For a lot of reasons, there's been a higher than normal level of stress in my life over the past month or so. Just life, the ups and downs that everyone deals with, but this trip felt a bit like an escape from all of that. Like I finally had time to exhale. The pool was gorgeous, wide empty lanes and cool water and a clock with a second hand that must have been ticking just a hair slowly as I moved through my pre-race workout (dear sea level I heart you don't ever change). When I got into the pool, my body felt stiff and crunchy and tight from a long week on the bike plus traveling, my head was buzzing with the never-ending to do list that lives up there, and as I moved through the water, I felt myself unwind, I felt the stress slip away.
After my swim, I raided a local Publix for snacks and then kept heading north to Tennessee. It's probably weird, but I love driving. The sun was out and the sky was brilliant with fluffy clouds and I rolled down the windows and cranked up the Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves that I've been obsessed with lately, as loud as it would go. By the time I picked Allison up at the airport, I felt light again, I felt happy, I felt like me.
We did all the things you do the night before a race, like packet pickup and eat a really healthy dinner and then chase it with cupcakes that weren't at all worth the sugar bomb (and ensuing headache) into my body. Our hotel had a really nice patio on the river so we sat outside and I wrote schedules while Allison read and the sun went down.
The race itself started pretty late in the morning, so we were able to sleep in and lazily make our way over to the start. I'm sure I'll get slaughtered for this somewhere by the "real" swimmers of the world, but when I registered, I decided to race in the wetsuit wave. Not because I'm afraid of swimming outside of my wetsuit - I loved not wearing it in Cozumel - but because every race I am doing this year will be wetsuit legal. And because I freakin' bought a freakin' Freak, and I freakin' love it and so I'm going to freakin' wear it. Slaughter away.
It was cold and raining pretty steadily, so we waited as long as possible to get in the water to warm up. The water temp was significantly warmer than air temp and I swam about ten minutes with a couple of hard efforts and then climbed back out to shiver for a while.
Allison was racing in the first wave which was made up entirely of real swimmers who are fucking legit and don't worry about riding their bikes afterwards and make their own goggles out of twist-ties and bottle caps and can rip the heads off sharks and lake zombies that would dare to fuck with them while only wearing a speedo, so she got to head out first. The
There was significantly less traffic and body whomping than there is in triathlon - I'm not sure if that's because no one was worried about getting on their bike or because I was closer to the front than I normally would be, but it was nice. I settled into an effort that felt relatively easy hanging behind a small pack of swimmers that went off the front. And I thought to myself at least once, this is what it feels like to be in the front pack! I made the front pack! Wheeee! but as I swam, swimmers started to drop off a bit.
When I hit the first turn buoy, I could see that there were a few pink caps ahead of me, and soon after the first turn I was moving through some green caps from wave one. Around the second turn buoy, about halfway through the first lap, I caught up with a pink cap and hopped right on his feet. I had "Call Me Maybe" stuck in my head and I sang that a few times, I thought about the margarita I was going to have with dinner, I wondered how the poet's long ride was going, I chilled out on the wonderful feet. I kept checking in with my effort, and it felt smooth and easy and sustainable.
The problem with smooth and easy and sustainable, as I realized coming under the bridge to start the second lap, is that it's how I should race ironman. It's not how I should race an open water swim where I don't have to do anything else on the day, and after cursing myself for wasting so much time swimming gently and aerobically with a wandering mind on the first lap, I ditched the feet and took off.
I knew that if the feet hopped on my feet and stayed there then I should trade off doing the work, but after about 20 strokes I popped my head up and the nice pink cap that had dragged me for probably 800 meters of the first lap was long gone in the rearview mirror. I wasn't sure where to really start building the effort down - my masters coach had given me a few words of advice, but I'm not good at eyeballing where in a river the "last 500 meters" starts. I swam the second loop a bit harder than the first, but continued to hold back just a touch until I hit the last turn buoy, and then I lit the fire and went after it. I swam at an effort that I was pretty sure I could only hold for about 50 meters, and after 50 meters went by and I wasn't tiring, well, that was just more reinforcement that I didn't execute the race before that turn buoy as well as I would like. I hauled ass into the finish line and tore up the ramp ripping off my wetsuit before the logical part of my brain reminded me that I didn't have a bike to get on and I could walk slowly and take a cup of hot chocolate instead.
Allison and I sat and chatted for a bit before eyeballing the unofficial results that were scrolling by. It looked like I had placed in my age group, so we changed into our dry clothes, went back to our hotel, showered and had a snack, and then drove back over only to arrive just as the award ceremony was over. Once all the results had filtered through and become official, I swam a 61:30, I was the second wetsuit out of the water, won my age group, and (this might be the best part) beat all the (*wetsuit-wearing) men. And all of those things are pretty darn great, but I also think it's okay to admit that I wasn't thrilled with the effort I put into the day. That has less to do with times and placement and more about the fact that I don't feel like I really raced. I didn't empty the tank, I didn't even come close, and there are some reasons for that and things I've learned from a race unfolding this way.
So what did I learn? Lots. I learned that if my head isn't in the game in the days before the race, if I've carrying a bit more stress than usual, I'm probably not going to perform at my best. And my head was most definitely not in this game. You race who shows up, people say that all the time, and I showed up and raced the way I did and someone else (*in a wetsuit) showed up and raced better and so she won, as she should have. Did I have the minute that she took out of me to win? I don't know, I'd like to think that maybe I did, but I lost my opportunity to find out. I didn't take this one seriously - we ate cupcakes the night before, for pete's sake - and I got out of it what I put into it. Maybe that's fine, I have some much bigger races lined up for this year and if I saved up some mojo by not racing the balls off this swim, hopefully that means I'll have it in August when I need it. I also learned that I really don't know yet how to race open water, as a swimmer, and I'm okay with that. My brain is dialed in so strongly to triathlon effort that even with a rough race plan, I wasn't able to break away from that and really dig until the last bit of the day - until it was arguably too late to make a difference, as I'm not sure I passed anyone in my wave while I booked it to shore. And I learned that swimming maximum effort for the last 500 meters of an open water swim would be a TERRIBLE idea if I DID have to get on bike. But all of this is part of learning about how to race, how to approach it in the days before, how to think about it on race morning, how to stay focused while in the moment, and how to deal with a less-than-perfect performance on the back end. What's more important is that I got a chance to spend the weekend visiting and catching up with two of my closest friends, and that certainly overshadows any cloudy feelings about a lackluster day in the water. And onwards I go.