Ironman NYC Race Report: Jessica Withrow

150 150 Rich Strauss

Jessica Withrow, you are an IRONMAN!

It’s pretty obvious that the more time spend immersed in triathlon, the more I realize there are a lot of tri adages out there.

So, tri adages. “Never try anything new on race day.” “Control the things you can, let go of the things you can’t.” They all exist for a reason: They’re true. I can certainly confirm that, “It’s harder to get to the start line than the finish line” is true. I spent the entire season putting that one to the test. I started off 2012 with a wonky rib that stayed in a partially dislocated position – making swimming and running near impossible without some degree of pain –then moved on to high hamstring strain, and threw in a nice solid case of sesamoiditis (it’s a foot thing) three weeks before race day just for good measure (on the upside, I realized what a good workout the elliptical can be… ). It was nothing short of a miracle in the form of a cortisone injection and a course of oral steroids that I was actually able to tackle an Ironman® in the shape I was in. Even thought this was my second Ironman, I had no idea what to expect, which essentially meant I was expecting nothing.

Making it to the start of the race simply meant I wanted to make it to the finish, and since crawling is allowed, I was totally prepared to do it if I had to.

Friday went significantly more smoothly than I had expected it to. JW and I somehow managed to fit obnoxious quantities of food into our bodies and remain vertical long enough to transport our bikes and gear bags to transition. We had to wait a while for the ferry to arrive, but were entertained by a friendly couple from Texas with bath loofahs attached to their gear bags (I was so confused. I thought for sure they were to scrub off the Hudson funk, but no… just identifiers to quickly locate their bags in a sea of identical bags. Unique, but I think I’ll stick to my hot pink zebra tape). The ferry ride itself was relaxing. When we finally arrived in transition, JW and I ran through our checklists, hopped the ferry back to our car, and promptly sat in rush hour traffic waiting to get home. So much for getting to bed as early as possible….

Saturday, 2:50a.m. Alarm goes off and JW is up. I figure there’s no point in trying to go back to sleep since the plan is to leave at 3:20, so I get up too. Folks, it takes me TEN minutes or less to get myself ready to get in the car and get moving to a race. I love JW to pieces, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out why it always takes him 15 minutes longer than he anticipates. Every time. So of course, we leave the house at 3:35a.m. and arrive to the parking lot just in time to see the 4a.m. ferry pull away from the dock at 4:03a.m. We ended up on the next ferry with a handful of athletes, a mass of spectators and a few volunteers. JW was unnervingly calm while I sat there wasting energy sweating over every minor thing I had zero control over. Would there be a pump available (seriously – did anyone SEE the lines for the TWO pumps at IMLou last year?)? Would I have enough time to get the plastic bags off my bike? There are at least a thousand people, the length of three football fields, and two massive tents between the Run Gear Bag and the Bike Gear Bag and I have crap to deposit in BOTH of them…. AND I STILL HAVE TO PEE!!!!! Luckily one of the volunteers riding our ferry was a good friend of ours and kept me distracted for the 40 minute ride up to transition so I didn’t A) Have a full on panic attack; or B) Throw JW overboard.

Race Morning on the Ferry – Pretending to be Happy but Secretly Wanting to Cause JW Physical Harm

We stepped off the ferry and were greeted by none other than John Korff himself. JW and I were lucky enough to get to know him over the past few months, and let me tell you – the guy is a riot. He spotted us as we stepped into transition and there were hugs, European-style hello kisses, and high fives. There’s something about getting a hello-kiss from the race director right before the race….

Things continued to get better from there. I walked to my bike and had a Bart Stevens Finds Sunglasses on the Course Moment. There was a bike pump sitting RIGHT THERE. In front of my bike. Just… waiting for me. I asked around – it didn’t belong to anyone. So I seized the moment AND the bike pump and pumped my tires with the help of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – who happened to be racked next to me – because it was pitch black, neither of us could see the gauge, and neither of us were any match for that crappy pump. It took one of us to stabilize the pump and give frequent gauge readings while the other warmed up for the race via vigorous tire pumping. I continued down the checklist and realized I needed Body Glide, but didn’t want to cover the 300 yards to get to the bag where it was currently residing, so I moved on.

Two minutes later – I ran into JW who just happened to be holding… Body Glide. Perfect. He was uncharacteristically frazzled (which he will deny, but I have witnesses), so he handed off the Glide and was gone to do whatever was next on his list. I used the Glide (just under my arms! I forgot how chafed that spot gets in a sleeveless wetsuit and hadn’t put any there. These sort of things get overlooked when you spend all season NOT racing), then tossed it into my morning clothes bag and gave it to a volunteer. Ten minutes later JW and I meet up again and he wants his Glide. Oops. Luckily, we had our friend Robbie (Team ReserveAid member and writer of race report hilarity) there diffuse the situation by encouraging a few gentle backbends… some yogic breathing… maybe a Sun Salutation or two….

Just then the line to board the second ferry of the morning started moving. JW decided to hang back and take a nap on a picnic table or something…. The rest of us made our way onto the ferry where I spotted my new friend – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – again. I so wish I had a picture of that tattoo… Anyway, JW finally joins the rest of us on the ferry five minutes later, and the first thing he says is, “Look what I found!” Body Glide. You’ve GOT to be kidding me. Bart Stevens Moment #2 (and he assures me he scraped the top layer off on a rock prior to usage. Just in case, I’ve been performing random skin checks in secret before getting anywhere close to him for the past week… ).

When the ferry finally docked at the barge we’d be jumping off, things moved very quickly. As the people ahead of me began jumping in the water, I saw John Korff standing in front of me again. Another high five from him as he gave Team ReserveAid a shout-out, and I barely had time to wonder how seemed to be in two places at once before I jumped in the water. It was shockingly salty. I was a little taken aback until I realized… BUOYANCY!!!! YES! Sighting was crazy easy with the GWB looming in the distance. Other than that, I really only have two thoughts about the swim:

  1. It was the aquatic equivalent of being on a people mover at the airport. You’re more or less moving at your normal pace, but you’re going almost twice as fast as usual. THAT is how strong that current is.
  2. Leslie Neilsen. Yes. Leslie Neilsen.  You MUST WATCH THIS.

I finished the swim in 58:42. That will never, ever, EVER happen again for me. I accept that.

As a total aside, wetsuit peeling RULES. My first experience being peeled. I found my ready and eager volunteer (she looked like she would tackle me if I didn’t choose her), flopped my butt down on the ground, and was dragged nearly ten feet as she and a friend yanked that thing off of me. So fun.

I moved along quickly and purposefully (yet another tri adage) through transition. When I went over and over IMLou in my head this past year, I knew there was easy free speed to be found in transition. I was prepared to MOVE. Unfortunately, my overly helpful volunteer was also prepared to MOVE. I dumped my bag and she helpfully started rounding things up and putting them away for me. It took me a full 7minutes and 2 seconds to finally get out of transition. I even bypassed the sunscreen peeps! 21 seconds SLOWER than IMLou. Ugh.

I had a super conservative plan in place for the bike. I didn’t have a current FTP, had missed my second RR as it was a week after the sesamoiditis hit, and had squeezed out one tentative, long-ish steady ride prior to the race with TWO insoles in my left bike shoe – I had cut out the part of the insoles around the ball of my foot to offset pressure and accommodate the angry sesamoid bones, and it had worked. So given all of that, I figured 110W was a solid, if slow, plan. I just needed to get my foot through the bike so I didn’t have to crawl ALL 26.2 miles.

As usual, it didn’t take long to notice everyone around me doing it wrong… CRUSHING themselves up the hills and coasting down them (and these were the perfect “hills” to pedal hard down). I yo-yo’d with a guy for a while – he passed me up the hills, I passed him down them – when he finally commented to me, “I’m from San Francisco – we know how to ride hills” to which I replied, “I have a power meter – I know how to ride steady,” and mentally patted myself on the back for thinking of a quick comeback for once in my life.

It was on the return of my first loop that I saw the pros heading the opposite direction on their second. I knew they’d be passing by soon. Things had thinned out a little and I was busy watching my watts… thinking about what I’d have for dinner the next day… wondering if my kids were missing me… and realizing I’d give anything for a tissue. I figured it was unlikely that a box of Kleenex would just appear at the crest of the next hill, which is when I started to debate whether or not that particular moment would be a good time to just blow a snot rocket (I’ve only recently discovered the convenience of the snot rocket – I’m still a little skittish about doing it in public… which is odd considering I take no issue whatsoever in peeing my pants amongst my peers). So I did the obligatory scan of the area around me, all was clear, I settled into position, turned my head ever so slightly to the left, and blew – at the EXACT moment Jordan Rapp flew by me as if I were standing still. I’m not exactly sure how he appeared out of nowhere with the speed and silence of a Stealth Bomber, and I have absolutely no idea if my projectile hit its target… but it was definitely in his general direction. Whoops!

It was around mile 70 that my foot went completely numb, then started to burn. I spent the next ~32 miles wondering if I was experiencing my first hot spot, or if it was just all of the other stuff I had going on with my foot. I also started to realize that, given the headwind and the low watts I was holding, I was likely NOT going to make it back in less than 7 hours. This was defeating. At the very least I had hoped to have a good bike, knowing I’d be walking a lot of the run. I pulled myself back inside my box a few times in those last 30ish miles, and was SO happy to roll back into transition. I was even happier when my volunteer told me she heard we had killer headwinds out there and the pros splits were a lot slower on the second loop. It’s always nice to know you’re not imagining things, especially after 7:05:27 on the bike (at least my VI was 1.02, and my NP was on target – 108W).

My foot more or less returned to normal (or whatever its current version of normal was at the time) as soon as I stepped off the bike. Sensation returned, and the hot spot was gone. I set off on my run by Angry Man Walking up the hill out of transition. Then I ran a little, testing out my foot. It felt good, so I kept going. I had only had one – ONE – training run in the past four weeks. It was the Wednesday before race day. It lasted all of 30 minutes, and I did it in 5:1 run/walk intervals. So when I found myself actually RUNNING during the marathon, I have to admit – I was a little stunned. I did have Advil twice during the race (once on the bike, and once in T2), which I normally wouldn’t do, but I figured I was moving so slowly that my kidneys wouldn’t mind…

I had planned to run/walk the whole 26.2, but what I didn’t realize is that’s what EVERYONE in the MOP would be doing. With the hills we were facing, walk up them, run down them seemed the only way to go, and that’s the way everyone was going. Add me to the list of people who have said that this run was BRUTAL. Aid stations were unevenly spaced, making staying on top of nutrition difficult, and it was HOT. Luckily for me, I had a lot familiar faces out there. Our local tri club and Liebs were volunteering and were amazing – I felt like royalty making my way through their aid stations (seriously – see the picture below. HOW am I so lucky to have all of these awesome people surrounding me???). Despite the hills and the heat, all was well and right with the world, and my foot was actually holding up. I could NOT believe it.

Me… and an Entourage of Awesome CJTC Peeps


I ran up the hill just before special needs and saw a Team ReserveAid kit crouched near the ground. I didn’t know who it was immediately, but as I got closer I realized – it was Robbie, with whom I’d done backbends earlier that morning. Two paramedics were standing guard over him and told me, “He’s done.” I stayed with him for a few minutes. His eyes were glazed. He told me he didn’t want to quit. For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to hurt for someone on a visceral level. I knew how much he’d invested in this day and how badly he wanted to finish. I hated seeing this happen – I wanted to help, but I didn’t know what to do, or what to say. So I just said, “Listen to these guys,” as I pointed at the EMT’s. “They know what they’re talking about.”

And at their insistence that they’d make sure he was o.k., I kept moving.

I was back to feeling a little defeated after that, but took from it what I could and realized I really needed to focus on my nutrition. I climbed what I thought was my final hill to the stairs at the GWB, and did my best to enjoy the moment crossing into the city. I was still thinking of Robbie when I almost ran headfirst into – believe it or not – John Korff standing astride his bike at the end of the bridge. He had been welcoming athletes into Manhattan, and we chatted for a brief second – he told me he had seen JW earlier and he’d looked strong. I came down the steps and into the city in a much, much happier place.

That lasted all of, well… maybe twelve minutes. That’s when the hills started AGAIN. And they just didn’t quit. There were at least four volunteers who cheered me on and told me, “This is your last hill!!!” After five or six of that “last hill,” right around mile 20, the wheels started to fall off. I was running less and walking more. There were no sponges, no ice, and the good times at the Tri Latino aid station were well behind me (they were SO fun). My foot hurt. My ankle hurt worse. I was entering the Dark Place that I’ve heard so many talk about, but had never experienced. It was time for me to pull out my One Thing. I thought of my kids – they had been spending the week with JW’s parents, and it was the longest I’ve been away from them since they’ve been born. I was so excited to see them again, and spend a week in Disney World with them. I thought of how much I was looking forward to that week in Disney – my One Thing – and almost started to cry. I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to make it to Florida in my condition and I had ruined my kids’ vacation… I felt terrible. That was when the crying really threatened to start, which, if you’ve ever tried to run on what feels like a broken ankle after 13+ hours of forward motion, you’ll know that Pain + Running + Half Crying = Hyperventilating. I wanted SO badly to walk over to one of the park benches and just SIT DOWN. But at the same time, I wanted to get this thing over with. I remembered what a friend told us last year. There have been times when all she could think was, “Get me to The Voice.”

That’s all I could think for the last three miles…. Get me to The Voice.

When I finally heard the music (and yes, The Voice) I forced myself to pick up the pace to a modest jog. Until I stopped dead in my tracks a few yards before the finish line.

Standing right in front of me was Mike Reilly himself.

I don’t know why I found this so baffling, him standing there in finishing chute. It’s not like I haven’t seen him do it before – I just haven’t seen him do it in person. I just stared at him, blinked… pointed at him and said something incredibly stupid to the effect of, “It’s you!!! You’re HIM!”

High fives.

High fives from Mike Freakin’ Reilly, and THEN I crossed the finish.

FINALLY Crossing the Finish Line and Still Bewildered Over High Fiving Mike Reilly

It took me 14:09:40 to finish.

If I said I didn’t care, that it was o.k., and I was just happy that I was able to race… well, that would only be a half-truth.

I got through IMNYC because I had EN execution on my side. I had mojo from everyone in the Haus who had told me their story of how they were able to race after they were sidelined by an injury. I stayed in my box. My day was about patience, discipline, and my One Thing. This day would not have happened for me without this Team.


If you have read JW’s RR, then you know what happened the day after the race. This is my side of the story.

JW walked into the living room wearing nothing but his boxers and told me, “I think I’m having a reaction to this medication.” That comment alone is likely what saved his life. I’m not sure that I would have realized just how serious things were had he not said that. I watched him lie down on the hardwood to try to cool off. He told me he felt like his skin was on fire and he thought maybe he should just take a cold shower. I walked to the sink to get him a wet paper towel to put on his forehead, and when I turned around he was standing up, staggering toward the kitchen counter. I yelled at him to GET BACK DOWN ON THE FLOOR RIGHT NOW in the meanest voice I could come up with (he’s very stubborn, I was definitely surprised when he said, “ok” and laid back down immediately). I told him I was calling 911, picked up the phone, and dialed. The woman answered, “911, what’s your emergency?” and I’m thinking, HEY! Just like on TV! I told her that my husband had just taken an antibiotic and he was having an anaphylactic-like reaction. His face and lips were swelling. She told me the medics were already on their way. John was not getting any better by this point. I felt oddly calm and unattached – as if I were going down through my race day checklist. He’ll need clothes when he gets to the hospital. Check. He’ll need ID and his insurance card. Check. The doctor will want to know what medication he took. Check. I ran down the mental list, dropping everything in a bag for the paramedics to take with them as I stood over JW and fanned him with a folder that was lying on a counter.

A police officer arrived first and was little to no help, but somewhat comforting to have nearby. JW was going quickly downhill – I tried to find a pulse and couldn’t, and his breathing was labored – and I asked the officer if there was any way to get in touch with the ambulance and let them know they needed to show up STAT.

As I knelt over JW, feeling completely helpless and continuing to fan him, all I could think was, “there are three objects in the drawer above me… a pen, a pair of scissors, and an Exacto knife.” I was prepared for the worst in the event I needed to give him CPR and his throat had swollen shut. Luckily, the ambulance arrived in time and he was still conscious. I have absolutely no idea HOW, but he was even able to get himself up on the stretcher. The EMT’s looked as surprised as I was.

They rolled him into the ambulance and we sat in the driveway in our respective vehicles. I didn’t see or hear anything for several minutes. It felt like a lifetime. Finally, one of the EMT’s walked over to me and told me JW was doing a little better, and we left for the hospital.

There was no where to park outside of the ER, and I ended up having to park on the other side of the hospital – which, the day after an Ironman, might as well have been another continent. When I shuffled in, still in full compression gear, two nurses looked at me and one said, “Oh! You must be the wife! He’s MUCH better. Good sense of humor!” Oh great. I figured he must’ve asked the doctor for a prescription for, “Sex, 2x/day to speed recuperation.” Then the nurse pulled me aside and told me that his blood pressure had fallen to 80/33 and his pulse was undetectable, and it was a good thing I hadn’t waited to call 911….

It didn’t hit me until later that night. JW had a mandatory six hour stay in the ER, and I HAD to go home and try to get some rest. The lack of sleep the nights before and after the Ironman® were catching up with me, and my adrenals were pretty much maxed out. In less than 48 hours, I had managed to use a year’s worth of cortisol and adrenaline and whatever other stress hormones my body is capable of producing. I walked in the door and looked at the spot where JW had been lying on the floor just hours earlier, and came very close to losing it.

Instead, I managed to eat a slice of pizza and take a nap.

There isn’t an ounce of doubt in my mind that I was able to handle this situation calmly and methodically thanks to training for and racing Ironman. It just DOES something to you. It’s not something I can explain, but I’m sure that anyone who’s been through an Ironman® knows what I mean.

Which is why I think there’s truth in one final adage: If you can handle Ironman, you can handle just about anything.

After the Race, Before JW Tried to Die

 Listen to Jessica’s post-race interview with Coach Rich here

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