A Not-Great Race

To clarify, the race itself is wonderful. I, however, was not. It wasn’t an awful race. It just wasn’t great.I am an unsympathetic character in this story, however, as I was inadequately prepared for this race. Life intervened. There were weeks I did little or no training, as I had crises that needed addressing. I haven’t run since May, despite being cleared by my orthopedist to run. (He only agreed after I promised I would not run on asphalt. The run portion of this triathlon is paved. I decided there wasn’t much point in trying to train on the run if I was going to walk that leg anyway.) I only did two open-water swims, and one of them was just a few minutes long.

Because of last winter’s ultramarathon training, I was confident my endurance was enough to get me through the race. It was. My left shoulder is a little tweaky from the swim, but nothing is sore or tired.

As is usually the case, the swim was the most not-great part of the race. The evening before, I saw a forecast that predicted 5 mph gusts in the morning. YAY! That’s essentially no wind, which means Lake Coeur d’Alene will be pretty flat.  (Spoiler alert: the lake was not flat.)

I have my standard pre-race breakfast: bagel, cream cheese, two hard-boiled eggs, coffee. Since I started eating this before races, I haven’t had any stomach issues. We stay at a charming, athlete-friendly B&B in Coeur d’Alene. Its reviews include many glowing reviews from Ironman CdA racers – that’s what prompted me to stay there last year. Because I eat my pre-race breakfast before the regular breakfast hours, the proprietor sets aside a plain bagel and cream cheese for me. (I bring my own eggs. We buy eggs from a farm a few miles from our house, and their flavor has ruined store-bought eggs for me.) It’s less than an mile & a half to the staging area, meaning I can ride my bike there. That allows The Hubs to get a little bit more sleep, and it reduces my stress as I do not have to try to get him moving & out the door so early.

In the recent past, I have noted that my digestive tract rebels if I have too much cheese with breakfast. This caused me to consider ditching the cream cheese, but I ate it nonetheless. One cup of coffee didn’t seem like enough, and although I questioned the wisdom of a second cup, I had that second cup. In retrospect, I should have made the second cup decaf.

I arrived at the transition area and got set up with no issues. Breakfast was weighing heavily in my belly, but I was hopeful that would dissipate as time passed. As I walked to the swim start, I noticed the breeze. It was not a 5-mph breeze. It was at least 10-15 mph, meaning there was a healthy chop on the surface of the lake. Not sure if it was the breeze, the coffee, or the cream cheese, but I felt a little queasy. I got in the water and did a few strokes. Despite my concerns, everything felt fine.

Once the race started, I did not feel fine. I couldn’t get comfortable. I got a few gulps of water, and after that putting my face in the water made me feel this dull ache around my sternum. I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit, so it wasn’t that pressure. I have no explanation for that feeling.

In addition to the wind chop, there was a swell. Things were not going well. I very nearly quit. I fought back against that impulse.

The past two years, Race the River has been wonderful. It’s the only race with an open-water swim I haven’t had to backstroke. I don’t know what’s so magical about this race, but it’s been really good to me. That may be why my first impulse was to quit. Then I thought, “Um, dumbass, you can backstroke.” Oh yeah! I can!

I had a panicky moment. My goggles were pretty fogged up, and I could barely make out the school-bus sized (slight exaggeration) marker buoy. And I couldn’t see any course monitors around me. One of them heard me calling out, and came over to me. I held on to her SUP while I cleared off my goggles. I still didn’t feel very good, but it really helped calm me.

The swell was weird. As I approached the river, I could feel that the swell was pushing me. But it also meant I had to time my breaths to match the swell. I spent most of the swim only breathing to my right, which makes it harder to swim in a sort-of straight line.

Once I got into the river, I felt a LOT better. I managed to freestyle crawl the rest of the way (when I wasn’t walking – see below) and it felt a lot better. I still had that urpy feeling, though.

At one point, my hand hit the bottom. Holy crap – I was swimming in 18″ of water. Screw it – I stood up and walked until the water was hip-deep again. I’m such a slow swimmer that I’m probably faster walking in the water.

As I approached the get-out-of-the-water buoys, I opted to walk. I took off my goggles, which was a mistake. The shoreline had tiny little rocks that were not kind to my feet. I probably should have swam a bit further, but I really wanted to quit swimming.

Once out of the water I was able to bring up a couple of impressive belches – that helped my belly a bit. I prefer to wait at least 10-15 minutes after I start riding before I take in any nutrition. My gut felt pretty unsettled, and I didn’t want to put anything in it. That’s not really an option, though. A sprint triathlon may be “only” a sprint, but it’s still work. (My Garmin says I burned about 1000 calories during this race.) I’m fortunate in that I have a pretty easy-going gut, but that means I don’t have much experience in dealing with it being unhappy during a race. I knew there was a hill coming up, and I knew I’d need some juice to make that happen. I sucked down an energy gel, and I felt better about ten minutes later. Crisis averted! Even so, throughout the race and much of the ride home, I still had trouble getting enough water. It just wasn’t sitting well.

I missed turn on the bike course. I’m surprised they didn’t have someone there, because I didn’t see a turn arrow at all. Fortunately, the somewhat grumpy man in the security shack opened the gate to let me out of whatever private property I was on. I’m going to try to figure out what turn I missed and let the race director know. One problem with some of the spots on the bike course is that they’re lovely tree-lined streets, meaning there are deep dark shadows interspersed with bright spots. If your turn arrow is a 1′ square with an arrow on it, in a spot that’s in a shadow, it’s easy to miss. (I was following two other people on bikes.  I don’t believe they were racers. I don’t know if the somewhat grumpy security guard was as grumpy with them as he was with me.)

I decided to try to get my feet out of my shoes as I approached T2. I only had time to get one of them out – it worked, and I did not crash. Perhaps next time I’ll practice this skill in training rather than during a race.

Once again, I screwed up my timing with the Garmin because I forgot to press the lap button during transitions. I was fine with T1, but I forgot to hit ‘lap’ as I entered T2, and then I forgot to hit it again until I was out on the run course. Fortunately, the timing company has me covered: T2 was 1:43. My transition times were slower than they would have been because I’m not running on asphalt.

When I set up my transition, I laid out my running socks, rolled in such a way I can put them on quickly. In the past, I’ve run without socks except during Titanium Man – a 10K seemed too long to go sockless. Once in T2, I decided to go sockless. This was a mistake. I have a toenail on my left foot that occasionally catches, no matter how short it is. It happened a couple of times yesterday. It doesn’t hurt, but it feels like it’s going to tear the toenail, and that would hurt. About one mile in, I sucked down another energy gel. A course volunteer offered to take the packet from me, and I said “no – I need it.” I stopped near her and took off my left shoe, wrapped the empty gel packet around the said toe, and explained what I was doing. She thought my ‘hack” was very clever. It worked fairly well, but the edge of the packet abraded another toe. It certainly steeled my resolve to not run.

Race the River 2017 was a LOT slower than last year – 18 minutes – but that’s a combination of both the swim being slower by a few minutes and my walking the entire run leg. I placed better in my division (Athena Master) than I usually do – right in the middle! – but that’s because one-third of the Athena Masters didn’t start.

I hoped this race would provide some clarity about whether I want to continue doing triathlons. It didn’t. I may never be crazy about the swim, but some part of me refuses to quit trying. I question the sanity of trying to master swimming, working towards being an ultrarunner, having time to go backpacking and camping, and doing all the other things I want and need to do. I may have to live to 100 after all….

That 1000 calories I burned? I replaced them with a gator po’boy, fries, and a beer. Two and a half hours’ work gone in fifteen minutes.


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