Even the Swim was Hilly: IM 70.3 Connecticut Race Recap
Updated: Jun 8, 2019
(I'm kidding: the swim was actually shortened. But more on that later. )
One of things I'm starting to learn is understanding that the road to any performance isn't straight and it's never the same. In the weeks leading up to this race, I've been managing hip flexor issues and nursing stiff ankles, dealing with family stress, grad school paperwork (and Graduate assistantship hunting)...you know life stresses. However, I had faith in my training and the work I've put in the months leading up to this event.
Getting up at 3 in the morning was actually a bit of struggle for me. Usually I'm out of bed and fully awake on race day mornings. I actually thought I had to leave in 20 minutes and started to low-key panic, since I didn't have breakfast or changed yet. I later realized that I had an hour and 20 minutes before we had to leave.
Breakfast was just my typical oatmeal with raisins and very minimal wheat germ (to minimize the amount of fiber I had) and coffee with creamer. It took me a very long time to even eat 3/4 of what I had. By the time we had to pack up and leave, I couldn't finish the oatmeal. I wasn't too concerned about it since I did fuel well in the week leading up to the race.
The AirBnB we stayed at was about 30-40 minutes away from the race venue, and we were running slightly late. We got to one of the parking areas at about 5 am, waited for the shuttle to the race site for 10-15 minutes. Knowing that transition closed at 6 (and that I like to arrive in transition at least an hour before it closes), I was getting a bit antsy. However, I wasn't the only one, which helped me relax a bit. Thankfully, we had already dropped off our bikes in transition the day before so we had one less thing to worry about.
I finally got into transition with 30 minutes before closing. My bags were already organized with the things I needed so I didn't have to worry about searching for a particular item. Within 25 minutes, my bottles and Honey Stinger gels were on my bike, my things were laid out on my towel, and my wet suit on.
Per New England spring fashion, there was a nice fog lurking above the lake. Initially it didn't seem to bad, but as soon as we were told to get out of the water of the warm up, the fog became even more dense. Due to this, the race coordinators decided to shorten the swim to 750m (instead of 1.9km), and moved the start time from 6:30 to 7. I was thankful that I was able to get a 2 minute swim warm up in before, but I do wish I spent a bit more time in the water before hand.
After spending another 50 minutes waiting for the start of the race, we were finally corralled into the chute of the swim start. Since it was a rolling start, everyone self-seeded themselves according to the time they think they'll finish the swim in. Even though they changed the distance of the swim, we seeded ourselves based on our original estimates for the 1.9km swim. (Although, I'm pretty sure, many didn't get that memo and seeded themselves way faster than they should've.) With the rolling start, they only allowed about 15 swimmers into the water at a time.
When it was my time to go, there were about 2-3 groups ahead of me. I dug my right foot in the sand behind me, anticipating the start of my group. I honestly don't remember if we had someone just tell us to go, or if there was a starting horn. When it was time to go, I bolted from my spot and headed straight into the water. After taking about 10 steps, I dove in and began to swim. The water wasn't actually that cold: 67 degrees Fahrenheit, pretty comfortable, if not a little warm, with a long sleeve wetsuit. Starting in the front gave me the advantage to get away from the usual thrashing of other swimmers and settle into my stroke. A couple of people from behind picked up the pace and went ahead of me, while I tried to hang onto their draft.
The thing about open water swimming is that you don't have a nice crisp line at the bottom to look at to make sure you're going in a straight line: just a few brightly colored buoys hanging out on top of the water every 200 yards or so, to make sure you're swimming in the correct general direction. Because the fog still hasn't lifted, it was impossible to see the next buoy. So I did the next best thing: follow the pack of swimmers ahead of me.
Some of the swimmers from the earlier packs were dropping back as I progressed through my swim. When I did catch a smaller group of swimmers ahead of me, things became more...aggressive. Again, it is difficult to see where you're going in general, but there were many times where I was holding my line, not in anyone's way. Somehow, someone would always end up swimming about 5 feet away to swimming on top of me. Since it was easy to distinguish between the male and female athletes based on swim caps (green for male, pink for female), I found that there were a few male swimmers that decided to kick harder and/or act more aggressively when I was swimming next to them. Unfortunate? Yes, but you have to adapt and keep moving forward regardless.
In the last leg of the swim, I ended up swimming well behind another pack and in no man's land. There wasn't anyone I could swim with or draft off of. Not to mention since I couldn't see the buoys, I didn't have a sense of where I was supposed to swim towards, so I couldn't keep my head down in the water long enough without veering off into the wrong direction.
Finally, I could see the shore line. Within a minute, my fingers were touching the sand below, and I stood up out of the water. I had forgotten how the weight of the water in my suit drags me down a bit as I stand up, making my first steps on land extremely wobbly. I was a bit disorientated from the swim, breathing heavy, so I opted for the wetsuit peelers to help me get out of my wetsuit. It only took less than 10 seconds for them to do it and way less effort on my part.
Transition 1 (Swim to Bike)
The downside of my first transition was...getting slightly lost. Again, I was a bit disorientated from the swim and I didn't have time beforehand to practice getting to my spot. I ended up overshooting by one row, and by the time I reached where my bike would've been, I realized I was in the wrong row. I scrambled back around, checked the numbers (just in case) and went into my row. I opted to put my bike shoes on my feet right away, rather than attempt a flying mount because it wasn't worth the 5 seconds saved and I didn't practice with bottle sticking out from my saddle.
Despite the fact there was 4000+ feet of elevation gain (not 3800 ft) and some really crappy roads, I enjoyed the bike. It's quite similar to the few, long outdoor rides I do in my training, making me feeling quite at home on the course. Since I had planned to do cycling races on top of this hilly triathlon, Brian, the bike fitter at FastSplits, and my coach felt like it was best to not include aerobars on my bike and change my position. Was I less aero than most others on downhills? Yes. But being on my road bike that's designed and geared more for hill climbing helped me stay comfortable on the climbs, and gave me more control on the technical descents (and broken pavement).
The fog was pretty dense, rendering my Rudy glasses useless. Mid-way through the ride, I rode through an intersection with a
bump in the start of the turn, dislodging my 3rd bottle from my rear bottle cage (RIP my $11 Camelbak Bottle). Initially, I was a bit frustrated, but I wasn't even through my first bottle of hydration. I focused on trying to finish the bottles and fuel that I had on the bike.
The last quarter of the bike was mentally tough. It was a net downhill in comparison to the first half of the bike, but there were a few last-minute climbs that felt harder than the steeper, longer climbs from earlier. I looked at my watch, and with only 5 miles to go, I just powered on and grabbed another gel for the last few miles of the ride.
Transition 2 (Bike to Run)
Riding into transition, I could feel my legs stiffening up and aching. But I hoped that the first two miles of the run would shake off the feeling a bit. T2 was way faster than T1, which included changing shoes, lacing up my run shoes, taking a swig from my gel flask, and not getting lost. I came out of transition with one gal ahead of me by 20-30 seconds, another right next to me, and the sun blazing overhead. Now the fun begins.
My whole body was really stiff and difficult to move, which wasn't a great start to the 13.1 mile run. I kept an eye on my form the entire time, to make sure I didn't agitate my muscles more than I had to. The run course was filled with rolling hills: constantly going either up or down, with very few sections that were actually flat.
My run training for the race was more unconventional than most: I haven't done any runs that were longer than hour, with many of them averaging about 20-30 minutes long. Most of this was due to the many niggles and flare ups that I had to manage on a daily basis. I knew that I could complete the distance, but this race would be my first experience running this distance after a hard bike ride.
The first loop of the run felt really slow for me. My hip flexors and lower back were flaring up on all of the uphills, causing me to come down to a shuffle. The aid stations were stocked with ice, so I stopped to shove some ice down the front and back of my suit to ease some of the inflammation.
On the back half of the loop, I was running with a super tall athlete from Australia, trying to stay in his draft and with his pace. However, my feet weren't able to pick up the pace. They seemed to have chosen one pace and effort for the entirety of this run. On the start of the 2nd loop, my coach told me to dig deeper and face my demons, which surprisingly made me feel fresher in my legs. Running with the many others that just started their first loop helped me refocus. I would choose a person ahead of me, and try to catch them.
This actually led me to catch back up with the Australian dude at exactly the same spot that we met up before. The last two miles of the run were really brutal, though. I dropped off his draft and my legs were getting heavier, but I kept pushing through. I could feel the blisters popping in my toes (my shoes were soaked from all of the melted ice and water from all of the aid stations), and my calves becoming more and more inflamed. I couldn't treat the inflammation with the calves like I did my back and hip flexors, so I just pushed onwards, knowing that the sooner I finished, the sooner I can actually stop.
But that last hill...
It didn't help that at the last aid station at the bottom of the climb, I had to do a quick run around to grab one more cup of ice. I lost my focus and stride, making that last hill even harder. One woman I was running with finally passed me on the climb, but she was encouraging me to keep pushing onwards, to not give up. I really wanted to push harder, run up that hill, but my muscles were refusing. I ended up walking that last half of the climb, knowing that I'd be running in the last 0.2 miles to the finish line. Once I crested the climb, my feet picked up the pace again, but there was no sprint finish available in my legs. Frustrating, yes. But I managed to stay upright across the finish line for once!
Overall, I had a pretty good first half distance experience. There were some issues to be had with the bike course (due to the road conditions), but I walked away with no flats, no mechanicals, and no major injuries. That's a huge plus in my book.
Post Race and What's Next
My toes weren't in good shape (don't worry, not posting those pictures any time soon), and it was quite difficult walking around with my sore calves. The following days were mostly me lying on the couch, getting every so often to grab food, occasionally stretch out the legs, and coaching on deck. I did test my limits and proved to myself that I can learn to perform at this distance, which led me to a solid 2nd in my age group (17th female), and a spot to IRONMAN 70.3 Worlds in Nice, France.
Do I still prefer the short course distances? Yes, because I'm used to racing that distance, and I grew up racing "middle distances" in general. But I'm stoked to see where my training goes in the 12 weeks leading up to Nice and what my new limits are. Who knows: maybe I'll end up preferring the half distances more and ended up spending all of my petty cash on half distance events in the future😉.
Until next time, Happy Recovery!
📸 Photo Credits: William Chen
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