Going the (Olympic) Distance

After the race: happy me!
After the race: happy me!

Sunday was the big day!  The day of my first Olympic Distance triathlon. Ever since last summer, this has been my “fittest by 50 goal.”

I trained. I gathered up some support–both of my parents and Renald dragged themselves out of bed in the dark so they could come cheer me on. I checked out the course ahead of time. I signed up way in advance, specifically choosing the Bracebridge Triathlon because it’s reasonably close to my parents and the timing was right.

And still I had my doubts.  See my post on wanting to quit but not quitting.

I definitely wanted this behind me before we left for our summer vacation to the Grand Canyon and then on to Burning Man.

It was a clear, hot, and sunny day, not the least bit humid. We made it to Annie Williams Park, a grass-covered picnic area on the river, before 7 a.m.  My nerves settled into my stomach half way there, and I had to run from the car to the bathroom before I could even think of getting my stuff ready or checking in.

By the time I got back to the car, Renald had my bike unpacked and my bag ready to go. I pumped up my tires–a well-formed habit I’ve gotten into doing before every single time I take the road bike out.  I grabbed my bag and wheeled the bike down to the registration area where I picked up my bib–#335–and my t-shirt (I should have signed up for the cap).

As I entered the transition area, I heard someone calling my name. I turned around and it was one of the guys who trains with Balance Point Triathlon, the club I swam with through the winter and joined for the summer. I wear a club suit when I race so it was easy for Kevin to pick me out of the crowd. He is a fast swimmer and, as I found out later, a fast cyclist and runner as well. He acknowledged my understandable nerves and assured me that I’d be fine.

I’d driven the bike course the day before. I would have liked to have ridden it, but it didn’t seem like a wise thing to do within less than 24 hours of the race. It’s a hilly course with lots of different kinds of ascents and descents–from short and steep to slow and steady.  I’ve gotten over my terror of hills, no longer regarding them with complete dread. But the course did kind of scare me. I knew I’d be taking it slow.

I set up my transition area in the way I’ve become accustomed to, laying everything out on a navy blue towel, folded in half beside my bike.  Like this:

I folded my wetsuit over my racked bike and went out to chat with Renald. The announcer kept reminding us there would be a pre-race meeting near the water at 8 a.m. to explain the “time-trial start” for the swim. Because it was a narrow course on a river, we were going to go in five-second intervals in order or our bib numbers (which were assigned by age).

With about 5 minutes to go until the meeting, I slicked myself up at key points with Body Glide and wriggled into my wetsuit, up to my waist.

Athletes were already in the water doing swim warm-ups.  My parents arrived, lawn chairs in hand, just when the meeting was about to begin. Renald set them up in a prime location at the swim finish.

The time-trial start meant lining up on the dock and then in the water, 50 at a time, when the announcer called your group.  It’s a bit more nerve wracking than the typical start in three waves because it involves a lot more waiting around after the race has begun.  The fastest athletes were at the very front, the elites competing in the Ontario Championships and seeking a spot on the Canadian national team.

Since my group wouldn’t be called for about 15 more minutes after the start, I waded into the river for a practice swim. The bottom was oozy and soft, the water briny and dark. Not my favourite conditions, but at least it felt warm. No alarming jolt when it filled the wetsuit and no problem for the face, hands, and feet.

I hung with Renald and my parents for a few minutes but then felt like I really needed to get my head in the game. Moving closer to the dock, I heard my name again. This time, it was a colleague from the medical school.  I had no idea he did triathlons. He’d done the course a few times, and started talking about the bike course.  As soon as he began to describe the steep hill just a few kms from the start, at Santa’s Village, I felt my stomach drop a bit.

“Have a good race!” I said.

Then my group was called.

Lining up on the dock for the swim at Bracebridge. That’s me with the yellow cap. 🙂

The Swim: 1.5 kilometres

By the time I got to the front of the line I didn’t have a lot a time to think.  A 5 second countdown isn’t very long. Just let’s say I’m glad I had my goggles in place because the next thing I knew I was swimming.  I settled into pace after about 50 metres. This is the first time I haven’t had any difficulty establishing my rhythm and my breathing at the beginning of a race. I passed a few people right away.

Then I felt my timing chip coming loose. The strap was dragging and I knew at least part of it had come away from the velcro. Trust me, this water was dark enough that a lost timing chip would be just that: lost.  I ignored it for a few minutes but then I had to stop and check it, for fear of it coming off.  I couldn’t figure out exactly what the problem was, but at least some of it was still stuck together so I was pretty sure it wouldn’t fall off. That little stop probably added 30 seconds because it broke my rhythm.

The swim took us along the shoreline on one side of the river for 720 metres, then we crossed to the other side (about 10 metres) and swam back, down along the other shore to the finish. I sighted regularly, keeping the enormous orange markers in view and on my left.  Green cones marked the turns, and there would only be three of them. The first one seemed to take forever to come into view.  I picked up the pace when I rounded it. I knew I had plenty in the tank for a negative split on the swim. I got caught behind someone on that stretch, having to hold up so as not to get kicked in the face, but I altered my course slightly to find a clear path. I caught site of some gnarly tree branches under the water, which freaked me out (read: irrational fear of things in the water).

I caught sight of the final green marker at the end of the swim, indicating the last turn which would be followed by a short stretch to the shore and the run up to the transition. I gunned it.


On shore, Mum, Dad and Renald were yelling “Go, Tracy!”  I smiled and ran a bit faster.

Swim time: 33:45 minutes.

Transition 1

I got all flustered in the transition area, despite having mapped out my course visually from the entrance prior to the race. I had to double back out of the duathlon bike area and when I found my bike I looked at everything on my towel and for a brief moment I had no idea what to do next.  Okay. Regroup. I pulled off the wetsuit and dabbed myself off with a towel. It was hot enough that it didn’t really matter if I was still wet.

I just wanted dry feet. So I threw the towel down and stepped on it while I grabbed my socks and pulled them on. Then the glasses and the helmet, bike shoes, gloves.  Things were moving in slow motion (not the best thing for a race).  I unracked the bike and ran out the “bike out” arch to the mount line.

“Come on, Trace!” Mum shouted.

T1 time: the transition times seem to have disappeared from the race results postings, but my T1 was my slowest ever, somewhere in the 3 minute range.

Running out of T1 for the bike ride.

The Bike: 40 kilometres

Here’s the part where everyone passes me.

But I knew that would happen, so I had my own goals for the bike.  They were modest. I was going to use it to build confidence on my ability to make it up hills, fearlessness in letting it fly on the descents, and awareness of cadence and the sensation of “spinning” the pedals, especially the part where you’re supposed to feel like you’re scraping mud off your shoes.

By now the sun had risen high in the sky and it was getting hot. I could give a play by play, but instead, I think I’ll just give you some random highlights.

1.  I DID make it up all the hills. They were challenging. That Santa’s Village Hill my colleague told me about, for example, defeated at least one person in front of me because he was picking himself up after having fallen over trying to make it.  Me? I had to slowly grind my way up, huffing and puffing all the way.  The other challenging hill was a long, steady climb just before the turnaround point.  It went on and on and on. But I had my positive self-talk ready for that one.  I only considered bailing a couple of times.  And then I reminded myself that everyone always tells me I’m built to be a climber. So I repeated, aloud, “I’m a climber, I’m a climber, I’m a climber, I can do this, I can do this.” And I used all the tips I’d been given at the hill climbing workshop, letting up a bit as I came into a hill, then spinning at a high cadence into the climb, doing that mud scraping thing.

2. Drinking and eating on the bike is not my strong point, but I needed to do both if I didn’t want to run into trouble on the run.  I had some food handy in my new and wonderful bike bento box–my homemade endurance gel block shots.  I ate them at regular intervals and drank my water, laced with Emergen-C on the flats.  I practiced drinking while pedaling. But each time I took a drink, I lost time.

3. That demoralizing feeling of being left in the dust.  Other than that guy who fell over and another poor soul who had a flat, I didn’t pass anyone on the bike ride.  But oh, did people pass me! Each time, I had to buck myself up with some positive self-talk and remind myself that my only goal was to complete the race. There were a handful of people behind me — I saw that when I turned around. But yeah, it’s frustrating not to know what to do to go faster.  I spoke to a woman at the end of the race who is the first person I’ve ever talked to who “gets it.”  She too said that she just doesn’t understand how people go faster on the bike. It seems impossible to her that her time will ever improve.  Well, that’s how it seems to me.

4. The last leg of the bike, when I was all alone and could see no one else, and I still had a 10K run ahead of me, and I was well aware that it was approaching noon already and it would be hot, and I knew I’d been out there on the bike longer than I’d planned to  be–that’s when I thought briefly about bailing, and about downgrading my next triathlon in September to a sprint distance. But there is something about having to be accountable on the blog that can really motivate a person. So despite that little melodrama in my head, I kept at it (“I’m a climber, I can do this”) and I will be doing the Olympic in September.

When I got off my bike at the dismount line, mum said, “Wow, you look fresh!”

Bike time: 1:55:17 (I had hoped for between 1:30 and 1:45)

Transition 2

Uneventful except for the fact that the last thing I wanted to do at that point was a run a 10K.

T2 time: under 1:30 (but again, times seem to have disappeared from the website)

The Run: 10K

It was HOT. And despite looking fresh, I felt like I wanted to lie down on the grass in the shade of an old maple tree beside the river.  My run strategy was simple: I would try to keep my pace between 6:30 and 7:00 per kilometre, and that would bring me into the finish line within 1 hour and 10 minutes. I knew I could complete the 10K, it was just a matter of maintaining a decent pace.

I couldn’t keep it quite there.  The course was flat and had some shady bits, but the heat of the day was getting to me. At the water stations, I started to take extra and dump it over my head. That refreshed me for a few seconds each time.

Conscious that I was ignoring the received wisdom of never trying anything on race day you’ve not tried before, I drank some Hammer Heed because at that point I had over 5K to go and was worried about electrolytes. Mistake. Within minutes of drinking the Heed I felt bloated and heavy. This feeling stayed with me, in addition to overheated and just plain tired, to the end of the run.

It was an out and back course, so the people heading back were great for shouting out words of encouragement. I love the fact that this race series has our first names in large letters on the bibs, so you can support one another by name. It makes a difference.

Again, I passed no one. And by then, there weren’t many people left to pass me either. So I ran alone.

After the turnaround, about 10 cups of water over the head later, I noticed for the first time that my shoes were saturated with water. Each time I dumped it over the front of my head, it made its way down to my shoes. Slosh, slosh, slosh. That was for the last 4K.

Running isn’t scary because it’s so easy to walk. Nothing dangerous about it, you just slow down.  But I didn’t want to slow down. I knew my pace was faltering. I started to play little games with myself about making it to that tree or that house or that water station or that distance mark.

John, the guy behind me, passed me at the 8K mark, with the words, “I

wish that said 9K.”  I kept him in sight the rest of the way, but I couldn’t keep up.

And then I was turning into the park again, running down the grassy slope to the finish line.  Mum and Dad and Renald were yelling “Go, Tracy!” and others were saying, “You’re there!”

Run time: 1:18:48

Race time: 3:52:36

Crossing the finish line.

Of the 348 who finished, I was 343rd.  About six others succumbed to the heat and didn’t make it to the end.  My family greeted me at the finish line, Mum moved to tears by my accomplishment, Renald close behind her.

I did it!  It took a bit for it to sink in. This was the moment I’ve been training for all year. My fittest by 50 goal, accomplished!

I could probably write a separate post about what it feels like to finish in the bottom ten, but for now I’ll just say that those of us who endure to the end are out there a LONG time. Sean Bechtel, the champion, finished the entire course in 1:55:19, almost 2 full hours ahead of me!

I think the thing we most miss out on, us in the bottom ten, is the energy of the crowd.  By the time I got there, everyone had pretty much dispersed. There were still a few people eating pizza and packing up their stuff, but for the most part, everyone was gone.  The excitement of the announcer and people cheering at the finish line and coming in with other competitors is missing. It’s there in the shorter races–I felt it in Kincardine, for example. I love that finish line feeling when there are still enough people around to create that buzz in the air.

But that’s okay. I feel really good about my race day. I enjoyed myself a lot. If you’ll notice, I’m smiling in almost all of the pictures and that’s genuine. It was truly a fun time. And Mum, Dad, and Renald: Thank you for being there! I felt the love!

Next up: Lakeside Olympic Distance triathlon, September 14, 2015.

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