A million things go through your head during an Ironman race but the one thing that stuck in my head over and over throughout the very challenging 140.6 miles of Ironman Wales was “I’m so happy to be where I am right now doing the thing that I love with a body capable of doing it.” Ironman Wales was an epic day on so many levels, and a race I will surely never forget.

Flashback to nearly 4 months ago when I was on the verge of being ready to throw in the towel on pro racing altogether. I had just come off one of the worst races of my life (IMTX) which came only 5 weeks after another disappointing performance at IM South Africa. My spring training had been going okay but I was barely squeezing it in on top of writing and editing my dissertation which was due the day after I ran Boston, which was only a week after IMSA. Needless to say, the recovery part of my training was nonexistent and I was completely burned out on life. I graduated with my doctorate the Wednesday after IMTX and was seriously doubting if I wanted to continue competing at such a high level. Was it seriously viable to have a full time job on top of coaching on top of training as a pro and still do all three well? Greg (my coach) and I decided it was time to get back to the basics and build from the ground up again, so I spent the summer getting hammered on the bike, doing more technique work on the swim instead of volume (in addition to coaching more swim lessons which has a surprisingly measurable impact on my own form), and still keeping enough running volume to maintain brick legs. Over the course of the summer, I went from 170-180watts normalized power in an Ironman to 212watts normalized power at IM Wales, a 20% increase over 4 months. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since I work full time, I didn’t have many days to spare for vacation (having blown through a bunch in the spring for racing) so I flew in on Thursday night, arriving Friday morning. I knew I’d be jetlagged and completely off the time zone so I did a little experiment and started waking up 30 minutes early every day starting the Monday before the race. Monday – 5am. Tuesday, 4:30am. Wednesday – 4am. Thursday – 3:30am. That way when I arrived on Friday, 3am would actually be 8am in Wales and I’d be at least somewhat adjusted. Turns out it worked pretty well because the time difference didn’t really phase me. We flew into London and drove to Tenby which took forever because of Friday traffic so I was stuck running around frantically trying to get my stuff together on Saturday, including checking in, practice swim (along with brief encounter with a giant jellyfish), run, bike maintenance, pro meeting, driving the course (didn’t have time to get the whole thing in but just enough to know the course was crazy hilly and VERY technical), bike and gear check, and final meal. I was slightly frazzled by the end of Saturday and nerves were starting to get the better of me but went to bed knowing there was nothing more I could do to prep for race day.

Sunday morning I awoke from a good night’s sleep. We stayed at a hotel a block from the finish line and two blocks from transition (literally the last room available in Tenby when we booked only 2 weeks out from race day) so I got to sleep in for the 7:11am pro women’s start time. It was cold (upper 40’s) and dark, but I got my usual good breakfast in including a packet of Cocoa Delite UCAN, a nut/date bar with peanut butter, and a coffee or two. No problems getting that down. We headed to transition for last minute nutrition loading on the bike and headed to the swim start in plenty of time. Got a short warmup in because the water was pretty and I didn’t want to get too cold before the start. Said my goodbye to Tyler, stepped into the coral, watched the pro men start at 7:10 and we were off by 7:11. The sun had just broken the horizon and the day had begun. I fell into a rhythm pretty quickly and surged ahead of the field. The swim was a 2-lap “Aussie-style” exit where you get out of the water, run through the arches over a timing mat and get back in the water for the 2nd lap. I was first out of the water but knew 2nd place was close behind because I could hear them call her name as I was getting back into the water. The second lap was crowded from age groupers so I did my best to navigate the choppier water but the 2nd place female ended up catching me. I contemplated picking up the pace to catch her but remembered IMAZ 2015 and how patience played to my favor so I didn’t counter and instead focused on just relaxing into a rhythm. It wasn’t until Monday morning when looking at my splits that I realized I had broken the 50 minute barrier by just relaxing! Yay for new PR’s! I was only 12 second behind her anyway and we had a long day in front of us so I didn’t sweat it.

Because Tenby is a coastal cliff town, you have to run a series of switchbacks immediately after you exit the water to even get to the street level and then you get to run another kilometer to transition. Thankfully, the race organizers give you an extra “Swim to T1” bag that hangs on hooks on these switchbacks so you can store your shoes and put them on for this extra 1k run. I stripped my wetsuit and quickly threw on my shoes and off I went. That’s why T1 took me over 7 minutes.

The air was still quite chilly when we started the bike. I packed arm warmers in my T1 bag but opted not to put them on. There were only a few times on steep and long downhills where I felt chilly but otherwise thought I didn’t really need them. It’s a 2.5 loop bike course where you go out towards the coast for about 30 miles and then do two 40 mile loops in addition. This bike course is not for the faint of heart or weak of mind. With 8000ft of climbing and a lot of blind turns and steep descents, it required an incredible amount of early patience to make sure I still had legs for the 2nd lap and finally the run. I had worked out a specific plan with Greg to stay in the low 200’s for wattage and not peak zone 4a (for me 260ish) and tried my hardest to stick to it. Some of the climbs were absolutely massive and nearly impossible to climb under 260 watts (several I had to stand), but as other female pros passed me in the first 40 or so miles I told myself to be patient because, again, we still had a long day in front of us. I finally settled in with a pack of age group men and one other pro female at around mile 50 and rode with them until mile 90 or 100, which no doubt saved me some watts even sitting back 12m at the back of a 6-man pace line. At this point I had settled into 5th place behind the other female pro in our pack and had no clue what was going on in front of me with places 1-3 but I focused on my wattage zones and enjoying the absolutely breathtaking scenery around me. It’s amazing how quickly 112 miles can go by when you’re actually enjoying yourself and you’re with a pack of other people. At around mile 107 the coach/husband/boyfriend of the 4th place female in front of me told her that the next female was only 2:30 in front of us and to get her legs ready for a run so I knew a) we weren’t that far off from the podium and b) the woman in front of me is potentially a good runner. That was the first I’d heard of any females in front of me so I was encouraged. Our little paceline broke up a bit so it was just me and the 4th place FPRO for the last 10 miles or so into town.

My feet were still pretty frozen despite the toe covers on my bike shoes as we got of the bike together and headed into T2. I saw Tyler just as I entered T2 and gave him the thumbs up and said I felt good, which I did. A little tired but legs weren’t blasted by all the climbing – on purpose. I exited in 4th having passed the other woman in T2 with my mind set on what I needed to do: figure out where #3 is and go catch her.

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The run is a 4-loop out-and-back-plus-some course where you have several opportunities to figure out exactly how far ahead or behind you are from the next woman. Mental math distracts from the pain so at the first turnaround after a 2-mile uphill slog I looked at my watch when I passed 3rd going the other direction and again at the turnaround and then doubled the difference, realizing I was just over a minute behind 3rd place. Doable, I thought. My race plan was to stay consistent but conservative on the uphills and let it rip on the downhills, opening up the gait and gaining as much ground as I could while still keeping a sustainable pace. By the time I got to the bottom of the long downhill stretch I could see 3rd place just in front of me and gave it a hard push to catch her, which I did by around mile 4 or 5. Having a support biker was a huge confidence boost but I also knew from similar calculations that the woman I’d been biking with was hot on my heels and ultimately soon caught the same woman I just passed. I drained my first gel flask of UCAN and picked up the next from Tyler at the aid station near the finish (all athletes were allowed to have someone hand them their special needs), and set off on the next lap. I had no clue how far out 2nd place was but I just kept pushing up the long uphill climb consistently. Fourth place was keeping her 2-3 minute gap off the back of me and 2nd place seemed very far away by my calculations… well over 5 minutes. My mental math told me that I had to run at least :30/mi faster than 2nd place to catch her as we finished the 2nd lap but I kept with my consistency plan and let the rest fall into place. At the end of the day, I’d still be happy with 3rd place at this point and I was more concerned about 4th catching me and knocking me off the podium. Passed Tyler again to grab my 3rd flask of UCAN at the beginning of the third lap. It was my last so I needed to make sure it would last me to the end. Another long slog up hill. As I neared the top, I saw 2nd place much later than I thought I would and by my calculations was only 1:30 back from her at the turnaround and she was slowing down significantly. I caught her quickly on the downhill and all of a sudden found myself solidly in 2nd place with a growing gap on 3rd, still having no clue where 1st was. Rounded out lap #3 and started off on #4 determined to stick to my consistency plan and finish out in a career-best 2nd place finish. But as I neared the top of the hill again, I saw 1st place MUCH closer than I had ever imagined, calculating only 2 minutes between the two of us. She looked in a bad way. I didn’t feel awesome (in fact had told Tyler I was “in a bad place” i.e. the pain cave by the end of the 2nd lap but mostly because my quads were shredded form all the downhill) but I knew I could hang on to what I was doing at this very moment. I reached the bottom of the hill and 1st place was barely 100 yards in front of me and the crowds and spectators surrounding me were going out of their minds cheering me on to catch 1st. At a short little out and back jog I had closed the gap to :20 seconds and she was within reach, slowing to nearly a walk. I made my move, passed her going uphill right as we entered town and tore through the crowded pedestrian streets of Tenby like my life depended on it. The crowd was electric and I didn’t know what had just happened. I looked back once just to make sure she wasn’t making a counter move and didn’t even see her. I rounded the last turn, realized I was about to finish in first place and soaked up the finisher’s shoot with high fives and fist pumps galore. Grabbing the finishers banner I collapsed on the ground, legs searing with pain and fatigue, feeling like I was on top of the world. I had just WON an Ironman. Absolutely incredible. I could not believe it.

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Truly, ignorance is bliss. Had you told me that at the beginning of the run I was 13 minutes or more back from first place I would have given up on trying to hunt her down, thinking it was impossible. But instead, I focused on what was in front of me, staying consistent, and sticking to my race plan. I had no clue that the first place female had set the bike course record and gone out super fast on the run, all too eager to keep her lead and get the win. I had no clue that the 2nd place female would ultimately drop out of the race from fatigue after having battled for so long on the bike and run with 1st place. I had no clue that 3rd place was so closely within reach on the first lap that all I had to do was execute and the cards would fall. Ironman Wales was a perfectly executed race, from pacing to nutrition and everything in between. It was by no means a PR, but I knew going into the race it would be a longer day than usual and adjusted my expectations accordingly. It was so perfect that I hit all my targets exactly – get on the bike before the 1:00 mark (which I did), finish the bike in 5:45 (5:46 so I think it still counts), run a 3:15 staying consistent on the uphills and pushing the downhills, and nail my nutrition on 900 calories of UCAN. Whatever that translated into for placings was out of my control but as long as I executed well it didn’t really matter. And as long as I focused on just enjoying the day, I would be happy. And I was.

Huge thanks to all my coach, Greg Close, who has stuck with me through thick and thin. Thanks to my sponsors, including TriBy3 Performance Coaching, Generation UCAN, and Acme Bicycle Co. for getting me to starting line and helping me have the race of my life!

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