First Ironman, 1st place!

In some ways it is rather like a dream you could have on one of those training days where you feel invincable. Enter your first Ironman just one week out, and then win the race. Come on, for real?!!! Well if your name is Molly Smith, then this was no dream, it was the actual reality of her Ironman Maryland race just a couple of weeks ago.

Molly, a 3 time Solvang camp athlete (2015-2017), shares her amazing story below, and it’s a fun read with some real gems. And if you have an extra 30 seconds, check out her Ironman finish on the video. It’s a fantastic display of true shock and elation all rolled into one that will just make you smile.

Thanks Molly for showing us that sometimes a leap of faith is the way to go. Truly, many congratulations on your Ironman win and an amazing season!!

Interview with Molly Smith, Ironman Maryland winner!

1. Heading into 2017, what goals and hopes did you have with the sport?

 My number one goal is always to have fun and race to the best of my potential on a given day.  I regularly remind myself that it is a gift every time I make it to the start line, and that I should never take my health, fitness or ability to race for granted!

I hope that I can be saying those things 10 and 20 years down the road, too,

recognizing that in the long run, my hopes and goals for the sport are so much bigger than individual race results.

That being said, heading into 2017, 

my primary focus was on the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga, TN.  I missed a podium finish by about 30 seconds at the world championships in Austria a couple years ago, so I felt like this year presented another chance to race against the best girls in the world and see if I could break into the top 5.  Another goal I had was to place in the top three women for a half marathon in Iceland in June. I love triathlon, but am also a runner at heart and like to keep things interesting by doing some stand-alone run races, too.  I also had my sights set on winning a local triathlon series.  The series is set up for athletes to accrue points for performances in sprint, Olympic and half ironman distances taking place between June and September.  The series was more for fun, though; my big focus was on a podium finish in Chattanooga.

2. You clinched a silver medal in your AG at the Ironman 70.3 World Champs in which was a fabulous result, did you always know you were in a medal position on that day, how did the race unfold?

Molly claiming a silver medal at the 70.3 World Champs this year.

I refer to myself as an “adult onset swimmer” since I didn’t start swimming until I was in my 20’s and decided I wanted to try my first triathlon.  Since I don’t have a strong swim background, I always come out of the water a fair bit behind the other top contenders. I have worked hard on my swim in recent years, but it’s definitely still my weakest discipline.  As such, I knew I would be a ways back coming out of the water in Chattanooga and that I would have to make up a lot of ground on the bike and run if I had any chance of making it on the podium. I think I passed about 30 people in the first few miles of the bike as I forged full bore ahead towards the climb up Lookout Mountain.

Anticipating that the course would likely include a big climb, I spent the last 6 months climbing in the mountains and foothills here in Colorado to build leg strength and climbing stamina.  When they actually announced the bike course, I was excited to see the elevation chart with almost 3,500 feet of climbing.

For me, the harder the bike course, the better! 

I pushed hard on the bike and passed a lot of competitors, especially on the climb.  It was quite a boost to feel like I was floating right up the mountain as other people were struggling.  I knew I had made up a lot of time and passed quite a few people on the bike, but didn’t know my position until I saw my husband (who is also my coach – lucky me!) at about mile 1 on the run.  I don’t honestly remember what he told me at that point, but the message was I was in good shape, but needed to run strong and stay focused since I still had some ground to make up.  The next time I saw my husband, he told me there was a girl behind me who was running faster than I was and was making up time on me.  When she did eventually pass me, I think she was running about 
6:15 per mile pace, which I knew wasn’t a sustainable pace for me.  I made the decision to let her go and not try to keep up.

At that point, I knew I was in third place with about 4 miles to go, thanks to my husband’s updates on the course from the Ironman tracker phone app.  The course straightened out across a bridge over the Tennessee River, and I could see the second place girl just ahead of me.  My husband was yelling that she was just ahead, just ahead, and I could catch her.  I made my pass with authority and never looked back!  The final few miles of the course had a couple big hills, but I powered up them and did my best to ignore the side stitch I was developing as I sprinted towards the finish line.  I knew the first place girl was well ahead of me and there was little chance that the girl in third could catch me, so it started to sink in with a mile or so left to go that my position was pretty secure and this was really going to happen!  All the hard work, long training sessions, short nights and early mornings were about to pay off!  I was elated, relieved and so very grateful as I ran up the chute and under the finish arch.  I felt pure joy (and just a little exhaustion)!

3. So after you raced at the 70.3 World Champs, no doubt you put your feet up, goal accomplished, and turned your focus back to your work and PhD studies… so how did, “I think I’ll make a last minute decision to race my first Ironman” factor into your silver medal celebrations?

Actually, I didn’t have much recovery after the race in Chattanooga since I raced another half ironman the following weekend.  The timing wasn’t ideal, but the race was part of the local triathlon series I had registered to do, and I really wanted to earn the series title.  I knew the dates when I registered for the series and knew it would mean racing 70.3’s in back-to-back weekends.  I figured it would be a challenge, but hoped my training would be enough to carry me through both races without too much suffering.  I also knew I had enough points going into the final race of the series that I didn’t have to have a spectacular performance – I just needed to finish in the top 3 in my age group.  The course was a bit short, but I raced a 4:20:51 – a new PR for me – and was the top non-elite finisher.

 Coming off two solid performances in back-to-back 70.3 races, I was feeling tired, but pleased.  I was planning on going to Maryland to support my husband, Matt, who was guiding a visually impaired athlete for Ironman Maryland.  We already had tickets and a hotel room, so a few friends asked if I would make the last minute decision to jump into the race, too, and see if I could ride out my fitness for one more grand finale.

I initially said, “No – I don’t do that distance and don’t have any desire to do the race.”

It did sort of make me curious about how it would go, though, especially since my training volume had been so high over the summer and my body had responded so well to the back to back 70.3’s.
As a quiet little experiment, my husband and coach, Matt, added in an 18 mile run and a 16 mile run the following week so I could see how my legs would feel.  Matt and I did one other 75 mile ride and 8 mile run brick together and it felt good – really good.  I felt strong and like I might be able to perform pretty well at the full Ironman distance even though I hadn’t specifically trained for it and hadn’t done one before.  I checked the 7-day forecast, saw it wasn’t going to rain (Ironman Maryland has been plagued by bad weather the last few years), and registered about two hours before registration closed, just 7 days before race day.

I didn’t actually even tell my parents I was racing until the night before the race.  I thought that would be a good idea since I had listed them as my emergency contacts.

4. What was your training like between the 70.3 Worlds in Chattanooga on September 9th, and Ironman Maryland just 4 weeks later?

Well, as I mentioned, I had a pretty full training/racing schedule in between Chattanooga and Maryland with that second half ironman race.  I also raced a mid-week 5k and biked for a sprint triathlon race in the two weeks before the race.  The 18 and 16 mile “test” runs I did during that time were on pretty tired legs, so I figured that would be a good indication of how I might feel after 112 miles on the bike!  I’m not sure I would have planned everything that way if I knew I would end up doing the Ironman, but I guess it worked out okay!

5. With a 3:00 marathon to your name at Chicago last year, that distance isn’t unknown territory for you, but did you have any nerves about running a marathon after an Ironman swim and bike? What was your race strategy at Ironman Maryland?
Yes, I was a little nervous about running a marathon after 112 miles on the bike!  I had done a 100+ mile ride / 8 mile run brick in training earlier in the summer, but it was a little overwhelming to think about quadrupling that run distance on race day.  I just kept telling myself that in an Ironman, you get to run the marathon a lot slower than a stand-alone run race!  My hope was that it would feel easy to run 8:00 to 8:15 minute miles after the sub-7:00 minute pace I ran in Chicago last year.
As far as race strategy, I should start out by saying that I didn’t really have any time goals for the day – I just wanted to finish and enjoy the experience.  I guess that’s the beauty of racing totally “under the radar.”  There’s no pressure and no expectations, and hardly anyone knows to track you to see if you’re having a great day or an epic meltdown (only my parents and a couple other people knew I was racing).

Matt ran some numbers for me and based on my training, suggested that I should shoot for around 1:15 on the swim, 5:20 on the bike and 3:30 on the run. That gave me some targets, but I had n

o idea how I’d feel or if that was realistic.  I wanted to stay in an aerobic zone on the swim and settle into a comfortable pace without worrying too much about my time.  For the bike, my goal was to hold around 160 watts (which was hard to do for the first 40 miles or so since I’m used to racing like a rocket as soon as I get on the bike to make up all the time I lost in the swim – I knew I’d burn out if I went out too hard, though, and had to be disciplined with my effort and speed).  For the run, I wanted to see if I could hold around 8:15 per mile. Mostly though, my strategy was to listen to my body and pick a pace I could sustain for hours (and hours and hours) on end.

 6. There were numerous reports of you smiling throughout the entire Ironman race, what is your best memory of the race?

Yes, I do think I was smiling ear to ear the entire race, especially on the run when I had a chance to feed on the energy of the crowd!

I kept waiting to encounter the unavoidable “black holes” everyone talks about and the “miles of misery,” but they never came. 

I stayed on top of nutrition and hydration and raced a smart, disciplined, calculated race that was well within my limits – I had LOTS of reasons to smile!  There are a few moments that really stand out to me as favorites on the course.  One highlight was when I took over the lead.  It was on a particularly crowded portion of the run course where the spectators were so loud and enthusiastic that I couldn’t help but feel like I had wings!  Coming down the finish chute seeing the tape in front of me was pretty magical, too!

There are two memories that really stand out above the others, though.  The first was seeing Matt and Erich (the visually impaired athlete Matt was guiding) out on the run course.  We were moving at slightly different paces, but our paths crossed in such a way that I was able to run right along side them for a few blocks.  It was inspiring to be able to share the course with them on such a historic and inspiring day (they broke the visually impaired Ironman world record!!).  The other amazing moment was seeing them come down the finisher’s chute to actually break the record.  There’s a great picture of the 3 of us embracing that will be one of my favorites for years to come.
7. Your first Ironman, first place, and you posted a sub-10 hour time of 9:54… just fantastic! Describe that moment of running down the finish chute when you realized you were going to accomplish so many firsts.
 It’s hard to put words to what I was feeling as I came down the finishing chute!  At that point, I don’t think there was much thinking going on – just a pure, unfiltered reaction to the moment filled with joy, disbelief, gratitude, relief and a bit of exhaustion!  I didn’t really even look at my watch to know what my official finish time was until about 10 minutes later.  Since I started in the swim a bit behind the race leaders (it was a self-seeded swim start), the clock actually read just over 10 hours when I came through.

It was the icing on the cake to look down and see 9:54.  That was indeed a bit faster than I anticipated!

 8. On the back of your 70.3 celebrations turning into registering for an Ironman… dare we ask, what has this Ironman win led to?

Ha, ha!  While I’m not sure I’ll ever do another Ironman (I didn’t take my Kona spot for next year’s race), I can say with certainty that I’ll look back at this experience with great fondness.  If nothing else, this Ironman win has led to an even deeper enjoyment of and respect for the sport, and for the many other amazing athletes out there who are crazy enough to do it.

STC – Thank you Molly, and again, many congratulations. We look forward to seeing you and your husband Matt (Solvang coach), at our Solvang Endurance Camp next April .