Race Report: HITS Napa Olympic Distance Triathlon

A couple of weeks ago, before everything went sideways for a little while, I drove up to Lake Berryessa with Courtney for the HITS Napa triathlon. We spent the day before the race picking up packets at an Italian restaurant/general store/only outpost of retail anywhere the race, buying ridiculous socks to turn into arm warmers at Target, eating cupcakes and ravioli at Firewood and Sift, and doing race-day crafts at the Motel 6. (HITS gave us stickers for everything, including the race number, which was two large stickers that had to be placed back-to-back; mine looked like it was assembled by a well-meaning but clumsy toddler.)

I slept pretty solidly for about five hours, then dozed until Courtney’s alarm went off at 4 a.m. The drive to the race site felt a little creepy — lots of winding roads, few lights — but we were making good time right up until the last quarter-mile, when we got stuck in line to park. I think we made it in around 6:15, but the race organizers wanted all sprint athletes out of transition by 6:40, so Courtney got hustled into her transition area while those doing the Olympic were pulled aside.

A few minutes later, they let us in, and I found my transition spot at the end of a row, right where two of the temporary fences overlapped. The first thing I did was step on the overlapping legs of the fences, lose my balance, and fly into said fences, which seemed like an excellent sign. I was hoping to see Courtney and my TAG-ers before they hopped in the water, but I was a few minutes too late, and instead I waited with one of the other TAG captains to cheer for people coming out of the water.

It was harder than usual to spot people — each race had just one swim cap color — but I saw about half our group finish the swim, and somehow Michaela found me and introduced me to Jana. I puttered away the rest of the time chatting with them and making a (barefoot) trip to the porta potties (not recommended). As soon as the last sprint swimmer hit the boat ramp, the horn went off for the Olympic. When the second wave went in, I bobbed around by the boat ramp and got some water in my wetsuit, and those four minutes between waves went by fast, because all of a sudden I was swimming.

Swim – 34:15

The swim was two 750-meter loops, with a short run out of the water between loops. All the women in the Olympic-distance race started together, and not that far behind the men, and there was definitely more contact than I’ve felt before. The first buoy was right in the path of the sun, so I popped up a couple of times to get my bearings, but that just led to swallowing water, and after sputtering through that a couple of times, I decided I’d just go where all the wetsuits around me seemed to be going.

Swimming has been rough for me this spring. My times in the pool have been fine, but they’re not improving, and the couple of open-water swims I’d done before Napa had not been great. I’ve been changing the way I breathe in the pool — I breathe less frequently now — but in open water, trying to swim with that rhythm has been making me seasick. So for this swim, I went back to breathing every right-arm stroke, figuring that even if it made me a little slower, I’d benefit by not feeling pukey.

Somewhere after the first turn, I was still in a big crowd, and I remember thinking, “Wow, I’m never not going to be swimming on top of people.” And then, a few minutes later, I was swimming totally alone, wide of the course. I pulled it back in, and I think I swam pretty decent lines the rest of the way. My first lap was 17:xx as I came out of the water, and then I did the run around the buoy on the concrete and dove back in.

My second lap was smoother, and I managed to find some feet to draft a few times. The water felt fresh and cool, maybe a little choppier than I expected but so much nicer than salty, 53-degree Aquatic Park. I could have happily kept swimming, but instead I found myself approaching the boat ramp again, and I headed up the carpeted path and over the rocks to transition. I’m not sure where the timing mat was, but it wasn’t right out of the water, so I’d guess my second swim loop was 16-ish minutes. Considering my confidence level going in, I was satisfied.

T1 – 4:57
Slow, but not as slow as my 6+-minute transition at Wildflower. Improvement! I’ve learned that putting sunglasses + helmet on first doesn’t work for me — I’m dripping water, my sunglasses fog — so I worked from the bottom up: socks and shoes, race belt, switch watches, spray of sunscreen, sunglasses, helmet, go.

Bike – 1:34:51
My brain was still waterlogged as I started biking, and I didn’t register much about the ride between transition and the main road. I did notice that I’d forgotten to turn off manual lap on my watch, which meant that instead of beeping every mile, it was beeping every time it got jostled — which meant every time I went over a substantial bump in the road. Which meant I ended up with 57 “laps” for the course.

Luckily, I wasn’t using the lap info for anything, but the beeps were driving me nuts. It took several miles for me to get a song in my head to tune them out. The mental debate I had over whether I should reset my watch and lose my overall time info but stop the infernal beeping — and whether I could actually pull off that much button-pushing without crashing my bike — did help pass the time, though, including the first big hill. Also throughout those first few miles, I spotted some of the TAG crew coming in from the sprint race and did a lot of cheering.

My goals for the bike were to practice riding in my big gear — did I mention? I can do that now! — and to manage nutrition well. As always, I was getting passed a bunch, but I was also doing my share of passing. I had this story I told myself when I hit a hill and had to drop down to my smallest gears, which was this: Hey, you’re really good at climbing. It’s your thing. Nobody else here is better at it than you are, so might as well use all those gears — that’s what they’re for! I don’t remember seeing any mile markers — just kidding, I did see them, scattered all over the road, having apparently fallen out of a truck — but I was focusing on drinking every 15 minutes and eating every 20-30 and trying to keep my effort steady. Right before the turnaround, we hit a long, curving downhill facing a pretty dramatic tree-covered mountain. I picked up speed and found myself wondering if I could bike under 1:30, which I figured would get me in around 3:15 total. But of course that long downhill turned into an equally long uphill after the turn — not steep, just forever — and I stopped thinking about 1:30 and 3:15 pretty quickly.

Somewhere after the hill, I started settling in near the same little group of women. We were spaced pretty far apart on the course, but that spacing wasn’t changing — the one in front always seemed the same amount in front. I’d catch the next girl in the line on uphills, but I could never get past her before the next downhill or flat. Still, keeping the three of them in sight was a good goal. Barring disaster, I realized, this was going to be the fastest I’d ever ridden my bike.

The last six or so miles were tough. My bike endurance is good for this distance, but what I don’t do much is ride at race effort, and I was starting to feel it. I also became very conscious of the edges of the saddle digging into my legs and was standing up a bit more to relieve the pressure. Bad race math had revised my goal for the bike to 1:40, and given that and how interminable everything after mile 18 had felt, I was shocked to make the turn into the park right around 1:31. The last stretch of road was a disaster — more a broken-up gravel trail than pavement, lined with large speed bumps. I heard the TAG coach yell my name, and I yelled back “this road is bullshit!” and then shut up because wouldn’t it be perfect if I had the best bike ride of my life and then got disqualified for profanity. I coasted the whole bumpy mess with one foot unclipped and was just happy not to fall over before the dismount line.

T2 – 2:35
Fast enough to feel like I must be forgetting something.

Proof...that someone with my childsize head shouldn't wear hats if I want my face to be visible?

Proof…that someone with my childsize head shouldn’t wear hats if I want my face to be visible?

Run – 57:22
My only time goal going into this race was to do the run under an hour. I’ve been running well off the bike, and I figured I’d throw down a solid first mile before my body realized what the hell it was doing. One thing I hadn’t considered was not being able to feel my feet: standing shoeless on a concrete boat ramp for 45 minutes plus the swim and bike had done a number on them. The road out was the same as the bike in — rutted, broken up, speed bumps — and I was concentrating hard on where I was stepping, because I certainly wasn’t going to feel the landing.

It was warm and sunny by then, and I walked through the water station at the sprint turnaround to take a couple of deep breaths. There was another little hill just after the water stop, then a mile of downhill all the way to the turnaround. On the other side of the road, I saw lots of people walking back up, and I mentally caved a little and assumed that on the way back I’d be one of them.

We bottomed out at the second aid station and I dumped a cup of water down my back, which felt amazing. I decided I’d run the hill until my run was slow enough that I might as well be walking, but it never got that bad — just like running home from the ocean through the MLK hills. My next goal became to get through mile 4 without walking, and when that was fine, I figured I’d get to 45 minutes. By then, I was cramping a little in the heat, but my legs were still going, so I shot my fast food salt packet and started picking people off as I moved into the downhill section to the finish.

When I crossed the line, I immediately spotted Courtney and a teammate who’d crossed just a couple of minutes before. I fished the watch I’d had going since the swim out of my jersey pocket and saw 3:15:xx and just started laughing.

Race math is always wrong.

Final Thoughts

  • I finished in 3:14:03 official time, 9/28 in my age group and a big PR for the distance, if that sort of thing even counts in triathlons. (Does it? Courses are so different!) I ran a few minutes faster and got through transitions a bit quicker than I did at Wildflower, and swam a little slower, but the big time drop all came from the bike. That’s awesome, because it shows what gains I’ve made as a cyclist (and also shows this was a bit easier of a course). And it also sucks, because if I’m going to keep dropping time, the bulk of it is still going to have to come from the bike. I mean, I ran just a couple of minutes off my standalone 10K PR, and I’m never going to get that much faster in the water.
  • That said, I have thought that breaking 3 hours in an Olympic-distance tri would be a reasonable goal for me over the next couple of years — and now it seems closer than I would have expected, especially considering that I wasn’t perfectly trained or rested for this race. I want to give it a good shot this year, but I’m not sure if I want to pick something else this spring/early summer or wait till after Vineman, when I can really make it a focus.
  • I definitely need to do more race-effort riding on the trainer or try one of my coach’s computrainer classes if I’m going to make another jump on the bike. Last year I was focusing on getting comfortable on the road, and riding indoors seemed like a cop-out. Now I see how it can play into an overall plan for becoming a stronger rider.
  • Nutrition nonsense: I had some bread with peanut butter and water with Nuun in the car on the way to the race around 5 a.m., then had some more water while watching the swim and a Gu around 7:40, about 10 minutes before I started. On the bike, I had a bottle with Roctane, which is on the higher-calorie end of the options I train with, but I hardly ever get a whole bottle down on a hilly course, so might as well maximize what I do get for a race? I also ate 2 or 3 shot bloks and half a Picky Bar. I’m loving the Picky Bar for the bike — it’s soft but doesn’t melt, and it doesn’t taste like fake sugar. I don’t actually remember eating on the run, but I had a Gu and some shot bloks with me, so let’s assume I ate about 100 calories of something. I ran with plain water in my handheld bottle but had a Nuun tab (broken in half, wrapped in foil) tucked into the ID slot in case I wanted it, along with a salt packet.
  • HITS Napa is a second-year race, and while I heard mixed feedback from spectators, things moved pretty smoothly from my perspective. We were spoiled in the transition areas (stools! Big bins for our bags!), though I would have loved some additional cover for the rocks. The stickering of all of our stuff was not really necessary — we were supposed to put stickers on our swim caps, but they mostly washed away in the water and I saw a whole pile of them drifting to shore at the swim exit — and I know some people got stressed out about the race tats. The only thing I’d really ding them for is the awful road in and out of transition, and I’m not sure how to fix that, other than putting transition in a different place entirely. {ETA: I’d also ding them for having the ribbon on our medals read “Napa Valey.”}
  • More races should have oyster crackers at the finish.
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3 thoughts on “Race Report: HITS Napa Olympic Distance Triathlon

  1. Jen says:

    I know nothing about triathlons, but sounds like you made some big improvements! Congrats!

  2. Diana says:

    Way to go, Kimra! I only have 3 tris to relate to, but every course is way different so a general PR for a distance is only moderately meaningful. I work from the bottom up in T1 also, it just works better.

  3. Kristina says:

    What a great recap – and a great race! Especially considering that you had been in Japan just a few weeks prior to this race, you rocked it. I’m always amazed at how a different course can affect your overall time. Hope to see you at Wildflower – can’t believe that is so soon!

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