Yesterday came the day I’ve been training for all year: the Fort St. John triathlon.
Last year when I competed in this triathlon, my goal was simple; to finish the race. Of course, a successful fulfilment of that goal meant that the following year I’d have to compete again, just to see if I could improve my time. That kept me faithful in running and swimming regularly through the winter, and I even sourced out a used trainer for my bike so I could cycle indoors (the most boring workout in the world).
Once-a-year triathletes operate on a very different plane than those who compete regularly. We don’t have fancy triathlete suits, our bikes are used and old, and we cower at the thought of getting a flat during a race. I couldn’t tell you what compression sleeves do or when and how best to stay hydrated. We’re outside the sport enough to care more about the fact that those super-streamlined pointed back bike helmets look really dorky than how much time they might save us on the course. (though I would kind of like a triathlon suit.)
Didn’t sleep hardly at all the night before the race. In the week before, I’d already had the nightmares about showing up 45 minutes after the start, getting there and realizing I’d forgotten my bike, and so the night before was mostly waking up every hour or two running through my mental checklist of what I needed to bring. Got the whole family up at 6 to get ready to leave at 6:30, made sure everyone had at least a little breakfast, and was dressed appropriately for the weather (which looked sunny and about 10C – a promising morning).
Wade loaded the kids’ bikes into the truck; my bike had been loaded the night before after we added a little air to the tires. Let me tell you about my bike. Through the spring I trained on my mountain bike, which was a cheap buy 18 years ago. I wanted a road bike for the race, as the one I borrowed last year wasn’t available, so I bought my brother-in-law’s used road bike, for what he paid for it, $10. It’s a Motobecane road bike, and that’s all I know about it. Cycling is not my area of expertise. I had to replace the tube on the back tire and have a brake cable replaced, which cost me another $15. It may just be the world’s oldest road bike.
Anyhow, Wade happened the check the tires on my bike, one more time as he loaded the kids’ bikes, and saw that my back tire (the one with the new tube) was flat. During the night, the tube blew, and I didn’t have a spare. Didn’t even occur to me to buy and pack a spare tube, not that I would have known how to change it in a hurry anyhow. Panic occurs. There may have been yelling, as Wade and I scrambled to get my mountain bike on the truck. I had taken my new gel seat off the mountain bike for my road bike and hadn’t put anything back on the mountain bike, so we had to rob a seat off Wade’s old bike; I didn’t want to give up on my road bike yet; I was hoping, but not certain, that there might be a bike shop booth at the triathlon who could do a quick repair before the race.
How thankful I was that I had done so much training on my mountain bike! While it would be a much slower race, I knew that I could cycle that distance on either bike, and I wouldn’t have to drop out entirely.
We got to the race about five minutes before the pre-race meeting – all that bike trauma had cut into my arrival cushion, and I still had to pick up my race package and timing chip. Lots of people milling around, it was a beautiful day for a race. I racked my mountain bike after Wade moved my water bottle holder over from my road bike, and spoke a little to the lady beside me – she was having trouble with her bike’s gears and said that usually there is a crew from Ernie’s Sports at the tri, but they were no where in sight. A few minutes later they showed up, and to heck with waiting politely till they got their booth set up; I hustled over and asked them if they could replace my tube, and they could! So back to the truck to unload the road bike, and by the time I brought it back to Ernie’s there was a line up of people needing attention to their bikes, so I was glad I’d been quick to approach them.
Such a relief to be able to race on my road bike! I racked it, and joined the pre-race meeting, and looked around for other racers from Dawson Creek. I saw Jamie Maxwell, who runs the Greasy Chains bike club in town and who swims at the same time as me on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Neither of us saw any other familiar faces.
The 1km swim is done in the Fort St. John pool, which has six lanes. We were divided into groups of five for each lane, and I was in the first wave of swimmers in the second lane, along with Jamie. I knew he is a faster swimmer than me, and while I swam a personal best time of 19:30 last Thursday, I fully expected to be lapped by him, and I was; twice. Three of the swimmers in my lane were faster than me, and it was frustrating to get a rhythm going only to feel that tap on my feet that meant someone needed to pass at the end of the lane. I came out of the pool with a swim time of 23:49; a full minute slower than last year. I deliberately didn’t wear a watch so I had no idea throughout the race of what my time was; I just wanted to push myself as much as I could without comparing to anything.
Out of the pool is always disorienting; I stumbled to the transition area and threw on cycle shorts and a tank top, laced into my runners (no cycle shoes for this cheapskate!) and off on the bike. It felt good! My training really paid off as the entire 26 km I felt strong and fast. I had good power and tried to keep my cadence up. I knew I’d be passed, as the faster triathletes swim last, but I wasn’t passed as much as I’d expected, and I even passed a few people, which felt good. It’s fun to see other racers on their way back to the transition, and holler encouragement at them. The bike course this year was different from last year, and was advertised as having “minimal hills”. It really was a great course – quiet road, and the minimal hills were as advertised. All the inclines were finished by about km 18 and it was a great feeling to crest the last uphill slope and know that the rest of the route was going to be a piece of cake.
I didn’t plan to carry water for the run, so I was careful to sip my Gatorade while I cycled, and at km 23 I took my last drink, only to have the bottle slip to the ground when I tried to put it back in the holder. There was a course marshal right there, and she grabbed the bottle for me. I wasn’t going to stop, since I was on the home stretch anyhow, and hollered that I’d get it later.
Cruised into the transition area, and ready for the run. I threw on my new running cap, as the sun was pretty bright, and started dog-trotting on the 6km running course. Same course as last year, I knew I could do it. The legs always feel pretty numb after getting off the bike, and it’s weird to start a run already out of breath, so I found a mechanical running pace to settle into until I found my legs.
I knew my legs weren’t what they were last year. This year I changed to a minimalist shoe to see if that would decrease the impact to my knees, and while I’m liking the shoes (VivoBarefoot), I’m noticing a lot more tightness in my calf muscles. In concentrating my energies on the bike, I ran less, and our very cold spring meant I hadn’t done very much outdoor running at all. In addition to this, I play soccer on Friday nights, and I had a big bruise on the right shin, and a bump and bruise on my knee from some rather rough play. I love counting my soccer bruises, but knew they might count against me in the race on Sunday morning.
So the run was hard. I focused on measuring my pace, trying to keep from getting too winded. It helped to see runners ahead of me slowing to a walk through some of the inclines – they were really too small to call them hills – and I try never to walk. I would rather run slower than walking pace than walk, and so I kept my trot. I knew from last year that it would take about 2km to lose the numbness from the bike and start to feel more natural, and I was right, but unfortunately I also started to feel that lower leg tightness and some pain in my ankle already at km 2. There was a water station at km 1.5 and I grabbed a sip on the way out. Just before km 2, I turned the corner and realized it was the same corner where I’d lost my water bottle on the bike. There it was in the grass by the marshal, and I laughed to think that I had inadvertently prepared my own water station along the course, though I never ended up using it.
At the 3km turnaround, there is a bit of a hill – I remembered it as a hill from last year, but this year I didn’t notice any loss of speed or wind as I went up. Thankful for my long hill on my regular 6km course at home that had me tough through the inclines! My ankle, which had been bothering me since km 2, started to really hurt by km 4, sending pain with every step. After reading my friend Joel Maley’s recent half marathon report, he talked a lot about how much of the competition is fought in the mind, and so I made a real effort to stay positive, cheer myself on, and focus. While my ankle hurt and that was a distraction, I knew my mind was making the pain bigger than it was, and that if I kept going it would either get worse or quit. It’s amazing how often it happens that you’ll start to feel pain during a run, but if you push on despite it, the pain will go away. At km 5 I decided to push hard through the last km of the course and sped up. Maybe a little too soon, but it gave me the push I needed to pass one person, and funny enough, the leg pains did diminish, though I think mostly because I was so winded! I hammered through and with a block left to go, I could see my family waiting at the turn into the transition area and finish line. That really helped me speed up!
I loved channelling that last ounce of energy into my run at the end, and it felt so good to know I had just a little more to give, right up to the finish line. There was no clock at the line so I joined my family and we shared a pouch of gummi bears. I was one of the last half dozen racers to cross the line, and a few minutes later the results were posted. This was my first time having any idea of how fast I was during any leg of the race, and while I was disappointed in my poor swim of 23:49 (last year was 22:30), I was delighted to see a 1:04 for the bike course, and a shocking 36:15 for my run, with an overall time of 2:04:15. I felt very strong throughout the race, and while it was hard, at no point did I feel defeated. I had hoped to finish under two hours this year, and it was a little disappointing to miss that by four minutes, but I knew that a fifteen minute improvement over last year’s 2:15:38 would be a long shot. To see my bike time improve from 1:12 to 1:04 was excellent, and even better, to do a steady 6 min/km run is a milestone for me. Last year’s run was 41:54, so my 36:15 was a great surprise and has me all excited since I’m racing in my first half marathon later this summer.
Thanks for all your well wishes and cheers – I know this post is long, but it’s just so worth it to put in the effort and see the fruit. This is my fourth year as a runner, and to see how far I’ve come is a great reward.