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.

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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.

This was a different kind of race for me: an open water swim not followed by a bike or run, as well as a swimming competition where I swam a single race that involved a wetsuit and a lake.

This was the first year for the Big Swell Swim, held in beautiful Devil’s Lake State Park. It was brought up during the end of my Masters Swim season in May, and everyone in the group was enthusiastic about getting together for a swim race/reunion in summer.

There were four divisions you could enter:
-1.2 mile non-wetsuit
-1.2 mile wetsuit
-2.4 mile non-wetsuit
-2.4 mile wetsuit

I was competing in the 1.2 mile wetsuit category. The pre-race announcer said that the largest category by far was 2.4 mile wetsuit, and you have to imagine this was mostly folks training for IM WI. Well, I guess you don’t have to imagine anything, but that’s what I imagined.

I’ve never swum 1.2 miles without stopping. Although our Masters practices always included at least 2 miles (usually more) in the pool, that was done in intervals and sets, and the idea of just going for 1.2 miles with no hang out time at the wall was intimidating to me. Also, although I’m getting much better in the open water, I still have some open water panic from time to time. Things can sometimes feel really out of control or just so bottomless in the middle of a lake. Nothing to grab onto anywhere close, and other swimmers bumping into you or swimming over you.

All that being said, I went into this “race” with a goal to just swim a steady pace and finish it. I wasn’t interested in competing with other racers.

I’ve been really struggling with lake allergies this summer. I’ve been allergic to lake algae since I was a teenager, but since this is the first summer that I’ve taken an open water class, this is also the first summer that I’ve purposefully stuck my face in a pile of allergens at least once a week. I asked my doctor if I could double my dose of allergy medicine on days I swim, and she vetoed that idea real quick (apparently I’m already on the maximum dose). The swimming leads to days, sometimes almost a full week of terrible congestion, sneezing, stuffy nose, sinus headaches, and so on. I’ve taken to sleeping sitting upright the night after a swim so that I can breathe.

Obviously, this is stupid. So, I’ve been experimenting with wearing earplugs and a nose clip during practices, and the difference has been phenomenal. I think the nose clip helps more than the earplugs, but I’m sticking with both, because being able to swim in the morning and then not literally go through two boxes of Kleenex that day (yep – two a day) is worth 75 minutes of mild discomfort in the water.

That tangent completed, back to the day of the race. There was a warm up swim, which I participated in. Making sure that I always do the warm up swim has been one of my goals all season. In this particular warm up swim, I waded into the coldish water, tried to acclimate for a moment. I stood chest deep, put in my earplugs, pulled my swim cap over them, and opened my nose clip with a feeling of satisfaction that I wouldn’t be sleeping sitting up that night. And my nose clip broke.

I use the Speedo Liquid Comfort nose clip (because that name is hilarious) and as you can see in the link, it has two loops that go over the bridge of the nose. Only one of those loops was broken, so I thought I’d try to use it anyway, figuring some protection was better than none. As soon as I put my face in the water, though, I felt all the allergens going right into my sinuses. After swimming for about 50 meters, an earplug fell out and is now living somewhere in the lake. Sorry, nature.

Oh well, I still had a race to do, right? They started the 2.4 mile non-wetsuit swimmers first, followed by the 2.4 mile wetsuit swimmers about 10 minutes later. All of us 1.2 milers (wetsuit and non-) started together, about 15 minutes later. As I said above, I wasn’t intending to race this race, and I just didn’t feel like I wanted to start the longest continuous swim I’ve done bashing into other people, so when the horn went off, I hung back and let the others go off without me. After waiting about 20 seconds, I joined in.

There was still a lot of contact during the first 150 meters or so, and something about the people, the cold water, and the waves (which were created by the people around me kicking and swimming, not by the lake/wind) formed that old familiar feeling in my chest of tightness and water panic, and since my half-broken nose clip didn’t seem to be doing anything anyway, I pulled it off mid-stroke and clipped it onto my thumb. It wasn’t there by the end of the race, so another apology to nature is in order.

The feeling of taking a full breath and using my nose was helpful, and I was able to calm myself down while I was swimming and keep going. On my way to the first buoy, I passed quite a few people, but for the entire first two lengths of the rectangle, I kept feeling like I was way on the outside of the course. Part of this was due to weird currents, as I definitely felt myself getting pushed around a little bit. But honestly, I don’t even know if I was off-course or not. Usually when I see large groups of people taking what looks like a tighter line, I would assume I am, but every single time I sighted, I was right in line with the buoy. So… I don’t know. I don’t know where they were going, and I don’t know if I was giving myself a wide, swooping line.

I saw a few opportunities to draft early on, but I made a decision to just try to swim this one. Since there was no bike or run afterwards, it felt weird and more cheaty than usual to draft in the swim. Plus, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could swim 1.2 miles non-stop in a lake without outside assistance.

By the first buoy, I was definitely into a rhythm, sighting every 10 strokes, and watching the green water for anything interesting. A fish? Nada. A piece of seaweed? Occasionally. When I breathed to the right, I saw beautiful rocky cliffs, trees, and nature. I sang a song in my head, I sighted, I swam, and I kept passing people in green and pink caps (2.4 milers), but didn’t seem to be passing anyone in orange caps (1.2).

After the turn around the final buoy, I sort of ran into a guy wearing a green cap and no wetsuit, and no matter where I went or how I tried to get out of his way, every single stroke we were side by side, and he bashed me and I bashed him. A giant lake, and we have to be swimming in exactly the same place. It was a rather annoying way to finish the race.

The finish was a run out the very rocky bottom of the lake and across a timing mat. I felt a little out of it, but not too bad, and I have to say that the first thought I had was, “I could do that again.” As in, right then, I could have swum another lap. If you put aside the whole 112 mile bike and marathon run, that suddenly means that the Ironman doesn’t sound too out of reach.

My total time: 38:54, good for 12th place overall in the 1.2 mile wetsuit category, and 4th in my age group.

Dateline: Verona, WI, June 28, 2014: Not my greatest race.

I’m not going to lie – a lot went wrong in this race. But I’m also not going to pretend it was a complete disaster (lies upon lies!), because although much did not go as planned, overall I’m still relatively happy with my performance. The entire race reminded me of a conversation I had with my swim coach last winter, where I was complaining during a practice that “if I could only be at 100%, I’d be doing so well.” His response? “When are you ever at 100% during a race?”

Case in point: 36 hours before the start of the Verona Triterium Triathlon, I had a fever of 101, was shivering and shaking, and spending some quality time kneeling over a toilet. My flu or food poisoning or roto virus or whatever came on quickly, hung out with me for a day, and then vanished, leaving me feeling sort of hollow and shaky, but I improved enough on Friday that I felt it wasn’t an irresponsible decision to race on Saturday.

Pre-Race:

I stopped by the complimentary Trek tent before the race to get my tires pumped up. This led to unexpected problems. I couldn’t get the pump to lock into my front tire, and was quickly deflating it, so I asked the guy to help me. He couldn’t get it to lock either, and started making weird noises about my valve. I was feeling strange myself, having a Cannondale in the Trek tent, but that was entirely within my own head. He explained that my tire was messed up (the technical term) enough that the valve couldn’t… you know, it was early, I had only one cup of coffee, and I clearly don’t know enough about bike maintenance. Long story short, I needed a new tire, and they gave me one for free, which was basically the nicest thing anyone has done for me in a long time.

I have to say, this really irks me. Not that the Trek guy was awesome and saved my butt. But rather, when I had my new wheels put on, I asked the Budget Bike guys to sell me new tires. They said, “Why not just use the ones you have?” Well, because they’re old and look like they have dry rot? I didn’t have enough confidence in my meager knowledge to insist on new ones, and I let them put the old ones back on my amazeballs new wheels. Fast forward to the race and the Trek guy has to bail me out with a new tire.

Obviously, I need to get a new tire for the back wheel, too, and I’d like to go to the Trek shop to give them the business, but is it rude to take a Cannondale to a Trek store?

The Swim: 

This was one of my best swims to date. Verona is a relatively large race (about 500 total participants by my fast math), but despite my wave being all sprint-distance women 39 and younger, my wave wasn’t too unmanageable. This was my first in-water start, so we headed in when they gave us the go-ahead and treaded water in an approximation of a line between an orange buoy and the shore. I found myself very close to the buoy, which wasn’t necessarily on purpose but worked out okay. This was a 1/3 of a mile swim, which is a little longer than I’m used to in races (all of mine so far have been 1/4 mile).

We were swimming directly into the rising sun for the first length, so in the few moments I had before the horn went off, I squinted to find a distinctive tree pattern I could sight to. I found a rectangular divot between two trees, and just moments after I got my goggles back on, the horn was off. I started swimming with not too much contact, and started swimming towards my divot. I noticed that most of the women in my group were far to my right (towards the shore) and seemed to be taking a wide arc, but I felt confident enough in my divot to stick to it.

I was on my own most of the sunny length, but as soon as we turned around the buoy, I found some feet to jump on to and drafted the rest of the race. I stayed with the same girl until the very last buoy, and she was a great draft. After sighting enough to feel confident that she was going in a straight line, I relaxed and took advantage of the easy, fast swimming. At the last buoy, we were both passed by a girl without a wetsuit, and I jumped off the one I’d been drafting on to take the faster ride. I drafted right up until the almost end when a man from a previous wave suddenly swam horizontally across us. No idea where he was going, but at that point my hand was touching the ground and I stood up out of the water, flinging seaweed from my shoulders.

Thanks to Focal Flame for the free race photos!

Thanks to Focal Flame for the free race photos!

I found out later I had won my age group in the swim with a time of 8:43 for a 1/3 of a mile. That girl behind my shoulder in the photo sprinted past me into transition. I don’t have more to say about that, just that it took me aback how fast she was running.

T1:

Just fine (sort of – see below). Transition was a long way from the swim exit and the timing mat was close to the lake, so my transition time mostly looks long from running. Maybe I should have sprinted like the other girl. 2:02

The Bike:

So, here’s the thing. I’ve been practicing the thing where I leave my shoes clipped in and affix them with rubber bands so that they don’t bang onto the ground, and then I run barefoot out of transition and get on my bike, with my feet on top of my shoes, and then I put my shoes on while I’m riding. It’s pretty great. And it’s gone really well in practices; even when I mess up, I can still keep going. I did it at Capitol View and it couldn’t have been more perfect.

The funny thing about that is, every single time I did that in practice and at Capitol View, I was on the left hand side of my bike.

This race? I got on from the right.

So, picture how I have my pedals set up and locked into place with rubber bands. The right pedal is in front, and the left pedal is behind. Normally, I am standing on the left side of my bike, so I put my right foot on the pedal first, which is in front (Mom, I know this is hard with all the left and right, but you are doing great). This means that when my foot pushes down on the pedal and breaks the rubber band, momentum is going forward and the left pedal goes up.

So this time, when I put my left foot on the pedal first, it was in back, and my foot pushed it down, broke the rubber bands, and it spun the crank backwards, going nowhere.

I, not coincidentally, also went nowhere. I stood over my bike, trying to figure out how to get my feet in the shoes that were clipped into the pedals. The very same shoes that were banging on the ground, not letting my bike go forward. I tried to put my foot inside the left shoe and pedal, but of course the right shoe flipped around again and hit the ground, but this time, it unclipped from the pedal and went flying out ten feet behind me. I took my foot out of the left shoe again, went back to get it, put it on my right foot, went back to the bike, put my foot inside the (clipped in) left shoe, and finally got on my bike. In the meantime, what felt like 25 people passed me coming out of transition in their totally normal shoes on their totally normal bikes, and it felt like there were a crowd of silent spectators staring at me.

I think I would have to say this was hands down my most embarrassing in-race moment to date. It felt like it took 5 minutes, but it was probably about 1:30 total.

Anyway, after all of that, I still had to ride my bike, right? This bike course was beautiful. There were horses, gorgeous country roads, no traffic to speak of, and a lot of up and down hills. The hills didn’t bother me as much as I had feared, and I took great joy in riding as fast as I possibly could on every downhill to build up speed for the inevitable uphill that would follow.

My favorite moment on the bike came on a steep climb when I was passing a guy. I said, “On your left,” like you do to let people know you’re there. I was going about 11 mph and was near the top, so I was pretty out of breath, and my “on your left” came out more like a sad clown gasp. He looked over at me passing him and just started laughing, and that cracked me up, so the two of us were biking side by side laughing our butts off trying to slowly climb this hill.

Overall: 38:35, an average of 17.x mph on a very hilly 11 mile bike. On the whole, the bike felt great and felt like it went by very quickly. Other than those 15 minutes I spent putting on my shoes.

T2: uneventful – 1:13 (large-ish transition area).

The run:

There was a water station just immediately outside of transition. I should have taken this as a warning. The run had what is described on the race website as “A short and quite steep hill – a real attention getter.” I would say that’s accurate. I actually had a great time for the first mile of the run. My legs didn’t feel too heavy and I felt like I was running a much better pace than I had been at Capitol View. I’ve been trying to do some speed work to keep getting back to where I used to be pre-knee injury, and I was feeling alright starting out.

Right around the 1 mile mark, though, there was a long uphill followed by a short steep downhill, followed by a turnaround, which meant a short steep uphill followed by a long downhill (are you still with me?). I don’t know why, but I was so expecting water at the turnaround, and it was kind of a disappointment that there wasn’t any.

Worse than that, when I started the long downhill on the way back, my body sort of rehashed the flu or whatever I’d had two days before. It was hot outside, but I was suddenly freezing cold. I started shaking and shivering, and it felt just like the fever shakes I’d had before. That was when I knew this race was over for me, and it was just a matter of making it to the finish line in one piece. So I ran and ran and ran, passed mile 1 and 2 and then finally found another aid station for some water, and ran and ran for what seemed like forever and finally made it to the end. There was an ice chest full of water and Coke, and I grabbed two handfuls of ice and put one down the front of my suit and one down the back, and that seemed to do the trick to regulate whatever was happening with my body temperature. Although I was freezing cold, ice seemed to be the answer.

The run: 29:45. A little bit faster than Capitol View. I’m still working on my run, hoping to at least get back to the 25:00 or 24:00s I was running last summer before I hurt my knee.

Overall, my time was 1:20:15, and considering all the things that weren’t so great about my performance here (*cough* bike shoes *cough* flu *cough), I’m pretty happy with this. I finished 6th in my age group overall.

I have to say, I thought this was a really wonderful race, and I’d love to try it again another year when I’m feeling closer to that elusive 100%.

Coming off my performance at the Capitol View/Couples Triathlon, my run speed has been on my mind. I’ve never particularly trained for the run, but before my knee injury, I considered it a strength. Part of that is due to grit – that “there’s no way in hell I’m going to stop pushing it” attitude that keeps me going through most workouts and races. But my training consisted of running 3-5 miles a few times a week at about the same speed. Which, shockingly, trains one to be able to run 3-5 miles at about the same speed. Crazy, right?

Since I hurt my knee, I’ve had to re-calibrate my stride after a running evaluation, start wearing orthotics in my shoes, and build up endurance 30 seconds at a time at a ten-minute mile pace. I haven’t run faster than ten-minute miles on purpose since the injury. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that my 5K time at Capitol View was just around 30 minutes.

I’ve been thinking about how to speed up my run again, and the way I’ve learned to swim seems like a decent comparison. Because I didn’t know how to swim, I had to start with a coach, and every practice had a purpose. There was a workout on the board, an interval that I was expected to hit, and something to focus on throughout. A friend of mine who is learning to swim this year was recently advised by his coach to “stop swimming randomly,” meaning stop going through swim practices without a purpose.

Well, I think it’s time that I stop running randomly. I found a few programs online to boost 5K speed, and this afternoon Josh and I went for our first non-random run. The workout consisted of 10 minutes of an easy warm up jog, 2×1000 meters at race pace, with 2 minutes walking after each, and then a 10 minute cool down jog. The 1000 meters were difficult, and there was a part of me that thought I was going to barf, but as soon as we were done I felt awesome. So much of what I practice at Masters Swim is learning how to swim at different speeds, and at least a little bit today we were able to practice running at different speeds. (And no knee pain at all!)

One of the other lessons I’ve learned from swimming is that sometimes you need to try and fail in practice. I’ve written on here before about how I don’t always know how to give it my all in a race. If you go all out from the get go, you run the risk of running out of gas long before the finish. One thing my Master Swim coach made us try from time to time is swimming, say, a 200m sprint where we have to go all out the first 50 meters. As I got more comfortable with swimming in general and simply making it 200 meters didn’t seem unachievable, I started trying to actually do this. Sometimes I would go all out for the first 50 meters and lose all my steam by the 125 mark, finishing out at a limp of a pace. But sometimes I’d find that I could go all-out a lot longer than I gave myself credit for, getting me closer to the race ideal of finishing the race with just enough energy to cross the finish line and not a drop more. Part of this new focus on the run training is an attempt to start to understand those limits in the safe space of training for this discipline as well. We’ll see how long it takes before I start to apply these learnings to the bike. In some ways I’m kind of a slow learner.

My next race is in just a couple of weeks: the Verona Triterium Triathlon. I feel quite confident in a swim, as my open water swim class has been in this quarry several times so far this summer and I know it’s small, flat, and clear. The bike has a reputation for being quite hilly. And although two weeks is not a significant amount of time to make any great progress in the run, I’m hoping our non-random running training at least helps my legs remember that there are other paces beyond 10-minute miles, and remind me what it means to run at different speeds.

It’s Sunday afternoon, warm and sunny. My husband is asleep, napping after a late night working and an early morning being the world’s greatest support crew. As I’m typing this, my cat is taking a bath in the sunshine, inches from my bike shoes drying in the sun on our balcony. My legs are sore, but my kneecap doesn’t feel like it’s going to explode through my skin. I’m finally having a second cup of coffee. I think it’s safe to say I’ve had a pretty good day.

My first tri of the season is the same first race I did last year. Back then it was my first ever triathlon. Several of my friends who were also racing commented on the difference in my demeanor this time compared to last. I remember acutely how I felt waiting for my swim wave to start last year (why are women 30-39 always last?). I felt like a string pulled so tightly that I was vibrating all over the beach. I couldn’t get a handle on my anxiety and although I did fine in the swim last year (backstroke all the way!) the panic I felt in the water was probably as much a result of a self-fulfilling prophecy as it was my inexperience in open water.

This year, things were different. I can’t say I felt totally comfortable in the water, but I did the warm up swim and realized pretty quickly that the waves were choppy enough to push me around, and also that as soon as I turned to the right around the first buoy I’d be okay. This gave me, if not confidence, then at least more knowledge about what to expect.

After the warm up swim, we had about an hour to wait before wave Z (Zeeeeee!) took off at 8:02 AM. It got pretty cold standing around wet, as the temperature was in the low 60s and it was quite overcast. I think the lake water was actually warmer than the air temperature, which was certainly not my previous experience with this race. I always bring a fleece jacket with me, though, and I like to wear it until the latest possible moment so I can keep warm before racing.

While we were waiting, we noticed that the beach does, indeed, have a very nice view of the Capitol across the lake. Well named, last year’s race name.

Capitol View has been rebranded the Couples Triathlon, and one positive effect of this is that all the different couple groups (co-workers, married couples, two girls, two boys, etc.) were arranged in different waves, so for once my wave was what I would consider a reasonable size of about 15 women — all of us racing individually and not as part of a couples team.

Capitol View/Couples Tri starts with an in-water start, standing about thigh deep in the lake. The swim is a rectangle and I remembered from last year that it’s shallow enough to stand all the way to the first buoy, and a lot of competitors do try to run all the way there. I find it much more efficient, faster, and less exhausting to swim, so I positioned myself at the front of the pack. I thought I was being strategic to be at the front/outside, figuring that although I might swim a little farther, at least I wouldn’t be swum over or run into everyone walk/running.

When the horn went off, I dove in, ready to push it for the first 50 meters to get out of the melee. About three strokes later, a women dolphin dived right into me from behind. She hit me kind of hard and I was a bit disoriented. The next thing I knew, I was swimming on top of her, something I swore I’d never do to another human (or, I guess, any animal except a fish or other water-dwelling creature). I tried to get off of her as quickly as I could, and I think I was only on top of her for about five seconds, but it felt like a long time. But maybe look before you dive? To be fair, though, I don’t think I was swimming all that straight. I was getting moved around a lot more than I had expected by the waves and the current. My grand plan to angle in from the outside wasn’t working out too, too great, as the current was pushing me further away from the buoy.

I wouldn’t say I felt comfortable at any point during the swim, but I didn’t panic, and I just kept swimming and sighting. Once we turned right at the first buoy, the current and waves were much, much less of an issue and I could settle in a little bit. I even drafted off a girl for a little bit (by which I mean maybe ten strokes). But she was going a bit slow for me, so I scooted around her and made the turn back to shore. As on the way out, many athletes chose to run/walk in the shallower water. I was determined to swim as far as I could, and I passed probably a dozen walkers doing this (many from other waves, not my age group). The downside? The bottom of the lake at the swim exit is a goopy, mucky muckfest, and the feet of so many people before my wave got there meant that swimming through it was putting my face into black water. I couldn’t see anything, not even the usual green murk. It was kind of super gross, but hey, I was going fast, right?

The run up to T1 is kind of a long one, and I was happy to have my friend Jenny (my inspiration for ever doing a triathlon in the first place) running alongside me with encouragement. I was super, super happy with my T1. I ran in, got my wetsuit off pretty quickly, put on my sunglasses, my helmet, and my race belt, grabbed my bike and I was off.

But wait — no shoes?

That’s right! I’m so happy to have successfully executed the shoes on the bike maneuver. I held them in place with rubber bands and when I mounted my bike out of T1, I rode off with my feet on top of the shoes. By the time I was out of the park and crossing highway M, I had successfully put both (sockless) feet into the shoes and closed the velcro.

I enjoyed the bike quite a lot, although it seems my memory had blocked out how hilly it is. I remembered it as gently undulating, which is a nice euphemism I apparently came up with in my subconscious.  Still, though, I was able to stay on the aerobars for about half of the bike (still getting used to them), and I passed quite a few people. No one in my age group, unfortunately, and based on who passed me and when, I think I was leading my age group out of T1. Which is not to say that I won the swim, but rather that my combined swim and T1 times had me in the lead. And I have to say, I’m pretty proud of how long I held it! No, scratch that, super effing proud! I was passed by a woman in my age group (we had our ages written in marker on our calves, in case you’re wondering how I knew) at about mile 8 of the bike.

I was also passed a few times by the same guy I kept trading spots with in the Sugar River triathlon last summer, which I found hilarious. No reaction from him, though, so I doubt if he recognized me.

And, at one point on a downhill, I hit 32 mph according to my bike computer. It was pretty awesome.

At the very end of the bike, as we were almost at transition, I slowed down just a little bit to get my feet out of my shoes and ride into the end barefoot on top of my shoes. I’m glad I did so successfully, but as I was getting it together, I was passed by another woman in my age group. I was right on her heels, though, and I actually beat her out of T2. I did wear socks with the run this time, but I might work up to not doing so. We’ll see. Like I said, with the new orthotics and the new bike strategy, etc., it’s been a lot of changes all at once.

Starting the run, my legs felt pretty good, and my knee wasn’t complaining. Pretty shortly into the run, the same woman who had passed me at the end of the bike ran past me, but I kept right behind her and waited for the right chance to pass. She made it easy on my when she started walking about half of a mile in. By my reckoning, I was in 2nd place in my age group. I saw a sign that said 2 miles, and I felt AWESOME. How could I have run 2 miles already? This was truly awesome. I must have been booking it!

Or… I must have been reading the sign for the Olympic racers. Oops. Turns out I hadn’t even made it 1 mile yet.

My run was quite slow, about 10 minute mile pace. But you know what? I was so happy the whole time. By the run portion of the race there’s so much less to think about. No water and no gear to worry about, no planning for the next transition or the next stage. This is it; just run. Or shuffle. Anyway, the woman who had started walking passed me at about mile 1.5, along with another woman in my age group who was seriously booking it. I later saw that her 5k was about 22 minutes. I kept the walker woman in my sights for the last 2 miles of the race, but I just couldn’t close the gap.

While I was running, I was reflecting on how happy I was to be racing and how many times this winter I thought this wasn’t going to be possible with my knee injury and the slow, slow recovery. And my knee is a little swollen now, afterwards, but it wasn’t bothering me at all on the run. I also, more than a handful of times, glanced down at my race belt, saw the word “Sprint” on my race number, and thought, Well, I’m not sprinting at all! I found this hilarious at the time, but seriously, I could have picked up the pace a little bit.

The only downside to the couples format was that we had to wait quite a long time to get the age group results, because all the halves of the couples that fell in our age group were also eligible for individual awards, and they had started in the couple-y waves, not the age group waves. I was fairly certain I hadn’t placed, but you never know. One of the women who had passed me could have placed overall, which would have moved me up to 3rd in my age group (which is what I placed last year, on my mountain bike, 6 minutes slower than this year overall).

When they finally put up the results, I was 4th in my age group, but I was happy with my overall time: 1:17:49. Especially considering that my run was absolutely the limiting factor in my race. I’ve barely been training the run, given the knee problems, but I’m hopeful that the orthotics and the work I’ve done in PT will continue to help and I can get back some speed soon.

Swim: 7:52

T1: 1:18

Bike: 36:39

T2: 1:13

Run: 30:47 (oof)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, so here’s a lightning round series of updates. No more than a paragraph for each topic!

Escort Service:

I volunteered as a bike escort at the Madison half marathon last week. This was the first time I’d done so, but ever since I noticed bikes riding with the leaders at a few of the races I’ve run it’s something I wanted to do. Since I was a rookie on the escort service I didn’t get to ride with the leaders, but I was a “pack escort,” which meant that I rode back and forth on miles 10-13 looking for runners in distress and making sure that no one needed medical assistance or a SAG ride. It was a lot of fun, way more physically demanding than I would have expected (even though I never rode fast), and next time I want to escort the leader. Also, I got to put a sign on my bike identifying it as an Official Race Vehicle, and even got cheered on by a couple of spectators (“Way to go race vehicle!”). Finally, I rode up Edgewood Hill five times. So.

Proud Graduate:

I’m happy to report that I was graduated from physical therapy a few weeks ago. My knee is still not 100%, but I’ve reached maximum benefit from the PT interventions and I have improved quite a lot. I saw a sports medicine doctor who gave me some feedback that I’m still sort of mulling over, but among other things he recommended picking up some orthotics to help my knee stay as well-aligned as it can be when I’m running. I’ve only taken them out running a few times, but I’m cautiously optimistic that they’re helping.

Open Water, Open Mind:

I’ve joined an open water swim class, and I might say that the lake panic is shifting into a lake anxiety. I can’t really say I enjoy going to my open water class, but I take that as evidence that it’s good for me. Once again, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’m getting better in the open water. I’m still allergic to the lakes, by the way, but I think I have a fairly good one-two punch going on with Zyrtec followed by Advil Cold and Sinus.

Bike Shoe Fail:

I’ve been working on getting onto my bike barefoot with my shoes already clipped in. Here’s how it started:

To Sock or Not to Sock:

My first race is a week from today, and I’m still struggling with the sock issue. You’ll notice in the video above that I was originally trying to do the bike shoe thing with socks. I’m pretty sure for this first sprint triathlon I’m going to go sock-free on the bike, but I am going to wear them on the run. I’ll get there; I just haven’t practiced enough without them to feel comfortable yet, especially with the new orthotics.

“World’s Healthiest Cake”

I came across this recipe for what’s described as possibly the world’s healthiest cake, made with beet root and avocado. So I made it. Except I used real butter instead of vegan margarine (sorry, there are some lines I will not cross). It’s pretty good. I’m not going to tell you it tastes like for real cake, but it’s a decent substitute. I’ll certainly eat it all.

Why yes, I did sprinkle edible gold glitter on top of this cake. Thank you for noticing.

Why yes, I did sprinkle edible gold glitter on top of this cake. Thank you for noticing.

Shoes:

I have a race in a week! Time for me to go do this. Stay tuned for (possibly) a pre-race freakout post and (definitely) a post-race recap.