I broke two hours, but not at all the way I hoped to. I freaked out during the swim start but pulled it together, rocked the bike, and went face-first into muck on the run. And then I ate popcorn chicken and sweet potato tots at Sonic. Boom.
Pete and I drove up to Roseville on Saturday afternoon and had dinner with some training partners at a little Italian restaurant at which I believe the entire staff came out to wave goodbye when we left. Our coach wanted us at the race site ready to go at 8 a.m., so I was still up early to pack and re-pack my transition bag, coat every inch of my body with sunscreen and body glide, and wonder how to feed myself. I picked up my numbers, swim cap and T-shirt, spent way too long figuring out where all the numbers were supposed to go, racked my bike, set up transition, and then stood around. I was going to write something like “I don’t make a habit of showing up to races last-minute, but …” but actually, I kind of do (exhibit A: Kaiser 2011, in which I ran to the start not as a warm-up jog but as a “oh crap I hear the countdown” sprint; exhibit B: Nike 2011, hitching a ride with some random girl’s cousin after the 6 bus didn’t show), so the waiting around was weird.
We cheered on a teammate who was doing the super-sprint distance, braided hair, applied temporary tattoos (yes, this basically was like high school dance team), and finally decided to go splash around in the lake and see the men’s waves off. The lake was cold. I couldn’t pee in my wetsuit. The swim course looked really long. And all of a sudden, the pink caps were on the beach lining up and someone yelled “go!” and we were running back into the water.
I started to the side of the group and got into waist-deep water before starting to swim. I got my face in fine, but I didn’t have much rhythm, and there were feet close to my eyes, and I popped my head out to get a better idea of the landscape and immediately got a mouthful of water. I sputtered and coughed and tried to start again, but I swallowed more water on my next breath, and then the next, and I gave up and decided to tread for a second. I realized I was toward the back of the wave with all the other people who were freaking out, and for a second that freaked me out more, and then I thought, “No, we can all calm down together.” I treaded in a little circle and then did a few breaststrokes and then a few regular strokes with my head out. A girl went by me saying “you’re OK, you’re OK,” and I know she was talking to herself, but I decided to pretend she was talking to me.
At that point, I realized the first buoy wasn’t too far off. I thought back to Saturday’s open-water practice and remembered how much it had helped to focus on the shore when I breathed, so I picked a tree and kept my eyes on it. Then I started counting like I always do — 10 right-arm strokes, then reset — and suddenly I was up at the second buoy and turning left. Along the back of the course, a kayaker pulled up alongside our group and I focused on staying with him and realized I was catching up to the back of the pack.
One more left turn and I was heading back to shore, surrounded by more pink caps and some of the last of the men’s wave. The current was with us for this stretch, and as the water got shallower, I could see how fast I was speeding along the bottom as sand and sticks flew by. I decided to sight for the exit arch every time my count hit 10, and after maybe four rounds of that, my hands hit sand and I was up and out of the water.
This race didn’t have timing chips, so I stopped for a volunteer to rip the tag off my wetsuit pull — she was yelling “you can keep running!” but I couldn’t figure out the mechanics of that in the moment, and anyway, I wanted to make sure I could see straight and wasn’t going to boot my breakfast — and got the wetsuit half off and hit the parking lot and checked my watch and saw 17:xx. Well, OK then.
I could not get the stupid wetsuit off my feet. Most of the bikes around me were gone, so I took all the space I needed and finally got free of the sucker. A spray of sunscreen, socks, shoes, chomps in my pocket, race belt, done. It took me a few seconds to remember how to clip in, and I’m sure the woman next to me at the bike out was thinking I was going to be a disaster, but soon I was turning right and starting the course.
The bike started with a long straightaway, and I headed out fast for me (17-18 mph). My cadence was well over 100 and I remember thinking “whoa, hummingbird, chill.” The fastest men were starting their second loop, so I got passed by a lot of them at the start, and then a lot of women after that, but that wasn’t surprising. The course was winding, and I could never tell if the people I saw on the other side of the road were ahead of me or behind me. I just tried to keep seeing numbers I was happy with — over 15 on the flats, whatever I needed on the uphills, “just don’t look” on the downhills. At one point there was a tight U-turn and I know I pissed off the aero-helmet guy behind me by having no idea how to ride it, but the rest of the time I felt like I was riding well.
I slowed down to dig out some chomps right before the turn-around and was shocked to see 25:xx on my watch. On the way back down the straightaway I got a few sips of water, and I should have had more, but I was nervous about getting the bottle back in the holder before the first hill. In the second loop I actually passed a woman (!) and then ended up riding close to an older man who wasn’t great at climbing. I passed him on one uphill, and he flew past as we rode down. On the next hill, I caught back up and said, “On your left, but I know you’ll smoke me on the way down” and he laughed and then came speeding past again a few minutes later. I passed him again on the last longer hill; he said “there you go again!” and I didn’t see him for the rest of the ride.
After the turn-around, I’d gotten in my head that I could maybe have a 50:xx bike. I probably hammered the last straightaway harder than I should have, but I wanted that 50, and if I didn’t get there, I came close. (My official bike time is 58-something, but that includes both transitions.)
A couple of teammates came into transition within a minute of me, and we debriefed while pulling on shoes/spraying sunscreen/gulping water. I spotted Pete at the run out and managed to not look like a total idiot.
My feet were numb. It felt like I imagine it would feel to run in those Sketchers Shape-Ups — like my feet weren’t hitting the ground. I was running around an 8:50 pace but my breathing was a mess, and I saw some friends and yelled out, “I don’t remember how to run!” They hollered back that I’d be fine in a half-mile. Just when I’d started to feel normal, we hit the trail.
I talk a big game about wanting to run more trails, but the fact is, I’m terrified of running downhill. I don’t like hiking downhill. I freeze. I don’t know how to dodge roots and rocks or how to deal with pitted stretches of uneven footing. I would have been fine walking the uphills. It was when I realized I was also going to be walking the downhills that I turned into a giant mess.
The first freakout came after a short hill down to the beach. I was fighting to control my momentum, mostly unsuccessfully, and when I hit the sand I felt defeated and pulled off to stretch. Someone ran by me and yelled “who put all this sand here?” and that at least made me chuckle.
At the end of the beach, we scrambled up some rocks, and I walked part of an uphill, just trying to move forward. I never really felt the big uphill the map showed, because the terrain was so varied (the rock scramble might have been part of that hill?) and because I was walking the steeper stretches. But what I did notice was the downhill after it, because after about two steps down I got the quad-shaking, gasp-breathing panic I know all too well.
I got as far off the trail as I could and stood there, wobbling, knowing I was making a scene. A teammate passed me and asked if I needed help and I told her it would be fine, I just hate downhills. Two other ladies asked the same and I said, “yes, it’ll be OK, just please go ahead!” because the one thing that makes me panic more is the thought that I’m delaying other people. If I could just get a break in the crowd, I knew I could get down, and eventually I did, gingerly.
At mile 3, I was well over 30 minutes and knew 40 wasn’t going to happen. I took some water at the aid station and saw that the trail was flattening out and got focused on finishing around 43. I’m not totally sure what happened next, but I remember thinking, “Oh, this is a muddy section,” and my left foot either slipped or got stuck and I rolled my ankle and went down face-first into the mud/sand/muck. This poor woman who’d been just ahead of me for most of the worst of my run/walk/panic heard me go down and turned and was like, “Oh my god, are you …” and I hope I laughed. I know I said, “I think this is my worst nightmare run course! I’m not a f-ing trail runner!” And then I got up, brushed myself off, and started running toward the finish.
I wanted to be done. And I thought, you know, my cushion is big enough from the bike, I might still get under 2 hours. And nothing hurt that much yet, so I went for it. My last mile, fall included, was 9:10, and as I got to the finish arch, I saw 2:18 on the clock and knew I had a 1:58:xx and saw Pete and got my breathing back enough to say, “That run sucked.” But it was over.
I’m happy with my swim. I wish I hadn’t panicked, but I found my stroke and ended up putting up a time that was well under my goal. I need to learn how to use my left arm more — my right side did all the work, and while I’ve been working on that in the pool, it hasn’t transferred to open water. I have only good things to say about the bike, other than that I should have had more to drink. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a worse experience on a run, but considering how much I wanted to ask a passing mountain biker to give me a ride to the finish, I’m just glad I got through it.
I’m writing this with my foot in a bucket of ice water. Of course I had to roll my left ankle (way to outdate an MRI before it’s even been read), but I expected to wake up this morning in a world of pain and instead I have full range of motion and can bear weight without crying, so I’m not too concerned. It’s fascinating how much better I feel overall than I would after a half-marathon that would have taken roughly the same amount of time; nothing is particularly sore or tight except the things I hit while falling on my face.
Most of all, I can’t wait for the next one. I’m trying not to focus on the suckiness of the run; I’d rather remember the part of the day when I was flying around the bike course with a big dumb grin on my face. I never thought I’d be saying that.
– get more Foggle wipes
– focus on the horizon if my breathing goes wonky during the swim
– start the swim on the side closer to the buoys
– take the handheld bottle on the run. yes, even if there are aid stations.
– it’s probably time to figure out what my big bike ring does
– maybe don’t sign up for a race with a trail run if I haven’t been on the trails, oh, um, ever
Official Stuff, for Posterity
Swim: 17:22, bike + transitions: 58:30, run: 42:30, overall: 1:58:22, 14/17 AG, 211/259 overall and nowhere to go but up.