This past weekend, I competed at the USA Triathlon Olympic distance national championship. It’s third year at the venue, my second time on the course. With this race being only 100 miles away, despite my many reasons why I don’t usually enjoy short course (90% FTP, zone 4 heart rate, no aid stations on the bike, no room for error, shall I go on?), I couldn’t resist the opportunity to race against some of the best athletes in the nation.
On Friday, I packed up the car and headed north to Milwaukee. I arrived in the pouring rain which turned out to be a nice way to avoid major crowds, set up my stuff quietly and then get out of there. Spent some time in a vintage book shop paging through a weathered copy of Simone de Beauvoier’s The Second Sex (who doesn’t find French existential feminism very, very calming before a race?), ate dinner well before the elderly hour of 5 pm (and sent a text to Jen Harrison something along the lines of I win dinner), made a trip to the Meijer for almond butter, bagels and Gatorade (while everyone else was driving their motorized carts through the store to buy boxed wine) and finally crawled into bed at 7:30 pm.
Mom of two with a business and training for Ironman? I could go to bed at 3:30 pm, folks – NO PROBLEM.
Before I fell asleep, I thought about my race. I had a dozen reasons why I shouldn’t or wouldn’t do well. I didn’t specifically prepare for this race. My darling coach made me run 10 miles on Tuesday and do a double bike on Wednesday. I had never placed higher than 6th at Nationals. I didn’t feel particularly fast or snappy. I was starting to settle for the idea of placing in the top 10 though I knew that wouldn’t leave me feeling satisfied. Searching for some inspiration, I found this on Joe Stilin’s website:
I recently spoke with psychologist and author of Elite Minds Stan Beecham about competition mindset and racing. We worked out that you never know how good you really are, so why not be open to being really good, open to beating a world beater. What if one day you pull up alongside him with half a straightaway remaining and aren’t open to the possibility of beating him? He already has an advantage over you. And you’ll be swearing ya coulda have beat him at the tavern that night over something strong. Why would you run a race if you didn’t think you could win? You don’t know the future, so why make it up beforehand? Give yourself the best possible chance of winning by thinking you will win.
I went to bed asking myself – why not you? Why not top 3? If everything goes perfectly, why not a win? Why not open yourself up to the possibility?
5 am, race morning arrived. And I felt excited. For the opportunity to push myself, execute a plan and compete amongst the best. For the possibility of chasing something I had never done before – cracking the top 5 at Nationals. The top 3. Maybe leaving a short course national champion.
Race morning went by quickly. I found my way into the VIP tent and took a seat on one of the couches along with Jen Harrison. The VIP tent was an odd mix of athletes – young and old. The older ones taking the time to leave to warm up and then return to wait. The younger ones taking advantage of the cash bar. Who buys a beer at 8 am? M20-24. About 20 minutes later, M20-24 was sitting there asking me what college I went to following it up with I feel really fat right now. I wasn’t sure if he was hitting on me or begging for a therapy session.
We waited nearly 2 hours until our wave went off. In the time between waking up and starting, I ate two breakfasts (one at 5 am, one at 7 am), did a beet juice shot, drank 16 ounces of fully leaded Starbucks coffee (which took about 30 seconds to kick in at which point Jennifer said I love you on caffeine) and took citrulline (there’s some good research out there about its benefits so I loaded 6000 mg for a few days before the race).
Jen and I took some time to walk the entire swim course to preview the buoys as well as observe the waves before us to determine the best line to swim. As in 2013, the best line was not along the buoys. It was to shoot for the rocky outlet beyond the bridge. To prepare for the bike, I re-ran my numbers through Best Bike Split early race morning as the original weather prediction didn’t come through – southwest winds shifted to northwest significantly changing how I was to work for my bike split. And for the run? Matthew gave me some 2K targets to hit (my reply was simply you want me to use the metric system? I can barely add swim workouts!).
Quickly 2 hours went by and it was time to line up in the corral 10 minutes before our wave went off. A separate swim warm up area was permitted for each wave. The water was a brisk 63 degrees, taking my breathing away and requiring a few breaststrokes to collect myself. I warmed up a few minutes then made my way to stake out space along the pier.
As in the past, it was an in water start. But new this year, you were required to be hanging off of the pier with one arm in order to prevent “the creep” (in other words, swimming before the gun went off). Excellent and fair idea. But imagine cramming 150+ women along a pier not really designed for 150 women. It was packed. Arms stretching towards the pier, bodies crammed neoprene to neoprene. I planned to take the spot furthest to the right, allowing for the straightest shot under the bridge to avoid the inevitable bunching that would occur. In other words, I was prepared to start outrageously hard.
The gun went off and with one arm hanging on the pier, I literally leapt out to start at a pace that makes me grateful for months of USPRT 25s and 50s at masters. Looking back at the Garmin file, I took off around a 1:00/100 yard pace.
I surged ahead and quickly noticed a small group of 3 women pulling ahead to the left of me. In retrospect I should have started further in the middle to get right in the thick of things. But for now, I was on a straight shot towards the bridge hoping to merge with the pack. Under the bridge, two women were right ahead of me but I couldn’t bridge the gap.
The water was cold, the pace was hard. With no feet to sit on, I had to work to keep pace with the women just ahead of me. It was my choice to keep the pressure on myself or fall back. I knew I couldn’t fall back. A strong swim here would be very important. I battled in my head to keep pushing against thoughts of discomfort and fatigue. Before I knew it, I was being pulled up on the ramp and it was time to run to transition.
A good swim would have me in the top 10 and like 2013, I ended up 6th out of the water. Running to transition I literally got stuck in the arms of my wetsuit and then had to sit down by my bike to take it off. Precious seconds being wasted – not a good day to have separation anxiety, my dear wetsuit!
Thanks to Best Bike Split, I had my plan of what to do on the bike. I set my IF for .9, calculated it against the weather data and knew what I needed to do. And if I did that? I’d come in with a 1:05 bike split. As much as I love the magic of racing, I also appreciated simply following a plan. You see, I don’t necessarily enjoy Olympic distance racing; it’s uncomfortable! I read somewhere that you know you’re doing the pace of Olympic racing right when you want to quit. For me, that feeling of wanting to quit makes me race scared and complacent at this distance. So to have an exact plan of what to do for each segment of the race was not only distracting but freed me up to simply do out there without any thinking.
And you know what? That plan was working. I had passed at least 3 women early on the bike and then set out into the tailwind. I did exactly what BBS told me what to do while playing the “let’s see how long we can hold everyone off” game in my head. 10 minutes, 20 minutes, halfway through the bike and not a single woman in my age group passed me.
I hit the final turnaround and noticed a few women about 2 minutes behind me. Can I hold them off 5 more minutes? 10? Around 22 miles into the bike, two women finally caught up to me. I kept them within my sight knowing I could not give up anything at this point. I needed to make the most of these final miles at a time when everyone else would likely be struggling from headwind and fatigue. I hit the timing mat for the bike within 10 seconds of what Best Bike Split predicted.
Transition went much quicker and now it was time to run. Going into this race, I knew if the fatigue of the past training week would show up anywhere it would be the run – in my head and legs. I exited with two women in my age group and at this point figured I was in the top 5. I passed 2 women rather quickly and said to myself now you are in the top 3. Stay there. One of the women was slightly ahead and I set out for her, patiently. She was holding a fast pace but looked really discombobulated. In the chase, I was wheezing, the voice in my head was whining WHY are you making me run so fast?! but I knew it was important to make a move here and leave a mark. I passed her by the 1.25 mile mark and said to myself now you are in 2nd.
A spectator told me that 1st was a little over a minute ahead of me. One minute over 3 miles wasn’t impossible but it would take effort. At that point I started battling. I had moments of envisioning myself a national champion and other moments thinking I’m good here, this hurts, I’m tired. I knew it would come down to this. I tried to pick up the pace but my legs seemed to be stuck in a quagmire of long training. I focused on my form (arms! loosen your torso! turnover quicker!) but I wasn’t gaining. So then I just focused on pace itself, trying to make the numbers move: I will beat you today Garmin. I kept looking ahead for 1st but where was she? I saw Greg, the mastermind who helps me with all of my bike information, with about 800 meters to go, tried to say something to him that came out as completely incomprehensible gibberish. At that point I realized I was working, I was giving it all I had and I was going to end up 2nd.
2nd in my age group at Nationals. – a feeling of excitement as well as a feeling of so close! Both feelings open me up to the possibility of what’s next – can I win my age group one day? Is that a goal worth chasing? I have to find out. For whatever reason, this race lit a fire for me to master something which obviously still sits well outside of my comfort zone. And that is getting uncomfortable in Olympic distance racing. I am eager to go to Omaha next August and took my slot for Worlds in Mexico.
In the end, 1st place finished less than a minute ahead of me. After the race, the calculations started in my head – a few seconds here, there – in short course racing, every second matters. Who am I kidding. As I learned at Ironman Texas, at ANY distance when you’re competing for the top spot, EVERY second matters. These races go to not who is fitter but who wants it more. I kept telling myself out there – you have to really want this. You have to really want to win. You have to race every second with a completely competitive mindset. You have to want that win defiantly.
After the race, I organized a meet up for my athletes. I had so many athletes qualify for and compete at Nationals that I wanted to do something special. They came from all over the country and some I’ve coached for 7 years without ever meeting them! We enjoyed some conversation, some beer (Wisconsin has some of the best breweries out there; Furthermore, Tyranena, O’So) and getting to know each other in person. How did my athletes do? 6 PRs, 3 podiums (2nd, 5th, 7th). Not a bad day for Multisport Mastery!
So – what exactly was the price of doing this race during the time for Kona training? 4 miles of running right after the race (thanks to Nick for joining me!) and the next day a long-ish ride. I made it 3 ½ hours before I succumbed to being totally nauseous and going through what can only be described as an intense struggle to turn the pedals for the final 5 minutes. FIVE MINUTES NEARLY DID ME IN. In other words, I bonked. Which may have been my coach’s plan when he prescribed “a long ride with glycogen depletion.” Thanks for that memory!
And now? We return to regularly scheduled Ironman training. Back in the land where cracking an 8:00 mile is fast and 75% of FTP is where it’s at. Otherwise known as my safe place!