I volunteered at Rev3 Williamsburg in 2016 as the bike lead for the half iron distance. Chris and a number of my Speed Sherpa teammates were racing, and through their experience and my volunteer role biking the run course I got to see what a fantastic race this is. It was a no-brainer to make it one of my 2017 A races.
In 2016, Chris and I made a weekend of it, first hitting the Colonial Beach Sprint for me on Saturday, and then Williamsburg for him on Sunday. This year I made it a family affair with Scott and my two ponies-er-dogs, Daenerys (Daynee,) our Great Dane and Birkin, our Anatolian Shepherd in tow. Traveling with the dogs always complicates things, but I discovered the La Quinta in Williamsburg is pet friendly and had no limits on dog size so that made hotel-reserving easy!
Since it wasn’t a double-race weekend this year, we loaded up Scooby, our new-to-us Subaru (because yes we had to buy a new car when we adopted Daynee and that’s a totally rational thing to do to fulfill your Great Dane dreams) around 10am on Saturday and made it to Williamsburg at 1:45pm after terrible traffic and too many bathroom stops. (Gotta hydrate!) I missed most of the 1:30 athlete briefing which was disappointing – they’re usually really helpful both to review logistics and to assuage nerves. Chris filled me in on what they covered though and escorted me through the very quick packet pick-up.
We’d each been assigned short bike-run shake-out bricks so while Scott entertained the hounds, Chris and I saddled up and headed out for 25 pretty easy minutes biking the course and five minutes running. It was the hottest part of a hot day and that half hour of work had us drenched and disgusting. We were encouraged though that it was supposed to cool off at least a little over night. We racked our bikes a little after 3pm and parted ways till the morning, and Scott and I went in search of this dog-loving hotel.
The La Quinta was in town, about twenty minutes away from the race site at Chickahominy Riverfront Park. I had called a few days before to make sure they knew we were bringing 200 lbs of dog and the woman I spoke to was friendly and said she’d try to get us on the first or second floor so we could take them out easily. When we arrived, true to her word they gave us a room on the second floor and didn’t blink at the size of our canine crew. If any readers (hi mom!) are considering this or any race or event in Williamsburg and you want to bring your dogs you will be well-taken-care-of at this hotel!
Once we were settled in, Scott, because he’s a race sherpa and a saint, hit the 711 next-door for extra waters and gatorades and bread and jelly for my morning breakie. I found an Italian restaurant with a massive menu that delivered, (Antonio’s) and quickly ordered all the things for a geriatric dinner. In all the traffic getting down we hadn’t had a proper lunch and I was starved. The food arrived in 30 minutes – so fast! – and I plowed through a massive portion of fettucine alfredo, a side of meatballs, and 3 garlic knots. It was a spectacle. I actually think it worked out well; I’m often too anxious the night before a race to eat much, but I was famished so I did not have any issues putting away a billion calories.
We unwound as per always to a Law & Order marathon while I laid everything out for the morning. Also as per every-f*cking-race I aimed for a 9pm bedtime and overshot by an hour. And in no time it was 4:15 and my phone – plugged in across the room as there were no bed-adjacent outlets – was belting out wake-the-hell-up show tunes. Chris had awesomely offered to pick me up before the race so that Scott could sleep a little longer and so that we wouldn’t have to pack everything up at 4am. He showed up right on time at 5 and we were setting up at transition by 5:30.
The DC Tri Club had arranged a rack in the front which was fantastic. Lots of friendly, familiar faces in our red, white, and blue kits. Being the discombobulated spaz that I am, I forgot multiple things in Chris’ car and had to make repeated trips between the parking lot and transition. Luckily we were in the main lot and not overflow so this wasn’t a huge issue – though it did add unnecessary stress to Chris’ morning. I said hi to Josh while we set up, met insta-friend Tim Cross in person, pumped my tires – we’d let air out in the night before heat – and porta’d twice (and told Josh too much about that.) Chris and I were out and on our way to the swim start by 6:20.
There were four big waves going out 5 minutes apart via an in-water start. Chris got to go out with the young dudes in the first group at 6:45. I was in the last wave at 7:00am – with the first group of Olympic athletes five minutes behind. (No fair!) Rev3 had all the waves out and onto the course on time and the in-water start limited the usual cluster of feet and elbows.
Unlike Poconos 70.3 where it was barely wetsuit legal and I was the only one who opted to swim without, the water was almost 84 so no one had their neoprene speed boosters on. Still I was quickly left in the dust bubbles of most of the women under 39. Not gonna lie, it really bothered me to be eating wake like that. I kept looking around and checking that I wasn’t dead last which was small comfort and a waste of my time and mental energy. I imagined the volunteers on kayaks and surfboards judging me, which is ridiculous (and not fair to imagine of them) but in the moment I just knew I was the laughingstock of Rev3. Aware of my swim psychosis I tried to shake the self-deprication and find a decent rhythm.
About halfway down the first straightaway the river got shallow and dark. Every downstroke my fingers brushed against the muddy bottom and I shortened my stroke to avoid the unpleasantness. The already brackish water became darker than any I’ve experiences in a race. It was discomfiting to turn my head to breathe and sight and then see nothing but black when I turned back into the water. It rivaled the Hudson for gnarly swimming conditions.
At the first turn the bottom dropped back down enough to swim normally (or my version thereof) and see more clearly. I started to overtake the slowest athletes from the waves before mine, all of which made me feel better about life. We turned one more time for the straightaway to the swim exit and joined up with the oly swimmers and quickly I was back to feeling bad about my efforts. I also struggled as this stretch home lacked the sighting buoys that had marked the way out. Every ten strokes or so I had to stop and scan the horizon to figure out where I was supposed to be heading. Given my penchant for swimming extra mileage this bothered me more than the mud water.
A few hundred meters before the exit I started bringing up handfuls of mud again. Around me people started standing up and walking. I put my feet down and discovered the bottom (very close to the surface) was heavy deep mud. Walking through it was both foul and difficult so I shortened my stroke again and freestyled on. As it got shallower, I switched to breast stroke, refusing to walk in that muck until I absolutely had to. Finally I had no choice and joined the upright slog toward shore.
I was so happy when my feet hit the boat ramp. I ran into transition with a swim time of 37:44 which was about what I’d aimed for when thinking through what I had to do to go under six hours for the race. But later I would find it was also the bottom 1/3 of women 30-34 which is so frustrating.
I felt like I had a slow transition as I tried to take in some calories and fluids and fumbled to get my bike gloves on. (Most people race without gloves and I do not know how. My hands get so sweaty and I feel like I have to fight to hold on.) In the end it was 2:58 which wasn’t as bad as I thought. There was a little traffic jam at the mount line when a cyclist fell shortly after getting on. I managed to avoid a near pile-up and soon was on my way up the first hill and out onto the bike course.
The course is generally pretty flat with some rollers in places but nothing drastic. The worst is probably getting out and onto the course. There’s a hill right out of transition to get out of Chickahominy Park and then an immediate climb up the bridge over the river. (You get intimately acquainted with that bridge in this race.) Once I was a few miles away from transition and the bike jitters wore off I shifted into my big ring and got to work.
I felt fantastic and strong. It’s been a battle to get back to enjoying the bike the way pre-crash Liz did, and several times over this bike course I thought to myself, ‘oh my gosh I am really legitimately, loving this. This is objectively fun as hell.’ It made me a little teary to feel so happy in the saddle. I buckled down into aero and for the first twenty miles racked up a solid pace – on track for the three hour ride I was hoping to turn in. (I swear I was in aero – even though the ONE photographer on course caught me sitting up as I was about to eat a gu. I was so mad when I saw him. We need a warning to look cool when the cameras are coming!)
From miles 20 through 45 or so, there was a near-constant head wind. Which scientifically I do not understand. How can it be blowing in your face no matter which way you go?? Every time I saw a turn coming up I hoped the straight on gusts would end only to be let down. We got some relief in the wooded portions but when the course opened up into unobstructed farm country it was pretty bad. As it slowed me down through the middle miles I started doing math and getting nervous. I wanted to hit the run having logged four hours or fewer in case the sun forced me to really slow my roll in that third leg.
About halfway through I also started needing to pee. I didn’t want to stop though; I didn’t want to lose any time and most of the course was residential enough that I was nervous I’d get caught bathrooming in someone’s front yard. We want to maintain the good will of the people through whose communities we race and public indecency didn’t seem good for the longterm health of Rev3 Williamsburg. (Not that I didn’t see plenty of [exclusively] men doing their business along the road.) Instead I thought, this is the perfect chance to try peeing on my bike – just like Ellen taught me! I found some distance between myself and the other athletes, pulled to the left and stood in my pedals as she’d instructed. And then I coasted and squeezed and tried so hard, but I guess my potty-training really took because I just couldn’t get my bladder to cooperate. I made several attempts throughout the course before giving up. I wasn’t terribly uncomfortable and felt I could hold it till the run. Bathrooming while biking would be a new uncivilized skill to pick up another day. (Any advice, Ellen?)
Just gonna pause here for all non-triathletes still reading. (Hi Mom!) We are really gross. I want you to know that I know that. I also want you to know that I’m going to keep leaning into it and that I apologize to no one for that. Except Scott. I’m so sorry, Scott.
The aid stations came every 15 miles. I rode by the first, still plenty stocked with water, gatorade, gus, and a Clif Bar. I also brought salt tabs with me on the bike which I haven’t previously done. I drained a bottle of gatorade, half a bottle of water, a quarter Clif Bar, and one gu (consumed one half at a time) over the first 30 miles. At the second aid station I pulled over and refilled my aero bottle with half gatorade and half water. I briefly considered the porta potty but there was only one and there was a line so I got back on the road. This pause took less than a minute, and until my bike handling is much better I’ll still opt to pull over to refill my aero bottle.
Back on the road in the back half of the course, the pack of athletes had thinned. Many were probably ahead of me on the run, and the tens of miles had spread us out so that it was very sparsely populated. There were even places where I was totally alone which made me a little nervous that I might miss a turn. Generally though it meant no bunching or passing – just really comfortable pleasant riding at the exact pace I wanted to go.
Around mile 38 I happened upon a bad accident. Two athletes were strapped to back boards and being loaded into ambulances. One, a young woman, appeared to have he torso wrapped in saran looking plastic and I could see she was bleeding from some really terrible road rash. I heard later that at least one was hit by a car but that they were both going to be ok. In the moment I slowed way down and sent a little plea for their health into the universe. It really scared me to see these athletes laid out like that, and it was hard not to flash back to my own accident – ambulance, road rash, and all.
After a few moments of reflection and mindful deep breathing I tried to buckle back down into the last third of the bike. I remembered with relief that Josh’s race plan had promised the course would get flatter and faster, and that the energy I’d conserved through the first 40 miles would pay off here. With his words in mind and with the energy that always comes at the end of the bike portion I shifted down and kicked up the speed a little bit.
Based on the previous miles of calculations I was aiming for something under 3:10. As I picked up the pace I began shaving time off this estimate. With five miles to go I knew I’d made up enough time to come in closer to 3:05 and I was pumped – a big 70.3 bike PR. With three miles to go the bike course began rolling parallel to the run course and I saw Josh and Chris. Their encouragement gave me another burst of energy. My last push was my fastest and strongest and before long I was heading back up the bridge and back down the hill into transition.
My final bike by Rev3’s clock was 3:04:09, though my garmin had me at 3:03:43. Either way a PR and I’d maintained a pace over 18mph for the 56 miles. (Actually the course was slightly short – 55.6 miles.) As I ran into transition I felt the relief I always feel when all I have left is my best discipline. I felt extra weight lift off knowing I’d bought myself a really good cushion to ensure a sub-six day. After a 1:59 transition I scurried to the porta potties – no line! – before heading out on the run. Once I was really on my way for this last leg I was at 3:43 overall. I just had to run a 2:16 half marathon and barring disaster I knew my sub-six goal was in the bag.
The way I left off there you may be expecting me to say that it all went to hell but nope! That wasn’t some cryptic cliffhanger. It was a typically sweltering July day though and I was determined not to fall apart on a hot run. I’d been pointedly training in the heat and was nervous as I’d bonked on several mid-day runs. I knew I had to keep the effort and heartrate under control, especially the first half if I was going to make it through the July-in-Virginia conditions.
Like the bike, the run starts up a hill onto the main course and then continues uphill over the bridge. For the half distance the course is two six-and-change mile out-and-backs, meaning you get to run up (and down) the bridge four times. This first said climb over the river I took it extremely conservatively. There’s zero shade and it’s a legit incline – I would have been really upset with myself if I got too aggressive and threw it all away right off the bat.
I crested the bridge and felt like I was in control. I looked to the right which Scott had instructed, and there he and the dogs were, waving from a dock on the river below. I smiled at my awesome family and at the earned descent down the back of the bridge.
I made a plan that I would keep my heartrate under 170 (threshold was around 172 for me at that point in training) for the first out-and-back, and then I would reassess. I was a little nervous that meant I’d be running 9+ minute miles – despite the good cushion of time to go sub-6 I still wanted a sub-2 hour half marathon and 9:30s weren’t going to get me there. I was pleasantly surprised though to find that I was actually in the 8:40s and 50s depending on the course. There are some shaded sections as well as some long totally sun-exposed bits which of course spike the heartrate.
A few times on this first lap I hit 170, but I succeeded for the most part in holding myself around 168 – a very comfortable level of exertion. The out-and-back is fun because I got to see Chris and Josh several times, as well as other DC Tri friends. It’s a little congested as the run is on a pretty narrow bike path, so passing has to be done considerately of the other athletes. This also makes for one of the most collegial experiences in what’s already an incredibly friendly sport. So many people cheering each other on, high fives all around – it’s great.
The out-and-back is also conducive to TONS of aid stations. In the heat this was so clutch. Ellen taught me to bring a ziploc and fill it with ice whenever ice was available. I did this and kept it in my sports bra. I think this tri-hack makes a hug difference in tricking your core body temp to stay low. When the ice melted down I would dump the frigid water over my head and refill the bag at the next station. I also grabbed the wet sponges volunteers were handing out and tucked them into my kit at the base of my neck whenever I could, and slipped ice cubes under my hat for constant dome-cooling.
The first lap passed by as comfortably as could be expected in 90 degrees and soon I was back at the bridge. This would be the cruelest bit because, again, nothing but sun, and now I’d have to run up it, down it, and right back up it to start lap two. I slowed and brought my heartrate down as I approached, and then took it easy over the top. Once at the turnaround I tried to take it easy back up, but also recognized that it was time to reassess my self-imposed heartrate rules. I decided I would let it creep to 172 for the next three-ish miles out to the last turn around.
If I’d been thinking more about the other 30-34 women I probably would have kicked it up a notch. But I wasn’t competing with anyone but myself. Looking back I’m a little torn: was I too conservative? I’m sure I could have run a faster 13 miles but it was definitely a fine line in the heat, between pushing too hard and taking it too easy. Ultimately I’m happy I opted for the latter. As it got hotter and my body became more fatigued, I still felt like I was at a strong but sustainable effort for the third 5k.
I kept refilling my ziploc with ice and grabbing fresh sponges at every aid station where they were available. As I approached the last turn-around at mile 9.5 I started building a little more momentum. I felt like even if I pushed too hard and the wheels started to come off it was just a 5k left and I didn’t want to finish feeling like I could have done more.
The sun was directly overhead and the shady stretches were shrinking so as I picked up the pace most of the people around me were slowing down. I felt really proud and like I’d grown as an athlete to have gas left to burn. Josh can attest to many a training run where I’ve taken his reasonable-but-tough assignments and raised him an unsustainable breakneck idiot speed/RPE only to flame out with thirty minutes left to go. Like sometimes he’ll assign marathon pace intervals, which I’ll run like a 10K, or he’ll assign 5K pace, which I’ll interpret as go as fast as you possibly can for the first push so that you have absolutely nothing left for the remaining intervals. Tangent there but the point is I felt like I had matured as an athlete, a Sherpette, a competitor.
As I picked up speed and gave my heart rate permission to creep higher I ran by many people and true to triathlon form they all cheered me on, even as I passed them. Having been on the other side of it, it’s surprisingly heartening when you’re stuck in the pain cave to see someone else climbing out. Running down the last few miles I started to feel a little terrible for the first time all day and reveled in it. Crossing the finish line you want to have felt like hell at least once otherwise where’s the accomplishment and the challenge?! (That’s actually kind of sick, isn’t it? And I’m not even sure this is the correct way to approach racing; Ellen? Josh??)
I kept my foot on the gas up the final bridge ascent and then floored it down the other side. Once off the bridge the last chunk of the run winds through the grass around transition, alongside the parking lot, and down the chute. It’s a hard way to end a race, though less discouraging than last year’s extended course which wound all the way around the parking lot and camp ground in direct, killer sunlight. This was a bit less than a half mile of sunny, grassy hell so long enough to hate it but not long enough to complain too hard.
I saw Scott with Birkin and Daynee shortly before the final chute and waved them along with me. Rev3 lets you run in with your family which is amazing. I had told Scott that if I was cutting my sub-six goal close I would just run ahead, but here I was about to come it under 5:45! As I waved him into the final stretch with me, Birkin and Daynee were so excited – there is nothing better than how happy dogs are to see their people and my two weirdos are no exception! Scott handed me Daynee’s leash and she took off toward the finish line – she may have actually shaved a few seconds off my time! (Is that fair?)
As I sprinted the chute I felt like I might puke – which was great! Made me really feel like I’d nailed the line between holding back enough to not fall apart while still giving it all I had. I do think I could have run a faster, more aggressive 13.1 successfully – at 1:56:50 it was one of the slowest half marathons of my career – but I’m so proud of this race effort and the decisions I made. I’d hoped for a sub-six hour half iron and I finished at 5:43:40. Can’t argue with that result!
The finish line crew gave Birkin and Daynee their own medals from the children’s race and draped the giant icy wet towel over my shoulders that Rev3 always provides. As good as that wet towel felt, the rest of me was unhappy to be sopping wet after all the ice water I’d dumped over my head. Scott and Daynee had to run to the overflow parking lot to find me some dry clothes – race prep fail on my part not leaving them out for him. Birk and I stayed back and watched for Chris to finish.
Once Chris, Josh (who is a sub-fiver so was long done) and I were all over the line, Coach treated Chris and I to some truly decadent snow cones. I shared mine with the pups, putting a literally cherry-flavored treat on their great day. After hanging a bit – had to get in some Normatec recovery! – my ponies, hubby and I loaded up the car and headed back to DC. I’ve never seen the dogs so pooped which was the figurative cherry on top of my PR. Fourth Rev3 event I’ve participated in and this organization continues to deliver and impress. I HIGHLY recommend all fellow multi-sporters to check out their schedule – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!