The last few summers, my old camp bunkie Diana and I have done the New York City Triathlon together in late July. I’m a big fan of that race – don’t care how much people may judge (or fear) me for swimming willingly in the Hudson – but it is very pricey. When thinking through this season last winter, my friend Tiff, who has run pretty much every New York Road Runners race for the past three years, said she had signed up for her first tri: the New Jersey State Triathlon. It was a week after the New York City triathlon, which was a week after the WIlliamsburg 70.3 so it made sense to swap News – York for Jersey – this year (not a trade I’d normally make) and join Tiff in her firs multisport adventure. (I felt like I owed Tiff too since she credits (blames?) me for her run addiction – as I like to tell her, I’m a pusher.)Bunkie Diana was down to swap it out as well so soon we three were all signed up. Then Bunkie had to go and get all pregnant with an inconsiderate late July due date, so it was down to Tiff and I.
Tiff did what many do before their first tris and prepped with a mix of city rides on her hybrid and spin classes. A week before the race she came to DC and took my road bike Warrio out for a training brick around Hains Point. She did great on a much lighter bike than she was accustomed and with the seat all the way up (I ride with it all the way down) my roadie was actually a pretty good fit. So it was settled that my steeds Warrio and Koopa Troop would both be seeing action in New Jersey.
I drove up Saturday, July 21st, and picked Tiff up at the Princeton train station which was about 15 minutes from the race site in Mercer Park. It was really fun showing Tiff her first transition. We picked up our packets, found our racks, (ground racks, yay!) and walked through Sunday’s logistics. Then we (I mostly) raided the expo before hitting a little bike/run shakeout brick.
We did about 25 minutes on the bikes around Mercer Park, saw like three gophers, and had an existential conversation about whether gophers and groundhogs are the same animal. (Readers, we’re from NYC/DC, we have no idea.) Then we spent just ten minutes slowpoking the middle of the run course – part of which was in grass and all of which was in direct sunlight. Once we were all shook out and stinky we loaded the bikes back up – I was surprised to learn it was a morning rack – and found our hotel.
We stayed at the Homewood Suites in Princeton. Upon check-in the front desk very kindly offered us two separate rooms for the price of the suite Tiff had reserved. Being two adult women not engaged in a romantic relationship I get why they thought we’d want that, but all we really wanted was to co-dependently race-prep together and watch Law & Order to simultaneously incite and quell each other’s anxiety. I think they thought we were a little weird to turn the offer down but whatever! It was a really nice hotel, and having a suite with a full kitchen and fridge for cold drinks and fresh breakies felt pretty decadent.
After rinsing off our stinkiness (it was real hot out) we hit a 6pm dinner at Trattoria Procaccini. Much like Williamsburg, I hadn’t had a proper lunch so I was pretty starved, which was conducive to putting away an obscene load of carbs. (So many garlic knots. So garlicky!) It hit the spot and I recommend the restaurant to anyone doing NJ State Tri in the future. After dinner we had to navigate back to our codependent paradise through a pretty heavy downpour. I felt mixed about the rain: I was happy the forecast predicted a cooler Sunday, but I didn’t want the swim to be cancelled – especially on Tiff’s first tri. Back at the hotel I showed Tiff how and where to affix race numbers and the timing chip. We laid out everything we would need and then looked for some Benson and Stabler.
That’s when the unthinkable happened: THERE WAS NO LAW & ORDER ON TV ANYWHERE. It felt like the apocalypse. We were forced to slum it and order up an episode on Netflix – which only has the post-Stabler seasons, so basically tragic all around. But we’re troopers, so we made do with Olivia Benson on Tiff’s iPad. We were in bed (separate beds – it wasn’t as desperately codependent as it could have been) before 10 – a coup for me.
It was still raining when we woke up at 4:30. It was pretty chilly as we made several trips to load up the car. Again I felt mixed: it had been ages since I’d felt chilly before a tri and I was excited at the prospect of my coolest race in literally years, but I also wished it would stop raining before we hit the bike course. You know me and my chickenshit cycling. I was nervous for slick roads, especially because this was my first flat course in maybe ever? And I had high hopes for a 20mph+ average. I knew I wouldn’t thrown down that pace if it was wet.
When we got to Mercer Park we were directed to park in a field across the street from transition. It was enough of a hike that we made triple sure to bring everything we would need for the day as returning to the car seemed out of the question. The rain was starting to abate and I felt a huge surge of relief. I hadn’t heard anything about the water temperature so I lugged my wetsuit down to transition with everything else – just in case. (See below – so incredibly far from wetsuit legal as to be laughable!)
Tiff and I racked our bikes – we were happily just a few spots away from each other on the same row and in ground racks – which this shorty always appreciates. We made two porta stops – one early with no line and the second en route to the swim start with a moderate line. Then we filed down to the lake to nervously wait. We shared a gatorade and a gu and talked through what was about to happen. Tiff was anxious of course but she was impressively excited. I feel like I was 99.9% anxiety at this point before my first tri, but she was probably 50-50 – or at least that’s what she was projecting. I was relieved because I felt her excitement absolved me of any guilt for pulling her into this crazy world. And I knew if she was this optimistic before it even started, barring disaster she was going to be hopelessly hooked at the finish line.
We watched the couple waves before ours take off, then we began shuffling down the ramp for our in-water start. We were grouped with all women under 34, which isn’t too weird, but some of the waves were pretty bizarre. For example, the second wave was the 20 year old men and the men 65-69. The third wave was men 30-34, 60-64, and over 70. The 40something men were split alphabetically. Looking at the strange combinations in almost all of the men’s waves it becomes pretty clear that in a sport dominated by men, this race was especially testosterony.
Maybe all the dude-age explains why the lake was 87.8 degrees? Hotter than Williamsburg! Which two weeks before had been the hottest swim of my race career! Screw bathtub swimming – this was straight hot-tubbing. And that 87.8 was after it rained all night, cooling the water from the previous day’s 90 degrees. I spoke to some Saturday sprinters who said it had felt unpleasantly hot. I actually thought the hot tub felt fine as we treaded water waiting to start, probably thanks to the cooler-than-usual morning air.
I hugged Tiff good luck one more time and at 7:50ish – a few minutes late – the gun sounded and we took off. Or we somethinged. I had promised Tiff that in-water starts usually cut down on the fisticuffs but that is not what happened. NJ Tri is one of the most popular races in the country for first-time triathletes, and I assume that’s what caused the melee over the first couple hundred meters. In-water starts usually allow people to position themselves where they want to be in the wave before the thing even starts. I generally find middle-to-back of the pack towards the outside and then voila! Minimal violence! But as soon as our wave was released there was a wall of slow swimmers in front of me, and a tide of faster swimmers crawling my legs and back. I swam right and left and treated water looking for a path.
It was useless till the first turn buoy at which point I broke free by swimming wide. And at which point I was kind of pissed off. So I buried my face in the hot tub water and angry-stroked to make up some time. Instead what I did was develop a cramp in my right side because of how I’m not a fast enough swimmer to vent my rage in the water without repercussions. (I love a good angry run or angry ride but I have to learn how to keep breathing while angry swimming.) So I had to slow back down and try to breathe into the stitch. It took most of the long straight stretch – around 800m – to the second turn to work the kink out of my ribs.
Finally I felt like I could breathe and swim normally again and finally I was turning and pointing back to shore. I again buried my face but this time with fewer anger issues. I tried to take long strokes and find my rhythm. About 100m from the swim exit I passed Tiff and any residual pissed-offedness dissipated because she was doing fantastic! Not that beating me in the water is any feat but in her first swim she was wiping the lake with my sorry crampy ass! As she ran up the swim exit next to me she called out, “Liz, I did it!” She was so psyched and I was so psyched for her and thank goodness because I think it helped put me in the right head space to have a great bike.
I had a decently quick transition considering we had a long run out with our bikes before the mount line – and over still-slick post-rain grass. I was nervous I would slip in my cleats before I ever got my ass in the saddle. But I made it out and onto the road and onto Koopa Troop without calamity or embarrassment. There was the usual chaos as people clogged the start of the bike course blocking each other to get on; I did what I normally do and ran far ahead of the mount line spending a few extra seconds to get out of people’s way and clear some space for the competitors behind me. I do this because, I’m not an asshole. (I’m sure I am in other ways but I make an effort to be a courteous cyclist and triathlete.)
About that, as I said this race is chock full of (dudes and) newbies. And I want to be clear that this is awesome. (The newbies part – we still need to work on the gender parity. [Even more true of racial diversity.]) More (female and diverse) triathletes please! We as a community need to keep working on this. Thing about a lot of first-timers in one race is, all those newbs on one course can be rough. Between that and a race make-up that on the bike felt legitimately 9:1 Y chromosomes I witnessed (experienced) a lot of bad and stupid behavior.
I instructed Tiff to always give a heads up to people she passed that she was “on the left” or “passing” especially on parts of the course that were narrow and/or open to vehicle traffic. As I set out I passed dozens of people in the first stretch heading out of the park and I made sure to follow my own don’t-be-an-asshole advice. I kept the courtesy going over the entire two loop course; I did not receive this same courtesy even once over 25.2 miles. I was cut off and nearly clipped repeatedly by aggressive guys who leave no room (or warning) when overtaking someone.
But enough griping and more on the course/ride itself. I was really excited for this bike as it is pretty pancake flat. I literally only learned how to really use my big rings last year and this course was the chance to throw down some heavy gears and big numbers. My goal was to get aero right out the gate and stay low and fast for a 20mph average overall.
Actually my goals for the day were pretty much all bike-oriented. My swim continues to be lackluster, and when I’m on my run is right where it needs to be to podium in almost any race. So cycling is where I want to grow the most – and if I can get as strong on my wheels as I am on my feet, I should be in podium contention in more and more competitive races.
I often dawdle too much in the beginning on the bike, telling myself it’s ok to take a few miles to get comfortable. Not here though. I settled into my bars and got to work right away. And right away I began picking off picking people right and right. (Because, say it with me now: you only pass on the left! Things that seem intuitive but new athletes should be told repeatedly.)
The double loop course heads out of the park and onto mostly-open-to-traffic streets right away. The course was well-marked and well-staffed, and on the busiest roads we had cones marking a sort of protected bike lane. I think organizers did a great job keeping everyone – two and four-wheeled vehicles – safe and informed out there and despite the cars I never felt in-danger or exposed.
Loop one flew by and I felt so strong and fast. Over those first 12 miles I averaged over 20mph just as I’d wanted, and I was only passed by one woman. (And she was a total ringer.) Coming into the second loop I felt confident that I could hold my pace, and that even if I had to back off some I would hit my 20mph goal.
Lap two became much more of a cluster as more athletes were on the course. Cue the flashbacks to the chaos and amateur hour at the swim start. It became even more important to shout my position as I passed more and more people, many of whom were not riding to the right. Still, no one returned the courtesy. At least now though I knew the course and what was coming so I could plan around the fuckery accordingly.
Around mile 20 I realized I should probably try to get in some solid calories in addition to the aero bottle of gatorade and water I’d consumed. I was stuck among hordes of unpracticed, and in some cases just uncaring cyclists though, and I was afraid to navigate the swarm and eat at the same time. I decided to wait till I could make some less-crowded space for myself.
That moment never came and I realized as we turned down the last (and tightest) road before the park that I’d either have to seriously slow down to eat or hold out till T2. I was still feeling really strong and holding the 20+mph averages I wanted. The idea of slowing was anathema to everything I was feeling, and so I said eff the solid calories and stayed in the work. I didn’t actually feel hungry or like I was losing steam so hitting my bike goal seemed more important.
As I hammered that last long pre-park stretch an amalgamation of impossibly long limbs pulled up alongside of me on my left, like it was passing, and then, it just hung out there. I know it’s maybe over-lawyerly of me, but there is a USAT rule that you get 15 seconds within which to overtake someone, and if you can’t make that work you’re not supposed to do it. And here was this pile of arms and legs just riding next to me. As he rode there I was getting more than a little teed. (Uh-oh! Ellen says that when you have feelings – including I assume, homicidal ones – you’re supposed to eat!)
Then the limbs spoke: “We’re almost there!” It was so happy I eased off the irritation a bit. “Yep! Keep it up!” I responded. ” It continued alongside me and spoke further: “I’ve never done one of these! Never run after biking!” That immediately cut through my pissiness. He was a newb! He probably didn’t know he was riding in direct violation of USAT rules and was just excited for his first tri. I told him to just let his legs feel wobbly for the first few minutes of the run, to trust that they’d get better and to get it done. Then I slowed up some to encourage him to pass all the way which he did.
Once he was a few lengths ahead I stepped on the gas again. The limbs were right, just a few miles to go and I was nailing my goal. I redoubled my efforts and focus to get it done.
Within two or three minutes I was back on top of the leggy one, who had slowed down. I called out “passing” and did so – well within the prescribed 15 seconds. I thought the ordeal was over with, but it was not. He seemed to think we were playing the most aggravating game of leap frog ever and soon he was passing me again. As soon as he was in front of me he slowed, because I don’t think he could actually maintain the speed he’d had to hit to get around me. After another minute or two I passed again, and then he passed again, this time at least staying fast once he was ahead of me.
Soon we were turning right back into Mercer Park with just about a mile to go to transition. I was amped to drop the hammer all the way down but all of a sudden I was back on top of the limb monster. I called it out and began to pass him. As I was right next to him he discernibly increased his speed to stay neck-and-neck.
Let me pause for a moment here to drive home how much taller and leggier this human was: I am 4’10”. And mostly torso. He was over 6′ and, as I think I’ve alluded, mostly limb. I ride a 44 on 650 wheels. His seat, perched on his normal human sized 700s, rode somewhere around my shoulders I just want to be crystal fucking clear that this athlete had a billion watts – at least watt potential – on me and anatomically enjoyed every advantage. I am not physically capable of moving a bicycle as fast as he is physically capable of.
So here he was, acting like this was a fun game to the end, speeding along totally oblivious to safety and USAT rules. (Not everything is legal in New Jersey!) And I snapped. I yelled at him, “either get ahead of me and stay ahead but don’t fucking wait to accelerate till I’m next to you.” He looked shocked and slowed up. I pulled away and dropped the hammer like I never have before riding my rage around 23mph home. I finished the bike in 1:14:51 – averaging 20.4mph – right on (even above!) target!
I dismounted and had to run the awkward long slick grassy downhill path to transition. It was a little treacherous but I tried to run it in as quickly as I safely could. One more woman had passed me on the second loop of the bike course, and I was able to overtake her by staying aggressive on my way to rack Koopa.
I tried to swallow some Clif Bar and grabbed a gu to hopefully stave off any ill effects of not getting in solid calories on the bike. I wasn’t discernibly hungry and the weather, while a little muggy, was overcast so I felt good going into my strongest discipline. Only two women had passed me on the bike – net one! – and I was ready to run past any F30-34 I saw.
Transitioning from bike to run is always clunky and awkward. All the bricks in the world can’t save those first few steps – maybe that’s not true and fan of the blog, Gwen Jorgensen* will have something to say about such a sweeping assertion. Either way my legs felt stiff and unnatural as I ran onto the 10K course. I wasn’t too concerned though. As I’d told the leggy newbie, just let it feel weird and it will get better.
I was fine with the first few minutes – first mile even – feeling slow and a little sloppy because I was sure I would hit the mid and low-7s I should maintain over 6.2 miles. As I slogged along, I kept thinking, ‘any second now I’m gonna hit my stride and just wow these newcomers with what a practiced, seasoned, accomplished runner I am! Annnny seconddd!’
And I waddled along and waited for that burst of speed and competence to hit. Mile one ticked by at 8:03. ‘No problem,’ I told myself, ‘even in purely run races my first mile is usually my slowest. I’m gonna run fast reallll soon!’ I stayed optimistic, comparing conditions here with my last two summers grinding out NYC Tri 10ks in the blazing heat over hellish Central Park hills. In NYC I’d maintained averages in the 7:30s and this course and these conditions were soooo much more conducive to fast running.
As the course wound through a wooded path and up and down some minimal rollers I kept waiting. I stopped at aid stations and tried my gu and willed my speed to return, to no avail. I didn’t feel hungry or out of energy like I was bonking. I wasn’t overheating or queasy like IMChoo and Boston. I just felt uncomfortable and out of shape. And it seemed like there was no reason for it. I was just running like Liz of years ago, where 8 minute miles were reaches.
A good deal of this course was also on grass and trail – substrates that I don’t know or trust well. The grass portions especially threw me off. They were still slick, and I felt like I might fall and even if I stayed upright I was working twice as hard to run through it than I would be on pavement.
I don’t know if it was that unfamiliar exertion or the T2 attempt to inhale calories, but around mile three I cramped hard and in just the same spot as in Boston. The pain was really similar to that day actually, somehow aching more any time I got to go downhill a bit meaning no making up speed on the descents. I tried to massage the pain clot out of my side to some effect but not much. I breathed into it and changed up my stride as Josh had taught me – hoping the new breathing pattern would loosen whatever was sticking to my belly.
At least it wasn’t hot – not compared to what I’d been training and racing in and what I was expecting from New Jersey in mid-July. I had my zip lock bag ready to be filled with ice but I didn’t need it. I wasn’t even tossing water at aid stations over my head because I really wasn’t overheating.
As I ran through an aid station at the u-turn halfway between miles four and five though, a (well-meaning I’m sure) volunteer dumped an unsolicited cup of ice water over me. I didn’t see it coming and didn’t even see who it was – but it was an unwelcome frigid surprise that mostly ended up in my shoes. I considered turning around and yelling at this shitty samaritan but I didn’t want to waste the energy that I was already low on, or aggravate my stitch which was abating a little. So I shivered head-to-toe in silence as I ran (jogged) on in my now-soaked shoes.
I could literally hear my shoes as I squish-squished the last mile and a half to the finish. I could feel my wet socks starting to rub the bottoms of my feet and I became very nervous that I was going to finish this (relatively) short course with really intrusive blisters. I was feeling a little better through my tum-tum though so on I ran (jogged) ignoring my loudly belching sneakers.
Not that anyone else probably noticed the noise given how many people were in headphones. I chalk this fact up to the many-a-newbie situation, but it still pissed me off. Having music to distract from my discomfort and guide me to a better rhythm and inspire me onward would have been a huge asset – I wish in almost every tri run that we could have our playlists in our ears. But we do not do that in triathlon. Run races often announce that headphones are banned as well, but in this sport we actually mean it. It is an unfair and unsafe advantage that takes you out of the athletic moment and depending on the course can be dangerous. It is a rule that in five years of racing I have almost never seen broken until the New Jersey State Triathlon. I have no idea if the numerous competitors I saw in earbuds were penalized, but I can say I watched several run past race officials who seemed unmoved.
I soldiered on in my loud squishy shoes, cramp still gumming up my insides, trying not to let the rule breaking irritation slow me down further. I never managed to get any faster – just hanging in the mid-8s the whole way in. That first mile – the one I’d been so sure was just a warm-up – ended up being my fastest. I finished the run in a very disappointing 52:09. I’d been sure I could/would throw down a 46 minute 10k – maybe 47 minute. Five to six minutes below goal on the run was really frustrating. Especially because I couldn’t pinpoint a reason. I hadn’t bonked, the weather had behaved, the course was manageable; I had just failed to perform. Later Josh said he thought I’d just spent myself putting up my biggest bike numbers ever, and that’s probably what it was, but in the moment I felt like my run training/abilities had inexplicably failed me.
My overall race time was 2:47:57. I was four minutes off the podium – and five or six minutes slower than I’d expected/wanted. That was salt on the wounded ego. But New Jersey wasn’t an A race and placing isn’t what matters. What matters is the tri community and brainwashing Tiff to join us!
After I crossed the last judge-y sensors (and partook in the glorious misting tent and the end of the chute) I grabbed some noms and posted up a few hundred meters from the finish line. I wasn’t exactly sure when to expect Tiff. I had passed her towards the end of my run – I was almost to mile 6 and she was just past 3 . I was so excited to see her, she has looked really strong running by walkers up a little hill. When I cheered for her she saw me and replied, “this is the hardest run I’ve ever done!” so I knew she was hurting some – who wasn’t?
I waited about 20 minutes cheering people in and then I saw her. She was still running and however she felt, she looked great. I screamed for her as she ran down the finisher’s chute and successfully crushed her first triathlon. After some misting tent time we reconnected and she was so proud and excited and hooked on the sport just as I knew/hoped she would be. (And I was maniacally pumped to have another bestie in my race squad!)
We wandered the finish area festivities, changed into dry clothes, and exchanged war stories. She told me she’d seen the woman who had doused me with unsolicited ice water doing the same to others and getting yelled at. I hope race organizers address this bad volunteer behavior. I knew she meant well and race volunteers make the world go ’round, but she turned a bad run worse for me, and at least a few others.
As we meandered, the leggy newbie I’d reamed out on the bike approached me, and guess what??? He apologized! He was a nice guy and said he realized as soon as I yelled at him why his bike behavior was problematic. I apologized for yelling and told him I knew he wasn’t trying to be malicious and that I hoped he’d keep triathlon-ing.
As Tiff and I collected our bikes we made some friends in transition, but also witnessed yet more bad dude behavior when we overheard a very loud guy ribbing a friend to stop being a girl and stop taking even longer to pack up his stuff than a girl would. Tiff and I both heard it and bristled, but another woman stepped in and told him the anti-female stereotypes were not welcome in transition. I loved watching his idiot bro face drop as he apologized. I’m sure he continues his doucheyness in his day-to-day, but for at least one moment he was forced to think better of it.
Recap and Thoughts
Looking back at this race I’d been more focused on a big bike than a big overall performance, so I consider the New Jersey State Tri a success. Holding 20+mph on an olympic course was a breakthrough – mentally and physically. I expect more and more of myself in the saddle, and now that I know I can deliver those numbers, I need to focus on brick work to make sure I can dismount and still hold a 7:30 average on the run. The pieces are coming together individually (well…swimming…sigh…) and the magic of triathlon is fitting them together without losing too much.
I don’t think I would do this race again unless I knew race organizers were making more of an effort to edeucate new triathletes on the rules of engagement. New Jersey Tri organizers should require all athletes to attend a safety briefing before picking up their packets the way the New York City Tri does.
Speaking of, and comparing the (big) apples and oranges, I definitely prefer the NYC Tri for a mid-July northeastern oly race. And Tiff lives in NYC so I’ll just have to sell my new tri buddy on the merits of a local-to-her race next year!
*Gwen Jorgensen does not read this blog**.
**Gwen, if you do read this blog, I apologize for all the bathroom talk. And I love you.