This is going to be my Age Group Nationals race report, but since I sense it's going to be kind of long, I figured I might as well put the major bullet points up front, blindingly obvious though they may be:
1) There are a lot of very fast people at Age Group Nationals.
2) If you are swimming in a wave of 100+ people, most of whom are faster than you, one of whom is an Olympic medalist, and at some point during the swim you find yourself swimming a completely different line than the other 99+ swimmers you started with, the odds are not good that you and you alone have identified the best line for the swim.
More on #2 later. Back to #1: I knew this before I went, but there's a difference between knowing something on an intellectual level and experiencing it in reality. What I had never thought about is how different a race would feel with a different level of competition--in other words, I expected to get beat by a lot of people, but I didn't think much about how that would play out during the race.
Before I get to all the self-involved details of my race, here is the end result: 2:35:14, 63rd out of 108 in my AG. In a totally non-thinking, round-numbery sort of way, I wanted to go under 2:30. I had hoped to make the top 1/3 of my AG and qualify automatically for next year, but you don't have to be a math genius to see that didn't happen either. This goal had seemed reachable through some complicated transitive property analysis: I looked at last year's results, saw that the last woman to make the cutoff was 10 minutes behind someone I raced this season, and since I finished 10 minutes behind her in that (Olympic distance) race, I figured I could do it. Two problems with that analysis: 1) I didn't finish 10 minutes behind her this time (more like 16 minutes), and 2) the woman who DID finish 10 minutes behind her still didn't make the cutoff this year.
Based on what I've said so far, if you are still with me at this point, you are bracing yourself for a downer of a race report. But actually, I may have had my best race this year, probably my best Olympic distance race ever (OK, out of 5 tries, but still). Quite a plot twist, isn't that?
One thing I did NOT do well at this race was take any pictures. So to break up the prose here I'm going to have to go back to the day before the race, when I drove up to Montpelier and stayed with my friend Erika and her family. Erika and I met way back in 1994, when we were both in a running club in Boston, the (now defunct, I think) Boston Running Club. Erika is a vet, and she lives in an awesome house on a dirt road with this for a back yard:
What you can't see here is the hot tub on the deck, where we sat and watched the stars Thursday night.
One of Erika's family members is Amy, The Most Awesome Dog in the World:
Amy once visited our house with Erika and her husband (Erika's husband, not Amy's), and she was so well-behaved that our cats literally didn't realize she was there until 12 hours after she'd arrived. This might just mean that our cats are idiots, come to think of it.
Friday morning I had a lovely breakfast in downtown Montpelier, which, if you haven't been there, is way cooler than you think it is. Then I drove up to Burlington and plunged right into Triathlete Central.
Here I have to explain that, since I don't do ironman or even half-ironman events, I am just not used to hoopla. I have done running events with hoopla (Boston Marathon, Marine Corps Marathon, Tufts 10K), but those are relatively easy. You just have to get yourself to the start, and you are pretty much wearing everything you need. Triathlon hoopla is a lot more overwhelming, what with all the race numbers to stick on your equipment, race number tattoos, and of course the bicycle that you have stuffed into the back of your car and that you eventually need to get to transition, if you can ever work your way through all the traffic and find a parking spot.
Luckily, just as I was about to have a complete breakdown about what I was supposed to do with two sticky-backed bib numbers, I got calls from 3 of my teammates who were coming to the race. (I also got a call from my son's camp director to tell me he'd had a bit of a bathroom accident, but I happily forwarded that message to the Parent in Town.) Two teammates were already in Burlington, and one was on her way, and just like that, we had a plan. I met up with Joellen and John to go ride the run course (seemed like a good way to make sure everything was functioning on the bike) before we racked our bikes. I think I made everything about 3 times more complicated than it needed to be, with various shoes in various cars, but somehow we got our bikes put together, found the run course, managed to ride it AFTER a rainstorm blew through the area, left the bikes in transition, and split up into two cars with 4th teammate Dena to scout the bike course.
In the middle of all of this, while I switched shoes for like the 13th time, I ran into Ange and Mary. They were walking their bikes down the street, one of them said something about my cow bike, and I said something clever like, "Aren't you Mary?" What I really wanted to say, based on Mary's last blog post, was something more along the lines of, "Nice rack," but a) I was too strung out by all the hoopla by that point, and b) I was sentient enough to realize that I'd never actually met Mary before, and maybe that would be sort of a creepy thing to say to someone you've never met.
And then in some kind of freaky twist of bloggy fate, it turned out I had the number right between Ange and Mary, so our bikes were racked next to each other. Which was great, because I got up the nerve to ask them what I was supposed to do with the two sticky-backed bib numbers, thinking this was some normal big-triathlon-thing I'd just never run into, and it turned out they were as unfamiliar with this as I was and were planning to do the same thing Joellen and John had come up with, which was to stick them together and poke holes in them for the race belt. Plus Mary went on at length about how she doesn't leave her shoes clipped into the bike, which made me feel way better about my inability to accomplish this particular goal of mine for the year. (I can't believe I made that goal #1, by the way. What a recipe for public humiliation.)
Driving the course made me realize I'd completely misread the race elevation profile, which looked super-hilly on paper but was, as it turned out, just on a very expanded scale. The course was full of rollers but no massive climbs, and the road surface was better than anything I've ever raced on. So with that comforting thought in mind, I had a nice dinner with Dena and went to bed.
Time for another picture, chronologically inappropriate: here's Dena back at the hotel, after the race:
There is absolutely nothing interesting to say about the time before the race the next morning. Except that when I did a short warmup jog, I got a side stitch. But soon enough I forgot all about that, because I was too busy trying to figure out how the swim course worked. You couldn't go onto the course beforehand (either that day or the day before), and the exact details of the course were not entirely the same as the map, so like many of the competitors around me I was squinting out at the buoys and trying to figure out where the course actually went. Luckily I was in the 11th wave, so eventually the swimmers in the earlier waves mapped out the course like ants on their way to a picnic.
Finally, the race! Although our wave was big (108 of us), it was easy to line up just behind the front, and no one was being pushy. When we started (from treading water), there were more people around me than I've gotten used to recently, but it wasn't bad. I had some stops and starts as I looked for a clear line, and then I just followed the churn ahead of me to the first buoy. At that buoy there was a massive holdup, but once we got around it, things were fine again. Or so I thought. But somewhere in here, apparently, things went sort of haywire. I started to notice that I was on a completely different line than the part of my wave that I could see. When we made the 2nd turn, I couldn't see the next buoy at all (I think no one could, as I learned later), and although I just tried to follow the swimmers ahead of me, after the next turn I again found myself swimming all alone, yards away from everyone else. It got so bad at that point that I started to panic that I'd missed a buoy--I was so far on the lake side of the main group, and oddly close to the kayaks, that I thought they had all gone on to a 3rd buoy, and I'd cut the course. I don't remember exactly what I did here, but I know I stopped enough to look backwards a few times and see if there was another buoy out there. Eventually I told myself that if I'd cut the course, one of the kayakers would have come over to tell me (which is probably a total fantasy, but I needed to believe it at that point!), and I went back to plugging my way toward the next buoy on my own little personal swim course. But I think I let this rattle me. As we entered the cove where the swim exit was, I became aware that swimmers from the waves behind me were passing me, something that hasn't happened to me recently.
Then came the worst part of my day: I ran into transition, where our wave was all racked together, and I saw virtually empty bike racks. I can't remember the last time this happened to me, either, and really, I shouldn't have been surprised. In every race I do, there are always a few swimmers in my wave who completely crush me, and of course Nationals is made up of those people. I just hadn't thought about it beforehand, and it was a shock.
And now it's time for a little meta-interlude. After this race I did some thinking about why I do triathlons, and I came up with this: in the time I've been doing triathlons, I have gotten way better at shaking off disappointment, negativity and just general feelings of crappiness. I felt crappy about the swim, I felt like a total loser as I grabbed my bike off the empty rack, and then as I ran the bike out of transition, I put it all out of my mind. The first five miles of the bike were similarly disheartening--I passed virtually no one and was getting passed by men from the wave behind me, and for a moment I had that evil thought of, "I am at the start of a really bad race." But before I could even get to finishing that thought with its natural conclusion, which is something like ". . . and I still have at least 2 hours of suffering to go through," I told myself that my heart rate was where it was supposed to be, that my coach had warned me that the first 5 (uphill) miles were more about settling in and that I should focus on the middle section of rollers to be aggressive, and that I would just keep at it and see how things unfolded. I used to be the kind of athlete for whom the first mile of a race was all-determining--if I felt lousy, whether physically or mentally (and in a race, it's sometimes really hard for me to tell which it is), that was it. But somehow at my advanced age I've learned the lesson that things can turn around if you stick to your plan. They don't always turn in the direction you want, and sometimes indeed what feels like a crappy race turns out to be one, but it certainly doesn't hurt to assume the best. I don't think I can reliably assess my overall personality to state that I'm generally a sunny or a negative person, but I do think it's safe to say that triathlons have moved me in the sunnier direction of the spectrum. I have to believe that this has implications for how I handle adversity that rises to a level of importance slightly higher than, say, realizing you suck at swimming, relative to your triathlon peers.
Ok, enough of that introspective s***. Back to the race. I hit the rollers and started to feel really good, and somewhere here I started to enjoy myself. I still haven't secured a magnet for my race wheel (although luckily I didn't publish that as a stated goal), so I had no idea how fast I was going, but gradually I started passing some people, and while I didn't really focus on people's calves to read their ages (mostly because it's hard for me to do this without glasses and keep the bike upright), I did see that I passed at least a couple women from my AG. Mostly I was passing women who were old enough to have given birth to me, but I passed the odd youngish guy as well. Again, something I just hadn't given any thought to was that while in small races I pass a lot of guys in their 30's and 40's, those guys don't qualify for Nationals. Duh. Eventually, as we got close to the end of the bike course, I realized I might finish under 1:15, which was a secret goal of mine. And in fact I made it in 1:14:15, just over 20 mph, my fastest Olympic bike pace yet. I got my feet out of the shoes before dismounting, had a trouble-free transition, and headed out onto the run.
By the time I started the run, it was hot, and the first part of the run course is sunny. (Except for the part that's such a steep uphill that people around me were walking.) I felt good, though, and I'd taken lots of electrolytes on the bike. The only issue was--were you paying attention earlier?--a growing side stitch. I get these maybe twice a year, max, so obviously, what better time than my biggest race? I had one of these in a 5K last year, and it's just about the most embarrassing thing ever, because it reminds me of all those whiny girls in junior high track who didn't want to run the 2 mile "distance" workout. I should have paid more attention when it showed up during my warmup, but beggars, horses, wishes, blah blah blah. I tried to get rid of it by doing this breathing trick I learned in junior high, but that wasn't doing much, so somewhere around mile 2 I hopped up onto the curb and bent over with my hand dug in under my ribcage for about 10 seconds. That worked--over the next mile the breathing thing got rid of it, and by mile 4 I could run comfortably. Except for the obvious discomfort of being in the middle of a 10K at the end of a triathlon.
My run was my fastest yet in an Olympic distance race, 47:19. I still think I can go faster (optimistic? delusional? unclear), but improvement is good. Apparently after the first couple miles I was just hitting my lap button at random intervals, but as near as I can tell my pace dropped down to 7:15ish once the side stitch had been laid to rest. Since this is my 2nd Olympic run in hot weather where I didn't completely disintegrate, I am now declaring myself Someone Who Can Run in the Heat. This was the only part of the race that looked sort of "normal" to me in that I was passing men and women pretty regularly, although the abnormal part was all the 20-something women from I think 2 waves behind me who started flying by me in the last couple miles.
I was also feeling good enough here that my sense of humor returned. Early on a 20-something guy came up behind a 50-something man I was about to pass, and the young guy shouted "On your left!" When the older guy didn't move right away, he shouted it again. As I passed the older guy, I said under my breath, "Dude, it's not the bike," and the 50-something guy cracked up. I mean, honestly--have you ever heard someone in a running race shout "On your left?" That's the nice thing about running--you can just weave around people without crashing.
I also got a kick out of the last leg of the run, which was along a bike path. You know how on roads they will paint e.g. "STOP" followed 10 or so yards later by "AHEAD?" Here they had signs saying "KEEP" followed by "RIGHT," but the two words were so close together (I guess because it's a bike path, so you're going more slowly?") that I automatically read them as "RIGHT KEEP," which made me think this guy had painted them. . . .
OK, so here's the synopsis: slow swim (30:51), PR on the bike, PR (in a triathlon) for the run. And you know, once I looked over the results, I'm not sure my swim was as bad as it looks. (Because that looks really bad.) I'll be curious to see what other, better swimmers think, but it looks to me like times were not so fast (choppy water, hard to sight buoys), so maybe instead of being 5 minutes slower than I think it should have been, my swim was more like 2 minutes slower. I'm still not really clear why my swimming isn't better--it's a lot better in the pool this year, I do a fair amount of open water swimming and am totally comfortable doing it, but somehow I'm not executing very well when I do it in the presence of other people on courses where sighting is critical.
I loved this race, even though (because?) it took me way out of my comfort zone. I want to come back next year, but now I have to try to qualify the hard way again. But as my favorite bike path sign-painting guru would say, Try not. Do. Or do not.