Way back when Ironman first announced they had purchased Rev3 Williamsburg, I had this great idea that an early season race would be so much fun to do as a relay. Each of the relay legs could focus on what they do best, training over the spring would be more relaxed, and personally, I’d never had the chance to go as hard as possible during a race (except the Tune Up Tri and that was only because it was so short). I wanted to see what I could do for a longer distance race when I didn’t have to worry about the other 2 legs.
I got Roslynn on board for the bike and we slowly twisted Blair’s arm to be our run leg (pun intended). As Blair is fairly new to tri, not having an opportunity to get comfortable in the water took her out for the swim, and she wanted more time on the roads to get used to the cycling part. Blair has always been a strong athlete, but she has worked very hard on her run over the winter and spring, and man, has she gotten fast. And stronger. Roslynn also worked hard on her bike skills and although she was fast last year, this year she’s smoking the past version of herself. As for me, I decided to swim a lot this winter and spring, and I have stayed committed to that goal. I haven’t noticed myself getting a lot faster in the water, but in swimming, it seems like shaving :02/:03 seconds off your 100 time is a hard thing. My private goal was to do the 1.2 mile swim with an average 1:45/100 pace. I’d had those kinds of times in the past in certain open water conditions, but there is no reliability to OWS times as you never know what you’re going to get on the day of the race, especially when locations are different.
My point is, I had a goal. Roslynn had her own for the bike, and I’m sure Blair had one too, but we were all fairly quiet about it.
This was the first time I’ve signed up for a race where I wasn’t nervous as hell the entire time I trained for it. I was flat-out excited. I couldn’t wait to get in that disgusting muck of a river/creek and show that thing who was boss. I wanted to excel for my team. I knew we didn’t have a chance in hell of placing in an Ironman event, but I wanted to blow all my previous records away.
As it is with all Ironman events, there was mandatory packet pick up and bike check in on Saturday, with the race on Sunday. Saturday in Williamsburg turned out to be oddly hot as hell and humid too for added fun. I got seriously sunburned during the athlete briefing in a very unfortunate place. Still, we wandered around, enjoying seeing the rest of the team (Stefanie, Sarah, Angela, Alberto, and some random other people I knew doing the race). I was particularly excited about Sarah, since it was her first half, and for Blair, who was running her first half marathon, and would have the awesome experience of that Ironman red carpet into the finish line.
The swim portion of the race briefing didn’t concern me much. There was one part of the course that had us swimming between two buoys to keep us away from the shallow sides of the creek, but that was about it.
In horror movies, the director will often play scary music or use close shots of characters when they are foreshadowing something bad to come. In my personal IMVA horror movie, I vaguely heard – but didn’t worry about – the fact that no warm up swim would be allowed on race morning. In fact, there was no pre-swim or practice swim or swim of any kind at all happening there at the race site. I mentally shrugged my shoulders and thought, “Oh well. Not ideal, but it’s not like the water is that cold. I’ll be fine.” When I had done the Olympic version of the race, back when Rev3 still put it on, the swim was no big deal to me. In fact, I had one of my fastest swims ever – with or without a wetsuit. Because I’d done the swim before, I was even more blasé about it. I don’t remember if there was a warm up swim for that race, but I think there was one.
Ironman had made a change to the swim course, in that most of it was taking place in Gordon’s Creek before turning left into the Chickahominy. I’m not a huge fan of creeks to begin with, and I was a little bit scarred from Rev3 when trying to get out of the swim and sinking crotch deep into what can only be described as hot, sticky mucus (aka the bottom of the river.) I was hoping it would be better this time.
The race director moved on to talking about the bike. Roslynn did a good job of keeping her face composed, but the way he was describing the back 2/3 of the loop was no other word than gnarly. It was supposed to storm most of the day on Sunday. Wet road conditions + fast bikes + tiny tires + train tracks + torn up roads and hairpin turns = gnarly. I was relieved I wasn’t doing the bike leg, but I was having second-hand anxiety and PTSD for Roslynn. I knew at that point there would be no relaxing for me on race day until she was in off the bike safely.
The run course was about as straightforward as it had been with Rev3 – two loops including a gross bridge with no shade, and an out and back 6 mile loop. It meant doing the inclines of the bridge 4 times (and yes, that means you get to run down it 4 times too.) Blair was cool as a cucumber about all of it. We spent some money as is required on overpriced Mdot merchandise, picked up our cool IMVA 70.3 dry bags (great idea, Ironman Virginia!) and wandered around the village. Blair fell in love with the Normatech leg sleeves, but not the price, so we walked away after her session was over.
After the race briefing, we packed up and checked into the hotel, then decided we should drive the last 2/3 of the bike course so we could see if it was really as bad as the race director said. With Roslynn’s husband Bill behind the wheel, we took off for the intersection of Brick Bat Road and Route 5, then headed north on Brick Bat for about 15 miles.
The hills described seemed doable – Roslynn is strong as hell on the hills anyway, and we had so many hours and miles on hills last year for IMCHOO training that we all felt confident we knew how to gear for the big ones. Also, it was very easy being confident since I didn’t have to actually ride them myself!
The dicey section the RD had described was definitely . . . dicey. The road was in bad shape, the turns were sharp, the road was littered with debris from previous storms and because it was so shaded, nothing really dries down there . . . etc etc. There were two sections designated as no passing zones due to the narrowness of the roads, and also no being in aero in those sections. We were promised volunteers that would be screaming “SLOW DOWN YOU IDIOTS” in that section. Roslynn just accepted she’d be riding conservatively there and safely. The only thing we all cared about was having fun, staying safe and finishing.
Then it was time for dinner at the delicious Dog Street pub in Colonial Williamsburg. I tasted Scotch Eggs for the first time, drank a ton of water, had fun talking to Sarah and her husband David, and allowed myself to feel relaxed. We were worn out from all the sun and humidity, so we headed back to the hotel for an early bedtime.
Race morning came very, very early. Despite my insistence that I was relaxed going into this race, I didn’t sleep at all – as usual.
We got ready quickly and headed out to Chickahominy Riverfront Park. As we feared, getting into the park was a nightmare. We sat in traffic for a long time. Thankfully we had left ridiculously early after our stressful Rumpus in Bumpass experience, so we were fine, but I can imagine that many people were not. Once in the park, we found parking right away. Roslynn got her bike together and tried to buy tire levers (no luck), and I made a final decision to go with my long sleeved wetsuit even though I thought I was going to get hot. I recall the official water temp was 71.2. Roslynn braided Blair’s and my hair, and we were all ready to go. Roslynn decided to stay near the relay pen instead of walking the ¼ mile up to the swim start, since we thought the swim would be fairly quick and we didn’t want her to have to rush back. Blair went with me.
Seeing nearly 2000 people all gathered at a tiny entrance to a river I couldn’t see made my nerves a little jangly. I saw Sarah, which was great, so we hugged it out. I saw my friend Lizz too, and got another hug.
The swim start was self-seeded, so I put myself in the 37-40 minute estimated finish group. I ended up walking next to a really nice guy from New Jersey. He is the kind of triathlon dude I love. You would never know he was a great athlete with a lot of experience because he downplayed everything – turns out he had done a bunch of fulls and even more halfs, and had a lot of insight to share on everything, once I got him talking.
I miss Derek always, but so painfully at a swim start. Having his calm voice and dry humor at the start of most of the races I’ve done was that last little bit of comfort I needed. It feels like a huge void at the start of the races now, and it makes me sad, and angry, and bitter for a world that would take someone like him away. I pushed those feelings down for the millionth time and tried to refocus.
With less than a minute to go before I went into the water, I still couldn’t see the river. We walked out a longish dock and they were having swimmers jump in one second apart. I wished my new friend well and finally got close enough to see the brown/greenish creek water awaiting me. Then I had a swim start person yelling at me to jump, so I held my goggles and jumped in. I told myself, GO HARD! DO IT!
This was the first time I had ever just jumped into a race swim without a warm up of any kind, and man, did I underestimate how it would impact me.
For the first 100, I tried to argue myself out of my belief that I couldn’t breathe. I was having so much trouble moving air that even breathing with every other stroke, I was gasping by the time my head turned to the side to breathe. I tried to breaststroke for a bit to keep my head up, hoping my breath would even out if I didn’t hold my head under water. That seemed to make it worse, and I started to panic. Once again, I told myself it was mental and to get going. I swam about another 100 and gave up. My heart rate felt like it was in the 170s and although I never thought I was going to die or drown, I was getting incredibly frustrated. It felt like forever since I’d started and all I could think about was how disappointed I was going to be in my swim. Then I started to wonder if I’d be able to complete the swim. 1.2 miles had never seemed so long. If I couldn’t get my breathing under control, there’d be no way I could continue. My wetsuit felt like it was squeezing the will to live out of me. No matter how many times I pulled at the neck to let water in, it returned to the python grip on my lungs and neck.
I saw a kayak near me, so I made the split-second decision to do what I had never done – hang off the side of one. To me, it’s akin to a walk of shame. I didn’t have any other ideas on how to fix my breathing issues, and I was about to give up on the swim entirely, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt at this point. The kayaker threw me a flotation buoy and I grabbed it and tried to breathe slowly. Someone else was hanging off the other side – he looked at me with wide eyes and said, “This is not like the pool.” I was still gasping for air so I just nodded. Then he said, “I don’t like not being able to see the bottom.” As I’ve described, the water was so murky that I couldn’t see feet in front of me until I was touching them so . . . he was definitely not going to be seeing the bottom anytime soon. I said, “Welcome to Virginia”, wished him luck and decided to shove off and start up again.
I felt like I’d blown 10 minutes in the water between breast stroking and hanging on the buoy. I was too scared to look back to see how (not) far I’d gone, so I just decided to swim slowly and see if I could get my breathing to slow down. Somehow in that midst of all that fear and self-doubt and irritation, I finally found my rhythm. As soon as I realized I was no longer gasping, I started playing with my pace, going a little bit faster each time I checked in with myself.
Soon I was through the two buoys where the course narrowed and thankfully everyone had spread out at that point. I was relieved to see the turn into the Chickahominy, as I knew there was supposed to be a current and my swim was going to get better. I feel less panicky when I’m not confined to a murky creek.
Just like in Rumpus, my calculations were grossly incorrect. Turning the corner meant chop in my face, and if there was a current, it certainly did not feel like it was with me. I felt like I was fighting the wind and waves the entire time. I also thought the portion from the turn to the finish was shorter than the swim in Gordon’s, but for some reason it felt longer. I also started to pass people (finally!) and I was having trouble getting around them. I was also taking in a lot of water because of the angle of the waves. The water was so silty (the color of caramel) that I wasn’t aware I was near or approaching someone until I crawled over them or hit them with my hands. Everyone was doing the same thing, so there was a lot of touching and pulling and elbowing.
I stopped worrying about how many buoys were in front of me at this point. I just decided that I had to make up for all the time I lost in the creek, so I swam harder and faster until I reached the point where my lungs felt like they were going to give out. In all the time I’ve done tri swims, I’ve held back on my kick since I had to use my legs exclusively the rest of the day, and told myself to pull – hard. This time, I eased back on my pull a bit, as my kick is the strongest part of the swim for me. I kicked like hell and tried to leave every bit of energy I had in the river.
I passed the final turn buoy, momentarily confused by the wiggly man at the end of the dock. I thought that was the exit, but the swim exit was closer in to shore. Ironman had given us a dock to help us avoid wading through the snot bottom, but people didn’t realize how bad it was and as they approached the dock, they tried to stand and sank down. I knew better, and used my salamander stroke to belly crawl as close to the dock as I could. With all my arm strength, I grabbed the edge of the dock, hoping the swim exit volunteer would haul me up, but she was clueless. I sort of flopped/fell forward onto the dock, dragged my mucus-covered legs over the edge, and staggered to an upright position. I heard, rather than saw, Bonnie. At that point I was laser focused on getting the ¼ mile or so through transition to Roslynn so we could exchange chips and she could be on her way.
I decided not to waste time with the wetsuit strippers and sprinted – as much as one can sprint in a wetsuit – down the path toward the relay pen. I had gotten the top unzipped and pulled my goggles off.
Around ½ way there, I realized I was crying. I decided to not think about it much, made it the rest of the way to Roslynn, slapped the chip on her leg, and wished her well. She looked excited and Blair said I had a great swim – that I was right on time. I was so confused.
Once Roslynn was safely off on her bike, I had some sort of emotional crash. I was hyperventilating and crying and trying to calm down. Poor Blair was completely confused – all she knew was, I had hit my 38 minute swim target, so why would I be upset?
I’ve had a lot of time to process all of that, and I think the short version of what happened is that Ironman smacked the crap out of my cocky swim mentality. I’ve found that whenever I think I know all there is to know about some specific part of racing, triathlon comes around and smacks me with a dead fish right in the face. Being in the water, unable to calm down, struggling like “those people” who just don’t have enough experience in open water, or who wait until the day of the race to try on their wetsuit, or whatever other judgment I’ve made about those around me panicking while I smugly plow forward – well, I was one of “those people”. I was humiliated that I had to grab the kayak and angry that I couldn’t get my body in line as fast as I wanted it to. I learned a valuable lesson – this girl needs a warm up swim, and if I can’t always rely on a race to give me one, I’d better train for that possibility.
The tears were a combination of relief it was over, anger that I’d blown it, embarrassment that I was crying or upset about it in the first place, and a release of a wave of anxiety I’d rarely felt. I eventually calmed down and got changed and the rest of the day I was fine, but I knew I was going to have to come to a reckoning with myself.
Low and behold, despite my stops, I had my fastest open water swim ever. I timed myself from the entry to the water until my hand hit the dock, as I wanted to know my actual swim time for the 1.2 miles. This was a killer pace for me, yet I find myself unable to really celebrate it. I could have gotten this same pace without stopping and I would have been thrilled, but because I panicked, somehow it feels like a hollow victory. My head is dumb and so is my logic, but there is it.
The rest of IMVA was pretty great. Unfortunately there were very few timing mats on the bike course, so Blair and I anxiously followed the tracker and guessed on how accurate it was. When Roslynn hit the first mat, she was averaging 20 mph and we both yelled and jumped up and down (or maybe just I did; Blair is a lot more composed than I am). She was knocking it out of the park – despite the fact that it was raining hard. I was quietly worrying and stressing over the back half of the course, and I knew I wasn’t going to really be able to exhale until she was off the bike. Her goal had been to break 3:00 and when she rolled in at a cool 2:50, we were all ecstatic! Blair had done her 1 mile warmup and was mentally as prepared to go as one can be, running their first half marathon. Her attitude was great and she was raring to go. Roslynn came in to the pen, panting and obviously wiped out from a massive effort. She got the chip on Blair and the run leg began.
I love racing with Roslynn for so many reasons, but one is that she often suffers anxiety before a race and inevitably is the person you see on the course hooting and hollering and grinning from ear to ear because she’s having so much fun. When she finally caught her breath, she said, “THAT WAS AWESOME! I HAD SO MUCH FUN!” I thought, “Why can’t I be like her???” I hugged her and told her how amazed I was by what she was able to accomplish on a tough, rainy day and on a tough, technical section toward the end of a long ride.
She got changed and ate some food. We had caught up with Bonnie at this point and I heard Fran and Tony were in the area as well, so we grabbed our cheer signs and headed out to the bridge where we would catch Blair on her way back in front the first 6 mile loop, and hopefully catch the rest of the team there as well. By now the sun had come out and it was humid and hot and, I’ll say it – a little bit miserable. I felt bad for all the runners who had suffered a rainy slippery bike course just to start the run in a steam shower. Virginia loves to dish out the pain.
I had made a sign that said “It’s just a 5k . . . with a 10 mile warmup” and people either loved it or hated it. One guy hit it so hard with his fist, he knocked it out of my hand. Thankfully most people laughed. I decided that cheering for other racers is my favorite thing ever. Fran, Tony, Bonnie, Roslynn and I had great seats on the bridge and we loved cheering on our team.
Around the time Blair approached us at the end of her first 10k, I got a message from Cyndi saying that we were in 6th place and if Blair held her pace, we might be able to get to 4th. I was shocked – there were 39 relay teams competing and I couldn’t believe we were that close to the top. I conferred with Roslynn and we decided to tell Blair. I wasn’t sure I would have wanted to know, but we guessed that Blair would, so after she completed the turnaround and ran by us on her 2nd and final loop, Roslynn shouted the news to her. She grimaced a bit and then looked determined and ran right back up that gross, hot bridge.
We stayed a bit longer to see Sarah starting her first loop. She looked fatigued but happy, and we made a lot of noise for her. Then Roslynn and I headed to the finish line to await Blair.
I was hoping for more timing mats, but we got a notification when Blair hit the 9’ish mile mark. She was making great time. Then we just waited in the hot sun at the finish for Blair to come through.
We caught sight of her as she rounded the corner to the finish chute, and Roslynn’s mom pride overflowed. She was crying her eyes out, which of course made me start up all over again! Blair just looked peaceful as always, but very glad to be finishing. She had a huge smile on her face.
She picked up her medal, we figured out how to get ours, and the texts from Cyndi kept coming in. For a little bit, we were in 2nd place, then dropped to 3rd as other results came in. We waited, and prayed. It was beyond my wildest imagination to ever think I’d be on a podium at an Ironman event, but it looked more likely that we had done it – even with my ridiculous freak out in the water.
We got to see the rest of the team finish. Each one of them fought through their fair share of challenges but looked great at the end, and hugging Sarah after she finished was awesome! She worked so hard for the last two years. There is nothing like seeing someone accomplish a huge goal, right in front of your eyes.
We got the disappointing news that due to weather concerns, Ironman wasn’t going to do an age group or relay awards ceremony. We shrugged it off and picked up our award, and pretended that the Ironman backdrop was the same as podium and got some good pictures anyway. Then we loaded up 50,000 pounds of our stuff and muddy selves and headed back to Richmond.
So what’s the takeaway from all of this?
I have very strong teammates – that’s first and foremost – and I am so proud of all of them and so grateful to know them, and train with them.
I loved doing a relay – it allowed all of us to laser focus on our areas, and I feel like each of us tried our very best to do our very best.
I miss Derek, and will continue to miss the hell out of him forever. I missed Cyndi’s presence there too, but she texted a lot and it was almost like having her in person at the race.
And finally, I need to work on cold entrances to a swim start 😊