Thursday, June 12, 2014

Long Course, I've Missed You: 2014 USAT Long Course National Championship

Rainy starting line (pink caps = age 40+ chicks)
In March of this year, I was in search of nearby (read: within driving distance) spring triathlons to do once my hamstring tendon healed. At the time, I wasn't sure if I'd be in shape for, say, a half-iron distance, but if I conquered a marathon in May, then it might work - since the running part (the most damaging to my injury) would be only half that distance.

The Grand Rapids Triathlon on June 8 would only be four hours away, encompassing one overnight stay and a drive home right after the race (assuming no hospital disasters such as asthma attacks). But in registering for Grand Rapids, I missed a teeny tiny little detail: it was also the USAT Long Course Age Group National Championship. This detail was uncovered by accident while discussing the race with one of my teammates at our yearly kick-off meeting. As soon as I got home, I checked the race website.

Yep. I accidentally registered for a national championship. Oops.

Sure, anyone could register. But I wasn't ready for a National Championship. The hype. The competition. All I sought was a low-key-let's-get-back-to-longer-distance-racing-without-expectations kind of race. And THIS would not be it. THIS would be a challenge. But I told myself I was up for it. I would race the best and smartest race I could. And I would be OK with whatever happened. That's what I told myself.

And so, as usual, cards started stacking up against me and my "up for it" attitude.

Friday afternoon at work, I came down with massive congestion in my sinuses and found that my husband Jim's cold would finally get me. (I swear I was washing my hands!) I took two hours off from work to get a jump on it, but by that evening, my throat was sore, I could barely breathe, and I began reconsidering toe-ing that starting line. One bout with pneumonia and I live in fear of even a hint of an upper respiratory infection. Jim stuffed me full of Mucinex-D - the only thing that worked for him - and told me we should go to Grand Rapids and make the decision on race morning. Ugh. The horror of Ironman St. George 2012 came rushing back. But I had no fever, no chills, and no other aches and pains. And I knew if I woke up Sunday morning feeling good and we weren't in Grand Rapids,  there would be regrets.

So I tried to sleep on Friday night, and we made the trip to Grand Rapids early enough that I could get a nap in the hotel before dinner. I didn't get any better, and I didn't get any worse. But all the resting took its toll as one of my old bugaboos came back and bit me on Saturday night. I couldn't sleep a single wink. When the alarm went off at 4:00 am, there was nothing more I could do. I never enjoyed racing on no sleep (and a head cold), but I've done it before. And the simple fact was that I didn't feel all that bad on race morning. Certainly I could finish, even if I had to walk and take pit-stops.

And thus, the only thing that could now make things bad was the weather. At 5:15 am, we walked out to the car in the midst of a downpour. And there was no parking near the race site. By the time I made it to transition, everyone and everything was getting soaked. I kept myself relatively dry by donning a large plastic garbage bag, but there was nothing to keep the rain out of our running shoes and transition area. It would be one of those very messy days and I started to worry about controlling my bike on slick roads.

By start time - 7:00 am - the rain had become a sprinkle, but athletes, spectators, and everyone's stuff was soaked, there were massive puddles at the start corrals, and it was a lot harder getting into a wetsuit. However, good organization meant everything went off as planned - at 7:15, I was waist deep in the water waiting for the start horn.

Swim exit, still raining. Me in pink cap. Wetsuit strippers at left.
Guy who missed the wetsuit strippers at bottom right.
Several races were taking place that morning. The half, an Olympic-distance triathlon, a sprint triathlon, and aqua-bike races in all three distances. The half-IM went first, and my wave was fourth - 40+ women - in pink caps. While waiting for the start, a few of us lined up wide, noticing the outside line was actually shorter because of a turn in the swim course. We "smart ones" probably had the easiest time in the water on Sunday, and I made it through the 1.2-mile swim un-clobbered. I didn't get my split time (no watch), but I knew I had a good swim because: (1) I spotted only a couple pink-capped women in front of me, and (2) Jim yelled "nice swim!"

I almost missed the wetsuit strippers. Jim had to point them out because I was oblivious and ran right past them. In less than a blink of an eye, I was on my way - I found it strange that I wasn't as exhausted as usual running to my bike. That was the last I saw of Jim in T1. He missed that I struggled clipping on my number belt in the rain, but other than that, my transition was decent, including getting into my bike shoes, and I surprisingly remembered to hit the start button on my Garmin once I mounted the bike. The only problem remaining was that my helmet shield had fogged up. Trying to wipe it while being careful about what was in front of me on wet roads meant that I didn't even look at my speed for the first five miles.

So I had to do a double take when I saw my first 5-mile split. Hard work on the bike this year wasn't expected to pay off this early in the season, and yet, there it was, the first number (the "minutes") on that display was 13. For the math wizards, that meant I was riding between 21-22mph (note: I did not do the math while riding, I just knew that 5 miles in 15 minutes is 20mph, my usual target). I chalked it up to a relatively flat start to the bike leg.

The great thing about the Grand Rapids 56-mile bike leg is that it only has a few turns. It's an out-and-back course with gradual rolling hills - a few are good climbs but nothing really steep where everyone has to get out of the saddle. Unfortunately, because of the large number of participants and long uphills and downhills, Grand Rapids suffered from a serious drafting situation. I wanted to ride my own race, but it was hard to stomach watching a whole peloton of guys with women just hanging on their wheels. Hopefully the USAT officials on the course were paying attention.

Besides trying not to draft, I spent most of the ride doing two things: blowing my nose and mentally assessing if I could keep this pace and still have a good run. After burning my quads for the first hour, I expected a major slow-down at some point, but I backed off a little in the second half to prepare for the run, still thinking it would probably be in vain.

T2. Wet running shoes are not easy to get on.
When I pulled into T2, I saw Jim and I think I yelled something about it being my fastest bike split ever in a half (it wasn't but I was really excited anyway). I knew several women had passed me and I'm sure some of them were in my age group, but I kept repeating to myself "don't do anything stupid on the run... don't do anything stupid on the run..." knowing I have a tendency to chase. The rain had mostly stopped but I still struggled to get my running shoes on wet - I gave up perfecting it, and decided to run with the tongue buckled under the laces.

Based on how I felt getting off my bike, I expected to start the 13.1-mile run fatigued with wobbly legs and thinking "there's no way I can run the whole thing." What happened was the opposite. I felt pretty good. I heard Jim tell me to ease into it, so I backed off a bit, but my legs were not suffering the way I expected, and I went through the first mile in 7:03.

Finishing the run.
The Grand Rapids run course is a two-loop out-and-back. Everyone from all three races is running the same course with different turn-around points, so it's very difficult to know who you are racing against. I really had no idea. I spent much of the run talking to myself to "avoid doing something stupid," assessing how I felt, making decisions about what to drink and/or eat, and looking for two friends who were also racing.

The course had two substantial hills, but to my surprise, my mile splits were pretty even 6:50-7:10 on the flats and downhills, and 7:20-7:30 on the hills, and I managed to survive on only Gatorade without walking the aid stations. When I crossed the finish line, my first thought was that I felt way better than I should have - I immediately regretted not trying to run faster. I asked Jim how I finished - the live results had me second in my age group. My time was 4:46:21, and we both had my run split at 1:34 (my fastest 13.1 miles since 2011).

It took me a while to digest the whole experience. I hadn't raced like that in a long time... and I was on no sleep and I was sick. I came in second in USAT Nats. I spent the next half-hour walking around trying to figure out what I thought of it. Jim kept asking how I was feeling. My answer kept coming back to "way too good" and "I should have run faster," and "I should have gone harder on the bike." I guess this is what happens when you're out of practice. And I am seriously out of practice at long distance racing.

Hanging out with super-fast people - teammate Brian Stern (middle)
and the 9th overall finisher, Nick Glavac (right)
We gathered everything up and took a long walk back to the car while waiting for the awards. After talking to a few athletes and checking out the unofficial results, we found that there were several mistakes that put athletes and relay teams listed in the wrong races and wrong age groups, and one of the mistakes was in my age group. The preliminary "winner" had competed in the Olympic-distance race, not the half, which meant that I was the age group winner. But even more surprising, I finished fifth overall - and no one was more surprised and delighted than me - except maybe Jim, who was adamant about getting things straightened out in the results (I love when he does that).

And so.. that was how an accidental registration resulted in a national championship. And now I have a big decision to make: to decide if I want to go to Motala, Sweden, for the ITU Long Course World Championship. There are worse fates. And I can't say enough huge thank-you's to the people who helped me in my recovery from injury to getting fast enough to stand on that podium Sunday: my P.T., Mike DeRubertis, my ortho doc, Sam Patterson, my awesome teammates from SSSMST, my good friend Ron Harvey (Punk Rock Racing), and obviously, my husband Jim who has become my personal travel agent, logistics support, and photographer and somehow manages to get up at 4am (or earlier) on race day and not complain.

Age group winners got very cool Rudy Project National Champion jerseys.