Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Columbia Triathlon Race Report

CT Summary:

SWIM 1500m: 48:15
BIKE 41 km: 1:50:02
RUN 10 km: 1:20:21
FINISH 4:06:58
Athenas 40+: 4/5 finishers
Women: 366/382 finishers
Overall: 1205/1227 finishers

Long, long report from the back of the pack:

Bob Mina describes the Columbia Triathlon as “one of the most well run races in the country” as well as “the toughest Olympic Distance Race in the country”. Bob knows triathlons. He also describes the course in detail very accurately; so I won’t attempt to provide a full course description.

I finished Columbia as my first Olympic Distance Triathlon last Sunday. If it wasn’t the toughest in the country, I’m sure it would take me a long, long, long time to finish the toughest. I’m using Columbia as a preparatory event for my “A” race at Cambridge, Maryland three weeks later, Eagleman Half Ironman, and it provided me with a real trial by fire. Hopefully I emerged from the flame as tempered steel and not as a useless molten blob, but we’ll see about that in a few weeks.

This is how my day went.

Up at 4:15, just before the alarm went off. Have some coffee and a muffin and get the last of my things ready and out the door and on the road for the 45 miles to the race site.

I hadn’t realized that transition setups needed to be completed by 7AM, but fortunately I got in and parked, pumped my bike tires, and got my transition supplies arranged in place with plenty of time. Then I went to watch the earlier waves starting, get some last-minute nutrition and hydration, struggle into my rented long-sleeved wetsuit, and obsess.


The swim worried me – 1500 meters, or 0.93 miles, in Centennial Lake. I knew it would be the most challenging part of the whole day. It was my first real open-water distance swim. I had done a grand total of 14 training swims in the pool this year, not nearly enough, and while I had swum the full 1500 meter distance with a freestyle stroke in the pool for 5 of those workouts, and completed a sprint triathlon pool swim all freestyle stroke 5 weeks ago, I’m still a weak swimmer with inefficient form. Mostly I lack confidence in myself – I was afraid that I would panic and bail out and head for the shore instead of finishing. While the weather for the day was absolutely perfect (little wind, high of 72), the water was a chilly 68. Just after 8 AM the other ladies in my wave (my division, Athenas with a body weight of 150 and over, along with women 30-34, all wearing dark green caps) got in the water, with teeth chattering from nerves and the cold.

CT courseThe gun sounded at 8:08, I started my watch timer, and we were off. I stayed far off to the outside, hugging the shore, to avoid blocking any of the fast swimmers and to stick to an area that felt safe – close to the nearest available exit option. Since like most of the swimmers I hadn’t had any warmup, I started as planned with an easy breaststroke to get myself accustomed to the water and let my muscles warm up. However, immediately I found myself in big trouble: I was breathing hard, way way too hard, and I could tell that my heart rate had gone through the roof. Despite my conscious efforts to stay relaxed, my body decided it was in desperate survival mode and launched a full-blown panic response.

This was bad. I was hyperventilating and could feel myself tiring quickly, my heart racing. It was something I had anticipated as a possibility, and I tried to react calmly and sensibly and kept going forward as well as I could under the circumstances. However, Body wasn’t listening to Mind. I was breathing so fast that I couldn’t keep my face under water for an entire stroke of freestyle – I needed more air than that! All I could do was concentrate on relaxing, make deep inhalations, and try to slow my breathing, while doing the breaststroke or sidestroke, keeping up a relentless forward progression.

Perhaps it was the novel situation of being in the open water in a triathlon. Perhaps it was the cold, murky water. Perhaps it was the unfamiliar effect of the tight rented wetsuit that seemed to constrict my neck and chest. For whatever reason, my body was not cooperating in the way it normally did in pool swims. I just couldn’t breathe slowly enough to execute a freestyle stroke with my face in the water – I had to keep my head up and breathing the air or I ended up choking and sputtering and not having enough oxygen.

Mentally I wasn’t freaked out, I wasn’t frightened, I was just annoyed and feeling a bit foolish with the way my body was reacting. I was working very hard to simply maintain some forward motion, and I used every bit of my focus just to get from one buoy to the next.

I heard the gun go off for the following waves at five minute intervals and swimmers quickly started overtaking me and passing me: the light green caps. The pink caps. Finally the white caps, which I knew was the final wave. It was entirely possible that I would be the last swimmer out of the water. I was just struggling to keep going. It seemed like an eternity passed between each buoy, and each one seemed an impossible distance away. I kept up the positive self talk: “Just keep swimming. One stroke after another. You’ll get there eventually. It could be worse - at least you don’t have the dry heaves like Ron Gilcreast did. All you have to do is keep swimming for an hour, and you’ll probably get there.” Meanwhile from hyperventilating I had the makings of a side stitch which was going to be my constant companion for the rest of the day.

I kept attempting to put my face down into the water and do a faster breaststroke. Finally after eons it was starting to work. I could look down through the water and see my hands. It wasn’t so murky. I could swim a little ways and take a stroke or two with my face submerged. Finally, FINALLY I was warming out of my breathing problems and my body was settling into a rhythm, after fully ¾ of the swim distance was over. At last I was able to take a few freestyle strokes and speed up a bit, first 5 in a row before I was forced to break for air again - then 10, then 15. I could see the balloon arch ahead of me, and the swimmers ahead of me approaching the shore for their finish. Can it be possible? Will I really finish this thing?

YES!!!! At long last I found myself standing up on the muddy bottom, struggling to my feet and staggering happily under the balloon arch. I had done it! I had achieved my biggest goal of the day - surviving the swim - and I suddenly knew that I would finish the triathlon. It may take me a long time, and I may be exhausted at the end, and I may be last, but my major doubts were gone.

I was amazed to see that there were still a few people coming out of the water with me at the same time. I glanced at my watch. 48 minutes? I wouldn’t have been surprised if my watch had read an hour and a half. I later found out that there had been 20 people out of 1249 starters that were slower than me on the swim. I applaud them - I truly don’t know how they managed it.


I walked up the grassy hill, regained some balance, and tugged off the top of my wetsuit. I was delighted to be on dry land again. I may have even broken into a trot as I headed back to get my bike, Buttercup. I sat down briefly on my crate to strip off the legs of my wetsuit, had a curious bout of dizziness – uhoh! I took a moment to chug some Gatorade, and fortunately that spell passed quickly. I put on my bike shoes, helmet, and sunglasses, and took Buttercup up the steep hill out of the transition area and over the timing mats.


I was overjoyed to be out on the road on the bike. While that side stitch stayed with me, nevertheless I had a sense of a fresh start to the day. I settled into a rhythm on the road heading away from the park, getting accustomed to the feel of the bike and working on bringing my pedaling cadence up. After a couple of miles came the first nice long descent. I tried to work up some speed and take advantage of gravity.

Then came the hills. Hill after hill after hill. The scenery was lovely, the mansions impressive, the grazing cattle delightful, the weather was perfect, but the hills were wicked, grinding, and merciless. Going up each one in the lowest gear was painful hard work, and the downhills (although fun, I hit a top speed of 39.3 mph) far too short to provide any respite. Hill, hill, HILL. Hill, HILL, hill. Hell. From living and training in the flatlands, I simply didn’t have the legs to be climbing hills like these repeatedly.

Finally something had to give. About halfway through the course, at the base of the steepest climb of the day, my chain popped off. I was actually glad to have the excuse to dismount and rest my legs for just a minute. I quickly replaced the chain, but since I didn’t think I’d actually be able to get clipped in and started again going uphill on a slope that steep, I took the opportunity to stretch my back and walk up to the crest of the hill before re-mounting. It may have cost me 6 to 8 minutes, but it freshened my legs for a few moments of the return trip.

The hills were equally difficult on the way back, but now we had the added challenge of working with seriously fatigued legs. Little worries started to creep into my mind about the run to follow, but I quickly pushed them out and yanked my mind back into the moment and focused on the task at hand and keeping my speed up. After every few hills I made a point of gulping down as much Gatorade as I could manage and I even managed to ingest a couple of Powergels and electrolyte caps along the way. I was able to do a slick exchange of water bottles in motion at the aid station, and was proud of myself for that maneuver.

Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly force myself up another hill, I came to the turn for the home stretch back to the park. I spun down the last couple of miles, chewed up and spit out by that bike course. I stopped against the cyclone fence and used it to steady myself as I dismounted on shaky legs.


I walked carefully down the steep, slippery grass hill into the transition area, put Buttercup in the bike rack, pulled off my bike shoes, pulled on my running shoes, clipped on my belt with my race number, put down my helmet and picked up my sun visor, and trotted down the hill.


The run course starts with a bang with a switchback up a steep hill. While my legs didn’t feel too bad, my whole body lacked the energy to muster more than a slow jog along most of the run course and a powerwalk up the steepest hills. As soon as I realized that I would have to walk up some hills on the course, I glanced at my watch and realized that a sub-4-hour finish was out the window. Then I had to stop, sit down, and remove a rock from my shoe. The course seemed to have a lot of twists, turns, ups and downs, winding along paths in the park and through residential areas and then back into the park. In the first few miles I kept trying to drink as much Gatorade as I could at each aid station, always thanked the volunteers, and kept moving forward.

signBack out of the residential area into the park. A half mile from the finish to my surprise I came across my marathoner friend *jeanne*, who had made the trip over to the park and a big sign just to cheer me on. She offered me water and orange slices, but in between huffs and puffs I thanked her for coming but explained that I couldn’t accept assistance or pacing from her or I could be disqualified. So instead she trotted around me and ran ahead and back to take pictures of me.

finishedFinally after one last little uphill there it was! The finish line! In slow motion I “sprinted” in, threw my arms in the air at the finish line, and celebrated finishing my first Olympic distance triathlon. What a journey, indeed! They had run out of medals, but they’ll send me one later. Jeanne and I sat for a while to cheer the final finishers across the line, then walked back over to the lake to take one last celebratory photo with my trusty Buttercup and called it a day. On to Eagleman!


Shelley said...

You're doing Eagleman too?? Wow you are an amazing women. I have my friends from Grand Rapids, MI coming over to do that race. I am keeping my fingers crossed that my friend "Libby" gets a qualifying spot!!!
Well, I really can't wait to hear about that race!

Wil said...

Check out your guns, woman!

Awesome race report - the swim description especially. I'm freaking out about that part the most for my races!

Chris said...

Congratulations, and this was a great write-up. I also really *really* liked the picture of you holding up Buttercup.

Flatman said...

Phewf...I was biting my nails reading your swim report. This is my secret fear. I have been a strong swimmer all of my life, but have never done open water distance swimming or any real distance swimming for that matter. The run and the bike don't scare me at all. Hell, I can just stop and rest if I have to, but swimming doesn't give you that luxury does it?

You are one awesome individual for doing this! Great race and good luck on Eagleman!

The look on your face in that last photo says it all!

runr53 said...

I have to say it again! The "Rocky" theme comes to mind while I read your description of that race! I've been running a long time but tris are a whole nother game, AWESOME JOB!!!

*jeanne* said...

Awesome report! Fabulous job!
I'd have drowned out there! I almost cried just from anxiety while READING it!

*chicken-$h*it and STAYING that way jeanne*

Phil said...

Great job TM^2 !

I think most people freak out over the swim.

Open water swimming really scares the pants off of me. Sure, I'm ok in a pool, but add cold water, add depth, add murkiness, add tight wetsuit, add congestion, add the fact it's much harder to swim straight.

But... You Did It - and your next swim is only 500 yards more - so heck, that should be no problem.

soccerdad said...

great report, nancy! congrats again. i think most people kinda freak out during their first open water swim with a zillion other people around kicking them. it'll get easier, don't worry! it's great that you managed to hang in there and maintain a positive attitude.
on to eagleman!

Oldman said...

great race report! I can relate to your swim experience. my first tri i basically floated with the tide to the finish line!

Meagan said...

I'm so impressed! Awesome report! :)

Way to go!

Rebecca said...

Wow. You're my hero! Great race report! And wonderful job on the swim portion especially. I think that's exactly what I fear would happen to me but now I know how to handle it ! ;)

TriFeist said...

Been there, done that with the swim, Nancy. It takes a lot of courage to "just keep swimming".

Eagleman will be a challenge but with good nutrition, your marathon background and a flatter course, you will make it.

Recover well!

Vertical Man said...

That was an AWESOME report! Congratulations on your race and surmounting all the obstacles...and hills. I know EXACTLY how you felt early in the swim. That's how I feel, too.

Hang in there.

Downhillnut said...

I got exhausted just reading your report. This was an amazing accomplishment and I am so proud of you! I especially liked how you were able to use your positive self-talk and calm down your breathing, even when it seemed your body was not listening at first. The way you trained and strategized for the mental challenges clearly paid off in the end. What a fantastic inspiration you are!

LouBob said...

Great post! You are amazing, inspiring, incredible, astounding, wonderous and you have so motivated me!!!