This race happened over a week ago – last Saturday, to be exact – and if you follow me on Instagram you already know what happened. It ended up being a pretty significant experience for me – and not only because it was my first time racing open in a triathlon – and it’s taken me a bit of time to process it.
When I first started getting into athletics, I was doing it partly because I wanted to get fit, partly because I needed to feel strong so I could deal with past trauma, and partly because I just couldn’t believe I was capable of doing any of this. I mean, I still remember the first time I ran a full mile without stopping. I was fucking ecstatic.
Somewhere along the way I figured out I had some natural ability, and I guess I decided that I wanted to just go with it and see what would happen.
There’s no definite point at which that happened, by the way. It was just a series of small decisions that kept piling on top of each other until one day I looked in the mirror and understood that I had become an athlete. I don’t just mean that I get up early to train and eat for performance and all that, but rather that I now had this intensity that I don’t think was ever there before. (Or if it was, it had lain dormant until now.)
The first time I met my friend Beth, who blogs at Discombobulated Running, we were racing together and she told me that every time she saw me out on the course, I was like “Eye of the Tiger.” I’m normally very smiley and friendly outside of racing but during a race? It’s on, yo.
(That reminds me – go read this post by Leah Gilbert about why she stopped smiling during races. I’ll be here when you come back.)
It’s true – I get extremely intense when I race. That intensity helps me ignore my fears of creepy-crawlies when I swim in open water and gives me a sorely-needed shot of courage when I race on the bike – two things I’ve struggled with as I’ve transitioned into triathlon.
That intensity also forces me to shut off the part of my brain that overthinks things – because lord do I have a tendency to overthink things – and it lets me just…be. I guess you could say I find a zen of sorts through racing.
This is, in a nutshell, why I love to race. But that has its downsides too, which is that I get very amped up heading into a race because I want to do well, and I know that “doing well” usually means I’m going to suffer for a bit. Sometimes my internal signals get all jumbled up, and my brain opts to interpret that excitement as fear and anxiety, which is exactly how I was feeling that morning as we headed to the triathlon at Siesta Key.
I hadn’t slept much the night before, and I couldn’t even finish my pre-race breakfast of bagel with peanut butter and Red Bull. I tried to deal with my nerves by introducing myself to the only other female open racer – her name was Maria, and I’d been told she was a strong cyclist and good runner – but it wasn’t until all five of us who were racing open lined up and the starting horn sounded that I finally felt normal.
In every other triathlon I’ve ever taken part in, my swim wave has always consisted of at least a dozen other people, which usually means the start of the swim is going to be a clobberfest.
This time, it was just me and four other people, and those four other people were fast. I hung on Maria’s heels for a short period of time, but after about five minutes, I was completely alone. At that moment I understood that my race wasn’t going to be about catching Maria – who I later learned may have raced as pro at one point – but about staying ahead of the age-group women, who were starting six minutes behind us. The age-group men were three minutes behind us.
So I swam as hard as I could. I’ve been putting in a lot of work in the pool – both in developing more power in my pull and increasing the speed with which I turn over my arms – and I put both elements to work during the swim. I reached the halfway turnaround point at the same time as the first age-group man, which – I’ll be honest – blew my damn mind. I expected to get caught way before that.
We turned around and suddenly I felt like I wasn’t moving at all. The water had seemed really flat and calm when we started, but Park, the team manager, later said that a current had kicked up while we were out there, and no thanks to the triathlon gods, that current was heading right at us on the way back in.
After the fourth or fifth time I looked up and realized the buoys were not getting any closer, I started getting annoyed, and I channeled all that annoyance into kicking. That was apparently all it took – some annoyed kicking – and I finally started to move.
I emerged from the water and crossed the mat in 30:55, which was by far my fastest ever Olympic distance swim leg, by, like, several minutes. I was totally blown away.
I mean, let’s be realistic, considering where I started as a swimmer – afraid to go in past my waist, unable to swim a single lap without stopping – that I can even complete these distances is still a shock. That I can swim them in a relatively decent time is just…O_O. And that I’m really just getting started as a swimmer is *brain explodes*
I almost never write about my transitions because meh, transitions are kind of boring, but I wanted to interject and say that I have actually worked quite hard to get my transition times down. I’ve had races where I’ve actually lost first place in my age-group due to slow transition times, so I’ve really stepped it up here. You still won’t see me doing any flying dismounts or starting with my shoes on my bike, but I’m definitely getting a lot faster.
I was really excited about the opportunity to do this race because I love the bike course for Siesta Key. Races down there go along a 12.5-mile loop of the island that’s mostly flat and filled with straightaways where you can tuck into aero and just go. (Those of us doing the Oly race were going to do two loops.) Plus Siesta Key is just a cool little beach community with lots of palm trees and mangroves and canals and bougainvillea – a lot of the things I adore about living in Florida.
Here’s the other reason I was excited – because I have been working damn hard on my cycling, and I wanted to see what I could do. This is how much I’ve been riding: I have a sharp bike-shorts tan line; when I do laundry I wash every pair of bike and tri shorts I own; I can change my race wheel out for my trainer wheel in less than three minutes, and I can do it by myself.
Like I said, I have been working my ass off on the bike.
It took my legs a couple of miles to loosen up, but once they did, I settled somewhere between 20-21 mph. My next task was figuring out where I was in the standings. I started looking for yellow bibs, which were assigned to people doing the Olympic triathlon. (We were also sharing the course with sprint duathletes and triathletes.)
On my way out to the first turnaround, I saw the top three males, and then I saw Maria, and she was looking strong as hell. I cheered her on as I passed her. I saw a few more age-group males but no other women with yellow bibs, so I deduced that I must have been in second place. I did the math and realized that if I could keep at least a six-minute gap between me and the first female age-grouper, I could actually grab an overall podium spot!
I hit the turnaround and started looking for the nearest woman behind me. I finally saw the third-place woman, a couple miles behind me. Good. I wanted to keep it that way.
At this point I started telling myself, Race like you belong here. I needed to prove to myself that I had made the right choice in racing open and that I wasn’t totally delusional in thinking that I could do this. In the end, I’m the person whose opinion of me counts the most, so I decided to do whatever I needed to do to prove myself right.
I tightened my focus and kept riding as hard as I could, which was tough because there was a lot of interference from drivers who were apparently confused by the mass of cyclists with bibs on the road. No fewer than three drivers slowed down and made right turns in front of me. At one point a guy in a truck pulled out in front of me, his trailer blocking the entire lane. I yelled “what the fuck, man?” and he shrugged sheepishly as I rode past him into the oncoming lane. Oy.
Anyways, I hit the halfway mark at 36 minutes, and I did the math in my head and realized I was on track to ride the full 25 miles in about an hour and 12 minutes, which would have been another massive PR for me.
I kept looking out for the third-place woman, but by this time I was also looking for Brian, who is a really strong cyclist. I figured that he had to catch up to me at some point, but the miles ticked by and I never saw him. I actually started to get nervous, like maybe something had happened to him, because he always catches me on the bike.
(It turned out that I came out of the water six minutes ahead of Brian, and he made up all that time on the bike. That plus a slightly faster run meant he finished about 15 seconds ahead of me. That’s about as close behind him as I’ve ever finished in a triathlon. Watch out, baby, I’m coming for ya!)
And then at about mile 20, I lapped my first female age-grouper, which felt weird. I know what it’s like to be lapped, but I’ve never experienced life on the other side of the equation. It was surreal. I offered some weak encouragement, but I’ll be honest, I felt stupid for doing so.
Finally the bike leg came to an end, and I hopped off my bike and ran into transition. I finished in 1:11:40, with an average speed of just under 21 mph. I tried not to get too excited, but I knew that if I could keep my shit together on the run, I would smash my previous Olympic distance PR.
Ugh, where do I even begin? Maybe I can start by describing the run for you. For one, it’s all on the beach, so entirely in the sand. For another, it was very hot – nearly 90 – with no shade. And finally, the quarter-mile leading into and out of transition was all in soft, deep sand. UGH.
(I know people are like “oh, beach running, so tropical and relaxing and gorgeous and isn’t this just like a commercial and aren’t we so luxurious” but I hate it. I feel like I have to run twice as hard to go half as far when I run in sand. HATE IT.)
Right away I knew I wasn’t going to be running anywhere near my potential, so I dropped my target pace down to 8:40s, thinking I could expect to knock a solid minute per mile off my pace thanks to the sand and heat. Once I got through the deep sand the first time, I found some packed sand and started running, and I managed to hang on to my goal pace for about, oh, a mile and a half.
After that I slowly unraveled. My pace dropped. I took a walk break, and then another walk break. I tried to keep them brief because I had no idea where the third-place woman was, and if she caught me because I had walked too much on the run, I was going to be super pissed at myself.
But I was also aware that I was not the only one who was being totally beaten down by the sand and heat. There was so much carnage on the run leg. Lots of people were walking. I did my best to keep it together until I headed to the turnaround.
Here is where I have my single complaint about this race. The race course initially had us run north a bit on the packed sand before turning around and doing a second loop. What ended up happening was that we had to run a quarter-mile through the soft sand up to transition, and THEN we turned around and ran through the soft sand back to the beach. I kept asking “where’s the turnaround, where’s the turnaround?” and I think I actually cussed out loud when I realized it was all the way up by transition.
By the time I hit the beach for the second loop, all the fight had gone out of my legs. And then when I realized the third-place woman was at least a couple of miles behind me…well, I started walking. A lot. In retrospect I probably could have at least started shuffling forward, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I wasn’t going to catch first, third wasn’t going to catch me – I basically got lazy.
Finally, I reached the end of the run – it ended up being just shy of 6.5 miles! – and after yelling at a couple of teenagers to get out of my way (sorry, guys, but I was tired and SO DONE) I reached the sidewalk and ran as hard as I could across the finish line. I finished my run in 1:00:14, which felt positively dismal compared to what I know I’m capable of doing.
In my defense, the only woman who ran faster than me was Maria. But still, it sucked. There’s no way around it. I fell apart mentally on the run. The only positive is that I saw a photo of me at the end and my running form was actually decent. But other than that, a big, fat MEH.
I finished my overall race in 2:47, which is about eight minutes slower than my PR, which I set in Naples in January. But! The run course was longer and it was in sand and it was hot as balls, so I don’t think it’s really comparable.
I grabbed my medal and my water, then went over to get my instant results. (One of the things I love about Multirace races is that they have results for you almost right away, and the results are never wrong.) I got my little piece of paper to check my splits, and was so, so happy to see that I’d finished as the second place female overall! I was 13 minutes behind Maria and 7 minutes ahead of the third-place woman. Even if I had started with the age groupers I still would have been second female overall. WHAT.
It was my first time standing on an overall podium at a triathlon, and I felt so incredibly proud to be there. Even though I’d had a shitty run, I was proud of myself for swimming and biking as hard as I’d ever gone before.
I’m not sure I would have done that well had I not started open/elite, and thus had not put pressure on myself to prove myself worthy of being there. I mean, it’s entirely possible that I still could have posted the second-fastest women’s time of the day had I started with the age groupers, but without that little voice in my head saying Race like you belong here, would I have actually done it? I don’t really know, but my suspicion is that I might not have.
I have another race coming up this weekend, and I considered racing as open, but I don’t think I will, just because I’m feeling a bit worn out from Ironman training. But I definitely plan to do it again soon. It was a great experience, and I’m really glad I did it.