Hey all! Thanks for being here, and for continuing to read my blogs. Bear with me- this report is long and quite detailed.
So, this race was all about gratitude and appreciating how far I’ve come in just 1 year. There were several times during the day that I had to remind myself of that; when I found myself getting pissed because I thought I wasn’t riding fast enough, or was walking too much. In summary, I’m proud of myself for getting my head right and for not being so Type A.
The day started at 3:30 AM with my usual bagel with peanut butter and low-fat chocolate milk. Per usual, I didn’t really sleep at all, but at least my stomach wasn’t a complete mess like it usually is before a race, so I was actually able to eat my breakfast. Why did I eat so early? My nutritionist recommends eating approximately 3 hours before I will get in the water. And since the race officially started at 6:35, I knew I’d be in the water by about 6:40.
We left the hotel at 4:30 since transition opened at 5. The finish line (and our reserved parking) was located only 2 blocks from the finish line, but we didn’t know how bad traffic would be. Cambridge, MD is a small town, and 2000+ athletes packed the roads, so it was a good thing that we left early. There was just one snafu: we thought there would be a shuttle to take us from the finish line to the swim start/transition so I wouldn’t have to walk 1 mile. Well, no shuttle. But the walk turned out to be a good thing: it kept my mind off of what was able to happen, and it warmed my legs up nicely.
When we got to transition, I checked the bike and the tires– all good. I put my first 2 bottles of nutrition on the bike, and I filled my front bottle with water. In order to avoid carrying 3 bottles for the first 56 miles (i.e. 1 bottle per hour or so), I supercharge my nutrition, using 3 scoops instead of 2. I take 2-3 sips of nutrition, and then 2-3 sips of water to dilute it. After taking care of that, I dropped off my bike special needs bag to the volunteers. Special needs is an area in every full Ironman where you can stop and get items that you might need for the remainder of the ride. In most races, the special needs stop is right around mile 56 (i.e. half way). But here, it was at mile 64, which meant slightly different planning on my part (more on that later).
Once all of that was done, I hung out with Lars until I heard the race announcer tell the first 2 swim waves to start lining up. A bit of background is necessary here for those of you unfamiliar with Ironman. For those of you that already know this, bear with me. In the past, an Ironman swim start was a mass start, meaning all 2000+ athletes started at once. Yes, you heard me right. It was pure chaos and mayhem, but it was what made Ironman Ironman (IMO). But, too many people died. So, about 5-6 years ago, IM changed it to a self-seeded, rolling start. That means we line up in 3 corrals across, according to expected swim finish time. Since I’m a faster swimmer, I always line up in the 2nd group (1:00-1:10). When we get to the water, they send off 3 athletes at a time, about 3 sec apart.
Back to the race. When I heard the announcer, I gave Lars a hug and a kiss, and walked over to the swim start. I put my wetsuit on half-way and got in my spot in line. Surprisingly, my nerves weren’t completely out of control like they normally are. The anticipation is the WORST, let me tell you. But I felt oddly calm, and ready to race. Maybe because I knew the outcome didn’t really matter; I don’t know. Maybe I was more focused on GRATITUDE than I thought. I chatted with some folks, and told them my story. They were blown away that I was even at the start line.
The canon went off at 6:35. I would estimate that I was in the water by 6:40. The first 100-200 m were super shallow–you could literally walk, so the announcer told us to take it easy and swim when we could. People actually listened to that, and it was pretty smooth sailing from the beginning. The swim was a 2-loop square, with a final small piece to get back to the boat ramp (we actually started a little bit farther down the beach area). The first loop was easy peezy–not too crowded and not a ton of jellies. I felt like I had a really good rhythm going, and I felt strong.
The second loop of the swim was a completely different story! I still felt super-strong and fast, but there were a gazillion jellies, and I caught up to the slower swimmers that started at the back. Let’s talk about the jellies. HOLY SHIT!! They were everywhere!!! It was literally like swimming through noodle soup—that hurt. With every pull under the water, I must have moved at least 10 of them out of the way. All the while, they were stinging the hell out of my face and feet (I still have a welt on my left cheek, thanks to the bastards). I was actually afraid I was going to accidentally eat one, or get stung in the inside of my mouth because I swim with my mouth partially open. I had to make a conscious effort to close my lips after every breath. These jellies are called Sea Nettles, and the only place in the world they live is in the Chesapeake Bay. Lucky us. Because they had been so prevalent in the days leading up to the race, the Race Director decided on Friday afternoon that she would make it wetsuit-legal for safety reasons. Thank God she did that; I’m not so sure I could’ve endured all of that pain for 2.4 miles without a wetsuit. The 2nd lap was also super choppy because of the safety boats and all of the swimmers, but I could see the buoys and managed to stay in a relatively straight line.
I swam into the boat ramp, looked at my watch— 1:09. Swim PR!! The day had started off great. Next stop: T1. As I was running to get my bike gear bag, I took my wetsuit half off. I yelled my number at a volunteer (that’s what we are asked to do; I wasn’t being rude), and another volunteer rushed toward me with my bag. I thanked them both, and ran into the tent. I am not capable of riding 112 miles in tri shorts (again, for you newbies, tri shorts have a MUCH thinner chamois to protect “the parts” and the sit bones as compare to normal bike shorts), so I have to change into bike shorts. Because of COVID, this was an open-air tent, so I had to pack a towel-like skirt with velcro that I could throw on so I wouldn’t be naked in public (pre-COVID, the tents were closed off and nudity was permitted). I sprayed my “parts” and my feet with this magic silicon spray called TriSlide (I also use this pre-race to stop the chafing from the wetsuit). Because the spray is silicon, it doesn’t wear off with all of sweat and salt. I’ve been doing this for years for full IMs, and I’ve always avoided chafing and blisters. It worked again like a charm for this race- no chafing and no blisters. That is a complete miracle for someone like me that sweats pure salt. Total T1 time— 8:00
I left the tent, found my bike and got my mind right for the next 112 miles. Because of my surgery and the continued weakness in my right hip, the longest ride my coach gave me was 5 hours (85-90 miles). I had not ridden 100, or even 112, since September 2018. However, that didn’t really worry me for 2 reasons: (1) I live and train at 6000 feet, and this race took place literally at sea level, and (2) MD has nothing on our CO wind. In other words, the conditions I train in on a daily basis gave me a huge advantage (at least that’s what I was counting on). And sure enough, my suppositions were right on the money. That ride was honestly no biggie. I never struggled, or felt like I was under-trained. Equally significant was the fact that we were blessed with clouds for almost the whole ride; it would’ve been a different animal if the sun had been out in full force.
So, about the course—we did an out and back to get the initial 20+ miles in, and then we started the first of 2 loops that started at a high school. IM had shuttles for the spectators out there so they could see us twice, which was AWESOME! There were sooo many people there, screaming and waving their cowbells (love me some cowbell). It was such a boost, knowing I could see Lars twice. After riding through the school’s parking lot, we started on the first loop. It quickly became apparent that drafting was going to be a major issue—there were packs of cyclists everywhere (more background- drafting is not allowed. USA Triathlon rule. We are supposed to keep 3 bike lengths between us). I mean, it was stupid obvious, and you really couldn’t avoid it unless you wanted to continue to slow down (which you guys know is not in my DNA). Around mile 35, I came up on this girl who was riding at about the same clip as me. I tried not to draft off of her, but because of the roads and the cars, it was sometimes impossible. After a mile or so, I finally yelled out to her, explained that I wasn’t trying to draft but I couldn’t help it. She was super cool about it, and we started chatting. Her name was Keri, and she’s from NJ. We instantly became friends. We talked about our families, our past IM experiences, and we laughed at other athletes. We stayed together from that point until the last aid station when I lost her. We even stopped at Special Needs together, got our stuff, and took off together again. I feel like Kari was put there for a reason; she made me return to my place of gratitude and appreciate what the hell I was doing. Speaking of Special Needs, it was a breeze. A volunteer had my bag open and was right next to me just as I stopped. I got my 2 cold bottles of nutrition out (the hotel was kind enough to freeze them for me), put them on the bike and I chugged my Red Bull (mainly for the caffeine and its ability to make me burp). I smiled and waved at Lars, told him all was well, and Kari and set off to the finish. The whole thing probably took less than 3 minutes.
At around mile 100, I realized I could break 6 hours, which has been a goal of mine for a while. So, I went for it. I dropped into a harder gear and I just stomped it for the last 12 miles. I was passing people like they were standing still, into a slight headwind. I had no pain in the hip area, and I really wanted to crush that goal. And that I did. Bike split- 5:56! 10 minute PR. Wow. That ride gave me the confidence that I can do a 5:45 or faster with the proper training.
I dismounted the bike, walked it back to its spot on the rack (no bike rackers for this race, which sucked because it took at least 2 additional minutes), took my shoes off so I could run, and then ran back to the transition tent to grab my run bag. I had another changing towel in it, which I quickly threw on. I took my bike shorts off, put my tri shorts on that matched the rest of my kit , put my running shoes on and race belt, and headed out for the final 26.2. I have no idea how long T2 took; I just know it was longer than it needed to be since I had to rack my own bike (I know, I know— I sound like a diva. Sorry).
As I started out on the run, I took a minute to collect my thoughts, and reflect on what I’d already accomplished. I almost started to cry because I couldn’t believe how well the day had gone so far. But, I knew there was a loooong way to go, and it was gonna be the hardest part for me. I had no idea how my hip flexor tendinitis was going to react, esp after riding 112. The longest walk/run I’d been able to do was 9 miles, and I had to do almost 3 times that much to finish. It was a scary proposition, to say the least.
The run course consisted of 3.5 loops, with 2 turn-arounds. We ran through a part of downtown Cambridge, and then went back out through a gorgeous neighborhood. There was shade in the downtown area because of the homes and the mature trees, but there was no shade on the road that took us to the neighborhood. By the time I started the run, there were no clouds, it was humid as hell, and hot. Lars was stationed in downtown Cambridge, so I saw him 6 or so times, which was great. I walked the first 10 minutes to make sure my hip was OK, and then started off on my 1 min walk/1 min run. That worked great until about mile 5. I suddenly felt very lightheaded; I felt like I was going to pass out. And it hit my like a ton of bricks. I’ve never felt anything like that during a race. I knew it wasn’t lack of nutrition or salt because it was a completely different feeling. All I knew is that if I didn’t slow down, I was going to end up in the back of an ambulance, which was the LAST place I wanted to be. So, I walked the next 2 miles, making sure to dump lots of cold water on my head at the next 2 aid stations. Something I did worked because I started feeling better, and I went back to running (after reading some posts on SM, I think I was experiencing the affects from all of the jelly stings; people were apparently dropping like flies on the run with nausea and lightheadedness).
As I rounded mile 8, I heard someone yelling my name. I looked around and finally saw Candace, my good friend and Team Betty teammate from 2017. She had the biggest smile on her face, and she gave me a huge hug. It was so awesome to see her; my spirits went through the roof. Although we’ve kept in touch, I haven’t seen her in-person since 2017. We chatted briefly, she took some photos, and I was on my way. At about mile 12, I saw my girl Misty, and she was in a bad place. She came running over to me, sobbing and saying she needed a hug. I gave her a hug, a pep talk, and told her to wait for me to round the corner if she needed some moral support. She said she was OK, and we both kept going. I tried to run as much as I could, but I was rapidly losing strength in my right leg. I still didn’t have any pain, but man, the fatigue was bad. I continued to drink my normal concoction of Gatorade Endurance, Red Bell and Coke at every station (before you gasp, not all of those at once—I alternate), and I put ice in my bra and hat every time to keep my core body temp down). My Garmin battery died at mile 14, so after that, I had no concept of my pace (that was a tad disconcerting until I quickly reminded myself that I was supposed to be focused on just being there, and not on a particular finishing time). I got a second wind somewhere around mile 16 (probably because I met my friend Dani for the first time IRL and gave her a big hug), and I felt great until mile 21, when the legs just gave up the ghost. I could still walk, but running was almost out of the question. I still did some, but you could hardly call it running; more like a pathetic shuffle. All of my muscles were just screaming at me. I saw Lars for the last time at mile 25. He gave me a high-five, told me how proud he was of me, and said he’d see me at the finish.
That last mile was on the old cobbled and uneven roads of downtown Cambridge. It was dark, I could barely see the ground, and it was so hard to move on the uneven surface. I literally thought I was going to fall over because I had no stabilizer muscles left. Everything was just done. I got really emotional, and cried happy tears for several minutes. The realization of what I was about to accomplish set in. I even said, out loud, “I can’t believe I did this.” The finish line was in the park where we registered, which was at the end of that cobbled road. When I got to the flat concrete again, the finish line was only 50 yards or so away. I could see it; I could see that Ironman red carpet. The lights were bright as hell, and the spectators were everywhere and they were loud. It was amazing. I slapped the hand of a volunteer, screamed FUCK YES, and ran towards that red carpet. I don’t care what anyone says- there is nothing like the feeling of reaching that red carpet in sport. It is something NONE of us take for granted because so many things can happen on race day that keep us from reaching it. The feeling of accomplishment takes over your body, and you are completely overjoyed. You are on top of the world. I put my hands in the air, with all 10 fingers showing, and looked up at the stars. As I got close to the finishing arch, the announcer yelled: Paige Swenson from Denver, Colorado: YOU ARE AN IRONMAN. I tried to smile big (for the photos), but knowing me, I have some stupid, delirious look on my face. Overall time— 13:58. Never in a million years did I think I’d go sub-14. My best IM time ever is 13:10, so I wasn’t terribly far off.
The second I crossed under the arch, a volunteer rushed over to me, and asked me if I was OK. I said yes, and then he handed me my finisher medal and hat. He lightly held my arm, walked me over to the woman who took my timing chip, and then he gave me some water and my finisher shirt. He walked a little bit more with me to make sure I wasn’t going to collapse. A few seconds later, I hear a voice yelling my name. It’s Candace again. She rushed over to the fence, gave me another huge hug (poor girl because man did I smell BAD), and all sorts of kudos. She even got a video of me crossing the finish, and she took some photos as we were chatting. She also told me that Misty was good; she’d been cramping bad and was in the medical tent getting an IV. I just kept saying: “I can’t believe I did that; I can’t believe I did that.” I then walked around the corner and immediately found Lars. He gave me a fist bump, said BOOM, and told me how proud he was of me. He had already picked up my bike and bags, and in vintage Lars fashion, had already figured out a way to get back to the hotel using another route (the way we arrived in the AM was closed because that was part of the run course).
Well people, that was IM Maryland 2021 in a nutshell. It’s now Tuesday, 3 days after the race, and I am still in awe of what I was able to accomplish. Last night was the first night that I’ve been able to sleep since Thursday (either because of nerves or sheer pain). I have soooo many people to thank for getting me back to this place: Dr. Genuario at The Steadman Clinic, Drs. Vance and Alysha at Denver Sports Medicine, my run coach Trish, my tri coach Carole (who has put up with me for 11 years), all of you for your continued support and encouragement over the years, my massage therapist Andrea, and of course, Lars. There is no way in HELL I would be able to do this insane event without him. He is a flawless bike mechanic and sherpa extraordinare. He puts up with my BS, day in and day out, and still loves me (not sure how that’s possible). He is my rock, and he keeps me in check. Racing a full Ironman is so much more than double the distance of a half, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. He sees the good, the bad and the ugly. He knows what it takes to succeed, and he’s always there to give me whatever I need to do so. To say I’m blessed to have him, and all of these other amazing people in my life, is a HUGE understatement.
Finally, I want to take a minute to acknowledge all of the friends I got to reconnect with this weekend. People I haven’t seen in years; people I’ve never met IRL. You all made this weekend for me. You all made it special. Candace, Misty, Jeanette, Brandon, Craig, Cheryl, Dani, Keri, Mona, my SOAS sisters. I am sure there are some I’m forgetting. I realized during COVID that I took these racing interactions for granted, and I really missed my tri peeps. This weekend really filled that void. Thank you all for being such amazing souls, and for inspiring me to keep moving and keep pushing.
Now it’s time to relax a bit, let my body recover, and then it’s back at it. Not sure what’s on my race schedule for next year. As soon as I can get my shit together and figure that out, I’ll let you know. Thanks for reading this novel.
You are an inspiration! You’ve given me some great ideas on how to manage my IM next month. My first one and I’m nervous but know i can do it. Congratulations!
Hey Denise!! Thank you so much. I am sorry for the late reply; I am still learning how to navigate this new website and blog. Please feel free to reach out with any questions you may have about your upcoming race. I’m sooo excited for you! Paige xo