For anyone who followed my Tahoe saga, you can imagine how crazy this whole weekend was for me. In 2014 I spent the majority of the summer training for a race that I just wanted to get over with, and then had it cancelled moments before the start. It sucked. I signed up for some rebound races that I quickly lost interest in and bailed on. I took time off. I wrote a novel. I danced on stage with Bono. I traveled the country and took pictures during the 2016 election. I kept swimming and running when I felt like it, but let my bike collect dust. Then, for some reason I decided to get back into it and finish what I had started.
The deep dark secret that I had harbored from the Tahoe experience was that I wasn’t actually sure that I could have done it. Had it not been my first 70.3, the cancellation likely would have been frustrating, but not quite as painful as it was. Instead, I was left with a drawer full of t-shirts that I didn’t feel quite right owning and lingering doubts. It was nice to lay those to rest.
So what changed between then and now? I’m not quite sure. More training, of course. More attention paid to equipment, nutrition, long term planning, race preparation and logistics, but beyond that probably not a whole lot. I went into this race with a lot more gravity than I had before Tahoe, and the anxiety of race day loomed over me. I became grouchy, irritable. Exhausted. Prone to fits of anxiety and anger. Somehow always hungry and always cold. The same thing had happened in the weeks leading up to Tahoe and I could feel it all returning like a ghost.
(I’m also extremely appreciative of the several individuals who were kind enough to bear with me and put up with my mini freakouts. Thank you!!)
In the end, I did the only thing there was to do. Relax and let it happen.
In an act of defiant protest against the wicked schedule set by Coach Jim, I insisted on taking much of taper week completely off. I was exhausted and a couple nights of extra sleep served me well, but also left me with the double-edge feeling of being awake and aware enough to feel my anxiety. The feeling followed me northward during the trek to Santa Rosa and for much of the time during check in and registration. The best part was seeing so many Tower 26 teammates who had also decided to take part in this race, many of them having succumb to the same peer pressure that had forced my hand. I love it when these races become team events. During every single aspect of race prep—bike drop off, preview swimming, riding the course—I was met by someone else I knew who was doing the same thing. I had one final meal with the fine folks of LA Tri Club and after a last minute pit stop to pick up essentials, I settled in, packed my transition gear, and watched some inspirational Navy SEAL training videos for encouragement before going to sleep.
I woke up just a few short hours later and after giving up on going back to sleep, I decided to get on with it. I made breakfast and went to meet up with my other teammates to carpool from the hotel to the shuttle pick up. I was haunted by flashbacks of the similar shuttle ride at Tahoe, and remembered the dread I had felt at the time. Other riders murmured about their nerves while I was seriously worried that I wouldn’t make it through the day (a touch dramatic, perhaps, but I was really really freaked out before Tahoe). Compared to that shuttle ride, this one was a dream. Instead of dreading the race start, I focused on what I knew would be an exciting day. I forced myself to swallow more oatmeal, texted friends, and checked Facebook.
However, due to slow shuttles and horrendous bathroom lines, I made it into transition with only about 10 minutes to set up and get dressed. Fortunately, a lifetime of running late had prepared me well for this moment. I managed to keep my head enough to set up my watch, lay out my bike gear, and wiggle into my wetsuit. Had I to do it over, I would’ve made the decision to grab my extra shoes for the run up from transition (a quarter mile jog over rough, cold pavement), but alas. I met up with my lane mate Chris and we started to work our way down to the corrals. Then, something happened and Chris was gone. We had toyed with the idea of pacing off each other for the swim, but it looked like I was suddenly to be on my own. I squeezed in to the “35-37 min” swim finish corral, munched on a banana (my power food in times of stress and extreme physical demands) and shuffled down to the start.
The gun went off and the line started moving. We watched out ahead as the Age Groupers immediately started to swim off course and had to be corrected by a paddle boarder. Just to be sure, I asked what course we were actually supposed to swim and received incomplete answers (yes, that’s what I get for waiting until literally the last minute to figure out what the course is). After what felt like 10 long, waddling minutes and I finally made it to the edge. The zealous volunteer at the start line shouted at us to keep the buoys on our right side, which made the task seem moderately simple. I tiptoed to the edge and went in.
I’ve never experienced a mass start, but the rolling start definitely made for a much less thrashy experience. There was certainly thrashing, but it wasn’t unmanageable. I got whacked a few times but after a few whack backs I was good to keep going. Unfortunately, we were swimming into the sunrise, which made the recently reorganized buoys hard to see. I tried to find feet to draft behind and after a few unsuccessful attempts, I locked onto a pair going about my speed. I followed my new swim leader around the first turn buoy, and after failing to spot the next buoy during my sighting, kept pressing forward behind the leader. With the winds picking up, the race officials had decided to reorganize the swim course the day before, and the new buoys hadn’t yet been set up when I had gone to preview the course. To put it simply, I had no idea what the course was supposed to look like. This isn’t uncommon for me––despite my tendency toward planning and fastidiousness, I’m usually pretty laissez-faire in races and let things work themselves out. Not the case this time. During a breath I finally caught sight of a buoy way off in the distance and assumed that it was the “return lane” buoy set for the people finishing up the swim. Nope. Turns out I was pretty far off course. Not only that, I was one of about three people pretty far off course. There’s just something worse about making a big mistake and then realizing that you were one of the few people foolish enough to do so. Misery loves company, I guess? Oh well. For the first time ever in a race, I wanted the swim to be done so I could get on my bike. I finally felt the way non swimmers must feel. I kept plodding along, bashing some heads, and then I finally made it out.
Due in part to the aforementioned quarter mile run up from the lake, my T1 was a glorious 16 minute affair. With that, on top of a swim that was nearly 300 yards longer than it should’ve been, I was already failing miserably toward meeting my goal time. I had counted on the swim being my best shot at staying on target, and that was already gone. I put it out of my mind and focused on the next task at hand: The Bike. I was eager to try out this “fast” course with its winding descents and the free flowing tailwind that we were promised. I jogged to the exit, mounted the bike and set off.
The miles flew by easily, all the while staying in the zones that Coach Jim prescribed. It was the same old familiar tale—passed all day long, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Passed by old people, young people, men, women, children of all ages. At one point a tractor entered the course and provided a fairly decent draft but after a few minutes I got tired of breathing diesel exhaust so I sprinted to pass. I wish I could say more about how beautiful the Sonoma countryside was, but I really don’t remember seeing the view. I’m glad that I took the chance to ride the bike course in my car, otherwise I might not have any memory of the landscape at all. Also, that tailwind we were promised quickly revealed itself as a headwind and at times a crosswind. Perhaps it was a tailwind at some point, but if it was I never noticed. Finally we made it to T2 in downtown Santa Rosa and I suited up for the run.
I was really nervous about those first few steps off the bike, because this is where the future of the run is revealed. This time I was shocked. My legs felt great! I had been expecting some tightness or rubbery-ness or at least something for the first mile or two (or at least in the first couple steps) but this was magic. The madness of Coach Jim’s grueling back-to-back weekend leg beatings was finally revealing its method.
Despite feeling lighter than air, I made a point to take the first few miles very easy, as instructed. I was still having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of 13 miles. Double digit miles. A half marathon. But I knew that if I paced correctly that I would find that flow feeling that I’ve come to love lately, where the miles just fall off and time breezes by. With the swim and the bike over and done with, my last remaining hope was to control my run the way I wanted to. I turned off the heart rate display on my watch so that I saw distance/pace/time instead. I wanted to try to hit consistent paces based on feel, and knew that if I saw too many heart rate spikes that I would get nervous and slow down. I took in a lot of liquid at the first aid station and felt the tiniest glimmer of protest from my stomach so I scaled back my intake to focus on gels and electrolytes only. Fortunately the weather was beautiful, warm but not hot, cool but not cold. Perfect conditions. I didn’t sweat much at all—however, after a handy chat the day before with Matt Miller at Base Performance, I had learned that it can actually be harder to keep electrolytes up on cooler days because even though the body isn’t sweating, it’s still excreting salts. I wanted to avoid any chance of being derailed by nutrition and as a result I had something happen that had never happened before––I was so in tune with my body that I could feel the hints of things that could become problems and nipped everything in the bud.
I passed my friend Bonita around Mile 4. She asked how I was feeling and I said that I felt good because I liked running (a comment that was promptly met with groans from the people around me). However, it did spark a lovely conversation with a fellow runner who likewise commented about how much she hated the bike. (I don’t hate the bike. Not really. Our relationship is complicated but getting better). I saw my friend Stephen around Mile 5. He had passed me on the bike course some hours before and then swore that I’d pass him back on the run. I hadn’t quite believed him but he turned out to be right, and it was fun to see him again. I gave him a wave and kept running along. I was happy to see so many of my T26/LATC friends out along the course (most of them ahead of me, and quite a few of them already finished!). Even more than that, I was happy at how great the run was going. The course was fairly flat (thank goodness) and keeping a consistent pace was a simple enough task. I’d never had a run go so well with all elements sliding perfectly into place. It made up for the less than stellar swim and the forgettable bike performance.
I finally got a little tired around Mile 11, but kept going. I hit Mile 12 and then finally Mile 13 but still nothing felt completely real until I turned the corner and saw the carpeted finish line. Then I relaxed, pushed forward, and grabbed my medal. It took me a moment to believe that it was finally over. I immediately saw a group of T-26ers and we crowded in together for a group photo with our medals. I was way off my goal times, but finished with energy and excitement, and was quite happy to do so. It’s a relief to have the 70.3 distance in the book, and I’m thrilled to finally be able to wear the race gear. Someone once told me not to fall into the trap of finishing a 70.3 and then reeling in fear at the prospect of completing a 140.6. But for the first time, a full Ironman distance doesn’t seem quite so daunting. My race in November won’t feel the same way as this one did, but I’m hoping that I can at least control it in the same way, with confidence and enthusiasm. I rounded out the post-race evening with plenty of congratulatory messages from friends and a nice dinner. It was a great experience overall, and as everyone warned me, I let myself get way too stressed out about it. I’ll add that to the list of things to correct for next time.
Next stop: Ironman Arizona.