For everyone 2020 and 2021 have been some of the most challenging, destabilizing, and uncertain times in their entire lives. This is no exception for myself, however going into 2020 I was so excited to pursue and achieve a goal I had set in 2019, to finish a full Ironman. 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles biking, and a 26.2 mile run.
2019 had different plans for me however, I grew increasingly sick from an unknown illness in June and the symptoms grew so bad that I could barely walk and spent two weeks on crutches and 3 months in intensive physical therapy. Finally resuming full physical activity and range of motion in late September. So, 2020 was going to be my year. Just like everyone else, it was and it wasn’t. I am fortunate to be able to point to 2020 as the year I completed my MBA, learned to bake bread, rented my first Airstream, and found the support of so many friends as I pursued my goal of an Ironman in a virtual event that while full of pride lacked the pomp and circumstance of the event I had planned in my head.
As 2021 began and vaccines started rolling out, I was immensely excited to enter my training season with confidence. The new season, with Kari Stuart at the coaching helm and a strong level of fitness from prior seasons, was looking good. As 2021 rolled on the ongoing pandemic, mixed with work stress and general burnout resulted in mixed training results. It was strong during the first half of the season but lost ground from June-July. I had accepted a new role and was quickly finding a lack of balance that I thought I had secured. Allison and Kari ever understanding and supportive helped carry me through some dark weeks. But as my decision to leave my career of nearly a decade became more evident, I found my passion for Triathlon again. At the beginning of August, I resumed training full time and with near 100% completion finished my training plan to a tee for the final 6 weeks of my Tri season.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, I’ve done enough endurance events to know I had the fitness to finish but wasn’t sure how likely I was to complete my goal of finishing IM Maryland under 12 hours. In a last-minute splurge, I bought a used set of race wheels off my coach and hoped to add 1 mph on the bike. I would have broken 12 hours without those wheels, but I will tell you right now, those wheels carried me through race day. Ironman Maryland is a fast course, but my previous wheels were old, heavy, and likely poorly maintained, so between the aerodynamic benefits, fresh bearings, and being light weight, I have never felt more like well oiled machine then when I put those on for the first time. I smiled all day long on the bike and while I am a middle of the pack swimmer passing nearly half the field on the bike felt like a dream.
Now that I’ve set the scene, I was feeling strong and confident going into race day, but I really wasn’t sure what to expect once I got started, my fitness was fresh and my testing was minimal due to the time constraint of my training season.
Maryland’s swim course is in the Choptank river, just off the Chesapeake Bay. It is brackish water, which is my first time experiencing saltwater swimming since childhood. It is an easy square that you complete twice before returning in. The water temperature was high 77.8° but due to the high prevalence of sea nettles (small jelly fish) they approved wetsuits up to 78° so wetsuit it was. Having not raced an Ironman event before, I forgot that the swimming seeding was based off finishing time, not average pace, so I accidentally lined up at the 1:50 mark which is about 30 minutes slower than my expected pace. I was able to move up in the group but still started with an extremely large pack of much slower swimmers. It was recommended to cover exposed skin with Vaseline to limit the jelly fish stings, however it was heavily warned to not touch your goggles once you touched the Vaseline or your vision would be severely limited. For better or worse the sea nettles were immediately present as they tended to accumulate in the shallows. Within the first ten minutes I had been stung 4-5 times. It wasn’t particularly painful, it reminded me of getting a sliver from fiberglass, or acupuncture/dry needling. Uncomfortable and not an activity I would seek out, but I was here, and it was my race, so we move on.
As the swim progressed, I realized I had gotten Vaseline on my goggles and siting was getting increasingly difficult. At about 1500m I stopped and ended up using my wetsuit zipper strap to scrape the Vaseline off the goggles which took about a minute and a half but was able to see much better for the remainder of the event. As stated earlier I am not a particularly capable swimmer, so my goal completion time was 80 minutes. Stepping out of the water I looked down at my watch to see 82 minutes, right on time had I not had to stop to clean my goggles.
This was my first race using gear bags for transitions, overall, a fine experience, my only complaint is putting wet clothes/equipment into a bag that holds all the moisture. Slammed a high calorie Ensure and a salt tab to catch up on calories and move on.
The bike course was a fast and flat, no real climbs to speak of, I had my goal effort in place and a hydration and nutrition plan dialed to the requirements of the course and the temperature/humidity of the location. 1.5 bottles of water every aid station, 1 salt tab every 30 minutes alternating caffeinated and un-caffeinated, and nutrition every 25 minutes. I had placed all of my needed gels (SIS gels, thinner than a traditional gu) in a water bottle so I didn’t have to open any packaging just take one good squeeze when my timer went off. On the 1:15 feeding blocks I would consume a cliff bar to get some solid food and a slightly larger jump on my calorie intake. I absolutely loved this bike course, it was through the Blackwater Wildlife refuge, and it was a beautiful mix of wetlands, farmland, and forests, with a few stints through slightly more populated areas there was very little automotive traffic. My largest complaint is that very few athletes were staying right accept to pass, so I spent nearly 4 hours in the center of the vehicle lane in order get passed the other athletes due to my poor self-seeding and middling swim time. At the halfway point my average pace was 21.3 mph and my original goal of finishing the bike under 6 hours was looking more and more like a funny misunderstanding as I realized I might sneak in around 5:20. As my strong bike legs, well executed nutrition plan, and some pleasantly directional wind carried me around the second loop I averaged 21.1 mph through the bike course and finished at 5:19. My only complaint was some slight ankle tightness on the left side that seemed to disappear as soon as got off the bike.
I was specifically told to slow down in T2, take my time and give my body a minute to relax before the run. After a quick change of socks, and a thorough application of sunblock I went out on to the run course for 3.5 loops through downtown Cambridge.
The course was largely flat and alternated between cobbles, full sun with no breeze, full shade with a breeze, and middling shade with a slim breeze. Aid stations were well stocked and primarily well placed. There was one 1.75 mile stretch without aid and that was hard to time on the first lap as I wasn’t prepared for a gap that large. But I was able to coordinate it after the first two of 7 passes through that area. Like the bike I knew my hydration nutrition strategy and it largely went out without a hitch. My sweat rate for high humidity is roughly 45 oz an hour, after two aid stations I realized I was light on water and needed to be taking in 2 cups of water at each end of the aid station as well as dumping one over my head to keep temps down. With gels continuing every 2 miles, salty foods at aid stations after mile 10, and salt tabs every 30 minutes, my run largely went according to plan. After 3 miles I was trying to determine where I wanted to settle in pace wise. After some quick math I realized, I would need to run a 3:50 marathon to break 11 hours but was sitting comfortably to break 12. I opted to have fun. I felt strong and while a 3:50 marathon was not out of the realm of possibility it would have been an all-out slog for 4 hours versus enjoying the race that I had planned and prepared for for nearly 10% of my life. I opted for fun. As I cruised around the course my only goal was to only walk-through aid stations. This was largely accomplished outside of a brief stint of walking after a leg cramp at mile 16 where I was ½ a mile from an aid station where I needed water to take a salt tab. As is typical in endurance races where you have held something back, I started feeling strong as I hit the 20-mile mark and was ready to be done so I could relax. Starting to push the pace and enjoying the cooler evening air, I hammered out the last 6 miles and brought it home. I will not say crossing the finish line was the greatest day of my life. That honor still stands with marrying Allison, but I will say there are few things in my life that I have dedicated so much time and energy to and that journey taught me so much about the process of building inevitable results. Acts of God (like my illness in 2019) can still come into play, but with the right planning, diligence, and team, you can make the impossible inevitable, and I will say that is one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned.
Thank you everyone that carried me through this event. Especially:
Allison Hancock, Kari Stuart, Jolene Weesjes, Amber Lenhart, Aaron Bachman, Freewheeler bike Shop