Friday, August 26, 2011


This Magic Moment
The following is my race report for Vineman Full 2011. Long-story-short can be found in the first paragraph. Long-story-very-long follows. Fair warning- it is QUITE long:

On July 30, 2011 I participated in my first Ironman-distance triathlon: the Vineman Triathlon in Sonoma California- wine country! After training for 9 months with Los Angeles IronTEAM, and raising over $5,600 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, I and many of my teammates had the time of our lives swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running a full 26.2 mile marathon. It was a tough day- especially in the afternoon heat, but In the end (*spoiler alert!*) I competed the race with an official time of 15:11:17.

Storm before the Calm:

Race "weekend" began Wednesday morning at 3:30am, when I woke up to hit the road and drive up to Sonoma. I picked up my sleepy teammate Mark, and we made our way up the California coast- arriving at the hotel by early afternoon. I checked into my room (which I was lucky enough to share with my wonderful teammate Amy) and got settled in, before heading to Johnson's Beach at the Russian River for a nice and easy swim. While I was tired, I was glad we had arrived early enough to swim, rest, go to dinner, and get some good sleep Wednesday night.

Thursday started with another swim in the river at 9am, followed by a short bike and run at Windsor High School. After all of the injuries I had experienced this season I took it easy on the bike, and rather than taking a spin around the run course- I ran/walked short loops around the parking lot- while testing out my new headlamp for raceday. After the workout we all had lunch in Windsor before many of my teammates drove the bike course to get a closer look. Because we had already seen the bike course 3 times on training weekend, and once again only 2 weeks prior when we were in town to cheer for the Ironman 70.3 race, Amy and I decided to use that time to organize our gear (or in my case, make a mess of our hotel room) and finish up our raceplans.

I had been working on my plan for some time leading up to the race- and I knew everything I needed to do- down to how many bottles and what flavor of Gatorade Pro or water I would to have with me at any point on the bike, what I needed in each of my special needs bags, and by what time I needed to reach each aid station in order to make cutoff. I consolidated my plan down to a route slip- with mileage references for each turn on the course, and a small page of plans for each aid station and what I needed to pickup/consume at each. I decided to take these little pages to Kinkos in town and get them laminated so they wouldn't get gross on raceday. I then made the mistake at dinner of showing my teammates my raceplan who in turn told my coaches, who then decided that I needed an intervention. After plenty of making-fun, and a good talkin'-to from Coach Brad, I decided to keep my crazy "Type-A" laminated plans as a guideline, but not a blueprint for my race. More on that later...

My lovely teammates standing around watching my change my bike tire...
Friday morning began bright and early at 6am, with another swim at the river, a short ride , and a very brief run. My swim was great, but when I took my bike out of my car, the rear wheel fell off, and was completely flat. The rear brake was also completely out of whack, so I changed the tire while Coach Rob fixed my brakes, before taking off on a chilly but short ride, and a very slow (and cautious) run. After cleaning up back at the hotel, we all went to the TNT Inspiration Lunch to fuel up and meet the San Francisco and Silicon Valley IronTEAMs. After thinking so much about my plan, and being a little rattled about my bike that morning, I was in pretty rough shape at lunch. Luckily my coaches encouraged me to eat, and I actually really enjoyed the stories and presentations from honored teammates and staff - they really helped bring me back home to why we were doing this- to help in the fight against cancer- to help patients and their families through the toughest times, as well as pushing our own personal limits and boundaries.

Happy teammates at packet-pickup
Checking out the expo
 From lunch, we all trekked back over to Windsor High School for our pre-race meetings and packet pick-up, as well as to set up T-2. While at the expo at the school, I broke the cardinal rule of racing- and picked up some compression calf sleeves to use on raceday. (Compression sleeves are designed to aid blood flow, as well as minimize muscle fatigue from vibrations.) They always say "nothing new on raceday", and I have always taken that to heart, so when Coach Brad told me to get compression sleeves to use on raceday I was a little skeptical, but because of my unwavering trust in my coaches and the fact I had promised I would do whatever they said if it would get me across the finish line, I made the investment and took the gamble.

Goofing around with Marvin after setting up our T-2

After the expo and T-2 setup, we dropped off our bikes for the truck that would take them to the race start, and all headed to dinner. I was completely rattled from the day, and kind of a wreck, so when my family showed up to say hello when we were getting dinner, I was not myself. I was of course delighted to see them- but unable to focus. They, having read the letter from the coaches to "family and spectators" sent out a few weeks earlier, recognized that I should be left alone, gave me quick hugs, good luck's, and made a speedy exit.

Mohawks! Lookin' good, fellas!

After eating, we all went back to the hotel to put the finishing touches on organizing our gear and get some rest. Before going to sleep, I did find a free moment to give two of my teammates the race-day mohawks that they had requested (they looked amazing)!


Jasmine and me: race morning hugs!
Race morning started at the crack of dawn- about 4:30am. Amy and I got up and ate breakfast, filled water bottles, collected our gear and headed out to the lobby to meet our teammates and the shuttle to the race start at the river.  All the nerves of the previous day were gone, and I was calm and focused- and of course- excited! I had everything I needed, my gear, my (laminated) plan, and most importantly my teammates and coaches there ready to take on the day.

Trying to explain something to my family just before my swim wave started
We made it to the river and unloaded the bikes, and quickly set up our transition areas. I was hurried but feeling much more calm and ready than I had the day before.

I found my folks and handed them the bag of clothes/recovery bars I needed for the finish line.
 They looked like I had the night before- a little disoriented- but thrilled and excited to be there, and they had even studied the flashcards I had made of the of the coaches and staff so they would recognize some of the key players of the day.

I didn't have much time before my wave start at 6:42am, so I bid them adieu, pulled on my wetsuit and did a quick warm-up jog. What seemed like seconds later, I was walking into the water and waiting for the gun to go off.

The Swim

Amy and me at the swim start!
Race-roomie hugs!
The swim was beautiful. It was crowded- which I expected- but otherwise not too chaotic. Because the swim course was a double loop, there were racers of all ages, genders, and sizes swimming together most of the course. I was thrilled that we had had so much experience practicing in this river, doing the actual course- it felt like "just another day at the office" as we say. The water was cool but not cold, and very shallow in places. So shallow in fact, that many racers got up and walked parts of the course, and actually were standing in the way of those of us trying to swim! I am pretty sure that it is not "legal" to walk the swim course- but if it wasn't, there was no one enforcing that policy. The current was very slight- against us going out, with us coming back- and I made it out of the water onto the the (slippery!) timing chip mat by about 1:17:00. I employed the super-amazing wetsuit strippers to help me get my suit off and dizzily scampered into T-1.

T1 was not too crowded- I was happy to see lots and lots of bikes still racked when I got there. I took 30 seconds to catch my breath (as advised by Coach Brad) and then got to work. Neutrogena wet-skin sunscreen, Garmins (yes, 2), bike gloves, shoes, helmet, route slip/plan, etc... I was delighted to see some of my teammates in transition- and it was there my teammate Bobby started shouting what would be one of the themes for the day: "You're Doin' It!" He told his wife Erin, who was transitioning right next to me. She then shouted to me- "You're Doin' It!", and I shouted back- "We're Doin' It!" I grabbed my bike and headed for the mount line- and bumped into Coach Brad along the way. From behind his clipboard, iPad, and Blackberry, he called to me:

Coach Brad, concerned: "how are we doing?"
Me, beaming: "I'm Doin' It!"
Coach Brad, smiling: "Yes, you are."

I then saw my Dad as I reached the mount line, and I was all at once so happy that my parents came to see me race, and so proud that he looked so proud that I was really doing this. I knew that this was going to be a good day, no matter what happened.

The Bike

Zooming out of T-1
I hopped on my bike and took off. I haven't told anyone until writing this, but my infamous laminated plan flew out of my jersey pocket someplace within the first 3 miles. So much for that. Luckily I had stashed an extra copy at special needs at mile 57 if I needed it. I didn't need it. I already knew my plan and what I needed to do. I knew I was going to be prone to dehydration and overheating if the sun came out, so my plan included drinking plenty of fluids throughout the bike in anticipation of the heat.

A LOT of blue Gatorade
Thankfully the bike course started out chilly, and again I was happy that I had ridden the course multiple times before and could anticipate what was coming. I got to the first aid station and downed at least half of one Gatorade bottle, (in addition to the full bottle I had consumed during hour 1) and grabbed another gatorade for the road. By aid station 2, halfway through Loop 1 I had consumed another bottle of Gatorade, so I downed half another bottle at Aid 2, grabbed another bottle of Gatorade and a water for the road, and stopped momentarily to shout my status at Coach Jason and use the restroom (no, I didn't pee on my bike).  I hit the road again amidst my cheering teammates who came to spectate the race, feeling pretty darn good, and very hydrated.

Then, somewhere around mile 35 I got a flat tire. Same tire as the day before. Major bummer. I stopped, swore, and evaluated the situation. I could hear my coaches' advice in my head: "a flat is a great opportunity to hydrate and refuel, because your heart-rate is low", so I slammed some gatorade, ate another clif blok, and got to work.

I was nervous that there was something wrong with my wheel, or some other mechanical problem because I had gotten 2 flats on the same tire, 2 days in a row, so I took my time and made sure I checked the inside of the tire for anything sharp. Sure enough- I found something. It might have been part of a staple, but it was completely invisible and tiny, and if I hadn't taken the extra 2 minutes to look for it, I would have been changing my tire several more times that day. With a new layer of grime all over me, I put my gloves back on, drank some more Gatorade, and got back in the game.

The rest of the first loop felt really good, and the weather cooperated- it was mostly overcast for the entire first loop. I climbed Chalk Hill for the first time and was delighted to see the cheering squad waiting for me at the top!
Cheer squad at the top of Chalk Hill (Loop 1)- complete with creepy cardboard cutouts!

My reaction upon seeing the creepy cardboard cutouts
I made my way through the rest of loop 1, past the airport, past the graveyard and coaches' corner, and headed for special needs just past Windsor High School as the sun finally came out.
Coach Andie was at the bike special needs station along with more cheering teammates- including Traci in a beer mug costume- amazing! I checked in with Andie as I grabbed my gear: more bottles of Gatorade+CarboPro, another clif bar, more sunscreen. A quick rinse with mouthwash, and a quick pit-stop and I was back on my way again.

The course started heating up. I was still slamming down the gatorade as I pedaled through the first quarter of the second loop, which is somewhat shaded by trees. I knew from the other times I had ridden the course that the second quarter of this loop was going to be tough for me- it is not technically challenging, and while absolutely beautiful- vineyard after vineyard- it is very exposed, with not very much along the way to punctuate the route. I was trying my best to keep focused in the heat and monotony, when I started to realize that something wasn't quite right. I knew the sun was beating down, and I was cautiously optimistic that I wasn't really feeling the heat yet, but I was starting to feel very very full.
A bell went off in my head: I remembered one day in training when my teammate Chris started to get heat exhaustion- he was hydrating and hydrating, but not cooling down. He felt very full, and started getting chills. The coaches explained after they got his situation under control that he had overheated, causing his digestive system to stop in its tracks- leaving all the fluids he was drinking sloshing around in his stomach- as all his blood went to his skin to try and cool down.
I knew then that I was in for some trouble. I doused myself with water at the next aid station, and stopped drinking so much Gatorade. No use. I was still full, and starting to feel cold. I knew that I needed to get to the aid station in Geyserville and find Coach Jason, ASAP.

Slowly but surely I made it through the vineyards, down the hill, past the big red barn, and finally to the aid station where my teammates were jubilantly cheering in grass skirts and tutu's.
Cheer squad at Aid Station #2 - Yes, that is a mini-goat piƱata.

I pulled over and shouted for Jason - who came over and saved my life- and my race. He explained to me what I needed to do, while Bobby continued shouting: "You're Doin' it!", and my teammates doused me with water, and gave me ice to line the inside of my jersey and cool my core. He told me what pace I needed to keep from there out to make the bike cutoff, to drink more water and less Gatorade for a while to dilute the concentration of carbs in my stomach, and to continue pouring water on my head to cool down. Armed with that advice, and lots of ice down my jersey, I took off again for the last half of loop 2. Between the heat exhaustion and the ice down my sportsbra, I definitely had a chill by this point, but I managed to give an excited wave to my cheering teammates, and a "woohoo!" to my family who were waiting (patiently) about a half mile down the road.

Tushar brandishing a mini-Brad cardboard cutout at Aid Station #3
Knowing I surely wasn't going to break any land-speed records while finishing out the bike course, I tried to settle in while trying to pull myself back together. I few miles later, my teammates Louis and Tushar popped up in a car and told me to pull over for more ice. I wasn't sure if that was entirely legal for them to help me, but since I wasn't exactly shooting for the podium, and I wanted to get through the day without ending up in the med tent or worse, I pulled over. They gave me more ice for my jersey and for my bottles, and I hit the road again. They also met me again at the last aid station before chalk hill to make sure I got enough water and was making it through.

Between Geyserville and that last aid station, I was freezing, but I could feel myself coming back to life. I started to feel less full, and less foggy-headed. By the time by teammates Jon and Pam pulled up beside me in a car just before Chalk Hill, I was starting to feel better...

 Pam (from inside their car): "The coaches said you need to stop in the shade for 5 minutes to cool down and eat something!"

Before I could open my mouth to argue, and say that I was feeling a little better, she hit me with:
"Jason, Andie, and Brad all said so"

I couldn't argue with those guys- Coach Jason knows his stuff and had just seen me, Coach Andie is a nurse, and Coach Brad could tell me to bike off a cliff and I'd probably do it. So, I stopped in the shade. Pam had brought chips and grapes and soda. Never in my life had BBQ potato chips tasted so good. I took a few swigs of Coke, thanked my lucky stars for having such amazing teammates and coaches, and started my final ascent up Chalk Hill.

At that point there weren't that many other cyclists around me on the course, so it was quiet, but after taking a moment in the shade I was feeling pretty good. I trudged up the hill, and what to my wondering eyes should appear at the top of the hill?
Bananas: Raul & Tushar, with Mari the Green Monster

Banana Raul running up Chalk Hill with me
Two life-size bananas and a green monster! No I wasn't hillucinating, it was the cheer squad decked out in costumes shouting and cheering for me! 
I shouted: "Ooooh, Bananna!"
to which Banana Tushar replied: "It's Peanut-Butter-Jelly Time!"
He started playing the song on his cell phone and doing the dance, while Banana Raul, and Green Monster Marisela ran to high-five me and run me up the rest of this hill- a moment that I definitely will never forget!

Peanut Butter Jelly Time

Cruising into T-2 at the high school
I cruised slowly but surely through the rest of the bike course, past the airport, past the graveyard, and past more cheering teammates (including Scooby-Doo Ale') at coaches' corner (mile 111). Jason met me at the dismount line to T-2 to check in and make sure I was still good to go, while I took off my shoes. The run from the dismount line into transition is actually quite long - and I had extra socks in transition so I didn't want to try it wearing my cleats.

It was certainly not my fastest T-2 ever, but I was actually delighted to have to stop to pee, because that meant my hydration was back on-line. I changed my socks, grabbed my visor (with headlamp clipped on for later), my water bottle, left one Garmin behind, and hit the run course.

The Run

Now it was time to re-focus on my raceplan. I did my 5 minute high-cadence walk out of transition (so hard to do with masses of people standing there cheering), and set to work on my run intervals.
On the run
Vineman full has a 3-loop run course, so my plan was to do a 5:1 (minutes running: minutes walking) interval for the first loop, a 6:1 interval for the second loop and a 7:1 interval for the third. I also planned to walk any moderate to major inclines. By the time I started running, the weather had started to cool off just slightly.

Those 26.2 miles were the best miles of my life. Sure, it was hard, and absolutely everything hurt, but I have never been so excited to run (and to not be on my bike anymore)! Every 5 or 10 minutes I would see one of my teammates coming the opposite direction on the looped course. I think the first teammate I saw was Scott- who was probably finishing loop 2 when I saw him- he was chatting with volunteers and aid station people, acting like he owned the place (typical Scott). Then I saw Erin-O who was so excited she stopped and gave me a huge hug! The high-fives, "Go Team!"'s, "Shake-N-Bake"'s and "Yer Doin' It"'s continued as I made my way up the one major hill on the run- at about mile 3.5 or so. I was walking so as to save my legs, but at the top of the hill were Banana Raul, Banana Tushar, Green Monster Mari, VitaPanda Louis, Scooby-Doo Ale' and many other pink-tutu'd teammates ready to cheer me on! Amazing!

Cheer Squad on the run course- I love these guys!
I stayed on my 5:1 plan throughout the first loop. Having to come down the finishing chute only to hang a sharp right just short of the tape to turn around for the second and third loops is definitely not ideal, kind of mean actually... but I grabbed my rubber bracelet and headed out for loop 2. By this time it had cooled off considerably, and by the time I got back to the hill on loop 2, it was so cool that I had to ask Coach Rob if it was ok/normal for me to feel cold (I wanted to make sure I wasn't getting the overheated-chills again). As I made it to the turn around at the far end of loop 2, Banana Raul had turned back into "regular" Raul and started to run with me for a few minutes. We both marveled at the fact that I was feeling so great after my bike went so poorly, and belted out a chorus of "Ohhhh, Half-way there- Whooaah-Ooh! Livin' on a pray-yer!" to commemorate my being halfway through the run.

The temperature really started to drop as the sun went down. They had run out of bracelets at the turnaround to start loop 3, so they handed out glow-necklaces instead. I put mine on, and made a quick stop at my Run-Special Needs to grab a T-shirt, before continuing on. I was happy that I didn't need any of the other items in my Special Needs bag, because the aid stations were so well supplied- ice, pretzels, cookies, grapes, Gatorade Pro, Coke, water... everything we needed.

Loop 3 got a little dark, so I turned on my headlamp which I had only tested once before- turns out it was the perfect lamp for this race. It was tiny, clipped right onto my Ironteam visor, and had really stellar (no pun intended) light output (for those interested, it can be found here. thanks to Louis for recommending it!).

Even writing this now, I am getting excited just thinking about this last leg of the race. The experience of this last, dark, and somewhat lonely loop of the run course is something I will never forget. Every muscle in my body hurt, and I was of course exhausted, but there was a joy and an electricity running through me that made all of the pain not even matter. Plus, I was thrilled that I had gotten through so much of the run without any pain from my IT band (started to hurt at about mile 22, at which point I didn't care)- that I had been so worried about.

The course got VERY dark, and I felt terrible for the runners who did not have headlamps. The roads had many divots, pot-holes, and twists/turns that you could very easily roll an ankle on. About 2/3 of the way through loop 3 my teammate Dash rode up on a bike looking for people to cheer on- he had the world's worst lamp on the front of his bike, and was happy to have me to guide his way for a little while (apparently the fiber-optic pig-tailed wig he was wearing wasn't really helping much in the way of visibility). He rolled along with me for a spell before hanging back to wait for other racers.
Blurry picture of me on the very dark run course- just past the turnaround on Loop 3

I was on a walk interval when I saw in the dark coming up ahead someone walking briskly with a very effective headlamp. He was wearing khaki shorts, a visor, and an iPad in a case over his shoulder. Clearly, this was Coach Brad- just the person I wanted to see. He turned to walk with me for a while and asked how I was doing.
With victory in sight, I was on cloud-nine. I might have not needed the headlamp cause I felt like I was glowing. Of course everything still hurt, but I was so excited and proud for myself and also for my teammates who were completing this amazing journey with me. Brad ran/walked with me until about the last mile and a half to go, where the course turns back onto a suburban street before making a right angle onto Windsor Rd. that takes you down to high school and the finish.

It All Comes Down to This

More than the finish line, more than my cheering monsters on chalk hill, more than the race start or T-1, I will remember the run down that 1/3 mile of suburban street for the rest of my life. Most of the cheering fans had gone, the street was mostly dark but lit with street lights, it was quiet, there very few runners in sight. This was a moment of quiet calm, my moment to reflect on everything I had done in the past 9 months: the challenges I had faced, the obstacles I had overcome, the amazing people I had met, and the transformation I had gone through to bring me to this point. I hurt from head to toe, but I have never before felt so much personal pride. I will draw from that moment for the rest of my life.

The rest of the run and the finish line is a blur- I ran the rest of the way in (all the way this time), through the chute and through the finish tape. Raul was there to give me my medal and a big hug. I couldn't stop screaming with joy, I hugged everyone in sight. I was delerious, and happy- I found my family and gave them big hugs too.

My parents, aunt and uncle with me at the finish line
All wrapped up and eating my Hollybar

I ate my recovery Hollybar, and got wrapped in one of those silver foil blankets, before my teammates Mark and Adam (who had finished earlier and had their wits about them), took me over to get some food. Chicken soup, a burger, and lots of water- just what the doctor ordered. Adam was kind enough to go and grab my Run Special Needs bag for me, because (as you might expect) very quickly I started to not be able to really move any more.  We all waited at the finish line for the rest of our team to finish. Each and every one of our teammates finished the race with an official time- before the 16 hour cutoff. After taking some group pictures at the finish line we all hobbled over to get our transition items and bikes, and poured ourselves back onto the bus for the hotel. Once back, I made myself an ice-bath in the hotel room, which I was able to bear for only a couple of minutes before taking a quick shower and heading to bed.

Bad-ass wine stopper medal

Post Race

Our coaches, in their infinite wisdom, had scheduled a swim back at the Russian River for 7am the next morning. Not one person riding the bus back to the hotel after the race thought that sounded like a fun idea. However, after asking the coaches if they were actually kidding, Amy and I, as well as about 3 others decided to get up early and go for it. Boy am I glad we did. I know for a fact I would have been exponentially more sore for the next 72 hours if I had not done that quick and easy swim. I highly recommend it.

 After the swim we came back to the hotel and cleaned up for the TNT Victory Brunch, before all departing to head back to LA. Most of us wore our medals, some used them in wine bottles they had just opened for "recovery", while we enjoyed a slideshow of raceday pictures and emotional/hilarious speeches from coaches and participants.

In Conclusion

I would describe my experience at the Vineman Full-Distance Triathlon as epic, challenging, and probably the best day of my life. Despite the bumps along the way- especially on the bike course, I pulled through and got it done- but not without the support of my amazing TEAM. I might have been able to train for an Ironman on my own, but I probably wouldn't have, and I definitely wouldn't have had this much fun, met so many amazing people, and ended up feeling so good at the end. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, joining the IronTEAM was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I am looking forward to what we can continue to accomplish together.