Race morning, we woke up to a quiet, overcast sky in San Angelo, Texas. Chris and I loaded up the car, a PT cruiser, a car I had shook my head about when we arrived at the rental car counter at the airport. Texas, land of bigger is better, land of four big wheels with four wheel drive, and we drive around town in a clown car. Barely my bike fits in, and before the race we luckily find someone also staying at our hotel with, of course, a pick-up truck who offers to transport Chris’ bike.
By the time we arrive at transition, the still skies and lifeless flags are far off as the notorious western Texas wind has begun to blow. Even the locals seem a little scared, telling us though it is usually windy in San Angelo, it is not usually this windy.
We reach the start line with the other long course competitors. The gun goes off. About 12 men pull ahead, and I follow behind them. The pace feels comfortably fast. The men keep pulling further and I am, as usual, stuck in a middle ground between those going really fast and everyone else.
The course starts along a paved road for only first ½ mile of the 4.96 mile run. Then, the course rolls over a rocky, dusty path. Rugged rocks are inconveniently scattered everywhere, in every size – both big and small. Soon later, we take a right turn on to what is called the dirt road from hell. It’s a steady incline on a dusty road lined with soft, red dirt and sand. I try to run in the treads from a vehicle, but every so often what feels like a deep pit of sand catches me in a step.
I pick off a few men who have gone out too fast, and begin the climb up towards mile two. Mile two plateaus and then turns towards the turnaround table. As I make my way around the turnaround table, I find the one wet patch of ground in the bone dry desert of a dirt road. SMACK! My feet slip out from under me, my entire left side slams on to the ground.
Quickly, I am back on my feet but there are stinging scrapes on my shin filled with sand, and I am covered in dirt. Immediately, I am surprised at how much my entire left side hurts and aches from this fall once I start running again. I’m pushing through it but not too hard as I realize there is already a two to three minute gap between myself and the second woman.
Upon realizing this, in my head, I hear the words of my coach before I left - don’t go to the well unless you have to. We all know “the well”. It’s a place where you dip into a deep cavern filled with pure hurt and pain. If you don’t have to go there, you don’t want to go there, especially in April. Still, it’s a strange thing to show up at the start line with permission to accept a little less of yourself. But I knew that was the plan, and what I had to do; just do what it takes to qualify for long course du worlds.
I sustain what feels like a comfortable pace into the transition area. I mount my bike to ride not only out of San Angelo, but entirely out of the county. The wind was furious from the south, gusting to 30 mph with a steady fury around 20. I knew from talking with a past participant that the first 18 – 20 miles would be headwind Being from Chicago, I am no stranger to big, boisterous gusts and blows of wind. But this wind is much bigger even than that – but again, everything in Texas – as we know – is much bigger.
But knowing that didn’t make the headwind any easier. In fact, it was hard. The hardest headwind I have ever raced into. So hard that afterwards Chris asked me if I had cried out there (no, I did not). Despite the wind, the difficulty, I didn’t give up. Though I knew it would be windy for least one hour, I knew that it would also be over in an hour. 18 – 20 miles, and that was it. I would get through it. The time would pass – it always does. So I put my head down, spun my pedals, and just rode.
I felt like I was moving fairly fast into the wind. Men were passing me, but I figured it was more body mass and muscular power that pushed them through. And then I checked my speedometer. I thought maybe I was going 18 mph into the wind. I thought I was moving slowly by surely along. Wrong – how about pushing 16 maxed out? I started to curse San Angelo, I started to curse the winds, I even started to curse long course duathlon worlds that stupid race in October that brought me here to these winds in the first place. And then I cursed at myself because that’s what I thought a champion would do. Get over it, Liz.
Around 45 minutes into the bike, a woman passes me. I had been lost in my own thoughts, trying to talk myself through the wind. The woman rolls by me in her small ring. She made the move. And now I had to respond. I thought back to something Kristin V. said to me in February. A woman passed her and she knew she had to respond. So she had a conversation with herself, saying “if ever you’re going to make a move, you have to do it now.” And, so, as I rode out there in west Texas with the woman slightly ahead of me – I thought to myself, “Make your move, NOW.” I dropped into the small ring, gave it everything I had to spin those pedals as furiously as the whipping of the wind to get past her. It was a game I wasn’t sure I wanted to play into this wind. But I had to make the move. I keep waiting, waiting for her to come back by. A few miles later, I looked over my shoulder and she wasn’t there.
I am getting back into a rhythm and have made a peaceful partnership with the wind. After all, if you can’t beat them, join them. It pushes me, so I push right back. And just when I felt smooth, and good, and strong, I hear the sound of a water bottle hitting pavement. I have launched my rear left bottle. Behind me I heard the familiar hum of the official motorcycle that had been monitoring for most of the morning courtesy of me being in the lead. I stopped, turned back around, picked up my bottle, and rode on. Rhythm reestablished.
Finally, just as I expected, we make a right turn. Cross wind. Not as great as tailwind, but for now it will do. We ride along a long road with a series of hills called the seven sisters. You reach the top of one, and the road ahead opens up to reveal an endless view of the other hills ahead of you. To the right, the roads are lined with mesquite trees with wispy leaflets in the most beautiful spring green. Short, spiny cactus are scattered beneath. Buzzards circle above. It is terrain so unique of Texas.
The crosswind is so very much easier than the headwind. Though I was warned about the disc wheel being a bad choice for crosswinds, I am quite pleased with the choice. Occasionally, a gust rushes from my left but in return I tighten my core and put my weight into the aerobars. And the wheel seems to slip through a small opening in the wind, pushing me faster along. Men that pushed by me into headwind I am now picking off steadily, one by one.
From time to time, I look behind and I see no one but men. I seem to be in a solid position plus I’m physically and mentally feeling really good. My head is completely relaxed and lost in my own thoughts. Sure, I’m pushing those pedals and I’m working hard but it’s different. This race is different. As I thought about it earlier in the week, wondering how to approach it, what to do – a thought came to me, “just stay on top of yourself.” And that’s exactly what I did– just staying on top of myself, my nutrition, my effort. This was long course, I knew what to do, I knew what it takes. All I had to do was stay on top of myself to make sure it gone done, to respond to race at it unfolded. Let go and let it happen.
The course turns right again, and it becomes instantly quiet – tailwind. Immediately, I am geared out spinning 104 rpm’s at 31 mph. In a word, it is glorious. I wish I had more gears but one can’t have everything so I just spin as easily as possible and let the wind carry me along. This makes the headwind worth it, this is the reward for the work.
Towards the end of the ride, over two hours of riding choppy, chip-sealed pavement is settling into my legs and my hands are hurting from the vibrations of the road. Not only that, but I forget how long racing 45 miles really is. I forget how much food you have to eat. And how much beverage goes down. My stomach feels a little unsettled and not ready to process all of the calories. But now is not the time to listen. It’s getting a late April crash course in calories. And I won’t listen to anything else. If I can’t silence these thoughts now, I’ll never get anywhere this season. So I tell my stomach to shut up, and trust myself on this one.
Finally, off the bike. I force my feet into my shoes. Upright again, I feel the pain of duathlon settling in – mostly to my backside, my ITB’s, my quads. A feeling I have come to call duathlon legs, noodly and tight all at the same time. My stomach feels good – I knew it would. My legs slowly feel better.
And could it get any better than being only 4.96 miles from the finish line? It did. On the way out, I saw my husband. He looked as comfortable as could be and he was clearly in the lead. Inside I smiled. Finally, I thought. And then I said it outloud, it’s about time you won a race. Finally, he put it all together. And, in his own words “didn’t screw it up”.
Inside I am so happy for Chris, and think to myself how great it would be to also win. But my race is not over yet. The day had grown hotter, the wind stronger, and the dirt road from hell became a dusty devilish mess. The sand seemed about 10 feet deeper and the incline like a mountain. Ahead of me, I passed a few men that had passed me. I made my way through the hot, dusty miles that seemed so much longer than the first run.
At the turnaround, I saw that I had a comfortable lead over the other women and, in the last few miles, just got the job done. I enjoy the last 1/2 mile on pavement, then crossed the line over 7 minutes ahead of the second place woman.
There was Chris, he congratulated me and asked what happened to leg. I said something about sliding out, but more importantly I congratulated him on his win – not just a win, but how about a 10 minute margin over the next man. It was his day, his race. People wanted to talk to him, wanted to know what he did, how he biked that strong.
Later on, after the awards, Chris looked at me with the sparkle of celebrity in his eye. “Is this what winning is like?” he asked. I chuckled, yes. Winning is often like this. Get ready for it. From now on, you’re it. You’re the one that everyone will know. You’ll show up at start lines thousands of miles away, not knowing anyone but everyone will know you – they’ll know your name, they’ll know your race results, they’ll know you’re fast. And they’ll put an imaginary bullseye on your back that only they can see. He laughs.
But it feels good, doesn’t it? I say outloud what I am sure he has been thinking since he crossed the finish line. It feels good to be at your best, to put it all together and see it pay off. And now that you’ve won, you’ll want it more and more again. He says no, no he will not do this. But I tell him to give it time. Wait until the next time you toe the line. You’ve set a new benchmark for yourself. You’ve taken it up a notch and next time you’ll expect nothing less. You’ll chase after it like a rival you can’t see ahead – and when you catch up with it again, it will only reinforce how much you enjoy not only the chase but the reward.
We spend the rest of the afternoon traveling through the state park enjoying the sun and the scenery. I think about the race, and the analogy of the chase. It’s not only the rivals you chase, but it’s the perfect race. I think about my race – and pick it apart. Perhaps I should have pushed harder into the wind, picked it up for the second run, not dropped that bottle, worn less slippery racing flats, painfully gone “to the well”. I see Chris, content, smiling, and think to myself he has the face of a perfect race. I know that place, and know that in the season ahead I will put it all together to perfection, when the time is right I’ll take it to the well.
The season has begun – it’s late April and we are approaching prime time for racing. I’m excited. I’m hungry. The perfect race is out there where I’ll be at my very best. I’m ready for that chase. Everything will come together at exactly the right time. And hopefully, in some divine interaction of synchronicity, perfection, and luck, Chris will be chasing after it too and at that same time find the same exact thing.