Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ironman 70.3 World Championships

Told through pictures
That smile is exactly why I do this sport. As brutal as that experience was, I'd do it again and again and again (and again) to have that same euphoric feeling of crossing the finish line.

I knew given the level of difficulty - upstream swim (860m), 3,408 feet in elevation gains on the bike and nearly 1,000 feet on the run (who thinks of this stuff) - I was in store for an epic day. And as easy as it is to jump right in and start talking about the race itself, let me backtrack because it took a lot to get to the starting line.

It takes a village...
With only two weeks before the World Championships I flew to Valyermo, CA, to stay with Dan Empfield and his wife Tanya (and their four amazing dogs). My days out there were intense. Eat, train, eat, train, sleep and most importantly be fitted to the new Scott Plasma that was built for me. You can read about my trip here and how my bike was built here.

This bike is everything

Reuniting with my bike did NOT go smoothly. Because I didn't fly home with it and because we didn't take into account the holiday (Labor day) there was no way my bike would get to me in time for the race. The only option was to ship it directly to Chattanooga and pray that someone could build it back and make it race ready. 

How I felt not knowing when I'd see my bike again.
The folks at Quintana Roo are on another level of professional and kind. Not only did they work on a competitor's bike and have it ready to go, they also solved another issue... disaster number 2: I forgot to pack pedals! As I stood at the QR tent freaking out about being pedal-less, a gentleman turns around and says "oh you can borrow mine". Turns out that the "guy" was Peter Hurley, CEO of Litespeed and Quintana Roo.

Peter - thank you for letting a random chick borrow your pedals!
Quintana Roo - thank you for getting my bike race ready!
The day before a big race like the World Championships is all sorts of crazy. Between athlete check in, bike check, gear check, sponsorship obligations, the day just flies. There were so many things I wanted to participate in but I guess sometimes you can't do everything. Bummed that I didn't get to present medals to the kids in the Chattanooga Youth & Family Development program who received swim scholarships. IRONMAN Foundation you are amazing for doing that! And super bummed that I didn't get to sit on the Women For Tri panel. I want to say yes to every opportunity, but I know balance is important as well. 

Something I did get to do...attend the Red Bull team brunch!
Being a member of IRaceLikeAGirl has been an invaluable experience. Thank you Angela for giving me this opportunity.
And now for the race.....adventure 

Adventure: an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.

1.2 Mile Swim in the Tennessee River
This was the first time I was genuinely nervous for a swim. Like literally afraid that I might not even make the cutoff time. The idea of having to swim 860 meters upstream scared the crap out of me. In fact, the whole situation was unique. Rolling swim start (10 at a time) and diving off of a pontoon. Side note: I saw some ridiculously hilarious dives, jumps, and cannonballs. It provided a bit of comedic relief before it was my turn. I hope I paid it forward and made the next wave of women laugh.
Thank you Brian (Stover) for the free swim advice on where to start. I got to the first turn buoy with no issues!

Unfortunately it went downhill from there. I got passed the ENTIRE time. I couldn't even draft because I honestly couldn't stick with anyone. No clue what's going on with me! When I got out of the water and saw my time, 41:50, I was mortified. Considering I actually DO have a background in swimming there is no excuse. I have to figure this out before my next race. Moving on... 

Sh*ttiest swim of my life.

Just get me to my bike
Now I don't know which one was more recognizable, me or my bike, but I got quite a bit of cheers. I was called everything from "the chick from Slowtwitch" and "Slowtwitch girl" to "The Dan Empfield girl". It was pretty freakin cool getting recognized, but I do have a name: Sika ;-) Pronounced See-ka. 

The MOST challenging ride of my life
The first 5 miles were easy. Flat, shade, perfect. My bike and I were in tune. And then it began. The climb to Lookout Mountain. 

When you spot something scary in the distance. A hill? Nope. A Mountain!
Miles 5 to 22 were brutal. It hurt so damn bad. I honestly think the only reason why I didn't have a breakdown and cry is because I did a similar ride when I was out in California. Having already survived that climb gave me confidence that I'd get to the top of this one. The only difference ..I swam 1.2 miles first and still had a half marathon run to get through. I do envy people that get to live and train in areas like this. I live in a pancake flat town. I literally have to drive to find hills. My body just wasn't prepared for a course like this. Even after I got through the hardest stretch (5 - 22) the next 34 miles were by no means easy. After a nice descent from Lookout there were constant rollers and a lot of false flats. I was working hard the ENTIRE time.

"But the bike woman, how was the bike?" ~Brian
My Dad told me to watch how much profanity I use on my blog. Sorry Dad.. but my bike was the SH*T. My overall time (3:08) doesn't do it justice. I wish I had more to show for it. But seriously, if you dig up my results and look at my previous bike splits, a 3:08 on this course is REALLY good for me. Without the change in bike/fit I estimate that my time would have been closer to 3:20. No lie. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to ride my bike a lot before the race - only those few days when I was in Cali and never more than 20 miles. I think had I put in more miles on my new bike, I could have shaved maybe another 3 or 4 minutes off. Side note: I plan to go into much more detail about my bike and what it was like to ride it in a separate article I'm writing. You'll be able to find it here:

Side profile. I don't think I look very aero lol. But it's all about comfort right now.
Probably thinking.."WTF another hill"
The Run
Hardest half marathon I've ever done, bar none.
Boy oh boy was that run course a piece of work. The hills were relentless. The struggle was real. I'm so used to getting out on the run course and passing people. Yeah ... not the case this time. Everyone at this level is legitimately good. In fact, this was the first time I've ever been passed by a woman on the run course during a triathlon. And it wasn't just one. There were several! I got schooled. 

About to get passed

Just keep putting one foot in front of the other
And now for my only regret in the entire race...
The run was a two loop course. When you do the first loop there's a split in the course. You veer to the left to finish or veer to the right to do the second loop. Well the women I was running with were on their last loop and since we were running together I got pointed to the left. And let me just say that this is my own mistake. I should have been paying better attention. Before I knew it I found myself on the carpet staring at the finish line. Panic set in. I began frantically looking for a volunteer to explain what I had done. I was told to run back up the hill to the split in the road. I contemplated ending my day right there. But I didn't survive all of that to quit with one lap to go. So back up the hill I went. It was ...embarrassing. I ended up running an extra .67 miles. Half Marathon time: 1:42. So bummed. Between going off course, having to run up an unnecessary hill and talking to the volunteers I probably added on an extra 5 minutes to my half marathon time. But it is what it is and I learned a lot from that experience.

Brush your shoulders off Wipe the spit from your face and keep moving
I crossed the finish line in 5 hours and 38 minutes. Am I happy with that time? Heck no! Did I give it my all? YES! When I did my first Half Ironman last year in June I didn't have a clue what was in store. I'm so glad it led me here. 

Next up... Ironman 70.3 North Carolina on October 21st. My "A" race. I can't believe I'm doing another one of these friggin things! Apparently I can't get enough of it. My bike and I should be well acquainted by then ;-)

More pics.....
With Bryanna of Quintana Roo. She's just as genuinely kind as her Dad, Peter.
2016 Ironman 70.3 Champ Holly Lawrence. Ran into her at dinner.
Heather Wurtele. I'm such a huge fan. And I love that she's tall like me!
Fellow BTA member Tiencia James. We had a good laugh about the fact that we were pretty much the only black chicks at the race.
With teammate Pam Estill.
This group! Post race dinner and drinks with Kristin, Sam, Veronica, Jin, and Frieda...

Now I get to fly to Punta Cana and relax on the beach with my best friend for a few days :-)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

5 Days with Dan Empfield

What was it like to spend a few days with the multisport entrepreneur, editor / publisher, tri-specific wetsuit inventor, and Quintana Roo founder? Keep reading and I’ll tell you about it.

I met Dan at the Triathlon Business International (TBI) Conference back in January, where I was a panelist on “Expanding Diversity in Triathlon”. (Side note – he is now the President of TBI). Our conversation revolved around race (being a black woman in a white male dominated sport), swimming (an estimated 70% of African Americans cannot swim), and the drowning rate among African Americans (African American children drown at a rate nearly 3x higher than white children). This inevitably led to an interview for his website (The Circuitous Route to the Ideal Sport: Sika Henry) and naturally developed into a mentor (Dan) / athlete (Me) friendship.

If you’ve followed my triathlon journey you know that it hasn’t been easy. My love / hate (mostly hate) relationship with the bike has been well documented. I have a swimming background and while I’m capable of running a 3 hour marathon (3:00:06 to be exact) and can run an 18:25 5K off the bike, I often get beat by 20, 30, sometimes 40 minutes on the bike at the Half Iron distance. It’s demoralizing, frustrating…let’s just say that I have shed many tears over the bike. My poor parents have been on the receiving end of most of these meltdowns. While the typical response from people in the multisport / cycling community is “You just need more time in the saddle”, I knew that there was so much more to the puzzle (an FTP of 137 is NOT normal for an athlete of my capabilities). And as I began to open up to Dan, he agreed to help me solve this dilemma. Dan: “If you can find a way to get out here (Valyermo, CA), I will fix you.” No questions asked. Flight booked. As my Dad always says “you can’t take your money to the grave, seize the moment”.

Things that HAVE helped tremendously this year: training with TrainerRoad, improved position, group cycling with strong cyclists, support within the multisport community (shout out to IRaceLikeAGirl), and yes, more time in the saddle.
July 2017: My first VTS (Virginia Triathlon Series) Win (1st Woman; Tidewater Sprint Triathlon)

My Last Hope
With two weeks to go until the Ironman 70.3 World Championships – I race on September 9th – I packed my bags and off I went to California. Emotions … they ranged from anxiety (what if I’m broken and can’t be fixed) to excitement (maybe he actually CAN help me).

 Flying next to a 5lb, 10-week old beagle puppy makes the journey a lot more enjoyable.

As soon as I was picked up from the airport my brain went into overdrive. I found myself practically interviewing him. Any and every question I could think of I asked. I’m inquisitive by nature and if you are in the unique position of being with someone that specializes in something that you are passionate about …seize the moment!

During the two-hour drive to his home a few things took me by surprise. First, I didn’t realize that Dan and his wife lived at altitude. Second, I didn’t realize that I’d be training at altitude (up to 8,000 ft), and third they live in a very VERY remote area. The views were breathtaking but the thought of climbing up those mountains on a bike scared the crap out of me (I live at sea level in a pancake flat city). I realized very quickly that this trip would force me to face my fears.

The drive to Valyermo, CA
After settling into the guest house, I was given a quick tour of the property – and I call it property because it reminded me of a ranch. There were horses, 4 amazing dogs, main house, guest house, bike studio / lab, and so on. Then I officially met his wife Tanya. What can I say. She was very beautiful, sweet and welcoming. By the end of the trip I was telling her everything – dreams, fears, work, being single… You know how it’s kind of nerve wracking when you stay with someone for the first time? It’s either going to be awkward and uncomfortable or you are going to hit it off right away. Lucky for me I felt right at home.

Dan, Tanya, and I
They kept me laughing. My cheeks hurt by the end of the trip.
Time to Work
My first workout was a run at ~7,000 ft. Up and down the mountain we went. By far the steepest run I’ve ever done and my first time running at that kind of altitude. It was challenging but there is something about running that feels very natural. I handled it well. Fear number one solved: I WILL be able to handle the challenging 13.1 mile run at the World Championships. And maybe I can even get close to that elusive 1:30 off the bike that I haven’t been able to crack.

Now for the bike….Day 2 was all about getting me properly fitted and comfortable on the new bike Dan built for me. Truth be told I thought this was going to be our biggest dilemma. No way could this man build a bike that could fit my specs – even though I’m 5’10” I have the longest legs known to man (saddle height: 795mm). Blessing and a curse (I was a collegiate high jumper). Fear number 2 solved: it fit! All we had to do was make minor adjustments. Relief!

The mad scientist at work
First Fitting (video)
My new Scott Plasma Premium
We threw the bikes in his truck and drove to a road where I could hop on the bike, ride a quarter mile out and back, hop off, make adjustments and do it again and again. He fidgeted with the bike until it was just right. And now for the test…. We went to a secluded, flat, paved, road. Goal: See how fast I could go for 6 miles. I averaged ~24 mph. Yes, that’s right. I flew. Fear number 3 solved: I’m capable of riding fast on the right bike.
One of the perks to staying with Dan. He let me try everything. Here are the new Roka shades. I rode in the Vendee (selfie on the left). They didn’t budge, never fogged, no squinting, extremely comfortable. The Phantom is on the right.

The Swim
The first swim we did was at altitude and I SUFFERED. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Truth be told, I was miserable. But it was well worth it. Swimming is all about technique and mine was in desperate need of tweaking (my Half Ironman swim time: ~35 minutes…not slow, but not competitive). I didn’t realize how much I was crossing over or that my pull was totally inefficient. By the end of the trip I was averaging 4 seconds faster. Fear number 4 solved: I WILL be able to swim upstream at the World Championships. I know. I had a lot of fears.

Each day was similar but different. We started around 7 am, swam, biked, and ran. Went to different altitudes and terrain, practiced ascending, descending (up to 40 mph) and taking sharp turns at a fast pace. I also learned about gears – which ones to shift into – cadence – I thought 60 was just fine oops LMAO, and that I shouldn’t be up out of the saddle every time I saw a hint of incline. Now for those that are expert cyclists this might seem like common sense. Good for you. If you’ve only been in the sport a couple of years and don't know this stuff, you are not alone.

Dan taping the bars

The Last Day of Training
This was a true test of my will to persevere. My biggest fear – fear number 5 – is making it through the toughest section of the bike leg at my upcoming race. The climb to Lookout Mountain at Chattanooga….let’s just say I’ve already had countless nightmares about it. And what’s the best way to conquer your fears? You face your fears. So I let Dan take me to an area that replicated the climb I’d be facing at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.

I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught. ~Winston Churchill

My stomach was in knots. Before we took off I even mumbled that I was scared. I had no idea what was in store. Once we started climbing I thought it was never going to end. I honestly hated him for those 30 or so minutes. When he asked me how I was doing it went something like “I’m miserable, this hurts, I can’t do this anymore, my legs burn, I’m not going to keep going, (in my head: screw you), how much longer???”. His response every time “keep pedaling, we are almost there, you can stop when we get to the top.” Yeah well .. it felt like the top was never going to appear. We just kept climbing and climbing and climbing. Epic meltdown, choking back tears, threatening to unclip. It was bad. And you know what’s so funny? I freakin made it to the top. I couldn’t believe it. At first I was mad at him (for making me do it), and then upset with myself (that I wasn’t able to handle the pain better), and now …. I’m proud and I feel strong. When I look at the big picture it’s the most comfortable I’ve ever felt on a bike. It’s amazing what the ideal fit / position can do.

Chattanooga here I come!

More pics from my visit...
I'd like to think the ride did him in, but I'm pretty sure it was dealing with my meltdown and refusal to keep riding. #therapydogs LOL

How our days started and ended. Pressed coffee in the morning and home made meals at night.

Can't beat this view.

With Maxie and "Pretty Lady". Lovely dogs.

With the woman of the house, Dan's wife Tanya...she runs things ;-)

I got to feed the horses. I'm a lucky lady <3 Thank you Dan and Tanya. It was an unforgettable experience.