Sunday, August 21, 2011

You Win Some: USAT Age Group National Championship Race Report

One great thing about Burlington, VT:
Ben & Jerry's
The title of this article is a lyric from the titular song on Mark Knopfler's 2010 album, "Get Lucky," because after my most recent triathlon, I worry that my successes so far this year may have had more to do with good fortune than hard work or talent. And ever since I crossed the finish line on Saturday, I've been asking myself the following question: what can I possibly have to write about my performance in the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship in Burlington, Vermont?

The only thing I could come up with is this: do you know that feeling you have when you're rested and all ready to race? Yeah... well, I didn't have that feeling on Saturday. In fact, I didn't have that feeling at ALL the entire week. The days leading up to the USAT Nationals were plagued with fatigue, discomfort, and soreness and I should have dropped my performance expectations early in the week to avoid the potential fallout.

Another great thing about Burlington:
Vermont Brews
But I was naive. I tried to ignore it. I tried to shake it off. I tried to think positive. Even when cold hard facts were staring me right smack in the face: I have two Ironman races' worth of fatigue on my body and I'm in the midst of training for a third. No matter how hard I wished and worked for short-race speed, it just wasn't gonna happen. But I tried anyway, and I tried to convince myself it COULD happen.

Now I'm left to pick up the pieces of my wasted self and my shattered self-confidence. And I wonder how much damage was done. To my endurance training. To my attitude. And to my upcoming Ironman in Kona.

Attempting to race well in an Olympic-distance tri at this point in my season was a disaster in the making. Too bad it started so innocently - as a reason to go back to Burlington for the first time since the Vermont City Marathon in 1993 when my husband Jim and I had a great trip despite a disappointing race performance. We loved Burlington. We even bought our wedding rings there. We looked forward to a great trip back 18 years later. And Burlington in 2011 was everything I remembered from 1993 - an awesome city with great restaurants and shopping.

And the last great thing about
Burlington: Church Street performers
My high hopes began to vanish last Wednesday when I spent my time in the pool fighting the water only two days after having my best swim workout this year. By Friday, I was baffled at why my legs felt thick and heavy on the bike after two days off. Running felt about the same. And my swim stroke had no strength at all.

But despite these issues, I surprisingly slept like a rock the night before the race and my usual anxiety was almost nonexistent. I could only chalk it up to a new level of confidence resulting from a great racing season so far.

(Quick note: When I use the word "confidence" in describing my attitude, disaster is looming on the horizon.)

We drove down to the race start around 6:00 am. The transition area and swim were located at Lake Champlain's Waterfront Park. We managed to find parking above the park and had to walk down a steep hill to the transition. My bike had been racked the day before, so all I had to do was set up my transition and decide whether or not to wear a wetsuit in the 74.5-degree water. I had until 8:40 a.m. to make my decision as my age group, women 45-49, would start in the last wave. No one I talked to understood the reasoning behind the start waves - for instance, men 18-24 were in the second-to-last wave and there was a 10-minute gap before the wave start of women 50+. Go figure.

Pre-race line-up, I was the only one stupid enough to
not wear a wetsuit.
The 1.5K swim would be entirely within a breakwall in a boating area along the shore of Waterfront Park and the swim course was a sort of modified "Z" shape. Because of the water temperature, I decided to go with my swimskin instead of a wetsuit to save time in transition (and after Lake Placid, I was convinced the speed advantage of a wetsuit was minimal). By the time I lined up with my wave, I realized I was one of only a handful of athletes not wearing a wetsuit, none of whom were in my wave. I prayed I hadn't made a critical error by not wearing a wetsuit.

The swim start was in deep water adjacent to a set of boat docks. We were funneled to the start area in waves... It gave me the distinct feeling I was getting on an amusement park ride (like a rollercoaster) - and my pre-race anxiety just added to that feeling. To stay warm, I waited until the last possible moment to get into the water, then swam out to the starting area with the rest of my age group. We had to tread water for about 2.5 minutes, and with only about 100 women in my wave, it was much less exciting than what I'm used to in an Ironman race. I could distinctly hear the starter and everyone was relatively well-behaved and quiet. Until we were swimming.

The swim finish - I look much better than I felt
In the short swim to the first turn buoy, I had almost no problem contenting with other swimmers. But after that, I got clobbered several times by a swimmer behind me who seemed to want to swim right up on top of me throughout the the race. I got so annoyed at her that I finally just stopped and did breaststroke for a minute to try get out of her path. Spotting buoys was not easy because there were only a few of them (that didn't even appear to be in a straight line), and at one point we were headed directly into the sun. After the race, several people I talked to complained that they swam well off course because of this.

Throughout the swim, I never really felt good or strong. Instead, I felt like I was flailing around and my stroke never felt reached a normal rhythm. I'm still not sure why this was after having several great training swims recently. It was as though, overnight, I had forgotten how to swim.

I got out of the water and started stripping off my swim-skin while running to my bike. Volunteers were telling us to take it easy with wet grass and mud in the transition zone. I thought my transition could have gone a little quicker as as I donned sunglasses, helmet, number belt and then fumbled with my gel flask. My shoes were clipped to my bike and I ran through the grass and mud hoping my feet didn't get too much dirt and pebbles on them. I didn't have too much trouble slipping into my bike shoes, and getting on my way.

However, after a few minutes, I looked down only to realize that my bike computer was still in sleep mode. I simultaneously realized that I had also not looked at my watch or taken a single split since the start. I was NOT mentally engaged in this race. I took a watch split and started my bike computer, but the damage was already done. (According to the results, my swim spit was 25:39 and my transition was 1:18.)

Bike finish (I look desperate for it to be over)
The 40K bike course was a modified out-and-back along rolling terrain that even encompassed a part of the freeway, I-89. But trust me, in Vermont (or anywhere in my homeland of New England for that matter), it could have been a LOT worse than it was. From the very start my quads felt like they were on fire and no matter what I did, I could not shake it. I tried high and low cadences and nothing could rid me of the feeling that I was in a major state of lactic acid buildup. I went into survival mode and although I passed quite a few people (remember, I started in the last wave), I got passed by several women in my age-group who were out of sight in a matter of minutes. I worked the downhills the best I could but unlike Ironman Lake Placid (IMLP), I was unable to roll by anyone on the uphills. I went into survival mode on the bike and my mind turned hoping I could pull something out on the run. At one point, a woman in my age group passed me and said "there are a LOT in front of us" (assuming age group? who says that?).

Because of the bike computer/watch fail, I didn't know how far I had gone or what my time and average were, so I ignored it and rode as hard as I could to the finish. I didn't think my average would be much faster than 20 mph, but the official split had me at 21 mph. Once I was off my bike, I ran as fast as I could to the rack and tried to stretch out my legs a little for the run. My transition was slow because I struggled a little to get into my shoes, but I did remember to grab my hat and run with it. I wasn't sure where the transition ended and the run began, so once again, I did not take a split until I was actually ON the run course.

Run start - already suffering.
The 10K run started on a very steep uphill right after leaving the transition zone. I didn't feel great running up it, but getting into shuffle mode, I was running much faster than everyone around me so I just went with it. By the time I reached the top, I felt pretty good, decided to lengthen my stride and try to catch as many people as possible. When I started the run, Jim yelled that he thought I was eight minutes behind the age group leader. I knew at that point that I didn't stand a chance of catching her, so I settled on just wanting to have a respectable run.

After the hill, the run course was pretty flat, along residential roads and on a bike path - the same path I remember running on in the 1993 Vermont City Marathon. After the first mile, I was able to hang onto a 6:30 pace for three miles, but by the time I hit mile five, my legs were dead from that overall fatigue, and I had slowed to a 6:45 pace. By the time I crossed the finish line, I was angry, confused and disappointed in myself for not being able to run down more women in my age group. My 10K time was well over 40 minutes, and Jim told me I had finished somewhere around 6th in my age group (it was actually 7th). But what bothered me the most was that it was the first time in three years I was unable to break 2:20 in an Olympic-distance triathlon. (My official run split was 40:53 and my finish time was 2:20:01.)

I paced (both physically and mentally) for a long time afterwards - going over the race in my head to determine what went wrong. The only thing I can come up with is that both my head and body were not ready to race this distance. And I didn't treat it like the "B" or "C" race that it was. My whole season has been focused on Ironman and half-ironman. But I made the mistake of assuming I could perform well at short races when even when training for long ones. (In my running-only days, this was almost always true.) Last year, my 2:14 performance in an Oly-distance race two weeks after IMLP could have been nothing more than a fluke.

So, Burlington, Vermont, would once again be the site of a disappointing race performance, and now I have to determine how to view it as a non-disaster and get on with my season. If it weren't a national championship event, I think it would probably be a little easier. I guess I learned a valuable lesson - not to go to a "big" race and make it a "B" race. It was hard to sit through the awards knowing I could have done better if I had given myself half a chance (like, if I tapered, for instance).

Hanging out after the race with someone
I have great respect for - teammate, blogger,
and Punk Rock Racing Revolutionary,
Frank DeJulius
But there were several good things that came out of the weekend. Jim and I had a wonderful time in Burlington. I got to spend some valuable time talking to two of my Bike Authority Fleet Feet Multisport teammates: Frank DeJulius and Aaron Emig. For various reasons, Frank and Aaron didn't have their best races in Burlington either. After talking with them about their training and racing, I didn't feel so alone in my disappointment. Aaron will be representing the USA at the ITU Age Group World Championship in Beijing on September 10, and he convinced me to sign up for a spot to do the same thing in 2012 in New Zealand (the top 18 in each age group can sign up for Team USA).

So, now I have some big decisions to make for next year - like should I turn my focus from Ironman to short distances for a year? It's an exciting thing to think about, and I know it will be hard for me to give up the long distance training I love. But I have a little bit of time to think it through.

But for now, I have to focus on my new job and my two most important races of the year, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas and the Ironman World Championship in Kona.

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