Monday, June 25, 2012

The (Dis)Comfort Zone

South Haven Beach, early a.m., June 23, 2012
My 2012 triathlon season has gotten off to a rough start, but I'm determined to get it back on track before August. I don't have much choice because August and September will find me with my back up against a wall facing three very important races all within four weeks of each other: the USAT Age Group National Championship (Olympic distance), Ironman Louisville, and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.

The first thing I wanted (had) to do to convince myself that last year was not a fluke was to finish a race. And so I did (finish a race). It was the South Beach Triathlon in South Haven, Michigan, on June 23. An Olympic-distance race that served as a special qualifier for the USAT Nationals, it would surely produce fast times and I would have to push myself.

Race support would have preferred
sleeping in.
The venue for this race (South Haven Beach) was fantastic - it's on the shore of Lake Michigan but looks more like an ocean beach than a lakefront - the water was crystal clear and there's even a sandbar. I was almost expecting to taste salt water when I got in to warm up.

I had no idea what to expect out of myself in the swim, so I started wide to avoid getting clobbered in the first 50 meters. The 1500-meter course started about 500 meters up from the finish and made a strange almost-triangular shape. Before the first turn buoy, I was out of the mix and swam mostly alone for the entire course. I had very little trouble sighing buoys and navigating around people because the water was very calm and it was a beautiful clear day. The air temperature at the start was between 65 and 70 degrees, and the very shallow water (I swear, you could have walked the entire swim course) felt much warmer than the quoted 66 degrees. I wore my wetsuit anyway because I needed practice getting out of it (In Ironman races, I let the wetsuit peelers do it).

In fact, I had practiced getting out of my wetsuit and getting into my running shoes (the two slowest parts of my transitions) in the week leading up to the race. Which made it appropriate, then, that I would have problems with the things I DIDN'T practice. Like getting my helmet on. And running.

When I reached the swim finish, I heard my husband Jim yell "great swim." Considering I've been managing only two swims per week, I was surprised to look down and see 23 minutes on my watch. My swim speed may or may not be attributed to something I tried for the first time in this race. Yes, I KNOW I should NEVER do this, but it was a harmless adjustment: based on a little video I wandered across the night before the race, I tried to lengthen my stroke by rotating my hips instead of my shoulders (something I could never get right, but the video demo turned on a lightbulb). I felt the effect immediately, which was good because after going out too hard, I was able to get my heart rate back under control. I'll be practicing this as soon as I get back in the pool.

You try running in the water and checking your watch
at the same time.
Then came transition - from a wetsuit standpoint, it went well. From a helmet standpoint, not so well. I never thought to practice putting my aero helmet on with my new sunglasses, and wouldn't you know, it was havoc. I lost at least 30 seconds if not more, but the lesson is clear: practice EVERY aspect of transition no matter how small of a deal it seems.

The 40K bike started on a short uphill from the beach. I wasn't sure how my legs would react to being pushed for speed on the bike for a change, so in the week leading up to this race, I did a hard speed session on the road to reacquaint myself with traveling faster than 20 mph. (This is not something I recommend in "taper" mode, but I wasn't tapering for this race, and I needed something, anything, to help me get a grip on "speed").

The bike course was relatively flat with some rolling hills, but I was able to hold 21-22 mph for most of it. I beat one woman out of transition and I passed two other women on the "out" portion of the bike course. But at the turnaround, I noticed two women right behind me (not the women I already passed). My legs weren't screaming, but I was working them hard, and although I had a fast swim and was faster on the bike this year, I was certainly not stupid enough to think I could hold off the inevitable faster female bikers. I was still leading through 25K, when I was passed by the only woman who covered the course faster than I did that day. She didn't really blow by me, so I figured all I had to do was keep her in sight and hopefully catch her on the run. I tried to stay behind her, albeit out of her drafting zone.

The reason I wrote "out of her drafting zone" was because right after she passed me, something extremely odd happened. We both passed a pack of men, and one of them swerved to the left as I was passing him (apparently he didn't hear me). My knee-jerk reaction was to say "sorry."

His reaction, on the other hand, was bizarre: he immediately started screaming at me. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but he hung beside me and continued to yell. With profanity. I though maybe he was angry and blamed me for the near-collision, but I just wanted to get past him and get on with my race. Then I realized he was saying something about drafting. He was yelling "don't you know there's no drafting in triathlon?!?!" Did he think I was drafting off him? I dropped back, waited and then passed him again. He started screaming at me again - I was able to make out: "ride your own race." That hurt. If there was one thing I WAS doing on Saturday it was riding my own race - of which he only witnessed a microcosm.

He chased down the woman who passed me and started saying something to her. It was THEN I realized he was accusing me of drafting off HER. Seriously?? I was working quite hard to stay OUT of her draft zone because she kept speeding up and slowing down. The angry self-appointed referee dropped back to yell profanities at me again - this time saying he was going to "yell out my number."

Having never experienced this before, I didn't know how to react. USAT has conduct rules, and the last thing I wanted to do was violate them. I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to point out that HE was actually the one guilty of drafting. In the end, I decided the best course of action was none - and continued my race. But I'd be lying if I said the whole experience didn't rattle my mental and physical state. It took several minutes to calm down and regain my focus.

By the time I was out of his anger zone-of-influence, the bike leg was almost finished, and I would soon find out what my running legs were capable of in a short race. I finished the bike leg just over 1:05, had a relatively quick transition into my running shoes, and I was off, chasing the female biker who passed me.

The 10K run started on the same hill as the bike, and it was similar to the bike course - gradual rolling with one other hill at the turnaround. The temperature was probably approaching 80 degrees at this point, but the air was dry so it was pretty comfortable. My only problem was that I had NO SPEED in my legs. I almost stopped to have a conversation with them: "Why are you doing this to me? You used to be fast! What's the deal?" But no matter how hard I tried, my leg turnover just wasn't there. The only gait my legs seemed to know was the marathon shuffle.

Awkward doesn't begin to describe finishing on a beach.
After passing the one woman, I had no idea where I was in the race, and I only knew who was behind me and never saw the one woman who remained in front of me - even at the turnarounds, I never saw her. The final few hundred meters of the race was on the beach sand, and when I hit the beach, I heard the announcer say that the top two women were now "on the beach" - I turned around to check if there was one just behind me, but unfortunately, the winner was about 30 seconds in front of me. I never knew she was there. Even if I did, I don't think I could have caught her.

I ended up with a run time just over 42 minutes. It was several minutes slower than my best and even though I felt like I was maxed out on the run, I was disappointed that I maxed out at such a slow pace. Seriously, I don't want to blame this one on age, but something in me fears that sub-40 10Ks are a thing of the past.

Mentally, I'm fighting it.

Even two days later, I'm still fighting it.

Yeah, I'm smiling - I finally finished
a race.
But back to race day: I was mostly satisfied with my final time of 2:14:27. When I went to pick up my bike in transition after the race, I may have found a new calling. There was a young woman sitting in transition next to her stuff. She was on the phone and broken down in tears. It was heartbreaking. After she got off the phone, I felt compelled to help. I asked her if she was ok and if there was anything I could do. She said, and I quote: "No, I'm ok, I just had a really. bad. race."

Did she know who she was talking to? I thought to myself: YES! Now HERE was something I KNEW I could help with.

I told her I was sorry, and I knew exactly how she felt. Then I told her about the beginning of MY season. About Ironman St. George. And Mooseman. And that I had yet to FINISH a race this year. Within 5 minutes, she was standing up, talking, smiling and thanking me.

It felt good. Almost like everything happens for a reason.

And now, here I stand, with the knowledge that my usual bugaboo - biking - is not nearly the enigma it's been for the past ten years. And the only things standing between me and a better season are the very two things that I know I have the ability to excel at: swimming and running.

Getting there is going to hurt. But I can't think of a better position I'd rather be in right now.


  1. That idiot on the bike was just pissed off because he got blown away not by ONE chick but TWO !!! Next time tell him to kiss your backside ... IF he could keep up.


  2. As always I love reading your race reports! I agree with J3, you should have said something along the lines of "Look I know it hurts getting beaten by a girl but look on the bright side, you now realize you're not very good at triathlons. Perhaps time to pick a new sport?". And then you should have karate kicked him off his bike! Uhhh perhaps your response was the more mature, correct way to handle things! Congrats again,