Sunday, September 20, 2009

Hillary Biscay's IMWI Race Report

Last weekend I had the pleasure of racing Ironman Wisconsin for the fourth consecutive year. Although my “home” is in Arizona, and I have in fact never lived in Wisconsin, Madison has become my “hometown race.” I even have an adopted home, family, and dog thanks to Kari Myrland, a local ironwoman and dear friend, who has been my homestay since 2006.
2009 was to be a particularly special year for me in Madison because it provided my first opportunity to defend an ironman title, as I won my first ironman here last year—and the Biscay family was coming to see it! I’ve had some of the breakthrough events in my career here in Madison—not to mention some of my most enjoyable racing experiences—and my family was always back home in California, watching online. I really wanted to put on a good show for them and to maintain my streak of podium finishes in Madison (My record was: 2nd 2006, 2nd 2007, 1st 2008.).
While, as defending champion, one gets a lot of questions to the tune of, “Are you going to win again?!” I have learned the hard way over the years that, defending champion or not, expecting a win or even thinking too much about it can be a very dangerous thing over this long distance. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that I have had a rough twelve months since my win in Madison last year; my primary goal was to turn things around and simply put together a good swim-bike-run. The women’s start list for the race this year was impressive, and I figured that podium spots would be harder to come by than ever before; so I let everyone else talk about who would win and other such matters, and focused on smashing myself.
Automatic smashfest mode set in early, as I had my usual sluggish first 100 meters or so at the swim start and found myself seemingly behind every pro male in the field. I soon saw a group splitting off quite a bit up ahead, with Big Sexy (a.k.a. Chris McDonald)’s bright green cap in the midst. I needed to be there. It was urgent. I knew that I could not let this group get away. With great swim-bikers like Gina Ferguson, Amy Marsh, and Ali Fitch in the women’s field, I knew I could not risk having the front of the race swim away from me. And If I missed a beat, it just might. Hence the urgency. I swam like I was doing a 200-meter race, looking up every few strokes to see if I had made it to the group yet. Each time I checked, the caps hardly seemed closer. “Soon they will tire!” I told myself, and kept digging in. This process played on repeat until I had essentially red-lined it all the way to the first swim turnaround, or one quarter of the way through the 2.4-mile swim. There I grabbed onto the train, which felt like switching from a timed swim in the pool to warmdown….ahhh.
Still, it was a long train and I knew I could not just become complacent there at the back. Zoning out back there can often result in getting dropped if someone at the front gets ambitious and the group splits. So, once I recovered, I made my way around the train to get a view of the front and check things out. Eventually, it became clear that nothing crazy was likely to be happening amidst our group, and that these boys were ready to fight me for their respective sets of feet, so I settled back in at the back and saved my energy. Until the complete train-dismantling mayhem of the last quarter of the swim, that is…
Because Ironman Wisconsin has a two-loop swim, and the amateurs start the race ten minutes behind the pros, during our second loop, we lap a number of these athletes. Most of this occurs as we swim towards the finish on the second loop. It inevitably results in total chaos, as we try to navigate through masses of people swimming backstroke, sidestroke, treading water, and the like. So once our “group” hit the swim finish, we were a bit strung out, since the last few hundred meters of the swim were “every man for himself.”
The first transition in Madison is epic. We emerge from Lake Monona and then have to run up the four-story, helix-shaped ramp to the top level of the Monona Terrace to the change rooms and bikes. The spectators are allowed to line the sides of the Helix and are also packed onto the observation decks at the top of the Terrace. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I made that seemingly-long and painful rush to the top because the noise from those crowds was truly deafening. I knew I had more of this to look forward to over the next nine hours and that it was going to be a great day.
While I was in the change tent grabbing my helmet and glasses, I asked the volunteers how many girls had been through already. They said none. This meant I had time to put on socks! But I was still dubious about how there could be no women in sight, and as I grabbed my bike, I stole a quick glance over at the rack to check that, in fact, all the women’s bikes were still there. It turns out that I had about a two minute advantage over the next woman, but I didn’t know that.
If I had the lead, I decided, I was going to make these front-running-type athletes have to work to get to where they wanted to be. So I set out on what some might call a sort of suicide mission on that bike. The race could have been 40 kilometers or 180 kilometers; my pace would have been pretty much the same. My legs felt fresh, and thus were cooperating with the “attack” mode that seems to take over my mind as soon as I hit my home course.
I took every minute at the front as a welcome bonus, but I felt sorry for the cameramen on motorbikes who were forced to watch my vomitfest, which was slowly building over the course of the first lap. I didn’t have a chance to worry it, however, as I was spurred on by lots of enthusiastic spectators who were camped out across the farmland, and by special handmade signs along the bike course. I caught a glimpse of a yellow sign that seemed to read, “Did you know that muskrats were once the size of bears?” and started to think that I was already hallucinating . . . Matty Lieto wasn’t in this race; surely there couldn’t be anyone else here who else could be obsessed with muskrats and beavers! Shortly thereafter, I recognized my name on another yellow sign “Muskrat Xing.” Now you see why I couldn’t help but smile all day! I immediately began to mentally give my little sis credit for being a much more hardcore spectator than I had imagined, thinking that she’d traveled all the way out into the bike course to plant a sign for me . . . It turns out that it wasn’t Cameron at all: a local supporter knew of my strange affinity for furry brown freshwater creatures. Like I’ve said many times over, the locals in Madison are incredible!
Much to my surprise, I didn’t meet another female pro until just before mile 50—right at what I always find to be the toughest part of the course: the short, steep hill that follows immediately after the longer climb up Old Sauk Pass. I always feel like I am crawling up that little one, and there are always so many spectators there, urging us on; if I had any wind in my lungs, I would tell them, “I can’t go any faster—I can’t feel my legs!” Anyways, just after I’d made it up that hill, I was feeling really special (sarcasm), and Amy Marsh passed me. So much for feeling fresh and ready to go with her when she came; I was going to have to try to go whether my legs wanted to or not. I went with her for a few miles, until the other longer climb on the course, the Midtown hill, where the elastic band snapped. Ouch. Next goal: keep her in sight! I managed to do this through Verona—where I got to see my family and give them the thumbs-up -- and onto the start of the second loop. Then I was on my own.
Ali Fitch passed me somewhere along the way on this second loop, and eventually disappeared out of sight for awhile also, but I honestly still cannot remember exactly when this happened; perhaps I acquired dehydration-induced amnesia. My second bike loop was consumed by my increasingly-frequent sickness. It was a vicious cycle because it was getting fairly warm outside and I kept feeling thirsty, but every time I would take in water or my sports drink (from which I get all of my calories on the bike), it would come right back up. This was all very strange for me, because although I often feel quite nauseous during and after races, in my 37 previous ironmans, I have never vomited before or after a race! Additionally, I hadn’t changed anything about my pre-race or race fuel on this day, so I couldn’t figure out what was making me sick. The only possible cause I can imagine is that something in that lake water did it; the locals tell me that the beaches had been closed a fair amount prior to the race because the water was dirty. Anyways, being new to this experience, I wasn’t entirely sure how to deal with it, so I opted to just keep trying to take in calories and tried to just sip on water, even though I was so thirsty that I wanted to guzzle gallons of it. Mentally, I convinced myself that I was only vomiting up half of what I was taking in, so I was still getting in some of the calories that I needed (Whether this was the reality, I am not sure, but I chose to believe it.) Second, I flashed back to some old Kona footage I’ve seen in which Natascha (Badmann, 6x Hawaii Ironman Champion), pukes while running her way to a World Championship win. Long story short, I didn’t let this strange illness worry me, but it was fairly unpleasant and I felt increasingly worse as the miles went on.
I did have a pleasant surprise in the second transition, however, when I met up with Ali Fitch again: I was happy to see that second place was within striking distance. I had a bit of trepidation, however, about those elusive run legs. They have been giving me a bit of grief this season, causing me to question whether they would choose to come to the party or not.
The Madison run course starts with a slight uphill, which never feels special, but straightaway, I breathed a sigh of relief, as I could feel that my run legs were in attendance. Game on. Ali was a block ahead and I wasn’t going to let her get away if I could help it. I didn’t have a watch on, but the pace was uncomfortable from the start. I just had to trust my training and go with it.
The Ironman Wisconsin run is the highlight of the race. It isn’t a fast run course, because we are continually turning and going back and forth in order to maximize our exposure to the spectators; so it’s not that the course is all that much more difficult than any other ironman run, but with this sort of design, it prevents us from getting into a nice steady rhythm. What we sacrifice in terms of marathon splits, however, we more than make up for through the experience of being spurred along by thousands of screaming supporters. Regardless of how I am feeling, I can never back down during the marathon here because the crowds simply wouldn’t allow it.
This year it meant that my family was amongst these thousands; mentally, I broke my run down into shorter segments, at the end of which I looked forward to each of the many times I would get to run past my family. I felt quite strong during the first loop of the run and eventually managed to pass Ali for second; I knew I couldn’t get too comfortable in this spot, however, as there were lots of strong girls still behind me.
Although I hardly let myself notice it, with about 9-10 miles to go--which is, on a good day, my best part of the race—my legs started not wanting to cooperate. In retrospect, I am guessing that all of the fuel and hydration I lost while sick on the bike was catching up with me. I didn’t think about that much while I was running, however; instead, I just told myself that maybe I would bounce back in a few miles. Unfortunately, the only thing that came back to me in a few miles was my competition! Irene Kinnegim had a great race and caught me with about 5 miles to go; despite my efforts, I couldn’t match her pace. I was in third and running scared, forcing my tight legs to turn over as fast as they would all the way to the finish line.
After a very tough twelve months, running down that finish chute for another podium finish in Madison was nearly as fulfilling as running in for my first win last year. I’ve learned a lot over the past year in the journey to get back to this place where I am racing well and thoroughly enjoying the sufferfest; perhaps it has made me appreciate being here even more. I am now back in the “When can I get out there again?!?!” mode and luckily for me, it won’t be long . . . Next up is the iron-distance Challenge Barcelona on October 4th. I want to thank all of my awesome sponsors for believing in me: K-Swiss (, PowerBar (, ORCA (, Zipp (, ISM (, and FuelBelt (

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