By Shay Pokress
As luck would have it, I was in the very last swim wave at 8:20 AM. The first wave went off at 7:00 AM, so right off the bat I was set to have a "back of the pack" experience all day long. In the days leading up to the race I tried to focus on all the good things about that - like a less congested swim and bike course. On race morning I stayed relaxed while the other waves went off, enjoyed no line at the port a potties, and got into my wetsuit an hour after the pros started (Andy Potts was probably at the bike turnaround when I started swimming!). By the time the horn blew for my wave I was mostly thinking "let's go already!" I did not feel very nervous, just resolved to do what I'd set out to do. Pure determination.
The swim was rougher than I expected with lots of swells. I thought I could do it in 45 mins but it ended up taking 50, which is fine. At least I wasn't out there for an hour. When the wave swells picked up I just focused on my stroke and tried to do exactly what I would do in calm water. I saw a lot of people struggling but I felt calm and comfortable. I did find myself thinking of other people I know who have gotten sea sick while swimming and I was concerned that I'd start to feel nauseous. That never happened, thankfully.
Swim: 50min. 49sec.
My bike ride was fine. I felt good the whole way and I stuck to my plan to make it feel like "an easy training day" (Matt's words of advice) for the bike portion. (Like Juli says: "bike for show run for dough".) I never got off my bike once in the entire 3hrs 40 mins it took me: I clipped in at the mount line and clipped out an the dismount line for 56 uninterrupted miles! In that respect it was quite different from a training day where I usually would have taken a few breaks. My back was starting to feel funny towards the end of the ride but I figured it was because I hadn't gotten off the bike at all. In hind sight, I probably should have taken port a potty breaks, if only to give myself a chance to straighten up. But I'm not sure it would have made much of a difference, and then I'd have been even slower!
The run was... tough. I started running and felt the familiar tight sharp pain near my SI joint on the right side. I've had something going on there since mid July. I saw a chiro a few times but nothing he did helped. I knew my back was an issue going into it, but I really wanted to do this race so I just decided to try to ignore it. Sure enough it was bothering me a lot as I started the run. Within the first half mile I stopped by the side of the road to try to stretch it out. Nikki Reading, bless her, ran up to me, and asked what was wrong. She was on her second loop so she knew that just a little way up the road there was an ice hockey team handing out snow balls (ice from the zamboni machine). She suggested that I get some snow balls and put them in the back pockets of my shirt. I never would have thought of that! When I finally got there, the boys with the snow were more than happy to oblige as I called out "I need snow!" The ice provided a numbing effect that helped me to ignore the pain a bit. All through this I was continuing to "run" but it was actually more of a shuffle. I was so frustrated because my lungs and legs were ready to go and felt really good. I was being limited by my back -- so very frustrating! I had put in the training and now I wanted my payout!
Finally, after the first turnaround as I was going up the hill on Route 11A approaching the mile 4 mark, I decided to just walk that small hill. I massaged the remaining slush into my back through my shirt and then when I started running again the pain was a lot less. I started running my pace (10 min/mile). I felt good! I started flying (well, in my book it felt like flying) and I was so elated to be done with that crippling pain! I now refer to that point in the race as the "mile 4 miracle".
The rest of the run was the more typical kind of suffering you'd expect on a long run -- quads starting to feel like rubber, positive self talk to keep the feet moving forward, and so on. I had mentally prepared myself to deal with all of that, so it was all good. Matt had run out Rt. 11A and cut onto the course so he was there to cheer for me at the mile 10.5 mark and then again just past the mile 11 mark. That was enough motivation to get me into the last 2 miles. Then Trish Kelly (my other angel for the day in addition to Nikki) appeared like a mirage in the desert around a half mile to go, cheering for me in the way that only Trish can, which put a huge smile on my face and got me to keep running that never-ending last half mile. The last five minutes were hard! I was so DONE. I tried every mind trick I knew and my whole body was just replying "nope, sorry, we're done now." But I did it. I kept putting one foot in front of the other until I was in the finish chute.
Turning the corner into the finish chute was sheer ultimate elation, joy, relief, pride... so many things at once, and maybe one of the happiest moments of my life. I immediately spotted Flo and her son James cheering me on for the last few steps. I was really grateful that they had stuck around to see me finish. I heard Joe Kurtz calling out enthusiastically as well, but I couldn't look up and find him in the crowd along the fence because I was fighting back serious emotional overload. For the last 10 or 15 paces of the run I started to cry and my throat closed up so I was having trouble breathing. Crossing the finish line was everything I'd imagined. What a feeling of accomplishment! Matt was right there to give me a huge hug and find me a chair. It was awesome!
I set this goal so long ago (last November) but then had multiple medical issues and injuries delay my training. Even with only being able to start training in late April, I somehow got to where I needed to be. I am really proud of that! Also, I'm so glad that I was determined enough to just keep running even though my back hurt so much. I've had bike/run workouts where my back needs a half mile or so to sort itself out. When the pain was still there at mile three, I was starting to lose hope, but kept going anyway. Huge lesson learned - things can get better even if they seem bleak at any given moment.
Well, there ends the story of my first long course triathlon. It was everything I hoped it would be and I am very happy with my performance given all the circumstances -- and we all know race day is largely about managing what comes your way, whether it be large swells in the water or spasms in the back muscles. I plan to attempt the distance again in a year or so and hopefully crush 7 hours. But that is for another chapter.
I want to thank everyone who was out there cheering for me - even those who distracted me and made me trip over my bike (you know who you are!) -- the support of my friends was so meaningful to me. There were many people who gave me useful advice and helped me to get ready for my longest athletic event ever. First and foremost I am grateful to my husband Matt who, through hard work and dedication, has earned a wealth of knowledge about the sport of triathlon that he has graciously passed along to me (as well as some nice race wheels too!) Even though he jokes that I don't like to take his advice, I actually do learn a lot from him -- and some of the most important things come just from watching him. He pursues his training and racing with a type of dedication that I can only hope to imitate, and I think that, above all, has made me a better triathlete than I would be otherwise.
To all my BTT friends who gave me words of wisdom as I prepared for this race -there are too many to name but especially Brett, Laurie, Beth, Mary Beth, Juli, Jorge, and Kyle - your voices were rattling around in my head all day as I reminded myself to enjoy the day, to stick to my plan, to stay positive, and most importantly to EAT! I just wanted you to know that I benefited from your sound advice.
To my angels Nikki and Trish - you are forever emblazoned into my race day memory. Thank you!