This past weekend, I raced the age group (short course) national championship in Milwaukee.
I’ll have to admit, when I saw the race was in Milwaukee I thought two things: I must do it because it’s less than a two hour drive away and Milwaukee? But once I got up there I was pleasantly surprised at how scenic it was and easy to navigate. And you can never write Wisconsin off for a few reasons: Madison, craft beer, Kettle Moraine and the Mars Cheese Castle. Gosh, if Wisconsin wasn’t actually in Wisconsin, I might move there!
(it’s a mutual love between those of us from Illinois and Wisconsin)
The race was situated right on the lakefront with the swim in a protected cove, the bike along the lakefront, highway and some surrounding lakeshore neighborhoods and the run along the lakefront path. The entire race experience showcased one of the quiet gems of the Midwest – Lake Michigan.
Going into the race I felt ok – not good, not great, ok. The past two weeks were a risk. I did an “overload” week leading into the sprint and was warned I might feel flat for that race. I did – sort of. I was also warned that if I did the sprint and Nationals I could feel flat for both. I did – sort of. Yet I felt the benefit of putting myself into a highly competitive field to “work through” any fatigue, doubts or issues – to me - was worthwhile. After 15 years in this sport, I wanted to take risks with my season. Break out and try new things. Succeed or fail, learning is not about having regrets.
The day before the race, Amanda, a friend and athlete, drove up to Milwaukee with me. Finding the race site was simple and once there, we did a short swim during the designated time. The water felt amazing. We previewed the course, checked in our bikes and then headed to dinner at Noodles. Of course, no trip to Wisconsin is complete without a visit to Piggly Wiggly. Amanda wanted a snack for before bed, seemed overly excited when she selected Cream of Wheat only to be sorely disappointed once we got outside of the store and she remembered that she is gluten-free before races. ‘Tis the joys of traveling with Amanda. This is the girl who earlier bought an elephant cookie from the gas station saying that tomorrow we would both be happy it was in the car. She was right. After the race, I’ve never seen two grown women so excited about eating a cookie.
“best gas station cookie ever”
The morning of the race I felt remarkably calm and organized. Amanda scoped out the nearest Starbucks and a quick route to the race site. Parking was ample and less than a half mile from transition. I found a private porta-potty with no line. Our waves went off at 8:58 and 9:50 am respectively so after setting up transition we had plenty of time to relax – and wait.
The weather was perfect; the sun was shining and the high would be 73 degrees. This has been the summer of PR weather. We waited on the side of the museum with two of my other athletes, Molly and Robyn. I’ve coached them both since 2008 and though we’ve only met a handful of times, it always feels like reconnecting with old friends. Though this was one of the biggest fields at Nationals, the race site was so spread out, it was easy to find a quiet place to relax. And with all of the distracting pressure around us, Amanda kept us focused on what was really important:
Apparently this video is part of her “pump up” ritual.
During the wait, Amanda and I decided to scope out the entire swim course, by foot, which was one of the best decisions I made that day. We watched the first wave start and then swim the course, taking note of the best lines, where the group veered as well as the time it took them to swim to estimate if it was short or long. This added some walking to our morning but it really paid off.
The trickiest part about going off in a later wave is eating not just first but second breakfast. When they delayed the race start by 15 minutes, I thought to myself I should have brought third breakfast! In retrospect, I should have eaten a little more for second breakfast and drank my coffee closer to the race. I always feel like the caffeine peaks around 90 minutes after I drink it which left me wired and chatty in a crowd where someone actually said to me do you know everyone?
I do. But that’s what happens when you’re the queen of triathlon in Naperville. With this crown comes great responsibility and socialization.
My race start approached. I lined up in the front of the corral. The only warm up permitted was during the 10 minutes between waves. Immediately I jumped in and made the most of the time – acclimating to the chillier water and doing some pick ups. From watching the start, I knew the best line was right along buoys but not swimming buoy to buoy. The buoys were actually set up at different angles meaning if you swam the buoy line you’d end up swimming more. I positioned myself far right and aimed for the bridge – not the buoys. Knowing the swim start would be aggressive, I got right in the front and mentally prepared for it. I knew I would have to surge strong but smooth to avoid flooding myself with the burn of going too hard. When the gun went off, I was already on my stomach with my arms ready to start stroking.
This being nationals, I knew I would be up against some very strong swimmers who would bolt hard for the first 200 yards and then settle. I knew I could swim at their “settle” pace if I could just hang on to their “bolt” pace. I just had to have a flawless start. The gun went off. I started and it was flawless. No contact at all – just me surging in front of the pack amongst the other strong swimmers as they started emerging. As we came out under the bridge, I noticed the pack was thinning to just a few women ahead of me. One came up on my right and I hopped on her feet. They were glorious feet, with large kick that made massive bubbles. So many bubbles that sighting wasn’t even necessary. She pulled me along at pace much faster than I would have been able to hold on my own.
I expected to be top 15 out of the water. When I emerged, someone told me I was 6th! AT NATIONALS! I almost rolled on the ground in joy because I just achieved something I thought never would have been possible. If you’ve been around this blog long enough you know that I’ve never been a strong swimmer but I work hard at it. I chase the feet of men much faster than me every week at masters. Today I nailed it and set myself up to race at the front of the age group. At Nationals, it’s difficult to overcome a bad swim. The women up front are just too good at biking and running to assume you will chase them down.
Now that I was set up, it was time to race the bike. The bike headed out along the lakefront up a long incline. In previewing the course, Amanda and I noted that this course was not flat. Obviously it was not hilly but there were several long inclines. The inclines didn’t require much shifting but did require strength and pushed the HR up to a place that I will call uncomfortable. On the way out, I was riding with the eventual 1st and 2nd place women in my age group, pushing hard to match their pace up the incline. After 3 miles, we made a turnaround to go back down and head towards the highway. I started losing some time but kept up the chase. I passed a woman in my age group but then quickly got passed by another. We headed towards the bridge.
Another long incline up the bridge on the highway – there was also some wind coming off the lake. If anything, this bike course was difficult because of the lack of rhythm out there. The road quality was bumpy at times, it was windy at times and you were either going up or down these barely noticeable inclines. My power was bouncing over the place. I always race best when I race with power not by power so I just ignored the bounce and kept up the effort.
After coming off the highway, we rode down an incline towards the lake before riding along a lakeshore neighborhood. After a few miles, we made another turn around and I could see the rest of my age group less than 2 minutes ahead of me. I didn’t feel great but said to myself you’re not too far off the front, stay in the game. I wasn’t catching women but none were catching me. Pressure on the pedals, stay aero, go as fast as you can.
I started to lose some focus on the final incline back up the bridge before descending into transition. Whether I sat up or gave it less effort, I was losing time that would matter in the end. This was a matter of focus NOT fitness. In fact, most strong performances are just that. You must stay connected out there. When I got to transition, someone shouted that I was less than 2 minutes behind the leaders. I ran as fast as I could through transition to start the run.
The run was completely flat along the lake. As I set out, I knew I was dangerously close to being top 5 in my age group. Dangerous because I was either 4th or 6th and in either case I had to catch to be on the podium or was at risk for being caught. This year, the podium only went 5 deep (every other year it was top 10!). At the first turnaround, I could see that I was less than a minute behind 5th which confirmed I was in 6th. Behind me, I could see a few hard charging women. I tried to latch on to any guy who passed me, using him for a few minutes to push the pace faster. I just kept saying look for the yellow shoes, look for the yellow shoes. The girl in 5th place was wearing yellow shoes which I finally saw at mile 5. She was about 20 seconds ahead of me. But then 7th place came screaming by me with 800 meters to go, putting me in 7th. Like the rest of the run, I felt like I was stuck at one speed and getting nowhere! My run was uncharacteristically slow. But that’s the risk of the past few weeks. Fatigue always shows up in the run.
In the end, I finished in 2:13 which was good enough for 7th place. 50 seconds off of the podium. Yet my immediate feeling was not one of disappointment. I knew if it all came together today, I had a chance at being top 5. But let’s be honest: you have to respect the specific work, effort and mindset it takes to achieve that in the most competitive field in the nation. You get what you put into the race. You can’t show up with your B+ game and expect an A+ result. In the end, I got a B+ result. And I don’t think fitness kept me off the podium. It rarely does when seconds are involved. It’s a matter of focus, grit and really wanting it. Pushing the hardest when it hurts the most. I fell short of that today but I don’t regret racing. What I learn from racing are things I cannot learn in training by myself.
After the race, we raided Molly’s hotel room shower and then went out for some dinner. I enjoyed a bottle of one of my favorite beers from Wisconsin (Rocky’s Revenge from Tyranena Brewing) and found a new favorite: Central Waters Satin Solstice Imperial Stout. Amanda powered out of some tough training to rally to 4th in AG so we attended the awards ceremony (which lasted longer than my race). Then, we drove back home after a mandatory and delicious stop at Dairy Queen.
Over the years, I’ve raced many national championships. By far this was one of the most fun, most competitive and best organized. A safe course, tough competition, plenty of friends and a venue that showcased the highlight of Milwaukee: the beautiful lakefront. Dare I say it might have been more beautiful and green than Chicago. But I don’t dare say that.
This Illinois girl knows better!