Omaha, Nebraska. August 12-13, 2016. USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships. What a weekend.
I was deeply honored to be recognized on the Thursday evening beforehand as the Amateur Female Triathlete and Duathlete of the year for 2015 - and especially so because my coach (Suzanne Atkinson) made the trip from Pittsburgh to be there with me.
As I sat in a room surrounded by the best athletes in the nation - from age 7 to over 80, I was so very proud to be a part of the sport of triathlon/multisport - and very, very inspired. I think it is especially a testament to USA Triathlon that they recognize greatness no matter what age - and it was most interesting to hear from each athlete that was recognized. If an opportunity ever presents to attend an ‘Athlete of the Year Banquet’ - seize it! You will not be disappointed.
And then came the races. Despite my participation in numerous National Championships, somehow I never feel ‘qualified’ to race. To toe the line with the best athletes in the U.S. - and probably the world - it is very awe-inspiring and slightly intimidating.
My desire generally becomes to podium in my age division and take what the day gives me - and this go-round was no different. Race morning (Saturday) dawned bright and beautiful. Though not furnace-hot as it had been 2 days prior, it was still a hot one. The first racers started slightly after 7:30am - my wave was not until 10:18 or so due to a 15 minute delay. By that time, it was HOT. For the first time in a race I was trying out a swimskin (finally - I know), the ROKA viper. It was absolutely amazing. I cannot believe it took me so long to try one. Definitely made a difference in my swim. I was very happy to be able to hang with the lead swimmers for the first half (never have I hung on that long before), but by the second half they had begun to pull away and I just couldn’t keep the pace. I came into transition over 2 minutes behind (not that I knew that), and was very happy to get onto my bike for my favorite part of the race. I was also very happy to have 2 bottles on my bike, because it was HOT. Shortly after the 1/2 way point I caught my main competition, and just had to hope I had a strong enough bike left in me to have a good time cushion going into the run. Then, the run. Have I mentioned it was HOT? It was. HOT. The aid stations had been running full tilt all day - and by the time we got there, were running dry. Mile 4 I didn’t even get any water - there was none. And, it was hot. But - thank heavens I have done some heat training over the past few mos (thank you TN summer) - so I definitely had an advantage. I just channeled Bobby McGee and my running form - and kept it going as fast as I could for as long as I could. Good enough to win my age group - and post the 2nd fastest female time. Way beyond my expectations! Ecstatic.
Sunday was again a beautiful morning. I was sore all over, and slightly fatigued, but the energy at the race venue was high - and I was really excited to be racing!!!! Faced with some fierce competition who were mostly fresh (i.e. not doing ‘the double’) - I really didn’t have much in the way of expectations. Again, my biggest hope was to make the age group podium - and (if I dared dream) to top that podium would be better than I had done in years. I was lucky enough to start in the second wave (so EARLY) - and the swim was deja vu - hung with the fast pack for the first half, then lost it in the last half. Didn’t lose as much time going into the bike though (thank heavens). On the bike I kept looking for my big competition again (same as yesterday) - and I just never caught her. That worried me. Going into transition people kept telling me I was the lead female and I was thinking “Nope, she is out there - I never passed her, they just didn’t see her”. I hit the run hard - legs were tired and sore, but I knew it was only a 5k and I had to give it everything I had. So, I did. The crowds were fantastic - many, many more people out there cheering and enthusiastic - I cannot begin to tell you what a difference that makes. I raced my heart out. When I hit that finish line I was thinking “every second counts” - and I held nothing back. The banner was stretched across - and that REALLY made me smile, because to be able to run through any finish line tape is super exciting - Nationals is beyond belief. People kept asking me how it felt to win the race and I kept saying, “All I won was my age group”. There is sure to be a faster time in one of the later waves. I never DREAMED that I would actually keep the fastest time for the women. But, I did. Somehow. Beyond. Belief. I am not sure of how many triathlon national championships I have competed in now. Probably close to ten. I started at the bottom of my division, and every year tried to improve, to get a little closer to the podium, hoping to make the top 10 in my division, then maybe just to break the top 10 overall, in the back of my mind daring to dream of standing in the top overall - but never seriously thinking it would ever happen. I have never (and still do not) consider myself as that fast. Maybe on the bike - that is my favorite - but never among the fastest swimmers or runners. To finally have made it - to stand on that 1st place box and know that somehow all the years (and years, and years, and YEARS) of training had come together and paid off - well, it is still a little hard to believe.
I train and I race because I love it, I love the personal challenge of pushing myself and testing my limits, of racing hard on one day and then turning around and doing it again, of experiencing different races in different places and joining in with thousands of people who love the same thing, looking around race morning at the variety of people competing and watching the various pre-race rituals, to hear stories from athletes from all over the country, to meet up with old friends and make new ones, to hear the words of encouragement from others out on the course and try to offer some in return (one of the things I still find most amazing about triathlon), and to watch the expressions of accomplishment as the finish line is reached. Those are the things that keep me going.