I know. The last time I talked about Raleigh here I was reporting my tough decision to back out of the race and take some much needed down time. And I did. Following that hard decision, I came down with a terrible cold that I think I had been fighting off for about two weeks. After almost two weeks of rest, I began feeling better. I slowly started back into some basic training. And it felt good. It was during the first great swim back that I started thinking that maybe Raleigh was a possibility. Maybe by letting my mind, body, and heart off of the hook for a little bit, I was able to reset and reconnect with why I choose to do these long distances in the first place.
So quietly and with the help of friends, Jon, and my coach, I decided to go. I decided to think of it as a training day and stay happy, and before I knew it race weekend was upon us, and Jon, Rowan, and I were traveling three hours to Raleigh.
All of the prerace activities were business as usual with the exception of the split transition area. Jordan Lake is thirty miles from the finish line in downtown Raleigh, so that made the entire experience different. From dropping off my bike the day before to getting up at three in the morning in order to set up T2 and board a charter bus to get to T1 in enough time.
I was incredibly lucky to finally meet a wonderful friend I’ve made on Instagram. She was returning to Raleigh for redemption, and we enjoyed a prerace dinner and all of our race morning jitters were easily shared and dismissed as we watched the pros exit the water and waited for our own swim wave, which was third from the last.
This was the source of most of my anxiety. With a late swim wave, we only had 1:18 minutes to exit the swim in order to continue to the bike course. Jordan Lake is fairly calm, but it lacked the friendly current of Augusta’s Savannah River, and wetsuits were a race morning decision. Luckily the water temperature stayed in our favor. As I watched wave after wave leave the beach, I gave myself permission to be confident instead of nervous. I knew I was trained enough to swim 1.2 miles. And even with the lack of open water practice this spring, I knew I was able to stay focused and not panic.
I planned to take the triangular swim course buoy by buoy, and for the first leg, I was fine. I breathe to my left, and even with the buoys on my right and the typical swim start melee, I was able to stay focused and calm. Once I turned and started the second and longest leg, the sun was in my face and with the buoys still on my right and my googles fogging, it was impossible to sight. I stayed with the crowd, but I was feeling winded and short of breath, so I unzipped my wetsuit. And then the calf cramps started. As soon as I started to kick, they would seize, so I was only able to pull for the rest of the swim. My mental focus was shot, and I stopped often to reset, but I knew I was making enough consistent forward progress that I would make the cut off even if most of the other blue swim caps were well ahead of me. And just to add humor to the experience, when I was twenty feet from the exit ramp, I attempted to kick, and both calves seized, so I had to flip over and float and loosen them. The officials at the exit and the spectators probably wondered why I chose to take a break when I was within feet of being able to touch the bottom! I could only laugh to myself at that one.
Transition 1 4:57
This was an easy transition, and at least this time improved from Augusta!
I knew that this course was hilly, and some had even said it was similar to Augusta’s bike course, so I felt confident that I could handle it well and hopefully come close or faster than my Augusta time of 3:23. Oh how wrong I was! Out of transition was a slow 3.5 mile climb, and that set the pace for the entire course. For every slight downhill, it seemed there were many short, steep climbs or long, gradual climbs. The few flat sections were coupled with a headwind or a crosswind. Every so often, we were graced with a nice downhill cruise, but it was immediately followed by climbing. I felt strong until mile 30. The second half of the course was a bit more challenging, and my pace slowed. The course was mostly scenic and very beautiful, but there was constant traffic passing the bikers. At one point, I had to cross in front of cars to get into a turn lane to make a turn. At another point the cars were attempting to pass bikers in front of me and were at a slow crawl, and I felt hesitant to ride with any speed next to them on the narrow roads. By the time I reached downtown again, and had to make one last climb into transition, I was exhausted. Mentally, I was frustrated, and it took an incredible amount of willpower to stay focused for the ride and not allow the intensity of the course to deteriorate my confidence.
Transition 2 6:46
My rack was near the run exit. After a long walk in bike shoes, a shoe change, and a bathroom break, I entered the run course.
As I exited transition, I tried to focus myself for 13.1 miles. I knew the run course would be hilly– rolling hills with a few gradual uphills and downhills. Because of that, I knew I had to stay very aware of my knee, so I started with a 4:1 interval. That quickly shifted to a 2:1 interval, which quickly became a walk the uphills, run the downhills. The only thing that kept me moving through the run course was Jon and Rowan. I knew I would see them during miles 3, 6, and 9 and then at the finish. Each time I passed them (and stopped to talk to them), I fed off of their energy, and as I left them for the last time at mile 9, I spotted a girl in my age group who had been walking at a quick pace. I had passed her at the beginning of the second loop, but with my last extended visit with Jon and Rowan, she had gotten ahead of me again. I began running again and considered the three miles that remained. My knee was hanging in with the hills, but it was getting achy. I knew I had two options. I could continue with a sporadic run/walk and hope my knee held on, or I could catch up with this girl and make a friend. I chose the latter. I ran up to her, said hi, and we walked quickly and chatted for the next two miles. It shifted my entire experience. Because of my late swim wave start, my calf issues, and my run up to that point, the participants on the course were sparse, the crowd support was minimal. My knee ached a bit on the uphills, but I was happy just to find another smiling face and somehow finish the race on a happy, light note versus the grueling mental game it had been up to that point. We ran part of mile 11 and all of mile 12, and I finished with a smile on my face, seeing Jon and Rowan there waiting for me.
I’ve had many people ask me if I’m glad I decided to race. I am. I don’t regret the experience. The course was challenging; it exposed many of my weaknesses. I never reached a dark, frustrated place, but I was also not happy and smiling like I was in Augusta. It didn’t feel like a celebration of training, a victory lap; it felt like a hard end to a hard training cycle but rewarding at the same time. Mentally I won a big battle within those 70.3 miles. For some reason, training for Raleigh never captured me. Racing it didn’t either. Instead I had to hold on to any shards of positive thought I could. I had to fight to make the race a positive experience, and I think that’s something to celebrate.
At one point during the run, I decided I was burnt out on this long course training and racing. I thought that maybe I wouldn’t do Augusta in September, and I would enjoy the summer with short, hard workouts and strength training and yoga. But after a few days, I feel invigorated for Augusta’s course. I learned so much about mentally committing to the training and the race, and I can’t wait to feel the energy there again. There is a little more than a month of time where we can focus on run training and speed work and strength before miles and hours have to pick up. I’m looking forward to a renewed sense of focus and commitment and being positive and excited about a race again.