Wednesday, June 26, 2019

White Mountains Olympic Triathlon Race Report

On Saturday I competed in my first Olympic distance triathlon, and I think it's safe to say that I've been bitten hard by the triathlon bug. Running will always be my first love, but over the past couple of years I've frequently found myself frustrated with the training/competition side of it, frequently finding myself feeling like I was putting in a ton of effort with very little to show for it on the race course (or at least, not as much to show for it as I felt there should be). Out of this ennui, combined with some colleagues who were either intrigued or already fully entrenched in the triathlon life, came the idea to finally jump into the sport of triathlon for real. I did a sprint like 10 years ago at the behest of my then-boyfriend, now husband, and I relit the spark last year with another sprint, but I had never fully committed to a longer distance race that would actually require, you know, training! A wetsuit! Actual bike shoes! I signed up for this Olympic race all the way back in November, knowing full well that it's known as one of the most challenging courses around, and hoping that I would like triathlon in practice as much as I did in theory. My boldness paid off in one of the most truly fun race experiences I've ever had (it also didn't hurt that I blew my expectations out of the water). I loved every second of this experience and I absolutely can't wait to do it again. 

We stayed over in North Woodstock the night before the race with my friend Elise, who was racing, and her boyfriend, and race morning was a giddy wave of trying to make sure I had everything (so. much. equipment.) and figuring out where to go and what to do. The organizers of this race do an absolutely outstanding job and everything ran super smoothly from start to finish, including the WEATHER which was absolutely perfect...sunny, dry, and 60s. If I were doing a longer road race I'd have been alarmed at that forecast, but knowing I needed to go swimming and then ride my bike while wet first? 60s sound great to me. Elise and I were both balls of ridiculousness and I'd like to think our significant others were entertained. Time seemed to fly by with getting our bibs, putting on number tattoos, setting up transition, using the porta potty (my nervous peeing was less of a concern at a triathlon because of that whole swim thing....TBH it was amazing), and finally heading down to the beach to await the swim start!

My sherpa on a glorious morning

Number tattoos are EXCITING and we are NORMAL

Transition area all set up

At the beach we did a quick dive in to sample the water temperature and then anxiously awaited the start. I was literally more excited than I think I have ever been before a race - it was just such an incredible morning and I couldn't wait to swim in this beautiful place and then just see what the rest of the day would bring. I felt such joy and gratitude to have this opportunity and I wanted to enjoy every single second. At one point I just awkwardly jumped in the air and slapped my legs and yelled "I'm SO excited to swim in this lake!" and somehow Elise and I are still friends, so I guess she was entertained. The pre race meeting brought some depressing news: there was roadkill on the bike course and it was a MOOSE :( :( :( This was sad but also kind of hilariously ironic, as one of my life dreams is to see a moose in the wild. Elise mentioned that this was like a fairy tale where you get 3 wishes but you mess up the wording somehow and so it comes out totally dark and twisted...thankfully, I think things must have been cleaned up by the time we actually got out there, because I didn't see anything.

Here's a picture of me at the swim start. You can tell it's me because I'm the giant loser in the front row bending down to look at the minnows in the water, bahahaha. 

After a couple of waves went off ahead of us, it was time to head down to the water and get rolling. At 8:39 the horn sounded, and we were off! 

AM Fuel: Peanut butter banana Clif Bar ~2 hours before race, banana ~1 hour before race, lemon-lime Gu (no caffeine) ~20 minutes before start

1500 m swim: 32:40 (1:30/100yd) - 3rd in AG, 11th female, 43rd OA

This was my first swim without a time trial start, but with a staggered group start (all women under 40 in my case), I wasn't too worried about getting caught in the washing machine at the beginning. After running a few feet into the brisk 59 degree water, I saw everyone in front of me and decided it was time to do the same. The water was BRISK - I swear they announced at the start that it was 65 degrees but my face told me was cold! I knew that once I could find a rhythm I'd get used to it and sure enough, after a couple of minutes it was no longer an issue. It was definitely more challenging to sight the buoys and find open water than I'd planned on, but I feel comfortable enough in the water that it was easy to just stay calm and find a lane. Once I got in the zone, I was in the zone! I definitely could tell that I was swimming harder than usual, and I got a little nervous initially because my arms were feeling fatigued pretty early on, but it never really got any worse and so I just fell into my rhythm and stayed there. By the time I got to the first buoy the pack had separated out nicely and I had plenty of open water to swim in. Around this same time my goggles started fogging up, which initially I could deal with but I eventually had to stop for a second and de-fog them as I literally couldn't even see the buoys, let alone the people from the waves ahead that I was starting to pass, and I couldn't handle another full lap in that state. The second lap I basically just spent the entire time thinking about how much I loved being out in the water (and intermittently about the fact that I was hungry and looking forward to my stroopwaffel in transition...), trying to soak in the beauty around me every time I sighted, and just enjoying the feeling of powering through the water. These sound like ridiculous things to be thinking in the midst of the race, but I honestly knew I was swimming just as fast as I could and that was going to be good enough. Soon enough I was gliding through the shallows, and then up and running up the ramp to transition! I apologize to the little girl holding out her hand for high fives on the ramp, I really WANTED to high five you but my hands were busy trying to unzip my wetsuit and claw off my swim cap, so I hope my smile was enough!  
Andrew's view of the swim from up on the bluff. Is this even real life?

T1: 1:57
I feel like this transition was sort of slow, partly because I had never practiced doing it quickly and partly because I was TIRED after the swim and at one point I feel like I was just sort of staring at the ground in a daze pondering what I needed to do haha. My wetsuit came off pretty easily, and I was able to get my socks and bike shoes on in reasonable time. I think my biggest struggle here was that I attempted to eat a stroopwaffel, which was extremely dry and just was not going down smoothly...I could barely swallow it without water and after awhile I decided to just stop wasting time and shoved the thing in my back pocket to eat once I was on my bike. Helmet, sunglassess, life sorted...OK, off to the bike!

Fuel: 1 honey stinger stroopwaffel (ate 1/2 in transition and finished in the first couple miles of the bike)

Still trying to swallow a stroopwafel, probably.

40K bike: 1:26:17 (17.3 mph) - 1st in AG, 14th female, 67th OA
The bike was by far the event that I was most nervous about, as well as where I felt I had the most to lose in terms of time/places. Between the outrageously difficult course, my minimal training on large hills, and my beginner's knowledge of shifting between chain rings (seriously, I learned how to do it 2 days before the race), I knew that the bike was likely going to be a "hold on and do the best you can" sort of scenario. But as it turns out, like everything else in this was a blast! The course started with an enormous, 3 mile long 10% grade downhill, and while I was initially terrified of this I got over it quickly and enjoyed flying down the hill like a kid on a sled, giving my legs a break and trying to get my heart rate down. Unfortunately, when a course starts with a zillion feet of elevation drop, and it's a loop course...there's pretty much only one place that you get to go from there. And that place is UP. 

As soon as we stopped going downhill and I actually had to start pedaling, my legs felt pretty crappy. Looking back I think I'll just chalk this up to the confusing transition between swimming and biking, and that it took my legs awhile to catch up. It probably also didn't help that almost everything that looked like it was "flat" on this course was, in fact, going uphill at some rate or another. And I mean, going up large, long hills on a bicycle is hard AF. I don't want to understate the fact that it was so hard, and I would love to get stronger on the bike so that I can go faster! But the sun was shining, the temperature was perfect, I was out on my trusty bike named after a dragon, and sooner rather than later I started actually making some passes. Life. Was. Perfect. We hit a nasty uphill, and after dropping to my small chain for the first time, I immediately passed 2 men. What! While I did get passed by a few men (and two women) on the bike, they were all exclusively on downhills and by people riding very fancy, very expensive bikes. And you know, you can't do anything about that. We rode through a cute little town where people were out cheering, and I was having such a lovely time that I smiled and thanked basically every single person I saw. My legs still didn't feel outstanding, but I didn't care - everything was amazing. At some point I made a poor choice of trying to eat some Gu chomps while starting an uphill and basically lost all of my momentum while also trying not to choke - note to self, uphills are not for fueling. 

Then we hit mile 10. And oh my sweet summer child....I learned later that this hill is called "3 mile hill" and you'll NEVER GUESS why they call it that...this thing was an absolute monster. It was so monstrous as to be comical. And so, I said (out loud) such things as: "well, at least we're by a little stream!" and "we're all in this together" (sung from High School Musical). It was uplifting to look ahead and realize that EVERYONE was going the exact same slow as molasses pace as me - in fact, in a shocking turn of events, I passed 3 people during the hill. As I rode past one woman, I had the odd urge to apologize to her for passing her on the hill? Instead I think I blurted out "IS THIS EVER GOING TO END". This hill and my baby ring were my life now, and all I could do was keep chug chug chugging up to the top. 

FINALLY we hit the crest, and were rewarded with a downhill with the "trucks could go off the road"/steep grade sign. As it turns out I enjoy just talking to myself while on my bike, because once again, aloud, I said "I'm gonna enjoy the SHIT out of this grade!" And I did! And then another hill loomed. And once again, I started singing: "Hi ho, hi ho, back to small chain we go!" wrong with me lol. Basically once we hit the halfway point of the bike I turned into some kind of giddy ball of happy energy. The views off into the mountains were just incredible, and I just found myself in such a place of awe and gratitude for this gift of being able to do what I was doing. I am not normally someone who gets super sappy mid race, but here in my happy place doing this ridiculous but wonderful thing on the most gorgeous day, I just felt so, so grateful. At one point I sang out again "I f*cking love this downhill, I f*cking LOVE MY LIFE!". It was a lot. The endorphins were extremely high, is all I can say about that. 

Eventually, after a stretch on a kind of crappy road (but that was also the "flattest" section of the course), we made a right hand turn onto a larger highway - beautiful, smooth pavement....and also the thing I had been pretty much dreading - 9 miles of gradual uphill with no relief until the finish line. My initial thought was oh shit, 9 miles is a looooong time for my quads to tolerate what's going in right now. But then I forced myself to find a rhythm, locked my eyes on the blue and black trisuit of the dude in front of me, and just pedal on. I got a song with a good beat in my head and again, because apparently when I'm alone on a bicycle I just lose all semblance of a filter, started singing: "Oh baby, come on and say it now, just let the words come out, tell me you love me..." A couple of men on tri bikes passed me during this stretch but quite frankly, who cared about the men. Me and blue and black #242 also started playing a little bit of leapfrog, as I oddly found myself channeling some level of competitive energy. On my bike! I was definitely thinking a bit about how I might be screwing myself for the run by pushing as hard as I was, since I could definitely feel quite a bit of fatigue building in my quads and calves. However, I sort of figured that with the absurdly hilly course that fatigue was going to be there no matter what - no sense in holding back. 

 This is insane in all of the best ways

The very end of the bike was on sort of an obnoxious bike path, and with 2 miles to go I was very much ready to be off of my bike. I finally became annoyed by my friend #242 who had passed me again, so I passed him and another gentleman before finally making the turn back into transition. Being back on the road and knowing I has made it through the bike was SO exciting - I knew that I had outperformed my own expectations, and all that was left was a 4 mile run...a tough 4 mile run, to be sure, but finally an arena where I knew would be my time to shine!

Fuel: 2 x 2 Tropical Gu chomps (150 calories + some caffeine), 16 oz 50-50 mix of Glacier Freeze Gatorade and H20

T2: 1:24
My brain was slightly more on in T2 although I definitely did a very inefficient job of racking my bike - things to practice for next time! It felt like I was there for much longer than I was and people definitely do this transition much faster (this was actually my slowest overall placing!) so I think transitions are definitely an area where I could use some practice/work. Shoes switched, hat on, run belt donned, grab a Gu, we're outta here!

4.25 mile run: 33:22 (7:46 pace) - 1st in AG, 4th woman, 28th OA
I could summarize the run in one sentence: running off the bike, especially a bike with 1800 ft of elevation gain, IS REALLY HARD. But as I ran out of transition I had a smile on my face. The greatest thing about running in a triathlon is that it allowed me to completely ignore my pace and run 100% for place and competition. I knew that anyone who was behind me at this point in the race was unlikely to pass me, and also that this was my opportunity to make some moves after the bike. My plan was very straightforward: just keep moving, and make as many passes as you can. The first mile is somewhat downhill, and while I felt like a noodle I just bopped along, eyeing up the people in front of me. There was another woman about a minute up who I definitely thought that I could pass, otherwise all of the nearby competitors were men. I hit mile 1 in 7:09, which I was pretty happy with, but I also knew that I'd been running downhill and that probably wasn't going to be sustainable (ding ding ding, correct answer!) But who cares - the name of the game is keep moving forward.

Smiling! And!

The remainder of the run course absolutely sucks, but knowing all I had to do was run 3 miles to finish seemed so easy compared to what I had done during the prior too hours that I was able to keep myself in a really positive head space throughout the entire run. I knew I wasn't running fast at all - probably closer to "moderate" run pace than any pace I'd ever race 4 miles at - but it was such a great feeling to just not care about that, because all I could do was give it as much as I had after the bike. The really awful section of the run is an out and back over multiple short but extremely steep inclines and declines, and having passed my first prey I started hunting down other women who seemed close enough to pounce on. There was another woman within sight and I could tell that I was gaining ground on her, so my new objective became: just pass that woman. I also started counting women as it began to dawn on me that I was much closer to the front of this race than I was to the back! We ran down a huge hill to the turnaround, where I nearly knocked a sign over hitting it as I made the turn, and then climbed back up to the bike path. It was slow going up anything steep with my quads that had been annihilated by the bike and were begging for mercy, but I was able to keep on moving forward. I managed to get past my new target on an uphill, and it was a nice feeling to know I was unlikely to see her again...unlike in road races, no one is really picking it up for the last mile of a triathlon! It was certainly an unusual sensation for me - cardiovascularly, I felt like I was out for an easy jog, but muscularly my legs just had nothing to give. Clearly, this is an aspect of the bike-run transition that I could stand to work on. 

I dunno, why wouldn't this be fun?

We crossed back to the other side of the highway and began a little looping section that's the "flattest" part of the run course. I passed a guy here who was cramping up and tried to offer him some encouragement as I went by. I was running pretty damn slowly at this point, 7:45-7:55 (if you'd asked me I would have guessed 9 minute miles, that's how sloggish it felt) but I was still having a blast - in fact, at one point I passed a volunteer who said something like "alright, still smiling!" and I was like "actually yeah, I'm having an amazing time!". I knew the last mile of the run was an absolute bear, but I also knew all I had to do was climb the hill of gravel, then climb the hill into the parking lot, and I was going to absolutely crush this thing. I slogged up the half mile gravel hill, cursing whoever decided it wasn't worth it to pave this section of road on the ski hill. I managed to pass another man as I willed myself to the top of the hill. Every uneven section and little pothole and muddy rock felt like a complex problem that my legs were having a harder and harder time solving. I almost laughed when my watch showed my 4 mile split: 7:46, coulda fooled me, these feel like 10 minute miles! We finally turned the corner and SURPRISE! it's another GIANT hill up into the parking lot. This time my legs just totally gave up and I actually had to walk for a second up the steep grade, but then I pulled myself together and kicked (hah) across the parking lot, onto the carpet, and before I had time to think of something interesting to do for a finish line photo, I was done! 

Run fuel: salted watermelon Gu
Can we also just talk about all of these FREE PHOTOS? This race is amazing.

I was on some other level of giddiness when I finished, and while my legs were completely exhausted I was high on type 2 fun and endorphins and life. Andrew and Elise's boyfriend reported that she was about 20 minutes back from me starting the run, so we wandered around to find a good spot to wait to cheer her in. In the meantime I went to get my results printout and almost lost my mind when the little sheet printed out and showed: top 10 women. 1ST IN AGE GROUP. It was like deja vu - 10 years ago at my first sprint triathlon, I went in with no clue of what I was doing and won my age group. Here I was a decade later, and it happened again! I was shocked, thrilled, pumped, and PROUD because not only had I executed the race about as perfectly as I could have imagined, I did it with so much joy. There were moments on the bike when I could swear I was just going to explode with the happiness that I was feeling. I don't exactly know what it is about this sport that makes me feel this way, but whether it's the lack of expectations or comparisons, the fun of having a beginner's mindset, or just the overall weirdness of the sport itself ( have to change shoes during a race...) it's something I hope I never stop feeling. I'm certainly not giving up on running, but discovering a new sport feels like such a gift at this stage of my running career - bringing me back to the idea that racing is fun, something to be grateful for, something to find joy in, not something that subtracts joy from your life. Of course, discovering something that I seem to have some natural ability for certainly doesn't hurt - surprise age group placings are probably just as addictive as many drugs, and when you've experienced it once, you want to keep experiencing it again and again. But for now, I'll always remember how my fun I had during this race, and how much I just loved the experience of doing what I was doing, and I'm going to try to carry that with me into future training and races - whether it be just running, or triathlons, because let's be that I'm in, I'm in for good.

White Mountains Triathlon (Olympic - 1500m swim/40K bike/4.25M run)
39/173 OA, 9/67 F, 1/11 F3034