By the Numbers
I’ve had my eye on this race for a while now. It has been hailed as one of the toughest and hilliest international/Olympic distance triathlons out there (much of the race takes place around a dam and requires biking and running up and down the steep hills on either side of said dam). It was even included in Men’s Fitness Magazines Top 10 coolest, toughest, most worth training for triathlons (so was IM Lou!). And with all of these daunting accounts of a challenging race, I was certainly apprehensive about signing up – I actually waited until the last day of online sign-ups before committing. I ultimately decided to race for a variety of reasons – I felt like I needed a good challenge, there would be no better time than now, and looking ahead to a week of vacation, I could at least get a jump start on all of the food and beverages headed my way.
Pre-Race & The Swim
The was actually the first tri that I’ve gone to all by myself, which turned out to be completely appropriate for this small event – there were only about 60 other competitors. I arrived around 6:15am, about 45 minutes before the start of the race and calmly and quietly got checked in, used the restroom, did a trial pass up the dam via bike to set my granny gear, then headed to transition. At first I didn’t even see the transition area it was so tiny! Once my gear was set, about 10 minutes before race start, I headed down to the water to get the lay of the land and a feel for the temperature.
The water was perfect and chatting with a few of the other participants about my experience at IM Lou (I broke in my Louisville tri top) passed the time until the women’s race started. I started the swim strong and new I was ahead of the majority of the pack by the first buoy. After the first right turn I was pretty sure there were only two women around me, the rest men. I could feel myself settling in a getting a little board on the back stretch of the swim… where was that final turn buoy! I finally reached it and was headed to shore, but I was tired and my goggles were fogging.
I started to pass and be surrounded by more and more men and had to wake back up and dodge arms and legs all while trying to determine the straightest line to the shore. At one point I looked up and was NOT headed the right way. In fact, I had started to swim parallel to the shore – this did not make me happy. What it did do, was make me swim harder; I was ready to be done.
Once I hit the shore, I was a little disoriented, but mustered a jog up the long path to transition. I could tell by one woman’s cheers that I was doing particularly well, especially for a girl (I was the 3rd woman out of the lake).
The bike started with a short steep hill, up the less steep side of the dam – don’t get me wrong it was still steep and had me out of breath for a while. In chatting with a guy who was familiar with the course before the race, I learned that after the initial climb up the dam, we would soon encounter a nearly mile-long hill at approximately 7% grade, but that after that, the course would be rolling and “not too bad.” I’m so glad I had that warning, because without it I may have just given up in the middle of that long, slow, grinding, burning, hill. After that, he was right, the course was “not too bad.” I found myself flying on the flats and downhills, but didn’t do a good job of transitioning that momentum to the uphills. It seemed that I would be going 20+ mph one minute and 9mph the next – very frustrating. But, I tried not to let it get to me. I was fairly convinced I had put decent distance between me and the only other girl in my age group, and was also fairly confident in my ability to PR, even on the tough course. Needless to say, I was eternally thankful to be headed back over the dam and onto the run transition.
Oh man, I’d been dreading the run. I thought my legs would be complete toast and that they wouldn’t want to move. What I didn’t factor in was how great the weather was. It was completely overcast and a little sprinkly with temps in the upper 70s – probably the coolest weather I’ve run in since April. I trotted off for a flat quarter mile out and around transition before encountering the less steep side of the dam, which I walked up. Once on top of the dam, it was a two loop course, comprised of three out and back sections – a great layout for such a small event. First you ran out to the entrance of the park, turned around then on your way back made a right turn down the nasty, steeper side of the dam which led you to a few other rolling hills and eventually turned you right back around to do those hills again and send you back up the dam. Now, I’m telling you, this darn road was so steep that you would be out of the breath just walking up it, even if that’s the only thing you did. While my legs felt great on the flats and less steep portions of the course, I opted to save my breath and my heart rate and walked the significant hills. Once back on top, the course took you across the dam, then sent you out to do it all over again.
With each out and back, you started to see the same faces over and over again. You could start to feel the camaraderie – we all knew that the course was tough, but we would get through it, and the smiles and the “good jobs” and even the commiserating would help. Another hugely helpful factor during the run for me was one spectator, who I later learned was the mom of the women’s 30-34 age group winner. She was completely on top of things with her cheering. The layout of the course enabled her to be a part of everyone’s race at least 6 times. I could tell she was encouraging me for being one of the first women she’d seen on the course. She told me, “You’re in your element and you look strong. You’ve got this!” Seriously, one of the best spectators I’ve ever encountered during a tri – and obviously she wasn’t just focused on me, her daughter was racing, and she was encouraging everyone else as well… she deserved a medal!
Even though I felt great, I was happy to be headed down the dam one last time and towards the finish. I ended up passing one guy at the very end and set a new Olympic distance PR by nearly 2 minutes!
Even if my bike speed wasn’t where it normally was, I was super proud of my effort. After being so nervous to sign up, I was relieved to have made it through, feeling good about my strength and fitness for most of the race. I chatted with a first-timer after the race for a bit. He was in the Army and had driven in the Fayetteville night before. He couldn’t stop saying how much fun he had. He compared it to the workouts he has to do in the Army saying “There, everyone is doing it because they have to. Here, people are out here because the want to be.” That’s definitely a cool sentiment to be a part of and was totally true of this particular event. There was definitely a sense, similar to having finished IM Lou, of this shared experience and understanding and camaraderie because of that experience among all of the competitors at this race. It was definitely one of my favorite races and I would absolutely do it again!