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.
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.