“I want you to feel the pain.”
Ominous words from Coach Jim. I had called to ask for a race plan but had instead gotten vague and mildly distressing instructions.
“I want you to be aggressive.”
Okay. Aggressive. So that means how many watts on bike? What about the run paces? Heart rate? But Coach Jim refused to say anymore. He said that he didn’t want to put parameters on my race. Um, doesn’t he know who I am??? I need parameters. I’m the girl who PR’d the first 10K of a marathon and then crawled to the end. I redlined my first half marathon at 190 bpm and somehow lived to tell about it. The idea of racing the Santa Barbara Triathlon (with its 1-mile swim, 34-mile bike, and 10-mile run) made me nervous. I made the mistake of then telling Coach Jim that I had never actually tried to race any of my triathlons before, that the priority for me had always been to complete the distances comfortably. He told me that needed to change. He told me that I needed to race.
I had “raced” Santa Barbara before during the late summer of 2014 on my path to the half-Ironman at Lake Tahoe. It had been a mandatory training race, much like this year’s was. I had a few friends racing it but by that point in the season I was burned out on training. I had showed up to the start line overtrained, overweight, and just over it all. I had a slog of a day and finished after about 5 hours of effort. By the time I crossed the finish line, my friends had gone home and most of the post-race celebration had been packed up. It sucked.
In the back of my mind I wasn’t expecting this year to be much different. My swim times had improved, but over such a short distance I didn’t think it likely to matter. My run felt stronger day to day, but so far none of my runs off the bike had been anything to brag about. I was confident in my ability to get it all done, but not to any stellar extent. Lastly, my skills on the bike felt just as abysmal as they were in 2014, possibly even worse since switching from a road bike to a triathlon bike. I had delayed signing up for Santa Barbara until the last minute because despite announcing it on my race calendar, I really didn’t want to do it.
Well, I was here now with no turning back. Race morning came and I found my way to transition without too much trouble. On the way in I met a girl in my age group and we chatted while racking our bikes. As I’ve mentioned, seeing other young women at these races is a relatively rare occurrence but this year my age group seemed to have a pretty decent showing.
The best part of the morning was seeing so many great triathlon friends, both racing and spectating alike. It seemed that a large portion of T26-ers had decided to make the trek up from LA, and it was a great boost of energy to see so many of them before the start. I was grateful for the impromptu cheering section that would help get me through the day.
I did a short warm up jog and made my way to the swim start line. Be aggressive. I had tried to think of times for each sport that would correspond to “aggressive” effort on my part, and I hoped to hit them. The gun fired and we were off!
True to the “race ready” mission of Tower 26, Coach Gerry had been giving us a series of workouts intended to mimic the flow of a race, and this was the first time I was able to actually implement race strategy while swimming. Like everyone else at the start, I blasted my way to the first buoy, but unlike everyone else, I was able to slow my effort and settle into a steady rhythm going around the curve. This was just like we had practiced and I could already sense the field thinning behind me.
I chugged along at my steady pace, all the while keeping the distant buoys in sight. Having learned my lesson in Santa Rosa I did my best to stay on course, sighting every 2 strokes. About halfway through, another swimmer crept up alongside me and started keeping pace. This was strange – I don’t usually get passed in swims, and I certainly don’t usually keep pace with other swimmers (I’m usually the passer). For the first time I started to realize what it must be like to actually “race” with another participant — the idea of keeping someone in your sights and waiting for the moment to make a move. It reminded me of crew races back in Princeton, where it was up to me to strategically orchestrate the efforts of my boat to dominate the opposing crew.
I swam next to the other girl for a couple hundred yards as we approached the next major turn buoy. It bothered me that she was so close. To be honest, I was a little hesitant of sprinting because I was worried I’d burn out and then get get overtaken. But after a couple more strokes her presence really annoyed me. As we started to come around the turn, I decided to drop her.
Coach Gerry had also given us a series of drills meant to help us manage efforts while increasing speed. They worked perfectly. We came around the first of two major turns and I turned on the jets. I sped up, ramping up my arm cadence and firing on all cylinders. I immediately came up on a clump of swimmers from the previous wave that had started ahead of us, and I plowed through them. Be aggressive!
The girl was long gone and never came back. I kept my speed, passing white caps from the wave before and gunned my way to the finish. At some point my goggles started leaking and I became aware of the fact that my eyes were filling with salt water but it strangely didn’t bother me. I kept going. Rounded the final buoy, swam until my fingers touched sand, and then popped up. On the way up out of the chute I saw a crowd of fellow Tower 26-ers cheering me on, and I even got a congratulatory shout from Coach Gerry. I bounded into transition and got ready to ride.
SWIM: Goal Time: 28 min, Actual Time: 29:51 (~5 min improvement over 2014)
We had been fortunate enough to race under a cool banner of gray sky that remained the whole time I was on the bike. I had been dreading the bike course. I remembered from 2014 that it was pretty hilly. Not just hilly, but climb-y. For someone who is less than adept at anything on the bike, just 1 climb on a route can be daunting, let alone 3. Regardless, I was here now and was desperate to beat my old time. I had given myself a goal to knock off about 20 minutes. I hoped I would make it.
In addition to time, my own personal measure of bike performance is how many times I get passed, and how often. I was very happy to see that while I was most certainly getting passed, that it was happening at a much lower frequency than it had in 2014, and happening much farther into the course. Already that was an improvement. I kept an eye out for the ages written on the calves of the people passing, and was glad to see that only about 3 of the people passing me were in my age group.
Finally, I got passed by the same girl I had met in transition earlier that morning, but then I passed her back on a winding descent. We ended up leapfrogging for much of the course — her passing me on climbs, me passing her on flats and descents. Once again I felt the strange “racing” sensation that I had felt on the swim, only this time I knew I didn’t have the same control over the bike as I had on the swim. If I did nothing else for the whole race, I wanted to keep her in my sights and compete with her until the end.
There isn’t much else to say about the bike course — it was the same winding, hilly event that I knew it would be and I had a lot of fun waving to other team mates while getting it done. My only real goal was to be better than 2014, and if I could make that happen then I would consider it an accomplishment. I managed to pull ahead of my “race buddy” about a mile away from transition, but we still stayed very very close together. I beat her into transition by only a few seconds and we commiserated about how much we hated cycling while we racked our bikes and suited up for the run.
BIKE: Goal Time: 2:15, Actual Time: 2:21 (~14 min improvement over 2014)
Ah, the run. The moment where true fitness is revealed. By this point, I was terrified of my orders to be aggressive, and uncertain what I would be able to do. I’ve been running the longest of the three sports, so while I have a solid base, I’ve never been very fast. I could always bust out the fastest sprint in a lacrosse game, but then I’d need forever to recover. Still, Coach Jim had been putting me through the ringer with a series of brutal track workouts. Now I could put the work to the test.
I knew that the 10 mile run course was about 5 miles of uphill followed by 5 miles of downhill. This is a gross oversimplification, but a handy way to think about it in terms of race strategy. I told myself that I would go hard for the first 5 miles uphill in an effort to catch a break on the return while going downhill.
My race buddy had beaten me out of transition and was long gone before I made it to the course. I put her out of my mind and focused on my own efforts. I was immediately shocked. For the past 3 years I had grown comfortable with my usual “off the bike” pace just shy of 10:00 min/mile (lightning fast, I know), but off the bike I found myself hovering close to 8:30 min/mile for the first 2 miles. Even more shocking than that was how good I still felt. I knew I could hold this pace or something close to it. I started to accept the wisdom of Coach Jim’s brutal track workouts.
Much like the swim, I usually don’t get passed on this point of the run, so I began my typical practice of picking off the field ahead of me. Once again, I got plenty of smiles and waves from familiar triathlon friends and counted down the miles until I’d be finished. After 2 miles I made it to the beginning of a long incline that would take me to the turnaround point. But as I’ve written before, I have a decent relationship with hills. My time slowed but not by as much as I would have expected, and I told myself I would be even faster on the way down. Every second I could save going uphill would be money in the bank for a fast descent.
I did make it a point to stop and walk through aid stations, mostly so that I could get fluids and calories in without spilling. I kept an eye on my average pace and knew that even with breaks I could still make my goal time as long as I stayed focused. I blasted through the first seven miles with no issues, getting faster along the way. Once I hit Mile 7, I was ecstatic to think of only having 3 miles left to run. I had done training runs much worse than this (and in a state of much more drastic exhaustion), so 3 miles on a cool day after a week of rest was nothing.
Unfortunately the wall starting hitting around Mile 8.5. The clouds parted to release the sun, and I started sweating more profusely than I had all day. The air stilled, and many of the supporters and racers had come and gone, giving the course a barren and empty feel that felt like running through a desert. Oh well. Just keep going. I was started to get accustomed to this feeling — the edge of the world where it feels like the end will never come, but by this point, I knew it would. I was still right on my goal time and would be thrilled to finish strong. So I did the usual — one foot ahead of the other until I was in the chute.
Coach Jim saw me before I saw him and helped to cheer me in through the finish. At the end of the finish line I saw another crowd of spectator friends who had stuck around to watch me finish. It was a night and day experience compared to 2014 and I was so happy to have had a good race.
RUN: Goal Time: 1:30, Actual Time: 1:31:03 (~8 min improvement over 2014)
Overall a lot of friends and fellow racers had done well, taking home podium prizes. I didn’t make the podium myself, but I was still proud for managing my race like I had wanted to and staying aggressive. I enjoyed post race meals with friends and then trekked back to LA for an extended rest. Repeating Santa Barbara was slaying a dragon that had been bothering me for a long time. I ended up beating my 2014 time by about 30 minutes overall. Little by little everything is getting better and I’m finally accepting the wisdom that Coach Gerry has been saying for years, that we must enjoy the process.