At the end of a pretty strong race season locally this year, it was time to raise the stakes and line up against elite athletes from across the country, at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in Burlington, Vermont.
I've competed at Nationals in prior years, so I've gotten past the sheer intimidation of showing up at the kind of race where the average bike is worth about $3,000... But there's definitely a different vibe at an event where everyone is out to win.
Most of the races I participate in have a surprisingly diverse cross-section of the population. Kids can do it. Grandma can do it. Ex-smokers, former couch potatoes, cancer survivors will all finish victorious. People who loathe running, people who "can't swim," people who flunked high school P.E. will tackle the challenge. People with only one leg will be out there too. Indeed, it's the unconventional candidates that get the most attention…and the longest applause at the finish line. To me this is something essential to the spirit of triathlon – the idea that there's more than one way to "win." I love the adventurous and celebratory atmosphere, the wacky motivational posters along the course ("Swim, Bike, Run, BEER!"), the herd of friends & family all wearing festive matching shirts that say "Team ANNE!" and the occasional participant galloping by in a leopard print Speedo with "Single" written down his calf in permanent marker.
One might think that throwing together 1500 men and women who've all grown accustomed to being The Winner could get ugly...
But I was grateful to find the same camaraderie and courtesy amongst the women at Nationals that is typical of local races back home (minus some of the goofiness). The atmosphere in the Transition Area early in the morning was neighborly and buzzing with excitement. The women sharing my rack swapped transition tips, complimented one other's bikes (which is akin to being complimented on the cuteness of your puppy or the brilliance of your toddler), and wished each other luck on the way out. I was thrilled to see so many friends and familiar faces from Chicago and Madison. As my wave gathered at the start together, splashing and bobbing next to the boat dock waiting for the final countdown, I heard laughter and joking, a few women calling out, "sorry in advance if I accidentally kick anyone!"
The bike course was very crowded, but I was so focused that I barely remember any of the Burlington scenery swirling past and I was a little surprised to find myself back downtown so soon! I could tell my race was going well when I reached T2 and found the Transition Area mostly empty. A solitary bike dangled from the rack here or there, but the rest of them were still behind me.
The run started with what the race organizers referred to as "a significant hill," a phrase obviously meant to let us down gently - don't expect any 10K PRs on this course! Within that context, I suppose I can consider it "a significant achievement" that my 10K time was only one second behind my fastest-ever 10K (which was on a flat course, naturally).
I ran hard. I ran like it was my last race of the season, and even though it hurts to run your fastest, I felt lucky just to have the ability to run fast - painful but exhilarating.
It was impossible to know how many women were ahead of me, but with the goal of breaking my own 10K record (hill or no hill!) I had my own motivation to keep digging in.
Halfway through the run, I was passed by someone in my division, a local from Madison! She slipped me a few words of encouragement, and then pushed ahead. Instead of feeling frustrated at being outrun, I was grateful to have such close competition at this race. It makes the race more meaningful, and gives clarity to the goals still to come.
I finished strong and ended up with 5th place in my age group, which earned me a spot on the Nationals podium during the awards ceremony! When I talked to my coach after the race, she said, "5th place! Did you bring a dress?"
Why yes, yes I did. Obviously, my podium dress and my acceptance speech were ready... *just in case*
Well, Ok. There wasn't actually a speech. But my finish also qualified me for the 2012 World Championships in New Zealand, so there will certainly be more adventures to come!
Posted by kim 10/02/2011, revised 10/02/2011 by kim