After finishing the USA Triathlon Sprint National Championship in August, I put my race flats away to start focusing on long course training with two half Ironmans on the horizon. Three months later, it was time to race.
Florida. A curious mix of beach lovers, ultra rich, the elderly and those best described as dive bar swamp hillbilly. A few weeks earlier, I spent a few days on a Swimcation/family vacation to Naples. I’m partial to Naples only because of its outdoor pools, open water swimability and a walk-up dive bar on the corner of Gulf Shore called The Beach Box, the kind of place where you’re standing at the bar waiting to be served by the pregnant bartender while a guy behind you talks about his drunk friend Squirrel. Other than that, I’ve avoided doing much in Florida because of a) humidity and b) all of the reptiles.
But when you want to race in November, you’re going to have to give Florida a chance. So on Friday afternoon, I headed down to Miami. Traveling. You know, I would like traveling a lot more if traveling wasn’t involved. Such a long day. Nearing a complete directional and food meltdown, driving in Friday night Miami traffic, some tears were shed (WHAT is with all of the u-turning!?) It was at this point that I realized I no longer enjoy traveling alone to races. I needed a Sherpa, a blankie, maybe my mother.
The next day was filled with the usual checking stuff off of the pre-race checklist. With my bike still being at TriBikeTransport, I settled on 30 minutes on a gym bike with a 15 minute run off of the bike. Both workouts felt perfectly awful – a good sign as my best races have been after the worst day before workouts. Next, I headed to the race site to gather my bike and registration. This was quite hectic as there were a lot of people picking up packets for the aquathlon taking place that morning which meant standing in line, in the sun, for a lot longer than anticipated. This was also where I realized my biggest threat in Miami was not the traffic nor the alligators (side note: anytime I mentioned alligators to my husband he immediately texted back a monologue on how alligators are the ultimate killing machine having survived K/T extinction - an apex predator!), no - it was the fire ants who found their way into my shoes while I was waiting – yow!
About an hour later, I went to set up my bike, pulled my numbers out of my race packet to discover that everything said “NANETTE”. Small problem – I am not Nanette and, more importantly, I couldn’t even fake it – there is nothing Nanette about me. Wait in another line with warning - “the timing man is really grumpy”. So when the grumpy timing man told me my number was re-purposed because I had signed up so late, I knew well enough to say then I shall race as Nanette.
The rest of the day was filled with eating, hydrating and talking myself out of visiting an alligator farm or driving down to Key West. Another thing I realized – I’m beyond the age where I’m interested in flying to a destination to just sit around waiting to race! I should be watching the sunset in Key Largo with a fruity drink in my hand. I settled on a swim at a local pool and spent some time laying in a lounge chair watching the breeze sway the palm trees while enjoying the Spanish music played by the lifeguards.
All good things must end. There were gels to be attached to a race belt and course maps to study. I returned to my hotel for the typical pre-race assembly of gear. You know it’s been a long time since your last long course race when all of your sports nutrition has expired. We’re talking gels that went bad in 2017, folks. You also know you’ve done the sport a long time when you say fuck it and start putting expired salt tabs into small baggies.
A few hours later, I was in bed by 7 pm (never challenge a mother with getting to bed early before a race) and woke up 9 hours later feeling ready to take on the day.
Heavy rains overnight left the grounds wet and the air thick. The skies were still overcast and the forecast predicted more rain before race start at 6:30 am. As soon as transition closed, the skies opened up and we all retreated to tents and picnic shelters to avoid the deluge of rain. While I anticipated the rain and enjoyed the prospect of a cooler day, I really wanted it to burn out there. The worse the conditions, the less fast you have to go – it comes more of a game of strategy, mindset, execution. Forget PRs on perfect days – I am well beyond that point in racing. I want to play the game. I’ve said it before – I want to outsmart you, outpace you. At 40+, my experience and wisdom will take me further than the speed in my legs.
My wave was slated to go off at 6:55 am. With 20 minutes to go, I walked to the swim start to learn that the race had been delayed by 20 minutes. A few racers around me were wrapped in garbage bags – a fantastic idea to keep a large garbage bag in my race bag because at this point I was wet and cold from the rain. I did a short warm up and then waited to race.
My wave: 35-44 women doing the aquabike and the half Ironman. Rarely will I gripe about races, realizing that putting on a race is a massive undertaking – but my one gripe here is the mixing of the aquabike and the half Ironman for a variety of reasons. First, there was no designation as far as who was racing which race – I want to race who I am racing. Next, as we’ll learn on the bike, this made for some sketchy bike situations!
The water temperature was 84 degees – no wetsuits – and a beach start (my husband texts me 84 degrees? That’ll make the gators frisky!) I couldn’t believe it – it was finally here. The race was about to begin. I wasn’t nervous, I was eager to tackle the day. That moment – THAT MOMENT! Before the gun goes off with all of the day’s possibility laying in front of you. Possibly my favorite place. Confidently, I started up front and took a straight shot to the first turn buoy. I rarely start hard in a long course race – why waste the effort? By the first turn, I had caught up to all but about 10 women who I then proceeded to chase.
The swim was two loops. I didn’t feel great but I know that I can not feel great and still race well. In fact, feeling great for races is rare and over-rated! I could tell the effort was good enough to work my way into the front of the wave and steadily work through the earlier waves. After the first loop, we had to run out of the water, up a hill and back into the water. The second loop was crowded with the International distance racers now joining the course. My shoulders started fatiguing on the second loop – similar to how they feel after doing decline bench press – which reminded me that for these non-wetsuit swims, I need to do a lot more longer sets with paddles. I was also getting hot – and regretted not having a bottle of water in transition to chug before the bike. The second loop was a little slower; I exited the water around 34 minutes.
On to the bike, the roads were wet and the course was fairly crowded with multiple race distances taking place – there was an Aquabike, Long Course Duathon, Half Ironman and International distance race taking place at the same time. It was difficult to tell who was doing which race and many of us had repurposed numbers so some people had the correct age on their calf, others had no age. And for the benefit of those at an advanced age, they either need to start printing the race numbers larger or a lot of us are going to need reading glasses out there!
I knew from cross checking the course map with the hourly weather graph that we would have tailwind on the way out to the two loop section, cross headwind and cross tailwind on the loops and then headwind on the return. Seems like many others didn’t do their homework which meant that they were gunning it from the start. I later realized this was mostly the aquabike racers who were, essentially, now involved in a bike race. They didn’t have to pace themselves.
I was moving along at over 22 mph – I had my range of watts I expected to hold though I never chase watts in tailwind. If you’re going fast on low watts, why waste the energy? The course very much reminded me of riding at home – flat, nonstop aero, pressure on pedals, there were even some cornfields. The roads were mostly good with the exception of some mud and chipsealed areas. I focused on finding the best rhythm and cadence while executing my fuel plan. Managing hydration was going to be extremely important – though it was still overcast, I knew the clouds would burn off and heat up the day.
The last 15 miles were directly into the headwind. I started tearing through the course, an incredible feeling of power and motivation! I felt good, albeit with a slight headache that I was trying to remedy by continuing with 2 bottles per hour. I peed a few times (actually had to slow and coast through the turns to make this happen on a flat course but this likely also saved me as I saw some nasty crashes at a few turns). In the last 3 miles, a pack of about 5 women from my wave passed me in what resembled the Sunday morning group ride. I was a little confused – why would you race the last 3 miles so hard when you have a hot half marathon ahead? At this same time, the course – which had been fairly traffic free – had a few cars that were driving at the same or slower speed as the bikes. It quickly became a sketchy mess of bikes weaving through cars and me sitting up at a distance behind them to a) stay legal, b) stay safe, c), not get hit by a car! Maintain emotional control and use the time to spin the legs out before the run. The way back into the race site was narrow, congested and the girls were still racing. When we finally got to transition, I realized what was going on as I had to run my way past a line of women who literally stopped in transition – they were from the aquabike.
(honestly – they should have been in a separate wave or spaced us out better)
I lost a few minutes late in the bike – but was darn close to what Best Bike Split projected for the watts I was holding – around 2:35.
On to the run, my legs didn’t have their usual spark to them. I tried not to think too much about it – instead focused on turnover, arm swing & settling into it. Besides - the first 10K never feels good in a half marathon. Nor does the next 10K.
And whatever is left after that.
The run was a two loop adventure. It was crowded and though there was an out and back on each loop, I could not tell where I was or who I was racing. As I passed people who were walking, I encouraged them: stick with it, stay engaged. This was as much for them as myself as the urge to stop, walk, dip my head into a bucket of ice was overwhelming. It became a struggle of resisting the urge to stop versus the mind pleading to keep moving forward. We all struggle out there – experienced, beginner, fast, slow, front or back of the pack. It never gets easier and it’s not that you ever stop listening to the negatives – it’s that you learn to keep moving forward regardless of what your head says. Perhaps this is endurance, persistence … at times I’ve felt it was complete ignorance but it is definitely the mark of a good endurance athlete.
The run course weaved through a broken paved path, mud, grass and then into the zoo. I was wholly unprepared for the amount of running we would do on the grass – and the humidity lifting from the wet grass was stifling. I had done some heat acclimation (but not enough) and you would think life as a 40+ woman (is it hot in here? It’s 67 in here – can we turn the heat down?) would prepare me for the heat but unfortunately…not the case.
We ran through a small section of the zoo but I was so focused on following the cones and staying on course (at one point, when a volunteer told me to go forward in a confusing section of mud surrounded by tall grasses I desperately shouted FORWARD WHERE!? – granted this was after 9 miles of racing where I’m thinking what is this a MENSA challenge? Don’t give me such complicated directions!?) that I didn’t see any wild animals except for the rare, the elusive – RACOON! I heard a photographer shout something about an elephant behind me but I was at that point in the race where I was utterly heat-stoned and questioning everyone’s intentions. An elephant? Are you serious or just trying to scare me into running faster? Even if an elephant was charging, I would have laid down and said – take me. Just put me out of my misery, feed me to the lions, it will be a much quicker death than running through this wet oven for another 6.55 miles.
After the delightful path through the zoo (oh, it gets better!), we ran through a parking lot marked by all sorts of traffic cones out to a turnaround then back through the zoo before running around a lake to the finish loop to… DO THIS ALL AGAIN!? On the second loop, many of the aid stations had become self serve, they couldn’t pour and serve water fast enough. And my legs? They never came around – ever. I was huffing. Hurting. My inner child (who tends to come out to play after 3 glasses of Prosecco and/or during hot + long races) was whining about the thought of having to go ANOTHER 3 miles at this pace. Yet though I was moving slow, I was passing people like crazy and no one (save a few men) was passing me. Finish what you started, Nanette.
In the last mile, I started chasing and passing anyone who was actually running as motivation. GET ME DONE WITH THIS RACE. When I finally crossed the finish line, a woman came up to me and asked my wave: 35-44. You’re first. I couldn’t believe it. I had written my eulogy for the race and my legs around mile 2. What about all of the women out there ahead of me? All those miles I thought I was having the worst day worst race ever? When I wanted to punch that raccoon for looking at me? When I questioned my training, my abilities, my confidence? You mean – after all of that I’m the national champion?
Sometimes sticking with it, staying the path is all that it takes.
I was immediately taken to away to the USADA tent for drug testing. When I crossed, they clearly had a list of age groups they were checking off – the top male from the duathlon (listen to this: these duathletes elected to suffer through a 10K run, bike 56 miles and then run a half marathon - WHY), the top 2 women duathletes, the top 40-44 half IM woman (me), the top 50-54 half IM man, top 50-54 half IM woman and top 35-39 half IM woman. I’ve been tested before in 2015 after IM Texas so knew the procedure. Sit, drink and then take a chaperoned pee. Easy to say but very, very difficult to do when you are grouchy, tired and dehydrated from a hot day. Most of us gave partial samples which is the quickest way to frustrate the doping control agent and get yourself a longer visit under the tent. Also a good way to find yourself walking to the finish line area with your jar of urine in a sealed baggie, which cannot leave your possession, while said doping control agent keeps a close eye on you as you pick up as many bottles as you can carry – water, Gatorade, give me all of it. Any time one of us finally had the urge to pee it was cause for celebration from the entire group. Then someone would come back with 60cc of nearly orange your-kidneys-are-dying urine and we’d all sigh in disappointment – partial sample. A collective low moment when one person entered the porta-potty only to emerge a few minutes later with an empty jar. What happened? I couldn’t do it with someone watching (clearly not a parent because every parent has mastered the art of going to the bathroom in front of a studio audience).
Finally when it was my turn - I can do it! - while in the porta a potty with the woman watching me, I decided to make small talk – I mean, what else can you do in there to break the ice? She said this was her side gig. I politely reminded her that there were so many other side gigs that didn’t involve standing in a hot stinky porta potty watching sweaty chafed women pee in a cup. After pounding 4 bottles of water and 2 bottles of Gatorade, I finally produced a full sample and declared my supplements.
At this point, it was several hours after the race. I was tired. Hangry. My race flats had become sponges sitting in the rain before the race – and I had to run in those sponges for 13.1 miles - I was blistered. Chafed in places I didn’t know you could chafe. I achingly walked over to the results and discovered that I had not only won my age group but by a substantial 20+ minute margin. I had also placed 3rd overall. This was the slowest I had ever run in a race and one of my slowest half Ironmans. But on this day, under these conditions, it was all that it would take and a good reminder that the real goal is to give it your best on the day. To never judge the outcome of your race based on any single split or feeling. Finish what you started. Give it a complete effort. My measure of success in a race is not by placement, time or splits. It is getting back into the car or on to a plane with the feeling that I gave it my best. Earlier in the week, I read a lovely post from now retired professional triathlete Cam Dye:
As a racer, my goal was always to see if my best was better than your best.
Getting on to the plane back to Chicago on Monday morning, I can safely say that box was checked.
National champion. It’s the 7th time in my racing career that I can say that – I’ve won my age group at long course nationals as F25-29 (2003), F30-34 (2005, 2006, 2007), F35-39 (2012) and now as F40-44. The feeling? For sure, I keep getting older but the feeling never does. Grateful for the opportunity, the health and the ability to do this crazy sport. And yes, moments after crossing the finish line I thought I have to do this again in a few weeks?
You know what? I can’t wait.
(I'm returning my posts back to my original blog - circa 2006 - because I cannot handle the WordPress platform anymore!)