The strange thing is that I didn’t really have a terrible performance. But thanks to what I found to be an emotional roller-coaster of a day, I just didn’t have the power to quiet my inner chatter. You know how they always say "welcome to the big leagues" and sometimes you're not really sure what qualifies as the "big leagues"... but then: BAM! you're suddenly you're in way over your head? Yup, that's the realization I had, oh, about eight minutes into the swim at this year's USAT Age Group Nationals.
I woke up bright and early Saturday morning in my rinky-dink Yankee Doodle motel, tossed back my now-stale bagel only slightly edible thanks to extra peanut butter, and hopped in the car to head to the race site. I somehow beat the crowds (which I found surprising given that This. Was. Nationals. And you know how OCD some triathletes can be on race day…) But I hopped out, grabbed my wetsuit and walked toward transition for a relatively easy set-up.
After laying everything out and oogling the people who brought trainers to transition for their bike warm-up, I spent some quality time in the exceedingly long bathroom line. Twice. (You can never be too sure). After a quick warm-up jog and some moves to loosen up, the National Anthem started playing—but I was nowhere near the start. I tried to slowly edge toward the start without seeming a-patriotic, starting to slightly freak out knowing that my group was in the second wave.
The anthem ended, I booked it to the start, zipped up my wetsuit and squeezed in alongside the other 20-24 female triathletes. After the men before us were sent on their way, we were called up to the dock and were able to hop in before the start for a speedy warm-up. Even though I lined up early, it was hard to claim space without getting kicked in the side or pushed backward. Having grown up swimming strictly on my side of the lane and rarely playing contact sports, this part of triathlon continues to be the most foreign and uncomfortable for me. I like my personal space! Where are the red cards? I can’t even imagine how chaotic mass starts can be—and I thought our field of 50 was rough!
The horn blew and we throttled toward the first buoy. I found feet on two girls swimming abreast and had some nice protection as we zoomed through the first third of the course. Right around the first major turn, however, I lost my nice little path of bubbles. I must have swung too far left around the turn as I realized (a few sights too late) that I had swum pretty far off-course. From there, it only went downhill. My lack of swim endurance caught up to me as I struggled to push my normal pace. To make matters worse, on the homestretch back to T2, the sun was directly in our line of sight and I struggled to see the dock, or even the next buoy. I crawled in (really, it was pitiful), feeling embarrassed as I gasped for air while the leaders from the wave behind us started to run me over. I stumbled out, didn’t even check how I did on the swim and just focused on getting to my bike, knowing that there was a huge hill coming out of T1.
Coming into T1, I started to realize just how BAD my swim was. There were very few bikes left on the racks, which was nice made it easy to find my bike but bad for my morale. Okay, maybe I was a *little* ambitious when I marked my finish time as 2:22 but this a big blow. I tried to shrug it off and made off like a madwoman on my bike. The good thing about such a competitive race is that there are good people to chase. The bad thing is that the people I was chasing were 40+ men who had passed me on the swim. Other than a lone girl I passed within the first two miles, there were no females to be seen. There were some big hills to struggle up, some nice flats to lay down the hammer, and some really good descents which I flew down at 40mph. Other than that, however, the bike was relatively unmemorable. Or maybe my rage from the swim caused me to black this portion out since I don't really remember the specifics.
Onto the run. I flew into T2, racked my bike on the now full-again racks and headed off. The first quarter-mile was a brutal uphill. In any other race, I would have been tempted to walk it. In this one, however, 1) there was a photographer at the top and who wants to be caught walking in race photos?! And 2) this was a NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP, for heaven’s sake. I felt like I was running in slow motion... or in slowly-drying concrete. However, this is the one time where my “no looking at the Garmin” rule actually hurt me: while tackling the hill, I might have guessed that I was “running” 16 min/miles. In reality, it was more like a perky 8:30 based on my Garmin data. That doesn’t sound that great but if you saw this hill, you would totally understand.
The rest of the race was unusually fast—mostly flat with some nice gentle downhill. The only problem was that I was really starting to heat up, especially with the sun beating down. I grabbed as much water as I could at the aid stations (of which I think they only had three... kind of surprising) and tried to douse myself. I found and passed another girl and then started to pick off a good number of people, particularly in the wooded area—where I got my break from the sun and other competitors got a break from the crowds. There was even a little bit of off-road running on a trail, which made me smile as it took me back to my high school cross country days. In the last mile or so, I spotted a 23-year-old girl ahead of me and made it my mission to try to catch her. However, I just didn’t have it in me. Despite a (relatively) valiant effort, I finished about 20 seconds behind her—but did manage to catch and pass about five other runners in my attempt.
At the finish, I was SO happy to be done and, honestly, all I could think about was getting away from the race venue. Normally, I’m the girl who wanders around the tents and competitors and grabs each of the free giveaways (MuscleMilk, that Mint Water, stale chips from the Qdoba tent—you name it) while chatting up the vendors. This race, however, I wanted OUT. Transition wasn’t set to open for another hour or two, so I jogged back to the car and hightailed it to the motel to shower before the 11am checkout. I made it with 10 minutes to spare, showered super quickly, tossed everything in the car and headed out to get an early lunch and coffee as I waited for transition to open up.
While waiting at a Starbucks, I thought I might as well pull up the race site and see whether results had been posted. They had—but incorrectly. Of course I didn’t know at the time. Based on the online results, I had placed second. SECOND?! Did I really race that well? Was it just a really hard course? Maybe those empty racks were for an older age group? Well, I went back to pack up transition, grabbed my bike and headed to the results tent where they were printing out the results. It was a mass list, not broken down by age group but a quick skim showed me that the actual top-5 had finished something like 20-25 minutes ahead of me. I kept scrolling down, until I found my name by the time I had seen online. Thirtieth place. My heart sank and I felt pretty stupid. Mostly because I had sunk the swim and then went thinking about how “awesome” I had done… when that was actually very far from the truth. To be fair, I thought I had a somewhat decent shot of making the top twenty. After all, my goal this year was to qualify for the 2012 race in Auckland. But thirtieth?! Ouch. I wheeled my bike to my car, hopped in and drove the very long 8-hours home.
It turns out that this just isn't my year. To be honest, next year probably isn't either. Despite what my "big fish in a small pond" race results show, I'm still a total newbie and work-in-progress—mentally and physically.
Looking back, however, what I don’t feel stupid about is the fact that I believed in myself—believed that I actually had the potential to perform at such a high caliber among a group of phenomenal athletes. Yes, it’s pretty naïve given this year’s training schedule and given some of my other past performances but such an unwavering belief in myself is what ultimately will help me succeed when I do reach that level. And trust me, give me a few years and I’ll get there. Watch out.