Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hillary Biscay Ironman Lanzarote Race Report

To all my lovely sponsors,
Thank you so much for all of your support! I am back in ironman-a-month mode. Here is the report on last weekend's adventure at Ironman Lanzarote.

Thanks again for all you do,

On Saturday I recorded my 35th iron-distance finish, and in doing so, finally had my own experience of one of the most legendary ironman events: Lanzarote. It is often called the toughest ironman on the circuit; and with its long, mountainous climbs totaling more vertical feet than any other ironman bike course, Lanzarote’s is generally accepted to be the slowest and most challenging 180-kilometer ride in an ironman. Despite the fact that this sort of bike course doesn’t suit my strengths, I had heard way too much hype about Lanzarote not to have a crack myself one of these days…My pre-race course scouting seemed to confirm that this race was the real deal, and in some sick way, I was thrilled.

Race morning I was checking over course details in the program one last time while shoving down my peanut-butter baguette. It then occurred to me that it might be a good idea to see how long this infamous bike ride tends to take–understanding that conditions vary year to year, and that wind is a big factor on this course. I looked over the historical data with splits for the women’s podium finishers, and decided that my bike bottles needed some more calories! It was going to be a longer day than I had imagined. Epic. I couldn’t wait to have the experience–to really be able to understand what people meant when they told Lanzarote stories.

The Lanzarote swim is a beautiful two-loop ocean swim along the beach. The swim start, however, was to be a special version of my least favorite kind, which is age groupers and pros all together, starting on the beach. This time the pros would be standing in ankle-deep water a few meters ahead of the age groupers, who would be charging full speed at us from the beach behind–with everyone (1300 people) aiming for a left-turn buoy 150 meters off the beach. That sort of claustrophobia is pretty much my worst nightmare. So I took my friend Tara (Norton, an Ironman Lanzarote veteran)’s advice and took the long, but uncrowded, line to the right. I knew this meant giving up any chance of hopping on the feet of the top pro men, but I was willing to pay that price to have a stress-free swim start.

And that I did. I essentially had my own water all the way to the first swim turnaround, when I saw a group splitting off a few meters ahead of me. I sprinted to get on the back of this group, and then quickly made my way to the front. Looking around at the guys I was with, I knew this wasn’t the first swim group, but I also knew that the company was okay! So I sat back in for a free ride until the end of the first loop and then went to the front and tried to hit it on the second loop. I am not sure if I got rid of any passengers, but nobody came around me during this loop. It was all quite pleasant: I felt strong and my new ORCA 3.8 wetsuit was awesome. During what might be world’s longest run to and around T1, I heard the announcer say that I was the first woman out of the water, which made for a good start to the day.

I also thoroughly enjoyed my time at the front of the bike with a lead vehicle–it had been awhile since I’d had the pleasure. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but it brightened my ride for the first 22 kilometers. The pro men also brought me lots of smiles during the first hour of the ride, as it seemed like every one who passed me gave a friendly yell as he went by. Although I think I temporarily lost concentration when Ain-Alar Juhanson (2x winner in Lanzarote and a very big unit) flew by into a gnarly headwind because I have never been passed by something so closely resembling a steam train. I couldn’t believe how fast he was moving.

At about kilometer 22, Rachel Joyce (who eventually finished second) was the first woman to pass me. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to these things on Saturday, as I was determined to do my own race and not let anyone else affect my mindset or performance. I needed to be especially focused on this plan, because I have learned the hard way that I am at my best when I am just enjoying the day and the experience of pushing myself, while just taking in everything positive from my environment. My aim in Lanzarote was to get back to this mindset; this particular event lent itself well to this mission because from what I had heard, it was to be a particularly long day in which anything could happen.

So I just appreciated as many aspects of the Lanzarote bike adventure as I could, such as the stretch from kilometer 22 to 65, which was the one part of the course I hadn’t sussed out beforehand. It was a pretty cool surprise, with a long stretch along a coastline that reminded me of the famous “17-mile drive” along the coast near Monterey, California, minus the mansions…I took it all in while trying not to smash myself before the halfway point, as directed by coach.

Kilometer 90 is halfway and on this course comes not long after the start of a stretch of about 40 kilometers which includes a whole lot of climbing. Once I passed that kilometer-marker, I knew I could dig in a bit more in the mountains. One of the many things I appreciated over the course of this ride was that my legs responded when I wanted to push, and that my quads did not feel like they were trapped in a vice grip; they had some spark, and that is always a nice bonus!

So I got rolling, feeling good, for a few kilometers until I heard a strange sound coming from my back tire. I didn’t feel like I had hit anything so I couldn’t imagine how I could have a flat–didn’t want to imagine, that is….I kept climbing and my back wheel started feeling quite bumpy. Still not eager to get off in the midst of the longest climb on the course–up to the Mirador de Haria–I looked around for approaching age group men to confirm that I needed to stop. Unfortunately, Dirk and Holger, etc. seemed to have no idea what I was asking while pointing at my back tire. I cursed myself for not learning German more quickly! Finally some spectators were able to tell me that my tire was flat; but given that I had never been able to successfully change a tubular in a race, I thought I would try to ride a bit more in the hope that a support wagon would come by and be able to oversee the tire-changing process. But no luck.

Well I really was in for an adventure today! No time like today, I thought, to conquer my fear of flatting in a race, just before conquering my fear of descending a long, mountain road of blind, hairpin turns . . . And while we are at it, I thought, why don’t we just conjure up the manifestation of my biggest cycling fear, which would be to do said descent on a dodgy tubular tire that I have just changed myself, and thus am not totally convinced is even going to stay on the rim of the wheel. Awesome! Well if that wasn’t an opportunity, I don’t know what is!

The good news was that I was able to change the tire myself; it certainly wasn’t quick, but I did it. And I got back on the bike on a mission to re-pass as many of the countless folks who had gone past while I was on the side of the road. It was nice to at least have the illusion of speed through the next section of the course, although my efforts were somewhat futile as most of the guys I would pass would just pass me right back on the descents. I had grand visions of being fearless on the descents during this race, but those went out the window after I started riding on a tire that was then stuck (or maybe not so stuck) on only with remnants of glue.

So I had a two steps forward, one step back sort of feeling up and over Mirador de Haria and Mirador del Rio. Then, with about 50 kilometers remaining in the ride, I knew it was time to go full speed ahead. This is the flattest stretch of the course, so it was time to get down in the bars and grind it out. To be honest, my legs were not as smashed as they should have been at this point; I knew this was probably because I wasn’t totally sure how to take this course, not having raced one like it before, and had probably held back too much early on. At this point the only thing I could do was try my best to push those legs for all they were worth over the last section of the course. I played Pac-Man and just tried to pass as many guys as possible.

In the meantime, I had no idea how many women had passed me while I was on the side of the road, and I was pretty convinced that I must be in last place. Again, this wasn’t something I could worry about, so I just set my mind on a mantra for the run: “3:20 or bust.” No matter how my legs felt when I came off the bike, they were going to feel great. Get it?! I jumped off the bike and oooh! Smiled. Legs feel great. 3:20. I just thought about all of the long tempo runs I had done in the past couple weeks at a much faster pace and told myself that this was easy.

On the first loop of the run I realized that I was in fact not in last place, but in eighth. That was a nice surprise, but I was all about 3:20; that was all I could control, and I knew that on this course my placing would take care of itself if I could execute that run split. (Before this year and Bella (Comerford)’s 3:04, Paula Newby Fraser’s record of 3:09 on this run course had stood for 15 years.) Soon enough I actually did feel like a running machine, just the way I had been feeling in training (Yes, I realize this is all relative: I don’t know what it feels like to be a real running machine, but this is a Hillary Biscay “I can run all day and feel like I am actually moving” run machine.).

The run was four loops of 10.55 kilometers, so while I don’t like to check my watch frequently, I could do so each lap to make sure I was on track. My first half marathon was just under 1:38, and that was encouraging. While you can never know when the proverbial piano might fall on your back during these runs, I felt strong and steady and like I’d be able to hold on. ”One more lap on pace and then a victory lap,” I told myself.

And that was what I did, while trying to dodge the chaos of the crowds, aid station-congestion, and walkers on these last couple laps. . . I was still on pace as I started the last lap, and in spite of tightening legs which made holding a pace close to lap one’s increasingly difficult, I smiled my way through the last 10km. I was running in for fifth place, but this was my victory lap on Saturday.

Yes I had some bad luck on the bike, but more important to me than placing or prize money on this day was earning back one much more valuable thing: my confidence. With some big changes in my professional and personal lives over the past few months, it has been a trying time, and I spent a lot of time struggling to be at my best, mentally and physically. In the weeks before Lanzarote, I finally had begun to feel like I had my game back, but I needed to show myself that I could perform when it counted in order to really be sure. For me, this meant feeling strong all day, digging in when it hurt, and enjoying the whole experience. Hence being able to push through that marathon and get my 3:20 run split comprised the last step in the day’s process of confirming for myself that ”I’m back.” (I must thank my K-Swiss K-onas for their assistance. Love these shoes.) The scoreboard said fifth place, 10:28.

The season is on a roll now: next up is Ironman Japan in four weeks!

Many thanks to all of my sponsors for their support: K-Swiss, PowerBar, ISM, Zipp, ORCA wetsuits, and Fuel Belt.

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