On March 4th, 2018 I signed myself up for Half Ironman Boulder because it was a dream of mine to complete an Ironman race. I knew it would be an adventure and not only a test of physical strength and endurance, but a true measure of my mental and emotional toughness. Let me start with a little background info before I get to the Boulder 70.3 story...
I started competing in triathlons during the spring semester of my senior year of college. My collegiate soccer career had ended, but I wasn't done competing. I had always identified as an athlete and I couldn't stand to let that piece of myself go. I did my first few triathlons on an old school mountain bike. I didn't have a triathlon suit, a bike rack, or even a nice pair of running shoes....but it didn't matter one bit. I fell in love with the sport immediately. It was challenging, unique, and the community was super supportive.
Just as a little side note, I am not an extraordinary swimmer, cyclist or runner. I don't really excel at any of the three disciplines, but I am competent and fairly strong in all three, with swimming being the most challenging. I love the variety and the fact that the races are multi-sport. Triathlon reminded me of my high school days playing softball, basketball, and soccer year round.
Every summer from 2013 to 2017, I raced in a couple of local sprint duathlons and triathlons. I eventually purchased a suitable road bike that gets the job done and it was fun to see my progress over the course of those four years. I was the top overall female at the Papillion Duathlon in 2015 and have fared pretty well in my age group in most of the local races.
Fast forward to 2018....I decided it was time to go big or go home and I pulled the trigger and paid the $300 race entry fee for Boulder. I was super pumped and excited to embark on a new journey and I thought everyone around me would feel the same way, but that just wasn't the case. These are the comments I heard over and over for five months and they were amplified during the two-three weeks leading up to the race, "You are crazy! Why are you doing this? How are you going to deal with the altitude? How will you prepare for this? Why would anyone want to complete 70.3 miles? What if you get hurt? You are insane!"
I'm super grateful I have spent the last few years diving into personal development and working on my mindset because I was able to block out the doubt and push the resistance out of my way. I had actually visualized myself crossing the finish line in Boulder hundreds of times in my mind before the race. I was 100% positive I would cross that finish line even if I had to crawl. I'm also super appreciative for my husband, Eric, for supporting me from the moment I signed up until after I crossed the finish line (more on that later).
For those of you who aren't familiar with Half Ironman, the race consists of a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run. Most endurance athletes log a ton of miles during training, but my five month training plan looked a little different. During those five months, I never biked more than 25 miles and I never ran more than 6.2 miles. I did swim the full 1.2 miles (2,000 meters) in a pool twice prior to the race, but the farthest I ever went in open water was 1,500 meters in the Omaha Triathlon. I still continued to mix in lots of strength workouts including some HIIT and functional training. I also placed a huge emphasis on stretching and yoga to help ease the tension and soreness in my muscles. I believe that my balance of strength, cardio, and recovery helped keep me healthy and strong.
In order to test myself and really see how my training plan was working, I signed myself up for an event/race in each month from April through July. Every single event taught me a valuable lesson and helped prepare me for Boulder. Here is the breakdown:
In April, I competed in the Omaha Duathlon and was super pleased with my two mile run splits. I ran a 7:10 pace for the first two miles and an 8:00 pace for the second two miles; however, I was extremely frustrated with my bike ride that day. We still had snow in April and I had only spent minimal time on my trainer indoors over the winter so my preparation wasn't up to par. My uphill shifting needed some serious work and my bike needed a major tune-up after a long winter. The biggest lesson I learned that day was that my mindset drastically affects my performance. My attitude was super negative during the bike portion of the race and all I could do was focus on how frustrated I was. I knew moving forward that my thoughts needed to stay positive and encouraging even when times were tough.
In May, I signed up for the Wanderlust 108 Mindful Triathlon in Kansas City, which consisted of a 5k run, yoga, and meditation. The 5k wasn't really an officially timed race, but I viewed it as another opportunity to test my limits. It was down pouring all morning and I wasn't super thrilled about being in wet clothes all day, but I checked my bag in and went to warm-up with the group. Miraculously, the rain cleared about five minutes before the start of the 5k. The leaders helped us set an intention for our run that day. "I am relaxed. I am strong. I am worthy." I ran like a black stallion running freely in a meadow...or at least that's how I felt. I was the lead runner right behind the biker for 2.5 miles and the first female to cross the finish line. There was a guy who passed me with about a half mile to go, but inside I felt like I had just won the Boston Marathon. Setting an intention for my race changed the game for me and I will forever use affirmations on repeat in my mind. "I am relaxed. I am strong. I am worthy."
In June, I competed in my first actual triathlon of 2018, the Omaha Women's Triathlon. The women's tri was a sprint race consisting of a half mile swim, a 12.4 mile bike, and a 3.1 mile run. Overall, I was super pleased with my finish in just under an hour-and-a-half, but I felt a little frantic during each portion of the race. I had a little panic attack at the beginning of the swim, despite my preparation and "I am calm, I am relaxed" affirmations. During the bike ride, one of my water bottles flew out of my hand when I was trying to place it back in the holder. During Transition 2, I forgot to put my race bib on for the run and I was so nervous the race official was going to disqualify me. Moving forward I knew I had to utilize visualization to help me walk through each piece of the race in my head, including transitions. Crossing the finish line is an important piece to visualize, but triathlon is a journey from the water onto two wheels onto two feet with two transitions in between.
July had arrived and I was super nervous for my first Olympic distance triathlon, consisting of a 1500 meter swim (just under a mile), a 40k bike (24.85 miles), and a 10k run (6.2 miles). I woke up at 3:30AM, which is definitely the earliest I've ever gotten up, but my pre-race prep was flawless. Finally, I was able to put together a complete race and I actually felt comfortable throughout all three disciplines. I wasn't fast, but I was calm and relaxed in the water even though it wasn't wetsuit legal. I had a strong bike leg despite some challenging hills and I was satisfied with my run. As a bonus we got to finish at home plate of Werner Park, which was pretty fun! My time was just over three hours, which means I almost maintained my sprint distance pace. I counted the Omaha Triathlon as a victory in my preparation. My only issue was that my long blonde hair was in knots and it took a lot of conditioner and the patience of my mother to brush it out for 30 minutes after the race. My two lessons from the Omaha Triathlon: cut your hair or have someone tightly braid it and give yourself plenty of time to prep the morning of the race.
If you're still with me, I'm so grateful for your support! This is turning into a novel or at least one chapter of the book that I plan to write someday. We have finally made it to my race week story. Let's just say that my pre-race week was NOT ideal. I had several personal training sessions, private goalkeeper sessions, soccer training sessions, and two athletic standard index testing combines. I didn't get as much sleep as I would've liked and I didn't practice as much yoga as I had planned. It was one of those weeks where I felt like I was just trying to keep my head above water. Eric and I loaded the car and took off for the mountains around 6:30AM on Friday, August 3rd. NO, I didn't have the luxury of going out early to acclimate to the elevation and train before the race.
We arrived at the Boulder Reservoir around 2:30PM for athlete and bike check-in, which is probably the most intimidating experience if you are a first-timer. You feel like you are a rookie walking into a Major League stadium for the first time. There were professional triathletes, bikes that cost more than my car, and over 2,000 race participants. That's the moment when all the thoughts of self-doubt, fear and comparison try to creep in. Thank God for my amazing husband and mom for rallying the troops. All day on Friday, I started receiving text messages, social media messages, and encouragement from friends, family, teachers, and coaches. The amount of love and support was unreal. Thank you to each and every person who took the time to send well wishes.
We checked into our hotel and settled in for a little while, but I knew I had to move my body after sitting in the car all day. Eric dropped me off at a local park and sat in the car while I jogged and completed dynamic movements. I chose Panera for dinner because I knew it was a safe option. I had eaten it before the Olympic distance tri back in July and it fueled me perfectly. Once we got back to the hotel I took a quick shower and then Eric handed me a stack of cards/letters/notes from friends and family. Tears of gratitude and joy rolled down my cheeks because I knew everyone supported me regardless of the outcome. I'm not positive, but I think I got some decent sleep.
We woke up early and prepped to get to the Boulder Reservoir early because I heard nightmarish stories about the traffic jams trying to get into the park. We left just in time because there were hundreds of cars lined up behind us. I got marked with #695 and age 27 and prepped my transition area, which is limited when there are 2,000+ athletes. Eric and I made our way over to the swim start and I pulled on my black and green Xterra wetsuit that makes me look like a frog. Everyone looks a little funny in a swim cap and goggles. I had estimated the swim would take me about 45 minutes, but I placed myself close to the 40 minute group. I made friends with a guy from Denver who was also doing his first 70.3. I heard Eric yell, "Go Rissa," right before I entered the water and my positive affirmations were on repeat in my head.
When it was my turn to dive into the water, I felt ready to go. The water was cool, probably 65 degrees. I got some water in my goggles so I came up and adjusted them and continued on my way, but I just could not catch my breath. I felt like there wasn't any air going into my lungs and I of course panicked. I'm still not sure if it was the altitude or the fact that I was hyped on adrenaline or a combination of both. I was stopping every few strokes to tread water. I normally take three strokes and breathe on both sides, but I had to drop to breathing every other stroke and only on my right side. When I was treading water, I could see another swimmer who had grabbed onto one of the kayaks to rest. I told myself to just make it to the kayak. The nice man asked me what my name was and where I was from and I explained that this was my first Half Ironman. He told me to "go buoy to buoy and just take it one step at a time."
After a minute or two I continued on my journey and it was a brutal one to say the least. I swam breathing every other stroke for the entire 2,000 meters. It was like a war zone. I got kicked, hit, and pushed under once. I saw a man off in the distance floating on his back, which at the time I thought was a little odd, but a good method to rest. That moment would come back to haunt me later on. I took several treading breaks and I seriously felt like I had been swimming for three hours. I was sure the race director would pull me aside after exiting the water and tell me that I was too slow to continue. If you don't complete the 1.2 mile swim in 1 hour and 15 minutes, you get pulled off the course and you receive a DNF (Did Not Finish). As it turns out, I finished the swim in just over 46 minutes, which was pretty close to what I had planned for despite all of my rest breaks and panicking.
I have literally never been so grateful to be on dry land as when I exited the Reservoir. I was disoriented and I couldn't find Eric in the crowd anywhere. Some nice race volunteers helped pull my wetsuit off of me and I managed to locate my bike. At that point my only goal was to survive and conquer. My transition took forever, but I didn't care. I started biking and I was literally crying because I was so grateful to be alive after that hellish swim. Later in the day I found out that a man had died from cardiac arrest during the swim portion of the race. I believe it was the man that I saw floating on his back because a few moments after I saw him, I remember smelling gasoline as if one of the jet skis or rescue boats had driven by. If I would've connected the dots or been thinking clearly, I would've helped in whatever way possible. I read that he was a husband, a father, and a healthy guy who trained frequently. The rescue personnel did everything they could to revive him, but they were unsuccessful. God bless him and his family.
The 56 mile bike ride was long and temps soared up to 92 degrees towards the end of the ride. There was one steep hill at about the 20 mile mark and everyone was struggling to make it to the top. My gears locked up and I literally had to get off of my bike and walk it to the top. There was an amazing woman who looked at me and said, "Don't worry about it! That has happened to me so many times. Just keep going, girl!" There was a portion of the race that was single-file on the shoulder of a busy highway. Some crazy dudes were crossing over the line of cones to pass people, but it just wasn't safe at all. I stopped at every single aid station to get more fluids and eat as much as I could. Clif Bloks Energy Chews helped replenish my electrolytes.
My favorite moment during the bike ride was when an older gentleman passed me on a super expensive bike and he said, "You know you are working way harder than the rest of us without clip pedals or aero bars? Keep going!" I thanked him and smiled because I knew I was putting in my best effort with what I had to work with. By about mile 40 I was just super uncomfortable. My back and shoulders were tensed up and butt was killing me. My positive self-talk and affirmations were crucial at this point. I rode back into transition after 3 hours and 18 minutes on my bike. Still no sign of Eric. He had planned to golf 9 holes with his friend Ethan while I was on my bike. During Transition 2 I took my helmet off and traded it for my hat, changed into my running shoes, grabbed my race bib, and sprayed sunscreen all over my upper body.
Trying to run after biking 56 miles is comical. It is so hard to put one foot in front of the other because your legs are so fatigued. The first mile of the half marathon was by far the worst. Still no sign of my husband as I was running through crowds of cheering supporters. I started to find a little bit of rhythm and I was actually passing quite a few people. I was surprised by how many people were just walking. I walked through every single aid station and dumped ice down the front of my triathlon suit to help cool down my core temp. I also shoved whatever I could into my mouth: orange slices, energy chews, pretzels, gatorade, water, etc.
The course was set up as a double loop so we had to run right by the finish line when we were only halfway done...what a tease! The run course was mostly a dirt path and there was hardly any shade. I was so grateful for the clouds that rolled in when I had about 4-5 miles left to run. I also met two girls who were about my age and we chatted and ran together for a few miles. They talked about their triathlon coaches and how they were both training for a full Ironman. I was happy to have the company because I had literally been talking to myself for the last 6 hours and we helped push each other. They stopped to walk with about 2 miles left and I forged ahead.
I caught a little bit of a second wind and I was cruising for the last few miles. Keep in mind that I still hadn't seen Eric since before I started the swim so I was pretty nervous that he was going to miss my finish. I crossed the finish line with every amount of fuel and energy that I had left in my body and I even managed to smile for the cameraman and throw my hands up in the air. The volunteers placed a finisher medal over my head, grabbed my timing chip, and handed me a water. I was overcome with emotions...joy, relief, gratitude, confusion, sadness, happiness. I walked out of the chute and started crying in the crowd of people. Thank God, Eric found me a few minutes later because I felt so lost. Aside from the hugs on our wedding day, that was probably the best embrace ever!
I secretly gave myself the goal of finishing in 7 hours and my official time was 6 hours 48 minutes and 34 seconds. I finished right in the middle of the pack. The experience was amazing, not because I crossed the finish line, but because I conquered every challenging moment and squashed my fears and self-doubt. I don't have a triathlon coach, a fancy, bike, clip pedals, cycling shoes, aero bars, or a nice watch to track my mileage, speed, and heart rate. I did have self-belief, determination, a heck of a lot of training, hard work, and preparation, and an amazing support team of friends and family! I have already spoken about my husband, my mom, and all of my friends and family who encouraged me and wished me well. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart! I also need to thank my brother, Nicholas, for going on several bike rides with me and my friend Darian for her encouragement and swim sessions. Right now I just plan on sticking to shorter local races. I think sprint races are my true bread and butter and they are more fun! They are also way easier to train for and I don't have to change my normal exercise routine too much.
Here is what I will leave you with...if you want to do something or accomplish something, there is NOBODY that can stop you except for yourself! Throughout your life people will tell you "NO" and "you can't do that," but the only opinion that matters is your own! One of my favorite podcasters and bossbabes, Amber Lilyestrom, always says "If the dream is in you, it is for you. Keep going, keep going, keep going."
Sending you lots of love and strength,