Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Looking Up: USAT Age Group National Championship Report

USAT Nationals in Burlington, VT
I always dreamed that the first time I entered a race in another country, it would be England. In this dream, I also imagined the specific race: it would [most definitely] be the London Marathon. I imagined running those 26.2 miles on the streets of one of my favorite cities in the world. But to my surprise, two months ago, my dream race changed.

Of course, it still had to be in England. But when I learned that the 2013 ITU Age Group World Championship would be held in Hyde Park, London - I now knew this was THE international race I was meant to do. Hyde Park was a place I knew. A place I loved. The one urban park I've spend more time running in than any other. And there was one way to get there - with a top-18 finish in my age group at the USAT National Championship in Burlington, Vermont.

In a season that had become a deluge of pitfalls, downfalls, unfinished races, illness, injury, and general beating up of myself both mentally and physically, I decided that if I could do ONE thing right this year, it HAD to be this.

Getting to London would come at a price, though. It would mean letting go (mentally) of my Ironman goals. After racing in Burlington last year, I knew it would be next-to-impossible to excel at both short- and long-distance triathlons and work full-time. Discussions (with family members) were had. Big questions were asked. Priorities were rearranged. Sanity may or may not have been restored.

I did not emerge unscathed.

But I did emerge with priorities. The first one was to get to London. I knew from last year's seventh place finish that I couldn't take anything for granted. Age group nationals is no joke. Everyone is fast. I was a year older, a new bunch of super-fast 45-year-olds were now in my age group, and I had spent the last two years training at long slowness. Two short races this year further underscored the fact that my speed had left the building long ago and would require major coaxing to return to my life. But I wanted this bad enough to redevelop that love-hate relationship with my watch and the track, I didn't have a lot of time, and I still had Ironman Louisville in my future. (But that's another story. I'll save it for next weekend.). So I did short speed work during the week and saved the weekends for just enough LSD work to get me to the Ironman finish line.

This might just be the best Italian restaurant in Vermont
By the time we arrived in Burlington Friday afternoon, although I didn't feel "fast," I thought I could at least beat my time (2:20) from 2011. But my early week confidence had been replaced by felt soreness, fatigue, and sluggishness - the taper doldrums. I needed a mental boost, so I went back and read my assessment of last year's race. It had been a disaster: "felt out of sync and discombobulated the whole swim," "legs burning the whole ride," "fatigued, just tried to hang on for the run" - indeed, I KNEW I was better prepared this year.

After racking my bike Friday evening, my husband Jim and I got out of town for dinner at the same restaurant we ate at last year - the awesome Sarducci's in Montpelier. Two glasses of wine with dinner was enough to send me off to a good night's sleep.

Morning on Lake Champlain
Race day started at 4 a.m. - we arrived at the Lake Champlain waterfront early, but my wave (women 45-49) would not start until 8:23. Like last year, we did a lot of waiting around after I set up my transition. The transition zone was huge in order to accommodate the largest field ever at a USAT Age Group Nationals event. I spent more time than usual setting up and making sure I knew exactly where my bike was in relation to obvious landmarks.

My usual nerves didn't kick in until I was in the lineup and on my way to the start. The wind was pretty strong and the water was choppy to say the least. I chose to wear my wetsuit this year unlike last year because the water temperature was measured at 73 degrees. (In retrospect, I wish I hadn't because the water seemed much warmer.)

Pre-race rituals
While I was warming up, the women in my wave were called back for a delay. We saw a boat screaming towards the dock where we were treading water. Within seconds, medical personel were performing CPR on someone. We had no information except that there would be a delay. Sadly, after the race, we learned it was a 50-year-old man who had been pulled from the swim - medics were unable to resuscitate him. It was the first fatality at a USAT Championship in 30 years.

My wave was further delayed and we were advised to get out of the water. It was the only time during the day that I was happy to be in my wetsuit because the air temperature (low-to-mid-60s) was cooler than the water. My wave was finally given the go-ahead to get back in the water, and within about two minutes, we were lined up and the starting horn was fired.

The start is on the other side of that building
(purple caps = women 45-49)
The 1500 meter swim is shaped like a Z with a long top. This year's swim was much choppier than 2011, and there was a stiff current that we swam out against. Jim said he noticed the current was pushing people off course from the side when swimmers looped back. The water in Lake Champlain is very clear, and it's easy to see people on either side, but I struggled mostly to find a clear path and although I didn't get clobbered, I had to work to stay in the mix and my wetsuit was way too hot. My only mishap came in the last 100 meters when I a large strand of seaweed attached itself to my goggles and every time I turned to breathe, it hit me in the mouth. To avoid suffocating, I had to stop and remove it, but I was out and on my way to T1 about a minute later with a time that was almost two minutes faster than last year.

The transition zone this year was a very long rectangular shape. Because I practiced, I had no trouble finding my bike. The only thing that slowed me down was having to sit for a second to get my right leg out of my wetsuit. Shockingly, I beat several women out of transition who beat me out of the water.

Once on the bike, I had no trouble getting into my shoes and by the first stretch, I could tell I already felt better than 2011. The 40K bike course is mostly rolling hills with quite a few turns. There were two big obstacles to overcome. The first was the wind. The back portion of the ride was mostly into the wind. The second obstacle was a moving truck. Yes, there was a semi-truck ON THE COURSE. I don't think it was supposed to be there, and I don't know how it got there, but it took up the entire side of the road on which we were riding. I couldn't pass him on the right because there wasn't enough room. I couldn't pass him on the left without risk of crashing head on into other bikers. There were spectators yelling and waving their arms at the driver, but he just stayed his course. The female biker behind me was yelling but I couldn't hear her. My mind was screaming. Finally, against my better judgment, I managed to get past him on the right (with about six inches to spare), and tried to get back (mentally and physically) into the race. Yep, it was the first time THAT ever happened to me in a race.

Coming into T2 looking confused (probably about my slowness)
At least three women in my age group passed me on the bike, and I think I passed only one. In the last mile, just as I got passed by another age-grouper, I realized I would not beat my bike time from last year. For an instant, I was so disappointed in myself that I almost threw in the towel and chalked another one up to a "bad year."

I had to FOCUS.

Riding into T2, I was struggling to shift my mental energy from a slow bike (that already happened and there was nothing I could do about it) to a fast run (that could still happen if I just got my head out of my butt). Think FAST.

I was thrilled that I got my running shoes on faster than usual (but still slow) - another age-grouper passed me in transition. I was forced to quickly run her down right out of the run start. Then I saw Jim. He gave me the news: in my age group, I was likely 7th or 8th with the leader about four minutes ahead. Ok, so, I always knew this was going to hurt.

The first thing runners face in Burlington is a ridiculously steep hill. I backed off and tried to maintain some sense of humor on the way up. The spectators seemed to appreciate it - they gave me several rounds of applause for being the only one smiling. But at the top, it was all business.

This was as fast as I could go at the finish
I was determined to run this 10K under 40 minutes. I didn't pause to recover from the hill - I just stretched out my stride and got in my rhythm. After the hill, the well-shaded and scenic course was mostly flat or slightly down-sloping. The last three miles are on a paved path. I ran down every woman I saw, only to find that all of them but two were not in my age group. With less than a quarter mile to go, I saw one final age-grouper in front of me. I was tired and I was pretty sure I made top 10 at this point, but I still wanted to win one final battle. I chased, I passed, and I ran like hell. She may have tried to hang with me, but I never turned around. I just ran. Like hell.

When I crossed the finish line, I no longer cared what my place or time was. I knew I had found the monster. It was still down there. Mostly dormant - or just lurking - but yes, it was still there. And it would now be coming to London with me.

I finished fourth in my age group, 17 seconds out of third, and three minutes behind the winner. My 10K was, sadly, not under 40 minutes, but at 40:19, it was more than a minute faster than I had run in two years. I came away from this race with a bike split (1:12:05) two minutes slower than last year, a swim split (23:44) two minutes faster, and an overall time (2:19:23) one minute faster, and plenty of room for improvement.

And perhaps, best of all, I'm finally able to look forward to a new year and not back at a bad one.

Standing on the podium: free 

Signing up for Team USA for London: priceless

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