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This was my first year racing at USAT Age Group Nationals, but hopefully not my last. I have no pithy intro, so let’s get into it.

Pre-race:

Josh and I rolled into Milwaukee on Saturday afternoon to pick up my packet and drop off my bike. I was nervous about everything. Nervous that I was showing up at the last minute. That I had missed the “optional but strongly recommended” rules briefing on Friday. That I was going to be picked out immediately as the yahoo who didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going.

So, a few words to those of you who haven’t done an age group nationals race before but are considering it. First, just do it. But second, turns out in a lot of ways it’s just like every other race. Just… a lot more of it. The line for late packet pickup reassured me that I was not even close to the last person there. Yes, there were a lot of amazing, beautiful, expensive bikes, but there was also a girl with a vintage Schwinn road bike that didn’t have clipless pedals. When I saw her bike, I pointed her out to Josh and whispered, “I hope she wins.” People were just as friendly and kind as every other race I’ve been to.

Other things to note about the pre-race:

  • Nationals = awesome swag. The highlights were a free pair of compression socks, a USA Triathlon windbreaker, and a USA triathlon baseball/running hat. Win!
  • I had to leave my bike overnight for the first time in my racing career. I followed the advice of others and let the air out of my tires, which also made me a friend. Stephanie had racked her bike next to mine* and asked me why everyone was letting the air out. I explained that leaving your tires out in the sun can cause the air to expand and leave you with a sad flat on race morning. She thanked me and told me that this was her 2nd triathlon ever – damn girl!
  • *It turns out that there were assigned rack spots for all race numbers… below 5500. Weird, right? 5500 and above, which included me, were the later waves (I was wave 15 out of 17), and either they didn’t think there would be that many people, which doesn’t make a lot of sense since many of us registered very early, or they thought transition wouldn’t be crowded enough by the time we rolled around to mandate it. So we had to elbow it out for spots amidst 4 designated racks. I was fairly happy with my location, and it didn’t seem to be a big deal, but it felt weird, as if we were left out or afterthoughts or something.
  • To note: the top 25 finishers in each age group for this race would earn a spot on team USA for the 2015 world championships, to be held in Chicago next year.

Race morning:

Although my wave didn’t leave until 9:21 AM, we got to the venue at 5:30 for two reasons: parking and transition. There were many parking ramps reserved for us throughout downtown Milwaukee, but we were able to get a very close location at the US Bank building.  Transition was open from 5:30 – 7:30 AM for us to set up the rest of our gear and re-inflate our tires. I also did a few walkthroughs to make sure I knew exactly where to go, since this was by far the largest transition area I’d ever been in, and I didn’t have a numbered rack spot.

The rows were marked with letters, however, and from the swim in my bike was between rows I and J, so I decided my mnemonic would be “I Jive.” Stupid, but it made me laugh and I knew I wouldn’t forget it.

The rest of race morning was a lot of waiting, sunscreen, drinking water, going to the bathroom, drinking water, going to the bathroom, and trying to stretch.

Before the first wave went off at 7:30 AM, a very talented singer whose name I forgot sang the national anthem. It was beautiful and moving, ringing out over the water and the crowds, and right at the apex, a flock of geese flew over the American flag in a perfect V formation, looking so much like a battalion of fighter jets that the entire crowd gasped.

And then, with a honk of the starter’s horn, the men 35-39 were off. There was a houseboat moored not far from the swim start, and the boat family’s pet dog barked at every swimmer that passed him.

The swim:

We weren’t allowed to do a warm up swim until 20 minutes before our wave left. So around 8:45 AM, I put on my wetsuit, immediately had to go to the bathroom again, went to the bathroom, put on my wetsuit again, and then assembled near the swim start. They let us down to the water around 9:00 AM, and we had really only 5-10 minutes to warm up.

Before the warm up started, we were corralled on a ramp behind a rope (yes, there are cattle similarities here, but let’s not think about that), and I was staring over the water trying to quickly visualize the race one last time in fast forward. A woman next to me put her hand on my arm and said, “It’s going to be okay.” I realized that I had been holding my hand up to my mouth and must have looked terrified.

The water temp was about 71 degrees, which is a comfortably cool temp for me, but as usual, I was very grateful to have a chance to acclimate before we took off. It always takes me a few minutes to overcome the shock of being in a lake. I had been really nervous about swimming in Lake Michigan, but we were actually well insulated from the waves and chop. The water was clear (I mean, for a lake), cool, and calm. Beautiful.

Almost as soon as I swam an out and back (probably 150 m total), we were being told to get our butts to the starting area. The start was in-water, and I positioned myself on the far outside to try to get some clear water from the get go. The women around me had the same idea, and one of them said, “If I kick you, I swear it’s not on purpose. I just want to be able to swim.” We laughed and high fived.

The last 30 seconds before we went off, they stopped the music and instead played a heartbeat sound, just in case we needed to freak out a little bit more. I got myself horizontal in the water and waited for the horn.

It honked, and I was going. Our first sighting “buoy” was actually a small bridge that we were all going to swim under. It was a long way (maybe 400 m?) to the bridge, so there was plenty of room to maneuver.  I had noticed a huge smokestack directly behind the bridge, so I was sighting to that. I didn’t have too much contact with other women, but I couldn’t find any good feet to draft on, so my side strategy has pros and cons, I guess. I could feel someone getting a ride behind me, but she wasn’t bothering me, so I just tried to swim my swim.

Going under the bridge was pretty cool. I could hear people on the bridge yelling and cheering at us, and the shouts echoed underneath. On the other side, we had a melee of orange square buoys and yellow triangle buoys, but I remembered from the webinar (yes, there was a webinar before the race) that the orange were for sighting and the only ones that mattered were the yellow. We had to make two right-hand turns at the yellows. On the second turn, the woman who had been drafting off of me got right up on top of me, the entire upper half of her body pushing down the entire lower half of my body. I don’t like to kick someone else on purpose, but she lingered long enough that I was sinking, so I whipped out a fairly aggressive dolphin kick to free myself. For the rest of the swim I saw her off to my left. No more draft, I guess. I hope I wasn’t too aggressive, but when you feel like you’re getting pulled under, what are you going to do?

The swim exit was a steep ramp up to shore, but it was lined with volunteers on each side who offered arms to grab onto or, in some cases, just grabbed our hands and yanked us up. It was awesome. This race seriously had the best volunteers.

The swim exit was 0.25 miles from transition, and as I ran along the pathway to transition, a man (not sure if this was a volunteer or a coach or just a concerned bystander) was telling us our current rank. I was shocked to hear I was 29 when I passed him. This likely sounds somewhat egotistical of me, but I’m used to being in the top five coming out of the water. Plus, I had stalked researched the results from last year. I had expected to finish my swim in just about 13 minutes, and that time in 2013 would have put me in sixth in my age group. Hearing “29” after what I thought was a pretty good swim immediately re-set my expectations for the day. These women were serious athletes, and serious competition.

Swim time: 13:17.7

Yeah! 29!

Yeah! 29!

T1: 

I was booking it into transition. With a quarter mile run into the transition area, which itself was probably easily a quarter mile long, I didn’t have time for my usual amble. A volunteer was strategically placed at the swim in to warn us that the mud and grass were very slippery, and to be careful. I ran in, said out loud, “I jive!” and ran to my row. As I did, a woman was running towards my through the aisle, obviously having chosen the wrong row. She was cursing and obviously annoyed with herself.

I had decided about three weeks before the race that I just couldn’t deal with the stress of trying to put my bike shoes on while riding the bike, especially after my bike shoe fail at Verona, so I put on my shoes and tried to run out of transition. I was trying to leave my spot at exactly the same time as another woman in my age group and I graciously let her go ahead of me. At the end of the row, she stopped and messed with her timing chip, effectively blocking me in. Balls! But she noticed what she was doing and apologized (and moved) and I ran past her out of transition.

T1 time: 2:40.2 (it was a big transition area, and I put on my shoes in transition instead of on the bike). This put me 23 in my age group.

The Bike: 

I had been looking forward to this bike ride a lot. How many chances do you get to ride your bike on the Interstate? Hopefully not very many, if we’re taking your lifespan into consideration. I wasn’t surprised to be passed by a handful of women in my age group right out of transition. I know the bike is not my strongest suit, and it’s hard to compete with the fancier bikes sometimes. But I also got to pass a few women, and some men, some of whom even allowed themselves to stay passed. Men get so annoyed being passed by a woman that some of them make it their mission to try to immediately pass back, leading to a choice between an exhausting leapfrog situation or an annoying slow down in the speed I would prefer to go. I choose the leapfrog, obviously, but dude, just deal with it. Some women are faster than you. I’m not your competition out here – the guys in your age group are. And frankly, given my speed and placement in this race, if I’m passing you, probably a heck of a lot of other women have passed you already.

This was the first race I’d been in where drafting rules were strictly enforced, so I was very conscious of taking 15 seconds or less to pass, and falling back immediately if I was overtaken. At one point, a woman on a very nice Trek passed me while a race official on a motorcycle was right beside me staring at us. I tried to fall back right away, but was kind of nervous that I hadn’t done so quickly enough.

I rode in aero for the majority of the race. At one point, right before we went on the Interstate, they had a volunteer whose only job was to tell us (through a megaphone) to get out of aero because we were approaching rough road. I’m glad I followed his instructions, because the polar vortex had done a number on Milwaukee’s roads, and we definitely had some bumpy moments.

Riding on I-794 was amazing, if also fairly bumpy. They put plastic connector thingies between the big joists, but there were still plenty of gaps in the road that jostled my bones at  20 mph.

Right before the Interstate, the first of the men from the wave behind me (men 45-49) started to pass me. The first man to do so sounded like another race motorcycle coming up behind me, and blew past me as if I were standing still. I looked at my bike computer to see that I was going 22 mph at that point. Once again, I was totally amazed.

On the Interstate, more men were passing me, and I couldn’t seem to find any more women in my age group. I was passing  a few of the back of the 24 and under and 25-29 women, but no one in the 30-34 group. At this point, I wasn’t really sure where I was in the rankings. I thought I had come out of transition in the 20-30 range, and had been passed by what felt like half a dozen women, but I really wasn’t sure. Regardless, I kept trying to push the pace as much as I could, which I know isn’t a great deal given my limited bike skillz.

Before the race, Josh had asked me how long I though it would take me on the bike. I thought about it – 20k, which is about 12.5 miles – and said, “I don’t know – 40 minutes?”

I finished the bike in 40:04.4, so if nothing else, I might have won the national championships of predicting my times for this race! My bike time put me at 48th in my age group, and put a big old star on what I need to work on.

T2:

I was momentarily disoriented coming into T2, because the bike in was the same as the swim in. I’m used to bike out and bike in being the same place. But when I came in, disoriented and confused, I just kept running and then yelled, “I JIVE!” and ran to the right spot between rows I and J. I had successfully taken my shoes off and left them on the bike, so I was running barefoot through the grass. I racked my bike, threw on my race belt, socks (I swear I’m working on ditching these) and shoes, and ran out. Josh caught me at the T2 exit and yelled, “You’re right in there!” I took this to mean that I was in contention for the top 25, so I ran out with an extra spring in my step.

My T2 time: 1:23.6, or 38th in my age group. 1-37 probably don’t wear socks. They probably don’t jive, either.

The Run:

The run used to be my happy place, back when I didn’t know how to swim and rode a mountain bike. Since I injured my knee, though, the run has been a struggle. I had been working on pacing myself a an 8:24 pace leading into this race, which isn’t my fastest 5K ever, but something I knew I’d be reasonably happy with.

Mile 1 was uneventful, other than leapfrogging with an man from a wave before me who couldn’t seem to stand having been passed by me. I remember thinking to myself, “Dude, I don’t care which one of us finishes first, but I just want the space to run my speed without blocking the seriously fast guys behind us.” And it was true – during the run the final wave of the day, men 24 and under, started passing me, and they were pretty damn fast.

By this point, it was also starting to get really hot. At the second aid station, I took some Gatorade from the front half and some water from the back half, and managed to successfully manage which one I drank and which one I poured on my head.

The part between miles two and three was the longest mile I’ve ever run. I had been pushing myself hard the whole morning, and at this point I wanted nothing more than to stop. I started talking to myself, out loud, to the amusement of people watching or running near me.  The inside part of the dialogue, the part in my head, said, “I’m tired. I want to stop.” Out loud, I said, “Who fucking cares [if you’re tired]? Just keep going.”

I also started to shiver at this point. This has been happening to me on the run from miles two and onwards on the last few races I’ve done, and I can’t figure out why. When I Google it, the results suggest heat stroke or dehydration, but given the short distances I’m racing this seems really unlikely to me.

Right after the 3 mile sign, with 0.1 to go, I caught sight of a woman in my age group who I recognized had passed me on the bike. I didn’t have any idea where I was in the rankings. I hadn’t noticed any women from my age group passing me on the run, but I was still not 100% sure where that left me. What if she was #25 and I was #26? I knew I had to try to pass her, even though sprinting sounded like the worst idea in the world.

But I did it. I sprinted. And I passed her right before the finish line, as I caught sight of Josh, and our friends Ellen and Chris cheering me on.

My run: 26:08.0, exactly 8:24 pace, ranking me at 43 in my age group.

Overall:

It turns out I was sprinting for 42nd place in my age group. I ended up with a time of 1:23:34.1, which I’m pretty happy with. I basically predicted this finish time; I just had expected a slightly higher ranking based on last year’s results.

The lady in purple

The lady in purple

 

Overall, I’m so happy to have competed in this race, and I would love to do it again. My eyes have been opened a lot to the skill level in the age group ranks of the US, and I think that for my 7th race ever, I held my own. Rumor has it that Age Group Nationals just might be coming back to Milwaukee next year, and if they are, I’m so there.

I owe you all a race report from Door County (short story: awesome race, I did okay, I have a lot to learn), but in the meantime all I can think about is my upcoming attempt at the sprint USAT Age Group Nationals. The vast majority of these thoughts are anxieties, of course. The race at Door County was, to date, the largest one I’ve participated in. There were about 1,000 athletes in the sprint race, and 62 in my wave. I’ve been used to being near the top of my age group in the more local races I’ve participated in, and being around so many more competitors opened my eyes to how much work I still have to do, how “vintage” my bike still is, and how much I still need to learn about efficiency, USAT rules, and how to evaluate my current skill level compared to others in the sport. It seems so obvious to say that I had a skewed idea of my own skill level from competing in smaller races, but apparently that is yet another lesson that triathlon has had in store to teach me.

When I signed myself up for this age group nationals race last winter, I was depressed about my injured knee, and I had the idea that I’d be in running form by the spring, and would be able to train my run (and bike and swim, of course) hard all summer so that by the time August rolled around, I’d be in great shape. That didn’t exactly happen, and the confidence and hubris I had self selecting myself to compete against the top age group athletes in the country has been tempered by a more than a little dose of reality.

My knee is a lot better, and my run times are coming down. They’re still not where they were last summer, pre-injury, though. My bike is a lot faster than it was last year (but still quite slow compared to others), and my swim is something I’m confident in. Although I don’t know that I can say yet that I enjoy open water swimming, I consistently finish at or near the top of my age group (and did in Door County, too), so I can’t pretend I suck at swimming.

All of this is a rambling way to say that I have some major feelings of inadequacy going into this race. I’m afraid that I’m going to be viewed like a child playing in the grown up race. I’m afraid that my equipment, my attire, my body, and my technique are going to reveal to people at a glance that I don’t belong there. I’m worried about inadvertently breaking a rule or getting in someone’s way.

This is how I am feeling most of the time.

And then the other times? I’m thinking that this race is open to all USAT members and doesn’t have qualifying times for a reason. I’m thinking that I have a right to be there. I’m thinking that if there ever was a time that it didn’t matter if I break a rule accidentally and get a penalty, this is it, as I have no chance in hell of placing. Add 2 minutes to my time? Who cares? I’ll learn my lesson and know for next time. I’m thinking that I’m not the fastest, but I’m not an idiot and I can certainly stay out of others’ ways. I’m thinking that it’s going to be really cool to ride my bike on the Interstate.

When I originally signed up, I had a pie in the sky idea that maybe I could try to place in the top 18 in my age group and get a spot at worlds. By the beginning of the season when my swim coach asked me to write down a goal for the year, I wrote, “Place in the top 50% of my age group at nationals.” Now I’m sort of hoping to finish higher than last place.

My game plan:
Swim my swim and stay calm in the water.
Have fun on the bike.
Run as hard as I can until I think I’m going to puke, and then keep running.