Blogs tagged with "drafting"

Race morning sunrise in Brighton, MI

And just like that, my first triathlon of 2014 is done. And forgotten. OK, maybe not forgotten. But it's done. And lessons have been learned.

As my first triathlon of 2014 - in fact, my first tri since London last September - I chose one close to home (only a three-hour drive) on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in order to allow two more days of training without having to be at work. The race that fit the bill was the

Do you believe this guy?

And then it happened. No, I didn't get caught by the women. I got caught by a pack of guys drafting the entire race. At every turnaround, I noticed a pack of about five men who were riding just like that: as a pack. Like, in a diamond shape. All within about two feet of each other. They caught me with about three or four miles left, when the bike course passed by the start for the final short out-and-back.

At first, it didn't bother me. I wasn't racing them, I was racing the women. But when they slowed down, and I got caught up in it, I had to pass them again to keep it legal (which I did). The next thing that happened made me angry. At least one of them stayed in my draft zone - he never dropped back far enough (breaking the USAT rule) before reattempting to pass. I kept glancing back (he was on my left side) as if to say "drop back." But he decided to hang out at my side - not passing - just drafting away. It was then that I saw Jim with the camera, so I pointed to the guy (see photo) and yelled "do you see this?" At that moment, another drafter started to pass me on my right (unbeknownst to me, and not legal either). The guy on my left started yelling at me to get over to the right so he could pass - and I came within inches of crashing into the guy on the right.

THAT'S when I lost it.

I started screaming at all of them for drafting. I think I must have carried on screaming for about a half mile (Jim said he could hear me). I don't remember what came out of my mouth but it wasn't pretty. Or ladylike. (The words "idiot" and "jerk" come to mind - I sincerely hope I didn't resort to flinging cuss words.) As each one passed, I do remember saying "you're ALL CHEATING." I suspect some of my verbal outburst was inspired by the girl who called out another girl in London for drafting off me. I mean, seriously, if refs aren't going to do it, someone has to.

I came into T2 still ranting, and Jim apparently felt the need to calm me down. He told me to focus on MY race and let it go. I tried. But I was determined to chase them all down.

And after a short struggle with my running shoes (it was a shakedown race!), I was off. I forgot to hit the lap button on my Garmin on the way INTO T2 (because, as you know, I was ranting), But I remembered to hit it on the way out.

I thought I hit it.

First loop of the run, still smiling

What I actually pressed was the stop button. And I realized it about a half mile into the run. Too many watches with too many buttons in too many different places. I wanted to scream but instead I settled for 5.5 miles of splits.

And even though I wasn't running as fast as I could because there were no women to chase, I managed to hunt down and pass all the cheaters. Quietly. I wish I were bold enough to have laughed as I passed them knowing I started three minutes behind them. But I just ran and didn't look back.

In the end, seeing I had a good lead at the turn-around, I kind of lollygagged (Jim's word to describe my run) my way through the 10K - again, a two loop course, some cross-country, with a few substantial hills. I wasn't completely satisfied with my time, but it was hard to argue against a fun race with great weather and a nice course for a first race of the year. And the awards were awesome: a bottle of two-buck Chuck, a couple gift certificates and a really nice New Balance tech tee. Despite my issues with drafters, you can't beat this race venue for an early-season triathlon in the midwest.

And after the race, we had a chance to meet up with some friends we've not seen in several years. A great start to a holiday weekend.
Gotta love a race with wine awards.

What can I possibly say about my race at USAT Age Group Nationals? That my time was embarrassing? That I was seriously disappointed? That it's just par for the course of this year?

It's taken me two weeks to regroup and sit down to write anything. The rest of the time I think about it, I end with the emotional equivalent of a shrug. I don't really know what happened that day. I thought I was ready to put in great swim and bike times to make up for (what I thought would be a) 44 minute 10K (based on other results this year). Why shouldn't I expect that? I've been training my butt off on the bike and swim this summer - specifically to make up for my injury-ridden running.

At least I was smiling at bike check-in.

But despite all my preparation and fantastic weather in Milwaukee on August 10, I still came up well short of my goals. What were my goals? To finish with a better time than I did in the last two USAT National events (around 2:20). Both of those races were with Ironman training on my legs and no taper on a hilly course.

And THIS year has been all about training for Olympic distance. Short. Speed work. Lots of rest.

In the two week lead-up to Milwaukee, even my running was starting to look decent. I was able to put in two speed sessions. My tibia stopped hurting. My hip was loosening up. And I could run without pain and full range of motion for the first time since October of last year. I wanted to enjoy myself at this race distance. It's not like Ironman when I'm constantly assessing what's going on with my body, how I'm feeling, and what I'm drinking and eating (my biggest issues at long distance) for 11 hours or more. I would have to work pretty hard to ruin my nutrition in an Olympic-distance race. Heck, I could survive it just on water.

Pre-race body marking.

But in the end, this isn't the race that would give me new-found confidence. I would eventually have to chalk this one up as yet another (learning) experience leading up to the ITU World Championship in London and try not to let the fallout set me up for more failure.

In looking back, I searched for the few positive things that happened in Milwaukee. They started with the swim. The 1500m swim in Milwaukee is an out-and-back loop that starts along the wall at Discovery World on Lake Michigan. The swim course is in a protected area so the water is calm. The course has a "neck" that goes under a walk-bridge, takes a little turn to the left, and then comes back on the other side, back under the bridge, and finishes just a walk down from the field of the transition zone. There were 17 waves in the start. My wave was 7th, starting at 8:21. Everyone was delayed by about 30 minutes because of technical issues with clearing the course. It just gave me more time to use the restroom, then get my wetsuit on and warm up.

My swim was the one part of the race that went very well. Water temperature was about 65 degrees which is perfect with a wetsuit. I got a good, fast, start and was immediately up in the front pack of swimmers in my age group. I felt strong the whole way and had no trouble navigating the buoys because it was a clear day and the sun was high enough to not be in our eyes. In the final strokes to the finish I raced alongside another swimmer and was excited to beat her out of the water (this doesn't usually happen because my arms are completely spent by the end of the swim). My husband Jim was right there to let me know I was 4th out of the water in my age group. That made me very happy.

W45-49 swim start
T1 bike out: I swear I was trying to move fast

Transition didn't go as well as I would have liked. I was able to get my new wetsuit stripped down to my knees pretty quickly but then my bugaboo - getting it off around my heels - came back to bite me. I struggled just a little less than usual, grabbed my helmet and number, and hustled to the exit. I barely stayed in front of the woman I beat out of the water, but once I was on my bike, I was ready to attack.

Too bad my legs didn't come along for the ride. From the very get-go of the bike leg, my legs were burning and screaming like I had just ridden up a mountain. Did I tax myself too much in the swim? (I swam harder than I'm used to, but this was a short race and I planned on that). I shifted down to spin but it only managed to make me slower. The aforementioned woman passed me and I tried to keep up, but I had nothing. After pushing hard to catch and pass her, she then re-passed me - and I repeat: I had NOTHING. It was about that time the eventual winner of the age group blew by me like I was standing still. My heart sank. I kept hoping my legs would come around, but it just got worse, so I backed off to give them a break.

Through first loop of bike course.

Just after that, a USAT referee on motorcycle pulled up alongside me and was writing something on her pad. Oh NO!! I looked in front to make sure I was out of the draft zone of the woman I had played leapfrog with. She kept slowing down and I kept trying to back off, but maybe I didn't do it in time - and now I had a drafting penalty. The ref pulled away after about 30 seconds.

This was NOT the way I wanted to start my bike leg. I tried to shake it off. Remembering Clearwater in 2011, getting angry would ruin my concentration. I regrouped and rode hard despite continuing to be passed by women in my age group.

The 40K bike course should be (well.. is) really fast. It is a short out-and-back loop followed by a longer out-and-back loop, mostly flat on well-paved roads. It has a long gradual hill - a bridge - and the final few miles included the bridge and were against the wind. Near the end of my ride, I did see a LOT of uncaught and ridiculously-obvious drafting - which made me a bit angrier - but that's what happens on flat, fast courses.

I don't remember being this happy, but apparently
I WAS still having fun at the bike finish.

Pulling into transition, I had no idea where I was in the grand scheme, but I knew it wasn't good. My bike time - 1:10 - was even slower than my time on the mountain at the Pittsburgh Tri. And this was without the two-minute drafting penalty added in. I was discouraged and now I had to make something up in the run - currently my worst discipline. As is customary, Jim let me know the age group leader was about six minutes ahead (like there was any chance at this point). But I'm glad he had hope.

Transition 2 was also slow. I had a long run with my bike and had to stop a couple times to avoid running into other athletes in transition. The good thing was I think I finally figured out how tight to keep my stretchy shoelaces - this was the first time I didn't have to stop and adjust. And I remembered to run with my visor and sunglasses instead of putting them on first.

The 10K run course goes out on a paved path along the lake and comes back on the road to finish on grass between the Art Museum and Discovery World. The beginning of my run was nothing short of shocking: I had NO pain in my hip, NO pain in my shin, and my legs were moving better than they have in a long time. I had hope.

I thought I was the only one, but you can't really tell who
was hurting more - the girl in front or me - in this photo.

I passed a couple of women in my age group and settled in behind a third who was running a very even pace. My first mile split - 6:57 - was very encouraging. The next few were all over seven minutes and although I was ok with it, I became acutely aware of the fact that I still had no speed or pick-up in my legs - at all. I felt like I was trudging along even though I was trying to run hard. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get my pace back under seven minutes.

Then, somewhere between mile 5 and 6, real disaster struck. It felt like someone had stuck an knife in my left hip. I think I actually turned around to see if this had, indeed, happened. I instantly lost the full stride in my left leg and had to take abbreviated steps while wincing in pain. I didn't know whether I should stop and walk, or fight to the finish. It was only about a half mile away and there were 18 Team USA slots for 2014 on the line. I decided to fiught for one of them. When I could see the finish line, I managed to limp my way past one last woman (not in my age group) to finish.

After crossing, I immediately fell on the ground. All I wanted was for the pain to stop. As usual, volunteers tried to push me along ("keep walking") but I asked for help. Medical personnel picked me up and carried me to the medical tent. I told them my symptoms but that all I probably needed was some ice and I'd be on my way. I was eventually able to stand and walk and they wrapped two ice packs against my hip with a huge roll of plastic wrap. I slowly made my way out of the tent to find Jim.

Screw this pain! I pushed the final few steps.

Jim was right across from the medical tent waiting along the finish chute. It was then I realized I didn't have my finisher medal. I told him I needed to get my medal and he yelled: "get it from Chrissie!" and pointed to someone in the crowd. WHAT? I turned to see Ironman champ Chrissie Wellington handing out medals. I waved off the other volunteers and made my way over to her. She put the medal around my neck and gave me a hug and a kiss. I floated away down the chute, forgetting for a brief moment, the agony of my day.

It would soon come flooding back. Jim helped me walk slowly to the food tent and told him about the pain in my hip and my drafting penalty. This isn't the race I was supposed to have here. I sat down to replenish, wondering what would be my final time and place. My watch said 2:23. Jim went to check the results - when he came back, he said the penalties were not recorded yet, but that I finished 11th in my age group. Then it also occurred to me that I probably wouldn't make Team USA this time.

Thus began the long walk to the car via transition to pick up my bike. I just wanted to be on my way home and forget the whole thing. And I didn't want to walk one more step. I was tired of pain. Tired of trying to get through a sub-par injury-ridden season. I felt like crying but I was just too tired. I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. This isn't the race I was supposed to have at USAT Nationals.

Jim went back to the finish line one more time to check the results. When he came back, he told me they still didn't have the penalties added, but with a drafting penalty added, I'd be 18th. And so I would make Team USA by a hair. Relieved, we got on the road - and I had seven hours to ponder my race, my season, my year, and, perhaps, my next year.

Thanks to technology, on the way home we found out I DIDN'T get a drafting penalty (whew!), and I DID make it onto Team USA - for the ITU Age Group World Championship in Edmonton, Canada in 2014. (As a hockey fan in the 80s, this is another place I've always dreamed of seeing.)

But that doesn't change the fact that this wasn't the race I was supposed to have. I  feel like I'm clutching at straws. Despite my running not being up to par, my biking and swimming are alive and well (very well if I compare training numbers) - and I couldn't even perform in those legs. I may not be getting enough sleep, but I don't feel like I'm overtrained. My physical therapist says that the problem is that I'm trying to heal DURING the season and that's just not a good combination. What choice do I have?

I've given up designs on placing well in London, but I'm still going to toe that line on September 15th. Even if I weren't racing, we'd still be going.  A vacation is in order and the plans have been made. There are way more reasons to go to England than just a race. I just want to swim in the Serpentine in Hyde Park (my very favorite urban park). We have great friends in London and Exeter. And it seems miracles also happen because my favorite band, Turin Brakes, just announced an intimate London gig during our time there. (For those who know me, you know I'd choose Turin Brakes over a race any day). And who knows, hope springs eternal - maybe miracles travel in twos.

What can I possibly say about my race at USAT Age Group Nationals? That my time was embarrassing? That I was seriously disappointed? That it's just par for the course of this year?

South Haven Beach, early a.m., June 23, 2012

My 2012 triathlon season has gotten off to a rough start, but I'm determined to get it back on track before August. I don't have much choice because August and September will find me with my back up against a wall facing three very important races all within four weeks of each other: the USAT Age Group National Championship (Olympic distance), Ironman Louisville, and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.

The first thing I wanted (had) to do to convince myself that last year was not a fluke was to finish a race. And so I did (finish a race). It was the South Beach Triathlon in South Haven, Michigan, on June 23. An Olympic-distance race that served as a special qualifier for the USAT Nationals, it would surely produce fast times and I would have to push myself.

Race support would have preferred
sleeping in.

The venue for this race (South Haven Beach) was fantastic - it's on the shore of Lake Michigan but looks more like an ocean beach than a lakefront - the water was crystal clear and there's even a sandbar. I was almost expecting to taste salt water when I got in to warm up.

I had no idea what to expect out of myself in the swim, so I started wide to avoid getting clobbered in the first 50 meters. The 1500-meter course started about 500 meters up from the finish and made a strange almost-triangular shape. Before the first turn buoy, I was out of the mix and swam mostly alone for the entire course. I had very little trouble sighing buoys and navigating around people because the water was very calm and it was a beautiful clear day. The air temperature at the start was between 65 and 70 degrees, and the very shallow water (I swear, you could have walked the entire swim course) felt much warmer than the quoted 66 degrees. I wore my wetsuit anyway because I needed practice getting out of it (In Ironman races, I let the wetsuit peelers do it).

In fact, I had practiced getting out of my wetsuit and getting into my running shoes (the two slowest parts of my transitions) in the week leading up to the race. Which made it appropriate, then, that I would have problems with the things I DIDN'T practice. Like getting my helmet on. And running.

When I reached the swim finish, I heard my husband Jim yell "great swim." Considering I've been managing only two swims per week, I was surprised to look down and see 23 minutes on my watch. My swim speed may or may not be attributed to something I tried for the first time in this race. Yes, I KNOW I should NEVER do this, but it was a harmless adjustment: based on a little video I wandered across the night before the race, I tried to lengthen my stroke by rotating my hips instead of my shoulders (something I could never get right, but the video demo turned on a lightbulb). I felt the effect immediately, which was good because after going out too hard, I was able to get my heart rate back under control. I'll be practicing this as soon as I get back in the pool.

You try running in the water and checking your watch
at the same time.

Then came transition - from a wetsuit standpoint, it went well. From a helmet standpoint, not so well. I never thought to practice putting my aero helmet on with my new sunglasses, and wouldn't you know, it was havoc. I lost at least 30 seconds if not more, but the lesson is clear: practice EVERY aspect of transition no matter how small of a deal it seems.

The 40K bike started on a short uphill from the beach. I wasn't sure how my legs would react to being pushed for speed on the bike for a change, so in the week leading up to this race, I did a hard speed session on the road to reacquaint myself with traveling faster than 20 mph. (This is not something I recommend in "taper" mode, but I wasn't tapering for this race, and I needed something, anything, to help me get a grip on "speed").

The bike course was relatively flat with some rolling hills, but I was able to hold 21-22 mph for most of it. I beat one woman out of transition and I passed two other women on the "out" portion of the bike course. But at the turnaround, I noticed two women right behind me (not the women I already passed). My legs weren't screaming, but I was working them hard, and although I had a fast swim and was faster on the bike this year, I was certainly not stupid enough to think I could hold off the inevitable faster female bikers. I was still leading through 25K, when I was passed by the only woman who covered the course faster than I did that day. She didn't really blow by me, so I figured all I had to do was keep her in sight and hopefully catch her on the run. I tried to stay behind her, albeit out of her drafting zone.

The reason I wrote "out of her drafting zone" was because right after she passed me, something extremely odd happened. We both passed a pack of men, and one of them swerved to the left as I was passing him (apparently he didn't hear me). My knee-jerk reaction was to say "sorry."

His reaction, on the other hand, was bizarre: he immediately started screaming at me. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but he hung beside me and continued to yell. With profanity. I though maybe he was angry and blamed me for the near-collision, but I just wanted to get past him and get on with my race. Then I realized he was saying something about drafting. He was yelling "don't you know there's no drafting in triathlon?!?!" Did he think I was drafting off him? I dropped back, waited and then passed him again. He started screaming at me again - I was able to make out: "ride your own race." That hurt. If there was one thing I WAS doing on Saturday it was riding my own race - of which he only witnessed a microcosm.

He chased down the woman who passed me and started saying something to her. It was THEN I realized he was accusing me of drafting off HER. Seriously?? I was working quite hard to stay OUT of her draft zone because she kept speeding up and slowing down. The angry self-appointed referee dropped back to yell profanities at me again - this time saying he was going to "yell out my number."

Having never experienced this before, I didn't know how to react. USAT has conduct rules, and the last thing I wanted to do was violate them. I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to point out that HE was actually the one guilty of drafting. In the end, I decided the best course of action was none - and continued my race. But I'd be lying if I said the whole experience didn't rattle my mental and physical state. It took several minutes to calm down and regain my focus.

By the time I was out of his anger zone-of-influence, the bike leg was almost finished, and I would soon find out what my running legs were capable of in a short race. I finished the bike leg just over 1:05, had a relatively quick transition into my running shoes, and I was off, chasing the female biker who passed me.

The 10K run started on the same hill as the bike, and it was similar to the bike course - gradual rolling with one other hill at the turnaround. The temperature was probably approaching 80 degrees at this point, but the air was dry so it was pretty comfortable. My only problem was that I had NO SPEED in my legs. I almost stopped to have a conversation with them: "Why are you doing this to me? You used to be fast! What's the deal?" But no matter how hard I tried, my leg turnover just wasn't there. The only gait my legs seemed to know was the marathon shuffle.

Awkward doesn't begin to describe finishing on a beach.

After passing the one woman, I had no idea where I was in the race, and I only knew who was behind me and never saw the one woman who remained in front of me - even at the turnarounds, I never saw her. The final few hundred meters of the race was on the beach sand, and when I hit the beach, I heard the announcer say that the top two women were now "on the beach" - I turned around to check if there was one just behind me, but unfortunately, the winner was about 30 seconds in front of me. I never knew she was there. Even if I did, I don't think I could have caught her.

I ended up with a run time just over 42 minutes. It was several minutes slower than my best and even though I felt like I was maxed out on the run, I was disappointed that I maxed out at such a slow pace. Seriously, I don't want to blame this one on age, but something in me fears that sub-40 10Ks are a thing of the past.

Mentally, I'm fighting it.

Even two days later, I'm still fighting it.

Yeah, I'm smiling - I finally finished
a race.

But back to race day: I was mostly satisfied with my final time of 2:14:27. When I went to pick up my bike in transition after the race, I may have found a new calling. There was a young woman sitting in transition next to her stuff. She was on the phone and broken down in tears. It was heartbreaking. After she got off the phone, I felt compelled to help. I asked her if she was ok and if there was anything I could do. She said, and I quote: "No, I'm ok, I just had a really. bad. race."

Did she know who she was talking to? I thought to myself: YES! Now HERE was something I KNEW I could help with.

I told her I was sorry, and I knew exactly how she felt. Then I told her about the beginning of MY season. About Ironman St. George. And Mooseman. And that I had yet to FINISH a race this year. Within 5 minutes, she was standing up, talking, smiling and thanking me.

It felt good. Almost like everything happens for a reason.

And now, here I stand, with the knowledge that my usual bugaboo - biking - is not nearly the enigma it's been for the past ten years. And the only things standing between me and a better season are the very two things that I know I have the ability to excel at: swimming and running.

Getting there is going to hurt. But I can't think of a better position I'd rather be in right now.

2010 has been a year of many firsts for me. But after receiving my first drafting penalty at Ironman 70.3 Clearwater -- after many years of "clean" racing behavior -- I've come to realize the longer I'm in this sport of triathlon, the more likely it becomes that everything I never thought WOULD happen, CAN and WILL happen. No matter how prepared I am. No matter how tough I am.

Thus I thought back to all the "natural" and "man-made" mishaps I've dealt with to come up with a list of things (read: Disasters) that are inevitable for triathletes the longer we continue to toe the line. These are things that when I tell someone else, 90 percent of them will say "OMG! That happened to me once!" This list is by no means exhaustive or conclusive -- it's just based on whatever I could remember. And face it, my memory is not what it used to be, so feel free to add your own "race inevitables" to my list. Hopefully we can have a little fun with it and maybe I'll have new disasters to look out for heading into 2011.

It starts with a statement. Sooner or later, this WILL happen to you during a triathlon race:

  1. You'll get a drafting penalty (take it from me).
  2. You will need to make a pitstop at the porta-john -- if you're lucky, you'll find a real bathroom -- I won't tell you what happens if you're unlucky (and I'm talking "number 2" because we all know "number 1" follows its own rules).
  3. You'll have a "mechanical" -- a flat tire, blown spoke, or thrown chain (in the case of the last one, I hope that Alberto Contador is not right behind you).
  4. The race course will be reconfigured due to natural disasters or inclement weather.
  5. The swim will be cancelled due to natural disasters or inclement weather.
  6. The RACE will be cancelled due to natural disasters or inclement weather. (Yes, 4, 5, AND 6 have happened to me.)
  7. You'll have to do the entire race in the rain (or snow).
  8. You will crash (even though I've not experienced this, almost everyone I know has).
  9. You'll launch your water bottles (and it will be the ones with your critical race nutrition in them).
  10. You'll have to serve yourself at an aid station or water stop (because, there are only a finite number of volunteers in the world).
  11. You'll get lost on the course.
  12. You'll DNF.
  13. You'll DNS (even the phenomenal Chrissie Wellington couldn't avoid this one).
It seems almost appropriate that I came up with 13 things.

Your turn.

Little did I know, the proof is in the shirt.

My 2010 triathlon season ended Saturday in Clearwater, Florida, at the Foster Grant Ironman 70.3 World Championship. And surprisingly enough, I didn't go out in flames (as is the usual case for the Disaster Magnet). But I also didn't have the "Race of My Life" (R.O.M.L.). The positive thing about not having the R.O.M.L. is that it keeps me hungry for the future and the hope that I will someday HAVE the R.O.M.L. The unfortunate thing about it is that I would have liked to have had the R.O.M.L. in the "World Championship" (read: WTC Mdot 70.3 Championship). Despite this, my second showing in Clearwater was respectable but not without its few near-disasters threatening to derail my race.

I should have known something bad was coming because for the first time ever, packing and traveling to a race destination went completely without incident. Even getting our rental car -- a complete disaster last year due to overbooking of cars -- went smoothly and without having to wait in a queue. And race registration and picking up my bike from Tri-Bike Transport also went without incident or long waits.

Fast-forward to ten hours of sleep on Thursday night, a great warm-up spin and run on Friday morning and... you could almost FEEL the disaster brewing on the horizon. And that's when it happened. Sometime around 10 a.m., I bent a certain way in the hotel room and wammo! Something in my lower back gave out when I stood up. It wasn't excruciating, but the pain was enough to make it difficult to... well... stand up. I stretched maniacally and had my husband Jim mash at it for a bit. It wouldn't be perfect, but it was far from being bad enough to keep me out of the race.

Then came "Back Pain, Part II" (isn't getting old a bitch?). After breakfast, we went down to Clearwater Beach to scope out the start and go for a short warm-up swim (or freeze-up swim as the case was in 64-degree water). After about ten minutes in the water, I stood up and stretched my arms a bit only to be struck with a sharp pain between my shoulder blades. This can NOT be HAPPENING! It was the kind of pain that sometimes compromises getting a lungful of air. I stretched. I bitched. I started to panic. Why is this happening today, of ALL days? I got back in the water to make sure I could swim with my newest ailment.

I could -- and I WOULD -- start the race. Pain or no pain. We went to a drug store and stocked up on air-activated heat pads and I downed 800 mg of Ibuprofen.

Bike and gear bag check-in

I packed my transition bags, and we went down to the race site to rack my bike, see the transition zone, and drop off my bags. The weather was beautiful -- sunny, dry and not ridiculously warm. My bike would be very easy to find on race day -- it was racked in the second row along the last aisle at the end of the entire transition zone. I would therefore only have to run a few steps with my bike. I couldn't ask for anything better. I walked through the transition with a race volunteer who explained the set up. He was not from Clearwater. An older gentleman, he and his wife were there on vacation -- they do it every year, and he volunteers at the race. (As usual, these race volunteers never cease to amaze me.)

Jim and I relaxed the rest of the day in the hotel room and then went to dinner at a wonderful Italian restaurant called Villa Gallace in Indian Rocks Beach. The reason I mention this is because their specialty, homemade gnocchi, is THE best gnocchi I've had this side of Italy. It was so good that Jim and I couldn't bear to let the leftovers go to waste and took them back to the hotel (something we rarely do when out of town).

After a fitful night -- Jim said I dozed but I don't think I caught any Z's whatsoever -- race day was upon us. I got up at 3:35, downed my usual breakfast (Hammergel, protein powder, banana, orange juice and coffee), and took a hot shower to help loosen up my back. The great thing about staying in a hotel five minutes away from the start is that you can go back to the room and relax before the start. And that's exactly what we did. We walked to the start, got body-marked, set up my transition and went back to our hotel room. For the first time EVER, I didn't have to stand in porta-john lines (and neither did Jim!).

Pre-race, post warm-up

The race started at 6:45 -- the male and female pro waves would go first followed by the age groupers. I would start in wave 3, the first non-pro wave, women 45+. After a short swim warm-up, I made my way to the corrals to await my start. I took Jim's recommendation to start up front because I'm usually one of the faster female swimmers (assuming my back was not an issue).

The Clearwater swim is a very long rectangle -- it's almost just an "out-and-back." I was alone for most of the swim. It was a bit rough on the way out, but when we reached the turn buoys, it got much worse. On the way back in, it was hard to spot buoys because we were looking directly into the sun and the waves were choppy. I stopped to get my orientation and found a building on the horizon that lined up directly with the orange buoys. It helped immensely -- spotting individual buoys in rough water with a bad back would have cost me much more time in the end. When I finally reached the shore and checked my watch, I was very disappointed at my time -- well over 31 minutes. But all the swim times were slow. And the reason I couldn't find any feet to draft off was because I was actually fifth out of the water in my wave.

Watch check out of the water

My swim-to-bike transition, T1, went much faster than usual because I had concentrated on making it faster in the days leading up to the race. The wetsuit strippers were efficient as usual, and I found my bag quickly. Because my shoes were clipped onto the bike, all I had to do was retrieve helmet, number belt and sunglasses, all of which I donned WHILE running to my bike (note: new concept for me, old news for everyone else).

The bike leg was where my race really started to fall apart. From the very start of the ride, my legs felt BAD. Not "I-need-to-get-my-land-legs-back-after-the-swim" bad, but really fatigued and, dare I say, painful. And they were NOT coming around. The Clearwater course is ridiculously fast, and after 15 miles of the 56, I still had not hit speeds anywhere near my pre-race plan of 23 mph.

Swim-to-bike transition

Somewhere between miles 15 and 25, the next disaster struck. I was riding by myself and was overtaken by a pack of both male and female riders. Knowing how bad the drafting is on this course and the stated "crack-down" by officials, I tried to drop back to get out of this pack's drafting zone. I never made it. The next thing I knew, I was looking smack into the red card of a race official (who was also yelling at me: "DRAFTING! Go to the next penalty tent!"). Wha? You MUST be JOKING? I never even got a chance to drop back. I wonder if the referee noticed when my jaw hit my aero bar. He didn't stop to pick it up. He was too busy red-carding three more women in the pack -- now well in front of me.

It was my first drafting penalty in all my years of racing. I lost focus. I was upset, angry -- even sad. My bike leg was already suffering and now I would lose four additional minutes for the penalty. I decided to drop out of the race. The only question was where on the course to do it. In the penalty box? At an aid station? At the bike finish? Should I just lollygag to T2 and call it a day?

PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER JEANNE! I stopped at the 25-mile penalty tent to serve my four minutes. I got a black slash on my bib number, helmet number and bike number. The other women there were as agape as I was with their infractions. (Mind you, I'm ALL FOR cracking down on drafting.) And then, as if that weren't enough, when my time was up, I was held back to allow another huge pack of riders to pass.

But when I got back out there, the other feeling remained -- my biking muscles were still toast. Face it, I was riding slow, with or without a drafting penalty. I still made sure to follow my nutrition routine (250 calories and about 20 ounces water per hour using

A sight for sore eyes
(and sore legs)

I rode into T2, a dismal 2:41 split on my watch and a dumbfounded Jim on the sidelines. He didn't know my position overall in my age group, but he knew it wasn't favorable for me to make a stab at the top three. My body was stiffer than usual getting off the bike, but I was determined to give it a go at least from the bike to the transition tent. When my feet shockingly slipped right into my shoes, I figured it was a sign. My bike-to-run transition went pretty fast, mainly because, again, I focused on getting out of the tent with "stuff in hand." I put my hat on and gel and electrolytes in my pockets AS I made my way to the run exit.

It all starts here...

My run started with Jim's voice "relax - you can catch 'em." Even though I had no clue where THEY were. I just ran. I would assess the situation at Mile 1. At Mile 1, my watch said: 6:45. Thank the MAKER! I felt like crap, but I was on a sub-seven-minute pace! Even the first hill (i.e., bridge) didn't send my mile time over seven minutes.

The only mishap on the run was dropping my Roctane and electrolytes after pulling my number belt down below my pockets, creating the same "nutrition launcher" that plagued me at my last half. (Maybe it's time for new racing shorts?) I drank water and Powerbar Perform alternately at the aid stations, and I stopped once to down two extra Thermolyte capsules when I started to feel that old familiar nausea. The temperature had risen to the high 70s, maybe low 80s, and the heat was starting to take its toll. But, still, it wasn't unbearable.

My pace slowed a bit during the second loop, but I had already run down several women in my age group by Mile 6. It got confusing after that. On the second loop, some of them had just started the run, and some, like me, were on their second loop. I figured I had to run down anyone who had a "4-something" on the back of her calf. At the apex of the bridge with about 1.5 miles to go, I passed the woman who was second in my age group (although I didn't know it at the time). Coming into the finish about a quarter mile away, I saw Jim and he informed me I was "third but could still catch the leaders!" He had been getting text updates from our friend Nick via the online Athlete Tracker (the three of us were still unaware I had already passed the woman in second).

I had one thought: afterburners ON! I maxed-out my effort as I passed the transition zone and headed for the finish chute. As soon as I saw the finish line, I saw the woman who just crossed it. She had a "48" on her calf. I ran out of road. The race was over.

My black mark.

I finished in second place by 12 seconds. Devastating? Sort of... but not really. While we were sitting down after the race and I was telling Jim how angry I was about my drafting penalty, he said: "Look at your watch." I did. He said, "you have 20 minutes to complain about the drafting penalty and then you're done." At that moment, I was completely aware of how lucky I am to have Jim. He truly understood what I was going through and acknowledged my dumb luck that day. He felt I deserved an opportunity to bitch about it. But, in the end, all he really wanted was for me to enjoy what I did accomplish.

I ran myself from 21st off the bike to 2nd in my age group and recorded one of the fastest female age-group runs of the day (1:30:36). Overall, it could have gone better. But I learned a LOT about myself on Saturday. I learned a LOT about how to race on Saturday. I learned a LOT about how to avoid a nutrition disaster. I learned a LOT about how much pain my body can endure. And I learned a LOT about how to enjoy the experience even if it's not going the way I want or expect. Now I can't WAIT until next year. And that, really, is what it's all about.

But getting on the podium was awesome too.

Top 5, W45-49
L-R: Jocelyn Saunders, Gabriele Pauer, Bonnie Karas, me, Lauren Smith

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