“Is this real life?” This is the question I’ve had to repeatedly ask myself for the past few days. It’s difficult to put into words to describe the range of emotions I’ve felt. Disbelief, joy, exhilaration, nervousness, and most of all: gratitude, gratitude, and more gratitude. My last two races (the Apple Duathlon and Madison 70.3) have far exceeded my expectations and I can hardly believe what’s actually happened. The outcomes came, but more importantly so has amazing time with family, the opportunity to build friendships, and feelings of self-assurance.
The highlight of the Apple Duathlon was getting to slap my nephew's hand coming out of T2. All three nephews, my sister, my mom, and I spent the night before the race in my parent's RV basically on the race site the night before. We had a blast "camping" and getting to spend the 4 hour trip (2 hrs each way) talking to my sister is a rarity these days when most our time together involves chasing three energetic boys. :) I surprised myself in the race by not being afraid to push hard when I needed to and even though I came away with the win by only 25 seconds, I was happy to redeem my 2nd place and 22 second deficit the year before. Results here.
Highlight of the Apple Duathlon: a high five from nephew #1 <3
Going into Ironman 70.3 Wisconsin two weeks later, I was equal parts excited and nervous. I signed up and booked a hotel the day registration opened while lying on a beach one day after Ironman 70.3 Miami. Being such a close midwest race, a lot of my friends were also racing and I couldn't wait to be there with a fun group. But keeping an eye on the forecast earlier in the week, I got a little uneasy. A high of 92 degrees and up to 30 mph winds. Woah. I wasn’t sure if I had acclimated to heat this early in the year and even though I usually do well in hot weather, it had gotten to me a bit in Miami last fall. My coach had some great advice though -- let everyone else waste energy worrying about the weather and just spend my energy on the race. It was true, there was nothing I could do to change it and everyone was going to be in the same conditions. The race would reward the most patient and the strongest - not necessarily the fastest, but who would slow down the least. This took a lot of pressure off. It reminded me to focus on what I could control, race smart, and stay strong.
I arrived in Madison Saturday afternoon and soaked up as much information as I could by talking to other athletes and doing as much visualization as possible. Immediately upon arrival, it was clear this wasn’t a small town race. Traffic, thousands of athletes, and a transition area that sprawled across a giant grass lawn with space for more than the 2,000 bikes that would soon arrive. “This just got real.” I thought.
Locked and loaded.
I met up with my friend Mitch and his sister Jenna for the day’s activities. Packet pick-up, bike check-in, the athlete briefing, and a course preview. We did a quick swim in the lake too and the water felt nice. It wasn’t as murky as I feared and it felt good to cool down on the hot and super WINDY day. Later on, we hopped in Mitch’s truck to drive the 56 mile course. We were warned about the less than ideal road conditions: the hills, the wind, and more importantly the more than 50 turns we would be making. In the end, the 56 mile course preview took us almost 2 hours due to at least 49 wrong turns. (Cue the eye roll.) This was shaping up to be a challenging course! There was barely any stretch of road over 1 or 2 miles before a veer or turn would pop up. Most of which were at the bottom of one of the numerous hills. Nice. I prepared myself for a lot of braking and a few near heart attacks trying not to end up in the ditch. But we had fun driving around and I was excited nonetheless.
Obligatory pre-race outfit picture
Back at the hotel that night (½ mile from transition btw - so convenient!), I had a quick dinner, tried on my new race kit that had literally been rushed shipped to the hotel that day (only a few panic attacks involved, but it was going to work), and went to bed early. My trouper of a mom arrived after I was asleep at 12:30am. She had spent almost 12 hours in the car that day driving. First dropping my dad off at the Cedar Rapids, IA airport for a last minute trip with my brother and younger sister, then driving to Ankeny, IA to attend a friend’s daughter’s wedding, and then driving another 4 hours to Madison. #supermom I rolled over, mumbled hello, and before I knew it my 4:30am alarm was going off. Despite her lack of sleep, my mom jumped out of bed and then immediately into mine shouting, “GOOD MORNING! It’s race day!!!” The rest of the race morning involved packing up as-cold-as-a-mini-hotel-fridge-would-allow water bottles, sitting on the bed while my mom braided my hair and having flashbacks to grade school, and finally heading out the door to walk (or ride a rented bike for my mom) to transition.
Super-mom's time in the car Saturday
My mom's super aero ride
I did my usual run warm-up and welcomed the usual pre-race nerves that always threaten to make me sick. As I came back, I ran right into and got a big hug from Dani Fischer. I had been hoping to see this amazing woman before the race, so I was ecstatic. “Let’s do this!” we said and were off to get into our wetsuits. There was supposed to be a 15 minute swim warm-up from 6:30-6:45am before the 7:00am race start. But apparently an ambulance was late to get onsite and at 6:43am when we still weren’t in the water, it was announced the warm-up was cancelled. This made my planned last minute bathroom break a lot more complicated, but I ran back to my mom and for a quick GenUCan gel, a shot of beet juice, and a teary goodluck hug. After working a lot on my confidence the past few months - especially on the run - my mom reminded me that I am, at the core, a runner and not to doubt myself for one second.
Setting up my bike. Already 70 degrees at 5:30am!
The rolling swim start had us all line up by expected swim finish times and as I made my way to the 27-30 minute group (being a little optimistic hoping to find fast feet), I heard my name. It was my new coach, Jen Harrison! She was racing too and we had planned on meeting up for the first time in person after the race, but we had miraculously found each other in the sea of wetsuits and swim caps. We chatted a bit and I decided that was as good of an omen as I’d ever get - it was going to be a good day.
Mitch and Ted heading to the water's edge
The swim was mostly uneventful - which was good! Being with other athletes roughly the same speed, I didn’t get kicked, swam over, or was forced to swim over many others. I tried to find as many feet as I could and moved between a few different sets trying to maintain a solid effort and straight line. It was a triangle shaped course and when we made the final turn toward shore, I realized one of the women next to me was my coach! In open water, it’s difficult to make out much of anything, but after only seeing her for the first time ever about 30 minutes prior, I managed to make out her purple cap and Roka wetsuit - so cool!
Dolphin diving! Scored an awesome hot pink cap!
I exited the water with a pretty big group and ran up a big boat ramp where I spotted my mom cheering. I grabbed a fast looking volunteer to help me out of my wetsuit - a process that never fails to make me laugh hysterically - it’s so fun being peeled out!. Then we had about a ½ mile run from the water to our bikes - a super long transition! And quite a few of the other athletes were walking! I wanted to say, “Guys, this is a race! Let’s go!” But I used it to my advantage and tried to pass as many people as I could and as I ran to my bike.
The first few miles of the bike course left town on a bike path and went over a set of railroad tracks where my aero water bottle immediately launched itself off my bike and into the grass. Ugh. I was annoyed (it was chilled and had some caffeine in it), but I wasn’t too worried. I could easily pick up a bottle of Gatorade at an aid station later. Then, per my nutrition plan, about 10 minutes into the ride it was time for my ½ PowerBar. Just as I was reaching for it, I realized I didn’t remember packing in the case on my bike. Yep, it was definitely still sitting on top of the mini fridge in the hotel room. “Ok,” I thought, “stay calm, be logical, and regroup”. I would just start with a one of the GenUCan gels I had remembered to pack and grab another gel from an aid station later. So I settled in at target effort/watts I planned which was slightly less than usual because of the heat. If I overcooked it on the bike, I’d really overcook it on the run! The goal was to be patient! At mile 15 I grabbed both a bottle of Gatorade and a gel from an aid station. I don’t usually use standard gu’s or gels because they usually upset my stomach and the texture is not at all appealing, but when I looked at what kind a grabbed, I was ecstatic to see a mocha flavor with caffeine! Bonus! I am a huge coffee lover and of all flavors, this was clearly the best I could have found. I also decided my stomach wouldn’t get upset if I didn’t let it. “Mind over matter," I thought as I choked it down later in the race. “Stomach, you are going to feel great,” I told it. It worked - no issues!
Taking one of the many turns of the day
Not too long after the first aid station on one of the many inclines, I heard someone approaching say, “Who’s this sexy lady?” It was Dani Fischer. I was a little startled but replied, “Who’s this lady passing me already??” We exchanged a few words of encouragement and I watched her take off. I knew she was going to be one of my fiercest competitors that day, because hello - she is fierce. No longer a pro this year, but still a machine, the last time I faced her in 2015 at the Pigman Long Course race, she outraced me by 10 minutes - and mostly on the bike course! “Go get ‘em,” I yelled. There was no way I’d keep up without pushing harder than I knew was smart. At least I knew now that she had started the race behind me, but there was no way to know by how much. I settled in again, chatting with a few men complaining about the wretched course. Turn here, brake here, bump bump bump there. It was getting hot, but at least the wind wasn’t as terrible as the day before. I kept up with my nutrition and hydration and prayed for no crashes while passing 3 small churches along the way. I seriously wondered if we were ever going to make it back though - this was the slowest bike course in the world! I was able to see my cousin Amber at around mile 40 who happened to be in town spectating which was super cool and right around this time, I heard another rider passing me say, “Here we go again.” Hanna Grinaker. My other main competitor and the same girl I went back and forth with on the bike course at the Apple Duathlon! I couldn’t believe it was happening again! But at least I knew she must have also started the race behind me, even though there was still no way to know by how much. But I did know that being even with her at this point meant she was actually ahead overall. I made it my mission to hang on and after going back and forth with her two more times, I passed and was determined to make it the last time. I was able to stay ahead the last 10 miles, but as we came into T2, she wasn’t more than 90 seconds back. This was going to be a race to the finish!
Smiling for the camera
In a super pro move after the bike dismount line seemed to come out of nowhere, I didn’t have time to get both feet out of my shoes and ended up running through transition laughing with one shoe on and one shoe off. (Cue major eye roll.) I also heard from the volunteers I was the third female coming off the bike. I couldn’t compute for a while. I knew Dani Fischer was ahead, but who was ahead of her??
The run course was a loop around the lake, but in the first mile, there was a small out and back segment where we could see a few runners ahead and behind. I immediately spotted my friend Peter (a fellow Rochester athlete) not far ahead and Hanna not far back. As I passed Hanna, we slapped hands and smiled (love this girl). When I was starting the run earlier, a guy next to me said, “Now let’s have some fun.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I was so happy to be off the bike and was determined to stay strong the entire run. After disappointing runs my last two 70.3 races, I had committed to myself not to give into the hurt and prepared to suffer. The first 4 miles felt surprisingly good and I thought to myself, “Soak up this feeling now because it’s going to get tough really fast.”
What really helped was keeping Peter in my sights. Peter is a talented runner and I figured if I could keep up with him, I was doing pretty well. He turned around at one point as I was getting closer and I yelled, “Watch out Peter, I’m coming for you!” Sure enough, we went back and forth a few times and when another volunteer reminded me I was third female, I told him Hanna wasn’t too far back too. “Well beat her,” he said. “That’s the plan!” I replied. I spent the next few miles appreciating the the ice and water the aid stations offered every mile and focused on getting to the halfway point of the run where my mom had planned to be watching. At mile 7 (6.1 miles left if you had been counting ;) ), I spotted my mom cheering. “Keep it up! You’re only 1 minute back! Run, run, run!” Fatigue had begun to set in but I realized I must be gaining on the woman in second place and I was very interested in finding out who it was! The loop around the lake was mostly residential and pretty shaded (thank goodness!), but we finally came to a stretch where I could see a little way ahead of me. Sure enough, I spotted a female runner not too far ahead. As she came into focus, I realized who it was. Dani Fischer. My jaw literally dropped and I swore rather loudly to the poor guy next to me out of sheer disbelief. First, am I really catching Dani Fischer? Second, she’s a beast and if she’s in second place, who’s in front of her? But this was a turning point in the race for me. Until then, I was feeling ok and was focusing on executing my own race plan. I was happy, thinking I had a chance of finishing the run feeling strong. But as soon as I glimpsed Dani ahead, I thought to myself, “There’s a chance." I realized I might be able to place pretty well too. As I came up behind Dani with about 5 miles left in the race, I got to repeat her earlier question: “Who’s this sexy lady?” She laughed and then I asked, “Who’s up ahead?” She said she didn’t know, so I said, “Well let’s go get her!” Not long after, I spotted her. I didn’t recognize who she was, but I definitely recognized the lead female bike escort at her side. I was gaining and passed her with 3 miles left to go in the race and was then left with a mix of thoughts and emotions.
“Keep pushing, don’t let up!” I told myself. I was sure the final girl I passed had started ahead of me, but I didn’t know how much of a lead I needed on Dani to finish ahead of her overall and I still had no idea how close Hanna was. The other thought that started to form was: “Is this the race of my dreams?” Sounds dramatic, but this was my mantra from my marathon PR race a few years ago and it helped! This is what I had been working for and there was a real chance I could win. As we turned down the final 1.5 mile stretch into a killer headwind (Dani said later she felt like a sail being pushed backward!), my pace started to slow. I forced myself to keep going, imagining my mom and all my friends waiting at the finish. I couldn’t wait to see them and as much as it hurt in the moment, I remembered my mantra for this race: “A head full of fears has no space for dreams.” I was not going to give up.
Peter, who was still close by, threw in a final surge with a half mile to go and I tried to match him.
That hill though... ouch.
The final ⅓ of a mile was a killer of a steep hill, but approaching the finish line is a memory I never want to forget. The crowd was cheering like crazy and I the announcer was shouting, “Here she comes folks! The first female finisher! From Rochester, Minnesota…” But that’s the last I heard as I teared up running across the infamous red Ironman carpet and through the final finish line tape.
Elation doesn’t begin to describe the feeling. Partly because I was so happy to be done (I was tired!) and partly because it had gone so well! I collapsed briefly into some volunteers, but recovered quickly to immediately see my mom across the fence just a few feet away. I hobbled over and we shared another (but the best!) teary hug. “Did that really just happen???” I asked. She was just as surprised! She wasn’t even able to get any pictures of the finish herself, because when they announced the lead female was coming in, she wasn’t expecting it to be me! Not that she didn’t believe in me, but the last she saw, I was still in third. I stood there incredulous for a while and the wait to see if the win held began. I still didn’t know how close my other competitors were in relation to my start time and it took another hour or so for the webiste tracker to update with final times. The win did hold. By 9 seconds. Yep, you read that right -- 9. In a race that took 4 hours and 45 minutes, 9 seconds is a blink of an eye! And less than a minute behind was 3rd place. Dani, Hanna, and I finished all within one minute of each other.
Mitch, Ted, Ted's girlfriend Kate and my rat's nest hair at the finish line
In my eyes, this race could have been won by any one of us and I was honored to finish among not only talented, but amazing women. Three Minnesota athletes took the top spots for the day and I was proud to be a part of it.
Hanna, Dani, and me -- Minnesota podium sweep!
I was able also to talk to my amazing coach for a while after the race and had too much fun at the awards ceremony planning a trip to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, TN where Peter, Ted, and Mitch (aka the 'Hartland Express') had all secured slots to that day. Final results here.
My new coach!!
Triathlon is an amazing sport. It allows me to swim, bike, and run to my heart’s content; leads to friendships with the most amazing people; and creates the best bonding experiences with those I love the most - my family. I’m so grateful for the life I live and at times really feel like it’s a dream come true.
I’m also incredibly grateful for my phenomenal supporters, without whom none of this would be possible. Huge thanks to TerraLoco for gearing me up, my coach for shaping me up, Generation UCan for fueling me up, and my incredible family and friends for filling my life (and ❤️) up. Love you all!
And, almost as exciting as the race was cashing in on the post race celebration I planned with my friends Ted and Phil. There is a new food truck in Rochester called Dough Boys that sells edible cookie dough. We originally planned to go after the Apple Duathlon, but decided to go double or nothing after Madison - so TWO scoops it was. Ted won his age group (after surviving his rear tire coming loose mid race!) and my friend Phil completed and crushed his first ever triathlon the same day at Trinona! So we celebrated a few days later by attending Viola’s Gopher Count Days where the food truck happened to be that day, listening to an accordion band, and having the most nutrition lunch ever - heaps and heaps of cookie dough! Like I said - a dream life come true! ;)