The focus for the morning was to be on celebration, joy and fun.
But there's something about seeing those big orange buoys in the water that changes your perspective. It makes your heart beat fast. It makes you nervous. It makes you want to crawl back into bed and sleep the morning away.
Ironman Muskoka 70.3 was no different. On Sunday morning with about an hour to wait around between the end of my swim warmups and the start of my wave, a heavy, dark feeling came over me. It's a difficult feeling to describe -- some weird mixture of nerves, anxiety and fear and a good dose of irrationality.
While waiting to head down to the beach in my wave (the second last one of the day), I found my dad, who offered well wishes from my mother (who was stationed at the swim exit) and gave me a big hug. "Just have fun," he told me while pointing out that the waiting around probably made it difficult. Ah yes. Waiting is not my forte. Especially when I just want to get going.
Other friends who were not racing milled around before the start. One framed it this way: "You're going to have a great day. I'm jealous. You get to race. You're lucky."
Another friend, in my wave, said to start each event slowly and not let the rush take me out too hard each time.
All three sentiments reminded me of what I wanted for the day: to have fun, to celebrate that I'm able to race and to pace myself through the longest athletic endeavor of my life.
The horn sounded to send us off at 8:33 a.m. I walked out a bit then started swimming. Slowly. Stroke. Breathe. Stroke. Breathe.
"Well this feels just fine," I thought.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught someone backstroking.
Been there. Done that.
But hey, I'm feeling pretty good.
I got another glimpse while sighting -- one of a blue swim cap and one of a green swim cap. They went off in waves before mine.
I'm doing OK.
There were three turns on the swim course and by the second turn the final wave, the pink caps, caught up to me.
And it got messy.
Somehow I ended up swimming in line with buoys, instead of to the outside (where it's usually a bit safer and less crowded). At this point, it would have been too much time and work to move, so I stayed on line and paid the price a bit at that turn buoy when the pink caps started swimming on top and over me. It wasn't just that I was getting hit -- I was getting pulled down.
After rounding the buoy, I pulled up and treaded water. Behind me was a kayak. But my eyes looked forward instead. After a few deep breaths, I felt composed and ready to go. Stroke. Breathe. Stroke. Breathe.
My next stop was just before the stairs when a volunteer helped me up the stairs and over the mats.
In my mind, the day was already a success. I made the swim cutoff. And while everyone who knows me (and many who don't) thought I was crazy for thinking I would have any problems making the 1 hour 10 minute time for the 1.2 mile course, I needed to prove it to myself.
Immediately out of the water were two rows of wetsuit strippers. While this is typical of Ironman races, it's unique for the 70.3 distance. But I wanted to get my money's worth and the volunteers seemed very eager to help get you out of your wetsuit. So I ran over, trying to get the top of my suit down, but they stopped me.
"We've got it."
They unzipped me. Each person took one arm and pulled it down. I sat on the ground and threw my legs in the air and each one took a leg and zipped it right off my body. I rolled my wetsuit like a football and started the trot to transition.
And it was a trot. The run from the swim exit to transition was 300 meters ... uphill. A very steep hill on a golf cart path. It was a bit painful but along the way I saw three friends and my mother, all snapping photos, all cheering me on.
Transition took a bit of time as I cleaned off my feet, took a towel to dry my arms and gathered my stuff for the bike. The sky was overcast and a bit cool. The extra time, I thought, would help me more than hurt.
And off I went on a 58-mile bike ride through the hills.
My plan was to stay in steady heart rate zone and spin as much as possible. The heart rate zone would ensure I wasn't overworking the hills and every time I glanced over at my wrist, I seemed to be in good shape -- not too high on the climbs and not too low on descents.
The hardest part was spinning. Natural inclination on the bike is push hard. But while a lighter gear may cost me five minutes or so of overall time, it would save my legs for the run. And so I was in easy gears for much of the ride, thinking about a high cadence. Never have I been in the so-called "granny gear" so much in my entire life. But still, I passed many people on the bike. I avoided mechanical problems with my chain, which can come from grinding gears up climbs and poor shifting. I stuck to my nutrition routine, sipping water or my sports drink every 10 minutes and eating bites of Clif Bars every 15 minutes.
The challenging course lived up to its reputation. While there were some stretches where you could get into a groove, the course was up and down, up and down meaning constant shifting and a lot of time up on the handlebars instead of in the aero position.
The first aid station came around 25 miles into the race in the small town of Dorset.
And I am now a big fan of Dorset.
As you entered the main business area a hockey net was setup to toss your empty waters at. And yes, I scored a goal.
As the cyclists came through, someone on a megaphone was proclaiming emphatically, "Dorset welcomes you!" It seemed as if the entire town, was out, handing out water bottles and gels, offering cheers and encouragement. They lined the street through town and even decorated the one-lane bridge we passed over. For a moment, it felt like hitting one of those towns in the Tour de France and after miles of lonely road, the excitement was a definite pick-me up.
The last 15 miles of the course were difficult as promised. Actually, it was difficult because it came after already riding 40 miles of hills. This is where granny gear became my best friend, where I chose high cadence over grinding it out. Fresh legs, I kept telling myself. Fresh legs.
By the time I hit the straightaway (with a hill, of course) back to transition, I had a huge smile on my face.
Now all that was left was the run.
With my bike racked I put on my Buffalo Triathlon Club hat, stashed some gels in my fuel pouch while sucking down one on the way out to the run course.
For some reason, I had concern about my time. My Garmin was showing me running time and heart rate. I had no clue what the actual time of day was and suddenly was concerned about finishing the course. Spotting two spectating friends who cheered me as I made my way onto the run course, I asked how much time I had.
They looked puzzled.
"Tons!" one said
"Unlimited," another replied.
It was a ridiculous question since I had about 4 1/2 hours to complete the 13.1 mile course. But every once in a while, you just get a bit ridiculous out there. The key is to let it roll. And I did.
I ran the first 2K then walked through the aid station. Shortly after that, I noticed a bad feeling in my left foot -- by the outside and near my toes. The same place where I blistered and bled during the marathon. It felt as if my sock may have bunched up. I decided to fix it at the next aid station and tried to get my mind off the growing pain.
At the 4K mark, I took some water and gatorade and noticed a porta-a-john. Perfect. If I had to fix my sock I might as well do it while using the facilities. The two minutes or so I spent at that aid station made a huge difference. My foot never bothered me again and the comfort level of running on an empty bladder was both physical and psychological.
Going in, I knew the run course would be hilly and after my friend Mark drove it the day before, I knew that part of it would be very challenging. There was an elevation gain of 40 meters or about 131 feet. For those familiar with Western New York running, it was tackling Chestnut Ridge Park only after a really long swim and a challenging 58-mile bike ride.
On fresh legs, I could have run the entire way.
On this day, I needed to walk some of the hills. I walked the one big hill on the way out but started running at the top and kept my run pace for quite a while after that. In fact, I ran up one more hill, thanks in large part to the spectator with the tambourine who was on the corner encouraging runners. When I thanked him for being out, he asked my name, then 20 seconds later called out, "Way to run up that hill Amy! Keep running. Don't stop running until you reach the top Amy!"
Even if I wanted to, there was no way I was walking while I was still in his sight line. It made me smile. It made me laugh. And it got me up that hill.
At points throughout the course I crossed paths with other people from Buffalo, some I knew and some just wearing their gear. Whether we were friends or just sporting the same logo, it was a pick-me-up to give and receive shout outs on the run course.
I walked every aid station, as I planned, munched on shot blocks and a gel and took a mix of water and gatorade. Nutritionally, I was fine.
But at this point, it was early afternoon and the sun was out. It was hot. There were more hills to come. And so there were spurts where I walked. Oddly enough, the walking didn't make me feel too defeated, especially when I passed people while I was walking. Bits and pieces of overheard conversation indicated that others had their legs shot on the bike.
My legs weren't completely shot. It was tough and hot and I took breaks.
Every time I hit a downhill or a shady spot, I ran. And in hindsight, I didn't walk nearly as much as I thought while I was on the course.
In the final 2K I caught up with a woman wearing a Buffalo Triathlon Club jersey and we started chatting as we walked, then jogged, together. Her name was Laura and she had completed a half ironman in Rhode Island in July.
"I thought that was hilly," she said. "But this is really bad."
I told her this was my first one and she said I should be proud of accomplishing it on such a difficult course.
One more hill in the final kilometer. We walked up it together then started running. Laura pulled about 30 seconds ahead of me, which was fine.
Inching closer, athletes who had already finished were riding their bikes out, offering encouragement. The line of spectators started to form and the first person I saw was my friend Eric, who mockingly yelled at me to pick up the pace. Running the final loop, spectators read my name off my bib and cheered me on. Another group of Buffalo people saw me round one of the final corners and gave me a cheer.
As I approached the finish line I saw my parents and gave a smile.
There it was.
Volunteers held out finishers tape and I crossed the line, arms in the air, breaking through for the first time.
I found my parents and my friends and while I wasn't quite crying, it was emotional for me.
My final time was 7 hours and 30 minutes. My swim was about 58 minutes, my bike around 3:50 and my run around 2:33.
But the numbers don't matter all that much.
Because it is this feeling that counts most. The sense of accomplishing something big -- bigger than myself. Something I didn't think I could do a year ago.
There will be thoughts as to what comes next.
But for now, there's celebration.
--- Amy Moritz
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