Category Archives: Race Recaps

Guiding for Achilles at the 2017 New York City Marathon

On Sunday, Nov. 5, Team Asim spent the day running through Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan during the iconic TCS NYC Marathon.

About to make some marathon magic

Although I’m about one week removed from the race, the experience still seems surreal. Did our Achilles group really log 26.2 miles in the Big Apple—with more than 50,000 fellow runners?

Sunday’s journey through the five boroughs marked several second times for me: guiding the marathon distance for Achilles; covering the distance ever; and tackling 26.2 miles this year. In March, I guided the same athlete for the Queens Marathon, but even with this outing, I still felt anxious. Leading a disabled athlete through a race is a huge responsibility, and my biggest fear was that something would happen to me—or to one of our three additional guides—that would impact our athlete’s race. The marathon is an equalizer in the sense that it challenges everyone who toes the start line. Although I trusted my Corona Park experience, I did not discount the inevitable tough patches our team would face. But that’s the marathon: when you’ve been out there for a while, and your legs feel like logs and every step takes all your energy, how do you respond? I had faith in our team to remain positive, hang tough, and cross the finish line.

Marathon weekend unofficially began on Thursday when I ventured to the Javits Center to pick up my guide bib and race materials, and on Friday evening, there was an Achilles International dinner at the Hotel Pennsylvania. That’s when reality of the race started to sink in: athletes from around the world (Denmark, Mexico, and even South Africa just to name a few) were running, and I felt honored for the opportunity to be part of my athlete’s race. On Saturday night, Team Asim—our namesake, four guides, plus family members and friends—went out to dinner, and then we got down to business of reviewing the game plan. Asim tabbed me as the lead guide and pacesetter, meaning I was responsible for locking in to our goal speed, communicating our formation, observations, and needs, and ensuring we functioned as a team. We decided to break up the race into six-mile segments, and though all four of us would be tackling the complete distance, we would take turns using the race belt to guide Asim. (The first guide would do miles one through six, the second six through 12, etc.) Asim asked me to guide him for the final stretch—miles 18 through the end—I was honored. Those later miles are the toughest of the day, so the fact that I got the guide “anchor leg” was a huge responsibility. Mentally, that’s when I told myself the race would start. My goal was to be a sparkplug, to create sustainable, contagious energy that would carry us to the finish line.

My alarm sounded at 4:30am on Sunday morning, and Asim and I inhaled some oatmeal before catching a cab to the Athletes With Disabilities (AWD) buses on 38th Street and Fifth Avenue. It was really neat to see a sea of runners descending on Midtown so early in the morning! The ride to Staten Island took about an hour, and upon our arrival, we hung out in the AWD Village until our 9:50 a.m. wave. During this time, we talked to fellow runners and reviewed the pace plan.  Our goal was to break five hours, but we were prepared to make adjustments as necessary. We would check in with each other every mile, of course, but I wanted us averaging 10:45-11:00 min./mi. My main checkpoints were miles 13 and 18; we needed to hit those miles feeling decent and in control of the effort. From there, the grind would begin—staying strong mentally and continuing to move forward.

Running down our marathon dreams in Brooklyn

Although it was a little chilly at the start line on the Verrazano Bridge, the temperature hovered around 45-50 degrees throughout the day, and there was a continuous light misting of rain. These were perfect conditions for me, but the weather posed an added challenge for a visually impaired athlete: the precipitation led to slick pavement, and the road itself was littered with cups, nutrition wrappers, and other debris that we had to navigate.

Another factor that tested Team Asim was the 50,000-plus other runners. We started the race at the back of the first wave, so the opening miles weren’t crowded, but as we logged miles 8-13 in Brooklyn, the on-course traffic was unrelenting. Most athletes were courteous and moved to the side when we announced there was a blind running approaching. Some racers infiltrated our formation and cut directly in from of Asim, and there were two instances specifically where I “gently guided” these folks out of the way. During our Brooklyn stint, I did a lot of diagonal running with my arms totally extended (think a basketball defensive stance) to create a human shield around Asim with the goal of ensuring no one would obstruct his space.

When you see one of your friends at mile 24 …

Brooklyn was by far the toughest area to guide, but it was also the most fun. I literally ran into one of my friends who was racing, and I saw two more buds spectating. The narrow streets made it easy to read signs—throughout the day, we read aloud signs to Asim—and it also creating a wall of sound: cheering, clapping, horns, cowbells. The weather was not conducive to watching a marathon so it meant a lot to see so many people braving the elements and urging us on. Our team was super grateful for the energy and the cheers, and lots of fellow runners gave us a thumbs up or a “Go Achilles” on the course. Those moments were magic.

The going got tough for Team Asim around mile 18 when cramps arrived, forcing us to take our first walk break. (That was also when race officials announced Shalane Flanagan won the women’s race!) Prior to the race and even during the event itself, the magnitude of running 26.2 miles didn’t phase me—mostly because I didn’t give it the headspace. But it was impossible to dismiss those feelings in the Bronx. My arms felt like bricks from playing zone defense in Brooklyn. My left hip was also noticeable, but thankfully not debilitating. Finally, I acknowledged everything: I was running a marathon; it’s not supposed to be easy, but I am fine; and I have one job, and that’s to get Team Asim to the finish line in Central Park. But it’s in these moments of discomfort where change, growth, and magic happen—a fact I relayed to Asim. We were all going through our own tough spells, and I told him we were all in this together.

Marathon finishers!

They say if the hurt comes, then so will the happiness. We powered through the final miles in the Bronx and in Central Park, running when we could and walking when necessary. The fans were absolutely phenomenal, giving us all a much needed boost. (And I saw another one of my friends!) As we exited the park, headed along Central Park West, and reentered for the final time, we began to cheer and throw up our hands to get the crowd to cheer for Asim. We picked it up during that half-mile uphill and finished in 5:28.

We look gooooood

Volunteering for Achilles has redefined my outlook on sport, and I encourage all runners, endurance athletes, and fitness enthusiasts to give guiding a try.

2nd Annual SwimRunVA Recap

On Saturday, Oct. 21, I completed my “A” race of the 2017 season, SwimRunVA. Held in Richmond, the endurance event spanned roughly 18 miles, totaling 3.3 miles of swimming in the James River and 14.9 miles of running along trails.

#TwoStevens!

The uniqueness of swimrun centers on its structure and logistics. Unlike typical road races and triathlons, this is a team event, meaning each athlete sticks with their partner for the duration of the competition. (Garden State SwimRun was an exception.) Most swimrun races are point-to-point, starting at A and traveling to B, and all contain multiple transitions that challenge athletes to go back and forth between swimming and running. Finally, all gear that is used for the swim must be carried on the run and vice versa; ultimately, this equates to swimming while wearing running shoes and running with paddles and pull buoys. Sounds like fun, right?

Pull buoys, paddles, wetsuits, oh my!

“Fun” was the guiding principle for my triathlon training this year. My coach and I worked to round out my endurance portfolio, gain multisport experience in a variety of events, and ultimately keep this lifestyle fresh and fun: I guided an Achilles athlete for a marathon (and we’re doing the NYC Marathon tomorrow, but that’s another post!); I participated in swim meets; and, I competed in two swimrun events.

Getting after it on the trails

SwimRunVA sounded interesting because with the abovementioned outlook, it demanded lots of swim and run training, which meant lots of time working on my not-as-strong triathlon disciplines. Since I had never attempted this type of race, my training saw some new techniques and different workouts, and it also introduced a team component. Although I love competing solo, I grew up playing team sports; the fact that I would be tackling 3.3 miles of swimming and 14.9 miles of running with a friend not only gave me peace of mind—knowing we were in it together—but it also made me train harder. It was easier to tap in to motivation knowing that my teammate was counting on me.

Scoping out the swim

As the race approached, my teammate and I met up once each week and completed swim-run bricks together: twenty minutes of swimming, 20 minutes of running, 20 minutes of swimming, etc. These workouts gave us the chance to identify sustainable paces (we projected a five-hour finishing time), work on communication, and above all, get used to transitioning from swimming to running and vice versa. Each Sunday was a key workout day for me: I’d run 3.5 miles to masters practice, swim for two hours, and run 3.5 miles back home. Overall, I swam 4-5 days per week and ran four days.

Sighting #AllForTheSwim

Anyway, onto our memorable weekend in Richmond!

We flew down from New York City late Thursday afternoon, which gave us enough time to get our bearings, explore the area, and take care of last-minute race necessities. We ordered a swim-run race kit from Europe that contained our tether, pull buoys, and compasses, but the package was held in customs, leaving us without gear. Luckily, we found a swim shop within an aquatics center, so we bought the required items. Friday morning began with a shake-out half-mile “run” to the Black Sheep for breakfast, and we also ventured down to the American Civil War Museum to check out the mighty James River—its surging rapids and monstrous boulders were clear indicators of just how gnarly the swim portions would be, and we were pumped!

So gnarly

One reason the boulders were so visible was due to the low water level, the race director Jay told us at the pre-race briefing and dinner. (Sidebar: two thumbs up for the veg-friendly spread!) Last year, the James was about five feet deep while the water measured 3.5 feet. This meant we would have to swim around and potentially over these rocks, and these natural road blocks added an extra challenge to navigating the course: there was never a true straight line we could follow. Unlike triathlon, where there are buoys stationed at various points on the course, the swims in Richmond had two buoys only—one at the entry point, and one where competitors exited. Safety measures and general swimrun etiquette was also discussed, and Jay also reviewed the course in its entirety. Although SwimRunVA was only my second ever event of that kind, I felt relaxed and at ease after the briefing. Sure, there was some uncertainty—how would my “new” pull buoy hold up on the run? What if we got lost?—but it would be an adventure!

Fiddling with my paddles

I wish I could talk about each of the seven runs and six swims in great detail, but honestly, the entire race was a blur. My teammate and I settled in to a comfortable, endurance pace with the objective of managing our energy and simply enjoying the day. The opening run and swim segments set the tone for outing as we were greeted by a gorgeous sunrise. During those moments—especially during the swim as it was the longest continuous one of the day at 1.1 miles—I took time to reflect. I felt grateful to be in nature, exploring a new-to-me area. I felt grateful to have a body that allowed me to swim and run. And I felt grateful for the experience as it was unfolding moment to moment.

Thanks for the suit, Blueseventy!

Race day conditions were perfect. The air temperature started around 50 degrees and steadily climbed to the low 70s, and the water hovered around 60 degrees. The first swim felt a little brisk, but it ended up being ideal as the race progressed; each time we finished a run segment, we were ready to get in the water and cool off. (There are a handful of companies that make swimrun suits, and Blueseventy hooked me up with a prototype they are introducing to the market next year. I absolutely loved it!) Most of the running legs traversed trails, but there were a handful of “urban” running segments with stairs, ladders, and—my favorite—a pipeline. Full disclosure, we did get lost three times, but that was our fault. (Race protocol dictated we carry a course map, which proved to be helpful in these instances, ha.) Plus, it gave us a chance to further explore Richmond.

I felt like I was in The Hunger Games!

Team Two Stevens finished in 4:47, and we narrowly missed the podium in the mixed division—by four seconds! But more importantly, we had a blast, and we already registered for next year’s race.

2017 Garden State SwimRun Recap

This past Saturday, my Cannondale Slice remained at home as I went to New Jersey and completed my first swim-run endurance event, the Garden State SwimRun.

All photos are from the Garden State SwimRun Facebook page.

I’ve taken a step back from racing triathlons this season and focused on rounding out my endurance portfolio: competing at swim meets, guiding for Achilles, and volunteering for the Challenged Athletes Foundation at the New York City Triathlon. The catalyst for this decision was my “A” race this year, SwimRunVA, a team-based outing where pairs are tethered together and alternate between—you guessed it—swimming and running. Even though being tethered was not an option this past weekend, the event still presented an opportunity to familiarize ourselves with this new-to-us world.

Most of our anxiousness surrounding swim-run derived from logistical uncertainty, especially since everything athletes use for swimming must be worn while running: what shoes (and socks?) could we wear without getting blisters; how would we carry our paddles and pull buoys on the run; when and how would we take nutrition? We both researched, but reading cannot replace doing; we went into this outing with open minds, good spirits, and a willingness to ask questions, make mistakes, and soak in the experience. After all, this was trial run (and swim … and run …) for our goal race.

We made the hour-long drive to Randolph, NJ and were the second people to arrive at the race. With more than an hour before the start, there was plenty of time to study the course map, pick the brains of race organizers and more experienced athletes, and attempt to develop a plan for transition from one sport to another.

#TwoStevens coming through!

As stated above, during a swim-run event, competitors are allowed to use paddles and pull buoys (which is not the case for triathlon), but all gear must be carried or worn during each segment. This means, yes, you swim while wearing your running shoes, and as my teammate and I discovered, you run while wearing your paddles. One of the race organizers (who generously loaned me her pull buoy) advised rotating our paddles during the run segments: simply moving these plastic fins from under our palms to sitting on top of our hands led to a more “natural” arm carriage during the run portions. The seasoned swim-runners rigged their pull buoys to be attached to their hips with elastic strings. Like the paddles, this foam floatation device was simply swiveled from between the legs to the hip depending on the current segment. We plan to do the same for October, but during this race, we simply stuffed the buoy in the back of our tri tops.

The race began with a 0.25-mile run that took us around a baseball field. I had flashbacks to my softball days!

Garden State SwimRun saw about 100 competitors and offered two distances: the sport distance (5.45 miles total) and elite distance (10.9 miles total) with the sport option consisting of one loop and the elite course spanning two. Since my teammate and I will tackle three miles of swimming and 15 miles of running in October, we opted for the longer distance that featured 16 transitions. Our plan was to dial in to a sustainable, endurance effort.  As our first race of this kind, we were realistic and conservative.  Although similar to triathlon, swim-run is its own multi-sport world; just as we train consistently for swim-bike-run events, others log serious hours swimming and running.  Overall, we approached this outing with respect–for the course itself, for the total distance, and for our fellow athletes.

Focusing … on not falling.

And we had an absolute blast! There were tons of volunteers stationed on the swim course and by transitions, plus there were some manning water stations on the run legs. Going into this race, both my partner and I put a lot of thought into transitions and logistics, but once we started the event, our bodies took over; there was no thinking—especially on the trails—and we simply reacted. As a stronger swimmer, I used my time in the water to recover, stretching out my strokes and settling in to a bilateral breathing pattern. (When I race, I breathe every stroke.) The trails were more demanding, especially since my experience running off-road is extremely limited.  Luckily, my teammate led the way, so I followed his line and tried not to trip.  We chatted a bit during the run segments, but the longest and most technical leg (2.58 miles) felt like an active meditation:  I focused on the step that was immediately in front of me and couldn’t let my mind wander. The few times I almost zoned out, I almost wiped out! (Note: I did not fall once!) We balanced each other out too: my strength lies in the swim, so I led; once we arrived to the run sections, I followed my partner’s line. We finished in 3:17:59 almost squarely in the middle of the pack.

Watch out, SwimRun VA–Team #TwoStevens is coming for you!

2017 Coney Island Aquathlon Recap

On Saturday, July 15th, I completed my first swim-run event, the Coney Island Aquathlon.  As its name suggests, the race took place in Coney Island, and it ended up being my first trip to the Brooklyn neighborhood that’s famous for its boardwalk, amusement park rides, and carnival foods. More importantly, this competition served as an introduction to the swim-run world; my “A” race this year is SwimRun VA in October.

All calm at the swim start

The event offered several distance options with solely open-water swims (0.5 mi., one mile and two miles) and swim-run categories (0.5-mi swim and three mile run; one-mile swim and three mile run; two-mile swim and six-mile run) offered. Three of my Bearcat masters buds registered for the race, and we all opted for the “long course” two-mile swim and six-mile run. Although there were difference between this race and what I will be doing this fall, the main similarly I wanted to experience was the transition from swimming to running: how my legs would feel, what my heart rate would do, and how easily would I settle in to my desired pace.

My race plan was simple: warm up the first mile of the swim; build the effort through mile two; and keep my heart rate under control during the run. From the “Trial By Fire” races I completed with my old triathlon team—where we alternated between swimming and running—I knew this third goal would be the toughest. Without fail, my heart rate would skyrocket as I exited the water and started to run so I expected the same experience.

Overall, the swim progressed smoothly. Well, the water was choppy—I felt like I was in a washing machine—but there wasn’t a lot of jockeying for position or contact with other swimmers. Competitors were released based on which distance they were doing, and even though there were only about 40 people doing the longer race, I swam solo for the majority of the time. There were a few opportunities to draft, but I got impatient swimming in the pack. In hindsight, I should’ve been more assertive in terms of joining a group off the bat, but since I had never raced two miles in the open water, I wanted to be conservative. For what it’s worth the top two women did the swim in 55 minutes, and my split clocked 1:01. (The woman who placed third completed the swim in one hour.)

In an effort to keep my heart rate under control, I took my time as I transitioned from one sport to the next: jogging to the transition area, peeling off my wetsuit, slipping on my running shoes, and ultimately heading out onto the boardwalk.

Locked in and finishing strong

I settled into my pace fairly easily, but I immediately had issues with my breathing. During a triathlon, it takes me about a mile to feel “good,” but my lungs were still burning when I hit the 2.5-mile mark so I backed off the pace. I told myself I’d increase the effort once my heart rate was OK, but that didn’t happen until mile five. (When my coach and I talked about this challenge after the race, we were able to identify a few ways to key my heart rate in check.) On the bright side, the weather was perfect. The sun came out around the mile five, but I finished the race strong and sans sunburn.

Where is everybody? Ha!

I also won my age group (full disclosure: I was the only girl in my age group, ha!) and placed fourth overall among women. My Bearcat buds crushed it—one guy won the race overall, and the other two took first and second in their age groups—and I had a blast seeing them out on the run course. It was a great day of doing sports with friends, and I’m excited to apply the lessons I learned to my swim-run training and beyond.

When’s your next race?

Guiding for Achilles at the 2nd Annual Queens Marathon

On Sunday, March 26th, my Achilles buddy and I negotiated turns, avoided potholes, and dodged puddles en route to running 26.2 miles (26.8 according to my Garmin) at the NYCRUNS Queens Marathon.

Pre-race with the Achilles Queens group

Held in Corona Park and co-sponsored by the Queens Distance Runners, this event offered both a full marathon and 20-mile tune-up option and welcomed about 300 athletes.  The Achilles cohort had five athletes participating and 18 guides who ran anywhere from one to all four loops of the course.

If you’ve been reading for a while, then you may recall my renewed perspective on the 2017 triathlon season, and one of my guiding principles: service.  I want to give back to the community that has given me so much.  My experience volunteering as a handler with the Challenged Athletes Foundation during the NYC Triathlon in 2016 rejuvenated my outlook on sport, and functioning in this type of capacity is something I plan to do on a regular basis.  Several of my triathlon friends are involved with Achilles—a nonprofit that aims to enable people with disabilities to participate in mainstream running events—so getting involved was easy.  Achilles NYC hosts two workouts each week (the group meets Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings in Central Park), and I started attending sessions in December and gaining experience as a guide.  There is a rough guiding framework, but its execution varies from athlete to athlete.  I can only speak to my experience so this post will focus on what I do for the athlete I guide.

My Achilles buddy and I first ran together in December—he was the second person I guided, ever—and we hit it off immediately.  He’s an experienced runner and triathlete who’s tackled marathons and even completed Ironman Lake Placid, and we have a lot of mutual tri friends.  He is visually impaired and legally blind, so when we run together, we use either a tether or a race belt that we both hold.  By pulling the device, I can make adjustments to the direction he runs, and we also communicate a lot. (More on that in a bit.) Anyway, when he asked me to guide him for the Queens Marathon, I was honored and honestly shocked—I had yet to run a marathon myself!  He knew, though, and had no concerns or reservations so I said yes.

As the marathon approached, we ran together on a regular basis, usually doing six miles on Tuesday evenings and going longer on Saturday mornings.  Prior to race day, the farthest we ran together was 11 miles. (The weekend before the marathon, he did the NYC Half, which was his longest pre-26.2 outing.) For me, my coach said to think of this event as an ultra-marathon:  I would be running at a much slower pace and would be on my feet for much longer.  In addition to my normal tri training, we increased my run mileage, and I capped off at a 15-mile long run.  We knew from my training load my engine would be able to run (ha!) for close to five hours, and we also knew I would be OK muscularly.  Sure, there would be pain, but nothing debilitating.  The challenge for me, however, would be mental: being out there for a long time and staying present, focused, and engaged.

Out there: this is loop three or loop four.

At this point, I will disclose this is neither how I would’ve trained for “my marathon” nor how I would recommend training for a marathon in general.  I should also disclose there was a discrepancy in our training paces. (I did my solo long runs in the 8:40 min./mi. range, and when we ran together, we were in the 9:30 min./mi. ballpark; for the marathon, we were targeting 10:00 min./mi.) Finally, my buddy knew the training wasn’t there for a PR, so it was all about having fun and enjoying the experience.

That said, though, I didn’t know what my body would do after 15 miles. This outing would be one of the toughest things I had ever done. The buildup was far from perfect, but I put my body through some brutal workouts—power tests, race-simulation workouts, swim meets. (The 100 IM at Harvard was one of the most painful things I have ever done.) I knew there would be pain during the marathon, but I knew I could handle it.  I mentally prepared for dark patches, and to work through those times, my coach told me to remember:  “this is a gift you are giving someone else.”  Maybe it was naïve, but I knew that sentiment would carry me through the darkest of times.

There were no dark times.

Heading to the start line: almost marathon time!

As the race begun, I entered a space of intense focus.  My job was to get our team across the finish line.  Mile after mile passed, and I found myself in a state of flow.  No thinking; just doing.  Calm confidence. The looped nature of the course brought both positives and negatives. On the plus side, our Achilles team did not face new terrain after six miles, and there is something to be said for comfort in repetition—just not in terms of this course specifically.  There were tight turns, including some traffic circle-like patterns, and the road itself contained potholes and speed bumps.  Several times per loop, we had to go off-road onto the grass to avoid running through puddles.  These obstacles could’ve been disastrous, but luckily, my buddy and I communicate well:  I would announce turns, terrain changes, etc. at least 20 seconds in advance; I would audibly count down as we approached speed bumps (“Speed bump coming in three … two … one”); and I would give clear instructions on our general plan (like veering right, making a sharp left, stepping onto grass).  Basically, I was the primary guide/navigator/coach, so I was responsible for maintaining our formation, delegating jobs to our supporting guides, and making sure everyone was feeling OK throughout the race.  Our team had two guides per loop, and having that extra person was incredibly helpful.  In most cases, I had the second guide run slightly in front of us to create space and announce to fellow athletes that a blind runner was approaching.  The second guide was also tasked with running ahead to aid stations and getting hydration/nutrition needs sorted.

See the race belt? We used it as our tether during the race.

As we grinded through the later miles (my buddy hit the wall at mile 18), I found myself repeating sayings my coaches have told me over the years, and I had no reaction when we reached uncharted distances for me.  Everything after 15 miles was new, but there was no internal dialogue or narrative. Instead, it was all about making sure my athlete was doing OK:  asking if he needed nutrition, inquiring about how the pace felt, listening to his breathing pattern.  The only time the miles got “personal” was when we hit mile 25 because that was my number for basketball, a fun fact I relayed to our team.

We did it!

We crossed the finish line in 4:45:45, and the experience seems surreal.

What was the most memorable moment during your first marathon or most recent race?

2017 New England LMSC Short Course Yards Championship Recap

From Friday, March 17 through Sunday, March 19, my Bearcat masters teammates and I traveled to Boston for the New England LMSC Short Course Yards Championship.

Hello. It’s me.

A staple event for my team, this competition was my first multi-day and short-course yards meet. (My first two meets were measured in meters.) Suffice to say, it was a weekend of learning, absorbing, and growing as an endurance athlete, and I had a blast butterflying, backstroking, breaststroking, and freestyling.

Even though I took swimming lessons as a kid, I cannot compare myself to folks who logged laps through high school and college.  The competitive swimming learning curve is steep.  Yes, I had goals for the meet, but they centered on execution as opposed to performance-based, numerical values.  As I’ve learned with triathlon—and to paraphrase legendary basketball coach John Wooden—when I focus on doing the little things right, that makes the big things happen.

I went to Harvard … for a weekend for a swim meet. (Don’t worry, Mom: the tattoo is temporary.)

Speaking of John Wooden, I had flashbacks to my basketball days as we rode the bus from New York City to Boston on Thursday night: heading to another city for a weekend of competing, cheering, and hanging out.  During the 4.5-hour drive, my teammates talked me through the structure of the meet and gave me tips for warming up, cooling down, and staying composed during the eight-plus hours we’d be spending at the pool each day.  We also talked a lot about eating and team dinners, and it became apparent food was a top priority for swimmers.  Full disclosure:  I quickly hopped aboard the all-you-can-eat bandwagon and had two breakfasts every morning.  I even went to an amazingly delicious diner after finishing my final event.

So metabolically inefficient, so not caring. Thanks to The Breakfast Club for making this spread possible.

To be fair, swimming five events (50 free, 100 free, 200 free, 500 free, and 100 IM) over the course of three days revved my appetite.  I spent the most time in the water on Saturday, swimming the 500 free, 50 free, and 100 IM.  On Friday, I swam the 100 free and 200 free relay.  On Sunday, I did the 200 free. Heading into the weekend, this line-up seemed doable.  After all, I was “racing” 1000 yards over three days, and we typically swim 3000m each day during practice.  But when you calculate warm-ups (800 yards or so each morning) and cool downs (100-300 yards after each event), it was a lot of swimming:  high intensity swimming, slicing through the water swimming, searing pain swimming that made my muscles scream.  But that’s when the race starts, and that’s what makes it fun:  when your body begs you to relent, slow down, or stop all together, what do you do?

Just do it

As the weekend progressed, I became increasingly comfortable and confident reading the heat sheets and remembering my lane assignment, developing a warm-up and cool down routine, and managing my nerves and excitement.  This was a big meet, and the events progressed quickly:  the competition pool contained eight lanes, and each event saw as few as 8 or as many as 20 heats. (For example: the women’s 400 IM wasn’t a popular event; the men’s 50 free, however, was the polar opposite.) There were two adjoining, but separate pools, which were designated as warm-up and cool down areas.  Sometimes, I had a lane to myself; others, I was circle-swimming with six people.  I liked how there was a specific time each day to practice starts off the blocks.  I need a lot of practice with dives.  One of my teammates helped me adjust the blocks and gave me some pointers, and I could feel myself progressing throughout the weekend.  I enter the water with a little more pop and authority these days, although I still have plenty of room for improvement.

#WannabeSwimmer?

I had the most fun swimming the 200 freestyle relay on Friday afternoon, and I confirmed my partiality toward the longer distances of the 200 and 500 yards.  One of the coaches said people either love or hate the 200, and it’s an event that plays to my strengths as an endurance athlete—it demands speed, endurance, and the ability to hurt.  These characteristics matter for the 50 and 100 too, but elements like getting off the blocks (I may be the slowest swimmer off the blocks) and breathing patterns (apparently, you aren’t supposed to breathe every stroke during a 50 because it slows you down) matter more, and I simply have not developed those skills yet.  Again, those little things—starts, turns, breathing patterns—make the big things happen, and those little things mean more during shorter events.  If I’m the last one off the blocks during a 50, I can’t make that up.  Plus, I like the pacing strategy behind the 200 and 500.  The 200 was my final event of the meet, and it was the one I executed the most precisely: redline off the blocks for 50, settle in to 87 percent for the second 50, and then build through 100 by 25s.  I had a similar strategy for the 500: use the adrenaline off the blocks, settle in, and then increase the effort at the 300-yard mark.  Overall, my triathlon background translates better to those longer distances, so going forward, that’s what I’ll be focused on.

A complete race recap needs results so here are mine:

Friday
100 free – 1:05.68 (seed – 1:06); 10th AG

Saturday

500 free – 6:32.29 (seed – 8:00); 11th AG

100 IM – 1:24.40 (seed – 1:30); 21st AG

50 free – 30.90 (seed – 32.00); 10th AG

Sunday

200 free – 2:25.28 (seed – 2:48); 8th AG

When is your next race?

2016 Metropolitan Short-Course Championships Recap

This wannabe swimmer once again reported for duty: two weekends ago, I competed at my second meet, the Metropolitan Short-Course Meters Championships. Held at Asphalt Green (AG) on the Upper East Side, the meet sounds intimidating, but with about 100 swimmers—25 of whom were Bearcat teammates—it was an ideal size for a “Sunday night practice.” That’s how I viewed it anyway, especially since my team didn’t taper. Rested or not, my goals remained the same: gain more racing experience by soaking in the details, getting some quality starts off the blocks, and posting good-for-me times. Overall, it was a fun and successful evening in the water: I learned a lot and set new PRs across my events.

Waaaah! Still can’t believe that’s me.

After surviving my first meet in October, I outlined areas of success and identified opportunities for growth. First, I realized it may be a good idea to be more discerning about which events I swim. It turns out most folks opt for one, two, or maybe three events, but not four like I did. This time around, however, I still registered for four events—50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 100m IM, and 200m IM—but I at least looked at the schedule of events and determined I’d have “enough” time between each. (At my first meet, there were a handful of quick turnarounds.) I’m definitely still figuring out what constitutes “enough” time though: my closest swims were about 15 minutes apart, which seemed fine; however, one of my teammates was stressed because it wasn’t enough. Bottom line, when I swim targeted meets—like Harvard in March—I will do only one or maybe two events per day. This outing was all about gaining experience, so if I was a little flat for my later events, then so be it.

Second, I did a better job warming up and cooling down overall. Before the meet began, I swam at least 1000m with some drill and tech work, and I also dove off the blocks four or five times. Figuring out my nutrition plan was also important, but it actually didn’t play as big of a role as I anticipated. I ate carbs all day—cinnamon raisin bagel for breakfast, sweet potatoes with kale and black beans for lunch, and a bowl of oatmeal with a banana around 3:30 p.m.—and felt fueled for the 5 p.m. start time. During the meet itself, I drank my electrolyte mix to thirst and felt fine (read: not hungry like last time).

The essentials, but I did not eat the bananas.

Aside from swimming faster than last time, my primary goal was to become better at controlling my adrenaline and navigating my emotions. This world of competitive swimming is so new, but I felt much more calm, composed, and confident. I knew how to read the heat sheets. I’m in the process of developing a warm-up and warm-down routine, plus an “at the blocks” ritual. I had an idea of how painful each event would be. Thanks to my super small amount of experience, the atmosphere was less foreign—still nerve-wrecking, but comfortably uncomfortable.

I’ve recently started a meditation process—that’s another post entirely—and one principle that has resonated with me is the willingness to allow our thoughts, feelings, and emotions to come and go. Rather than fight them, let them flow. So as I waited for my individual events, I let myself feel the excitement, the nervousness, the anxiousness, the happiness. As I stepped onto the blocks, I quieted my mind and visualized my race: I saw myself diving cleanly into the water (with my goggles staying on) and executing perfect stroke after perfect stroke. I imagined how each flip-turn would feel—catapulting off the wall and dolphin kicking for momentum—and where the lactic acid burn would surface first. As I adjusted my goggles—fiddling with the lenses and ensuring they suctioned to just the right spot—the world vanished.

It was just me and the water.

Results:

50m free – 33.80 (seed 34.32)

1st place AG

100m free – 1:11.73 (seed 1:14.89)

2nd place AG

100 IM – around 1:33 (seed 1:37)

3rd place AG

200 IM – 3:24.72 (seed 3:40)

2nd place AG

When’s your next race?

My First Swim Meet: 10th Bearcat Masters Invitational

A few Saturdays ago, I reached a turning point in my life as a #WannabeSwimmer:  I dove headfirst (six times to be exact) into a wet world of intense adrenaline and searing pain at my first-ever swim meet.

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Time to fly! Er, do the butterfly.

Although I’ve been swimming with the NYC-based Bearcat masters for two years, I had yet to partake in a swimming competition. I really do identify as a wannabe swimmer—proficient in the pool thanks to taking swim lessons most summers as a kid, but not a “real swimmer” because I never did the sport competitively growing up (high school, rec meets, etc.).

So why am I all for the swim now? First, from my performance at races throughout the year and at Nationals, we confirmed: I’m a strong swimmer locally, usually exiting the water in the lead group; but, I’m extremely average for the outing we ultimately want to put together, logging a very solidly middle-of-the-pack split in Omaha. In order to improve my 1,500m open-water times, I would have to swim more. Crazy concept, right?

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Chasing this feeling of being first out of the water. Is this what Andy Potts feels like all the time?

Second, I avoided the pool after the 2015 season for about three months because there was no concrete reason for me to be there. (And I take full responsibility for what happened—well, more accurately didn’t—during the off-season, and it honestly took several months to re-familiarize myself with the water.) I know myself: if I sign up for a race, then I am in 150 percent.

Finally, this triathlon off-season centers on building my portfolio as an endurance athlete and exposing myself to as many different experiences as possible.  Basically, we’re building the foundation for long-course racing by taking on new challenges—and training for a swim meet was perfect.

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It became officially official when I received my Bearcat masters swim cap.

Once this was decided, the next task was to figure out which events I’d swim at the 10th Bearcat Masters Invitational. The distances themselves would not be challenging; after all, swimming just 50m or 100m or 200m at a time would be doable since I swim 1500m during tris. Rather, the details intimidated me—those specific to the physical act of swimming in a competition and those regarding the logistics of the meet itself: could I dive off the blocks without losing my goggles?  How many times should I dolphin kick underwater off flip-turns?  Should I touch the wall with one hand or two when finishing an event?  Also, how do I decipher the heat sheets and figure out when I was swimming each event?  I had never even attended a meet in-person, and luckily, my coaches and teammates helped me navigate everything.  Bottom line, simply attending the meet would be a new experience.

During our season review/off-season planning meeting, Earl and I identified which events to target: all the freestyle (50m, 100m, and 200m) was a no brainer, and we also decided an individual medley (IM) would provide a challenge because it demanded all four strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle). This also ensured I’d work on each during practice (a.k.a. not revert to freestyle). Although Earl was gunning for the 200 IM, the 100 IM seemed more “comfortably uncomfortable” to me, mostly because it called for only 25m of butterfly. (The joke was on me, though, because my masters coach put me on a 200m medley relay, and I had to swim 50m of butterfly!) In addition to these four individual events, I also indicated I was “available” for relays and was placed on the aforementioned 200m medley and 200m freestyle for a total of six events. At my first meet. Go big or go home!

With my race plan solidified, I discovered a greater sense of purpose, dedication, and connection to swimming. No longer was I just swimming to swim; I was logging laps with care, conviction, precision, constantly concentrating on technique, engaging the proper muscles, and aiming for efficient stroke after efficient stroke. By becoming more invested in the process, I grew to love it, and I found myself willing to embrace challenges. For example, after doing four, 100 IM repeats, it was tempting to revert to freestyle for the fifth.  But my goal—surviving this upcoming competition—held me accountable; I needed to make the next repeat happen.  Yes, it would be uncomfortable.  Yes, it would cause some self-doubt.  And yes, it would not be easy.  But that’s what this sport and life is all about—persevering through the challenge in front of you and doing whatever it takes to come out the other side.

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Hello. It’s me.

The masters coaches warned me the meet would be more mentally and emotionally taxing than I anticipated, and I aimed to act like a sponge throughout the afternoon: soaking up everything about the experience, learning as much as possible, and hopefully not belly-flopping off the blocks, losing my goggles, or finishing last. I arrived at the pool around 2 p.m. for the 3 p.m. start and immediately exclaimed, “I’m feeling a lot of feelings!” when one of the coaches asked how I was doing. That statement basically summarizes the entire day: I got swept up in the adrenaline, the happiness, the pain, the uncertainty, and I loved it.

My nerves slowly subsided as the day progressed, but my heart was in my throat for my first few events.  I thought it would explode during the 200m medley relay, my first event ever at a meet. Not only did I not want to let my team down by doing something stupid (there are a ton of rules for relays), but I also had to swim 50m of butterfly.  Yikes.

My senses heightened as I carefully stepped onto the blocks.  My heart pounded, my teammates’ cheers reverberated around the pool.  Amidst this sensory overload, I quieted my mind for a few moments.  As I looked out onto the water, I couldn’t believe how I far I’ve come as an endurance athlete. When I started triathlon, I couldn’t even flip-turn, let alone swim 100m continuously in a pool. That’s the thing about this journey: there are no wrong turns, only paths we didn’t know we were supposed to take.

Heart racing and adrenaline surging, I reminded myself this uncomfortabilty was good:  it was this feeling—raw, intense, and daunting—that hooked me on triathlon, and inherently, I knew I was on the precipice of something good here.  This is where the magic happens.

My goggles stayed suctioned to my eyes as I hit the water cleanly.  Muscle memory took over:  I dolphin kicked, I broke the surface, and I swam with urgency, riding the excitement to the opposite side of the pool.  I am doing it.  I am doing the butterfly.  I am a swimmer!  Then the pain set in—as did my experience as an endurance athlete. I knew I could hurt.  I knew I was supposed to hurt.  I knew I could hurt more and longer.  I knew I could hurt for 25m.

That’s how my six swims went:  hopping aboard the pain train and refusing to relent even when my lungs were searing, when my legs were screaming, and when my arms were ready to fall off.  My body was trained, and my mind recognized this pain and knew it could be endured.

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Rocking a pink cap and catching a quick breather between sets.

Looking back, I’d describe my 2016 triathlon racing season as a culmination of repetitiveness. I’ve been doing the same Olympic-distance races for the past few years, and although it was my first season working with a coach, there was a sense of routine: we did the same workouts in an effort to best prepare me for the same “A” race I’ve targeted for the past three years. However, my experience training for and racing a swim meet rejuvenated my outlook on the sport. It was new, fresh, and so much fun, and these factors will be the driving force behind the rest of my 2016 off-season and beyond.

I guess I should include results:

50m free – 34.32

First in my age group!

100m free – 1:14.89

200m free – 3:09.97

Inaccurate because I did not hit the timing mat hard enough coming into the wall, and the clock wasn’t stopped until I exited the pool. A few teammates said I was closer to 3:04 or 3:05.

100m IM – 1:37.84

16th Annual Cazenovia Triathlon Recap

My 2016 racing season officially ended a few weekends ago at the 16th Annual Cazenovia Triathlon, my favorite local yokel race. This was the first swim-bike-run event I did four years ago (wow!), and when possible, I love going home and doing it again.

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… and also relaxing at home

Although I had a satisfactory outing at Nationals, it always lights a fire inside me. Racing alongside stellar athletes is both humbling and motivating; and even though an August event is late in the season for me, I always want to race one more time afterward. Luckily, we were firing on all cylinders at work with the Olympics so I accrued a few comp days and used a handful to head home to the Syracuse area for a long weekend.

Since we eased off the gas post-Omaha—the “A” race was over, and work was nuts—I didn’t know what to expect from my legs. But because I had a tough swim and run at Nationals, I was primarily concerned with those two disciplines. (The bike would simply be what it would be, especially since I had not been on my tri bike post-Nationals.)

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I really need to get a Tailwind t-shirt so I can change after the race like everyone else.

Overall, it was a good day: the choppy swim and windy bike equated to tough conditions, but I felt good about the outing I pieced together—and any day you find yourself on the podium is a good day.

Swim – 800m – 15:26

It seems like the swim course changes every year, and this time around, the 300 or so athletes faced a “C”-shaped out-and-back route. Unlike Omaha, the swim was wetsuit-legal, and the water was choppy, which I liked because it separated the field. At 8:30 a.m., my wave of women 39 and under was released, and I immediately surged to the front of the pack. Since it was only a half-mile swim—I usually swim twice as far in an Olympic-distance race—I decided to kick as if I were at a masters swim practice, a.k.a. much more frequently. There were six buoys out to the turnaround point, and I hit my first group of dudes at buoy three. (Luckily, it wasn’t a Wall of Dudes.) Given the wind and chop, I was happy with the course I swam and how I paced it: I settled in after the first 200m or so, and then I started to push again after hitting the turn around buoy. One girl in my wave tapped my feet around the 500m mark, so I threw in a surge in an effort to get some separation. She tapped me again around 700m, and that’s when I really started to push. I really wanted to be first out of the water!

Transition 1 – 1:21

Mission accomplished!

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Thanks for the photo, Dad!

She was just a few seconds behind me, but I saw her sit down in transition so I knew I would be the first woman out of T1.

Bike – 14 miles – 45:11

As soon as I mounted my bike, my legs let me know they did more work than usual during the swim. It took a few miles for me to settle in, and during the process, one pocketfriend zipped by me. I let her go because I didn’t want to burn all my matches in the opening miles.

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Even though I know the course well, I always forget how hilly it is; it’s like Quassy in the sense that it punches you over and over again. (And you feel the effects more if you’re 5’10” as opposed to 5’.) So like Quassy, my plan was to “cover up” and be conservative on the hills and make my moves on the flat portions. There’s a monster hill about halfway through, and the woman who won the sprint race outright (she beat all the dudes and ran an 18-min. 5-K off the bike) zoomed by me. I was able to hammer the last few miles, though, and as I passed one dude, all he said was, “Wow.”

Transition 2 – 1:00

As I rolled in, I knew I was the third female overall, but that placing didn’t affect my race plan. I just wanted to run a solid 5-K—and hopefully not get passed.

Run – 5-K – 23:24

The theme of this race was definitely, “I forgot how hilly this course is!” and the run was no exception.

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The hill in the opening mile punched me hard, but I was able to rebound and settle into my target pace from there. The 3.1 miles passed by quickly—and I wanted to keep going?

Official finish – 1:26:46

Even though this was a slower day compared to last year, my coach would remind me to focus on the feeling and not become emotionally attached to the numbers. Like Nationals, I felt much more in control and comfortable with the effort I was putting forth. Better yet, I had tangible goals that centered on execution (i.e. kick more during the swim, be a “boxer” during the bike, etc.). Precise execution would lead to a good day, and that’s what happened.

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Aero is everything.

I’ve become better at this process throughout the season: remaining mentally sound during a race and executing precisely and confidently. I’ve matured a lot as an endurance athlete this season (season recap post to come), and I’m excited to build on this progress during the off-season.

2016 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships Recap

Last weekend, I took on my “A” race of the season, USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships.

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Unlike the past three years in which Olympic-distance race took place in Milwaukee, the event occurred in Omaha, Nebraska this time around. (Typically, the race site rotates every two years, but Milwaukee did a phenomenal job, which is one of the reasons they hosted for a third year.) It was impossible not to draw comparisons between the two cities and to say Omaha differed from Milwaukee would be a huge understatement. I don’t want to spent this entire post ranting about sub-par race logistics, but:

-It’s not ideal when hotels are located three miles from the race site, and there are only two school buses shuttling 2,000-plus folks back and forth between the properties, which took about 15-20 minutes without traffic. (Allegedly, four buses were running on race morning, but the bus dropped us off one mile from transition.  Again, not ideal.) Although three miles is not far, it was not a walkable route, and this was a race where a rental car would have been warranted I think.

-It’s not ideal when the bike pick-up location is situated half a mile from the race site. (It’s also not ideal when you’re a bonehead and leave your pedals in your hotel room, thus forcing yourself to walk back to the shuttle drop-off site, take the bus back to your hotel, etc.  The pedal incident was totally my own fault, but this process that would’ve taken all of 30 minutes in Milwaukee—walking back to the hotel, grabbing the pedals, heading back to the race site—ended up taking two-plus hours in Omaha.)

-It’s not ideal when the race starts 30 minutes late. (For me, this meant my F 25-29 wave didn’t jump into Carter Lake until it was nearly 10 a.m.) However, I did get to hang out with Victoria for three hours …

-It’s not ideal when there are no mile markers on the run.  It’s also not ideal when there is no ice left on the run, and the temperature is closing in on 90 degrees. (Full disclosure: I had ice on the run.  A few of my friends did not.)

It’s all about perspective: Omaha has a lot of room for improvement for next year’s event.

Anyway.

Before the race, Earl and I met to review the plan, and we knew it was not going to be a fast day:  non-wetsuit swim, plus long runs in transitions 1 and 2 and a hot, exposed (read: unshaded) run. Due to these factors—and the fact that it was a new race—we did not establish time goals.  Rather, he gave me mental cues for each leg of the race that centered on execution; these reminders helped keep me in the moment, and I knew if I executed, then I would put myself in a position to have a great day.  And even though it was not a PR outing, I was satisfied with how it went overall.

Swim – 27:32 (54/119)

Mental cue: draw a straight line down the bottom of the lake (in an effort to help me pull and finish my stroke)

With water temperatures clocking in at 80-plus degrees weeks before the race, I did not bring my wetsuit to Omaha, but I did invest in a swimskin. It gave me a little buoyancy, but as its name implies, it’s much thinner than a neoprene wetsuit.  I was really glad I had it for this 1500m outing though.

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Although the water was murky—I couldn’t see my hands while I was swimming—it was a fairly easy course to navigate.  After the second turn buoy, though, it felt like there was a current.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense for a lake swim, but during the second half, I struggled to stay on course.  I felt smooth and strong, but it also felt like I was out there for a while.  But again, given the no-wetsuit aspect, I knew it would be a slower swim. (I’m usually two-three minutes faster.)

Transition 1 – 2:20 (64/119)

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The run from the swim exit to transition to the bike mount area was on the long side—probably around a quarter of a mile.

Bike – 1:14:47 (36/119)

Mental cue: smooth, strong, controlled

It’s time to talk watts.  I rode the route twice on the CompuTrainer beforehand, and the course knowledge helped tremendously: I knew where the two hills and the handful of gradual climbs were located.

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It was heating up when I got on the bike—upwards of 80 degrees Fahrenheit—but I felt good and moved through the field quickly.  This was a big-time hammerfest!

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There were a few turns, though, which took away from hammering, and I also got caught up in a game of leapfrog in the opening miles.  In hindsight, this would’ve been a great place to lay down a surge, get into open space, and continue to ride my own race. I definitely lost some time getting sucked into that game.  At the turnaround, I started to push more and took advantage of the tailwind on the way back to transition.

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Cornfields. Everywhere.

Transition 2 – (56/119)

Again, there was a longer run from the bike dismount line to my personal transition area, and then a long run to the run exit.

Run – 54:38 (59/119)

Mental cue: let the “belt buckle” pull you through (forward lean, engaged abs, and not running upright like a basketball player)

With temperatures nearing 85 degrees Fahrenheit and not a cloud in the sky, I mentally prepared to settle in and grind out this hot run.

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The out-and-back course took competitors on a highway and to the TD Ameritrade Stadium, and although it was flat, it was also completely exposed, a.k.a. no shade.

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Grinding it out on the warning track. Do I look like a basketball player? (Rhetorical question)

There were also no mile markers, which would’ve been preferable.

I positive split the run big time, but the huge personal victory was my mental game:  there were no breakdowns, no slip-up, and no wheels coming off.  Of course, there were a few mini-battles I had to work though, but I was able to overcome the negativity before it led to anything really detrimental. This was absolutely huge because the run is where things tend to go south real fast.  So even though this split is not indicative of my fitness, I am pleased with how I hung in there mentally.

Sidebar: I’ve never seen so much walking at an Olympic-distance race, including Quassy. It was total carnage out there. Around mile four, one girl in my age group was passed out on the side of the road and receiving oxygen from medics. That was scary.

Finish – 2:41:19 (44/119)

When I crossed the finish line, I knew it was nowhere near a PR, but I was satisfied:  I executed across the disciplines, and I remained mentally tough.  Earl always reminds me to “focus on the feeling and don’t become emotionally attached to the numbers,” and although I want the numbers to improve, I felt strong and confident in my ability out there.  In fact, this is the first race I’ve done in my four years triathloning in which I was totally, completely mentally in it—and that makes me excited for the future.  It’s a process, and we’re getting to where we need to be while enjoying the journey.