I don’t have a lucky number. If asked I’ll say it’s 13, just to be contrary. But the honest truth is I don’t believe in lucky numbers or rabbits feet or anything like that. In triathlon, lucky means getting placed in an early swim wave, having a spot on the end of the bike rack, preferably near bike-out so I don’t have to run far with the bike, or not getting a flat. I don’t have a lucky towel (for IronGirl I picked an Ironman – the character, not the race – towel just for fun) or a mantra or a certain order in which I do things. There are things I always do: I wear the same outfit, ride the same bike, run in the same stinky pair of running shoes that have blood stains on them from my last two triathlons, because that’s what works for me. I eat a GU 20 mins before I swim, wear my goggles under my swim cap in open water, and always put my timing chip on my left ankle, not because that’s where you’re supposed to wear it (you risk catching it on your bike chain if you wear it on the right), but because I have a 4 inch scar on my right ankle that is incredibly sensitive and feels uncomfortable if I strap a band around it.
So when I got number 777 for IronGirl Rocky Gap last Sunday, I thought it was cool to have three numbers the same, and mentioned to the number pickup person that it was easy to remember, but not for a minute did I think it was lucky.
In fact, I had such a raging headache at that point, I was feeling decidedly unlucky. Rocky Gap is in the mountains of Western Maryland, near Cumberland. It’s about as far west as you can go in that state before you reach West Virginia, and as far north before hitting Pennsylvania. My ears would not stop popping on the drive through the mountains, and I think the pressure from that, added to my allergies that hit hard last week, resulted in a humdinger of a headache that wouldn’t budge.
And I was annoyed that packet pickup was 7 (there’s that number again!) miles further west than Rocky Gap, so I had to drive past the park, go pick up my packet, and come back. Packet pickup was at the YMCA (more on why it wasn’t at Rocky Gap later) in Cumberland, a nice enough location, just 7 miles too far. Now, when you’ve driven for 2.5 hours and are hydrating for a race and therefore obviously need the bathroom, it’s a little frustrating to find that it’s closed for cleaning. And kinda funny that the YMCA would think it a good idea to clean the ladies’ room during packet pickup for a women’s race! By the time I left, the poor custodian was standing outside the bathroom as a stream of women had decided to follow my lead of ignoring the CLOSED FOR CLEANING sign.
I eventually made my way back to Rocky Gap and put my bike in transition before driving over to the hotel. For a minute I thought I was at the wrong place, then I realized that the “lodge” is now a “Casino Resort.” Yep, a hotel full of triathletes and gamblers. Interesting mix. And the hotel clearly didn’t want us there. They jacked up the rate by $40, refused to give anyone a checkout later than the 11am standard, and made it clear that they were in no way affiliated with the race. That answered my pondering about why packet pickup wasn’t there. Still, I think it would have been just fine to hold it in the pavilion at Rocky Gap, but maybe since there was also an expo with stuff for sale, that wasn’t allowed.
After checking in I met up with a great group of ladies from Ellicott City – friends of Miss Zippy, who wasn’t able to race but had kindly put me in touch with them as all my triathlete friends were racing much closer to home at Nations or Reston triathlons. The ladies were great, sharing stories and asking me questions over dinner, but I was feeling rough and I guess it showed because they kept asking if I was ok. When I couldn’t eat and started feeling like I was going to throw up I finally excused myself and went straight to my room and to bed. It was 8:30pm. I never go to bed early on race nights, for fear I won’t fall asleep. Thankfully falling asleep wasn’t a problem this time.
I woke up a few hours later feeling much better, and by the time my alarm went off at 5:30am I was positively chipper. Which was a good thing because I’d felt so lousy the night before, I had nothing ready. My room-mate, Janelle, was very relaxed and easy-going, which helped. We got ready and left the room at 6. I headed straight to transition because I was a little antsy about having enough time to get air in my tires, while she waited for the other ladies. No-one had cell phone reception so it was hard to get in touch with anyone.
I got into transition, found a pump to borrow right away, and inflated my tires. That felt much better as there was a huge long line of people waiting for Princeton Sports, the bike support, to inflate their tires. Unless I have a problem getting air in my back wheel, which has a funky valve because of the depth of the rim, I actually prefer to do it myself. I do recommend learning how to inflate your tires if you don’t, including knowing what PSI they should be. Knowledge, as they say, is power.
After setting up the rest of my gear I walked through the bike out area to find the bike mount line. It’s important to know where these things are pre-race. But there were no markings on the ground. I asked a race crew guy but he didn’t know. Later, during the race, I found out why: there was no bike mount line. Once over the mat and on the tarmac, racers could mount wherever. This is a bad decision race-wise because the area gets congested, and because most races have a bike mount line, so I think it would have been better to stick to the same format.
I double-checked my transition area one last time before leaving transition. The bikes were racked very close to one another, so space was at a premium, and racers had buckets and all sorts of unnecessary junk filling up the aisles. If I could give one piece of advice to (first-time) racers, it would be reduce, reduce, reduce. I actually walked back to my hotel with my warm-up gear and other extras I didn’t need, although I could have shoved it by the fence. Having an uncluttered transition area is one of the keys to fast transitions.
Then I headed over to the swim area. The first wave was in the water. There were two people in this wave: one pro, one elite amateur. I breathed a sigh of relief: I’d debated racing as an elite amateur so I could be in the first wave and not in the 7th (40 – 44 women) but had chickened out. At this point I was glad because I’d hate to be in such a small wave, especially as swimming is my weakness so I’d be waaaay at the back. Mind you, later on, during the bike, I started wishing I had been braver…
After the National Anthem the first wave went off, then it was hurry up and wait time. I wandered away from the crowds to put my wet suit on in peace. I’d say half the competitors had wet suits. This was the cause of (too) much debate the day before, because the water temp was 75 (76 by race day), which some consider too warm for a wet suit. My thought is, if it’s wet suit legal, I’m wearing a wet suit. I swim faster in a wet suit. I actually like wearing it. And I can take it off pretty quickly so I don’t lose much time in transition. But obviously the good swimmers went without. One day I hope to be one of those swimmers, but for now I’ll take every advantage I can get in the swim.
Finally it was my turn to get in the water. Lake Habeeb is a gorgeous lake and you can actually see all the way to the bottom. I enjoyed looking at the underwater vegetation during my brief warm-up, but once everyone got in the water, all the dirt got kicked up and I could no longer see. Probably just as well, because I’m not used to that so I could imagine myself getting mesmerized by it or freaked out if I saw a fish or something.
I sighted well to the first bouy, but after the turn I was swimming alone, which had me a little concerned. I could see a bunch of caps up ahead, so I knew I was going in the right direction (well, unless they were heading toward me…), but there was no-one close by. The bouys marking the course were a little off to my left, but I wasn’t sure if I needed to swim closer to them. In hindsight I probably should have, as I tend to pull right when I swim, so I think I was going a little off course. It didn’t help that a kayak monitoring the swim decided to park directly in my line of vision, so I couldn’t see the orange turn bouy. Eventually I got to that bouy and turned for the final stretch. Right into the sun. I’d noted that the final leg would be into the sun when I was checking out the swim, and debated the mirrored goggles, but they tend to make everything really dark and it was a cloudy day, so I went with the tinted. And so I was swimming blind. If I held my head up for a few seconds my eyes would adjust and I could see the finish inflatable, but that was slowing me down so I just swam as straight as I could and hoped for the best. Eventually I could see sand beneath me and knew I’d made it. I kept swimming until my hands hit the sand, then stood up and started the hard task of trying to run in water. Never as easy as it looks.
T1 was pretty fast, got the wetsuit off and threw it under my bike since there was no other room. While I was bent over I got whacked in the head by a giant wheel as the participant on the other side of my rack pulled her bike out. Not her fault, just the close quarters. Then I made a huge rookie mistake, which I’ll blame on being hit in the head. I pulled my bike out before donning my sunglasses and helmet. So then I had to lean the bike against my body while I put them on. Dumb. Eventually got myself out of transition and off to bike out. Mounted at the non-existent mount line and was off.
I had a fantastic bike ride. I knew it was going to be hilly. I knew it would be hard. But it was only 16 miles and I was determined to make them as fast as possible. From the get-go I was flying past the other riders. Granted, most of them were on big, heavy bikes and here I was on my 18 pound tri bike, wearing an aero helmet, but my speed fired me up. I pretty much yelled “on your left” the whole way. The hills were steep but they were short, which I prefer over long and gradual, which tends to fatigue me more. My legs would go lactic but then I had the downhill to recover. And those downhills were awesome.
The bike course was simple: 8 miles out, turn around, 8 miles back. Except that turnaround came at the bottom of a hill. And it was tight. We’d all been warned to slow way down on the approach to the turn, but the problem with telling inexperienced riders to slow down is that they tend to slow down too much. So coming into the turn, I got stuck behind a rider with no way to pass. She went wide on the turn and I went to her inside to make a tighter turn. And then she wiped out right on the turn. Thankfully I’d had the foresight to unclip one shoe, so I was able to put my foot down and then move out of the way. Of course this meant that I was at a dead stop at the bottom of a hill, which sucked.
8 miles and several hills later I arrived back in transition. But not before almost spectacularly wiping out on my dismount. The stretch into dismount was downhill, and I really didn’t want to lose too much of my 19.4mph average by slowing a lot. So I blasted into the final straight, having already removed my shoes, swung my leg over the bike, realized I’d done that too early so coasted some more, didn’t brake enough, and when I jumped off I flipped my bike. I managed to save it but at the expense of jamming my right foot into the ground. As I ran into transition I looked down at my throbbing foot, saw blood all over my toes and what looked like a broken toenail, and tried not to think about the pain. I jammed on my shoes and headed out on the run.
And that’s when I realized that jamming my foot had really buggered my sensitive calf. And it was bad. The good news was that stopped me from thinking about the foot, although I couldn’t stop myself from looking down to see if the blood was seeping through my shoe yet. I was able to maintain a sub-7 pace despite the calf, but it felt as if it would blow up any minute. Thankfully the run was only 2.5 miles and, after getting through 2 miles unscathed, I decided to just hammer the last 0.5. I knew I was running after prize money at this point and would be horribly disappointed if I lost it on the run.
I could barely put my foot down on the final straight. No kidding, it was supremely ugly. After finishing I bolted over to the medical tent to get some ice and, since they weren’t busy, got my foot taken care of. Turned out just to be a few scrapes and a broken toenail.
I went straight back to my hotel after seeing a couple of the ladies from Ellicott City, as I wanted to change and get my stuff packed up before the 11am curfew. That taken care of, I headed over to the results board:
I was SO excited to see that I was 5th, because top 5 got a share of the prize purse! Sure, my share was the smallest at $399 but it’s the most I’ve ever won from a race. Of course, once I defray the entry fee ($150 I think) and the hotel room (half of an exorbitant $250…only Boston marathon hotel rooms cost more) and pay taxes I don’t think there’ll be much left, but it’s nice to get something. I was so excited I didn’t even realize that was my room mate in 3rd place! And no, our room number didn’t have a 7 in it.
I found Janelle back at our room and congratulated her before collecting my award (couldn’t get that until results were confirmed at 11) and heading out. There was no point in sticking around. TriColumbia/IronGirl (not sure who’s decision this was) has made the strange decision not to hold an awards ceremony, which I don’t understand. Here we are, celebrating achievements of every kind, from showing up to crossing the finish line to getting a PR, and there is no formal presentation of awards. In fact, the whole thing was kind of weird because the race announcer read the award winners’ names aloud as finishers were still coming across the line. So he’d have to stop announcing award winners every now and then to say, “and here come’s another finisher. Sally Rider, you are an Irongirl! And 3rd place in the 50-59 age group…” It was very strange.
And I’m not sure what the message is here. Is it that IronGirl doesn’t want to acknowledge award winners? Is their message that we are all successful as a collective (like the Borg or communism) and individuals shouldn’t be recognized for their achievements? Of course, if you’ve overcome adversity then you’re recognized, but if you win the race or place in your age group, forget it.
I had debated entering another IronGirl because I just don’t go for touchy feely events. I know that many women like IronGirl because it’s a less-intimidating environment than a co-ed race. I happen to like co-ed races and find men to be useful pacers (!) but I realize that IronGirl isn’t designed to be hugely competitive and is a race designed for first timers. I still don’t understand why “The bathrooms have Charmin!” might be important to some, but I realize that my feelings about IronGirl are not shared by many and that’s fine. And I knew what I was getting into. I entered purely for a shot at winning some money. It was a well-organized event with fantastic support and I would recommend it. There’s just this underlying tone that women need events like this because they’re less capable, that they’re more concerned about their appearance than their performance. Much of the “talk” around IronGirl does suggest triumph in the face of adversity, as if being female somehow puts us at a disadvantage. And I guess I dislike that suggestion because I’ve never felt disadvantaged. I race against women, not men. I know I’m not doing the best job explaining this. I’ll leave it to a girl I bumped into when I stopped for gas on the way home. Noticing she had race numbers on her arm, I asked what she thought about the race. She mentioned it was her first IronGirl, and there was a slight grimace that indicated to me she may feel the same way as I did. When I said it was a bit “touchy feely for me” she said “Yes! It’s like….’Congratulations on overcoming being a woman!‘”
So there you have it. I came. I raced. I won some money. And I have finally overcome being a woman. Feels pretty good.