RACE REPORT: VICTORIA 70.3 2019
For me, the hardest part of this race was getting to the start line.
It’s been 4 years since I’ve raced a triathlon.
The six weeks leading up to the race were a complete mind fuck.
I knew two things leading into this race: first, that barring catastrophe, I was heading for a significant PB, and second, that I was not physically capable of hitting the numbers I wanted to hit.
I’m a bit of data geek, and on April 13, 7 weeks out from the race, I sat down with my training data and the race results for the past three years for every woman I train with regularly. I’m fortunate to train with a group of fast women who have both done this race, and whose fitness levels I’m familiar with from training together day in and day out. This helped with constructing some reasonable expectations of how my training was likely to translate on race day. Comparing the two, my coach, Clint Lien, and I had a solid understanding of what race day was likely to look like under a best-case scenario.
Here’s what we came up with:
Actual Race Results:
(No, I don’t train with Rachel. But she won the race last year and her times helped me come up with a target of “within 10 percent”).
As a basis for comparison, my PB on this course was my 2015 race: 5:59:34.
It was clear going in that while my swim and run were in decent shape, my lack of bike fitness was going to pose a challenge. I told Clint that I wanted to focus on that in the weeks leading up to the race. He adjusted my program accordingly, but there’s only so much fitness to be gained in 7 weeks.
Despite riding 6 days a week, regular max-effort hill repeats, and a bike-heavy training camp in Whistler, my numbers just weren’t improving as quickly as I wanted them to.
2 weeks before the race, I was angry, frustrated, and told him I didn’t want to race.
What was the point – I thought – of starting a race that I knew was going to fall short of the expectations that I have for myself. I had a bit of a pity party and more than a few sleepless nights wrestling with whether or not I was going to race.
Luckily, Clint knows me well enough to talk me down off the ledge.
His argument was strong: the only way I was going to get faster at racing was to race. And while the results were likely to be disappointing, regardless, I would come out the other side a stronger athlete for having raced.
So I made the decision to focus on getting to the finish line – no matter what – and to forget about everything else. This wasn’t easy for me. I’ve always been a “go big or go home” person. When Macca talks about his decision to walk off the course after losing his lead in Kona, this decision resonates with me – I have trouble coming to terms with racing except racing to win.
I had to redefine “win.”
I had to make the decision that “winning” this race meant getting to the finish line after 4 years of not racing.
“Winning doesn’t always mean getting first place; it means getting the best out of yourself.”
And not worrying about anyone else’s time, or anyone else’s placing.
And it meant that when come well-intentioned teammate made an offhand comment like “you’re going to win your age group, Karmen,” my reply was “no. I’m not. And that’s okay.” It’s not that I was giving up. It’s that I had to accept that the top three women in my age group last year were all sub-5 hours and that my fitness wasn’t there yet.
I believe in making hard, seemingly impossible, goals and putting in the work to achieve them. But I also believe in being brutally honest with myself about my current abilities. While racing faster than I train is a great goal – racing 20% faster than I train is unrealistic and more likely to lead to me giving up mid-race in frustration.
Instead, I put my energy into doing what I could to ensure that I raced the strongest race that I am capable of right now.
The day was beautiful. We could not have asked for better weather. Setting up transition was smooth, and I got in the water for a lovely, calm, warm-up at 5:45.
As planned, I seeded myself aggressively for the swim. I cannot say enough positive things about the new rolling start format. Starting 3 at a time – with people who swim the same pace as me – was both freeing and calming. It was by far the calmest swim start I have ever experienced. I was able to grab onto some random guy’s feet around the 400m mark, and stay on the same feet, right next to the buoys, for the remaining 1500m. For the first time ever, I had no anxiety, no panic, and a strong, but controlled, pace.
At this point, no matter what else happened, I had won. I conquered the swim.
Exiting the swim, I set out onto the bike. It was encouraging to see transition full of bikes as I ran out. I knew that I had a solid swim and that put me in a good position.
For the first 20k or so, I was, unsurprisingly, being passed almost non-stop by middle-aged men. Given that I’m a stronger swimmer than cyclist, this was to be expected and didn’t really affect me. I kept my focus on not drafting (which was a challenge) and on making sure I wasn’t being passed by women.
Halfway through the bike, I realized that my power was starting to fall off. As we approached the more technical back half of the island, my poor bike handling skills were becoming a bigger threat: I was simply not comfortable holding the same speed around corners and down hills that my competitors were. This meant that I had to push harder and burn matches to catch up afterwards.
I had a choice to make. I could either let my bike power go and ride conservatively to save my legs for the run – or I could hammer the bike, knowing that I would likely be sacrificing the run. I could get through the bike on sheer strength, but it would mean leaving little in the tank for the 1/2 marathon.
I chose the bike. I decided to see what I could do – and let the chips fall where they may on the run. I knew that the first 5k of the run would be horrible, and I vowed to simply put one foot in front of the other until my legs can around.
I fought to maintain my average power on the flats, and burned matches, hammering every hill I came across.
At the third aid station, the volunteers seemed to be having some trouble. The station was arranged as water, electrolytes, food, electrolytes, water. I watched as the three cyclists in front of me failed to get water bottles in the first round, as the volunteers kept dropping them.
My plan was to take a water early, dump it into my hydration system, and chuck the bottle before the end of the station, thus avoiding a littering penalty. This strategy worked well for the first two aid stations, but failed on the third, as the volunteer dropped my bottle as well.
I had about 10 seconds to decide what to do. There wasn’t enough time after getting a water from the last volunteer to fill my hydration system and ditch the bottle. And I only had one bottle cage – at that moment the bottle in it was empty; I had finished my chocolate milk early in the bike.
5 minute penalty or $10 water bottle?
So I tossed my (new!) MEC water bottle on the ground, grabbed a new water bottle from a volunteer and stuck it in the cage.
At some point, I don’t even remember, but I must have emptied it into the hydration system, because by the time I got back to transition there was an empty bottle shoved into the bottle cage.
I pushed through the rest of the bike, hammering the constant hills on the last 15k of the course. I passed a ton of people going up Willis Point, only to have them pass me back on the descent.
It’s really clear what I will be spending the next few months focusing on.
By this point, Jim, his family, and a small cheering squad had arrived. I saw them but was so focused that I didn’t acknowledge them. I remember looking right at Jim, and then running past as I heard him yelling “You go! You go!”
As I got onto the run course, everything from the waist down was screaming. But I’d prepared for this – I knew this was going to happen – and I simply willed my legs to continue moving.
At this point, I hadn’t checked my overall time at all – my Garmin screens were set to only show me the metrics for what I was doing in that moment – average 30 second power, cadence, heart rate, that kind of thing.
I knew that my heart rate had been low throughout the bike and I was fairly certain that I was on track time-wise. But I didn’t know for sure.
“Baby steps still move you forward.” I told myself.
I passed the Mercury Rising tent and saw Clint and the team for the first time that day. They were cheering, and I remember Clint yelling something about me having a good race so far.
It wasn’t a great race, I knew, but after he said that, I knew I was on track to execute the race we had planned.
I knew that now all I had to do was finish. There were no surprises left. This run course is my backyard.
As I left the beach path and entered the woods I saw Lance Watson, the head coach of another local team, do a double take when he saw me, and say something to the effect of “you’re racing really well.”
Not sure what he expected.
Encouraged by this, I headed into the trees. Scarlet Kaplan passed me right away – she and I had been leap-frogging throughout most of the bike. She was holding 5 minute kilometres, and, try as I might, there was no way my legs were yet up to the task. My back hurt, my quads were screaming, and my calves felt like rocks. I took some tums for the calcium to try to settle the cramping and willed my feet forward.
The run course had aid stations every 2 kilometres, well stocked with my nutrition of choice (flat coke) so I didn’t have to carry anything; a huge relief. At each aid station, I would simply yell “Coke!” walk for 10 steps as I drank it, and carry on.
About 500m before the second aid station, I saw Scarlet emerge from the woods looking ill.
“Run with me.” I said. “We paced each other on the bike, let’s do the same on the run. We will both run faster.”
I gave her one of my tums and we settled into a steady pace.
At the next aid station through, she stayed back, and I carried on.
By kilometre 5, my legs had stopped screaming and had settled into a dull ache. I wasn’t moving quickly, but I was moving. My heart rate was still low, and I knew that the issue was muscular, not cardio. My leg muscles simply had nothing left to fire.
But I ticked off aid station after aid station, willing my feet to move forward. I knew I was going to finish – this wasn’t even a question – it was just a matter of enduring the pain to get there as quickly as possible.
As I came around to finish my first lap, the cheers from the crowds buoyed me.
But as I started the second lap, the soles of my feet felt like I was stepping on hot coals.
I’d experienced this before – first at the Half in Comox, and then at a few long training runs, including when I ran the course in Whistler.
And despite changing my shoes, socks, and examining my feet for injury, the white-hot burning has continued to flare up during long runs without a clear culprit.
I tried shifting my stride from mid-foot to heal strike, which helped a bit. And I walked through every aid station – amazingly, the second I stopped running and walked, the pain was instantly gone.
A large cheering section had built up around the Filter Beds – roughly 4km from the end. A mix of my non-racing teammates and complete strangers, they chanted “Karmen, Karmen, Karmen!” when I passed and their energy was infectious.
The thoughts passing through my mind alternated from “I did this.” To “No matter what, I’m not going to achieve my goal.” To “This is going to be a massive PB.”
I had checked my overall time once, during the first lap of the run, and I knew I was on track to finish around the time we had predicted. I also knew that more than 5 women in my age group were ahead of me, and there was no way I going to hit the podium today.
I vowed to focus on finishing strong, and forget the rest.
The last 5km were the fastest of my day. My legs had finally come around and I was able to hold consistent 4:50 kilometres – 10 seconds faster than my target pace of 5:00.
I crossed the finish line, and went numb.
Jim took a video of my accepting my medal and hat; I look like a zombie.
2 minutes later, when I finally caught up with him, I broke down and cried.
I cried for the four years I’d spent fighting to get to this point.
I cried because my best wasn’t fast enough.
I cried because I had achieved a win – by my definition.
I cried because there is so much work left to do.
I cried because I had proven to myself that I could do it.
All in all, I took 41 minutes off my 2015 PB on the course.
Even with all the issues I had on the run, my half marathon was still six minutes faster than the stand-along half I’d run in September.
I have a long way to go.
But I cried because of how far I have come.
I am so grateful to be back racing. And it has lit a fire under me to want to achieve more.
This week is all about rest and recovery.
Next week, it’s back to work.
Don’t fight it, it’s coming for you, running at ya
It’s only this moment, don’t care what comes after
It’s blinding, outshining anything that you know
Just surrender ’cause you’re calling and you wanna go
Where it’s covered in all the colored lights
Where the runaways are running the night
Impossible comes true, intoxicating you
Oh, this is the greatest show
We light it up, we won’t come down
And the sun can’t stop us now
Watching it come true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show.