Thursday, September 11, 2014

Never Too Old To Rev: 2014 Rev3 Cedar Point

Podium.
A few weeks before the ITU World Champs in Edmonton, my concern turned to the fact that I had no long races coming up to test the waters after all the Ironman training I've been putting of my body. Having a recent 70.3 would be a good test - if only for the racing experience. My last one was great, but it was all the way back in May. But with no more vacation hours left in my work schedule, I knew it would have to be close to home and do-able in a weekend. I hoped I could find something reasonably competitive.

As they say, be careful what you wish for. The race that fit the bill was the Rev3 Cedar Point half in Sandusky, Ohio. At an hour-twenty-minute drive from my house, I declared my intentions, checked schedules with my husband Jim, and registered. I've always had this race in my sights because of its location, the quality of the brand, and the local support - and friends and teammates would be there. The problem was that it always fell on the same weekend as other races that I'd rather do. And, this year.. well, yeah, it was only six days after Edmonton - but I really expected I'd recover in time.

What I didn't expect was that I'd be less than pleased with my race in Edmonton and that I would punish myself with some blisteringly-long and hard workouts as soon as I walked off the plane. (Yes, I do that.) When I registered for Rev3, I was planning a reduced week of training leading into a good race experience. At the very least, I wanted a boost in my confidence and to know all this ridiculous training was working.

So... after beating myself up all week, I was dealing with extreme soreness in my quads that refused to subside by race morning. And to complicate things, my Saturday night Indians game commitment resulted in dinner at Denny's (I'm not proud, I ate eggs and cheese on toast with hash browns AND fries - don't judge me) and getting to sleep around 2 am (because I was second-guessing everything I did leading up to this race).

Jim and I rolled out of bed at 4:45 am, and, despite the lingering muscle soreness, I actually didn't feel bad enough to reconsider the whole thing (there was a distinct possibility that I would just go pick up my bike and slink away quietly with my tail between my legs). The weather made everything a lot nicer - it was a little windy, but skies were clear and air temperature was in the 60s, and it sure beat the hand- and feet-numbing 40s we had in Edmonton.

At Cedar Point, Rev3 hosts both a half and a full iron-distance race the same day. The full distance athletes had already started their swim at 7 am. The half started at 8:30, and my wave (women 40+ and relays) were at 8:50.

My wave - we're faster than you think.
I set up transition, then met up with Jim to walk down the beach to the start. Strangely, my normal pre-race jitters where nowhere to be found. Which was odd, because local races usually produce severe performance anxiety knowing friends and colleagues will be "watching." I ran into two of my teammates on the way to the swim start, and we went for a quick warm-up in the water (or "surf" as it was).

The water was quite rough that morning. It reminded me of the Atlantic Ocean along my beloved New England coast on a good beach day. The 1.2-mile swim course was trapezoidal - with swimmers going out against the current, then turning parallel to the shoreline, and finishing with the waves.

We started in waist-deep water, and it took me a minute or two to get a breathing rhythm going, but after that, the only problems I had were in spotting buoys between the swells. I had to stop a few times, but the course was well marked with huge yellow and orange buoys, so they were quick to spot once I stopped. People were mostly swimming alone because of the conditions - we got kinda scattered in the surf.

The rough water made all the swim times slow, but what I CAN say about the first leg of Rev3 Cedar Point was this: in all my years of triathlon racing, this was THE most fun I've ever had in a swim. It was a blast. It wasn't so choppy that I was afraid, and it was just challenging enough to feel like I had to be a good swimmer in order to navigate it. After the race, someone on Facebook posted that 60 swimmers either bailed or had to be pulled out for safety. That surprised me, but volunteers and officials on the swim course were very vigilant, and they certainly had some work to do that day.

The slowest part of the swim for me was plodding out of the water on a long sandbar. But the run to transition was short and sweet, and I was on my bike in a little over a minute. My watch recorded 32 minutes and change for my swim time.

Bike finish through Cedar Point parking lot.
The 56-mile bike course started out along the causeway to Cedar Point and continued along the Lake Erie shoreline for several miles before turning south and going through a slightly-rolling rural countryside. I rode mostly alone with a small group of leap-froggers. The wind slowed me down a bit, but I maintained a steady hard effort that put my speed around 20-22 mph. At 2:38, my bike time was slower than I would have liked on what seemed like a fast course.

Coming off the bike, I had no idea where I was in the grand scheme of the women's race, but when I came out of the swim, Jim let me know I was the first woman in my wave. Two women younger than me passed me on the bike, so there was a good chance I was leading the age group going into the run. All I wanted at that point was to have a solid, even-paced run.

What I didn't know was that I came off the bike within 9 minutes of the overall women's leader. (Had I known that, I still may not have changed my strategy of a steady-split half-marathon.)

The Cedar Point 13.1-mile run course was mostly flat, without shade, and with a lot of turns. The only "hill" came in mile 2 and 12. During the run, temperatures warmed up into the high 70s-low 80s. By mile 2, I was dumping ice down my top.

I went out in a surprisingly-comfortable 7-minute pace. In the first four miles, I caught one of the women who passed me and was catching the second one. By mile 6, she and I were running together hanging on to a 7-7:15 pace. It was actually nice to have someone to chit-chat with. Her name was Erin, she was from Chicago, and she was coming back from an injury. We ran together, pushing each other to go faster than I suspect either one of us would have done alone.

Around mile 9, my pace was slowing more than I wanted it to, and I needed to pick it up a bit. I surged and Erin hung back. I worried it was too soon and I would eventually die hard, but it was only four miles to go. Besides, all the women I passed had started in the wave five minutes ahead of me, so I had to die really hard to lose my place (believe me, I'm not stupid, I realize this was not beyond the realm of possibility). If I made a mistake, at least I would learn something, and I wasn't making it in my most important race.

A few moments after I picked up the pace, a woman running in the other direction yelled to me that the leader was four minutes ahead. It seemed very precise, and I wasn't sure whether to trust her time measurement or not - or even if it was the "leader" she was referring to. But if she was right, I had a shot at winning this thing. I tried to push that thought out of my mind. I may have just made the mistake of my life by surging too soon. I may have blown out anything left in my legs. And NOW you tell me I can win this thing?!

Run finish
Oh, for cryin' out loud! I mentally regrouped... at this point in my life, I know how rare these chances are. And I could not leave it up to chance timing. I now had to exercise mind over matter because my already-sore legs were really starting to burn and my energy was waning. Somehow, I pushed through the last three miles while slowing and feeling increasingly worse. I even had to walk the second-to-last aid station. With about a mile to go, a relay guy said: "She's gaining on you" (and pointed behind me to Erin - who was catching back up). I told him I had a five-minute lead on her.

Then it hit me - that was NOT the attitude to take into the last half-mile of a race. I imagined I was on Ali'i Drive. I had to defend my lead - my surge - or die trying. I focused my brain, and headed for the finish line. When I turned toward the finish chute and saw Jim, he looked at his watch and said definitively, "You won!"

There was no fanfare or name-announcing... because I was actually the "second woman to cross the finish line." I forgot to hit the stop button on my watch and looked up at Jim in concern. Are you sure? I congratulated Heidi Benson - the young woman who crossed three minutes in front of me (unfortunately, the Rev3 announcer mistakenly assumed she won the race), and then we waited.

About ten minutes later, the announcement came: assuming no penalties, I had won the women's race - and finished tenth overall. Jim had me at 4:51, but the official time was 4:50:54.

With this unexpected turn, we definitely stuck around for the podium and the swag (which blows away anything I ever got from Ironman podiums). We celebrated with the overall men's winner, local standout and super nice guy Nick Glavac, and my SSSMST teammates Mike Schaefer (5th AG 40-44) and Brian Stern (5th overall an 1st AG 45-49).

SSSMST teamies: Mike Schaefer (center), Brian Stern (right)
I was never so glad I entered a race. It may have been just the pick-me-up I needed to get through the final month of Kona training.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Finding More: ITU Age Group World Championship in Edmonton

When I qualified to race in the 2014 ITU Age Group World Championship in Edmonton, Alberta, I decided to go for two reasons. At the time (August 2013), I thought my long-distance racing days were over and Olympic-distance would be my future - that is, if I could run without pain. The other reason, perhaps even more important to me, was that it would finally put me in striking distance of the Canadian Rockies and Jasper National Park.

Why was this so important? You ask..

It's a proverbial bucket-list location for me. A dream more than 40 years in the making. There was a photograph I had cut out of a calendar, framed, and hung on my wall when I was a little kid. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. There was an emerald-colored lake, evergreen trees, and a mountain in the background with diagonal stripes of snow. And I dreamed big. I declared to everyone that I would one day find this place and take my own photo of it. If it really existed. Seriously. Corny? Yep. It was sort of my Shangri-La, paradise on earth.

Over the years, I spent many days dreaming of this place. Eventually, the thought it faded into the background, a distant memory in my busy no-time-to-smell-the-flowers existence. And the photo found its way into a storage box somewhere (my husband Jim swears I've shown it to him). But the day I found out the ITU World Championship was in Edmonton, the image returned instantly - and the dream had now become a distinct reality.

I knew EXACTLY where it was. I had done my research as a kid - with maps and road atlases and books - long before the internet existed. The snowy peak was Mt. Edith Cavell. It was considered one of the "50 classic climbs" in North America (I found THAT information browsing a book store - before there was a Wikipedia version of it). The green lake in the photo was Cavell Lake. There was also a glacier there. It hung off the mountain. I always wanted to see a glacier. THAT glacier.

Obviously, this trip to Edmonton was about more than a race - even though it was a world championship. But it would also be about a race. And when my goals changed in June, I had to make a difficult choice about that race. I had to demote the race in Edmonton to "B" (maybe even "C") status, a "speed session" - a choice I am still struggling with many days after.

The struggle reached a new high ten days before the starting line in Edmonton - when disaster appeared to strike right on cue. After staying healthy for the last two months during the hardest training of my life - fitting in hellish long hours before and after work with very little time to eat, sleep, OR relax - my body finally rebelled. I lost the ability to stand up or bend over without moments of excruciating pain in my lower back. It would start to feel better once I was moving, but sitting down, standing up, putting on my shoes, stopping my bike at intersections, doing my hamstring PT exercises -- all caused scary pain for a few seconds. Sometimes - not often - it lasted longer, like a minute or two.

So what did I do? I Googled "lower back pain" and went into denial (isn't that what we all do?). I kept training. I did a 90-mile brick (with 16 miles of running) the NEXT weekend. Yeah it hurt. Yeah, I hobbled through some of the run. I never said I wasn't a stubborn endurance athlete with a high tolerance for pain. Luckily swimming was mostly pain-free. And I still believed it was a muscle thing that would work itself out.

It wasn't. My husband Jim insisted I see my doctor. And thank God I have a very generous orthopedic doctor - Dr. Patterson - who fit me into his schedule before my trip to Edmonton. The diagnosis was the thing I feared: a herniated disc. Yep, this was now seven days before the race in Edmonton.

Dr. P made me declare my goals: Kona was my confirmed "A" race. Edmonton, like it or not, would have to be a throw-away race. I would have to "assess the situation" after the swim - even though swimming was the least painful, my big fear with this particular back injury would be getting my wetsuit off.

And so it came to be, I was relieved of "caring" about my race in Edmonton. In fact, I think I secretly also sabotaged my race by trying to continue with my Kona training while in Edmonton. In three days, I ran a 10-miler and a 4-miler, rode for two hours, and swam two hard workouts (1-hour, 1/2 hour). And I justified it as a taper because my longer run wasn't 15 miles and my ride wasn't three hours long.

Jim and I also went for a couple short hikes in the Canadian Rockies two days before the race - this was probably also a bad idea because it aggravated my left hip. 

But we found my mountain vista.

Although, it wasn't without drama. The day started out beautiful - a clear blue sky with puffy white clouds on the 4-hour drive to Jasper. But by the time we drove the winding road to Mt. Edith Cavell, sun had given way to clouds and, eventually, rain. The rain came down light but steady, so we trekked to the glacier first. It was a pretty spectacular sight:

This photo shows the hanging Angel Glacier (top right)
which spills over an almost 1000-foot cliff.
This photo shows Cavell Glacier and Cavell Pond.
In 2012, the trail to the pond was completely washed away
by a mini-tsunami caused by the fall of a glacier above this one.
Then, we went to find my lake. It was there. In fact, with the weather conditions, it was ALL you actually could see. I can't say I wasn't disappointed. But there was absolutely nothing we could do. We decided to hike the trail a bit in hopes it would clear up. But instead, it got much colder and we hurried our way back to the car.

Jim's words to me? "I'm sorry sweetie, but this might be the. best. we. can. do."

Mt. Edith Cavell is behind the fog.
My heart sank. I begged him to wait a half hour, even though it was almost 6 pm and the sun was on its way down.

And you know what happened? A miracle! The first of two. The time-zone difference was two hours from Ohio, and when we got in the car to warm up, satellite radio was airing the Cleveland Indians game. We (especially my Indians-season-ticket-holder husband) could pass that half hour with no worries. We listened. And waited. And the rain eased a bit. We made a final trek down the trail and I prayed that the low clouds had lifted.

And we got our second miracle. No, I didn't get the perfect shot. But the weather had cleared enough to show Mt. Edith Cavell's characteristic snow bands. The lake was choppy and not nearly as green as the original photo, but it was just as magical. And it acted a little like Shangri-La - I felt young, like a kid again. With big dreams - dreams big as mountains:

This is what it's supposed to look like except the summit is missing.
Proof that I made it there.

Taking the iPhone version.
And later it really cleared up and you could
see the summit from the town of Jasper as the light was fading.
More from the Canadian Rockies once the sky cleared up
in the waning daylight.
On the way back to Edmonton, the sky cleared up completely. It was so dark you could see the Milky Way winding its way through the stars. And then, we got a third miracle.

Midnight was approaching and I looked out Jim's car window to the north. I knew what I was looking for because our airplane pilot had pointed it out two days earlier on our flight in: the green glowing sheets of the Northern Lights. They once again appeared in the northern sky - an extremely rare sight in summer. And I caught it just in time, before light pollution would have snuffed it out. I immediately urged Jim to stop the car. We took a quick detour off the highway, pulled over to the side of a dark road, and scrambled to get the camera out. Jim played around with the shutter speed and managed to capture the final amazing event from this miracle of days:

The Northern Lights (aurora borealis), 30 August 2014
The next day would be a difficult one. We got to bed at 1:30 am but would need to take a train and a shuttle down to the race site - Hawrelek Park - at 9 am to check in my bike. I did final race prepping, and that evening, we visited the West Edmonton Mall - a huge indoor wonderland that contains a hockey rink, a water park (wave pool and zip lines included), and an amusement park with a full-size roller coaster:

The Mindbender coaster in Galaxyland inside the
West Edmonton Mall. The ride is much longer than you think
with three loops and many spiral turns.
The only thing left to do was race the next morning. AND, be ok with the fact that I had probably used up all our miracles. I thought it would be easy, but it turned out to be the hardest part of the entire trip.

Race morning brought very low temperatures - 6-7 C (low 40s F). Most of the athletes were losing the battle to keep warm. Last year's ITU World Championship in London was cold, but this seemed much colder. I was shivering even with five layers of clothing. My wave started at 9:40 but we had to be there before 7am to set up transition. We were late to the party, but we finally found the warm indoor area near the swim start in which athletes were relaxing and getting into their wetsuits.

They lined us up just after 9 am, so we still had a long cold wait. The 1500m swim was two loops in a chlorinated man-made lake. The start was fun - we all lined up with one foot on a platform, then ran and dove into the water. It was my first time diving head first in a triathlon swim (usually it's a deep-water start or a beach sprint into shallow water). I was relieved to start swimming because the water temperature (at 19 C/66 F) was balmy compared to the air.

Hurry and start this thing before we freeze.
My swim was the one thing that did go well. I felt strong - no back pain, no problems staying on course. Going into the second loop, I was able to drop the two women flanking me for most of the first lap (usually not the case). I think many made the mistake of going out too hard.

The run from swim exit to transition was ridiculously long as they sent us past screaming spectators in the grandstand. A long run makes it harder to get out of a (partially dry) wetsuit, but surprisingly, I had very little trouble. Surprisingly I stayed on my feet despite my disc problem, and I was on my bike pretty quickly.

The 40K bike course was also a double loop with a steep climb at the beginning. The course was very fast, but the cold was an issue for everyone. My legs were not burning like usual, and I thought I rode really strong, but my time was the same as Nationals in Milwaukee. It was extremely disappointing to say the least.

Coming around for the second loop.
At least I had my homemade custom Toothless helmet.
Thus, when I saw the time as I pulled into transition, I started to mentally unravel. Then things went really wrong. After racking my bike, I couldn't get my helmet strap unclipped because my hands had gotten so cold my fingers didn't work. They were frozen. I struggled and struggled with it and then tried to pull my helmet off while it was still strapped. In retrospect, it must have looked quite hilarious. But then I started to panic as other women came in and start the run while I was still struggling to get my helmet off. I finally yelled for help and an ITU official came over, but right before she got to me, I actually managed to unclip the strap myself. I took off running as fast as I could.

The run transition was also ridiculously long, and my legs felt fried before I even got out on the run course. I saw Jim on the way out and just shook my head in frustration. I knew right away that I had nothing. This, combined with the cold, the disappointing bike split, and the helmet disaster had rattled me beyond recovery. And instead of reminding myself this was a "C" race, I ran frustrated and discouraged. It shouldn't have mattered that much, but it was a world championship and spectators were acting like it. I was getting my butt kicked by women I've beaten in the past and all I could do was "run through it." I had mentally checked out.

First loop of the run.
The 10K course was two loops, partially on a gravel trail. The second time I saw Jim, he told me to back off and not hurt myself. I was probably hurting myself more mentally than physically at that point. By the time it was over, the only positive thing I could glean from my run was that I actually started to feel good around mile 5 or 6. Unfortunately, I had no speed, and that was when the race was just about over.

I grabbed a flag for my run to finish anyway, and I didn't complain or sulk until I was out of sight, showered, and had lunch. Lying in the hotel room was when the uncontrollable tears came. And the fear and worry has come back. And I have about six weeks to work through it so that I can toe that line in Kona with the confidence and killer instinct I need to get through it.

Writing this has helped me put the whole thing in perspective. Sometimes I need to stop and smell the flowers and appreciate the journey. I guess that's why I keep writing - to step out of the momentary and consider the enduring. And perhaps tell a race story that might save someone else's race. And add things to that "bucket list." While I can. Because there is no Shangri-La. It just looks that way in pictures.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Not the Race I was Training For: USAT Nationals

Low-techie in my non-tri-related
Turin Brakes t-shirt
Just over a week ago, I took a quick jaunt to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for cheese curds and kringle, and also to compete in the USA Triathlon Age Group Olympic-distance National Championship on August 9. If there's a national championship within driving distance, I've decided to fit it into my schedule in order to make sure I mix it up with the best competition out there. Because… I've found it's easy to slack off when I'm not racing, and, as I get older, local races have had fewer age group numbers (although, I've seen this changing for the better).

And despite being eyeball-deep in Ironman training, Nationals stayed on my schedule because it was a qualifier for the ITU Age Group World Championship in Chicago next year - and that is definitely within driving distance and should be a great experience.

As soon as we got to Milwaukee, I had second thoughts about my lack of preparation for the race. Everyone was super-fit, riding the latest and greatest (read: fastest) bikes, wearing the fastest wetsuits, fastest clothing and fastest running shoes. As usual, all I wanted to do was slink away and hide somewhere with my low-priced shoes, four-year-old P3, sub-$400 wetsuit, and other non-gadgetry (a single multi-purpose Garmin, no compression socks, and free sunglasses). But then I went for a warm-up swim to find - again, as usual - that everyone was just as prepared (or unprepared) as me, and we all still needed to figure out the swim course, whether we should actually wear wetsuits the next morning, and how we're going to find our bikes in the huge transition zone.

There were almost 4000 bikes in transition.
I had nothing even resembling a taper, but I took the day before easy(ier) with a shorter swim and run, and I tried to get two good nights of sleep leading into race morning (although Expedia did everything to thwart that by allowing us to book a hotel with no vacancy two nights before the race, making us scramble around Racine at midnight on Thursday looking for a place to stay). Even though my legs were fatigued, I attempted to come up with a race plan - just to have one.

My race plan was simple: hammer the bike and see what happens. I guess it's basically the same thing I tried to do last year because of my hamstring injury. The difference was that this year I was able to run without pain, and I've working on bike speed by riding with faster riders.

I went back and read last year's race report only to realize that this year I had an identical (disappointing) race (on the bike). The water was a little warmer this year and the swim course was slightly different, but the rest was mostly the same.

W45-49 start
The water was calm and the women in my age group weren't overly aggressive - in fact, everyone was courteous in the water when any contact was made. I felt strong the whole time, visibility was good, and I came out of the 1500-meter swim in the top ten in my age group (time: 22:18). It was a long run to the bikes, and my overall transition was slower than I would have liked, but I was happy to finally win the struggle getting my wetsuit off over my heels.

Like last year, my bike leg began with pain and soreness and I immediately struggled to push myself. With all my long riding, all my body wanted to do was settle into a comfortable pace - you know, the way you do in Ironman. Aerobically, I felt fantastic, but my quads were sore and cement-like and protested immediately. Similar to last year, the first few miles of the 40K bike course were spent playing leap-frog with another woman. I passed her on the "hills" (not really hills but more "up"hill than the flats, and one was a long bridge) and she dusted me on the flats. The mostly-flat bike course has several turns and two turn-arounds. The most memorable thing during the bike leg was seeing the referee nail a guy for drafting. It happened right in front of me, and when the leap-frogger passed me, she said "that guy was a jerk!" (although I think she used a different word) - to which I replied "did you see they nailed him?" We had a laugh and then she took off.

Bike finish
My speed was pretty steady, but after the turnaround, five or six women in my age group passed me before we pulled into transition. To my dismay, my bike time - 1:09:37 - was only about one minute faster than last year. I had another slow transition struggling to both rack my bike AND get into my running shoes. Once I was running, things started to look up.

Without a specific time goal (sub-7:00 pace would have been good), I wanted to at least chase down the women who passed me on the bike. I managed to do just that. Only that. My first three miles were under seven minutes, I felt good and I wasn't limping. Around mile 5, everything changed. I felt like I had "hit the wall" in a marathon. I lost mental concentration and my legs felt heavy and discombobulated. At mile 6, I made the mistake of turning around - to see an age-group woman I had caught was now catching me. I willed myself to hang on, but my legs were revolting.

I've felt better at finish lines.
With less than a quarter mile to run, I dragged my uncooperative body to the finish while praying that I wouldn't get passed in the last few seconds (and thus die of embarrassment). It was good for sixth in my age group - by a hair. My run time was 43:28 - about three minutes faster than last year - and my total time was 2:19:41 (about four minutes faster).

My surprising finish place made me instantly regret not having tapered for this race. I guess I always feel that way after USAT Nationals because it has always come at an inconvenient time of year. And this year, I certainly never expected to be in the midst of Ironman Kona training. My choice was made when I took my Kona slot that morning in Coeur d'Alene. But standing at the finish line in Milwaukee, I wasn't thinking "big picture" - only reacting to one small moment in a grand scheme.

Now I can see clearer and be satisfied with it and look forward. There's always next year. In Chicago. In a new age group.

Thanks to my husband Jim for the photos, all the driving and support with these whirlwind weekend trips.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Power of the Tall Tale

There's a great quote in a novella by a famous author that was once made into a pretty awesome movie. The quote is: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12." The author is Stephen King. In the novella, The Body, the next sentence is: "Jesus, did you?" But in the movie, Stand By Me, the next sentence was: "Jesus, does anyone?"

The movie version of that quote hit me smack in the face this weekend. Because… I think I realized... It's true.

Which brings me to the story of the tall tale.

I had one of those friends when I was 12. Her name was Suzanne. We met at age 11 in middle school - sixth grade. It was a new school for both of us, and we met because her last name started with "A" and mine with "C" and because of the alphabet, we ended up in the same homeroom next to each other. I was fortunate to have intimately connected with her before RE-connecting with friends from my elementary school.

The next few years were, as with most kids, the happiest I can remember. It was before I became an insecure, stressed out, depressed teen and started hating myself in high school. In fact, my attitude was likely responsible for our slowly falling out of touch with one another.

But yesterday and today, I don't remember any of the negative stuff, or arguments, or when the last day was that I saw her. I only remember the great stuff. I remember late nights lying on the floor listening to music with her, especially Boston and the Electric Light Orchestra. I remember thinking she was the sister I always wanted and how her parents treated me like one of their own. I remember how her mother bought me my first pair of swimming goggles because my parents weren't coughing up cash for something they never believed I would stick with. And I remember The Lake.

The Lake was the place where legends were made. Her parents owned a house on a lake in northern Connecticut, near the Massachusetts border. They invited me to spend a week there every year. And every year, Suzanne and I spent most of that week's waking hours on the lake in their little Sunfish sailboat. We sailed every inch of that lake. When the wind was strong, we acted like it was a catamaran and hung on for dear life. And on hot days, sometimes we purposely capsized it just to go swimming or to get wet. One of us always "acted" like it was accidental. It was never scary, except for the time she got tangled in the rope as the sail caught the wind and dragged her in the water away from me while I screamed "don't leave me!" (You know, because there are sea monsters. and sharks. and Jason Voorhees.)

And then there was the The Storm. Now THAT actually was scary. It was the stuff of legends, and as far as I was concerned, it had grown into a tall tale. My husband Jim has heard one too many times. I'm sure he thinks I made it up. And for all I know, it gets wilder with each telling, even though I never set out to embellish the details. Because the story was legendary enough without having to do that. But before I tell the story of The Storm on The Lake, let me tell you a little more about Suzanne.

Suzanne was one of those people that had a number of fantastical things happen to her. Call them tall tales, call them legends, but they happened. And she didn't make them up either. I have first-hand knowledge. Because I was THERE for some of them.

There was that time when we were picking blueberries in a field near The Lake and it was raining everywhere - we could hear the rain hitting all the leaves around us - except it wasn't raining on us. It was like there was a hole in the clouds right above us wherever we went.

There was that time our swim coach gave her an All American award for scoring team points in the 500 yard freestyle by finishing only 450 yards. Or was it 400? Who knows, really? It was too far to begin with. And, she got the points!

There was that time she became the first person I ever knew to be hospitalized. We were all jealous because not only did she get to miss school for a week (!), she also managed to lose weight without dieting and come back to school looking like a model (note, this happened in the years we girls had become obsessed with how we looked). She also had an IV - seriously, who even knew what an IV was? It was legendary.

And then there was The Storm.

Suzanne and I were on the boat in the middle of the Lake when we heard it approaching. The sky was black as night in one direction, so we decided to head for the beach. Just as we turned the boat toward the shoreline, something magically horrific happened. The wind went dead calm and the water turned to glass. It was the day I learned the true meaning behind "the calm before the storm." It was the eeriest experience of my entire life.

As the thunder got louder, we looked at each other, aghast - we were sitting on a boat in the middle of "flat" water with a metal post sticking straight up in the air, the highest point in the landscape. There was only one thing to do, take down the sail and paddle like madmen.

No, we didn't have oars. We got down on our bellies, her on one side of the boat, me on the other, and used our hands. I'm sure we were laughing - probably more like hysterics. It would have been hilarious if we weren't so scared. We inched along, and it seemed there was no way we would make it before the full fury of the storm hit.

Moments later, we looked up in the direction of the storm and saw what appeared to be a wall of water slowly making its way across the lake. Yep, to a 12-year-old (to anyone?), this was terrifying. Seriously, to this day, I have never seen anything like it. It was rain, but it looked more like a tidal wave. Who made the tidal wave in a tiny lake?

It must have been adrenaline, but Suzanne and I managed to paddle that little boat all the way to the beach before getting drenched. We grounded it and sprinted for dear life. To the house. To shelter.

And I've been telling people that story ever since - for more than thirty years. I had no idea if she continued to tell the story. Or if she remembered it the same as I did. Or if I embellished it. But every time I told it, I kept us in that moment. Young. Totally dependent on a best friend in a crisis - in which  the only way to survive was together. We had outwitted the devil.

This past Sunday, thanks to the miracle of Facebook, Suzanne stopped at my house while driving cross-country to Connecticut after visiting family in Washington and Idaho (it's bizarrely coincidental that she was also in Coeur d'Alene last weekend - the same time we were - but we failed to connect). She wasn't able to stay for long, but it didn't matter. Seeing her was like having all the happiest memories of my childhood materialize right in front of me.

And one of the greatest moments of the day was when we brought up "The Storm," and my husband realized who this was sitting at the table. I think his words were "oh, YOU'RE the one!" -- like.. ok, ok, let's get the REAL story behind what happened that day. And I let her tell it. And our stories are identical. Embellished? I don't think so, but who really knows? The most important thing was that we embellished it the same. Even after all these years. I guess that's the power of a tall tale. It's the memory that something actually did happen that bound us to this particular legend. Our legend.

And this year, we'll be spending Thanksgiving together. Hopefully to create more legends of our own. And I'll get to tell her, while I'm able to, how much I treasure our friendship past and future.

Thus, it's indeed true - you never DO have friends like the ones you had when you were 12. Or, in this case, 49.

Jim, me, Suzanne in Cleveland

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Don't Freak Out: Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2014

One of my favorite things to see at Lake Coeur d'Alene:
Seaplanes!
Sometime last year (I can't remember when), my husband Jim said something akin to: "If you're going to do another Ironman, we should go back to Coeur d'Alene." In considering this, I'm not sure we fully appreciated, or recalled - exactly - what happened last time we were in Coeur d'Alene.

It was 2009. I was 44 years old. It was my first attempt at the Ironman distance (2.4-mile swim/112-mile bike/26.2-mile run) in six years. In my previous attempt - 2003 - I had dropped out of Ironman Florida. Thus, in 2009, the goal was to finish. But I don't remember anything after mile 20. Wait, I don't remember anything after mile 15. I can go back and read my race report to pull out details, but here's the short version: it was an eleven-mile descent into hypothermia-fueled delirium.

Photographic evidence of my 2009 run to the finish
I DO remember a medic stating my temperature had fallen to 90.3 degrees F. After that I was in a tunnel. People were talking to me, asking me questions, but my responses didn't seem to be getting back to them. The next thing I remember was sitting up shivering and being fed warm fluids (once my temperature had INcreased to 97 degrees, I could "shiver" again). When they finally let me out into the arms of the J-Team - Jim and my friend Julie - it was dark outside. I had no idea how much time had passed. On the way back to the hotel, Julie said: "Jim stood out in the rain for 2.5 hours waiting for you. No one would tell us anything."

2.5 hours. Gone. Lost. Did I even finish? Did Mike Reilly say my name?

Indeed. I had become an Ironman for the second time. Jim had the evidence - my medal. And there was photographic evidence as well.

This time, the only thing I sought in Coeur d'Alene was to see that finish line and remember it. Because Coeur d'Alene is such a beautiful place to traverse 140.6 miles. And the community is so supportive. And I DON'T remember it.

But, crikey! It was cold there. Mind-numbingly cold for a late spring/early summer triathlon. But I listened to Jim and registered anyway - extremely happy to find out the race was no longer in early June. Ironman CDA now took place at the end of June - the 29th! Surely, it would be warmer.

Get me out of this freakin' cold water.
Fast forward to Friday, June 27, 2014. Two days before race day.

Lake Coeur d'Alene was still like ice water. People were getting out saying "oh, it's not so bad, just a little choppy" -- WHAT?!?! Ok, ok, it was 61 degrees. I've been in colder water. And I'm not sure I would call it choppy. It was much choppier in 2009. In fact, IMCDA 2009 was one of my slowest 2.4-mile swims. So I gritted my teeth and swam some laps. And I got out when I could no longer feel my fingers. Did I mention the air temperature was in the 50s? Yeah. It took at least two hours for my fingers to fully regain any sensation.

Bike check on Saturday - it was sunny. 
Discussing last time with one of the volunteers.
We took to spending waking moments checking the race-day weather. And on the evening of June 28, things started to look up. The sun came out. It got warm. The wind died down. And the predicted race-day high had become 70. With lows in the mid-40s. With winds about 10mph.

That was Saturday night.

At 4:30 am Sunday morning, we headed out the door of the hotel, and the following words came out of Jim's mouth: "Don't freak out at the wind."

Don't. Freak. Out.

How bad did it have to be for Jim to worry that I would "freak out"?

It was bad. The lake would certainly be (what I would call) "choppy." Yes. I started to panic.

I was a couple hours from starting a 140.6-mile 11- to 12-hour grueling endurance event, and panic had set in before I even reached the starting line. To understand fully, maybe you had to be there in St. George in 2012. Or at Ironman Utah in 2002. Wind is a triathlete's sworn enemy. Because of what it does to the water. Because of what it does to lightweight people on lightweight bikes.

Jim reminded me that I'm a good swimmer. Friends texted me that it would be everyone's problem, not just mine. Jim also reminded me to stick with the race plan. Do NOT look at my speed on the bike and.. um.. freak out.

Race morning. Cold. Choppy.
I only glanced peripherally at the water to confirm: the chop was worse that morning than Friday. Worse than 2009. Ok. em… The water is my friend… I'm not afraid of the water... I love the water... I'm a fish... People always called me a fish... My high school swimming nickname was … fish... Don't look at the water... Everyone else will be freaking out more than me... The water is my friend… The water is my friend. The water. is. my. friend.

Why now? Why was Sunday the first time EVER that I panicked and reconsidered entering the water at an Ironman start? I've been clobbered and kicked a countless number of times in Ironman swims. I survived four-foot swells in Utah Lake for an hour. I've spent numerous hours near-suffocating in huge waves off the Cape Cod coast after thunderstorms - and enjoyed it! Why was I panicking?

I suppose I was tired of being the disaster magnet. I wanted a good weather day and a smart race. I didn't want bad weather to cause bad judgment. I went through every possible scenario of dropping out, and I couldn't come up with a good reason to walk away. So I put on my wetsuit, said goodbye to Jim, and entered the swim queue. I tried not to notice people shivering (in their wetsuits) and jumped in for a minute warm-up swim.

My thoughts? Start this thing before I start crying!

That's relief you see in my facial expression.
The 2.4-mile IMCDA swim is two loops with a short beach run between them. The swim start is now a rolling self-seeded affair - it's like a marathon start: faster swimmers up front, slower swimmers in the back. Each athlete's race started when their chip crossed the timing mat. I squeezed in with the 1:01-1:15 group and in a couple minutes, people were yelling at us that our race had indeed "started." I jumped in the water and swam immediately for the outside line.

The way out was a mess because we were swimming into the swells. I couldn't get a rhythm going with my breathing, but I was making progress even while stopping to choke on water and spot buoys. Being on the outskirts, I managed to avoid getting clobbered and the way back with the current was much smoother. I tried to "surf" the waves when I could. At the beginning of the second loop I saw 31 minutes on my watch… this was a huge surprise that put me much more at ease. I had to get to the turn, and things will get better. For the first time in a race, I noticed people grabbing onto the support kayaks. Yes, it was a rough day.

Running through transition to get warm.
I was never so happy to be out of the water. My swim took 1:04 (faster than 2009!) - although I lost any advantage by struggling through transition because my fingers stopped working in the cold. This year, I was determined to thwart the cold with wool socks, gloves, hand warmers, a bike jersey, and arm warmers. After what seemed like forever to get all these things on with numb fingers and wet skin, I sprinted for my bike. I could tell from the full bike racks that most of my age group was still in the water.

Ok, then, I had no time to lollygag. It was time to find out what this wind was all about.

Somehow I found a smile.
The IMCDA 112-mile bike course has changed three times. The last time I did it, there were some brutal hills. But now the course consists of two loops of the following: starting in downtown CDA, a short out-and-back with a tough 6%-grade hill along the lake (part of which is also the run course) followed by a long out-and-back with long (really long) rolling hills on US 95, a four-lane sometimes-divided high-traffic route. This second part went out into the wind (the Weather Underground Almanac says the max was 20 mph with gusts up to 30). A friend summed it up quite succinctly: "We were going downhill, PEDALING, at 13-14 mph." After the turn-around on US 95, we were flying, but I was never able to make up on the way back what I lost on the way out.

I'm only sharing this photo because Jim
actually managed to catch me in the middle
of a snot-rocket.
My goal on the bike was to go easy and not feel anything for the first four hours. I think something went terribly wrong with my taper because I NEVER felt good on the bike. My legs were fatigued almost from the start and my injured-but-healed hamstring was hurting like it had only been partially rehabbed. I backed way off against the wind hoping my competitors would make the mistake of going too hard. I tried to rest my legs on the downhills hoping to save something, anything, for the run. I was passed by one of my age-group competitors in the first five miles, like I was standing still, but I let her go. Seriously, this course had the potential to burn people out - even without wind.

Heading out on the second loop, I saw Jim. He raised three fingers - indicating third in my age group. I wasn't happy, but I wasn't surprised, and all I could hope was that my conservative riding would pay off. I tried to take solace in the fact my nutrition plan was causing no stomach issues whatsoever.

I was easy to spot in my SSSMST green and blue.
On the second loop, I passed one of my competitors on the steep hill - which was before the chip mat at the first turn-around. Hopefully Jim would get an update (from the Ironman tracker) I was now in second place. But it was short-lived as she re-passed me before we went back through downtown CDA. Jim gave me two fingers on the way back out, but I assured him that this was no longer the case and I was back in third place.

On the final - brutally windy - out-and-back, I played leap frog with this woman - I would pass her on the uphills, she would crush me on the downhills. I lost the battle before the turnaround, and I never caught her again. I did, however, keep an eye on my watch to determine I was still only about seven minutes down from the actual age-group leader.

I spent the last 15 miles trying not to crash - I guess I need to work on my bike-handling skills going downhill in the aero position with the wind. So far, I had seen two people being taken away on stretchers, and I still had designs on seeing that finish line no matter how bad my legs were feeling.

When I pulled into transition, I saw Jim. He said (and I quote): "great ride!" I wondered what he was smoking, as before the race, I told him I'd be happy with a 5:40 bike leg, and I was sure I had not even broken 6:30 (I did a 6:15). I was quickly reminded of the severe stiffness that accompanies Ironman T2, but I still attempted to run through it. Two awesome volunteers helped me in the change tent and had me on my way in much less time than it took in T1.

Then I saw Jim again. He gave me the (surprisingly good) news. I was three minutes behind the age group leader, currently running in third place. I asked him the most important question: "Are they RUNNERS?"

"No."

I almost broke down in tears. This was my chance. I was a RUNNER. I spent ten years learning exactly how to run a marathon, and now I needed to simply do just that.

But to do that, I needed to get my head on straight. The Ironman marathon can be undone in the first mile, and for months, I had promised myself that I would not - under ANY circumstances - go out faster than an 8-minute pace. I settled into an easy run and relaxed. Unexpectedly, the soreness and fatigue in my quads dissipated, and my spirits rose. The day had warmed a little and the sun was out.

I saw mile marker 1. I looked at my Garmin: 7:30.

I said, out loud, but to myself: "SLOW THE F DOWN."

I slowed. I took baby steps. I saw the age group leaders. I passed them both. Neither gave chase. I realized this was now my race to lose.

I saw mile marker 2. Garmin said: 7:12.

SLOW THE F DOWN!

I finally got the run under control around mile 4. I was feeling good. No stomach issues. No cold issues. I jogged the aid stations and drank Ironman Perform. As planned, I didn't drink too much. Could this possibly last?

The 26.2-mile IMCDA run course is two loops that snakes through the town before a picturesque out-and-back along the lake with the same 6% hill that's on the bike course. The turn-around is on the flip side of the hill - almost mile 7. On the way back to town I noticed I had put over ten minutes between me and second place, but my legs were starting to feel sore and cramp. My stomach was still ok, so I took a salt capsule and stuck with the plan.

After 13 miles, I started to tire of Ironman Perform and sweet gels, and I couldn't wait to get my special needs bag to change up the drink option to Gu Brew. When I got back downtown, I saw Jim. He told me I had a 15-minute lead and was running a minute-per-mile faster than everyone else in my age group. He told me NOT TO PUSH IT. Just get to the finish.

Mile 14. This marathon was more than half-finished. But my legs were starting to scream at me. And my stomach was not far behind. By mile 18, I was in a state of controlled non-vomiting. It involved walking the aid stations and stopping for a toilet break. My mile pace went over 10 minutes, and I was coming mentally unglued. How do I fix this?? What is wrong with me?? My usual go-to remedy, flat cola, wasn't helping the situation or giving me a boost. I thought about drinking Red Bull (yes, they now have that on course at Ironman).

Then I remembered the words Jim kept repeating in the weeks leading up to the race: when things start to go badly, STOP. Figure out what's wrong. Take a moment or more to fix it. And get back in the race.

He was right. I had time. This WAS my race to lose. Or WIN. There was absolutely no reason to panic.

I thought about it…. and then I did something I've never done at an Ironman: I. ate. solid. food. Pretzels. Just two. And I grabbed water, some ice, and a cola. My mouth went dry, but the nausea vanished. I was able to run the entire last hill (slowly - in Jim's words, I lollygagged the hill, but, also in his words, so did everyone else).

Somehow, I put my race back together - and by mile 23, I was back to 8:30-ish pace on my Garmin. And, wouldn't you know.. the weather had one last trick to throw at us. I was at the third-to-last aid station dumping ice down my tri top when the temperature dropped, the wind kicked up, and it started to rain. I had only one reaction. I started laughing. The runner next to me glanced over and I groaned: "Really?!?!"

Looking for Jim in the crowd. Not delirious this time.
Note to Julie: ARM WARMERS!
A few minutes later, I took the turn leading back downtown and a runner opposite me pointed behind me and said "There's a rainbow behind you!" I almost fell down trying to turn around to see it (hey, YOU try pivoting after running 24.5 miles after biking 112 miles after swimming 2.4 miles). I remembered the sign I saw in a sandwich shop the day before: "Expect a miracle."

I think I got my miracle. I was ready to cross that finish line. At mile 25, I focused on letting the crowd support carry me through the final minutes and ran as fast as my legs would go. When I rounded the final corner and saw the finish line, I felt tears. It was a long day. I searched for Jim in the crowd. He waved to me from the bleachers along the finish chute. Right then and there I did my victory cheer. 

Found him.
Then, I crossed the finish line. And I heard Mr. Reilly say my name this time. My time - 11:08:55 - was only six minutes faster than 2009. But I remember every second of it. And I won the W45-49 age group at the ripe old age of 49.

20 months ago, I never thought I'd see another Ironman finish line, let alone an age group win and a Kona slot. And I will always be grateful to my physical therapist, Mike DeRubertis, and my orthopedic doctor, Sam Patterson, for getting me to the starting line in Coeur d'Alene. I also owe huge debt to my husband Jim, my friend and sponsor Ron (Punk Rock Racing), Julie (J3), and Nick for logistical and informational support on race day - Jim showed me the string of texts on his phone back and forth with them all day long. Final thank-yous to my good friend Kevin, who tirelessly dragged me through my long rides despite his own injuries, and all the friends who were sending good vibes - especially my awesome new teammates from the Spin Second Sole Multisport Team. All the positive energy carried me through those really tough miles.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Long Course, I've Missed You: 2014 USAT Long Course National Championship

Rainy starting line (pink caps = age 40+ chicks)
In March of this year, I was in search of nearby (read: within driving distance) spring triathlons to do once my hamstring tendon healed. At the time, I wasn't sure if I'd be in shape for, say, a half-iron distance, but if I conquered a marathon in May, then it might work - since the running part (the most damaging to my injury) would be only half that distance.

The Grand Rapids Triathlon on June 8 would only be four hours away, encompassing one overnight stay and a drive home right after the race (assuming no hospital disasters such as asthma attacks). But in registering for Grand Rapids, I missed a teeny tiny little detail: it was also the USAT Long Course Age Group National Championship. This detail was uncovered by accident while discussing the race with one of my teammates at our yearly kick-off meeting. As soon as I got home, I checked the race website.

Yep. I accidentally registered for a national championship. Oops.

Sure, anyone could register. But I wasn't ready for a National Championship. The hype. The competition. All I sought was a low-key-let's-get-back-to-longer-distance-racing-without-expectations kind of race. And THIS would not be it. THIS would be a challenge. But I told myself I was up for it. I would race the best and smartest race I could. And I would be OK with whatever happened. That's what I told myself.

And so, as usual, cards started stacking up against me and my "up for it" attitude.

Friday afternoon at work, I came down with massive congestion in my sinuses and found that my husband Jim's cold would finally get me. (I swear I was washing my hands!) I took two hours off from work to get a jump on it, but by that evening, my throat was sore, I could barely breathe, and I began reconsidering toe-ing that starting line. One bout with pneumonia and I live in fear of even a hint of an upper respiratory infection. Jim stuffed me full of Mucinex-D - the only thing that worked for him - and told me we should go to Grand Rapids and make the decision on race morning. Ugh. The horror of Ironman St. George 2012 came rushing back. But I had no fever, no chills, and no other aches and pains. And I knew if I woke up Sunday morning feeling good and we weren't in Grand Rapids,  there would be regrets.

So I tried to sleep on Friday night, and we made the trip to Grand Rapids early enough that I could get a nap in the hotel before dinner. I didn't get any better, and I didn't get any worse. But all the resting took its toll as one of my old bugaboos came back and bit me on Saturday night. I couldn't sleep a single wink. When the alarm went off at 4:00 am, there was nothing more I could do. I never enjoyed racing on no sleep (and a head cold), but I've done it before. And the simple fact was that I didn't feel all that bad on race morning. Certainly I could finish, even if I had to walk and take pit-stops.

And thus, the only thing that could now make things bad was the weather. At 5:15 am, we walked out to the car in the midst of a downpour. And there was no parking near the race site. By the time I made it to transition, everyone and everything was getting soaked. I kept myself relatively dry by donning a large plastic garbage bag, but there was nothing to keep the rain out of our running shoes and transition area. It would be one of those very messy days and I started to worry about controlling my bike on slick roads.

By start time - 7:00 am - the rain had become a sprinkle, but athletes, spectators, and everyone's stuff was soaked, there were massive puddles at the start corrals, and it was a lot harder getting into a wetsuit. However, good organization meant everything went off as planned - at 7:15, I was waist deep in the water waiting for the start horn.

Swim exit, still raining. Me in pink cap. Wetsuit strippers at left.
Guy who missed the wetsuit strippers at bottom right.
Several races were taking place that morning. The half, an Olympic-distance triathlon, a sprint triathlon, and aqua-bike races in all three distances. The half-IM went first, and my wave was fourth - 40+ women - in pink caps. While waiting for the start, a few of us lined up wide, noticing the outside line was actually shorter because of a turn in the swim course. We "smart ones" probably had the easiest time in the water on Sunday, and I made it through the 1.2-mile swim un-clobbered. I didn't get my split time (no watch), but I knew I had a good swim because: (1) I spotted only a couple pink-capped women in front of me, and (2) Jim yelled "nice swim!"

I almost missed the wetsuit strippers. Jim had to point them out because I was oblivious and ran right past them. In less than a blink of an eye, I was on my way - I found it strange that I wasn't as exhausted as usual running to my bike. That was the last I saw of Jim in T1. He missed that I struggled clipping on my number belt in the rain, but other than that, my transition was decent, including getting into my bike shoes, and I surprisingly remembered to hit the start button on my Garmin once I mounted the bike. The only problem remaining was that my helmet shield had fogged up. Trying to wipe it while being careful about what was in front of me on wet roads meant that I didn't even look at my speed for the first five miles.

So I had to do a double take when I saw my first 5-mile split. Hard work on the bike this year wasn't expected to pay off this early in the season, and yet, there it was, the first number (the "minutes") on that display was 13. For the math wizards, that meant I was riding between 21-22mph (note: I did not do the math while riding, I just knew that 5 miles in 15 minutes is 20mph, my usual target). I chalked it up to a relatively flat start to the bike leg.

The great thing about the Grand Rapids 56-mile bike leg is that it only has a few turns. It's an out-and-back course with gradual rolling hills - a few are good climbs but nothing really steep where everyone has to get out of the saddle. Unfortunately, because of the large number of participants and long uphills and downhills, Grand Rapids suffered from a serious drafting situation. I wanted to ride my own race, but it was hard to stomach watching a whole peloton of guys with women just hanging on their wheels. Hopefully the USAT officials on the course were paying attention.

Besides trying not to draft, I spent most of the ride doing two things: blowing my nose and mentally assessing if I could keep this pace and still have a good run. After burning my quads for the first hour, I expected a major slow-down at some point, but I backed off a little in the second half to prepare for the run, still thinking it would probably be in vain.

T2. Wet running shoes are not easy to get on.
When I pulled into T2, I saw Jim and I think I yelled something about it being my fastest bike split ever in a half (it wasn't but I was really excited anyway). I knew several women had passed me and I'm sure some of them were in my age group, but I kept repeating to myself "don't do anything stupid on the run... don't do anything stupid on the run..." knowing I have a tendency to chase. The rain had mostly stopped but I still struggled to get my running shoes on wet - I gave up perfecting it, and decided to run with the tongue buckled under the laces.

Based on how I felt getting off my bike, I expected to start the 13.1-mile run fatigued with wobbly legs and thinking "there's no way I can run the whole thing." What happened was the opposite. I felt pretty good. I heard Jim tell me to ease into it, so I backed off a bit, but my legs were not suffering the way I expected, and I went through the first mile in 7:03.

Finishing the run.
The Grand Rapids run course is a two-loop out-and-back. Everyone from all three races is running the same course with different turn-around points, so it's very difficult to know who you are racing against. I really had no idea. I spent much of the run talking to myself to "avoid doing something stupid," assessing how I felt, making decisions about what to drink and/or eat, and looking for two friends who were also racing.

The course had two substantial hills, but to my surprise, my mile splits were pretty even 6:50-7:10 on the flats and downhills, and 7:20-7:30 on the hills, and I managed to survive on only Gatorade without walking the aid stations. When I crossed the finish line, my first thought was that I felt way better than I should have - I immediately regretted not trying to run faster. I asked Jim how I finished - the live results had me second in my age group. My time was 4:46:21, and we both had my run split at 1:34 (my fastest 13.1 miles since 2011).

It took me a while to digest the whole experience. I hadn't raced like that in a long time... and I was on no sleep and I was sick. I came in second in USAT Nats. I spent the next half-hour walking around trying to figure out what I thought of it. Jim kept asking how I was feeling. My answer kept coming back to "way too good" and "I should have run faster," and "I should have gone harder on the bike." I guess this is what happens when you're out of practice. And I am seriously out of practice at long distance racing.

Hanging out with super-fast people - teammate Brian Stern (middle)
and the 9th overall finisher, Nick Glavac (right)
We gathered everything up and took a long walk back to the car while waiting for the awards. After talking to a few athletes and checking out the unofficial results, we found that there were several mistakes that put athletes and relay teams listed in the wrong races and wrong age groups, and one of the mistakes was in my age group. The preliminary "winner" had competed in the Olympic-distance race, not the half, which meant that I was the age group winner. But even more surprising, I finished fifth overall - and no one was more surprised and delighted than me - except maybe Jim, who was adamant about getting things straightened out in the results (I love when he does that).

And so.. that was how an accidental registration resulted in a national championship. And now I have a big decision to make: to decide if I want to go to Motala, Sweden, for the ITU Long Course World Championship. There are worse fates. And I can't say enough huge thank-you's to the people who helped me in my recovery from injury to getting fast enough to stand on that podium Sunday: my P.T., Mike DeRubertis, my ortho doc, Sam Patterson, my awesome teammates from SSSMST, my good friend Ron Harvey (Punk Rock Racing), and obviously, my husband Jim who has become my personal travel agent, logistics support, and photographer and somehow manages to get up at 4am (or earlier) on race day and not complain.

Age group winners got very cool Rudy Project National Champion jerseys.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Trirade: Island Lake Tri Race Report

Race morning sunrise in Brighton, MI
And just like that, my first triathlon of 2014 is done. And forgotten. OK, maybe not forgotten. But it's done. And lessons have been learned.

As my first triathlon of 2014 - in fact, my first tri since London last September - I chose one close to home (only a three-hour drive) on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in order to allow two more days of training without having to be at work. The race that fit the bill was the Island Lake Triathlon in Brighton, Michigan. As luck would have it, the weekend weather was damn near perfect, and the race took place in a very scenic location.

I always treat my first tri of the season as a shakedown race. I use it to reacquaint myself with the race atmosphere: race pacing, transition practicing, wetsuit stripping, pack swimming, buoy spotting, and any other race-day mayhem which, this year, included tolerating (or not tolerating) cheaters. I'll write more on that in a minute, but what it cane down to was that, although the race is USAT-sanctioned, it did not include a USAT official on the bike course.

The day started out with one of the most memorable sunrises ever - over Kent Lake - the location of the swim. I rushed to check in, then immediately ran to take a photo with my phone. Everything was orange and there was a mist hanging over the lake. My husband Jim had taken to getting my bike out of the car and making sure the tires were pumped. But before he could even get to that, I told him to drop everything, grab the good camera, and take a real photo of this gorgeous moment (see photo).

The next hour would be spent racking my bike and remembering how to prep my transition area. In this race, I would finally fast-forward to this century and use my birthday present (received two days prior) for tracking my splits: a Garmin 910XT. Trying something new is never a good idea, especially when your nickname is "Disaster Magnet," but a shakedown is a shakedown, and what better way to learn how to use a gadget than with a potential gadget fail? And so I mounted it on my bike and hoped to remember the things I committed to memory during the drive. (Although, I would soon learn that force of habit trumps all.)

For the Olympic distance race (mine), the 1500m swim was a two-loop course in the lake (sprinters do one loop) with a waist-deep start. There were two waves, women starting second. Almost immediately, I took the lead in the swim and quickly came to the realization I was in a non-ideal situation: I had to spot buoys directly into the sun, a problem more complex because I was being consumed by seaweed. In the first five minutes I was blinded and choking on strands of seaweed - and swimming way off course. I reminded myself this was a shakedown race.

It was like I was flailing around in the water until the end of the first loop - when I got into a rhythm and into the mix with the stragglers in the first wave. (It was much easier to stay on course with more people in the water.) By the time I was crawling out, I was surprised and relaxed at having a lead - I could focus on getting out of my wetsuit and onto my bike without a massive amount of anxiety.

T1, therefore, went without incident, and I was quickly on my bike, hitting "start" on my Garmin (I remembered!) and heading out. The 40K bike leg was also a two-loop course - on rolling, paved roads mostly within the boundaries of the Island Lake Recreation area. It had two turn-arounds and one loop in the parking lot that slowed things down - I was convinced my Garmin should have been telling me I was faster. As usual, I expected to be caught by at least one (if not more) women before the run, and so I kept my eye on the bikers behind me at the turn-arounds.

Do you believe this guy?
And then it happened. No, I didn't get caught by the women. I got caught by a pack of guys drafting the entire race. At every turnaround, I noticed a pack of about five men who were riding just like that: as a pack. Like, in a diamond shape. All within about two feet of each other. They caught me with about three or four miles left, when the bike course passed by the start for the final short out-and-back.

At first, it didn't bother me. I wasn't racing them, I was racing the women. But when they slowed down, and I got caught up in it, I had to pass them again to keep it legal (which I did). The next thing that happened made me angry. At least one of them stayed in my draft zone - he never dropped back far enough (breaking the USAT rule) before reattempting to pass. I kept glancing back (he was on my left side) as if to say "drop back." But he decided to hang out at my side - not passing - just drafting away. It was then that I saw Jim with the camera, so I pointed to the guy (see photo) and yelled "do you see this?" At that moment, another drafter started to pass me on my right (unbeknownst to me, and not legal either). The guy on my left started yelling at me to get over to the right so he could pass - and I came within inches of crashing into the guy on the right.

THAT'S when I lost it.

I started screaming at all of them for drafting. I think I must have carried on screaming for about a half mile (Jim said he could hear me). I don't remember what came out of my mouth but it wasn't pretty. Or ladylike. (The words "idiot" and "jerk" come to mind - I sincerely hope I didn't resort to flinging cuss words.) As each one passed, I do remember saying "you're ALL CHEATING." I suspect some of my verbal outburst was inspired by the girl who called out another girl in London for drafting off me. I mean, seriously, if refs aren't going to do it, someone has to.

I came into T2 still ranting, and Jim apparently felt the need to calm me down. He told me to focus on MY race and let it go. I tried. But I was determined to chase them all down.

And after a short struggle with my running shoes (it was a shakedown race!), I was off. I forgot to hit the lap button on my Garmin on the way INTO T2 (because, as you know, I was ranting), But I remembered to hit it on the way out.

I thought I hit it.

First loop of the run, still smiling
What I actually pressed was the stop button. And I realized it about a half mile into the run. Too many watches with too many buttons in too many different places. I wanted to scream but instead I settled for 5.5 miles of splits.

And even though I wasn't running as fast as I could because there were no women to chase, I managed to hunt down and pass all the cheaters. Quietly. I wish I were bold enough to have laughed as I passed them knowing I started three minutes behind them. But I just ran and didn't look back.

In the end, seeing I had a good lead at the turn-around, I kind of lollygagged (Jim's word to describe my run) my way through the 10K - again, a two loop course, some cross-country, with a few substantial hills. I wasn't completely satisfied with my time, but it was hard to argue against a fun race with great weather and a nice course for a first race of the year. And the awards were awesome: a bottle of two-buck Chuck, a couple gift certificates and a really nice New Balance tech tee. Despite my issues with drafters, you can't beat this race venue for an early-season triathlon in the midwest.

And after the race, we had a chance to meet up with some friends we've not seen in several years. A great start to a holiday weekend.

Gotta love a race with wine awards.