On March 17th, 2019 I competed in my fourth, 70.3 distance race, in beautiful San Juan, Puerto Rico. Even though I had a bit of experience on my side, I would have to say, this was one of the most difficult races I have ever attempted. Being that it was an early season race, and we’ve experienced one of the coldest winters here in the Midwestern United States, 90% of my training for this race occurred indoors. Simulating race conditions could have been easily accomplished with a heater in my training room, however, I did not do that.
With a beautiful destination like Puerto Rico, rich in culture, I felt that this would make the perfect opportunity for a family vacation. The family and I arrived in San Juan on Wednesday afternoon, four days before the race, rented a roomy mini-van and drove to our seaside condo in the Ponce. We drove about an hour and half through the green lush mountains and arrived at the condo just as the sun was setting. As described, it was just steps away from the ocean.
We decided to see as much of Puerto Rico with our kids as possible and see several sights before returning to San Juan on Saturday morning (we would have 2 days to play after the race). Ponce was the first stop and it was in a Nature Preserve and I had hoped to see as many native animals and birds as possible. We found that many things were closed either due to the season or from hurricane damage. It was disappointing, however, there was more that enough things to see. We traveled to downtown Ponce and the highlight of the evening was traditional hilado de coco ( coconut ice cream). It was the most delicious treat I had in while. You must try it!! Other sites on the itinerary were a brief overnight stay in Lajas to visit the bioluminescent bay to see glowing organisms in the water! Tip: If visit the bay while it’s raining or has been raining, you may be a bit disappointed.
Saturday was back to San Juan for the athlete check-in, course talk and mandatory bike check-in. The check-in process was fairly typical for an Ironman race. I signed a waiver and I received my packet with my swim cap, bib number, number sticker sheet and very cute t-shirt. They affixed my bracelet with my bib number printed on it (the one I’m still wearing 7 days after the race) and then I exited through Ironman Village to pick up some water bottles and a few small extras.
I missed most of the athlete’s briefing due to San Juan traffic near the venue. If I had been there on time, I’m sure they would have explained that there is an unusually long run from the Swim Finish to Transition. It is so long that the majority of athletes left running shoes next to the swim exit and about a third of those put a water bottle inside their shoe. Though I missed the talk, I lined up to speak with the head race official who actually recognized me from a previous race. He was aware of my additional religious coverage and assured me that there would be no issue. Easy-peasy!
The night before, my husband was not feeling well and I ended up staying up a bit later than I would have liked prior to the race. Since every minute counts, I decided to sleep in until 4:30 AM. Unfortunately, my husband wakes me up at 4:05 thinking that I had overslept. I promptly got dressed in my Triflare kit with leg coolers and my Nashata hijab crop top underneath. My bag was packed, I grabbed my bike bottles from the freezer and I drank a bottle of Eliya King Coconut water as my natural electrolyte solution. My husband was a bit to out of it with medication to drive me to the race so I grabbed my things and walked. I was in great company as there were about 50+ racers walking and running in the dark with me. I made it to transition with about 20 minutes to set up and air my tires. I took a fuzzy pre-race photo and that was it. At 6AM on the dot, we were booted out of transition due to the long walk to the Swim Start.
There was about 45 minutes until the first wave would hit the water. I found a quiet place to pray but it was not very private. Everyone was very respectful of my space. When I finished, I found myself standing next to Heather Jackson. I was super delighted! She was very pretty and seemed both strong and confident. I wanted to speak to her, yet so many people demanded her attention, I didn’t want to bother here. Someone asked for my photo which was an honor and a lot of fun. I made my way to the volunteer holding my swim wave sign and I lined up.
The swim takes place in a lagoon and I was certainly thankful for that protection from the rough sea. Though I think I’m stronger and wiser for it, I remember the shock of swimming in choppy Lake Michigan in Ironman 70.3 Steelhead and not making the swim cutoff. I didn’t want to experience that same devastation in Puerto Rico, so the moment I stepped into the water, I got right in front and when it was time, I swam my heart out. I drafted when I could an for the most part stayed on course. I didn’t stop, except for once because I almost swam into the side of the bridge as the water got murkier towards the finish. There was plenty of space for everyone to swim and course was very well marked. I didn’t have any issues navigating or staying on course. As I had the finish in my sights, I swam as fast as I could, remembering Steelhead and with no idea of my time. I finished in 51:31. A swim PR for me. I looked at my watch in utter disbelief and pride. I did it.
The crowd lined the swim exit and it was amazing and exciting. I found my shoes in a sea of hundreds of pairs blocked by cheering onlookers. I put them on and walked briskly, however, everyone was running past me, so I started running. We finally made it to transition and I wiped my face with a clean, wet hand towel I had in plastic bag to get the salt off of my face and eyes. I got my bike shoes on, grabbed my bike and ran out of transition. Exactly 10:00 minutes
The bike course had an initial hill and then you were out onto the street and highway. We had full lanes and a ton of space. The ocean wind was at our backs and the first 20 miles was deceptively easy. There as a lot of course support and on course hydration was available right when you would need it!
At the turn around, you feel the wind for for a few miles, then you turn around again for the second loop and the wind is again at your back. Once you finish the second loop, it starts to get tough as that’s when the 3 H’s really start to kick in. You have the heat, the hills and that headwind. On the bike, the most difficult H were the hills on tired legs. If there is one thing you take away from this, it should be to train on hills.
The last 15 miles of the bike were the hardest and is where I lost my advantage. I am usually pretty strong on hills so perhaps the headwind + hills and the fact that I was at the beginning of my season really took the toll. I was never so happy to see a Bike In. My time was disappointing. 3:38 and not leaving me a lot of time for the run.
I was disappointed but I knew there were still a lot of people behind me so I racked my bike, took off my helmet and removed my bike shoes. I put on my running shoes, reapplied my sunscreen to my face and hands then put on my visor. 6:00
As I ran out of transition, I immediately was facing a steep incline. This would be one of a staggering number of inclines that I would face. I would describe the run as all uphill. I know this is virtually impossible on two loop out and back run, but that’s exactly what it felt like. If your plan is to walk the hills, just know, you will be walking half of the run. I didn’t really have a great strategy for those hills as I tend to avoid hills in training. I will occasionally do hill repeats when my coach wants to torture me but this winter, I had my treadmill on 0- 1% incline most of the time. The hills seemed impossible to me and running seemed impossible to me. It felt like I had a lot of time left until the cutoff so I walked and shuffled the first 5K. It was starting to become baking hot. I could feel the heat radiating up from the pavement. There was plenty of ice on the course. I was thankful. The volunteers were amazing. The spectators were the absolute best. The run was through Old San Juan and though I was suffering, the sights were like no other.
Right before the turnaround- I saw my husband and three kids. they were cheering me through the turnaround. I was sad, I told my husband that I was tired, I wanted to quite. I told him I didn’t believe I’d make the cutoff and I that if not this suffering was pointless. He told me that, “We didn’t come this far for you to quite”. He was right and it gave me motivation but not much strength to run. I devised a plan to run as much as I could. I could hear him yelling at me as I trotter over the inclined bridge for me run. There was something else he said too, but I didn’t find out until I returned. He asked me why I ate his dumpling while he slept…dang it! The kids ratted me out.
The second loop, I knew what to expect. The course was looking sparse and I wanted to finish. I dug as deep as I was capable at that time. The volunteers were amazing and really zeroed in on me knowing I needed the encouragement. They made me smile, they made run, they made me tear up. The hardest part of the run is along the wall of the castle. It is exponentially hotter there and even though it’s fairly flat, it was still a challenge. The road leading there is glazed cobblestone and a steep decline. I thought I would undoubtedly slip, fall and roll downhill….and I welcomed it. That didn’t happen, but going back up that steep hill was equally “unfun” without the nice chance of rolling.
When I finally made it to the turnaround, I had already hit the 8:00 hour cutoff. I was less enthusiastic to find the finish but my family was there and my husband convinced me that I had not hit the cutoff. He encouraged me to keep running and I did. I ran and ran and ran and…where the heck is the FINISH!!! Oh, here it is…uphill…of course. One of the only uphills I ran because my kids were right there and I want them to know it’s important to finish what you start and giving up is just not an option. I crossed that finish officially 8:23.
I was happy. I felt accomplished. The race was hard but it didn’t break me. I didn’t hit my projected time, but I was still proud of the work I put in. I did that! Once I was done I wanted to both pass out and throw up.
- Look at past result for clues on race conditions and also read the previous athletes guide more thoroughly. I was not prepared for the hills.
- Bring an extra pair of throw-away running shoes for the extra long run from Swim to T1.
- Early season races means simulating race conditions as much as possible. Buy a heater.
- Get comfortable riding into a headwind and work on getting as aero as possible.
- Hills will always defeat me if I continue to avoid them in training. I will embrace the hills and ultimately conquer them!