Race morning started early at 3 am (that's 2 am CST for those keeping track).
We hurry in the hotel room, myself eating a cup of oatmeal. No utensils, I’m using the top of Chris’ toothbrush holder. He’s not happy about that. I’m wondering how life has gotten to the point where I’m 1000 miles from home eating oatmeal out of a paper cup with a toothbrush holder.
But life is still good and it’s race day. We head down to the shuttle pick up. This is yet another step in the process of this race. With a point to point course, we had to park by the state capitol, purchase a bus ticket, board the bus by 4 am for the hour long drive.
The bus line is angry. It’s at least a block long and someone takes tickets at the door of the first bus painfully slow. I’m tired of standing. I need more coffee. With envy I eye the cups from Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts from other racers. I have had about 8 ounces of coffee this morning at the hotel – not nearly enough. I think about threatening them with my bike pump for their cup. But I’m not ready to start a scene. Not this early. Save it for the race.
The bus ride is long. It’s dark. The sun starts to rise around 4:30 am and finally we arrive at the shore. I’m pleased to find my bike and bike gear bag have not walked away in the night. The announcer tells us it’s a clean transition race. Meaning nothing could be on the ground except your gear bag – the bag which you would put your wetsuit and goggles into. Everything else had to be on your bike. The rules at this race were somewhat militant but organized. I could understand how it all helped with the flow.
I approach the water to get ready for a warm up. The water looks angry. It rolls into the shore with small waves that seem to hold fury. But it’s all in your head, I say. And besides you need to get to work. My goal for this swim was – as coach said “to have a great swim”. I knew what that meant. It meant finding someone’s feet and holding on for dear life. I was ready. 8 women stood at the line. Pause for a moment – this right here is what makes a pro race different. Stand at the line with 8 women – one known as a formidable swimmer, another an 11 time Ironman champion and others with countless accolades - and tell me how it feels. It feels full but lonely. It feels small but big. It feels the same but completely different.
The gun goes off. I run into the water with them and through the waves. The group bolts and I’m right there. Right there, but falling, falling……I have drifted off – who knows why, the chop, I’m off to the right and there goes the group to the left. I can hold the pace but for whatever reason could not swim a straight line. There they go! And just like that…I am alone.
Like in St. Croix, I find myself by myself. Ok, this is fine. You’ll be fine. The water is not cold. The water is not murky. Those are not creepy ocean weeds touching your legs. That is your wake behind you. The buoys really are out there. It really is only 1.2 miles. A million things go through your head when you’re out in the middle of water by yourself. None of them very useful and all of them needing to be distracted away as quickly as they enter your head – irrational fears of ocean wildlife, of your life, of failure.
I start to repeat my word for the swim DETERMINATION. I was determined to get on feet but you know what – that didn’t work out. Moving on...determined to swim strong, determined to stay relaxed, determined not to swallow any salt water. Determined to stay on course. Determined not to let this spiral out of control and have a solid day. I keep going through a list of things I am determined to do to help pass the time.
Time that feels like forever. I have been in this swim for at least a day. I approach the turn buoy. And make a turn. A kayaker rows towards me. “Off course.” Off course? No. Yes. “Turn at the red buoy.” The red buoy? Oh, that red buoy. Noted. Thank you. Now on course but askew. Now turning. There’s the chop again. This water is choppier than St. Croix. There is no rhythm just a wind whipping. I’m trying to make the rhythm but it’s not there! I make another turn and I’m heading back to the shore. The chop is now with me and carrying me to the shore. And ahead…wait…what is that? A pink cap. A pink cap! I am not the only pro woman out here!
We reach the shore nearly together. Transition is a long run up a very sandy beach then a long run into a very large transition area. My feet are screaming – shoes! My wetsuit comes off, everything goes into the gear bag and then a long run to the mount line. I must have been transitioning for 3 minutes! Now, on to the bike.
Soon into it I pass Deanna. I know she is a strong rider with a run just as strong. I will hold her off as long as I can. My heart rate is high. My legs feel good. The first part of the course is with tailwind along the coast. It is beautiful. My disc wheel makes the whir whir whir that sounds powerful and smooth. I am sailing along with the wind.
My word for the bike is RESILIENCE. The swim didn’t go as planned but resilient athletes bounce back. Last night I had Chris look up the words determination and resilience to give me an arsenal of synonyms. Resilient athletes are tough, durable, persistent and strong. They can handle any obstacle in their way. After awhile we make a turn inland. The flat course becomes hilly with a series of false flats or long gradual hills. At times I am out of my saddle, at times I am seated with cadence low.
After 80 minutes, Deanna passes me. This hurts my head and then it hurts my legs. Passed! She is strong in the hills, my legs feel they are fading. This is my mistake. I should have responded – why not? Fear, failure, risk, pain. It’s big to know you are strong, but I am learning this year it is even bigger to admit you are weak. Each race I take a new weakness and try to fix it. But for today I continue to pedal strong, be resilient but get passed. I will bounce back.
Around 2 hours into the ride I’m getting a little sick in my stomach and tired. Too much salt water? Too much gel? Not enough water? These feelings will pass but in a race this long there are always lows. The highs are high, the lows are low. As in, I want off of this bike now kind of low. A male pro pulls up alongside me and tells me I am fast. Really? The power of suggestion so I start riding faster. The right thing said at the right time. And then, I see Deanna ahead. Good! I will keep her in sight.
The course turns into the wind and then we make our way back towards Providence. It snakes through what has to be the worst part of town. The roads are ridiculously potholed and the turns are tight. It smells like fried chicken. Again I want off the bike. I think part of my bike just fell off. I am convinced I will flat and it sounds like a good escape. But then I see the state capitol and know it will be over soon.
Dismounted the bike. My lower back hurts as if I had just done an Ironman. Do a very long grass run to my transition rack and in my bag find my shoes! They did not run away overnight. The first stretch of the run is unique, you run over a river and you are in the “big city”. Then take a turn over another bridge and then you reach…the hill.
The hill is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is steep, it has two sections. I reach it and my body seems to cry. My foot hurts. My tibilias anterior is cramping. My legs are in a world of pain. How will I run? Break it up. Small segments. I will first get up this hill. I am passed by several other competitors. I feel horrible. How can I be going so slow? What is wrong with me?
And then it starts. The downward spiral. I want to quit. I want to stop. The pain in my legs and foot are beating into me. I need to stop now. I tell myself I will just run back to the start. I will stop this race and lead a normal life. I will drink coffee on a Sunday morning and read the paper. I don’t need this. I miss wearing normal clothes. I miss my dog. Call me done for this race. No, put a put a boot on my foot and call me done for the year. I will DNF.
Wait a minute.
I will not DNF again this season. No. I stop at a corner to stretch my left leg. To gather myself. And then it comes – at just the right time - a random spectator tells me to stick it out. Exactly. A plan was made. I will give it one loop and then reassess. I will stick it out.
A funny thing happened. I started running. My low heart rate started to pick up. The pain in my legs and foot completely goes away. The course goes along a flat out and back stretch and I start to pick up speed. I remember my key word for the run – GRIT. Grit is what it takes. To grit your teeth, to run like an animal.
The other day coach told me to be more of an animal. I think too much. I need to be more of an animal. Starting now. Around mile 4 the pain in my legs is completely gone. My pace has dropped at least a minute per mile. Yes, the first 2 – 3 miles were super super slow. But now I feel good. My heart rate is going up. I hear coach telling me to TRUST my fitness. To keep in mind this is only a B race. Race smart, race strong but above all to trust yourself. And it’s working. I am moving along.
The first lap goes by and I realize now I’m feeling very good. There is about 2 minutes between me and the next woman. I tell myself all I have to do is run 20 seconds faster per mile and I’ll be there. I set out to do it. I nail the second time up the hill. And each time I feel like I’m not going fast enough I check my heart rate then convince myself I still have room to go up. A few more beats. Give it more. Turn the feet over faster. Push off.
Right before I descend the last hill I see a pro ahead. I know she is within reach. But the bad part of myself says but it will hurt to get her. SLAP. What would an animal do. The animal says I WILL DO THIS. I will chase her down. I know it will have to happen on the descent from the hill. This is an ugly descent. I descend it painfully and at the bottom she is right there. I pass her. She responds. She passes me. And then I grit my teeth and say if ever I will make a move it has to be NOW. I have one half mile left. The time to go is now. I look at my heart rate. You will not explode. You still have several beats left. Go now.
I do. And then I look back - she is not there. Continue up the incline, I cross the finish line in 6th place. But it doesn’t matter. I had many victories today. Starting with the one over myself in getting one step better at this game. You see, this year racing pro I am racing slower than ever. How so? It’s just a different game. But it’s a better game. Each race I learn more. Each race I work harder. I have never worked so hard to come in nearly last in my life. I am faced with new challenges – mostly in myself. My own head, thoughts and perceptions of my pace and the race overall. I overcome them. Each time I cross the line in these big 70.3’s I say to myself – this is the hardest thing I have ever done. It doesn’t get any easier but I keep getting one step closer. I was 10th, then I was 8th and now I was 6th. I will get there. I will keep working at it. Though I quit the sport about 100 times today, when my legs finally cleared and my head just gritted down to get over the thoughts of my bad self I realized I love the game. I want to get better at it. I am worth the work and the work is worth where it takes me.
The best part of the day was after the awards. My big goal this year was just to qualify for the 70.3 world championship in Clearwater. At each race there are two slots for the pro’s and they don’t roll down very far. When they rolled the slot down beyond the top 2 and asked if any pro’s wanted it I shouted ME! I WANT THAT SLOT!
When I had that piece of paper in hand I felt like everything I had stuck out today was worth it. It was like a sign from someone, somewhere saying patience pays off. Maybe it was from Coach Paul. Maybe it was from someone bigger than that. But I learned the lesson that when you believe in what you are doing and do your best at it through highs and lows it pays. Sure, I was out of the real pay off today by 1 place. 2 minutes faster would have earned me $1000…..but instead I got my slot. And I’m ok with that. November is a long way but by that time I will learn better how to play the game, keep getting fitter and finally finally when Coach says “this is an A race” (I’m still waiting for that) I will go. I will go like an animal and have my best day.
Speaking of best days...I snapped this photo after the awards. The winds were gusting up to 25 mph and the sky was filled with fast moving clouds. Beautiful.