A couple days ago, I opened up my 2013 racing season with the Auckland 70.3. I know y’all are busy and have lots of things to do with your time, and some of you aren’t even all that interested in triathlon, and I do have an acknowledged tendency to be a little wordy (I had a terribly hypocritical professor back in college who once spoke the actual sentence: “It is incredibly difficult, no, near impossible for me to adequately emphasize the extreme and essential importance of cogency in one’s writing and indeed, everyday speech,” and I think I have become her).
So with that in mind, here’s the Clif’s Notes version of the Clif’s Notes version of my report: dream day, breakthrough race on several levels, happy ending, and I’m going to Hawaii in October for the Ironman World Championships.
|Auckland was ready, see the large billboard advertising the race on the building|
And now….the long version.
I got down to Auckland about 11 days before the race, and while I have been enjoying my time thoroughly and am falling more and more in love with this country every day, from a physical/ athletic standpoint, the transition wasn’t terribly smooth. The lengthy travel took a lot more out of me than I anticipated, and I felt very fatigued for several days and suffered through a bunch of workouts which, on paper, should have been easy. Moving back into outdoor training after so long on the trainer and in the pool was also a shock to the system. I hadn’t done any open water swimming since September, and my first two swims in the rough ocean were, well, rough, and left me feeling quite a few notches below confident. I went out for two rides last week and got two flat tires (on my race wheels, I could only travel with one set of wheels).
All of these little mishaps and lousy-feeling workouts combined and led to a nice little freak out the Monday before the race. Suddenly, the mindset was: “I’m not ready, this is not going well, it’s way too early in the year, how in the world am I going to race a bunch of girls who’ve been racing regularly for the past several months when I’m practically having to re-teach myself how to swim, this was a mistake to sign up for, I am just. not. ready.” The exact same freak outs I’ve had before every other big race I’ve done. Maybe not the same words or same specific worries, but the same sentiment. I felt like I was on a familiar path, one that leads nowhere good.
And then, I got over it. Honestly, from Monday until race morning, I became less nervous every day. It took actual, conscious effort, and a lot of it, to get into the right mental state.
I know I talk a lot about my head and my mental state on here, and maybe it makes me look more than a little crazy or neurotic, but I personally have found my biggest struggles in triathlon to be self-doubt and fear, and I’ve had to expend just as much effort on dealing with those struggles as I have on the physical improvements. And, I know that I am not entirely alone in my struggles. So, I’m not going to shut up about it.
So what I did this week that got me past my mental struggles: I did a lot of reading. Some “mental toughness”/ sports psychology books and articles. I re-read parts of Chrissie Wellington’s book, which speaks to me a lot more than any other sports autobiography I’ve read. I reviewed some old blogs written by people I trust or find particularly insightful. I did some writing….I spent a while physically writing out every fear I had about the race, no matter how little or stupid, and then I reasoned my way through those fears, writing down reasons why they weren’t valid fears, or, if they were valid fears (like flat tires), how I’d handle them. Then I deleted that “worries” file (I will not take credit for that idea, it came straight from Liz). I reviewed my training log, remembering break through workouts and the toughest days (like the five hour ride on the trainer I did right before I came down here) and drawing confidence from them. I read my race plan over and over and over. I drove the course a couple times and I meditated and visualized. It may have been a light week, workout-wise, but it certainly wasn’t an easy week. I did a lot of work. Just of a different sort.
As the race approached, I felt more and more confident and less and less scared. I was ready to get the party started and reap the benefits of a whole lot of training and sacrifices. And honestly, I was excited for what was to come after the race….I was ready to no longer be tapering, and start vacationing. I got my South Island trip planned in the days before the race, too. It was strangely comforting to me to be able to say, “hey, whatever happens in this race, I’m still in an amazing place, and heading to another amazing place. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t such a huge deal.”
Like I said, I was totally, oddly calm on the day of the race. Adam was an amazing sherpa and got up at an hour that starts with 4 to drive me to the race site. That’s a real friend. I got my transition set, we milled around for a little getting a little excited every time we saw a pro we recognized (this was a stacked field), watched the pros start, and then I got myself lined up to be paraded out onto the pontoon where we’d hang out until the start.
Going in, the swim course was a bit of a mystery. The Auckland race is designed to really show off the city, so it’s set in the heart of the central business district, with the swim taking place in a major working harbor that is never open for swimming. There was no way to scope out the course before, and just trying to get the lay of the course from the land is near impossible because there’s no place that you can actually see it all. The route kind of weaves around the docks, goes in towards land and then back out, is a bit confusing, and only had (white) buoys at the turn around points. I studied the map over and over, but was still a little nervous of getting lost. But, this was an inauguaral event, so we were truly all in the same (blind) situation, so I didn’t devote a whole lot of thought to it.
|See? Tricky little swim|
We had a deep water start, and once the gun went off (with no warning) I took about 100 strokes hard as per my plan, and found myself going about the same speed as a couple other girls, one of whom was kicking like crazy, and thus, making her easy to follow and providing a very, very nice draft. I saw her lifting her head to sight every few strokes and decided to trust her navigation, so I just put my head down and followed the massive bubbles she was creating.
That lasted for the first 700 meters or so until she seemed to slow down and I kept hitting her feet (accidentally) with my hands. Afraid she was going to turn around and deck me if I kept that up, I just went around her and swam on ahead myself.
The sighting was a lot easier than I expected, I felt really, really smooth and high in the water (salt water + wetsuit will do that, especially when you’re used to being in the pool), and just settled into a good rhythm. I expected the swim to feel really long, but actually it flew by and before I knew it, I was climbing out of the water and headed towards transition. Adam told me I was first out of the water but I didn’t completely believe him. I knew there was at least one girl who’d really pulled away from all the rest of us early on and I doubted we’d caught her. Turns out I was 2nd out of the water, right with a group of 2 or 3 other girls.
My goal is always to get out of the water in under 30 minutes, and the clock I ran by maybe 50 meters after the swim exit confirmed that I’d finished the swim somewhere around 28 minutes. I was stoked, and somewhat less excited when I saw in the results a swim time of 30:xx….turns out, they put the timing mat for the end of the swim right at the entrance to transition, so the swim times include a lengthy run. Bummer.
After not racing for several months, I worried about my transitions and feeling lost, but I was fine. Except I can never seem to put on my aero helmet without bending my ear in half. It’s weird. I don’t even have big ears. They’re kind of tiny, actually (check it out next time you see me. Tiny ears).
We headed out of transition and got right into a very technical part of the course….lots and lots of turns, right after each other, some speed bumps, some cobblestone roads, some train tracks, and a couple no-pass zones where it got really narrow. Oh, and it’d started raining. With so little outside time on my TT bike since September and a general lack of bike handling skills, I took that first section really, really cautiously.
The first hour or so of the bike course is the most difficult. There’s that technical nonsense, then a big climb crossing the Auckland Harbour bridge, then another technical and hilly section through a northern suburb. With all of that stuff to worry about, I was completely unable to get into any sort of rhythm. It was a little frustrating, but I also knew my own plan was to take the first half hour relatively easy, so in a way, it was good that there was all that stuff slowing me down….I knew there was no way I was overworking when I kept having to slow down and stop pedaling going into turns.
|That bridge in the distance is the one we climbed|
I got passed by probably 4 or 5 girls in my age group in that first hour, but oddly, it didn’t bother me. I just kept repeating, “follow the plan, follow the plan,” and even though the plan was resulting in me falling farther and farther behind, I had faith that it’d all work out. Plus I could tell that some of the girls passing me were overworking. They were getting up out of their saddles for every climb (even the little ones) and also stood up to accelerate after every turn. I suspected that’d catch up to them later in the race. (I was right, by the way. There was one girl who just annihalated all of us on that course (rumor has it she was once a pro cyclist), but aside from her, by the end of the ride, I did eventually re-catch all the girls who had passed me).
Back up and over the bridge, wind through downtown a little more (the roads were getting slicker and slicker with the rain), and then it was two loops on beautiful Tamaki Drive, which is like a somewhat smaller but equally stunning version of Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. Here, it was flat (albeit windy), and we could hammer, and I was so relieved to finally be able to get into a rhythm that I possibly took it a little too hard. But my breathing was completely under control and my legs felt fine, so I went with it, trying to make up some of the speed I’d lost with all the technical sections.
Towards the end of the bike, I was a little stiff and just ready to get running. You hear that? Ready to get running. Can’t say I’ve had that feeling before in long course racing. For as long as I’ve been a triathlete, despite my running background, I’ve dreaded the run and been afraid of it. And I’ve largely performed just like someone who was afraid of the run. But I’ve had some running breakthroughs recently, and had a new found confidence in my run. I was actually excited to try to see what I could do.
There was a little traffic jam headed into transition which slowed things up, but no worries. There was nothing I could do. Shoes and socks on (socks were a game time decision and the right one, I believe), and I was off. As I was heading out, Adam gave me the update. 4th place….with 4+ minutes behind 1st, but the others right in range. For once, that didn’t scare me or upset me. I knew I had work to do, but I was eager to try to run some people down.
That first stretch of the run, you just never know how it’s going to feel. I’ve had races where I feel absolutely horrible at the start of the run, but finished well. I’ve had races where I feel absolutely horrible at the start, and continue to feel horrible the whole time. And I’ve had races where I feel great at the beginning, and usually (for me), those end with me finishing well. But you just never know, and I know that that’s the “fun” of long course racing. Things can change, and change quickly.
This time…. I felt great. I set out jogging. My biggest error, in racing and training, is always starting too hard and I had strict instructions. Nose breathing. Go so slow it hurts. And I did. I was truly jogging like on a recovery day, not breathing hard, legs felt good, just warming up. Then I looked down at my watch and saw a pace that started with a 6. For me, that’s too fast.
So I just kept trying and trying and trying to slow down. Enjoy this, I told myself, because you’re going to have to start working soon. Take these three miles, and enjoy the easy running. And I tried, but I just kept hitting right at 7 minutes or a little below (which was, notably, right about my best Olympic distance pace last year. So happy with the improvement). But I felt amazing, I knew I had a great day up my sleeve, the weather was cooperating (the rain had stopped and it was overcast, a little humid, but temperature-wise, relatively comfortable), my mind was in the right place, and I just was so happy. Still trying to slow down, yeah. But happy. Happy that things were coming together, FINALLY. Happy that I felt in control. Happy that it’s January and it’s summer and I’m living in an amazing place. Happy that I’ve found the courage to take charge of my life, to do things that seem unorthodox and risky but will ultimately bring me greater happiness. And happy that that courage is extending into this race, and I’m finding myself in the thick of things, I’m right here, I’m in this, I’m competing for something that I really, really want, and I’m not even a little bit scared.
The plan was to pick up the pace at mile 3 but since I was already at my goal pace, I decided to just settle in, knowing that what did feel easy would soon enough start to feel harder. So I just hung out, staying fairly consistent pace-wise for the next several miles.
At mile 5, I caught the girls running in second and third place. They were running side-by-side, I don’t know if they knew each other, but they were chatting a little (not like, how’s the family chatting, but like, “OK that kilometer was sub 4:30” chatting). I figured they were working together. As I caught them, I held back for a little bit, knowing that with them using little team effort tactics, I really needed to make a strong move to pass them decisively. So I rested a bit, and then surged, hoping they’d be surprised or discouraged and just let me go.
No such luck. I passed, they made some comment to each other (I didn’t actually hear it and that’s probably good), and then they picked up the pace and followed. I tried to accelerate, I tried to break them, but I couldn’t. It went on like that for a little more than a mile. I was trying to run faster but not go crazy, and they matched me step for step. I got discouraged, I got nervous, I considered just letting them pass me back and trying again later, but I pushed those thoughts out and focused on my form. I remembered those days when I was back in Ohio, running intervals on the track. I remembered that long run I did when I hit 13.1 miles at a time that, until very recently, would have been an open half marathon PR, but then kept on going for 4 more miles.
And finally, their footsteps got quieter, I couldn’t hear their breathing, and at the next turn, I peeked back and they had fallen behind.
The second half, as predicted, got tougher and my pace slowed a bit, but not much at all. Negative thoughts came but I didn’t dwell on them. I just kept telling myself to get in a rhythm, to push a little more. When I wanted to back down, when the very familiar little voice said, “there’s no way you’re going to be able to do this, you’re going to crash and burn, someone is going to catch you, this is not going to happen for you, you might as well give up now” I finally had the strength to answer back: “No. Not anymore. This is a new year. This is a new me. I am NOT going to give up. I deserve to have an awesome race.”
So I picked it up, and picked it up again (yeah, my pace was slowing, but the effort was increasing), and I just kept picking it up until I looked at my watch and it said 13.1 miles and we were nowhere near the finish line and I wanted to cry. But then I picked it up again. I ran scared that last, bonus .8 miles (yes, my Garmin measured the course as 13.87 miles which is cruel and unusual punishment, and the race director apologized for the mismeasure at the awards ceremony). The last thing I wanted was to have kicked too early and end up getting nipped at the line. It was my fault that the extra distance surprised me….it was a two-loop course, I very well could have looked at my watch at the turn around and seen it was well over 6.55 miles, I should have realized it was going to be long….but I didn’t. So I sucked it up, I snorted and gasped my way forward, and I just got it done.
In the end, I was 2nd in my age group. I knew that as I was running; I just didn’t realize that I’d gotten a lot closer than I thought to first. She was about 1:20 ahead of me. The third place girl, one of the girls I’d passed at mile 5, was about a minute back. There really hadn’t been any room for error.
Adam and Pip were right at the line, and I think the first thing I said to them was, “this was the perfect day.” And no, it wasn’t perfect, not at all….but it was so close that it felt like it at the time. When I heard that 1st place (the guaranteed Kona slot, I figured there’d be one slot awarded for our age group) had only finished 1:20 ahead, my response: even if I’d known that, I was NOT going to have been able to catch her. I didn’t have any more. I average 7:11 miles for that nice long run, which was faster than I’d ever have dreamed. It was a huge breakthrough for me, and I don’t think, at this point or on this day, I could have have done any more.
So I headed home that afternoon feeling thrilled even though there was a very good chance that I’d just missed that Kona slot AGAIN. But, when I said before that Kona wasn’t my primary goal, I was serious. I wanted to execute the kind of race I knew I could have, and I did. I could not have been upset with myself if that fell short because someone else was better on that day. I set a bunch of goals for myself for the day, and I met every single one of them (except…I wanted to break 4:50, and I missed it by half a minute. But given that the run was, oh, five minutes long, I’m counting that one as accomplished). No disappointment.
Yet I still had some serious butterflies when I got back to the race site a couple hours later to see how the Kona slots had shaken out. I approached the bulletin board where the allocation of slots was listed, and I saw this, and I shrieked a little:
The 30-34 had the most participants among the female age groups, so two slots were awarded. I got the Kona slot, fair and square, without having to suffer through the roll-down process (I found out later that the 1st place girl did NOT take her slot, so I would have gotten it anyway, but it was so much nicer to have a few glasses of wine by the harbour instead of wringing my hands for the next two hours).
|With the Kona sign-up sheet|
So that’s that. I’m going to Hawaii. I’m also going to Las Vegas, for the 70.3 World Championship. A double whammy (and an expensive one at that). I’m still on a high. I’m still re-living the day in my head. My body hates me a little, though, and it’s even less happy that, well, I’ve still got an Ironman to do in five-and-a-half weeks. Yup, I’m still doing Ironman New Zealand. But I’m doing it with no pressure, with no fear, just looking for experience figuring out how to tackle the Ironman monster. It’ll be fun.
And now, back to work. Thanks for reading!