A large group of women from all over the country, of all age groups, stood waiting in the water before the USA Triathlon Halfmax Championship. The gun went off. I darted ahead to establish position. I find myself swimming in the front of the group where the women throw arms, pull feet, swipe goggles. Within the first 400 meters I have been swum over, de-goggled, and swatted. I tell myself to stay calm, that I have years of experience to pull me through this. Upon sighting, I see an arm coming at me like a blade that sweeps through and pulls away. I find a smooth, solo place, and settle into a rhythm. I tell myself to breathe and relax. I am swimming long, smooth, and small, reaching, rolling, pulling my way through the narrow tunnel that has opened it’s way in the water for me. The last 400 meters, I see the arch getting closer and I pick up the pace.
I am on the bike. Immediately we go up a steep hill and head out on to 5 miles of hills within Innsbrook. On a short out and back, I notice the lead woman about 3 minutes ahead of me. I also notice a train of powerful women charging full speed ahead less than a minute behind me. Today I would work. These women would not let up, they had set their sights on me as much as I had set my sights on winning this race. Their drive reminds me that wins are earned, never given. With that, I set out to earn what I have been wanting to win and work for all year.
A woman soon gains ground on me, passing me aggressively and taking control of the bike. Two women attack, holding an angry aggressive pace up and over the hills. I am breathing hard, redlining and my legs are resisting it with every pedal stroke. I have deviated from my plan and my head is scolding me, but I know that confidence in myself and my abilities tells me that I must rely on my experiences, past races, and training to make the best choices during the race and respond to the race as it unfolds.
Out of the resort, the tailwind sweeps me along. I know I can outrun the lead women if only I can keep them within sight. Like most races, I find myself riding mostly alone. My head begins to fill with discouraging thoughts, trying to convince me that the race was riding away from me with the wheels of the lead women. Each mile goes by and they become smaller and fainter in the distance. It takes a few miles to snap the sense back in myself, to negate the negative talk and thoughts. I remind myself to ride within myself, ride to my abilities. This is my race, my plan. I must be patient. I must be willing to wait. Carefully, I remind myself to react smart and race smart. I needed to race my own race.
Surprisingly, I catch back up to one woman before re-entering the resort for the second loop. I round the corner back onto the hilly section, with people shouting my name and someone shouts that the lead women are 1:40 ahead of me. I was patient and now hold the place right where I want to be. I know I can find that time back on the run. The race has come back under my control. At the turnaround, I see the lead women chasing. I resist the temptation to chase. I know I need to race my own race. Tick, tock. Time to wait. Be patient, I tell myself. I find my rhythm, relax, and enjoy the ride.
Back on the state roads, the winds have picked up substantially. A woman and I trade places back and forth, she in her small ring, me grinding my gears, knowing it would hurt, knowing it was hard but knowing it was the right thing for me to do in this race at this time. We ride past a field and I see her tossed to the side, gripping her handlebars. The wind gusts and blows me too. I am grateful for this hot, windy weather which reminds me that I am getting ready for Hawaii and it’s heat, headwinds, and long hills. I am encouraged at how strong I feel, slicing into the wind with confidence.
Entering transition, I know three strong women with the desire to win are ahead of me. I hit the run course, staying light on my feet into the field and up the steep grass hills. I quickly catch a woman. I am breathing so hard, there is so much force and fury pumping through my legs I can hardly acknowledge when she tells me the lead women are 4 minutes ahead.
I push the run hard. Wondering how Ironman legs would serve me on this day, I am pleased to find that my legs feel like rockets ready to ignite. The rest of me cannot keep up with my legs. I feel like I haven’t taken a breath, I have only gasped and wheezed. At a mile and half, a man tells me that I have it, that both women are right ahead of me. By mile 2, I have passed them both, gaining back the 4 minutes. The race has come back to me after 2 miles. But still we have 11 miles to go. Time to react, time to respond to the race. I decide to push the first loop hard. I trust I have the legs to do this. This is my extended track workout, my unabridged 800 meter repeat. Blow out the first lap and then hang on, just like all the times I have practiced on the track. It is a smart move, it is a tactical move, a move I can make because of confidence, because of my training, because I have taken risks like this in training to pull from for race day.
At the turnaround point, I have ran another 4 minutes in front of the women. My breathing has settled down, I am comfortable and confident that I can hold this pace. The hills are relentless. They are steeper than I remember and they bring me immediately up to redline pace. I recover the downhills, but they too are steep and painful and I find my legs getting ahead of myself.
I hit the halfway point at 44 minutes. I am blazing a faster pace than the flat, cool course of Pigman just weeks earlier. Returning back on to the windy, hilly course, I find over 6 minutes between myself and the other women. I know I can ease back. No one will run will outrun me by one minute faster per mile. Not on this course. I relax. It’s time to revel in this. It’s time to smile, to slow down, to take it all in. I feel good and tell myself I’m just finishing up a training run, like any other day, on any other course.
At that point, the race comes alive. I feel it’s energy from the hills, the heat, from the competition. I cheer on the other competitiors, I notice the volunteers, I see Mark Livesay handing out water, I realize that someone at each aid station knows my name, I see Matt taking pictures, I hear strangers shouting my name. In the last 2 miles, Matt tells me to take note of the signage on the last big hill. I wonder what he is talking about. As I climb the last hill, I realize someone has written “Small and Elf-Like” in chalk on the pavement. It makes me laugh.
Coming downhill into the finish line, I realize an entire year of work is in front of me and victory, on so many levels, is within my reach. I look down at my watch and realize I have finished in 4:40, a minute ahead of the amateur course record and a personal best time by 7 minutes. I put my arms up in victory as I cross the line and I grab my head inadvertently, a moment of not believing what has just happened, hiding from the moment, startled by my own success. Someone says in a motherly voice, “Elizabeth, great job, you won.” I don’t know who it was, but I still hear the voice in my head.
I walk away, put my hands on my face and begin to cry. Thoughts flood my mind, thoughts of the hard work behind me and the possibilities ahead of me. I am overwhelmed by this moment, by this moment where some kid from New York City, who is not from a family of athletes, who one day decided to step on to the cross country team in high school, who decided one day after college to have a new goal and try a triathlon, who breaststroked that first triathlon, who did her first duathlon on a mountain bike, who had a world of opportunity, love, and life open up to her from this sport, who was standing there years later a national champion.
I wonder how I arrived at this moment, with questions multiplying what feels like a mystery but in my head, and my heart I know the answers. It is no mystery. It is nothing magical, or monumental, or epic, or secret. It is simply with confidence and patience. Knowing that confidence is patience. Knowing that long course is about patience, about waiting, about having the patience and confidence to follow and trust your plan, a plan that you have prepared, practiced, and executed in training and racing, over and over again.
This is the secret to my success, this is the magic formula, the equation that balances out on both ends. Be confident, be prepared, be patient. And when the opportunity is right in front of you, let preparation and patience meet that opportunity as your confidence carries you through.