After three races in a row with downright horrible weather (Ironman Ceour d'Alene at 106F; Ironman 70.3 Worlds with a monsoon; and Ironman California CANCELED because of a bomb cyclone), it was finally time to find out once and for all who's fault this was. Mine? Or my friend and training partner Matt's? We've been on the same race schedule this entire year until this race. He was going to watch the Ironman tracker from home while I toed the line at Ironman Arizona.
The days leading into the event made it look very obvious. This was all Matt's fault. The weather on race day was shaping up to be perfect. 80F, 5-7mph winds and 0% chance of showers. Perfect.
But then Matt showed up. SURPRISE! Not to race, but to spectate. And not to jump right to the conclusion, but we're right back where we started not really knowing if the gail force winds that unexpectedly showed up on race day are my fault or his. I'm still blaming him. ;)
THE LEAD UP...
This was the first year I was attempting 3 full Ironmans in the same year. Ironman Ceour d'Alene in June, Ironman California in October, and Ironman Arizona in November. Ironman California was always my "A" race and all my focus was ensuring I was as trained and ready as I could be for my first ever "hometown" Ironman. And I feel like I was. But we all know what happened on that day. Mother Nature decided that Sunday, October 24th was the perfect day to bring much needed rain (the "atmospheric river") to northern California along with A LOT of wind (the "bomb cyclone") and forced the race directors to make the right call to cancel the event. This forced me into an awkward 4 week re-build/recovery into Ironman Arizona hoping I could somehow manage to peak again. Although a second peak 4 weeks later was definitely not possible, I was feeling ready and capable of laying down a PR in Arizona.
Race week came and I safely made it to Tempe, Arizona. All things were looking positive to have a great race on Sunday until 12:30am Saturday morning. I woke up feeling a knot in my stomach and before long, I found myself moving from the cold tile on the hotel bathroom floor to the toilet with a trash can in my lap. Yup...food poisoning. Sweatshirt on. Shivering. FREEZING. To minutes later ripping the sweatshirt off. Sweating. SO HOT.
At 8am my husband and 'best sherpa of the year' ran over to Wholefoods to find anything he could that might help. My family kept reminding me that food poisoning is quick to come and quick to go which helped me feel like maybe there was a small chance I might be better by tomorrow. By around 9am I was able to start getting small amounts of liquids down which also meant I could get down some Ibuprofen and Tylenol. Once that kicked in, I started to feel like sitting up and maybe even standing was possible.
My bike drop off time was 11am and a 1/2 mile walk from the hotel. My husband gathered all my things and we slowly walked downtown to drop off all my gear. Fingers still crossed that I'd continue to improve by tomorrow.
At 1pm, I was given an IV bag of fluids which really helped me start to feel human again. But despite 1 can on ginger ale, 1000mL of IV fluids, lots of ice and 1 cup of chicken broth, by 8pm that evening, I still hadn't urinated. I knew I was SO dehydrated still. And calories....HA! No chance my body was ready to take on any solid nutrition yet. So I headed to bed and just hoped for a miracle.
The alarm went off at 4:45am and I immediate grabbed my phone to look at my Oura data. Did the Oura gods think I was okay to race today?!?
Resting heart rate- up. Normal resting heart rate for me is around 48 bpm.
Average HRV- down. This marker changes regularly but that lack of variability in my HR wasn't encouraging.
Body temperature- still elevated. UGH!
The Oura gods advice for the day- "Make recovery your number one priority today."
Great. Now what? Do I race? Do I not race? Do I start and just see how it goes? AHHHH...I don't know what the right choice is!!! I feel better compared to yesterday, but that's not hard to do since death felt like a good solution to my agony yesterday.
I'm now checking in with my two most dependable and smartest advisors...Sean and Matt.
"Sean, feel my forehead. Do I really feel like I have a temperature?!?!"
"Matt. Look at my Oura data. What should I do?"
Start. I should just start with the swim and see how I feel after that. I am a strong swimmer and confidant that if I had a "crisis" in the water, I could get to safety or manage it appropriately. I don't typically panic in the water and of all the disciplines, I feel most confidant here.
Okay, so it's settled. I'm "racing." But I'm not. I'm NOT racing. I'm going through the motions of an Ironman and taking it easy and listening to my body. WHAT!?!?! Do I even know how to do that?!?! Competition is my middle name. I LIVE to compete. Ask anyone who knows me well and I can turn ANYTHING into a competition. I'm honestly not confidant AT ALL that I can listen to my body once I put a race number on and actually pull the plug if that's the smart thing to do. But I guess we're going to find out.
Do you know what the BEST THING is about having food poisoning the day before a race is?!? You don't have to wait in line for a port-a-potty on race morning. :) This made for a quick race prep in transition. I was in and out in a few minutes and headed to swim start.
The water temperature on race morning was 64.5F. PERFECT! Not too cold. And not too warm. Sean helped me get into my wetsuit and I got a few good luck kisses from Newman, Matt's pup and our loyal on deck swim motivator (he doesn't tolerate a lot of rest at the wall- HA!).
My goal swim time pre-food poisoning was sub 1 hour 10 minutes. I knew I would have to slow down and just take it easy if I wanted to have a chance at finishing this long day. 'BURN NO MATCHES in the swim!!!' So I vowed to bilateral breath by the 3rd breath once I got settled and past the early chaos of the swim start. This would ensure my swim pace was slow enough that I wouldn't burn through a bunch of glycogen I knew I didn't have to burn.
So I pushed my way up to the 1-1 hour 10 minute swim group and waited for the cannon to go off.
6:45am. BOOM!!!! Here we go...
As usual, the first 2 turns of the swim were mayhem. Tons of swimmers who started WAAAAAAY earlier than they should have, flailing around and fighting for a position they didn't deserve. So annoying. Once I made my way around them, I was able to settle into a comfortable swim pace. There was very little contact and the cloud cover made for a swim course you could actually see once the sun came up (the course heads due east and is usually VERY blinding!).
Once I made it to the swim exit, I looked down at my watch and saw 1:09:34. WOW! That's awesome that I managed to beat my goal swim time despite not pushing the pace I would've normally pushed! But, wait. Is that awesome!?! Does this mean I should try to get after my bike goal and see what happens? Maybe I should actually try to race this and see if my body can do it?!
NO...no. Remember you're suppose to be taking it easy today and listening to your body. But...but...
This is what happens when you're transition run is 20 miles long from swim exit to transition (okay...not really 20 miles, but LONNNNNG). My mind had WAAAAAY too much time to start fighting about what is the right thing to do today. Race? Or don't race? I'll see see how I feel once I'm out there.
The final swim stats were 1:09:42 and 9th fastest in my age group out of 89 finishers. I'm happy with that and would've been happy with that even in my best state!
Transition 1 was uneventful. I did take my time and made sure I had everything I needed. Since Ironman Arizona was using "touch-less" personal needs stations on the bike this year, I decided to carry all of my nutrition on my body and try to avoid an unnecessary stop there if possible. So there was a lot of food being stuffed into pockets in transition. Wishful thinking on my part. LOL!
Once I mounted the bike and maneuvered my way out onto Rio Salido Boulevard, it was time to settle into a pace. I was pushing 280 watts which is far from sustainable for me for 112 miles on a good day. So I went to shift into an easier gear and nothing. Push the button again and nothin'. DAMN IT! Di2 isn't working. So now I'm troubleshooting. The front derailleur is shifting but not the back. So I know it's not the battery. May I can do this whole ride in 2 gears? Ugh, I doubt it. I need to stop and fix this.
Every 'race support' motercycle that passed I asked if they had bike tech? "No, sorry."
Okay, just make it to the first aid station at mile 10. They'll have a bike tech there. Oh, but they didn't. So at the end of the aid station, I stopped and asked if I could please use one of the volunteers cell phones. My plan was to call Sean and see if he could flag down a bike tech to have available at the aid station at the turn around. Then I could ride the first loop (37.3 miles) in 2 gears and hopefully get this fixed for the second and third loop. The volunteer happened to be the aid station captain and he called in to have bike tech come to us ASAP.
Meanwhile, I racked my bike and waited. Not one time in that moment did it dawn on me that I should actually look at my bike and see if I could figure out what was wrong. NOT ONCE! WTH!?!?! Instead, I thought, 'My Di2 isn't working. I need a mechanic. And this the universe telling me YOU'RE NOT RACING TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Okay, I get it. I'll stand here and drink water and try to eat some food and be patient and I won't race. The aid station captain was stressed out that it was taking the mechanic so long to arrive. Meanwhile, I was like...I'll take this GIANT sign that I need to chill the f*ck out today.
After about 10 minutes, the mechanic arrived and just started unplugging and plugging back in Di2 cables. Eventually it started working. 🙄 OMG. Really?!? Why didn't I think about that. Seriously?!? The solution to all electrical problems has always been unplug it and plug it back it. I certainly could've done that 10 minutes ago. But I didn't. And I blame it on the lack of glucose to the brain. HA! But I'm SERIOUSLY grateful for that mechanical glitch that hit me in the face with a baseball bat and set in stone that my race was over and I was seriously just using this as a fantastic, supported training day.
The rest of the bike was a pretty typical Ironman Arizona bike. Long. Uncomfortable. And SOOOOOOOO windy (so much for that 5-7mph wind report).
I was determined to follow my nutrition plan to keep my energy up as much as possible. I entered this race not having eaten for 48 hours and I knew if I couldn't get calories in, it was going to be a long day. Unfortunately solid foods were a no go. Every time I put a Skratch chew, or a 1/2 gluten free Skratch waffle, or a 1/6th of a Skratch rice crispy in my mouth, within 5 minutes it was back in my mouth 🤢(sorry...TMI). So at mile 18, I switched to liquids instead. Over the next 94 miles, I managed to get down 60g CHO of Skratch SuperFuel, plus water and 4 salt tablets. That's it. It wasn't fun. I felt SUPER low in energy and for the first time ever in a race, I felt like I was having a hard time staying awake on the bike. At one point I rode under an underpass with lots of shade and I wondered 'if I just pulled over and laid down for a few minutes would I get pulled if a race official rode by?' Better not chance it.
It took FOREVER, but I finally made it to 112 miles. My original goal time for this event was sub 5 hours and 30 minutes. Even on a great day at 100% wellness, with the winds on race day, this would've been very unlikely. However, I know my time would've been a lot better than what it was had I been well and capable of executing my nutrition plan!
My final bike stats: 6:36:50 and 37th out of 89 finishers. Not my finest ride.
I'm a data geek. I spent 12 years teaching myself how to listen to my body (with a lot of help from a few coaches) which is an invaluable tool to know. But eventually, I started to question all the "feeling." I mean, we have all this data for a reason, right?!? So I've spent the last 3 years teaching myself what certain "zones" generally means by the numbers on my watch too. It's not always perfect, but sometimes it is. And the marathon at this years race is a perfect example of why knowing your data is super important.
My fat oxidation rate was tested on a metabolic cart earlier this year and now I generally know how much fat and glucose I burn at different heart rates. That, in combination with my CGM (continuous blood glucose monitor), has REALLLLLY helped me fine tune my "fat burning zone" (lame term, but you get the picture). I feel SUPER confidant that my heart rate for an Ironman marathon should be somewhere around 155 bpm. However, that's assuming I'm replacing burned glycogen with exogenous glucose (Spring gels, Skratch chews and coke!). And since I wasn't able to do that for this marathon, I knew I needed to drop my HR down into my "all day pace" so I could burn more fat and less glycogen. So I started this marathon with a goal HR of 149 bpm (this is the top of my "L2"). Whatever the pace was, it was.
I was SO EXCITED to finally be on the run. First, because I was off the bike! But second because I could finally get my hands on a coke. I know. Gross. And normally I would agree. But I was SOOOOO tired and so low in energy. I knew if I could get down something liquid with calories and caffeine I would feel better.
At the first 3 aid stations I did it. A 1/2 cup of coke at each. But after the 3rd cup, I realized I was taking it on faster than my gut was ready to accept it. So I switched to every other aid station for the first loop (8.73 miles), then to every 3rd aid station for the final 2 loops (17.4 miles). On the third loop I started to question my stomach and made a few stops at the port-a-potty to make sure I had a 'clean' finish. I swear that little girl holding the poster that read "never trust a fart" had written that just for me. LOL!
It took longer than I'd hoped, but I finally made it to the finish line! The goal run time was sub 4 hours. I ended up finishing the marathon in 4:24:46. A far cry from my goal, but this was a sweet finish despite my time.
Run stats- 4:24:46 and 11th fastest run out of 89 finishers in my age group. Not too shabby all things considered.
Overall finish- 12:28:19 and 15th out of 89 finishers in my age group.
I think it goes without saying that this was NOT what I had trainer or hoped for. But as I stood on the side of the Beeline Highway in the early hours of the race I really did successfully shift my focus away from competing and to an attitude of gratitude. Cheesy, I know. But it's true. I know there were tons of athletes who wanted to be racing IMAZ this year (many of them my good friends) who were unable to transfer from the Ironman California cancellation. I was one of the lucky few who got to race. So despite the day being so far from what I had imagined, I WAS there. I got to pin a race number to my kit and test myself. The test conditions were just changing. And after some fighting it, and one bout of tears on Saturday when I thought I might not be able to race, I accepted the shift.
I've been working for years to learn my body and what it's truly capable to doing. Thanks to YEARS and YEARS of eating a clean, plant focused, higher fat, lower carb diet, now I know I can finish an Ironman on mostly water and salt alone. And the best part is I NEVER HAVE TO TEST THAT AGAIN!!!!
But let's be crystal clear, in the future, I want to RACE. I want to BE COMPETITIVE. And I can't be super fast on no food. I need sugar in the right amounts at the right times to fuel the power and paces I want to hold!!! So here's to hoping I NEVER have to do that again! HA!
MY CGM DATA FROM THE RACE
As you may already know, I wear a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). Not because I'm diabetic, but because I'm 1. curious and 2. want to be proactive about my health and longevity. I believe this device helps me fulfill these desires. I could talk about my CGM forever, but I'll spare you the lengthy novel and cut to the chase.
If you don't already know, a CGM is a little device that is stuck to the back of my arm in which a thin wire is injected into my skin. It constantly takes measurements of the levels of sugar in my blood. (That's a highly oversimplified description.) It doesn't hurt and most of the time, I don't even remember it's there. I scan this little device with my cell phone and get live data of my blood sugar levels. I hope it goes without saying that it's incredibly helpful with dialing in your diet. It's helped me learn which carbs are best for my body, at what levels I can enjoy them, and what times of day are best for me. But beyond the obvious dietary benefits of knowing your blood sugar levels, I also use it for my training.
In a nutshell, if I push my body outside of my "L2" zone (that infamous "fat burning zone"), my blood sugar spikes. This happens WITHOUT food. Why? Because my brain suddenly thinks I'm in danger, it releases cortisol (the stress hormone) into my blood, which releases sugar from my liver into the blood so my muscles can FLEE. This release of sugar is captured in the data from my CGM. So when I go out to run an "L2 Endurance Run" and my blood sugar spikes, I know I wasn't being honest with my paces. I ran too hard.
Since my little food poisoning episode the day before the race changed my race goals, I knew I'd needed to keep my pace, power and HR low enough that I didn't spike my blood sugar. That would've resulted in a blood sugar crash which I was worried I wouldn't be able to rectify with exogenous sugar.
The image below is of my blood sugar levels from race day. I dropped in blocks from my swim, bike and run respectively.
There are a few things I found most interesting seeing this data:
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS & FUN PICS
There are about a million things that I love about my job as an endurance coach and nutritionist. BUT...my favorite of all is getting to celebrate my athletes successes with them. I'm a tiny part of the giant puzzle they put together to find their own success. But when they get on the success train, DAMN IT FEELS GOOD!!!
Julie-anne Lay has done that this year. And she just plopped the cherry on top of her GIANT cake of success this year with a second place finish in her age group and a ticket to the Ironman World Championship in St. George, Utah in May! Matt and Sean were giving me updates on her all day and when she moved herself from 4th off the bike into 2nd in the run, I cried. It made me SOOO happy. It also made a little harder to breath. LOL.
And more than ever at this race, the race supporters were SOOOOO essential to my finish. Thanks to all the support out on the course (Sean, Mom, Leahe, Dottie, Scott, Matt, Julie, Michele, Steve, Emily and Taylor) and to everyone on the trackers at home. It truly kept me moving forward. I'm especially thankful to Matt and Julie for the surprise visit. Now I can keep blaming Matt for everything that went wrong on race weekend. 🤣 JK. I'm pretty sure the Universe wasn't on my side this year, but there's always next year to prove that I can actually be fast!
Tiana Rockwell is a certified nutritional therapist, avid endurance athlete and dark chocolate lover. She believes that by eating REAL food, we can balance our body and reach optimal health and wellness!