Arms Raised in Victory: IRONMAN Louisville Race Report
I usually only share my race reports with my athletes. I’m fairly private about my racing, training and don’t broadcast what I do to everyone as I’m doing it. I figure that my athletes can benefit from my experience and mistakes (so that hopefully they don’t make the same ones! :) ), which is why I share them with them. This race report, however, is an exception to my normal “rule”.
In February 2013 I signed up to volunteer at IRONMAN Lake Placid with the end goal being signing up for the 2014 race on Monday morning in the Olympic Oval. By mid-spring, I realized that I wasn’t excited about this and that it wasn’t the right time for me to take on 140.6. So, in July 2014 I signed up for IRONMAN Lake Placid taking place in July 2015. I talked it over with my then-coach Karen Allen-Turner and we agreed that I was in the right physical place to take on 140.6 and that I had the proper equipment to train. My family supported my decision to pursue this goal and we agreed that it would be my sole focus for the first half of 2015. And so I “officially” began my journey towards 140.6.
Life had other plans. My left foot started bothering me in March 2015, and it responded to KT Tape and chiropractic adjustment, so I didn’t think much of it. By May 2015, however, it hadn’t gotten better. I had an x-ray that was negative (meaning that no fractures were detected), so I made the choice to continue training, although I did reduce the amount I was running. In June 2015, my Achilles tendon started bothering me, which prompted me to stop running altogether. The Green Lakes Triathlon and IRONMAN 70.3 Syracuse were the only times I ran; I made a deal with myself that I’d run those days and not at all again until IRONMAN Lake Placid. Two days after IRONMAN 70.3 Syracuse, I was diagnosed with a fracture of the sesamoid bone of my left foot. My doctor told me that I absolutely could not do IRONMAN Lake Placid if I ever wanted to run again. To say I was devastated is putting it mildly. To add insult to this injury, it also put me on disability at work (my job requires that I be able to run).
During the summer of 2015, I obeyed all of my medical restrictions, my foot healed, and I was cleared to run again starting on September 18, 2015. I ran one mile that day, and then went on a local group ride. I never made it back from that ride; I crashed, sustained an open, compound fracture to the radius and ulna of my left arm, was transported to the trauma department at Upstate University Hospital, and had emergency surgery to repair my arm.
That injury to my arm prevented me from ever returning to my job or working in the security/law enforcement field since one of my permanent restrictions now is that I cannot have a firearm in my left hand. My ulna still hasn’t healed and remains fractured and I have nerve damage that causes me constant pain. The nerve damage also means that my arm/hand does not always respond to my neurological commands. I had to re-learn how to cook, back-up a car, open a bag of chips, open a jar, and wave with my left arm, amongst other things. When I was cleared to ride a bike outside again, braking safely and maintaining control of the bike were things I struggled with.
In June 2016, I completed my first triathlon since I had broken my foot (IRONMAN 70.3 Syracuse). That event was a major milestone and gave me the confidence I needed to know that me and my arm could safely race without risking injury to other athletes on the course. I had had unfinished business with IRONMAN since 2015, and I started thinking about 140.6 again. I decided I’d sign up for IRONMAN Lake Placid on July 23, 2017.
Yet again, life had other plans. One of my very best friends got engaged, asked me to be her Maid of Honor, and set July 23, 2017 as her wedding date. Ever the stubborn bullhead, I looked at other options in 2017, and noticed that IRONMAN Louisville was still open for 2016. Not only that, I noticed it was taking place on October 9, 2016, which was my 30th birthday. I’ve only raced as my “real” age once in triathlon, and I honestly hate that (although I understand why the rule is the rule). I have a goal to complete a race in every state (no particular kind...just any race that has a start and finish), and I hadn’t done a race in Kentucky yet. I felt very strongly that neon signs were screaming “IRONMAN LOUISVILLE 2016!!!!!” at me, and I decided to pay attention. I registered for the race with 12 weeks to go.
I only told a select few people about my choice: my immediate family, my best friends, and the person who I needed to approve my time off from work. I swore them all to secrecy, and they all kept their word. I’m blessed to have such a tremendous support system.
In August 2016, I was approached by Team MPI and decided to join the team as a coach. My friend and mentor who approached me about joining Team MPI, Mark Turner, agreed to coach me and help me with the final 7 weeks of my training. We have a similar mindset when developing coaching plans (quality, not quantity; smarter, not harder), and I knew he was the right person to trust with this goal. We conducted a couple of tests and finalized my nutrition plan for race day. I know I could have gotten myself to IRONMAN, but I know that I ultimately did it better because of Mark.
Three weeks out from race day, I stopped riding outside. This was torture for me since I HATE the trainer, and I especially hated that I was missing the best riding season Upstate New York offers. But my goal of getting to IRONMAN was my primary focus. I let local bike mechanic know I was heading to Louisville; I wanted him to “bless off” on my bike. He always does this for me before races, and I wouldn’t have felt good about heading into this race without him going through my bike and making sure it was mechanically sound. I also let my friends Karah and AJ know that I was going to be coming to town (they live near Louisville). I packed up my car, and started the 10-hour drive.
I arrived in Louisville, met up with my parents (who had left their home in Myrtle Beach right before Hurricane Matthew hit). I completed my final workouts, and realized I actually was going to make it to the start line without a training-related injury (minus my still-broken arm, which I don’t count). The joy I felt at reaching this milestone is indescribable.
I checked in at Athlete Village, got my coveted IRONMAN athlete wristband, and realized that this was really about to happen. The amazing volunteers and staff at IRONMAN Louisville had stashed a hand-written birthday card in my race packet, wishing me a Happy Birthday and a safe race on Sunday. I was all smiles…..I felt such positive energy EVERYWHERE and it reinforced my confidence in my ability to see this goal through to the end.
On Saturday I went to check Captain America (my beloved, ever-trusty Specialized Shiv) into Transition. I noticed a slice in my rear tire, so I made a quick pit stop to a local bike shop, who happened to be a Specialized dealer and had my preferred race tires in stock (Specialized S-WORKS Turbo 700x24c). I swapped the tire over, relieved that this wasn’t even a minor stressor for me since I had worked in a bike shop and learned so much about bike maintenance. That afternoon, my brother and sister-in-law arrived in Louisville, and my friends Karah and AJ came by to visit. Spending the afternoon/evening before IRONMAN with my family and them was perfect, and exactly what I needed the night before such a long day.
On Sunday morning I woke up at 0330 and ate some oatmeal while I sat in my Recovery Pump boots. I ate a bagel, sipped some water, and made a 24-ounce bottle of Tailwind to sip until the swim start. My brother, mom, and I headed out and started the 2-mile walk from our hotel to Transition. Once I set up my bike with fuel and hydration, checked my tire pressure, and did a final inspection of my bike and run bags. I handed off my bike and run Special Needs bags, and went with my family to the swim start line.
IRONMAN Louisville is different than any other North American IRONMAN for a few reasons. First and foremost, due to its late-season date and its location at the western end of the Eastern Time Zone, there is a 16-hour time limit on the entire course (as opposed to the standard 17-hour time limit at other IRONMAN races) due to the time of sunrise at this time of year. Secondly, its start is unique as well; you need to get in line and wait for a time trial start off of two docks. I got in line at 0545 and was in the first quarter of the line. I sat down and made friends with the athletes next to me; they were from England and were HILARIOUS. I made a few final bathroom trips (on one of these I saw my friend Colleen - yay!), got into my wetsuit around 0715, and the cannon went off at 0730. At this point, the line started moving pretty quickly; I handed off my bag to my family, said goodbye to them, and headed into the start chute. I jumped into the Ohio River at 0746 and began my 140.6 mile journey to the finish line.
The swim was amazing. The air temperature was 45ºF that morning, and the water temperature was 72ºF. The sun was just beginning to rise, and there was mist coming off of the water due to the difference in air and water temperature. To say it was gorgeous is an understatement. I swam on the left side of the river, closest to the buoys (keeping them on my left). When we reached the turnaround buoy on the northern side of the island, I got excited because I could see the bridges and downtown Louisville. As I approached the Big Four Pedestrian Bridge, I started looking for my brother, and was fairly certain I identified him. I started throwing up waves every swim stroke, and when I crossed under the bridge, I flipped over and saw him waving at me. I was SO pumped to see him; I’ve never been able to see anyone in the middle of a swim in a race before. I kept my effort extremely easy throughout the entire swim and kept my kicking to a minimum. I felt great and was feeling strong as I exited the water.
I have a medical restriction against walking barefoot (a remnant of my fractured sesamoid bone from 2015), but I had scoped out the swim exit prior to race day and had made the decision not to seek permission from the Head Official to have shoes waiting for me at the swim exit. I walked extremely carefully from the swim exit into Transition, and saw my family waving at me along the way. I grabbed my bike bag, headed into the change tent, and started getting ready for the bike. I took a gel, drank some water, and made a bathroom stop. I picked up Captain America and we headed out to begin our 112-mile journey.
My goal for the bike was simple: don’t overdo it and nail my nutrition. I knew that sustaining 180 watts Normalized Power would keep me ready for the marathon. The temperature at the start of the bike was 46ºF...perfect for this Upstate New Yorker. I kept my cadence above 85 rpm, and started eating. I ate 200 calories at the top of every hour, 100 calories at the bottom of every hour, drank six ounces of sports drink (either coconut water or Gatorade Endurance Formula) every fifteen minutes, and took Salt Stick Plus Tabs at the top and bottom of every hour. I followed this with the exception of the top of my third hour on the bike; I started feeling just a touch of GI cramping and knew it was best to skip that scheduled nutrition. I felt fine after that and never had another issue.
The course was fairly flat for the first 20 miles, and then some rolling hills began. All in all, there’s more than 4,500 feet of elevation gain on the entire course, but the rollers made me feel like it was less (they were less substantial climbs than I’m used to from home). At Mile 28, the course passes through La Grange, Kentucky. La Grange sets up a huge spectator viewing area and puts on a festival for spectators. The vibe as you ride through here is unreal, and it was so awesome to see my family as we all rode through. At Mile 50 my bottle cage mounted on my stem flipped loose, so I rearranged things to make it comfortable to keep riding to the next aid station, where I stopped and asked for a multi-tool so I could take it off. I also refilled my bottles and Fuelselage at this aid station. While I was there, I met a Team RWB Eagle from the Dayton, Ohio chapter, which seriously fired me up.
At Mile 63, the course passes through La Grange again, so I got to see my family for a second time. Throughout the day, I received compliments on Captain America from other athletes; he was undoubtedly the sexiest bike on the IRONMAN Louisville course that day ;) . The views on the course were absolutely spectacular. Horse farms, rolling hills, and fall colors. Several neighborhoods came out and set up viewing parties, complete with costumes and signs. One of my favorites was a group of 20+ people (adults and children) dressed as Waldo from Where’s Waldo? supporting their own Waldo. My other favorite was a little girl, who couldn’t have been more than eight years old, playing her violin on the side of the road and smiling at us.
As I passed Mile 81, I witnessed a crash, and the athlete landed on her head and rolled to the side of the road. I remember saying “Oh my goodness, is she okay?” as I approached riding alongside another cyclist. We both stopped, and started trying to help the down athlete. She was conscious, and her helmet was intact, though she did have some road rash. She was able to answer our questions, and said her name was Amanda. She was obviously really shaken up and upset. The other athlete left, and I picked up Amanda’s bike and got it back in working order as best I could. Her rear shifter was severely bent, and wasn’t shifting properly, but otherwise the bike was in okay condition. She was able to get up after a bit, and said she wanted to continue with the race and was going to walk it off for a bit. I recommended that she take it easy and get to the next aid station (about 10 miles away) and get bike mechanical assistance there. I told her that she was strong and that she would finish, but to take it easy for the rest of the bike so she could get to the marathon. I wished her well and left, feeling guilty as I was doing so and hoping that she’d be okay. I thought about her for the rest of the day (I learned via Facebook the next day that she had completed the race, despite having broken a rib).
My left arm went numb at Mile 100 (and remained numb for the rest of the day), which was honestly later than I anticipated it would. I told it “we just have 12 more miles, let’s go!” (amazing the things you’ll say to yourself when you’re 7+ hours into an event). I remember riding alongside the river and thinking how amazing it was that I was actually doing this...that I was about to complete the bike leg and that I was doing it in such a beautiful place.
As I made the final turns to come back into Transition, the crowds were plentiful and the cheers were loud. I was fairly emotional at this point...this represented the culmination of the longest bike ride I’ve ever gone on. I had made it safely back from the bike course and didn’t crash; this was also the moment I knew for certain I was actually going to be an IRONMAN.
As I entered Transition, I saw Colleen, who was screaming “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” at me along with other Ohio Eagles. I went into the change tent, and a lovely volunteer helped me get my run bag and items out of it. Volunteers make IRONMAN; without them, it wouldn’t be possible. I was overwhelmed that these people would spend all day helping us reach our dreams. She told me to leave everything and that she’d take care of it for me, and that I should go start my run. I made another bathroom stop, put my visor on, and headed out.
I saw my Mama just a bit outside of Transition, and she was grinning from ear to ear, telling me I was doing great. I then saw my sister-in-law Ashley, who was alternating between jumping up and down and taking photos, shouting “Go Coach Laura Henry, it’s your birthday” the entire time. She gave me a high-five as I headed out for 26.2.
My plan for the run was also simple: don’t over do it, walk every aid station, and have a raging good time. My nutrition plan was a gel and Salt Stick Plus tab at the top and bottom of every hour, and water and Gatorade Endurance Formula at every aid station. I also stuffed ice into my bra every time an aid station had ice available. Around Mile 2 I saw a Team RWB Eagle walking, so I stopped and walked with him. He was from Buffalo and struggling as he was currently sick with bronchitis. We chatted for a bit, and I headed off. Three miles into the marathon, I heard the unmistakable hum of fat bike tires on pavement, and my brother Joe was there. He rode past me, and stopped a few blocks up. I stopped to chat with him, and then kept moving forward. Joe did this the entire marathon: rode past me, stopped to wait for me to cheer me on, and then would ride on again. Over the course of the entire day, Joe rode 40+ miles on my fat bike to get to various points on the course to cheer me on. You can’t buy that kind of support and love.
As I approached downtown Louisville again, I saw my Mama, who had met some other Team RWB Eagles who were spectating. They all shouted “Happy Birthday” as I approached, and I stopped to chat with her for a bit. She told me that the tracker was updating on time and that everyone on our group text (the people who I had told about the race in advance) were wishing me well. I left, and saw my Daddy and Ashley again as I approached the half marathon mark. I stopped and talked to them, remarking how I knew that I was about to be tortured with the sight of the finish line at the turnaround point. Daddy told me that I should “get going” because it was close and I’d “be back in ten minutes”. I went through the turnaround, and attempted to fire up some otherwise rather subdued crowds. I stopped and chatted with Daddy and Ashley, and then headed down to find Mama. Joe was with her, and we chatted for a bit before I headed out for my final loop. Joe told me that he’d be out there waiting for me.
Around Mile 15 I met Keith, a Team RWB Eagle who was struggling. We walked together for a while. He told me that the bike had killed his legs and that he was having trouble getting through the run (he was on his first loop). I encouraged him to keep up with forward progress as I left him at the next aid station (ultimately he pulled himself from the race at Mile 13, which made me feel sad when I heard about that). Joe pulled up alongside me and asked me how I was doing; I said my legs were starting to get tired and that I’d give anything for some French Fries. He laughed as he rode off.
I saw Amanda and Rob out on this loop; I met them at Rev3 Cedar Point in 2014 and I was PUMPED to see them both out on the course. As I approached the final turnaround (at Mile 19.5), I remember thinking that I felt like Treebeard from Lord of the Rings - somehow it seemed like I was “going downhill” once I made that turnaround.
I passed Churchhill Downs for the last time, and night fully engulfed the city. The aid stations were now offering chicken broth and handing out glow necklaces. I chuckled, remembering how Coach Mark's advice had been, "Don't panic when the chicken soup comes out." Joe saw me one last time and told me that he was heading to the finish, and that he knew I could do this. I said I’d see him there. I forced myself to walk the final aid station, which was at Mile 25.6. I took my final swigs of Gatorade Endurance Formula, and made my second-to-last turn of the day.
I made the final turn onto Fourth Street, and then slowed to a walk. I wanted to record every second of that final approach into my brain movies so I could replay it for the rest of my life.
I started crying, absolutely overcome with joy that I had finally reached the end of my multi-year journey to 140.6. I saw Daddy, who gave me a high-five. I saw the Dayton, Ohio chapter of Team RWB, who cheered so loudly for me and told me to “go get it!” I was on stimulus overload as I heard the roar of the crowd and saw the blinding lights of the finish line. A million brain movies and memories played in my head:
The day I found out my foot was broken. The day I broke my arm. The day my doctor told me IRONMAN wasn’t going to happen for me, but if I followed his recommendations that one day it might. The first triathlon I ever finished. The first triathlon I finished with my new Vader Arm. Team RWB’s National Triathlon Camp. Collapsing on the grass of my high school football field, utterly defeated and unable to pass the Presidential Fitness Mile. My family and friends who weren’t physically in Louisville with me, but who were with me for every mile as I carried them in my heart all day. My Mimi & Boppy, who wanted to make the trip, but couldn’t. My sweet Gram, who would have absolutely loved that I did this completely decked out in red, white, and blue. And then this:
Me, a girl with a broken arm and scars in a million places, approaching that red and black finisher’s carpet. Realizing that I was, in fact, the luckiest person on the face of the earth because I have the freedom, support, and ability to pursue my dreams. Knowing it was time to dance, and knowing it was time to raise my arms in victory. Knowing that I would have these memories to draw strength and joy from for the rest of my life.
As I crossed under the finisher’s arch, I looked up at the glass atrium of Fourth Street Live! and told myself that I had done it. I had actually freaking done it. I looked over and saw Mama waving, jumping, and crying. I gave her a hug, and realized that this victory belonged to her and the rest of my family as much as it belonged to me.
Twelve hours and thirty-two minutes after I jumped into the Ohio River, I became an IRONMAN. And no matter what happens going forward, I can say that for the rest of my life.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.