Race day report: what happened at the “tri”

I filled you in on all the anxieties leading up to the big day, so I thought it would be only fair to tell you what happened next. This goes into excruciating detail about the day, so be forewarned.

My day began at 4:15 AM.

What else is there to say, really?

Getting to the triathlon was one of the most stressful and difficult aspects of the day. The transition area opened at 5:30, but Josh and I didn’t make it there until almost 6:20. This was due to a variety of factors. It took forever to get the bike rack on the car (I usually just ride from the front door). We had to park up on the highway and walk into the park, which took approximately forever. And I realized that the large front pockets to the fleece I was wearing felt lighter than I had remembered. My phone was there. But my wallet was not.

I looked through all the bags I’d brought, but couldn’t find it. It was suddenly obvious: it must have fallen out of my pocket when we were wrestling with the bike rack. It was probably sitting on the ground in our apartment building’s parking lot at that very moment, winking up at the sky and inviting any passerby to take it for a spin.

You might, at this point, be asking why I brought my wallet. That’s an excellent question. I had looked at a bunch of lists detailing “what to bring to a triathlon,” and many of them mentioned a photo ID. I didn’t know if I’d need it or not, and I felt I was more likely to lose a solitary ID than my entire wallet. (It turns out I did not need my ID. Good to know.)

As we walked the approximately 30 miles from the car to the transition area, Josh helping me carry all my gear and me wheeling the bike, all I could think about was my credit card being stolen, and how the identity theft we’d just received a lecture on at work the other day apparently costs victims an average of $6,000 and 800 hours to resolve, while at the same time being utterly convinced that transition was going to close before we got there and I’d be disqualified from the race before I even started, and all that training would be for nothing.

I will note here that I saw one competitor arrive in a Green Cab (the taxis in Madison that have bike racks on the back), and I thought this was a brilliant idea. He could be delivered right up to the entrance without having to park on the highway and walk, and the cab driver presumably already knew how to operate his bike rack.

I will also note that the anxiety about losing my wallet was a decent distraction from perseverating on the race itself. Especially once we arrived to the transition area with plenty of time for me to set up, and for Josh to run back up to the road to search for the wallet.

For this race, we were all assigned transition spots by our race numbers, and I was lucky to have one on the end of a row by the grass, so I had more room to set up, more room to throw my things, and more room once I was actually in the middle of the transitions. I looked at the other bikes to see how to attach mine to the rack and I laid out my items in a fog, thinking about my wallet while trying to envision exactly how I was going to want to proceed.

Once set up, I got my body and swim cap marked, with my race number drawn in permanent marker on my left arm and left calf, and on both sides of my silver swim cap. We were given caps to identify which wave we were in (elites, and then gender and age).

And then, while I was waiting in line for the Port-o-Potty, I realized where my wallet could be. I texted Josh to check a certain spot in the car, and he quickly reported that was exactly where it was.

Now all I wanted was for him to be back while I freaked out.




One very happy coincidence was that two of the first people I saw were two women from my Master’s Swim class, Darcy and Randi, both of whom had competed in triathlons before and appeared to be significantly calmer than I was. It was a comfort and a relief to wait with them while the waves before ours took off for the swim, and they were able to answer a lot of my questions (most of which involved “which direction do we swim again?”)

During this time when the earlier waves had started and we were all waiting on the beach in our wetsuits, I also ran into my co-worker and friend, Leslie, who was running the race. I’d been looking for her all morning, but our identical black wetsuits and silver caps made it difficult to distinguish anyone.

This is also when my wonderful supportive friends Ellen and Celia arrived with smiles and words of encouragement. There’s not really any way to say things like this without risking sounding too sentimental or cheesy, but being in a little huddle with all these people I knew and who I knew wanted the best for me was very comforting, after the initial bout of slight (just a little bit) of crying that comes, for me, from being able to relax just a bit around people I trust.

This was also the time when I went to the bathroom about four times, each time wrestling the wetsuit down to my knees and the tri-suit all the way off as well.

The swim:

It felt like forever before our wave was called, but somehow Leslie and I found ourselves running into the water behind our entire group. The race had an “in-water start,” so the group of 40 or so of us (soon to feel like about 400) stood waist deep in the very cold waters of Lake Mendota and hopped around anxiously. I remembered a friend’s advice to splash water on my arms and face to get used to it, so I did.

Leslie and I were at the back of our group, by design. I didn’t want to jockey with people for position. I felt very comfortable in my swimming abilities in a pool, after months and months of Master’s Swim classes, but I had only been in a lake once before and I had never been in a scrum of swimmers like this.

Our swim consisted of 400 meters of a right turn, a right turn, and a left turn.

The starter counted down the last ten seconds, each one filling me with more and more dread, and then blew the horn to set us off. I had planned to wait ten seconds or so to let the group get out of my way, but in the panic and adrenaline soaked moment, I waited about two seconds and then jumped in.

I was out of control, swimming much faster than I had meant to. My memories of this moment a view of nothing but green, breathing every other stroke instead of every three like I usually do, gasping for air, waves crashing into my face, and constantly swimming into those around me. I put my head up to see where I was and realized I had only traveled about no meters and that everyone around me was running in the water instead of swimming. Which explains why I kept running into them.

I felt terrible and already exhausted. Being panicked in the water is exactly the reason I didn’t want to swim in the first place and exactly the reason I’d taken lessons. I thought I was over this.

I stood and ran/walked for a while in the water with the rest of my group until we got to the first right turn and suddenly the water was deep and everyone was swimming. I had no ground to push off from, but managed to get myself into a freestyle stroke.

I was still breathing on the right every other stroke and every time I did, I saw a mass of black, wetsuited arms flailing all around me and faces turned up to the sky gasping for air with horrified expressions.

This was terrible. I couldn’t see anything when my face was in the water (no nice blue line on the bottom of the lane to follow). I couldn’t see anything when I tried to look up out of the water, other than arms and horror. I was breathing too much and beginning to panic and almost hyperventilate, and I’d already been hit in the face by more waves than I needed in my life. I felt like I was cheating, but I didn’t see any other option, so I flipped on my back and started backstroking. And it was glorious (well, sort of). I went on the outside edge of the mass of people and before I knew it, I was gliding along and passing most of them. I had to flip over every so often to check where I was, and only once was I off course, but looking at the sky and keeping track of someone next to me to more or less stay on the right track was working. I could slow my breathing down. Backstroking in a wetsuit was pretty easy with the added buoyancy it gave me. And when I took my left turn around the yellow buoy and got shallow enough in the water to stand, I was surprised to only see only a few women in front of me, one of whom somehow took off her entire wetsuit while running out of the water without missing a step.

I heard Josh, Ellen, and Celia cheering as I exited the water, but I was too traumatized to see them. I jogged to T1, pulling my wetsuit down to my waist. Later I found out I had finished the swim in 8:38, third in my age group. Next time, I’m going straight to the backstroke. Apparently I can do it quickly enough to be competitive, and it avoids the panic of not being able to see or breathe.

You have no idea what I've just been through.

You have no idea what I’ve just been through.


I made it in and out of the first transition pretty quickly. The extra room I had on the grass was very helpful to fling my wetsuit. I don’t have cycling shoes or any clipping in business, so I dried off my feet and put on my socks and running shoes, then threw on the race belt Jenny had lent me (thank you!) that had my number on it, my sunglasses, and my helmet. And I was off. My total time for the first transition was 2:23, second in my age group.

The bike:

I had mentioned in the last post how old my bike is. Well, that proved to still be the case on race day. I was passed on the bike ride more than any other portion of the race. Some of the elite Olympic racers were finishing up their bike when I was on the course, and hearing them blow by me was amazing. They sounded like they were going about 60 miles an hour as they passed with a whoosh.

The bike course was fairly hilly and at a few points I saw people pushing their bikes up some of the steeper hills. My stubbornness kept my butt on the bike seat, even when I was in the lowest gear going slower than the cows walking past on the other side of the fence.

The scenery was beautiful — rolling farmland and picturesque barns.

I had practiced learning how to drink from my water bottle while riding, and tried to take advantage of the bike ride to hydrate.

I don’t really know that I have anything else to say about the bike and this is already an exceptionally long post. I finished the bike in 42:20, seventh in my age group.


Because I didn’t have to change shoes again, T2 was a breeze for me. All I had to do was prop my bike up on the rack and remove my helmet, and I was out of there in 1:00 flat, the fastest T2 in my age group

The run:

I was very grateful that Josh and I had done some brick training (where you bike and run back to back) because I knew that the cramping and pain I had in my legs would dissipate after half a mile to a mile of running. I started off slow on the run, planning to increase my speed every mile. The first mile was painful. My right leg was cramped and both legs and feet felt so heavy, as if they were water-logged bags of sand.

And, of course, the run started with a steep (but short) hill. There was a volunteer at the top of the hill to point us in the right direction. He was cheering us on, yelling, “Yeah! You ran up that hill like it was flat land!”

There were a ton of spectators throughout the whole race, ringing bells, holding signs, and cheering, but I remember them most from the run. Out of the swim I was too out of it and recovering from the panic to notice much, and on the bike I was going too fast (sort of). But on the run I could hear what people were saying and see people cheering, and it was great. I’ve been a spectator at many races, but on this one I appreciated the crowd in a way I hadn’t before.

There was one woman in particular, about a quarter mile from the end of the run, who saw me coming and let me have it (in a good way). “208!” she yelled, reading my number. “You are not going to stop now! A quarter-mile to go, and it’s time to start picking it up! Swing your arms and your legs will follow!”

I started swinging my arms, years of listening and responding to softball coaches ingrained in my psyche.

“That’s it!” she yelled. “Now go faster!”

And I did.

She was awesome.

When I crossed the finish line, I tried to make sense of the clock, but it had started when the first wave of elite Olympic distance triathletes pushed off in the water, and the math of when I had started compared to when they had was too much to deal with in that moment. I needed water and I needed to simultaneously stop moving and keep moving. I walked around in the recovery area for a while, then joined my family and friends outside.

The race organizers had set up these really cool little receipt printers where you could punch in your number and get a print out of your times and ranking. That’s how I found out that I had finished the run in 28:47, and my total time was 1:23:10, placing me third in my age group overall (although now that I’m looking at the results online, I am apparently listed as fourth overall in my age group. I’m not sure how that happens, but after the race I was documented as third and they gave me the “medal” for third place – oops!)

My goals for this race were: (1) to finish the whole thing, and (2) to finish in under 1:45:00. I was so happy with my much faster time and honestly quite surprised to be competitive within my age and gender.

I’m already looking at other sprint tri’s I can sign up for this summer.

My "third place" "medal"

My “third place” “medal”

  1. Anne Hoang said:

    Yeah Michelle! Now go faster! 😉

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