Over the past 31 days, I’ve raced three times. During the first two races, I asked myself “why on earth am I paying money to do this?” During the third race, that question was answered with a resolute “because this is fucking awesome, that’s why.”
You’re probably aware that the weather is unusually wonky – at least, unusually for our new climate change-driven reality, where severe weather is now the norm – thanks to El Nino. For us in Florida, that means we’ve been getting these bands of severe weather that come hurtling through at 50 mph, bringing gale force winds, driving rains and even tornadoes with them.
One of those bands – which show up on weather radars as big angry red blotches – came through south Florida the weekend of the NITS Naples triathlon series, and another one came through the Tampa Bay area during the Clearwater Distance Classic the next weekend. As you can imagine, it made for some rather interesting racing.
(I was originally going to write up recaps for all three races in one post but because that would make the post approximately the length of War and Peace, I’m going to instead lump the two shitty races together in one post and then follow it up with my awesome race recap.)
HITS Naples Olympic Triathlon – Jan. 10
The HITS Triathlon series had actually started the day before, with a half-ironman and a full ironman, which meant there were still people out racing when the weather started to come ashore. A tornado even touched down in Cape Coral, which is near Naples. Because an ironman isn’t hard enough as is.
My race was held the next day, and while the worst of the weather had passed, it had rained heavily during the night, turning transition into a muddy swamp. The race organizers did away with the assigned spots on the rack and just had us set up our gear wherever we could find a piece of grass that wasn’t thoroughly water-logged. Not that it mattered – I ended up walking through ankle-deep mud every time I went into transition.
The 1.5-km swim was set up with two loops in the Gulf of Mexico. Normally the gulf is flat and calm, but that day the storm had kicked up big surf, which had in turn churned up sand and seaweed and just made everything incredibly messy. I didn’t stress about it too much, because I’ve become fairly comfortable in rough water over the past year. In fact I hoped that keeping a positive attitude would be to my advantage, as I knew that a lot of other racers would be psyched out by the surf.
My strategy of embracing the shit worked well for the first loop, even though I had to fight against some really strong swimmers and couldn’t quite get the position I wanted. I body-surfed my way back to shore, and then started to make my way back out. And this is where I realized I may have overestimated my abilities, because fighting those damn waves – not even dolphin-diving, just walking through them – was exhausting me. It should tell you something when I say I was only able to finally get my breath back when I started swimming again.
Mentally I kept it together until the last straightaway of the swim, which is when fatigue caught up with me and suddenly my brain, which had tolerated swimming through huge patches of floating seaweed up until this point, went all NOPE NOPE NOPE octopus on me, and I started kicking hard just so I could get the hell out of the water already.
I dragged myself across the mat in 32:55.
Once I got into transition, I grabbed my bike and carried it on one shoulder, shoes in hand, through the swampy mud lake, then got on and started riding. A few minutes into my ride, it started raining, so I got out of aero until I could be sure my wheels weren’t going to slip and leave me eating asphalt. Then I got back into aero and starting hammering away. My bike computer was showing 20+ mph and I made a deal with myself to do whatever necessary to keep it there.
The bike course crosses through some of the busier roads in south Florida – like the Tamiami Trail – and so I passed a lot of people in their cars, their windshield wipers slappin’ time as I pedaled past. I was spattered in all sorts of road gunk kicked up by the wheels of other racers, and I know I looked a hot mess because when I came up on fellow Coeur Sports teammate – and Women for Tri board member – Moira Horan, she told me to make sure to wipe my face after I got off the bike.
So I’m sure this sounds miserable but the truth is that the bike leg was actually pretty fun. I felt like a badass riding my bike past people tucked in their clean, warm cars. I’m so tough, I thought. I‘m out here riding my bike in the rain and loving it. I’m awesome!
However, as Brian is fond of saying, there’s a thin line between “badass” and “dumbass” and I crossed that line at about mile 21, when I rode into one of those big pissed-off blotches.
Suddenly my bike felt like it was trying to roll through jello. My bike computer, which had been holding steady at 20-21 mph, dropped to 14 mph. The rain no longer felt like rain. It felt like someone was taking handfuls of gravel and flinging it at my bare skin. The wind knocked me from side to side, and I seriously started to wonder if it was safe to be outside.
I briefly debated getting off my bike and taking shelter, but then I decided that I’d rather just be done with it, so I kept riding, and after about two miles I made it through the painful rain and back into some cleaner conditions. By the time i made it back into transition, I was just grateful to have made it off the bike without getting blown sideways into a canal, where I’d be sure to be eaten by an alligator or some such nonsense.
I finished up my bike leg in 1:13:18, which was by far the best bike leg I’ve ever posted, painful rain, wind and all.
By this time I was itching to do something simple like run, so I grabbed my trucker hat and my handheld water bottle and charged out onto the run course.
The rain, which had made the last part of the bike such a gigantic suckfest, ended up making for a delightful run. I quickly locked into a 7:45/mile pace and, like a human metronome, steadily clicked off the miles. At one point I was running with an older man who complimented me on how strong I looked, and I thanked him. He asked me how far back I was and I said I didn’t know, but my goal was to catch as many women as I could.
And that’s what I did. I started doing my usual thing of counting off 100 over and over again, which I’ve found to be a good way to focus my mind so I’m in a quasi-meditative state when I run, and slowly I reeled in the field. After a while I knew I was going to start seeing my KLR teammates, including Brian, who were all guys and thus had started way ahead of me. My goal was to finish as close behind them as possible. As I got closer to the turnaround, I saw all of them, and we all gave each other high fives as we passed.
I had no idea what my previous best was at a true Olympic distance – 2:42? 2:44? *emoji shrug* – so I did some quick math and realized that if I could hang on at my current pace I would break 2:40, which sounded pretty good to me.
I had a couple of miles to go when I hooked up with a woman who looked to be my age or a little younger, and as we were both running the same pace we decided to run with each other and help each other get to the finish line. That’s one of my favorite things about racing, how you form these quick little intense friendships with other racers and then you work together to help each other get to your goals. I don’t think it’s something non-racers realize happens out there, but racers, you all know exactly what I’m talking about.
By the time I hit the last mile, I was definitely suffering, but it was good, because that meant I had raced hard. I turned the last corner and dodged some spectators, who apparently forgot they were by the finisher’s chute of an endurance race, and then crossed the finish line.
My run split was 47:58, and my overall time was 2:39:48, good for second in my age group. I later realized my previous PR was a full ten minutes slower, but I was glad for my ignorance because if I’d known I had that much of a cushion, I don’t know if I would have tried as hard to break 2:40.
Brian and I kept our eye on the forecast leading into the Clearwater Distance Classic because another round of storms was forecast for the weekend. The storms ended upcoming through the night before, and they were just to the south of us.
Sadly, the storm system spawned a tornado that killed two people and left their four grandchildren in the hospital. I thought of that family repeatedly throughout the morning, especially after the race director canceled the marathon and the ultramarathon and bumped everyone down to the half-marathon. A couple of people booed, and all I could think was, “People died in this weather, you jerks, have some perspective.”
The morning was cool, which was good, but what was not good was the wind, which I estimated at sustained speeds of 25+ mph with even higher guests. (I later found out that the sustained winds were even higher – 30-35 mph – literally gale force winds.) We took off running and immediately it was like we’d all run face first into a brick wall. Within a mile I set aside my goal of setting a new PR and decided to focus on just surviving the damn thing.
Normally when you have wind during a race, you can console yourself with the knowledge that a headwind on the way out will mean a tailwind on the way back, and a strong tailwind can feel like God herself has descended from heaven and is gently carrying you across the finish line. Not this time. The winds were whipping around in eddies and currents, coming from all directions in a seemingly random fashion.
Here are things I noticed while I was running:
- The gusts would catch my legs when I was in the air and slam them against one another. Everyone I spoke to had the same observation, by the way.
- After watching a woman chase her blown-off visor into the street and having visions of seeing someone hit by oncoming traffic while running after their headgear, I took my hat off and ran with it in my hand the rest of the way.
- I’ve never actually had to dodge flying palm fronds before. The first time it happened, I realized it’s because I normally have the good sense to stay inside during weather like that.
- At one point I ran up a bridge and straight into a headwind. You can see that moment on my Garmin tracker because my pace plunges precipitously.
- You can see another plunge when I turned north onto Clearwater Beach and entered a corridor of tall resorts, which formed a wind tunnel that brought me to a literal halt. I had to lean forward in a 45-degree angle if I wanted to go anywhere.
- I had to dodge construction debris and garbage there. My friend Jill said she was nearly hit by a pillow. A pillow!
- One of the toughest things about this race is that mile 12 takes you over one of the tallest, steepest bridges in the area. Somehow I had a tailwind at my back, though, which made the bridge seem…well, not easy, but not hard either.
When I finished I was so grateful to be done, and also pleased that I managed to run a 1:44 in what I said will henceforth and forever be known as the “Hurricane Half.”
The post-race reviews range from Keara’s take, which is that it was flat-out horrible (and yet she still managed to win first female overall, because that’s how hard she rules), to Jill’s perspective, which is that it was fun! (She tends to be pretty perky anyways so it wasn’t surprising to hear her say that.) My take is that I was glad to have done it because it made for a good story to tell, which is also not surprising as I am a writer and good stories are kind of my thing.
Both of these races, as strange and as difficult and as memorable as they were, left me hungry for a race where conditions were ideal. I’d run my December half-marathon in unseasonably warm temperatures, my October 1/3-distance triathlon in the clutches of heat and wind and an ugly mechanical, and my long-awaited September half-ironman in 90-degree temperatures.
In fact, I hadn’t had ideal race conditions since March, when I ran my BQ in Albany. I was long overdue, dammit. Fortunately, Mother Nature decided to help me out this past Saturday. Stay tuned for that race report soon.