Thursday, April 17, 2014

Working Hard in the Big Easy

So read my out of office reply at work. This trip was my first time in New Orleans, or anywhere in the South other than Florida (and some folks will say that doesn't count outside the Panhandle). I had chosen this race last fall as part of my master plan to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Mont Tremblant, Canada. Yes, I actually wrote that sentence. For those of you who have known me a long time (hi, Mom!), you understand that this is what we call a "stretch goal." I'm the girl who struggled with tee-ball in elementary school, and was so far behind the pack in middle school cross country races, she got lost. (Ever wonder why I never mention that I tried cross country for a few weeks in middle school?) Even with swimming, I trained up to 20 hours a week in high school but never qualified for nationals. Or zones. Or regionals. So when I told my coach last fall that I'd like to try to qualify for Worlds, I was shocked when she said, "Ok, let's do it!" She must not know me very well, but here goes nothing... 

For my readers who are not triathlon-obsessed (hi again, Mom!), there are actually several world championships each year. The most iconic (and televised) one is the Ironman World Championships at Kona, Hawaii. This is for the full iron (140.6 mile) distance, sponsored by the World Triathlon Corporation, aka Ironman. There's also an Ironman 70.3 (half iron distance) championship, which was held in Vegas for several years but is now moving around annually -- Quebec in 2014, Austria in 2015, etc. Between 1-3 men and women of each age group qualify per Ironman 140.6 or 70.3 race, regardless of nationality. There are also world championships for non Ironman-branded events, in which athletes represent their countries, (amateur) Olympics-style, ranging from sprint to international to half iron distances. (I'll be competing for a spot on Team USA this June - stay tuned.)

So this takes us to New Orleans, April 11, 2014. Elliott was busy leading spring break rowing camp so I traveled solo, bike case in tow. I think the cab driver from the airport thought I was nuts. "I'm here to race in the half Ironman on Sunday... It's a triathlon... You know, swim, bike, run? Like, a race? A marathon but actually more total miles...? No, they don't pay me to do this; I pay them... Um, nevermind." For those of you considering this race, I have two pieces of advice: 1) Rent a car 2) Stay at the Hampton Inn Garden District. Free parking, gorgeous neighborhood, quiet streets, two blocks from a local version of Whole Foods, delicious breakfast, pool that is cold enough to be wetsuit legal and cloudy enough to practice sighting, free wifi, etc. This was my first solo out of town race, so I had to assemble my bike by myself. Success! Well, almost. When I stepped back and admired my handiwork, I noticed an extra washer on the table. Hmmm now where was that supposed to go?

 And for my next trick, I'll make my bike hover in midair!

While I had traveled to NOLA solo, I wasn't totally alone -- several Team HPB athletes whom I'd met at Smashcamp in February were also doing the race. Hooray, familiar faces! And hooray, extra space in a rental car so I can take my bike to a mechanic! (Thank you, Marc!!) Finally, I was ready to ride and excited for the day.

However, race morning was bittersweet. A group of triathletes from Atlanta was hit by a car while test riding the course. One athlete was killed and another seriously injured. I reminded myself that no matter what happened to me that day -- flat tire, blisters, or nausea -- I was lucky to still be alive and racing.

Swim: Yum, diesel!

We swam in the (in)famous Lake Pontchartrain, or more specifically, in a harbor in the (in)famous Lake Pontchartrain. The harbor swim was necessary because the main lake has a tendency to become violent. The harbor, however, has a tendency to become gross. One of the athletes who had done the race last year said she looked like she was sporting a beard in her race photos, thanks to all the silt and gunk from the lake. Awesome. To fit a 1.2 mile swim within a harbor, we wound up jumping off the dock in groups of 7-10 ("time trial start") and then swimming in a crazy M shaped pattern. The smaller start group meant it was hard to find someone to mooch draft off, but I did get to turn all kinds of tricks.

Bike: Hello, wind!

Before the race began, the announcer said that it was our lucky day -- no winds. Now, either the situation changed or he was just being mean because it was definitely windy out there. This is why I love my power meter; as long as I kept my watts in the right range, I was fine. Sometimes that meant 15 mph. Sometimes, 35. (That part was fun.) The course was mostly flat, except for a few overpasses, going past a deserted amusement park (creepy), bayou (no gators, sadly), and memorial for the Atlanta triathlete (heartbreaking). To keep myself occupied, I dedicated five mile stretches to my family, friends, colleagues, teammates, and replayed some random words of encouragement I've received over the years. (A favorite: "Pretend everyone you're passing is wearing an ascot!") I think these events are an exercise in mental endurance as well as physical.

Run: Well fine, then.

I was feeling pretty good by the end of the bike. I'm usually toward the front of the pack after the swim and had only been passed by one person in my age group on the bike. So either I was in second or there were some speedy swimmers who stayed ahead of me on the bike. The first few miles of the run felt pretty good. And then the sun came out. No shade, just miles and miles of flat concrete ahead of me. I started to get the niggling sensation in my stomach that I had ignored in Panama and wound up in the medical tent. I willed it to go away, and it did--if I slowed down. It was this cruel compromise with my stomach and heart -- stay at an 8:30/mile pace or slower, and I felt fine. Venture south of there, and my heart rate would spike, along with the urge to puke. I really didn't want to return to the med tent (after all, the coke they serve has high fructose corn syrup!), so I slowed down and kept going. A girl in my age group passed me around mile 8. Nooo... must...catch... burp....ok then. At mile 11, I decided I could suffer through to the finish and picked up my speed a bit, but not enough to catch her. Oh well, I finished with a smile on my face, which is my #1 goal for any race.

It took about 20 minutes for me to get my medal (handed out by pro winner Andy Potts--so classy), some food, and some beer(s). I finally staggered wandered over to the bag check area so I could get my backpack and cell phone. So many text messages! Including one with a screenshot of the results page, showing I'd placed third in my age group!!!! I jumped up and down, then realized that was a terrible idea, and sat down to call Elliott and my parents instead. But there was still an unknown -- if there are only one or two Worlds spots available for my age group, what happens if the first and second place finishers claim them? This is what happened in Panama -- I placed third but since the top two took the spots, nothing "rolled down" to me. I nervously waited until the award ceremony -- the deadline for the first and second place finishers to claim their spots.

If you ever race an Ironman-branded event, it's worth sticking around for roll-down. First of all, it's really fun to watch. Second of all, you might wind up with a ticket to Worlds. The announcer will go through each age group and say how many spots are available. If one or more spots are unclaimed, the announcer reads down the list, giving each athlete about five seconds to come forward, Price is Right style, and claim the ticket. Sometimes it doesn't roll down at all (ahem, Panama). Sometimes, it rolls deep. Like today. "Women, 30-34. Two spots, zero taken. First rolldown spot goes to #3, Katherine Tobin." To say that I "informed the announcer that I'd be interested in claiming the spot" is a bit of an understatement. I was standing about 10 feet from him, with some friends from camp, screaming and jumping up a storm and rushing up to the front to high five the announcer, the race director, and anyone else who would let me. To make things even better, two other people I know from DC also got rolldown spots. Party in Quebec!

Many, many thanks to Elliott (of course!), my family, Coach Kerri, DC Tri Club teammates, colleagues, and friends. You like tolerate me even though I'm usually sweaty and/or hangry. Here's to the next adventure!