The Race - Ironman Arizona 2017 – Part 1
by Manid Kowal
The house is quiet, the moon is full, the chores of the day are done, and I’ve got some good tunes playing while having a glass of red wine. Now this seems like a perfect time to write a race report. I’m pretty sure that two weeks is plenty of process time for my race in Arizona.
I remember during late summer I was doing one of my hour runs off the bike. I had some interval work and was nailing the pace. My body felt strong. I was getting excited every day and to think I still had 2 ½ months left of training. A lot can happen physiologically in that time and that got me more excited. Shortly after that, my knee started to bother me late in the run. At first it was manageable but then I had to stop running late October. As November neared, I started to wonder if I should even race; could I race. After learning from my PT and doctor I would not make it worse I decided to race to finish. And I tried hard to keep that my mindset even though my competitive side kept hopes alive.
As I was a week out, I wanted to minimize my pre-race activity stress. In previous Ironman races I was getting organized up to the last minute. Not this time, I said to myself. I packed individual bags for each transition, my special needs , my training clothes, things I might need and morning of items. Even my nutrition was completely measured out and labeled. I set a record by being packed by Monday afternoon! This was a huge sense of relief and now I could focus on the race itself. I felt more prepared than ever.
Once I got to Arizona, I was able to complete check in, attend meetings, lay around, eat and relax more than ever. It was a nice change. So between training and being on top of my equipment I felt ready. The only thing tugging at my mind was the knee but I was determined to enjoy the moment.
I woke up before my alarm and was able to lay in bed for a little bit before jumping up and getting ready to leave the house. I had the typical pre-race nerves and looked forward to having 2,800 people out there with me on this big day.
Chris and I were out of the house before we knew it; we arrived at the course and were super focused on getting our pre-race duties completed and ready for the swim. I was lucky to have the Smile Train tent as a place to roll out and think about my race. They were amazing. Soon we were pushed out of the tent to get into the swim line. Well, this is where I had my first lesson of the day, get there MUCH earlier. The chute to get into was really narrow and the entry was far from the start so getting to it was a challenge and then moving up was even harder. Soon, I was not able to move forward. I was stuck in the 1:30 to 1:40 group. Oh well, I thought, this is what it is. Do what you can when you get out there.
We were packed in there like cattle and slowly inching forward. I’m not sure what time we actually got in the water but it came soon enough. I was in the water and hyper focused on my breathing as this is my standard start strategy. I have found that this solidifies my pace and rhythm from the start. This year, I started spelling Calder’s name as this race was in his honor. He’s a boy I coached in swimming, who sadly lost his life after complications with a stem cell transplant on November 4th. C – A – L and breathe, D- E –R and breathe. I also remember thinking that this start felt much different than my races at Wisconsin. There is nothing like the mass start. The surge you feel from 3000 people starting a race in like nothing else. It was clear that wasn’t happening here but I knew that would not define my swim. Ironically, I had a lot more contact in this swim. I got kicked in the head 7 times. I’m so grateful my goggles didn’t come off.
So as I continued to head east, the sun started to rise and it wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. I could still sight on the next buoy so all was good. The turnaround came sooner than I expected. As I headed West, I continued to think about technical aspects of my stroke ensuring a straight course and a good pull through. I remember thinking that my cadence felt incredibly consistent. It was if my arms were in sync with a metronome. That was motivating. Exactly the same as the start and it didn’t feel as that was going to change unless I was getting pummeled by some big guy. At this race, I seem to find every big guy out there. It’s all part of the race, so I would go around them, draft off of them, or pass them. My least favorite part was touching someone’s super rough feet. Yuck, I thought and then laughed to myself. For some reason the trip back seemed to take bit longer than the way out but I had plenty to think about. Not to mention, plenty of swimmers to avoid or draft off of. I used this part of the race incorporating different strategies to keep myself focused. Whether it was spelling friends and family member’s names with my catches, focusing on my catch entry, or taking Power 10’s to surge past people, I had something to occupy my mind and maintain a solid swim. I knew as I started heading under the bridges I was getting closer to the exit. I started to hear people cheering then saw those exit stairs. Yes, head straight on those stairs, keep the pace up, it’s closing in, 10 more strokes, and you are there! Look at watch 1:11. Okay, that’s good I’m right on my goal. Now off to transition and the bike.
I remember thinking on my run to transition, that my legs feel good, I feel light and I don’t feel my knee; that’s such a great sign. I was excited. Transition went well, I was pretty much solo until I was done and that’s when a volunteer came over to gather up my swim stuff with me. I was off and running to my bike.
Through the little chute off to the course, this was fun. I was excited about the fact I was riding outside, after so many inside rides and with so many people. I was prepared for a crowded ride since it was a three loop course. I was off and riding and immediately I felt the wind. I didn’t let it get to me but I knew it was going to be a challenge in this direction. The question is would it change. As I biked out to the turnaround I didn’t have speed on my current screen. I had power, intensity factor, cadence, normal power and Power Zone. I had trained with this data and it was perfect. I was glad not to have speed on the display screen because I didn’t want that to negatively affect me. The ride out seemed to take longer than I wanted but I realized that was going to be the case when my watch buzzed with the first 5 mile lap time, 19+ minutes. Well that’s not good but a sign of the wind. I soon realized it would take me longer than an hour to get to the turn around. I told myself to not get worked up yet because you are right on your power goals, you have no idea yet how long it will take to get back. So I kept biking, enjoying the scenery and making sure I was not drafting off anyone. I also wanted to be smart not to get tangled in an accident along with staying vigilant with my nutritional plan. Finally, I could see the turn around. Yes! Looked at my watch and it said 1 hour and 11 min. Ouch! But hey, now we have a tailwind. Let’s have some fun and see if we can take advantage of the next 18 miles.
As soon as I turned around I could feel the push at my back. I definitely enjoyed this direction but knew to stay on my goal power with as little feel in my legs as possible. So I kept those legs churning and had a blast. The effort felt easy, the wind was a huge gift that helped to reverse some of the damage from the headwind lap. As my watch buzzed again, it read 11 min for 5 miles. Awesome! That’s 8 min faster than the way out. I swiped my computer screen to take a peek at my speed. I was going 24-26 mph on the way back. Perfect, I’ll be making up time in this direction for each lap unless the wind changes. Yes, it was fun but I continued with the self-coaching. Repeating in my head to keep it easy, relax the upper body, keep on the nutritional plan and enjoy. I got back in 45 min. I was pumped and knew this is how it would be, work on the way out and soon you will be enjoying that gift from the gods, a strong tailwind.
It was confirmed again that I really like this 3 loop race course because I can break up the course into small 18 mile chunks. In my head that’s very doable. How can I not get excited that we will always have a tailwind back into town?
As I made the turn to head out for the second loop I knew this would be different from my first time out. Oh you could feel that wind. Right out of the turn, a guy was moving up along my side and simultaneously we said “Ugh, this lap will be tough”. The wind was stronger. I didn’t waste time putting my head down to get to work, yes it was windier but we only had 18 miles of this. Simply put very doable. With each passing mile we were closer and closer to the turnaround point and a glorious tailwind. Keep working Mandi, without blowing up, and soon you will be literally riding with the wind.
It was incredibly motivating to me. I had my rower mindset at this point. Churning, working and keeping the tension out of my legs as much as possible. Stay on your goal numbers, own your rhythm, and keep up with nutrition. Along with the wind, the air temp was rising and I could feel my head getting warm. My mouth was super dry from the wind and dry air. At every aid station, I would grab some water, refill my front drinking system and cool my body before I discarded the bottle. I had to drink more to keep my mouth from feeling so dry. After a while I could tell that my water started to slosh around in my gut so I doubled my salt intake at this a point to help with absorption.
Even though the wind was stronger, on this second loop, the turnaround seemed to come faster. Not only was I excited about riding with this tail wind but I was also heading back for my last loop! Could that be possible? Time seemed to be flying. I was once again enjoying that tailwind. I had to break up this speed party with a quick stop at the special needs station. It was imperative that I grab my bottles of nutrition for that last part of my ride. It took me around a minute or so before I was off riding with the wind again. As I got closer and closer to town I was getting excited because it meant I had one loop left. I also started to realize I could complete this ride in less than 6 hours. That meant I would be 40+ minutes ahead of my previous races at this point. Heck, I was in position get a PR, maybe I could place. So many thoughts were running through my head but I knew I had to stay focused.
As I rounded the corner for my last lap the wind felt less than the previous lap and that was confirmed when I felt my watch buzz and it read 18 minutes for the first 5 miles on this loop. That’s good. The other change was that the rising temperature. Now I needed to keep my core temp down. I’ve raced in much hotter conditions but it was warm enough to make this a priority. This was my happiest loop of the bike because I knew I was going to be done soon. This ride seemed to be flying by and I was having fun. I remember telling other racers that we had less than 18 miles before we would soon be riding in the tailwind. I just kept pedaling, working, eating, drinking, cooling my head off all the way to the turn around. I rounded that corner, I thanked the volunteers and said “I’m heading home! Woo hoo!” Off I went, enjoying the tailwind and staying focused on the tasks at hand. In the last 9 miles I started thinking about the run, making sure not to take in any solids in my last 45 minutes. Once I reached town we were directed into the bike finish chute toward the dismount line. I was smiling. I couldn’t believe the ride was over. I completed the ride in 5:53:37. Yes! This made me smile big time. Finally a ride I could be proud of, now off to one of the most challenging parts of the race, the run.
As I came in, they grabbed my bike and I ran towards transition. I saw Mark and Jennifer as I rounded the corner. It was great to see them. They were so positive and it definitely was a boost to my soul. Now don’t mess around in transition. I was in and out pretty quickly.
As I started to run I was excited because my legs felt good and I couldn’t feel my knee. This is good, I thought. I settled into my run and felt strong. The first part of the run sends us east and there were little rollers but nothing to get worked up about. I remember thinking I wanted ice on my head and with every aid station I was trying to keep the body and head cool. I was happy to run on this crushed limestone, thinking this will be helpful for the legs. I looked at my pace and saw 8:20 which is right where I needed to be. Soon after the mile 4 aid station things took a turn for the worse.
I wasn’t 30 steps away from the aid station and I started to feel sick. Oh no, walk Mandi, hands on your head, deep breaths, get things under control. Then I started to violently puke. Not fun. Thank god only a handful of people had to witness that. A women from the aid station asked if I needed water but I had some. I continued getting sick trying to minimize it by rinsing my mouth. Finally I stopped, and wondered if I could finish. I told myself to start walking. After a few strides, try some running. I started to feel better and then my knee started to hurt. This was where I entered the lowest of lows in the race. I spent the next 5 miles wondering if I should even finish. I imagined handing in my chip and what the next day would be like. There were moments I was justifying stopping but kept thinking about why I was there, that I need to try and finish. You could walk the the rest of this race and still finish. And right at that point, I saw Mark and Jennifer again. He was telling me that my pace looked good. My thought was Really? It didn’t feel that way, at least, not what I am accustomed to but then again, this is an Ironman. As I headed to the most barren part of the course, the thought of dropping out of the race kept haunting me. I would walk, limp-run and started to set small goals along the way. And then at Mile 10 I saw Mark and Jennifer again. He was excited, happy, and interviewing me with is phone which made me laugh. I hobbled past him, mentioning my knee and he said “Slow down”. For whatever reason, that comment was a game changer for me. I was going to do what I had to do to finish. Now the question is, do I have time.
I started to ask people the time of day since it was getting dark out. Usually I was done before the sun set and I felt disoriented. At this point, I ran into a guy who was 62 yrs old. We were commiserating about our current state and also laughing at ourselves at the same time. We did this for the next mile or two. I was telling him I just wanted to finish and he assured me that I would. Now I laugh thinking about this moment. Just moments before I was wondering if I could finish before the cut off time.
Clearly, when I’m in the middle of an Ironman it’s not time for a math test. Once I figured out that I could still complete the race in the 12+ hour mark, I started to laugh at myself. This really shifted my spirits. I stopped to dance with the Moxie group and they went crazy. Then started to cheer other racers on and joke with the aid station volunteers. When I was on the far side of the course, and I grabbed more base salt, kept moving whether it be a walk, a run with a limp, just keep moving. At one point, I even stopped at a park sink to watch my face. OH that felt so good. As I ran into Mark and Jennifer for the last time, Jennifer walked with me a little bit as I took in the amazing chicken broth. I told her I was loving the chicken broth and so happy to be heading home. After a nice little walk it was time to start “running” again so off I went. What’s the next thing to look forward to? The music and positive people at the Base Salt tent was my next little goal. Get there, enjoy the music and dance. And that’s just what I did. These little stops may seem like a waste of time but I wanted to enjoy the moment and celebrate that I had gotten myself out of the miserable-i-want-to-quit state. Since I wasn’t going to set and records, I couldn’t run like I was dying to why not embrace the moment and be grateful for being out there.
With 4.5 miles to go the excitement of heading home was building. Keep moving, I said. My right leg was getting fatigued from favoring my left knee. I could only take 100 steps before my right glute started to cramp from fatigue. Keep moving, ready, set, run and count. Now I was down to 90 steps at a time. Think about what you can eat when you are done, how you want to finish, keep moving. Then came the 25 mile mark. THANK GOD! I went right over to that sign, smacked it and said Oh 25 mile marker, where have you been all of my life, I am so happy to see you and now in the last mile. Kowal see if you can run the entire mile, okay here I go. Okay, that didn’t work you made it about 600m. Ready, set, go. What do you say to Madison when she is racing, time to take your own advice. Here you go. Hey, I can see the lights, OMG, I’m going to make it, I can hear Mike, we are getting closer, I hear the people, I hear others finishing, the day will be done soon. Get your shirt off and be ready. This one’s for your Calder. Rounding the corner, the lights are unbelievably bright, and boy was the crowd loud. I’ve never taken in the finish line like this before. For some reason this felt like such a big accomplishment for me. Enjoy it Kowal, smile, you did it. Keep running. “Mandi Kowal, YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN.” YES. Now walk. Hey, you’re not sick, you can walk, you can talk to the volunteer, you aren’t going to the med tent and you are even good enough for a picture. Mission Accomplished.