triathlon rule no.1: don’t panic

ELMHURST, Ill. — On the eve of yet another race day, it is important I remind myself to remain relaxed and optimistic about the physical test ahead of me. You see, as much as I understand that I must accept the things I can’t control (i.e. weather, other athletes’ speed, course terrain — pretty much everything) and that I have the amazing luxury of controlling how I react to those things, I still tend to go a little nuts from time to time.

Exhibit A: Galena Triathlon // May 16, 2015

I got to my parents' house the night before the race, and Mama DiGang was already ahead of the game on race prep.
I got to my parents’ house the night before the race, and Mama DiGang was already ahead of the game on race prep. She is the best.

I did a pretty great job with the whole cool-as-a-cucumber thing when prepping for this race (it helps to have an amazing support team — shoutout to Mama DiGang). It was raining, it was the first triathlon of my 2015 season, the course had a lot of hills and I was running a little late that morning. I had plenty of reasons to get wound up, but I felt calm and appropriately excited as I waited to start.

Then I actually started, my first mass-start in the water in nine months, and the chaos got the best of me. The good news is I reeled in all the energy I started wasting trying to free myself from a pack of other panicked swimmers, I got into a good rhythm and I started passing people. The bad news is it took me longer than it should have.

Good job, I said to myself, making progress through the 660-yard swim leg. You got back in control nicely. What a trooper. Minutes later, with the beach in sight, I felt a surge of adrenaline. I can pass that girl who’s a body length ahead of me right now. GO. GO GET HER. I went a little overboard, and as I felt my form start to get sloppy, I panicked. WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE YOU CALL SWIMMING?

Then I inhaled a bunch of water. Then I choked on said water. Then I had to pull my head out of the water to cough it up. This is generally an unproductive way to conduct yourself in a triathlon, and as you may have guessed, I didn’t catch that girl. I exited the lake just after she did, still trying to catch my breath.

On the bike, I dealt with many more hills than I’m used to, given my training grounds are absurdly flat — not an excuse, just a fact. I took the first few hills too conservatively, which I realized as a woman climbed past me (of course, I checked the age marked on her calf, and she was in my age group, ugh). I spent the rest of the 16.8-mile bike leg chasing her down. She stayed within sight, reaffirming my feeling that I should have attacked the hills harder from the beginning.

I didn’t mentally prepare for the hills — have I mentioned there were hills? — even though I had studied the course and knew exactly what I would face. I wasn’t ready for all the chatter in my brain, which lasted for the first 5 miles or so:

Oh my god what even is your pace right now? Don’t you think you should be going harder? Yes. Yaaaaassss. That’s it. Suffer. Wait! Stop! Don’t overdo it! You’re going to fall apart on the run if you spend all this energy climbing hills now. Oh, come on, what the hell? You’re going to let that woman pass you? The bike is your jam. This is ridiculous. OK hold on, let’s not forget about that run. There are hills in there, too. Would you just make up your mind already and race?

Yeah.

I’d like to say I pulled it together after that, but I hadn’t quite gotten it out of my system. After a solid final 10 miles on the bike and a quick transition, I started into the 4.2-mile run, knowing the first hundred meters involved a steep hill. Still trying to find my legs after the bike leg, I wasn’t sure how best to get up that sucker. A lot of people were walking. I shuffled, suffering significantly, giving the illusion I was running but knowing I was probably going slower than I would if I walked.

Wait, would I go faster if I walked? Just this part. I’m barely gaining ground with my granny moves right now. Power walk? Power walk. Hang on, is that a good idea!? OK whatever I’m already walking so let’s just get this over with.

I walked as fast as I could up the last part of the hill and took off after that. Despite a lot of cramping and many more rolling hills, I ran confidently from there to the finish.

I walked away from Galena with 4th in my age group, 18th overall female and a lot to think about. Other than the mental freakouts, it was a good race. When I was in the zone, I felt strong and broke through some tough moments. My nutrition plan went perfectly, which I struggled with two seasons ago, and I’m happy to have gotten that down. (I sipped on Hammer HEED before the start, took in Endurolytes and HEED on the bike, and ate a Hammer Bar after the finish — Cashew Coconut Chocolate Chip is a reward from the heavens, I swear.)

#racewithINTENT
#racewithINTENT

In the weeks since, I’ve focused on remaining calm in the face of things that scare me, with a lot of guidance from my coach at INTENT. This isn’t to say I’m now a stone-cold badass. I’m getting better, but I have a lot of work to do. For example…

Exhibit B: Swimming in Lake Michigan // June 4, 2015

It was a beautiful sunrise Thursday, when I headed to the beach to practice open-water swimming with a training buddy of mine. I knew it would be cold, and it was, but I was excited to work out in the clear, fresh water.

oh hey, 5:30 a.m. on a Thursday. You look good.
oh hey, 5:30 a.m. on a Thursday. You look good.

But holy crap, I haven’t ever swum in such cold water. The water temp was 50 degrees, and the coldest I’ve ever raced in is the low 60s. I couldn’t keep my face in the water for the first 10 minutes of the swim, because I couldn’t control my breathing.

My mind didn’t help: SHIT this is really cold. Breathe. Get it under control. I have a brain freeze. I’m wearing a wetsuit and I’m hyperventilating. Will I get hypothermia? It’s only 50 degrees! Those poor people on the Titanic were in icy water, like iceberg-icy water, and they got hypothermia. Oh god, the Titanic. Hypothermia. Drowning. I’m in cold water. GET ME OUT OF THE COLD WATER. Stop it. This is not the Titanic. This is Lake Michigan, and you’re fine. Shut up and swim. 

Like I said, I’m working on it.

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