Monday, May 7, 2012

Becoming a Half Ironwoman at the Napa Vintage Triathlon (5/5/12)

My First Half Ironman: The Napa Valley Vintage Half-Ironman Triathlon

About two years ago, I started getting into this triathlon craziness.  I had no idea I would get so addicted to the endurance sports.  The thing about these endurance sports, especially for a crazy person like myself, is that there is always the next level to take it.  I started off doing a few sprint triathlons.  Then, last year, I did a couple Olympic distance triathlons.   So, this year, I decide it is time to do my first half ironman.

The half ironman distances include a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike, and a 13.1 mile (a half marathon) run.  Total distance is supposed to be around 70.3 miles.  In each of the individual tri sports, I can manage those distances.  However, when you combine the sports, it is a whole different story.

And, on a warm day in early May, out in the beautiful Napa Valley, I put myself to the test as to whether I could be a half ironman . . .

For the past year, I had a pre-race ritual of going to Starbucks and getting a vanilla latte and an oatmeal. On this day, I had to get up extra early and the drive out to Napa from Davis is mostly out on country roads.  So, I did not pass an open Starbucks. 

Instead, I stop at Safeway (the Starbucks inside Safeway is closed).  I buy some Cokes thinking it might be nice to have in my transition area (if you don't know already, I am a bit of a Coke-addict and really like having Coke in long endurance events).   I pick up a few other snacks that I think I may need for the event.  Since Starbucks is not open, I drink one of the cans of Coke as I drive out to Napa.  I like a little caffeine before a race. 

The drive out to Napa is a nice one.  Nice quiet, pretty country roads.  I finally arrive at Chaparral Cove in Napa, next to Lake Berryessa.  The lake looks lovely.  Nice and calm.  I had been worried about the water being super choppy.  But, it looks to be nice and calm. 

I check in.  I see my race number is #70.  My lucky number for the day.   This is a good number.  The half ironman distance is 70.3 so #70 is a great number for my first half ironman!  :)

After getting my number and timing chip (on an ankle bracelet), I head to the transition area to set up.  I lay things out as I normally do: the bike gear, the running gear, the food/fuel and drinks to take while in transition.  However, knowing that this is going to be a long event (I am hoping around 7 hours), I need to be more particular of the food/fuel and drinks I lay out. I put some GU Chomps, GU, and the Cokes on the side ready to be consumed in transition.  Some food/fuel items are placed on the bike or my running fuel belt.  So much to think about before the race even begins! 

Now, prior to the event, I debated as to what to wear.  In triathlons, I normally wear my one piece triathlon suit.  However, the trouble with my tri suit is that it has one small pocket only big enough for one GU.  For long bike rides, I generally carry a lot more than one GU.  While my bike has a bike frame bag which can carry some things, it is not as much as I would normally prefer to carry for a 56-mile ride.  Also, I am not fueling just for a 56 mile ride but for the run after the ride too.   So, I decide I will just swim in my tri shorts and sports bra like I normally do in training.  Then, I will thrown on a cycling jersey after the swim.  The cycling jersey has good pockets to carry more than my tri suit and the items I would like/need.  Of course, I decide to race in my favorite jersey -- the pink rabbit!  I lay my jersey over my helmet, ready to throw on after the swim,  I put next to it some food/fueling items ready to be stuffed into the jersey pockets.  I also have Java Joggers running shirt in case I feel like wearing that during the run.  I am not sure how I feel about running in my cycling jersey.  I lay that down my Java Joggers shirt next to my running gear, with the words "good to the last mile" showing.   Even if I decide to not wear the running shirt, seeing the shirt there will be nice. 

After getting my transition area all set up, I spray on a little Pam on my ankles & wrists (this helps get the wetsuit off faster).  Then, I suit up in my wetsuit and walk down to the water.   We have to walk down a slightly rocky path down to the water.  This will not be a fun run from the water, in bare feet!  I get into the water to get myself acclimated to the water.  The water is not nearly as cold as Lake Natoma (where I typically swim).   My feet and hands do not hurt so that is a nice sign the water is not that cold.  I stand in the water for a bit watching the first wave (the faster swimmers) get ready to go.  An older man asks me what wave I am going to swim in.  I tell him whatever the last wave is.  He says he thinks there are only two waves.  I tell him I will just go hang in the back of the second wave since I am slow.  I just want to make it through the swim and back to land.  Then, the race will begin.  The man says "Right on sister!" and high fives me.  :)

My goal overall for this race is to come within 7 hours. . . 8:00 a.m., the first wave goes. . .then, I head into the water for my race start. . . I am hanging in the back of the second wave...they count down...3, 2, 1...GO!  Off I go!

The Swim
Swimming is by far my weakest of the three tri sports.  While my endurance is okay, my speed in the water is very slow.  I am often one of the last few folks to come out of the water.  It does not bother me too much as I know I am strong on the bike and run.  I usually can make some decent gains when I get back to land.  For this event, my goal is to swim 1.2 miles under an hour.

With all long endurance sports, pacing oneself is key.  So, in the water, I just focus on a nice smooth strokes.  I do not want to wear myself out swimming.  Besides, I find if I flail my arms faster, it does not actually make me that much faster in the water.  I just make sure I am doing my best to pull the water through each stroke.  I love the water temperature!  It is so nice!  Not too cold at all! 

As I am swimming to the first buoy, I pass a kayak.  I see a  guy clinging onto the kayak's side.  Poor guy, the race just started and he's already asking for help.   Well, at least I am doing better than that guy. 

I turn the buoy and swim to the next buoy.  It is hard to see since the sun is in my eyes.  But, I just follow the other swimmers. The bulk of the pack is fading into the distance.  As I turn the next buoy, I look back to see how many people are behind me.  There are a number of swimmers.  There are a ton in front of me but I am happy to not be last.  I continue on swimming.

The swim consists of two loops.  I finish the first loop and head around on my second loop. I am feeling pretty good on my swim.  I feel I am swimming at a decent pace.  Still slow as compared to others but faster than I had been last year.   I think about how far I have come in my swimming.  This is my longest swim in an event.  I would not be doing as well as I am now had it not been for my swimming buddies in Sacramento Swimming Enthusiasts.   Here I am in the water, not having much swimming anxiety.  I am actually enjoying myself.  The water is really nice.  Refreshing.  I cannot wait to tell my swimming buddies about this swim and how nice the water is.  I think my swimming buddies would enjoy swimming here.

Finally, I go around one of the last buoys and start swimming the last stretch towards the finish.  As I head in, a kayaker drifts into my path.  I stop, pop my head up and look at her.  She says "just head to that yellow buoy and the finish is right past there.  You're almost there!"  I tell her "I can see that but you're in my way!"  She apologizes and back paddles out of my path.

I continue on to the finish chute.  As soon as my hand touches the ground, I stand up.  Yes, on land now!   The guy in front of me is struggling to get out of the water and some volunteers are helping him get out of the water.  I get stuck behind him for a bit before I can run past him.

The run to transition is not the most comfortable on wet, bare feet.  But my adrenaline is going and I focus on taking of some of my swim gear as I am running.  I always joke I am slow in the water and fast on land!  My swim caps, goggles, and top half of my wet suit are taken off while running to transition.

My Garmin watch  is worn under my swim cap when I swim.  After I whip off the swim cap, I pull out the Garmin and put it on my wrist.  I now see that my swim was under an hour!  Woot!  So happy I met my swim goal!   

I get to my bike in transition.  I throw down the towel to the ground.  Then, I whip off the wetsuit (it comes easily thanks to the Pam) and flail it over the bike rack.  I eat a few GU Chomps and down a can of Coke.  I put on my Rabbit jersey and stuff the pockets with snacks and such.  I catch a quick glimpse of a text message from Craig wishing me luck before stuffing my phone into my jersey pocket as well (who knows what might happen to me or my bike out on the 56 mile ride).  I put on the cycling shoes, gloves, and helmet. 

Me and my bike start running (as best as you can in cycling shoes) out of transition.   As I am running out of transition with my bike, the announcer guy is calling out who is going out on the bike.  Number so-and-so is now heading out on the bike!  As he sees me, he announces "out of transition is the pink rabbit!  That has to be the cutest jersey!  Go number 70!"  This makes me smile.  Glad I opted to wear the pink rabbit jersey!  

The Bike
Unlike the swim, I do not to shabby on the bike.   I generally can make some gains on the bike, especially if there is climbing involved.  For the bike, my goal was to finish in under 4 hours.  While my cycling is strong, I did not want to push myself too hard on the bike as I still have to run.  Also, the course is expected to be a bit hilly.  If I can finish under 4 hours, I will be happy. 

I come out of transition, clip into my bike and off I go!  I pound it out of the park and hit the road.  I feel my heart pounding fast.   My nose is all runny from the swim too.  At last I do not feel that cold from the swim.  I try to to get into a nice cycling groove and to pace myself so that my heart rate so will go back down.  Last few triathlons, my heart rate just sky rockets when I first get on the bike out of the water. 

My legs feel a wee bit weary.  Not spinning quite as strong as I normally do on the bike.  I eat a GU and hope my cycling legs warm up soon.  But, of course, they start you off with a few roller hills.  Though not the biggest of hills, they feel particularly tough as my legs are still trying to get into cycle mode. 

About 10 miles in, my legs finally get into a nice cycling groove.  Good thing as we hit more hills.  No epic hills but good hills nonetheless.  But, I am starting to climb decently now.  Also, I have a Dirty Dancing song stuck in my head.  I heard it on the radio while driving out here.  The song is just playing in my head as I ride along. 

I ride along and pass a couple people here and there, usually on a climb.   Good that my cycling legs finally found their groove as I can now start picking off people on the bike.  I am doing a pretty good job in passing people one by one.   Though, at one point, this one girl in a blue shirt comes flying past me.  I kick up my pace a little bit and am so tempted to chase her down but I restrain myself remembering I have to be able to run later.  (I am being particularly conservative on the bike as in my last triathlon, things went down really bad for me on the run.  So, I want to make sure I keep enough juice in my legs to run 13.1 miles at the end). 

The scenery on the ride through Napa Valley is spectacular.  It is a gorgeous day too!  Not too warm or windy.  A few gusts here and there but nothing nearly as bad as when I rode in Solvang earlier this year.  I have friends riding in the Wine Country Century today and start to wonder how they are doing.  I wonder if where they are riding is nice as here.  Technically, I am riding in wine country as well.  Napa is really pretty.  I should set up more bike rides out here. 

I pass the first rest stop around mile 18ish and grab a water bottle.  I manage to balance on my bike while putting a couple fizz tablets into my own water bottle so I can start taking in some electrolytes.  I start to feel a little hungry so eat a Cliff Bar. 

I ride on one road for awhile not seeing any other cyclists, neither in front of me or behind me.  But, it is pretty out so just enjoying the ride.  I pull out of my cell phone to catch a glimpse of some facebook messages from friends sending good thoughts (the messages pop up on the screen like text messages).  I start eating some peanut m&m's I had packed in my jersey.  A little sugar and protein. 

At one point, I see the first place guy riding towards me.  He tells me good job as he flies past me!  After a little bit, I see a few more of the race leaders fly by me.   Around mile 25, I see on the road someone has spray painted "Honey Hill."  Interesting.  Then, I turn one bend and we start climbing.  I see how fast some of the guys are flying down in the other direction and thinking, this must be a good climb ahead.  I finally start seeing more cyclists in front of me (not just the lead guys). 

While climbing away, I think how different this is from my first triathlon.  In my first triathlon, I got stuck on a hill with my bike.  I remember then I could hardly wait to get off the bike.  Now, I am really just enjoying the bike ride.  It is beautiful out and I am riding well.  It is nice to think about the beginning to remind oneself as to how far one has come along.  I think about why I started with the whole triathlon stuff and how great it has been for me.  I think about what great people I have in my life now.  People that have been great influences, great support, and great inspirations. 

My legs are feeling strong now and I start picking off a bunch of cyclists on the climb.  I am glad this bike course is a bit hilly.  I also take a bit of pleasure in passing some folks on their fancy expensive carbon fiber tri bikes while I ride my not-so-expensive, kind of heavy, road bike.  Though, I will say I do appreciate my triple.  ;-)  I also pass the blue shirt girl (the one who passed me earlier).

At one point, as I am passing this one cyclist, this car that could not wait a few seconds for me to finish the pass comes flying past me, coming within inches of me.  Stupid drivers!  Grr!  Other than a couple stupid drivers, most of the cars have been pretty good about keeping a good distance from the racers.  It probably helps that CHP keeps driving up and down the course all day long. 

Around mile 35, I hit the turn around and stop to refill my water bottles and eat a banana.  The volunteers are super friendly and helpful.  Though they do not have the best of things as far as food/fuel, I like the attitude and feel very tended too.  Having nice, helpful volunteers makes a big difference in races.  I leave the rest stop with a small gatorade in hand and drink it as I ride along.  I pass the 3 1/2 hour mark. I think I am about halfway done. 

After hitting a couple more hills, I finally start descending.  I come barreling down the hill at 40ish mph.  I feel great cornering and glad I have been descending better in the past month.  I fly past more cyclists.  Last week, while I was riding at Wildflower, Craig had complemented me as to how well I descended Table Mountain.  As I am flying down Honey Hill, I think Craig would be proud of my descent right now (oh the random things you think about while riding). 

When I hit the bottom of the hill, this girl comes whipping around me.  I remember flying past her early and have a feeling she had been riding my tail on the descent.  This kind of annoys me as in triathlons, you are not supposed to draft.  I let her ride ahead of me for a little bit before I pass her up on the next roller.  She did not pass me again.

After riding along for a bit, the blue shirt girl passes me again on a flatter section.  She rides with such a casual demeanor.  She does not look like she is riding very hard but she just flies on by.  She rides next to me and comments on what a lovely day it is.  She is nice so I make a little small talk with her before she gets ahead of me.  I keep her within my sight though.  We hit some more hills (nothing epic) and I narrow the gap to her.  The wind kicks up a little bit making for a bit of headwind on some of the climbs.   It is starting to get warm out too.  Not too bad on the bike but I feel the run will be toasty. 

I finally pass blue shirt girl on the last hill and fly down the last descent.  I pound it back into the park towards transition.  I have to bounce over a few speed bumps on the way in but I do not care.  I just have one more leg to go.  I note that the overall time is still under 5 hours!  Woot!  Met my bike goal by finishing under 4 hours!  I just might break 7 hours! 


I get into transition and start walking.  The bike to run transition is one of the toughest on the legs.  I have had all kinds of issues in the past couple multi-sport events going into the run after the bike.  So, I take a little extra time in transition to walk instead of run.  Let my legs get out of cycling mode and be ready for running mode. 

I rack my bike back up and switch to my running shoes.  I pound a can of coke and eat some more GU chomps.  I empty out my cycling jersey pockets including my phone (after catching a glimpse of a nice text from Craig cheering me on).  I buckle on my running fuel belt (with race number) and grab my hand held bottle.  And, I walk out of transition. 

The Run
While running is my strongest suit, it is the toughest in the triathlon, being the last thing.  In my last triathlon, I struggled really badly on the run, having to walk a lot of it.  While my half marathons are usually well under 2 hours, I hopee to get close to 2 hours.  I would be happy if I can average under 10 minute miles.  The run would the real deciding factor as to whether I would finish in 7 hours not.

Once out of the transition area, I start to run.  I hear the announcer say something about the pink rabbit jersey.  He announces #70 is going out on the run, good job Helen Fong!  Nice my jersey is making me stand out and getting me shout outs as I come through. 

As I run past one aid station, my eyes catch a quick glimpse of a sign that says run turn around.  I realize that this is going to be a two loop run course.  Oh geez!  That means I have to go out and back...TWICE!

I do not like double loops in running.  It is hard to come in and see the finish but be told to turn back out and run the loop again.  But, I tell myself, I will just think of it as segments.  I also make sure I pace myself.  My legs are running okay though I worry as to how long they will hold out.  It is around 1:00 p.m. and getting hot out.  The run is all exposed on the road. 

I quickly learn the run is not flat either.  The initially rollers I had hit while starting out on the bike course are the same rollers which I have to run on.   I just tell myself, I just have to run 3.25 miles out to the turn around.  It is easier to think about things in smaller portions than the whole thing.

At each mile on the run, I pop a shot block.  I drink a bit more water now really feeling the heat.  There is a nice breeze as I pass by the lake so that is helpful.  I am running at a decent pace.  I know I have run faster at this distance but I do not to have any issues.  I think I will just get gently run my way through the first half of the run and if I am feeling okay, pick it up towards the end.

Around mile 3.25, I hit the turn around point. I drink some Gatorade.  The volunteers all kindly offer to refill my water bottle.  I decline and run back to the start.  Less than 10 miles to go I think.  If Scott were with me, he would be telling me how we are in single digit territory. 

The run back is a lot warmer.  As I pass an aid station, I grab a cup of water and just dump it on myself.   I feel my heart rate rising as I run up each hill.  I keep telling myself to just put one foot in front of the other.  As I pass the lake again, I close my eyes and just get into my running groove.  I randomly start thinking of myself doing my usual weekend run with my Java Joggers around Lake Natoma (our usual lake loop).   As I am running, I just get into the zone.  This moment right now is why I love running so much.  I think only a runner can understand what I mean but it is when nothing else matters.  It is just you and the road.  And, your legs are just going. 

As I turn back into the park, the moment is gone as I am heading back near the start/finish.  I hit the turn around aid station and refill my water bottle.  They have licorice here so I grab a couple before I head out for my second loop.  Just 6.5 miles left is what I tell myself.  Basically a 10k left.  Just a year ago, I ran my first race, a 10k race.  That is all I have to do right now. 

As I come out of the park and head back on the hot, not so flat road, my stomach is starting to not feel so great.  It does not like how much power food and such I have been eating.  Not enough real food.  I cut back on eating shot blocks as I do not feel I can stomach them anymore.  I keep going. 

Around mile 8, my legs start to feel really heavy.  The hills are harder to get up.  I feel my pace dropping.  My stomach is turning too.  But, I am pleased that I have been running the whole time, not walking.  I am doing much better than at Icebreaker, where I had the worst run ever!  Though, I am starting to get really tired now.   I few a couple blisters starting form on the bottom of my right foot.  I am glad my legs have not cramped at all during this run and continue to hope they hold up for a few more miles.  I am counting down every mile I go now. Just one foot in front of the other. 

I feel my heart rate rising, probably because of the hills and the heat.  My chest is getting a bit congested too and I am breathing a lot harder, wheezing a little.  I continue to pour water on me to bring my body temp down a little.  I am panting pretty heavily when I hit the aid station.  I force myself to take one of my Proctane GU's.  These are the ones I like to take near the end of an event to give me a good final kick.  There is something in them that gives me an extra boost. 

Around mile 10.5-11ish, either from the GU or that I can feel the finish, my running legs kick back into gear and my pace picks up again.  I do not care how hot it is or that I am struggling a little bit to breath or that I feel a couple blisters forming on my foot.  I know the finish is near.  I also feel like the run will be a little short too.

I turn back into the park and start sprinting to the finish.  I feel a little emotional as I dash to the finish.  I am doing it.  I am finish my first half ironman!  I cross the finish line with a smile and arms in the air! I hear the announcer call out my name as my finish and says the pink rabbit is the cutest jersey of the day! 

My run ended up being a little over 2 hours but I met my goal of finishing with an average of 9:43 min/miles (under 10 min/miles was the goal).  Yay!  

Final Thoughts

My official finish time was 6 hours, 50 minutes, 26 second.  So, well under my 7 hour goal making me really happy with a good first half marathon!  Met my goals for all of the tri sports!

I finished 6th in my age group.  I was 23rd overall female.  After the swim, I was the 60th female.  After the bike, I was 37th female.  After the run, I was 23rd female.  As you see, I go from my weakest to my strongest sport.  I like being able to advance up during the race.

I felt the event was very well organized.  The organizers and volunteers were all wonderful.  Every super friendly and really trying to take care of the athletes (which I especially appreciate after feeling the opposite of that last week in Chico).  I did really appreciate the announcer guy announcing me and my pink rabbit jersey as I came through transition and the finish.  For the most part, everyone (including the other athletes) were super friendly!  Made for a very enjoyable race day!

As for the half ironman distance, I liked it.  As I have told many friends, I prefer the long distance stuff over the shorter stuff.   I think I do better in them.  I am not a fast one.  At least I do not come out of the gate very fast.  It usually takes my body a bit to really get going.  Once I get going though, I can just go, go, go.

All in all, I feel like this was one of my best triathlons.  I enjoyed all three sports.  A few tough moments but I would not be doing these things if it weren't challengeing.  ;-)

Now, the question that I have been asked is will you do an ironman?  Of course!  Have to take things to the next level.  When I might do an ironman, I am not sure.  I have a lot planned out on the crazy calendar for this year so it may be something for next year.  For now, I am happy to be a half ironwoman now!  :)

After the race, they gave me the race shirt.  On the back, it had an amusing warning .  Seems very fitting for how it has been for me.

With all my athletic milestones, I am always extremely grateful to all the people who have supported and helped me accomplish all these crazy goals I have.

First, I wish to thank all my friends for all the words of encouragement.  Cheering me on before, during, and after the race (for this event and all the events prior and all the events to come!).  I cannot express enough how much it means to me.

To all my athlete friends (in swimming, cycling, and/or running), I want to express the greatest thanks for helping me become an athlete.  I was not always crazy.  You all helped be part of that and I thank you because I have become not only a healthier person but a much happier person.  Throughout the race, I think of each of you and it is what keeps me going.  I also get a wonderful feeling when I finish.  A feeling of accomplishment.  I would not be able to get that feeling had it not been for you wonderful, crazy friends, training with me, inspiring me, encouraging me, and supporting me.  But beyond the sense of accomplishment, I am most grateful for all the wonderful friendships I have formed in the process.  I love my life includes such wonderful, athletically-inclined, healthy, CRAZY, people who just make my life so fabulous!

Special thanks to all the swimmers in Sacramento Swimming Enthusiasts, my cycling friends in Hammerin' Wheels, my wonderful girls in WAV, my fabulous FTR friends, and my family in Java Joggers.


  1. that is awesome Helen!!!! Love to read this

  2. Believe liking for the outcome. I'm attitude of making a swim suit too. What's the polyester ratio you talk about in your post? Is that what makes the swim suit stretchy and stay on your body? I've read others have used t-shirt material but I'm wary of what will come about after you take a thrust!compression socks triathlon