The St. Anthony’s Triathlon is a BFD, both for U.S. triathletes – as it is one of the few races to be held continuously for the last three decades – and for my city, which often doesn’t find itself in the spotlight of anything, despite being totally adorable and cute and downright lovely in so many ways. Among local triathletes, it’s the Big Race. “Are you doing St. A’s this year?” everyone asks each other. Naturally, now that I’ve managed to get my hands around this whole open-water swimming thing, I decided to sign up. It would be my first Olympic triathlon: a 1.5 km swim, a 40 km bike ride and a 10 km run.
THE DAY BEFORE
We did our packet pick-ups at Straub Park in downtown St. Petersburg, then spent some time checking out the expo – where Brian snagged some discounted K-Swiss kicks and I grabbed myself a TYR one-piece for a ridiculously low price – before taking our bikes a couple of blocks away to Vinoy Park. The race organizers had put some security measures in place in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing – because all it takes is one or two jackasses doing one horrible thing one time, and then the next thing you know, you’re taking off your shoes for airport security for the next several decades – and so we had to check in our bikes AND our transition gear in clear plastic bags the night before the race.
The transition area was massive, easily the biggest I’d ever seen. I stood in the middle and looked around at the millions of dollars worth of expensive bikes and fancy tri gear and felt the first flutters of anxiety. The other competitors were serious as fuck about this. Like, take this guy who racked up next to Brian. He had a Cervelo P5 – which is a bike that costs $10,000 (omg) – and he had just gotten back from running Boston, where he completed the race in a little over two and a half hours (omg x 2). Non-racers act like I’m impressive just for completing races, but the reality is that I’m nothing compared to a lot of the other people out there.
Next we went to check out the swim course, which is in Tampa Bay. As I looked at the long string of buoys, in one place stretching far away from shore, that flutter of anxiety turned into full-blown nausea. I had spent a lot of time in the pool, and I’d done some longer open water swims, but this was going to be the first time I’d raced at that distance…and it looked so long. When a pair of wild dolphins surfaced a few feet from the sea wall, I tried to take it as a good omen, because hey, dolphins! But the truth was, I was feeling pretty scared.
I spent most of the night and the early morning hours giving myself a pep talk. I knew I could do it, especially if I just hung out near the back and took my time, but good lord, that didn’t keep me from feeling scared.
We arrived at the race site and quickly learned that the water temperature had mysteriously dropped five degrees overnight (a development I call “mysterious” because we’d checked the water before leaving and it was definitely a lot warmer, but hey, I wasn’t going to complain), which meant the swim was wetsuit legal. Fortunately we had our wetsuits in the car, so we ran and grabbed them, then suited up for a warm-up swim.
I’ve come to love the pre-race warm-up swim, where most of the triathletes are out in the water getting ready. There are a couple of reasons why I love it. One, all the people scare away the wildlife, so I can hang out in the water without ever giving a single thought to a fish or a crustacean or anything. Two, the sun is usually just coming up, and so the swim is tinted pink and purple and orange, and it’s just a lovely sensation all around.
However, I have been spoiled by swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly the sandy bottoms and the clear water. The water in the bay was murky, the bottom felt like slimy mud and the sea grasses made me feel a bit like I was swimming into acres of fishing nets. I found it totally gross. Like I said, I’ve been spoiled.
Shortly after the pros took off for their swims, the organizers made the announcement that they were cutting the swim leg short. Some pretty strong winds were coming off the bay and it was kicking up quite a chop further out in the water. (Later, the pro male athlete who won said he had a hard time with the swim and that he was feeling bad for the age-groupers behind him.) In recent years, people got into some serious trouble during the swim leg, so I think the organizers were playing it safe, which I appreciate. Of course, it didn’t keep the he-man elitist triathlete bros from grousing all over the comments of the local newspaper’s website approximately 0.24 seconds after the race finished.
It occurred to me that this was maybe the good omen I’d predicted after seeing the dolphins: a wetsuit legal swim that was way shorter. I was relieved but also a little bit disappointed. One of these days I will actually complete a full Olympic distance tri, but Sunday was not to be that day.
The swim leg started out in the water, which was a first for me, as I’m used to beach starts where you all charge into the surf and then dolphin-dive until it gets deep enough to start swimming. I noticed after I joined my wave that I felt like I was getting sucked away from the shore and that the bottom quickly left my reach, which was a weird feeling. Fortunately we weren’t out there for long before they blew the horn, and then we were off.
I was right in the middle of the scrum from the very beginning, and all of thirty seconds had passed before someone kicked me right in the mouth. It was a hard kick, so hard that I actually checked with my tongue to make sure I hadn’t lost a tooth. A few seconds later, I got elbowed in the back of the head, and then I felt someone clawing at my legs. The sense of having to fight was draining my energy, which I knew I needed for the swim, and so because I couldn’t get out of the middle of the pack, I did the next best thing: I started throwing elbows left and right. My elbows made contact a few times and suddenly a space opened up around me, and I could actually swim!
Once that happened, I began focusing on my stroke, reaching forward, sweeping my arm so my thumb brushed my hip and keeping my head down so I didn’t create a lot of drag with my lower body. By focusing on each stroke and not on the buoys, I was able to cover the distance in what is a personal best for me: 15:54. This is hardly what many people would call a fast swim, but I always remember that this time last year, I wasn’t even capable of making it to the swim buoys without breaking down in tears, and so the fact that I can do a half-mile in open water would be remarkable, even if it took me an hour.
The bike course started off well enough, with me pedaling furiously for the first ten miles while I caught my breath from the swim and the 500m run to transition. I was able to pass some people, although I also got passed by many people on those crazy tri bikes with the disc wheels that make a bike sound like a freight train. I was feeling pretty good..until I hit mile 15. My quads were burning, my bike felt heavy, I had no idea what my pace was because I’d lost track of my splits on my wristwatch (and my bike, being old – excuse me, vintage – didn’t have a bike computer) and frankly, I didn’t even know how to pace myself.
It was at this point that I had to be honest with myself – I was horribly undertrained when it came to the bike leg. I mean, sure, my bike had steel components and it didn’t have aero bars and it’s actually older than some people reading this blog, but the reality is that those are all just excuses. The biggest problem is that I just did not put my ass in the saddle. I went for swims, I went for runs, I lifted weights, and yes, I did some shorter bike rides, but I could never quite muster the enthusiasm necessary to go out for multiple 30+ mile bike rides. More about that later.
I could have probably dealt with the burning quads just fine, but what I could not deal with was a long multi-mile stretch of road so bumpy, it felt like someone had taken a hammer and started pounding my genitals back into my body. I got out of the saddle, I adjusted so I was back on my sitbones, but it was only when I started riding on the little strip of white paint on the outside of the road that I found any relief at all. This is a consistent issue for me, and part of why I don’t find riding a bike as enjoyable as I do the other things. Yes, riding a bike can be fun, but riding a bike at high speeds for two hours makes my crotchal area feel like tenderized steak. No me gusta. (And I’m really not interested in building up callouses. I’m sure I don’t have to elaborate.)
What was even worse than the Agonies of the Vulva was the hit my ego was taking, especially after I saw woman after woman, ages 30-34 inked on their calves, pass me on the bike. It made me so angry that I had outswam these women – I, who is not even that good of a swimmer! – only to have them pass me on the bike with five miles to go. It was so frustrating, but no matter how hard I pedaled, I was no match for them. I promised myself that I could make it up on the run.
By the time I dismounted and switched my gear over for the run leg, it was about 10:30 in the morning. I had been part of the 20th wave, so by the time I even getting in the water, there were pros who were already starting their run. And it wasn’t just any 10:30 in the morning, but rather a 10:30 on a hot, sunny morning, with absolutely no cloud cover. If I’d had to guess I’d have said it was in the 80s, and I later learned I was right.
My run started out decently enough, although my legs were feeling a bit chunky from the bike ride. I’d slammed an energy gel and a swig of Powerade, so I had fuel in my system, and it was just a matter of working out the legs. I covered the first mile in a little under nine minutes, which I hoped would bode well for the rest of the run. Alas, I was about a quarter-mile into the second mile before the heat got to me. I realized I could try to run as long as I could and run the risk of being forced to walk the rest of the way, or I could switch to a run-walk early and save myself some energy. I opted for the run-walk. I was not the only one. I saw a lot of really fit looking people out there who were also walking. It was just so hot.
Fortunately for me and all of the other runners, the residents of the neighborhood had turned out in full force, bringing out stereos and spraying us down with hoses. They had chalked the street with signs telling us that runners were hot and instructing us to run like we stole something, and a few of them offered cups of beer and Jello shots. (“Meet me in about two miles,” I said to the girls with the Jello shots.) The water stops all had cold water and Gatorade, and even better, ICE, which the volunteers dumped on us by the cupful. I was so grateful to every single volunteer I encountered, and when I came upon friends of mine from the running community, I wanted to weep with relief at the sight of a familiar face. The heat, the fatigue, the pain had depleted me. I was barely holding it together, and seeing my friends really helped me keep going.
The crowd support even from the people I didn’t know was tremendous. When I hit the last mile, the street was lined with people cheering us on. A coach from a local tri team said, “In about 50 yards, you’re gonna be so happy!” and sure enough, in 50 yards, there was the mile-6 marker on the ground. I could hear the crowds screaming just around the corner, and I started to weep with relief.
And then I saw her. A few hundred yards ahead of me, I caught sight of a lady with the number 31 inked on her calf. I was already dealing with some pretty negative feelings about my performance during this race, and I knew that if I let someone in my age group beat me by such a small margin, I was going to be even more disappointed. I couldn’t let that happen. I summoned up whatever little wisps of energy I had left in my legs and began running as hard as I could. I ran so hard that I thought I was going to throw up. I ran and I caught her and I passed her, just a few feet ahead of the finish line. It was a tiny little triumph in a day that had thoroughly humbled me.
Later, after I’d caught my breath and had some chocolate milk and a couple of beers to recover (what? beer is good for recovery, it says so in a study commissioned by the University of Me), I checked out my legs and had to laugh. Rivulets of dried salt ran down the insides of both my legs and all around my thighs, making me feel like the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The truth is that this race was only marginally less difficult for me than a full marathon. When it was all said and done, I had been out on the course for nearly three hours – 2:48:49 – and I had worked my whole entire body into mush, not just my legs. Two days later, I am still dealing with full-body fatigue, soreness in my calves and shins and tightness in my back and shoulders. Never again will I underestimate you, Olympic distance triathon. Never again.
POST-RACE PROCESSING – THE BAD
There was no way around it. I was undertrained and underprepared for this race. I had hit a serious psychological wall after doing the Bahamas Marathon in January. I had been in a cycle of training and racing for a few years, with no real break, and the demands of work and buying a new house and trying to keep up with my blog/zines/relationships all kind of crashed down on me at once. (There’s a reason why the updating schedule on this blog has crawled to an abysmal once-a-week, is what I am saying.) I knew I needed to train hard but I couldn’t quite summon the energy or the desire. So instead I did the absolute bare minimum I could manage, which in retrospect was still kind of a lot but not nearly enough to be successful at such a challenging race.
This is an ongoing bad habit of mine, by the way. I still remember how I used to coast through high school, content with my solid B average, and how I was so confident that I’d be able to pull the same thing off in college with limited effort, only to have reality come crashing down on my head in the form of a GPA that was so low I’m still ashamed of it. It wasn’t until I returned to college as an adult that I realized that only by putting my natural intellect together with hard work was I ever going to get results I could truly be proud of.
There’s still a part of me thinks I can get by with half-ass effort when it comes to athletics, even though I have seen what happens when I train hard and compete hard. My husband is fond of pointing out that I am naturally gifted enough at my chosen sports that I don’t have to work hard to be above average. But then he always follows it up with a dose of truth that stings, which is that if I could put that together with consistent hard work, I could be so much better. And I know that he’s right. I worked hard to get myself to this point, and with even more work and consistency…well, let’s just say that I know I am capable of achieving even more when it comes to racing.
I have no upcoming events after this race, perhaps the first time in several years that I can say this. I plan to take at least a month and just do things I enjoy without worrying about how this is going to fit into my schedule or will this be enough to get me to my goal. Then I’ll re-assess and see where I’m at. Maybe I’ll do some shorter races, maybe I won’t race at all for a while. We’ll see.
POST-RACE PROCESSING – THE GOOD
It wasn’t all bad, though. First of all, the stuff that I labeled “the bad”? Is actually not really that bad. It’s bad only in the sense that it exposes a bit of a flaw in my thinking and way of conducting myself, and no one likes to think of themselves as having flaws. However, the reality is that we all have flaws, we all have weaknesses, and so the question is not about not having them in the first place, but rather how you deal with them when you are confronted with them. I’m at a point in my life where I would rather use these kind of experiences to become better and stronger, as opposed to hiding in my little emotional cave and never coming out ever again.
Another thing that was good was my swim leg. I cannot overstate to you just how terrified open-water swimming used to make me. The fact that I can even do it now – and that it was even my strongest leg in this race, with me coming out of the water 38th out of 86 women – never ceases to be a source of amazement for me. The development of that skill set has come with a lot of work, though. Laps in the pool, swimming in the gulf even on gray and blustery February mornings, reading books and watching videos about technique, even doing drills that I know make me look ridiculous. I’ve been working hard at swimming, and it shows. (Now, to translate that work ethic onto the bike…)
Finally, the best thing about the race was being surrounded by some incredible female athletes in their 30s, 40s and 50s, women who were just kicking my ass left and right on the bike and run course. I mean, yeah, I saw Mirinda Carfrae in the transition area and I know Paula Newby-Fraser was running around coaching Hines Ward, but I’m never going to be at that caliber of athlete. The pros are inspiring in their own way, but seeing women who found a way to juggle kids and jobs with their sport is another thing entirely. I may never be as single-mindedly focused on my sport as some of those ladies are – and in fact, I doubt I ever will be – but I find them amazing anyway.
So there’s that. And now let the recuperation and recovery begin.