Recently I raced the Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon. It's an Olympic distance race that starts with a swim in the Tennessee River, followed by a hilly bike and a hot run. I added this race to my schedule pretty late in the year because I really wanted a race in June to see where my training was, and I chose this one because it gave me the opportunity to take a look at the city of Chattanooga and do some recon of the Ironman Chattanooga course that I'll race in September. It was also going to be the first opportunity that my girlfriend, Adrienne, would have to experience the life of a triathlete and to be my sherpa on race day. The weekend had its ups and downs. I'll try and summarize it for you...
We pulled into Chattanooga late Friday night, got checked into the hotel and tried to get a good nights sleep. I know from experience that I never sleep well the night before a race, so two nights out is the best time to try and get plenty of rest. On Saturday, the plan was to check in for the race and drop the bike in transition, drive the IM Chattanooga course, and try to get in a little outdoor time because the area is beautiful for hiking. Since registration didn't start until noon, first on the agenda was a short hike. I did some research and found a hike that was supposed to be really nice on Lookout Mountain called Glen Falls trail. After spending some time driving up and down the mountain, I finally located the trail head and pulled off the road. While we closing the doors of the car, the passenger window just lowered on its own, and I couldn't get it back up. I could hear the motor, but the window failed to work. I still had all my tri gear and Shanti (my bike) in the car, so I couldn't exactly leave the car unattended. I told Adrienne to go ahead and take the hike, because I was going to get on the phone and see what I could figure out about getting the car taken care of and there was no point in us both sitting in the car and missing the natural beauty of the area. At this point, it's about noon on Saturday, and my google research and phone calls revealed that most mechanics in the area were closed. The Honda dealer was open however, So, it was off to Economy Honda Superstore to pay a visit to the service department.
After an hour wait I was informed that the window regulator and motor unit needed to be replaced, and with labor and parts, the estimated cost was about $400.00. Not really in the budget or part of the plan, but what can you do? I approved the repairs and waited for the work to be done. Luckily, they had free water, granola bars and popcorn and I did my best to eat and drink $400.00 worth. I don't think I came close, but I did leave with my pockets full!
With the vehicle back in working order, it was time to head downtown for packet pick up and bike drop off. The good people at Team Magic definitely know what they are doing. Check in went smooth, and I got the bike dropped off and spent some time looking at transition and the river for the swim. It's a beautiful venue for a race and I'm really looking forward to going back and exploring Chattanooga more. I would have liked to spent more time downtown, but it was HOT and I still wanted to make sure I could drive the IM Chattanooga bike course.
Like the other two Ironman races I've done (Wisconsin and Louisville) the Chattanooga bike course is a "lollipop" type. This mean you ride out on a "stick" to get to the "loop". You ride the loop twice, then take the stick back to transition. The first few miles are downtown, then industrial as you head south. The course crosses into north Georgia and it becomes rolling and beautiful. I had heard that there were no real substantial climbs, and I was glad to see that was true. Mostly just rolling hills that look like they will be fun on the bike, (as least as fun as 116 miles on the bike can be!) There was one scare when we ended up up on Dougherty Gap Rd. That road has a huge climb and switchbacks. I prayed that I had missed a turn, and in fact, I missed the sharp left onto Hog Jowl Rd. (yes, that's the real name of the road). It worked out though, because we found a trail into the woods with a pretty cool cave and a dry creek bed that was beautiful. Sometimes you have to trust that wrong turns lead to great discoveries.
After finishing the loop and driving back to the hotel, I realized we were only a mile or so from the trail head where the car problem happened, and even though it was later in the day, I decided to we would head back up the mountain and complete the hike together. (Adrienne was really happy about this) And I am so grateful we did! It was peaceful, and beautiful, and exactly what I needed to reconnect and recharge my soul before the race. We made it back to the hotel, got everything together and ready for the race the next morning, and off to bed I went.
4:00 am always comes early on race day and this was no exception. Transition opened at 5:00 am and I always like to be there as close to opening as possible. There's a lot of things that can go wrong on race morning, and if anything does, it's nice to have the time to solve the problems. If all goes according to plan, then I love having the extra time to mentally prepare, calm myself and let go of the stress associated with race morning. Everything was going smoothly, there were no issues and I even found a parking lot with a perfect space mere steps from transition. It's always fun talking to other athletes, and from these conversations I learned that the bike was very hilly and tougher overall than most Olympic courses. I wasn't too worried, as my time in Wisconsin taught me a lot about biking hills, and this was only a race for training anyway.
The swim is a point to point river swim with the current, so the start is about a mile upriver. There was a shuttle available, but I chose to walk the mile, and Adrienne decided to walk too so she could see the start and be part of the experience. It also gave me the chance to see the first and last mile of the run course. I saw a couple of decent hills and filed that away for later. Once at the staging area for the swim, I ran into Claudia, a friend I met at Ironman Louisville last year; it was nice to catch up. One thing I've always loved about triathlon is the friends I've made at races, and how supportive and encouraging everyone is. There's a sense of competition at times, but it has always been healthy and done in such a way as to empower others, not tear them down.
The National Anthem was sung and it was time to get in line for the swim start. Adrienne left before the start to make sure she could get to transition before I finished the swim. My race number was 406 (based on self reported estimated swim times) and the line moved quickly. The water temperature was 87.5 degrees and felt really good. I slipped into the water from the dock, had a volunteer record my number and off I went for the 1500 m (.93 mile) swim downriver. I usually have a mantra for a race, something I repeat to keep me focused. I hadn't been able to come up with anything that seemed to fit for this race. But right before starting I told myself "swim smooth, bike smart, and run strong". Sometimes the best mantras just come to you at the right moment. Even though I haven't had much open water practice this year (exactly none), it didn't take me long to find a rhythm. I was sighting every third stroke and felt very smooth. I also felt like my sighting was good from buoy to buoy and I wasn't having to make any directional corrections, which can be frustrating and time consuming. I didn't even notice the current until I'd pass a buoy or swim under a bridge and realize how quickly stationary objects were passing by. I kept repeating my mantra "swim smooth, bike smart, run strong" and it kept me focused and present. Before I knew it, I was out of the water and running the long transition to the bike. I saw Adrienne and later discovered that she got some great pictures of me in the water. I am still amazed that she found me swimming!
Once in transition I found my bike without any trouble, got the bike shoes velcroed, the helmet buckled, the sunglasses on and headed out for the ride. Most Olympic distance races are 40K (24.8 miles). This one is just a bit longer at 42K (26 miles) because the bike heads out and back on a divided highway, and the place for a paved turn around through the median happens to be a little farther. I knew the bike was going to be hilly, but wasn't really aware how hilly. There were some long substantial climbs, followed by the corresponding downhills. It's always easy to go too hard on the bike because the legs feel fresh and you have race day adrenaline. That's fine if you have a bike race, but knowing you have to run afterwards it's always better to pace yourself on the bike and save some for the run. I was constantly checking in with my body and anytime I felt that I may be pushing it too hard, I'd go back to my mantra. I didn't want to bike powerful or fast, just smart. That usually means backing off. So now, my mantra was "swim smooth (check), bike smart, run strong." I finally made it to the turn around and was expecting a bit more downhill on the way back. The problem was a headwind which made things harder than I wanted. I did my best to continue to bike smart, and managed to pass some people on the uphills which encouraged me greatly.
I headed back over the river, into downtown Chattanooga and began to think about the run. I also began to think about a bathroom, which was a good sign because it meant I was staying fairly well hydrated. Back into transition and a change into bike shoes and visor and a quick bathroom stop, and I was off for the run. I didn't see Adrienne during this transition, but she saw me. She was yelling and ringing the cowbell, but I guess I was too focused. I was looking too, but sometimes it's hard to find a specific person in the crowd if you're not sure exactly where they'll be.
At this point I felt like I had a smooth swim and a smart bike, so all that was left was a strong run. I knew there was a hill right out of transition, so I settled in, found a heart rate I could sustain, and focused on turning the legs over. I passed a couple of people on the hill and checked in to make sure I wasn't overdoing it. I had to run up some stairs to get to the riverwalk and was feeling strong; it felt like a pace I could manage for a while. It was a hot day, and my plan (as usual) was to walk the aid stations and run everything else. I wanted to make sure I got enough calories and hydration when it was available. I passed mile two and was still feeling strong. I was holding back a bit because I hadn't seen the full run course and didn't know what was still in store. I wanted to make sure I didn't burn any matches now that I might need later. Even though I felt good, I had no idea what kind of pace I was holding. I found out a few years ago that I prefer to race "unplugged" with no watch or gps. It releases a great deal of stress to not feel like I need to hold any specific numbers. If I get behind my planned pace, I probably can't make it up and that's demoralizing. If I'm ahead of my planned pace, psychologically I wonder if I'm going to hard and slow down to match what was expected. When I'm "unplugged" I listen to my body and do what feels right and I've had the most success this way. It may not work for everyone, but that's why we are all individuals.
I finally made it to the turnaround and started the 3.1 miles back to the finish. I've now seen the entire course and decided to pick up the pace a little bit. I've been repeating my mantra for the first half of the run, but about mile 4 things started getting really hard. I've raced enough to know that this is temporary, and if I can get to mile 5, things will get better, but "run strong" just isn't cutting it any more. So I dug deep and remembered something my yoga teacher said during a very difficult pose: "find the ease in the effort". I started to repeat that, and my breath began to calm, and things almost immediately seemed to get smoother, smarter and stronger. My whole mantra came together at once as I found the ease in the effort. At mile 5 I know there are two hills left. I got to the first one and it seemed steeper than I remembered. I could run up it, but know it would spike my heart rate and I might not recover fort the second hill and the long downhill to the finish. I decided to power walk up it. Most people are walking the hill, but they have their hands on their hips and their heads down. I stood tall, took plenty of oxygen into the lungs, tried to keep my heart rate as low as possible, and swung my arms. I arrived at the top of the hill and the last aid station, topped off on fluids and prepared for the last hill. I know I have less than a mile to go and felt like I've had a strong race so far. It was time to empty the tank. I ran down the stairs that connected the riverwalk back to the road and headed up the last hill. I still felt pretty strong and knew that once I topped the hill it was about a half mile to the finish, and it was all downhill.
I enjoyed that last half mile and kept pushing the pace a little more and a little more. I passed several people in that last half mile and crossed the line having no idea what my time was, but feeling like I had a really good race. It took me a while to find Adrienne after I finished, and I found out that she misjudged what time I would finish. She thought I wouldn't be as fast as I was and while she saw me finish, she wasn't close enough to get a picture. (tip for spectators and sherpas: If you miss your athlete at the finish, always tell them it's because they were way faster than you expected. That's a serious ego boost!). After getting my medal and a little post race food, I found my way over to the results tent. I punched in my race number, hit enter and it gave me my ticket. In my age group (M 44-49) it had me at 28 of 89. Now, I knew that this race was the Southeastern Qualifier for the USAT National Championships, but never dreamed I'd come close to qualifying. To qualify, you have to be in the top third of your age group and I've never been that high up in the results. My age group is just too competitive and I've never been fast. But I started doing the math and realized that 28 of 89 put me in the top 32% which would qualify me for Nationals. Results often change, and to be honest, even if I qualified, I couldn't get to Omaha, Nebraska in August anyway. Even so, to be this close was a testament to how far I've come since I started training for my first triathlon in 2003. At that time I couldn't even run around the block. It's all about consistency over time. Small things that add up to a huge lifestyle change. If anyone out there reading this is feeling discouraged, or ashamed, or disappointed in where they are or what they've become, know that I've been there. I know exactly how you feel. Reach out to me, or someone else. Make the commitment to change your life and start living the life you want to live. Nothing is impossible.
When all was said and done, I had a very solid race. I'm satisfied with where my training is at this point of the season. Recon for IMCHOO is complete which will help with the training plan for the rest of the year. Adrienne learned a lot about supporting a triathlete and I could not have asked for a better sherpa. A successful weekend all the way around! It's great to have an experience which shows you that you don't have to focus on the end goal to be successful. As long as you focus on the next small step and being the best you can in the present moment, the end result will take care of itself. Until next time, keep the inner peace.