My goals for the day: Finish in under 15 hours, preferably without a glow-stick – racers who are out well after dark are forced to run with a glow stick so that they are visible.
We arrived at 5 am to be body-marked with our race numbers written on our arms and legs with permanent markers, inflate the tires of our bikes, drop off our “special needs” bags, and pee about three or four times (luckily the port-o-potty lines moved fast). I then handed off my morning clothes to my parents, who were so fabulous to drive all the way to Michigan to watch me race.
Swim – 2.4 miles
The swim was a two loop course in Mirror Lake. I entered the water and the nerves kicked in. Though there was an underwater cable which could be used to sight the direction of the swim easily, that area was incredibly crowded so I elected to position myself in an area a bit less crowded to the side. My swim distance would be a bit longer, but it would be less stressful and hopefully with fewer kicks, elbows, and scratches. I treaded water as we waited for the start gun at 7 am.
There were over 2,600 of us starting the swim, and triathletes can be aggressive. Within thirty seconds, someone kicked me in the chin. I tried to find clear space, which was challenging amongst this cluster of people. My ankles got scratched numerous times by other swimmers’ watches. By about five minutes in, I finally had some clear space in front of me, though throughout the swim people constantly were knocking into me.
I completed my first lap in just over forty minutes. This was definitely on track to my goal of finishing in less than an hour and thirty minutes. For some reason, the cluster of men in front of me were taking their time getting out of the water. I dashed around them and back into the water for my second loop, rejoicing in my excellent first loop time. This time I managed to find my way onto the cable, at least for about five minutes. But, even though we had spread out a bit, the cable was still crowded and I again drifted to the outside.
Total swim time: 1:23:09. Well under my goal of 1:30.
Again, people were way too slow getting out of the water. I dashed around various stragglers, pulled my wetsuit down to my waist, and found a wetsuit stripper. It’s a cool process – the athlete lies down and two people pull the wetsuit off of you. It’s much faster than taking it off yourself. I threw the wetsuit over my shoulder and ran, and again, most people were not running or were barely shuffling, so it was a process of darting around people again to get to the transition area, which was a block away and across the street.
Transition at an Ironman is entirely a different process from at any other triathlon. I grabbed my bag of bike transition items and dashed into the women’s changing tent. Forget modesty – clothes are coming off quickly and there are volunteers in the tent to help us with whatever we may need. I tore off the swimsuit, which took a bit of effort, and put on my shorts and tri-top. As I put on my bike shoes, took a few bites of my Purefit bar, put on my hemlet, stashed my sunglasses for the time being (it was very dark in the tent), and stuffed my swim gear into my bag, I asked a volunteer to put sunscreen on me. I handed the bag off to a volunteer and ran out of the tent holding my banana, trying to figure out where to stash it because I wasn’t ready to eat it quite yet. As it was too big for my pockets, I stuffed it under my sports bra strap, which held it in place.
Transition #1 time: 12 minutes (could have been a little faster, but with a long bike ride ahead I prefer to be prepared and comfortable)
Bike (112 miles)
I ran out of the transition area with my bike and saw LA Tri Club friends Gerardo, Ray, and Karen. I waved, pumped my fist in the air, and nearly fell off my bike in all of the excitement.
Start of the bike course. Banana stashed at top of shirt. Fist in air and almost falling off my bike.
The bike course at Ironman Lake Placid is known as one of the toughest. It consists of two loops of the course. While the first thirty miles includes a nice long downhill and some rollers, the last twenty-six includes a long steady climb followed by some flats and then yet another set of climbs. Living in Los Angeles, we have the Santa Monica Mountains nearby. Early in the season I did a lot of long steady climbing, and my training has consistently included hilly portions of PCH (Pacific Coast Highway), so I was ready for this course.
The biggest mistake that one can make on the Ironman Lake Placid course is to ride it too hard, especially in the first loop. 112 miles is a long way to travel, and killing one’s legs on the bike leaves little reserve to run a marathon. Therefore, I made a consistent effort to not push all-out on the bike.
A lot of the bikes had fancy wheels, and many riders had the sophisticated aero helmets. I was amused that with my Cervelo P2C, standard wheels, and normal helmet, I was able to ride faster than some of those with the fancy equipment. That said, the bike is still my weakness, and with that in mind, I knew that I would be passed frequently. One very important rule: Two kinds of people will pass by on the bike – those who are faster, and those who will be walking the marathon course.
The first few miles had some gentle climbs. Then there was a nice, several mile long descent into the town of Keene. My speeds were up to 45 miles per hour, which was a little scary with the rain coming down, but I held onto the handlebars as opposed to my aero bars. Then there was a fairly flat ride north, an out-and-back on a slight hill. Then the race really began as we turned out of the town of Jay and headed uphill into Wilmington. While not a very steep hill, it was a long and challenging hill. Once into Wilmington, the course flattens for a while, and as we head back to Lake Placid, there are several climbs followed by flats.
The loop back through Lake Placid is exciting – spectators are screaming and cheering. I stopped to get my “special needs” bag, with a Tofurky sandwich in it, and I eagerly explained to the volunteer who gave me my bag exactly what Tofurky is. I saw my parents and I saw my friends again. Then I did the bike loop all over again, just a bit slower, but still feeling strong.
I have to give huge props to the volunteers at the aid stations. They were kind, encouraging, and upbeat. I would get off the bike to use the port-o-potty, and a volunteer would hold my bike and ask if I needed anything, like another bottle of water or sports drink. When I came out, I would have that bottle and be ready to go. I thanked the volunteers every chance that I could; they made my day.
Bike time: 7 hours, 38 minutes. The second loop was only a bit slower than the first. Surpassed my goal time of 8 hours.
I passed my bike off to a volunteer with the bike shoes still clipped in, and ran barefoot to grab my transition bag. This time, I did not need to change clothes, though I did have a spare shirt in case I felt the need. I chose not to go into the dark and smelly changing tent and instead sat down on the grass to put on my shoes, socks, and visor and stuff my pockets with my snacks. I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich which definitely hit the spot, took a few bites, then ran into the changing tent for more sunscreen and to drop off my bike equipment, and out for the run.
Run – 26.2 miles
Starting the run -- PBJ sandwich in left hand, high-fiving someone with the right
Up to this point, I felt great. My energy level was high. I ran the first half mile stuffing my face with PBJ. Yum. I knew to keep my pace conservative at the beginning in order to conserve energy for the end, but with the downhills it was hard to hold back. I wanted to run eleven-minute miles, and considering that in my best marathons my pace has been about 9:40 per mile, I thought this would be no big deal. Little did I realize just how much a long swim and bike would take out of me.
The first six miles went well, and I averaged 10:55 per mile. Then I slowed down. My knees were aching, and my pace gradually became 12-13 miles per hour. I felt like I was running faster, but I definitely was not.
The aid stations were fully loaded – sports drink, water, pretzels, bananas, orange slices, Powerbars (not vegan, so I had my own Clif bars in my pockets), energy gels, cola, and chicken broth (another non-vegan item, but no big deal since I didn’t feel like I needed more salt). At each aid station, I would drink a few ounces of sports drink and a few ounces of water. I walked those few steps as I drank, because with this long of a day, it wasn’t worth the few seconds I could save as I choke on my drink while trying to run with it. I ate well while on the bike so I had enough energy and didn’t need to worry too much about eating while running. And, I definitely was hydrated enough since I was peeing quite frequently, perhaps a bit too frequently, but that is better than the alternative -- dehydration.
The run was an out-and-back twice. Again, running back into Lake Placid, the crowds were amazing and encouraging. There’s a hill heading back toward the Olympic Oval, and while most other people were walking, I was running up that hill with the biggest grin I could muster, which helped me find more crowd encouragement. I run hills – I love them!
I saw my parents as I started the second loop and handed them a few extra items from my pockets and gave them a high-five. “Go have dinner – I’ll see you at 9:30!” I yelled.
My right knee gradually ached more and more on that second loop. I ran into Mark, an athlete of my former coach Mary Eggers, who I had met just a few evenings earlier. I talked to him through miles 14-15, which took my mind off the pain. He walked, and I kept running. The second loop felt longer than the first as my knee ached.
Around mile 19, the pain was getting severe and occasionally sharp. But, I kept running. My run pace hovered around a miserable 13 minutes per mile. At mile 22, I realized that continuing to run in excruciating pain was not a sustainable strategy, so I started to power-walk. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, swinging my arms and taking big steps. My pace was not that much slower than my jog/shuffle, and my knee was not nearly as painful.
There were a lot of ambulances – over the last half of the run I saw over a half dozen of them. I reminded myself that I was lucky that I was still on two feet and not on my way to a hospital.
As we got into town, around mile 23, Mark from Rochester caught up with me – he said, “Run this with me” or something like that. I said, “I don’t know if I can, but I know I should.” I started to run again. The knee hurt, and I winced with every step. Luckly, we were heading back to town with all the crowds, and their energy carried me. Again, I put on my biggest grin, a smile hiding me gritting my teeth with pain. I saw the hill back into town and I kept on running it. I saw my roommate Liz, who qualified for Kona that day, who in spite of already having finished and having spent time puking in the medical tent still mustered the energy to wait to cheer me on. “You’re the only one running up this hill!” she yelled. And on I went. At mile 25, I started to walk again. Mark caught up with me, and I looked at him and said, “I need to run now,” and off I ran.
The crowd was great – “You’re almost there!” That last mile was the longest of my life. As I headed into the Olympic Oval to finish, I saw Gerardo, Ray, and Karen, and they took this picture. Looking at it, you have absolutely no idea how much pain I was in, but from that point, endorphins carried me forward.
On my way into the Olympic Oval -- Can you tell that my knee is killing me?
The crowd was amazing and loud as I ran into the Olympic oval. One runner passed me, and I let him go ahead of me so that he would have his few seconds to himself as he finished. As I approached, I heard the voice of the infamous Mike Reilly, who announces all of the Ironman races, “Heather Shenkman, of Sherman Oaks, California…. YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
I remembered to smile and keep my arms high in the air so that I’d look good for my finisher picture. The finisher picture looks awesome, and I'm carrying it around in my white coat pocket to share with everyone. Once I have a digital version, I'll post it.
A volunteer held onto me as I nearly passed out at the finish line. I posed for my finisher picture, received my finisher’s hat and shirt, and limped over to meet my parents. I had just completed 140.6 miles and now I could barely walk. Mom and Dad carried my stuff (and luckily they did not need to carry me!) and helped me get my bike to the area to be transported back to Los Angeles, and then drove me back to my hotel. If they were not there, the end of that race would have been grueling – I have no idea how I would have hobbled with my belongings and my bike and how I would have gotten back to my hotel.
Overall time: 14:45:25. Better than my goal of 15 hours. And without a glow-stick. My splits were pretty consistent, and even with my knee issues my run time didn’t drop off at all.
The day after the race....
It was an amazing day. But I will never do another Ironman. Why? I’ve done one and I am now and Ironman. I have nothing more to prove. I value my free time, and I look forward to spending that time with my family, my two nieces, and my friends, and fulfilling one other dream: getting a dog.
Two days later, and my right knee still aches and I am still limping. With ice and ibuprofen, it should feel better soon, and I will slowly get back to a scaled-down workout routine.