Monday, October 12, 2009

Hillary Biscay's Challenge Barcelona RR

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in the newest iron-distance race in the Challenge Series: Challenge Barcelona. I’ve now experienced all three of the iron-distance Challenge races in three different countries, and am looking forward to adding Challenge Copenhagen to the list next August. These events are consistently top-notch, and thus in spite of Challenge Barcelona’s falling just one week before the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, this reputation and the $50,000 EURO professional prize purse (nearly 1.5x that of a standard ironman ) brought a strong pro field. There were about 70 in total, with 4x ironman champions, including myself, on the pro women’s start list. I knew I had my work cut out for me, but three weeks after Ironman Wisconsin, I was feeling ready for it!
The race actually took place in a little town on the coast, called Calella, which is actually about 50 kilometers away from Barcelona. I was able to arrive 10 days ahead of the event in order to have time to recover from jetlag, and by race day, the locals seemed to have adopted me as one of their own. Their support and encouragement were just incredible.
Challenge Barcelona began with a beautiful, one-loop, 3.8-kilometer ocean swim. In order to ensure fairness on the three-loop, relatively flat bike course, the 1900 participants were divided into hours of wave starts. The pro women even had our own start, two minutes after the pro men! But although it was a nice and friendly swim start, it was not without event for me. As I was walking down to the start area, about 15 minutes before my start, ostensibly, to do a warm-up swim, I felt a hole in the zipper in the back of my wetsuit. Luckily, Felix, the owner of Challenge and a dear friend, was on hand, and I asked him to re-zip my suit for me. “Umm, the zipper is totally broken . . .” he concluded. This was a slight issue, as I didn’t exactly have a spare wetsuit on hand. Freaking out wasn’t going to help, however, and one thing I have learned over the years is that Felix can pretty much make anything happen. He went into problem-solving mode, and I took a few deep breaths and trusted that we would have a remedy within 13 minutes.
Sure enough, just as the pro men were lining up, Felix was pinning my wetsuit closed with a line of safety pins. The swim began with a beach start so, for the first time since I had learned to know better, I started the race dry with no warm-up. However, I also know that a good day at ironman means dealing with just two minor catastrophes, and I can say that my little wetsuit drama was one of just about two such issues that day. Luck was on my side!
I had a sluggish start and thus had the company of many of the other women, except one who had shot off the front of the group. But soon after the first buoy, I was on my own in the deep, clear, blue-green water. I swam alone nearly the entire swim, making my way at first through individual pro male stragglers, and then later, a couple different big groups of them. I felt strong throughout the swim, and was a little disappointed as I popped my head up on the way in to shore and saw a blue cap—another woman—running up the beach. Nevertheless, she wasn’t far ahead and I knew we had over eight hours still remaining in the race.
I started the ride in second, about 40 seconds down, and although I wanted to get to the front straightaway, I kept myself in check with Coach’s instructions, which were to keep things in control for the first 60 kilometers. So I found a pace that was uncomfortable, but not on the rivet; at this rate, I was able to take over the lead of the race at about 10 kilometers. However, at the first turnaround, Katja Konschak, who had lead out of the swim, came back around me. We exchanged positions a couple more times over the next kilometers, at which point I realized that she was going to make me fight to stay in front of her; I didn’t need to be in “fight” mode til 60 kilometers, so I let her set the pace.
Conveniently enough, right about at the 60-kilometer mark, the Belgian freight train—a.k.a. Sofie Goos-- came past. I knew her arrival was imminent; I had a taste of her cycling prowess at the ITU long distance race I’d done in her hometown in July, which she had won, before also going on to beat a stellar field at the Antwerp 70.3 in August. This time I planned to go with her on the bike until my legs fell off. So when she came flying past, I went around Katja and pedaled for dear life. It was excruciating, and it took all of my strength to match this pace; I knew if I lost focus for a second, she would be out of sight. In the first few kilometers, I wondered just how long I would be able to maintain this pace; it didn’t feel like I’d be capable of it for very long! But I just told myself that every kilometer further would at the very least help to build my advantage over the other girls in the field, as after just a few kilometers, I looked back, and Katja had already disappeared.
However, after maybe 10 kilometers, I was able to settle in—to ride this pace and feel somewhat in control. There were a few surges that literally had me seeing nothing but spots, and then I would feel in control again. This was a very important lesson for me, as I have never been very good about letting someone else set the pace on the bike; my body wants to ride my steady uncomfortable pace all day, which is never exactly the same as anyone else’s. But I found that I can get more out of myself when I force myself to focus and push through those changes of pace that my body wants to resist.
My second minor catastrophe of the day came at the end of the first bike loop, at about 70 kilometers, when I missed my special needs bag with my second bottle of calories for the ride. My first was nearly gone, and I knew we wouldn’t be back to the special needs area until we had only 40 kilometers, or just over an hour, to go. Nevertheless, this was iron-distance race #39, and missing bike special needs was certainly not a first-time event for me. On the handful of occasions that this has occurred previously, I’ve been fine with the “just eat whatever they are serving” aid-station substitution plan. This has always worked out alright. However, my foolproof back-up plan was not as effective as usual, as one of the few telltale signs of this being a first-year race was some aid station issues. I only managed to grab 1.5 bananas and a bit of sports drink over the next 70 kilometers.
At the turnaround on the second loop, while I was attempting to convince a volunteer to give me some calories, the string broke. That is, Sofie took off like a bat out of hell and I frantically tried to catch back up, while trying to figure out what the heck to do with the banana I had just managed to get ahold of—I knew I couldn’t afford to lose it, but I certainly had no time for chewing at that point! So I went back into spot-seeing effort mode, while smushing my precious banana between my hand and aerobar. Eventually it became clear that I wasn’t going to get within 15 meters of Sofie again, so I went ahead and got some calories down—and managed to keep the media motorbikes next to Sofie in sight for most of the rest of the ride. I even got my special drink bottle before the last 40-kilometer loop of the bike, so I believe I was able to start the run well-fueled.
My bike ride was a big personal breakthrough. To come off of the bike just two minutes behind a cyclist like Sofie and to be able to ride a 4:57 bike split for the 180 kilometers definitely exceeded my previous best iron-distance bike rides.
I began the run in second place, just two minutes down. But that is where the fun ended. Well, to be more precise, it ended at about 6 kilometers, just after the turnaround on the first run lap, when I faced the headwind for the first time. I had begun the run feeling like the old run legs were, in fact, intact, but the 6 kilometer mark began about 36 kilometers of feeling as if I were running up and down on the spot. And judging by my 3:34 marathon split, I nearly was. Naturally I attempted numerous rounds of convincing myself that it was “just the headwind,” “just a short low point,” and various such theories, but ultimately what I dealt with was in fact 36 kilometers of real struggle. I just kept trying to turn my legs over as fast as they would go, and when they didn’t seem to want to listen to me, I focused on pumping my arms as fast as I could, to see if they’d make my legs go. At about 26 kilometers, I was passed for second place, and for the final lap and a half, I clung desperately to that final podium spot. My sense of entitlement has returned! And it got me across that finish line, very happily, in third place, with a time of 9:32. This was my seventh iron-distance finish in 2009, and I am looking forward to another ironman or two in November. Thanks so much to the Challenge Barcelona organization for having me to this fantastic event, and to all of my sponsors for their support: K-Swiss, PowerBar, Zipp, ORCA, ISM, and FuelBelt.

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