Ironman Tulsa Race Report
Me and Ironman (IM) races don’t have a great relationship. My first was IM Canada in 1987, my best finish of the four I had done. Even then I had to have a liter of saline fluid pumped into me at the finish. My last two, and more recent ones (2015 and 2017) I imploded on the run for various and sundry reasons. Thus, my goal for this race was to finish strong and actually run and NOT WALK the entire marathon. Marathons scare me. Marathons after 112 miles of biking scare me even more.
As the race was approaching the nagging question is has the training been enough? I had been getting in some solid and consistent weeks, but my longest run had only been 16 miles. My running had steadily improved but I wasn’t sure I had the resilience in my legs to run a strong marathon in an IM.
The plan called for a three week taper. I raced the Oak Mountain Xterra triathlon after a semi taper two weeks before IM Tulsa. After that I really dialed back the training. I have a love-hate relationship with tapering. On the one hand I was feeling pretty fatigued. I had done lots of 18-20+ hour training weeks and three hard races in the last four weeks. I really needed to recover and allow time for the training adaptations to settle. On the other hand, when you go from 20 hours of training per week to 6-8 it feels like you are doing practically NOTHING. This can mess with your mind. But at this point the hay was in the barn. You either have it or you don’t. It is better to do too little than too much.
A week out from the race, I did an interval session on the bike. The legs still felt a bit heavy and tired, reinforcing even more that I needed this taper. I hoped the legs would come around in time for the race.
Race morning the alarm went off at 3am. We had to catch a shuttle to the start between 4 and 5am. For this race there were two transitions, which makes things interesting from a logistics perspective. We had dropped off our bike gear at the swim/bike transition and the run gear at the bike/run transition the day before. There is a lot of stuff to remember, bike shoes, helmet, sunscreen, sunglasses, race belt, and so on. Triathlons are damn complicated made even more tricky when the race is point to point.
The swim start was a rolling start (in order to better socially distance). I seeded myself in the second wave, the 1:01 to 1:10 swim time wave. The water temperature was 67 degrees, and the lake was calm, so conditions were perfect.
They let 5 athletes start the swim every 10 or so seconds. This was a single lap swim and looking out at the course, 2.4 miles looks really, really far. I was hoping to finish the swim in around 1 hour and 10 minutes. I tried to start towards the front of the wave in the hopes that faster swimmers would pass me and I could then draft as they went by but I kept passing other swimmers. What the…?? Maybe everyone had the same idea.
I quickly realized, though, that I was on a good swim day. I felt smooth and strong. When I checked my first 500 meter split, it was under 8 minutes, and the pace didn’t feel that hard. I continued to feel good but with about 500 meters to go, I was ready for the swim to be over. When I got out of the water my time was a tad over 1:06, a time that ranked me 40th out of all the women. All those 800 and 1,000 reps in the pool had paid off. But a fast swim time in an IM isn’t that critical as this is just the warmup.
It was dumping down rain when I started on the bike. Because I had a faster swim time than most, I was getting passed left, right and center. The first part of the bike course was twisty, on rough roads with some sketchy downhills so I was pretty careful. A lot of athletes crashed and even more had flat tires. Once out of the park we got onto straighter roads, and I could put my head down and get into a rhythm. My plan was to hold back on the bike as my tendency is to hammer it. I was aiming to stay at around 80% of my FTP (or threshold watts) so I was really paying attention to my power. I quickly realized that my legs felt GREAT. I found I was going quite a bit above my FTP on the climbs, and it felt easy. But going above one’s FTP 100 times can come back to bite you. So, I backed off on the pace. I kept telling myself that this was just a warmup for the marathon. (After I got done and checked, my normalized power was exactly 80% of my FTP).
I had studied the course profile and it looked like there was some longish climbs in the first half of the course. I kept waiting for these climbs to materialize, but they didn’t. Yes, it was constantly rolling, but none of the hills seemed very long. I felt so good through the first half, that I felt like I was soft pedaling. I was eating every 15-20 minutes. I think I consumed over 2,000 calories during the bike but that was part of the game plan.
The back half of the course had a long flatter section, but there was also a slight head wind. The goal here was to go as fast as possible with as little effort as possible which means staying in the tuck position and finding the smoothest line on the rough country roads. This part got a bit tough as my neck was getting tired from holding the tuck position for long periods. Finally, there were some hills in the last 10-15 miles, thank goodness. On the uphill I could sit up a bit and give my neck a break. At about 90 miles in I thought, ok, I’m ready for this bike ride to be over. My legs were starting to feel a bit tired, but not that bad, considering I had been on the bike for 6 hours.
During the latter part of the bike, I was trying to decide whether to change into my running shorts (more comfortable) or stay in my tri suit for the marathon. Because of COVID there were no changing tents, so I would have to change in of the port-a-loo or fuss with trying to get a towel around me, not something I had practiced. Public nudity was against the rules. I decided to stay in my tri suit. That would be 2 minutes I could save for the run.
Now was the moment of truth. The run, my nemesis, my Achilles heel. As I headed out the thought crossed my mind that I still had 4+ hours left to go in this race. It was far from over. Twenty-six miles loomed ahead and the enormity of it seemed overwhelming. But you can’t think like that. So, I tried to turn off my brain and just focus on one mile at a time. As I ran, I realized my legs felt pretty good, really good in fact. I was comfortably running a sub 9 min/mile pace, faster than my goal pace. So, I reigned it in, keeping it slow but steady. Respect the distance, keep running.
The course wound along a bike trail next to the river. There were tons of spectators, and they were so incredibly supportive and encouraging. There was also an aid station every mile and I continued to eat and drink. I got to the halfway mark at a little over two hours, so I was on a good pace (or good for me). But, as everyone knows, the real halfway point in a marathon is at 20 miles. At around 15 or so miles my pace started to slow, but I was still felt fine running. Then at mile 22 things started to hurt. I kept telling my myself, 4 measly miles to go. At mile marker 23 I told myself, ok only 3 measly miles to go and after this mile it will be 2 measly miles to go. Piece of cake. At this point I really wanted to just walk it in. I also had no idea where I was in the placings. Because of COVID there was no body making, so there were no age group markings on the back of people’s legs. Thus, when women who looked older passed me, I had no idea if there were in my age group or not. At the same time, it didn’t really matter. I had to run my own race, let the chips fall where they may.
At this point, part of my brain was telling me to just walk it in, the other part was telling me that I was fine. Yes, my legs were hurting but I wasn’t injured, and I could still run. I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I focused on making it to various landmarks down the trail, to that tree or that sign or that corner. Break it down into manageable chunks.
Finally, I was in the last mile. The course was now off the bike path and onto the streets of downtown Tulsa heading towards the university. There was a bit of an uphill to the finish, but I was expecting this. It was actually a nice change. I rounded the corner and there was the finish line. What a beautiful sight. And oh, how good it felt to stop.
I checked my time. It was a little over 12 hours. I still didn’t know if I had won and qualified for Kona. As this was the first time on this course, I didn’t have any times to compare to, but I figured I would have to go under 12 hours to win. So, when I saw 12:09 for my time, I figured I probably hadn’t won. Either way I was overjoyed with my race. I had finally put in a decent run and hadn’t imploded. That was my goal. As Matt was behind me, I found a chair just past the finish to wait. I had seen him on the run, and he looked good, although he had been having some knee issues, so I was also a bit worried.
As I sat there chatting with some other athletes and swapping stories, I asked a guy who had an iPhone, to look at my result. He looked me up and said I was first in my division. Wow, I couldn’t believe it, but the race wasn’t over yet and someone who had started behind me could still do a faster time, but there was hope. It was a possibility.
Then I saw Matt come through. He had had a good race as well. Most importantly, he had not been sidelined by his knee issue. He had PR’d in the swim. I was really proud of him. Most of the fun and enjoyment of training for and racing this was being able to do it with him.
We finally got back to our condo around 8pm. It was then that I knew for certain that I had won and had qualified for Kona. Unbelievable. When I looked at second, she was only 10 minutes back. She had made up 30 minutes on me on the run. I was really glad I hadn’t given into the temptation to walk. Given how competitive Ironman’s have become I thought qualifying would be a long shot. Now, thirty-three years later I will be going back to Kona. I still can’t quite believe it.