Monday, August 26, 2013

This isn't the Race: USAT Age Group Nationals

What can I possibly say about my race at USAT Age Group Nationals? That my time was embarrassing? That I was seriously disappointed? That it's just par for the course of this year?

It's taken me two weeks to regroup and sit down to write anything. The rest of the time I think about it, I end with the emotional equivalent of a shrug. I don't really know what happened that day. I thought I was ready to put in great swim and bike times to make up for (what I thought would be a) 44 minute 10K (based on other results this year). Why shouldn't I expect that? I've been training my butt off on the bike and swim this summer - specifically to make up for my injury-ridden running.

At least I was smiling at bike check-in.
But despite all my preparation and fantastic weather in Milwaukee on August 10, I still came up well short of my goals. What were my goals? To finish with a better time than I did in the last two USAT National events (around 2:20). Both of those races were with Ironman training on my legs and no taper on a hilly course.

And THIS year has been all about training for Olympic distance. Short. Speed work. Lots of rest.

In the two week lead-up to Milwaukee, even my running was starting to look decent. I was able to put in two speed sessions. My tibia stopped hurting. My hip was loosening up. And I could run without pain and full range of motion for the first time since October of last year. I wanted to enjoy myself at this race distance. It's not like Ironman when I'm constantly assessing what's going on with my body, how I'm feeling, and what I'm drinking and eating (my biggest issues at long distance) for 11 hours or more. I would have to work pretty hard to ruin my nutrition in an Olympic-distance race. Heck, I could survive it just on water.

Pre-race body marking.
But in the end, this isn't the race that would give me new-found confidence. I would eventually have to chalk this one up as yet another (learning) experience leading up to the ITU World Championship in London and try not to let the fallout set me up for more failure.

In looking back, I searched for the few positive things that happened in Milwaukee. They started with the swim. The 1500m swim in Milwaukee is an out-and-back loop that starts along the wall at Discovery World on Lake Michigan. The swim course is in a protected area so the water is calm. The course has a "neck" that goes under a walk-bridge, takes a little turn to the left, and then comes back on the other side, back under the bridge, and finishes just a walk down from the field of the transition zone. There were 17 waves in the start. My wave was 7th, starting at 8:21. Everyone was delayed by about 30 minutes because of technical issues with clearing the course. It just gave me more time to use the restroom, then get my wetsuit on and warm up.
My swim was the one part of the race that went very well. Water temperature was about 65 degrees which is perfect with a wetsuit. I got a good, fast, start and was immediately up in the front pack of swimmers in my age group. I felt strong the whole way and had no trouble navigating the buoys because it was a clear day and the sun was high enough to not be in our eyes. In the final strokes to the finish I raced alongside another swimmer and was excited to beat her out of the water (this doesn't usually happen because my arms are completely spent by the end of the swim). My husband Jim was right there to let me know I was 4th out of the water in my age group. That made me very happy.

W45-49 swim start
T1 bike out: I swear I was trying to move fast
Transition didn't go as well as I would have liked. I was able to get my new wetsuit stripped down to my knees pretty quickly but then my bugaboo - getting it off around my heels - came back to bite me. I struggled just a little less than usual, grabbed my helmet and number, and hustled to the exit. I barely stayed in front of the woman I beat out of the water, but once I was on my bike, I was ready to attack.

Too bad my legs didn't come along for the ride. From the very get-go of the bike leg, my legs were burning and screaming like I had just ridden up a mountain. Did I tax myself too much in the swim? (I swam harder than I'm used to, but this was a short race and I planned on that). I shifted down to spin but it only managed to make me slower. The aforementioned woman passed me and I tried to keep up, but I had nothing. After pushing hard to catch and pass her, she then re-passed me - and I repeat: I had NOTHING. It was about that time the eventual winner of the age group blew by me like I was standing still. My heart sank. I kept hoping my legs would come around, but it just got worse, so I backed off to give them a break.

Through first loop of bike course.
Just after that, a USAT referee on motorcycle pulled up alongside me and was writing something on her pad. Oh NO!! I looked in front to make sure I was out of the draft zone of the woman I had played leapfrog with. She kept slowing down and I kept trying to back off, but maybe I didn't do it in time - and now I had a drafting penalty. The ref pulled away after about 30 seconds.

This was NOT the way I wanted to start my bike leg. I tried to shake it off. Remembering Clearwater in 2011, getting angry would ruin my concentration. I regrouped and rode hard despite continuing to be passed by women in my age group.

The 40K bike course should be (well.. is) really fast. It is a short out-and-back loop followed by a longer out-and-back loop, mostly flat on well-paved roads. It has a long gradual hill - a bridge - and the final few miles included the bridge and were against the wind. Near the end of my ride, I did see a LOT of uncaught and ridiculously-obvious drafting - which made me a bit angrier - but that's what happens on flat, fast courses.

I don't remember being this happy, but apparently
I WAS still having fun at the bike finish.
Pulling into transition, I had no idea where I was in the grand scheme, but I knew it wasn't good. My bike time - 1:10 - was even slower than my time on the mountain at the Pittsburgh Tri. And this was without the two-minute drafting penalty added in. I was discouraged and now I had to make something up in the run - currently my worst discipline. As is customary, Jim let me know the age group leader was about six minutes ahead (like there was any chance at this point). But I'm glad he had hope.

Transition 2 was also slow. I had a long run with my bike and had to stop a couple times to avoid running into other athletes in transition. The good thing was I think I finally figured out how tight to keep my stretchy shoelaces - this was the first time I didn't have to stop and adjust. And I remembered to run with my visor and sunglasses instead of putting them on first.

The 10K run course goes out on a paved path along the lake and comes back on the road to finish on grass between the Art Museum and Discovery World. The beginning of my run was nothing short of shocking: I had NO pain in my hip, NO pain in my shin, and my legs were moving better than they have in a long time. I had hope.

I thought I was the only one, but you can't really tell who
was hurting more - the girl in front or me - in this photo.
I passed a couple of women in my age group and settled in behind a third who was running a very even pace. My first mile split - 6:57 - was very encouraging. The next few were all over seven minutes and although I was ok with it, I became acutely aware of the fact that I still had no speed or pick-up in my legs - at all. I felt like I was trudging along even though I was trying to run hard. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get my pace back under seven minutes.

Then, somewhere between mile 5 and 6, real disaster struck. It felt like someone had stuck an knife in my left hip. I think I actually turned around to see if this had, indeed, happened. I instantly lost the full stride in my left leg and had to take abbreviated steps while wincing in pain. I didn't know whether I should stop and walk, or fight to the finish. It was only about a half mile away and there were 18 Team USA slots for 2014 on the line. I decided to fiught for one of them. When I could see the finish line, I managed to limp my way past one last woman (not in my age group) to finish.

After crossing, I immediately fell on the ground. All I wanted was for the pain to stop. As usual, volunteers tried to push me along ("keep walking") but I asked for help. Medical personnel picked me up and carried me to the medical tent. I told them my symptoms but that all I probably needed was some ice and I'd be on my way. I was eventually able to stand and walk and they wrapped two ice packs against my hip with a huge roll of plastic wrap. I slowly made my way out of the tent to find Jim.

Screw this pain! I pushed the final few steps.
Jim was right across from the medical tent waiting along the finish chute. It was then I realized I didn't have my finisher medal. I told him I needed to get my medal and he yelled: "get it from Chrissie!" and pointed to someone in the crowd. WHAT? I turned to see Ironman champ Chrissie Wellington handing out medals. I waved off the other volunteers and made my way over to her. She put the medal around my neck and gave me a hug and a kiss. I floated away down the chute, forgetting for a brief moment, the agony of my day.

It would soon come flooding back. Jim helped me walk slowly to the food tent and told him about the pain in my hip and my drafting penalty. This isn't the race I was supposed to have here. I sat down to replenish, wondering what would be my final time and place. My watch said 2:23. Jim went to check the results - when he came back, he said the penalties were not recorded yet, but that I finished 11th in my age group. Then it also occurred to me that I probably wouldn't make Team USA this time.

Thus began the long walk to the car via transition to pick up my bike. I just wanted to be on my way home and forget the whole thing. And I didn't want to walk one more step. I was tired of pain. Tired of trying to get through a sub-par injury-ridden season. I felt like crying but I was just too tired. I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. This isn't the race I was supposed to have at USAT Nationals.

Jim went back to the finish line one more time to check the results. When he came back, he told me they still didn't have the penalties added, but with a drafting penalty added, I'd be 18th. And so I would make Team USA by a hair. Relieved, we got on the road - and I had seven hours to ponder my race, my season, my year, and, perhaps, my next year.

Thanks to technology, on the way home we found out I DIDN'T get a drafting penalty (whew!), and I DID make it onto Team USA - for the ITU Age Group World Championship in Edmonton, Canada in 2014. (As a hockey fan in the 80s, this is another place I've always dreamed of seeing.)

But that doesn't change the fact that this wasn't the race I was supposed to have. I  feel like I'm clutching at straws. Despite my running not being up to par, my biking and swimming are alive and well (very well if I compare training numbers) - and I couldn't even perform in those legs. I may not be getting enough sleep, but I don't feel like I'm overtrained. My physical therapist says that the problem is that I'm trying to heal DURING the season and that's just not a good combination. What choice do I have?

I've given up designs on placing well in London, but I'm still going to toe that line on September 15th. Even if I weren't racing, we'd still be going.  A vacation is in order and the plans have been made. There are way more reasons to go to England than just a race. I just want to swim in the Serpentine in Hyde Park (my very favorite urban park). We have great friends in London and Exeter. And it seems miracles also happen because my favorite band, Turin Brakes, just announced an intimate London gig during our time there. (For those who know me, you know I'd choose Turin Brakes over a race any day). And who knows, hope springs eternal - maybe miracles travel in twos.

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