Today we conclude Julia’s epic Ironman tale. Here’s Part III if you missed it.
The run course was crowded and crazy. We were about 8.5 hours into the race and the pro athletes were finishing up. There were almost two thousand triathletes running on a ten kilometre loop fighting for space.
On the narrow parts of the course I tried to stay as far right as I could because I knew there were a lot of top runners wanting to make good time and I didn’t want to get in their way. Sometimes it was just impossible. If there was one aspect I did not like at IM Barcelona it was definitely the design of the run course.
I finally saw my family and they yelled out “happy birthday”. The first part of the course was on a dirt path along the waterfront park, past the transition, more dirt paths and wood boardwalks. Then it continued down a ramp under the railroad, back around down a long stretch of asphalt street, again down a tunnel under the railway and back onto the dirt path. Repeat four times.
I was okay with this for the first loop. Piero and I had looked at the course the evening before and saw that the portion near the finish line was well lit, so I assumed the rest of the course was the same. Well, it wasn’t and this is where I started to have problems.
The four kilometres stretch past the transition until you hit the street was pitch black. I could barely see a thing and was afraid of tripping and falling. So I walked.
I get a lot of flack about walking in races from Italian amateur athletes. They seem to have this rule in their heads that you’re not allowed to EVER walk in a race. I’ve had fingers pointed at me that I’m not a “real” athlete because I’ve walked in long distance triathlons and in marathons. I want to let everybody know that I do this for fun and the only person I race against is myself. Besides, most people yabbering on about this are male runners, four age categories behind me. So I smile and keep doing what makes me happy. Isn’t that what we should all do anyway?
I tried to eat and drink at every aid station, keeping my stomach under control. A piece of banana, an apple, a dab of energy gel; a sip of water. I finally had to pee (three times) and thankfully there were plenty of porta-potties to choose from.
I knew I’d finish in time but it was pitch black and with so few people still on the course it got to be a little discouraging. Seeing my family gave a little pick me up at each loop. Evan even ran with me for a kilometre giving me advice on how to keep it going. “Breathe deep, Mom. Relax your shoulders”. I have no idea who he gets this from!
A few triathletes asked me if we were going to make the cut off. My answer was always, “Just keep moving”.
On the last loop a group of three yelled back for me to catch up to them. It took me about ten minutes to make my way up but then we ran/walked for few miles together. It was great to talk to someone after so many hours living in my head. They were doing too much walking for me so I started running again with one of them following behind. We were almost at the finish line when she took off ahead of me. I was fine with it because I really needed a moment to have a quick happy cry and then run the last hundred meters into the finish line.
My daughter Olivia took this photograph. She posted it on Facebook and wrote, “I guess you’ve just got to believe in yourself no matter what. Happy Birthday again, Ironwoman.”
If there’s anything that I’d wish my children to learn from me about sports and life, it’s exactly that.
Believe in yourself, no matter what.
I did a complete clothing change in T1. I wanted to be comfortable on the bike since I’d be on that saddle for most of the day. My left hand strength is still not what it used to be before the accident so it took a little more time to get the bike gear over my damp body. Then, I put a brace on my arm to protect it during the bike and run.
I ran out of the tent and got my bike, clipped in and turned on my Garmin bike computer, ready for the ride.
The day before I’d taken a spin over the course and already loved it. It started out with 15km of rolling coastal roads until the town of Arenys de Mar. It continued on to fairly flat roads for another 24km with a few bridges, roundabouts and sharp turns thrown in.
So how do you complete 180km on a bike when you’ve only trained for up to 50km?
The most important thing was staying on top of my nutrition and hydration. I carried four gluten free bread buns with almond butter that I’d cut into eight pieces. I alternated them about every forty-five minutes with pieces of energy bars washed down with water, not actually finishing them all. I was careful not to mix isotonic drinks with my food since I’m pretty sure this is what gave me trouble in my last Ironman.
I paid extra attention to my stomach signals. I waited until things settled down before feeding or drinking again, not worrying about how many calories I was ingesting but making sure that it was digested well. My strategy was successful since I never had to make any pit stops on the bike.
People have asked how I rode the bike with my healing arm. I stayed on the aero bars as much as possible since the elbows take most of the pressure in that position. I could also place my hands above the brakes since the pressure was between the thumb and index finger and didn’t bother my arm. What I couldn’t do was drop down on the bars and brake well with the front brake (left hand). But the course didn’t require a lot of braking and so it worked out fine. I never ever had pain or felt uncomfortable with my arm; I’d never have taken that risk.
As for my bike performance I wasn’t worried about speed, just about getting the job done. Since we were on the coast I knew the wind would be a factor. The first loop felt pretty neutral, maybe a slight sailing power. At the turnaround I could definitely feel a push from behind and tried to enjoy it, ignoring the fact we’d have to pedal into the wind once we turned around in Calella, twice.
In the race briefing the organisation had touted what a fast course the bike was. I don’t know how fast it is compared to other IM courses or how many damn cheaters took advantage of the two and a half loop course. Granted, if you were a mid pack athlete I can understand that there was not a lot of room on the road to avoid drafting off other athletes. But what I saw was totally ridiculous. Thirty to fifty athletes in a tight pack, blatantly drafting off each other. I saw referees on the course but the penalty tents were all empty when I rode past.
On one hand it got me riled up, but then I reminded myself that the reason I loved the longer triathlon distances was because everyone had their own race. All I had to do was play by the rules and keep my own integrity.
I loved the view of the Barcelona skyline as we made a u-turn back east in the town of Montgat. The views of the gorgeous beaches kept me entertained. As I finished the first loop Martina Dogana passed me on her second and yelled out “Go Julia!” which really picked me up. Thank you Martina! She finished with a fantastic fifth place.
On my second loop I started passing people and playing cat and mouse with others. On the third loop I passed a 65-69 woman age grouper who asked, “Are we going to make the cut off?”. I told her we’d easily make the cut-off as long as she kept moving. I saw her tuck her chin down and dig deeper. I looked her up later – Glyn Jones finished in 15:13:15, second place in her age group.
Now knew I was going to finish the bike portion and I started to feel excited. Did it hurt? At times it did but then the muscle pain would dissipate. It honestly was not better or worse than when I go out on a long ride. Note to self: make friends with that achy muscle feeling and just keep peddling.
I rolled into T2 , grateful to put my feet back on the ground.
Bike time: 6:53:46
After racking my bike I ran into the tent but only changed my shoes and shorts. I debated for three seconds whether to take my headlamp but then threw it back into the transition bag, a decision I’d sorely regret hours later.
As I ran back out onto the course I took a quick look at my watch. What I was mostly looking forward to was seeing my family again. I had six hours and forty-five minutes to finish the marathon before the 15.5 hour cut off time. My physiotherapist had taped my left knee. I just had to pray that it would cooperate and stay pain-free for the full twenty-six miles.
Today we continue Julia’s epic race report. Here’s Part I if you missed it!
Ironman Barcelona is not actually in the city of Barcelona but rather a beachside resort town thirty miles east called Calella.
Our hotel in Calella was smack in front of the finish line with a view of the beach. During lunch at a local restaurant I decided that Paella would be my staple meal for the following days. With rice, fish and meat as the main ingredients it was the perfect pre-race carbohydrate/protein combination.
After lunch we browsed the Ironman expo (okay, we is me…) and checked out the swim course. The scenery was picturesque with the sea was a gorgeous turquoise blue. I thought to myself, “Ooooh, perfect for swimming!”
Then I woke up the next morning and everything had changed. The sky had that ominous grey colour like anything could happen. It was windy and the sea was agitated. Piero and I went to the beach to watch some crazy Ironman participants swimming. They bobbed up and down on waves which seemed a meter in height. I got seasick just looking at them.
I checked in my bike and transition bags. The setup was well organised and again, right on the beach. I put a plastic cover over my bike to protect it from the approaching storm front. Nearby a group of Danish athletes looking out at the water.
“Excuse me, can I ask a question? If the water is this agitated tomorrow do you think they’ll have us do the swim?”
A sweet young blonde guy answered for the group. “I think that absolutely yes, they’ll make us swim even with this water.”
“I guess I just have to suck it up…”
“I think so.”
I tried not to worry too much because there was nothing that I could do. Piero assured me the waters would be calmer because the wind was dying down. Nature had the entire night to fix things and give us a better swim course. Whatever happened, it was totally out of my hands.
I slept really well, so unlike me before a race. I got ready and headed out with Piero to the start. I knew it would be a long day so we let Evan sleep. Olivia and her boyfriend Federico would be on the beach right before the race began.
As the sun rose the beach was already filled with athletes dressed in neoprene. Some were warming up in the water, something I chose not to do. The water was still churning with long waves coming onto the shore. I put on my wetsuit, swim cap and goggles. I made sure I had my earplugs then headed to the start.
This year Ironman Barcelona had a self-seeded start line and this worked brilliantly. They had a serpentine line and signs with swim times under them. I lined up under the 1:25:00 sign. I chatted with a woman from Finland who was racing her first Ironman. They had relaxing music over the speakers. As I was chatting away with my temporary friend I heard them announce that it was my birthday and wished me a happy birthday! I jumped up and down “that’s me!” and people around me started clapping.
Now it was time to move forward.
We looked like lemmings slowly diving into the water. It was a slow procession with just dozens of athletes in at a time. I know a lot of faster sub-sixty minute athletes didn’t like this system, but I loved it. So much better than two thousand athletes trying to fight for the same water space.
The water was warm but navigating the first waves required concentration. I made it easily to the first buoy and then turned west and started counting. The buoys were marked every 500 metres and it felt easy in that first 1,450 meter section. It actually was easy because the current was helping.
At the turn we headed out to sea 100 meters more then left again to swim straight east for 1750 metres. Now we had the current and waves coming up against us and I had to put my head in the game.
I started to feel queasy and tried to talk myself into some new age craziness of flowing with the water and being one with nature. It wasn’t working.
I stopped to force the air out of my stomach while keeping an eye on the next buoy at 2,500 metres. I was almost at 3,000 metres when a safety boat passed by and unloaded diesel exhaust fumes. That’s where I lost it.
I signalled for one the the kayaks to come near me, I held on to the bow and vomited into the sea water. I knew I’d be fine but I waited a few minutes until I calmed down. I apologised to the kayak lady, thanked her and then swam on.
As I turned at the 3000 metre buoy I could see the shore 300 metres away, looking both near and far away. It took me another ten minutes to reach shore with the waves pushing and pulling us back and forth.
When my feet touched the sand they sank into the ground. One of the helpers had to pull me up and out. I scrambled onto the beach and squinted at my watch through my goggles as I crossed the timing mat: 1:40:26.
When I was in the hospital and planning how to train I stumbled upon a blog entry written by Sharon McNary. Sharon had broken her elbow two months before racing Kona. I wrote her an email and she’d answered, “If you can get through the swim, you’ll probably be alright for the other two legs.”
Thanks to Sharon I felt confident and ready to get on the bike.
I signed up for Ironman Barcelona last December while traveling home by train after Christmas. As I checked my email, an advert popped out saying there were only fifty places, hurry and grab one. After Ironman Zurich I thought I wanted to wait another two years before racing another, but Ironman Barcelona was to be held on my birthday! How could I pass that up?
I sent a text to my husband: “Only fifty spots left for Barcelona…”
He answered: “What are you waiting for?”
I love that man.
Thus began my training for Ironman Barcelona.
This year our triathlon team had a new swim coach who changed my lazy arm pulling habit. The improvement usually had me first out of the water in my age group during races. I asked Fabio Gilioli from Sessantallora to help me on improving my bike ride. That resulted in a PR on the IM Pescara 70.3 bike section.
Piero wasn’t traveling this summer for work so we decided to spend the those hot months at the family beach house in the south of Italy. We can both work from anywhere as long as there’s a good internet connection. He enticed me by mentioning it’d be a perfect training camp for Barcelona.
July was my best training month. After a year and a half of a wonky left knee all of the sudden it was cooperating. The biggest problem was avoiding the heat. I’d stoically get up at 4:3 AM for a 120 km ride or run along the beach and finish with a quick swim. I was feeling really great; the best in years.
Then I had the bike accident that shattered my left arm.
I went into the hospital on 31 July with broken and exposed ulna, radio and scaphoid bones. The surgeons in the emergency room talked us into waiting until Wednesday for the head surgeon of the orthopaedic department. Putting in the two titanium planks with screws needed someone with experience. I waited.
The operation was done and a heavy plaster cast all the way up to my shoulder. I had one night of agonising pain and intermittent sleep and then it was time to go home.
The surgeon who treated me in the ER was Dr. Vanni Taurisano. As fate would have it he was also one of my husband’s ex-athletes. Piero had trained him for both athletics and basketball so he wasn’t surprised when I asked him the question.
“I have an Ironman race in two months. What can I do while I have this cast on?”
He rolled his eyes but gave me a long look and said ,“Train as if you were still going to do your race and in a month we’ll see.”
Recovery required lots of rest and sleep. I had to be really on top of my nutrition to ensure that I had the right micro and macro nutrients to heal well.
I ordered a Turbo Trainer for my bike and pedalled with my heart rate monitor. I power walked on the sand and Piero devised a training circuit to keep up my muscle strength.
After a week Dr. Vanni shortened my cast and freed my elbow. Now I could run! I used a sling for the cast and incorporated running in the circuits. The biggest problem on both the bike and run was the amount of sweat I produced. I could feel the cast getting wet and my skin would itch. I tried to find ways to keep it dry and ended up blasting it with a hairdryer after every training session.
I tried swimming once by wrapping the cast really well and using a kickboard. It was too much effort for the training quality. I decided to wait until the cast was off and instead do shoulder exercises to mimic a swim stroke.
The cast came off in the beginning of September and I asked Dr. Vanni, “What can I do now that the cast is off?”
He told me to go easy on the bike outdoors because bumpy roads were not a good idea on healing bones. But he gave me the green light to do whatever else I wanted and keep him updated.
I won’t bore you with what I did for the next five weeks. The most I ever swam was 3000 meters, twice. The longest I ever biked was 50km to regain my confidence in the saddle and my longest run was 22 kilometres during a circuit.
So with a shattered forearm, consequential operation and a non-standard training plan you may be asking how I thought I could race an Ironman.
I’ll tell you exactly how it happened:
I believed that I could.
Not a lot of friends or acquaintances believed I could. A lot of them thought I was nuts.
“How exactly are you going to train for an Ironman with your arm?”
“I don’t think you’ll make it to the finish line…”
“You don’t have enough mileage…”
“Your chances of finishing are pretty low.”
“That’s going to be impossible.”
In my own coaching practice I see many people talk themselves out of their own goals and dreams. If it’s not the picture-perfect set up where they ace every single workout withy no obstacles in their way, they give up fast. People talk about the “journey” then interrupt it when it doesn’t play out like an award-winning television program.
But some people travel in a straight line while others make zigzags and detours, still arriving at their destination or goal.
I knew the only way to pull this off was to cut myself off from anyone who didn’t believe in what I was doing. I needed to be surrounded in positivity and possibility while wearing blinkers. My number one fan and mental coach in all of this was my husband Piero. He believed in me and helped me with my training plan and workouts. He came with me on my first swim after the accident and again when I got back on the bike. He told me hundreds of times that I could do this and even clock a PB.
I stopped talking about the race and didn’t let many people know that I was going. I closed my social accounts in the days before the race. I didn’t want to be distracted by doubters. We’d already booked a hotel and the whole family was going, that was the most important thing for me.
I gave myself the freedom to do whatever it was I felt like doing. I could start the race or just pick up my goody bag. I could complete the swim and forget the rest. I could do anything I wanted because it was my birthday! I had no expectations except to enjoy myself and have a good time no matter what I ended up doing. It was all good.
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