Somewhere south of Effingham, where the roads turn reddish brown and the sweet gum trees line the highway, the south welcomes me with a warm hug and much race success. Some of my best and favorite race memories have been in Texas, Alabama, Tennessee.  I like the south.  There, I said it.

The funny thing is, if you live in the north and tell someone something good about the south, they look at you, nose turned up, eyes narrowed, while saying cautiously:

Yeah, but the people.

I’m not quite sure what that means but as I walked into a gas station Saturday night to purchase Fig Newtons and Gatorade, I got a better idea as a woman declared to the entire store that a) although she was a burly, large woman (her words), she was not actually interested in women, b) which means she also didn’t understand why women might like women, and c) pointed to me and explained, “that there’s a pretty woman but I don’t want to be with her” and d) informed us that it was her good Baptist upbringing that taught her to make choices like that.

Needless to say, I exited without Fig Newtons and Gatorade.

“People”

A few weeks ago, Chris told me he was traveling solo to Memphis to participate in the Memphis in May triathlon.  I thought to myself, I need another 3 hour trainer ride like I need a hit to the head.  And so a plan was made.  I invited myself, dispersed the children and dog to assorted helpful relatives and signed up.

What’s better than one race?  How about two races – the “amateur challenge.”  That would be a sprint triathlon on Saturday followed by an Olympic triathlon on Sunday.  Since I have my sights set on doing the “double” at Nationals this year, I figured I would give it a go.

Early Friday, we embarked on the 590 mile drive to Memphis.  Chris equipped with his laptop to defend his colony of threatened citizens on War Robots, myself with a laptop to complete my work.  It was a drive we had completed countless times since 2003.  You see, back in the day (and please don’t ask me to define exactly when “the day” was – all that you need to know is that if you were around back in the day, you know precisely the moment in time I’m talking about) – back in the day, Memphis in May was THE triathlon that kicked off the start of the upcoming season.  It was a who’s who of the best amateurs and pros in triathlon.  Up to 2000 athletes use to participate.

(fun fact: even further back in the day, the amateur winners of the race got slots to the Ironman World Championship!)

We arrived early evening at Edmund Orgill Park.  After a quick and simple packet pick up, we took a walk around the lake.  I told Chris I hadn’t taken the time to give much thought to how I was actually going to race.  Chris then told me he doesn’t worry about the micro, just the macro.  A very Chris thing to say.  I asked for clarification.  Liz, I don’t worry about the details, I just do what I need to do to get to the race. That settles it, I’m going Chris Waterstraat for the race. Race plan written.  Show up and … well, race.

Race morning rolled around and we headed to the park.  Everyone was so – friendly.  By the time we had made it to transition we had made a new friend.  People say hi to each other, chatting it up, engaging in (GASP!) conversation.  After spending my last season racing the BIG races, it was refreshing to feel the spirit of homegrown triathlon.

With warm water, it was not wetsuit legal so I wore my new speedsuit (this time it did go above my knees).  With a time trial start, we lined up according to number which was given out based on when you signed up.  Unknowingly, Chris and I must have signed up within moments of each other because I was number 227 and he was number 228.  With a mere 3 seconds between us, I revised my race plan.

Run into water.  Wait 3 seconds.  Let Chris pull me for 500 meters.

That’s exactly how it went.  I can’t say I agree with the line my husband chose but I am impressed with this stealth-like ability to turn around a buoy.  I followed his feet until the last turn, lost the feet but kept on his distinct stroke just ahead.  We exited the water within 20 seconds of each other.

On to the bike.  Not surprisingly, after so many hours in the car on Friday, my bike legs felt flat.  I was moving along but never found a rhythm.  Chasing watts was difficult, I was passed by two women and I generally wanted to be off of my bike immediately.  The run was even worse.  Knowing that every second would count, I had to push when my legs didn’t want to push and didn’t ever feel “there.”  But I read an article recently about giving 100% of whatever you show up with on race day.  So I gave it 100% of the 1% I think I had as far as sprint race-ability on that day.

In the end, I finished 1st in my AG/4th overall.  Choked down a bunch of recovery powder and then discovered, sadly, that the best place for breakfast in Millington is an IHop (yuck?) before spending the rest of the day – imagine this!!! – relaxing.

It’s not a trip to Memphis without an Elvis sighting. This poor man had to stand around

in the heat & humidity of Memphis wearing polyester for two days.

Sunday morning.  Time for the Olympic.  I woke up feeling good, oddly like I didn’t even race.  Perhaps it was the scoops of recovery powder followed by the coach directed over 100 ounces of fluids.  But more likely what I’ve learned from coaching over the years.  Most athletes race short course better with a little work in their legs.  In fact, some of my best sprint races have been with a seriously negative training-stress-balance!

Overcast skies on Saturday meant the temperature dropped just enough to make Sunday’s race wetsuit legal.  Another time trial start.  Another start with Chris right behind me.  I ran into the water and again chose the cleanest line to the buoys.  Started swimming when I noticed someone coming up to the left of me plowing right through the line of chaos – meaning, everyone else.  That was Chris (afterwards: that swim course was a mess!  True, when you swim right through the middle of everyone!).  I picked up the pace to keep him in my sights but lost him before the last buoy.

After a decent swim, it was time to bike.  I knew the top woman from the swim started behind me so I tried to see how long I could stay ahead.  After 15 minutes, here she came.  And today instead saying, “There goes Kirsten S.!” I said “There’s Kirsten S., GO WITH HER!

Funny thing when you start to follow someone who is really, really fast.  You realize what makes them fast.  She pummeled those pedals like I’ve never seen and had impeccable handling – not missing a beat into or out of the corners.  For 15 minutes I played the game of chase, now holding watts over my sprint average from yesterday.  At some point, she pulled further away but the chase was what I needed to stay plugged into the race and ultimately also push a pace faster than the sprint too.  What can I say, it takes special talent to race an Olympic faster than a sprint.

And this is exactly WHY I need to race!

The run.  I forgot how hilly the course ends up being in Memphis.  After a run around the lake, you hit 2 decent enough hills that I wanted to tell myself – WOULD YOU STOP WHEEZING AND COUGHING (I seem to be allergic to everything in the month of May and spent the entire weekend coughing up the same piece of phlegm over and over again).  And, right before the turnaround – a relatively nasty hill just in case you were just starting to find your rhythm out there.

And just like yesterday, the race finished right along the levee where you run about 400 meters in grass with the finish line arch feeling like it was about 2 miles away.  I crossed the line 1st in AG/5th overall.  Good enough to secure my spot as 4th overall in the amateur challenge for both races.

Afterwards, we mingled with friends, old and new.  Chris had the pleasure of walking around as the rock star of the race as he took the overall win for the Olympic distance race and ultimately the amateur challenge.  Together, we went home with 4 awards and $650.

It took a few days to recover from but at a certain point, more training just becomes draining.  This is especially true once you’re over 40.  You have the base fitness, skill and drive.  You just need opportunities to put them together.  I’m glad I raced.  The lessons I learned – mentally and physically – out there were lessons I could not have learned in training.  Training is too comfortable these days.  Especially if you do most of your training solo or indoors, you miss out on the things that make for good racing – handling the conditions, dealing with adversity, staying engaged in the chase.  These are the things that take you to the next level – not hitting xxx watts on the trainer or x:xx pace on the treadmill.  While those things can definitely be confidence building, if you’re in control, it doesn’t always translate to racing.  Get out of control a bit, enter the discomfort zone and find out what you’re really made of.

On to the next race!