Loving 2017 so hard I had to throw one more swimbikerun onto the tail end of the season. And lucky me, Queen Sherpette, Sara, was down to October-race together!
Somehow in all my years of triathlon, I’d never raced in Rock Hall, MD, despite the town’s prominence on the VTS/MTS line-up. It’s not as convenient as Lake Anna, AND you have to traverse the terrifying Bay Bridge to get there, but with Scott willing to drive that was no problem! Plus, probably minding all the DC and DC-adjacent athletes populating their roster, MTS kindly starts the race at 9am, which allowed us to sleep at home and drive out early race morning. Double-bonus! (I’m sure Scott sees the whole equation as like, negative half-bonus at most.)
With Scott at the wheel, we loaded up the hounds around 5:30am for the 90some minute drive to the Chesapeake Bay. It was Oct. 1st – just 53 weeks previous I’d been Ironman-ing in triple digits, and yet this year the early fall that had made for a chilly Nation’s Tri in early September continued for a downright frigid Waterman’s. Temps as we arrived at transition were in the 40s with a windy day predicted on top of the low mercury.
My teeth chattered while I set up my gear and I was dreading having to strip off the layers of sleeves and fleece to zip into my wetsuit. Water temps in the 60s meant numb toes were in my bike-run future and I was afraid another cold-water asthma attack might be too. Adding to the anxiety I overheard a couple women talking about the glut of jellyfish that had tormented the oly swimmers the day before. I am petrified of jellies and I had a legit moment of, “well, I’ve had a good season, I could just spectate this race.”
I found Sara and whined about the cold and the water-scorpions and she used her new-mommy skills to kindly but sternly tell me to chill out. (I require a pretty firm hand.) I accepted the fact that I’d be splashing around with these sea-hornets and prepared to shiver-shimmy into my long-sleeve Huub. Then I overheard those same women say that body glide protects against stings, so I proceeded to roll my entire body in the stuff-face, fingers, and bottoms of feet and in-between toes. (In case you’re wondering whether body glide does in fact insulate you from venom, the answer is for sure no. Not that snopes has looked into it, I’m just advising you not to put too much faith in glorified antiperspirant.)
Once I was thoroughly greased in what was 110% just a jelly fear placebo, Sara, Scott, the pups and I headed to the water. It was a little bit of a hike to the swim start; I was grateful Scott was there so that I could wear flip flops on the gravelly journey and hand them off to him. Sara’s parents were in town and walked down with us as well, we had a good little crew and I was grateful to be ending the season with this tri-family.
Despite being in different age groups (for now) Sara and I were in the same swim wave as women 30-39 were going off together. I watched the waves before us, eyes peeled for tentacles and screams of terror but everything seemed to be in order and no one appeared to be getting water-poison-murdered . A few minutes before we thirty-something ladies were set to depart I joined my 30-something contemporaries in jumping off the dock into the frigid, brackish Bay for an in-water start.
Notwithstanding a few episodes of violence during in-water starts this season they are still my preference – especially on a cold day when the swim can be such shock to the system. Rather than a dock start like Nation’s – where the second you’re wet you’re racing – in-water means you get a few minutes to acclimate and breathe through the initial discomfort before getting to work. This meant I was able to avoid the same scary chest-seizing moment (and no men tried to drown me – another plus!) so that when the gun went off for F30-39 I was ready to go. (To the extent I’m ever ready to swim. Or that you could ever call my sea-flailing ,”going.”)
The swim was a 750m loop around the Rock Hall Marina which was a new experience for me. There were boats moored at docks on all sides and the distinct taste of motor oil in the salty-ish water. Josh had warned me about that, suggesting I use it as a reminder to keep my mouth closed. The boats were comforting as was a sea-wall type barrier protecting the marina from the Bay at large, but they also made sighting more challenging. Probably part and parcel to my passive approach to swimming, I like to pause at every turn buoy and find the next buoy or shore or something to anchor my direction before I continue “going.” My history with adding extra distance by aimlessly zigzagging all over the course has led to an abundance of directional caution these days. (Better than races past, where my splashy meandering has actually led course officials and volunteers to worry for my safety.) Several times in the Rock Hall Marina I made a turn, but struggled to make out the next buoy or line thanks to the vessels anchored in my way. More than once I thought I was swimming towards the next turn only to realize I was swimming towards a someone’s skiff. Eventually I made my way around all the actual buoys, dinghies be damned, and back onto shore. (Do we agree that the plural of dinghy takes an ies form??)
Coming out of the water I hit my Garmin immediately and was decently happy to see 14:49 – right around 2:00/100m is big for me in the open water. The VTS/MTS timing mats were located somewhere after the swim and they clocked me at 15:48 for the swim which is less impressive, and either way I was second from the bottom in my Age Group (AG). I didn’t know it right then, but I had a lot of ground to make up.
I ran up a short incline into a much less vast transition area than the thousands-strong one at Nation’s. My bike was not so easily-located however, buried on a rack where it seemed not all of my neighbors were great counters. I was #121 but many of the competitors in the 1-teens and 1-twenties had just thrown their whips wherever they wished on the bar – and apparently they didn’t all wish to be in chronological order. I found Koopa after some bumbling and after a 2:17 T1 I was out and pedaling hard to track down the F30-34 in front of me. (Again, didn’t know it at the time, but that was all but one of them.)
The course had rolling hills and comfortable, smooth pavement, but it was windy as hell. I knew it would be going in. It had been a frigid blowy morning, and Josh’s race plan had warned that most of the 15 miles would be into an unforgiving headwind – the kinds I love so much where even though you turn it stays in your face! It’s magic! (It’s bullsh*t.) After experiencing that kinda of magic BS for forty-plus miles in Williamsburg I wasn’t too bothered by the prospect of 15 miles and I was in good spirits – yeah, my feet were numb but otherwise happy and feeling strong – as I got going.
It took me a little while to find the right gearage and effort working into the wind, and the first five miles were my slowest. Right when I started to get my groove a gentleman in his forties (not Taye Diggs) rode past me and then parked himself directly in front of me only to slow down and eat a snack. I was feeling good and I don’t really care when someone several AGs removed and with forty Kgs on me passes me, and he’d yelled some sort of encouraging pleasantry into the wind as he passed, so while I find the male habit of passing and immediately slowing to eat infuriating I wasn’t too bothered. I waited over a couple rollers and then passed him as he chowed.
And thus began 10 miles of an entirely unwelcome game of leapfrog. I was working hard, staying low, and making the most of my kilograms the whole way. Mister oblivious repeatedly revved past me, only to slow down once he was in front. It was like New Jersey all over again, complete with his need to shout unneeded happy overtures every time he overcame me and my little legs. I tried to stay positive, daydreaming about the clinics I would one day tour the country giving to tri-guys about how not to be a pain in the ass in a race.
At some point in the last five miles I passed him with enough wattage and the wind finally at my back, and I thought I was done with the whole thing. Then with maybe two miles to go he flew by me and screamed, ‘C’MON WE GOTTA FINISH THIS TOGETHER!’
I was torn between being genuinely touched by his encouragement, and flabbergasted that he really thought the two of us shared some sort of race-bond. I also, being smidget female vs. fully-grown man, could not keep up with him as he floored it back to transition. I worked hard maintaining around 22mph over those last couple miles but still trailed him into the dismount.
No matter; he wasn’t my competition and I was content with the 45:20 I’d put down for my bike time. Keeping my average over 19mph with ten miles into the wind felt good and I also felt like I’d conserved enough to put in a strong run. Unlike New Jersey I had not laid it all on the line in the saddle, and after a quick 1:16 T2 I was out and ready put away a fast 5k run.
In the three weeks between Waterman’s Sprint and Nation’s I had started to ease back into running with a handful of 30 minute mostly low-key workouts. I’d learned my injury wasn’t a stress fracture but achilles tendinitis which was such a relief. I’d started physical therapy with the incredible inspiration Kona-qualifying badass, Holli Finneren, which was already helping me lace up pain-free. Knowing I was safe and not in any danger of completing a fracture, I was excited to tackle this last triathlon leg of the season. And it was still chilly out so I had no excuse to not finish strong.
Running out of transition I saw the happy leapfrogger ahead of me. He may have had me beat on the bike but I doubted he had me on the run and I was ready to put that whole episode behind me for good. After feeling myself and my achilles out for the first couple hundred meters I decided now or never and started to open the pace up. Heading up a short incline I passed by my unwelcome bike companion who of course shouted something encouraging as I ran by. I waved, berrated my misanthropic biking tendencies, and didn’t look back.
As I dropped first into the 7:40s and then 7:30s I could feel the summer’s lack of run-training and got a little nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to cash this check. Still, I pushed into the 7:20s and held on. Within a couple minutes the pace started to feel more manageable. As my watch buzzed a 7:26 first mile I was feeling strong and knew I both could and had to pick up the pace.
Actually I didn’t know that I had to – I had no idea where I was in relation to the rest of the 30-34 women. I hadn’t paid much attention to the people I passed on the bike – except for one… – and I was still blissfully unaware how uncompetitive my swim had been. So really I was picking up the run speed to see what I could do with these last two multisport miles of 2017. That’s the best mindset to have I think – I was absolutely only running against myself, and I wanted to walk away from this race knowing I’d thrown it all out there.
So I picked up my cadence and settled into the 7:teens for mile number two. In the middle of this mile there was an out and back stretch and I saw Sarah – always a pick-me-up to see teammates! I also got a better look at the competition which was a kick in the chamois. I clocked 7:14 for that second mile and, after seeing some women from the front who were ahead of me and potentially my age, I mentally committed to an agonizing final 1.1 miles.
Sprint tris are all about being able to live at 90% exertion, and to push to 100% at the end. You have to learn to exist in the so called “pain cave” and it is as mental as it is physical. I was already uncomfortable in the 7:teens – exhilarated but uncomfortable – but I wasn’t maxed out, so with a mile to go, once more I kicked it up a notch to right around 7:00/mile.
I ran down a number of people and for the final stretch found myself in a group of athletes who were clearly hammering it as hard as they could – but true to triathlete fashion – they found the strength to will each other on. A really young woman blew past me at one point – about a decade my junior so I got to enjoy her impressive running unfettered by ‘oh-sh*t-she’s-beating-me’ thoughts. Instead I was just happy to see female badassery and I used her performance as inspiration to stay in the pain and not let up.
Rounding the penultimate corner my Garmin buzzed indicating a 7:05 finale mile. I had .1 to go and while I was already deep in the pain cave I knew I could kick it one more notch up because it was literally just 30 seconds of hell. I also saw Sara not too far ahead and used her Speed Sherpa trikit as my sighting goal as I dug deep one last time.
I caught up to Sara as we rounded the last turn and sprinted down the chute. She saw me pull alongside her and we cheered each other as we ran across the sensors together. It was (literally) a picture-perfect way to close out the last triathlon of the year. I hit stop on my watch and saw I’d put up a 22:12 or 7:09/mile average 5k. With the weeks off my feet and then the slow ramp back up I was pretty ecstatic with that time. I felt the way I wanted to: absolutely wrung out with nothing left in the tank. Whatever kind of shape I was in I knew I’d given everything I had on this last race so I felt proud and peaceful as I wcollected my medal with my teammate – still beaming from our photo finish.
Post-Race and Results
Sara and I collected our bling and some water and sweaty-hugged. We both felt like we had raced well so we hustled straight over to the results tent to see how we’d done. (I’d finished racing myself – time to see how racing against all those other humans had gone!) Men’s and then women’s age group finishers lists slowly scrolled by looking pretty lean – a good sign that not many people had crossed the mats yet.
Men’s overall and then age group results were first, followed by women’s overall. Sara and I were elated to find our names rounding out the top ten female overall athletes. It felt like a poetic end to the season: running the chute side-by-side, hitting the final sensors with the exact same time; Wrapping our season together on an unseasonably cold morning that had started with fears of jellyfish stings and would end with results we could be really proud of.
When Women 30-34 appeared on the screen, my name was the first and only one there: I’d won my age group! And no one else in it had even finished yet! My last race in 30-34 and my first time winning the division – I was ecstatic.
Next on the list were women 35-39 and there was Sara in the second place position. So not only did we get to finish together in the top ten, but we both got to take our places on the blocks. (Sara’s performance was all the more impressive as 2017 was her first year training-while-momming – she was closing out the year on the podium and then going back to her itty bitty baby boy at home. Anyone else impressed and inspired as hell? ‘Cause I am!)
We were definitely riding that multisport high as we tracked down Sara’s parents and Scott next to the finisher’s chute to give them our good news. After cheering racers down the chute for a bit the cold started to seep back in and I headed to transition to re-bundle up and to get my phone so I could announce to anyone who would listen that I had won. Sara went back to the results tent to confirm once more our rankings and learned that while we’d been celebrating, the results had been adjusted…
She came and found me and broke some unwelcome (to me anyway) news: We were still top ten, but now for some reason I was listed as second place in women 30-34 and she was listed as winning 35-39. I paused my gleeful, boastful texting and went to check out these amended results for myself. Sure enough she and I had somehow switched top blocks in our respective age groups. It was hard to read much detail into the stats as they quickly scrolled by on the official race computer so I found them online.
The only thing I could think was that one of the top three finishers had incurred a time penalty and been dropped from the overall podium back into her (my) age group. And sure enough, a ringer in the 30-34 division had been bumped from the the top blocks into age group after a penalty of some sort had tacked two extra minutes onto her time.
I was so disappointed. It felt silly, on any other day a second place age group finish would be cause for pure celebration. But they’d dangled that first place in front of me and I wanted it! I wanted the top block! I’d never been on the top block! If they’d just given me second place from the get-go I would have been really happy with it, but my expectations (and ego!) had been teased.
I grumpily texted Coach Josh about the mix-up. He was still proud of me and helped me level-set. I came to terms with the second highest block (knowing whoever was in third place would be taller than me in the pictures no matter what) and tried to psych myself back up for the awards ceremony. I’d started the season with a second place age group and I would end it that way. Good book ends to a really fun and productive year of tris. And it’s not like I’d incurred the penalty. I’d put up a good fight and had especially turned in a great run after struggling with an injury and a generally slow run-summer.
When time came and my name was called, I happily climbed that middle block. Maybe just shy of victory is a better way to end the year, because it definitely left me hungry for more. I grew a lot this year. (I mean figuratively. I’m still child-sized on a 45cm tt frame. @tiny_triathlete #folyfe.) I feel like for years I was just dabbling, getting by, pretending at this sport, and now I’m really finding myself in it. Next year I join the most competitive age group, so it will feel that much better if (WHEN) I finally get myself on that top block.