Race report: Willow Creek Triathlon

Somewhere in the lake was an orange buoy. I noticed it when I first arrived at Quaker Lake, but now it was gone, vanished behind a thick fog which had settled into the valley of the Allegheny Mountains. The lake, which was calm and peaceful in the early morning, had become something eerie. I’m pretty sure the Loch Ness Monster may have been summer vacationing in there.

The swim start socked in by fog.

The swim start at Quaker Lake socked in by fog.

The good news was the lake was flat, the fog burned off and my start-of-the-swim panic last only a few seconds to kick off my first triathlon in over a year.

My friend Tracy told me about the The Willow Creek Triathlon which starts in Allegany State Park, in New York State, and finishes in Pennsylvania. In it’s ninth year, the event is a fundraiser for the Disabled American Veterans Transportation Network and specifically raising money for the chapters in Warren and McKean Counties. The tag line of the event — It’s not about the medals. It’s about the veterans. — wasn’t just a slogan. It was the reason everyone was there. The field consisted of plenty of first-timers and more relay teams than I usually see. Not being a USAT-sanctioned race brought out a more relaxed field (and some relaxed rules) which provided me the perfect setting to get back into a race-day feel.

I wore my regular watch, but didn’t set the timer. I didn’t even look at it until I was on the run. This was a race for me to practice racing as I continue to prepare for Ironman 70.3. To do everything based on feel.  To enjoy the day and remove all pressure, plans and expectations. I didn’t really care about my time. Time is relative. I cared about how I felt and my effort. My effort was in my control. It was the only thing in my control. And so I raced from there.

willowtri_2aug14_signThe swim was 300 yards and a time trial start. I enjoy the time trial start better than a wave start. It gives me more time to find my space and avoids the inevitable complete body freeze of panic induced by the air horn. It still took me some time for me to get comfortable. Adrenaline, anxiety, excitement and fear combine to make my body feel like one big lump of lead. I put my face in the water. I try a stroke. I balk. I start to breaststroke. I wonder how many minutes have passed. (Usually it’s just seconds, but it feels like about 20 minutes.) I put my face back in the water. Do a few strokes. Site. Do a few more strokes. Then I realize that I do, indeed, remember how to swim. Perhaps if I let myself have this panic moment instead of mentally yelling at myself to JUST CALM DOWN I would calm down and get to the business of swimming a lot sooner. (Because yelling at someone, even yourself, to calm down usually produces the opposite effect.)

I pulled up at the turn buoy to breast stroke around the turn and let a chaotic mass of people swimming behind me pass. My swim into shore was smooth and steady, followed by a run up the beach to the timing mat on to the makeshift transition area.

Ready to go on the bike I was looking for a mount line. There was no mount line. You could just get on your bike and go. OK. That’s a bit chaotic and I now appreciate the order that comes from a mount line. There was a slight hill coming out of transition before the turn onto the main road. I walked my bike a bit, got on it and tried to pedal, but a volunteer let a car go through which kinda freaked me out and I was in the wrong gear. And then I dropped my chain.

Are you freaking kidding me? I dropped my chain?

Yes. I dropped my chain. So I got off my bike (sorry riders behind me also trying to get out of transition) and looked at my cassette. I gently pulled the chain and put it back on, hoping that my fix would solve my problem. The bike moved forward. So I went ahead.

Everything seemed fine mechanically and quickly I found my groove. I felt amazing on the bike and quickly fell in love with the course which had some gentle rolling hills. I used all my gears (have I mentioned that I love my triple crank?) and hammered away. The sun had come out, completely burning off the ominous fog and revealing the amazing beauty of the forests and the lakes. I couldn’t stop smiling as I hammered away on the bike, enjoying every minute of the course, every hill and every gentle descent. I even enjoyed the burning sensation in my legs as I neared the end of the bike. “Shut up legs,” I said to myself, with a smile. That was when the song “I’m All About That Bass” wasn’t playing on a loop through my head.

This is where I am a bad triathlete. I know, intellectually, that I should hold back on the bike to save energy and legs for the run. I understand this principle. I have even used it successfully once or twice. But I just can seem to hold back on the bike. Which is why my legs felt like complete and utter crap when I started the last segment of the day.

To make matters worse, the run course was on a road with little shade and was a false flat. There was no opportunity to gain momentum. It was warm. I don’t run well when it’s warm. I also don’t run well when I am no longer sure if my legs are still attached to my body. So there were several factors working against me.

This is where the race became all about mental strength. People passed me on the run, just like I cruised passed them on the bike, and it could have easily demoralized me. But no. This was my race. I needed to not worry about how fast or slow I was running and just keep running. Stay strong. Aid stations were at every mile and I walked through them, taking a sip from one cup and pouring another over my head. Run to each station. That was my goal.

With about a quarter mile left, cars and spectators started to line the streets. I could hear the music of the finish line. My friend Tracy was running back on the course. She shouted encouragement to me. Already finished, she was running back to help her niece polish off her first triathlon. There are few people better to have on your side than Tracy.

I was close. Getting closer. I made the turn into a parking lot. A band was playing “Cecelia” and I sprinted across the finish line. Then I started dancing to the refrain, much to the appreciation of the gals working the finish line. But that wasn’t the end of the race.

After crossing the line, getting water and turning in your timing chip, I passed through a line of veterans from McKean and Warren Counties. They shook my hand. They said thank you. One took my hand into both of his when he thanked me. I thanked him for his service. He reminded me vaguely of my grandfather. Which made me feel honored, touched, proud and humbled all at the same time.

I didn’t look at my times until the next day. Because the times weren’t what this was about.

What it was about: I developed a better feel for the water. I crushed the bike. I held on mentally during the run. I had a chance to race with my friend Tracy and see others finish their first triathlon. I was honored to shake the hands of the local veterans.

Oh, and I didn’t get eaten by the Loch Ness Monster.

The day was a total win.

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All smiles after the race.

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