Best Race Ever

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Where to begin, where to begin?? I’ve had so much to say over the last month that I haven’t managed to put down in words so I’m afraid this post will end up being silly long. So be forewarned and hang in there, if you will. (also – this will count as a race recap for my coach so anticipate too many details about the actual race that you may not really care about).

Last time we talked I was only about a week into life in Seattle and having major bike drama. Fortunately all that got sorted out with a replacement fork from Cervelo and Kyle dialed in my fit, and eventually I got some new aerobars too. I went down to Portland for a week in the mean time, showed up at an open water swim in the Willamette, made friends with some guys also doing IMCHOO, got talked into biking with them up Mt. St. Helens (ahhhh!! amazing crazy hard confidence boosting day), then went back to Seattle for another fun week of training. But that Friday the bottom fell out. I was planning to go back to Portland to stay with one of my new friends, train, go to the beaches, maybe the wine country, that kind of stuff. Til my mother called with some very sad news and everything changed. A family tragedy meant a detour to Tennessee and Kentucky and a lot of hugs and tears and sleepness nights. Training took a back seat to navigating life after death and broken hearts. Life is precious and fleeting, never take it for granted, live for today, love deeply, and know Jesus.

Returning to Seattle was hard. I didn’t sleep for over a week. So naturally my training suffered, which spiraled down into a puddle of self-doubt and negative self-talk. I managed to eek out my last century ride with the support of a friend then headed back to Portland (finally!) for my last big training weekend with my IMCHOO buddy Tom who graciously hosted me for a week before I flew back to Charlotte for final pre-race prep. Having done the race last year as well, he was the perfect voice of reason and encouragement to calm me down – not to mention a great cook! So feeling much more prepared and relaxed, I left my car in Seattle at my Vanderkitten teammate’s house and got royally hosed by Uber SUV toting my new bike case to SEA-TAC. I was super lucky to be on the plane with one of the nicest, most encouraging guys anyone will ever meet, a former coworker and running buddy, who just really made my day with his enthusiasm and sweet note. Heading back to Charlotte was looking promising.

Race week was filled with appointments and errands and more bike stress but more importantly, some totally divine appointments with some dear friends who totally lift me up and got me in the right spirit. Melissa found me some last minute race wheels, Ryan secured me an aero helmet, Mark needled the kinks out of my hips, Amy let me take over her dining room with gear bags and nutrition planning. Before I knew it Carol Ann was picking me up to head to Chattanooga and the madness was starting. The inn I had booked was awesome and there was Ironman magic in the air. Meg and Kim had sent a surprise Vanderkitten care package. As we walked down to Athlete check-in Friday morning it started raining and pretty much didn’t stop til Sunday morning. We showed restraint in the merchandise tent, relaxed in some Normatec boots, and stood in the mud under umbrellas for the Athlete briefing. No new information, as I presumed it was “probably not wetsuit legal,” carry on. My parents arrived just in time for early dinner with my coach and her family but I was just struggling to eat all week – nerves. I laid in bed for 3 hours before I finally fell asleep.

view from the inn

Saturday we all skipped the shake out ride because of the rain and I got a little more sleep but was just antsy to check in all my stuff and really relax. It was a force myself to eat kind of day. Had a delicious dinner with my parents, sister, brother in law, niece and nephew – got them squared away on spectating logistics, and made my morning to do list. And of all nights, I finally slept well on race eve! Who does that?? No one! Ugh.

Awoke anticipating wetsuit legal news because it rained all night long, but while I was exploding oatmeal in my sister’s room’s microwave I saw that in fact it was 77.1 (not legal, just optional). Sherpa Jeremy made me leave my Core shorts in her room so I wouldn’t be tempted to wear them once I got to the swim start. Boo! This fat girl wanted her neoprene shorts 🙁 We hustled down to transition to meet up with eager beavers Carol Ann and Kelli, took the plastic off my bike, taped some important reminders to my aero bottle (SALT and BELIEVE, duh), dropped off special needs bags, and off to the bus we went. I ran into a teammate Carla and a few Charlotte friends and said goodbye to my sherpa – totally forgetting to wish the poor guy a happy birthday! After a quick bus ride we got in the swim line for a 2 hour wait. Somehow those 2 hours went by really fast – oh maybe that’s because I stood in a potty line for 45 minutes of it!?! Shoot me. But things had to be done, and in an effort to not totally panic I put on some of my favorite worship songs and tried to ignore the annoying people around me in line who still felt the need to talk about all the woulda coulda shoulda bs that triathletes like to obsess over. I literally ran back to find the gals and throw on my cap and goggles and ditch my morning clothes bag just minutes before we ran onto the dock and jumped into the water.

And just like that my first Ironman was underway. They really rushed us into the water and after I surfaced and coughed up a little water I took a few seconds to gather myself before I started swimming. I don’t think getting people all amped up with music and screaming and rushing is the best way to start an open water swim in a river with a current when you’ve just been sitting there in the dark for 2 hours, but what do I know? It’s a scenic swim, if there is such a thing. The water felt great, the sun was just rising, the riverbanks were pretty, the lights and bridges of downtown beckoned us. So many kayaks and paddleboards and support vessels – way more than I remember last year from volunteering in a kayak. I couldn’t really tell how strong the current was, but I passed the 200m buoy in 4 minutes including my collect myself time, so it was clearly there. I pretty much wished I’d worn my Core shorts for most of the swim because every time I sighted I felt like my hips sank, but nothing I could do about it now but pace myself and make my way down river. Got to the half way change in buoy color point in 37 minutes then felt like I was fighting the current a bit going around the island but once you get under the first bridge it’s practically over. After I passed under the third bridge I could hear the announcer and music and spectators even in the water and I started to get a little emotional. But crying and swimming don’t really mix so I had to set aside the whole “oh my gosh Emily you are really doing this, you are finishing an Ironman swim, look how far you have come” thing and get to the red turn buoy, where of course some obnoxious guys tried to drown me as they rushed to the exit. I really had no idea how I’d feel getting out of the water. I normally don’t exert myself that much on the swim so I’m not crampy or wobbly getting out, but just to be sure, I took my time and walked and scanned the crowd for my family. When I got to the bottom of the ramp up to T1 I decided to start jogging (uphill, why, who knows, I’m weird) and apparently I totally missed my friend Chiraq who was off to the right wetsuit stripping! Almost at the top I heard Jeremy call out to me and as I rounded the corner I saw my dad and sister and niece which was just awesome. The crowds were so thick and they were right in front so I got some high fives and ran in to get my gear bag and was pumped to get ready for the longest part of the day. It finally occurred to me to look at my watch which read 1:13 so afterwards I was a little confused about where the timing mat was, but who cares, that’s probably 25-30 minutes faster than I could have done on a flat water course.

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I wasn’t sure what would happen in that changing tent but I just found a seat, plopped down and started dumping out my bag. A volunteer walked up and started pulling things out and laying it out for me to see. She helped me dry off and get my shirt on, stuffed my pockets with nutrition, painstakingly helped me get my coolwings on (NOT EASY), and I walked all the way to my bike putting on my helmet, glasses, getting sunscreen, wasting time. I’ve never been so slow in transition, but Jeremy had encouraged me to take my time, get my legs under me, and make sure I didn’t miss anything. But walking my bike to the mount line gave my garmin time to get satellites and calibrate my power meter and I got to see coach Meghan and Geppi right before I mounted and I spent the next 6 hours and 43 minutes trying to remember whatever it was Meg said to me lol – something about strong heart, strong mind, positive attitude, I don’t know – those Fillnows and their positive mantras… hahaha.

Having not so much as driven or video previewed the bike course I honestly had no idea what I was in for other than train tracks, “rolling hills,” sharp turns, false flats, and nice scenery. What I couldn’t believe was how many people launched bottles (aerobottles!), nutrition, and spare tubes on the train tracks VERY early on the course and hadn’t stopped for them. I lost one gu but still had 10 on my bike and more waiting in special needs, so nothing to worry about. My plan was to not even look at my pace, just watch my power, and try to keep it really low. Like pitifully low. My power is already pitifully low, but I was more than a little nervous about piling a marathon on the back end of a 116 mile bike ride. And I didn’t know what “rolling hills” meant. So when my first 5 miles lapped and my split was under 16 minutes I freaked a little and attributed it to a long slow descent. I think Kelly had warned me about that? But the splits kept coming kinda fast even though I was keeping the wattage low and I was worried that I was falling into the trap of it feeling deceptively easy. Oh and I had to pee. And it hadn’t occurred to me to figure out how peeing at an aid station on a bike would work. So I went by the first few aid stations and observed that volunteers were holding athletes bikes – well isn’t that nice!? but there were lines so I didn’t stop. I told myself I could get to Special Needs and pee there. But I couldn’t remember what mile marker Special Needs was at. Doh! The first few hours flew by. I was at mile 50 before I knew it. Then a motorcycle went by, followed by the lead male pro, then another of each. Wow, at mile 51 I was lapped by two guys. No one else seemed to think that was cool. Maybe I’m weird but I thought it was cool! And then all of a sudden there was Special Needs out of nowhere and it was kinda scary. I didn’t know where to stop and it was crowded and chaotic and I didn’t see any potties! A young gal brought me my bag and informed me there were no potties so I stuffed nutrition and a bottle in my pockets, swapped out my down tube bottle, popped a few beano, shoved some chamois cream in my shorts and left her my second spare tube and co2 and a crushed up bag of popchips that didn’t seem appealing, and took off. So now that I was not quite half way thru, I still had to pee, it was time to start caffeine, and I was honestly pretty impressed with how good I was feeling. I’d pretty much stuck to my plan of 2 gus, a dose of salt, a bottle of fluid and some sort of solid food every hour and it was working out. I had concentrated bottles of osmo on my downtube that I watered down with water from aid stations in my aero bottle which worked out really well and so far my stomach was cooperating. When we made the left turn to start the second loop however, I all of a sudden noticed that it was warm, muggy, windy, and everyone was moving a lot slower. It felt like a million years before I got to the aid station on the hill at mile 74 where I finally got to stop and pee. Good gracious. Relief at least. I caught up to Michelle and it was nice to have someone to chit chat with a bit after failing to strike up any good convo with strangers (aka losers) and for some reason it just seemed like the second loop was taking for-damn-ever. I stuck to my nutrition plan and threw in half a warm snickers bar instead of a waffle, and spent way too much time anticipating the one long climb before the super fun descent before the turn towards the finish. My garmin had auto paused when I stopped both times so when I passed the 100 mile marker and saw 5:40 on the watch I was a little shocked. Steve and Michelle had left me on the hills and when we made that final turn somehow it seemed like I was all alone out there, into the wind, on another false flat, and even my emergency 100 mile chamois cream application stop was not staving off the intense burning going on in my pants. Not to mention that my legs and shoulders were starting to talk to me – I mean honestly, it had taken them 6 hours, so I couldn’t be too mad, they’d really hung in for quite a ride. But I had a little come to Jesus moment that required some out loud self-talk and singing and more gu. I kept hearing Kyle telling me to sit up in my base bars and stretch out my hips the last few miles and since I had to cross a million train tracks it worked out well. Then of course as I was one bike length from the dismount line some jack-hole whipped over and cut me off and I almost collided with him. Luckily I was still coordinated and alert enough to avoid him and the volunteer commended me on the save. I managed to stop my garmin before I handed off my bike to a young lady then saw Kelli running out of transition as I went to grab my bag. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t TOO far back from some of my friends.

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Those Desoto arm covers kept me cool and sunburn free but dang they are tough to get on while wet!

Then presto the sun was out! What the heck? There wasn’t supposed to be sun! Game time decision to put on my dry run shorts and take off my tri tank, should have put on dry socks but didn’t. My sweet volunteer didn’t seem to mind when I sat my naked behind down on the chair (disgustingly I’m sure I wasn’t the first). I had this random “cramping towel” race freebie I’d stuck in my bag that I proceeded to wipe all over my legs and shoulders on the off chance that it would help with all the little aches and pains that had popped up the last 20 miles of the bike. I popped in a potty while I rolled up my arm coolers and buckled my race belt then got some sunscreen as I noticed my gus all flying out of the belt. I carried some stinger chews with me and ran out of transition. Somewhere I had remembered to turn on my other garmin to get satellites yay!

I love this haha
I love this haha – click to enlarge

I forced myself to slow down on the run out on the riverwalk and smile for the camera, saw some pros flying into the finish (not fair!!) then heard my sister screaming at me as I ran up that first hill and spotted dad for a high five while mom supposedly took some pictures. I ate a few chews before the first aid station and took a vial of Base salt from the tent. I made a conscious effort to calm my breathing and keep the pace easy but was also trying to figure out what to eat bc it was hot and I didn’t like being on the stretch of highway. At mile 4 we u-turned onto the Riverwalk and my mood improved dramatically. I passed Kelli who is just such a ray of sunshine and I’m sure I picked up the pace a bit from her energy. I had some grapes and maybe some gatorade and was already using sponges and ice in my bra and hat. Things were going well, I was just a little anxious about what was coming. I started Coke pretty soon and got in one gu at some point. I knew there was a nasty hill at the end of the Riverwalk before we crossed Veterans Bridge but I was feeling good and ran all the way up it garnering some high fives and cheers. My sister and brother in law and the kids were  just before the bridge and told me my parents were on the left on the bridge. There were a lot of spectators and I was excited to see them (this is mile 8) and I didn’t notice that there were cars coming from behind us and totally almost got run over crossing traffic to high five them! A nice car waited to let me cross back to safety and some volunteers yelled at me oops! The far side of the bridge was the start of the worst hill IMO. I saw Laura running back under the bridge but she didn’t hear me yell at her over the fray. I waited til the steep part to walk and tried not to be frustrated because Kelly told me to walk it, both sides. So I just cheered for people and started running again before it crested then I ran down the long backside and kept up a good pace and people were all quite surprised and impressed which just fed my energy (maybe it was also the beer that they were consuming). After the Minion aid station I caught up to a gal in a 3T jersey and figured why not say hello – I couldn’t remember who Lynne had told me would be racing, but they’re all teammates and they’re Charlotte peeps, and I was being friendly. So we actually kind of paced together for the next 3 miles which was awesome because I hadn’t been around anyone running my pace – granted she was on her second lap on her way to a 10:10 finish, AG win, and kona slot, but we encouraged each other across the pedestrian bridge then she ran it in and I turned for my second lap. The spectators on the south side of the pedestrian bridge were awesome – Jeremy almost missed me bc of course he wasn’t expecting me to come so soon – then Meg and Geppi were on the corner going bananas and I told them I’d just passed Carol Ann. I grabbed my special needs bags and quick changed into dry socks and heard my sister yelling from across the street so I ran over and gave her the sweaty ones hehe, popped two advil, and took off again while my nephew looked on stunned 🙂


I had run exactly a 2:00 half and if I paced correctly then I would have enough juice to make my 4:00 run split goal. The sun was going behind the clouds praise Jesus but I was still kinda wondering if the wheels were just going to come off at some point. I’d been told everything from wait til mile 13, 15, 18, so I just kept plugging along, taking coke and salt and water, tried some pretzels (too hard to swallow). I synced up my pace with a guy in a Memphis Thunder kit and we chatted for a few miles but I dropped him when we turned onto the Riverwalk so I had to go back to just encouraging all the random folks I was passing and trying to not sound obnoxious as I blew by with my perkiness. I can’t tell you how good it made me feel to hear the awe in those mens voices. Even with everyone cheering me on like I was winning the damn Olympics I kept hearing Kelly warning me about the dark times. Luckily the aid stations came by so close together with the raucous volunteers, bands, kids, etc. that I just never had time to go anywhere dark. I passed Laura on the boardwalk, caught up to Heather with her purple hair, even passed James my Portland friend, and then I was back at that nasty hill that I told myself I’d walk the second time – but I didn’t. The same guy was standing in the same spot, telling me I still looked awesome, offering a high five, and I just had to keep running. I grabbed a second vial of Base salt bc the first had gotten wet and clumpy inside. Before I turned onto Veterans bridge someone handed me a glow necklace and suddenly I realized it was starting to get a little dark but that thing was way too annoying to put around my neck so I stuffed it in my sports bra. My family was on the bridge and I saw Dana’s boyfriend who informed me she was behind me so somehow I must have passed her without seeing her darn it. The second time up the big hill was only slightly worse and I cruised down to the guys with the beer and actually took a nice cold swallow of one (sorry coach!) then realized I only 4 miles left of the race and was feeling so good that I really just couldn’t believe it. I ran right up the hill to the country club (best views on the whole course) and sped past the luau aid station (I think the first one I’d skipped the entire run) and braced myself for the last long climb which I ended up run walking. At the last aid station before going under the bridge a guy handed me chicken broth instead of Coke and I almost vomited because it splashed all over my arm sleeve and my stomach was pretty much a solid rock. So I grabbed a cup of water to rinse it off at the last second and as I emerged from under the bridge I was taken aback by the most amazing skyline sunset. I had really hoped to be done before sundown but that gorgeous pink and purple sky was worth being out there that long. I was just beaming that last mile across the pedestrian bridge and practically shoving people out of my way as the spectators crowded the course. As I made the final turn for the finish chute I surprised the twins sitting on the curb and checked my watch one last time to see if I was going to make my sub 4 goal. I told some guy I ran up on that I might puke at the finish line trying to get my goal so he understandably ran on ahead lol. Everyone said to soak in the finish chute but gravity had taken over and there was really no stopping. The lights were blinding and the crowds were deafening. There was no way I’d spot my family wherever they may be. I ran up on a gal who apparently took offense to it and rushed on ahead of me but kindly went off to the side so my finish line video shot was still pretty darn amazing.

I must have looked too good to my catcher Bob bc he ditched me after I got my hat and shirt and it wasn’t until I was standing there outside of the chute in the dark that I realized things weren’t laid out like last year and I didn’t know where to get food or a blankie or find my people. They also changed the way you retrieved your gear and when I went to get my morning clothes bag with my phone it turns out they’d made Jeremy take them all so I had no way to contact anyone. Thankfully my sister and I found each other somehow and I sat down on the curb as I started to get light headed. She rallied the troops and I ate a cream pie while Katy informed me I had in fact run a 3:55 marathon, thereby negative splitting for the first time ever, in an Ironman of all things, with a stop to change socks in the second half lol. And I didn’t feel like I was going to die!

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Unfortunately that garmin died right at the finish line and it doesn’t autosave data so I don’t have lots of juicy splits to analyze but the fact was, I had paced like a champ and run one of the smartest and most successful marathons of my life, getting stronger and faster as I went. I hadn’t run that fast since my first Boston, back before I broke my ankle. They had to take the kids to bed so I got a massage and then a bunch of my friends were done so we got some calories and swapped stories before heading back for showers. Jeremy and Katy managed to stay awake for one celebratory beer with me then I laid in bed for hours catching up on the 50 text messages and ridiculous facebook notifications because I probably had 5000mg of caffeine and there was no way I was going to sleep anytime soon. I’m still super mad that I never got to see Tom all weekend. We’ll have to celebrate back in Portland in a few weeks.

So how does one summarize the experience? I have no idea. I watched Kona on TV for years, with a box of Kleenex, in awe of what those crazy people were accomplishing. I never thought I would attempt such a ridiculous feat. But then there was a time I never thought I’d have a shot at Boston either. At some point apparently I decided to start believing the impossible was possible. Ironman doesn’t happen overnight. I never wanted to be a triathlete. Life happens. For me to consider the sport, I had to be cut off at the knees. Or ankles rather. I had to be humbled, broken, lost and scared. I had to start from scratch and rebuild. With new dreams, new goals, new strength, new identity. Above all I am a child of God. Not a CPA, not a girlfriend, not a runner, not anything else the world labeled me. I am a beloved child of God. And He puts dreams in your heart and places people in your life to walk with you to achieve them.

A year ago today I got talked into registering by some other first time girl friends and I anticipated spending the year training with them. Then I did the whole crazy quit your job, sell your house, travel for a year thing and that plan flew out the window. So you move on to plan B, then plan C, etc. I don’t really know that anyone has done EuroTrip to Ironman in 100 days before. But why not keep things interesting? Total life upheaval during winter base building left me totally zonked, no energy, no visible progress. I had a decent month starting into spring and a surprisingly strong marathon in Germany then I just traveled and played and ate and drank and ran and biked for fun all over the place. When I got back to the states coach gave me 2 weeks of Ironman bootcamp to see if I was physically and mentally ready for what it would take to get to the starting line and I’ll admit I had some serious doubts. Then off I went on my cross country road trip juggling logistics of multi-sport in a new town every couple days. I had some really great scenic workouts and I had some lonely painful sufferfests. I met some really wonderful people that filled my heart and encouraged my spirit. Whether they were introducing me to beautiful trails, treating me to great pools, fixing up my bike, or binging on homebrew after a tough day, my support crew formed and rallied and were all with me in spirit on the course Sunday. My family couldn’t even keep up where I was any given day but they were always checking in and staying connected. And then there is the one woman who heard all the good, bad, and ugly, and always had the right response – encouragement, tough love, change in the schedule, advice, a big picture view, a world of experience, and a heart of gold. To know me, believe in me, gain my trust and respect, admiration and friendship, it’s a special thing, more than a coach – a partner, a confidant, a source of strength, a sister in Christ – always pointing to the Father, from whom we receive our gifts, to whom we give glory, in everything we do. I am forever grateful for the lessons I have learned on this journey and the woman I have become and the huge role she has played in that.

No I don’t know what’s next so PLEASE stop asking. Let me enjoy this for a few days at least! I don’t know where I’m going, living, working, or when. I’m sure there will be another Ironman in my future, it was just too much dang fun to not do again. And I have plenty of room for improvement 🙂

Results Link

Ooh update: my garmin did save my run! At least all but the last 30 seconds lol. Not sure why it looks like I took another swim there at the beginning.

sherpa stood in line with me for an hour at finishers merchandise tent
sherpa stood in line with me for an hour at finishers merchandise tent
gettin gsome baby Cara snuggles at morning after breakfast

14 thoughts on “Best Race Ever”

  1. OMG this is such an amazing story- I stayed up way past my bedtime reading your story- every word! So glad you took the time to write all of this- it was awesome to read.

    You blow me away… Such an inspiration! Enjoy the break and I hope you’re headed back out West- I would love to see you!

    Lots of love to you my friend! You are a rockstar!!!

  2. Your story is inspiring. Your journey has incredible depth. What an adventure you have to share forever! Congrats on a beautifully executed race.

  3. Wonderful recap of your amazing Ironman adventure, Emily. You worked so hard for such a long time to be able to accomplish this rigorous test of your strength, stamina, endurance and discipline. You DID IT!!! Congratulations for completing a smart and well fought race! Hugs, Cousin Betty Lee.

  4. You are simply AMAZING, Emily!! Well done! I am so impressed and in complete AWE of you! Way to get it done, girl! Enjoy every moment of your R & R time…you DESERVE it!! xoxo 🙂

  5. Great run down of your awesome day! Small world-I was standing behind you and your Sherpa in the finisher’s merchandise line. Congratulations on your entire journey to the finish line! Good luck with your next adventure.

    1. Ha! Sorry I wasn’t more chatty – I really didn’t sleep at all Sunday night after consuming so much caffeine and I only even got up to get in the line bc a friend who finished last year’s race convinced me they would sell out of my sizes if I didn’t. I wasn’t that impressed with finisher merchandise though. Maybe standing in line for an hour made it less appealing… Congrats on your race!

  6. I started reading then skipped to race day and darn it now I need to go back and read from the top. What an awesome story. Details that I should have put it my race report are helpful as are the what you ate and drank part. Congratulations on a great finish.

    1. Thank you! My last post was very “oh my god my bike is in shambles 6 weeks out from my first ironman” so I couldn’t just skip naturally to having completed it. But I definitely think the emotional hardships during training made me stronger on race day – and more appreciative to just be there competing. It all relates in the end!

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