Last weekend I was in New Hampshire for my third race of the season, Timberman 70.3. The first two races hadn’t been the triumphs I had hoped for, so I was fired up and ready to fire on all cylinders. I took a 17-mile detour in my first race back and my second race was cancelled before it started due to violent weather. Based on the way my season had gone so far, I honestly didn’t expect this race to go according to plan either. But I was prepared for whatever was to come and I was ready to tackle the day.
After much waiting around for my wave to start, I made my way up toward the front of my swim group. The gun sounded and I dove into the water. I was anxious to start the swim quickly to get away from the riff raff. There were a few faster swimmers in front of me, so I tried to follow their lead. I analyzed the course prior to the start, trying to be as prepared as I could possibly be. Six yellow buoys to the first turn. I was feeling strong. I caught a few swimmers in the wave in front of me at the turn buoy and saw a sea of others in front of me heading across the top of the rectangular course. Stay strong. Stay on course. Stay aggressive. Two more yellow buoys, then two orange buoys, followed by the final turn buoy, which directed us back toward the shore. I felt good, but I didn’t have a sense as to where the other women in my wave were in the water. Just push on. It doesn’t matter. Several times I noticed I was swimming fairly close to the kayakers marking the edge of the course, which gave me the sense that I was drifting off to the side. I tried to sight more regularly and pushed on toward the finishing buoys. I had never felt so confident swimming with the frenzied masses of people. But only the clock would tell the true story of how my swim went. I could now see the bottom of the lake. A few more strokes. Keep swimming until my hands can touch the bottom. I stood up and looked at my watch — just under 30 minutes. I was pleasantly surprised with my split! I methodically breezed through transition and hopped onto my bike. A great start to the day.
As I started to climb the first hill out of transition, I noticed two things immediately: 1) my heart rate was high and 2) my power meter wasn’t working. I tried to re-calibrate the power meter on the go, but with power readings of 2,459 watts, I was pretty sure it was a bit off the mark. Well, I’ve raced by feel all my life, so today will be no different. I’ve trained for this. My race pace is ingrained in me. I was a bit concerned about my elevated heart rate, but the temperatures were high and I would watch it as I progressed through the course. I started the race 47 minutes after the pro field, so there were lots of athletes ahead of me on the bike. Lots of people to pass! I was cruising along feeling grand until all of a sudden I got hit in the face with a bee that immediately stung me on the cheek. OUCH!! Not a pleasant feeling. After a few minutes the pain subsided. I resumed my focus on riding consistently hard, passing masses of slower riders along the route. I hit the turnaround and glanced at the time on my computer — 1:13. HOLY MACKERAL! I thought to myself. That would give me a 2:26 bike split. That would far and away be my best bike split ever for a half-ironman race. Was I really at the halfway point? I wasn’t sure. Maybe the way back trends uphill. Was I going too fast? Was I just in really good shape? Am I going to crash at the end of the bike? We shall see. I put my head down and continued to focus on execution. I felt strong throughout the second half of the bike leg and rolled into transition. I glanced at my computer and saw the split time of 2:31. My fastest bike split on that course by far. I was about 10 minutes ahead of where I thought I would be at this point in the race. This race seemed too good to be true.
On to the run – my comfort zone. The run is usually the moment that I long for in the race. To get onto my own two feet and run my way to the finish line. But had I exhausted myself on the swim and the bike? Did I have anything left in the tank for the run? We shall see. It was a hot day. I was initially hoping to target a 6:30-6:45 pace, but I immediately changed my expectations given the conditions. Let’s shoot for a 6:45-7:00 min/mile pace on the first lap and see what I’ve got left. I felt decent on the first lap and was able to stay on target. As I embarked on the second lap, my stomach started to feel a bit unsettled and I felt like I was starting to fade. Should I take another gel? Drink more Gatorade? Maybe try Coke? Just keep running. Focus on the target. The miles started passing by more slowly. I felt like I was in a good position, but all I was concerned with was trying to stay on target and finishing strong. I saw my family at mile 9 and then again just before mile 11. The high five from my four year old was a lifesaver and the “Go Mom!” yelled by a random bystander gave me an incredible boost. Two more miles to go. It was getting harder to stay on target. One more big hill – it would be okay if that mile was a bit slower — just stay as close to my target pace as I possibly can. Quick and light, quick and light, quick and light. Push it home. Give it everything that I’ve got left. Try to smile and enjoy it. Scratch that – just finish strong and smile when I get to the finish line. I finally made it to the finishing chute and saw the clock. I quickly did the math and realized my overall time was 4:35. I had no time goals going in to the race having not raced a half ironman in four years, but 4:35 was significantly faster than I expected to finish. I pumped my fist with excitement. I was thrilled.
After crossing the finish line I walked around for a few minutes trying to gather myself. Had I just executed my perfect race? I PR’ed the swim and the bike leg for the course. I had previously run faster, but given the hot conditions on race day, I was happy to stay close to my target and run a consistent pace. Everything pretty much unfolded according to my plan. It felt a bit strange and oddly non-triumphant. I hadn’t overcome any major obstacles during this race. It just unfolded that way I had scripted it.
After the race I meandered around and heard many athletes recounting their race with teammates and family members. Most accounts consisted of what went well and what did not go well during the course of the race. I was satisfied with all aspects of my race. So what lessons did I have to take away from it? I almost felt empty. There were no obvious takeaways from my performance where if I made some adjustments, I could have performed better. It all went the way I had hoped it would. It left me wondering, where do I go from here? Can I repeat this performance again? Or was this my once in a career perfect race? Can I go faster? If I can’t, will I be disappointed? Do I just set higher goals and move on? What’s next?
After spending some time contemplating the future, I knew that I needed to hit the pause button and celebrate my accomplishment. This was the first half ironman I’ve completed in 4 years — I PR’ed the course, was the first female amateur, and beat several of the pros in the field. I needed to be proud. I have worked HARD for this moment and dedicated countless hours training for this result. I earned it! And I needed to take the time to reflect and be proud of my accomplishments.
Of course I was quickly ready to move on and reflect upon what comes next… So what is next? One more half ironman in a few weeks following one of the best races I’ve ever had. Can I replicate it? Maybe I can. Or maybe I can even do better. I surprisingly didn’t feel much soreness after the race, which I often do feel. Maybe I can push harder. Maybe I have more to give. All I can do is follow my race plan — my plan for the swim, the bike, and the run. Stay in the moment and focus on execution. And then look at the clock at the end of the race to see how I did.
So was it the perfect race? I thought so in the moment. The race went better than I ever expected, and better than anyone expected from me. But I have to believe I can reach greater heights. Otherwise why compete in this next race? You always need a reason to compete — a goal to strive for. Now that I know what I’m capable of, I was forced to contemplate a goal for my next race. Maybe, just maybe, I can finish the race sub 4:30. It’s a flatter course. Maybe the weather will be cooler. Given the right conditions, I know that I can do it. Will I reach this goal? Maybe I will. And maybe I won’t. It really doesn’t matter. But believing that it’s a possibility will push me to train hard, focus on execution, and stay in the moment on race day.
It’s all about having goals and aspirations. They keep you motivated and excited about what the future might bring. After writing this blog I thought ahead about the next few years of triathlon and mapped out my future. 2015 was my season to return to racing and see if I still had the motivation, desire, and talent to compete at a high level. 2016 will be the year of Ironman Lake Placid — enough said. For 2017, I think I will shoot for 70.3 worlds. And maybe in 2018, my goal race will be the age group national championships. Is that how things will play out? Who knows. Maybe my targets will change. Or maybe triathlon will take a backseat, as something else may simply be more important. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is how these goals and aspirations affect me today in the here and now. Thinking about what the future might possibly bring gets me all fired up to get up tomorrow morning at 5:00AM for a bike and run session. Therein lies the value.
Do I expect to reach these goals and lofty aspirations that I set out for myself? Absolutely not. I’ve learned that all I can expect from myself on race day is to deal with the hand that is dealt to me in the best way that I can. That way every race can be a success regardless of what happens out there. And if I do reach the goals I set for myself, I give myself an extra pat on the back. I take the time to celebrate my accomplishments. I reflect and see the value in all the hard work that I put into training. And then I think about what’s next.