Buffalo Springs Lake Half Ironman – Texas. This was the big one. I had been anticipating and visualizing this race for the past year. I could see the canyons, feel the heat, feel the energy from the oil pumps in the fields. The race had played out many times in my head and all that was left was to arrive in Texas and get the job done.
The week leading up to the race, I was feeling great – almost too great. I was gunning to win my age group and willing to do whatever it would take to make that happen. There was fire inside of me.
I departed on Friday, traveling solo. My husband, Chris, shipped my bike on Monday, so I was traveling light with a wheel bag and wheeled suitcase. A delay in Chicago caused me to miss my connecting flight from Dallas to Lubbock, but luckily I was able to catch the next flight. Settling into my seat, a voice behind me said “Are you Liz, one of the nation’s top long course athletes for the past 3 years?” Nothing like throwing a little pressure into the pot. It was Jerry MacNeill – the race announcer. He had done his homework on me and everyone else in the race. For the rest of the flight, we passed the time talking about the successes, the potential, and the talent of the best amateur athletes in the nation.
Finally, I arrived in Lubbock. Just like in my mind, it was flat, hot, and windy. I checked into my hotel and called Chris to tell him I had finally arrived and he immediately said “I’m in the car, I’ve got your road bike packed up, and I’m on my way to the airport.” He then explained the situation, how he had spent the entire morning with my coach, Jennifer, trying to locate my bike and locate a new time trial bike to send to me. Apparently, the shipping company could not locate my bike.
I had no bike, no helmet, no water bottles, and only a rear wheel. I saw myself sitting on top of a Zipp 404 rear wheel, pushing across 56 miles and it did not look good. One thing was for sure - I wouldn’t have a very strong run after that.
For the next 6 hours, I was on the phone. First, I called the shipping company. Then, I called my coach. Then I cried. Then I paced. Then I called shipping company again. I spoke with every manager, consumer advocate, customer service rep, locally, nationally, in Fort Worth, in Lubbock, I tried being nice, I tried crying, I tried being angry. I cried some more. They just did not know where my bike was. The worst part was the waiting – waiting on hold, waiting to be connected, waiting to see if by some small chance a truck would pull up at the hotel and deliver my bike.
I went to the host hotel and approached the Race Director, Mike Greer. When I explained the situation, in tears, he said in his comforting Texas talk, “Here’s what you’re gonna do, you’re gonna ride my wife’s bike.” We found his wife and though she was about 5 inches taller than me, it was worth a shot. Almost instantly, several other people gathered around, including Jurgen (the head official and bike mechanic), Jerry, and several other local triathletes, trying to think of someone, anyone that would have a smaller bike for me to ride. Yes, everything is bigger in Texas, including their hearts, their helpfulness, and their hope.
Meanwhile, I was starting to lose it in my head. I didn’t come to this race to ride someone else’s bike. I didn’t come to this race to simply finish. I had a plan and it did not include this happening to me. Everything had been going so well – why this, why now? Part of me wanted to get back on a plane and go home. I didn’t know what to do or what I could do. I wanted to be on my bike – my bike fit so well, so comfortably. But part of me knew that just would not happen. I was not going to see my bike by Sunday.
I had no choice – I had to change my mindset. This was an obstacle but also an opportunity. This was a problem but also a possibility. If I couldn’t handle this situation, it would not have happened to me. I had to believe in my own versatility, flexibility, and just plain ability to succeed no matter what the circumstance.
At that point, I called my husband and said “You’re coming to Texas.” Without one word of regret, anger, or frustration, he booked his flight for the next morning.
We borrowed clip on aero bars from Jurgen. Chris set up my road bike in the most time trial position possible. I rode it around the parking lot and it felt great – just like my time trial bike. This would be as good as it would get and I just had to go with it.
Race morning, I woke up at 4:30 am and at 5:15 am we headed out to the canyon. And then we hit traffic, a long line of cars waiting to park. I was getting nervous. It was very dark, there was lightening off in the distance, and the wind was blowing with force.
We parked at 6:05 am, Chris changed my wheel, I picked up my bike and literally ran through the parking lot and down the steep hill into transition with 5 minutes to spare. I threw my stuff on to the ground and then transition closed.
The race started promptly with the professionals taking off at 6:30 am. Leslie Curley and I stood around watching the waves before us go off. The wind was blowing strong from the northeast. It was actually kind of chilly out. The water was choppy. The wave sizes were large. And I had a road bike waiting for me in transition. Clearly this was not the race I had pictured but I still had to believe in my training, follow my plan, and hope for the best.
The swim course was hard to see in it’s entirety so I figured I would start to the right, go around the cattails, and then just look for the buoys to find the course. We started at 7 am. My plan was to bolt out and establish my own position. With the wind blowing across the water, it was choppy going out but I found a good smooth place to swim on my own. I pictured myself swimming in the endless pool, with Karyn Austin telling me to bring my elbows up high, slice into the water, and relax. I was passing many people from the waves before me and feeling good. I knew I had to have a strong swim in order to make up for what might be a very tricky bike. I saw a few yellow caps ahead of me so I knew I was right on pace. We made a turn south and the wind was at our backs. The water was wide open and I picked up my pace, letting the current push me along. I was wearing my new Ironman/Blue Seventy wetsuit and it was making me smooth, slippery, and fast. I was pulling water, rolling my hips. Swimming has never felt that good.
I reached the mat at 27:07. I felt good, but that was a PR by over 4 minutes. Either the course was short or I was having the swim of my life. I was looking for some reference point about my position from Chris but all he said was “run, Liz, run!”. I struggled a little getting my wetsuit off but then grabbed my bike, hoped for the best, and rode off with Chris yelling at me “3 minutes, Liz, 3 minutes!” The lead woman was 3 minutes ahead.
I rode angry. I rode with fire. I had to – it wasn’t even a choice. I knew that I would have to completely reverse my usual half-Ironman pacing plan and ride like a rocket for the first half. I knew the bike would limit my performance and I couldn’t afford the mental cost of being passed too early. The first hill is immediately out of transition. After that, it’s a descent into the canyon followed soon by another hill climbing back out. The hills were long and gradual. I stayed under control, seated, and spinning. These were not stomp and mash hills. If I rode the hills hard, it would cost me and I didn’t have too much to spend today.
I was in a good rhythm and pushing along. The headwind was strong but the tailwinds were a welcome relief. The cloud cover kept the temperature cool and comfortable. The next 10 miles were flat. I was surprised that no one had passed me so I kept up my effort level. The aero bars were awkward but I tried to ignore it. We began the descent into the canyon. I was hitting 39 mph on the descents, but was passed by another woman. She would outdescend me and I would outclimb her. This was frustrating – I am a very fast descender for my size and each time she outdescended me I got more and more angry.
We hit the first out and back and I noticed Leslie and some other women over 4 minutes behind me. Just hold them off as long as you can, keep pushing those legs. At the next out and back, they had gained a minute on me. Keep pushing, keep doing what you can, you can do this, I thought. I pushed myself into holding them off for 1:15, then 1:30, then 1:45. I saw Natascha coming the other way with such ease, grace, and speed that it was very inspiring.
Certainly if I’ve held them off this long, I can do 2:00. But my legs were starting to scoff back at me. A road bike engages your quads more and with each pedal stroke my quads were growing heavier, sorer, and more fatigued.
At 2:00, Leslie passed me. We were heading out of the canyon, again, and the wind was in our face. I had to keep pushing. Between 2:00 and 2:15, I was passed by Jennifer, Autumn, and April. I wanted so badly to respond, to attack and surge, and take my place back. I was pushing but at a certain point my legs, or the bike, stopped responding. I could only push the bike so far. On a road bike, you can get more power but it costs you more and you can only hold it for so long.
At 2:15, my legs hurt so bad that I wanted to throw up. I hit a pothole and got worried about flatting.
The saddle was killing me. My sit bones were so angry and sore that I had to get up out of the saddle every 5 minutes. The wind was cutting across me. Discomfort in the aerobars was making me squirrely and shaky. I even started to cry. Here’s the honest truth – at least once in a half-Ironman bike I always cry. It’s the point at which you are so tired, so tired of being “on”, and pushing, and so scared of the possibility of your own success that you just break down. But, I thought, I am bigger than this. I can get through this.
At 2:30 I was still on the bike with several miles to go. I just wanted to be done and knowing that this would be one of my slowest half-IM bike times ever was making me mad.
My head was half in the race, half out. The thought of finishing in over 5 hours was so frustrating. So I thought about just stopping all together. But then the thought of seeing DNF next to my name was so ridiculous, so shameful that I quickly slapped it out of my head. I thought about all of the work that Chris put into coming here, all the sacrifice of time and money and I scolded myself for being so selfish as to think about quitting. At the very least, I could finish top 5 of my AG and get that 70.3 slot that I had been hoping for. It was time to take charge and let the race come back to me.
I descended the last hill into transition and I knew that getting off the bike would be ugly. And it was. I had some trouble racking my bike and left it dangling on the metal rack, sputtering, coughing, and completely spent. I put my shoes on and then took off running. Chris said something cheerful and I grimaced.
I set out on to the run course. The good news is that my quads were cooked but my hamstrings were feeling fresh. The first 3 miles of the run are rolling and shaded as the course twists around the lake. I could not tell my position and I just had to believe that the other women were right within my reach. The sun had broken through the clouds and the day was warming up. The first 2 miles felt like a slow, painful shuffle as my body transitioned to running.
My legs felt fine but as always my head has other plans. I always have to talk myself into the first few miles of the half-Ironman run. As long as you know that ahead of time, you’ll get through this distance. I always tell myself to give it 6 miles and then see how it feels. I know, 6 miles is a long way but you have to be willing to wait. You have to be patient, trust that your nutrition and pacing plan set you up for a strong run.
At mile 4, the cloud in my head cleared and I started feeling good. I began the slow and steep climb up a hill and passed Leslie. I had trained hills so much that this hill was nothing to me. After a quick plateau, the course descends steeply. I used the descent to gain some ground as I could see several women ahead. The course then began another brutal ascent and I passed a few more women – they were struggling, huffing, but I stayed light on my feet.
Coming over the hill, you take a right turn on to a long, hot, endless road. This was what I had been visualizing – this field, this heat, running below these power lines buzzing with energy. The wind was strong at my back and I took advantage of it. I picked up the pace. I was passing people and ahead I could see the heat rising from the fields. I knew the turnaround was off in the distance, I could see it and I had to keep pushing to it. As I approached the turnaround, I could see that the other women were close. I tried turning around to see if they were in my age group or wave but everyone looked young, fit, and fast. The women over 40 had started 25 minutes ahead of us, but many of them were now mixed in with us making it tough to tell my position. I hit the turnaround at 48 minutes and picked up the pace even more. I started doing the math in my head and realized that I could finish in under 4:55. Keep going, keep going! The race was coming back to me – I just had to give it permission to come back into my control.
I was focused and furious. The run was mine – road bike or no bike – I knew I could always run. I began the climbs and descents back into the canyon and kept pushing into the headwind. I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me but I had to keep pushing. At mile 9, the descent down the hill because unbearably painful as my wet shoes squished and pressed against a growing bunch of blisters on my toes. Push the pain out of your head, I told myself. Push it out. At mile 11 I almost knocked a guy down at an aid station. I apologized and kept going full speed ahead.
The last 2 miles were painful, in my gut, legs, and head. I twisted back along the lake. I would see a woman ahead and pick it up to pass her only to realize she was over 40. I was tired, sore, and feeling sick. As I approached the last ½ mile, I heard Jerry shout “Jennifer” and knew that Jennifer Johnson had finished and won. I didn’t know if I was first, second, third, or whatever but I knew I would finish pretty darn close.
Afterwards, Chris told me that I was right up there and congratulated me for a great run – 1:34. He didn’t think that anyone finished ahead of me in my AG but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I didn’t even want to think about Hawaii.
The pain in my legs was unbearable. I couldn’t even bend over to take off my shoes. I just walked around in circles, not sure if I should sit, cry in pain, or throw up – again in pain. I tried to drink some Gatorade but it made me feel sick. I wanted something salty. I wanted meat and I wanted coffee.
Then, I waited for the results. I waited and waited.
I didn’t set out to qualify for Hawaii. I didn’t even talk or think about it before the race. Just do the race and the rest would take care of itself. When I found the results and realized that I had won my AG and the slot to Hawaii, I realized that I had about 6 hours to make a decision that would change the rest of my life.
The awards ceremony was exciting. After the professionals, they started with the AG women’s awards. They honored the top 5 in my AG and called me to the front, reading off a few of my accomplishments from the past few years and then mentioning my bike troubles. I got up on the first place box. Jerry asked if I would accept the slot to Kona, and at that moment time stood still. I looked out in the crowd and saw my husband who had sacrificed an entire weekend of his own racing for me, I saw Natascha Badmann and Heather Fuhr looking at me with years of Kona in their eyes, I saw the faces of hundreds of other triathletes hungry for a slot to Hawaii, hungry for the opportunity of a lifetime that was now right in front of me and ready to be mine - and I knew this was it – this was the right thing to do. I nodded my head and said yes. And Jerry said “Congratulations Elizabeth Fedofsky, you are going to Kona.”
At that moment, I knew my life had changed forever. I knew that in less than 4 months I would take part in something magical and monumental – something that would forever change the way I think about life and the way I think about myself.
Later that night, I woke up and knew something was different. Then I thought to myself, “you idiot, you just signed up for an Ironman.” I laughed and fell back to sleep, picturing myself moving across the open ocean water, pushing into the turnaround at Hawi, and shuffling along the black lava fields of the Big Island.
There’s a lot of work ahead. But there’s also a lot of work behind me. It’s taken me years to believe in myself, my training, and my abilities. This weekend, I had proven to myself and every one else that if I give myself a chance, I’ll make big things happen. I didn’t have the bike split that I wanted, or the race that I envisioned, but in giving it a try I got something much better.
So, yes, everything is indeed bigger in Texas – and not just in terms of the problems, but the possibilities - the possibility that when you go big and believe in yourself, big things will happen.
Aloha, Hawaii. I’ll see you in October!
P.S. – My bike arrived in Lubbock on Monday @ 7 am.