“It’s about that white line,” Neil said on Saturday as we gathered for our race briefing. “Ten weeks of training, the early mornings, the hours of workouts — it’s all about that white line.
“So don’t you dare take a finish line photo where you’re staring at your watch. You smile.”
The quick story of my Wildflower is: 3:36:36, almost all of it smiling. Great swim, great-for-me bike, and a hard run during which I was happy not to have my watch broadcasting split times (more about that later), all adding up to 20+ minutes faster than the fastest I thought I could do. That’s never happened before in my racing life, and it quite likely could never happen again, so I’m going to bask in it for as long as it’s appropriate to bask, and maybe longer.
For all of the blank peacefulness of last week, I now have a whole little three-ring circus of thoughts dancing around — about the sport, about training, about how maybe I am a group-exercise person after all — but since I can write 2,000 words about breakfast given the opportunity, I’m going to try to keep this one focused.
I don’t camp. The last time I “camped,” my yurt had an outlet to charge my phone. Camping was the fourth discipline of my Wildflower and easily the one that put me most on-edge.
Of course our borrowed tent was the one the tri club volunteers couldn’t figure out how to set up, and of course we hadn’t read the instructions. I made the dusty, two-mile walk to the expo while Pete fielded questions from our camp-neighbor’s kids about why our tent kept falling down; he eventually located the magic spring that locked it into place. On the walk, I spotted some of the long-course racers I’d met at training weekend hauling their bikes back up the hill (people told me a lot of alarmist things about Wildflower, but nobody mentioned walking your stuff back up the hill) and hugged them and asked about their races and started to pick up some of the Wildflower energy I’d heard so much about.
We ate a quick dinner, I arranged and re-arranged my gear bag about 6,000 times, and the Cal Poly kids ran naked past our campsite, during which not a single woman was legitimately nude. I expected much more noise and partying from the long-course finishers (see above re: alarmist things people told me) but things seemed calm, and I fell asleep sometime around 10:30. I slept solidly till 4, then dozed off and on until 7, when a tent neighbor’s alarm (eight bars of this) started going off incessantly and I became convinced I was going to spend my entire race yelling “RIGHT HERE! RIGHT NOW! RIGHT HERE! RIGHT NOW!”
I was not looking forward to any part of transition set-up — not biking my stuff down Lynch Hill, not hanging out for 90+ minutes in transition before my wave, not sweating off my sunscreen before the race even started. But there were enough little things to do — get marked, eat breakfast, get in and out of the portapotties only to get right back in line — that I was surprised how quickly I was pulling on my wetsuit.
The swim start is on a boat ramp, and the warm-up takes place in the minutes between wave starts. It turns out I love this. That quick heart-pounding-OMG-go-now! feeling showed up, but since all I had to do was splash around, it was fine. A lot of ladies from my training group were in the same wave, and we used some of our nervous energy to karaoke “Don’t Stop Believing” along with the loudspeaker until a few seconds before our start.
I usually count 10 right-arm strokes and then sight in open water, but I rarely got all the way up to 10 on this swim. I felt distracted; someone bumped my timing chip early and I worried about it falling off, and then I idly wondered how everyone else’s races were going, and I tried to guess whether any of the guys in my group would be done by the time I was out of the water. But my breathing was calm and my stroke felt as smooth as it ever gets.
I remember getting a side stitch after the second turn, but it didn’t stick around. At the third turn, I felt a little seasick, and I popped my head up to see a huge swell coming at us. (I thought, in the moment, that I might have made it up, but after the race I mentioned it to my parents and three separate women turned around and said, “Yeah, what was that?”) As it passed, I realized that some of the fastest swimmers from the wave behind me had caught up to my group, and I was momentarily discouraged, but then I thought: Use this. I followed some fast feet all the way in, and while I could have done a better job of sighting to the finish — the only left turn on the course — I was out of the water and running up the hill with a 32 on my watch.
So I got to transition, and I forgot what to do. My order of operations was all messed up — I put my sunglasses on, but my hair was dripping on them, so I took them off, and then I couldn’t figure out where to put my wetsuit. The woman next to me kept saying “this is the longest transition ever!” and I was thinking, come on, it’s not taking that long, but uh, my T1 was 6:28.
This is also when I discovered that I’d somehow turned my Nike watch on — maybe in my backpack, maybe at transition — and the stopwatch had been running for hours, and when I tried to re-set it, the low battery warning flashed on. My swim watch was still running, though, so I shoved it in my pocket and headed to the bike out.
Then it was uppppp Lynch Hill. People were packed pretty tightly, and I was fighting for space to climb. A woman from the training weekend was a few people ahead of me, and she’s a much stronger cyclist, but I can climb, dammit, and so I resolved just to keep her in my sight till the top and not let anyone slip between us.
My watch died for good somewhere in the first 5K, and I spent the next 5K or so debating the merits of trying to get the other watch out of my pocket (pro: I’d know my time and could eat/drink accordingly. con: if I dropped it, I wouldn’t know anything ever). I settled on leaving it in my pocket and fueling by distance rather than time. I downed my whole Nuun-water bottle during the ride, and I also managed to take two water bottles from aid stations (!) (this is a milestone I would have never imagined in November) and execute the drink-and-toss.
I got my watch out of my pocket long enough around 22K to realize I’d been on the bike around an hour and was more or less on pace with my training ride. There were a few stupid moments with people trying to pass inappropriately or riding in the middle of the lane — a wake-up call for me, because I’m always afraid I’ll be the most discourteous rider out there — and a few times, the desire to get the hell away from some nonsense was the spark I needed to push past a group.
On a downhill somewhere in the last 10K, a bee stung me on the lip and held on, and it was one of those “um, what happens now?” moments — like, I’m not allergic, but how much is this going to hurt? and how do I get it off me? and what if it flies into my mouth and stings me inside of my mouth? — and eventually I shook it off like a dog shaking a stick. And really, for the worst thing that happened during the bike to be a bee sting? Not bad.
I spotted my parents and Pete at the top of Lynch and then started my ride down, which turned into a long, coasting “OMG WHY ARE YOU HUGGING THE YELLOW LINE” ride — and yes, the last thing I wanted to do was crash on Lynch, but some people were being way too cautious, and the age-group-competitive men were finishing their run so that was another layer of activity in the same little lane. I finally squeezed past one woman and had clear road all the way to transition.
Helmet off, shoes off, hat on, swap watches. I wasn’t doing math particularly well, but my total time was in the 2:30s, and I knew I could walk in most of the 10K and beat four hours. I headed up the stairs and out onto the course, sipping water and wondering if I’d regret not taking the salt packet out of my bike bag and shooting it along the way.
And uh. Yeah. I regret that. I have no idea if salt would have made any difference, but my stomach cramped for the first 45 minutes of the run, and I wish I would have at least had the option of trying it. I used to get side stitches regularly when I started running, but my nutrition/hydration plan usually works. Except, it turns out, it doesn’t work on an 85+-degree day, after 26 other miles, on a hilly and exposed course.
I had planned long before Sunday to walk through every aid station, but there were a few spots in that first handful of miles when I also walked every time the hill felt too hard, or every time my watch hit a 5. I was so happy not to know my average pace or be able to see it drop; I might have fallen apart more mentally if I had.
Around 6K, I worked to catch up with a couple of friends from training and also started chatting with a runner who had been next to me for a while. I could talk easily, so I couldn’t have been pushing that hard, but I could not imagine moving even one second faster. Our conversation (which mostly consisted of listing things we wanted at the finish line; mine: “A Diet Coke. No, a Coke. No, a Coke Slurpee.”) got us near the top of a hill, at which a) a teammate took a gulp from some Cal Poly kids’ beer bong and b) the crowd noise picked up as people pointed 200 meters ahead and yelled, “That’s the last hill!”
At the top of Lynch, I spotted my boss, who’d done the long course on Saturday. He jumped in next to me and I fought to keep up as he said things like, “Am I running too fast? Cause you’re running really fast!” and asked me how the race was (me: “hot”) and how the bike course had been (“hot”) and how I was feeling (“hot”). On the way down Lynch I started to see some carnage — one girl was standing stock-still in the middle of the road while a guy poured water over her head — but most people looked strong. I remember thinking, “In less than 10 minutes, I can stop moving.”
Then it was a left down the finish chute, and I saw the clock, and my mind was on whether I should try to kick or let the woman in front of me finish with a good photo, and I crossed and smiled and saw my coach and parents and Pete and smiled more and it was done.
I stayed in the finish area for a while, finding friends and walking between the one strip of shade and the water table to get tiny cups of water (my only complaint, again: why not bottles?). Pete ducked the line to the finishers’ area and asked me if I needed anything, and I explained my Coke Slurpee fantasies, and he found a slush machine at the general store, and I have possibly never been so happy in my life. No, wait — I was happier about 15 minutes later, when I was drinking cherry slush and eating string cheese in Lake San Antonio.
My final stats were 32:20 for the swim, 1:50:27 for the bike (negative split by about 20 seconds), and 1:03:01 for the run, which is so much faster than I would have guessed I was moving. I was more or less the halfway point in my age group and had not-unsurprising rankings for the three disciplines (run the best — even with a 1:03! — and bike the worst).
I suppose I’m curious to know what I could have done if I hadn’t cramped so badly on the run, but realistically, I think I’d cramp on that run in those conditions no matter what; I have so few opportunities to train in real heat. I wish I’d taken the salt, and I wish I’d had a Gu before the swim, and it would have been nice to spend less than almost 11 minutes in transitions, but these are good lessons for the future; I raced a little better than I trained and a lot better than I could have predicted, and there’s nothing to complain about there.
I like this distance. I’m curious to know if I could go under 3:30 on a less-punishing course. Not to say I’ll never go longer — swimming in the Russian River got me interested in this crazy sport, and to do that in a race requires a 70.3, so yeah, that’s out there, it’ll happen someday — but Olympic is exactly enough of everything right now. I’m dedicated to respecting the Nothing, but if this had been a training day and I needed to hop in the pool today, I happily would.
And yes, I have more thoughts, but it’s already been too many words, so I’ll save them. I’m just happy, and proud, and excited about whatever comes next.