Tough Women take on Tennessee

I am pleased to say that I got to end my season on a high note this year at the Tennessee Toughman Half. To be completely honest, this race wasn’t even on my radar until a few weeks ago when NC 70.3 was canceled due to damage from Hurricane Florence. How relieving it was to find another half on the same weekend within driving distance! Clearly a lot of other former NC 70.3 athletes felt the same; the race had a strong presentation of other last minute registrants. The race director and crew put on a great race that didn’t leave me feeling like I was “missing out” compared to an IM-branded race.

Myself and two other teammates arrived in Knoxville a couple of days before the race, with plenty of time to scope out the course and get situated. I’d be lying if I said my nerves weren’t firing up at this point. This was my A race for the season and I had put a lot of pressure on myself to do well here; I have been feeling the fittest and the fastest I’ve ever been, and I really wanted something to show for it.

On race morning we woke up to chilly air temperatures and a light rain, which would continue throughout the day. After sleepily downing breakfast, we made the drive to the race site. The ride was less than 30 minutes, but I was wishing it could have been longer so I wouldn’t have to get out of the warm, cozy car. Our gracious sherpa dropped us off right by transition, where we unloaded all of our gear and picked up our packets. We were some of the first to arrive, which ensured us prime real estate since the rack spots were a free-for-all. In the light of my headlamp, I got most of my gear set up before heading out for a quick spin on the bike.

I immediately noticed that my front brake was slightly rubbing, which had not been an issue at all in the days prior. Concerned about tinkering on race morning, I brought my bike over to the on-site mechanic. The mechanic fiddled and fiddled, but my brake was only getting worse as he worked on it. I started to feel a bit of panic at this point – I had put so many months of preparation into this race, was it really going to be derailed by a mechanical issue before it even started? The start of the race was encroaching, so I left my bike behind and scrambled to get into my wetsuit. With less than 10 minutes before my wave start, I ran back up to the mechanic and saw him running towards me with my bike – “IT WORKS GREAT NOW!” he shouted as we made the hand off, and I thanked him graciously as I ran back to quickly rack it and get down to the swim start.

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Much to my advantage, the race start ended up being delayed about 10 minutes, which gave me enough time to do a short swim warmup and orient myself to the course. I found my teammates and we all said our final “good lucks!” before our wave was released. Despite the fact that we did not start near one another, within the first 100m I found myself tucked into a draft right on the feet of my teammate Cath. To sweeten the pot, Cath was riding the heels of another swimmer in front of us. Riding this draft train kept me focused and motivated throughout the swim, and I stayed right behind Cath for the entire two-loop course. She was quick to call me out later for how much I was slapping her feet at times… sorry, Cath! I am not a subtle drafter.

It was just a quick run up from the swim to transition with a pitstop at the wetsuit strippers (insert wetsuit stripper appreciation here). Less than a minute later I was on my bike riding away. The bike course was a T shape, with two loops along the upper bar of the T. The stem of the T, which we started and ended on, had some pretty steep hills. The road was beautiful and winding, and I’m sure it would have been quite fun on a dry day, but the wet roads had me playing the descents fairly conservatively. Once the course turned to the top of the T, we were actually on a fairly large two-lane highway. I was little concerned about this when we had been driving the course the day prior, but the road had a huge shoulder and traffic was minimal on a Sunday morning. This part of the course was just gently rolling, and it sure felt fast – I ended up really enjoying it despite the wind and the rain and the cold. I couldn’t feel my feet, but my legs were holding up their end of the bargain well enough. Approaching the first turnaround I looked for other women, I realized that I was in second place behind Cath – there were no other women ahead of us. Despite some volunteers telling me to go chase her down, I focused on racing my own race and pacing as I had planned. I made sure to keep fueling and hydrating throughout, which is easy to forget when the weather is grim, and came off the bike feeling prepared to run.

During T2 I really got an appreciation for how difficult it is to take off a helmet and put on socks and shoes when you can’t feel your fingers or your feet. After an embarrassingly long struggle with these tasks, I finally made it onto the run course. The course was a double-out-and-back, decently hilly but nothing too extreme. Early on, I tried to be patient and let my run legs come under me. By the end of the first mile, I started to feel pretty good and worked my way into the lead. From there, I let my legs do the thinking and went along for the ride. It was just one of those magical days where everything comes together; I felt strong and was even more energized by all the support I got on the course from other athletes cheering me on. Not to mention that while the mid-50s, overcast, rainy weather had been unpleasant on the bike, it was downright perfection for running. And well-stocked aid stations (with competent volunteers) were every mile, which made it easy to keep up with nutrition and hydration. As I got towards the end of the run, I realized that I was on track not just to win the race, but to beat my open half marathon PR and well exceed my time goal for the whole event. That realization was enough fire to keep me going strong through the finish, even as my legs started to really feel the burden of the effort.

In the end, despite the fact that the weather was grim, my bike almost didn’t make it transition, and it wasn’t even the race we had originally signed up for, the Tennessee Toughman ended up being exactly the race I wanted it to be.

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Finally Racing Raleigh

Being a graduate student, I have always avoided Ironman branded races due to the high price tag. Every June for the past three years, I have seen Ironman Raleigh 70.3 roll through my training grounds, but had never signed up for the race. This year, I decided to go for it. I wanted to see how I could do on my home turf.

Race morning came and the taper left me not as confident as I had wanted. I was having knee pain that seemed to be on-going, I was having trouble sleeping, and none of my workouts felt “good”. My goals were 1. Not DNF and 2. Get to the finish line quickly. I didn’t want to commit to any time goals, although I had rough ballpark figures in my head. As my wave stood ready to go, I felt too calm. Was I even ready to race? Was my head in the right place?

Swim: The water was not wetsuit legal at >80 degrees Fahrenheit. Since I started at 8:12 (fourth-to-last wave), I had many waves ahead of me, which meant many people to swim through. The most notable detail of the swim, however, was the choppy water. Having swam in Jordan Lake many times before in training, I was surprised to see such conditions. The chop was enough to cause my goggles to leak and straps to get knocked off on multiple occasions. As things went from “great” to “okay” to “not fun”, I decided to just try and manage through the rest of the swim and not stress about it. I got out, looked at my time, and I knew it wasn’t a great start to my theoretical time goals. Desired time: ~30-31 minutes. Actual time: 37:36. Thankfully, I still felt good.

Bike: This was going to be the area I knew I’d be most comfortable with. I have ridden on these roads many times, since I used to live right along the course. I knew that it would be a fast start, with more hills towards the end. It’s not a flat course, but it’s also not what I would consider a hard course. I had a specific race strategy, including wattage, nutrition, hydration, and when to put in efforts, and it went perfectly. I personally love most of this course, yet congestion continued to be an issue for me (yet it was nice constantly having people around for motivation). Official split: 2:31:29. This was almost exactly what I was planning on, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be enough for me to retain my run legs. I could tell it was getting hot. It was time to start focusing on the hardest part of the race.

Run: I hit the run course smoothly, and kept telling myself “jog, jog, jog… go slow… ease into this half marathon!”. Having ran most of this course before in local half marathons, I knew Hillsborough St. would take its toll with a slight rise and no shade. Knowing it was probably hotter than I thought it was, I started going slower through aid stations after the third mile, grabbing ice, sponges, and anything that would keep me comfortable as a precautionary measure. After about 6 miles I began walking through the aid stations, adding about 20-30 seconds per mile, but I didn’t want to pay the price late in the second lap for neglecting nutrition and hydration. Coming down Fayetteville St. the first time was great, as I got to see people I knew again, including my coach, which always helps during a race!

I started the second lap and immediately noticed that the weather was starting to really affect everyone around me. It was affecting me too, but I was still running at a good pace. I was motivated to start picking up the pace, but now running back up Hillsborough St., I could feel the cumulative fatigue. I knew this lap was about finding that limit, and staying there. I needed to continue walking through most aid stations, but in my mind, the race ended at the far end of Hillsborough St; Once I got there, I knew there was only about 5K to go, slightly down hill. I knew I was going to make it, I started feeling better, my stride was opening up, I was running quickly again, and yet I kept having to back off and recover from getting too ahead of myself. Coming down Fayetteville for the last time, I was elated. I had completed the race with no major issues, which was my main goal. My final run split was 1:36:24.

Total time: 4:49:30

It was a good feeling finishing my second 70.3. My main regret was waiting until the fourth year to sign up for this race. This was one of my favorite races to date! Hats off to the volunteers for being the unsung heroes of this race. Every aid station was full of volunteers who seemed to understand what you want as a racer (because let’s face it, some other races have volunteers who don’t know how to hand off bike bottles, fill up the cups too much, or only hand you one cold sponge instead of the three that you really want!). Additionally, I owe my family, friends, coach, and fellow racers a huge “thank you!” for helping me have a great race. Now it’s time for some recovery and return to shorter, faster racing!