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the agony and the ecstasy that is the Embrunman « Jocelyn Wong's Blog

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the agony and the ecstasy that is the Embrunman

Embrunman was my third ironman race of 2009 and just 5 weeks after my last one.  Before this year I had only done one ironman per year, if I did one at all.  I never thought I would see the day when I could start doing an ironman every month (yep the next one is in 3.5 weeks!) and do really well at them too!  It is no longer so bizarre for me to wrap my mind around this concept because as a member of teamTBB, every day I’m learning that you can always do more than you think you can.

I got to drive in a foreign country for the first time too.  The Hungarian and Kiwis gave me lessons on how to properly navigate a roundabout...

I got to drive in a foreign country for the first time too. The Hungarian and Kiwis gave me lessons on how to properly navigate a roundabout...

I actually volunteered to this masochistic race as Coach asked us all if we wanted to do it.  This time last year, actually from July 2008 (Vineman 70.3) until March 2009 (Singapore 70.3), Coach had put me on “race probation”–I wasn’t allowed to race at all for 8 months until I got faster.  He didn’t want me wasting money on entry fees and travel expenses, and the patience has paid off.  So now that I am allowed to race again, of course I want to race as much as I can!  Coach had also told me before I even booked my plane tickets that none of these European races would suit me–much too hilly and there was no way I would make any prize money at them.  So I didn’t even expect to be racing this summer, and I figured Embrunman would be a great training day that would make me both stronger and tougher after over 13 hours on this epic race course.

the bike profile is deceptive; its the last little peak that is the biggest hill in the whole race!

the bike profile is deceptive; it's the last little peak that is the biggest hill in the whole race!

“Epic” was the description of Embrunman I kept hearing from everybody.  In addition to the standard 3.8k ironman swim and 42k marathon run, the bike course was a little bit longer than the usual 180k–anywhere from 185k to 192k depending on who you asked, with over 5000 meters of climbing.  This includes a climb up Col d’Izoard, one of the famous Tour de France mountains, around the halfway point of the bike.  I looked at last year’s results, and none of the women had broken 7 hours on the bike, so I figured it might very well be an 8-hour day in the saddle for me.  Bean had also told me a sub-4 marathon might be unlikely for me after such a tough bike, but I thought I’d shoot for it anyway.  Once you go sub-4 you don’t go back!  Depending on how disastrous my swim could be, I estimated that I would have a very good day if I could beat my very first ironman time of 13 hours and 10 minutes.

The journey to Embrunman was epic as well, there would be 6 of us from teamTBB racing and I travelled in the Hungarian Red Bull Wagon with Coco and the Kiwi couple, Keegan and Tracy.  The Baylisses and James went a more direct route than we did, and Coach would be joining us on race morning.  The Red Bull Wagon took a pit stop in Geneva, then into France, then dipped into Italy for a 33-euro trip through a very long clastrophobia-inducing tunnel complete with a traffic jam towards the end, then back into France, with no shortage of crazy twisty roads.  The GPS told us it would take 5 hours but we didn’t get to our hotel until at least 10 hours later…ha!!

Well, onto race morning…I dug up some pics from the official photographer.  Please try to ignore the big green “tintinphoto” watermark.  :)

thats me in the BlueSeventy Helix with my head right above the p

that's me in the BlueSeventy Helix with my head right above the "p"

The women got to start the two-lap swim 10 minutes before the men at 5:50am.  This race is also special in that not only is it held over one of the toughest ironman courses in the world, they don’t give you until midnight to finish.  You only get until 10:30pm!  The Frenchies are hard-core for sure.  The awards ceremony was scheduled for 8:30pm and I remember thinking, “if the start time is at 7am, am I even going to be done by then?!”  So luckily we started an hour earlier than most ironman races…in the dark too.  For the first lap of the swim, it was pitch black and we girls followed the bright blinking lantern on the back of the lead boat.

I wish I could tell you Im in this picture of fast aggressive girls with Bella and Erika...

I wish I could tell you I'm in this picture of fast aggressive girls with Bella and Erika...

...but Im really in this more timid second group, eh heh!!

...but I'm really in this more timid second group, eh heh!!

I lost the front pack pretty quick, nothing unusual, but found myself a nice pair of feet to follow for quite a while.  The lake water was completely flat, the temperature was perfect, and there was no chaos or getting beat up.  The first men didn’t catch up until after I started the second lap; I was thinking this was a very good thing!  The woman I was swimming with seemed to be fading and I remembered Coach’s words, “YOU should NEVER hold back in the swim!”  Ok, ok, so when the first men started passing, I picked up the pace and ended up swimming the second lap primarily by myself, catching a short draft every so often when passed by one of the men.  The first big pack of men didn’t even come by until after I founded the final turn buoy, hmm I must be having a good swim, I thought, because the Euro guys are known to be stronger swimmers than the Asian guys.

I dont think I saw my swim time yet, otherwise Id look WAY more happy!

I don't think I saw my swim time yet, otherwise I'd look WAY more happy!

I swam hard to the shore and found myself actually keeping pace with some guys on the last 400 meters.  When I popped out and looked at my watch, I was stoked to see 1:05!!  Definitely my best ironman swim ever and over 20mins faster than my three previous ironman swim splits.  I got into transition with a huge smile on my face and threw my new Scody bike jersey over my race kit.  I had packed a good assortment of chocolate cookies in my jersey pockets…I mean if I was going to spend 8 hours on the bike, I wanted to make sure I didn’t bonk.

this was taken in the morning in the dark, but you can see my cool new Scody bike jersey

this was taken in the morning in the dark, but you can see my cool new Scody bike jersey

Yes, I had a very simple game plan for this race:

  1. DON’T BONK!
  2. DON’T BLOW UP!
  3. DON’T CRASH!
  4. DON’T VOMIT!
  5. DON’T PASS OUT!

In other words,

  1. eat enough.
  2. pace well…don’t go too hard too early.
  3. careful on the descents.
  4. don’t eat TOO much…especially don’t eat too much and go too hard at the same time.
  5. drink enough and don’t get dehydrated.

To ensure I wouldn’t be a victim of rule #1, here is a picture of all the food I ate on the bike.

no, I didnt really eat all of it.

no, I didn't really eat all of it.

Haha, just kidding!!  I think I ended up eating only 10-20% of it.  At most. I shared a hotel room with Miss Coco and when she saw this spread, her eyes went all big and she exclaimed “You can’t eat all that!  That’s like 10,000 calories!!”

Back to the race.  I mounted my new old horse Blue Steel, and off we went.  We passed by Coach on our way out of transition and he looked surprised and ecstatic, telling me I was only 10 minutes behind the leaders.  WOW!  Now that’s a new feeling.  The other new feeling was having a bike with more than one gear option for the first time in 2.5 weeks.  Yep, other than a short pre-race spin, this would be the first full real ride on a REAL bike after all my “fixed gear” work.

It was NICE.  Even though the course was crazy hilly, every time the road went up, all I had to do was shift down.  Gosh, I couldn’t get over how nice that was.  I had a 27, a 25, a 23, AND a 21 that I wasn’t allowed to use for over 2 weeks.  Like Coach’s advice/orders during le teamTBB Tour de France, I used the 27 “early and often.”  Because I COULD.  If my legs wanted to protest at all, all I had to think was “I climbed up the hill from Le Sepey.  Ten times.  In a much harder gear.” (Le Sepey is the town outside of Leysin during our one-hour climb home that is about 5k from the village, at which point the hill pitches the steepest.)

Of course there was another voice in my head that kept screaming “TOP FIVE: TWO THOUSAND EUROS!  TOP 5!  2000 EUROS!!”  Because the prize money at this race is really quite nice.  I actually wrote down the prize money distribution on my race bracelet (which they unfortunately clipped off of me post-race before I could take a photo). I wasn’t sure how close I would be to top 5, but it was good motivation as I’d recently had some unexpected financial expenses crop up–new bike parts at Swiss retail prices (OUCH) and an estimate of 571 Swiss francs (about $530 USD) to change a plane ticket!!! So I was VERY FIRED UP to win some money.

And so if you really want to know what goes on in my head during most of the 7+ hours on the bike, the uphill part went something like this: “DON’T BLOW UP!  LE SEPEY!  10X!  IN A MUCH HARDER GEAR!  TOP 5! 2000 EUROS!  DON’T BONK!  DON’T VOMIT!  TOP 5! 2000 EUROS!  LE SEPEY!  10X!  IN A MUCH HARDER GEAR!!!  DON’T BONK!”

I got to the top of the biggest climb, Col d’Izoard at 100km and my watch said it had only been 4 hours and 18 minutes.  Whoa, I actually thought it would take 5 to 5.5 hours to get there.  Then it was time to go down.  Now I was thinking “DON’T CRASH!  DON’T CRASH!  DON’T CRASH!” which was in conflict with “TOP 5–2000 EUROS!  TOP 5–2000 EUROS!”  Logic won out, I couldn’t finish the race and get any money if I had a bad crash going over the side of the mountain.  There were no guardrails on some parts!!  So I was pretty careful.  Stick to the plan, Wongstar!!

Most of the bike was uneventful, I was following the plan pretty well, although I ended up eating and drinking less than I intended.  I got tired of all the chocolate cookies I had put in my jersey pockets and ate maybe a third of what I carried up the mountain…ahaha.  Some of the aid stations were not strategically located (either at the end of a flat section or on a downhill when you are racing by pretty quickly).  I was surprised to return into the village of Embrun well under the 7-hour mark.  What’s going on, I thought no girls broke 7 hours last year?  Am I just that awesome today?

I was a bit confused, kept looking at my watch and thinking, there must be more hills somewhere…there must be.  Then I saw the “10k to go” sign and thought “ok, one more hill, but just 10k to go, how bad can it be?  Obviously I must just be really awesome today.”  HOW BAD CAN IT BE!!! FAMOUS LAST WORDS!!!

OMFG.  That last hill was a BITCH.  I had to say many words that my mom wouldn’t approve of, but DAMN IT SUCKED MONKEY BALLS!!!  It just kept going up and up and up, every time you turned the corner and thought “surely we start descending,” NO, IT KEPT GOING UP!!  By now I was cursing like a sailor, my Le Sepey mantra wasn’t working, I had skipped the aid station at the bottom of the hill and I wanted to shoot myself.  I was so obviously distressed and cursing and groaning that even my male competitors who I had passed earlier started to repass me back, but all with words of encouragement.  ”allez allez!” 5k to go, surely we start descending…NO!!!  4k to go, surely we start descending…NO!!!  MOTHEREFFER WHEN IS IT GOING TO END?!?!

Finally, I think 3k to go, there was an aid station at the top and I stopped and UNCLIPPED.  ”Coca?” asked a volunteer.  …And that is why the Bean calls Coca-Cola the “red ambulance.”  Usually I wait until halfway through the marathon, but a red ambulance was definitely in order.  A couple of volunteers threw water over me, bloody hell I needed it.  I regrouped, got back on the bike and wondered how I was now going to run a $#!*&@#$ marathon after this craziness.  But the bike didn’t end there.  I had wondered how we could possibly keep climbing with less than 10k to go…oh, it’s because the last 3k’s downhill are SUPER STEEP AND TWISTY ON BUMPY UNEVEN ROAD.

After a lot more of “DON’T CRASH!  DON’T CRASH!  DON’T CRASH!” (oh how bad would it suck to crash so close to the finish) I made it back to transition.

I took my time, stripped off the bike jersey, ate a banana, drank the rest of my sports drink and strapped on the Camelbak.  Ok.  Let’s do this.

Smiling is a positive feedback cycle = smile big  the crowds cheer for you more  you smile bigger  they cheer even more...

Smiling is a positive feedback cycle = smile big > the crowds cheer for you more > you smile bigger > they cheer even more...

Well, the crowd support was just incredible!  I was so happy to be done with that stupid bike ride that I had the biggest grin on my face, and well, because running the marathon in an ironman is one of my most favorite things.  You are done with the swim (my least favorite part), and done with the bike (the longest part, especially at Embrunman), so gosh you are practically done and everybody cheers for you like you are a big triathlon superstar!  In France, they yell “Allez allez allez!  Bravo!  Supa supa!”  My favorite is when they tell me “Supa!”  clearly they know I’m a supastar!  The weird annoying part though was people kept looking up my name from my bib #47 on the participants list handout…which had me listed as “Marina Wong.”  #48 was Jocelyn Something Else.  So unfortunately I kept hearing “Marina!  Marina!  allez Marina!  bravo Marina!!”  It was only funny the first two times.  :(

I went out at a controlled comfortable pace, and at the 2km mark looked at my watch.  Just under 10mins.  Ok, maybe I went out a little too fast.  Or I might have punched the lap button a little late leaving transition.

4k.  Just under 20mins.  6k.  Just under 30mins.  UM.  Well my legs feel fine, and I’m holding 5-min km’s, which is the same as 8-min miles, which is…a 3:30 marathon.  Yeah, I have studied Coach’s marathon speed chart while brushing my teeth (3:30 is the slowest time at the bottom).  3:30 is a lot faster than my PR though, the 3:55′s I ran in the last two ironmans.  Am I going to blow up?  I can’t blow up, rule #2, that’s not part of the plan.

Being a very logical person, I got logical (which is different from realistic).  Coach always says I overthink things, but I think sometimes it’s a good thing…see, I reasoned out in my brain why I should be able to run a 3:30 marathon…then I went about executing what was completely logical:

1.  Of course I can break 4 hours in a marathon.

  • I did it two times running on the track in Subic.
  • I did it at altitude at Alpe d’Huez.
  • I did it two times during ironmans in very humid conditions, in China and Korea.
  • China was also extremely hot in addition to being humid.

2.  The marathon at Embrun is in easier conditions than those other crazy marathons I did.

  • Embrun was hot but not hot like China.
  • Embrun wasn’t humid like China or Korea or Subic.
  • Embrun wasn’t at altitude like Alpe d’Huez.
  • It’s prettier here, not the monotony of going around the track over a hundred times.
  • Crowd support always makes me go faster.

3. Well, the course was a little hilly…BUT…

  • so was Alpe d’Huez and Korea.
  • hills don’t bother me, a hilly course just means it is half downhill.
  • the Wongstar can smash down the hills pretty fast with her monster quads.
  • going up the hills doesn’t slow me down too much either.

Therefore, quite obviously I should be able to go a lot faster, right?!  Right!

But wait!

4. what about that crazy bike ride?  Why weren’t my legs so smashed I couldn’t run fast?

  • Well… I had learned something about myself during the previous two weeks on the “fixed gear.”  I learned that I could smash the crap out of my legs biking up and down the hill and show up at a track session the next day and run a lot faster than I thought I could.
  • Thus I learned that my running legs are different than my biking legs.
  • This might not actually be true for everybody (too bad, haha!) but the one blessed with the Wongstar shuffle I would soon learn was blessed indeed.

I counted down by 7k at a time; I found this was a good way to break up a marathon like in Korea (a 3-lap run, so each 7k was half a lap) and at Alpe d’Huez, where I ran 6 laps of 7k.  Besides, when I was in 3rd grade and we got to multiplication, I never learned my 7′s times table because I thought it was stupid they were rewarding us with these little plastic medals for each times table we memorized.  I only got to my 5′s, so I still get stuck on 6×7, 7×8, and 6×8 sometimes (9′s are easy if you know the trick).

But see now it’s easy to remember 6x7km = 42km.

Right, back to the race.

I was holding my pace up through the entire first half, when I hit special needs at around 21km, my watch said 1:44.  Oh boy maybe I’ll even break 3:30 today if the legs hold up, I thought, as I refilled my Camelbak with defizzed Cherry Coke (there was no Starbucks in Embrun).  I bet that’ll shock the hell out of Coach!  It was hot, but I managed it with sponges and throwing water on myself, plus I was pretty hydrated with the magical Camelbak.

Someone later told me I was 15th woman off the bike, but I don’t remember passing that many women on the run.  Maybe they were losing time at the aid stations because they didn’t have Camelbaks and that’s when I passed them.  ;)  Some of the timing ladies held up 7 fingers towards the end of my first lap of the run, so I think I was in 7th at that point, but who really knows when they are all speaking in French???  Well, I was excited because 7th place on my race bracelet told me that was 1000 euros!  Oh boy!

During the second lap, it was hard to tell which women I passed were on their second lap or just starting their first lap.  My legs were starting to feel just a little sore in the quads, and I lost a minute here, a minute there on one of the bigger hills and with the Camelbak refill.  So then I was 2 minutes off a 3:30 goal time, but strangely enough kept holding the 5-min/km pace.  ”You are bombproof,” I reminded myself.  ”The Wongstar shuffle will never break down.”  That is what Coach says, and he is always right, so c’mon, legs, keep going!

I passed someone else, maybe? so then I was in 6th, maybe?  At 7k to go (35km = 5×7) I got a minor abdominal cramp that threatened to slow me down before the finish.  Just keep breathing…I lost a little bit of time ducking into aid stations for some sports drink, thinking maybe more electrolytes would help.  The cramp eased up and with 3k to go, I passed another woman, who I figured was on her first lap.  I ducked into an aid station again…but as I returned to the run course, I saw that this woman had not only passed me back, but kept glancing over her shoulder rather nervously…at ME.

OH SHIT IT’S ANOTHER PRO WOMAN!!

I’m not sure this has ever happened to me in a race before.  Usually I am so far back in the swim I don’t catch anybody.  And if I do it’s because they are walking.  This one may have some fight in her yet!! Well, what do I do?  Stay with her?  Throw in a surge? Wait til we’re closer to the finish?  I was not sure what place I was in, but my race bracelet told me the difference between 5th, 6th, and 7th was in increments of 500 euros.  So when I saw her pass me back all I could think was

THAT’S 500 EUROS! GIVE ME MY MONEY BACK!!!

I caught her again quickly and worked my logic: if I could catch her twice in such a short amount of time, obviously I was going much faster.  So I knew exactly what I would do…  We exchanged a LOOK and then I PASSED DECISIVELY.  I bolted!  I wasn’t giving her the 500 euros back, it was mine, and I was going to run away with it!  Catch me if you can!

Never in my life did I think I could run the last 3km of an ironman so fast, but logic or not, I was so freaked out that she would come back and snatch me at the finish line (this happened to me in high school all the time) that I picked up the pace, and dug in deep.  ”You can always go faster and harder than you think you can.  There is always more,” I told myself.  ”HTFU!  JUST GO!!”  I didn’t even slow down to give high fives to the cute little Frenchie kids yelling “Bravo, madam!  Bravo, madamoiselle!” which I had done during my first lap.  I felt bad, but not as bad as I would have felt losing 500 euros in the final minutes of a 12-hour race.  Much later I learned that I had overtaken 5th place (2000 euros!!) and had actually put 2 minutes into her over those last 2km.

oh yeah I am a superstar!

oh yeah I am a superstar!

The agony of the horrid and heinous bike ride long forgotten, I was all smiles going into the finish chute.  Holy crap, I made it, and I actually swam a 1:05 and ran a 3:33 marathon?!  And I’m about to win my biggest triathlon paycheck?  BEST DAY EVER!!!

everyone yell TOP 5, 2000 EUROS!!!

everyone yell "TOP 5! 2000 EUROS!!!"

A very shocked and proud Coach caught me at the finish line. I mean really, I don’t think anyone expected me to come in before the 13-hour mark, myself included!!  It was so great to travel with the team, and I learned that Bella and Erika had a big duel and ended up going 1-2 in the race.  I also enjoyed seeing the boys on course, yelled for Stephen a couple times, and got a high five from James as he finished early (3rd place!) and saw me heading out for the 2nd half of the run.  Our sheepherder finished strong as well and it was great to share such an epic experience with my teammates, and contribute to the phenomenon that is teamTBB.  It was also Coach’s first time seeing the Wongstar in action so I did not disappoint!!

with my teammates and two of the best ironwomen in the world!!

with my teammates and two of the best ironwomen in the world!!

At awards, some of the other pro girls were surprised that I came all the way from the USA to do Embrunman, but I would point to the top 2 girls standing in front of us on the podium and say “oh I’m training in Switzerland with those two.”  ”YOU train with THEM?”  ”Yes, yes I do.” It’s true…we are just that awesome!  Thanks Coach for showing us the way!

with the best coach in the world too!

with the best coach in the world too!

WOW EMBRUNMAN IS THE BEST!!

I AM TOTALLY COMING BACK NEXT YEAR!!!

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