Race Report: Ironman Chattanooga

One year ago, I volunteered at an aid station on the Ironman Chattanooga run course. The following day, I registered for the 2015 edition of the race. Every day since, I’ve worked toward one goal: becoming an Ironman. On Sunday, my dream came true.

Thanks for the screenshot of my finish, Leslie!

Pre-Race

We left for Chattanooga on Wednesday, the 23rd. With this being my first IM, I wanted to get into town early to make sure I had plenty of time to get settled and not feel rushed. The drive took about eight and a half hours, which wasn’t awful. When we arrived, I went for a short run to scope out the area. Our hotel location was great! If you are thinking about doing this race, I would definitely recommend staying at the Doubletree. We were just a couple of blocks away from transition and numerous restaurants in every direction (there is also a Whole Foods about a five minute drive away). Our room, although on the smaller side, had a mini fridge and microwave, which always makes race morning breakfast easier.

On Thursday morning, I did a short ride around the Chickamauga Civil War battlefield in Georgia. I had posted in the Ironman Chattanooga Facebook Group (definitely join this group if you plan on doing the race) asking for recommendations for rides without a lot of traffic and several people suggested I drive to the Battlefield and ride there. After riding there myself, I understand why this is a popular place for cyclists. I definitely recommend it as a safe and scenic place to ride for anyone doing the race next year. It wasn’t very far away (about a 20 minute drive from transition) and there was ample parking at the Visitor’s Center. There isn’t a lot of traffic and the cars I did encounter gave me plenty of room. It was also gorgeous and I lucked out with a perfect weather day, too. I felt great and loved the scenery – I really could have kept riding all day!

I just had to stop and take a picture of this scene. Two monuments in a field of hay bales. 

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Later in the day, I went for a short swim at the Chickamauga Marina. This is another place to check out if you’re doing the race next year and want a good practice swim spot (the lawyer in me feels the need to say that you swim at your own risk at the Marina, as there are no lifeguards on duty). The water was super shallow in spots, but it was still good to get in the open water and it felt much safer than jumping in the Tennessee River by myself!

The Marina.

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I also went to the Athlete Village to check-in, pick up my bib and chip, and shop on Thursday. There is an option to do athlete check-in on Friday, but I wanted to get this taken care of on Thursday to give myself plenty of time to figure out the gear bags! My last “to do” for Thursday was attending the athlete briefing.

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On Friday, I got my bags together, drove the bike course, and attended the Team HPB team dinner. Alyssa and three of her athletes (including myself) were racing and it was nice for everyone to get together for some social time before the race. Whiting was in town from Boulder to do the race and Leah from Salt Lake City. We had a great time chatting and getting to know each other.

I checked, double checked, and triple checked my lists for my gear and special needs bags.

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On Saturday, Whiting and I met in the morning to join about 30 other racers for an informal practice swim in the River. We also ran into Leah and her family there. Last year, there was a formal practice swim put on by the race organizers, but they did not include one on the schedule for this year. So, a group of athletes organized a practice swim via the Facebook Group. It was really nice to have Whiting as a buddy in the water. We swam together (she is a much faster swimmer than me, but we kept an eye out for each other as we went), which made it feel a lot less scary. The water temperature was perfect.

After our swim, Whiting and I went for a short ride together and then we turned in our gear bags and checked our bikes. I must say, it felt sort of weird to give away all of my stuff. It’s hard to hand over control of these important pieces of gear pre-race. I did a short run back to my hotel and then we met up with Jon’s parents, who had just gotten into town for the race. We went for an early dinner together and then I went back to the hotel to rest my legs.

Race Day

Whiting and I had planned to meet outside of hotel at 5:15 to walk to transition. I was following her lead since this was my first IM and her fourth. We dropped off our special needs bags and then went to set up our bikes. I will talk more about that later. After we finished up with our bikes, we got on shuttle buses to ride to the swim start.

The Swim

When I woke up on race morning, they had already posted on the official Facebook Page that the race would be wetsuit optional. Alyssa and I had discussed in advance that if that was the case, I would wear my ROKA swimskin. Even though I am not a strong swimmer, I am much more comfortable in my swimskin than my wetsuit, so I was actually pretty happy about this news. More people than I expected decided to wear wetsuits anyway. They started after the rest of the racers and weren’t eligible for awards.

In any case, after we got off the shuttle bus, we walked quite a distance to get to the end of the line for the swim start. This race has a first come, first served-style rolling start. I was so lucky to have Whiting to wait with in the morning before the swim. We took turns holding our spot in line and using the porta potties and stayed together right up until we made it to the dock and it was time to jump in the water. If you do this race in the future (which I do recommend you do!) know that the swim start line moves quickly once it gets started. Be ready to hustle! It’s kind of a frantic start, but maybe that’s better for someone like me who will freak out if I stop and think about what I am about to do.

I had a great swim. I didn’t panic and kept moving. I even tried to get on some feet to draft, although I need to work on picking the right feet (I was either behind someone too slow or too fast every time I tried this!). I am so very glad I did the Jim McDonnell Lake Swim earlier this year. I think that really helped my swimming confidence, since I knew I could swim two miles continuously (even though that was a wetsuit swim for me and this was not). I kept what felt like a steady pace throughout.

My swim time ended up being 1:12:52, which was quite good for me, especially without the wetsuit (it would have been a good time for me even considering the current, which people are saying saved around 11-12 minutes).

When I got out of the water I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to spot Jon! I gave him a shout and a wave. Then, as I was running toward transition, I saw my friend Mindy! I was so excited to see her!11071079_10100292733346851_8929630772715957320_n

The Bike

So, back to the morning in transition before the race began. When I got to my bike in the morning, there was a tube draped across my seat. I thought that was odd, but, at least initially, didn’t think into it any further than that. I put my bottles on my bike and then proceeded to try to inflate my tires. The front tire was fine, but I was unable to put any air in my rear tire. Something wasn’t right with my valve extender, even though it had been fine on Thursday for my ride around the Battlefield. Then I realized my bike was in a different gear than I had left it the day before. Whiting speculated that one of the bike support folks noticed I had a flat and changed the tube out for me. This definitely gave me some pause at the time. After some hemming and hawing, though, I decided that I would just leave the rear wheel alone since surely they had pumped up the tires when they changed out the tube that morning (or, at most, the day before). And, hey, that meant all of my bad flat tire luck was clearly out of the way, since the chances of me getting a second flat in one day would be slim to none, right? I thought I should just be thankful that a “flat tire fairy” saved my day and not stress about it. In hindsight, I probably should have trusted my instincts that something was wrong and taken the time to get it checked out by one of the on-site mechanics.

Fast forward to the race. To make the very long and upsetting story short, within two miles into the bike course I got another flat and from then until I finally got mechanical support at the first penalty tent (maybe around mile 25?), I just could not keep air in my rear tire. It was just one flat after the next. Yes, I did check the tire, but I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I did try to have a volunteer radio for bike support, but they indicated they were busy helping other people and couldn’t get to me. I felt completely helpless.

All I kept thinking about was this Norman Stadler clip.

As I stopped, I had to beg other racers for tubes/cartridges as they were riding by because I ran out (in the athlete meeting they indicated this was permitted under the rules). People were awesome and I am so thankful for their generosity. I kept thinking that I would fix it (I know that sounds crazy, but I really kept thinking that).

Finally, after several unsuccessful stops attempting to fix the issue myself, I decided I just had to get myself to an aid station and wait for mechanical support, no matter how long it would take, because clearly I wasn’t able to deal with this on my own. At one point, I had asked a volunteer about walking to the next aid station, but he said it was too far. I ended up riding on a flat tire (yes, I know this is bad) to the next aid station where finally they were able to radio to get me help. Spectators kept yelling at me that I had a flat tire as I rode by.

When the bike tech arrived, he inspected the tire and agreed that wasn’t the problem. He took everything apart and found that my rim tape had gotten bunched up (I’m sure there is a more technical way to describe this) and that was causing the flats (in my race wheels, I need the rim tape to protect the tube from the spoke holes in the wheel). I hadn’t even thought about checking that. The bike tech recognized my bike and said he was the one who had fixed my first flat in transition on race morning.

Since I had ridden without incident at the Battlefield on Thursday, something obviously happened either during my short ride on Saturday, in transition over night, or during the first couple of miles of the race that led to the tape slipping. I’ll probably never know for sure what that was, but obviously the timing was unfortunate.

After he finally got everything back together and ready to go, a total of almost an hour of non-moving time had passed. I was worried I wouldn’t make the bike cut off after so many stops and so much wasted time. I wasn’t even sure what the bike cut off was, but I knew there was one and that I was way behind. The mechanic and another athlete who was stopped at the aid station told me I could still finish before the cut off, so after I gave them hugs, off I went.

Once I finally got going, I was really trying to balance the urge to make up time and the knowledge that going too hard too early (I wasn’t even a quarter of the way into the bike leg at this point) would only make my day worse. I tried to work, but not go crazy. I ended up riding at a little over 17 miles an hour average pace, which felt hard, but definitely wasn’t killing me.

My Garmin had autopaused during all of the stops and recorded me finishing the 116 mile bike course in 6:35:35, which would have exceeded my expectations going into the race by almost a half hour (I was thinking I would be right around 7:00).

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Of course, I understand that 6:35 wasn’t actually my time, but I really want to try to focus on the good parts of the day and not let the unfortunate bike issues overshadow what was otherwise a magical experience.

While all of this was happening, Jon had taken over my Facebook and Twitter accounts to keep my friends and family updated on my progress throughout the day (although, some of his funniest posts were updates on his activities). He had done this during my first 70.3 as well.

One of Jon’s tweets from the race.

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The Run

For obvious reasons, I was ELATED to get off of my bike and start running. With this being my first Ironman, I had no idea what to expect from my body on the run. I knew I needed to just take it slow and steady, one step at a time.

I had a blast on the run.

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I really wanted to run the entire way because Leslie convinced me that even a slow run is better than walking. I kept thinking of her and my friend Emily, who I did most of my longer runs with this summer. Emily and I would never stress over pace on our long runs. We would just run and talk and it never felt like a chore and we always got in the miles (or time). I told myself to run relaxed, but steady, just like I was running long with Emily.

I must say that the miles actually ticked by very quickly. I wasn’t super focused on my pace, but knew I was staying in the right ballpark, even with the significant hills on the run course. I was sick of gels, but knew I needed to eat, so I ate things I normally wouldn’t – bananas, pretzels, grapes. When my stomach would start to go, I would switch to pretzels one at a time and Coke. I think everyone’s stomach feels awful at this point in the race and it’s really just about managing that discomfort as best you can.

I kept passing mile markers and once I hit halfway, I KNEW I was going to finish before midnight. It’s funny because another lady I was running with said the same exact thing. We both knew at that point that even walking we would make it.

I finished the run in 4:45:37. That’s actually my third fastest marathon time ever. Alyssa had told me she thought I could run that fast and I thought she was insane. One of the (many) traits that makes her an awesome coach is that she really believes in us, even when we don’t believe in ourselves.

Overall my run splits were pretty even (fastest was 10:05, slowest 11:52 on a hilly section). One of the highlights of my day was text messaging Leslie after the race to tell her that I didn’t walk!

When I approached the finish chute, I was so immensely happy. I saw Alyssa and she said something like “you did it!” I was so glad to see her. I was definitely crying tears of joy. The volunteer who “caught me” asked me if something was wrong – presumably because of the tears. I said I was fine and that I was just really happy. The funny part here is that after I finished I was reading through all of my messages and my teammate Bri had read my lips and knew that’s what I said to the volunteer. I love my team!

Emotional at the finish.

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After the race, Alyssa met up with us at the hotel. I was so glad that she had a great race, too!

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I can’t say enough how much I loved this city, the spectators, and volunteers. But for the bike issues, I could not have asked for a better race experience. I would definitely do this race again!

I want to say thank you again to Jon, Alyssa, MooMotion, Bobo’s Oat Bars, and all of my friends and family for their support. I got so many amazing emails, text messages, voicemails, Facebook posts, etc. from my friends before, during, and after the race. I am truly so lucky to be able to do this thing I love and to have such an awesome group of people supporting me. Thank you all!

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15 thoughts on “Race Report: Ironman Chattanooga

  1. Huge congrats to you, Stephanie. Very sorry to hear about the struggles on the bike. I’ve changed many tires and tubes but it is always so much harder to keep calm on the race course. You really had a great moving time on the bike! And very impressed with your run. Is this a “one and done” or are you thinking about another 140.6?

  2. Wow, how frustrating about your bike and the flat tire!

    So incredibly proud of you for absolutely rocking your very first Ironman. A lot of people might have let the situation with their tire really ruin their day but you rolled with it and had a fantastic race.

    Congratulations!!

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