Sarah Barber: 2018 Ironman St. George 70.3

Sarah Barber: 2018 Ironman St. George 70.3

Our teammate and fearless track star offers a glimpse at the Half Ironman experience:


Anyone considering a half-ironman triathlon should be forewarned: the race is a logistical nightmare in every way. In other words, the training is the easy part. I was reminded of this fact the day before the 2018 Ironman St. George 70.3. The point-to-point course design meant that most of Friday was consumed with gear drops and familiarization at two different transition zones miles and miles apart.  However, I somehow managed to get everything done without completely exhausting myself.

Race morning arrived without any fanfare, and my headspace was good. Unfortunately, things went south immediately after the shuttle bus dumped me and a bunch of nerved-up triathletes at the shore of Sand Hollow Reservoir. I went straight into T1 to visit my bike, which had spent the night there without me, as my first priority was to air up the tires. The valve extender on my deep-dish carbon wheels had never been finicky in the past, but for whatever reason, I could not get the valve open enough to add air—or let air out, for that matter. One of my favorite bike experts (and owner of Tri Town Boise) was on scene to assist, but he was as frustrated as I was. Brainstorming solutions had me running back and forth to tech support, borrowing a different pump, then Bogarting a spare tube. At some point, we learned that my wheel wasn’t a clincher after all, but a tubular, and therefore impossible to replace on the spot.

For a moment, it appeared that I might not even be able to participate in the race, which would have felt almost tragic after devoting the last few months of my life to preparing for it. Good friend and local pro, Erin Green, pointed me toward a woman named Paula, the pro athlete liaison, for emergency assistance. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know until days later that “Paula” was Paula Newby-Fraser, a well-known and highly successful professional triathlete in her day. Anyway, she helped me find a wheel to borrow—a random road bike wheel with a rotor for disc brakes. By some miracle, it fit on my bike without any issue and worked fine with my traditional caliper brakes.

My first crisis was averted with 15 minutes till the start of the race.. During the entire 45 minutes I had spent running all over T1, my second poop of the morning was getting overcooked. In other words, I had to drop a deuce like nobody’s business, and at this point the Porta-Potty lines seemed to go on for miles. Nonetheless, I took a place at the end of the nearest line and spent my wait time peeling on my wetsuit, inch by inch. I landed on a toilet with less than 10 minutes remaining before the start of the race, and was instantly relieved.  Until I discovered that there was no toilet paper.

Rummaging through my plastic sack of warm-up clothing, I thoughtfully considered each item. Lululemmon pants? NO way! UpCycle hoodie? Shoot, I really liked that thing… And then I found it: a black wool hat with the word “BACARDI” in bold white caps on the front. It seemed a fitting end for a freebie I’d picked up at an event in Las Vegas years ago.

And then, to the shore of Sand Hollow Reservoir I went. I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to be able to do this race, despite the issues that had cropped up to sabotage me this morning. The rolling start made for an anti-climactic plunge into the water and smooth sailing initially. The first turn was a traffic jam of bodies on top of bodies, arms and legs flailing all around me, but still survivable. I took the next turn sharply and found a relatively clear line. Looking up once, I saw swim caps and splashes, and was satisfied to follow them. Except then I looked up again and realized that the mob of swim caps was coming at me head-on!  I had taken that turn sharply all right—sharply enough that I was paddling back into oncoming traffic.  Cursing myself, I altered course and willed my tired arms to propel me back to the shore.

I was elated to exit the water and get on my bike. So much so, in fact, that when I looked down at my watch to assess what I assumed would be an abysmally slow swim time, I saw that I hadn’t even started my watch. #epicfail . Again. But the words of my coach echoed in my mind: “When you get out of the water, and you’re done with your swim, it is what it is. Fuckin’ move on.” His point was that I shouldn’t spend even one second worrying about how fast (or not) my swim had been. So I did what he said. I fuckin’ moved on.

My bike was right where I’d left it, tires still inflated. However, as I rolled out of T1, I could see that my Garmin was displaying time, speed, and distance, but the cadence and power screens were blank. WTF?! I had turned on and calibrated everything before leaving for the swim, and now it was somehow dead? I did everything I could to get it working while pedaling out onto the bike course—turned the Garmin off and on, did a manual search for the power meter, etc—but to no avail. I spent a few minutes feeling absolutely devastated, as my entire race plan was predicated on targeting certain power numbers during the 56 mile leg of this event. Then I refocused and decided to do what I do best: I put my head down and rode fast.

In hindsight, the bike route was made for me. The challenging terrain played to my strengths, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed almost every pedal stroke. Miles ticked away quickly, as the absence of continuous data from my Garmin forced me to tune into my body, constantly assessing my effort. Am I pushing too hard? Could I go any faster? Before I knew it, only a mile or two remained. And those last couple miles saw an uprising of emotion that caught me off guard. I knew I’d see my husband, Brian, at T2 for the first time since I’d left him in bed at 4:40 am when I went to catch the shuttle. I had to swallow the sobs and pull it together, promising myself I could cry all I wanted at the end of the run.

My bike-to-run transition was efficient, highlighted by Brian yelling encouragement and informing me that I was leading my age group. However, I didn’t hear him tell me the margin of my lead, so I took off running scared, resisting the impulse to look over my shoulder. Although this run included a substantial amount of elevation change, I tend to feel like any run in a triathlon is simple. You just have to use whatever energy you have left, and you have to hope you didn’t overdo the bike. I took it one mile at a time, going by perceived effort and checking my pace on my watch only occasionally. Each time I looked, I was moving at a quicker pace than I had hoped. Each time, I gave myself permission to slow down, but I was in a rhythm that couldn’t be disrupted.

My favorite part of the run was that I was finally seeing people I knew who were racing. There were two long out-and-back sections which allowed me to exchange smiles and cheers with friends and Wattie Ink teammates. The sense of family and community overwhelmed and motivated me. Sure, there were some dark moments when I wanted to walk or cry—or both. But I continued to take it one mile at a time, marveling at my body’s ability to do what it was doing. Like a horse drawn to the barn at the end of a long day, I perked up for the remaining miles and got excited about finishing with a total time well under my pre-race goal.

When I crossed the finish line, Brian was there waiting for me, recording the moment on his iPhone, so I hammed it up with a double fist bump to my chest and the words, “Peace out!”  I can only think of a handful of times in my life when I was so ready to be finished with some sort of event, but this one topped them all. This was the first time I had to take a few minutes to collect myself with my head buried in Brian’s chest, and then lie flat on the nearest patch of grass until I felt like I could breathe again. If you’d asked me that night if I’d ever do another half-Ironman, I wouldn’t have hesitated in telling you, “Not this year!”

Except I just signed up for another one. And it’s only three weeks away. Because I want another chance to see what it’s like if the run is less hilly. Because I want to see what it’s like to race with power data on the bike. Because I want to use my fast front wheel instead of a borrowed wheel  from a kind stranger. Because I have all this fitness and I want to use it on one more big thing before I move on. And because I love this crazy, stupid, complicated sport….