Thursday, July 01, 2021

Doing Duathlon Nationals


Back in May, I traveled to Alabama for the USAT Duathlon National Championship.

I tell my friends and family and they look at me:  you took a trip where?

This wasn’t my first trip to Alabama. Back in the day (and if you have to ask, you’re too young to know), everyone started their racing season at Powerman Alabama. A challenging 10K/60/10K duathlon that attracted the best athletes from all over the country. After Powerman, you’d cross that finish line with a test of your winter-built fitness and how you stacked up.

Mostly what I remember about racing in Alabama is how “delayed” onset muscle soreness can set in “immediately” after a race. Why? Simply put – duathlon.  All that running. Why anyone thinks duathlon is the “easier” option of a race, as if it’s a default category for those who can’t swim? As if there is anything “easy” about doing a balls to the wall 5K or 10K before hammering out 20 to 60K on your bike only to get off of the bike to run again! Compare that to being wrapped in a full body neoprene snuggie to go for a swim, sometimes downriver, rolling over on your back when it gets too difficult.


While Powerman no longer exists, duathlon is very much alive and kicking. And so when I was looking for a competitive early season race, Duathlon Nationals jumped out at me. At this point in my racing career (or is it a journey? A hobby? A series of questionable life choices?), I want to race the big ones – the challenging races with top competition in my age group.

Arriving in Birmingham, it was only a matter of moments before I was reminded of this: Alabama exists in it’s own time zone. Like when you go to Hawaii and everyone is on island time. Except you’re not on an island. You’re in Alabama, in some dingy, sweaty concrete parking structure waiting at the Dollar Rent A Car with time standing still.  A long line with no keys.  That’s right no car keys until someone magically appeared through a door with a set of keys. When I was within 2 people of the front of the line, they only had 2 SUVs left.  While the woman at the counter mulled over a pick up truck or SUV, I told the guys in front of me:

If there’s only one SUV left and it comes down to you or me, you guys don’t stand a chance.

Liz W, F45-49, NMF* (*no more f*cks)

Finally, the keys to an SUV in hand, I drove the 1 hour to Tuscaloosa.  Windows rolled down. I-59. Belting out Dierks Bentley. Because when you’re in Alabama, you listen to country music and lose yourself in its simplicity. Every song is about 1 of 3 things; 1) your friends, 2) your girl, 3) your drinking problem. The best songs mix all 3.  Drunk On A Plane. Somewhere On A Beach.  Incidentally, the radio station was advertising a contest where you could win a trip to Panama City Beach called, Beach, I’m Gone.

Let that slowly roll off your tongue a few times. 

Now I know what you’re thinking – of all of the places for a national championship – Tuscaloosa?  Scratching my head about Beach, I’m Gone, I thought the same thing. It’s like the sport's governing body blindfolded an intern, stood them in front of a map of the United States, gave them a dart, spun them around three times, and said “throw it.”

(pulls blindfold down)


But let’s give it a chance, eh? Tusclaoosa, nestled along the Black Warrior River. Large, lush trees set against rolling hills. The home of what can only be described as the majestic University of Alabama.


Traveling to the race solo, I had one concern – not possibly being the subject of a new real life crime podcast called Dead In Alabama, a true story of a middle-aged woman who goes attempts to go hiking at the local Arboretum, sets out on the Sumac trail and realizes she’s completely alone, in the middle of the woods, in Alabama with no cell service. No, my concern was my bike.  I had to build it. Thank god for modern technology, I Houzzz Partied (yes we are 12) my husband to get real time instructions on how to go about wrenching. Per usual his “Liz, this is really easy” turned into “MY REAR DERAILLEUR IS NOT ATTACHED TO MY BIKE AND YOU GAVE ME THREE DIFFERENT WRENCHES, HOW IS THIS EASY?” 

The day before the race I did pre-race things starting with a short run in the early morning along the river trail.  I felt stiff, unfit, and sweaty. Twenty two years of racing and I’ve come to expect nothing better.  After that, I found a nearby pool and swam an easy 30 minutes. By 2 pm, I was twiddling my thumbs, couldn’t fathom the idea of sitting around in a hotel room so I went to Lurleen State Park.

The woman at the gate tells me about a few secluded picnic areas where I can sit, eat dinner, and gaze out at the lake. The word enjoy rolls out of her mouth with a buttery southern charm that makes me feel like she truly meant it.  I will.  It was one of the most tranquil, beautiful places I’ve ever been. Surrounded by Sweet Gum trees and magnolias. I hiked, soaked in the sounds of nature, did anything but obsess about the race. Sitting around in compression boots while Insta-scrolling just ain’t my style, life is meant to be experienced.   

Race day. The race started at 1:07 pm which presented a whole new set of pre-race challenges. How many breakfasts do you eat? When do you drink pre-race coffee? The weather forecast also presented a challenge: 90 degrees with a thick, hot wind.

I ate first breakfast. First snack. Second breakfast. By 10 am, I was overcaffeinated, carbed up, antsy, and simply over it so decided to get ready for the race wondering how long can I draw out getting dressed, braiding my hair, putting on sunscreen?

(carefully smearing on every single layer of sunscreen)


Finally at 11:30 I headed to the race site just to change the scenery. With some time to spare, I stood under an awning enjoying the warmth and breeze, telling myself the weather is cozy, inviting! (perception is everything). Right then a family walks up to me and goes full on Alabama on me – in other words, smothers me in a level of extroversion that made this New Yorker transplanted into the Midwest very, very uncomfortable – within minutes I knew their life story, ages of children, there’s a music festival 20 minutes away, how to get to said festival, a bizarre turn to talking about Lake Michigan and Alewives.


Finally, they asked about the race and then looked at me, quizzically, saying:

Why Tuscaloosa?

(throws arms up in air) EXACTLY.

At 11:45, I headed over to transition, set up my helmet, shoes, which took all of about 90 seconds and still had over an hour until start time to sit around and sweat it out.

Finally, the time passes. When it’s 90 degrees does one need to warm up? In a duathlon, yes. As someone reminded me, don’t forget how fast the girls start in duathlon. I did a 10 minute jog before heading to the start line.

We were lined up in sets of 5 to go off every 5 seconds.  I noticed there were only 3 women on the front line.  So I made my way up there.  Did I belong there?  Technically, I was out of place. The two girls next to me had a combined age that was still younger than me.  I was definitely the only person who peed themselves on the start line - twice. I felt simultaneously fit but fat, unprepared but experienced, excited but anxious – a storm of emotions, thoughts, and energy.  Mostly it was excitement and curiosity.  I wanted to race, to be in a position to ask my body tough questions, roll in the discomfort, and let my effort answer.

About a minute before the gun went off, one of my athletes, Kerri, walked up to me, shoved a cup of ice in my face and said “want some?”  In a clutch move, she poured it down my bra and I spent the next 60 seconds chewing ice, smearing ice cubes on my neck.  The sun was beating down on us, it was hot. I wasn’t specifically heat acclimated – we didn’t have the weather and the hot tub plus sauna at our gym was still closed so I did the next best thing: arrive with the best fitness possible knowing that is decent heat acclimation and ignoring it. Folks, it’s around a 1 hour race.  There is no time for patience or pacing.  You just have to recklessly go for it.

The gun went off. 

Immediately the young gal who would go on to win surged ahead but then a funny thing happened.  The rest of us hung together. The pace was fast.  How fast?  I knew better than to look – I didn’t need any feedback, it was right in front of me.  If I was going to be at the front of the race, I had to match the pace ahead of me. That competitor, that is the race – NOT your Garmim.  Trust yourself, go chasing.

We ran into the wind and I tucked behind the tallest woman who kept glancing at her Garmin over and over again.  The coach in me was thinking WHAT ON EARTH IS THAT THING TELLING YOU THAT YOU NEED TO KNOW? Looking back at my own data, my HR was pegged in zone 5 from the start, my pace was inappropriately fast and I’m pretty sure if my Garmin had the capacity to tell me a message like “FAIR RECOVERY” or “PEAKING” it would have said “LOLOLOL. YOU ARE OUT OF YOUR MIND FOR THINKING YOU CAN HOLD THIS PACE.” 

The first run was a 2 loop 5K.  By the second loop I wanted to throw up and was wheezing but letting up was not an option. Onward to transition. The thought of standing there in transition for a moment to put on my helmet sounded like heaven.

Finally the bike – I kept telling myself the bike would be fun – all I have to do is ride as hard as I can for 20K!  Small problem.  I forgot to consider that I would do this after a hard 5K.  My legs were burning, screaming and there was no room for patience. I tell myself, at least I am not running!  At least I can feel the air moving!  I went as hard as I could on every hill, reconnecting to all of the ridiculous V02 max intervals I had done in the last 8 weeks.

At a few turnarounds I could see my position and could also see that I was gaining on women. When I hit the way back, finally mostly downhill with wind I told myself it was time to go flying. Second time outside on my bike, sailing down a hill at 38 mph, at that moment I threw up, got the chills and thought to myself – my body is giving me every sign of revolting but this is exactly where I need to be – this effort.  Don’t back down from it.  Don’t fear it.  Sit in it and keep racing.

I rolled into transition and hear them say the name of 1st in my age group, I see 2nd down the rack from me. We were separated by less than a minute and now it was time to go chasing. 

All I remember about the second run is being tired, hot, and running scared. I pick up the pace, racing scared for what’s happening behind me, scared of falling short, scared of disappointing myself.  The only way to manage that is through more effort. Knowing every second counts and honoring the rule any time I travel to a race:

I will not board that plane with any regrets.  Because sitting in economy class with blisters, sore hamstrings, and a headache for 2+ hours is painful enough. 

You do not want to also sit there with regret.

In the end I finished 3rd in AG and 5th overall.  Arguably one of my best races?  Not that I’m any faster – no, that ship has sailed.  Not that I won – no, I was chasing 2 world champions.  But because I finally finished a race with at that feeling of not selling myself short. That feeling is why I still race.

And now?  Four days post-race I was pulling a wagon of flowers through the garden center, when my hamstring cramped.  An older woman in front of me apologizes for not moving fast enough.  Me, holding my right hamstring in my hand, assures her I’m not going anywhere fast. 

On to the next one!