Every time I arrive at a race, the same thought comes to mind: Triathlon is a peculiar sport. Not just because you prance around in barely-there spandex getups. Or because you mist your legs with cooking spray before donning a neoprene suit. Or even that you tape snacks onto the top tube of your bike or stuff them into the elastic thigh bands of your shorts. Rather, what makes triathlon truly unique is that thousands of men and women aged 11 to 70-plus, in all shapes, sizes and stages of fitness are brought together to race through three disciplines of various distances as veterans, first-timers, winners and finishers; some come with aero-helmets and disc wheels while others power through on a neighbor’s dusty mountain bike; there are athletes who used breaststroke through the entire course, and, this weekend at the New Jersey State Triathlon, one who rode in a raft pulled by his devoted father. These are the images that provided perspective on a race that was less than ideal for me.
Three hours and 21 waves later, I took off from the beach with the front swimmers and finished a strong swim in the top group. This was the first race for me in several years that was wetsuit legal, and I had forgotten the pleasures of swimming on top of the water! Especially for a swimmer with minimal kick, a wetsuit is more than welcome. My goggles filled with water (trouble for a contact lens wearer), but I employed a useful strategy: I swam nearly stroke for stroke with another fuchsia cap and left much of the spotting to her. At the last buoy, which marked the homestretch to the ramp, I pulled ahead, aimed straight and finished strong with a time of 24:44.
The bike leg (after a cross-country jaunt to the bike mount), was also successful. A benefit to being the penultimate wave of over a thousand athletes is that there are plenty of riders to reel in. One of these, however, jumped on my wheel and stayed there for nearly half the ride until another athlete called him out. Perhaps this 45-year-old man hadn’t familiarized himself with the rules? Or maybe he was intentionally tarnishing the spirit of the day? Eventually I dropped him and focused on rallying with a few women, using the friendly competition to push me over the final couple of fast miles to a time of 1:06:00 flat. Meanwhile, having finished my aerobar mounted bottle of GU20, I was looking forward to some more fluids. The hints of stomach cramps, I hoped, would dissipate.
After a quick detour to the wrong row, my bike was the fifth racked. I took a swig of my overheated GU2O and headed out of transition. By this time it was nearly 11:00 am and the heat was on the rise. A couple of runners beat me out of transition, and this was just the beginning of the parade of age-group athletes!
Runner after runner passed me-or so it seemed. I knew that I wasn’t hydrated well, due to a host of factors, not the least of which could have been the three-weeks of GI illness I endured leading up to the race. I’ll neither elaborate nor make excuses on that front! I opted out of my GU Chomps, which I recently discovered and actually enjoy, and I even tried Heed. In fact, I think I dumped some over my head, having grabbed one cup of chilled water and one cup of Heed simultaneously. That would explain the confused look from the boy who was kindly handing out the fuel.
The second half of the run was stronger than the first, which is not unusual for me. Still, I was running on mere sips of water as I intentionally chose fatigue over stomach upset. Regardless of how many age-groupers (amongst others) passed me, I knew that I wasn’t going to meet my goal of the day: to have a better run than the previous year. (I figured it wasn’t a huge challenge given last summer I was nursing a newborn). Still my legs wouldn’t respond to my brain. I was both discouraged and embarrassed.
In the final miles of the race several encounters rescued me from my funk. As I headed towards the last out-and-back, I finally caught sight of someone I had been looking for all morning: Charles, a long-time Trismarter.com nutrition client, accomplished athlete, and super individual. We had finally met in person the day before when we planned to pick up our race packets together. I have followed and supported Charles’ triathlon endeavors for a couple of years, and by chance we both registered for the 2009 NJ State Triathlon. His efforts, dedication, perspective and accomplishments are admirable. Charles appeared at the point in my own race when I needed the extra boost. He went on to finish strong, then waited to cheer me in-for which I am most grateful.
Minutes later I was on the other side of the out-and-back. Running towards me was the father-son team, now pushing and riding, respectively, a specially designed wheelchair equipped for racing. For one moment I silently wished they would scoop me up out of my misery and run me in. Ultimately I didn’t hitch a ride, but in a sense they did end up pushing me. Inspired by this team (who couldn’t be?), I rallied. I also reflected on why I race: because I can. I am able to swim, bike and run. I like to test my physical capabilities. I love the sensation of gliding, floating, coasting and soaring (OK, I wishful thinking in regards to the run). Joining, watching and celebrating others as they do the same define triathlon. Clearly this is what this father wanted for his son.
Onward I ran. Another few minutes passed by before I entered the crowds at the finish area. When my four-year daughter, Emma, caught sight of me-as she had done several times throughout the spectator-friendly course-she bolted towards me, cheering, whooping and challenging me to keep up with her. (Trailing behind her in typical fashion was my more wobbly 15-month-old son). Her energy and excitement drove me through the finish.
I didn’t quite break the 2:30:00 that I had hoped, missing by 55 seconds (not to mention this was a sad 6 minutes off my PR). I was dwelling on my terrible run when Emma asked: “Did you have so much fun racing today?” Ready to offer some quip about my slow, painful running, I stopped myself and smiled, entertained by her youthful exuberance. She went on to inquire enthusiastically: “When can I race with you, Mommy?!”
That was the best part of the day (with the close second being the awesome misting shower tent greeting the finishers). The spirit of triathlon had been restored for me. I’ll be back for the 2010 race. Oh, and in case you are wondering, my run time will be faster!