Monday, August 23, 2010

Of Lists and Triathlon Basics: Great Buckeye Challenge Half-Iron Race Report

The black cloud appears to be lifting. I say this not because I just celebrated my second triathlon win this year, but because I won despite everything I did to sabotage my own race. And as the Disaster Magnet, I always pay for my mistakes, no matter how small they are.

The race was the Great Buckeye Challenge Half-Iron in Springfield, Ohio, and I decided to race it just six days ago. And oh, did I make mistakes. I made easy mistakes that other people also made. I made stupid mistakes that were all mine. And I made those "you-should-never-show-your-face-on-the-triathlon-circuit-again" mistakes. But despite all of them, for the first time ever, I led the women's race out of the water to the finish line. The only explanation I have for it is that something must be amiss in the galaxy.

The mistakes began the day before the race with "the list." "The list" is my pre-race equipment checklist. Every race trip begins with printing out "the list." I learned the value of keeping such a checklist when I was a little girl. My father put me in charge of the checklist for our family camping trips, and I would proudly read it off once the car was packed -- checking off the "essentials" (tents, stakes, fishing poles, sleeping bags, flashlights, propane tanks, etc.) and the "non-essentials" (my teddy bear). One year, after I announced "everything is CHECKED!" we drove about a half-mile down the road only to realize we had left my mother in the driveway. The next year, as expected, "mom" was placed on the checklist. We never forgot her again. Because we used the checklist. Properly.

This weekend, I failed to use "the list" properly -- you could say I failed to use "the list" at all. It started when we pulled out of the driveway Saturday afternoon without my bike helmet (I noticed it was not attached to my transition bag). The first thing out of my husband Jim's mouth: "Isn't it on the list??" My reply: "Yes! But.. but.. I assumed we HAD all the bike stuff" (this was me trying unfairly to displace blame). We turned around, not without Jim's eye-roll, and went back to get it.
  • Listmaking for dummies, tip 1: make a list to eliminate "assumptions"
I soon paid the price for trying to blame Jim for the helmet. After arriving at the race site, Buck Creek State Park, checking in and seeing the [sandy] beach, I realized I also forgot my water bin for washing off my feet in transition. Jim: "Isn't it on the list???" Me: "Yes, but I meant to grab it on the way out."
  • Listmaking for dummies, tip 2: check things off the list only AFTER they are accounted for
We would have to find a store and get another water bin. We went to the hotel. After checking in and getting settled, I uncovered my third "list failure." This one was perhaps the most devastating of all. I had packed all my nutrition requirements except one: my electrolyte capsules. I made this mistake after four weeks of analysis concluding that not enough electrolytes was one of the major causes of my dropout at Ironman Lake Placid. Unbelievable.
  • Listmaking for dummies, tip 3: highlight the most important things to make sure you don't forget them (also known as the "common sense corollary")
Forward to race morning. I should have known something was seriously wrong when I got more than five hours of sleep and woke up refreshed. This "something" is what my husband later described as my "lackadaisical attitude" about the race. We drove to the race site, I picked up my timing chip, got body-marked and then set up my transition. Meanwhile, Jim bought two small packs of electrolytes capsules and everything was good to go. One odd thing about this particular race was we had no bibb numbers, and in setting up my equipment, it was weird to not lay out my race belt.

The 1.2-mile swim was a two-loop long rectangle course parallel to the shore in a beautiful man-made reservoir. The weather started overcast and foggy, the air was cool, and athletes were staying in the water to keep warm. According to race officials, the water temperature was "wet-suit legal." During warm-up, I heard another athlete exclaim: "I don't care how warm the water is, at least my legs will be floating." I kept my wetsuit on thinking the temperature "out on the course" would be cooler. It wasn't. It was warmer. And rough. By the time I finished, my biggest surprise wasn't that I was leading the women's race, but that I hadn't vaporized from boiling in my wetsuit.
  • Listmaking Triathlon for dummies, tip 1: if the water is [too] warm, don't wear a wetsuit, even if you do need it to "float" your legs
At over 33 minutes, my swim time was much slower than anticipated. (Many athletes would later commiserate about swim times up to 10 minutes slower than expected.) The swim was followed by a long uphill run from the beach and into the transition zone. After getting my wetsuit off in record time, I made my first stupid mistake at the bike rack. I unracked my bike before putting on my helmet and sunglasses. Note: if you place your helmet and sunglasses on your aerobars and unrack your bike, you will throw your helmet and sunglasses across the transition zone. What was I THINKING? Answer: I WASN'T thinking. I tried to blame it on not having a race belt to grab, but the problem was that I was not focused on what I was doing. I stopped, took the time to curse at myself, give Jim "the look" (something I didn't realize I did until he told me afterward), then picked up my helmet and sunglasses, put them on and made like Usain Bolt for the transition exit.

The 56-mile bike course was two-loops on rolling country roads with traffic. There were two other triathlon distances using parts of the same course. Intersection traffic was controlled by state troopers, but intersections were not always marked or manned, and directions were sometimes on the road and sometimes on A-frame signs. I fell victim to one of those unmanned intersections. Following the 40K instead of the 56-mile bike course I followed the state troopers' directions when they pointed left. I was supposed to go straight. I asked a 40K biker who informed me of the mistake. I lost about two minutes for the blunder. And yes, it was MY mistake. I glanced at but didn't study the course map before the race, and I could have paid closer attention to the arrows on the road. After the race, I was relieved to learn I wasn't the only one who made that error.
  • Triathlon for dummies, tip 2: read and understand the course maps before the race
At the bike turnaround, I was surprised to see I was still leading the women's race, especially since I'm a weak biker who went off course. But the next women were less than a minute behind me. Expecting to be passed in the second loop, I started asking myself the hard questions: Should I hold back and save my legs for the run? Should I try to maintain the lead and hammer?

I held my pace (around 20 mph) and waited. After a turnaround with about 10 miles to go, I saw the gap had shortened and the women were closing in. I made a decision. This might be the only chance I ever get to lead a race from start to finish, and that's what I wanted to do. I hammered the last 10 miles and pulled into the transition zone with my second fastest half-ironman bike time ever and only about five seconds in front of the second woman.

My bike-to-run transition went better than usual, but it still wasn't fast. I gave the second woman the slip when she sat down to put on her running shoes.

My run start was the scene of yet another bizarre blunder. The sun had come out and the temperature was rapidly approaching the 80s. I popped an electrolyte capsule in my mouth assuming there would be a water stop on the way out of transition. I mean, come on, what half-ironman race doesn't provide water on the way out of transition? The answer: this one. Upon the realization, I went to spit out the capsule but it was a nano-second too late. It dissolved and my mouth instantly turned into a salt mine.
  • Triathlon for dummies, tip 3: don't put anything in your mouth that requires water unless you actually have the water-stop in sight
The 13.1-mile run was a two-loop course on a paved multi-purpose path. My run started out a little fast -- I clocked mile 2 at 6:20 but then slowed to a 6:45-7:00 pace. By the second loop, the miles were no longer marked, and I stopped caring about how fast I was running when I saw I had a substantial lead. My run time was about 1:35, my total time around 4:52, and I was seventh overall and first woman.

It was obvious that everyone was struggling with the the heat on the run. There were aid stations with water, Hammer HEED, Hammergel and fruit, but there was a severe lack of man-power. The last aid station before the 3.2-mile turn-around was completely unmanned, and therefore, self-serve. I have never seen anything like it. The supplies were there but had not been unpacked. Cups and ice were still in plastic bags and the water and HEED jugs were not marked. It was a disaster with people desperately searching for what they needed. If you, like me, had planned on running through the water-stops, it all ended there. I just hope they didn't run out of supplies before the last runner went through.

I enjoyed hanging around after the race for a bit and met some of the other athletes. I especially enjoyed talking with two of the top men, Jason from Hudson, OH and Jun from Columbus. Sometimes, being able to celebrate and/or commiserate ends up being the best part of a race. It's when you realize, as athletes, we're all pretty much the same.

The Springfield, OH, Chamber of Commerce made a little video of the race containing interviews with the men's winner and yours truly:

1 comment:

  1. First, congratulations on (another) first place finish.

    After reading (and watching) this post I have some super important stuff to note:

    1. No bib numbers? As a sometimes spectator, I have always resorted to cheering for the bib number if I didn’t know the athlete. I would feel cheated if I had to say “Looking good person in the tri-shorts!!” all day. Bib numbers and, preferably a name is a must for us spectators. When will these race directors learn that it’s all about us spectators?

    2. Your “non-hammering” bike pace is 20mph? I’ll just file that in my “reasons to hate you file”.

    3. Did you notice when you mentioned getting hit by a car they showed photos of cars? That’s either super mean or hilarious. I’m not sure yet.

    So here’s the deal, if for some reason I don’t get into Canada maybe I’ll join you in Utah but you guys have to promise to hang out for a few hours and watch me finish.

    All the best,