With Vineman Monte Rio on the schedule for Sunday morning, it seems I should write my race report from last month’s triathlon in Napa Valley before taking off for Sonoma County! There have been an incredible number of thoughts that have swarmed through my mind since that day, and I will truly do my best to distill it all down in a post that is 8 pages long :).
The HITS race series bills itself as being the triathlon for everyone, holding 5 distances over the course of 2 days in several locations throughout the country. And whether you’re a newcomer to the sport, like myself, or a veteran Ironman, the meticulous organization and well-run logistics of the races provides a great experience for racers at any level. Having run several poorly organized road races, I was thankful to have such a well-planned race as my first triathlon.
Going into race week, I of course had at least 1,000 questions. I bombarded Danielle over dinner at Homeroom. I texted my coach probably no less than 20 times during the week…even though we Skyped before the race to talk about everything triathlon-related I could think to ask. But more importantly, two weeks before the race I had attempted my first open water swim in the Bay (Odyssey offers supervised open water swims in the Berkeley Marina every Sunday morning) and had a major freak out. I was terrified. I got through the swim but I was so overwhelmed and convinced I was going to drown in Lake Barryessa. A poor swim in the pool a few days later left me 100% positive I needed to withdraw from the race. I felt like I was such a poor swimmer there was no way I could actually cover the 750 meters. And so I decided to withdraw. I told my family, I told my coworkers, I posted it on Facebook. I couldn’t handle the pressure and fear and I just wanted to throw in the towel. And then my coach stepped in. She asked me to go back to the Bay and do another open water swim the week before the race. And I actually had a blast. It was a frigid day and we were getting a little bit of rain, but I had an amazing swim. And so she asked me to do just the swim portion of the race. From there I could decide what to do. But she knows me well enough to know that if I walked away from the race and let my fear of the open water swim consume me, I would never attempt another triathlon. And so, while everyone else assumed I had decided not to race, I spent the week leading up to HITS bombarding Coach T and Danielle with every triathlon-related question I could think of.
Danielle was racing the half distance on Saturday (check out her race recap here), as was our Ragnar teammate Rich (aka Iron Ballz), and Matt and I were both anxious to check out the race site and pick up our packets in the daylight. (It’s important to note that HITS assigns transition spots, so we didn’t need to worry about getting to the race early to claim a good one but I did want to have a sense of the layout.) The biggest downfall of HITS Napa Valley is how far away it is from any hotels. And because neither of us were willing to spend at least $70 just to be 20 min closer, we drove the 1.5 hours from Oakland to Lake Barryessa on Saturday and Sunday. Fortunately we timed our arrival just before Danielle crossed the finish line, and we were able to catch her finish! While we waited for Rich, Matt and I did a little recon on how transition was laid out and spent some time checking out the lake and the swim route. More than anything, getting to feel the water and to visualize coming in and out of transition was really key for me. I like to spend the night before a race really visualizing each aspect and that made a huge difference for me on race day.
After watching Rich finish the race, we spent a little longer trying to figure out where our transition spots would be and grabbed our race packets before heading home. I whipped up some dinner while Matt pulled up videos on how to change a flat (complete with a little cheat sheet of instructions he included in the flat kit he’d outfitted my bike with that week). We packed – so much stuff for triathlon!! – and got to bed as early as possible.
The 3 am alarm was an unwelcome sound to my ears, but we got up and got moving. We ate breakfast, loaded up the car, and started heading to Lake Barryessa. I was relieved to find Danielle quickly once we entered transition; she had decided to volunteer on Sunday and I can’t even tell you how incredibly grateful I was to see her throughout the race. She started out with body markings and came over to write our race numbers and help calm my nerves. It seemed like time FLEW by as we prepped our transition spots, got our wetsuits on, and prepared to make our way down to the water. Before I knew it I was passing Danielle, and as she was giving me a hug I completely lost it. I was scared and overwhelmed. I was excited and nervous. I was every emotion one could ever experience at the start of a triathlon all at the same time. To help me calm down, Danielle drew a smiley face on one of my feet and Dory on the other, reminding me to just keep swimming. It was exactly what I needed to hear.
Before I could really comprehend what was happening, we were next to the lake and Matt was lining up with his wave for the start of the race. I must have looked pretty freaked out because a race official standing near me asked if I was ok just before the race started. I was honestly nervous about getting through the race without Matt…we’ve raced 4 marathons and countless other races side by side, so it felt weird to not have him next to me at the start of the triathlon.
And then, it was my turn. I got in the water…my heart was racing. As soon as the sent us off, I tried to swim freestyle, but I couldn’t calm my breathing well enough to avoid sucking in large amounts of lake water. I’d found that backstroke would allow me to make forward progress while catching my breath, so I flipped onto my back and began heading for the first buoy. Several times I’d try to start swimming freestyle again, but I never settled into it. I basically ended up swimming the entire 750 meters using backstroke, which isn’t as fast and impossible to site while doing. I only got off course once or twice, remarkably, and was elated when I could start to make out the crowd waiting for us on the beach. I specifically thought to myself that while backstroke wasn’t the way I had hoped to accomplish the swim, it give me something to work on for the next race. I focused on not letting that fact defeat me, and instead used it to fuel my push forward.
Coming out of the water I was ecstatic to see that I had finished the swim faster than I thought I would: 22:54. I was actually nervous that HITS was going to be strict about the time limits they posted online for the race and had even emailed them ahead of time to ask about it. In case you have the same question, they told me that I was free to take as much time as I needed, the cut off times were just a recommendation. My swim time had me in 289th place out of 440 competitors as I entered T1. With my swim being faster than I had anticipated and Matt having a bit of a struggle with his wetsuit and tri top in T1, I was able to snag a quick kiss from him as he was heading out on his bike/I was coming in to change and grab mine. It was a big boost!
I tried to change as quickly as possible (getting a wetsuit off is crazy hard especially with tired arms) and did my best to get out of T1 in a respectable time. I ended up taking 5:19, which I think I can do a lot to improve on.
Coming out of T1, I grabbed my bike and headed for Bike Out where Danielle caught my attention just as I was crossing the mount line. Seeing her in that moment helped me regroup and think about what I’d just accomplished. She gave me a big smile and cheer, and somehow I knew the rest of the race was going to be amazing. I can’t really explain it but it was almost like I could leave the fear of the swim behind and just race like hell for the finish line.
And once I was on my bike, that’s exactly what I did. Once I hit the main road, I gave a strong, steady effort on the uphills and maintained a stronger effort on the flats, picking up as much speed as possible through the downhill sections. The course was actually hillier than I noticed the day before, and some of that could have come from the poor road conditions (there were a few potholes that needed to be dodged and some uneven terrain in places). I aimed at finding the safest but straightest line throughout the course and urged myself forward the entire time. Shortly before the turn around I caught sight of Matt on his way back in, which was really fun. He looked so strong, which gave me an additional boost. (It helped that he’d left me a little note on my handle bars, which I kept looking down at throughout the bike.)
A little way after the turn, I was passed by the only two women on the course that managed to pass me and stay ahead of me on the bike (it’s worth noting that no men accomplished this feat). Considering they were wearing sponsored kits, I felt like that was ok. The rest of the ride, I focused on each person ahead of me and tried to reel them in one by one. I couldn’t even tell you the number of people I passed, but considering I jumped about 100 places when comparing swim time to bike time, I think it’s safe to say it was a lot. On my way into T2, I rode past Matt heading out for the run, and gave him a little cheer. Even though we couldn’t race together, it was amazing to see him on the course several times. And as I hit the dismount line, I was excited to hit a bike time of 45:35 (on a challenging course), moving up to 159th place for the bike.
Once in T2, I racked my bike, stripped down to my singlet, switched shoes, grabbed the rest of my stuff and headed for run out. Unfortunately that meant dodging athletes heading out on their bikes in the opposite direction, as well as coming in from the swim (swim in was next to run out). Chaos!! My T2 time ended up being 2:07. I’m hoping that now that I switched to the stretchy shoe laces I can shed a few seconds off of that!
I made it out onto the run and was immediately frustrated: the route to get out onto the main roadway was narrow and we were sharing parts of it with runners coming in to the finish line. We were also next to the bike in/bike out route, and there were spectators crowding the road. I kept getting stuck behind slower runners, and I’d have to ease up on the pace for a bit before there was room to pass. Which was especially annoying because so many people come out of T2 going so slowly!!!
Once I was on the main road, though, I had the space I needed to get around other runners and my intense desire to outrun everyone in front of me kicked in. I was trying to be smart because most of the first half of the route was uphill, but I was certainly struggling to not get swept up in the excitement of the race and my happiness for reaching my best discipline. I ran the first mile at an 8:30 or so pace and told myself I could ease up if need be; I was working hard and my legs were pretty dead after pushing so much on the bike. At that point I told myself it was just half a mile to the turnaround and I’d probably get to see Matt at some point soon. I was starting to struggle a bit and thought about taking a short walk break; the hills were no joke at that point, and I was approaching the largest climb. I thought to myself that I couldn’t let Matt see me walking and I wasn’t sure when I’d see him, so I had to keep running. Shortly after that I passed him on his way in and we exchanged a high five as we passed each other. I needed that boost, too, because I was starting to climb the hardest hill and it totally felt like the Hill of Truth back in DC, even though I don’t think it was quite as steep. Somehow, before I knew it, we were turning!
I’ve always taken pride in my ability to hold strong on hills and to pass runners on a climb. Maybe it comes from figure skating and using my quads to jump, but as much as I might complain about running hills, I seem to be pretty good at it. So as we turned to the downhill, I made it my mission to not lose the advantage I’d had and to use the hills to pick up more speed. I didn’t see a marker for mile 2, so I had no clue how fast I was running, but I continued to pick off runners…only getting passed by 4 people (so a total of 6 once I was out of the water). At the last bridge, where we had a stunning view of Lake Barryessa, I turned my head to glimpse the view on my way in and seriously almost started laughing because I couldn’t believe how stunning it was. I could not have picked a more beautiful place to do my first triathlon!
And then out of no where, there was the parking lot where we’d parked, and there was the turn off of the main road, and after cresting a small hill: there was the finish line. I started to fight back the tears and flew with every bit of kick I could muster. Cruelly, I came up the final hill and raced across the finish line. Matt was standing there waiting for me with a big, sweaty hug and his first words were, “I think you beat me.” Which turned out to be true! My run time was a new 5K PR at 24:27, putting me at 111th for the run time. Overall, I came in 1:40:23, well ahead of my 2 hour goal, finishing 189th out of 440, and 21st out of 60 in my AG. Not too bad for my first race!
I can’t describe the emotions that raced through my mind in the moments after I crossed the finish line. Relief, pure joy, a strong sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t the swim I’d hoped for, but I had outraced my expectations all around. I was ecstatic to share the moment with Matt and to race over to Danielle and celebrate with her (even though she was busy guiding racers in and out of transition). It was a reminder of what my very first road race felt like…and a reminder that I’m pushing myself down the path to a much bigger goal. Sending the text to Coach T that I had exceeded my own expectations for myself and telling my mom about the challenge I had just overcome was the epitome of the term sweet victory. Getting myself to the start line at Lake Barryessa was by far the hardest part of the triathlon. And believing in myself enough to trust I could make it to the finish line was scary. But I let go of those fears somewhere in the middle of the lake and began savoring the experience.
I almost wish someone had kicked me in the butt and pushed me to start chasing my triathlon goals before this year. But I have to say thank you to everyone who encouraged me to make the transition and to once again discover that the mental limits I set for myself are nowhere near the physical limits my body is capable of achieving.