Rocketman 70.3 Race Report

Rocketman 70.3 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida would be my second Half Ironman distance triathlon (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile back, 13.1 mile-half marathon-run). Last year, I completed Augusta 70.3 with a very respectable time, but I was not satisfied with the effort that I put in prior to the race. This year, I decided to change that. I found a training plan and stuck with it. I was very proud of my progress…. UNTIL I wound up with a chest cold about four weeks out from race day. I would rest for a few days, and when I started to feel better, I would do a light workout, only to be setback another few days. I finally recovered from that, only to come down with two more infections with less than a week to go until race day. By this time, my nerves were fried and I had not had a solid training session for almost a month. I was so weak, I could barely walk up steps, and I wondered if I would be able to start the 70.3, let alone finish.

Kim and I met a Wookie at packet pick up!
Fortunately, race or no race, this weekend would be amazing, celebrating my birthday at Kennedy Space Center with friends!  My boyfriend Jason and my friend Kim were doing the Olympic distance (a good decision on their part!). Along with Kim’s husband Will, our wonderful Sherpa and driver, we arrived in Titusville safely Friday night. Saturday morning, we slept in a little, then met up with my Dad, who had driven down from North Carolina to cheer and Sherpa.  Together, we headed to packet pick up, which was for the most part well organized. One exception was that the kids handing out swim caps did not differentiate between the neon colors and non-neon colors (neon yellow vs. yellow). This would turn out to be an issue later on. Additionally, they did not have a good system for tracking who had already received their Kennedy Space Center tickets that were part of our entry fee.  I was accused of trying to get a ticket twice L  Packets in hand, we checked out the swim start and transition area, then headed to tour Kennedy Space Center.

Part of the swim course in the Indian River Lagoon, with the bridge we had to ride and run over in the background.

Taking advantage of the precious few hours we had at KSC, we went on the bus tour. I’m so glad we chose to do this! The tour took us along the bike course, and explained all the landmarks, buildings, and structures we would be riding past. Knowing the significance of the landmarks and marveling at the impressive technology really made the course go by more quickly the next day.

The original command center that put men in space

Rockets are fully assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). 
Those big tall gray things are doors.
I also managed to get one of the hand-cycle athletes in this photo (far left)

Once assembled, the rockets travel on top of this thing -the Crawler-
via that pictured gravel road pictured above at 1 MPH!

The crawler brings the rockets here, to the launch pad, where their journey begins

Race Day

Four a.m. wake up came quickly and I woke up feeling better than I had in weeks!. However, I was furious to discover that room service had thrown away my oatmeal packet, bowl, and spoon for my yogurt. Who does that!? Note to self: HIDE your breakfast if you are staying in a hotel!!! Fortunately, I had enough confidence in my Infinit nutrition to get me through the day, so I determined not to let it bother me.

By 5:15 we had the bikes packed up and headed to transition.  We each set up our transition and retrieved our timing chips. I’m so glad we got there early because by 7 a.m., a few minutes before the race was set to start, there were literally hundreds of athletes in the line to get their chips, which was moving at a snail’s pace. We each tugged on our wet suits, and started mentally preparing ourselves for the day ahead.   I hugged Dad good bye, wished Jason and Kim a great race, then headed to the bottle neck of the race start. 

The entrance to the water is literally the size of a doorway with thick trees and undergrowth surrounding the steps out of the water. You cannot see the water until you are getting into it. The only way to start the race was to have all of the athletes wade about 50-100 yards out into waist deep water and line up, waiting for their start. Admittedly, I did not see my wave get in the water. I don’t think I was the only one either, as there were many matching swim caps in the crowd of athletes on shore. (In hindsight-these may have been a later swim wave-but again, the volunteers at packet pick up did not differentiate between the subtle difference in swim cap color.)

Narrow exit from the water

Swim entrance/exit

Informed by a volunteer that I "missed" my start, I raced down the steps and overheard the countdown over the loudspeaker for my wave. Heart pounding, I waded as fast as I could to the start line, and made it just as the gun went off.  On the one hand, I didn’t have to stand in the water, fighting off race nerves while waiting for the start, but it definitely was not the start I had in mind! The water was also significantly choppier than I had expected, a 25 mph wind having shown up in full force over the Indian River Lagoon.  I tried to swim a few strokes, only to swallow lots of salt water (I'm a terrible swimmer in waves!) and bump into people who were walking. The whole swim went like this, with the entire wave-alternating the walk, swim (it was that shallow!) As a result, our wave never thinned out, and it was quite a congested swim. Once we approached the end, I stood up and immediately began to feel my stomach heave from the salt water. It undoubtedly the weirdest swim I’ve ever experienced in a triathlon, not to mention a SHORT swim, which, while frustrating, was a bit of a blessing, given the wind and waves.  I shouted and waved to our sherpas, Dad and Will, who were not expecting to see me so soon, and ran into transition.  There, I carefully pulled off my wet suit, pulled on my socks, shoes and my new, gorgeous aero helmet, a birthday present from my dad, and headed out on my bike. Usually I have my shoes clipped into the bike, but the transition area was littered with land mines (aka sand spurs). I decided to run in my shoes and stop to clip in at the bike exit, which worked just fine.

Swim: 21:56

Leaving T1
I was feeling great on the flat, straight away to the Space Center, although the headwind was ridiculous!!! This IS the beach, so there was nothing to block the 25 mph winds which you could really feel going over the bridge. I was a leeetle nervous, as I had read race reports that said going up and over the bridge on the way out and again the last few miles in the out-and-back course was the hardest part. I was happy when I found the incline was not bad at all.   This was a big confidence booster, and I was so thankful for the hill training back home!

Then, a few miles out from transition, I heard a loud clink clink clink. I knew immediately that one of my spare Co2 cartridges had worked its way out of my XLab nut mounted to my seat bracket. Drats. After a few seconds of debate, I decided to keep going. Then, five miles out from transition, I heard it again! CRAP! With 50 miles more to go, I now had no way to reinflate my tires if I got a flat, so I knew I had to stop. Fortunately, I was able to find the cartridge, dodge the other athletes and get back on my bike safely without losing too much ground.

Winding bike course-notice all the u-turns, 
and the awful road at the top left!

The half course proved to be fairly technical and winding. Every few miles we slowed to make a U-turn, but I didn't mind too much because every turn also meant another opportunity to avoid the head wind. Since the course was restricted, it was unfortunately pretty lonely. About ten miles in I rounded a corner to see my dad on the side of the road, patiently waiting at the first u-turn. He immediately saw me and began cheering. If there is a will there is a way! I should have known my dad would find a way to spectate along on the bike course! After struggling with the frustration of almost missing my swim start and having to stop and retrieve my Co2, this was just the pick me up I needed, and my spirits were much higher.

Although the course was technical, there were lots of fun, fast flats. In a head wind, my speed sometimes dropped to 13mph, but then I would enter a more protected area and find my speed pick up to over 20 mph, which made me feel pretty strong and confident. My only real complaint, though hard to avoid, was the congestion. There was a bit of car traffic from (I'm assuming) people who work on the center heading to work, and of course, 1,500 athletes completing three different distances. Our courses constantly weaved in and out of each other.  Even still, it still seemed to run very smoothly, and the courses were VERY well marked.  The volunteers along the bike course were also great! Even some of the 'boys in blue' were getting into the spirit, finding fun ways to cheer and direct traffic at the same time.

Turn around, launch pad in the background. 
Finally we made it to the part we had all been waiting for-where all the space stuff was!!!  I pulled out my camera and carefully snapped photos as I went.  We first rode past the VAB or Vehicle Assembly Building, where the rockets are fully assembled.  At 600 ft tall(I think) this is the tallest single story building in the world. From there, the ‘crawler’ is loaded with the assembled rocket to begin its slow arduous journey to the launch pad. The crawler is fully self-propelled- an amazing feat in and of itself since it weighs about a gazillion tons. It travels a special highway, 8 foot deep and layered with Tennessee River Rock, at a blazing speed of ONE MPH! It takes about 8 hours for a rocket to get from the VAB to the launch pad.  Kim, Jason, and I joked that our goal this race was to beat the crawler! After passing the VAB, then the crawler, the course looped us close to the launch pad for a turnaround. Of course, I took the opportunity to STOP AND SELFLIE!

Launch pad 39, where all of the manned missions to space start.

Up until the turn around, we had been fighting a head wind for about 5 miles and there was friendly banter everywhere of how awful the wind was!  Although I was sad to turn around and leave the cool sights behind, I was ecstatic to finally have a tailwind! I felt like I was flying, and finally getting to take full advantage of the flat course.  I said goodbye as I passed the VAB, almost at mile 40 of 56 in my journey. The half then separated from the other distances to go waaay out in the middle of nowhere. We crossed by a small lagoon, and I remembered the bus tour guide had said this was a good place to see alligators. I looked, and sure enough!!! A HUGE gator was floating in the lagoon. I contemplated riding past, but then I was like, heck! When is the next time I will be on this course, riding past alligators? Another quick photo op and I was on my way. I wound up counting three total on the bike course. 

Look close to the bushes and between the two structures-
an alligator!!

And this is where the course got BRUTAL. The roads were quite literally the worst I’ve ever ridden in my life, and completely unrelenting. I zigzagged back and forth, but every part of the lanes were just as destroyed as the others. I was covered in my sticky nutrition that was sploshing out of my aero drink, and my head was pounding. Everything was on fire, and I felt my body was at its limit.  After many, many yells, screams, curses, I somehow mustered up the resolve and refused to quit or slow down. I finally approached the turn around, and was comforted in the knowledge that at least I only had that much distance to travel back on the crappy roads. I was so thankful I had stopped to retrieve my last Co2 early on, because every bump I just knew would be the one that would pop my tire.

Finally off the ‘Oregon Wagon Trail’, we were rewarded with a flat, fast straightaway with a tailwind. I was averaging 23 mph at this point, and despite my stops and earlier 13 mph speeds in headwinds, I picked up my average to 17.  I came into transition feeling great, and excited to see my friends and family and finish the day strong.

Bike: 3:17:35, 17 mph

Since Jason and Kim had both finished the Olympic distance by now, they were both at transition waiting for me and cheering. There's nothing like seeing a smiling, familiar face when you've been talking to yourself for three hours! Jason jogged next to me to my rack and we quickly swapped race stories.  He sprayed me with sunscreen, I hugged him, then ran to hug my dad on the other side of the transition fence, and I was off on my run! The first couple of miles were fine, and I even spotted some manatees in the water right next to our running lane. Who doesn’t love manatees on a race course!?

The confidence I had from my strong bike leg, however, started to dissipate the further I went on the run. We were on the same road that we had to ride to get out to the space center, facing the exact same headwind, which had subsided to a 'mere' 18 mph. It was akin to running with a parachute strapped to your back! I got to mile 3, not going as fast as I had in training before I had gotten sick, but I was moving. At that point, my run fell apart. I never run-walk because it is so hard for me mentally to motivate myself to keep running once I’ve walked. However, once I hit mile 3, I was struggling so much it was time for damage control. Remembering Kim’s pointers for an Ironman distance, I picked a point in the distance and decided I would walk when I got there. Once I walked, I picked a spot not far off that I had to start running again. Although I was bummed that I had to walk, I think this helped break the run up, and kept me from completely self-destructing.

The course was once again, lonely. No spectators, and the volunteers at all but one aid station were less than excited to be there.  Maybe because it was late in the day and they were tired, but the volunteers neither handed us the nutrition, nor told us what was in the stacks of cups on the table. Fortunately, fellow athletes were  super friendly, and we cheered each other on.  Finally, we got to miles 6, and the turn around of the out and back course. I thought it was strange that it was about half a mile short, but figured there would be a little leg at the end to make up the extra mile. We were all so relieved that the wind was now at our backs and I told myself that the hardest part of the race was behind me. Then, after a few minutes, I started noticing people that had passed me on their way back to the finish were passing me again, heading to the turn around I'd just gone through. At first I was a little confused, and thought maybe I was just mistaken. Until I recognized no less than 6-7 people that I KNEW were ahead of me, and now appeared to be behind me. At this point, I knew I had either taken a wrong turn or there was a loop. Sure enough, a little further down, we had to turn around and head BACK into the headwind, AWAY from the finish. This little loop-miles 6 through 7- was not shown on the course map. Who does that???!!!

Do you see a loop in this out and back run course? Neither do I.
The “Soul Crusher” as one of my fellow athletes aptly named it.

The rest of the run was uneventful, and I just kept moving, slowly but surely. Eventually, I made it to the entrance of the space center, and saw Jason on the side of the road waiting for me. I felt like he would be disappointed because my run had taken so much longer than either of us expected, but he was so excited to see me, and started jogging behind me and cheering me in for the last quarter of a mile. I could tell he was proud regardless.  I was overwhelmed with emotions, seeing him and being so close to the finish, but I was so exhausted I felt myself flip into autopilot.

I jogged past Kim and Will, who were with many other spectators, shouting and cheering athletes in through the lively finishing chute. As I passed them and turned the corner to my finish, I saw my dad who was yelling, screaming and filming my less-than-thrilling trudge to the finish. There is absolutely nothing better than seeing my dad, beaming with pride, and waiting for me to finish to give me a giant hug.  I can have my worst race, but knowing that he is still proud of me makes it all worth it.

I FINALLY crossed that finish, a weird swim, awesome bike, and mentally challenging run behind me, and received the highly coveted Saturn V rocket medal!

Run: 2:39:46
Total Time: 6:26:50

In summary…
Having fought off sickness for several weeks, I had little expectation of doing well. Somehow, I think this was in God’s plan from the beginning. Not that he would want me to be sick or miserable, but it forced me to trust him that I would get to the finish.  It also relieved a lot of the pressure, and allowed me to enjoy my day. If I had stuck to my training to the very end, I would have felt like I needed to push myself to the max to test myself and the training. I would not have taken the extra time to stop, take pictures of alligators, or hug my dad and boyfriend on the course. Granted, this is not how I want to approach every race, but this race was special. This race is not guaranteed from year to year, so this may be the last year athletes cycle past the launch pads. It was a tough race, but it was full of images of the power of the human spirit. It certainly translated to my little victory, which compared to going to the moon, seems like nothing, but still took months of mental and physical preparation and the bravery to step out on the course, having faced numerous setbacks.

Done!!! Racecation #2 in the books
I walked away from this race with an awesome medal, yes, but also a lesson on knowing when to enjoy life and that there are some races and some things that aren’t to be taken so seriously. I also walked away with even closer friendships, having shared an incredible once in a lifetime experience, and that’s worth everything!


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