Race report: HITS Napa Valley Olympic Triathlon

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On Monday I gave a quick recap of how the race went this weekend. Today, I’m sharing the full report on my first Olympic-distance triathlon (1500-meter swim, 24.8-mile bike and 6.2-mile run) at HITS Napa Valley.

The Day Before the Race

On Saturday, Hubby and I drove up to Lake Berryessa in Napa for our pre-race packet pick-up. Half of me was excited because, physically, my fitness level was right where I wanted it to be for my initial attempt at this distance: I had taken it easy in the previous weekend’s half marathon, and my final shake-out swim (1500m) and bike (15 mi) in the days leading up to the race felt comfortable and almost effortless.

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The other half of me, however, was starting to get increasingly anxious. I had only gotten in one “real” open-water swim session, despite knowing that that leg would be the most difficult for me mentally. I kept thinking, though, that if I could just power through the swim, I’d be home free for the bike and the run.

But, as they say, “hope is not a strategy”…especially when, on Saturday afternoon, I felt an all-too-familiar tickle in my throat. I chugged water and took all kinds of Vitamin C, Elderberry and Echinacea in the hopes that it was just allergies, but it progressed over the course of the evening into a full-on sore throat and full-body tired feeling.

Not that I’m using my not feeling well as an excuse; I know plenty athletes at all levels who race — and win — through sickness. But, looking back, I do believe that it factored into my ability to attack the course when things got tough. More on that later.

Race Morning

Before we knew it, the 4:30 am alarm was jolting us awake in our hotel room (not that Hubby and I had much sleep that night; we were both up every few hours in anticipation of the big day). We dressed quickly, loaded our gear into the car and set off for the hour-plus drive to the race site.

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We arrived to Chaparral Cove about 6:15 am, and went straight over the the transition area to get set up. It was fairly hectic because everyone performing their respective pre-race rituals (think body-marking, port-o-pottie lines and lubing up with BodyGlide), but I’ve got to hand it to HITS — they streamlined the process extremely well.

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Not only did they organize us in alphabetical order within the transition area, but they also provided each athlete with a stool and bike space. Plus, having a bike holder on the ground was SO much better than the hanging kind, which is subject to getting knocked over by overzealous athletes (as I experienced in a previous sprint-distance race).

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The Swim

Once our transition areas were set, we met up with a friend, Tara, and eased into the water for a few minutes before the guns went off. We were expecting the temperature to be in the 50’s, so when we found out it was in the 60’s, it was a pleasant surprise!

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When it was time for the women’s heat to take to the water, I hung toward the back of the pack. After the gun went off, I counted five seconds, then eased my way in. I knew the first few minutes would be complete chaos until everyone found their groove.

Long story short, I never found mine. Mid-way between the shore and the first large buoy was a smaller one, so I gave myself permission to take it easy to that point, and then I’d get down to business. But by the time I reached it, though, I was still in the middle of a splashing pack and started to feel short of breath with my legs and arms getting increasingly heavy.

From there, I figured I’d alternate breaststroke and backstroke until the first big buoy. Or until I calmed down and got my breathing under control. But it only escalated from there. I started hyperventilating. A million thoughts were rushing through my head at once.

Do what you do in the pool. I can’t see anything! Focus on your breath. I just swallowed a mouthful of water! Focus on the next buoy. It’s so far, and I’m losing ground on the group! Why can’t I control my breathing? Relax! I can’t catch a breath. Should I pull over to the kayaker? No, you can’t stop; gotta keep moving forward. I just got kicked! Keep moving. I just inhaled more water! I don’t want to be here. I’m so far out! Just focus on the shore and get there.

Rather than stopping, I resorted to flipping over on my back and counting 15-20 backstrokes before flipping over on my stomach, sighting and doing 5-10 breaststrokes, then repeating the process. I was hoping the routine would help me calm down, but none of my mental tricks were able to override the physical fight-or-flight mode that my body was now locked into.

By the time I rounded the last buoy and headed to shore, things had progressively gotten worse and I started wheezing after swimming through a lovely pile of chunky vomit (ew). Because I hadn’t breathed at a normal rate or depth in 20+ minutes, every deep breath I tried to take would start a coughing fit, which only made matters worse.

By the time I finally hit shore, I wanted to burst out crying — partly out of sheer relief, partly out of disappointment in myself and partly out of terror at having to do it all over again. But I knew the longer I waited, the more I’d psych myself out, so I tried to shake it off as I got back in the water and started lap number two.

I tried again to hit the mental reset button, but it was no use. I had passed the point of no return, still wheezing, unable to take a full breath. I knew I had to make a call: Either spend the second lap fighting, or just give in and try to get it done as best I could to conserve some energy. I chose the latter, and breaststroked/backstroked it in while distracting myself by counting every single stroke.

After I rounded the final buoy, I came up alongside a man who was doing the breaststroke, as well. He must’ve seen me struggling because he smiled and said, “We’re in the home stretch. Almost there, and then we’re done with this!” I could have hugged him; it was just what I needed — knowing that someone else felt what I was feeling — to give me a final push to get to shore.

Once there, I tugged off the top of my wetsuit and made my way up the ramp. But I knew I was in trouble — not only was I still not able to catch a full breath, but I also felt dizzy and completely drained from the adrenaline-ridden adventure in the water.

Time: 55:47

The Bike

I took the first transition (5:48) to strip down, dry off, get dressed in my bike gear and try to recollect myself. It’s never fun getting in from the swim and seeing most of the bikes already gone, but you can either give up or reset your expectations for the day and focus on the finish. Again, I chose the latter, hoping I could make up some time during my stronger disciplines.

Although I was still struggling to catch a breath (every time I’d try to inhale more than halfway, I’d start a coughing fit), the bike leg went really well. I knew I was starting at the back of the pack, so I made a goal to try to pick off as many people as possible to keep myself motivated.

It was an out-and-back-course, and the first half went great; I passed a handful of people, was fueling according to plan (a personal victory to multitask on the bike!) and enjoying myself as I played cat-and-mouse with a fellow rider: I’d pass him on the hill climbs, and he’d breeze past me on the descents.

In fact, it became a bit of a joke after the first few times — I’d pass and tag him, then he’d return the favor. On and on it went, and I think that camaraderie actually helped both of us stay in the race toward the end. Those rolling hills sure got a lot tougher on the way back in, and by that time my stomach started to feel a little wonky.

Although it wasn’t my strongest ride (I was aiming for around 1:30), I was proud that I bounced back and put in a decent effort despite a rough start to the race.

Time: 1:46: 37

The Run

Getting off the bike and into my running gear in the second transition (5:53) proved a more difficult task than I had anticipated. What should have taken me about a minute turned into six because I was dizzy, nauseous and exhausted. Looking back, I think I used up all my adrenaline in the swim, and then finally relaxed on the bike, so when it came time for the run, I had no more “go.”

Even though I had consistently fueled during the bike, I could tell I was on fumes at that point. I was so disoriented, I had to ask a few people to point me toward the run exit out of transition, and when I saw that the first stretch was a hill, I knew the odds of me being able to run the entire 6.2 miles were slim.

Damn. Enter resetting of expectations…again.

Between (still) not being able to take a full breath, a now-upset stomach and cramping calves, I alternated walking up hills and jogging on flats and down hills. I’d literally go until something started going (lungs, stomach, calves), then walk, collect myself and do it again until something else went. Definitely not the way I had intended to spend the last leg of the race.

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The only thing left to do? Turn my frown upside down, turn my tears into cheers. That became my new mantra, and the more horrible I felt, the more I would clap, yell and try to rally all the runners around me as we took turns passing each other. Seeing them perk up, smile and quicken their step in response somehow kept me going. Well, that, and a few cups of Coke at the aid station!

After the final hill climb, I jogged past a women and told her how great she was doing before I slowed to a walk next to her. My stomach was not happy, my whole body ached and I was going to collect myself before jogging to the finish, but she picked up the pace and told me that I couldn’t stop now — we were so close. It was the push I needed  to get running again, around the last corner, down the hill and across the finish line.

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Time: 1:10:16

Doris and Hubby were there waiting for me with big smiles and open arms. I’ve never been so happy to cross a finish line; in fact, I think I was in disbelief for the first few minutes.

What followed was a flood of emotions: Joy at the finish, embarrassment at my swim performance, relief that it was over, disappointment in my time, happiness over the bike portion, anger about the less-than-stellar run and pride at putting it all aside to get the race done regardless.

Final time: 4:04:23


What’s next?

Well, after my stomach settled, the first stop Hubby and I made was at Habit Burger to reward ourselves with a little post-race cheeseburger, fries and chocolate shake action.

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Next on the agenda? Getting well. After the full-body ache set in, I had a suspicion that I was running a temperature. I confirmed it Sunday afternoon, and it has since morphed into a bad cough and head cold, so I’ve spent a few days loading up on vitamins, juice and rest to try to kick this bug.

As for long-term plans, well, I’m mulling over where to go from here.

My hope was to do a half Ironman in the fall after completing this race, but it’s pretty clear I’ve got to go back to the drawing board and work through this open-water mental block before taking on a longer distance. Whether that means lessons, coaching, duathlons and shorter distances — or a combination of all of those — in the meantime, I’m going to try to figure out.

Is it the end for me and triathlon? No, not at all. With my love of running and my new-found passion for cycling, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface when it comes to multisport events. And not only did I enjoy training immensely, but I also made some major strides on the bike, so I’m most proud of that small, personal victory from this experience.

Most of all, though, I’d never want to walk away from anything with a bad taste in my mouth. So even if I’ve got to start from scratch in the pool and build up to a successful (aka anxiety-free) sprint race, I think it’d be a very rewarding process from start to finish.

And you know what else? Just like I told myself during the swim to keep from throwing in the towel: You just gotta keep moving forward.

How do you bounce back from a tough race?

35 thoughts on “Race report: HITS Napa Valley Olympic Triathlon

  1. You did GREAT, and you look amazing!

    As far as how to bounce back from a tough race, I can only suggest what has helped me: focus on the achievement. You completed a very challenging course – your first Oly! – while sick, wanting to quit, facing your OWS fears, etc. That’s something to celebrate!

    Also, what you’re already doing is great – using this experience to point out areas you want to focus on in training. Think how great the next one is going to feel, better trained and under better circumstances, when you blow this time out of the water!


  2. You should continue to hold your head HIGH and be PROUD of what you accomplished!

    As much as this was tough for you it seems that you’re doing the right thing to move past it: find your weakness, and figure out how to improve it. I have only done one sprint tri, but from what I hear the swimming is the most difficult part for the majority (it seems the group is mostly runners/cyclists doing the best they can in the water). I came in last in my swim and was in quite the panic for most of the time (and mine was a mere 1/3 miles) – I recovered the best I could and just told myself that I need to work on that area moving forward.

    You’ve got this!


    • Thank you very much for the kind words! Yes, I think only the former swimmers are comfy in the water…the rest of us just want to get that part over with 🙂 And good for you for recovering & moving forward from your swim, too…it can be tough to make that mental switch mid-race, but kudos for finishing regardless!


  3. Great, great job!! You’re awesome!! I’ve done quite a few open water swims and it’s really about finding your rhythm (like you said) and getting into a breathing pattern. I’m sorry to hear you had a terrible swim experience but think it’s totally awesome that you let go of the swim and made it through your bike and run. It’s never easy- I do run-swim-runs and my husband does duathlons (run-bike-runs), so it’s definitely difficult to balance the energy of the race/people and yourself and equipment and everything else. You’re awesome and should be so proud of yourself!


    • Thanks so much – I appreciate that! And you’re so right – definitely a whole new balancing act to learn coming from a run background, but I’m always up for a challenge 🙂 Might have to try some duathlons like your hubby does, too! I think a combo of that, along with some work on the swim, would get me into a better place for my next tri.


  4. I’m so proud of you for getting through that swim, and not letting it ruin the rest of your race! Heart and courage in action right there 🙂 I had a terrifying experience at my first open water swim, in fact the conditions were so bad they ended up cancelling the swim part of the race and calling us all back to shore. That experience still haunts me a bit every time I go in the water. The good thing is whenever I’m having a rough time during a swim now, I think about that race and how I survived it anyway and it gives me a slight confidence boost. If you want to get more time in at Aquatic Park and need a buddy, let me know!


    • That’s actually a great way to think about it with the confidence boost; I love that! Thank you so much for the encouragement – this was a hard recap to write, but I hope one day I’ll be able to look back on it & see it as a starting point to something great. And I would LOVE a swim buddy…as soon as I kick this cold, let’s chat. And CONGRATS on Oceanside…you amaze & inspire me!


  5. Jennifer-I can’t tell you how much credit I give you for explaining all of your exploits in getting to this race, but also how proud your home team is of you for sticking it out and finishing. It is not the time that counts but the determination, fortitude and attitude that count. You are a winner in all aspects!


  6. Jen, as Dad H. said, “It’s not the speed, it’s the deed!” We are so impressed with your determination….that’s shows terrific character! Eat lots of candy and recuperate. Oregon is proud of you!!


  7. Even though this race didn’t turn out quite as you hoped you still did so great at your first Olympic distance tri!! You are awesome to cheer people on to the finish even as you were struggling. I’m sure you all helped each other. It always takes me a while to get going on the swim too. Anyway, you still deserve big congratulations!


    • Thank you so much! Yes, one of the things that impressed me were the people – I always sing the praises of runners, but triathletes are super-supportive, as well. Couldn’t have done what I did without those people around me, so I figured the least I could do would be to try to return the favor!


  8. Congrats on the race! I know it’s not what you were hoping for, but it’s a HUGE accomplishment! And I’ll be honest with you — that course is ROUGH. I had a pretty crap swim in that lake last year, and the bike and run courses are not easy, either.

    I had a terrible open water swim in my first tri, and they’ve gotten slightly better over time, but the only thing I think really makes it better is practice. I swim with a group at Aquatic Park pretty regularly, if you’re ever interested in joining for that! Aquatic Park can be choppy in the afternoons, and I think that’s given me confidence for other races. It also really helps me to not just get in the water but get my heart rate up before a swim start — jumping jacks, situps, whatever. It looks and feels ridiculous, but it makes a big difference.


    • Thank you! You know, I’ve heard from more than a few people that it was a tough course, so that does make me feel a bit better! I’m sorry to hear you had a rough start with the swim part, too, but knowing you’ve had success with it since gives me hope! Getting into that Aquatic Park chop might help – I went from uncomfortable to comfortable in the pool during this training block, but never made the same leap with regards to open water, so that’s something I really need/want to focus on for next time.


  9. Congrats on finishing!

    You are such an inspiration- especially since I am prepping for my first Olympic tri at Wildflower in about two weeks. It’s always nice to see a recap from someone who is going through similar feelings and a new race distance.

    For me, if I have a tough race, I probably take about a week or so (no more than two) off to recover. Most times, I’ll have given it all I have to finish that race, and the week off is just quality time for my body and mind. Luckily, I’ll have my races spread out far enough that I can take this week to recover without losing too much of training.


    • Thanks! That’s so exciting that you’re doing Wildflower – I’ve heard great things! And agreed – sometimes all it takes is knowing that other people are going through the same thing (as hard as it can be to admit sometimes) to help you get through. Here’s hoping you get well soon & crush that course! Stay confident, trust your training and focus on the finish 🙂


  10. That had to be so gruelling of an ordeal..It would make anyone want to give up, but you are a fighter and have real heart to keep going..and keep going you did right up to the finish line! You DID win today. You proved you have what it takes and you’ll be even stronger next time in whatever you decide to do. You have much to be proud of! As dad said, we are all so proud of you!


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  12. You finished and overcame some serious obstacles…for that, you should be celebrating. The key is to not let this race define you and your race goals/future performances. Take this lesson and learn from it. I struggled on the bike, so I would intentionally go out and ride the hardest hills I could find, ride into a strong headwind and push myself in my weakest leg to get stronger…especially mentally. If I knew swimming was my weakest leg, I would work even harder at making it mentally and physically stronger. Find a lot of open water swim options and take part in them (even if they include competing in the whole triathlon). You are strong and you will do it!! Heart & Courage 🙂


    • I love that approach – thank you for the advice and for helping to re-light that fire! I have to admit, at the finish part of me thought, “Well, maybe this just isn’t for me.” But I KNOW it’ll eat away at me if I just give up, so I’m determined to turn it around. My plan is to take some lessons to build a good base, and then work with someone who can give me some tools for overcoming the anxiety and gaining confidence in open water. And then practice, practice, practice!


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