Recently KCHWC’s own Cassie Wright competed in the Harvest Moon Half Ironman. Completing the 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run is quite an accomplishment – so we thought it would be nice to get the insider perspective about competing in and preparing for such a physically demanding race.
Was this your first Half Ironman?
Yes. I’ve raced in one sprint triathlon and a handful of Olympic distances. This year I wanted to challenge myself both physically and mentally, so I picked the half Ironman distance.
When did you start training for and preparing for this race?
In January, I started working on my base endurance. Before starting “official” training, my goal was to be able to swim for 40 minutes continuous, bike 90 minutes and run 60 minutes. Out of the three sports, running is the weakest sport for me. I wanted to put a little more focus on improving my form and endurance before training began. Once I reached my goal of 40 minutes continuous swimming, 90 minutes biking and 60 minutes running in April, I started a 20 week training plan.
What was the most physically exhausting part of the race?
The most physically exhausting part of the race was definitely the bike. When you’re out on the bike course for 3.5 to 4 hours, there a lot that can happen and a lot to think about. You have to be prepared for pretty much anything – from a flat, minor bike repairs, nutrition/hydration needs, mental and physical tiredness, etc. You also have to be incredibly strong mentally or your negative thoughts will wear yourself out and you’ll have a horrible race.
The race was at the Aurora Reservoir, where I’ve raced in many triathlons. I knew that the bike course is much hillier than you would think and it’s also typically pretty windy. A couple of months before, I rode part of the course with a friend so I became reacquainted with the hills and wind.
Fortunately, I did not have any issues with my bike and was prepared for the heat with proper nutrition and hydration. To cope with the mental and physical tiredness, I kept telling myself that I have been training my butt off for 9 months and it’s all coming down to one day. I was well trained, well rested and well hydrated. Instead of focusing on how tired I was and just wanting to finish the race, I cherished every minute that I was on the bike and that really helped keep me going.
Was there one area that you had trained primarily for, running, cycling, swimming, in order to prepare for the race, or did you do more cross training to prepare for all three?
The training plan that I followed focused on training for all three sports equally. The plan was broken into 5 four week blocks. Each block was then broken down by week. The first week was a base week, the second week built on the first week, the third week built on the second week and then the fourth week was recovery. Each month followed the same progression where the next month built on the previous month.
In a typical week, I would have one day dedicated to a long swim, a long bike or a long run. Three days would focus on a shorter workout with two sports in a day and I would also have one rest day. Workouts would range anywhere from 45 minutes in length to 4 hours per day. During the week, I would spend 5 to 18 hours a week training.
About half way through the training program, I realized that I was losing muscle mass which was causing a reduction of power and strength. I started adding in one or two days of strength training to help build muscle mass back up. Strength training sessions were done on days with shorter cardio workouts.
The cross training really helped minimize and prevent overuse injuries. Instead of training the same muscles time and time again with one sport, I was able to train different muscle groups at different times and let other muscles recover. In addition, the care I received at Kambeitz Chiropractic leading up to my race was amazing! Dr. Kambeitz and Dr. Zales are great at finding the root cause of an issue instead of just easing the discomfort temporarily. They really helped keep my nerves firing properly to my muscles, which helped me function and train. Thomas also was a huge help with stretching me after long and strenuous workouts and Sharyn’s myo sessions really relaxed tight muscles. I also became best friends with the foam roller and lacrosse ball. After a long workout, my muscles really appreciated spending quality time with the foam roller and lacrosse ball. My muscles loosened up and recovered much faster than before I was using these tools.
How did you change your nutritional regimen to prepare for the race and all the training that got you there?
Since completing the 8 Weeks to Wellness program last fall, I have been eating small, low glycemic meals five to six times per day and also try to avoid the “white poisons” (white flour, sugar, salt, rice… pretty much anything that is white). Typically my diet is similar to the Paleo diet – lots of fresh veggies and fruits, meat, nuts and berries and little to no grains or dairy.
When I started training, I noticed that my appetite really skyrocketed. There were days that I felt like I could not eat enough. At first, I just increased the amount of food I was eating at each meal, hoping that would satisfy my hunger. And that didn’t work. Since I did most of my workouts in the afternoon or evening I needed to get in some good low glycemic carbs either in the morning or at lunch. I started adding in either quinoa or roasted sweet potatoes (and sometimes both if I had a long workout scheduled). After a couple of days, I noticed that I was able to push harder in my workouts because my muscles were loaded with glycogen for energy and was also recovering faster.
If you look up a nutrition plan for an endurance race on the internet, typical plans have athletes eating very high glycemic foods (aka lots of pasta and white rice) for energy. Since I usually do not eat high glycemic foods, I did not want to start eating them while training. I found several great books and cookbooks for endurance athletes that are based around the Paleo diet. These books educate athletes on what foods to eat and at what times during their training plan and at what times of day. I am a testament that someone can train for an endurance event and not have to live on high glycemic and processed foods.
While training, I also learned a lot about my body and what to eat/not eat before and during a workout. It was incredibly interesting to learn that I could eat a smoothie with fruit for breakfast and go for a long bike ride and feel great. The next day I could eat the same breakfast and go run and then feel absolutely horrible. Foods with higher liquid content did not work well for me before swimming or running. Foods that are more solid and with little sugar content worked the best for all sports. I also found that electrolyte drinks with high amounts of sugar do not work for me.
What did you eat before the race, and after the race?
Since the weather was predicted to be in the 90’s for my race, I wanted to make sure that I was a hydrated as possible. A couple of days before the race, I start drinking as much water as possible. I also start to eat foods that I know my body likes and is familiar with. This is not the time to experiment with a new Thai restaurant that is known for spicy food.
The day before the race I try to reduce my sugar consumption as much as possible. If I don’t, I know from experience that I’ll end up with GI issues on the race course. The night before, I don’t “carb load” with a huge pasta dinner as other athletes do. I haven’t been training with high glycemic foods, so I definitely don’t want them in my body the night before. Dinner for me is usually a piece of grilled chicken or salmon, veggies and quinoa. Nerves and anxiety start kicking in the night before, so I don’t want to eat a ton of food that my body has to process and break down before the morning.
In the morning, I start out with a ton of water. On the way to the race, I had a couple of pieces of sprouted grain toast and couple of egg muffins that were made with eggs, sweet potatoes, leeks and cheese. While I was setting up my transition station and putting on my wetsuit, I had a liter of water and tried to relax. After the swim, I chowed down on a Honey Stinger Waffle and some water. During the bike, I had a total of four liters of water and one liter of electrolyte drink. As for food on the bike, I made some sticky brown rice balls with ricotta cheese and lemon. They tasted delicious and the brown rice was a great energy source. The downside was they did not stay in ball form and it was hard to eat them and bike. I also had one Clif Shot gel for quick energy. During the bike to run transition, I ate another Honey Stinger Waffle and had some more water. The run portion of the race was really well supported and there was a water station at every mile. During the run, I had two to three glasses of water each mile, two Clif Shot gels and a handful of pretzels.
I wore my Polar heart rate monitor during the race to keep track of pace and to also make sure I was not working too hard or easy by monitoring my heart rate. Throughout the race I kept an eye on how many calories I was burning. At the end of the race, I ended up burning 3749 calories!
Wahoo’s provided food for the athletes post race. I had a nice plate of black beans, chicken tacos and chips and salsa. After burning 3749 calories, I earned my chips and salsa. The next day I focused on refueling with lots of protein and veggies. After the race, I learned that my nutrition and training were exactly where they needed to be – my quads and knees were only moderately sore the following day and the rest of my body felt great!
What are your words of wisdom for aspiring triathletes?
When I was growing up, I did not like to participate in sports and didn’t really like any physical activities. The only sport that I found to like was swimming. After competitively swimming throughout high school, I got burnt out and didn’t set food on a pool deck for many years. In my adult life, I learned how important diet and exercise are and started going to the gym. I found activities that I enjoyed and some that I did not. The biggest piece of advice I have is to find an activity or sport that you like to do and keep doing it. If you stop liking it, stop doing it and find another activity that you like. Try to be the best that you can be every day. Each day will be different and give each day 110%. The hard work will pay off no matter what you are doing.
Do you have any other comments or questions he would like to answer about your experience training and competing in your half Ironman?
During my training I learned how important goal setting is. In addition to having a main goal, it’s important to have smaller goals that help keep you on track to reaching your main goal. Since my training plan was broken into month sized blocks, each month helped me get one step closer to race day.
During the race, I had four goals in addition to my main goal. My main goal was to finish the race. Goal number two was not to finish last; 3 was to have fun; 4 was to run the entire run; and 5 was to finish in 6.5 – 7 hours. Throughout the race, I kept checking back in with my goals to make sure I was on track to completing them. The goal of having fun was incredibly helpful on the bike when I started to get tired. On mile 9 of the run, I really wanted to walk for awhile, and then my “trainer voice” kicked in to help me realize that I’ve already run 9 miles and I can run another 4 without walking. All of these goals put together helped my complete my first (and not last) half Ironman. I’m already looking forward to next season!
Way to go Cassie, and thank you for sharing your experience!