Category Archives: Races

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?

My 2016 Running and Triathloning Recap

As the final day of 2016 get crossed off in our planner (just me?), it’s time to recap the year in multisport.

Tailwind family photo at Rev3 Quassy; finishing the run at HITS Hudson Valley; hammering at Nationals in Omaha.

I’ve done this survey a few times, and I enjoy looking back on progress and highlights.

Best race experience

Comparing a triathlon to a swim meet is like setting an apple and an orange side by side: both are sweet, but you probably favor one over the other. (I’ll go for the apple every time.) I had a blast this year diversifying my race portfolio—triathlons, relay races, and swim meets—and while each event posed a unique set of challenges, I found joy through competing in everything.

NYC in Geneva, NY

Even with the apple and the orange comparison, one race experience was the sweetest:  the Seneca7. The present collided with the past when my NYC runner friends traveled to my college stomping grounds for a 77.7-mile relay around Seneca Lake, and we had the best time. The race itself was extremely well organized, the volunteers were friendly; race directors Jeff and Jackie and their entire team simply produce top-notch events. It should come as no surprise that we’re going back to Geneva in 2017.

Best swim

Because I avoided the pool after the 2015 season, swimming and I got off to a slow start in 2016; it took a few months to rediscover my connection with the water. Therefore, it makes sense that my best outing was at the end of the season at the Cazenovia Triathlon in August. In the sprint-distance race, I was the first female out of the water, and the distinction felt even sweeter because I actually raced a girl in the closing 200m.

Bolting to T1

I also did two swim meets in 2016, and while the individual medley (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle) is challenging me big time, I now find even more comfort in the freestyle. Er, comfort with being uncomfortable. I swam a solid 200m free during October’s Bearcat Invitational. It wasn’t fast enough for an AG top three, but I was happy with how I executed: starting strong, building the effort throughout, and nearly eking out a heat win. Training for and competing at swim meets has been a refreshing change, and I’m pumped to continue diving off the blocks in 2017.

Best bike

Thanks to my lack of health insurance from February through May, I didn’t ride my bike outdoors until June. Aside from a leisurely morning spin, my first true outing of the year was at a race: Rev3 Quassy. That showing rattled me, and it took time to become friends with my bike again. Things improved as the season progressed, and I nailed workouts indoors and felt strong outside, but that elusive, perfectly executed ride never happened during a race.

Combating the bonk with some sugar

However, when I think of biking in 2016, I remember those brutally beautiful outings in Lake Placid during WorkLiveTri Camp.

Best run

The run will always be a work in progress, and it reached a turning point toward the end of the season. (Noticing a theme?) I had a good showing on the trails at July’s HITS Hudson Valley, and although my split at Nationals was not what I trained for, I ran a mentally sound 10-K in hot and humid conditions.

Locked in

That combination would’ve led to a meltdown—definitely figuratively, potentially literally a la NYC Triathlon—for the “old” me, but it did not happen in Omaha. I did not hit the wall or go into a dark place. Heck, I was passing people! The split will take care of itself, but this process of maturing mentally makes me excited for 2017 and beyond.

Best piece of new gear

Aside from a swimskin for Nationals, I didn’t make any exciting new gear purchases this year—just the normal goggles, running shoes, etc.

Best piece of running/triathloning advice you received

Trust the process. This is one of my coach’s fundamental philosophies, and my mindset has slowly shifted over the past year. With prior training groups, the immediate results—going faster now, getting on podiums now—were paramount but now, I’ve found joy in journey: what can I do today to become a better version of myself—tomorrow, three years from now, five years from now, etc.?

 If you could sum up your year in a couple of words, what would they be?

“Foundational” and groundbreaking

What are some of your highlights from 2016?

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 Adventures as an Ultra Sherpa: Canyon De Chelly 55-K

About one month ago in mid-October, I expanded my Sherpa portfolio to the ultra distance when I traveled to Arizona for the Canyon De Chelly Ultra (pronounced ‘shay’) 55-K, a 34-mile trail run that takes place entirely on Navajo land.

2016-canyon-de-chelly-ultra-start

About 150 runners out chasing the sunrise

If you’ve been reading a while, then you know I usually Sherpa once per race season when friends take on long-course events.  After all, these folks push me during workouts, so the least I can do is lend my support when possible. Case in point: when a training bud needed people power for the Challenged Athletes Foundation during July’s New York City Triathlon, it was a no-brainer that I’d volunteer as a handler. That weekend resulted in one of my most intense and rewarding experiences to date, and I had similar expectations for the Arizona outing.  It was my friend’s second time doing this ultra, so she prepped me before the race: running and the Navajo culture are deeply intertwined, and hearing how the physical act of running intersects with so many aspects of their day-to-day life fascinated me—and I was excited to see it come together.

2016-canyon-de-chelly-tseyi-overlook

Tsegi Overlook

Once in Arizona at pre-race briefing, it became clear this event would be a unique experience. The 150 runners gathered around the outdoor amphitheater’s stadium-style seats as Shaun the race director detailed the history of the race and discussed how running plays a critical role in Navajo culture: they run to celebrate, they run to pray, and they run to learn. Other prominent folks in the community spoke, including Shaun’s father-in-law who played a few instruments and sang a few songs in Navajo.  All in all, the briefing lasted about two hours, and the atmosphere was basically the polar opposite of what I encounter at triathlons.  No one was obsessing about getting in a last-minute swim or fixing their Di2 shifting. Rather, people appeared calm and relaxed. My friends who dabble in ultras and tris say this is normal; the ultra community as a whole is much more laid back.

2016-caynon-de-chelly-overlook

Hanging out in a canyon

This theme of unprecedentedness continued through Saturday with the pre-race blessing and fire ceremony. Around 5 a.m., Shaun’s father-in-law built a fire and tended to it throughout the day. The burning fire symbolized life out on the course, and it would only be extinguished once the final runner finished.  The blessing ceremony took place around 7 a.m. during which one male and female runner were selected to receive a blessing on behalf of all participants. Around 7:30 a.m., the runners set off on their journey.

2016-canyon-de-chelly-white-house

White House overlook. See the dirt path? Folks got to run on that.

My normal Sherpa duties include scouting the course and identifying areas where I can camp out and cheer for my friends, but this race had a wrinkle: only Nanajo are allowed in the canyon. Furthermore, if non-Navajo want to go in the canyon, they must enlist a Navajo guide. (Race director Shaun secured special permits so each runner was allowed in the canyon without a guide.) Throughout the day, I went to a handful of scenic overlooks to take photos and try to spot runners, and around 3 p.m. I headed to the finish area and hung out. There was a ton of food, including vegetable chickpea stew and Navajo fry bread. (No photos because I was too busy eating.)

2016-canyon-de-chelly-selfie

Selfie in a canyon

One of highlights was witnessing and hearing about the sense of community and camaraderie. Several people who crossed the finish line gave credit to fellow runners for helping them through.  There was an out-and-back climb on the course, and I was very impressed when multiple participants said one of the top-five finishers cheered for every single runner he saw during that stretch. Plus, since the majority of folks were out there for nearly an entire day, packs formed naturally, and there’s nothing like running with someone for a few hours to get to know them. I have no personal experience with long-course racing, but from what I’ve heard, it’s typical for these relationships to manifest at that distance.

2016-canyon-de-chelly-ultra-finish

Finishing strong

There’s something to be said for the sense of solidarity when everyone around you is going through what you are going through. It warmed my heart as an endurance athlete to see this connectivity.

How often do you volunteer at races?

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 HITS Hudson Valley Recap

Two weekends ago, I took on my second swim-bike-run event of the season, the HITS Hudson Valley Triathlon.  One of my training buds has a house in the area, so even though the race course changed from last year (which I didn’t realize until 11 p.m. the night before), I still escaped New York City with a few friends for a sportz-filled weekend.

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Hardware for everyone!

After a tough season opener at Quassy, I was excited to race again and execute across the disciplines. Between a high volume training weekend in Lake Placid and moving apartments, Earl and I decided the best course of action was to simply let the race happen: go out, see how my body felt, and make adjustments from there. Needless to say, I was carrying both physical and emotional fatigue into the race, so I was relieved the strategy didn’t center on splits and paces.

On Friday, I left the city around 3 p.m., drove “upstate,” and picked up one of my friends from the Rhinecliff train station before we headed to dinner in Woodstock. It was at dinner I learned the race was completely different, which made it easier to let go of expectations; Saturday would be all about having fun and enjoying swimming, biking, and running with friends.

This mentality was perfect because pre-race logistics on Saturday were not smooth: Google Maps led us astray, and we were almost late to the race; one guy who was doing the half forget his water bottles; and another guy forget his goggles—and forgot to register for the race all together. (Luckily, there was race-day registration.) Race-morning craziness is not ideal, but in a strange way, it helped me relax, let go, and let the race happen.

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The race was an adventure, but I had a relatively good day out there.

Swim – 1500m – 26:27 (2/35)

The main characteristic that sets HITS apart from other triathlon race companies is the variety of distances offered: sprint, Olympic, half, and full. This spectrum meant all Olympic-distance athletes started later (8:20 a.m.), and it also meant we would merge with long-course folks during the two-loop course.

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Kind of confusing, but I swam around the four buoys to the far right twice.

It was a “mass start,” and even amongst the dudes, I positioned myself near the front and swam aggressively when we were released. There was a lot of action within the opening 200m, but everyone eventually found packs. And I found myself in no woman’s land:  slower than all the dudes (and the one female pro) who exited the water in 23 or 24 minutes, but faster than everyone else. I did draft off a dude for a few minutes during the second loop, but I eventually overtook him. Overall, I felt really smooth, but I’d like to be closer to 25 minutes at Nationals.

T1 – 1:51 (15/35)

Yeah … totally botched both transitions.  I couldn’t find my bike and obviously left a lot of time here. No excuses.

Bike – 40-K – 1:24:05 (3/35)
How would I describe this two-loop bike course? Punchy.

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There were a couple of kickers.

And it was fair. Because it was two loops, it gave everyone who was unfamiliar with the route one lap to take it all in—which was great because it was a rolling and technical course. My first loop was on the slower side: I rode the descents very conservatively and noted where I could tuck in and hammer the second time around. When I completed the first loop, a volunteer told me I was the first female, but I knew the female pro was far ahead, so I focused on riding my race. On one of the kickers, one woman zipped by me. I’m not used to that, and she was moving! (We talked after the race, and she’s local and rides the course often.) It also started to mist about three-quarters of the way through, but I’ll take 65*F and rain over heat and humidity any day. Anyway, it’s all about progress, and I felt much more composed and confident during this ride than Quassy. In short-course racing, course knowledge is a huge advantage, and unfortunately, that isn’t a luxury I’ve had this year—so I am OK with the split since we know it does not reflect my fitness.

T2 – 1:48 (15/35)

Again, not totally sure what I was doing here.

Run – 10-K – 51:30 (3/35)

This is a first:  the run was my favorite part of the race.  None of us read the course guide beforehand, so we were surprised to learn 90 percent of the course took place on trails, including a stretch that took racers through a cave. Did we sign up for an XTERRA race?!

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Again, per “letting the race happen,” I let go of expectations, embraced the conditions, and simply ran. I was surprised how comfortable and confident I felt navigating rocks and roots—maybe because of the trail running I did in Denver?—and I had a lot of fun out there. I chatted with other athletes and thanked the volunteers. And when it started down pouring, I refused to become frustrated. Everyone had to contend with these conditions, and the rain/trail run combo helped me enter a meditative headspace. It was not my fastest 10-K, but it was one of the most cathartic and enjoyable ones I’ve had in a while.

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Running like a basketball player

Official finishing time – 2:45:43 (3/35)

Overall, I feel good about this outing. In terms of performance, there was time left out there (i.e. what the heck was I doing in transition?), but this race reaffirmed that you can only control the controllables. There were points where a less athletically mature me would’ve become angry, but I was really pleased with how I accepted and adjusted without letting my emotions get the best of me. This was also the first race in a long time where I explicitly thanked the volunteers and cheered for other racers—and it totally made my experience better.

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Cheesin’

Less than one month until Nationals—time to get it locked in!

2016 Rev3 Quassy Recap

This past Saturday, I took on my first triathlon of the season, Rev3 Quassy. Held in Middlebury, CT and marketed as “the beast of the Northeast,” this event offers challenging Olympic- and 70.3-distance races. (The Olympic takes place on Saturday while the half-Iron occurs on Sunday.)

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Obligatory transition photo

So yes, although it was a race, my game plan for the day did not center on “racing” for a few reasons. As my season opener, this event gave me an opportunity to dust off the racing rust—and honestly, get out a few bonehead mistakes before my target race. Two, this race would be my first time truly riding my tri bike outside this season. And riding for the first time in a race environment was not ideal. Three, this race simply did not suit me; in fact, it is the worst race I could’ve done. Not to be dramatic, but basically, this was a perfect storm with the potential for plenty of things to go wrong.

From the beginning of the season when Earl and I were planning my calendar, he made it very clear Quassy would not be a “race” for me, but rather a tough training day. (And not having insurance and the ability to ride my bike outside further supported this outlook.) He developed the metaphor of a boxing match to illustrate our strategy: the hilly course would punch me hard and often. When this occurred, I was tasked with covering up, playing defense, and absorbing the blow. And then, when the opportunities presented themselves, I could punch back, go on the offensive, and make up some time. Overall, it would be an outing filled with strategic moves and countermoves. I would not be “racing” anyone else; it was me against the course.

And this time, the course totally won. Here’s how it went down.

Pre-race:

As I mentioned a few days ago, the week leading up to Quassy was not normal. Due to Memorial Day weekend, we were working on overdrive at the office, and my sister and I also spent Tuesday and Wednesday nights looking at apartments. This life stuff obviously took priority, which led to missed/abbreviated workouts and extra mental/emotion fatigue. And even though Earl and I addressed the bike situation, I was still worried about riding for the first time on a technical course. Honestly, as Friday approached, all I wanted to do was sleep. But once I met up with my Flat Feet guys, and we started talking about the race, my outlook started to change. This outing would not be an accurate reflection of my fitness. This outing would be a long and challenging grind. And by putting myself in an uncomfortable situation now, I would set myself up for success in the future.

Swim – 1,500m – 26:56 (9/28)

Due to an impenetrable fog on Lake Quassapaug, the swim start was delayed 30 minutes.

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Tailwind family photo

My thought process: ‘I hope they don’t cancel the swim! Wait, this also means I’ll be running 30 minutes later in the day, which means it will be hotter. Oh great.’

Luckily, the swim actually happened, and my wave of women 39 and under was aggressive. There was a lot more bumping, grabbing, and jockeying for position within the opening 400m than I anticipated. It was Nationals-level aggressive, but my basketball instincts kicked in. The field spread out quickly, though, and aside from that initial contact and sighting into the sun at the first turn buoy, everything went smoothly: I found my rhythm, drafted when possible, caught the Wall of Dudes who started five minutes beforehand—just another day in the open water.

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We started at the green point and ended at the red.

Even though I thought I swam a tight course, it felt like I was out there for a while, which was reflected in my slower-than-usual split. Everyone who Garmin’ed the swim had a distance between 1,650 and 1,800m, which could be due to swimming off course, but the consensus was the course was long.

Transition 1 – 1:56 (2/28)

Exiting the water is one of my favorite parts of the race, especially when your training buds and coaches line the chute. “Now your race can start!” yelled one of the Tailwind coaches.

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Fist pump

This was probably the only time I smiled during the race.

Bike – 25.7 miles – 1:34:47 (13/28)

Under normal circumstances, I love anything to do with watts—but not this time. First, the positives: in accordance with our boxing strategy, I executed relatively well. I “absorbed” the course’s punches on the climbs. I became reacquainted with my small ring and did most of my overtaking on the ascents. I rode in aero when I could. And I definitely stayed below 85 percent of my FTP per Earl’s instructions.

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Hilly, but fair:  I just could not capitalize on the downhills.

I made a few bonehead mistakes. My bike computer and power meter weren’t working properly so I rode the course “blind” and didn’t have access to total time, average power, etc. I lost a bottle within the first four miles, and luckily, I was riding with an extra. (For Olympic-distance races, I take in one bottle of nutrition, but knowing we were estimating a 1:30 bike split, I brought two bottles.) I taped my gel to the top tube of my bike, but couldn’t get it off. Basically, I made every “first race of the season” mistake possible so let’s hope I got everything out of my system.

My main shortcomings on the bike were my handling skills and simply riding with confidence. Although I paced myself on the climbs, I didn’t feel comfortable descending and truly making up that lost time. So many people passed me on the downhills. So, so many. There were a lot of technical turns too, and since I didn’t ride the course ahead of time—like a lot of my friends did—I lacked the knowledge to know when I could relax into aero and when I needed to move onto the hoods. Although I had prepared for a long ride, I did not think about what it would feel like to be riding timidly for 90 minutes and how that would affect me mentally. When you can’t execute your ace-in-the-hole discipline—and not only fail to execute, but also feel twitchy—it wears on you. Bottom line, I left a lot of time out there. And mentally, I should’ve left that experience out there too—but I carried it with me onto the run.

Transition 2 – 1:07 (7/28)

All I noticed were a lot of bikes back in their racks. That’s not a sight I’m used to.

Run – 10-K – 1:01:08 (18/28)

Grind, grind, grind. I don’t want to say the wheels came off on the run because they weren’t ever really on.

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Oh mile three …

The first two miles were downhill and flat, and there were some friendly faces out spectating, so it started off OK. Mile three was when the course had its initial “punch,” and the combination of the hill and the sun (remember we started 30 minutes later) caused my heart rate to skyrocket. Per our boxing strategy, I had to “cover up,” pump the brakes, and get my heart rate under control. Full disclosure: there was a lot of walking on the hills. In hindsight, I definitely did not need to walk as much as I did—or at all—but thanks to a mentally fatiguing bike, I could not access the headspace necessary for a strong run.

Official finish – 3:05:54 (14/28)

Yeah, three hours is a long time for me to be out there for an Olympic-distance triathlon. But after debriefing with Earl and my Flat Feet guys, here’s what I’m taking from this experience:

My swim put me in a great position to do some serious smashing on the bike. I was within two minutes of six girls ahead of me, and under normal circumstances, I can erase that deficit in the saddle.

That was the toughest and most mentally and physically challenging bike course I will face all year.

That was the toughest and most mentally and physically challenging run course I will face all year.

I left a lot of time out there. (I probably left 2-3 minutes on the swim, at least five minutes on the bike, and 8-10 on the run.) Not to be dramatic, but given the factors leading into Quassy and the race itself, this was the worst possible combination; yet even on this tough day that was not my day, I finished in the middle of the pack—which for most people is not bad, ha! Basically, if I’m able to put myself in a situation with several factors that are working against me, and I’m still able to put together an “average” outing, then hopefully this means I can totally smash a course that works in my favor. Onto the next!