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Personal IMTX Stories: Helena Finley's first Ironman

by Helena Finley

I don’t own a tri-bike, aquablade swim suit, disc wheels or an aerodynamic time trial helmet.  I don’t measure my heart rate, know how many calories I consume, or, what my cadence is.  What I do have is a supportive husband, three enthusiastic children and a wonderful network of friends for support.

To complete an iron man you need not give up everything fun in life, Nor do you need to spend a fortune on gear.  Notice I said complete. If you want to win your age group or qualify for Kona, go back to reading Lava, training every day and take out a loan for the required gear.

 So much of our time consumed with analyzing numbers; children’s grades, gas prices, the stock market, budgets and schedules.  We are obligated by jobs and life in general to measure and check numbers.  Who wants to do this in their spare time? Forget measuring every mile and tracking training.  Life is too short and full of things that we are obligated to do.  I enjoy the free time I have.  If it’s not fun, I don’t do it. 

Completing an Ironman does not have to entail arduous training and spending a fortune…unless, of course, you want to go faster than 12:18.

I am a 44-year-old married mother of three.  I work full-time as a construction project manager, I also coach a high school swim team, and co-organize an adventure racing club.  I started a new job in March and travel once a week.  I am busy.    I don’t have much training time so what I do has to be effective and needs to fill my social requirements.

A got a great deal of training through Houston Fit Adventure Racing Club (HFAR).   The club meets twice a week and every second Saturday.  The sixteen coaches provide expert skills and endurance training in trail running, mountain biking, kayaking and navigation.  As organizer I needed to attend each practice so I took advantage of the great training while I was there.  Kayaking and swimming use the same muscle set, so this plus my swimming background eliminated the need for any boring pool swims. 

The trail running and navigation training on foot gave me fun and fast run workouts.  Navigation training for the experienced adventure racing group consist of using a topographical map to plot and then find checkpoints hidden off wooded trails and water.  Typically we pair up and spend two hours dashing from point-to-point trying to outsmart our club mates.  It’s great fun and the two hours always goes too fast.  Despite the fact that I have had an intense run workout, I don’t notice I’m tired until I get in my car to drive home. 

Click here to read more Personal IMTX stories from our readers!

Of course mountain biking is different from being on a road bike or even more so in the aggressive down position on a tri bike.  But adventure racing certainly gave me the hours of spinning my legs, but again this was in a much more entertaining environment with stunning views broken up by challenging obstacles.  Six hours on a mountain bike goes by far faster than six hours of dead boring road time and, after all, saddle time is saddle time.

I also belong to an early morning running group.  I love training before sunrise as this generally has little effect on my sleeping family.  Once in a while one of my daughters will even tag along.  Our group leader, Will Henderson, has a different work out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and mixes in hills, intervals, tempo runs, mile repeats all done on trails or grassy fields.  This mixed schedule, plus the good company, eliminates boredom and the varying terrain reduces the chance of injury from the pavement pounding incurred during road runs.   

Eight fellow HFAR members entered the Ironman.  We formed a close-knit group and took a typical adventure racer  team approach to training.  We coordinated rides and swims when possible and shared tips, etc.  I relied on this group to give me a summary of versions 1 through 3 of the 29-page athlete rules.  Long time AR buddy, Raymund Codina, (who has done an Ironman), patiently explained the complicated five bags and the drop-off process to me multiple times.  I was intimated by their posts and conversations about race nutrition.  Michelle Willis told me, “Don’t worry, Helena, you can do it on a ritz cracker.”  I think she just said that because I could stand to lose 15 pounds and have my nutrition adequately stored.

My training outside of these groups was mostly with my good friend and co-organizer of HFAR, Gabe Haarsma.  He is an incredible endurance athlete and we would always train longer and go further than planned.  Knowing I needed to get some long training in on weekends that we didn’t have an adventure race, I‘d call him up and our conversation would go something like this. 

Me: “I need to ride tomorrow”

Gabe:  “Ah, and you saw some cute post on Facebook about a ride huh?”

Me: “Yup, the XYZ Charity ride”

Gabe: “Sounds boring”

Me: “We need to leave at 6”

Gabe: “If I go you better ride fast”

Me: “Bring your swim suit and goggles”


Gabe’s standard response to my complaints of being too tired, too hungry, too sore would be “Okay, then, let’s go.”  We have done some 12 hour plus kayak races together, so he knows I can train for longer than I want to.  The added benefit of training with Gabe was that we could discuss club business, send emails and make calls on our way to and from training.

When I wasn’t on my mountain bike I trained on an old Trek road bike that had been collecting dust in our garage.   It was too big for me and gave me a lot of lower back pain.   Just before the Galveston Half Ironman we discovered that Bike Barn had a rental program.   I was too late to rent a bike for the Half Ironman in Galveston.  This was to be a premier training event for the full.  Bike Barn did have a bigger bike that would fit Gabe though, so he rented one and liked it.  So I booked one for the full.  I picked up the bike a few weeks before the iron man and took it out for a 63 mile ride with the AR group and I was miserable.  My shoulders, back and neck were in extreme pain. Once again my friends came though and gave me advice on positioning the aerobars and changing the seat.  Dave put the bike on a trainer and adjusted things until everything was perfect.  It was too close to the race to do and super long ride on the rented bike, but I took it out for several more short rides and felt good. I have heard that extended periods in aerobars can damage your back and neck, plus it’s not fun.  It’s hard to enjoy the scenery and chat to friends in this position.  But it is faster.  I noticed a tremendous increase in speed when I get into the aggressive position and knew that’s where I needed to be for the majority of the 112 miles.

Have your own IMTX story to share?  E-mail it along with photos to lance@runningmags.com 

I didn’t include any bricks as part of my training as we get plenty of those when we adventure race.  We are constantly getting off our bikes and running to a checkpoint then getting back on bikes again.

Race Week:

I typically sleep about 4½ hours a night.  The week prior to the race Gabe took away all my HFAR duties and I went bed at nearly two hours earlier.  Since I was not getting up for morning runs, I slept in until 6, which added another hour of sleep on the back end.   A strange thing happened, although I was eating a bunch, I lost four pounds in just  few days.  A ring that I had stuck on my finger for weeks slipped off.  The rest made a big difference and I started to feel really good.

The pre-race dinner was fun, exciting and terrifying.  Once again the AR group met up and commented on the general culture differences and seriousness of triathletes. The 2700 racers looked so strong and fit in their designer garb.  Was I prepared for this?  The day before the race I called my brother Piers, a very experienced endurance racer.  He lives in South Africa.  The conversations went like this:

Piers: Hello, sister, I’m taking a dump, I only picked up because you’re calling from America.

Me: Ahh, perfect timing, you have time to talk then, tell me about doing the Ironman.

Piers: Ar,g that’s pork chops for you (translate to Texan…a piece of cake).  You’ll be ahead of most of the field after the swim.  Have a fast TA and just spin easily on the bike.  Loads of guys are going to pass you, let them go and ride your own pace.  Don’t worry how fast you are going just spin nice and easy.  When you get to the run try to jog for as long as possible.  Once you settle into a walk it will be had to go back to a run.  Even if you have to shuffle, keep running.  Good luck and ring when it’s over.  Like I said, pork chops.  Gotta flush, bye.

Later he cheered me on with a Facebook post and predicted my finish time of 12:20 or better.  “Yeah right…no way,” I thought, Piers always thinks I am better than I am.  He’s always motivating and positive and I’m glad he’s my brother.

My family and I sent the night at the Meyer’s house in the Woodlands.  I lived with the Meyers when I was an age-group swimmer 26 years ago on the Woodlands team.  Dave and Pam took me into their home and I babysat their kids.  It was like going home.   I don’t normally sleep that well before a race, but I slept like a baby. 

Race Day

My husband, Dave and my daughter Catherine volunteered in kayaks on the swim leg.  The Meyers lived only a mile from race start, so we left just before 5:00 a.m.

Michelle and I had TA spots near each other so we hung out with her husband and brother-in-law.  All our bags were turned in, the sun was coming up, bodies marked, ready to go.  I started to get nervous.  Was my bike gear in my run bag and visa versa, what had I forgotten.  Then I started to think about all the adventure races we have done, something always goes wrong, we fix it and go on.  What was so different about today?

They started moving us into the water and I got separated from Michelle almost immediately.  Everyone looks alike in caps and goggles.  I looked for my kayak and spotted Dave and Catherine behind the swimmers by the bridge and swam to them.  By this time the bridge was crowded with 2000 spectators.   I relaxed and chatted to my family.  We tried to spot friends on the bridge, but it was just too crowded.  6:50: Boom, the first cannon went off and the pros were off.  I left the kayak and made my way towards the front line of swimmers.  The 2700 swimmers spanned the width of the lake.  I was near the front, about four swimmers deep.  We watched the huge digital clock slowly move to 7:00 a.m.  Boom we were off, or drowning more like it.  The swim start was awful.  Slower swimmers to get by while super aggressive simmers kicked and mauled their way through.  It was a street fight in a lake.  I was a crawfish headed to a boil.  The water was murky so you didn’t know you were near a swimmer until you touched.  It settled down after a while and I got into a relaxed rhythm.  All was well until we turned into the canal and things got tight again.  Bam, I was smacked across my face.  My goggles knocked off.  I need them, I wear contacts.  I gasped for air and relaxed and wow, my feet touched bottom.  It was shallow, so I stood up and found my goggles.  I swam breaststroke until I relaxed.  The end of the swim was fun as crowds lined the canal and we could hear them, even underwater.  I spotted some friends who saw me too and and yelled even louder.

Off on the Bike

The ladies in the TA tent were amazingly efficient and had me changed and ready to go in no time.  I changed into a sleeved bike shirt and comfy bike shorts for the ride.  I felt great on the bike and started thinking about Pier’s instructions, spin easy.  Woosh, wooosh, woosh: these guys with disc wheels came zooming by.  They had this irritated tone about them that this 44-year-old over-weight woman was in front of them.  About 40 miles into the ride, the riders passing me turned nice.  They chatted in the few seconds they had while passing.  What pleasure to have these amazing volunteers passing out everything you could possibly need every ten miles.  They perfected the art of hand off and there was no need to stop.  HFAR club members were manning the first station.  We are so used to carrying everything we need ourselves that it was such a treat to have support like this.   At mile 56, Lee Netherly of Bike Barn came by.  She was her usual friendly, positive and superbly-athletic self.  She cheered me on and I thanked her again for the loaner bike.  At halfway I stopped for my special needs bag and filled my bottle with Ensure.   I stopped again a few miles later for a bathroom break and a neck stretch.  I didn’t  stop again.  The last hour of the ride was hot and there was a lot of traffic.  Irritated drivers backed up for miles and spewed fumes as we rode up the side lanes.  This all improved when we turned into The Woodlands.  I had expected to see my friends on the bike leg.  Nate had passed me at some point, but neither of us had noticed the other.  The rest were following the plan.  Easy spin on the bike leg. I finished the bike in five hours and 56 minutes.  I had been racing for a little over seven hours and felt good.

A Marathon in the Heat

I was happy to be off the bike, but worried about the marathon in such heat.  The ladies helping in TA 2 were just as efficient as TA 1 and I was off with a cup of ice cold water in hand.  I jogged slowly and met up with my friend Charlie from Wills Hills.  We chatted briefly, but he was soon gone as my pace was too slow.  The marathon consisted of three loops.  This made it very spectator friendly and I was fortunate to have groups of friends spread out all over the course.  I walked through all the water stations and made full use of the iced sponges.  I jogged slowly through the first through loops and then started a walk/jog.  I met up with fellow adventure racer Tine Burgos on my last loop.  We walked a while together and exchanged stories.  My family, along with Dave Meyer, was at the Panther Creek turn, near mile 19.  After lots of hugs and cheering I carried on…walking.   When we got close to the canal the crowds were thick and cheering was constant.   No matter how you much you hurt, you had to smile.  At 24 miles a lady in my age group passed me.  I waited till the next water station then took off running by her.  I was in agony, but I was determined to run the last few miles.  I felt dizzy, sick, excited and happy.   Twenty-nine of my closet friends and family were positioned on the finisher’s chute.  It was a great feeling to run those last few meters.

My time was 12:18.  A number I will record and remember, just 2 minutes from my brother’s prediction. I guess he should know – he has known me for 44 years.

Sunday, February 26, 2017 8:34:03 PM by KennethSix
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