Sunday, January 6, 2008

Western Australia Ironman

Often that which means the most to you is the hardest thing write about. It has been just over a year since I completed the Western Australia Ironman in December, 2007 and I’ve been trying to write the story ever since.

Remember Ironman New Zealand 2005? I was
never, ever going to do another Ironman… it appears that pain is easy to forget. Rob Smith, my now husband, former boyfriend, says that Ironman changes your life. He should know, he’s done 8 of them. But, I didn’t think I was like those people, obsessed, getting the tattoo, etc. I was just a normal human being who wasn’t that crazy about the first one, happy I’d finished and could check that off the list of things to do. Now here I was planning to do another one. The lure of Australia was certainly a factor. And, I have to say, I love training with Rob, I couldn’t just watch him train and then spectate at the race, I am not the type.

So, back to the training schedule, the work outs, the lack of socializing, but also fitness I’ve only felt once before, that I hoped to surpass. This race was in December, not March, much better training weather and daylight hours! And I had 2 more years of training and racing under my belt. Luckily, Rob is a pro at creating the workout programs, weeks of brick work outs, mostly cycling and running, but often swim to bike transitions as well. All of a sudden I had done 8 centuries and we began our favorite bike/run workout, 4 to 5/16 mile descending time bike loops with 1 mile runs in between, also in descending times. I admit, we were spoiled, we did these workouts right from our own home.

Two friends came with us, Jim Favreau and Todd Szczech. We survived the long flight from LA to Australia (We spent 2 days in LA to train and get a little break on the travel time.) and the 1.5 hours of driving from Perth to Busselton, (on the other side of the road)! Jim made arrangements for our housing, a gorgeous home on the beach minutes to the race venue. It was much nicer than the condo I owned in Portland!
We had discussed getting in the water upon arrival, just a chance to swim in the Indian Ocean with our wetsuits. We brought in the bags, the bike boxes, making sure everything was intact and we got on our wetsuits, just before sunset. It was beautiful, the sand and the blue water and sky, just waiting for us. We jump in, start swimming and I look down into the clear water to see a little crab with its pinchers pointed at me, then all of a sudden I feel little stinging all over my hands and my face. All I can imagine is that I’m getting some weird hives, blisters, boils all over my exposed skin that will somehow ruin my race. (It’s amazing how paranoid you get at this time about getting sick or injured.) I swim over Todd, swimming faster than I’ve done in awhile, to shore. Luckily nothing serious occurred, we were stung by ‘stingers’ little jelly fish almost invisible to the eye that apparently habitate the waters near our abode. I’ve decided the rest of my swim training will be in the pool that I saw on the way to town while I put aloe vera gel on my skin.

The next morning we travel to the race venue, get our race packets, and get psyched! The Aussies are incredibly friendly, and this small town at the beginning of the Margaret River Valley, Western Australia’s wine region, is wonderful. After a little grocery shopping, we return to our new home, get our bikes built, and do a little ride around the neighborhood, getting used to riding on the other side of the road, just a little déjà vu of New Zealand.

We are now just 5 days to race day. It’s a little surreal during this time. We eat, sleep, breathe Ironman. We discuss our nutrition plans, we ride the race course, we swim the race course (a mile out to sea around a jetty, no stingers, just watch out for the man-o-rays), we run part of the race course and visit the race venue taking it all in. We attend the pre-race events, the parade of nations, the pre-race dinner and all of a sudden, the race is the next day.

My lucky dinner from New Zealand, that didn’t upset my stomach is chicken, so we have that. Bikes have been dropped off at the transition area, transition bags are all in place, nutrition all set, water bottles all set, clothing, wetsuit, race belt, final check, over and over. We eat dinner almost in silence, each of us getting mentally ready for tomorrow. Australia hadn’t had a time change for a few years, but this year they reinstated it, setting the clocks back an hour, the night of our race. The locals weren’t even sure it was happening, but our race directors made sure we knew, so, instead of 4:00 a.m., we were getting up at 3:00 a.m. The good news was that we weren’t going to be sleeping much anyway, and that the race issue of the year prior, rough waters for the swim, were going to be lessened, and the heat of the day would be abated just a bit.

The alarm goes off, it’s dark, of course, and we get up. My stomach isn’t feeling very well. Butterflies are normal, but this seems worse. Rob had been a bit suspicious of the chicken but I had a second piece anyway. We drove to the race start as the sun was starting to rise. Music was playing, racers were arriving, and we were as ready as we could be. Seeing the calm water of the ocean made me incredibly happy, lessening my nerves immediately. My stomach, however, wasn’t quite as happy. We made our final arrangements at our bikes, dropped off our transition bags in the transition tent, got body marked, put on our race belts, our timing chips and put on our wetsuits, swim caps and goggles and went to the water’s edge. I used the port-a-potty 2 times, not a good sign. I told Rob I thought I had food poisoning and he said it was just pre-race nerves. I disagreed as I ran to the bathroom one last time, worried that I would miss the start.

The swim was really strange. We were seeded with people that shared our estimated swim time and this proved to be a tough swim as I was never able to shake any swimmers or get a good line. I didn’t realize that the salt water would be much more effervescent than fresh water and the kicking of those in front of me caused more water ingestion than I would have liked. I swam an outside line at the turn around, forgoing any draft to avoid the fray at the buoy. I swam much more outside than I wished as I had to swim inward to get inside the last buoy. I worried that my time would be slower than in New Zealand. The swim is really the shortest aspect of the race, but it does set the tone and this wasn’t how I wanted to begin. However, when I exited the water I saw 1:10 and was happy! We ran under the fresh water showers to rinse and peeled off our wetsuits. Make note, this is where I lost my timing chip in my wetsuit, without knowing it.

I jumped on my bike and rinsed my mouth with water. My stomach was really acting up. I couldn’t stay in the aero position and that was really tragic as this is the flattest course ever, and my bike fit was perfect after spending hours working on it this past year. I also couldn’t take in any calories. I kept remembering Rob’s words, “If your nutrition plan isn’t working, adjust.” I tried eating, but couldn’t keep down my food. My stomach caused me to get off the bike about 4 times. By the end of the first loop Coca Cola was being offered and finally I found something I wanted. It tasted fantastic! I filled my handle bar water bottle with it and kept riding, still unable to ride aero. At the end of the first lap we rode through town and I went over a timing mat, they make a specific sound when they read your chip, every other mat I had crossed, I must have crossed with other riders, because at this point, all I heard was cheering, no electronic signal. I looked down at my ankle and sure enough, my chip strap was missing. I didn’t know where I had lost it and a sharp sense of panic rose within. I would be ‘unofficial’ I could finish and be an Ironman, but my time wouldn’t be officially recorded. My friends at home following me on-line must have been wondering if I dropped out. I found an official at the start of the second lap and told them what had happened, they took my number and said, ‘don’t worry’. Mmmm. I saw Rob go by me and told him and he gave me a sympathetic look. I couldn’t believe this, along with all else, was happening. Knowing how I was feeling and that I had a marathon coming, I wondered if I could keep my motivation and cross the finish line. Somehow, I just decided that I had to finish, there wasn’t another option, official or not, I would cross the line and break that Ironman tape.

I got through the bike, finally. As I entered the transition tent I told the volunteers about my timing chip and someone took my name and number and again told me not to worry. I went out onto the run course, having only had Coke for the last 65 miles. I hoped to regain my stomach and started with my race belt, only to discard it within a mile as it only seemed to make me feel worse and the food in it didn’t have any appeal. I carried some gels and dropped them in a chair on the run course. Rob ran by me and cheered me on, I felt better than I had in New Zealand, believe it or not. I was in much better shape than the other race and on schedule to be much faster. While on the run course, a local hero went by me on his hand cycle, Bob. He is a paralyzed from the waist down. Seeing him gave me an instant boost of optimism and sense of renewed energy. I was, however, falling behind my watch. I dropped ice cubes in my bra, poured water over my head and started running the marathon shuffle. I just kept going, and going, seeing my two other friends and cheering them with a high five as we passed one another.

Finally, finally, I approach the last mile of the race and the grassy shoot to the finish. The cheering and the knowledge that I am going to finish my second Ironman and in almost less than one hour from the previous one, urges me forward. I enter the shoot, the sun is still in the sky and it seems the cheering is really loud. I feel a huge sense of emotion and raise my hands in the air thinking how much I love these people and how incredible I feel at this very moment. It is as if time stands still, all else disappears except the cheering and the finish line. I hear the race announcer say my name with his Australian accent, over the loudspeaker, pronouncing that I am an Ironman. I see Rob standing there and I start to feel the tears well in my eyes. He hugs me and congratulates me. Then a volunteer puts a towel over my shoulders and starts to walk me to the massage tent. Rob grabs me and says, ‘wait just a minute’. I look at him and wonder what he is up to. The announcer says something to him and another racer crosses the line. Again, the volunteer tries to get me out of the finish area and Rob stops him. The announcer hands Rob the microphone and he says, over the loudspeaker and looking into my eyes, “Chessell McGee will you marry me?” Already choked with emotion I sob, “Yes!” And the cheering continues. Pretty soon there is a photographer taking our photo and we kiss for the camera. I later find out that our engagement makes it to the official race DVD and while I had forgotten much of that moment, I apparently said to the camera, “Wow, I had to work hard for that!” While I was still racing Rob got an official to make sure my time was set and they had all my times recorded!

We stayed at the finish shoot until our other friends crossed the line, what a difference from IM New Zealand! Together we cheered until the last finisher crossed the line, a woman who had done over 20 Ironman competions! Now, onto the wine region, oh, and Tahiti on the way home!

1 comment:

liz said...

ok seriously, most people don't even show up to a desk job with food poisoning...amazing story -and, of course, that ending is like something from a movie!