It was a quick trip but checked all of the boxes of “worth it” –
I got a late start to this season so here I sit in November with only two sprint triathlons under my race belt. When I was finally able to race in June, I fractured my foot 3 days later. Spent 4 weeks in a boot, another 3 not running and once again began the comeback. At this point, I’m not sure which disaster I’m coming back from (I’ve lost count!) but what I haven’t lost is the desire to set my sights on a new goal, rebuild and learn from the obstacles in my path. Basically, I decided to race this year because I’m not done yet.
The race format intrigued me – draft legal. Think standard sprint distance triathlon but you’re allowed to draft on the bike (ITU-style racing). The swim was one loop (750m) in Tempe Town Lake, the bike was 3 loops (20K) and the run was 1 loop (5K). I had no experience with this format but I owned a road bike so I took that as a sign that I should race.
Signs. I’ve received a lot of “interesting” signs from the universe in the last few years. I’ve looked deep for the lessons, maintained an attitude of problems as possibilities, continually moving forward the best I can. No better way to explain it or say it than these quotes from a book I read recently - More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth:
Nothing bad ever happens to me. It’s all to learn and grow. The bad thing isn’t happening to you. It is happening for you.
So when a week prior to the race, I opened the refrigerator and a bottle of beer self-ejected, landing on my foot, bruising me, I considered the message. The universe does not want me to race. A few days later, it happened again, this time the bottle landing in a spectacular mess of beer and glass all over the kitchen floor. Hmmm. Perplexed. The universe wants me to drink this damn beer already? A few days after that, as I was standing in the shower, eyes closed, enjoying the last zen moment before I released myself into the morning get ready for school routine, something hit my other foot with a loud THWACK followed by intense pain. The detachable shower wand had forcefully detached on to me.
The universe … you know what? ENOUGH. Beer bottles, shower wands, injuries. Here’s MY note to the universe, in case we haven’t already met: if indeed you are trying to send me a sign, try ejecting an entire bottle of red wine at me. Preferably South American. THEN you will have my undivided attention.
By nothing short of a miracle, I arrived in Tempe late morning with all body parts in tact. SUNSHINE. First box checked. Next up, ADVENTURE. Traveling with me is always an adventure, especially as I get older, as I tend to approach most of the details with a hefty dose of “I’ll figure it out.” Like how I was going to get from the airport to the hotel. Or the hotel to the race site. Or how I was going to put my bike together.
Lucky for me, one of my athletes was also racing: Cathy. Cathy graciously showed up with a torque wrench and a lot of know how offering to put together my bike. And this was a good thing because while I am good at a lot of things, I am not good at bike assembly. But Liz, you’re so resourceful, she said. But Cathy, my brain doesn’t work that way. As in the way of tools, bolts and mechanics. Flashback to 2008, St. Croix 70.3, my last foray into assembling my bike which resulted in someone having to rebuild my rear derailleur hanger.
NOT easy to do on an island.
Cathy & I before the race. She's one of the most humble, strong & generous women in our sport.
By the time I made it back to the hotel, it was time for dinner. A quick search on Uber made me realize that I was going to pay over $20 for a round trip to Noodles. Why Noodles? It’s predictable. You go in there and you know what you’re going to get (basically a carbohydrate loaded version of human kibble). But I have a rule – I cannot pay more to get to the dinner than I am going to pay for the dinner. So it was decided: I shall feast on hotel pizza.
31 year old racing Liz who needed all of the details in place to have a good race just scoffed at 44 year old Liz for eating hotel pizza. But if I have learned nothing else in that time, I’ve learned that the superstitious persnickety details don’t matter. All that matters over 40 is actually making it to the start line healthy enough to race.
(easier said than done, trust me!)
I slept well, woke up before 5 am and did all of the things you do before a race. Like figure out how you’re going to get to the race. I considered riding my bike there but heard my mom yelling in my head, not at this hour! So I took a chance and requested an Uber. Four minutes later, Tyrell showed up in his Toyota Camry.
Would you mind if I put my bike in your backseat?
He’s skeptical but willing.
If it fits.
A first time for everything: I Uber’ed to a race.
Though it was 5:30 in the morning, Tyrell was delightful for conversation. In less than 7 minutes we bonded over both being from Chicago and being neither Cubs nor Sox fans. He asked why I had my bike. I explained that I was racing. And though he was on the right track with triathlon I get that it can be confusing.
So you’re doing that 3 thing – like biking, running, swimming?
He dropped me off at transition and wished me luck in the race.
And now - TRIATHLON.
This being a national championship and draft legal, there were a lot of rules and a lot of officials there making sure you took the rules seriously. They inspected our helmets. They made sure our bikes didn’t have aero bars. Our wheels needed more than 12 spokes. No sleeves. Torso covered throughout the race. Race number in the front when running. Number tattoos on arms and legs.
By 5:45 am, I was racked, set and ready to go. I had over 2 hours until the race. Several trips to the porta-potty. Tire pumpings. Obsessive checks and re-checks that no one touched my stuff. Lengthy debates in my head weighing the risks vs benefits of tinted or clear goggles. Small talk with other racers. Forced small talk when no one would talk to me, so is this your first time racing this format? (please answer me. ANSWER ME!)
(one of these conversations culminated in me hugging a complete stranger – not sure if that was more for me or them)
The men went off first around 7:15 am. Watching them start, I found myself at the peak of all those things you feel race morning. I felt simultaneously fit but fat, young but old, tired but energized, scared but brimming with confidence. The race anxiety, worries and fears come to a crescendo and then before you know it, like most uncomfortable things – they pass. And what’s left behind is a feeling of pure excitement. Of – I’m ready to do this. Let’s find out.
We were given 10 minutes to do a warm up swim. And then it was time to line up on the beach. My plan was to go far right and aim for the end buoy. But my far right became the middle as women lined up around me. For a moment I considered moving to the end but held my position.
Ready or not, it’s time to RACE!
The gun went off. No better time to practice my beach run in than – RACE TIME! I ran and immediately got tangled up in the scrum. A few strokes later I put my head up, looked around and said to myself this is stupid. MOST of these racers will blow up after 200 meters. GET OUT OF SCRUM – QUICK! I made my way right and started to pick up my pace. And right on cue, by the first turn buoy, I had found my space behind one of the top packs. I sat on their feet and enjoyed the ride.
The swim exit required getting hoisted out of the water, climbing a few stairs (literally – steep enough that I had to climb!) and then running across a street to another set of stairs up to T1. My real life training consists of dozens of times up the stairs so I blasted them. Had a little tussle with my wetsuit and then ran out to bike.
THE BIKE! 3 loops, 4 miles each with a series of tight turns, curves and small hills and descents. In my head, I hear my husband telling me to lean the bike low and then pop it out of the chicane. BIKE TALK! I’ve done enough criteriums, Ragbrais and group rides so that pack riding on moderately technical courses doesn’t bother me. But today there was one small problem – WHERE’S MY PACK? Less than 10 women emerged out of the water ahead of me and I had no idea where they went. So I set out knowing I was about to ride a 20K time trial on my road bike.
The first lap had me doubting all of my choices leading into this race. As in – WHY DID YOU SIGN UP FOR THIS. My quads were on fire. I was panting. And caught in that weird place of chasing while being chased. There were 2 x 180 turns on each lap where I could get a sense of where I was. My competition was ahead of me. A few small chase packs were behind me followed by a larger chase pack.
By lap 2 it was more like playing than racing. Taking the corners with limited caution. Jamming the power up out on hills and out of turns. When I chatted with Cathy the day before, we discussed her strategy: how many matches can I burn? On lap 2 I found myself thinking, well, might as well burn through the whole damn pack! WHY NOT? I was losing a little time to both groups but catching some slower women from the wave ahead of me. WHERE’S MY DRAFT?! The large pack was getting larger and as I went by them on the opposite side of the road I heard someone shout HOLD YOUR LINE at another rider. For a moment I was glad I was time trialing.
A third time around. More matches lit. More quadricep muscles burned. Lean, corner, turn, jam.
Finally back into transition.
I’VE GOT TO RUN ON THESE LEGS?
I’ve raced two triathlons on my road bike. This was the second. Quads screaming. Pleading. Stop. NOW! How long is a 5K? Me 400 meters into the run: why aren’t we at mile 1 yet?
The run course went along the lake on a concrete path with a decent amount of hard packed dirt. It wasn’t flat but not hilly. I ran surprisingly well. These days in training I run much easier than I've ever run and much less. Again, showing up at the start line fresh and injury free is the biggest challenge over 40. Lesson I've learned the hard way: don't take risks you don't need to take! I caught a few women early but then found myself yet again in that weird place of chasing but looking behind me – not really seeing a chase. On the out and back, I tried to look across the course to see the numbers of the women running ahead of me but realized I am one age group away from requiring distance glasses. I could barely make out 6-something which meant nothing to me. Keep racing.
With the 5K almost complete (with a real feel of a full marathon), I crossed the pedestrian bridge (scenic!) and gave it my best version of a sprint to the finish line to take 2nd in my AG. Cathy took 1st and let me tell you – it’s a sweet (and rare) day that you can see your athlete take a national championship title and stand on the podium next to them.
Afterwards, Cathy and I did a lovely cool down run along the scenic path around Tempe Town Lake. Though my legs were tired, I told myself to also enjoy that. Running in 80+ degrees, no wind, no humidity. In a few more days I would be once again running in the cold, dark depths of winter on my usual neighborhood loop which scenically winds behind the strip mall where I run by dumpsters and rat traps.
(hard to believe I haven’t posted this view on Instagram yet)
You know the best thing about getting older? Those award ceremonies keep getting shorter when they start with the oldest age groups! I was out of there in 15 minutes and rode my bike back to the hotel. I had a quick turnaround before my flight and somehow needed to figure out how to dissemble my bike and pack it up again. When I texted my husband about this, looking for some sympathy, he replied:
Better start wrenching, woman.
36 hours later, I arrived home again. Someone asked if I was going to spend extra time in Tempe to relax. For me, the race is the relaxation. It’s my time. Doing my thing. I was given a 36 hour hall pass to simply – go play. And while I have a long list of things that can (UNDERSTANDABLY) hold me back from my goals – once I’m released into the wild, I can’t think of any place I’d rather be. On a start line, with nothing but opportunity in front of me.
And the day after the race? Naturally, I spent the entire day recovering. If “recovering” means coaching, managing 6 kids in the basement while I rode my bike, cleaning up mess from 6 kids in not just basement but ENTIRE HOUSE and finally spending all afternoon at Bass Pro visiting Santa. You know how you feel after all of that?
Like an entire six pack was launched at me.