I was lucky this year to have some wonderful race support — usually I’m on my own. It was a real joy to see my cousins Jen and Mac (on my right) and their friends, along with my friend Bud (on my left), who took and posted lots of photos and collected my gear for me.
Why I Picked Ironman Santa Rosa
I set my sights on Ironman Santa Rosa a year ago, when I went to support a friend. I had in mind that it might be a good second IM for me — I like big spring races as the training keeps me motivated through the long New York winters. I was interested to see how I would feel going into IM #2. My lead up to IM Texas in 2018, my first full-distance tri, was a 50/50 blend of terror and excitement. This time around, there was wayyyy less dread, and more just enjoyable anticipation.
Santa Rosa seemed to have a lot going for it.
On the upside:
- Potentially mild spring weather
- Flat run course
- Reasonable bike elevation gain (about 4,000 feet)
- Mild swim that’s wetsuit legal
- Pretty destination
On the downside:
- Notoriously bad roads
- Potential wind
- Little spectator support on the run course
- Not a closed bike course
- Expensive lodging, not very close to an airport
Pre-Race and Logistics
Ironman Foundation offered a volunteer project with this race on Thursday. Santa Rosa was deeply effected by wildfires two years ago, and we worked in a neighborhood where 175 homes had burned to the ground and was in the process of being rebuilt. A group of about 40 of us cleared debris and burned branches from a watershed area that’s important for salmon spawning. I appreciated meeting some of the people that lost their homes and were building back their lives. The fire jumped the road and they evacuated at 1:30am. They had no time to grab anything — just their pets and family and nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Many areas look just like this — remnants of a small pool, with everything else gone. But you can see homes being rebuilt, and wildflowers are coming back.
After the volunteer project, I headed to packet pickup, which was just fine. The expo is on the smaller side, but it’s right in downtown Santa Rosa, surrounded by bars, restaurants, and bookshops. It’s a nice location. Race swag included a backpack, a bunch of flyers, and a plastic wine-bottle shaped bag (so you could buy a bottle of wine and pack it in your checked luggage). I grabbed my stuff and met up with Brooklyn Tri Club teammates for dinner and margaritas downtown.
Santa Rosa is a two-transition race, so you drop off your run bag downtown near the finish, then your bike and bike gear goes to swim start/T1, a 40-mile drive north of Santa Rosa. There’s something disconcerting about driving all that way to drop off your bike, and it’s the same reason I dislike marathons that shuttle you to a start line: when you drive it, you can’t help thinking “This is FAR.”
A lot of people seemed to find it helpful to hear what I put in my race bags. At packet pickup, you get 5 bags. Some people bring the kitchen sink. I’m kind of a minimalist and tend to bring just essentials. I knew they would have sunscreen at transition, so I didn’t worry about that.
Bike Bag — gets dropped at bike check-in, and you do have access to it on race morning
- Bike shoes
- Single pack of chamois cream
- Extra pair of contact lenses
- Small towel
Run Bag — dropped at T2 on Friday. You won’t see this bag until race day after the bike.
- Running shoes
- Backup pair of socks
- Single pack of chamois cream
- Advil (8 hours in the sun can give me a headache)
- Race belt with race number + 3 gels and salt tablets
Bike Special Needs — you can access this bag once, at about mile 70. You do not get this bag back at the end of the race. For my first IM, I put extra tubes, CO2, a PB&J sandwich, and other stuff in this bag and didn’t need or want any of it. So this year, I only put one backup bottle of nutrition in that bag.
Run Special Needs — you can access this bag twice on the run course. I literally could not think of anything I would need, and did not want an excuse to stop running. I didn’t use this bag.
Morning Clothes — this bag is for anything you want to have at the finish line if you don’t have a friend that can hold on to a change of clothes, phone, hotel key, etc. I didn’t need to use this bag as I had a friend supporting me.
After dropping off all my stuff, I dipped a toe in the lake, but did not do a practice swim (you could if you wanted it). The water seemed really nice, around 65 degrees, which is my favorite temperature.
IM Santa Rosa Race Day
My goals for this race, early on, had been to come in under 13 hours, but in the last six weeks, I didn’t feel that wasn’t realistic. Based on my performance in training, I expected about 1:30 for the swim, 6:45 for the bike, and 5 for the run, which including transitions would have me finishing around 13:30, pretty much on par with IM Texas (which had a much faster bike course).
I slept well the night before, and woke up feeling good on race morning. I prepped my nutrition bottles, had a PB&J, and attempted to braid my hair (I’m not good at it). The weather was great – about 50 degrees before dawn, rising to just 70 during the day.
The official way to get to the start is to take an athlete shuttle bus from downtown. But I knew from last year that it’s pretty easy to drive to the start and be dropped off, especially if you get there early enough. Bud drove and got me there at 5:15 am, before the shuttle buses even started showing up. The catch to this is that while spectators can park and watch the swim start, they can’t leave until almost everyone is out of the water and on the bike course.
In transition, the only thing I needed to do was pump up my tires and stick my nutrition bottles and bike computer on my bike. After that, I headed towards swim start and hung out down there, at the bottom of a long boat ramp. There are lots of toilets down there, and I had them to myself as everyone else was waiting in line for the toilets in transition.
The swim is in Lake Sonoma, a man-made reservoir up in the Sonoma County hills. It’s a large lake, but Ironman only gets to use a small part of it, so the swim course is two loops, going under that good-looking bridge. You exit the water after the first loop to cross a timing mat. It’s a self-seeded start — you’re supposed to estimate your finish time and start with that group.
I knew from others that the swim can be crowded around the turn buoys, especially when the early starters begin to lap the people still on the first loop. I’m not a fast swimmer, but at least I keep swimming consistently, and I know a lot of people seeding themselves in my 1:20 – 1:30 group would be novices or under-trained. So my strategy was to swing wide of the buoys to avoid the chaos, and this worked very well. All around the turn buoys people were treading water and breast stroking (WHY??), and I was able to zip around them. It did mean that I added some yardage to my swim, but for me it was worth it to be able to stay consistent and horizontal in the water. I glanced at my watch after the first loop and saw 40 minutes, which is really good for me.
I came out of the second loop feeling awesome. Swim out was up a long and steep boat ramp, which I walked/jogged. No issues in T1. My goal was to be efficient but not rush. I re-applied chamois cream, made a bathroom stop, and was ready to go.
My Garmin shows that I swam long since it was outside of the buoys, but I’m really pleased with my time, which was a 5-minute improvement over IM Texas.
Swim: 1:24:15, 4450 yards
IMSR Bike Course
My plan for the two-loop bike was to hold 160-180 watts and focus on getting all my nutrition in. The course is rolling hills, with only one hill I’d call challenging. The real challenge is the road condition. I had heard people complaining last year, but wow — they were terrible, especially on the east side of the loop. If I’d realized how bad they were, I would have gone with a wider tire, maybe switched to tubeless, and pumped to a lower psi. As it was, I was stuck with my 23mm tires pumped to 100 psi, and it was rough.
Despite the crappy roads, the views are gorgeous — vineyards and farms everywhere you look, and at that this time of the year (May), everything is blooming. Around every corner was a view that could have been a post card.
The plan was going well — I was right in the watt range I wanted, which meant average speeds of a little over 17 mph. Then at about mile 47, there was a particularly awful patch of road with broken up asphalt and potholes, impossible to avoid them, and I heard the tell-tale tone change from my bike. I knew I had a rear flat.
I pulled over and got out my tools. I’m a competent flat-changer, so I was not too worried about getting it fixed (the culprit was a piece of wire I had to dig out of my tire with my teeth). I also noticed that my rear bottle cage had loosened up given the road vibration. I changed the flat, and tightened my cages, and was back on the road. But something was different. My mojo was gone; my legs weren’t loose anymore, and it was a grind re-passing all the people I’d passed in the last hour. I saw a ton of people also with flats. I had draped my busted tube around my neck, and at the next aid station tossed it to a volunteer who had a whole collection of them. I clearly wasn’t the only one.
The west side of the loop wasn’t too bad as far as road condition, but before I knew it I was back on the shitty east side again with 40 miles to go, and the winds had really picked up along with the car traffic. Cars were turning in and out in front of us, trying to drive around us, and those darned winds just slow you down. For a while I still held out hope that I might make the bike under 7 hours, but it was not to be. I figure I lost 15 minutes to the flat.
Bike split: 7:11:50
Though I wasn’t very happy with my bike split, my normalized power was 164 watts, still in range of where I wanted to be, and that’s counting 15 minutes of stopped time.
But it could have been worse — at least I was able to fix my own flat. And I felt pretty good — my shoulders/traps were all knotted up from being in aero so long, but I had managed to consume almost all of my nutrition without any major digestive issues. My saddle comfort was okay — I was definitely ready to be off the bike, but did not have any searing pain. Shout out to my cousins Jen and Mac, who I saw three or four times on the bike course, which was awesome!
Cruising into downtown Santa Rosa, a volunteer took my bike from me and made sure I turned off my bike computer. This is a perk of doing a full race that is SO nice. It was a long way to the changing tent, so instead of running in my bike shoes, I just took them off. Other racers saw me do that and did the same. Felt good to get those shoes off.
In T1, I applied more chamois cream, changed shoes, and took the Advil I packed. I was glad to have it — I had a headache and knew it would help. I had to make a bathroom stop, then was on my way. I saw Bud heading out on the run and he took a video that made me look way better than I felt.
The run is three loops in a city park, part concrete and part dirt trail, that runs along a stream. It’s very shady. It’s also not very accessible to spectators, and because it runs through a residential area, there was no music. It was very quiet and pretty, though I probably could have used a little music or cheering sections.
I felt pretty okay, and started out running 10:30s, but that didn’t last long. Nothing specific hurt, I just felt overall fatigue. I also didn’t feel like eating anything — certainly not my gels. I started sticking pieces of bananas in my cheeks and just kind of letting them disintegrate, and that seemed good.
I knew I would get to see my friend Megan at the turnaround — she would be at a water station. I heard her way before I saw her and her daughter, and that really gave me a lift. Then it was back to quiet. I had to rearrange my brain at that point. I have a strong desire not to walk an Ironman marathon. I realize that’s a lot of people’s plan, and that’s fine. But for me, I don’t feel like I should even be doing an Ironman if I don’t think I can run the marathon. So I slowed down and just tried to take it easy — running slowly, but trying not to shuffle my feet or hunch up my shoulders.
I had joked with other friends doing the race that I wanted to finish without a head lamp — basically finish before dark. On the back part of the final loop, it was definitely dark, but I never used a head lamp! Nothing in particular blew up, but my Strava splits showed I just gradually slowed down over the miles. I never walked more than through the aid stations, and I’m happy about that.
I saw my cousins again a couple of times on the run course, and saw Megan two more times, and I looked forward to those moments. I was happy to see that 25 mile marker. I knew that in about 10 minutes, I’d get to follow the ” TO FINISH ” sign instead of the “LAP 2 and 3” sign.
Triathlon is a Stupid Sport
As usual on the run course, I chatted with people along the way. I was jogging past a couple of guys that were talking together, and heard one of them say “This is stupid.” I laughed and he thought I was offended. I replied “No, you’re right. This IS stupid. The distances are arbitrary, there’s zero purpose to it, and it’s a bizarre way to spend your free time.”
But this is what we choose to do. And there’s a real beauty in doing things that aren’t just physically hard, but that also challenge your mental toughness, your patience, your relationship with yourself, and your sense of confidence and hard work. And yes, it’s fun; it’s rewarding and gives you such a sense of accomplishment. It allows you to feel proud of yourself, and of your self-reliance, in a way that you just do not get from a job.
And as a 49 year old woman who was never an athletic kid or teenager, and who’s never going to “win” anything, there’s a peace in doing something just for the process, and for the discipline of it. In doing the best you can on a given race day, with the myriad unpredictable and changing conditions that a full-distance race guarantees. It’s a celebration of what your body can do, and of the relationship between your muscles and your mind.
My cousin Jen took this picture — I love that it’s so fuzzy. It captures not only my emotion in the moment, but also her excitement taking the picture!
The red carpet is too short. After 14+ hours, you kind of expect it to be longer. As I turned into the finish chute, I saw my cousin’s friends there to high-5 me, screaming my name. I heard the announcer call my name, and “from Brooklyn” and I heard my friend Bud but could not see him because of the floodlights in my eyes.
I crossed the line, exhaled, and stopped my watch. A volunteer asked me if I was okay. I said I was, and it was true. For the first time, I had friends and family waiting for me at the finish line of a big race. How lovely they chose to spend their day like this. I was so appreciative.
Run split: 5:17.
I had a little food, some vegetable paella that I didn’t really want to eat, but knew I should. I had half a beer, and that tasted much better. Bud had thought to bring a blanket to the finish, which was great because it had gotten chilly and I was shivering. I was really happy about that blanket.
Total: 14:15, 35th out of 70 in my age group, so solidly average 🙂
The Day After
It’s wine country! So the next day, I met up with my Brooklyn Tri Club teammates for brunch, and then we hit up a couple of wineries and had a wonderful day celebrating.
Congratulations to all IMSR finishers, thanks to all of the wonderful volunteers, and to all of my friends and family that tracked me and reached out with well wishes. It was a great day, and I look forward to whatever is next!