the 7 emotional stages of racing a world championship

ON A PLANE // SOMEWHERE BETWEEN D.C. AND CHICAGO — “Do you like it?”

I was in the gym locker room after an early morning pool workout, and the woman who had been swimming alongside me was asking me about training for triathlons.

“I love it.”

Given the week I’d had — a less-than-great fraction of a pretty bad month — I surprised myself with my quick, enthusiastic reply. Still, I meant it.

The interaction couldn’t have come at a better time. I had just two days until I would race in the ITU Sprint Triathlon World Championships, and I’d struggled to prepare for the event. At this point, the whole thing happened a month ago, and I’m just writing about it now because it took me a while to process everything I felt in the weeks before and after the race. So, here they are, in chronological order:

DOUBT 

Ever since I got the email that I qualified for a slot on Team USA for sprint worlds, I grappled with self-doubt. From what I understand, the host country gets more slots at the world championships than other countries, so it was easier to qualify for Team USA 2015 than it is when we’re not hosting. At age group nationals in 2014, the top 25 in each category earned a spot on the worlds roster, and those who placed 26-30 were alternates. In that race, I took 35th. 

After they adjusted the age groups for people who would be in different categories the following year (for example, a 29-year-old in 2014 would be competing the 30-34 age group in 2015, so she would “age out” of my class and into the next), I was 30th — the last alternate slot. If enough qualifiers in my group who raced faster than I did declined their spots, I could make the team. 

Sept. 15, 2014

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I’m in.

Barely

I can’t help but think of it that way. I got the last spot (or one of the last spots — I’m not totally sure) on the team that had more spots than any other country. I wonder, Am I going to finish last? 

I don’t want that to happen, and so I’ll turn my worries into motivation. I will harder and more consistently than I ever have. (I do). 

August 2015

I’ve made huge improvements over last year’s performances, but I thought I’d be fitter and faster than I am right now. I plan to make the most of the month-and-a-half I had till race day, but then I injure my knee like an idiot. I DNF the Chicago Triathlon, take a week off training and get back into it feeling slow and pained. At my second-to-last pool workout before the big race, that fear I felt back when I first qualified for worlds creeps up: What if I’m last?

I stop swimming, hang on the pool wall and close my eyes. Why do I do this? This hurts. I’m slow. I’m scared. Why the hell do I do triathlon? 

At this moment, I don’t have an answer, but I convince myself to get it together and finish the workout. Two days later, after another mentally tough (but not as bad) swim, that woman asks me if I liked triathlon. It hardly takes me a second to say I do.

Why? Because it’s fun. I like testing my limits. As much as it hurts and feels impossible and takes up a crapload of time, it’s really effing fun. 

(Yeah, there was a lot of doubt in this process — I’m working on doubting myself less — but it wasn’t constant, and it didn’t last forever.)

EXCITEMENT

Sept. 15

I am on Team USA. I will race in a world championship that’s held in my own country. I get to do it in my own state. I get to do it in my city. That’s really freaking cool.

I may have had some very rough points in training for this race, but I deserve to be here. I get to race in a Team USA kit in one of the greatest cities — one I call my own — and my family and friends get to watch me do it.

Bring it on.

CALM

Sept. 16

It’s just a race. I know the course. I’m in great shape. It’s a beautiful week in Chicago. This will be good. Look at me, parading around like a happy fool. This is pretty sweet.

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Sept. 17

I slept really well last night. My breakfast was delicious. I feel good. My transition is minimalist and perfect. Oh, look at that, another Hammer athlete. Hello! Let’s be friends. 

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This coffee is tasty. I’m going to go to the bathroom. I’m going to go to the bathroom again. I really like coffee. Bathroom? Great idea. 

Hello, family! Let’s take pictures of me looking cool in my teeny tiny bathing suit.

Hello, friends! Thank you for coming. You are wonderful. I’m going to squeeze myself into a wetsuit now. Good bye. I’m going to get into my start corral. Hugs. Smiles. Ear plugs in. Quiet time. Water time. It’s not too cold. The buoys are hard to see, but that’s all right. The Field Museum makes a good landmark. I’ll sight using the east wing. Don’t fight the chaos. Move with it. Breathe. Find your rhythm. Pick it up. Faster. Breathe. Faster.

It’s a long run to T1, and everything burns. Wetsuit down. Pass an Aussie. Goggles. Cap. Earplugs. Pass a Mexican. Row B. Rack 30. Wetsuit off. Bib number. Sunglasses. Helmet. Bike. Pass an American. “Good luck.”

PAIN

The bike course is mostly flat, but the wind is fierce. Tailwind first. I use it to gain momentum and pass people early. I gulp down some HEED, knowing I’ll need the whole serving because it’s hot and there’s practically no shade. With the tailwind I’m going 27mph. I turn around, and that falls to 20. 

In 2016, the sprint world championships will be draft legal, which I think is a great idea. The course is too short, the field too competitive to get space from other athletes. It’s very much a mental game — can I overtake this person in 20 seconds? Add in the fact that lots of triathletes can’t corner and the course is very narrow, and I end up slowing down more than I’d like.

A guy from the wave ahead of me doesn’t seem to understand the rules: When you’re overtaken, you have to drop out of the zone before you can attempt to pass. At least three times, I surge ahead of him, only to have him sprint past me 10 seconds later and force me to kill my momentum. I don’t want a penalty. He never gets one.

With mere meters left, I pass an Australian woman I’ve been battling with for an entire lap. I beat her out of transition, pushing hard to get my pace below 8 minute miles, and she flies past me. Over the next 5 kilometers, many more do.

The run is a hot, painful blur. There’s nothing to do but keep trying to go faster. Halfway through, an American passes me and says, “Come on, let’s catch them,” but I can’t keep up. My legs feel like they’re moving fast but my watch says they’re not. I stop checking it and continue trying to accelerate. 

And then there’s some blue carpet, someone mispronouncing my name and it’s over. 

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AWE

I wasn’t last. Sitting in a baby pool of ice water and other athletes’ sweat, I smile. I go find my friends and family, who tell me I unofficially placed 36th (in the end, I was 37th) of 75. I crossed the finish line with a personal best. I wasn’t last.

We grab celebratory beers, I look at the pictures everyone took, and I gaze up at the Chicago skyline, feeling tired but content. That just happened. I’m in a bubble of goodness and nothing else matters.

GRATITUDE

Sept. 17 to present

I raced on a Thursday. That’s not convenient. Still, I had a huge fan club cheering me on, in person and online.

Holy hell I have a lot of people to thank, in no particular order:

Papa DiGang & Bob: Thanks for taking the day off to come see me race for the first time.

Erin: You’re a trusty tri buddy. Thanks for bringing PAM since I don’t have my own. Keep getting faster — then I’ll keep getting faster, as I refuse to let you beat me. Boo. (Other Erin: When I got on Facebook later on race day, all your posts gave me all the warm & fuzzies. Thanks for cheering me on from afar.)

Mama DiGang: You deserve many awards and chocolate. Your support is unquantifiable. 

Kelly & Kennen: You came to see me race on a weekday and we’re not even related. Who does that? You do. Because you’re wonderful teammates. 

Guy: I know I’m a confusing human being who needs to figure out how to focus, among many other things — thanks for coaching me anyway. This has been a really challenging season for me, and your guidance has been essential to my success. 

Mary Ann & Rick: I’m so happy to be on your team. I thoroughly enjoy representing INTENT and partaking in this fitness lovefest you created. 

Other INTENT people: You da bomb. Thanks for all the positive vibes.

Everyone who sent me an encouraging text, tweet, comment/like on Facebook or Instagram: First of all, I was shocked how many people did. Second: I’m amazed you haven’t all unfollowed or muted me and my triathlon-crazy feeds. Third: Many thanks for sending me happy thoughts.

Hammer Nutrition: Not only do I love your products, but the community of other people who love your stuff has been so valuable to me this season. Thanks for the support.

And then there’s Matt. The rest of these thank-yous aren’t in a special order, but you definitely get saved for last. I get up early. I spend a lot of time working out, a lot of time sleeping and/or tired, a lot of time being picky about all sorts of things, and you put up with it. The only thing you ask me is, “How can I help?” which is amazing and ridiculous and wonderful. You’re the best. Just…wow. Thanks. I love you.

DETERMINATION

now

Worlds capped a season in which I set a personal best every time I crossed a finish line. Holy crap. To keep improving, I have a lot of work to do. I already have many goals for 2016, but rather than share them now and make this post any longer, I’ll just say I’m excited and yes, there will be many more posts of my crazy triathlon adventures in the coming months. Here are some pictures from that big day in September:

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