out of the tubes, as I had been advised to do because of changing temperatures overnight, when the entire metal tube pumpy-thing DISINTEGRATED in my hand! A rush of air blasted from the tire and my rim sat directly on the hotel room carpet.
That. Was. It. I was just about cooked. We had around two hours until transition closed at that point. If the bike didn’t make it over there, I wasn’t starting in the morning. Except, I hadn’t practiced changing a flat enough. I sort of knew how to do it, but I was really banking on the no-mechanical-failures race plan. This wasn’t a great start. I googled and googled and discovered that sometimes this just happens. It’s actually not a big deal. Just put the thing back together, pump up the tire, and go. But I didn’t really believe that. I just knew that everything was falling apart.
By this time, everyone was hungry. I don’t make rational decisions when I’m hungry. We pumped the tire, grabbed the girls and the bike and headed down to the van. We were off to McDonalds (I had REALLY embraced the “I’m not an athlete. I don’t deserve to be here” pity party by then.) As soon as Matt rolled down the window to order some tastytotal trash McNuggets, I lost it. I cried an ugly cry in a style that my children have never seen. My empathetic child started crying at the very sight of it.
There was I. After years of dreaming, months of hard work, and hours of driving, I was crying into a box of McNuggets…in public. It was time to get it together.
The kindness of strangers
I googled bike shops in the area and it turns out, Outspokin Bicycles was literally around the corner. It was about 2 minutes away. I had seen this shop recommended many times in the Ironman 70.3 Augusta Facebook groups. Without calling, we drove over. I grabbed my bike from the trunk and I went in to confess my soul to the first employee that I saw. I said exactly what I meant, “Hi. I’m in a panic and I’m hoping you can help. I should have spent more time over the last few months really learning how to fix things on my bike, but I didn’t. Here I am with about an hour left to get my bike to transition, and I don’t trust that this valve thing is going to stay where it should tomorrow and I have no idea what to do about it.” I’m sure my face was still swollen and blotchy.
The unbelievably nice man working there looked at me, laughed, and said, “You’re certainly not the only person in the town in a panic right now. Let me take a look.” I thought he was telling me to get lost. What he was really saying was, “It’s ok. You’re ok.” With a simple screw of a special tool, he told me it was perfectly safe and reliable and that it happens all the time. He went on to say that I have a really nice bike and that I should be proud of it out there tomorrow.
There it was. The moment I began to shift from fear to gratitude. This wasn’t where I started to believe I could do it, mind you. It was more important than that. I was reminded that I could be grateful to be here, at such a special event, because so many people loved me enough to support me and because my body was healthy and strong enough to endure the work to get here.
I thanked him and told him it was a complete surprise from my non-triathlete husband just three weeks earlier. “He must really love you,” he said. “Yes. Yes he does.”
He offered to give my bike a quick once-over to be sure everything was exactly where it should be. Then he walked it out to the van for me! Matt, who had been sitting in the van with our girls, came out to shake his hand and thank him. I asked him what I owed (knowing that I could never actually repay him for the service he really provided, far beyond my bike) and he said NOTHING! I thanked God for him, got in the car, told everyone how much I love them and how thankful I was that they were there, and we drove to transition.
This where where the real fun began. With my new mindset, the energy was no longer suffocating. It was invigorating. Transition is set in a grassy area just along the riverbank. Beyond that is a neighborhood. So there really isn’t any parking other than along the residential streets that would all be closed to traffic the next day. You can imagine that 3,000+ athletes and their families are all parking on these neighborhood streets and walking their bikes, sometimes in the middle of the road, to transition. It was hectic, but it felt a bit like a party.
I walked my bike to her spot, noted a landmark to make my row easily identifiable, kissed her handlebars, only made one small joke to myself about being the only bike without aerobars on the entire rack, and walked out of that transition like a boss.
By this time, the rest of my family had arrived from Florida and it was time to EAT. My normal pre-race custom is some variation of a burrito bowl; rice, protein, salsa. I had heard so much about a little place downtown called Nacho Mama’s, so we headed over. Man, was it GOOD.
Then we drove over as a whole crew to take a look at the river. Somehow our family split into smaller groups and I ended up strolling along the Riverwalk with my big sister. She definitely thinks I’m crazy for doing these types of things, mostly because I normally rope her into joining, but she is always so supportive. I was very grateful she was with me then, and I’m grateful just thinking about it now. We wound up going farther than I expected and found ourselves at the actual swim start. We walked out onto the dock and found a few other competitors marveling at the beauty of the river…and just how far 1.2 miles is when you are really looking at it. Not going to lie, we were probably all looking for a gator as well.
Nervous, excited, and ready, we went back to the hotel to get some rest before the big morning. When we arrived, the sweet woman who was making it her life’s mission to learn about every single competitor and their family who was staying at the hotel handed me a letter and wished me luck. When I went up to my room, settled everyone in, and had a chance to read it, I couldn’t believe what this kind stranger had to say. I am oddly proud of my lack of sentimentality. I keep NOTHING. This letter, I kept. It’s a wrinkly mess, but it’s mine. Reading it now, outside the bubble, I can see that it was a request for review. But it was more than that to me that night. It was the support of a community. It felt great. Off to sleep I went.
It’s race day. Let’s do this
The alarm rang at the crack of dawn. It was time to slam down some of my standard pre-race, “Go Fast Pudding” that I make with dates, cocoa nibs, chia seeds, banana, and some other disgusting ingredients. I never enjoy eating it, but it’s the longest lasting breakfast energy that I’ve found.
ironman Augusta 70.3 is complicated. For real.
Ironman 70.3 Augusta is a bit more complicated than some other races because the swim start, transition, and the finish line are in three totally different places. It takes just a little bit of planning to get everything and everyone in the right places.
The plan was for my night-owl mother to stumble down to our room and fall back asleep with the girls while Matt, my sisters, and I headed out for the day. We met up with my tri-hero and friend, Meg, just down the hall and all went downstairs to grab the bus. This wasn’t Meg’s first rodeo. She completed her first full Ironman months before at IM Florida and had been to Augusta several times before. She said that her goal for the race was to have fun and make people happy, and what a goal to set! Can I just say, she NAILED it.
While Matt and my sisters decided to walk over to the swim start, Meg and I crammed into the hotel shuttle van over to transition to drop off our things. We discovered someone in the van was having a birthday, and another was a fellow first timer. We laughed. We sang. And then we spilled out onto the residential street where we parked the previous afternoon. Time for business. We set up our transitions, pumped our tires, visited the port-pottyies, and rolled out. Honestly, I was shaking so much that I’m not sure I could have accomplished any of it without Meg’s direction. I was having a ball, but my nerves were just insane. We jumped back in the van for a ride over to the swim start.
Then we waited.
Ironman 70.3 Augusta has a self-seeded, rolling swim start. It’s important that you line up with people who expect to swim about the same pace as you. Line up with faster swimmers, and you are likely to have a pretty scary experience with competitors swimming literally right over you. Line up with folks that should be behind you, and you’ll be doing the over-swimming. Since my group wasn’t going to be in the water for a while, we had plenty of time to dance to the great music, visit the porta-potties a few more times (race nerves) squeeze into our swim skins, and even play with a lovely golden retriever who lined up with her person right around us. Most of all, I just drank it all in. I couldn’t believe the day was here.
Once on the dock, everything moves really fast. You start walking, don’t stop, hop right into the water, and go. You don’t have any time to overthink it. Once your feet touch that metal, it’s on.
The water was amazing. Absolutely incredible. It’s easy to sight a straight swim. If you struggle with sighting, just keep in mind that you should be crossing under the bridges at 90 degrees. Also, there were so many support boats that they felt like they touched. If swimming is your weak discipline, Ironman 70.3 Augusta is absolutely your race.
I found myself singing in my head in the water. Since I train in the pool listening to either Hamilton or podcasts, I wouldn’t have expected to have worship music in my head, but I did! I just couldn’t stop thanking God for such an opportunity on such a perfect day. I never wanted the swim to end. You know, because then the bike starts…but also because it was just so wonderful. Alas, before I was ready, my feet were on the concrete, I was running up the ramp, and it was off to transition.
Swim time: 39:41
Finding my bike was easy and transition was uneventful. I thought I really flew through there, but my time says otherwise. I think I was a little too focused on getting the dirt off my wet feet before the socks went on. In the end, I didn’t have any blisters or sore spots, so maybe it was worth it. Either way, lesson for next time: make T1 a little less enjoyable. Put some pep in your step, lady!
Alright, this was the scary part. Could I do it? I was trained. The weather was hot but beautiful. The conditions were right. Did I have it in me and could I enjoy it?
YES! A resounding, emphatic YES.
This bike course had everything. We had rolling hills, we had a steep climb, we had railroad tracks and sharp turns. There were rural farm roads. There were highways. We were even served an air strip and a sewer treatment plant! I loved it all, even when it was painful.
I skipped the first water stop like a complete lunatic. Learn from me: don’t do this. It was HAAWT out there and I really don’t know what I was thinking. All I can say was that I was in the zone and before I knew it, I was passing the aid station. OK, 15-miles until the next one.
By then, it was a welcome sight! I popped off my bike to eat a 1/2 banana and slam some water since I knew I wasn’t drinking enough. I didn’t quite understand how far I was from my normal hydration/nutrition plan since I use Tailwind liquid calories and I couldn’t see inside my Speedfil, also being used for the first time on race day (Brilliant!) The reality was that I was very far behind. I wouldn’t be catching up.
At this aid station, I made my first friend while waiting for a, you guessed it, porta-potty! Her name was Jill. Jill shared with me that this was her third attempt at this race and she had yet to finish one. I said some things that I hope were encouraging, and headed off. I saw her several other times along the course and made it a point to scream her name and cheer her on. I sure hope 2018 was her year.
I enjoyed the course way more than I expected. Gratitude.
The next 20-or so miles are a bit of a blur. I know I hit my fastest speed ever (32 MPH) on the long, sweeping downhill portion and felt like I was on top of the world. There was a segment where cars were somehow on the road with us and it was pretty hairy trying to pass a big box truck. I knew I wasn’t going as fast as I probably could, but I just wanted not to blow up.
When I made it to the final aid station at the turnaround by the air field, I was crying big grateful tears. I didn’t realize that this race also has a Blue Mile, like the one found at the Marine Corps Marathon, that totally takes you out of yourself for a moment. The is a place where there are signs with images of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. It’s a silent, somber place. The family members of those lost come out to actually cheer for the athletes, and they staff the final aid station. When I pulled up on my bike, I wanted to ask them what I could do for them, but I had very little left in me. Instead, I asked for a banana. A volunteer helped me off my bike and offered to hold it while I ate and drank. Another loaded up my jersey with shot blocks. They helped me back on my bike and sent me on my way. These incredible people. These angels on earth.
A few more turns and I was back at transition, with Matt screaming his head off for me on the sidelines.
Bike: 4:08. Not great, but I DID IT!
Again, it felt like I was nailing transition. Whiiiiich of course means that it was way too slow! Looking back, I think I might have baked a cake or taken a nap or something. Who knows. I’ll work on those.
Here we go! It’s finally here, the part I’ve been so excited about. It’s time to run!
Except, I could barely get my legs to walk. Yes, I practiced bricks. I knew this would be tough. The problem wasn’t that I was tired. It was that I was completely out of gas. I was actually hungry. That was new. I asked Matt if he could find me a PB&J somewhere because no race food I had was going to fix the incredibly deep nutrition hole I had dug for myself. He walked alongside me for about a quarter mile and took off to find sustenance.
In the meantime, I slogged when I could and walked when I couldn’t. It was so hot. My pace was so far off where I wanted to be. Was it possible that I wouldn’t make the cut off? I trained to be well under! This shouldn’t be happening, but it was. Even still, I was basking in the cheering crowds and the fact that I had made it through the first two disciplines without trouble. I COULD do this. I just had to dig in for this sufferfest.
The Ironman 70.3 Augusta run course passes by the hotel FOUR times! It was such a boost to see my people out on that sidewalk cheering. What I didn’t know at the start of the day was that another tri-hero of mine, my friend Julia, drove from Savannah to support me in the race! She surprised me and was cheering on the sidewalk when I passed for the first time. How lucky can I be to have such great friends?
Thankfully, after about 5 miles, some ice cold Red Bull (never tried that on a race course before) and about 10 oranges that I had picked up from the aid stations, I was starting to feel like I had the bare minimal calories to run, but that I could at least run. So I did! I switched to a 30:30 interval for a while, then a 1:30 run, :30 walk for a couple miles, and back to a 30:30 until the final mile. Then it was time to go. Everything I could muster. Every single ounce of energy I could find. It was time to direct it straight to my burning legs and get to that finish line. In the end, my run was about a hour longer than a standalone half marathon for me, but also one of the most memorable I’ve ever run.
It was so incredibly beautiful. My sisters were waiting on the side of the road just before the finisher’s chute. Matt and the girls were just beyond the arch. I ran through the finish with cold water sponges sticking out of my kit, sticky hands from eating unlimited food from strangers, smelling like God-only-knows-what, sunburnt like I had not applied sunscreen 3x, and feeling like the most accomplished, beautiful, loved, supported strong woman in Augusta, Georgia.
Total Time: 8:09:47
And there it was. My first Ironman 70.3 Augusta was on the books, and I absolutely loved it. I know I have work to do; perfecting my nutrition, heat adaptation, and mindset, but I’m so excited for whatever comes next.