When you spend a year feeling out of sorts, you return to what you first loved about the sport; the thrill of the competition, the fire in your eyes and your legs, the simplicity of a small race.
There's something undeniably charming about a small race, isn’t there? The big races have gotten too big, too loud, too logoed. So when I thought about how to start out this season, I thought back to the old times, the smaller scale – in a sense, my tri-pioneer days.
When racing was about a road trip, an adventure, an exploration you could manage from your own car. Pile the van full of wheels, helmets, gels and water bottles – it’s time for a race! Aptly named, the Pioneer Sprint. Friday afternoon we headed south to cross that invisible line just past Kankakee that divides Chicagoland from everything else.
Or, “southern Illinois”.
Less than 3 hours later, we rolled into a small town tucked beyond the flat cornfield grids somewhere between Bloomington and Springfield: Petersburg. A large water tower behind the county hall in the middle of the town square, Chris and I agreed it would make a great Ragbrai town if only it had a beer garden.
Time for sleep, then up before 7 am. Know what that means? COFFEE TIME! Count me extra excited for coffee this morning. We spotted the cutest coffee shop in the town square – The Bean Counter. Best damn cup of coffee I’ve had in a long time. But I’m not sure what I enjoyed more – the Jamaican Me Nuts coffee blend or the eight men scattered at tables talking about farm equipment and wireless internet download speed.
The simple things in life.
A 1 pm race start throws you for a loop. After coffee and a peanut-buttered bagel I sat around in bed in the lodge with about 800 calories and caffeinated molecules free floating all jittery through my body while watching Extreme Bathrooms on the Travel Channel. This didn’t really calm me down it just made me want to visit the bathroom about 100 times to let all the coffee out.
Know what’s better than one breakfast? Two breakfasts in one day! Oatmeal and currants – the pre-race breakfast of champions. Shortly after breakfast number 2 at 10:30 am I told Chris I couldn’t sit still any more. My stomach was turning and I started to feel a little sick.
And then it hit me…
Nerves. You have pre-race jitters. Holy crap it’s been two years since I’ve felt that. I was more nervous today for some small town race with less than 100 people than I was on the start line of Clearwater at the pro 70.3 world championship standing next to M. Carfrae.
There was something very wrong about that.
But nothing wrong with today! ALL RIGHT it is time to race! And, I am ready to respond – how do I know? I am already responding! I have never been more thrilled to feel sick to my stomach. Nerves are a good thing! They mean you are ready, excited and plugged in for your race. This might have been a small race but I took it seriously – did all of my quirky pre-race things; wrote out a plan, thought it through, cleaned my bike, brought my fast toys. Practice makes perfect – and right now I need a lot of practice!
To the race! A small transition area, paper plates with numbers written on them to mark the racks. We’re kicking it old school at the local high school. The usual pre-race rituals, a quick jog on the track, some stretching, some waiting….
Sooner than I knew it, it was time to race. A quick warm up in the pool and I decided that a 300 yard swim in an 85 degree pool was about 300 yards too long. It was a self-seeding start and I lined myself up close to the front. I figured the only way to swim faster was to swim scared like heck that a faster guy was going to come up on my feet. A quick count down, a feet first jump and then I was off! And 50 yards later some guy was right on my feet. Fear not, it was Thomas from WF. He hung there and I said to myself unless he pulls at my feet I’m not going anywhere. He might have brushed them but I was looking for full on pull – never came so I just swam like heck!
Up the ladder, running to the mat, in transition and on the bike.
The BIKE! Wheels on pavement...wait...on pavement? Moving? Seriously? The plan was to bike as hard as I could for the 13 miles. Sounds easy but this was no flat cornfield course! There were some sneaky steep little hills along the way. After pre-race drive of the course (always drive the course!), I realized there were mile markers – and the plan was to ask myself at each mile marker can you give it a little more? That would be the only way I would stay on top of myself. Sometimes you need to find a visual cue to remind you of what to do out there. You can’t always rely on your head to do the right thing at the right time – there are so many distractions (pain, wind, steering, fueling) when you race – you have to keep bringing yourself back to the race and focus on the task at hand – RACING!
The first few miles were ugly! I’ll agree with Thomas – I was seeing stars. That feeling that you might hurl or your head might explode from going too hard too soon. This was my second ride outside in Illinois this year. I had a death grip on my bars and just hoped I could control the bike for 13 miles without sailing into a ditch. I had to remind myself to keep throwing gears down and pushing harder – but for once I felt like I could match the work I was doing indoors out on the roads – my legs were going and my head was staying in the game.
The last few miles of the bike I started catching the guy in front of me. I pushed a little more to pass him and in that moment said to myself this the pace you need to keep in a pro race for 56 miles – are you ready for that? I just laughed at myself. I’m not ready for that now but give me a few months or at least more than two rides outside and I’ll get there.
A quick transition and then on to the run course! The plan was to bike hard enough to see what it would do to my legs. OY! I cannot think of any other word to describe it. Bike = score 1. Legs = NOTHING! Ouch. The guy I passed quickly took his position back about ¼ mile into the run and I wanted to go and go but….legs not going! Every turn I took I used the cue of “turnover more” to remind myself to keep chugging away. There were several short uphills and some long downhills. I realized I was in 5th overall including the men – which was my goal – but then remembered it was a time trial start so I needed to keep giving it more and chugging away, away, away….ok where is that finish line?
Going into this race I had three goals; top female, top 5 overall, break 1:05. Check, check and I went 1:01 and some change – CHECK! I had “best case scenario” goals and then “super secret” splits I was hoping for. I achieved my super secret splits for the bike and the swim. The run – I was 16 seconds off. But I will get there and keep working at it. Every time we fall short of our goals, it makes us hungry to work harder, to chase after it even more. Failure is something you put upon yourself. Last year I fell short a dozen times – but I never once failed. I respect myself more than that and have faith that I can improve any result with a lot of hard work, patience and time.
Of course it feels good to win. I will never lie about that. But it felt even better to race. To truly RACE for all that word is worth. To get out there with a fresh body, a hungry mind and the ability to respond to the race. To have a plan and to be able to execute it. True, today was a small race but it meant something big to me – a return to racing a race, to getting in the game and getting after it. Smart training, a healthy body and good guidance are bigger and better than any win or any race result.
Trust me on that.