If racing is a celebration of training, then my time at Vineman on Sunday was one big 6-hour, 34-minute, 54-second party. It seems cold to say that the day was all just execution — where’s the drama in that? where are the crazy highs and lows? — but the number one thing I felt throughout the day was well-prepared.
And what that preparation got me was a bunch of times faster than the ones I thought I could pull off. I spent most of the day with a big dumb grin on my face. Part of it, I’m sure, is the sheer joy of the automatic PR, the fact that as long as I finished, I’d be doing something I could barely conceive of a year ago. But most of it was a confidence I don’t think I’ve ever felt before in racing — that I’d done everything I could to be ready, and now all I had to do was do it.
I don’t know where that confidence came from, but I’m glad it was there, because from the moment I got to Santa Rosa on Friday night, I felt calm. My phone was full of text messages with other people’s nerves, and I kept expecting my own to kick in at any minute, but they never did. On Saturday, we hit up some Sonoma County favorites: Flying Goat for coffee, Arrigoni’s for sandwiches and snark (overheard: “What gluten-free options do you have?” “Well. All of our sandwiches come on bread.”), Powell’s for candy. I went to the athlete meeting, got my wristband and packet, set up my T2 stuff, and lazed around the hotel until it was time for dinner with Michaela, Courtney, and friends. (And pros! Michaela’s post about chatting with a pro is fantastic.)
I started trying to put myself to bed around 10 p.m., and with the exception of one wake-up, I slept solidly until the alarm went off at 5:30. I picked up my friend from his hotel, drove back to mine to load the car, and Pete drove us both to Guerneville. By chance, we ran into my parents while looking for parking, so all of us walked to Johnson’s Beach together, and then it was up into transition and down to the water.
Swim — 40:18
I was in wave 17 of 23, starting at 8 a.m. The waves were split six minutes apart, but from the time we were called to get in to the time the horn went off, it felt like an hour. The water was warmer than the air — 70-ish degrees, warm enough that steam was rising off the top — and I was glad I’d chosen the sleeveless wetsuit even given the chilly morning.
In my practice swims, I’d always started toward the far bank of the river, so I found a spot on that side toward the front. I’m not sure how many people were in the wave — 50? 75? Vineman split up many of the traditional age groups to even out the waves, so I was with women 30-32 — but we were really spread out, and I felt very little contact getting through the start.
I was waiting for the first shallow bit with the plants sticking out over the surface, just after the bridge, but I never found it — I must have been just slightly to one side. In fact, I never encountered any particularly shallow spots; after the turnaround, I touched the riverbed a couple of times, but mostly I was able to swim normally. I saw people ahead of me dolphin-diving once or twice and spotted some people walking at the edges, but it seemed like most of my wave was swimming most of the time.
I felt like I was doing a good job staying in the thick of my wave — which is not something I’ve always done. I caught my first purple cap from the wave in front maybe halfway through the outbound leg, and it took longer than that for the first dark green cap from the wave behind to catch me. The river is narrow enough that I honestly wasn’t doing a whole lot of sighting, other than just making sure I was rounding the buoys on the right, and I know that benefited me.
The one tricky part was figuring out a line to the swim exit, and I swam more of the last .2 with my head up than I wish I had. I just couldn’t quite get a handle on the angle of the exit ramp. I saw people start to stand up but I kept swimming as long as possible, then picked my way over the rocks as quickly as I could and got over the ramp.
I was shocked, honestly, to see 40:xx as my time. I felt like I’d had a good swim relative to my normal open-water swims and, from what I could tell, relative to my age group — but that would be a good time for me for that distance in the pool. That said, swimming in a current-less, shallow, narrow river is probably about as close as it gets to swimming in a pool, so I suppose it makes sense.
T1 – 7:07
I mean, yeah, that took forever. I’d never done a two-transition-area race before, and I probably should have practiced shoving all my junk into a plastic bag with haste. I also walked the whole way out of transition through the sandy parking lot. I wasn’t doing myself any favors on time, but my footing wasn’t awesome and I’d long ago decided it wouldn’t be worth running my bike out, especially if I was going to walk the little gravelly hill out of transition …
Bike – 3:24:50
… which I did. And then there was still some confusion about who was going to mount where and so I kept walking, up and around until the road was flat. It probably took an extra minute on either side of the timing mat, but two minutes weren’t going to make a difference in my day.
As soon as I got settled on River Road, my first order of business was food. I had a Gu ripped open and ready to go, and I nibbled on it for a couple of miles. So glad I did, because as before, I didn’t manage to get any food down during any of the especially jostle-y parts of Westside, and I didn’t get fully on my regular food-drink-salt pill schedule until an hour into the ride. I was nervous about the tight right turn off River — perhaps the only thing about this course that qualifies as “technical” — and I’m still surprised by how steep and precarious it feels, because on foot it doesn’t look like much. But the people around me heeded the warnings to slow down and we went into the turn single-file, which made me feel much more secure.
After that, I just rode. And rode. And ate. And rode. I sang to myself. I kept an eye out for friends — Ron caught me on River, I caught Lisa on Westside, and Cristina and I leapfrogged for much of the ride. I kept clicking off miles under 4:00 and knew I must be averaging over 16 mph. I think I previewed the course exactly the right amount: my two rides were enough to always know what was coming next but not enough to plunge me into boredom.
We got so lucky with the weather. It stayed foggy and gray until I was going past the Dry Creek General Store around mile 25, when I started seeing streaks of blue peeking out over the vineyards. By the time we hit the Canyon descent, it was bright and sunny, and that’s one of those moments I’ll always remember from this race — flying down that hill, warm sun and mountains and vineyards all around me, feeling happy and strong.
My obsessive over-planning of snacks paid off a handful of times. My bento box ejected my baggie of Shot Bloks (I’d only eaten one of the six!) and the last bit of my Picky Bar as I went over various potholes, and my extra Gu must have gotten lost somewhere during the swim or in transition. But I’d stuffed more Shot Bloks and a Fig Newton into the zippered compartment, so I had quite the rolling buffet. Every time I started to feel tired or sore or angry, I thought, “Let’s throw some food at that problem,” and I did, and it worked great.
My saddle started to bug me around mile 30, and I stood up a bunch on the flatter bits to stretch. Between that and the little climbs leading up to Chalk Hill, I kept waiting for my speed to drop — and it did, but only a little. The way the aid station before Chalk Hill was set up, I didn’t even realize we’d made the turn until I was hitting the sharp incline that serves as a warning shot for the real climb. The hill itself was kind of a mess — people walking to the far right, then people passing them but riding slowly in the middle, then people who were stronger climbers trying to pass them, and the few really strong climbers all the way on the outside flirting with the yellow line. As a (relatively) stronger climber (in this field, on this hill), it was tough to get enough open space to climb at my pace while also not blocking people coming up even faster.
But then it was over, with a short downhill and then a few little bumps on the part of the course I hate. I’d packed a goody bag — a handful of cherry cola and watermelon candies — for this stretch, and every time I started to feel rough, I thanked myself for my foresight and ate a treat. As we came into Windsor, a few cars got aggressive and I did a little talking back, but mostly it was smooth sailing all the way to the high school. After Chalk Hill, I was pretty sure I could come in under 3:30; then I had a stretch where I wasn’t sure and picked up the pace again; then I knew I was going to make it and relaxed for the final miles. I waved to the goats, coasted through the turns, tried to stretch my legs, and finally spotted the high school roof and Pete and my parents cheering near the bike in. I couldn’t believe I was done.
T2 – 9:38
When I got off the bike and stood up, the backs of my butt and legs — basically where my hamstrings and glutes connect — were in searing pain. The same thing happened in Napa with my old saddle, and I’d gotten through the run there fine. I knew I could do it again, but those first few steps were not pleasant. I took my time walking my bike a long way — my Garmin recorded almost a quarter mile! — to my T2 spot and spent a few more minutes stretching once I got there. Eventually, I dumped the last of my bike water bottle into my handheld, stuffed food and the contact lens case I’d loaded up with salt pills into my pockets, and took some long steps to stretch out more as I headed toward the run course.
Run – 2:13:01
I hit the run out and started to jog, and I immediately realized that running felt a lot better than walking. It was a relief, and as I ran through the enthusiastic spectators in the first half-mile of the course — the only part where crowds were allowed — I was choking back happy tears. I knew I was well ahead of my goal, and for the first time, I also knew I was going to stay there. “You’re doing this!” is what kept popping into my head, and I’d smile and then start to cry and then remind myself to keep it under control because there was still a long way to go.
So, I ran. I walked the aid stations as I planned to, and went through every sprinkler and got sprayed by every garden hose, and in between, I ran. When I went over the timing mat at mile 6 at just under an hour, I knew I was right on pace; little did I know that the online tracker claimed the mat was at mile 6.6, and Pete and my parents briefly thought I was going to pull out a sub-2 half!
The high point of the run was probably the archway of misters at the start of the La Crema winery loop. The low point was absolutely the out-and-back on a boring road right after the loop. By that point, I was getting hot — and I know, I was so lucky, it could have been so much worse, but it was still full sun and 80 degrees — and I took a little more time at the aid stations to grab water and ice (where there was still ice; several aid stations had had theirs melt already). I dropped a Nuun tab in my handheld bottle around mile 9, but the heat and fizziness somehow combined to build up pressure in the bottle, and half the water went shooting out across the street. I could only laugh, but it still felt like a very long way to the next aid station and a refill.
I was tired, absolutely, and getting majorly chafed from all the water I was dumping on myself, but I felt weirdly … awesome? I was talking to the people around me, and keeping an eye out for friends, and while I wasn’t moving particularly fast, I never doubted that I could keep running. Non-volunteer spectators were only allowed on the last 1.5 miles of the course, so hitting the crowds was a big milestone. Then it was 10 more minutes of running, then five. Then I spotted my friend Ron again — he’d just dyed his hair red, and I’d been making wine jokes ever since, saying he’d gone Cabernet or Zinfandel for Vineman — and as I came up behind him, I yelled, “Hey, Pinot Noir, you coming with me?” He laughed but waved me on, and then I was at the last intersection before the high school, and then I was turning into the chute.
The chute wound through the parking lot, and I really wasn’t sure how much further I had to go, but I knew I had the dumbest smile on my face. A friend called out and I smiled even bigger — then Cristina was at the fence cheering — then it was Pete and my parents — and then it was the finish line. The announcer said my name, and I threw my arms up, and I was a half-ironman finisher. Total time: 6:34:54.
I ran into Layla at the finish and she was eating watermelon, so my next move was clear. I made it over to the food tent and piled a plate with watermelon slices and pasta salad, grabbed some water and chocolate milk, and looked for friends. Eventually, I slowly made my way back to T2 to gather my stuff, found my T1 bag (full of ants who’d gone after my throwaway bottle of Nuun-water, which I clearly should have actually thrown away), did some expo shopping, and walked back to the car. Walking away from the high school got us through the worst of the traffic, and within 45 minutes, I was eating nachos and drinking beer at Lagunitas in Petaluma.
I have more to say that’s all feelings-y, but this post is long enough. I’ll just say that when I look back on the day, there’s not much I would change, and that’s a pretty exciting way to feel after my first 70.3. There are things I could do better, places where I can build on this. But my pie-in-the-sky goal back in April was to hold 16 mph on the bike at Vineman, and I did. My motivation all year was to finish this race under seven hours, and I did. And knowing I could do this at all — that the girl who started running at 25 and learned to ride a bike at 29 could finish a half-ironman at 31 — is the craziest and most awesome thing, period.