Well, the last race of the season is in the books, and boy, it was a doozy. Racing generally gives me all kinds of feelings, but mostly they are positive. It’s rare that I have a race where I’m left seesawing between glowing pride and bitter disappointment, but that’s basically where I’m at right now.
To back up: Brian decided to sign up for the full iron distance of the Great Floridian Triathlon several months ago, as several of our teammates had also signed up. The race is long-standing locally-organized race held in Clermont, which is literally the only hilly place in all of Florida, and it’s known for its brutal bike course. This year in particular seemed designed for maximum brutality, as a change in the bike course meant the full iron distance triathletes were going to do three loops of a course that includes some substantial climbs, including a rollercoaster on Buckhill Road and Sugarloaf Mountain. (You can read more about them here.)
I knew that I would feel wistful if I went to cheer him on but didn’t take part in one of the shorter races, so I signed up for the 1/3 distance race, thinking five weeks post-Hutchinson Island half would be a sufficient amount of down time. Well, it wasn’t, which is material for a whole ‘nother blog post, and so I decided that I was just going to go with what my body/mind was telling me and take it easy at the race.
I guess the race didn’t get the memo.
The day before the race, we grabbed our packets and our swag – which, by the way, was pretty cool, with a knapsack, a big ceramic coffee mug that is also perfect for eating ice cream and a nice water bottle – and scoped out transition, which was in Waterfront Park in Clermont. I started feeling that familiar frisson of pre-race excitement as I racked my bike – coincidentally about five spots away from former Ironman World Champion Nina Kraft – and checked out Lake Minneola, where we’d be swimming the next day. It was hot and windy but, you know, oh well. And hey, no jellyfish! (Sorry, everyone who did Ironman Miami 70.3 yesterday.)
After we met up with some teammates for a nice pasta dinner, we went back to our hotel. Brian checked his gear bags and went right to sleep, while I stayed up a bit later, flipped through Facebook and read “Jackie Brown” by Elmore Leonard. (Next up, finally watching the dang movie.) When I woke up I felt refreshed and excited to go have a great day of racing and then joining a bunch of teammates and cheering on my sweetie while he did his second ironman.
We ended up starting at 9:10 a.m. due to race logistics, so by the time we got in the water I was all antsy and ready to go. The water temperature was 77 degrees – juuuust wetsuit legal – so I zipped myself into my wetsuit and went out into the water, partly so I could warm up and partly so I could get some water inside my wetsuit so I’d stop feeling like it was suffocating me.
The water of Lake Minneola is sort of funky-looking, a reddish-brown color that reminds me of swimming in flavorless iced tea, but the appearance is deceptive, because the water itself is actually really refreshing and pleasant and has only the slightest mineral taste. Plus, like I said, no jellyfish. (And also no need to do the stingray shuffle! But…alligators. Oh well.) I was excited for the swim leg to start, and when the horn sounded, I charged into the water and started swimming.
All of the women who were doing the 1/3 distance started together, so it was a mass start but not a terribly big one, only 59 swimmers. That’s out of 170 racers all together! The gender ratio was even more skewed for the full iron distance, with only 51 women out of more than 250 racers total taking part. As I posted on Facebook, iron distance races are always such sausage fests. I hope to do my part to tilt the ratio a little back towards parity by doing Ironman Louisville next year!
Anyway, because the wave was relatively small – and also all women – there wasn’t a lot of physical contact happening. I found my rhythm and focused on keeping a smooth, powerful stroke going. I’ve got to say, every time I go swim in the open water I am always so pleased and also a little astonished by how terrific and strong I feel. That I’ve become such a competent swimmer remains one of the great surprises of my adult life.
Everything was awesome until the halfway point, when I caught up with some of the women at the front of the pack AND the back-of-the-pack men from the wave ahead of us. I found myself stuck behind a woman with the most ridiculously powerful kick – I swear, every kick sounded like a sonic boom going off near my face – and all I could think was that if she kicked me in the face, I’d be knocked out cold, and that would be no bueno. But then I’d try to go around her and get trapped by someone doing a backstroke or someone who was using a snorkel. So finally I got myself clear of the pack and kicked hard until I knew I was no longer in danger of taking a Sonic Boom Foot right in the kisser.
Finally I spotted the flags on the beach and swam through a sea of men’s orange caps to the ramp. I got out of the water and saw my team’s manager, Park, cheering me on. The wetsuit stripper pulled my suit off and I ran into transition to get my bike.
Swim: .8 mile in 26:19 (1:49/100 yards)
I was excited to ride my bike for two reasons: one, the course was going to be hard, with lots of hills to climb, but that also meant descending, which, wheeee!, and two, Brian had given me new HED race wheels for my birthday and this was the first time I got to use them during a race. The day before, I’d put the rear race wheel on, since I don’t use it when I’m on the trainer, and I took it for a quick spin along the lakefront trail. Everything seemed okay.
I was maybe thirty seconds into my ride before I realized everything was the opposite of okay. I’d started with my bike in the small chainring so I could deal with a short but steep climb right out of transition, but as soon as I started climbing, my chain started jumping down the gears. I geared back up in hopes of fixing it and immediately came to a stop. I unclipped before I could fall, and embarrassed, I walked the bike up the hill and got back on.
I shifted into my big chainring to start the descent, and once again, my chain jumped all over the gears. I started to panic, and also to get scared. If I had been on one of my home courses, which are flat as the proverbial pancake, I could have just found a gear that worked and gone with it, but this course does not have a single flat section anywhere. It was all climbs and descents and more climbs and more descents. I wasn’t even at the big climbs, and yet here I was having to dismount every time I hit a hill so I could walk my bike. And going downhill was even more nerve-wracking because my chain refused to stay in one gear, and it was just click click click as the chain jumped all over the cassette.
The first five miles of the course took me nearly a half-hour to complete, and all the fear and anxiety I was feeling was pushed aside by frustration and anger, especially as I watched other racers pass me and then vanish off into the distance. I’m pretty sure I screamed the f-word a couple of times. I had visions of pulling over and throwing my bike to the ground.
Instead, when I reached the first aid station, just shy of mile 9, I pulled off and asked if they would call bike aid for me. I knew there was no way I could ride Buckhill Road, let alone Sugarloaf Mountain, with my bike acting that way, so I realized my choice was either “see if bike aid can help me” or “DNF.”
The lovely people at the aid station, who were members of the Tri With Us club out of Oviedo, called the bike aid, had me sit down out of the sun and offered me food and water while I waited. I sat in my chair and watched as racer after racer sped past. My Garmin kept marking time: 40 minutes, 45 minutes, 50 minutes. It occurred to me that I was probably pretty close to dead last by this point.
I took off my helmet and sunglasses and started to cry. I felt so dejected and frustrated. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to continue after this. What was the point?
The tri-club members immediately tried to cheer me up. “It’s okay, sweetie! I’ve been last too!” one of the women said. Another woman told me about being escorted by the police and the sag wagon at one race. One of the men told me about the team’s mascot – the tortoise – and we talked a bit about the Galloway method and how we all like it a lot.
Finally, one of the women said, “You should finish the race if you can. Just think about how proud you’ll be when you do.”
At this point, the bike aid guy – Dave from Wheel Works in Winter Garden – pulled up like a superhero in an SUV and said, “719?” He introduced himself and got to work on my bike. After a minute he said he was pretty sure he could fix my bike but he was going to have to take my cassette off and change out a spacer to do it. I told him to do whatever he needed to do.
I sat back down in my chair and thought about what the aid-station lady said, about future me being proud of myself for sticking it out.
I thought about how I pride myself on being tough and resilient, but it’s easy to be tough and resilient when everything goes your way. The real test of character comes when shit gets hard. And shit was getting hard.
Sometimes when I’m faced with a dilemma, I have a couple of questions I ask myself. One is, what would I do if I wasn’t afraid? The other is, what kind of person do I want to be, and how would that person proceed? These questions always clarify things for me, and when I asked them of myself as I sat in my plastic chair, wiping salty tears off my face, I realized that the kind of person I wanted to be is the kind of person who got back on her bike and finished the race, no matter what it took.
And it occurred to me that I love to race – like, I get a real thrill out of setting my sights on someone ahead of me and then catching and passing them – and what better opportunity to experience that thrill than to start from nearly DFL and see how far through the pack I can get?
I finished my little John Belushi-esque pep talk (“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”) and went to check on my bike. Dave was in the process of putting everything back together and taking it off the rack on the back of his SUV, and he took it for a ride down a side road and back. He dismounted and said it was all mine. I thanked him and the aid station volunteers a million times for saving my race, and then rode off. As I left I glanced at my Garmin. It had taken me an hour and six minutes to go nine miles. I had twenty-eight miles to go. Time to get to work.
Almost right away I realized my bike’s gearing was working the way it was supposed to, and I yelped with delight. I powered my way through the rolling hills and up some of the bigger climbs, and one by one, I started catching the racers who had passed me as I sat wallowing in self-pity at the aid station. But just because my gears were working now, it didn’t mean the race became easy. On the contrary, it was hot, in the upper 80s, and it was windy, with gusts of up to 20 mph. Sometimes I’d descend and the wind would catch my wheels and blow my bike from side to side. Sometimes the hot wind was right in my face.
I was grateful that I only had to do the course once, and I felt bad for all the full iron-distance competitors, who were going to have to do this three times.
I hit Buckhill Road, which is a series of three big rolling hills. I ended up walking partway up the first hill, but I made it to the top of the second and third hills. A little while later came Sugarloaf Mountain, which is notorious for its 12 percent grade over 312 feet. I made the turn and tried to pick up some momentum before starting the climb, but the headwinds were so strong that I only hit 19 mph, and I made it about a quarter of the way up the hill before I had to walk. No big deal; I just grabbed my bike and started hiking as fast as my little bike shoe-clad feet could carry me.
The hill was lined with encouraging signs, and one group of spectators held up a little phone with the “Rocky” theme playing on it, which made me smile. I joked around with the other cyclists, all of whom were walking up the hill, and got a big boost from a teammate’s family, who were waiting for him at the top of the hill. They saw my KLR kit and went nuts. And then I got to the top of the mountain – only to be greeted by a race photographer. I realized later, after hearing other people talk about it, that I should have gotten on my bike earlier and pretended like I made it to the top, but instead I put my hand up to block the photo, like I was the Lindsay f’in Lohan of triathlon and he was Ron Galella or something. (I kind of want to see that photo now.)
Park had said the last ten miles were where we should drop the hammer, and that’s what I did. I ended up doing the last 28 miles in an hour and 46 minutes.
Bike: 37 miles in 2:53:48 (12.8 mph)
I was still on fire when I hit T2. I dismounted, ran through transition and switched out all my gear as fast as I ever have. (I just checked – one of the fastest T2s of all the female racers.) I’d learned from Hutchinson Island, where my sodium and electrolyte levels got all out of whack when I drank too much water, so right away I popped an Endurolyte tablet and a Gu. And then I ran.
The course was nicely split up so you went a little over two miles in one direction, then came back to the race venue and ran a little over two miles in the other direction, for a total of 8.7 miles. The lakeshore trail is nicely paved with a substantial amount of shade. I was excited to run on it.
Because you aren’t allowed to wear headphones during USAT races – a rule I ultimately saw flaunted multiple times by iron-distance competitors, which, pffft – I’ve learned how to motivate myself to run without music, particularly when it’s hot outside. One of the things that works best for me is counting to 100 in time with my steps. Over and over and over again. It sounds horrible but it works. It gives my brain something repetitive to focus on so I stop obsessing over how much further I have to go, how hot it is, etc. I’ve found that whenever I try to do something else, I lose my focus and start running a lot slower. Better to just stick with the counting.
The aid stations were staffed by the most wonderful volunteers, all of whom were supportive and awesome and who really took what they were doing seriously. At some stations, a volunteer would run out to meet you and then yell what you needed back to the station so they were ready to hook you up with ice, flat Coke, water, whatever. One station had kids with SuperSoakers, and if you wanted, they’d hit you full blast with them. (I had them soak me both times.) Brian said his handheld water bottle strap came undone as he approached one aid station, and the deputy working there asked “wardrobe malfunction?” and offered to take it. When Brian came back through, the deputy had fixed it.
All triathletes and racers know this well: the volunteers make our sport possible, and damn if they aren’t amazing. Volunteers, I love you so much!
I started out with a fairly fast clip of 8:15-8:20, but when I hit the halfway point, the heat had taken its toll and I was running nine-minute miles. I was still reeling in people, though, which was all I cared about. (Sorry to all the teammates I passed – you know how it goes.) I managed to sustain that until about mile five, when we hit a treeless stretch. Fortunately it was still windy, and what I had cursed on the bike leg suddenly became incredibly welcome on the run leg. I popped another Endurolyte tab and another Gu, and came up with a strategy, where I’d count to 500 and then walk for a minute. If I hit an aid station, I’d walk through it and then start my count over again.
By the time I reached the last mile, my pace was about ten minute miles. I was still moving, though, and when I saw Park and Tom and some of the other guys from the team right by the finish line, I looked at them and said, “I had a fucking mechanical!” Tom said, “We know, we heard. You’re still doing good, girl, so go finish.”
Run: 8.7 miles in 1:19:53 (9:11/mile)
I hit the finish line in 4:45. I’d hoped to come in closer to 4 hours but like I said, the race had other plans for me that day.
I accepted my medal and a bottle of water, then saw my friend Hugo in the cooling tent and went to go talk with him while we soaked up the mist. A short while later, my friend Kris finished and sat down next to me. It felt so good to be in the shade, no longer moving or in the heat and able to sit down and take my now-soaked Hokas off. Plus, Hugo and Kris are both great people, so I enjoyed being able to sit and hang with them for a minute.
I hung out for a while to see the results, as I knew I had passed a lot of women in my age group, but there was apparently a serious snafu with the timing, so I gathered my stuff and went back to the hotel room for a quick shower, as Brian, bless his heart, had just started the run leg of his ironman, and I wanted to be there to cheer him on.
When I came back, clean and de-stinked and in possession of a six-pack of beer, a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and two bags of ice, I went to the team tent, where I was informed that they had called my name during the awards ceremony. I couldn’t believe it – I’d managed to come in third in my age group. I’d lost a whole half-hour to a stupid mechanical issue, and yet I managed to pull it together long enough to earn a spot on the podium. I couldn’t believe it. Was this real life, or was this just Fanta sea? Apparently it was real life – MY real life!
I’ve never fought so hard for a race in my entire life. This one’s going on the wall.
I collected my plaque, then went back to the tent and cracked open a beer. I spent the next four hours shooting the shit with teammates, drinking beer and cheering everyone who passed. We saved the loudest cheers for our teammates and Brian – well, he got my super special cheerleading a.k.a. a kiss every time we saw each other. It was so amazing to see the dogged determination on all those athletes’ faces. And Brian – every time I saw him he had a huge smile on his face. An ironman is hard as hell but he makes it look fun.
Brian ultimately finished his race in 12:55, which is really incredible especially considering how hard that course was. His time was good enough for third in his age group as well! I’m so proud of him. He’s the one that got me into all this triathlon and running crap in the first place, and for that I am eternally grateful. I’m excited to train and race alongside him as we tackle my first full Ironman next year. I’ve no doubt it’s going to be epic.
So I mentioned at the beginning of this race report that I had some mixed feelings. It’s true, I do. While I am mostly proud of the way I pulled myself together and raced with heart and grit, I can’t pretend like I don’t feel disappointed when I think about the race I would have had had I not been literally derailed with a mechanical for a half-hour. I’m sure I’ll get over it, just as I’ve gotten over my disappointment over my run at the Hutchinson Island half, but for right now, it’s there.
The good thing is that once it fades, I’ll have some lessons tucked in my back pocket, like the value of refusing to give up, my capacity for toughness and resilience, and probably most important of all, the importance of checking your fucking gear before you race.