Living with limits. A race report on Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2016 by Imei Hsu.
Race Report by B. Imei Hsu
August 21, 2016 Ironman Mont-Tremblant, Quebec Canada
At the time of writing this blogpost, I took a moment to watch the video recap of Ironman Mont-Tremblant. At the awards ceremony the day after the race, we watched on big screens the event we had just raced, that some of us had struggled through, that others among us had not finished.
Yet it wasn’t until nearly a week later while watching the video more closely that it really hit me what I had just completed: my first Ironman. As I watched the scenes of the rain coming down, I was at once overwhelmed with feelings of unbounded happiness for having experienced it, yet grief when I realized what I had just volunteered to put my body through over the past ten months. I am covered in multiple bruises, my legs are still slightly swollen, and I sometimes wake up thinking I’m caught in some traumatic race loop, soaked to the skin and shivering.
And for the first time in this entire journey, I finally broke down and wept.
As I am not one to easily cry, I suppose this requires a little explanation, so I’ll start near the beginning, to share with you how it is that someone with a fear of swimming, who didn’t even own a road bike, and who once thought marathons were for crazy people, would someday dream about crossing the finish line of an Ironman race.
Being a therapist to entrepreneurs, startup leaders, technology workers, and creative types, I often hear clients repeat the pithy motivational statement, “Live as if failure is not an option.” Another quotable I hear is, “Life without limits.”
Looking back at my journey to Ironman, which officially began in November 2015 when I registered for Ironman Mont-Tremblant (IMMT) in Quebec, Canada, I experienced the opposite truth: to give me the best preparation to cross that finish line, I needed to fail and recover multiple times across a few different areas in order to problem solve through my own set of very real limits and challenges.
To me, participating in an Ironman was not about an end destination, but rather a means to a pathway. If I could do this, I felt as if I could take on big projects and new causes, not just for myself, but for the sake of others.
By failing first, I learned how to adapt quickly, which is what IMMT was all about.
The Mt. Si 50-Kilometer and 50-Miler ultramarathons are a local favorite in the ultra community. Known for its comparatively flat sections and easy-going ten-mile false flat descent back to the finish line, the 50-kilometer trail race is the perfect introduction for the newcomer to this distance.
The course begins at Snoqualmie Elementary school on a low-traffic road, uses a stairway to get onto the Snoqualmie Trail. It then winds through a golf course, park, under the I-90 freeway, across a bridge, and then through the forest on the way to Rattlesnake Lake. At the lake, runners are directed onto the Ironhorse trail, enjoying more forested dirt trail, waterfalls and bridges, while running along the old whistle stops of the former railroad bed. Descending steeply to the 16 mile turn around point, runners encounter the only real elevation change that is not gradual, and after returning through the Rattlesnake Lake aid station at Mile 21, it’s literally all downhill from there to the finish.
When I signed up for it last year, I already had a pretty good idea what was in store for me:
Lots of training time… in the pouring rain. This IS the Pacific Northwest. This ISN’T a surprise.
Groomed, wide trails on crushed gravel, dirt, and some rock. Not enough to need gaiters, but just enough to make your feet cry a bit if you don’t wear a pair of decent trail running shoes.
Plenty of aid stations, one drop bag station you pass twice, and not enough outhouse/port-o-potties (they have to be shared with the 59-Mile Relay runners, who can clump at the Rattlesnake Lake exchange).
Plenty of race table foods and beverages, but nothing that I would be able to safely eat. As usual, I would need to be mostly self-supporting, and use the drop bag for safe food and beverages.
A pretty-much eventless 21 miles of running, and then a 10-mile battle to finish strong, hold a decent pace, and make my goal of 6hrs 30 minutes (50K cutoff was 8hrs30min).
Given that this was my first race at this distance, I had adjusted my expectations. I wanted to have a “clean” race, one without a lot of pain, no vomiting, no passing out afterwards, and within the cut off time.
Other than my restricted LCHF, Celiac, AIP, and allergen-free diet, the major thing that changed in my training regimen was strength training. My Coach added two to three strength training sessions a week. I don’t recall a single day in the last four months that I haven’t been sore from something, whether sore from the fitness training sessions or the strength training sessions, or both. My glutes ached every time I sank into a chair or tried to stand!
Because this race did not have a lot of elevation gain and descent, hill repeats and training on steeper training courses were limited. I did see improvement on my ability to train anaerobically. A couple of times doing hill repeats in the pouring rain, I questioned my own sanity! When my local trail became fully flooded with water to the point that it was impassable, I ran on the asphalt just to get some mileage in. Almost all of my outdoor training runs were done in the rain, snow, and hail, and sometimes I wore a balaclava to prevent an asthma attack from the cold air.
I trained on the actual course three times at distances of 8 miles, 18 miles, and 25 miles, essentially having an opportunity to run each section of the course from either direction. This gave me a good idea of my pacing and comfort for the race.
Food and my gut are always going to be a challenge for me. The lower my weight becomes, the more sensitive my gut, so the goal was to do everything possible to keep my weight as close to or above 115 pounds. This number isn’t arbitrary, and has little to do with what I look like, other than the building of strong muscles, a responsive core, and pain-free shoulders. When my weight falls under 115 lbs., my guts become sensitive and reactive; when it stays at or above that weight, I am able to eat more comfortably and with less reactions.
The week before the race, I was already struggling with some food reactivity. My weight bounced up and down, hovering around 113 lbs. I ate like a madwoman, pounded down a steak like it was a candy, avoided candy like it was poison, and protected my food-eating schedule like a Crazy Cat Lady looks after her kitties. I imagine this looks obsessive from the outside. My brain simply keeps repeating the mantra, “Do whatcha’ gotta do!”
The day before the race, I made five pouches of my sweet potato puree with maple syrup (which is more than I will need), packed my electrolyte pills into my hydration pack, put extra food pouches and a mini can of real-sugar Pepsi in my drop bag, and laid out my post-race foods for packing up on race day morning. I also cooked my race-day breakfast that evening, so it was ready to reheat and go.
I went to sleep around 9pm, after relaxing and enjoying a simple meal that was protein heavy and generously salted.
Woke up at 5am and had my coffee, breakfast, and time to empty the bowels. No one wants to worry about needing to take a dump during a race of this distance; longer races, it may be inevitable. I weighed in: 116.2 lbs. Phew!
We arrived early, so I had plenty of time to relax. It started to rain about 20 minutes before the 50K start time, so I got out my rain vest, detachable sleeves, and put my running cap in a plastic vegetable bag so my head would not get cold from being wet. Under the vest and sleeves, I had a dry-weave short sleeved running shirt, warm sleeves that I could pull up or down depending on the temperature, triathlon shorts, compression calve sleeves, and a newly-broken in pair of HOKA ATR-3 trail shoes.
One of the things I like about local trail running races is how relaxed and informal the feel of the start line is. There was no gun, no inspirational music blaring over speakers, no timing mat, and little to no jockeying for front position. We were started off with the simple word, “Go!”
Within a couple of miles, I quickly warmed up and took off the first layer, the detachable bolero sleeves of my water-resistant bike vest (the collar has a warm strip that I love for this kind of weather), and dropped those sleeves off at the first aid station with my bib number so I could pick it up at the finish line. I would not be needing it for warmth for the rest of this race.
In that span of time and distance, the 50K runners spread out into two packs: the faster and predominantly younger runners, and the older and less experienced 50K runners. I fell somewhere in the middle, and by the time I got to Rattlesnake Lake, I was running by myself between these two packs for the rest of the race. Later, I would encounter some of the Relay runners.
From Mile 3 to Mile 10, I broke up the monotony of the long-slow running pace with thirty-second intervals at a faster pace. This keeps my average pace well under my projected race pace, and keeps the legs happy. It also had the strange effect of putting my brain in a bubble of my own race, to the point that I did not know who was in front and who was behind me.
I noticed that the male runners dashed into the trees to relieve themselves, but I had other plans. It was one of those days of the month that I needed privacy, so the call of nature would have to wait for a Honey Bucket or the outhouses at Rattlesnake Lake. Unfortunately, one of the 59-mile Relay Exchange places was at Rattlesnake Lake, and I had to wait almost five minutes total time to use it! The one woman who I battled with to keep ahead of during the first ten miles passed me there while I was in line for the outhouse, and I did not see her again until the turn around, always about three minutes ahead of me.
[TMI alert!] There are some things I am willing to do in public discreetly, and then others that I am not willing to do. Changing a tampon falls in the “not willing to do in public” category, especially since I was running my own race without much pressure on me other than to not barf or pass out. [TMI alert, over]
Just before the turn around point on the Ironhorse trail, there is a steeper section that I decided to walk quickly down instead of run, because my left knee was a bit achy. I also walked back up the hill, and used this time to eat and drink while the tummy was feeling unstressed.
Over miles 11 through 21, I sipped from my squeeze pouches about every 30 minutes, consuming about 120 calories, and another 40 calories from the end of the second pouch at Mile 21. The plan was to switch over to the real-sugar Pepsi after Mile 21, and to decrease taking in food if I was going to increase my speed. Metabolically, I was feeding my Heart Rate Zone 2, staying as efficient as possible by burning fat for fuel, and just keeping the glycogen stores available for faster running at the end. As soon as my Heart Rate would be staying in Zone 3 or higher, I could sip a little food if I needed it while in Zone 2, and then kick up the speed as soon as the food felt settled. A puree is fast absorbing, so this process happens quickly; I would say it’s almost on par with a gel, without producing the kind of stomach cramps that gels can give me when I eat them.
My Coach advised me that if by Mile 21 I was feeling good, I would have the option to increase my speed and negative split any miles of my return to the finish line. Weeks out from the race, I was doubtful that I would “feel good” at Mile 21.
The race proved to be different than what my mind could wrap around. Not only was I feeling better than I thought I could at Mile 21, but the weather had brought a lot of miserable rain, mud puddles, cold and shivering portions, fog, and with the spread of the runners, some unexpected loneliness. There were sections of running where I didn’t see anyone ahead of me or behind me. I had even lost a sense of where I was in relation to the other runners and began to resign myself that I had allowed myself to fall to the back of the pack. Rain drummed on the plastic bag on my cap, rolled towards the front, and dripped like a steady faucet in front of my eyes.
There is something about Mile 21 for me that always messes with my head, and luckily for me, Mile 21 landed at the second pass of the Rattlesnake Lake aid station. Ross Comer, aid station captain and experienced ultrarunner, gave me a loud cheer, and my husband (volunteering at the same aid station), chatted with me.
The rain had let up, and I was hopeful that the stretch ahead would be relatively dry. Silly rabbit, that was a whole lot of “nope” falling from the clouds just ahead.
It was at Mile 21 that M mentioned that I was running a little faster than my projected pace and time. “No pressure, but you could finish under six hours,” M said, casually.
Noting that I was actually feeling pretty good at this point, sipped my Pepsi, belched loudly, filled up one of my silicone flasks with Pepsi and the other with water, and began the ten-mile run back to the finish.
With the sugar buzzing through my arteries, I stopped taking in food and just took sips of Pepsi when I needed it. My body was doing what it was trained to do: burning up fat efficiently. I popped an electrolyte tablet per hour with water, and let the sugar from the Pepsi fuel the rest. You should know that generally, I don’t drink this much soda, and used it minimally in training, just enough to know it wasn’t going to make me sick.
I did experience some mild cramping between Mile 23 through 26, and allowed myself to walk for a minute after each mile until the cramping subsided. Between the running pace and the walking, I attempted to keep my average pace as close to an 11-minute mile as possible.
At Mile 26, I began to seriously believe that a six hour finish was possible. At Mile 28, I started to pick up the pace. At Mile 29, I assessed whether I had enough gas in the tank to push my pace a little faster, and quickly emptied my flask of water at the side of the road.
Just after descending the stairs from the trail to the road going back to the finish line, I committed to progressively pushing the last mile with whatever I had left in me to give. 5mph. 5.5mph. 6mph. 6.6mph. 6.7mph. I could now see the flags for the final half circle of the parking lot to the finish line. 6.8 mph. Done!
A man’s voice squawked on the speakers, “Imei Hsu, 50K runner, finishing in 5hours 53 minutes.” A woman handed me a finisher’s gift, the Mt. Si logo printed on a ceramic beverage coaster. I looked around the finish line for M, and did not see him, so I walked up to the Relay and Ultra results board, where volunteers updated it with printed information of finish times.
I wondered if I was last.
I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around. “Congratulations on your third place finish!” the woman said, and she handed me a ribbon.
[What?!???????] I was a bit confused. Was this a mistake? I texted M to find out where he was, and it turned out, he wasn’t far away, but had somehow missed my finish line crossing. I assure you, I wasn’t THAT fast!
I didn’t realize that the race was divided into four categories: men’s and women’s, and below 40 and 40 and above (Masters). I had placed third in the Women’s Masters for the 50-kilometer race! Woo hoo! Totally unexpected!
To be fair, my coach had mentioned some time ago that he thought I could finish the race in six hours or less. I told him I didn’t think I could, even though I know he’s had access to all my training data, and he doesn’t typically overestimate my ability. When registering, each racer had an opportunity to write in his or her projected finish time, and I based mine on a guestimate of running time with walking time. I was off by 33 minutes, and it was a pleasant surprise.
By pressing the pace while running, and then allowing myself a brief walk between miles, I was able to preserve enough energy to run my final miles steady and then increase speed in the final stretch. It was a conservative play, since I really didn’t know how my body would respond in Miles 26 through Mile 31.
Back at the car, I finished drinking another mini can of Pepsi, and nibbled on a small amount of rice balls with salt. Showering up at home and then sitting for one quick Compex session, we ate “lupper” at about 4pm: a bun-less burger with an egg and bacon, plus a small amount of sweet potato fries. I actually could not finish my meal; my stomach signaled it was full quite quickly, so I focused on getting the meat protein in first. Later in the evening, I made sure to dribble in a couple of glasses of water.
At the end of the race, I weighed in at 113.6#. That’s actually not bad for me; 3-5#’s of weight loss for a race of six hours isn’t abnormal, considering that I’m burning up my own fat to fuel myself forward.
While I went to bed relatively early that evening, I knew I would be awakened by midnight. Sure enough, I was awake at 11:30pm, and hungry as a hibernating bear! Good thing I had saved up the sweet potato fries from lupper! Combined with a leftover lamb steak and some vegetables, I had a full meal. My body was still coursing full of adrenaline, so I relaxed on the couch, watched a movie, and crawled back into bed around 4am, only to be wide awake and ready to swim in the pool for active recovery just a few hours later.
Two days later, I was walking down the stairs with less lurching of what I call the, “Evil Cowboy” walk (stiff, unbending); four days later, there was almost no visible change in my gait. I can’t say that I want to run quite just yet, but I’m guessing that the itch to run again is just around the corner.
That feeling is right there, with the excitement of looking for another 50K race, with more challenge, climbing and descending, and strategic planning to meet more demanding cutoff times. The Mt. Si 50K was pretty much everything I wanted out of a first 50K race experience, the volunteers were awesome, and I’m pleased with the results of the training.
I call edibles “phood” if it’s processed and filled with chemicals, preservatives, sugars, and cheap oils, or if it’s a sugary treat that triggers sugar comas and gastrointestinal hell.
In any case, just inside a month after Ironman Mont-Tremblant, I had scheduled myself to run the Beat the Blerch Half Marathon Sept 18 2016 in Carnation, WA with my sister, who is also an avid 10k and Half Marathon runner. Unfortunately, she was injured and unable to run, so I took this opportunity to run by myself and wear a silly, food-related costume.
The response to being “Empress SPAM” for the day surprised me. Almost
everyone, even the fastest marathon runners on their uber-speedy return to the finish line, broke out in smiles and cheers when they saw the cheery colors and familiar packaging of this iconic meat from the war era.
I had intended to run slowly and walk a good amount of the half marathon distance because I was not fully recovered from Ironman Mont-Tremblant, and I was actually unsure what would happen to my body after Mile 9 or 10, since I hadn’t been running much the previous three weeks. Considering my recovery status, I was pleased to run the majority of the race, and forced myself to take a few photo opportunity breaks with fellow runners, give and receive a few high-fives, and run slowly across the finish line in 2 hours and 12 minutes, with no pain soreness, stomach upset, dizziness, or extreme fatigue.
This is (I believe!), my last scheduled race for the season. My Coach has strongly urged me to focus on allowing my body to gain back some precious weight (“be a chubby Asian”), which I realize sounds really strange to many people who fight hard to keep their weight under control. In my case, I experienced what the pros do when training for high volume races, and it’s now time to build me a fat pad so I can start training for my next big challenge — Mt. Si Ultra 50K on April 23, 2017.