It’s funny how time can pass in the blink of an eye, yet also move at a snail’s pace, both at the same time. This was one of my thoughts at mile 22 on the run course for Ironman Texas. While I had been on the course for nearly 13 hours, suddenly, and strangely surprisingly, it would all be over in 4 miles. The months of training, planning, and anxiety. I considered slowing down to make it last longer. It reminded me of those meticulously set up chains of dominos — weeks or months to set up, and seconds to topple.
In my earlier post, I talked about my months of preparation and training. This past week, it was go time.
I’d spent so much time thinking of Ironman as this impossible thing. Even though I know plenty of others that have done it, I viewed all of them as uber-athletes, super fit people who seemed naturally athletically gifted.
At packet pickup, I realized quickly that Ironman is like all other triathlons: There are people of every age and size participating in this race. Somehow I thought it was all going to be these super-athlete types, with me sticking out like a sore thumb. I could not have been more wrong.
Packet pickup, bike check, gear bags
Packet pickup was like any other race: waiting in lines, signing the death waiver, getting your bracelet, checking your timing chip, picking up the sparse swag bag, and being funneled through the “gift shop” to leave.
Bike check was on Friday by 3:00pm, and that’s where you also had to drop your bike and run bags. SO MANY BAGS. Ironman is different in that you don’t set up a transition area. Nothing goes near your bike at all. Rather, you place all your bike leg accessories in one bag (shoes, helmet, etc), and all your run stuff in another bag. Then those bags remain outside transition, where you claim them after the swim and bike legs. Then you have three additional bags: two for “special needs” that you can access midway through bike and run legs, and a “morning” bag for stuff that you were wearing in the morning plus anything you thought you might want access to after the race.
THE BAGS for me were the worst stress. There are so many articles online about what to put in the stupid bags beyond the necessities. I HATE over-packing, just in general, so these bags were a weeklong source of stress. I probably had four or five lists around my house with what I was going to put in them.
Here’s what I had in mine:
BIKE BAG: Bike shoes, helmet, socks, sunglasses, sunscreen, chamois cream, extra pair of contacts (in case I lose them in the swim — it’s never happened before, but still)
RUN BAG: Running shoes, race belt with number, socks, three gels, salt tabs, chamois cream, sunscreen, PB&J sandwich, small bag of potato chips, extra contacts, spare pair of glasses (thinking I might be really tired of wearing contacts after 8 hours), Aleve (suspecting I might have a headache after so long in the heat on the bike, and I did)
BIKE SPECIAL NEEDS (you don’t get this bag back at the end of the race): spare bike tube, spare CO2 cartridge, PB&J, chamois cream, sunscreen
RUN SPECIAL NEEDS: I didn’t use this one. Everything I would need would come from aid stations or my race belt.
MORNING BAG: Warm clothes for after the race, a little cash, phone, baby wipes (for a quick wipe-down after the race)
Once I actually dropped off the bike/run bags and saw how it all worked, it was no big deal. You can still access your bags on race morning, so if there was something you forgot or needed to move, it wasn’t a problem. I was annoyed that I had let it stress me out so much.
Another thing they don’t tell you? You will become an amateur meteorologist in the weeks prior to your race, analyzing the jet stream, pondering how the weather two weeks earlier in Guam might later affect weather in Texas.
Typical weather for IMTX is hot (80-90 degrees), humid (70%), and windy (18-20 mph winds, typically from the south). Two weeks out, that’s what the weather looked like. Then about a week out, the temp prediction dropped to 75 degrees and light winds. Day by day, the predicted temperature crept back up, and by race morning, the high was back at 84 degrees. However the winds were still light, so that would mean less battling headwinds (and no corresponding tailwind push).
I had gone to bed at 9:00 the night before, and actually slept pretty well, waking just before my 3:30am alarm. I had coffee to get things moving, then oatmeal (my typical breakfast) before heading to the race site with Megan (my Air BnB roomie). We parked easily and made our way to transition to drop off our special needs bags, and add our water and nutrition bottles to our bikes. Then it was about a 20-minute walk to the swim start.
That’s when it struck me how many people were there. I think there were about 2500 registered, but they had all brought three and four friends/family with them, it seemed, so the swim start was super chaotic. Again I was struck by the wide variety of people there, and how it really did seem like any other race — it didn’t feel like some big huge thing to me. Maybe that’s how my brain decided to deal with it — just thinking of this as a long training day.
I felt pretty good, too — no aches or pains, and honestly not that much anxiety. At that point, I had done all the training, and the race was going to be it’s own organism–I would do the best I could, and try to make good decisions, but the ultimate outcome was an unknown. And despite race week anxiety, I found myself calm and feeling prepared on race day.
The swim was a rolling start, meaning you were supposed to line up behind the sign corresponding to your anticipated swim time. I chose the 1:31 – 1:40 group. I had finished the 70.3 Puerto Rico swim in about 43 minutes, so that seemed realistic for me. A big surprise this year — the IM Texas swim was wetsuit legal due to a cold snap the week before. Having done the practice swim the day before, I knew the water was cool and pleasant, with low visibility — a typical lake swim.
And almost before I realized what was happening, the race began. We started inching forward and I took some deep breaths. Then there I was in the water and this whole thing was starting.
The course is a long out-and-back, then you turn down a channel for the final third part of the swim. My friend Christine Meyer had told me that for her IM last year, she never felt more at peace than during the swim. It wasn’t like that for me! This was a full-on contact sport. I’ve never been kicked and hit so much in any race. Almost right away, I got clocked square in the jaw. In most races, the field spreads out a bit and you get some space to yourself, but that never happened — it was crowded the whole way. Furthermore, there were already people breast-stroking and back-stroking, not even 1000 yards into the race. It certainly kept my brain busy trying to avoid people. The first buoys were yellow, and sighting was pretty simple. At one point I worried that I could not see the next yellow buoy — then I realized that the next buoy was red: I was already at the first turn. I couldn’t believe it! More jostling and such on the final two sections, then it was all over. Swimming 90 minutes at the pool is so boring, but the time just flew by in open water. I had anticipated 1:30 for my swim, and I finished in 1:28, so pretty much right on.
Transitions are totally different in a full IM (or at least an Ironman branded one). After coming out of the swim, you head through a chute and a volunteer helps you find your bike bag. Once grabbing that, you head to the changing tent (one for men, one for women). That’s where you change into bike clothes (if you are changing; I didn’t — I raced the whole thing in the same outfit).
Okay guys — I know you all have your locker room fantasies, but I’m not sure you would picture dozens of panicked half-naked women smearing sunscreen and chamois cream everywhere frantically. It kind of reminded me of M*A*S*H where they had big emergency tents and someone would yell “INCOMING” and all hell would break loose. It was a decidedly non-sexy moment amidst the smell of coconut oil and menthol. Those poor volunteers.
I stuffed my wetsuit in the bag, smeared on sunscreen, and unzipped my one-piece to cram chamois cream on the undercarriage (chamois cream re-application, I am sure, saved me from chafing hell later). I popped on my helmet and sunglasses, and race shoes, and crammed a fig bar in my mouth as I headed out to my bike. In retrospect, I could have hustled more in transition, but what difference would three or four extra minutes make in the long run? I had decided not to rush through transitions.
This leg had been my biggest worry leading up to the race. I’d had a lot of problems with my tri bike lately, and made a late decision to use my road bike instead, with added aerobars. I had been having terrible saddle pain and shoulder pain on my long rides. My strategy here was to use a metric ton of chamois cream, and try to move around and stretch as much as I reasonably could.
The plan for the bike leg was to keep my power/effort low enough so that I still had plenty in the tank for the run. So effort-wise, this was my easiest ride. Nutrition was the other emphasis; the bike leg is your best chance to replenish calories and electrolytes. I had practiced with Hammer Perpetuem, a drink mix, and it had worked well for me, giving me no digestive trouble. So I carried two bottles of that with me (enough to supply calories for four hours), plus I had mixed and frozen two additional bottles for my special needs bag, which I could access at mile 63. My front aero bottle contained water, and I had another supplemental water bottle on the bike. I replenished water at the aid stations. In addition to the liquid calories, I had six fig bars in my bento box (two per hour), and Endurolytes, capsules containing salt and electrolytes.
In Puerto Rico, I had big trouble with nutrition. I don’t think I drank enough water, and I definitely didn’t get enough salt/electrolytes because I crumbled on the run. So for IMTX I planned to double my salt intake. This would come back to haunt me later.
The first 12 or 14 miles of the bike course wove through city streets, with lots of turns. People were bunched up and it would have been difficult to really gun it. That was a good thing for me, and it made it easier to keep my effort low. The main part of the course was a two loop highway section, with each loop about 40 miles. The road conditions were good, and mainly flat, but with no shade. They had closed one side of the highway for us, and there were a good five lanes, lots of space.
The first 40 or 50 miles went by so fast! I felt comfortable, kept eating and drinking, and taking salt tabs whether I was hungry or not. The light winds meant that you didn’t have to deal with a lot of headwind, and even though my power/watts were low, I was averaging around 18-19 mph. All good, and at the 56 mile mark, I was just under 3:00.
Any Ironman will tell you: There will be dark times. The first of those dark moments for me came at around mile 70 when abdominal cramps set in. This was something I had never experienced before on the bike. My best guess was that I had taken too much salt, since I was taking twice as much salt as I had in Puerto Rico, and than I had training in much cooler temperatures.
Man, were they painful. The other reason I suspected salt was that I was bloated–my gut was clearly distended. I tried to tell myself that the cramps would probably just work themselves out, and that I had a good two hours left on the bike for that to happen. But the cramps were really hard to deal with, and they were stealing my focus. So I pulled over at an aid station and stretched out. This definitely seemed to help. The cramping was still there, but it wasn’t as bad. I laid off the salt and just drank water, hoping to dilute the salt already in my body. Basically, I just really wanted to get out of a fetal position, but still had miles to go.
Miles 70-100 just weren’t great with the cramps. My effort dropped, and I popped up a lot to try to stretch and keep the cramps from getting worse. I really did believe that as soon as I was off the bike, the cramps would go away, or at least lessen. It was so nice to see that 100 mile marker. I had officially biked farther than I had ever cycled before in one session, and now there were just 12 miles to go. Better yet, those last miles were back on city streets, offering a nice change of scenery.
In those final miles, I took stock of my legs: They felt pretty good! And my mind felt good too — very clear and sharp. I felt like I’d eaten and hydrated enough, and I pretty happy to get off that bike!
Bike time: 6:28
It’s hard not to think about how much better my time would have been if I had not been dealing with cramps, but I’d wager it might have been 15 minutes shorter. Hard to say.
I should make note of the big IMTX controversy this year: The HUGE pelotons/draft packs that were rampant. Cyclists are supposed to allow six bike lengths in from of them and behind them to avoid a drafting advantage. Course marshals are supposed to enforce this, issuing penalties to those caught drafting. There were no marshals on the course, and I saw at least four enormous draft packs of about 50 people each — all of them cheating by drafting. A lot has already been written on this. You can read more here and here .
I was awfully happy to get off that bike. Once I glided into transition, a volunteer took my bike for me and racked it (so nice!), and I went to retrieve my run bag. At that point, my stomach was trying to decide what it was doing. the cramps lingered, but were not nearly as bad now that I was upright. But there was also some gurgling going on, which necessitated a pit stop at the port-o-potties. I felt better after that, and headed to the changing tent to swap out my shoes, put on my race belt and reapply chamois cream and sunscreen. Volunteers in the tent were there to help with your bag and fetch you water, and they took your bag when you were done.
T2 time: 18:21 LONG owing to the pit stop, mainly.
I had been wondering when I might feel a little emotional on the course. As I left the changing tent for the run course, there was a big arch to mark the beginning. I stopped right there and thought “I’m no longer GOING to do an Ironman… I AM doing an Ironman.”
The run course was three loops of about 8.5 miles each. It allowed me to stop thinking “now I have to run a marathon” and just break it up into three. I told myself that my first loop would be the “fun” loop — I would high-five kids, thank volunteers, sing along with music, and try to soak up the crowd support. Then for the 2nd loop, I decided the theme was “focus and form.” I would try to keep my shoulders relaxed, lean forward, stay steady. Then the third loop would simply be “pain.” Nutrition-wise, I had three gels with me. My stomach was still weird, so I stuck to liquid calories and began taking salt again (though less than I had been on the bike). I took Gatorade and Coke at the aid stations, along with the occasional piece of banana; I really didn’t want more than that. (This is typical of me for a marathon–I don’t generally want to eat much.)
By now, the temperature was at its highest for the day, about 85 degrees. My plan for the run (thanks coach Ben) was to keep my heart rate in the low 130s so I’d have enough in the tank to last for the whole run. Personally, I did NOT want to be one of those people that runs 9 minute miles for the first few miles, and by the halfway point, is walking. I had a strong desire to run the whole marathon, confining walking to aid stations.
Keeping my HR low would help me get through the hottest part of the day, then hopefully when the heat started to drop off, I’d be able to push it more. Now, keeping my HR that low in that heat was going to mean a very slow pace, and I knew that if I saw 11:30 minute miles on my watch, then temptation would be there to run faster. So I adjusted my watch so that I ONLY saw HR, not time or pace.
I quickly found that I could not keep my HR as low as 130. The best I could do (and still be moving) was 139/140, so accepted that and decided to keep in there until mile 20. Then if I had anything left, I could push it for the last 10K.
The crowd support on the run was really great, with long stretches packed with spectators, along with several ‘themed’ sections, including the famed “Moxie bridge” with music and staff from a local fitness studio dressed in speedos and skimpy outfits. This year, their theme was ‘police’ so there were hats and handcuffs. They were a lot of fun. Another group called themselves “hippie hollow” and were dressed in flower-power outfits. After dark, they had lots of glow sticks. A third area was just… full of drinking. I could not discern a theme other than getting really drunk, and by my third loop around, these people were completely sloshed and slurring their words.
The course is mainly flat, with some shady parts, so that was a nice break from the heat. I found that though I was not running quickly, I was already passing people who had overdone it on the bike course. I probably passed 200 or 300 people just on the run course, which felt pretty good.
As I rounded a corner at about mile 5, I heard my name, and was surprised to see my cousin Bruce from San Antonio — he came to watch for a while. I had traveled to Texas on my own, without anyone to cheer for me, so it was really great to see him. (My friends Megan and Kim did have their families with them, so I got some cheers from them when I saw them.)
I had a great time on the run. It was tough to keep pulling myself back from running too fast, but I knew it would work in the end and allow me to keep going. Slow running also let me chat with people on the course, and try to encourage them. I stopped to help a guy who was turning green. He said he felt like throwing up. I told him if he did, he’d feel a lot better. He ended up being one of the final finishers at midnight. I met people from Italy, France, Belgium and Venezuela. The first loop flew by.
Then at about mile 10, I had more dark moments, and I really wasn’t sure why. I felt okay. Maybe it was the heat getting to me. My toes had gone numb on my left foot, but that’s kind of normal for me. Still, I can’t quite pinpoint why I hit a low point right then, but miles 10-13 were my slowest. Then I sort of snapped out of it.
Then suddenly, I was on the last loop: just 8ish more miles. I was still trying to keep my pace low, telling myself to wait until mile 20 to push. I felt like I was being pretty consistent. Then there it was: the 20 mile marker. I started letting my HR creep higher, along with my pace, but it quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to suddenly start running 9 minute miles. The side cramps were threatening to return, and I just wasn’t feeling great, so I decided to just continue the pace I had been doing, stepping it up a bit as my energy allowed.
Things started to get very weird after mile 22. This whole thing was soon going to be over. I was going to hit the red carpet. I hadn’t even thought about what I would “do” at the finish line (classic arms-aloft in victory? the ‘jumping shot?). I did have enough forethought to take the sponges out of my visor–who wants a finish line photo with sponges on their head? Those last four miles were tough (although mile 24 was my second fastest), but I knew they would soon be over. The sun was just setting. I’d be finishing just after dusk.
Run time: 5:03
In the end, I ran a negative split for the run (running the second half faster than the first half).
The finish line
I completed the third run loop and followed the signs for “finish.” The spectators went bonkers when I made that turn, and from there on out, it was a wall of sound. I hit the finish chute, which was a 50-yard downhill section, then a U-turn, then a small uphill into the final chute. The whole chute was lined with people, just like you see in pictures. People held out their hands for high fives, but I went within myself at that point, and thought, for the first time “holy shit, I’ve actually done this.” Floodlights blinded me as I hit the red carpet and heard the words “CHRISTINE FRIETCHEN, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” (And Mike Reilly even pronounced my name correctly!)
I crossed the finish line, and immediately saw Sarah Hartman; she is a former BTC member who now works for Ironman, and she made sure she was there to congratulate me and snap a picture.
From there, a volunteer named Max was my ‘handler.’ Each finisher gets a dedicated volunteer to make sure they are okay medically, and to usher them to the finisher area. Max asked me “how do you feel” and I simply did not know how to answer. My legs didn’t feel like they were going to collapse, but I definitely wanted to sit down or lie down. My stomach was flip-flopping and I wasn’t sure if I might throw up (I didn’t). So I said “I feel okay. Where are the chairs?”
I had my picture taken, got my finisher shirt, and found the finisher food (nothing vegan). The chairs were mainly occupied by spectators and I asked a group “could someone who has not raced please give me a chair?” and they did.
I just sat and stretched out and tried to let my stomach calm itself. In the weeks prior to the race, I tried not to think much about my finish time. Mainly, I wanted to race well, consistently, and not fall apart. And I did that. And what’s more, I did it in 13:31 — a time I would not have thought possible. My best guess was that I would finish somewhere in the low 14-hour range.
I picked a few beans out of a burrito, downed a bottle of water, and was feeling less queasy. I went to find Megan’s family, and hear how she was doing. She and Kim were still on the run course. I went back to transition to pick up my bike, and my bags, and took then to the car. It felt good to just keep moving. I stretched out a bit, then headed back to the finish line to cheer for other racers. I missed Kim’s finish, but I was there to see Megan cross the line. The three of us rendezvoused, shared some champagne and congratulations, snapped some pictures, then we headed back to the Air BnB. I got to bed about 2:00am.
The days after
I slept poorly Saturday after the race. Soreness was setting in, and I was ravenous. I got up around 7:00 and ate something. We spent the remainder of the day relaxing and walking gingerly. By Monday morning I was feeling good — fatigued to be sure, but nothing that was worrisome. I felt like I do after a marathon.
On Monday morning, in the kitchen of the Air BnB, I clipped off my Ironman bracelet, marking the end of race weekend for me.
What a wonderful experience. Are there things I would do differently next time? For sure. But I honestly felt that I gave my very best, leaving everything I had out there on the course. For the first time in a long time, I feel PROUD of my race, and that feels great. I am also riding on an “I can do anything” wave, and thinking about what to do next. But first, some recovery, and some Texas tourism.
If you are a triathlete, you should think seriously about doing an Ironman. Carving out enough time for training is the main thing. After all that training, the race itself kind of felt short. It still seems unbelievable that I ran a marathon AFTER already racing for 8 hours. The entire time, my mind was clear, and tried hard to take it all in. Will I do another one? I decided out on the run course, probably around mile 18, that I was open to it. I wondered how I would feel, and there was my answer. I had wondered whether I really was meant for long courses. Apparently I am. I am an Ironman, after all.
Thank you to my great coach and amateur psychoanalyst, Ben Kessel who believed in me even when I wasn’t so sure myself. Thanks to my Brooklyn Tri Club teammates, who were endlessly supportive and in the days leading up to the race, were more excited for me than I was. Special shout-outs to the ladies in the club that have done an iron-distance race.
Thanks for my west-coast compatriots, Megan Tobin and Kim Hollingdale, my virtual training partners and source of endless laughs. You guys were amazing to race with, and just hang out with. I really underestimated how much that support would mean. Shout out to SMOG and South Bay Triathletes for the encouragement as well.
Every once in a while during the race, I would think about how many people were tracking me all day, and even watching me finish on the live feed. I’m touched and humbled, and just so thankful to you for doing that. I could hear your cheers in my head during the day!