The Great Illini Challenge on Saturday, August 30th was my second Half Iron distance race of the season. Held in Neoga, IL, the race website boasted a great course through rural central Illinois. Since it was relatively close to home and it fit within my training plan, I made the leap and signed up. Rick and two friends joined in the fun – Lori joined in with Rick to form a team (Lori would swim and run and Rick would bike), and our other buddy Rick (confused yet? I’ll refer to this Rick as Loving hereforward) signed up for the solo event with me.
Up at 2:30 am and out the door by 3 am. Lori crashed at the house the night before and the car was already loaded with our gear and bikes already racked, so it made for a smooth exit out of the house and onto the road. We picked Loving up and made our way down to the venue, which was a little over 2 hours away.
I have to pause to state that, when I checked the weather the day before for race day, it was predicted to storm all day long, with thunder and lightning, to boot. I don’t know why, but I’ve had freakishly good luck with weather on race day — we drove down through a few light patches of drizzle, but in less than 24 hours the weather prediction changed from heavy threat of rain to partly cloudy skies. My lucky streak continues…
We arrived at the race site a little after 5 am, which is when transition opened. Parking was both close to the check-in and transition, which was great. At check-in, we got our swag bags (long sleeve tee was the only event swag that came with the event bag. Nothing special, but I wasn’t there for the shirt) and with it came something new to me – a disposable ankle timing chip. The chip was wrapped in a soft foam, making it comfortable to wear, but underneath was the RFID that you see commonly with D-tags that road races often use. Very cool!
Next thing to do – transition set up. I selected a spot on the first rack (it was first come, first serve for racking) that was close to the bike entry/exit. Rick and Lori set up right next to me, while Loving selected a spot one rack behind us. Once that was complete, we returned to the car to have breakfast (bagels and almond butter) and relax for a bit before the countdown to the race began.
As we sat in the car, the four of us watched as other racers arrived to set up – many of them (especially the men) looked like professionals. Tall, muscular, lean, and with bikes that made mine look like a turtle (and mind you I have a pretty kick-butt bike). I overheard two of the guys talking about how they had raced at IM Louisville the week before, with one of them coming in 2nd overall. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised to see so many higher caliber racers at what I thought was a relatively unknown, small town race. It looked as if I had my work cut out for me if I was going to place in my age group.
During our time in the car I debated in my head about which race outfit to wear – I showed up wearing a two piece tank/short set, but I brought my one piece suit with. I planned on racing my full Ironman in October in the one piece, but I worried that the humidity this morning would make that outfit too warm for me. “Two piece for today,” is what I told myself before heading down to the beach to inspect the water.
The skies were cloudy, and the winds were steady around 9 to 11 mph out of the south. Those winds created a good amount of chop on the water surface. When you combine that with the fact that this was not a wetsuit permitted race if you were in contention for age group awards (due to water temps being 80 degrees), it was going to make for a rough swim. I changed my mind about my outfit and changed into my one piece – I figured it would make me a little more aquadynamic, plus with it being cool and cloudy, I didn’t think overheating would be a problem.
After my “costume” change, I ran over to get marked with my race number and by then it was time for pre-race announcements, which were short and sweet. I gave Rick a kiss and we wished each other good luck as I headed out to the water with Lori and Loving. The start was in the water about waist deep, with all of the men and women in the same wave. The race gun goes off, and we all get horizontal in the water and start to make our way to the first buoy. The swim was a double loop of a clockwise fashion. I settled into my pace, keeping an eye on that first turn which was about a tenth of a mile from the start. Things were going smoothly and that first turn came up quickly.
Then all Hell broke loose.
That first turn put us all swimming into the headwind and thus the strong current. Waves made it hard to sight that second buoy, which was 1/3 mile away. People were swimming everywhere but in the right direction, it seemed. I wasn’t even 5 minutes into the swim yet when someone came barreling in front of me, basically crossing my path in a perpendicular fashion (so in other words, this dude was swimming the wrong way). I tried to counter his move with a sharp turn to my left to avoid him.
I couldn’t get out of the way of his feet, and one of his gigantic flippers jacked me in the face, sending my goggles flying off of my head and giving me the sense of getting hit in the jaw with a baseball.
I went vertical in the water and managed to catch my goggles before they were lost to the depths of the lake, but I was disoriented and seeing stars. I floated and tread water for a minute or so to collect my bearings and replace my goggles on my head. My left eye burned and my vision out of it was blurry. “Just keep swimming,” I thought to myself…my mantra when the going gets rough. By now though the leaders were well out of sight. I was in for a long swim.
Not even to the second buoy yet, I had actually drifted backwards a bit when I went vertical due to the current. I started swimming again, fighting the water and the waves. I felt like I was taking forever to make progress, and every time I looked up to sight that damned buoy, I seemed no closer to the target. I actually got angry with myself for a moment for not swimming fast enough, but clarity soon returned to me and I relaxed. I reminded myself that I was there to have fun above all else and that finishing the race was the ultimate goal. From that moment on, the water felt a little less difficult to fight. Round buoy number two I went, turning to the right and now swimming perpendicular to the current. I had to swim tangent to the flow of the water to keep from drifting too far in on the course. Buoy number three came more quickly — I headed right for it in order to make a sharp turn to reduce some of the swim distance. However, because the current was strong, the buoy had been pulled inwards, leaving the rope anchoring it to the bottom taut and at a steep angle. The water was so cloudy that I didn’t see it until the last second, and I got caught up on it a bit attempting to swim over the top.
No matter. Just keep swimming.
The swim was now with the current, allowing for some time to be made up…except that sighting became more difficult again because the orange buoy was blending in with the sand on the beach (at least to me, it was. Maybe my blurry vision had something to do with it). I aimed for the beach instead of the buoy since I couldn’t see the target directly, which worked out well enough. I caught a couple of swimmers as we reached turn 4, which turned us perpendicular to the current again and became essentially the start of lap number two. This time, I was prepared for what lay ahead.
Navigation around the buoys and through the choppy water was easier the second time around since I knew what to expect. But a new problem had arisen: I had to pee. I normally don’t have this problem, but I’d swallowed so much lake water from fighting the waves that it just went right through me.
Now, the non-swimmer would be thinking, “What’s the big deal? Just pee in the water!”
If only it were that easy.
Swimming involves a lot of core strength. It’s difficult to relax your core enough while swimming to allow your bladder to do its job, so to speak, while maintaining forward progress. Don’t believe me? Try swimming at race pace in a lake sometime and see if you can pee.
I spent half of the second lap trying to relax my abdomen enough to attempt to relieve myself in the water. During these attempts, I had yet another encounter with a swimmer who was going off course – he cut me off, smacking my head and shoulder with his feet. The upside is my goggles at least stayed on that time, but that second hit to the head certainly didn’t help the headache that was coming on strong.
Screw it. Just keep swimming!!!
Round turn 3 and heading for home, my bladder finally decided to cooperate. I secretly hoped that the dude(s) who used my head as a kickball were behind me in the water.
As I hit sand near the end of the swim course, I stood up and started heading towards land. My head was throbbing and my left eye still had blurry vision. I spotted Lori as I exited the water and trotted towards T1 – she looked like she’d been done swimming for quite some time. This prompted me to glance at my watch –
My slowest time EVER for that distance. I was disappointed in myself.
As I made my way to my transition spot, I saw Loving heading out on his bike. I wasted no time in T1 – I’ve become robotic to the steps required to get my act together for the next part of the race. In fact, every time I go thru transition I feel almost like I’m in The Matrix – time slows down. I feel like I’m taking forever, but I’m not.
T1: 59.89 — Fastest T1 of all women and top 10 overall. Boom.
The bike – my dominant part of the race. I had no idea how many women came out of the water before me, but I assumed that my poor swim time did not put me in good position in the overall rankings. I spent the first mile at high cadence to warm my legs up and get a feel for the road, as well as try to adjust to the blurry vision out of my left eye. One dude passed me within the first mile. I smiled to myself as he passed — that guy would become my first rabbit.
The bike course turned south and into the headwind – my specialty. I dropped into aero position and shifted into my cruising gear. I caught back up with the guy who passed me in no time, and soon after I caught and passed Loving. As the course turned west, I shifted gears and hammered down. The course was mostly rolling with a couple of steeper hills, but not so steep that I had to drop into small chain ring. I enjoyed the bike course for what it offered, but my motivation to maintain a fast pace began to drop since people to chase down were few. I’d ride a comfortable pace of around 20 mph until I saw someone within striking distance, and that would motivate me to increase my pace to catch them. Once I passed them, however, I’d settle back in to cruising pace until I saw another rabbit to chase down. I’ll admit as well that my headache and vision issue didn’t really help my motivation much.
I saw Rick on the first out and back portion of the course – he was about 6 miles in front of me and looking strong. I was proud of him for attacking the course the way he seemed to be doing.
Despite the headache and eye issue, I felt good on the bike. I was religious about fueling properly, taking a GU and eating a Chia Bar every 30 minutes. I swear those chia seeds make me feel so much better during racing! Coming into the halfway point and the end of the first of the two loop course, I heard Lori cheering for me. “You’re 7th overall woman!” she yelled.
Hmm. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who struggled on that swim if I was in the top 10 of all women.
I stopped for a minute to grab some Heed to refill by aero bottle and then took off again. The winds were becoming stronger, and that first 3 mile stint into the headwind was brutal the second time around…but it also allowed me to catch the 6th place woman and overtake her. Shortly thereafter I caught and passed 5th place. Around mile 40 I saw Rick again on the out and back. He was now only 3 miles ahead of me and looking more haggard. I yelled to him to stay strong, thinking his legs were starting to exhaust themselves — little did I know that he was riding on a flat rear tire for the final 15 miles of the course and still averaged over 18 mph overall (I would find this out later).
With 13 miles to go, I caught a glimpse of another woman in the distance ahead of me. Ironically, her bike jersey had a carrot on the back. “A rabbit with a carrot, how fitting!” I said to myself as I hammered down again.
I caught her halfway up one of the steeper hills and spun past her. She tried to overtake me on the next downhill, and I let her pass as I took my final GU and Chia bar. Swallowing the last of the food I returned to aero position and retook the lead from her. I could hear her behind me for a mile or so, but thereafter she dropped back. I smiled and kept my pace.
3 miles to go and I see another woman up ahead. I was now in a dilemma – do I hunt her down and attempt to pass her, but possibly burn my legs out for the run? Or, do I play it conservatively and try to catch her on the run part of the race?
Pffft. Since when have I ever played anything conservatively? Let the hammerfest continue!
As I passed her with two miles to go, I downshifted a bit and spun out my legs in prep for the run. I came skidding into T2 in 3rd place overall for the women. Usually, I pull my feet out of the bike shoes as I near transition so I can hop off of the bike and jog in barefoot. This course, however, didn’t give me enough ample time to do that, so as I neared transition I clipped out of my left pedal and prepared to hit the ground running with my shoes on.
Except I couldn’t. My right shoe wouldn’t unclip!
I stood there, on my bike, wiggling my shoe back and forth attempting to force it out of the pedal clip. The spectators were dumbfounded at what was going on. I finally said out loud – “worse things can happen!” and pulled my foot out of the shoe, trotting into transition with just one shoe on. The sight of that drew some laughter from the crowd – love making people laugh!
Bike: 2:53:18.66 — 3rd fastest of all women
T2 was much the same as T1 – get in, get what I need, and get out. No messing around, except I did decide to sit down to put my socks on instead of trying to do that while standing. It wasn’t worth the possibility of falling over since my legs were still a bit noodley from the ride.
T2: 1:08:17 — 4th fastest of all women
The run – This, too, was a double loop, all on country roads (some of it gravel). I walked out to the first water station from transition, grabbed some cold water to drink, and then started running. My legs were tired and my head still hurt, but at least my vision was now clear. The woman that I passed in the last couple of miles on the bike ran by me like I was standing still. I was dumbfounded that she had that much energy. I did my best to maintain a steady pace but the heat was unrelenting. I’d slow to a walk at every water station as well as at every hill.
My mind liked the idea of keeping a top 5 overall finish but my body would have rather preferred to have stayed in bed that morning.
Yet another mistake that I made that day was forgetting my Swiftwick socks at home, forcing me to wear a thicker pair during the run. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but when it’s hot, I like dumping a lot of water on me to stay cool…as the water runs off my body it invariably gets my shoes and socks wet. The Swiftwicks are great at drying quickly, I have learned over the years. Other socks, not so much. So, not too far into the run my socks were soaked and you could hear me coming from the squish squish squish of my feet every time they struck the ground.
As I came up on mile 2 of the course, I saw Lori heading back my way, full speed ahead and coming up on mile 5. She makes running look so danged easy! We slapped hands and offered encouraging words as we passed each other, and that put a spring in my step and kept me moving forward.
Did I mention that it was hot and humid? About this time I was wishing I’d have not changed into the one piece suit before the race. It would have been nice to just run in a sport bra, but since there was nothing I could do about it I had to press on as-is. I tried to hold a 9 minute mile, but my legs would soon tire, forcing me to take walk breaks every half mile or so. Not too far after mile three, two women had caught and passed me. I saw Loving as I approached mile 4, as he was heading out on the first part of the loop. He looked as tired as I felt, so it seemed I wasn’t alone in the struggle to maintain a decent pace.
As I came in to mile 6 and the end of the first loop, I found Rick on the sidelines cheering me on. I slowed to walk with him for a minute and told him my swim horror story, then gave him a quick kiss before setting off for the second loop of the run. The humidity was worsening, but at least I knew what I was getting into on the second lap. Ironically, as slow as I felt I was going, I actually started to catch a few people. I caught up to and walked with woman around mile 7 for a few steps (she was starting her first loop and was just past mile 1) . I found out she was 62 years young and that this was her first half iron event. I told her how awesome she was and wished her luck before picking up my pace again. I passed a couple of guys who were starting to bonk and offered them some motivational words as I went by. My legs burned from exhaustion, and I needed to continue with my run-walk method, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to stop.
At mile 10, I caught sight of the woman I passed in the final miles of the bike ride, and who blew by me at the start of the run. She was bonking hard. “Must…catch…her…” I told my legs, so I shortened my stride and increased my cadence in an effort to speed up. The woman turned around and saw me gaining on her, so she made an attempt to run again. I held my pace as best I could and continued to close the gap. With about a tenth of a mile distance between us, she could no longer run and slowed to a walk again. I caught up to her but also slowed to a walk once I reached her side. We chatted for a few moments, and I learned that she was taking on her first 70.3 that day, just as some others I had met were undertaking. I wished her luck and said I’d see her at the finish, then lumbered forward.
Mile 12…one mile to go. My feet hurt from dealing with gravel roads, heavily canted streets, and wet socks. My head still throbbed (so much that I could feel it under the strap of my visor). But I wasn’t going to slow down. I came up on another runner who was walking and urged him to run with me, so he and I jogged side by side for a bit. He was another newbie to the distance and this was only his third triathlon ever. Impressive! We hung together until the last quarter mile when he said he needed to walk, so I pressed on. Near the final turn, Rick saw me and started cheering. He met me at the finish with a congratulatory hug. I was happy to be done…and I was even more happy to find the bottle of Advil in my transition bag so I could get rid of the damned headache!
Total time: 6:04:39.25 — 5th overall female, 1st in age group.
I did it. I got the top 5 finish that I wanted!
The race gave out finisher trophies with the number of your overall placing, so I accepted the #23 trophy from one of the volunteers, as well as a very nice trophy for winning my age group!
Loving finished just a few minutes behind me, taking 4th in his age group, and Rick and Lori won the team division. It was a good day!
All in all, the race was well-run and would be a good recommendation for someone looking to do a half ironman on a budget.
Tick, tock….the countdown continues. 7 weeks until the Beach 2 Battleship Ironman!