Going the (Olympic) distance: Uster Triathlon race report

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ustermedal.jpgIf I ever get really serious about racing and competition, the first thing I need to work on is 'how to eat breakfast the morning of the race'. Nerves and food don't mix well in my stomach, and never have. I remember when I did the London to Paris bike ride, I was surrounded by hotel breakfast offerings each morning and couldn't stomach the thought of anything else but an energy bar or two. Hydration is a little better - I do understand the need to drink and my nerves don't get in the way - but I'm still not that good at finding the balance between drinking enough and not needing the (revolting, portable, queue-inducing) toilet too much.

So I left the house a little after 7:30 with my stuff in a backpack and riding my bike to the train station, with Sophie insisting on watching Mummy ride off on the bike. The plan was to register, get my stuff sorted out, find a source of water to fill my bottles, and give myself time not to feel rushed (and maybe even time to stand in a queue for the toilet!) before my start at 10:15. I didn't have time to grab anything for breakfast before I left the house, and the hunger only started overriding the nerves about 9:45, but I did at least have some of Sophie's snacks (a squeezy pouch of applesauce and a cereal bar) with me by chance. And that's how I started an Olympic triathlon on nothing but water and applesauce.

I did have time to cheer for some of the people doing the sprint triathlon. I've made a Twitter acquaintance over the last few days of an English woman living in Z├╝rich who is also new to triathlon, and so I was looking for her. I spotted her taking off on the bike, but didn't see her come in before I had to go to my own start. I also saw some people wearing my club's kit, so I cheered for them and got this 'Gosh thanks but who on earth are you?' look, since I don't actually know very many people in my club. Still, cheering took my mind off being nervous.

And in a way it is a little mystifying that I was so nervous, that I needed to be distracted. I know that the thing I am best at is endurance, and so I very rarely actually doubt that I will be able to finish the races I start. It might totally suck and I might be totally slow and of course an accident could happen that would take me out of the race, but generally I have confidence that I'll finish. So what am I scared of? Being slow? Being last? Well there's a certain honor to being the 'lanterne rouge', and people tend to cheer extra hard for the valiant stragglers, so that shouldn't scare me either and I don't think it does. But possibly it's the fear of proving that I'm simply not good enough at whatever it is I'm trying to do. (But then, what is 'good enough' if not finishing the thing, which I already have reasonable confidence of doing?)

Until the morning of the race it wasn't clear whether wetsuits would be allowed for the swim or not. The lake temperature had been bouncing up and down around the cutoff point, and then on Friday night the online temperature graph stopped updating. As it happens I acquired a wetsuit last month as a birthday present and so I was looking forward to an opportunity to use it. I took it along just in case, and sure enough the lake had cooled enough that they were allowed.

So there I was, wearing my wetsuit for a swim for the second time ever, standing with a bunch of other women in the lake ready to go. Fortunately, it was also the second time ever (the second time that week, in fact) that I had covered the required distance in open water, so I did at least know I could swim that far without stopping. Admittedly, it still wasn't a pleasant prospect, but I told myself that all I had to do was get through this and then it would all get easier.

Swimming is still my bugbear in this triathlon business. If there's anything I doubt being able to finish it's the swim, particularly the open water swim. When I cycle, if I get tired I can change to a lower gear or freewheel for short spells. When I run, I can slow to a walk if I need to or even stand still, for a little while. But when I swim it is relentless. There is nothing to hold on to, no lower gear to change down to, nothing to do but keep going, going, going, quite literally no way to take a breather. It is stressful - doubly stressful when I have to pay close attention to my breathing rhythm and make sure I'm getting enough air and make sure I don't push myself into needing to gasp for air, which would wreck my whole swimming rhythm and might, you know, make me inhale water and cough and splutter and really need to stop even though I can't really stop. In the pool I get a wall every 50 meters, but in the lake it is just me and my buoyancy.

Well, I tried to push these thoughts away while I was swimming but it was hard. I did my best simply to focus on getting to the next buoy, and the next, and I noticed the sun come out which was nice and unexpected since the forecast had been for rain rain rain. And then I was on the home stretch and I knew I could make it but I was still intimidated by the effort it would take for me to actually make it. And then I was being pulled out of the water and my watch read 39:40 or some such. This isn't a great 1500-meter swim time in the world of triathlon (in fact I was the 3rd- or 4th-to-last woman out of the water), but for me it was a wonderful surprise. The official time ended up being 40:25 but still way better than the 45 minutes I hoped to beat.

I tried to be efficient through transition without rushing, because I knew very well that if I tried to rush I would just fumble. And still, the swim had taken something out of me because I did find it pretty hard to accomplish some basic motor skills. Step 1 was to run 400 meters while trying to pull off a wetsuit and not trip. I took somewhere between 4 and 5 minutes to finish getting the wetsuit off, get my socks & cycling shoes on, helmet, gloves, race number, get myself on the bike and on my way. (The fastest women went through this transition in under 2 minutes. This blows my mind - the fastest 400m I have ever sprinted is 1:43 or something, and I can assure you I was not barefoot at the time, nor pulling a wetsuit off of myself as I ran. Never mind how quickly they must have got shoes, hat, gloves on.)

I did already feel much better by the time I was on the bike. The course profile was not exactly flat - there were two rated climbs between 10km and 20km - but I also knew that after 20km it was all downhill, so I just had to pace myself and hang on for the first part. I played leapfrog with a few other women as we went up into the hills, and I guess they were using me as target practice as much as I was using them. But I also know that descents are what I'm good at (though I'm rather more wary and cautious when I'm tired and don't really know the road and it isn't closed to traffic and I don't want to be penalized for drafting) and by the time we were at the bottom of the hill I'd left my leapfrog companions well behind. (In fact I think I saw one of them coming in for the bike finish when I was about 1km in to the run, which really startled me.) The best way to illustrate the bike course is to look at my time split into 5km segments. My slowest (15-20km) took 15:30 to cover the distance; my fastest (25-30km), in which I was stuck annoyingly behind a guy without a good window to overtake him given the bends in the road, was more than twice as fast, 7:29. The fast men were blowing past me on their special speedy time trial bikes, but then again I blew past a few men on special speedy time trial bikes myself, which is always great fun. I did my best to keep on pace and make up the time I had lost going up the climbs, but trying not to shred my legs too much of course. Finally I clocked in at 1:25:30 - not the quickest 40km I've ever done, but still faster than the 1:30 I'd budgeted for.

Well now all I had to do was change shoes and run 10km, right? Easy peasy. I *knew* at that point that I would finish, that it wouldn't be under the three hours that I'd hoped for in my wildest optimism, but it should be under 3:15 (a more realistic goal, given the gaps in my training and the fact that I'm new at this) and may even be under 3:10. Still it evidently took me 3 minutes just to rack my bike and change my shoes. I do remember actually having to sit down to get the shoes on, because I just didn't have the balance left to put them on standing up. And I have to say that that 10K is probably the hardest I've ever had to run. I stopped to walk through all the drinks stations, and one of them was offering chunks of banana which was a godsend because I was pretty darn hungry by then. The route was 2 loops of 5K, so I knew when I first spotted the banana that all I had to do was run round again and I'd get some more. :) Even so, I think there was something about starting the second loop of the course that took the fight out of me - my pace slowed by about :15/km for #6, 7, and 8. I told myself I would try to catch a woman who had been just ahead of me for a while, but I simply could not find a way to coax any more stride efficiency out of my legs, never mind speed, and I was fighting a stitch besides. So in the end I did the run in 55 minutes exactly, and crossed under a clock that told me I had made it in 3:08:53, hitting my best realistic target with more than a minute to spare. I got a medal, another banana, a chance to sit down, and a massive feeling of accomplishment and relief.

As it happens, Mike and Sophie pulled up toward the finish just in time to hear my name over the loudspeakers, so they weren't quite at the line to cheer and I didn't know where they were. At any rate I had informed Mike that, this time, I had every intention of taking advantage of the sports massage tent (I skipped it after the Spiez triathlon because Sophie was too anxious about Mummy's whereabouts.) So I just put that plan into action, figuring our respective whereabouts could be sorted out later and the important thing was to get ready to go as soon as possible. After the queue for the shower I got in the queue for the massage, then got a girl to hold my place while I ran back for a change of clothes. That's when I heard a very familiar indignant wail, and so found Sophie and Mike. Sophie was distracted from her fury by the opportunity to sit in my lap and the "race meelul" around my neck, and very intrigued at the sight of Mummy getting a massage!

Pleased as I was with my time when I crossed the line, I have still been a little unreasonably frustrated by the fact that, since this is Switzerland and everyone around me is a sporting freak, I finished in the bottom 10% of the field. If my fear is this undefined "showing I'm not good enough", well, competing around here is constantly showing me that I'm not as good as anyone around me. And that does get demoralizing after a while. So now I'm thinking that the clear solution is to choose my next triathlon to be in a place where real people (as opposed to these Alpine supermen) compete (hello US and UK!) Then again, I didn't exactly rock the training for this one either--the travel in July and new job in August got in the way of that--so there has got to be room for improvement in my time too!

In short, I'm very proud of myself for getting the thing done but I want to do better next time. And for that, I'm going to have to figure out a good way to make the job, the parenting, and the training all coexist.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Tara published on August 27, 2013 8:00 PM.

Trying tri: the Spiezathlon was the previous entry in this blog.

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