Ironman Maryland (Part 2): Getting a PR (Race Report)

Race morning, we left Simone and my mother at the hotel (it was 4:30, so a wise decision all around), and Greg (my husband), Sasha (oldest daughter), and I drove to the race site. Ironman Maryland seemed to be smaller than other IM races, and we easily found a parking spot within a few blocks of the transition area. Fellow athletes were so helpful and I was able to find a bike pump and get my gear ready. It was easy to find my family, and I even heard Sasha over the PA system wishing me good luck in the race. So cool.

Before the swim start (which is a rolling swim start – yuck!), I was able to sit on the ground with Sasha and Greg, and just enjoy the morning as others fussed with their bags, and swim caps and goggles. We laughed, and sang, and I let her try on my gear. There was a peace about the morning. No nervous tears. No anxiety. If I couldn’t finish the race, so what? I had finished an Ironman already this year and just being out there was remarkable. I had nothing to prove, and everything to gain.

The hardest part about the morning was thinking about Greg. He stood next to me – proud, supportive – wearing his IMLP finisher’s jacket, but with his arm in a sling from the accident. More than me, he wanted to be racing. Instead, he was recovering. And taking care of the family. And motivating me. For better or worse, Greg was back to his role as Sherpa. It wasn’t his day to race.

The Swim

Shortly after 7 am, I seeded myself in the 1:20 group and looked out at the water. Pancake flat. No breeze. No nettles (i.e. jellyfish). Temps in the 60s. It was the perfect day for a triathlon.

I entered the water and just thought about pacing. I had trained with only one 2 mile swim after Placid, but I hadn’t spent much time in the water. If I could make it out of the river, I could definitely finish the race. No question. The strategy of seeding myself ahead of where I thought I would finish was smart – I got pushed around a lot less and I found that I was swimming with better open water swimmers who could actually swim in a straight line. The current seemed to be with me on the way out as I got to the buoys much faster than I expected. The water felt great – perfect temperature, not a lot of seaweed and debris. And, most importantly, no nettles. (I still remember the strings during Chesapeakeman last year and how lasted well into the bike. Miserable!) Loop 1 was easy, but loop 2 seemed much harder. I certainly felt the lack of preparedness during the home stretch when I felt like I was swimming in place. I exited the water with a less than stellar performance, albeit not an IM PW, and was just happy to have the chance to jump on the bike.

The Bike

Greg and Sasha didn’t stick around for the bike start, so I was on my solo venture. Using the same strategy I used at Placid, I shaved time in transition by already wearing my sports bra when I entered the water. Just a quick add of bike shorts, a top and socks/shoes, and I was ready to go. Sunscreen was a must since there were few clouds in the sky – odd, the sunblock table had lotion, not spray – but there were some volunteers who were able to help me out. Let’s call it an inaugural race oversight. J

The first loop of the bike course was really fast. I averaged around 19 mph and felt pretty good during the ride. I passed a fair number of riders but really tried to pace myself. Interestingly, I saw my first penalty (ever) on loop 1. A woman in front of me had been drafting off of a guy for at least 5 miles. As a staunch rule follower, I was pleasantly surprised to see her get stopped by the official on the motorcycle. You get em, USAT!

The special needs stop was at the high school, and I was really thrilled to see friends who were volunteering. David (a fellow IMLP 2014 finisher) and his daughter, India (who attends the same school as Sasha) were handing out bags. It wasn’t too crowded, so I was able to exchange hellos, thanks and more pleasantries. Again, this is part of what made IM Maryland seem like a hometown race. Even better, as I was exiting special needs – baked Cheetos in hand and extra chamois butter applied (which is a must for that much time in aero) – I saw my family. Greg, Sasha, Simone and Nana were there cheering, jumping up and down (well, the adults were) and it just made my day. I got my extra “umph” of energy and started loop 2.

Well, loop 2 wasn’t at all like loop 1. The wind kicked in and it was like a headwind the entire 56 miles. I was able to stay in aero position for a bit longer, but I was getting knocked around. I found the climb of 8 vertical feet, and downshifted to my small chain ring. Sounds silly for 8 feet, but I just needed a break for my legs. Just enough to mix up the muscles a bit. Also, I did something that I hadn’t done before in other IM races. I stopped for the bathroom. Twice. Honestly, more to stretch the legs than anything else. Again, at this point, it was all about the experience, and not at all about the time

About 20 miles from the end, I realized that I was on pace for a pretty decent bike and potentially an IM PR for the bike. I tried to focus on pedaling and just getting through the wind. The bike course was really well marked and the bike shop that supported the race course did a great job of flagging and marking the strange rumble strips on parts of the road. It made passing a bit challenging because there were certain parts where you were simply stuck behind riders but, thankfully, it was for only a small portion of the course. I cruised into the transition and was really happy to see my long-time triathlon friend, Julie and her two kids spectating. Lots of cheers and smiles. I knew I would see her again shortly. Bike time = 6:42:10, an IM PR.

The Run

A volunteer took my bike, but I had to locate my own bag. Great volunteers, but I wish there had been more. Another pretty quick transition and I was ready to head out on the run course. (Thanks to the sunscreen volunteers!) I passed Julie again who offered great encouragement, and I just started working my plan.

Before 2014 I wasn’t a fan of run/walk strategy that Coach AJ encourages. But, after the racing season success I had, I was a new convert. I worked my plan – 9 minutes of running and 1 minute of walking – as I followed the neighborhood streets for the out and back. The temperature was in the high 70s, but the sun made it seem a bit warmer. Interestingly enough, my legs felt great. Somehow, I felt like this was my first real workout of the day, which, almost 9 hours into the race just doesn’t seem possible. It’s a mostly flat course, but has have a fair amount of technical turns that are hard for constant pacing, but good for the mind.

So, here’s what’s tough about the run– on a 3-loop course, doing the math and thinking about pacing is much more complex. It wasn’t until roughly mile 12 that I realized that I could potentially PR at Ironman Maryland. I was pacing well and I felt really good. I hadn’t broken down. I was still working my plan with only small modifications. I could feel my pace slowing, but I was still on plan.

Here’s the other strange part about the run – you have an option for when you get your special needs bag. Either mile 9 or mile 16, but not both. Neither of which seems like the right choice. I figured that I should wait as long as I could – and mile 16 seemed like the better choice. I had enough Salted Caramel GUs in hand to cover me until mile 16, so I kept going.

What I really liked about the aid stations on the course, beyond the abundance of ice chips, was that most of the stations were staffed by multi-generational groups and lots, and lots, of teenagers. They seemed to be having fun – regardless of what the athletes were doing – but they were there, and helpful, and encouraging. They weren’t like the well-organized groups in Lake Placid, but they had everything I needed and went out of their way to help when I couldn’t locate something. Thumbs up to the volunteers, especially since so many of them seemed like first-timers.

On my second loop of the run course, I again saw Julie, and then my very good friend Tracey. She and I have done every IM race together – until this one. She was volunteering at IM Maryland (at the finish line), and had come a bit early to find me on the course. It was amazing. She was running down the road with me, jumping up and down, shouting words of encouragement and was just an overall rock star supporter. She said “You look the best that I’ve ever seen you look.  How do you feel?” Then I realized, I really do feel awesome. I could have the race of my life here. Who knew?

Tracey ran with me for several hundred yards until we bumped into Greg and the family again – right around the finish area section on the way into the town. Luckily, they were able to connect and Tracey gave some much-needed attention to the girls (so one-armed Greg and Nana could relax and have some drinks!) I kept cruising through the town and was happy to see that there was a lot of activity – several bands were playing and the spectators kept getting louder. They were standing several people deep around the edge of the street and the atmosphere was amazing. At the turnaround in town, they cheered loudly when runners went right – signaling a return for laps 2 or 3 – but they roared when runners went left – signaling a turn to the finish. You couldn’t help but pick up your step, whether you went left or right.

Not everybody was having the race I was. The weather conditions were good, but it was warm on the run, and it’s still a tough distance. Twice, I passed a runner who was cramping pretty badly. Twice, I shared my electrolyte tablets with him so that he could continue. He may not have had his day, but he made it to the finish. I saw him near the end of the race, and he thanked me profusely for allowing him to help finish. Who said triathlon was an individual sport?

As I left town for my final loop, the sun started coming down. I saw Julie again, and she ran with me for a few blocks– kids in tow. We talked about the rest of the race and I looked at my watch and realized that if I kept my pace, I could potentially PR. My IM Wisconsin time was 14:19:01, and I had a real opportunity to beat that. Julie encouraged me to keep moving and I finally waved goodbye.

I picked up my pace. I started passing runners. Lots of them. Old, young, seasoned and first timers. I kept my focus and stayed away from anything that wasn’t on my training program, including snack food at the aid stations. Instead, I just focused on eating the GUs and electrolyte tablets that I brought with me. It worked – and the next thing I knew, I was coming close to town for the last two miles – at a clip that had to be sub 9:30.

Greg, my mom, the girls, Julie and kids, and Tracey were all at the edge of town as I approached. They looked more tired than I felt – which isn’t surprising for anybody who’s been a Sherpa with kids.  But the reality was that I felt awesome. Really, really good. It was a quick .5 miles through town before turning left to head to the finish line (and HUGE roar of cheering by the crowd.) I exited the town, passed my family and strangers cheering loudly, and heard the infamous words – “Monique McDonough, you are an Ironman!”

So, perhaps the coolest part of this race was the finish. Tracey, who had been volunteering at the race that day, was able to calculate my time and make her way to the finish line to put my medal on me. Tracey was my handler, and it was phenomenal. Though we didn’t race together that day, she will forever be one of the most vivid parts of my memories. And it was so fitting. In long-established races, I’m sure this would have been hard to pull off, but at an inaugural race with a home-town feel, it just worked and made the event that much better.

I finished Ironman Maryland in 14:08:50, which was a PR by more than 10 minutes. Not bad for a day for which I didn’t really have any expectations.  I missed racing with Tracey, and of course sharing the Ironman experience again with Greg. My success, I think, is somewhat bittersweet for him. It’s hard for it not to be. But he is still an Ironman. And he still has the ability to compete. So, as he continues to recover and heal, we’ve set our sights on another race for 2015. Ironman Switzerland, here we come!

Tracey, Monique & Julie, at the Ironman Maryland Finish Line

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About the author

Now a 5-time Ironman finisher, Monique is starting to think that, perhaps, she might actually be an athlete. Triathlons were supposed to be a hobby to alleviate the anxiety of turning 30, but more than a decade later, and after a 5-year hiatus to start a family, she’s hooked again.

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