Russian River Valley, California
Swim 1.2 miles, Bike 56 miles, Run 13.1 miles
Katie McEwen

Swim - 29:51.2, t1 (transition 1) - 2:16.8, bike - 2:53:44.4, t2 - 2:06.5, run
- 1:55:37.7 finish time: 5:23:36.5

Recount of the Race | Video and Photos

Accepting my award from Barb herself!


Guerneville, California
August 1, 2009
0815 hours

It’s a cool, misty morning as we enter the swim start area. Giant Pine trees tower overhead and family and friends, gathered at the river’s edge, quiet in anticipation of the start. Treading water front and center of the 39 and under women’s grouping, I feel the nervous tension in the air. A gal treading water next time me, the eventual overall winner of the race, looks at me and says, “You’re a swimmer, aren’t you?” I nod. She asks, “Are you going to shoot through the buoys?” I reply, “I think we’re supposed to keep them on our left shoulder.” Seconds later and the horn blows. Churning water, arms reaching, legs kicking, bumping shoulders, breathing every stroke – those first 200 yrds of a race are not my favorite. But I know it calms down and sure enough we get sorted out and I ease into strong, steady strokes, breathing every other stroke, easing HR and mind. I find the bubbles of a swimmer ahead of me to follow and keep my head down, focusing on steady, relaxed strokes. I feel good – I feel strong. I lose the bubbles – lift my head to sight – there are those big red buoys, signaling the turnaround. Now we’re talking. I get around and head back, passing lots of white caps now (full Vineman course athletes who started before us). Before I know it I catch sight of the swim finish. I swim until my hands hit the sand, stand up and hustle out of the water. I can hear my brother shout, “Go Katie!” and it gives me a jolt of energy. I come up to a group of folks getting stripped of their wetsuits – cool!  I wasn’t counting on wetsuit strippers. My wetsuit is quickly stripped and I jog over to my transition spot. Catching my breath, I put on my Garmin. Normally I don’t like to race with a watch – I like to just race and trust my instinct, relying on perceived exertion. But with a 70.3, I need the watch to time my nutrition intake and my pacing on the run. I put my helmet on, get my bike off the rack and start jogging barefoot up the path to the mount area. I had been warned about this hill coming out of transition and had planned to just run it, mounting it at the top. I get on the bike and into my shoes and I’m off onto the bike course.

It takes me a few minutes to acclimate but soon I am down on my aerobars, sipping some water, looking at my mph. My goal is to stay between 18-20 mph as much as possible. I’m doing fine. I spoke with my coach Martha the night before and she told me something that rang in my ears much of this race. She said that famous Ironman winner Paula Newby-Fraser had said that in these endurance races, you must constantly check in with yourself and when you start to feel even a little bit off, you need to ask yourself, “what do I need right now” – meaning, water, a salt pill, a gel, your protein source, whatever nutrition you have – the point being you have to act when you have that feeling. Ignoring it results in what Martha termed “Ironman roadkill,” (another phrase that rang in my ears all race long) where you start to drift on your bike, and your body language on the run is telling the world that you are having NO FUN. I desperately wanted to avoid this predicament. About 40 minutes into my bike I start to feel a little spacey. I think about what I need. My nutrition plan was to have a gel about 15 min. into the bike, which I did. A half-hour later I feel like I need more – I am starting to feel a little bit off. Even though it’s earlier than planned, I reach into my bento box and pull out the first ½ of my peanut butter sandwich. Soon after I finish and have water, I notice that I feel better. I vow to continue to check in with myself and change/accelerate my nutrition plan as needed. It’s hard to tell who is in my race and who isn’t at this point – there are lots of bikers and many of them are in the full Vineman (Ironman) race. I think this is probably good for me – I need to focus on my own race, not on who is ahead of me.

The course is breathtakingly beautiful as we weave our way through tree-lined country roads and vineyards. I realize that not only am I feeling good – I am having fun. A smile spreads across my face. I have a sneaking suspicion that I might even be having a Good Day. A Good Day is never a guarantee in an athlete’s life – you can do everything in your power to set yourself up to have one – training diligently, sleeping well, eating well, etc. – but some days you are just off and some days you are on. It’s almost as if the sun, moon, and stars align and you just feel coordinated, smooth – things are FLOWING. I can count on one hand the number of times in my life when I’ve felt this way during a competitive event, mostly while I was playing soccer – and there is nothing more fun, more joyful in the world. Once you have had this sort of experience, it is the fire in your belly and you NEED more of it – you are motivated to get out to practice, work hard, line up your ducks in the hopes of getting back to that bliss. On the bike I knew it. This was a Good Day. I keep accelerating my nutrition – fending off those twinges of fatigue with much needed calories and hydration. Soon I come up to Chalk Hill – the big hill of the race. I switch gears. I break the hill up into parts – down in the saddle for the first part, out of the saddle, steady and strong pedal strokes, 20 strokes then back down, and repeat until I get to the top. My HR increased, but I was not breathless. That wasn’t all that bad. I am grateful for all my training in Santiago Canyon. This bike course has been much easier than that so my legs are fresher than they were in many of my training rides coming off the bike into the transition to the run.

I find my transition spot, rack my bike, and quickly put on my socks and shoes. I can feel my pinky toenail lift as I slide my sock on (previous long training runs had caused blistering and a dead pinky toenail). Uh oh. I push it back down and anticipate that this might be a problem on the run but push the thought to the back of my mind. I run straight out of the transition area and to the bathroom – I can’t hold it any longer!  In and out and then I’m back on course. The run is relatively flat for the beginning miles, for which I am grateful. There are crowds lining the run for the first part – and I’m not sure if it was because of their energy or my own excitement, but I glance down at my Garmin and see that I’m doing 7:30 minute/mile pace  – and quickly rein myself in. That’s too fast, especially this early on in the run. My plan was to hold a 10 minute pace with walk intervals at every mile, possibly giving up the rests toward the end. A few more minutes go by and I glance down again – I’m back to 7:30 – I’m amazed that I’m running this fast, especially in the first mile, usually one of the slowest and lowest energy point of a race. I slow myself down again and see that the first mile aid station looms ahead. I slow to a walk, grab some water and a half-peach (they had quite a spread) and eat. A volunteer seems surprised to see me walking and says, “C’mon – keep going!” I look at him and think about explaining that I have a PLAN and walking is part of this plan, but decide it would take too much energy and keep walking. At the one minute mark, I start running again. One mile melts into two, then three. Now the gals are starting to catch me (this usually happens on the run in my races). One woman races by, clearly a runner, and says, “Strong bike out there!” I say, “Thanks” and notice that I don’t feel one bit bothered by the fact that she has just smoked by me. I am running my own race – I feel good – I want to continue to feel good and not be “Ironman road kill.” I am just grateful that I can run – four years ago, my orthopedic surgeon,after trimming my meniscus in surgery, tells me, “we fixed your meniscus – but we discovered arthritis in your knee - no more running.” Quite a shock and a blow – as I was much more of a runner back then. Dealing with this information has been quite a process for me – I didn’t listen to my doctor and had some pain and achiness – I was depressed but gave up running like I was told and bought a bike and started cycling. I have slowly come back to the running, but very gradually, incorporating water-running and strength training. I have been able to run more in the last 6 months than I would have ever dreamed possible back when my doctor gave me my prognosis. I have been lucky – I have been blessed – I thank God I have been able to complete my training relatively pain-free. I’m sure I’ve gotten a little help from up-stairs…

I think about my Mom and my mother-in-law – how strong they were both in how they lived as well as how they fought their cancer – and it gives me strength. That is why I am here – to honor their memory and to connect with a collective spirit of strong women – an energy that is almost palpable in the presence of all these women athletes, many of whom fundraised for the race’s charity. The women here are more interested in those goals than the typical competitor. I think about all those people who helped my mom through her illness – there was such an outpouring of love from our community – and I channel their energy. In my mind’s eye, I can feel how much love she still has for me and how proud she is of me at that very moment. Four times in the past week alone, my mom’s favorite song, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” has just randomly come on the radio and I know this no accident. I remember her proud and loving gaze at me as Armstrong crooned her favorite lines, “I hear babies cry/ I watch them grow/ They’ll learn much more/ than I’ll ever know/ and I think to myself/ what a wonderful world.” All these memories I soak in - and I channel. It is mile 6 of my run now and I decide to let go of my obsession with Garmin and just run. I feel good and I pick up the pace. I think about my mother-in-law and what a generous, wonderful woman she was. Grammy was quite a Force to behold in our household – my kids ADORED her and flourished under her care. I have had so much love and support given to me in my life – from my mom, my mother-in-law – my family, the greater circle of my friends and community.

Mile 7, and I remember Martha saying that taking in some cola can give a good boost of energy towards the end. I decide it’s time and take my first one. They have volunteers with hoses, offering a spray and I take them up on it – as the temperature is creeping upward now, and I feel refreshed. Mile 8 and 9 – I continue with the coke, needing that sugar level sustained and I begin to drop my rest intervals. I think about my friends and family who supported me with my fundraising. $4,818 -  what an astonishing result from just one email sent just two weeks before the race (I am ever the procrastinator). I think of all of these people and how I owe it to them, and to my mom and mother-in-law, to now take all their love, good will, and support – and PAY IT FORWARD. I pick up the pace and see that I’mgetting close to the end. One more aid station and then there’s the last mile – I know that once I get to the crowds, I will feel their energy and my adrenaline will take me home. I can feel my pinky toenail twisting off and this is painful – every step a twinge – but I think – only one more mile. So many people hurt earlier in the run – I can get through one mile (my teammate Tracy had it rough on the run – her hip was really hurting her when I came up to her). I see another teammate, Lezlee,  and she gives me a shout-out – I try to return it but fear that my labored breathing (I am really picking up the pace now) prevents her from hearing it. I get to where there are crowds lining the course and I start to smile – I am going to make it – and I’m going to be able to kick it in, too – I can just feel it. I pass a couple of gals (how ‘bout that! I almost never pass anyone on the run…) and just charge toward the finish. I hear my family and I smile – I’m so glad they are there to see me. I see that they have put up a tape for me to break through at the finish – what is this?  I’m exhilarated and happy but also confused – I know I did not win this race – I saw a couple of gals ahead of me at the turnaround – why the tape?  I realized later – I had won my age group!  They put out the tape for all the age group winners – what a surprise!  Then I find out I finished 6th overall. Wow. What a moment of pure joy and satisfaction. I trained so hard for this and I woke up that morning and had a GOOD DAY.

Thank you to all who supported me on this journey and through all those training races leading up to this one – Newport Beach Triathlon, Irongirl Triathlon (which happened to fall on Mother’s Day weekend – already I was feeling my mom and mother-in-law’s presence!), Pacific Coast Triathlon and finally Barb’s. Thank you to Martha Szufnarowski, my coach and guide with Tri La Vie Triathlon group – to Christine Masterman, my bike buddy, and her husband, Jason (and Jillian Chaney) – who all gave me so much invaluable information about the course. Thank you also to Mike Collins, my Nova Masters swim coach, to Dr. Evie Katahdin, my nutritionist, and Nick Bernatowicz, my strength training coach. And thank you especially to my husband, Steve, and my three kids, Patrick, Sean and Maggie – the loves of my life, my biggest supporters whose patience was endless with this whole process. I owe my success to all of you – thanks for the ride – I can’t seem to get this smile off my face as “I think to myself/ what a wonderful world”.

Now, on to the ITU Sprint Distance World Championships in Brisbane, Australia on Sept. 13th  – my family will be travelling with me and I couldn’t be more excited to represent Team USA for the 35-39 age group category. Stay tuned!

written by Katie McEwen on August 15, 2009


Video: Highlights of Katie's Race (QuickTime version [602.3 mb], Windows Media version [83.6 mb]).

Photos: Race and family.