IM USA
By Alison Colavecchia
8.19.02 (www.slowtwitch.com)

Race Ready
My aim was to get to the starting line of my first Ironman without sacrificing my family life, my job or my sanity. I nearly made it. Then whammo! A couple of weeks ago I became the preoccupied triathlete from the planet of Lost Ironsouls. Usually sharp as a tack but tardy, I became flaky, forgetful, highly inefficient and distracted. I started not just to wonder but dwell on such things as gearing ratio’s and cassettes, new running shoes versus old shoes. Mentally, I moved into my body examining the origins and catastrophic possibilities of every tweak and twinge. Nothing escaped my notice. Hard training seemed to feel if not better, more reassuring that all was still as it should be. My sleep became disrupted with images of body parts failing, breaking and twisting in a most unusual assortment of ways. I resumed my intake of 3:45am warm milk.

Then within a few days of the race, my pre-race calm hit. I acknowledged that I had done my best with the time I had at my disposal, that I had attended to every serious ache and pain and learned to ignore the incidental stuff. I found myself back in my place of peace. I was again buoyed by the tunes on my race tape and enjoying the parade of cars with bikes on top that I love to see. I also remembered how much I love the intensity of race days.

So with 2 days to go, I have run the gamut of feeling ill prepared (tapering and doing less would appear to seed this fear) to feeling confident that I am as ready as I am ever going to be. I have done my frantic shopping for the things I believed would solve all potential problems but in reality served only to appease my anxiety. This has of course blown my budget entirely: new tires (good ones), new running shoes, new running outfit, new fanny pack, new goggles, inserts for my cycling shoes etc…

I have resolved many of my dilemmas about what to wear and what to eat. Mostly, I have opted for the simple, tried and true. I tried new cycling gloves but they just didn’t give me the same wiping-of- the-goo surface, so I am back to my old ones. I bought new running shoes but had not run in them enough to feel confident that they would be OK, so will stay in my current pair. I bought new running shorts and a patriotic tank top but will keep the same socks, same sports bra. Nothing too fancy for my nutrition either, just what has worked. I will be eating bananas, gels and PBJ’s, drinking Gatorade, Coke and water. I will bring along my favourite flavour of Gatorade but believe I can tolerate any of them. I will have my own supply of gels, as I know I cannot tolerate all of these. For me it’s Viva Vanilla Cliff shots and that’s it.

In terms of wardrobe, I am opting for comfort over speed in the transitions. I will wear a new `soooo glad I found them’ pair of cycling shorts (that have more padding than any other I have ridden in), a tri top and then switch to running shorts and a fresh tank top for the run. I will ride with a bento box, an aero bottle for Gatorade and one water bottle, leaving two bottle holders behind my seat for the refills. For the run, I have a new fanny pack that holds a single bottle and has two small pouches—one for gels and the other for a couple of Kleenex, pads (bladder control) and extra lenses for my glasses so that I can switch to clear if I am still going in the dark.

My greatest angst though has been around my bike, to change cassettes or not? One day I decide to switch to have a 12-25 instead of my 11-23, the next I figure I should go with what I already know and that it is too late for a change. My tune has changed dependent on the advice I have been given. In fact, I would say that doing an Ironman produces a similar stream of advice as that received prior to delivering your firstborn. I have accepted and listened to it all.

To make sure that all was in working order with my bike, I finally managed to get across town to Endurosport. Had my bike tuned up and did a fit review with Dan Rishworth. I have been experiencing numbness and then pain in my left big toe and wanted to see if there was anything related to my position/fit that might be causing it. He indicated that it was more likely a circulation issue than a bike positioning/fit issue and recommended shoe inserts. I am now armed with these plus a clean, overhauled bike. He indicated that it would have been best to have the bike checked over with the new cassette if I planned to switch. This would have allowed them to detect any problems with the chain and gearing after switching the cassette. So after much debate I will ride with what I know, the 11-23.

From a fitness perspective, I cannot imagine being any more ready than I am. I have Joel (Filliol-coach) to thank for this. Of all of the decisions I made to get to this point, hiring him was I believe the most instrumental in getting me to the start line. Barring minor stuff, I am here healthy, uninjured and far from overtrained.

The wildcards, the things beyond my control are numerous. There is the weather. Then there are my physical issues that, while they didn’t get any worse, did not go away either. These relate to my feet, right hamstring and stomach. I hope my feet will be happy as they have suffered from eczema and athletes foot (a holdover from my swimming days) with so much time in hot sweaty footwear. I imagine they will burn no matter what I wear but I have done my best. I will also wrap my hamstring for the run, as I have for the last number of weeks because it simply feels better wrapped than unwrapped. The knot has yet to be excised out! My stomach tends to get nauseous on the bike, especially in high heat, but usually settles quickly once I am on the run. Of course there are also a myriad of new things that could go wrong physically and at this point are completely unpredictable given that I have never raced this long and do not know how my body will respond. None of this is within my control at this time.

What about the mental aspect of the day? Do I have the necessary stuff? Am I mentally tough enough to keep going when I hurt, when I want to stop, when I am exhausted? This is where I believe my greatest challenge of the day will come. I will have to fend off old mental dragons to persevere, to remain focused and steady.

At this point, it’s Thursday and I have registered and picked up all of my goodies. With adolescent-like excitement, I even got Heather Fuhr’s autograph (very cool)! I tried out the Powercranks and faired well. Had my picture taken with my daughters under the 8:46 Finish Line sign and checked out the real finish line. I have ordered my finish photos even though it feels a bit like having the baby shower before the baby but I am hoping it will save standing time on monday. I will have tomorrow (friday) night to myself in a hotel room prior to my mom’s arrival saturday. This will be the first triathlon of mine that she has watched. I will pack all my race bags while on my own so I can obsess without distraction.

While waiting for sunday to come, I have helped stain a deck, been to the beach, watched a local band play a night concert, biked part of the route, swum in the lake and been for a run. My head moves in and out of my race plan. I have phrases that are with me, “strong and long” (swim), “steady” (bike), “the more you run, the faster you’re done” (run). But as I sit here, with my race bags all but actually packed, I also feel I have perspective. When I find myself overwhelmed, I remind myself that it is only a race. Mostly this balance comes from a family visit.

In April, my cousin, 6 months older than I and an avid runner, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She is one very spunky woman, a devoted wife and mom of two young boys. I went to visit her just two weeks ago. It was one of the hardest and best things I have done in my life. How could I not face up to the smallness of this Ironman endeavour in the face of her true battle? The courage and strength she and the whole family have shown has blown me away. Human beings though have always astounded me with their ability to overcome. So while this Ironman has been with me as a dream for the past five years, should something happen that prevents me from getting to the start or the finish line, I know I will be fine. Disappointed yes, crumbled no. I will have another chance if I wish it. Right now, I accept that I am blessed to have the health and family support that affords me this opportunity, the chance to fulfil a dream.

Good Luck to everyone else out there getting ready to race!

I am an Ironman
July 28th, 2002 was grand. I will live through it for years, probably decades, to come. It was everything I thought it would be and more. I was so happy just to be there, just to soak up the triathlon atmosphere. I tried hard to remember to thank people all day.

Ironday was as Scott (mentor) had promised a reliving of every emotion I had experienced throughout the weeks, months and years prior to race day, only in fast forward and condensed into one spectacular day. There was the anxiety in the morning over gear and the mass swim start, to the confidence of heading back in from the swim and later starting out on the run. There were the worries about the rain, getting a flat on the bike and over my nutritional status. There was relief that I could keep moving, offset later by fear that if I sat down I might not want to get back up. Indeed I worked hard all day to remain emotionally steady, not letting myself get distracted or overwhelmed by the feelings, either pleasant or unpleasant, that the day stirred up. I wanted to stay focused on getting to the finish line.

The swim was like no swim I have ever experienced in my life, and I’ve swum a lot! There were bodies everywhere. Being a fairly fast swimmer but uncertain about how I would manage in the crowd, I opted to be close to the front, but off to the side. I got whacked in the head, arms and legs—so hard once that the pin on my watch was knocked out and the face started to flap back and forth. I wasn’t sure what had happened so checked it out while running to start the second loop. As this was my only form of measurement for the day, I was concerned about losing it and so pulled my wetsuit sleeve over top of it to keep it intact. I swam off course a couple of times and didn’t really find any steady feet to follow. I came out of the water to the announcer describing Joe Bonness! I was so excited. I was screaming in my head “I AM OUT OF THE WATER WITH JOE BONNESS!” I knew our paths would not cross again but he had already made my day. While totally impressed with those wetsuit peelers I have to admit I was clueless over how to help them help me. Luckily they knew the routine and had me stripped in flash. Heading out onto the carpet, I ran by the kids, my niece and nephews who were waving and screaming. I waved and yelled back.

There were TWO volunteers who helped me to get changed into my cycling things. I have to say that as a Mom, who is usually busily preoccupied ensuring everyone else is dressed and ready to go, this was quite a treat. The only thing I forgot were my cycling gloves and this was not that big a deal. Heading out onto the bike, I saw my brother and father and waved some more. Then it was following the narrow and steep streets out to Highway 73.

Fear overcame me once I hit the highway and started the first climb. My legs were dead out of the water for the first time in years. I started reviewing reasons and solutions in my mind. Perhaps I hadn’t centered my brakes, so I stopped to check. They were fine. What else could I do? I kept going but was worried. People were passing me as though I was standing still. In all, over the hours about 900 people would pass me on the bike. Some of this I am quite accustomed to—being a good swimmer, I have always thought of it as waiting for my posse to catch up to me—but this was ridiculous! Then came the thrill of descending the Keene hill for the first time and the relief upon discovering that my dead legs were due to a head wind! Yippee! I was spinning again! I took the next few miles alongside the river to start eating and drinking. Then came the climb up #86. I appreciated those drummers near the base who offered up a nice rhythm for steady climbing. Then there were the steady rollers heading toward Wilmington and the Black Brook loop. At the corner of this loop waited my dear friend and her family who were so wonderfully energetic with their cheers!

On the out and back loop, I saw "Retroman" riding his one gear bike with the banana seat and jean cut-offs. I couldn’t believe it. I heard the guy behind me exclaim, "Did you see that?" Yup.

I finished my own supply of Gatorade and so grabbed a replacement bottle. After the first sip I realized that this was not the flavour I thought it was supposed to be! I had read on the website that it was to be Riptide Rush and had been using this flavour in my training. This was different, it was grape! The first sip made me gag. Not good. Guess I can’t tolerate any flavour of Gatorade…Luckily, I had put a bottle of my regular flavour in my special needs bag, just in case. Now I had to make it to the special needs….

The climb back into Lake Placid the first time seemed less awful than I thought it was going to be. I liked it that someone had written the names of the last few hills on the road. I wondered why they had not written the words in the right order? Instead of Baby Bear, they had written Bear up top and Baby right below it…go figure. I got mooned (by a threesome) at the corner of River St. before starting the series of climbs, and had a refreshing chuckle. When I made it to the top of Papa Bear, I had only ever driven straight on my reconnaissance trips. So when I got to where I thought the climb finished and was directed to turn right, I was a little worried. Ugh! We had to keep climbing. To make matters worse, there were lots of people and so of course you just had to gut it out. Then came the special needs pick-up. I flipped my bike completely over to dump the poopy grape Gatorade and grabbed my “good stuff”. It was going to have to last…Heading back out of town I caught all my family who had staked out their turf at the hairpin before the oval. It was so uplifting to see them all. By my clock I had been riding for 3 hours and 3 minutes. I was elated. Of course I would be reminded after the race that this was pure cycling time and NOT elapsed time!

Let the second loop begin…in the rain….

It had just started to spit as I was finishing my first loop and I was so hoping to get to the bottom of the Keene hill before it got too bad. If I could avoid it, I did not want to do that hill in the rain. I felt lucky when I got there, as the rain was still not that heavy and the road not too wet. Thinking of both my riding partner and the gentleman whose chalet we were staying at, I took their advice and decided not to brake for the second trip down. It was incredible. I had to say something to someone at the bottom (though not to the ambulance people hovering on the sidelines at the bottom). The gentleman who was riding just ahead of me acknowledged that the ride down had been something else.

While waiting for the next hills to come, I refuelled. I reached the drum folks yet again but found, even with the drumming, that the climb up #86 seemed longer this time, as did every other hill. The rain was getting heavier and heavier and I thought to myself that this weather had to reduce drafting. Who wanted all that muddy spray?

In my head, I had mapped out a few milestones to get through heading back to town. I had to descend the Keene hill, climb #86, climb into Wilmington, do the last hill coming out of the Black Brook loop and complete the final 6 miles of the trip into town. Doing those last 6 miles meant I had to climb Mama Bear and Papa Bear again. I became very focused on reaching each of these and mentally ticked each one off as it was accomplished.

Eating wise, I was able to get down half a banana, 1 gel and roughly a half-bottle of Gatorade per hour. Then every 2 hours I ate half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This was all washed down with lots of water. Surprisingly, I didn’t get all that nauseous but I did keep sticking my fingers into the middle of my sandwiches and so finally had to stop each time to take it out of my back pocket. Mental note—work on a new system.

Finally, I was heading back into town along Mirror Lake. I was so relieved. I was thinking that it might be better to be running but knew full well that this feeling wouldn’t last. Again the volunteers were amazing. They helped me strip down and get all dressed again. Being a swimmer and having given birth to 3 children I wasn’t too bashful but they held a towel up for me. After all, our instructions had said “no public nudity.” Was this public? Coming out of the change tent I saw my husband right in front of me. “Hi, honey,” I said and gave him a big kiss. Was this outside assistance? I grabbed a Gatorade and then went through the exit. As soon as I did I saw Carrie, my running partner and tri instigator. I was so thrilled to see her. I was thinking but couldn’t spit out, “Carrie, I am doing it, I am doing my Ironman.”

I felt great heading out on the run. It took a second for me to realize that the huge contingent of Canadians shouting “Go Canada” was screaming at me—at my shirt! I got all choked up yet again. I was just busting with pride. Quickly though I worked at getting my focus back. We started heading out of town on a reasonably steep grade. I opted to walk for the steepest part, not wanting to stress my quads just yet.

I started getting passed again as I always do once I start the run. In my head I started saying “Never mind, race your own race,” “Patience, you never know what can happen in an Ironman.” “Steady.” “Keep moving.” Over and over I would tell myself these things for 26.2 miles. In fact, I talked to and steadied myself for the next 5 hours and 18 minutes. It was like no run I have ever done before.

Ahead of me there were people walking, running, looking great and looking grim. Behind me there were people much the same. There wasn’t too much chatter. I heard a complaint about the people using the port-a-potties to throw up instead of using the bushes. They were toilet blockers apparently. I hadn’t noticed. I did notice that there were people young and old, tall and short, small and large. There were round bodies and hard bodies everywhere around me. We were mostly everyday folk. I was amazed. I noticed how beautifully catered the run was, just like the bike. Signs to tell you what was where. This certainly helped as the fatigue factor increased. Hold my hand out to the banana lady and a moment later one would be in my hand with the peel off! We were being very well cared for.

While I knew time was passing, it felt oddly as though it were standing still. Elapsed race time and time of day seemed unrelated.

I found myself finishing up the second loop, heading back up into town to more screaming Canadians. My 8 minute run, 2 minute walk strategy had now been replaced by several rounds of 4 minute run, one minute walk…. I was now walking on the hills, either up or down and walking through the aid stations. But I promised with each walk that I would resume running and I did. I met up with my brother just before heading uphill into town. I was very weary. He ran alongside me for a couple of feet asking only, “how are you feeling?” A volunteer promptly told him that he should leave me alone. I was bummed.

After doing what felt like miles and miles of the out and back along the Mirror Lake loop, a sense of deep resignation enveloped me as I came to the fork at the Olympic Oval for the first time. To become an Ironman I had to turn left and away from the sign that pointed finishers straight ahead. While the thought crossed my mind to simply try to go straight it was only fleeting. I wanted to rightfully earn my Ironman. It is indeed a cruel test, though, to be so close—feet in fact, from the finish chute—and have to head back out for another half marathon. There were still people cheering “Go Canada” but this time I didn’t always have it in me to wave and smile. I was shuffling. I was so relieved to make it to Megaphone Man ("Volunteer of the race" award in my book) who beckoned each of us, often individually, to use our arms and legs to “get up that hill”. This was later followed by disappointment on discovering I had reached mile 19 of the run instead of mile 20.

At mile 20, I thought of George Sheehan, who in Running and Being said “almost anyone can run 20 miles, but the last six are the equivalent of twenty more. Here the runner finds himself pushed to the limit” (p.205). Well, I was indeed pushed to my limit “calling on my hidden reserves, using all the fidelity and courage and endurance I had” (p. 205) to keep moving. I invited George to join me as he had for so many of my other runs. I hoped he’d be proud. I was still running but reduced to 2-minute runs and one minute walks. I passed people who would then pass me.

On the final hill before coming up into town I happened to notice Lori Bowden off to the side! I was so impressed! I said hello. She said hello back. While I think Lori is amazing, it is her Mom that I know, whom I think is remarkable. So I asked how her Mom was doing and was glad to hear that she was just behind me. I pressed on…walking uphill. At this point, I thought of my cousin and of her battle. I felt fortunate to be struggling uphill.

The final few miles of the run my legs seemed to find a bit of a wind despite my screaming quads. My stomach was unhappy but content to absorb coke for the last while. I saw my Mom and husband as I headed towards the final out and back. I don’t think I had the same spunky look as the first time. Bruno shouted that the kids would join me for the finish. So I set about making sure I would be all right to cross with them. I got down another _ a banana and walked a little more. On the last mile, I again got a little emotional. While I wanted the race to finish, I did not want the journey to end. Without knowing any other way to describe it, I can only say that I felt at home in this race and at this point decided there would be more Ironman races in my life.

I came to the fork in front of the Olympic Oval and headed straight. I was a finisher. The crowds outside the oval were rowdy. Someone had looked up my number and shouted my name as I entered the chute. I was gonna make it. I got inside but couldn’t see the children or my husband. I stopped to look around and the volunteer tried to shoo me onwards. I explained that I was looking for my children and she said they’d be further along. I started running down the chute. While it wasn’t dark enough for the lights to appear as the gates of heaven as some have described; the whole thing was surreal. The lights, the noise of the crowd, the Finish Line and the surge of emotions that I had worked so hard to contain all day, came together for one moment of sheer joy. I joined hands with my children and together, all beaming, we raced across the finish line. I was an Ironman.

While the statement, “I am an Ironman,” says something about what I was able to accomplish on this day, for me personally, it speaks more to what I was able to accomplish all the days prior to July 28th 2002. It says that I was someone who dared to dream, who remained persistent, worked hard and never quit. It says that I was someone who was willing to stick to a plan in order to achieve a goal and didn’t get distracted. Knowing me as I do, I appreciate how great an accomplishment this truly is. It was instructive in the way that most life altering experiences are.

While watching the Hawaii Ironman on TV in 2000 my children asked why I always got all teary whenever I watched an Ironman race. Back then, I don’t think I had a full answer. I knew that I felt proud for the people who finished and was touched deeply by their often-remarkable stories. Now I have come to understand that the main reason was I simply longed to be there. Each race I watched seemed to beckon me to take the leap, to see if I could, to see if I too was an Ironman.

When I watch an Ironman on TV now I will have my own memories to recall as I watch others creating theirs. I will remember the folks cheering before I entered the Olympic Oval; I will see the bright lights and signs lining the finish chute. I will hear Mike Reilly’s voice saying “Alison Colavecchia, from Brampton, Ontario, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”. I will remember the proud faces of my Mom and Dad, family and friends.

I bet I will still get all teary when I watch an Ironman race…because now I too am an Ironman.

After the End
My roommate in Japan many years ago was an `I Ching’ fan. He would often take out his quarters, ask his question and see what the book would advise. Before departing from Japan for home, I took a turn. My quarters pointed to a spot in the book that spoke of `after the end’. I had been so focused on getting home that I had forgotten to think about what would be different and what I would no longer have when I got there. Back home there were many things I missed about my life abroad and it took me a few months to settle back into my Canadian life. I have never forgotten the books' advice.

So, armed with this perspective, I thought that if I planned for after the end of my Ironman I could prevent a post Ironman crash. Back when Joel asked me about my goals for the year, I planned a fall marathon, it would be my first. When my first biking time trial didn’t materialize prior to the Ironman, I thought this too would be a great post Ironman goal to keep me physically in there without a huge time investment. I figured there would be so many home, family and work tasks calling for attention that planning ahead in these areas wouldn’t be as needed. I was right.

Despite all the forethought though, the post Ironman period has been full of ups and downs, both emotional and physical. OK some of this may be self-inflicted. On finishing, I gave myself permission to completely relax. I returned to my slovenly habits…the ones that I love the most. I drank wine and ate chips while surfing the net. I stayed up late, really late and even watched television. I caught David Letterman, ate ice cream and more chips. I slept in every morning and didn’t get up early for workouts, not once. I still did a couple of short swims, bikes and runs as per Joel’s plan but only if I felt like it and only a little later in the day. For the first while I felt quite liberated.

Then I felt gross.

I felt that old sluggishness returning. I started waking up groggy again and missed my post workout lift. I had no hunger pangs because I was nibbling still on everything but without the workouts to speed up the emptying.

I missed my Ironways.

So I committed to waking up early this past Saturday morning to do my first cycling time trial. The timing was perfect. I was still in good shape but had the perfect excuse if it really went terribly. I could hear myself saying, “ah well, the legs just haven’t recovered from that Ironman”. So I laid all my gear out the night before, got my bottles ready and went to bed early with a glass of water. The routine felt familiar and comfortable.

We left riding for the start at 7am, race time was 8am. It was a 10km race with a time trial start (they hold your seat while you’re clipped in). First a 30-second warning, then a 10 second countdown, and off I went. Within 20 seconds I was completely anaerobic and within 2 minutes felt sick to my stomach. I had been warned to “just ride through it, it will get better”. Well it didn’t, not really. With fast guys leaving on 1-minute intervals behind me, I tried to stay hard. I didn’t want to get passed. I averaged about 37.5 kilometres per hour and finished in 16:11. The last stretch, the longest, had a head wind. Then poof it was done. I didn’t come dead last and wasn’t a middle packer either, back to the back of the pack again. We rode home and with no long Saturday ride, the rest of the day stretched ahead. I was back before my children were awake.

Doing the time trial confirmed that I still prefer long, slow pain versus short acute pain. But the race was fun and sure managed to put a little snap back into my legs. It also rescued me from my latent couch potato self. It got me back to doing short runs, bikes and swims.

`After the end’ includes a sprint triathlon and the Canadian International Marathon (Oct.20). Now that my quads have forgiven me for the Ironman, I am curious. I wonder what it will be like to do a marathon without the other 114 miles preceding it? Perhaps, like the cycling time trials, this too will be good for me, in the same way that vegetables are. From a family perspective, we still have a second family vacation (canoeing) to look forward to. Two children have to finish out their BMX seasons and then of course there is school and the resumption of school activities and sports. Bruno’s sports also begin again. My own season is rapidly coming to a close. It is everyone else’s turn now.

After the end, I have decided to keep my iron ways. I recognize and accept that the changes to my lifestyle, made in the name of my Ironman, are not just temporary. These changes simply feel too good to give up and have become a way of life- my life. I will maintain the self-care practices I so diligently nurtured while preparing for the Ironman- consistent activity, getting to bed a little earlier, eating and drinking in healthful ways and staying a bit more organized. Now though it is with less pressure and a lot less juggling.

On the last mile of the marathon the thought occurred to me that this was the end of my journey. I was saddened at this prospect. I decided then and there that if my husband would agree, I would love to return to do another. After a productive and honest discussion about what had and had not worked for each of us and our family in getting to the first Ironman (a whole other article), we agreed on a numbered of things we would do differently if I was to do a second. So with appropriate blessings, I have registered for Ironman USA 2003.

I need to know if my first Ironman was just Beginner’s Luck!

Still Tri’n

MORE ALISON