This was a nice way to throw myself back into racing and smooth out all of the kinks I had been worried about. None of my LA training partners had heard of the Big Rock Triathlon, and from what I’ve been able to learn, the event has lost some of its popularity over the last few years, but it was still an amazing experience.
The race was scheduled for Saturday, coming off of a long and stressful week. That, combined with a complete lack of taper made for an even more stressful pre-race night and race morning. I tried my best to stay positive and get excited about the event, but I was not in a good mood. I got a hotel room in Riverside for Friday night so that I wouldn’t have to make the trek in the early morning, but in hindsight that probably wasn’t the best idea. I got in late anyway after slogging through traffic and was nearly delirious while putting the finishing touches on my race pack.
No matter. Had a nice phone call with Coach Jim, and we talked through my race plan. Neither of us were concerned about the swim (still my strongest of the three sports), and he gave me instructions for approaching the bike (still my weakest of the three). His strongest words of caution came for the run. Part of the stress of the previous week was amplified by nagging potential injuries which forced me to slow down a little. I wasn’t as confident in my run as I would have liked to be, but I knew it would be wise to take his advice.
Tried my best to sleep and woke up feeling neither rested nor ready. Started eating right way, knowing that taking in as many simple calories as possible would set me up well. Had a couple sips of coffee and then was off on my way.
However, the drive to Lake Perris was absolutely beautiful! Having the chance to watch the sun rise over the mountains was a nice change of pace compared to the recent constant grind of LA life. Once I turned into the park, the scene only got more magical, with the full flavor of the California super bloom catching light. I started to relax a little, remembering how much I loved this state and why I originally fell in love with triathlon.
For me, so much of the sport has to do with being able to enjoy this world. I’ve heard Everest Sherpas describe the love they feel for the mountain, and how climbing it is a way to express that adoration. Training has the same effect for me––swimming in oceans, cycling in canyons, and running trails is my favorite way to connect with nature. It’s so easy to forget and overlook these moments, so I’m glad that I finally stopped to pay attention.
The feeling didn’t last too long though, as I arrived and started to set up my transition area the nerves returned. I laid my things out as best as I could and after an hour or so of milling around, I wiggled into my wetsuit and made my way down to the edge of the lake.
I hadn’t even bothered to warm up in the water, a bit of a faux pas which I’ll try to avoid in the future. Perhaps I felt like waiting for the full rush of the open water experience (which is not recommended). Either way, I dipped a foot in to test the temperature and was comforted by how warm (but not too warm!) the water was. I knew it was going to be a good swim.
The race director counted down the seconds and then we were off! It was my first time in open water in several years, and I expected much more shock and acclimatization, but instead it was like I had never left. The lake water was murky, but tasted fine. The temperature was cool and calm. Nestled into a ring of mountains, we were blessed with perfect conditions. I started to feel a confidence growing that I hadn’t ever quite felt before the start of the race, and I let myself go with it.
After a thrashy start, I finally settled into a rhythm and chugged along at a solid pace. I checked behind me at the turn of the buoy and was surprised to see a fair number of swim caps behind me. The field had thinned out and I had somehow found myself in the middle of a large gap, with the faster swimmers way ahead, and slower ones way behind. I tried to find an occasional pair of feet to draft behind, but kept needing to pass anyway. My other concern with the return to open water was sighting, but I soon learned that’s another skill that doesn’t leave you. I kept sighting frequently so as not to drift too far, and my Garmin at the end revealed that I had managed to keep a fairly clean course (in all, I swam only about 50 meters off course). I checked my watch as I leapt into transition and was pleased to see that I had beat my goal time by a whole minute!
Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed during the trek down to the beach how much ground separated transition from the water’s edge, and how much sand. I tried to take the path at a nice jog (as Coach Gerry has always taught us to do), but had to stop. My Garmin also revealed that my heart rate was WAY above typical race level, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give myself some time to slow down. It was my first time walking in transition, but the rest was worth it.
Once on the bike, I realized that I had forgot to set up my power readings (d’oh!) so I would have to pace my effort based on heart rate instead. Coach Jim had given me a pretty narrow range to follow, and uh, I immediately ignored it. The first 3 miles felt like death was impending (it also didn’t help that there was a relatively solid climb right out of the gate). But soon enough, I reached the top of the hill and started a nice descent, which also gave my heart a chance to calm down. From there it was on––I somehow rediscovered the spirit of my 12-year-old biker self and attacked the course. Speeding down hills, speeding uphills, and pushing hard. But in contrast to previous races, every moment of it simply felt fun! Yes, we were riding loops around a giant mountain (a fact which didn’t register until I got home later that night), and there were climbs and twists and technical stretches, but I didn’t hate it!
I got a new triathlon bike several months ago and it’s made all the difference in the world for my cycling. Whereas my previous road bike felt tall and clumsy, this new tri bike feels custom fit and magical. In all honesty, it felt like being a little kid on a bike again. Unfortunately, my time wasn’t very impressive, but for a course with as many climbs as that one, I wasn’t too disappointed. I rolled back into transition and got ready to pop out on the run. And that’s where everything went wrong.
I had expected the first couple of miles to suck, and as usual in racing, kept telling myself that Mile 3 would be better. Then Mile 3 came and went and things actually started getting worse. My back cramped, my legs seized, my heart felt out of control (even though it was far below my normal training range). The run course was relatively flat and simple but every gentle grade felt like a mountain. Around Mile 4 things finally started to pick up, but by the time I reached Mile 5 it was awful again. With about 1.8 miles left, I tried to tell myself to just suck it up and be tough. That it was my mind complaining, not my body and that the body could handle anything (or at least, handle anything for 1.8 miles). But it just didn’t work. I’ve probably never had a run feel quite so rough or so long, in none of the training or races that I’ve done. I was fed and watered and not overheated but I still had nothing. I started to worry about what this would mean for Santa Rosa. Finally, around the half mile mark, I pushed myself to the finish.
Overall it was a fun day, but in hindsight I can see all of the factors coming together to create the day that it was. Of course I suffered from lack of sleep. Of course the hard training week took its toll. Of course I went too hard on the bike (damn you, fun!). However, I’m extremely glad to learn these things now. That was the benefit of a tune-up race like this one, having the chance to get all of the mistakes out of the way before more important races come up. Coach Jim tried to tell me as much but it was a little while before I would believe him.
So do I feel better about Santa Rosa coming up? Yes and no. In the coming weeks I really want to make sure my run is in top form (Coach Jim assures me that I’ll be fine but I’m the paranoid type). I’m also learning that I’ll have to dial back on the bike (shocker) which is also disappointing, especially since I’m just learning how to enjoying riding. It’s also quite possible that I’ll need to pace better on the swim. I loved breaking my goal time, but perhaps that cost me some in the end. But I guess this is the refining part of racing and the reason that we do these things over and over again––to make ourselves better.