Tuesday, September 25, 2012

IM Branson 70.3 Race Report

After months of anticipation and a roller-coaster ride of issues with my heart, Sunday, September 23, 2012 finally arrived and with it, IronMan Branson 70.3!  For those not familiar with triathlon, a 70.3 refers to the distance covered on race day consisting of a 1.2 mi swim, 56 mi bike and 13.1 mi run.

The race expo (which was seriously very small and underwhelming) and packet pickup (which was somewhat of an unorganized mess), were held on Saturday, the day before the race.  In order to arrive by the 10am start time, my very indulgent husband got up super-early (after working late the night before) so we could make the 4 hour drive to Branson, MO.  (Yep, just Tom and I went on this trip.  We left the children at home with my *very* sweet parents! Thanks Mom and Dad!)  

We ended up arriving earlier than expected, checked out the vendors set up for the expo and then left to explore the area for a bit since packet pickup wasn't scheduled to begin for 40 minutes.  When we arrived back at the hotel at 9:50, the once vacant lobby was now full with a long line of athletes waiting to pick up their race packet.

Me, waiting in line... *so* excited (and nervous too!)

After picking up my race packet Tom and I attended the mandatory athlete's informational meeting... Tom loves playing with my iPhone!  

At this point, it was lunch time, but I was getting pretty nervous, really not interested in eating anything.  We did have some really good fruit with us, and I was just able to eat a peach before we took my bike over to T1, the first transition area.  For those not familiar, in triathlons, since there are three sports, there are two transitions, from swim to bike, and from bike to run.  This triathlon was a bit unique since T1 and T2 were in two totally different places.  

T1 was at Moonshine beach on beautiful Tablerock Lake.  This is where I needed to rack my bike on the day before the race, so it would be ready for me on Sunday morning when I exited the water after my swim.  

My friend Nikki took this great shot of T1 on Saturday, as athletes were racking their bikes.

Once my bike was dropped off, we left to drive the bike course.  IM Branson 70.3 is known for being one of the toughest bike courses on the 70.3 circuit (there are 63 70.3 races worldwide).  I really, really *love* riding my bike, but during the past few months I have questioned my decision to tackle Branson as my first 70.3 a *bunch* of times!  I think during the past months those "hills" in Branson grew in my mind until they rivaled the Swiss Alps in size.

It was with some measure of relief that Tom and I drove the bike course on Saturday.  Yes, I decided, it was definitely "hilly," but mostly the hills were long grinders.  I decided that I could certainly do this. 

This photo was taken during the 2010 IM Branson competition~ our race didn't end up being *nearly* as hot and hazy as that year, but it will give you an idea of what a portion of the bike course on the "High Road" looked like.

This bike course is somewhat unique in that the vast majority of the course is held on a beautiful highway which is totally closed to traffic for the duration of the race!  You can get an idea from the above photo what that was like ~ smooth pavement, and so much room for passing (or, as you will read, in my case, being passed!)

Next up for me, a 15 minute open water swim in the lake with my wetsuit (which I am still getting used to) and a short 20 minute easy run.

My friend Nikki snapped the following photo of the beach at Tablerock Lake on Saturday~ so pretty, isn't it?  You can tell how nervous I was because as much as I like to photograph things, I didn't take a single photo this past weekend!

Note the porta-potties lined up in the front of the photo~ never, never enough porta-potties for race day... just sayin'....

Knowing that we'd be getting up at 4am, Tom and I were asleep by 8:30 on Saturday night.  The weather forecast was for the low that night to be 40-42 degrees!  Yikes!  I wasn't so worried about swimming in that temperature, since I would be in a wetsuit and the water was still in the low 70s, but getting on my bike, wet from swimming to ride 56 miles when it was 42?!!  That I was worried about!

As with so many things in life though, my worries were unfounded.  When we awoke at 4am, the temp was "only" 50 degrees!  It felt fine, actually.  Whew!  Tablerock Lake is in a bit of a valley, so the sun didn't even really crest the horizon before I began my swim.

In a larger race like this, the swim starts are divided up into "waves" based on age group.  The pro men and women started first, then it was my turn!  I started with the "men 55 and up and women 45 and up" age group.

There was a bit of a problem with shuttle services the morning of the race, and Tom almost missed seeing me start.  So glad that he made it just in time though.  He took some pretty fun video with Gabriel's GoPro and I was able to save a few pics from that video.  At the start of the race he walked up on a levy which overlooked the lake.  It was a pretty neat vantage point.  The little people that you see out in the water?  Yep, I was in that group.  I'm the one with the black wetsuit and blue swim cap on...   Can you pick me out?  I know, me either!

Here we are, just starting our 1.2 mile swim~ whoo hoo!!

While I don't consider myself to "be" a runner or cyclist, I most certainly am  *not* a swimmer, by background.  My parents wisely had me learn to swim as a child and pass the Red Cross certification.  I don't know how far I had to swim to do that, but I am pretty sure that it didn't require me to go any further than from one side of the pool to the other and perhaps required me to be able to tread water for 5 minutes or so.  I never swam on a swim team or anything like that.

When I decided to pursue competing in triathlons I quickly realized that my feeble attempt at freestyle swimming wan't going to make it.  Tom ran across an advertisement for a "master's swim class" at a local YMCA and encouraged me to attend.  Me?!!  Attend a group swimming session with "real" athletes?!!  I am a mom of a dozen children, not an athlete!  I wanted to, *so* badly, but was was incredibly intimidated.  After considering this for a week or so, I decided to "take the plunge," so to speak and attend.  I don't even know how to tell you how very nervous I was about attending that first class.  I was sick and couldn't eat for at least three days before attending my first class!  Seriously!

I was greatly relieved to find that everyone was actually quite nice and super-encouraging, and guess what?  I really did learn how to swim!  I went from June of 2011 having trouble just making the 25 yards to the other end of the pool, to where I am now, comfortably swimming 1.2 miles!  (Thanks Ryan!)  Trust me, I am not anything special, perhaps  bit more persistant than most, but most certainly *not* some sort of gifted athlete.  Would you like to learn a new skill?  Let me encourage you to do it!  What a tremendous sense of accomplishment this has been for me!

Wasn't the sky lovely as we began our swim?  In the photo below, you can see some of the yellow buoys that marked our triangular out and back course.  Swimming in open water is certainly much different than swimming in a pool.  It can be difficult to see where you are going, you tend to get knocked around a bit and there are is no comforting black line to follow like in the pool.  But once you figure it out, what fun it is!

Every few strokes I would quickly "sight" and look up to check that I was still on course.  Each time I lifted my head to breathe or sight, I caught a glimpse of this sky!  *So* pretty!  Plus, as I mentioned before this was a wetsuit swim.  If you have never worn a wetsuit to swim in, you have most definitely missed a good time!  You are *so* buoyant in a wetsuit.  Serious fun for me.  

Cool GoPro view of the sky I viewed when swimming.././

Going into this race I already knew that I was working with some significant limitations due to my crazy heart.  During all of the training that I did this summer I identified two main "triggers" that tend to cause the tachycardia that I have been dealing with.  The first is super-hard interval training (especially if I haven't warmed up adequately) and the second is if I get overheated.  So armed with this information I knew that my swim needed to be a steady swim... absolutely no "sprinting" or working so hard that I was gasping for air (which is probably a good idea anyway, considering the additional distance that I had to cover that day!).

I really, really wanted to finish this race, so I went out steadily swimming~ and found myself totally surprised at how much fun I had in the process.  Honestly, I think that the swim was my favorite part of the race in many ways.  Amazing for non-swimmer me!  I wasn't sure what time I would get for the swim with my slow and steady approach, but hoped to hit 45-50 minutes.  The time on my stopwatch when I stood up to exit the water? 42:45!  Sweet!! 

As you can sort of see in the above photo, there was a short hill from the beach up to T1 where I would get on my bike (you can see the "bike start" up there) and I knew better than to sprint up that, lest I give my heart an opportunity to act up, so I walked and started unzipping my wetsuit (I had my tri suit that I would wear for the rest of the race on under that, if you wondered!  LOL).

Tom managed to get a bit of video of me as I finished my swim and I snapped a few pics from that... I'm the one in the back, waving in this pic...

Me, in the back, regaining my "land legs"... it's hard to walk after swimming and bobbing around for that long!

Next up, a super-challenging bike course.  I was pretty warm from swimming and knew that I tend to get hot pretty quickly, so I opted not to wear the windproof vest that my coach generously lent me or the arm warmers that I brought.  In hindsight though, I probably should have worn those gloves.  That was a decision that ended up costing me later in the race.

Here I am, just leaving T1 and beginning my ride....

I am almost at a loss for words to describe this bike course... almost. We left T1 and pretty much immediately began climbing.  I seriously think that the only level section of the whole 56 mile course was the last 3-4 miles.  The Ozark mountain views were breathtaking up on the "High Road" that I mentioned earlier, and the downhills were super-fun.  It was relentless though.

As fun as the screaming downhills were, I began to dread them after about 30 miles, since I knew that I'd soon be climbing that same elevation that I had just zipped down, and not nearly as fast!  In order to keep my heart in check, I had already determined that I could do absolutely *no* hard climbing of hills.  This made for a super-slow bike ride since some of those "hills" were almost 2 miles long.  I am pretty sure that you could have walked faster up those hills than I was riding!  But my conservative strategy worked and I never felt like I was on the verge of having any heart issues.  So that was a win, for sure.  I *so* did not want a DNF (did not finish) due to heart issues on my results page!

Other than the relentless hills, the only other thing that irritated me about the bike portion of this race was the rude competitive guys that were racing.  You saw the photo of the "High Road" above, where the majority of the race took place.  It was incredibly wide... two huge lanes each way, plus shoulders, totally closed to traffic.  I would say that there was at least 80 feet available to pass, but so many guys with fancy bikes, felt compelled to pass me going super-fast, missing me by only inches to a foot.  This happened over and over.  Seriously guys?!!  Not only that, but at least 5 times I had guys pass me on the right when there was a good 60 feet open to my left with no one there, and not even announcing that they were about to pass.  Good grief!

Nutrition in a longer race like this is critical, and I felt that in order to stay on top of my heart issues, it would be especially important for me.  I am *so* grateful that my coach had me going on numerous long rides this past summer, so not only did I have opportunity to develop the endurance necessary for a longer race like this, but I also had plenty of opportunities to practice my nutrition strategy for racing.  Even though I had been warned about the potentially dire consequences of missing some of my planned nutrition, I ended up doing just that.

In hindsight, I probably should have used a gu in T1, before even leaving on my bike, but I didn't, planning to ride for a few miles, get settled in and be sure that my stomach was ok, then eat.  Unfortunately I didn't plan on the almost complete lack of somewhat level ground.  It seemed like I was constantly either climbing or in the midst of a super-fast decent.  Neither time was very convenient for eating.  So I ended up putting off the nutrition that I had planned on a bit longer than I should have.

As I alluded to earlier, I also made a slight tactical error in not wearing gloves on the bike.  My hands didn't actually *feel* very cold (unlike my feet which stayed totally numb and frozen until at least mile 45!), but when I finally attempted to open my first gu for nutrition on the bike, my hand was so stiff that I couldn't hold it tight enough to bite and tear the top off.  It took me several tries before I was successfully able to open the gu and then, to my dismay, I dropped it!  Yikes!  I had carefully planned out how many gels I would need and could only fit the required # on my bike.  So now I was late on my nutrition, but also was short as well.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I think that this affected me, even on the bike more than I was aware.  I should have just stopped at an aid station and regrouped/refueled later in the bike portion of the race, but I got to the point where I simply wasn't thinking clearly.  All I could think about was *finishing* the bike portion.  I thought that I used the remainder of my gels before finishing cycling, and *thought* that I had only missed the one gel that I dropped, only to find out when I was unpacking my bike at home later that there were two unused gels hidden under the empty packets.  So I ended up missing almost an hour-and-a-half of nutrition.  Definitely not a good way to finish my bike and start running.

Here I am, getting ready to dismount, super-glad to be *done* with those hills! (and totally wondering if my wobbly legs would hold me up when I dismounted! )  My official bike time?  A ridiculous 3:52!! Just for comparison, when I would ride 56 miles on more "normal" terrain near our house, with a few larger hills I average about 18-19mph and can finish in about 3 hours.  This was crazy-hard!

Racking my bike and getting ready to run 13.1 miles!

And after walking a bit and taking a few minutes to regroup I was off on my run (and in search of the first porta-pottie that I could find!)

Thankfully, the run course was almost totally flat... a three loop route which went through a shopping area in Branson, called "The Landing."  Other than there being almost no shade, it was a fun place to run, since so many people were cheering and encouraging the athletes, plus I got to see Tom and my triathlon friend Tina (who finished way before me!) numerous times on the run.  Tom was so sweet and encouraging, telling me that I looked "strong" even when I'm sure that I didn't!

The first lap was fine for me.  I was tired, but still steadily keeping with my run/walk strategy.  Here, in the photo below, Tom has just asked me how many laps I had to go... I'm telling him "two"... not flashing the "peace" sign to the dude who is about to pass me!

Unfortunately, my race significantly began to fall apart on loops 2 and 3.  First, I began to get too hot and my heart began to warn me of potential problems with a bunch of arrhythmia.  I had already planned for that and began to walk more in order to cool off and hopefully avoid a major tachycardia incident.  That was successful, but since my run was now taking longer than I had planned, I used up all of my gels that I brought and unfortunately the aid stations were totally out of fruit and gels at that point!  Super-frustrating, but I was determined to finish the race.  So I doggedly continued to run when  my heart rate was low enough and when it wasn't, I just walked.

And finish I did.  My final time?  A super-slow 7:36:20, 16th in my age group (of only 25(!)  lest you think that I am something cool!  LOL!)

Unfortunately I don't have a photo of me finishing. Poor Tom was pretty distracted I think, with how long it was taking me and worried that I was having trouble with my heart.  He didn't think to take a picture when I finally finished.  I'm sure that there will be photos available for me to purchase soon from IM Branson. (Update... the photos are available, but $25 for each digital image? Seriously?!!  I don't think so!)  Either way, I did it!

Super-cool Finishers Medal!

In the final analysis, my race plan worked.  I finished the race set before me and accomplished my goal of completing my first half IronMan!  I am a bit disappointed with the nutrition mistakes that I made and wish that I could have biked and run faster, but in the final analysis I know that I did what I could with the physical limitations that I am dealing with right now.  It is all a learning process and I am super happy that I have accomplished what I have, slow as it was.  

I am already looking forward to getting to work on improving all three disciplines this winter in preparation for next racing season.  I am also optimistic that my cardiologist can help me get on top of the heart issues that I am still dealing with.

Some of the fun race bling...

In conclusion, I simply must give credit where credit is due and express some thank-you's.  First of all, I am *so* grateful to the Lord that I could even compete this year.  There were so many times when the problems that I was having with my heart should have totally sidelined me, but God was gracious, and enabled me to continue.  What a privilege... I spent so much time during this race simply in awe of the fact that I was actually there, competing.  Thanks God!

In addition, my family has been the *best* throughout this whole process, cheering for me, the children ran with me or even biked with me on my long runs and doing everything possible to help me succeed.  Tom, especially, has done so much to help me.  I never could have completed this training and race without him assisting me, believing in me and cheering so loudly!  I love you Sweetie! 

In addition, my parents have helped in super-important behind-the-scenes ways~ primarily praying. I think that they kept me going in ways that I'll never fully know.  In addition, they graciously offered to stay with the children while Tom and I had our little "romantic" getaway to Branson this past weekend~ I am *so* blessed by my parents.  Thanks *so* much, Mom and Dad! 

Finally, I must thank my coach, Ryan.  He most certainly went "above and beyond" the call of duty.  There were numerous times when I would tearfully email him to let him know that due to a new issue with my heart, I wouldn't be able to continue.  Inevitably, after a good night's sleep, I would find new resolve and be back at it, trying to figure out a way to make this happen, in spite of my silly heart.  He hung right in there with me.  There is no possible way that I would have arrived at this race as ready as I was to complete the distance (uninjured as well!) without his help.  Thank you Ryan, from the bottom of my heart.

And to my dear readers who have so faithfully read all of my triathlon-related posts, when I am pretty sure that most of you don't care at all about such things, and most likely think that I am a few bricks short of a load, *you* have been fabulously encouraging.  Thank you!

I have a few additional thoughts pertaining to things that I have learned throughout the training/racing process this year that I will share in another post since this one has become a short novel....

Here's to persevering, facing fear and running the race set before us!


  1. Congratulations on a job well done!! You are soooo amazingly persistant and inspiring. How thrilling this must be for you, especially after all you've been through. WOW!!

  2. Wow! What a fantastic race report - really intersting to read since my dietician did the same race! So proud of you for getting through the race, and especially realising times when your body needed to you slow down and listening to it - i know it can be hard to do sometimes.

    Well done!

    1. Hey there Bron! How did your dietician enjoy those hills?!!

      Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. Oh Susan!!! WOW!!!! Way to go! What a blessing that you were able to finish. Well done. :) I love how you give the LORD the glory for it all. HE is to be praised! And...*loved* the many great photos in this post. Thank you for sharing.

    Blessings to you!

    1. {{{{hugs}}}} Thanks Camille! You've been an encouragement the whole way, my friend. Thanks!

  4. What do you mean, you aren't "cool" for finishing 16th out of 25??? You ROCK my friend!!! You ARE COOL! You are AMAZING!!! I am so proud of you. That was a ton of hard work, especially dealing with the issues with your heart. Way to go!!! (And fyi, I ran 6.9mi Saturday - that's a new record for me. You have been some of my inspiration! Thank you!!!)

    1. Jenn,

      What can I say, I am truly humbled by your encouragement. Truly. Thanks so much.

      And, how cool is that… 6.9mi is a *long* way, my friend! Way to go!

  5. What a wonderful story Susan! It was so wonderful to see you there, enjoying the whole experience. I'm with you, I think the swim was my favorite part too and I am most definitely NOT a swimmer! Now you have to consider joinin us in Racine next year! That bike course is a dream compared to what we just did in Branson.

    1. Thanks Nikki! What a thrill that race was, for sure! So grateful that I could share the experience with you, Kristi and Tina! I am thinking seriously about Racine for next year. It should all seem easy after that, huh?!!

  6. Hi, Susan! You don't know me but I subscribed a while ago and catch up reading once in a while! :) This was inspiring! I followed your link to Ryan's site and from there to their Facebook page, and saw that their current status is YOU! :)

    1. Natalia, Nice to "meet" you here! Yes, I saw that Ryan posted that on FB... (blushing), quite undeserved, I assure you.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and encourage!

  7. Congratulations Susan!!! You and I went through a year of this process together. At least the swim part. Keep plugging and that full Ironman will become a part of your future.


    1. Jay, you are my hero! We both started swimming at the same time... so inspiring for me to see your complete your IM! Someday..... : )

  8. Congratulations! I was looking for some Branson race reports and stumbled upon your blog... and was excited to realize that I TALKED TO YOU ON THE RACE COURSE! I trained with Kathy a bit to prepare and will start Ryan's weekday master's swim class next week. Great job on completing that tough race! (I had a lot of similar experiences... from being in awe of that sky during the swim, to hands too cold to shift and freezing feet too!) See you around the pool! -Kim

    1. Way to go, Kim!! Nice job~ what a 1st 70.3 we chose, huh? So rewarding, I think! Looking forward to seeing you at master's swim!

  9. Congratulations, Susan! You are an inspiration! Wow! is about all I can say at this point. :)

    1. Susan,

      Thanks. You are sweet… I really don't think that I did very well though~ just super-grateful to the Lord that I could participate. It was fun!

      Hope you are having a fabulous week, my friend!

  10. Congratulations Susan! I know I am a little delayed getting to your race report. I am so incredibly amazed by you and your journey. So many people would have completely given up on a dream like this after all the issues you have dealt with, but you didn't and you met your goal!! Congrats!!!


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