Anyway, I was number 573 (our of about 800 competitors), so I checked in, found my spot on the bike racks, got my race packet (which included a pair of green-and-white socks and a really cool race shirt, long-sleeved and black with a green and blue design), got my timing chip, got my body marking, attached my race numbers to my bike, helmet, and shirt, and set up my transition area. (For those who aren't familiar with how a triathlon works, there are two 'transitions' - swim-to-bike and bike-to-run - which are added into your overall time. All the bikes are numbered and racked together in the 'transition area', and everyone puts their stuff on the ground next to their bike in the order in which they'll need it - i.e. for the first transition, you need a towel, shoes and socks, sunglasses, a dry shirt, etc. for the bike. Elite triathletes try to do their transitions as quickly as possible, since that's the easiest way to drop their time.)
I could have competed in my age group or as an Athena (category for females over 150 pounds), so I chose Athena since that was a much smaller field (even though I didn't really have any illusions of winning anything). Athenas had dark green caps and started in wave 6 for the swim, along with all the women under 34, at 8:15 (the elite athletes had been wave 1, at 8:00; there were about 11 waves in total, all starting about two minutes apart). It was finally light outside at this point, but not more than a degree or two warmer; we were all barefoot and shivering in our swim gear. Many people wore wetsuits; I didn't (in the open water swimming world, they're considered to be 'for wimps', but in triathlons they add buoyancy, thus increasing your speed), which meant I was that much colder than the others, but luckily the water was 72 F. That's actually on the cool side (as anyone who's been to Ichetucknee Springs knows), but to us, it felt like a warm bath. I was wearing a sports bra underneath a lycra bathing suit, with bike shorts over that. (I'd considered putting on the shorts during the transition, but figured it wasn't going to keep them any drier and would be difficult to do with wet skin anyway, so I might as well just wear them.)
The swim went pretty well. My goal had been to beat 30 minutes, which I did by something like five or ten seconds. (My last one-mile open-water swim, in April 2005, was 32 minutes.) I passed a lot of people, including a few people with yellow, black, and blue caps - the slowest members of previous waves of swimmers. (All of whom passed me again later on the bike and run, I'm sure, but it was a confidence boost anyway.) I didn't do that great a job of sighting ahead, and zigzagged a little bit, thus adding unnecessary time, but it kept me out of the worst of the flailing arms and legs, meaning I could swim more easily without being kicked (or kicking anyone else). I tried to swim hard, since I knew the swim would be the only time all day that I would use my arms. I probably would have done a little better had there not been dozens of thrashing limbs around me churning up the water, but hey, that's the nature of the beast.
By the time I got out, I wasn't shivering anymore. Most people jogged from the water to the transition area, but I walked - running isn't a good idea on my feet to begin with, let alone barefoot on cold concrete. The more of my feet I could 'save' for the run, the better. People lining the chute were yelling, "All right, let's go! The hard part's over!" I thought to myself, with an ironic smile, Who are you kidding? The hard part is just beginning.
Anyway, I got to my transition area, sat down on my towel, used my chamois to rub as much of the dirt and grass off my feet as I could, put on my shoes and socks, debated for a moment what to do about a shirt (the long-sleeved TriGators shirt I'd come with, or the borrowed sweatshirt, or both?), decided on just the TriGators tee, put it on, jammed my helmet on my head and sunglasses on my face, grabbed my bike, and headed out. I tried to be efficient without rushing - thirty seconds here or there wasn't going to make one bit of difference to my overall standings, and it was better to remember everything than to screw up because I'd been trying to go too fast.
Thus began the bike leg of the race. I was pleasantly surprised that the course was not as hilly as I'd anticipated. The website had said it was tough, and we were pretty much always on one side or another of a slope, but they were manageable hills, nothing huge. I'd been worrying, because I have a really tough time with some of the hills in Chapel Hill, but it turns out there's a reson it's called Chapel HILL - there are a lot more/steeper hills here than there were on the Pinehurst course. That was a relief. I did have to stand up out of the saddle a few times (okay, more than a few) when going uphill, but I certainly wasn't the only one doing that, and at no time did I think I might have to get off and walk the rest of the way up a particular hill, the way I have to do on the way to school every day (there's one monster hill that I just cannot handle). I was constantly being passed - I think I myself passed a grand total of three people the whole way - but I knew it was going to be like that and I didn't really mind. (And when people pass you, they always say 'good job' or 'keep it up', which is nice. Or, in the case of this one guy who saw my TriGators shirt, they say, "Okay, let's go - ORANGE!" "BLUE!" "ORANGE!" "BLUE!" LOL!) And the temperature was fine - we'd all anticipated being practically frozen to our bikes, but it felt great, even with my wet clothes and lack of gloves. Wearing just the long-sleeved tee was the right choice.
Actually, the halfway point of the bike course was when I started thinking to myself, "You know what? I am having a BLAST!" With open water swimming, there's always a point (as much mental as physical) where the swim becomes completely un-fun and you start thinking to yourself, "Yeah, uh, this SUCKS. Remind me WHY exactly I'm putting myself through this?!" But I didn't feel like that at all on this bike course (well, I got sick of it in the last 20 minutes or so, but I knew the end was in sight, so it was okay). I was truly having a good time, which is not something I'm used to feeling in these athletic events. I do them to give myself something to work towards in my daily workouts (otherwise it's hard to motivate myself to get up and go), and because I meet great people and enjoy the camaraderie - not because the event itself normally brings me any particular joy. But today was really fun. Regardless of the fact that I was being passed, I felt strong and felt like I was racing well. Not being sure how the hills would be or how I'd feel, my tentative goal had been to beat two hours, which I did easily; I finished the bike (25 miles) in something like 1:37.
Transition two - bike-to-run. I reached this point at something like 2 hours 15 minutes, meaning quite a few people had already finished (beating 2:30 seems to be a common goal at this distance for the really serious triathletes). Which was a little discouraging, but I had met both of my time goals so far and knew there were still plenty of people behind me. I hopped off my bike (accompanied by the usual rubber-legs feeling), stuck it back on the rack, shed my long-sleeved T-shirt, put on my sleeveless T-shirt with race number attached, grabbed a bottle of water and my inhaler (which I didn't need - and haven't used in weeks (the cooler weather seems to agree with my lungs) - but thought I should have it just in case, because I remembered having a little trouble at the end of the River Run), tied my shoes more tightly, smeared some gel under my arms to prevent chafing, did a couple of stretches to try to alleviate the 'why-aren't-we-pushing-pedals-anymore' sensation in my legs, then headed out into the (six-mile) run. I was starving (it was nice to feel a normal sensation during an athletic event - during swims, all too often it's nausea that I feel, or at the very least, a lack of desire to eat anything for at least an hour afterwards), and couldn't wait to get the run over with so I could eat.
Ugh. The first part was not fun at all. A (very Southern) guy who passed me complained, "My feet feel like bricks!" and he was absolutely right. The hills which had been such a pleasant surprise on the bike were hell on the run. Luckily, I caught up to another Athena who was about my pace, a woman in her 40s named Jennifer, and jogged along with her for a while, chatting - which was great because it got me to forget about how uncomfortable I was. I wish I'd been able to stay with her the whole way, but just past the halfway point, at the top of a particularly tough hill, I started to feel the burning fatigue in my calves that means a cramp may not be far away. So I reluctantly told her to go on ahead, that I needed to walk for a minute to avoid cramping. So I slowed down, drank some water, and waited until my muscles felt better. From that point on, I alternated walking and running (mostly running, but with several short walking breaks, which I normally never do in my workouts). I had been worried about making the 4-hour cutoff time, but I could see from my watch that I was going to make it easily, and I was pretty proud of how well I'd done (by my standards) up to that point, so I didn't feel too bad about walking a couple of minutes here and there. I didn't really talk to anyone else after Jennifer, so it was a pretty boring course - winding through residential neighborhoods - but the cold, drizzly weather was finally working in our favor - it felt good on the run. At the five-mile mark, I took a cup of Cytomax from the aid station and gulped it down, and I swear I could feel the little 'sensors' in my stomach go, "Thank GOODNESS! Something we can USE!" I'd eaten breakfast (at 4 AM) and forced down a gel pack before the start, but that energy was long gone; I was running on water.
Finally, finally, finally, I could hear the announcer in the distance, and spectators were sprinkled along the side of the road. "Last hill!" "Keep it up, 573, you're doing great!" "Just two more turns, almost there!"
"Great - I'm starving!" I said, making them laugh.
They announced my name and "from Chapel Hill" when I came through the chute, and I checked my watch - total time, about 3 hours 36 minutes, meaning my run was about an hour and 18 minutes. I didn't really have a specific goal for the run other than to get through it without feeling like I was dying - and the one specific time I had thrown around in my head to try to beat had been "1:30, maybe 1:20" - so I was happy with 1:18.
Anyway, so I had some of the post-race food, headed back to my car, and left, sucking down a gel pack on the way to help with recovery. Those gel packs are really pretty gross - they're only palatable when your body's really craving the carbs. I tried to force one down before the start and only got about halfway through it, but I sucked that one down after the race with no hesitation. I got home around 2pm, made a 'real' meal (scrambled eggs, a bagel with hummus, hash browns, and orange juice), watched The Little Mermaid with Liz (we're both Disney fans), and then essentially passed out in my room with Liz's hot pack on my knees. I feel fine now - my shoulders are a little stiff (I tend to hold them rigid during runs, which isn't good, but it's habit) and my heel is sore, but that's nothing new. My knees are the only other 'casualty' - the band of tissue running just to the inside of the kneecap is sore on both sides, meaning stuff like transitioning from standing up to sitting down or vice versa is a little painful, but it's nothing too bad. The same thing happened after that ridiculous 90-km round trip to Waddinxveen on my bike in the Netherlands last fall, and I was fine within a day or two of that, so I'm not too worried.
Anyway, so I was really happy with this whole race. With my lack of cycling and with my foot acting up, I've been pretty worried for the past month about not being ready - Why the hell did I sign up for this? What was I thinking?! I've only ever done one triathlon in my life and that was an incredibly short one. I'm not ready for this. I'm going to die in the first mile of the bike. Why did I think this was a good idea?! But I WAS ready. I didn't think I was, but I was. This was the perfect distance for me - long enough to be a challenge, but not so long that it was discouraging. I met all my time goals - :30 swim (29:55), 2:00 bike (1:37), 1:30 run (1:18), 4:00 total (3:37) - and felt good almost the whole way through. Even when my legs were dying on the run, I still felt okay, hungry even, and not as if my whole system were going on the fritz the way I often feel during very long swims. It turns out I WAS thinking clearly when I thought this would be a good race for me, and that I made the right decision after all.
It was a great race and a fun day, and I'm looking forward to next year.