This race was a lot closer to home than usual. The state park on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp was only an hour from my house so I was able to sleep in my own bed and still have time to wake up at my normal triathlon day time and get to the race with plenty of time. There was just one problem. Either I turned off my alarm in my sleep or it didn't go off. I woke up 50 minutes late. Luckily the baby woke up at 4:50 a.m. or I would have sleep through the entire event. I got up and rushed to get ready. Luckily, I'd packed the car the night before so all I had to do was get dressed, grab water bottles and breakfast (a bowl of oatmeal), put the bike on the car rack and go. I ate as I drove. I got to the park later than I wanted, but still with enough time to get checked in and set up.
There is one thing you should probably be aware of before going into the water at a triathlon in the Okefenokee Swamp. It has nothing to do with alligators. They actually don't like all of the noise and if they were in that part of the lake to start with, they're long gone by the time the race starts. It's the fact that while the water is almost crystal clear, it is so ridiculously dark from the tannins it extracts from the peat at the bottom of the swamp that it sucks the light from the surrounding area. It's like swimming in a giant cup of tepid coffee. Honestly, given the fact that we're deep in the south, sweet tea would be a better simile, but most Yankees have never seen tea brewed as dark as we make it here, so I'll stick with the coffee. My arm literally disappeared before the elbow as I swam, even though I could make out the hair on my upper arm. It was a shock when I dove in and just inches before the surface I found myself in complete darkness. It's a very good thing I took the time to warm up, or the darkness of the water may have gotten in my head and screwed up my swim.
I was in the second triathlon start wave. The first wave was all of the male age-groupers. The second wave was all of the women and the special groups (Clydesdale, fat tire, armed services, relays, etc.) Three minutes after the age-group men got on their way, we dove in and went for it. I started wide like I always do because I'm typically not one of the strongest swimmers and because I can be a bit of a head case in the water, I'm probably getting better times by staying on the outside in open water than risking getting battered by faster swimmers coming up from behind. I got out of the water feeling pretty good, although probably not quite as great as my last race in Florida, when the current along the beach did at least a third of the work for me. I didn't know it at the time, but I was actually the 5th person in my wave of 35 to finish the swim. It hadn't been a perfect swim. My goggles fogged up (I really need to clean them) and we were swimming into the sun, meaning I often lost track of the buoys, but I was going in a straight line so I wasn't slowed much. A quick glance at my watch showed me that I was a little behind my goal time, but still in good shape as I made the long trot up to the transition area. I had exited the water just behind one of the other Clydesdales and managed to pass him on the run to transition and, according to the splits on the race results, I gained 15 seconds on him. Not bad. I went into transition with more urgency than normal and got out as fast as I could, hopped on the bike and went while slipping my shoes on while pedaling.
The bike course was a bit hillier than expected. This is a really flat part of the world and I'd been averaging around 21 mph in all three of my Florida races this summer and I felt like I was putting forth the same level of consistent effort, but I found out after the race that I averaged slightly under 20 mph. I really don't think I could have pushed much harder without falling apart on the run, so I'm okay with it. Around mile 6 of the race, that other Clydesdale I had passed on the way to transition pulled up next to me and said something. I thought he said "That sprint just about killed me." But he could have also said "That swim just about killed me." The last one makes sense because he did a lot of the home stretch in the side stroke, but he also had a time deficit to make up on the bike because I was faster from the water to the bike. After that, he pulled ahead of me and we spent the rest of the race passing each other back and forth. I'd pass him on the steeper sections. He'd pass me on the downhills, and this guy in his 60s would pass both of us on the flats. I managed to keep contact on the bike, but in the last four miles was always behind him.
Oh, and I made use of scientific research this race. Have you ever heard how cursing can help you better withstand pain? I had gone into this race planning to push harder than I have before and made the conscious decision to keep up a constant stream of vulgarities if I needed to. The bike leg was the first time I started using them as I brought them out to fight off self doubt and get myself to keep pushing as my legs started to tire. It worked. The moment when I thought about easing up as the other Clydesdale attacked in the last two miles because I just knew my chance at winning was over was immediately followed by a stream of curses (in my head) and an increased effort on my part. My goal here wasn't to pass him back, just to keep in contact, but I'm a good runner. I could catch him on foot if I needed to.
Turns out that I didn't need to catch him on foot. For the first time in my life, I passed someone in transition. I had my shoes off on the bike before I reached the dismount line, trotted to my transition spot, grabbed my visor, race number belt and tugged on my shoes and started running, only to see that other Clydesdale still standing at his bike taking something off. As I ran down the grass section to the road I started up my occasional cursing to keep myself pushing as I found my legs and waited for that second wind that I always get in the back half of my triathlon runs to kick in.
I should really be more vulgar when I race. My second wind kicked in before I'd hit a half mile and from then it was just the dread of being caught from behind that kept me going. When I hit the turnaround, I kept looked around for the guy with the beard (the other Clydesdale). It took much longer than I had expected. He was at least a quarter of a mile behind me (and he finished with a nearly 5 minute slower run split). I knew I had it. I was going to win.
And then I saw something horrible. As the transition area came into view, probably a mile from the finish line there was a guy with three characters on the back of his leg. Either he was over 100 years old or he had a special category marking above his age. As I got closer, I realized it was another Clydesdale. I put on another surge, honestly pushing a little too close to my limit, and pulled up next to him where I coasted a bit to catch my breath. Then I realized he was running too slow for me and I went back to my comfortable pace and pulled away.
As we neared the final turn into the parking lot for the last 600 yards to the finish line I heard footsteps. Shit! He'd pushed to catch me. I picked up my pace again. They were still gaining. I picked up my pace but he was now running next to me. I turned my head to the side to see the top of a tiny man's head. Whew. He wasn't a Clydesdale. That was good because I couldn't have held this pace all the way to the finish. I let this little man drop me, but I still managed to finish not long after him.
Oh, and after they posted the results, I found out that the last Clydesdale I passed wasn't even running the triathlon. He was a duathlete. He did make me finish faster, though.
I crossed the line spent, but not as sick feeling as normal. The temperature this time was probably 15-20 degrees cooler than my three Florida sprints. I was tired, not overheated for once. I walked to a picnic table to review my splits on my watch. Swim: 9:47. I could deal with that. I'd swum slower swim splits in the past with shorter runs to transition. T1: 1:09. What? That's about a minute faster than my fastest ever transition. Could that be right? Bike: 40:18. Slower than I wanted to finish the 13-mile bike ride, but not horrible. T2: 0:53. Really? Is that even possible? That's more than a minute off my best ever transition. What the hell was I doing this morning? Run: 24:22. No complaints there. That was exactly what I'd been hoping for. It was the fastest I've ever run the last leg of a triathlon. My total time was 1:16:29. That's three minutes slower than my goal, a combination of the length from the water to transition and the slower-than-expected bike leg, but still my best ever result. I was elated. Ten minutes later the preliminary results were posted and I was even more elated to find out that I won the Clydesdale division by 5 minutes and would have won my age group by 3 minutes.
Take-aways from this race. Being dedicated in training probably helps. I'd hit every training session on my calendar the week leading up to this and even though it was all running for my marathon training, I know it helped. Also, competing for something other than just a desire to do better than last time is a great motivator. I know that last transition was at least 15 seconds faster because I knew I was behind a guy I really wanted to beat. Taking it easier on the run wasn't an option when I knew I had something to lose.
I have one more triathlon this fall in October and I'll be done with multisport competitions until the spring.