THIS was a fantastic race weekend! Not only did I race my first triathlon of the season (and first off-road tri since 2007), but I also had a chance to spend part of the weekend with my friend Stacey and her family up in PA, since they lived just over an hour from the race site in New Jersey. Perfect combination - catching up with friends and racing. I had the chance to meet some of Stacey's friends - Tania and Jess - as they were all running a half marathon today and came over for a pre-race dinner last night with their families. A HUGE thank you to Stacey and her family for having me for the weekend!
So the race - I went into it feeling a little unprepared. I took a mountain bike out for a short spin last weekend in Wakefield and THAT was a wakeup call that road riding skills don't translate to mountain biking skills - AT ALL. I got a late start yesterday and I didn't get a chance to preview the course so I relied on the course pictures I saw on the race website to give me an idea of how technical the course was. The photos were deceiving and I will say this - you don't need rocks and big hills to give a course a dash of difficulty - nope, just throw piles and piles of deep sand along the course as well as a section that could be dubbed "the luge". I don't own a mountain bike yet so I borrowed my friend Kristin's bike - THANK YOU Kristin!! - and riding it on the course was the first time I rode it. By the second loop of the bike, I felt much more comfortable on it - it also helps that you feel like you can roll over anything with tires that big. The big victory of the day is the fact that I only need one hand to count the number of times I fell off the bike.
The swim: 1/2 mile - 13:46
The swim was held in a small lake and the water was surprisingly warm for April in New Jersey. I got in for a quick practice swim/acclimation to the water a few minutes before the start. My face felt a little like an ice cream headache during the practice swim, but once I was huffing and puffing my way through the actual swim, I was quite warm. We had two waves - men and relays and then all the women went two minutes later. Once the horn sounded, I tried to stay on some fast feet, but the front pack pulled away from me by the first buoy and I ended up swimming most of it alone. By the end of the first loop, I had caught up to quite a few people from the first wave and swimming became a full-contact sport at the beginning of the second loop. I was sighting every 5 strokes and managed to keep a pretty good line. I could see there were a few pink caps ahead of me, but it seemed like I was in the mix. By the second loop, I'd found a good rhythm and felt like I was maintaining decent form and while I wasn't flying, my speed wasn't falling off the edge of a cliff either.
T1: Knock-down, drag-out fight with the wetsuit + 1/4 mile run to my bike = longest T1 ever. 4+ min
The bike: 13 miles of sandy, muddy fun trails - 1:11:16
Can we talk about how DIRTY you get when you do an Xterra? I wasn't even on my bike yet and I was already covered in sand and dirt from my fight with the wetsuit. As I hopped on the bike, I felt like I had swamp grime on my face and I tried to wipe it off, but ended up smearing more dirt on me instead because I forgot my hand was covered in dirt and sand. I also didn't wear sunglasses on the bike - big mistake. You should wear sunglasses when riding your bike on sandy muddy trails because sunglasses keep both the sun AND the mud out of your eyes. Lesson learned.
The bike was a 6.5 mile loop done twice. It starts out on wide trails with just a little sand - a deceivingly easy start. But this was good because it allowed me to ease into the whole mountain bike thing and figure out the shifting (I KNOW - unprepared). I ended up staying in about a 3 gear range because the course was basically flat and rolling. As I rolled along the wide, non-technical trails, I was passing people and hauling up short climbs feeling good. These thighs the size of tree trunks are good for something. Then we hit the more technical sections and my complete LACK of technical skills was in full display - no amount of thigh power could overcome this weakness. In the middle of the 6.5 mile loop, we hit a decently long section filled with deep sand and "the luge" - a tight singletrack of sand with high banks on either side - no room for passing and if the person in front of you goes down, you are going to be on your way down shortly thereafter. I focused on just keeping the pedals turning over, as that seemed to be the most successful way to stay upright. Most of the time this worked. And the times it didn't, I usually managed to unclip in time to catch myself, though there was one time where I lost control of my front wheel and went careening into the side of the luge, fell off the bike, and was the cause of a major backup in riders. Oops. Once the sandy/singletrack section ended, the trails widened out a bit and I was able to make up some lost time. Right before the end of the bike loop, there was a pile of logs you had to go over. I tried to ride over it during the first go-round, got my front wheel up and over, but didn't get the second wheel over, teetered balanced on the chainring before having a slow-motion tip over to one side. I'm pretty sure that's where all the scratches on my left arm came from. I learned my lesson from that log the first time - the second loop, I got off my bike and walked over it. The second loop of the bike was a little more spread out, which was really nice on the more technical sections. Who knew that sand could be so difficult? I also implemented some of the lessons learned from the first loop - when going through deep mud, just aim for the track that was already made and follow that - do not try to blaze your own trail, you will end up in the mudpit instead. With sand - the brakes are not your friend, pedaling (alot) is. Speed is your friend. Look at where you want to go, DO NOT look where you do not want to end up.
T2: In which I forget how to tie my shoes - 1:26
The run: 3.5 miles of feeling like you are part of The Hunger Games - 25:52
Can we get an "AMEN" for the triathlon run leg - it gave me a chance to catch a few of the girls who were far better mountain bikers than me. Again - the pictures of the run were deceiving, as I was under the impression it was completely non-technical and on wide fireroads. Imagine my surprise when I rounded a corner and hear the race director cackle - as he motioned me towards a trail that didn't look like a trail at all, more like bunches of trees with arrows haphazardly pointing this way and that - just wait, this is where the real fun begins. After I careened down a hill without running into any trees, I found myself at a creekbed where I promptly bid my pretty pink KSwiss shoes adieu because they were brown and covered in muck within about 5 seconds. Sigh. I managed not to fall in the creek and found myself on a trail that actually looked like a trail. I was running as fast as my legs would turn over, trying to catch some of the girls I saw in front of me who had blazed through the bike course. When I felt my quads burning, I'd remind myself that this trail was nowhere near as lung-busting hard as that first mile up Phoneline trail. That shut my legs up real quick. I caught one girl within the first mile and tried to run by her fast while simultaneously make it look like I was barely winded and out for a Sunday stroll. I don't think I pulled it off. After a long downhill, I caught up to another girl and sat on her heels for awhile while we zipped through a section that I swear was straight out of the Hunger Games - vaulting over logs, skittering under downed trees, running through woods when the path seemed to disappear. I passed her on an uphill and then kept running hard, convinced she was on my heels. We crossed over a dam on the lake and then there was - I kid you not - a log crossing. Logs in floating in shallow water that you quickly jump and balance on while trying not to fall over. It was just after this that I caught a third girl who was in front of me. We had just over a mile left in the run, hit a few more short hills, a number of points where I was convinced I'd lost the trail only to find it again, and then we were back out on the fireroads, running by the finish line to make a quick loop and double back to actually cross the finish line.
I had SO much fun out there. I'll admit, I was a little horrified at some of the super sandy singletrack parts of the bike course because I was convinced I was just going to spend most of my time toppled over, backing up traffic. And I did fall a few times (only need one hand to count them - victory!) and I learned that falling off the mountain bike really isn't that bad, for the most part. A relatively soft and cushy landing AND it wasn't like I was going that fast. Way better than falling off my road bike. I forgot how dirty and scratched up you get from these races. I popped into a Dunkin Donuts post-race to grab a bagel sandwich for the ride home (and a handful of munchkins) and the guy behind the counter just looked at me and said where did you come from? Covered in dirt and scratches. Awesome. I also realized just how much concentration these types of races demand - I was constantly looking just ahead for the best direction I should guide my bike down the path, always strategically plotting my next move, trying to figure out the best time to past competitors. There was absolutely no zoning out during this race, I was on my toes the whole time. Everyone was super friendly and laid-back, while still working hard. The volunteers were great and everything was super well-organized. Now I definitely want a mountain bike of my own so I can add a few more of these races to my calendar - and do some mountain biking and improve my gosh-darn terrible technical skills. I ended up 2nd AG (won some wine for Mr. Sweetie!) and 5th girl overall in 1:56:24. It was my run that saved me, that is for sure. I also met some pretty great people post-race who were friends-of-friends from DC and hopefully I'll see them out at more races in the future! I got to wear my ZocaGear tri kit for the first time - super comfortable. Though I think it now has permanent mud stains, womp womp. A thank you again to Stacey for having me stay at her house last night and a thank you to Kristin for the use of her mountain bike! The bike and I both returned in one piece, mission accomplished!