...."I say you're a Nutmegman," said the race announcer yesterday as finishers crossed the line.
In my first season as a pro, I tackled some of the biggest half Ironmans on the circuit (St. Croix, Eagleman, Timberman). While I enjoyed the big races and all of the learning that came with them, I wanted something smaller to fill the space between my last race and Clearwater in November. Enter Nutmegman, a little gem of a race in the Berkshire Mountains of Connecticut. A challenging course, ecologically friendly, donations for charity, organized for athletes by athletes – this sounded like a great event. Sign me up!
I love challenging courses and this was one challenging course. Forget the flats with wind at my back. Bring on the hills! Challenging courses bring out the best competition and bring out the best in you. I went to this race knowing that it wouldn’t be a test of fitness but a test of who would endure on a day that would present many challenges; fog, chilly temperatures and hills. I wanted a course that would test my mental toughness and my legs.
On Friday I previewed the bike course. Heading out of Kettletown State Park this bike course lived up to its reputation – hilly! Oddly enough the course was moved from last year’s site to make it less challenging. That course must have been a real monster because this new course was unlike anything I had ever seen. Consisting of three loops with over 5900 feet of climbing, I was very glad that I put the 12 – 25 gearing on my bike. In fact, I think I might have liked a compact crank! The run course also went two ways for the two loops – up or down. One thing was certain – after the flat swim, this was going to be one of my hilliest races I have ever done.
Race morning arrived. I read the thermometer for the outside and it said 44 degrees. I had to laugh and thought back to 7 years ago on this day when I did my first half Ironman ever in a hilly region of Ohio. Race morning brought temperatures below 40 degrees, a thick fog over the lake and hills unlike I had ever seen before. Seven years and over 25 half Ironmans later, the race venue may have changed but the conditions were exactly the same here at Nutmegman. One thing I know now – though – don’t show up in a two piece race suit and expect to make it through the race!
I arrived in complete darkness at the race site as one of the first athletes there. Small events are so relaxing like this – no long lines for parking, no incessant announcements about transition closing, no rows upon rows in transition. Dressed in full winter gear I got my transition area ready but it was cold out there! Pre-race preparations, staying warm and chatting with other competitors helped the time pass by. A thick fog on the lake delayed the start by 30 minutes. Even then, the fog still sat heavy but it was time for race start. No big fanfare – just someone standing there saying “go!” That’s really all you need, right?
The men started two minutes ahead of the small women’s field. Luckily that meant I didn’t have to look for much else than white caps in front of me. Buoys were not visible and we were told to just swim out and look for the flashing lights of a police boat. It was surreal to swim through the fog and into what seemed like the unknown. After tangling through a few weeds, the water became warm and the boat soon came into view. A quick left and I found myself in the middle of a large men’s pack. Passed them and then made my way to the shore for the second loop. Then out into the thick fog again.
I exited the water with the announcer, pro triathlete John Hirsch, shouting that 3 women were already on the bike. Time for the work to begin! The bike climbs immediately out of the state park area and quickly I passed two women. Rolled down a flatter road before making a turn onto Good Hill and saw the first place woman falling over after dropping her chain. Ouch! At that I realized I was now in the lead.
You know you’re in trouble when nearly every road on the course had “Hill” in its name. Hull’s Hill, Maple Tree Hill, Good Hill. For the record – Good Hill was not so good. Actually it was the worst. I would reach the top of one hill, geared out and find that there was more just ahead. Or another around the bend. Or after the curve – yet another hill to climb. Every downhill was met by an uphill. And the downhills were just as difficult. Roads were twisty, narrow and on some of the descents I bombed down over 41.5 mph. Holding so tight on to the bars to keep control of the bike I realized my triceps would probably be out of commission for at least a week.
I reached the end of the first bike loop after over an hour in the saddle. I thought to myself this could be a very long ride. Did I have enough food? Would my head make it? What about my legs? I realized though that courses like this with so many challenges and obstacles are so good for passing the time. I didn’t have a moment to think about anything else but the race – controlling my bike, responding to the competition, staying safe. It might be 56 miles but there is so much to keep your mind busy along the way.
During the second loop I started to feel warmed up and my legs felt alive. I seemed to be holding second place off for the moment but every time I turned around she was still there. After the race I learned that second place was Kate Pallardy – the top amateur finisher at Ironman Louisville just a few weeks ago. Ironically she just moved from the same city I live in – but we had never crossed paths! Today however we crossed paths many, many times. We exchanged the lead – her passing me on descents, me passing her on the hills. Over time there was no relief – it was work up the hill to build the gap and then hammer the downhill to avoid losing time since she descended very well. Redline up the hill, hammer down the hill. I knew I was overriding the course far outside my comfort zone but I had to respond to the race as it unfolded.
The third loop rolled around and the hills were starting to wear on me. Standing was no longer an option, it was necessity to get up the hill. The roads were more crowded with cars making descending even trickier. A car almost ran into me. The shirt I took time to put on was getting hot. And then at mile 50, Kate passed me with fire in her legs and took off! 6 miles to go I worked to keep her within sight.
Finally back in transition, then on to the run course. If the bike course was hilly, the run course was hillier only because my legs don’t have 12 – 25. They are just two legs chugging up each hill as best they can. Surprisingly my legs felt like a million bucks. I kept waiting for them to grow heavy after the 2 miles of uphill leading out of the state park – but it never happened. I just kept feeling better and better.
By the first turnaround I realized I had a 4 minute lead and started plugging away back up the hill. The weather was beautiful, the course was challenging and my legs felt great. I almost couldn’t believe it. Come on legs, bark back or something! But they just kept responding with good form and fast turnover. Heading out on to the second loop of the run I was excited to get out there on the course again. I love the challenge of a hilly run. I kept thinking of a long run that my coach gave me a few weeks ago with hard mile repeats followed by steep hill repeats. It was one of the hardest runs I had ever done but now I realized why – to prepare me for a course like this!
Around mile 11 a pace bike led me towards the downhill finish line, crossing it in first place. After the race, there were plenty of healthy snacks, entertaining comments from John Hirsch. The awards were generous with food products, gift certificates, a backpack and of course an organic cotton shirt. After that it was time to call myself done. Of all the hills I climbed for the day, the one leading up to my car was the most painful with my bike and my gear on my back. Finally my legs had something to say!
Truly tough and challenging courses are so few and far between these days. Seems like courses out there are getting easier and easier. Who cares about setting a personal best or going fast – give me something to tough out and endure. Give me something that is as hard in my legs as it is in my head. Nutmegman is one of those races – a challenging course in a beautiful setting and organized by someone who really knows what a race is all about. The eco-friendliness of the race just added to the overall quality and knowing it all went to charity made for a good feeling day.
Thanks to Mandy Braverman of Endure It Multisports for great race organization, my homestay family, Trisports.com, Power Bar, Rudy Project, Naperville Running Company, Blue Seventy for all of the support, my coach Jen Harrison and all of the other racers on the course making it such a memorable day!
**This will report was written for XTri.com