That’s right I said tri! Not a duathlon this year – we got to do all three sports! Sadly Nations’ registrations were down this year as a result of the 50-50 chance in recent years that the swim will be cancelled. I know a good number of local triathletes who sat this year out for that reason. In July I myself wasn’t sure about signing up – more because I was holding out to potentially tack on another 70.3. When life logistics and other obligations made it clear that wasn’t going to happen I turned my attention back to this actually local race; I was going to be in town that day and I knew I’d be cranky if other people were swim-bike-running (or even bike-running) in my backyard without me. Chris is easy to cajole into things so he of course signed up as well and even picked Koopa Troop and I up to head to the expo and transition together.
The expo was held this year at Yards Park in SW DC, It was outdoors and scaled back from previous Nations expos I’ve attended at the Washington Hilton. I’m guessing this was an attempt to slash overhead due to lower registration numbers which made me really sad for race organizers. While they we learned there would indeed be a swim this year, and the race org was marketing information on the partnership it has entered into with the Potomac Conservancy. I think their effort to take an active part in cleaning up the Potomac is really admirable and that stewardship and community engagement will make me more likely to keep signing up.
Race day was Sept. 10th – still very much summer in DC, (and technically everywhere in this hemisphere) but we were in the midst of a bizarre coldsnap. I was worried I would be cold during the race, but happily the DC Tri Club was there with past-season gear. I picked up a cycling top with sleeves and also made sure that I was registered in the local tri club wave which is reason in itself to pay yearly DC Tri Club dues.
From the expo Chris and I drove down to Hains Point, which is just over a mile from transition. We both had shakeout bricks assigned so we parked on the Point, did a lap there and then rode to transition. After racking we ran back to the car and he kindly chauffeured me home.
The rest of that Saturday was uneventful with the exception of a wetsuit-induced panic attack. I hadn’t raced in a suit in years and figured I better confirm I still fit in at least one of mine. (Are you thinking, ‘Liz, you should have done that more than twelve hours before the race?’ You’re not wrong.) First I tried to put on the sleeveless Roka suit I’d never worn, only to find that like most other Roka women’s swim products, it’s not made for adults. (And reminder: I’m miniature. No seriously, who the fuck is Roka’s XS wetsuit for??? I’m 4’10”, 105 lbs, 25″ waist and I could not pull it above my knees. This isn’t just irritation talking, I think the men [for sure men] designing Roka’s swim measurements should be fired for contributing to the fucked up, unattainable unhealthy body image expectations that dominate women’s endurance sports.)
Back to the obvious conclusion: the sleeveless wasn’t happening. (Anyone want a Barbie-sized wetsuit???) I moved on to my Huub long sleeve which I have raced in several times, just not in a couple years. (And I hadn’t put on in those years either.) I was able to get it on but it was TIGHT and uncomfortable, and worst, limiting my range of motion. The internet instructed me to shower in it and then while it was soaked, take it off and sort of stomp all over it in the shower to really saturate the neoprene. I texted Josh pretty panicked and he confirmed this plan so I went for it. Once it was good and drenched the whole way through I hung it up to dry and sacrificed a chicken to the tri gods that it would fit better tomorrow. Then I hit the hay for my usual lackluster five or six hours.
Race morning I woke up a little before 5am with plans to order a Lyft around 5:30 and be down at transition before the road closures started at 6am. The car showed up promptly when called and I felt like I was in great shape to be there early for a leisurely set-up.
The drive should have been 11 minutes according to Waze, and we were right on target as we tried to exit the highway, only to find the roads were already closed at 5:40am. My saintly patient driver tried multiple exits before we were finally allowed to get off 395 at 14th St…only to find more roads already closed. Turn after desperate turn, we were actually being forced farther and farther from transition. Finally I told the exasperated driver I’d just get out, even though we were more than a mile away and the morning was frigidly in the low 50s.
I slung my tri bag and tire pump over my shoulders and started hoofing it across the National Mall. It was a full mile and a half trek to the start area and by the time I got there my planned leisurely prep had been winnowed down to a hectic twenty some minutes. (And that includes bathrooming.) I was pretty unhappy with the overzealous Metro Police who’d shut roads twenty minutes earlier than they said they would. I was frazzled as I rushed to get ready, to bathroom, and to shimmy into my Huub for my first wetsuit race in years. (And yes! The shower-saturating worked and it fit much better race morning!)
Luckily for my abbreviated prep window, the portas were plentiful and I didn’t have to wait on much of a line. I did however have to try 3 different johns before finding one where no one had pooped ON the toilet. C’mon people, we’ve all got nervous bellies and triathletes have a high tolerance for gross stuff, but that’s unacceptable.
We were kicked out of transition at 6:55. Chris and I headed down to line up for the swim start as the DC Tri Club wave goes out after the elites and before the age group waves. (Actually, this was the first year Nations had self-seeded instead of AG swim waves. See my Montclair report for my gender-related thoughts on how this seems to pan out.)
This year the DC Tri Club wave was opened up to other DC area tri clubs so it was a big group. The only catch is that it means you become podium ineligible but I’m a ways off from placing in a race this size so it’s worth it to not have to wait. The first time I did Nations I had to wait 90 minutes after transition closed before I could start my race. No thank you.
A little after 7am the elites were off and swimming and we began filing onto the dock for the time trial start. The Potomac temperature was decidedly wetsuit legal at 69 degrees. Showering with my wetsuit the night before had made a big difference in the fit, but I was still less than enthusiastic about the chilly river. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m sort of a mess, and my mess includes, asthma, a tachycardia-causing heart defect, and Raynaud’s; none of which are a huge deal generally but all of which I worry about in cold, wetsuit-constricted swims.
As we stepped onto the dock we were lined up 8 at a time and then sent into the water every 15 seconds. When it was my turn, I stepped off the dock and directly into an asthma attack. This had happened to me in a really cold race a few years ago. As soon as I hit the chilly water my lungs basically seized and I couldn’t get in any deep breaths. This was unpleasant but I had been through it before and knew if I took the first couple hundred meters slow – or even on my back – my body would adjust and my breathing would come back to me.
I barely had time for this semi-comforting thought though, before some ASSHOLE swam directly over top of me like he was actively trying to drown me. I’m not talking somebody kicked me or bumped me or whacked me with an errant hand or elbow. All of the above sucks but happens in pretty much every race – multiple times. What I’m talking about, is some guy swam on top of me and all the way over me, holding me – head and all – under water for several terrifying seconds like I was just part of the river. He didn’t start to swim over me, realize there was a person there, and change course. He got on top of me, held me under, and kept going. When his attempted homicide was over I pulled my head up and treaded water as I tried to cough all the water out of my nose and lungs. I’ve said it before (on this blog and elsewhere) and I’ll say it again: FUCK YOU AGGRESSIVE MALE TRIATHLETES. I feel lucky that I was wearing my wetsuit during this incident since its buoyancy aided me as I tried to recover and catch my asthmatic breath. I don’t know who that guy was and in six years of swimbikerunning I’ve never experienced something that egregious and I really effing hate that dude. I hope the rest of his race was terrible.
As for the rest of my race, or swim, it improved, but the asthma and near-death experience took both time and a toll. The Nation’s swim course is 500m upstream, about 200m of turning back around, and then downstream home to an exit just passed the swim start. I don’t think I ever got into a good rhythm until the turnaround, I was coughing up dirty river water until then. Once I was heading back downstream I just kept it slow and steady letting the current assist me home.
At 1300m there’s a final left back to shore, and as I was sighting the turn buoy and starting to make my way around it, another frickin dude came wailing down the line, punching me hard in the back. I stopped and let him pass, and watched as he just kept flying straight, clearly not sighting the buoy. I could have tried to flag him but I was in no mood. It felt like a good dose of dickhead karma as I watched him swim well off course. I made the turn, and got back to slow and steady business. I looked over my shoulder a few times and he didn’t realize his mistake until a good hundred meters past the turn. HAHA. Not even a little sorry for the schadenfreude.
I arrived at the exit dock and some volunteers helped me up the slick exit. I slipped at one point and they grabbed me as I ate a little Potomac sh** – mayhaps that was my karmic retribution for enjoying a fellow athlete’s mistake a little too much. My fingers and toes were numb (thanks, Raynaud’s) which made for clumsy running and wetsuit-stripping as I rushed back to transition – knowing I had a lot of time to make up.
Even with fewer competitors this year Nation’s is still a big race and the transition area is quite large. My bike placement was a mixed bag: I was all the way to the end of a rack which meant extra running, but since he was the last bike on a rack Koopa was easy to spot. I ran past as many people as I could into and around the outside of the transition racks.
My feet were numb from the chilly swim and I had brought an extra towel to dry them as well as I could before putting on my bike shoes. I took a few extra seconds to do that, knowing I wasn’t really competing that day and also that dry feet would make for a more comfortable and thus faster bike and run. In the end T1 was 4:16 – that’s long but the run up from the swim at through the thousands of bikes is long too so not too ashamed.
The bike course is two ten-ish mile laps followed by a hellish down-and-back on the 14th Street Bridge. Thanks to the DC Tri Club wave the first lap is always enjoyable – just Tri Clubbers and the elites on the course which means it’s both uncongested and everyone riding follows the rules of the road. The first lap means people stay right, pass left, are polite on the U- and technical turns.
Lap two is a different story. A lot of people use Nation’s as their first tri so there’s a real mix of skills and experience and rule-following, and it gets crowded in places. At one point a bunch of slower people were riding in the middle and to the left of a pretty wide stretch of course. I had to pass them to the right, as I did, I called out, “on your right…and I shouldn’t be!”
Coursewise, the first twenty miles are really lovely notwithstanding any rule-shirking shenanigans. A little climbing but mostly flat, generally smooth pavement and wide, car-free roads. As I set out I shifted into my big ring hoping to lay down some speed after the bad swim and before the 14th Street Bridge inevitably slowed me down. Halfway though that first lap I knew my fitness wasn’t good enough to be riding that heavy – working that hard was slowing me down, so I returned to my smaller ring and picked up my cadence. That turned out to be the way to go as lap two was faster than lap one while my heart rate stayed lower – even as I made time to eat and had to dodge the crowd.
Nations’ first twenty miles include several sort of tunnels as you ride under overpasses. Something about the precipitous darkness always makes me stomach rise like I’m on a rollercoaster. I haven’t experienced this in any other race, but it’s like you’re suddenly riding on nothing. The road is smooth and wide, but you can’t see it underneath you. Josh’s directive was to keep my tires really straight in the tunnels to combat any unseeable holes or obstacles. Having that to focus on made me feel more secure, maybe just by giving me something to do beyond dwelling on my nerves and tummy flipping.
I got through both laps and made the left back towards transition and towards the Bridge. In years past, the crosswinds on the Bridge left me death-gripping Koopa trying with all my itty bitty might to stay upright. I was bracing myself to go through the same cyclone-cross death ride as I climbed the hill towards my fate.
And then, miraculously, it wasn’t so bad! Yes it was still the worst part of the bike, but it wasn’t as terrorizing as I was remembering it being. I don’t know if the wind was legitimately milder, I like to think that my riding has improved making it less harrowing. Where I’d never previously been willing to ride aero over that expanse, I did this time around and felt comfortable. The billions of seams in the concrete still rattled my brains constantly, but I wasn’t petrified I’d be blown back into the Potomac. In previous years my pace had taken a nosedive here, but I kept it pretty consistent and didn’t lose too much time.
Before I knew it I was exiting back down the hill to transition feeling relieved and a little proud of myself. I still wish organizers could find a way to make the 14th Street Bridge the first part of the course and let us get it over with before treating is to the beautiful two-lap ride through downtown DC but I feel less bitter this year about it! I wrapped the bike with a time of 1:22:06 – a course PR even if in the years since I last did Nation’s I’ve improved enough that I wouldn’t call that a great time.
I again hoofed it around the outer edge of the massive transition area to find my rack, but this time I managed a much faster transition. In two minutes and two seconds I was out of my cleats, in new dry socks, and off on my run.
I was still healing from the Achilles tendinitis that had kept me out of my running sneaks all August with the exception of the Quantico Tri. I’d done a couple really short run workouts between that and Nation’s but I had no idea how 10k in a race situation would go – especially since my last oly run performance at the New Jersey State Tri had been really bad – even before developing the injury.
Josh wanted me to treat this race as a two separate 5ks. I was to hold way back the first 3.1 miles to see where I was before giving it a push if I could for the second 3.1. The weather by this point was absolutely perfect, and though I still couldn’t feel my toes, dry socks were helping, so I had to make a really deliberate effort to take it easy over the first half. I was proud of myself as I turned in an average of 8:20 for 5k number one, and I felt like there was plenty in the tank and no pain in the heel to step it up as I hoofed into mile four.
I decided to still play it on the safe and smart side and increase just into the 7:50s to see how that felt. And happily it felt great – no Achilles or heel pain and still plenty of cardiac reserves to dig into for the last two miles, so as I entered mile five I stepped on the gas a little more, dropping into the 7:40s and then into the 7:30s and enjoying the speed with every fast and slow twitch fiber of my being.
Halfway through this second-to-last mile I ran into an older (well, not really older-older than me anyway) gentleman named, Ken. He’d passed me earlier in the run and had shouted really kind words of encouragement and DC Tri Club support. Here he was again, and we began to leap frog each other on our way home to the finisher’s chute. He was pushing hard and still encouraging me on and giving me a hell of a fight for the last mile and a half.
At some point I got in front of Ken but then slowed through the turn of the race. I hoofed on chalking the deceleration up to the lack of running and forgiving myself for not keeping the speed going. Then, with maybe .4 miles to go, Ken appeared by my side and announced that we had to finish it together. He was driving a punishing pace to the finish line, but I couldn’t say no. I urged my legs on and held a sub-7 with my new friend all the way in. Crossing the sensors feeling totally spent but proud and happy I was beyond grateful to Ken. This total stranger had approached me just five miles and 40 minutes earlier and yet he invested his energy and support in my race day and he got me over the finish line faster and stronger than I could have gotten myself there. Ken is what triathlon is really all about.
We high-fived, collected our medals, and went our separate ways, but I hope I’ll be able to track him down and thank him again. I went and found Scott and the pups, and Chris who had had a great race. -even after struggling with the shock-to-the-system frigid swim too. My final run time was 49:04, but my second 5k averaged around 7:40 min.mile. My overall time was 2:52:17.
Nation’s 2017 was far from a PR in any of my disciplines, but it’s funny how in different races totally different things can make the day feel like win or a disappointment. In New Jersey I’d been so focused on my bike – I hadn’t ridden a course that flat in years and that’s where I had wanted to make gains. New Jersey was also far from my best overall oly performance, but it felt like such a victory pulling off that fast bike. At Nation’s, I executed a run that felt strong and mature after dealing with an injury that had sidelined me for over a month. And I managed a third in the DC Tri/DMV Tri Club wave, which made me happy, though I was less competitive against the women 30-34 overall Age Group.
This sport is endlessly challenging and never in the same way at any given race or time. I’m never after the same thing twice and while different aspects come together at different competitions tying it all together is such an impossible art. I don’t think grabbing at those loose ends will ever get boring!