This past weekend, I traveled to Burlington, Vermont for the Olympic distance National Championship.
The last time I was in Burlington, I was in my early twenties, I remember drinking at Nectar’s, walking on Church Street and a lush green in the trees I’ve seen nowhere else. More than a decade later, the mountains still roll out along the horizon, the trees are still a magnificent green and Church Street remains filled with a mix of tourists and earthy vagrants.
My last trip to short course Nationals was back in 2007 in Portland. The trip where Jennifer earned her nickname, Miss Daisy. This time, we were talked into traveling with the elderly but at least we knew the risks. There would be many trips to the grocery store, thermostats set on 80, frantic phone calls before 6 am about either needing to eat or fearing a rogue bear attack.
And let’s not forget the steady stream of Fox News in the background.
By the time we boarded the plane to leave Chicago, I might have already blown my taper laughing. But the joke was on me. It took less than a day before I was christened with a new nickname.
As in, the main character in the television show with Bea Arthur?
Turns out if you find yourself sitting in the back of a Suburban, complaining about getting a chill from the air conditioner, having a food meltdown every 2 hours and going to bed at 7:15 pm, you officially qualify as one of the elderly. As Jennifer said,
There’s a beekeeping convention in Burlington. Maybe we can find you a bonnet.
Race morning finally arrived after what felt like two days of waiting, walking, eating, finding a parking spot and talking about all of the things we wanted to eat after the race but couldn’t eat right then. Finally, race morning arrived. Quickly I set up my stuff in transition, did a short run and then waited with Jennifer. As the morning ticked on, the wind picked up from the north and we watched the water got choppier and choppier until I could see white caps in the lake. The harbor looked like a washing machine of small waves and the buoys were bouncing all over the place. The wind was making me cold. The water was making me nervous. And by the way, this was Nationals.
I was getting a little antsy.
As my start time moved closer, we were corralled by wave before being let on to the pier. Once there, I saw Lori and Stacy from Well-Fit, both who live in the city and swim in Lake Michigan all of the time. They know chop! Lori said to swim under any wave and Stacy said to kick like crazy when I got any current.
Soon after, we were standing on the pier waiting to be let into the water. The official said we could warm up for about 8 minutes before the deep water start. Before I knew it, it was time to line up. My original plan was to stick right behind Stacy, who is a very strong swimmer. Yet as the race start got closer, too many girls filled in around her. I looked at the water, looked at the crowd forming around us and knew I needed to come up with a new plan. I’ve learned at national or world championships everyone is generally nervous, aggressive with a strong potential for the swim start to become completely nuts for no reason. I had to get out there! So I started as far right as possible, knowing that any draft I was giving up would be worth not having to fight my way through all of the nervousness.
The gun went off, I had contact with one girl for about 30 seconds before I found myself with the cleanest line ever. I was easily able to focus on the task at hand – swim through this chop as calmly and quickly as possible. The first section was the hardest – directly into the wind. But even in chop there is always a rhythm to the water. I ducked under any wave, came up for air at the top, easily sighted on a buoy then went back under. Before I knew it, I was at the halfway point, made the right turn and then had the current with me. I made myself as long as possible, kicked like crazy and found myself sailing by men from the prior wave.
I exited the water to begin the long run to transition. When I got to my rack, I suspected I was in a good position when I noticed very few bikes missing. The start of the bike course was narrow and crowded along a bike path. I had swam through a lot of men and found myself surrounded by them. The early miles of the bike course had a lot of turns, hills and congestion. This felt like one of the most crowded bike courses I have ever done, it was passing or getting passed. The bike course was also anything but flat – not hilly but quite interrupted. I rarely had a consistent stretch of road where I could put my head down, lock in watts and ride. I was either surging up a hill, going around a man or trying to corner around a set of cones. At times I got frustrated because a plan for the bike felt nearly impossible. At the same time, I told myself to just do work, don’t worry about the details. I took some risks out there, at times going harder then planned. At Nationals, you can’t expect you’re going to save a few minutes on the bike and then run down some of the best women in the nation. I also knew the run course was mostly downhill which meant even the weaker runners would be running well. On this course, at this race, there wasn’t a lot of room for playing it safe or error.
The last few miles of the bike course were chaotic – potholes, turns, traffic cones. By the time I got back to transition I was ready to run! Immediately, my legs felt great. The run course soon went up a 300 meter hill. As I climbed the hill, Kurt told me that 2nd and 3rd place were right in front of me. I was confused – I knew that at least 4 women had passed me on the bike. Maybe I outtransitioned them? The run flattened out before making a gradual descent. I was running through a lot of the older competitors but not seeing any other women. Around mile 3, Gail passed me. I suspected it meant I was somewhere in the top 5 of my age group.
The run course winds down into a trail where I could finally see two women ahead of me. One was running strong. The other was fading, then tripped over a bump on the trail. She quickly rebounded but I knew at that fall she was getting tired and easily passable. Soon after, I passed her and set my sights on the next women. I wasn’t reeling her in so picked up the pace. When I finally passed her, she went with me. It was clear she was not going to make this easy. But then again, it’s not supposed to be easy. I surged, she matched it. I ran with her, she didn’t waver. And then she pulled ahead. I don’t know how it happened or why I didn’t respond but that’s racing. At some point it comes down to the choices you make – not the weather, not the race organizer, not your equipment, it’s all you out there. You choose to take action or hold back.
By the time I saw Kurt again, he told me three things: She’s 10 seconds away from you. You’re 75 seconds from the finish line. And stop fidgeting with your race number. In my defense, I was scratching my back. But the point was taken. If you’re going to get her, focus and get your ass going. Turns out, she finished about 20 seconds ahead of me.
I finished 6th in my age group. Top 10 go on the podium at Nationals. My goal was top 5, stretch goal was top 3. I might have fallen a little short but I am satisfied with my race. What it all comes down to is this: I am healthy. I get to do this. Know what I mean? Make no mistake – I am very competitive and when I show up at a championship, I know very specifically what needs to be done out there. Yet, gone are the days where you’ll find me crying on top of my bike box after a race because I finished 2nd. Or 6th. Or last. How I do does not change who I am or what I think of myself. And falling short of a goal doesn’t mean make the journey of getting there any less worthy. I chose Nationals because it was scary. Because it was short, hard and took me well out of my comfort zone. I learned a lot about my limits both mentally and physically during the training, and racing. Above all, I am fit, healthy and this sport is my opportunity. It’s taken me a long time to respect that. But once I did, I started to really enjoy myself.
After the race, Miss Daisy and Maude put on their podium best. Which turned out to be nearly matching outfits from Lululemon. After being in this sport so long, we didn’t care. We might have matching neon green hair one day. We spent some time with a girl named Beer and Pizza. We made Kurt join us not because he wanted to but because how often do you get to spend time with girls this good looking AND fast? After the awards, we went out and had second dinner. Along with second beer. We almost shit ourselves (easy at our age, after childbirth and so many Ironmans) when the waitress told us she was training for a marathon but then got mono (which is in the category of things you should never say to your patrons). Then, Miss Daisy demanded ice cream (though she spent the entire weekend saying I really don’t like ice cream).
Sure, we all believed that. Just like we all believed she’s really a good driver.
Five years ago, I placed 6th in my age group at Nationals in Portland, just like I did on Saturday in Burlington. One of my biggest goals in this sport is to stay consistently competitive. Not many athletes can say that. Some burn themselves out mentally or physically long before they have a chance to chase their best times or races. Yesterday I went 4 minutes faster than I did 5 years ago. I know they were different courses but I also know that means something. The best times, even fast times, are still to come. Keep stretching yourself, look for new ways to make yourself uncomfortable to learn and grow as an athlete, enjoy the process, and along the way make some friends and have some good laughs.