Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ironman Louisville - August 31, 2008

It had been over two weeks since my collision and I thought I was alright ... But this particular day while driving to a friend's, a dark mini-van cut suddenly into my lane and I felt overwhelmed with emotion.

And then the tears finally flowed.

My recent accident with a similar van flashed through my mind and I finally understood what I had just gone through.

I hadn't had the time to digest all that had happened since my bike collision in Toronto, four days before my big race. I had just arrived in Toronto after a six-hour drive from Montreal and had met up with my roadie friend, Zute, for a training ride before supper.

Only a kilometer from our start point, an irresponsible driver passed us both, then without looking, turned suddenly into a parking lot, hitting Zute on his left side while I collided abruptly into the back of her vehicle, denting it. And as my bike ricocheted backwards, my body flew like a projectile over my handlebars and I whacked my face and shoulder hard into the van's back door.

In that split second as I felt my neck snap back brusquely, I saw my Ironman race fizzle. Hurting my neck again was definitely a bad thing as it had not yet healed from my 2006 car accident (pics here) for which I was still in physio. Sitting there after the accident by the side of the road, gripping my neck, all I could think was, "Would I be able to race?" and then, "Is my bike okay?"

Zute wiped the blood off my face and leg, and spoke calmly with the woman, instinctively not letting me do the talking as he sensed how much I would have screamed at her at the top of my lungs for her stupidity and negligence. She could have killed us both!! How could she have not seen TWO cyclists!?!?

The rest of the evening was spent trying to normalize, as my mother was expecting us to take her out for supper and there was no way I wanted her to know what happened. Besides, I didn't want an overnight wait in a crowded emergency room with the hassle of out-of-province medical coverage when I had an early start and a 12-hour drive planned the next day.

I told myself, rest and sleep, that's all I needed. The long drive followed by a bike collision did not make for a peaceful day.

"I HAD to be alright."

I had no time or energy to digest the accident. I was racing. The days before and after my race were a complete blur ... 36 hours of driving alone to and from the race, the crash into the mini-van, dealing with the injuries, obtaining a bike, the complicated race prep, trying to squeeze in a bit of training, Race Day, taking care of my mother, then finally, dealing with the enormous amount of red tape (police, insurance companies, health care professionals, etc.)

And through my delayed tears, I realised that I was lucky not to have done more damage to my neck and back, or to not have landed on my head and suffered another concussion.

So now I am finally writing this race report, still healing from injuries, still sorting out red tape, still not ever planning to tell my mother about the accident (cause she would freak!) ... but one Ironman race richer in my life experience, feeling even more awake to the power of the mind.

I've reached an "enlightenment", a sublime understanding of the workings of the mind and of the body and how everything in life is intertwined. Through this all, I've somehow made a quantum leap in wisdom gained and a peaceful understanding of "letting go" and "life goes on".

It's hard to explain this epiphany to you without giving you more details, but let's just say, it's been a tough year. This Ironman race, dedicated to my mother who is dying of cancer and the reason I pushed on to finish albeit the injuries, was symbolic of the end of a journey and the fresh exciting beginning of another ...


I am admittedly an undisciplined, imperfect athlete, with an artsy soul that is easily distracted. Training schedule, what dat? I trained horribly and entirely inconsistently, not doing the necessary miles, no, not even half of them, convinced that my one long run of 30k and my one long lake swim of 6k would get me by (had to wrap my mind around some distance, you know!) Long ride? Nope, but I'd done some tough hills ... I cheated my training with short swims, rides and runs, perhaps enough to scrape by for an Olympic distance, but who was I kidding?

Not an accident or insufficient training could make me DNS (did not start). I had too much riding on this race:

- I had already paid for the race entry and hotel
- Through the charity group I created, Operation Triumph, many people had sponsored me with donations to the Canadian Cancer Society
- I was racing in honour of my mother who's been so strong throughout her cancer. Now it was my turn to be strong ...

I told myself, "What will be, will be. I will finish."

Race Day Morning, August 31

When Mike, a fellow triathlete, called at 4:30 am, I was already wide awake. I lay in bed another 10 minutes and visualised the race and my transitions.

Breakfast consisted of a small bowl of Oatmeal Crisp Almond cereal, a few pieces of honeydew melon, a banana, and a cup of tea. I wasn't very hungry though as my stomach felt off. I was relieved when #2 finally happened ... so important on race day ... yay!

I rushed to the transition area to finish settling in my stuff, check in my special needs bags, and check over my bike. My nerves felt raw and the multitude of details to take care of felt overwhelming.

Yesterday, fifteen minutes into a short test ride, my bike flatted. After changing the tube, the tire rubbed against the frame, and not knowing how to fix this and needing to check my bike in before the cut-off time, I realised I had no choice but to have it looked at race morning. The bike tech guys made some adjustments and pumped up my tires. All clear! I scurried to rack my bike as transition was closing.

I'd forgotten that the swim start was a mile away and nervously set out on the walk, trying to calm myself down by chit chatting with the other athletes. My inability to locate the body markers only added to my pre-race anxiety and even the volunteer I asked didn't know where they were. But then I found them, grouped together haphazardly on a non-designated spot with no signs pointing them out.

[Warning: TMI] All endurance athletes are happy to do #2 before the race start, as it is quite unpleasant to get sick during the race, but c'mon, four times?!?! My stomach was definitely off and I was not a happy camper!!

Mike and I unfortunately ended up at the back of the "second" line and in fact, for a while, I was the last person. We cracked jokes and shared stories and this helped to lighten my nervousness. I was real happy though when the line started moving quicker and eventually others who had made last minute potty trips had to rejoin the line after us ... Now Mike and I were only almost last! There were now about ten people behind us!

If I ever do this race again, remind me to write to the race director to ask that they clear the path of all those sharp little pebbles.

The Swim

The race start is a time trial start and after passing the timing mat, each athlete jumps or dives into the water. It took about 52 minutes for Mike and I to get to the swim start. I learned to swim less than three years ago and because deep down, I am still afraid of water, jumping into water is very difficult. But here, I had no choice. That's me, second in line from the right, jumping hesitantly into the water. Mike was already away and swimming.

Down I went into the water ... and before I could surface, someone jumped in on top of me and kicked my head.

Fantastic start. Yeah.

I was happy to make it back up the surface without drowning and after taking a pause to refocus, started the swim upstream. Slow and easy ... long strokes ... be as efficient as possible. It was not long though before I noticed the uneveness of my stroke. Even with frequent sighting, I had trouble keeping a straight course.

Old left arm injury from my 2006 car accident + new shoulder/lat injury from recent collision = annoying veer to the right

To top it off, my too tight swim cap kept slipping off, forcing me to stop repeatedly to readjust it along with my goggles. Also annoying was the huge air bubble trapped inside my cap, a result of not being able to squeeze it out after the jump start.

I quickly realised that starting extreme BOP (back of pack) while swimming against the current was quite disheartening, but I tried to not let this get to me.
Long, efficient strokes ... long, efficient strokes.

I made it past the little island and into the open water where the current got stronger. Though it seemed to take forever to reach the red buoy that signaled the turn-around point, it was uplifting to know that it took some of the other swimmers even longer ... and I happily started passing people.

The opaqueness of the water was strange ... no sunlight penetrated the super polluted Ohio River. And surprisingly, though the swimmers were spaced out much more so than in a mass start, I ended up whacking a few people that I came upon suddenly due to zero visibility in the water. Oops, sorry!

I doubt that the down-current after the turn-around point improved my swim time as I zig-zagged all over the place. I was happy to finally reach the metal stairs that marked the end of the swim leg as I had accomplished what I had set out to do ... a relaxed, centered, peaceful and energy-efficient swim.

I knew I had a lot more race to go!

Transition, though not super fast, felt pretty smooth ... until I took my bike off the rack and wheeled it over to the bike start. My tire was once again rubbing the frame, and crossing the timing mat out of transition, I shouted to a volunteer, "Where's bike tech?"

I was sent back into the transition area where I had to find a mechanic to take care of my problem. He checked over my bike, took the wheel off, then ran off to grab some tools. While waiting, I cracked jokes to spectators and ate half a granola bar. What the heck, I had time to relax ... Turned out that it was the set pins and once recalibrated, the wheel went back on, and off I went, again over the transition out timing mat.

Finally, I got to ride!

Swim 1:36:56 (2:33/100m)

Rank after swim: overall 1624/1975, Division 62/82

T1: Swim-to-bike 7:20

The Bike

The first part of the bike course was flat, so no problems there. The aero position seemed alright and I was able to get up to speed pretty quickly until I found a pace that was comfortable. The thought hit me ... "Wow, I'm on a new bike, I wonder how it's going to go!" and I felt all excited.

Then I arrived at the hilly section, La Grange. I'd never climbed even one hill with Ingrid, my new tri bike. The shifters were in a whole new position, on my aerobars, as opposed to my old racing bike, which were on the downtube. In fact, there was lots different about this new bike, besides the much lighter weight. Ingrid had a different geometry which meant that I'd be using my muscles differently. The 650 wheels made for tighter handling and a much different feel to the steering. Even managing the water bottles had changed as I now had two behind me. This was a mighty sharp learning curve to manage.

So, as I headed into La Grange, I realised that this part of the race would not be easy, especially with the head and cross-winds. With the climbs and descents, I had to concentrate on shifting correctly and often, ended up in the wrong gear at the wrong time since I was not yet used to the new shifters or their nuances. My chain dropped twice while climbing, probably from shifting too quickly, as I was still unfamiliar with the timing. Getting back on a bike mid-hill is not easy to do, and I was forced to walk up a particularly steep hill after putting my chain back on.

Somehow, the hills seemed so much smaller the day before while checking out the bike course with Mike and his wonderful parents, Johnie and Brenda, in their air-conditioned mini-van. But today, in the 95F/35C heat (104F/40C factoring in the 80% humidity), with cloudless skies giving us no reprieve from the blazing sun, combined with the winds ... these "gentle rolling hills" felt HUMUNGOUS to me.

I passed a stretch of La Grange where a local festival was taking place. Cheering spectators lined the road and I felt a surge of disbelief, emotion and pride.

"Oh my God, I'm doing an Ironman!"

I thought about my mother and how much I loved her. The tears started rolling down my face but I wiped them away quickly as I wouldn't be able to finish if I kept crying. I was on a mission.
I took advantage of every aid station and stopped to fill up with water since I didn't want to crash while doing the "bottle grab". Several times, I downed complete bottles before moving on because of my extreme thirst.

I immensely regretted eating the other half of my granola bar before I hit the hills as it made me extremely nauseous. Regurgitating repeatedly only intensified my queasiness. I would have rather vomited! I'd never had GI (gastro-intestinal) issues this bad ever in a race before. I could no longer stomach the E-Load sport drink that I'd been consuming ... my stomach had shut down and I resorted to water, gels and salt capsules for the remainder of the race. I was ecstatic to finally feel some wind on my back and pick up speed ... whoohoo!

My new thrill didn't last too long though, only until the start of the second La Grange loop, where that horrible head-wind made me drop down again to 17 km/h. Something about repeating this loop and confusing signage combined with fatigue and disorientation tricked me for a few moments into thinking that I was closer to finishing the bike leg than I really was. My brain hurt from trying to calculate the distance travelled, as my odometer was incorrect, having not yet been recalibrated to the new wheel size. I asked a cyclist while passing him what his odometer read. AGH!!! The desperation of my reality set in.

I'd not gone 90 miles. I'd only gone 60 miles. Damned double signage. I still had almost halfway to go. I'm almost ashamed to admit that 57 miles/92 km was the farthest I'd gone during a training ride this summer, and that was in early July. I had now surpassed that. Could I trust my body to go another 52 miles? I had no choice.

I finally reached the special needs station and was happy to pick up my other gels as I had run out. I pulled the granola bars out of my back pockets and handed them with the bars still in my special needs bag back to the volunteer. "Can you throw these away? I can't eat them."

Then off I went again, up and down the hills. The cycling became increasingly difficult as it became clearer that I was on an untested new bike and didn't have the mileage in my legs. What a way to inaugurate Ingrid, my new bike ... with a 112 mile/180 km Ironman ride ... LOL!!

A late swim start coupled with a late bike start served only to add to the isolation I felt on the bike course. The second loop was almost void of spectators. A mere scattering were left and often, the only people I saw were cyclists I passed or exhausted bodies lying on the side of the road waiting for medical aid.

My female nether regions were on *fire* albeit the BodyGlide and I didn't want to stop to fiddle with my seat. The damage had been done and an aero position was no longer possible except for the downhills where I could lift myself off my seat a bit. The new bike geometry worked my muscles differently and my IT bands now pulled painfully on my kneecaps like sharp stabbing knives.

What hurt more though than my knees and my private parts were my neck and upper back. The extent of my injury from my recent collision into the back of the mini-van became painfully obvious. Because of possible danger to the kidneys and risk of dehydration/hyponaetremia, I had stopped taking NSAIDs that morning to relieve the inflammation and was now in searing pain. I could not hold my body forward for very long and resorted to holding the arm rests with my hands to stay as upright as possible.

"Free speed, free speed" became my new mantra as I rode down the hills as aero as possible, hoping to pick up enough speed to to take me up the following hills. Coasting was essential for me at this point and allowed me to recuperate, relieving some of the pain in my knees. The miles passed and I concentrated on "lessening the pain", wondering how I'd ever make it to the bike finish. And though the last segment of the bike course is a net downhill, my painful knees, forced still to pedal, did not feel this advantage.

I only made one toilet stop, after 7 hours of riding. Like most on the bike leg, I was dehydrated but happy that I hadn't passed out like so many others. Thoroughly exhausted, the scorching heat was even more evident.

With great relief, I arrived at the bike finish and the kind volunteer took my bike away. I started running down the transition chute but my legs felt horrible. Thinking it was due to my shoes, I stopped to take them off. NO, Running in bare feet did NOT make my legs feel any better. I called out my number to the volunteers and a very pretty, cheerful girl passed me my transition bag.

"You're Bonnie, right? I'm Katie, Tithers' friend, and she told me to watch out for you. I'm so happy that I'm the one to give you your bag."

I was happy too! Tithers and Katie, you rock!

Then into the tent I went to change into my run clothes at a snail's pace. I saw a lady sprawled across the chairs and a volunteer went to ask if she was alright. I didn't want to be like her so took care to stay relaxed and focused. The change tent floor was extremely muddy since the ground had not dried out after the swim-bike transition. I had not packed a towel, so I wiped my muddy feet with my bike clothes. Hmm ... did I really want to put on those running shoes?

In the still blazing sun and heavy heat, I walked out of transition and drank some water.

How was I going to get through this marathon?

Bike 7:42:47 (14.52 mph)

Rank after bike: overall 1714/1975, division 64/82

First Bike Segment 22.5 mi (1:30:25) 14.93 mph
Second Bike Segment 21.4 mi (1:36:47) 13.27 mph
Third Bike Segment 30.5 mi (2:10:47) 13.99 mph
Final Bike Segment 37 mi (2:24:48) 15.33 mph

T2: Bike-to-run 13:17

The Run

I heard a voice, "Hello" ... and then an elderly gentleman and I teamed up. We decided to walk for a bit but as we passed the first camera, we started running and laughing, saying we couldn't be caught NOT running by the camera.

Then back to walking, and by the time we got to the bridge a little distance away, my new tri friend was ready to run. But I wasn't since it was uphill. I told him that I'd only start on the downhill coming back. By the time we got to the turn-around point on the bridge, my new-found running mate wanted to run off so I wished him well. I had reached the downhill part but my legs didn't seem to want to start running. Feeling horribly exhausted, I seriously pondered if I'd make the cut-off time of 17 hours if I walked the entire marathon.

Another camera opportunity forced me to run again ... great shot! And then out of fear of not finishing in time, I tried to keep running after that ... Note the IT band support on my left knee.

I gave myself two rules:

1) No running on downhills or steep uphills.
2) No running in expansive sunny areas. Wait for the sun to go down a bit.

I thought it was better to play it wise and be able to finish rather than be picked up by an ambulance, which I was starting to see more frequently.

I was on my first loop when the sun's intensity started to lessen and my running became more consistent, now with few walking breaks. The temperature as the sun started going down was still 90F/32C, only a few degrees cooler than when I'd started.

I walked through every aid station and grabbed water, rationing the few gels that I had with me throughout the course. I would have drank more chicken stock had they not run out so soon ... that's THE BEST during a race! Because of my GI issues, I drank only a few sips of the sport drink offered and totally refrained from drinking any cola. Bizarre, whereas on the bike leg, I did not need to pee, after the first part of the marathon, I needed to pee almost every aid station! What was going on?!

The heat was intense. I continued my death shuffle and concentrated on moving forward, distracting myself from my pain and fatigue by watching the other runners. Having only one IT band support, I now switched it over to my more painful right knee. The few attempts I made at my usual run form dismally failed as sharp pains shot into my knees with each strike of my foot on the asphalt.

The neighbourhood was quaint and its prettiness was a nice contrast to our suffering, as was the out-and-back set-up of this race course. Someone shouted out my name ... it was Mike, and I turned my head quickly to see him heading in the opposite direction, catching only a glimpse of his face. He looked in fine running form ... or so I thought (found out later that he had had a bad bike crash and needed stiches!)

I finally reached the turn-around point and knew I'd soon be hitting 13.1 miles. What? No timing mat? No balloons or archway? ... Hmm, no special marker indicating the half-marathon point, what a let-down. So I estimated my time and this sadly told me I had at least another three hours to go if I continued at this pace.


I concentrated on moving one foot ahead of the other and somehow, the miles wore on. There were more and more spectators and I realised that I was almost finished the first loop! How excited I felt as I approached the Finish Line the "first time" ... yes, so close and yet so far! The spectators screamed, "You're almost done, just down the road!" and I screamed back, "I still have one more loop to go."

Good thing about seeing the actual finish line was feeling and hearing the excitement of the crowd, music and runners. Bad thing about seeing the actual finish line was feeling and hearing the excitement of the crowd, music and runners and not actually finishing.

I turned the corner right before heading down the brightly-lit finisher's chute ... Another loop to go! Yay! (Not)

So I ran and ran and ran and ran and somehow, at some point, it all started blending together and became surreal. I had found a peaceful place in my head that somehow knew what to do with the pain and exhaustion, that somehow knew how to keep my body moving forward past the aid stations and past the mile markers.

I passed the turn-around a second time. I passed countless other runners. I heard the ambulances and saw bodies lying on the sides of the street and pressed forward, knowing that I did not want to join them.

Then somehow, I'd arrived again at the "Start to the Finish" and I felt the excitement of the last few miles ... I was almost HOME and my commitment would be fulfilled. The crowd became denser, the music and the cheers grew louder, the runners picked up their pace ... I knew what was coming and I excitedly ran a bit faster.

And then there it was, the finisher's chute. A spectator shouted to the man running slowly just ahead of me. "C'mon, you can run faster than that! You're at the finish!" Dang, the man picked up his pace to match mine just as I was about to pass him.

There was NO WAY I wanted to share my finishing photo with this other racer, so I kicked in everything that I had left, lifted my painful knees and sprinted past him down the finisher's chute high-fiving as many people as possible.

There was the Finish Line ... but where was the finish line tape? Where was the announcement, "Bonnie Mak, you are an Ironman!"

I'd only visualised finishing with the broken finish line tape held high in glory above my head. What to do, what to do ... I had no Plan B, doh! So I said, "Give me air beneath my feet," and I charged hard over the Finish Line, completely exhausted, but emotionally elated.

Run 6:09:12 (14:05/mile)

First run segment 4 mi. (1:01:23) 15:20/mile
Second run segment 4.3 mi. (56:58) 13:14/mile
Third run segment 4.15 mi. (1:02:25) 15:02/mile
Fourth run segment 3.5 mi. (49:05) 14:01/mile
Fifth run segment 4.3 mi. (57:12) 13:18/mile
Sixth run segment 4.15 mi. (59:18) 14:17/mile
Final run segment 1.8 mi. (22:51) 12:41/mile

Extrapolating, I get a negative split of 10 minutes, woohoo!:

1-13.1 miles 3:09:57
13.1-26.2 miles 2:59:55

Finish (chip time) 15:49:30

Overall 1567/1975 * I moved up from my rank of 1714 after the bike!

Division 64/82

Only 1768 athletes finished under 17:00. 207 did not make the cut-off. That's 10.5%!

I was happy to see Johnie waiting for me at the finish ... nothing like being greeted with a loving smiling face! He told me about Mike's unfortunate crash but made sure to get me to the post-race area where I could grab my clothes bag and get some grub. Then he headed off to meet Mike at the hospital. Thanks, Johnie! You're a sweetheart!

After a quick massage to my IT bands and shins, I caught a lift back to the transition area with a woman I met in the swim line. No way with my sore feet and aching muscles would I have been able to walk that mile or so.

Dear IMKY Race Director,

For future races, I recommend that bike and race gear pick-up from the transition area NOT be mandatory immediately post-race. It would have been easier to just hop into my car and go back to the hotel.

Sincerely yours,

Exhausted athlete all by her lonesome
So ... I dragged all my bags and rolled my bike to the far end of the parking lot. Managing somehow to load it all into my car, I then drove over the bridge back to my hotel. After showering and eating something more substantial (I can't eat much right after racing), popping some pills, and of course calling a few worried friends, I finally crawled into bed at 3:00 am, 22 1/2 hours after I'd awoken.

Another day, another Ironman. Cool. So utterly cool.

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Blogger Bryan Larsen said...

Bonnie, you are such an inspiration.

4:22 a.m.  
Anonymous LeftRightRepeat said...

It was worth waiting for! Great report. Great show of heart and strength getting it done. Congrats!

11:17 a.m.  
Anonymous Charles said...

Bonnie, you're my hero! I know of no one with more personal will-power than you.

2:13 a.m.  
Anonymous Killerchops said...

Congratulations Bonnie!!

4:50 p.m.  

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