The days leading up to the triathlon were filled with excitement, hope, fear, and nervous energy. It was a busy week with Active Moms Club’s Fitness Challenge starting, and greeting 12 new moms for the Postnatal Recovery class. By the time Thursday night rolled around I had to think about packing for the triathlon. I procrastinated packing during the week because I was desperately hoping the weather forecast would make a drastic change for the better. No such luck.
Saturday’s race day forecast in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin called for a low of 39 degrees and a high temperature to peak at 55 degrees, with lots of sunshine. So on Thursday evening I tossed all the warm weather riding clothes I owned into a bag. This would the first time I have ever participated in a triathlon with the air temperature 30+ degrees colder than the water temperature!
When the boys and I arrived in Williams Bay on Friday it was cold and raining. It rained all day and all night. This is not the weather that inspires anyone to want to swim, bike and run outdoors. My aunt and cousin had texted me at 8pm to say they were bailing on the race. I was left solo for the morning event. After the boys went to bed, I had time to focus at the task at hand, and pack my transition bag. At the same moment it felt both familiar and awkwardly foreign. I’ve done this dozens of times before, but it’s been over 6 years since I packed a transition bag. I envisioned each event in my head and cross-checked it with the check list I had in front of me.
My bag was overstuffed with long sleeve tops, towels, gloves, hats, and then all the basics –running sneakers, socks, riding cleats, helmet, sunglasses, wetsuit, googles, and body glide. I was riding my road bike down to the transition area in the morning so all my gear had to fit into one large backpack, and I would wear the rest.
At 10:30pm I finally dove into bed and triple checked that my alarm was set for 5:15am. Check. 5:15am. Check. 5:15am. Check. The transition area opened at 4:45am and closed at 6:30am. I planned to be there by 6am – enough time to set up but not feel rushed. I didn’t want to spend any extra time outside than necessary. I kissed my husband goodnight, and then laid awake most of the night, twisting and turning in bed. My stomach was in knots. I think my aching belly was a combination of not drinking enough water during the day and my nerves. I had no idea what time I finally fell asleep, but know it wasn’t long enough to feel rested.
RACE MORNING | 5:15am
When I heard the alarm ring I rubbed my eyes and rolled out of bed. I walked directly into the kitchen to look at the thermometer. The outdoor temperature was just as predicted, 41 degrees. Ouch. I put on my race clothes – which is a tank top and tri shorts – then layered on tights, and a long sleeve fleece top. Triathlon race day hair is always a french braid; keeps it contained in a swim cap and fits under my helmet for riding. I meander back into the kitchen to eat a piece of toast with peanut butter and jelly – my favorite pre-race energy. Then I packed a banana and a breakfast bar, and headed downstairs with my gear.
I hesitated to open the garage door, I didn’t want to feel the dreaded cold morning air. So I pumped up my bike tires first, and then opened the door. Eek!!! I was solo and had no one to lament with but myself. My husband and kids were comfy and warm sleeping in their beds. Our plan was for my husband to walk the boys down to the finish line around 10am. Luckily for us, we were staying at my in-law’s condo (they were not there) and it’s just a half mile up the road from the race’s start/finish line.
As I rode down the street, I was taking in the early morning scene. Dozens of triathletes and spectators were gathering around my favorite Wisconsin beach, Williams Bay. The little town had a whole new vibe. It was alive and bustling this early morning. Music was playing. Athletes were streaming in from every direction. Spectators where bundled in hats and gloves, most with warm cups of coffee nestled between two hands for warmth. Mmm coffee. I would have to settle on a caffeine boost from the smell alone. I stopped at the beach to admire the dusting of fog gently hovering over the serene water and took a picture, it was like a painting. At the same time I thought to myself, “oh man, I can’t believe I’m jumping in there in an hour!”
I made my way into the transition area and began to look for my race number. Fortunately the bike racks were all labeled; every participant had a specific place to hang their bike and set up their transition. My lucky number for the day was #338. I found my spot, right NEXT TO a giant puddle! I lucked out and put my bike on the opposite side. I was starting to get nervous. I didn’t know what to do first. The other women around me were clearly ‘regular’ triathletes. I glanced around to see how they racked their bikes and set up their transition towels. I felt like a newbie all over – which I am. Then I started to second guess how much clothing I brought. I looked around and did NOT see many women with extra gear set out?! What? Am I being a wimp? Then I began to ask around… “are you wearing leg warmers, or tights for the bike?”. A few said yes, others said no. #336 said she did this race last year (yep, just as cold last year), and admitted her only saving grace was mini hand warmers she placed inside her gloves and shoes. She then reached into her bag and offered extra warmers to me, “I have extras, do you want a pair for your gloves?” “Woah, really?”. “Take them out now, shake to activate, and put them in your gloves to warm up”.“Thank you!”.
Now I’m starting to loosen up. That was the first person, beside myself, that I had spoken to since I woke up. I finished setting up my transition, and the next feat was taking off my comfortable warm clothes to get into my wetsuit. The announcer just stated transition was closing in 5 minutes. Which means I have to leave with everything I need to start the swim! Ugh. I have to undress. NOW! Typically I wear flip flops from transition to swim start but today I packed my Crocs and a big pair of wool socks. I’m not messing around with cold feet today since they are offering a special gear check at swim start.
I’m extremely nervous about my wetsuit. I pulled it out of storage in June thinking that I would wear it for training over the summer. Nope. Haven’t worm my wetsuit in SIX YEARS! And yes, 35 minutes before the triathlon is set to begin, I am going to put on my wetsuit for the first time AND swim in it. I’m breaking the cardinal rule of racing – do not try anything new for the first time on race day.
Another lucky break, I managed to wiggle into my wetsuit and it seems to be in functioning condition – no tears, no dry rot. I grab my banana, nine year-old swim goggles, pink swim cap and layer on my down feather jacket to head to the beach. As I’m leaving transition, I take a mental note of where my bike is racked and the direction I’ll be running ‘in’ from swim finish.
SWIM START | 7:00am
I’m trying to mentally prepare myself for the morning ahead of me. I can’t seem to wrap my head around the idea that I’m about to do a triathlon in 40 degree temperatures. It’s 7am. The race is starting. The first wave is lining up at the beach and I’m wolfing down a banana. I’m in wave #3, the pink caps. Scurrying over to the special gear check, I take off my jacket, shoes, socks, and hat. Woah, now it’s really cold. I run down to the beach to get my feet into the warm water because the sand is numbing. Wave #2, in the orange caps, are off. They are calling for the pink caps for the next wave.
I walk up the beach to line up. I nestled myself on the outside edge of the pink caps, a little more towards the back than usual. The swim is my least favorite event of a triathlon but today I am embracing it because it’s going to be the warmest part of the day. The bike is going to be unpleasant just because it’s so cold and I’ll be wet, and I don’t even know if I can run! The horn goes off and the pink caps splash their way into the water. “Here I go”.
I take big long strides through the shallow water and gently lower my torso horizontally when it’s deep enough. I’m having a surreal moment. My head goes in after I have enough clearance around me from the other athletes and I start to swim. The course was smartly marked with 14 buoys. Each buoy was placed 100 meters apart and labeled for distance. I had to swim pass seven buoys (700 meters), take a right turn, then another right turn at the next buoy (800 meters), and swim back to shore. Having these markers made the swim easier to digest and conquer.
As I pass the 200 meter buoy I do a gear check; my wetsuit is holding up and feels okay, and more importantly my goggles are adjusted perfectly. Gear is working…check! I’m about 600 meters out and I realize I’m passing pink caps. “Woah, look at me!” I’m actually passing people in the water. Either I’m being really efficient, or they are losing steam. Most likely its the latter because I’m not a great swimmer and haven’t put much swim time in for training.
I make two right turns and am getting pretty excited that the swim is half way through. I have no idea of my time nor do I have an estimate of how long it will take me to complete 1500 meters – just short of a mile. The lake was calm for most of the swim. The seaweed is not an issue. The water was plenty warm, and I’ve got a pretty solid rhythm going. I feel better than expected! I continue to push myself for the last half of the swim. I’m super excited that my goggles haven’t fogged up or leaked! These are the same pair of goggles I wore for Ironman in 2005 and 2006!
As I pass the 1400 meter buoy I start to visualize how I will move through transition (T1). I’m typically very disoriented after completing the swim. While not ideal, I like there is an obscenely long run to T1 (easily a 2 minute run!), it will help me get my bearings. As I exit the water, I’m greeted with a burst of cold air. Ouch. I manage to unzip my wetsuit as I’m running and continue to visualize T1 as I head towards my bike rack.
I spot my bike rack and note that half the women on my rack (all pink caps) have come and gone (note, I am slow), there are a handful of women getting changed alongside of me. First thing I do is grab my towel to dry off, soaking in as much water from my tank top and shorts. We’re all bantering back and forth about the swim, how warm it was, and how much we are dreading the ride. Women are shouting back and forth, “are you wearing tights”. “I’ve got leg warmers!”. “Yep, putting on tights now”.
I’m struggling to pull my wetsuit off my lower legs. It’s always the hardest part but I’m really disoriented, shivering, and having a hard time balancing to pull the suit off my legs. #340 offered to help, but at the moment I managed to get one leg out. As competitive as we all are, we realize this is not a transition for time. T1 today is about getting warm to be comfortable for the next event. I put on leg warmers, socks, a long sleeve, a fleece long sleeve, my Smartwool skull cap, helmet, sunglasses, cleats, and lastly slide each hand into deliciously WARM gloves. I pull my bike off the rack and start my awkward gallop (bike cleats) to the transition out where I can mount my bike and start the ride.
The weather forecast promised us mostly blue clear skies for the morning but sadly there are more grey clouds than blue sky and the wind has a gusting kick. I’m mildly disappointed, the clear skies were my hope to warm up with solar radiation. As the bikers turn the corner to leave town, we are greeted with a pretty significant hill to climb. I wasn’t mentally prepared for this work so soon. The wind is in our face, legs are barely moving, and it IS cold. Once at the top of the climb, the course turns and we head down a quieter country street. I move my legs as fast as they go to warm up.
About 20 minutes in to the ride I find my groove, settle into my aerobars, and embrace the bitter cold journey. My breathes are deep and heavy. I’m pushing hard up the hills and even harder on the flats. I love to bike. My goal was to push as fast as I could through 26 miles. The course is a challenging combination of rolling hills and flat road, and there are enough turns so we weren’t bullied by a head wind for too long.
I forced myself to drink as much water as I could. It’s hard for me to drink fluids when I’m cold, but I know I’ll be on my bike for roughly 90 minutes, and had at least another hour on my feet. As I take in water, and grabbed a mocha GU shot from my bike bag. I needed to finish both packets of GU before the bike was complete knowing I didn’t have many calories before the race.
About half-way through I realize my feet were extremely cold, and surprised that the rest of my body is relatively comfortable. I thought for sure my ears would be cold. Nope. The hand warmers that were given to me were an incredible gift. My fingers were toasty!
As I’m riding I’m taking in the views. I do my fair share of passing, but also being passed by a few male riders on fancy bikes. How these guys with JUST their tank tops and shorts on are not frozen icicles is beyond me. Maybe they are going so fast that they don’t feel the numbing wind. Kudos to them for their bravery – or rather, their stupidity.
The home stretch is near. I’m pushing my pace as fast as my legs will take me. I had the realization that while I’m working so hard to pass as many people as possible on the bike, they all may lap me on the run. I put down a few more sips of water and take another pull of GU. As I’m coming down the final hill towards Williams Bay, I start to visualize the second transition (T2) and stand up to stretch my calves and back. I pretty happy to have completed the entire 26 miles in my aerobars.
I dismount my bike at the designated area and attempt a slow jog towards my bike rack. WOAH. My inner thighs are SCREAMING at me. What?! My adductors are locked down. My jog is now a fast walk – awkwardly, in bike cleats. Did I mention that my toes were frozen? At that very moment I contemplated throwing in the towel. How in the world can I attempt to run feeling like this? This is not a good state, I’m going to cause more harm to my body. I rack my bike, and change my apparel needed for the next event.
I begin to briskly walk towards the run ‘out’ exit trying to loosen up my legs. My inner thighs were looser and my hamstring just mildly tender. Biking typically feels fine for my hamstring, it’s the eccentric leg swing during the running phase that irritates it. My therapist and I were both hopeful that by moving for two solid hours before the run, my body would be willing to take on the next six miles. I press my watch to start my split (total habit), and as I exit the transition say to myself, “alright, here it goes”. I break out into a jog. “Hmm, not bad”. I make my way up the little hill and take one of 22 turns down the next street.
I’m very familiar with the run course. I’ve printed out the course map back in June and ran it a few times before I succumbed to my hamstring. I knew the first two miles were zig-zagging turns ALL UP HILL, then it flattened out a bit after mile two. Once at the half way mark, the course u-turned and it retraced the same path back to the finish line.
It felt like a shuffle, but I was jogging up hill and was NOT experiencing any more discomfort than I had when I started a few minutes ago. This is progress! I am really excited that I am running, okay, jogging! I’m optimistic but cautious, and very tuned in to how my body is feeling. I made a sportsman pledge to myself, and to my clients; I was not going to jeopardize my recovery progress with this one run.
I come upon the first mile marker and just like Pavlovian’s dog, out of habit, I hit my split on my watch as I pass the marker. Curiosity got the best of me, and I glanced down at my watch, 9:03 minute mile. “I’ve got this” were the exact words that popped out of my mouth. I decided at that very moment I was not going to stop. I will run the entire course at that pace. If I can cover a relatively pain-free, uphill mile in 9 minutes, I’m running the whole course.
As I cruised up the second mile I felt my body relax. There were more glimpses of sunshine than clouds, the temperature was now in the lower 50’s, my feet were defrosted, and I was running. The day just got a whole lot better!
After completing the climb, the course traced around Yerkes Observatory. It’s a beautiful area, and one of our favorite paths to run when my husband and I are in Lake Geneva. So many thoughts are running through my head, but the beauty of running is an overwhelming joy. “Yes, this is what I’ve been wanting to do for months, just run, and enjoy it”. And that is what I’m doing. I’m running, and I’m enjoying it. There is no need to push my pace. I have no right to try to race the run. I haven’t run six miles in over three months. I’m out here for a fun run with 700 of my friends.
I hit the turn around point and start my trek back to Williams Bay. I look at my clock to see the time. My husband was planning to be along the race course at 10am somewhere close to the finish line but we didn’t discuss an exact location. He should be in place, I’m excited to find my boys and give them high-fives and hugs.
My return trek back down hill is easily managed. My pace is very comfortable, and then I had the realization that triathlons are much more enjoyable if I’m not racing. Typically the last few miles of a run hurts because of exertion level (my clients know it as the “it sucks” level of exertion). I happen to be the pace of a couple of gentlemen and we began bantering along the way to pass our time. Yep, we’re all having fun. I’m running with some new found friends. Life is good.
I’m closing in on the final stretch of the run and a woman passes me. I glanced down at her calf (in triathlons, your age is body marked on your left calf), and see ’42’. I instinctively start to pick up my pace to catch her. “Woah Cassandra, you’re not racing today, let her go”. I slowed back down and muffled under my breath, “good for her”, and I was sincere.
I start to look for my husband and boys. I spot them from down the street. W is standing in the street with his cow bell and my husband’s tall head is popping out of the crowd. I wave my hand emphatically in the air so he can see me and a giant smile warms my face and heart. I tell my running mates, “there’s my support crew”. W is yelling “GO MOM”. I stop to give kisses, hugs, and high-fives. H is clearly more engaged with other things. I was thrilled to report to my husband I’d been running the whole time and I felt great.
I continue my trek down to the finish line, and my crew finds me amongst the crowd. What a day! I’m happy to share that my hamstring didn’t flare up post race and two days later it is already feeling better. Progress!
Hurray, I’m officially back! This triathlon is just the start of more to come.
During training tonight, someone asked if I am taking some time off. YES! I went to bed on Saturday night and slept in till 7am the next morning! Upon my request, my husband had a cup of coffee and two donuts sitting on the counter when I woke up. On Sunday we were NOT a one donut family and I got to enjoy a day of rest from sporting activities.
Thank you for all your well wishes! I look forward to share more journey’s with you.