21 August 2012

Race Report: Age Group Nationals - also known as "just hand me my ass now and get it over with"

This past weekend was Age Group Nationals - otherwise known as the only olympic distance race where you can go sub-2:30 and finish nowhere NEAR the top of your age group.  I had an idea what I was signing up for when I registered back in April, but it was still incredibly humbling.

I really, really wanted to qualify for this year's race because it was being held in Burlington, VT - site of the best four years of life, otherwise known as College.  As the spring and summer wore on and more and more of my friends signed up, I was even more thrilled to be going.  Four of us - Dawn, Jenny, Sebastian and myself - crammed into one hotel room at the Hilton, right near transition and within walking distance of EVERYTHING.  You would be surprised at how many bikes and suitcases and people you could fit into one room and still have room to do this:

The Hotel Swim Start.  Crucial to Proper Race Preparation

Hilton: We blame you for giving us the idea
The day before the race was busy - doing the pre-race brick, swimming in the super choppy water, fitting in lunch, doing packet pickup, getting the bikes all set to be dropped off at transition.  I managed to steal away for about an hour to meet with my college sociology professor, Dr. Bolduc.  It was because of his classes that I ended up down the career path I'm on today.  It was a highlight of my weekend to catch up with him.  After checking in bikes and showering (seeing as I'd been running around all day in my bathing suit and Zoot shorts, classy), a big group of us, including my parents, went out to an early dinner at Three Tomatoes on Church Street.  We got lucky and snuck in around 5:30 before the hoards of hungry triathletes descended.  A visit to Ben and Jerry's for good luck ice cream happened shortly thereafter.
Someone said the magic word
I'm not screwing around when I say I'm having three scoops dammit
You mean we can have frosting too?! Best Day Ever!

We went back to the hotel to practice our swim starts off the various pieces of furniture before finally settling down to watch Shark Week and go to sleep.  I slept surprisingly well until I was rudely awakened by the alarm going off the next morning.  I forced down two bagels (and resisted the Nutella - go me!), drank some Gatorade, and triple-checked that I had everything before we all headed down to the race site.  There were so many waves and even though the race started at 7:30am, I wasn't going to jump in to start my race until almost 9am.  I needed to make sure I properly timed my breakfast so I wouldn't be ravenous on the bike (this did not work out so well).

The Swim: 1500m 27:19
I'm starting to learn in short course racing that if you suck at the swim, you're pretty much screwed.  Sadly, a 27 swim is an illustration of suckage.  BUT, it can only go up from here AND this time is a pretty decent improvement over past Oly swims (except Columbia - the swim that day was magic).  Anyway, I jumped in the water a few minutes before my wave went off to warm up - the water was a perfect temperature and I'm always pleasantly surprised at how buoyant the wetsuit is and how easy it is to stay afloat in it.  I lined up towards the front but at the far right in an effort to avoid a rough, mean swim start.  This resulted in pretty clear water almost right away (hooray) and at first, as I was reaching the first turn buoy, it seemed like I was towards the front.  Then I started to pay attention to how many orange caps there were in front of me when I sighted and I realized I was sorely mistaken (boooo).  After the first turn buoy, I lost any and all feet and was on my own.  I stayed focused on my stroke and tried my best to sight at the top of the waves (like the day before, the wind had kicked up and it was choppy out there - fun conditions!).  When I hit the second turn buoy, I was going a bit more with the current, which was an advantage, but I was also heading straight into the sun, a disadvantage.  My goggles were fogging up a bit at that point too, adding a bit of mystery to whether or not I was staying on course.  I followed the caps in front of me and hoped for the best.  After the third turn buoy, when I was no longer sighting directly into the sun, it felt like I was picking up the pace a bit more and making progress, bridging the gaps between groups in front of me.  At the last turn buoy, I put my head down and swam as hard as I could.  There was nobody in front of me, I had passed a few people in the wave ahead of me, but I had no idea where I was in relation to the other 30-34 year old girls.  I came out of the water, looked at my watch and was a bit disappointed with my time as I was hoping for a 25:xx, got over it, and ran to transition.

T1: 2:27.  For the love of everything, I hate transitions and I hate wetsuits.  T1 was my worst nightmare as I got stuck in my wetsuit multiple times.  Looks like I REALLY need to work on this if I ever have a bat's chance in hell of being good at short course.  Fast transitions are free speed.  I still had no idea where I was in my age group, but it looked like a decent number of bikes were still racked around mine, giving me hope that I wasn't in the back.

The Bike - 25ish miles, 1:12:27
I came out of the transition area and immediately started working hard - after that swim, I had alot of work to do if I was going to have any hope of moving up in my age group.  And my coach Jen started seven minutes behind me and it was my goal to at least get to T2 before she caught me.  I started drinking water with NUUN right away - didn't want to get behind on hydration, even though it wasn't super hot out, I still had Lake Placid 2012 on my mind.  My legs felt a bit heavy and sluggish, and I wasn't constantly looking at my watch to see what my pace was, as all that really mattered was that I was working as hard as I could and going as fast as possible.  The bike course was really pretty, especially after it got out of downtown and went out to more rural areas.  It wasn't flat, but the hills weren't terrible or steep, it was just constantly rolling and changing.  At one of the out-and-backs, I saw Jenny go smoking by way ahead of me.  It was then that I realized, as I was at least a mile or so behind her, that I was probably pretty far from the front (damn you swim!!).  I was passing a number of girls in the 25-29 age group but hardly seeing anyone in mine.  It was about this point that I was losing focus.  I was hungrier than I expected (see, I didn't time my breakfast very well) and ended up eating three gels on the bike and hoped I wouldn't regret it on the run (I didn't).  My legs weren't feeling super snappy, but this was also less than 4 weeks out from Ironman Lake Placid and I'd only been back in training for two weeks.  Then there's also the fact that short course training is apparently very different from long-course and I'm so used to not killing myself on the bike and saving something for the run, I don't think I  was pushing the envelope as much as possible.  There is still so much I don't know how to do right at short course, but it is fun to learn!  Anyway, as I was making the left onto 189 to go back to downtown Burlington, I hear someone growl at me as they pass, Come on Caroline, let's pick it up.  Crap.  It is Jen.  She has caught me.  To make matters worse, I answer with a chipper, Oh hi Jen!  Nothing says "I'm not working nearly hard enough" if you can greet someone in the race with a smile in your voice and upbeat tone.  Sure enough, Jen knew I wasn't working hard enough.  I put my head down and kept her in my sights for the last few miles of the bike ride.  I'm not thrilled with my bike time, but I'm not super upset about it either.  I need to do a better job at staying extremely focused on the task at hand and not giving an inch, even when I think I am super far behind.  I also need to be less afraid about pushing it hard on the bike, short course is quick enough that the run will be over with and I can get through it, even if I trash my legs on the bike.  There is no such thing as over-riding the bike in oly distances.  This is completely different from Ironman.

T2: 1:51.  As Jenny said, We need to hold a special transition clinic just for you.  Yup.

The Run: 10k, 44:16.
I lost sight of Jen before I even left transition - not that I was planning to stay on her heels during the run because I would surely blow up trying to run 6:45s right out of the gate.  As I ran out of transition, I spied others who were already done with their races and might as well have had beers in their hands.  Truthfully, I was a bit jealous they were already done.  I had no idea what the run had in store for me - what legs would come out to play and what mindset?  Fun and games or death march?  If it was going to be death march, I just wanted a one-way ticket to the finish line and food tent, forget the run.  Fortunately, this turned out to be the best run I've ever had in an Oly race.  Anyway, I headed up the big hill that led to North Street - it was steep but not terribly long.  I didn't want to see any miles over 8min so I ran up that sucker like my life depended on it.  I knew the rest of the course was relatively flat, with just a few rollers and a net downhill on the back half so I didn't need to worry about using up too much energy too soon.  There were a few girls in my age group in front of me that I could see and I set my sights on trying to reel them in.  The first two miles were not the most comfortable.  I was running in the mid-7s and having a bit of a struggle finding a good stride and catching my breath.  Then, when I went by the mile 2 marker, it was like a light switched on.  My stride and breathing became easy and effortless.  I was passing more and more people.  I was beyond thrilled to be out running (it has been awhile since I felt like that during a race).  I knew I was nearing the halfway point and planned on picking up the pace a little bit each mile so I could negative-split the run.  I passed about 3 girls in my age group on the run - one of them was the girl that I'd had in my sights since T2.  Unfortunately, I was also passed by about three girls in my age group who looked like they were well on their way to a sub-40 minute 10k, so I didn't even attempt to stay with them, I just let them go.  As I got closer and closer to the finish, I picked up the pace, convinced that a girl in my age group was going to come screaming out of nowhere and pass me at the last minute.  I saw some of my friends and my parents as I ran towards the finisher chute and it was nice to hear their cheers.
Smiling.  Almost to the finish line.  Probably not working hard enough.  Or maybe just thinking of ice cream.
I finished, feeling spent.  I was thrilled with my run time, as I wanted to have at least a 45 and I don't think I've ever broken 45 for an Oly run.  I negative split the run, just like I wanted to, so I'm happy with my pacing.  But once the race was over and I'd had a few minutes to recover, I still had a fair amount of energy and that leads me to believe I didn't leave it all out there.

If triathlon involved jumping instead of swimming, I could be a contender
The day was a PR for me by about 3 minutes - I finished in 2:28:20.  I've never broken 2:30 before and I'm happy that I was able to PR on a day with so much competition.  Speaking of competition, I came in 30th in my Age Group out of 95.  Humbling, to say the least.  As I go back and think about the day, I know that there is still so much work to be done to be competitive at this distance.  Especially in terms of the swim and learning how to really go hard on the bike.  I'd love to qualify again for next year's race and give it a go again and try to be more competitive.  This was SUCH a fun weekend, surrounded by fast people, family and great friends.  I had the chance to hang out on the hotel balcony with my parents and also chat with Sarah and Jen for awhile Saturday night.  When I got home from Vermont, I realized that I had absolutely NO pictures of the race on my camera (the above were stolen from Facebook).  All of my pictures consisted of hotel swim starts, ice cream, and champagne.  Yes - champagne.  About four classes worth on Saturday night.  Downtown Burlington was just as fun as a 30 year old as it was as a 21 year old.

When hanging out with Jenny, champagne is a must.  Even in an Irish dive bar.
It's like being in Tucson again - but a little chillier and no snakes!
This was a great, great weekend.  A huge thanks to Dawn for keeping me company on the drive up and back from Burlington - and making sure I always had food at hand.  Poor Dawn, quote of the day on Sunday when she realized that I was on a mission to get home with a few stops as possible - Well, I guess I'll stop drinking water for now... It was great to race with and hang out with friends all weekend - Seb, Jenny, Dawn, Ryan, William, JR, Sarah - you guys made the weekend super fun!  Jen, thanks for being the carrot those last few miles of the bike.  And it was so nice to see my mom and dad too, we got to spend some quality time together exploring Church street and eating pasta!  I'm going to do my darn-est to qualify for Age Group Nationals again next year.


ADC said...

Great race report. Love the photos.

Jennifer Harrison said...

This is such a GREAT race report, Caroline...because I know you had SO much fun in VT. And, that is why we do this (one reason!). AND hats off to you for doing this less than 4 weeks post IM and with limited specificity due to IM recovery.

SO, a sub 2:30 and a PR -- PROGRESS! :)

Great to see you out there too!

Mindy Ko said...

You're amazing! Congrats on the PR and I am more jealous of the Ben and Jerry's visits than the race :)

JV said...

That is a great race, 4 weeks after an IM... WOW!

Katie said...

I have now added a goal onto my wish list: qualify for this next year so I can come and play.

Your run was SMOKING. Wow!

The Miller Family said...

AWESOME JOB!!!! Glad you had a good weekend and congrats on the PR!

Ed said...

Love the hotel room photo...super cool!

Michael Stevenson said...

Nice race report. I remember the sun glare on the swim from last year's race. I'm glad you had a great trip. I'm sure you will have no problem qualifying for Nationals next year...wherever that may be.

Caroline said...

Thanks guys! It was such a fun weekend from start to finish! I'm hoping that 1) I qualify for next year's race so I can come back and try it again; and 2) that it's in a location just as great as Burlington was fun.