Last Saturday, I completed my third triathlon: the Cooper Aerobics Summer Sprint in McKinney, TX. Having barely completed the swim at my first tri in March, and then gotten accidentally disqualified from my second tri in April, it was especially important to me to plan and execute this race carefully and to finish strong. Ultimately, I did — and while I definitely want to improve a few things, I’m happy with the results overall.
Organization and event planning are not my strong suits. For example, I’m pretty decent at role-playing games and Pictionary, but I’m terrible at chess, Stratego, and any puzzle in existence. If you need someone to quote movies or a create a catchy tune on the spot, I’m your gal — but don’t ask me to figure out logistics. It is for this reason that I was deeply proud of myself for having my tri bag packed and ready the night before the race. Pre-race euphoria must have overridden my usual struggle to organize. There’s just something exciting about opening your race packet, unpeeling the number stickers, trying on your new free tech shirt, and packing your transition bag, all while envisioning yourself flying across the course the following morning, wind in your hair, cameras snapping. I must have some dreamy look on my face as I do all of this, like a braided ten-year old being given a tiara and her choice of Andalusian pony.
Chuck sprang awake at 4:00 a.m. and took his usual initiative to cook breakfast while I wandered around, “waking up.” Around 4:30, we enjoyed my favorite meal EVER — hot Irish oats with almond coconut milk, strawberries, and ground flax; egg whites; a banana; and black coffee. This meal pretty much always sits well with me, and it gives me mental comfort, especially early in the morning before a race. I slurped my coffee and leafed through this month’s Runner’s World while Chuck pumped up the tires on our bikes and loaded them into the bed of the truck. (Yes, I’m lazy in the morning. But at the end of the day, I also collect, clean, and hang dry grimy, wadded-up socks and malodorous tri suits.)
We arrived at the event around 5:45 a.m., just after transition opened; it was early enough that it was still dark and we could walk our bikes straight up to the transition area without waiting in line. A nice guy doing body-marking crouched next to me, penning my race number onto the calf that I suddenly wished I’d remembered to shave the night before. When I got my arms marked, I felt cool as always. Something deep in my psyche connects such body markings with war paint, and I embody the fierce power of Rambo, Conan, She-Ra, and Xena: Warrior Princess — all into one ponytailed thirty-something in a lycra speedsuit.
I was the first person to arrive at my assigned bike rack, and since my number was also the first in that range, I racked on the far end against a grassy median where there was plenty of room to spread out. (Next time I’ll rack on the other end; quicker access to the egress is more important than extra personal space in transition.) I set up my gear in the order I’d planned, drank some water, and stuffed one of Chuck’s expertly-wrapped blueberry-chocolate rice bars into the waist pocket of my tri suit for later.
One new addition to my triathlon repertoire this race was my sweet new XLab Rocket Pocket nutrition bag, which connects securely to the bike frame with velcro straps, right between me and the handle bars for easy access. My setup was based on what I’ve seen my coach, Teri, do — one bag of strawberry-flavored Gu Chomps, torn open and pushed to the top of the foil, and then tucked into the nutrition bag so that when you unzip it, sticky little red blobs are right there for convenient plucking and eating on the bike. Gu Chomps are Teri’s sugar of choice for the bike, and I knew they worked for me since a few weeks back, she’d spotted me a couple right at the end of a particularly harrowing, hot ride where I was wilting from a lack of calories. So, good experience with the Chomps made my choice easy — although we did get free Clif Shot Bloks in our race bags, which I’ll hang on to and try later when I’m not racing.
The other main difference for me this race was contact lenses. For years, I’ve had such dry eyes that I couldn’t comfortably wear the contacts I’d grown so used to in my early 20s. With a heavy heart I’d pretty much resigned myself to the discomforts of wearing glasses in sport, since without them I can’t even see the giant “E” on eye charts despite knowing it’s there. In the water, I’ve been using corrective goggles by TYR, which are way better than nothing, but also tend on the uncomfortable, leaky, untinted, and heavy refraction side of things. (Not to mention that I’d had to leave my glasses in the transition area and wear prescription goggles for up to two hours before actually getting in the pool, which, unsurprisingly, triggered my old nemesis — migraines — at the previous races.) But last week before the race, I got my eyes re-checked, and it turns out I can now tolerate contacts for short periods of time — which means two awesome upgrades for racing: tinted swim goggles, and lightweight, non-prescription sunglasses for the ride and run. Yessss!
Before any race, I try to hit the restroom as often as needed, and the combination of staying hydrated and being nervous about the event always means multiple trips. Of course, the ladies’ locker rooms/spa/Elysian dreamscape at Cooper was more dazzling than I could have imagined. The sounds of the fitness-palace in the main building are instantly muffled as you open the heavy mahogany door and behold hardwood cupboards (instead of lockers); plush, spotless, cream-colored carpeting; marble floors with granite countertops; a dim, glass-enclosed jacuzzi room; an adjoining spa where white-toweled women enjoyed therapeutic massage with exotic scented oils; endless countertop supplies of fluffy towels and beauty/feminine products arranged neatly in little baskets; cushioned chairs on which to perch in front of long mirrors lit warmly by golden bulbs — and a soft, dreamlike music coming from all directions, something like what Enya would sound like singing through a waterfall, echoed through the whispers of a unicorn. I almost felt as though I should find somewhere else to urinate and save this place for spiritual enlightenment.
The rest of the time before the race was pretty relaxed. I hung out with Chuck and our friend Fred, whom we know from a tri training program this spring. We picked up our timing chips by Cooper’s glorious, 50-meter outdoor pool with no issues at all. Perhaps most importantly, Chuck and I walked around the perimeter of the transition area, making note of the exact locations and direction of the bike exit and entrance, as well as the run exit. I made a special point of walking a little ways along the bike-out, finding and stepping across the mount/dismount line, and imagining myself getting on the bike. Having this mental and physical memory really helps a lot when you’re rushing through transition, trying to think of a thousand things at once.
Dawn broke, and shortly afterward we all gathered around the pool for the athletes’ meeting. This included the recognition of one triathlete who’d been recovering from a serious bike crash and was presented with a new set of wheels and applause from the crowd. They did an overview of the race rules, and then a woman sang the national anthem, which ended in hearty cheers from everyone there. At that point we lined up in the grassy area surrounding the pool, roughly in order by race number, and waited to start the swim. I ate my chocolate-blueberry rice bar and chatted with a friendly guy in line who’d never done a tri, and while he sounded like he was pretty active as a runner, he’d decided on a whim to do this event less than a week before. He had no idea what to do in transition after the swim, so I gave him a couple of tips for T1 and reminded him that it’s most important at that point to have fun, and wait until afterward to think about what you’d like to do differently in the future. This was good advice that I’d been given. A week before the race, I’d watched an excellent video from Beginner Triathlete called “Mastering Race Day,” and it really does come down to this: train beforehand, and once you get to the race, it’s not about performance, or training, or anything else except 1) a strong execution and 2) having fun. This video was really valuable for me in terms of getting the right mindset going into the race, and I’m convinced it also helped me stay relaxed and keep a positive post-race attitude about improvements I’d like to make going forward.
Every time I’ve ever gotten in the pool in training or at a race, I’ve sat down, slid into the water, and kicked off. For some reason, this time I thought I should try to sort of dive in, like so many other people did in front of me. Having never done so before, I squatted down, then extended forward into the pool, and immediately got water up my nose that tingled painfully to the back of my head. Ego: 1. Common Sense: 0. Then, instead of swimming the way I have in every training session for the last ten weeks, breathing every third stroke on alternating sides, I decided to breathe on one side only, every stroke, like I’d recently heard is optimum for races. But while breathing on one side may indeed be the best strategy for race and open-water swims, I should mention here that it helps to have practiced doing so before employing it at a big event. My established 100-meter pace up until race day was between 2:50 and 3:00, and my most recent 300-meter time in training was 9:37. But now my extended reach, balanced form, and strong glide I’d been working on so diligently for months turned into a Nemo-like wobble, with my head way out of the water, and consequently my legs trawled too low, slowing me way down, and I was overrun by dozens of other swimmers.
What might have been about an 11-minute swim for me fell to a disappointing 13:19 — slow even by my own standards, and by far the slowest swim in my age group. Lesson learned: like your coaches always tell you, don’t try out new techniques, new foods, new shoes, or new gear the day of a race. Do what you’ve done in training, and you’ll be strong. Look to make changes later. And for Pete’s sake, don’t try diving at the race unless you’ve practiced it at least once.
I was pretty happy with my T1. I jogged carefully out of the pool area, checked to make sure I wasn’t dizzy from the swim, and had no problem getting straight to my bike. I pulled off my cap and goggles (delighted that I could still see with the contacts on underneath!) and squeezed the water out of my hair bun in the back. I didn’t bother drying off, as there’s no time, no point, and the weather was gorgeous — clear and in the upper 70s F. I slid on my pre-rolled socks, strapped on my bike shoes, put on my new shades (woohoo!!!) and attached the chin strap under my helmet. Race officials are serious about helmets: if you don’t have a helmet that’s securely clipped under your chin, they won’t let you mount any bike, any time — even after the race, as you head toward the parking lot or home. My bike was racked by the brake handles, which meant I was able to easily yank up and back toward me to pull off the whole bike. Again, next time I’ll not only rack on the end nearest the aisle, but I’ll rack my bike facing the bike exit so I don’t have to turn it around as I run out of T1.
Just as I’d done on foot before the race, I jogged out the back of the parking lot and just past the mount line with both hands on my bike at my side. I really need to practice running with just one hand on the bike seat. Thankfully, I didn’t try anything else new this race. As I mounted the bike, I stayed to one side of the roadway to minimize the risk of getting run over by anyone blazing out of transition behind me.
A little history: I had trouble on the bike courses at my previous two races. At the first race, my mind was so filled with excitement and chaos that I lost track of where I was on the course, and tried to simply follow other riders. This proved to be a poor choice, since many sprint tris, including that one, have a two-loop course, and it’s up to you to make sure you bypass the entrance back into transition the first loop and then turn off after your second loop. During that first race, I kept stopping my bike and asking police and race officials where I was on the course. I ended up riding all the way into transition before realizing my mistake, at which point I headed back out and did the second loop. This ended up giving me a very short official bike time and a very long T2 according to the chip sensors, but thankfully they worked the numbers out afterward and I was not penalized.
At the second tri I did in April, I came out of a very strong swim, but was so excited I just leaped, unthinking, onto my bike, and pedaled as hard and as fast as I could. I hadn’t taken in enough calories, had no nutrition with me, and somehow was overcome with anxiety on the course. One moment, I felt as though I knew what I was doing, and the next, I felt a rising panic. Whether it was a lack of sugar getting to my brain, the migraine medicine I’d had to take right before the swim (stupid corrective goggles!), or just plain fear of making the same mistake I’d made at the first race — I mistook my location on the bike course and came fully back into transition after only one loop. It seems like something that should be obvious based on the time elapsed, or even the physical exertion you would perceive. But I was still inexperienced, and so scared of messing up that I may have panicked myself into error on that course. I love and constantly use my Garmin 910 XT triathlon watch, but even then I was still learning its basic functions and didn’t know how to check the data without coming to a full stop to figure it out. That race was tough, because I was sure I had messed up somehow, but I didn’t have the time to stop and figure it out. My whole 5k run at the end was plagued with questions about whether I had messed up the bike, and how. Amazingly, at some point I convinced myself there was a chance that maybe I hadn’t done anything wrong, and I actually PR’d on the run. Unfortunately, I had indeed not completed the bike course, and I was DQ’d from the race. I felt so ashamed and disappointed, I cried in the transition area when I found out. It was an overreaction, and I wish I’d handled it better. Thankfully, Chuck consoled me and helped me hide out until I could dry my face. That inner child that gets so excited before the race can be really embarrassing when it grabs you at a moment of intense emotion.
For this race at Cooper, I’d examined the bike course carefully, looked at the map, and memorized the bike-in and -out from transition. The two-loop bike route was shaped like a plus sign, with four U-turns per loop. My main goal (other than not getting lost) was not to over-do it. In recent months my bike rides with Chuck and our friend/coach Teri have been at paces above my ability, and I’ve been riding pretty regularly at a heart rate of around 182, over 20 bpm over my lactate threshold on the bike. Having finally done the LT testing a few weeks back with Teri, it made sense why I was always so wiped out after our rides. What were moderately challenging (and perhaps even leisurely) rides for them were relentless red-zone workouts for me. This has certainly impacted my training in ways that are not always helpful. (But man, those rides are fun!)
Therefore, for the bike, I maintained my best quick, steady pace that allowed me to recover and still save some energy for the run. I kept my HR at around 160, which is about where it should be for me on longer rides or races where I’ll be running afterward. I drank raspberry-flavored Skratch powder mix in my water and ate a few Gu Chomps on the ride, and the nutrition bag worked perfectly. I remained clear-headed and relaxed on what was a relatively flat, not-very-windy ride. The U-turns were very well marked with plenty of race volunteers pointing the way at each turn, and I felt good enough to smile at the photographers as I rode by. And the sunglasses rocked. I had no problems with dry eyes or wind, and the shade seemed to relax my facial muscles, making the ride more comfortable all around.
Overall, I consider the bike course for this race to be a success. I admit I had the nagging feeling that I may have been able to eke out a little more on the bike and not save so much for the run, but I can’t really know that for sure. Just because you don’t drop down dead at the finish line doesn’t mean you should feel bad for holding something back. I put out a consistent, strong effort on the bike, and did the same with the run. If there’s more in me to dig out, well, I’ll let that be something I can learn for future races.
I came screaming into the last turn of the bike course that leads back to transition. A teenaged race volunteer drowning in a puddle of a large white t-shirt was waving her skinny arms wildly, yelling “Slow down! right turn ahead!” She stood right in the middle of the course, where I needed to be in about three seconds. I could clearly see the signs and the sharp turn ahead, and I knew exactly how fast I could go through that turn. I just hoped she’d get out of the way and I wouldn’t end up leaving treads marks on the poor kid. My heart jumped a little as I approached, and thankfully she dove to the side. (I asked Chuck about that girl and he’d had the same experience, except he’d barreled on ahead full-speed without worrying. I admire that.)
I came to a very quick stop just before the dismount line, again staying to the right. I ran in to transition, lifted my bike right over the grass median to avoid running around the bike rack, and re-racked it by the handle brakes. I switched shoes, kept the sunglasses, took one last drink from the water bottle on the bike, and ran out.
In most races, I either don’t stop at the aid stations during the run, or I try to fold the paper cup into the little cone shape and choke down water without slowing down. This time I did the choke-and-go right at the beginning of the run, and decided not to do that again, since it gave me a few painful hiccups that made it hard to set a steady pace at the beginning. Besides that, overall the run was pretty standard, except that much of it went through ritzy neighborhoods in the Cooper Ranch development. While many runs are on a paved path or trail, this one was often on quiet residential streets, and since I was toward the end of the group of triathletes in the race, often I could only see one or two people in front of me, disappearing around a corner far ahead. The “Mastering Race Day” video had suggested walking through aid stations if you decide to grab some water, and I did so at the mile one and two points. As with everything endurance, it’s better to walk a few paces, drink water, and stay strong overall than it is to refuse to hydrate or slow down, and then crash and burn before the finish. This strategy worked great, and I ran a pretty comfortable 5k, coming within seconds of a PR. The end of the run course was fun, winding around the grassy area near the pool, where it all started. As I ran under the finish arch, I remembered to keep my head up and smile (so you don’t get a finish photo of you looking down at your watch!), and Chuck greeted me with a huge smile and a congratulatory hug.
Crossing the finish line of a tri is such a great feeling. For me, it doesn’t matter at that moment whether I’m in the top half of my age group, how I ranked in the run, or any other comparisons of my performance against others’. The best part and the only thing that matters is seeing all of your friends and loved ones, excited, smiling, and congratulating one another. You take pictures together, shoot the bull, eat fruit and pancakes, watch others cross the finish line, and congratulate them. You walk back to transition to get your stuff, and there’s this deeply satisfying feeling of genuine accomplishment, joy, and relief.
A couple other things I picked up from Patrick McCrann, the coach in the Race Day video: you can’t control the weather, wind, temperature, the course, or what other people are doing around you, so you may as well focus only on the things you can control — your nutrition, hydration, power output and energy expenditure, pace, mental attitude, and such. This philosophy is so helpful, because no matter how laid back I think I am about any aspect of triathlon, I often feel that temptation to try to “keep up” with the woman in front of me who’s in my age group, or to surpass another who may appear “less fit” than I think I am, or to pass someone in an older age group. These are ridiculous, pointless urges I don’t like to admit having, but I think admitting to them is an important step in making sure I don’t act on them. About 3/4 of a mile before the end of the run, I kept ending up next to a woman slightly older than me (our leg numbers give us all away, perhaps the only place in our society where our ages are splashed openly for all to see). Instead of trying to pace myself in front of or behind her, I offered, “Race you to the finish?” as kind of a joke. “No thanks,” she said, “I’m right where I need to be.” The Dalai Llama couldn’t have said it better.
Another quick note on appearances: you absolutely cannot gauge another person’s athleticism by looking at body shape or size. I have seen paunchy older men in denim shorts and sneakers fly by me on a mountain bike while I struggled, clipped into a road bike. I’ve seen women over 200 lbs. slice through laps in a pool for an hour without pausing to rest, or run half- and full marathons in times I’d be proud to have. And I’ve seen people who “look” fit struggle to do a single push-up, or run a mile, or swim 50 meters without getting out of breath. (And I’ve struggled with all of these things, too.) I have no idea what people think of my capabilities when they look at me. I tend to feel, well, fat and slow, compared to a lot of women around my age, especially triathletes. That’s probably partly from hanging around with so many incredible, disciplined athletes. But mainly it’s my perception of myself, which I alone control, just like my actual measurements and capabilities. In the end it’s one of the things I really love about triathlon: you’re always competing against yourself.
To get a more detailed sense of how I performed in relation to my age group, I worked out my rank for each section of the race:
- 15 out of 17 overall age group
- Swim: 17 out of 17
- T1: 6 out of 17
- Bike: 10 out of 17
- T2: 9 out of 17
- Run: 14 out of 17
It’s true that I finished very near the bottom of my age group. It stings a little bit, but again, I’m competing against myself here, not everyone else. I’m still a relatively new triathlete. And when I began this adventure in January of this year, I didn’t know how to swim at all, or how the gears worked on my bike, or what transition meant, or how to pace myself for longer runs. Looking at the data, my relative strength is the bike, followed by the run, and then the swim. Transitions were decent, but I can work on those later. I think I can improve my swim quite a bit, not only by improving my form and ability to breathe every stroke, but by swimming the best way I know how when it comes time to race (rather than trying something unfamiliar).
Before I left the race, I emailed Teri to let her know I had a strong race and tell her my race results. She was out of town and excited to hear how it went. It was a great feeling to get her reply: “You conquered the sprint!”
A couple weeks ago, on Teri’s recommendation, I began keeping a training/race log. I use my Triathlete’s Training Diary (Joe Friel‘s spiral-bound accompaniment to the Triathlete’s Training Bible), and it’s already providing me a tremendous amount of help in terms of organization, pattern recognition in performance, and examining my own thoughts and attitudes toward training. And now that I’ve done blood lactate testing on the bike, I’m going to work with Teri to interpret the data and come up with a training plan going forward that will help me reach my new goals. I’m still working out what those will be, but I definitely want to get my 300-meter swim down to 8 or 9 minutes, be able to breathe one-sided or alternating with little variation in performance, improve endurance and speed on the bike, and get my 5k time to around 30 minutes.
Next up: the Pioneer Power 5k in Denton, TX, followed by the Melon Dash 5k in McKinney, TX, on August 3rd, benefiting the North Texas Cat Rescue. Running with friends, scoring a free t-shirt, and helping kitties? Yes, please!