Move over Ben & Jerry, USAT is in town!

Move over Ben & Jerry, USAT is in town!

by Judie R.

The suitcases are back in the attic, the TriTats are scrubbed off, and it’s the end of another race weekend that was not like any I’ve done before.  This weekend I got to check a major box on my Bucket List:  USAT Age Group Nationals, and this year it was in Burlington, Vermont, home to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and, for that weekend, a lot of triathletes!  Besides being a big race of over 2300 participants, it’s the only race outside of Kona that you have to qualify to participate in and the competition is fierce as this is the only opportunity to qualify for the 2013 ITU World Championship in London.

The course distances are typical:  1500m swim in Lake Champlain, 40k bike in the rolling hills of Vermont, and 10k run near the waterfront.  If you’re familiar with Burlington, the transition is in Waterfront Park, a beautiful venue obviously on the waterfront and adjacent to a working harbor.

My goals for the race were pretty simple.  I didn’t go in aiming for a specific time, pace, or speed, since I wasn’t familiar with the course and don’t travel to races enough to have a feeling for how I perform away from home.  My intent was simply to have a good day, which I defined as sticking to the race plan, taking my time with the bike mount and dismount (my weakness!!), and not making any major mistakes.  Anything outside of those three things is more than likely out of my control anyway!

The day before the race was gorgeous, weather-wise.  Not too sunny, not too cloudy, not too windy, and just a small threat of showers in the afternoon.  Packet pickup was a sea of people, some just picking up race bags, some picking up their bikes from the sponsor company tent, and a whole lot of people picking up souvenir t-shirts, extra gels, goggles, and stuff like that.  It wasn’t a big expo like some of the races have, so we got in and out of there pretty quickly.

The next mission after packet pickup was to drive the bike course.  We drove up….and down….and back up…..and back down…taking note of turns, the occasional sketchy road surface, landmarks, but most importantly putting together a strategy for dealing with the rolling hills that are so absent in the Midwest.  I know we have some hills in the northwest suburbs, but this part of Vermont is more similar to the Mississippi River Valley, and if you haven’t ridden around there, the hills are not terribly steep, but they aren’t terribly short either.

Bike racking was in the evening and also quick to get in and out of once I located my bike at a shop up the street where TriBike Transport dropped it off.  I did a quick spin to check things out, since I hadn’t seen my bike in over a week, racked it, and took some mental snapshots of the location so I would know where to find it the next day.  There were over 2300 athletes expected for the race, so there were a lot of bikes in transition!

Race day morning was busy at the hotel.  Burlington is not terribly large, so the proportion of athletes to “regular folks” at our hotel was a little out of the norm.  As I was putting on my race numbers I could hear people leaving for the race, which tends to make me a little extra-jittery because I like to get to races REALLY early, much to the dismay of my husband.  He did still manage to grab a bowl of cereal before we went careening out of the parking lot and down to the waterfront!

Once there, transition was a buzz of activity.  I was early enough to not have to wait more than a few minutes for bodymarking — even though the race numbers were temporary tattoos, the volunteers still marked our ages on our calves on the way into transition.  My big mission for pre-race was to get my tires pumped.  I’m used to having a floor pump on race morning, but it wouldn’t exactly fit in my luggage, so I was depending on the bike support in transition to take care of me.  I don’t usually like to depend on other people, but in lieu of using my frame pump off my road bike (which I had), it seemed like an okay option.  The bike tech determined that the stem on my rear wheel was too short to get his pump on (hmmm… I have two pumps at home that will do it), so one of my two spare tubes had to go on before the race, leaving me with one for the race (please don’t flat please don’t flat please don’t flat).  Once done, I re-racked my bike, checked over my transition area, scouted the route to my bike from Swim In, and went to go look at the water.

Hmmmm.   Somebody turned on the fan overnight, I see whitecaps out there…  I can do choppy water, but it’s not my favorite.  I decided that choppy water goes in the bucket of “things I can’t control” and moved on to wait in the line for the portajohns.  I had a really nice chat with two guys, one of whom was in the 70+ wave and a little anxious because his wave was first and he was at the back of the line, and the other was retired military in the third wave (so also no rank amateur at 60+).  I asked them if they still got nervous before races, and they said they really don’t, which I marveled at.  Maybe when I’ve been racing for FORTY YEARS I won’t be nervous either, but at that moment I have to confess I had some nerves.

The other ladies with baby blue caps and I gathered at the top of the dock under the TYR inflatable arch, waiting for our turn to walk down to the warm up area.  We couldn’t see the start because there was a restaurant at the end of the dock, but we could hear the waves go off and see how long it was taking the first waves to get to the second turn buoy (there were five).  “It’s been twelve minutes… they aren’t to the second buoy yet!”  I heard behind me.  Hmmm.  I hope that’s the longest distance between buoys, either that or it’s a tough day on the water.  We paraded out through the restaurant, where I received an encouraging smack on the behind from my husband who had snuck in.  The ladies around me wanted to know if he was available for hire at their next races…  Anyhow, at the end of the dock we heard, “You have eight minutes to warm up” and people started jumping in… and disappearing for a few seconds.  Apparently this boat dock is in deep water!  I took a deep breath and jumped.

The first major challenge of the swim was getting all 156 of us from where we were warming up, which was to the left of the starting area, to where we were going to start.  When everybody is treading water upright and shoulder to shoulder, it’s hard to move in a coherent manner, and in the anxiety of “we need to start in three minutes,” there was some pushing going on.

Once we were in place, we high-fived each other for the cameras, and the horn went off.  One of the very early realizations I had was that unlike the ponds in the suburbs which have murky brown water, or Lake Michigan which has clear blue-green water, Lake Champlain has BLACK water.  It’s not that it was necessarily dirty with poor visibility, as I could see flecks of little things floating several feet below me, it was that the water really did appear to be tinged with black.  CREEPY.  One of the other very early realizations I had was that this water was rolling.  Those whitecaps I saw earlier in the morning were outside the breakwater, but inside the breakwater where we were swimming it was swelling to 2-3 feet.  I have been in this kind of water before in Lake Michigan but in strange water surrounded by strange women it took some extra focus.  As we worked our way toward that second turn buoy, the breakwater ended and the rollers got bigger, which made sighting even more challenging; if I took a sight at the bottom of a wave all I could see was water coming at me, but I had great visibility if I sighted at the height of the swell.  The turn buoys, which came faster after the second one, brought a third realization–these women were a lot faster and more aggressive than the women I’m used to racing locally, and they don’t need their own space to swim in if they can take some of mine.  Stay calm, I told myself, just do what you do.  Stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe, stroke, sight, breathe…  If I hit you I’m sorry, but I’m sure you’ll hit me back.

The last turn before the boat ramp out of the swim was a melee of arms and legs and thrashing bodies jockeying for position.  With over 150 women in the wave, we had to funnel down to a boat ramp only 3-4 people wide over a distance of a quarter to an eighth of a mile.  If I thought I needed a lot of focus before, I needed a lot more for this part. I was penned in by women, Splashy over on my left, Forearm whacking me in the head over on my right, and Righty and Lefty trying to crawl up each one of my legs.  Never have I been so glad to have a wetsuit on!  I’m a big proponent of staying calm in the water, but getting hit in the head over and over really tested my ability to stay calm and focused.  I thought we’d never get to the ramp, but finally there it was and we were running into the grass and through transition toward Bike Out where we were all racked.

Once out of transition, a little unsettled by getting stuck in my wetsuit (I swear that never happens at home!), I wobbled down the bike path trying to get rid of my sea legs.  The route out of town had a lot of quick turns, but they flew by and it didn’t take too long to get into the rollers.  While not as crowded as Pleasant Prairie was this year, it was still a pretty crowded bike course.  It was challenging to pace the climbing and stay out of people’s draft zones at the same time.  I was very conscious of the race officials zipping by on motorcycles, which they did about every ten or fifteen minutes, and one of my “musts” for this race was not to get a penalty.  Penalties definitely fall into the “things I can control” bucket!

I had changed the gearing on my bike for this race.  Normally I ride an 11-23 cassette, but I borrowed my husband’s cyclocross cassette that is a 12-25 and that turned out to be perfect gearing to spin up the hills and put just a little hammer into the downhills and not lose too much speed.

After getting through the early jitters, I took a look at my heart rate monitor.  I had hoped that the malfunction at Schaumburg in July was just a fluke, but it turned out not to be.  I had no heart rate and no pace, all I had was the speed on my bike computer and basically a fancy stopwatch, so I was going to have to pace the rest of the race by feel.  Good thing I practiced that!

I did get a chance, on a beautiful flat section that I remembered had great views of Lake Champlain from the pre-race drive, to reflect on how lucky I was to be racing the Age Group National Championship with so many very talented athletes.  It really was amazing to be out on the same course with some of these people, so strong out of the water, so strong on the bike, and I was sure they were also so strong on the run.

After the 180 degree turnaround, it was time to buck the headwind all the way back to town.  Thankfully the course was mostly descending and the hill I was concerned about when I went down it going out of town wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected when I had to climb it.  Staying out of draft zones was easier going back in; the fast people were still fast and not in reach and the slower people were not going as fast as they were in the beginning of the bike leg.  And no flats!  If there was any race I didn’t want a DNF in, it was this one.

T2 went a lot better than T1, everything went according to plan, and I was running up the side of transition to Run Out.  I knew there was a big hill immediately out of transition because I had heard about it and could see it from transition, but the hill I could see from transition was only the bottom half!  Wow. We climbed for the first half mile, and it was tough, steep, and pock-marked with holes.  Thankfully I knew the rest of the run was not going to be that tough, so my brain was okay with the effort even if my legs weren’t.  Like so many runs in triathlon, this one was all guts.  I ticked off one mile after another, convincing myself not to walk.  “It’s only X more miles, you just have to make it another XX minutes,” I told myself over and over and over.  I had no heart rate, I had no pace, this leg too was all by feel like I’ve done so many times in practice.  I looked at my time every few minutes, but didn’t have a good feel for what my splits were, all I had was the total time and it was starting to look pretty encouraging, even if it hurt.

After mile 5 I started to recognize the trail from my pre-ride the day before, and I knew I was getting close.  I could hear the spectators, then hear the announcer at the finish line, right, left, right, left…  I could see the last turn in the path, I could hear the people pounding on the boards lining the finish chute… then I could see the rippling American flags lining the chute, and the red carpet… I raised my arms, smiled for the cameras,  and ran through the arch.  I probably shed a little tear or two on the way too.

How did I do?  I met my goals.  I had a great race.  I followed the plan, I didn’t make any major mistakes, and I didn’t get any penalties!  And even though every course is different, I had a PR for the race distance, which was just icing on a very awesome cake.

Competing at Age Group Nationals has been on my bucket list since I got my first USAT membership card.  To be able to compete in the same venue as so many amazing athletes, such tremendously fast people of all ages was why I wanted to go.  I had no idea how inspired I would be after I finished.  I am impressed and humbled by the courage and tenacity of the 70+ age groupers as much as the speed and ability of the athletes from the USAT Collegiate Recruitment Program and the amazing women of my age group who will undoubtedly hold their own at the ITU World Championship in London next year.  I am so blessed by the opportunity just to be a part of the event.  There’s so much more I could write about the experience, traveling to a race with my bike, the town of Burlington; this report is a highly abbreviated version of the weekend!

Of course no race report would be complete without recognizing my support team.  My husband Eric might be both my biggest fan and biggest critic at the same time–and really I need both of those.  Nobody keeps me as grounded or cheers as loud as he does!  Thanks also to Coach Joe, Coach Suzy, and Coach Cathy for providing regular doses of inspiration, encouragement, and guidance throughout the whole season.  Thank you to all of Team Experience Triathlon, you all have been so encouraging and supportive!  Thanks Mom and Julie for worrying about me, praying for me, and sending me maybe a thousand texts and instant messages to cheer me on. And even though he won’t read this unless I print it out and snail mail it to him, I need to thank my dad for telling me “You won’t win any prizes unless you pump some iron.”  Dad–you were right.

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