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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?