It was another one of those "what can go wrong that you've never thought about" races. I've come to the conclusion that the list of things that can go wrong is so long that if I race for the next 40 years, I still won't reach the end of it. So here's my day...
We left for the race at about 5:15 a.m. and ran over a cat on the way. Not a good start to the day. We reached the race site at 6:15 and we had to wait for the transition area to open. I got a great spot in the transition area, though, right near the bike exit. The less I have to run with my bike, the better.
Next, I went to the bathroom. Yuck. There were three stalls and none of them had doors and none of the toilets had seats. The men's bathroom was the same. I did my best to get out of there as soon as possible and decided that if I needed to go again, it would be in nature.
It was still very early, so a teammate and I decided to have a look at the run course. It actually didn't look too bad, though we'd heard earlier that it was tough. It did seem a bit short and it turned out that we had to do it twice. It still didn't seem too bad, apart from the fact that the second half was almost entirely uphill. That's because we didn't walk to the end of it.
Next, we checked out the water. We'd heard different reports -- 19 degrees (66*F), 20 degrees (68*F), 21 degrees (70*F). Well, it was one of these and none is warm, but that's not too cold to swim in, either. They were allowing wetsuits, but I don't own one. Almost no one used one.
Back out on the run course, we did a quick warm up and then smeared ourselves with oil (some protection from the cold water) and headed off to the beach again. This time we went in the water. It was colder than it had felt when I'd just put my hand in, but not too bad. I swam a bit and noticed that it was pretty murky -- I couldn't see the bottom or much else for that matter. Yuck. When I got out of the water, I was reminded of what happens when you're not used to swimming in cold water. As soon as I stood up, I got dizzy. It was very unpleasant, but not entirely unexpected and not a new experience. This happened to me when we trained in the outdoor pool last October (in fact, it was the reason we trained in the outdoor pool -- to get used to swimming in cold water and getting out of it and running). Soon, the dizziness passed and all that was left to do was wait for the start.
The sea was very calm. A few waves at the shore, but that was it. Since I'd already warmed up in the water and I knew I could handle the cold, I wasn't all that concerned about the swim. I was a bit concerned about the other 250+ people swimming around me, but I thought I'd just stay away from them. They turned out not to be my biggest problem.
The race started and off we went. Things were a bit slow-moving at first. I guess people were a bit shocked by the cold water (this was the first triathlon of the season) and were hoping to run past the waves before starting to swim. I started to swim and immediately had trouble breathing, but this, too, was expected -- it always happens to me when I start swimming in cold water. I just decided to take it easy until I caught my breath. I had to revert to swimming breaststroke for a bit, partly because of the breathing thing and partly because I couldn't seem to get rid of the people around me and it was difficult for me to move forwards. And then it hit me. As I picked my head up out of the water, I felt that same dizziness I'd felt on the shore, but this time I was in the middle of the sea, surrounded by people with nothing to hold on to.
Getting seriously dizzy during an open water swim has to be one of the scariest things that can happen to you in a race. I was afraid I was going to pass out. I was nowhere near the rope (I looked for it, hoping to grab it and just hold on until the dizziness passed). I thought about raising my hand and getting pulled out of the water, but there wasn't a boat anywhere nearby and I figured I'd die before one got to me. Many things passed through my head. None of them were good. I'd never gotten dizzy like that while swimming before and I was terrified. I started treading water and then swimming a very slow breaststroke. People were passing me right and left. I was certain there was no one behind me (in reality, there were plenty of people behind me). I felt like I had the angel and the devil sitting on my shoulders telling me what to do. One was telling me to stick my face in the water and start swimming freestyle because the more horizontal I could get, the faster the dizziness would go away. The other was telling me that if I did anything but tread water and swim a very slow breaststroke, I was going to drown and die.
Soon, I was kind of out of choices. I was stuck in the middle of Breaststrokeland. It was the back of the pack. Everyone was swimming breaststroke. When in Breaststrokeland, do like the breaststrokers. I tried to swim freestyle, but I was getting pushed and kicked. Ugh. This wasn't making things any better. I had to get out of there.
The dizziness had almost passed and I saw the first buoy up ahead. I decided that I was going to get away from the breaststrokers as we went around the buoy and I did -- sort of, but not before someone frog kicked a cup or two worth of salt water into my mouth. One of the breaststrokers became a backstroker. He was swimming right next to me and next thing I knew, he was doing some breaststroking while swimming the backstroke. It was my breast being stroked. Ok, I'd had enough. I was no longer dizzy and I was mad. I took off. I started passing people. I passed more people. And even more people. At some point, I'm sure these people were thinking, "Hey, what was this woman doing in the back of the pack?!"
Around the second buoy and I was still passing people. I got out of the back of the pack and well into the middle of the pack. I couldn't seem to get away from the other swimmers -- they were everywhere. But at least now they weren't all swimming breaststroke. I was swimming strong -- really strong. I felt great -- long strokes, really throwing my arms out in front of me, making up for at least some of the lost time. I think I passed people right to the end, and even though the second half of the swim had been a lot better than the first, I was really glad to get out of the water. I peeked at my watch as I hit the beach. 18:30. This is a really bad 750 meter time for me, but after treading water and just kind of plodding along for 300 meters or so, I didn't really expect to have a PR today and I didn't much care. It was over.
Surprisingly, I was not dizzy after coming out of the water. I ran up the hill to the transition area, kind of pulled myself together (I was still a bit shell-shocked). There were a lot of bikes still there -- I guess I wasn't the only one who had a lousy swim. I got my shoes, helmet, sunglasses and number on and ran out with my bike. It was the bike -- my favorite part of the race (though not my fastest). Now I was going to have fun.
Getting on the bike was a bit tough. The course was very crowded and I couldn't find an empty spot. I ran well past the mat, but it was still packed. Finally I just stopped and got on. Since there was no way for me to run and jump on my bike, I figured I'd take advantage of the slow mount and clip into one pedal. Mistake. People were mounting all over the place and weaving all over the course and I was clipped in on one side, trying to weave around them, one foot attached to my bike, the other pushing me along the ground because there was nowhere to ride. Once I was able to actually ride, though, things got better.
I must have looked really bad, because a friend of mine was refereeing today and he rode past me on the motorcycle, slowing down to ask me if I was ok. I nodded yes and kept going. Slowly, I recovered completely from the swim and started feeling good. At one point, I remember thinking how I was cruising along so comfortably and that I must have been riding really slowly. I looked down. 45 kph. That's more like really really fast for me.
I have to admit that I enjoyed the bike course a little bit too much. I never felt like I was pushing very hard, apart from up the two hills that we had in each direction. They were short, but semi-steep (but we got to go down them, too!). For the rest of the course, I was just cruising along, talking to myself, sometimes singing to myself, thinking that I'd much rather stay on my bike for the rest of the day than have to run 5 km. A lot of people passed me, mainly men (there weren't all that many women in the race). I didn't care -- I'm used to being passed on the bike because I'm generally pretty good in the swim, at least relative to everyone else. It was over way too soon. According to my bike computer, the course was slightly short of 20 km -- about 19.8. I don't know what my official time was (there are no split times in the results for some reason), but my bike computer reads something like 43:48. That includes running to and from the transition area and also several seconds of spinning my wheel in the transition area before the race to move down to a lower gear. I'm guessing around 43 minutes, which is a good time for me. I definitely could have gone faster, but I just didn't feel like it. Yeah, I know -- it's a race. But I think I was just celebrating making it to that point alive.
For some reason that I can't remember (maybe I wasn't thirsty?), I had decided not to drink on the bike. I really hate pulling out my bottle and drinking while I'm riding and it slows me down. Instead, I decided that I'd drink during the transition, which I figured wouldn't slow me down any more than drinking on the bike would have. It would also be a lot safer. So my second transition wasn't particularly fast, but it was ok. While I was transitioning, one of the team managers, who was standing just outside the transition area, yelled to me not to go out hard on the run. This made me chuckle and I yelled back, "Yeah, like I ever go out hard!" He answered that I had to take it really easy because the course was hard. Ok, how hard could it be?
My legs weren't too bad from the bike (a sign that I didn't ride very hard), but the run course started out with a small but nasty hill. My coach was waiting at the top, just before we turned a corner. He yelled out to me to pick up my feet. Nothing new there. As soon as we turned the corner, the course because flat and then it was a gradual downhill for about 750 meters or so. This was nice. At the 1 km mark, we stepped down off the road onto the beach. It was like stepping into quick sand. The sand was up to my ankles and I was sinking more than I was running. I looked around me and saw everyone suffering. It as horrible. 250 meters to the turn-around and 250 meters back. That 500 meters was pure hell and it took forever. I thought very briefly about walking and then realized that it wouldn't be a whole lot easier to walk in that sand than it was to run in it (but it would take even longer).
Back on the path, I had to run uphill for about 750 meters, but after the sand, running uphill was easy. Just before turning the corner off the path, a surprise was waiting for me. My best friend, who had had to sit out this race for bureaucratic reasons, had ridden his bike almost 90 km to come cheer me on. I was so happy to see him and I even asked him if he wanted to run the second out and back for me. Well, he didn't want to do that, but he yelled a lot of encouragement in my direction and really motivated me to keep going.
The second time was easier. It always is. The sand was horrible again, but I knew that once I was through it, the rest of the run would be a piece of cake. Apart from my calf muscles, which were starting to tighten up from running in the sand, my legs felt fine. I wasn't breathing all that hard, either, but I kept holding back, thinking if I let go too soon, it would be hard for me to get up the hill. As I turned towards the finish line, though, I really let go. Amazingly, there was still a lot in me. I sprinted hard and I could have kept going for another couple of hundred meters -- a good sign that I probably hadn't run as hard as I should have, but hey, I hadn't biked as hard as I should have, either. As I passed my coach, I thought I heard him yell, "You're first!" but I figured either he was making it up (how would he know who my competition was?) or I had heard him wrong. I finished in 1:36:46 -- not a stellar time for a sprint, but not bad considering the conditions. In fact, this is only 13 seconds slower than one of my best races last year on a much easier course.
Oh, and I'd heard my coach right. I took 1st place in my age group. I was first out of only two women (there were supposed to be three -- one didn't show up), but I can only beat the people who show up for the race, right? Instead of the standard trophies, they gave out alarm clocks -- a round, colored clock face (mine is pink, but they came in all kinds of colors) on a spring that stands on a base with a little plaque (name of the race and placing) glued to it. It's very cute, though it does look a bit odd among the rest of my trophies!
So overall, if you don't count the dead cat, the disgusting bathroom, nearly being buried at sea and having to run in quick sand, it was a pretty good day. I enjoyed it, anyway :-)