Sometimes, triathlon humbles you.
Sometimes, your body says, “Thanks, but not today. Try again tomorrow?”
Sometimes, you just don’t have the perfect race.
I went into the Musselman 70.3 hoping for a pre-IM confidence boost. I haven’t focused on 70.3-specific training this year, rather, I’ve been using them as practice for THE BIG ONE. I wanted to test out all the details I’ve been working hard to master and see how far all those hilly rides and track workouts and nutrition tests have brought me. But in the back of my head, that also meant I could potentially knock the race out of the park.
Last week, amidst all the “Good luck!” and “Kill it!” messages I received, I also got a “Secretly I’m praying you have a bad race.” What? The explanation was that not every race in a season is going to be the best race of your life, and it’s better to knock that less-than-stellar one out before I toe the line in Wisconsin.
I’ve had a lot of near-perfect races this year. I’ve PR’d over and over and over and over in everything I’ve attempted. I’m used to standing on the podium and exceeding every goal I set by miles and writing glowing race reports. It’s made me comfortable and confident, but it’s also set up the expectation — for me and for others — that this is normal and will continue to happen. I needed to be knocked a few rungs down the ladder, to be humbled, to learn to respect the distance, to see that I’m not invincible, to realize that triathlon is HARD.
Musselman did just that. This wasn’t the race that I wanted, and I may not have come out of it with a shiny new PR or the confidence that I’ll destroy IM, but it did teach me how to handle something that doesn’t go as planned — and how to just relax and let things go and appreciate the experience for what it is.
I started writing this race report in my head halfway through the run and spent much of the long drive home rewording and reorganizing. And since I believe it’s just as important to break down races that don’t go well as it is to carefully analyze those that do, here goes.
To avoid taking vacation days and to minimize the expense of staying in Geneva, Anna, Shireen, Hillary, James and I left early Saturday morning to head to NY. The drive takes about 6.5 hours and is beautiful (we drove past lots of lakes and cliffs and vineyards), but it’s definitely a long time to be in the car the day before a big race. We arrived around 1:30, headed straight to athlete check-in and then made our way down to the shore of Seneca Lake to check out the sight of the swim and get a short warm-up ride in. Geneva is gorgeous, and if nothing else, the race is worth doing just for the scenery.
After an hour-long ride, we headed up the hill into town for a “mandatory” pre-race briefing. I know, every race has one of these and it’s never truly required, but we’d been told they actually check you in. It was pretty full, and I imagine most of the athletes racing were there, but it definitely wasn’t mandatory. Liars. When we were dismissed at 5:15, we headed to a fellow DC Tri’ers family home for a pre-race pasta dinner. Ryan’s mom made an ungodly number of pounds of pasta, meatballs, bread, green and fruit salad and platters upon platters of delicious desserts. It was fun to see the large group of people in town for the race and enjoy a home-cooked meal while hanging out in lawn chairs in the backyard.
Post-dinner, we headed to our hotel to check in. We were a little late with the logistics of this trip, so we ended up staying about 40 minutes outside of town. Sure, this made the morning a little earlier, but there’s no traffic in the area and it gave us the chance to wake up a bit before hitting transition. I didn’t sleep well at all — shocker, something new and different — and when my alarm went off at 4:30 I was tired but ready to just get up and get on with it. Pre-race bagel/almond butter/banana and we were on our way.
The race transition is in the parking lot of a state park right on the shore of Seneca Lake. After setting up our space, getting body marked, we headed to the shore to the High Cloud/DC Tri tent area to catch up with the rest of the group. The start was in-water but you enter from the beach, which was great for spectators. Our tent was right on the edge of the sand — and the run-up to the finish.
The swim course is a 3/4 loop in the lake with an extra “arm” to the finish through a harbor and into a narrow canal. The water is clear and shallow and appears to be calm. Appears. When we entered, it was very choppy, which totally threw me off. It’s also full of all kinds of seaweed and other plants — because of the depth — so if you’re scared of the zombies that live on the bottom of bodies of water or whatever, this definitely isn’t the race for you. I got tangled up a couple of times and spent a fair amount of energy pushing seaweed away.
Anyway. We dithered about wearing wetsuits up until 10 minutes before our wave was scheduled to enter the water. At 73 degrees, it was right on the edge of both absolutely yes and absolutely no. [In case you didn’t know, I HATE wearing a wetsuit.] It’s warm enough to get away with not wearing it but cool enough that you won’t totally suffocate if you do. In the end, we went with yes, and I’m really glad.
Anna and I were in Wave 3 starting 10 minutes after the first group. We waded out a few meters from shore and stood in knee-deep water, waiting for the gun to go off. As soon as it did, I started swimming. A lot of people continued to walk for a long time — it was shallow enough to do so at least until the first bouy. About 2 minutes in, I knew this day wasn’t going to go as planned.
First, the water was choppy. Very choppy. With nearly every breath I was getting a mouthful of water, and I was being pushed all over the place. I wanted to get on Anna’s feet and draft off of her — I asked politely — but she’s too fast for me and I lost her after a few hundred meters. My sighting was okay minus the waves, but as soon as we turned back toward the shore the sun was right in our eyes and it was impossible to see the next buoy. I was basically just trying to follow everyone else until we got to the calmer waters of the harbor and creek. Even so, I felt like I wasn’t moving and like I’d been in the water FOREVER. When I finally reached the boat ramp and was helped up by volunteers on both sides, I was frustrated and certain that the swim had been much much slower than Kinetic. I looked down at my Garmin to press “lap” and realized I’d somehow screwed it up at the start. No idea what my time was. I’ve used multisport mode several times, but a software update deleted all my settings and somehow I didn’t get them back quite right. I thought that knowing my swim time would have just bothered me for the rest of the race anyway, so I reset my watch as I ran into T1 to grab my bike. Imagine my surprise when I checked the results and my swim was actually a minute faster than at Kinetic.
5th AG/33rd women/123rd overall
T1 — 1:41
I was at the back corner of transition right by bike out and run out but opposite swim in/bike in. It’s great to be by the exit, but unless bike in/out are at the same place you’re going to have to run with your bike at some point. In this case that happened in T2, but I think T1 was a little on the slow side because I was fiddling with my Garmin and a little slow getting my wetsuit off and still disoriented from what I thought had been a horrible swim.
2nd AG/24th women/81st overall
Bike — 56 miles, 2:55:43 (19.2mph)
I was really unsure what to expect on this course. It was described as mostly flat with a few rollers and one or two actual climbs and descents. We knew there was a 2-mile stretch around mile 42 on a pretty rough footpath. But this was the first race for which I haven’t either ridden or driven the bike course to preview what I’m in for, and I realize now how critical that is to my mental preparation.
First, the bike course is beautiful. You ride through wide expanses of farmland, past old farmhouses and Amish families headed to church with their horses and buggies, and down the coast of the lakes. You never lack interesting scenery. On the downside, it’s more or less flat, a little bit rough at times, unshaded and so unbelievably windy it makes you want to scream.
I ride almost exclusively on hills. That’s my strength, and that’s what I need on race day in Wisconsin. So when I got out on this course and was battling headwinds that made me feel like I was going backwards, my immediate reaction was “$%@#*^%$! This isn’t want I trained for!” It’s partly because it’s flat — but with some nasty false flats — and partly because it’s just a wide expanse of open land, and maybe a little bit due to the surrounding bodies of water, but we never got any relief from the wind no matter what direction we were headed. There’s a sick downhill around mile 28 and a steep up a few miles later, but as far as real elevation change that’s about it. Wind, wind and more wind.
I was so frustrated as I watched my average speed drop to below 3:00 pace. I got a mental boost at about the halfway point because I was finally warmed up and realized if I had a really great — and negative split — second half, I could still come in around 2:45. But, between the wind and the rough, butt-pounding 2 miles on the path through Sampson State Park, I quickly realized that was unlikely. Which was frustrating because my nutrition was on track and I’d even mastered the bottle exchange — meaning I was fully hydrated for the first time ever — and a part of me still wanted to save this race. Then I considered, for the first time ever, quitting after the ride. Just for a second. I was miserable in my saddle and kept having to shift in and out of aero (I think this was the wind and the course, not my fit or seat) and exhausted and dreading the half marathon in my future. I tried to calculate what I’d need on the run to make up for potential losses on the swim and bike and then just threw up my hands and decided to change gears. This race was no longer about a PR and a podium spot and living up to arbitrary expectations — it became a game of adaptation in a tough situation and learning that you don’t have to have your best day to succeed and enjoy doing it. My Garmin ticked past that 2:45 mark with a few miles left to go, but as soon as I rode back into the park toward the dismount line through crowds of people cheering me on, I was re-energized and wanted to get my head back in the game.
2nd AG/38th women/205th overall
T2 — 1:24
Here’s where I had to run around all the racks with my bike, which can be so frustrating when you’re tired. But when I got back to my spot, I saw this:
Every entrant had to provide a motivational saying with their registration, which I’d forgotten about until race morning. I didn’t have a mantra at the time, but it turns out that this was exactly what I needed in that moment. It nearly brought me to tears.
T2 is always pretty quick for me, though it took me a few tries to get my right heel in my shoe. Damn you, speed laces! But I headed out on the run, determined to redeem this race simply by giving it everything I had left and enjoying the hell out of the next 13.1 miles.
2nd AG/9th women/56th overall
Run — 1:56:23, 13.1 miles (8:45/mile)
Unfortunately, it was close to 90 degrees when I hit the run course. Much of it is unshaded and there was almost no breeze, so it was brutal from the first few steps. I was carrying my Nathan’s bottle and made the conscious decision to get what I needed at rest stops, be friendly with the volunteers and engage the spectators — partly for the distraction, and partly because I was truly grateful for everything they were doing to make my race a little less painful.
We started with 2 miles on a path along the edge of the lake — which would have been beautiful if it hadn’t been so hot — before heading uphill into the town. I am not kidding when I say uphill — through someone’s backyard, straight up. There was a volunteer at the bottom telling races we could either run (climb? it was that steep) up the grass or take a few flights of wooden stairs. I asked him which one was easier and he said grass, so up I went. A little perspective on how hard this day was — I never EVER walk hills, but I had to do so multiple times throughout this run.
After summitting the hill, we turned onto a residential street, where lots of spectators were out with their hoses, spraying racers down. You can’t accept outside help during a tri, which includes hydration, but you sure as hell can run through sprinklers. And I did, every chance I got. I stopped at every aid station long enough to get ice and water in my bottle. I waved to all the kids cheering on the side of the road. Anything to take my mind off of the heat and the fact that I had 10, 7, 5 more miles to run.
Strong is just what you have left when you’ve used up all your weak.
The run course overall is rolling through neighborhoods and by the local college. There’s a nasty and long hill around the halfway point, and I think what makes it so hard is that it’s unshaded and on a gravel road, so you never get even footing no matter how hard you try. Plenty of people were doing the death march up this hill. Some of the downhills weren’t any better — too steep to really be comfortable to fly down. And my shoes were soaking wet and giving me terrible blisters.
At mile 10, headed back into town and toward the lake, a girl in my age group (wearing a Bonzai kit) went flying by me. Like, flying. All of a sudden she was in and out of sight. Prior to that I thought I may have been in a podium spot, but when I saw her go I realized I might have just lost even a third place finish. I hadn’t noticed anyone in my AG out on the course all day, but I thought my swim was so terrible that there was no way I could have made up lost time. But I had to swallow my pride and realize that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t go with her. I couldn’t let my competitive nature get the better of me. My body didn’t want to speed up and the race was no longer about winning anyway. So I wished her well and kept on with my slow(er) progress toward the finish. The last two miles along the lake were absolutely brutal, especially when you passed people headed out in the other direction just starting their run, but when I neared the finish and heard the crowd and saw familiar faces waiting for me I had enough left to really kick it in.
Strong is just what you have left when you’ve used up all your weak.
3rd AG/36th women/119th overall
When I crossed the line, I was surprised and thrilled and disappointed all at once to see my time. I had no idea where I was thanks to my Garmin malfunction, but I knew it was pretty far off my Kinetic time and definitely a long way from where I was hoping to be. But 5:28, man, that’s still fast! Given everything I experienced over the course of the day, it’s hard to call that a failure. And when I checked the results after the race and found I was second in my age group, I was especially glad I hadn’t just given up and let my frustration get the best of me.
Finish — 5:28:40 — 2nd AG/24th women/111th overall
The medical staff at the finish line was totally prepped for the carnage the day was causing and immediately asked me if I was okay. I grabbed some water and headed to the next tent, where they had baby pools set up and filled with cold water. A fresh ice bath immediately? Yes please! I chatted with the other people in the pool, including the girl who flew by me on the run, and then gathered my stuff to head over to our team tent.
The next few hours involved avoiding the heat, enjoying good company, watching friends and teammates finish and trying to get some calories and liquids in. I stretched my sore butt, ate a cookie and some watermelon and hung out in the shade. We all took a few minutes to complain about our aches and pains (Shireen’s badass road rash, Anna’s stress fracture, my piriformis):
Then we attended the awards ceremony, where Adam, Jenny and I all claimed podium spots for our performances. And I brought home that bottle of wine I was hoping for…
So — I could name a thousand reasons why this race may not have gone well. It was 91 degrees out when I started the run. I drove 6.5 hours in the car on Saturday and didn’t have a meal until 5:30pm. I slept about 4 hours before the race thanks to one of my regular middle-of-the night anxiety attacks (does anyone else wake up every night like clockwork with their minds racing, or is that just me?). I didn’t taper even a little bit. Sure, most of those things I can and will fix before IM. But in the end, I still raced, I still finished, I still learned from the experience. And I’ll take that and run with it — literally and figuratively — for the next eight weeks leading up to the BIG ONE.
Now that I’m home — we drove a rough eight hours, unshowered, after the race — and a little bit less nauseous and delirious, I can say I’m glad I did this. And I’m glad someone had the sense to wish me a bad race, to bring me back to earth, to talk some sense into my stubborn head. I needed it. And I’m ready to make that last push that’ll get me to the finish line in top form in Madison.
Finally — a huge shout-out to the volunteers at this race. From the people working packet pick-up to the aid station groups, they were beyond amazing. Every time I ran up to an aid stop and called out what I wanted, someone was there with two cups each of water and ice, ready to pour it into my bottle. Or three soaked sponges to shove down my jersey. One volunteer even grabbed my bottle and used the aid station cooler to fill it all the way. [Sidenote: Carrying water was absolutely essential, not only to stay hydrated but also so I could pour cold water on my head at any point. Hydration stopped mattering around mile 10 when I stopped sweating — I needed electrolytes and BADLY — but I absolutely will do this from now on.] They were so helpful despite the miserable heat, and the race absolutely could not have happened without them. So, thank you!
Photos and a breakdown of goals to come.