Sunday, August 24, 2014

Improbable Dream Come True

Race Report: Iron Girl Columbia Sprint Triathlon
Date: August 17, 2014
Location: Centennial Park, Columbia, MD
Swim: 0.62 miles (1000m)
Bike: 16 miles
Run: 3.4 miles

I dreamed a dream in time gone by...4.5 years ago, to be more precise. The dream became a goal just 3 months ago. And nearly one week ago, the dream was fulfilled, the goal achieved: I completed a triathlon!

Here's how it all went down:

There's a lot of moving pieces in triathlon, and the logistics can be overwhelming at times. We had a busy weekend planned beyond just my race, and very little went as planned, but somehow the necessary stuff got done.

After working all day and attending Holy Day mass with my family, I went to pick up my race packet, which felt real, and yet also surreal at the same time. Then I went to a local bike shop to get my bike and helmet inspected. I felt just as awkward and out of place there as I did at the shop where I first looked at bikes. Someday...SOMEDAY I will walk into a bike shop and feel like I belong!!!! Friday was not that day, but at least Trinity the Tri Trek passed the inspection and that was one more task I could check off my to-do list.


I started off the day not feeling well, then had to run some errands and go to a birthday party, and finally it was time to attend the course info meeting and shop at the expo. The meeting was funny and informative, and actually made me tear up a little when the race director was describing what the finish would be like. My excitement was mounting! I snagged an Iron Girl visor and a purple-zippered race belt at the expo, then headed over to the park to rack Trinity. They had an awesome bike racking concierge service, where someone walked me to my space in transition, and not only showed me the proper way to rack a bike, but actually did it for me. This was an awesome service to provide at an event with numerous first-timers like me!

Looking cool in my visor; Trinity racked and ready for morning

I could only get half of the huge transition area in a photo at a time! Big race! So many bikes!

I said goodnight to Trinity and headed home to help get the rugrats to bed. I wish I could have gone to bed too, but I still needed to quickly practice setting up my gear and going through the transitions, and then pack my bag. Somehow this took me way too long and I went to bed way too late. Story of my life. Also, I discovered while getting everything together that my watch was missing. This briefly sent me into panic mode, as I always ride and run with my watch on. It's just an ordinary sports watch, but I'm used to it and the thought of going without it was freaking me out a little bit. Finally I convinced myself that I didn't need it -- I could use my phone to make sure I headed over to the swim start on time, and after that, time didn't matter. Since my goal was just to finish the race, I really didn't need to know what time it was or how long it was taking me to do anything. Still, I'd gotten myself worked up enough that sleep did not come easily.


The 4:00am wake-up call was painful. Thank God for my husband, who'd set the coffee pot the night before! I ate a bowl of Cheerios, got dressed, threw the last few things in my bag, and headed out the door with two travel mugs full of piping hot java. Race traffic wasn't too backed up yet when I arrived, and I managed to get a great parking spot inside the park, so I didn't have to take a shuttle from somewhere else. Yay! I finished my first coffee and headed over to transition.

What I look like at 4:00am; What I look like still way too early but after lots of coffee!

Getting set up was easy -- almost too easy, in fact. Naturally, I second-guessed myself and wondered whether I was doing it "right." Meanwhile, I went to get bodymarked. The volunteer who wrote my bib number and age on me was enthusiastic and funny. Really, I can't say enough good things about ALL of the volunteers for this race -- UCF puts on a great event! Next, I walked the route from swim in to bike out, then bike in to run out, to get comfortable with my location so I wouldn't get lost in the transitions. By the time I finished that, the racers whose bikes were on either side of mine had arrived, and we got to know each other a little. Two of us were first-timers, and much to my relief, the experienced triathlete told me it looked like I had my gear all set up well. Whew! I could stop second-guessing then. :) I was so glad to meet these awesome ladies, because until that point I had been feeling a little lonely. It seemed like most of the other women there so far knew at least one other person in the race. Suddenly the sky started getting light, and my rackmate who was also a newbie and I decided to head over to the swim start.

My transition set up; My cheesiness -- I painted my nails to match my swim cap!


After the National Anthem and the announcement that the course was ready for us to begin, my rackmate and I congregated with our fellow navy-swim-cap-wearing Athenas and awaited our turn to enter the water. I was still pretty nervous about the swim, despite my practice at the beach. I was expecting the water to be really gross, and just didn't know how I would handle it. My rackmate was nervous about the swim too, so we encouraged each other as we paired up for the time trial start. I'm really glad my first triathlon had this type of start, where the racers enter the water two at a time, a few seconds apart, because it really cuts down on the wild thrashing around and kicks to the face that can happen with the typical wave start. As we entered the lake, we had room to spread out and get comfortable in the water and settle into our stroke without running into many other swimmers.

I might be in this picture somewhere. I was in the water when it was taken. Somewhere, out there...

My first impression of the lake water was that it was a very comfortable temperature, and next I noticed that it wasn't quite as gross as I'd feared. I mean, it was murky, and I knew it wasn't exactly super clean, but the area where we entered was decent enough. Still, I was hesitant to put my face in too much, and thus it took me a long time to really settle into a normal front crawl swim stroke. Once I finally relaxed a little, the swim became fun! However, it was also LONG. So, so long. That's a big lake. Breathing was a bit of an issue, so I took periodic breaks from front crawl to dog paddle a bit, or do a bit of sidestroke or backstroke...whatever it took to catch my breath. I got passed by a lot of ladies also in navy caps, but it wasn't too long before I spotted green caps going past as well. I ended up getting passed a lot more on the swim than I expected, so I wasn't too surprised later to find out that my swim time was significantly slower than I thought it would be. It was a great experience though -- it was a beautiful morning for a swim, and I never felt scared or panicky. I did feel tired, but I knew I would make it to the end. As we got closer to the final turn of the swim course, the water got noticeably grosser -- it started to stink, and stray pieces of lake grass started brushing my arms and legs and got caught on my goggles. Luckily, once we made that last turn, the exit point was just ahead! Even though I'd enjoyed the swim, I was thrilled to get out of the water! My rackmate and starting partner actually exited the water at the same time as I did, and we high-fived each other with congratulations for surviving the swim.

Swim Time: 00:36:46

I took my time walking to transition. It seemed like everyone around me was scurrying up the hill, but I was in no hurry. I just wanted to catch my breath and scan the crowd for my family and Candice. And suddenly, there they were, cheering me on and taking pictures! Yay!! At this point, my day was complete and my heart was full. I'd made it through the lake without panicking and drowning, so now only a catastrophic bike accident could stop me from completing this race. It was time to take it all in, soak up as much of the experience as possible. I was enjoying myself in transition, dancing to the peppy music that was playing as I ate some shot bloks, chugged some water, and put on my fanny pack (as always, shut up). When I finally sat down to dry my feet and put on my running shoes, even my kids noticed that everyone else was moving at a faster speed than I was, and they shouted at me to hurry up! Ha! Finally I unracked Trinity and headed off to begin my weakest leg.

T1 Time: 9:05

Slowest transition in history; Trinity and I starting the bike leg


Okay, this is where things got weird. From the very start, despite being tired from the swim, I felt really good on the bike. I wasn't afraid of the hills or stressed at the prospect of having to walk. I wasn't nervous about the traffic zipping by (it was not a closed course, but the police and volunteers did a great job of keeping us safe!). Because I'd ridden the course the week before, I felt comfortable and prepared. As such, I was able to enjoy most of the ride, even the parts that hurt. And somehow, I rode stronger and faster than I had before! I only got off and walked 5 times, compared to 10+ the previous week! I was surprising myself over and over as I powered through rough spots. It didn't even bother me that I was getting passed constantly -- I expected that to happen, but I even managed to pass a few people myself. I spent most of the race behind a 61-year-old woman, and she inspired me to push harder than ever before. There were several hills where I was tempted to get off my bike, but I kept hammering away because she was, and if she could do it, so could I!

I did make one mistake on the bike course: at the aid station, I was surprised that they were handing out whole bottles of water, but I grabbed one anyway. I probably didn't even need it, since I had a bottle in the cage on my bike, plus a bottle of gatorade in my fanny pack (I said shut up!). So there I was with this giant bottle of water, and I didn't want to waste it, but I was afraid of getting penalized for littering if I tossed it too far away from the aid station, so I just started chugging it like crazy! I think I took in too much water too fast, and my stomach was not pleased. The stress of not knowing what to do with the bottle only worsened the nausea, so I spent my favorite part of the course uncomfortable and unhappy. I finally realized I HAD to get rid of the bottle in order to ride safely, so I half accidentally and half purposely dropped it. The stress subsided but my stomach took a little longer to calm down; thankfully it finally started to feel normal again. I felt amazing on the homestretch of the ride. It had been so much fun, and the support and encouragement of my fellow racers had really added to the experience. You can't talk to people much while swimming, but a lot of people interacted quite a bit on the bike and run. I don't think I ever struggled up a hill without at least one (stronger, faster) racer encouraging me. This is an awesome race. :)

Bike time: 01:36:07

I still wasn't in a huge rush in transition, but I did take a minute to try to stretch my quads a little, as they were hurting something fierce after that ride! Then I swapped my helmet for my snazzy new visor and my fanny pack (sh----) for my awesome new race belt (yes, I totally broke the rule of "Nothing new on race day"), grabbed a bottle of water, and headed off to run. On the way out, I got high-fives from two awesome volunteers, including the one who had done my body marking, and the race director urged me to enjoy my run. I was grinning from ear to ear, knowing that all I had left to do was keep moving forward for 3.4 more miles, and (personal) victory would be mine!

T2 Time: 2:00 (estimate due to technical difficulties. might have been a little longer, making my bike time even shorter.)


I'm going to be honest here -- I didn't have a lot left in the tank at this point. Though I'd hydrated well (so well that I kinda needed to pee, but didn't want to use one of the two porta potties by transition) and fueled throughout, I was tired, especially my lungs. It was difficult to keep lifting my feet up, but it was nearly impossible not to wheeze like a pack-a-day smoker. I took frequent walk breaks, not because I was hurting but because I simply couldn't catch my breath. I was still happy and enjoying myself, but I wasn't attacking the run with nearly as much gusto as I had the bike. In retrospect, I think it's good that I'd had my disastrous test run on this course, because after that, I had no illusions that I'd be able to run the whole thing on race day. I expected it to kick my butt, so I was completely unphased when it did. There was no mental breakdown this time around. This is why theatre folks don't mind the bad dress rehearsal -- it makes for a better show!

The best part of my run was on the most annoying part of the course. Most of the time, you run along a lovely wooded path along the water. But then they make you run up "Gatorade Hill" to another part of the park, where you literally run through a parking lot part of the time, and then you have to go BACK UP the stupid evil hill AGAIN. There's a reason they hand out Gatorade up there, for real. Anyway, before looping around to hit the hill the second time, I noticed the two ladies ahead of me veering off the course. I wondered where they were going, and then noticed that the building they were entering was a restroom! I followed, thrilled at the chance to use a real bathroom. I had to pee pretty badly at this point, and was not looking forward to having to hit up the porta potties immediately after crossing the finish line. The potty break added a few minutes to my run time, but it was totally worth it. Totally.

The last mile of the run is less hilly, but you lose the shade from trees as you run around the edge of the lake. It was sunny and hot at this point, and I was prepared to walk much of that last stretch. But then I saw Candice heading my way, snapping pictures and encouraging me to keep going. She ran along with me for a while, which was fun. I was so excited to have her there, since I wouldn't have been there that day if it weren't for her!!

Look! A lake! I swam in this lake!; Extreeeeeme Close-up

After a little bit, Candice darted on ahead to try to catch me at the finish, and I entered the last little stretch of the race, where the crowds were building and the support invigorating. Spectators called out our numbers as we ran by, cheering us on and encouraging us to finish strong. I dug down deep and used whatever strength I had left to run through that chute to the finish line. Towards the end I saw my friend Sherene on the side, and I high-fived her as I passed. Then, just before I crossed the line, I heard the announcer say my name and those magic words: "You are an Iron Girl!"

Oh sure, take a picture of my cheesy thumbs-up but miss my arms raised in triumph just seconds later. LOL

Run Time: 00:54:07
Total Time: 03:18:05

Something special about this race is that the volunteers giving us our medals were all cancer survivors or people currently fighting cancer. So that moment of triumph for us was also humbling compared to the greater battles being fought all around us every day. I will think of that every time I look at my medal.

A beautiful moment I will remember forever

I collected my ice cold chocolate milk (YUM!) from one of the race sponsors, and went to greet my family and friends. There were many hugs, despite how badly my lake-watery, sweaty self smelled. These people must really love me. :)

Smelly hugs; Me with the people I love most in this world

I have to mention how grateful I was to have friends there. My family is sort of my fan club by default (especially the's not like they had any choice in whether to come! hahaha), but my friends came because they wanted to, and I sincerely appreciate their support. Sherene, the uber runner and marathoner, even brought cupcakes because she's always wished someone would bring her some after a race. I hope I can repay the favor soon, because that was indeed the perfect post-race treat! :) I forgot to take a picture with Sherene brain just wasn't functioning properly. I did get a picture with Candice, and the only thing wrong with it is that she's not wearing a medal too -- next year, my friend!! You can do this, and you will, and no one will cheer for you louder than I will! :)

From two silly girls giggling over padded bike shorts, to this. :)

Everything got really hazy after this. It was a lot like I felt after my first 10K, when I was actually in so much of a daze at the finish that I totally walked past the medals and wandered around aimlessly for a bit before I found them! This time I had my medal, but I couldn't seem to figure out what I wanted to do next. I was hungry, but the food tent seemed so far away. My kids were hot and tired and bored. I still needed to pack up all my gear and clear it and Trinity from transition before it closed. Literally everything was uphill from where we were, and I couldn't wrap my head around the concept of going up another hill just yet. They announced that the final racer was on the run course, and I wanted to be there to cheer for her when she finished, but I didn't want to make my family wait with me, and I also didn't want to just sit there. Finally I bid farewell to my fans, and trudged back to transition to get my stuff.

It didn't take long to stuff everything in the bag, but the next challenge was hoofing it up the hill, pushing a bike, to my car. It seemed almost cruel to make us go up one more steep hill at that point. Maybe next year they could put in some sort of elevator system, just to use AFTER the race, when our poor legs are spent. Just an idea, UCF. Think about it. ;-)

By the time I made it to my car, I was hot, ravenous, and exhausted. I'd thought about going back to cheer on the last finisher, but couldn't bear the thought of walking all that way again. So I got in my car, cranked up the A/C, and headed home. The rest of my day was a blur...I never did refuel properly after the race so I wasn't thinking clearly and my body was confused. I got home, got all my stuff put away, and took a shower, but after that I just drifted in and out of consciousness for most of the day. I did go to church with my family, but I barely remember it. Learn from me, people -- it's important to refuel with more than just a chocolate milk and a cupcake after such a strenuous race! You should definitely eat at least TWO cupcakes. Or something.

Over the past week, I've had some emotional ups and downs, and TONS of introspective thoughts as I've processed what I accomplished. I hope to blog about some of those thoughts in the days to come. For now, I just want to leave you with my thanks for your support, and this picture, which you've probably already seen on my Facebook page:

Triathlete. For real. And forever.

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