The first of the aforementioned races was the USAT Olympic-distance Age Group National Championship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It came about two weeks after I was able to start swimming after my surgery and while I was still desperately trying to get my running legs back. I had no idea how I would perform overall, but at the very least, I was expecting a decent split on the bike. Cycling was the only sport for which I was able to solidly train. And as luck (?) would have it, the location of my surgical incisions forced me into doing 99% of my riding in the aero position - JUST for comfort. Could I be the first person ever to utter such a statement?
My race expectations were fulfilled: it was my slowest swim split - ever, my fastest bike split - in Milwaukee, and a very slow run - by my standards. Looking for positives, I can say that despite being exhausted after the swim, I "felt" strength in my legs on the bike AND on the run. And I do wish I had pushed harder in the bike leg because, despite my snail-like running pace, my legs felt much fresher than usual in T2.
Photos from USAT Nats in Milwaukee:
|Swim wave start, age group: women 50+|
|Let's get this thing going.|
|Starting the run.|
My overall time - 2:20:46 - was good for 6th in my age group - my best placing in Milwaukee in their three years of hosting the event. Disappointingly, it wasn't my fastest time on the Milwaukee course.
Immediately, I went back to the grind to spend a few weeks whipping myself into swim shape and lengthening my longest run to 14 miles. I needed a test, and I longed to have something - anything - to hang my hat on this season. I decided to register for a half-ironman distance race - but where? Heading into Autumn (or as my husband Jim "Stark" would say: "Winter is coming."), we were running out of places that were not only drive-able but also made good vacation spots. The latter was necessary just in case the race is a total fail (obviously, you learn these tricks when your nickname is Disaster Magnet). Since my income is almost nonexistent, the location also had to be affordable.
The event appearing to fit the bill was Challenge Maine, a Challenge Family race in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Many things could be accomplished by a trip to New England. We could visit my mom in Connecticut. We could sight-see. We could go to the beach. I could satisfy my yearly craving for fresh fried clams.
Thus, I registered and started researching Old Orchard Beach (a.k.a. OOB). Yes, this was indeed the place of my New England dreams. There was a boardwalk and pier. There was an amusement park on the beach. There were clam shacks. There were lighthouses on the coast. (In fact, some of the best-known Edward Hopper lighthouse paintings were just north of OOB.) The hotels in OOB were old-style and handed down through families - not a single chain hotel among them. And the kicker - my mother told me it was my grandparents' favorite vacation spot when they were young.
We drove to Connecticut, spent two days, then drove up the New England coast with stops in Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester where we ate dinner. When I stepped out of the car in Salem, my first thought was: Oh, how I've missed the smell of the ocean!
Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester are old-style New England fishing towns:
|Nathaniel Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables"|
|There are piers like this everywhere|
|Lighthouses on Thatcher Island off the coast of Rockport|
That night, when we pulled into the town of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, I was instantly transported back in time. To the time of my youth spent on New England beaches. To my grandparents' time, when the hotels were grand and had large common rooms and screened decks where guests could commune or just relax and read a book. I imagined people sitting on their hotel porches in the morning and strolling the boardwalk in the evening. There were no cell phones or air conditioners or TV. There was sun. And sand. And salt water. That was all WE needed for a vacation. Handheld technology did not interfere. Is it coincidental our hotel clerk gave us real keys and the room had only old-style tube TVs (no flat screens here) and no TV remotes? I hope not. I was determined to be renewed on this trip.
|The strip of old hotels along the main drag in Old Orchard Beach|
|The view of the beach from our hotel|
|Our hotel, the Ocean House Hotel, taken from the sandbar|
|The ferris wheel at Palace Playland|
The weather in Connecticut and Maine - including race day - was unbelievably nice: clear skies, 80s by day, 60s at night. The water temperature was in the 60s. It was perfect!
On to race morning....
Challenge Maine took place on Sunday, August 30. The morning was clear and in the 60s. The 1.2-mile ocean swim was a point-to-point that started on the beach with a run into the water. It was low-tide at race start - 6:30 a.m. - so the race organizers drew a giant starting line in the sandbar (how cool is that?). My wave (women 40+ and relays) was the last of four for the half. There was also an olympic-distance race that started after us.
Here are some great race morning and swim start photos that Jim took:
|Sunrise was beautiful|
|Yes, we have to swim all the way to that pier|
|The line-drawn-into-the-sand, a.k.a., The Start|
All I have to say about the swim leg is this: I love ocean swims! The best part is diving into the waves at the start. Because of the waves, I found myself laughing my way through the first few minutes of the swim, but once I got into a rhythm I was able to focus on the task at hand. The deeper water was relatively calm by the time we turned parallel to the beach, and the swim went by lightning-fast. One of the great things about Challenge Maine is that when you make the final turn towards the swim finish, you no longer have to spot buoys. There's a huge ferris wheel at that amusement park - Palace Playland - and all you have to do is align your swim with that. It leads you right in to the finish.
Swim finish photos:
The low-tide situation on Sunday unfortunately added more running time to an already-ridiculously-long transition run. The transition zone of Challenge Maine was on the road alongside the OOB Chamber of Commerce grounds. To get there we had to run quite a long distance from the beach - past the Palace Playland arcade and grounds and several concession stands and clam shacks. There's even a Dunkin' Donuts along the transition run (we are, after all, in New England - no Starbucks here).
By the time I got to my bike, my legs were toast. But I had a quicker-than-normal exit from my wetsuit, and I was on my bike quickly. The organizers almost made up for the long transition run by putting the bike-mount line only a few yards from the exit of transition.
What I didn't realize was that I put my bike helmet on crooked and I looked like an idiot. I never did fix that. Go ahead, you can laugh.
The 56-mile bike leg was amazing. It took us through rolling hills of Maine - nothing major in terms of climbs, but significant enough that you had to be prepared to deal with hills. The air temperature was still cool and comfortable and cloudy conditions for at least the first half of the bike. It also helped that most of the roads were shaded by trees. My nutrition on the bike consisted mostly of about 30oz/hour of Skratch Labs pineapple hydration drink and a couple gels. I didn't need much more than that and I didn't use any electrolyte supplements until the end of the ride when things started to heat up a little. To my surprise, I was able to maintain a speed between 20 and 22 mph for the entire bike course. I was also impressed that all the 10-mile markers were dead-on accurate.
I played leap frog with a few women on the bike. One of them must have stayed in my slipstream a little too long because as she passed me, I heard the familiar motorcycle sound of a USAT official... I looked to the left and saw that her number was being noted for a penalty (at this race, time penalties are allotted after you finish, no serving penalties on the course as in Ironman brand races). Then she finally gave me the slip and I never saw her again. The other one was the girl who would eventually win the women's race. At one point, a guy managed to get away with drafting off her for about five minutes. I couldn't stand that anymore so I sped up to pass them, and as I did, I told him he was "cheating" by drafting off her. He looked at me and yelled "HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" then took off. Don't worry, I made sure to beat him in the race. In fact, I caught him before the bike leg was over so I didn't even have to run him down.
The bike leg was a little short (maybe also making up for the marathon run out of the water), so it caught me completely off-guard when I rounded the last corner and saw the crowd on the lead-in to transition. I was like "wha?" and then realized what was going on... and somehow by the grace of God, I managed to get out of my shoes in time to not launch myself over the handlebars at the dismount line. It was really close, and I saw fear in the eyes of the volunteers yelling "DISMOUNT!" while ducking out of the way.
|Bike finish - yep, my helmet was still crooked|
I had to regroup mentally once I was off my bike. Seriously, I usually have time to prep for the dismount so I was a little shook up. I racked my bike and struggled a bit to get into my running shoes while a spectator coached me through the transition. She noticed my Punk Rock Racing kit and said "I have a Punk Rock Racing t-shirt!!!!" (Seriously, Ron, we are EVERYWHERE - shameless note to my sponsor).
Once again, I screwed up the splits on my Garmin in multi-sport mode as I was leaving transition, but then I saw Jim and all was ok. He cracked me up when he said "I have NO idea where you are, just RUN YOUR OWN RACE." (He usually tries to keep count of where I am in the age group or overall race). It was getting hot, and I had no idea how long I could last on this run, but my legs felt good, so I just settled into a pace and hoped I could hold it. I passed a few women at the beginning of the run, and the eventual winner went blowing by me like I was standing still.
|Starting the run, I was pretty happy to be feeling good for a change.|
The 13.1-mile run took us through slight rolling terrain before turning onto a dirt-and-gravel road around the 3-mile point. Temperatures were in the 80s but there were some great cool breezes. I dumped ice and ice-water on myself and drank what they were handing out. My mile pace was relative steady, near 7:30s, until about mile 8 when everything started to fall apart. At that point, it was all I could do to just keep running, and I walked the aid stations. At every mile marker I reminded myself "It's only 4, then 3, then 2 miles to the finish." At the last two aid stations I grabbed coke because my stomach was a little woozy, and I felt much better in the last two miles, which were mostly downhill.
Coming into the finish, I out-kicked the guy in front of me - don't ask me where I got the energy - to finish just under 4:46. And it was over. I managed to clock a 1:42 on the run - looks like I still have a lot of work to before I'm happy with my running, but I had eight promising miles in there.
|Butt shot, only for showing the back of my awesome PxRx kit.|
I saw Jim at the finish line. He told me I was 3rd overall. Whoa. Really? I knew there were women in front of me, but I didn't realize there were only two "ahead of me" and I always forget that I started behind everyone else, so I had a 5-minute lead on any women under 40 that I passed.
I also have to mention that this race has one of the best finisher medals I've ever received - it's the KRAKEN.
We hung around at the finish to grab some food and drinks, and while I was waiting to get into transition to pick up my bike, I noticed legendary pro triathlete Karen Smyers was standing in front of me. I got up the nerve to talk to her - she raced in the Olympic-distance race but had some problems with her lungs so I think she dropped out. She asked me about my race, and it came up that I was from Connecticut. She told me she grew up in Weathersfield (I did not know that). I told her I grew up in Meriden. A lightbulb went off... who knew? Of course Karen Smyers swam for the Meriden Marlins - the best AAU swim team in Connecticut back in the day. Everyone who was anyone swam for them. We rattled off names.. recalling some of the great swimmers from the region including Megan Wright and Lisa Zeiser. It was just before my time as a swimmer (Smyers is 4 years older than me, I started swimming in high school just after she would have graduated).
Do I even need to say? It's a very, very small world.
|The women's podium|
It was a short walk back the hotel to take a shower and run back out to gorge myself on New England fried clams before the awards ceremony. Jim and I spent the rest of the day sightseeing up the coast of Maine and playing skee-ball at the arcade. Jim hit the skee-ball jackpot on Saturday, but all we managed to afford with our ticket winnings was a souvenir mug. Here are photos of food and the spoils of the coastal Maine skee-ball follies of 2015:
|Fried clams - they always remind me of my dad.|
|OMG look at all these tickets.|
|What do I do with all these?|
|Buy this lovely souvenir mug, of course.|
|The lighthouse at Two Lights (Hopper painted this one)|
|Cove at Two Lights|
|Lighthouse at Portland Head (Hopper painted this one too)|
|"I still have some sand in my shoes"|
|Stupid giant iPhone ruined this shot.|