It’s been eight days since the Hutchinson Island Half Iron and so I figure I should probably get to writing my race report already. I have a lot of capital-F Feelings about this race and it took a bit to make sense of them, but now that I think I’ve wrapped my mind around things, I’m ready to write.
Before I start, though, I just need to say that this was undoubtedly one of the hardest races I’ve ever done. I mean, a half-iron distance triathlon is already pretty tough as it is, but the race conditions were unexpectedly brutal. We had been watching the weather in the days leading up to the race and the temperatures remained hot. Damn hot, real hot.
And then when we got to Hutchinson Island on Friday, we went to check out the water, and we were greeted by some big-ass surf. I’m talking surf so big we actually saw it rip a poor lady’s bikini right off her body.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Oceans have waves. Duh, Caitlin.” But apparently the water was flat for the previous year’s race, and the only reason why the surf was going a bit bonkers was because of that blood supermoon happening that weekend. Because that’s what kind of lucky girl I am: that a once-in-decades astronomical phenomenon that affects the pull of the tides would take place the same weekend I am due to swim 1.2 miles in the ocean.
On Saturday, the surf was still big so we figured we might as well go into the water and get used to it. We dove beneath the waves and made it out past the breakers, where we hung out with all the surfers who had dragged their boards up to Jensen Beach for the weekend. After paddling around a bit, Brian and I decided it would be way more fun to go bodysurfing, so we ended up doing that for an hour instead.
(On the surface, this sounds like it would have been a terrible idea, a massive waste of precious energy stores, but in retrospect it worked out well because it meant we had plenty of time to get familiar with how it felt to have the whole damn ocean pulling your body every which way and how to manage those waves, which, if you weren’t careful, would suplex you face-first into the sand.)
After that we rinsed off and picked up our packets. The race was a small, local one, with less than two hundred athletes taking part, so there was no expo and no big goodie bag or anything like that. Which is fine, because really, how much more tri-related stuff do I need? (The real question is, how much more tri-related stuff do I want? The answer is…alarming.) We stuck around for the somewhat confusing pre-race briefing – it would have been nice to know ahead of time what was going to be at the aid stations on the run, for instance – and then left so we could get our gear ready and then go sit in the pool for a while.
After a shitty night of sleep – thanks to the wedding happening around the hotel’s pool – we woke up, did the pre-race calorie-and-caffeine shove and headed off to the race. We set up our stuff in transition and then went out to the beach so we could assess the water.
I was hoping the water had calmed down a bit. It had not.
Everyone stood on the beach looking out at the choppy, loud water. The lifeguards had not even taken the buoys out yet because who knew if the surf was going to push them back in? At the same the announcer was saying, “There are a few small waves this morning, nothing you can’t handle.” Yet every single person who crested the sand dunes and saw the water said, “Those are not small waves.”
I did my best to keep a positive, if somewhat bemused, attitude about things. I mean, the water was what it was, and no amount of stressing on my part was going to change that. I knew that I’ve become a pretty strong swimmer, and that if I kept my wits about myself, I would be just fine.
We waited a little bit until the sun came up so we could actually see what the hell was happening, then we lined up on the beach and we were off.
As far as mass starts go, it wasn’t huge, but it was definitely the biggest mass start I’ve ever been in. I took one step into the water and was immediately knocked to my knees by the surf. I stood up just in time to take a huge wave to the face. (Awesome.) I finally managed to start swimming, only to get kicked about seventeen times over the course of thirty seconds. One of those kicks landed right on my Garmin, hitting the lap button and switching it over to the timer for T1. My files for this race show an impossibly short swim followed by the longest T1 in the history of triathlon.
It was at this time that I started to get pissed. My philosophy of open-water swimming has undergone a rapid revolution in the past year. I used to do whatever possible to avoid getting hit, but now my thinking is “clobber or be clobbered.” I was tired of being clobbered.
I was on my way to the first buoy when I felt a guy start to swim up over my back. Oh hell no, I thought. We are in the middle of the ocean in four-foot waves and everyone is trying not to die and you are being an asshole. I kicked hard and felt my right heel sink into something soft. Then I heard the guy yelp in agony. At that moment I realized that I had probably kicked the guy right in the nuts.
I felt guilty for a second, but that was quickly overwhelmed by the relief I felt now that I no longer was in danger of being drowned by some galoot in a tri kit.
Fortunately things started to spread out quickly, and I found my rhythm using all the physical cues I’ve developed over the past few months of masters swimming: extend, roll, pull with power, high elbow, repeat. I swam north, then turned around and headed south. I couldn’t see much in my goggles, just a lot of bluish-green water. I found the whole experience surprisingly relaxing, to be honest.
At one point when I was alone, I started wondering about all of the sharks that were in the water with us, and I wondered what I would do if I saw a hammerhead now that I was mostly by myself. After a minute of that train of thought, I was like, “Fuck it, I’d rather take my chance with a hammerhead than have to swim in that chaotic mass of humanity again.” Funny how things change, isn’t it.
I made my last turn and headed for shore. The surf carried me in pretty quickly but when I got close to land, I misjudged a wave and was body-slammed into the sand one last time. But aside from a couple of mishaps that left me a little roughed up – sand burns on both knees and what I’m pretty sure was a minor jellyfish sting under one armpit – I absolutely LOVED that swim. Forget down-river wetsuit-legal swims. I want all my swims to be in the ocean with some motherf’in SURF.
Swim time: 41:56 (1:59/100 yds)
I’ve spent the last several months working my butt off on the bike, including long sessions on the indoor trainer and trips out of town to ride hills and CompuTrainer rides in my local bike shop’s pain cave. The last week before the race, I did a quasi-time trial during a supported charity ride and finished a metric century in a little over three and a half hours, 98 percent of which was done in the small chainring. I had acquired an aero helmet, and a teammate had offered to lend me his race wheels. (Which, if you know anything about bikes, is like someone basically lending you their car. A portable, easily breakable version of their car. I was staggered by his generosity. I still am.) I had tested out a nutrition strategy: Tailwind in my Aerodrink and a bottle of concentrated Tailwind in my rear bottle to be mixed with water from aid stations, plus a Boost before the ride even started. I was READY.
The course was two flat and fast loops with one tiny technical area: a climb over a causeway with a sharp right turn at the bottom of the descent. Almost all of the course was along A1A, and so every time I saw a sign for A1A, my brain helpfully chimed in with “Beachfront Avenue!” This is because I am a child of the 1990s, and part of my burden to bear as such is knowing every single word to “Ice, Ice Baby.”
Right away I was going 20+ mph, which for me is about as fast as I have ever ridden on flat roads in my life. I was blown away by this, but I also didn’t want to get too carried away, as I know what commonly happens when you go too hard on the bike: your race becomes “swim, overbike, walk.” But that was just where things wanted to settle in at, so after a while, I stopped fighting it and allowed myself to enjoy the feeling of my legs pumping away like pistons.
During most of the first lap, the roads had clearly seen recent rainfall, and the skies were overcast. I hoped we’d have similar conditions for the run.
I passed a lot of people and was only passed a couple of times. The only woman who passed me had a disc wheel, which impressed me mightily because you don’t often see women riding bikes with disc wheels. Brian finally caught up to me at mile 14 of the bike and blew past me like I was standing still, cheering me on as he passed. I was really pleased with the way I was riding, and I cautiously started considering the possibility that maybe everyone who told me my sub-6:00 goal was too conservative was right.
I had targeted a three-hour ride as my goal, so when I dismounted and saw that I’d finished in 2:51 with what had been a totally manageable effort, I was really psyched.
Bike time: 2:51:08 (19.6 mph)
While in T2, I stripped down to my KLR sports bra and put on a hat instead of a visor, because I planned to basically load myself up with ice whenever I could. The cloud cover had vanished by this time, and in its stead was that kind of flat, heavy Florida heat that makes you feel like the sun is sitting right on your face. I briefly remembered that I hadn’t been able to find my Endurolyte capsules, but I figured three gels and a lot of water and Heed would be enough to get me through the next 13.1 miles.
As I ran out of T2, I heard the announcer say, “And here’s a whole pack of girls in the hunt for third place.” And I realized that I was one of those girls she was talking about. I firmed my resolve to stick to my plan of running nine-minute miles and hopefully finishing in under two hours.
That plan lasted the first, oh, two miles. That was the point at which I had to pull over to a stand of mangrove trees so I could pee. There was an aid station nearby, so I grabbed some ice water and tried to choke down a pretzel stick so I could get some salt in my system, and then started running again. I ran for about three minutes before my legs were like NOPE. So I thought, No big deal, I’ll just switch to a run-walk. This worked for another mile, at which point I ran out of the thin strip of shade that hugged the edge of the sidewalk. Once again, my legs were like NOPE.
Miles 4 and 5 took us back on a spur through a golf course and then to a causeway with a parking lot underneath, where we had to do a loop. I had put ice in my bra and under my hat and had guzzled so. much. water, and yet I couldn’t seem to cool off. My ability to focus was gone. I started walking. The course went past our hotel, and I seriously debated leaving the race and going directly to the pool. Instead I kept walking. There was no shade anywhere. I started crying, both from the pain of the heat and from frustration with myself and my body for refusing to just do this one simple thing I was asking of it.
For the first time in my seven years as an endurance athlete, the words “DNF” entered my mind. I still had nearly four hours to make the cutoff, but I wasn’t sure my body was capable of doing it.
What had I done wrong? Had I overbiked? I was pretty sure I’d overbiked. I bet that was what happened. Did I not eat enough on the bike? I did the math and realized that I’d likely only taken in about 800 calories in Boost and Tailwind, which apparently wasn’t enough. I couldn’t believe I was going to blow my race like this.
Fortunately, at this point, I saw Brian. He was walking up the causeway while I was going down into the parking lot. He yelled at me to catch up with him, and we’d finish together. That motivated me to start shuffling my feet. I didn’t want to be alone for the next eight miles. I grabbed more ice and some flat Coke, and kept shuffling, and finally I caught up to him. I was dry-crying and barely coherent, and he said not to worry about my time, that what was important was living to race another day. He pointed out everyone else around us, almost all of whom – with the exception of the leaders, who were on the way back – were walking. And even the leaders were suffering. It was just so hot.
(I have some criticisms about the way this race was organized, including the unnecessarily complicated run course, which led a lot of people to cut the course, but I cannot criticize the aid-stop volunteers, as they were amazing. They made sure we had tons of water and ice and defizzed Coke. Without them, the run would have been utter carnage.)
We made it to the aid stop at the turnaround, and it was at this point that we caught up with another racer. He saw the obvious distress I was in, and he held out his bag of salt tablets. I took one and he said, “No, take more.” So I took three and immediately gulped one down. Within a few minutes, I felt SO MUCH better. I realized I had been drinking a lot of water and sweating like crazy, and that my body’s chemistry was on the verge of getting dangerously out of whack. (Stephen Miron, if you ever come across this race report, thank you a million times over, because I’m pretty sure you saved my life that day.)
We walked to the top of the causeway, then ran down the other side. I flipped my Garmin over to the display that showed the overall time and discovered that I still had plenty of time to go sub-6:00. If we could do 11-minute miles, we would make it. I swallowed another salt tab, dumped ice down my bra and shorts, and we got going. I didn’t have it in me to run the whole way but I knew I could go faster, so we picked it up, with each mile getting progressively faster.
And then when we hit the 12th mile, I knew I didn’t have a lot of wiggle room if I wanted to make my goal. Plus, by this time, I was done. I was sunburned, my legs were covered in road grime, I had all this ice clanking around in my shorts and top, my Hokas were making these gross squelching noises. A couple of women had passed me on the run but I didn’t care anymore. All I wanted was to stop moving, sit down and take my shoes off.
The finish line came into view just as my Garmin flipped over to 5:59:00. I was not about to let all that effort – not just on race day but all the days leading up to it – slip away without a fight, so I summoned up the last little droplets of energy in my legs and ran. I got my ass across that finish line with seconds to spare.
Run: 2:21:21 (10:47/mile)
Total time: 5:59:22
I ended up being awarded third in my age group, and results show me as ninth female overall. However, upon closer examination of the race results, I realized that the woman who was listed as being first my age group is also listed as having run a world-record 49:50 half-marathon. I’m assuming that’s not accurate and what happened was that she didn’t let the race officials know that she decided not to do the full run. So the reality is that I was second in my age group and eighth female overall. I was the fifth woman out of the water and the sixth woman off the bike. (Brian was also third in his age group, and he had his best ever bike split at this distance by far. Yay for flat and fast!)
The heat got everyone down that day. Only two women went sub-2:00 on the run. I spoke to a guy who said he normally does his half-irons in 5:20 or so; that day he finished in 5:55. I spoke to a woman who, like me, is a strong runner, and her race mirrored mine exactly: great swim, fast bike, wheels came off at mile 2 on the run.
And these were the people who finished. About ten percent of those who started didn’t finish. The heat was that absurd.
For a few days after the race I was really coming down hard on myself, because I know I have it in me to go faster. I kept trying to think about what I could have done differently: remembered my Endurolyte tabs, eaten more on the bike, forced myself to go slower. But the truth is that these things would have done very little for me, and that even if I had started out to run a half-marathon with fresh legs and a full tank of gas, that heat would have still reduced me to ash.
That’s been the hardest thing for me to come to terms with: the fact that I know I could have done better and yet I was not able to do so, for whatever reason. The stupid thing about it is that I actually achieved my long-held time goal and I was one of the top ten female finishers and so many other people who ran the race had the exact same experience, yet I still feel this way. I’m sure that eventually I’ll let it go, but it’s going to take a few more days before I get to that point.
In the meantime, I’m giving myself some time before I do the one-third distance at the Great Floridian Triathlon later this month, and then shortly after that I’ll start training for the Boston Marathon. (Which, by the way, I GOT INTO OMG.) I’ll have another opportunity to try my hand at the half-iron distance next year, as I’ve already signed up for Chattanooga 70.3. It’s all good, really. Like I said, I just have to sort my complicated feelings out, and then I’m sure I’ll eventually be happy with the way I performed that day.