Race Report: WINforKC 2010

About two minutes into the swim, my goggles filled with water. About five minutes before the end of the swim, one of the shirtless guys on the kayaks yelled: "Ma'am! Are you OK!" It was an utterly exhausting nineteen minutes in the water, during which my hips dropped, my heart rate rose, and my spirits, against all odds, did not flag.

That's one thing I'll remember about Saturday's triathlon. But it's not the only thing.

The WINforKC tri is hands down the best-run triathlon event in the area. It's the biggest women's triathlon in the Midwest, and shows no signs of letting up without sacrificing quality. This year, 850 women signed up; 636 finished, including some of the area's fastest, strongest athletes; 450 were first-time triathletes.

The energy in this race is tremendous. To see so many women lined up waiting for the swim start and hear their stories; to hear the crazy cheers when the first runner came through (many of us were still waiting to start the swim); to see the faces of the runners gritting it out in the heat and then the incredible smiles across the finish line... races like this are at the heart of triathlon, just a massive display of achievement.

And the weather cooperated, which is always nice. Gray clouds and a cool breeze just before the swim, clearing to a blazing hot morning.

At 7 AM, the vast shoal of pink-capped women funnels down the bike path into the grassy swim staging area. Pre-race instructions. We group by the swim minute signs. Nobody groups by the 20+ minute sign. I group at 14 minutes and think better of it, move over into 15. My pal Jen groups into 14, thinks better, bumps to 13. (She had an awesome first-timer's race: 1:35 with a walk-run. She could have bumped further up on the swim. Way to go, Jen!)

I stagger a bit on the sand waiting for my time-trial start. The starter says "Whoa!" and props me up. GO! Into the water. Dive. The swim starts strong, feels good. Smooth stroke. Hips high. This will maybe not be so bad after all. Awwwww.... crap. OK, at least lake water in my goggles doesn't burn like chlorine. And the Smithville water isn't as heavily saturated with fertilizer as the SMP water. Not too bad. But I go almost vertical to sight, hips down, not coming back up. Every six inch drop in the hips translates to 2.5 times the frontal drag. I'm fighting the water, and it's winning. Not much traffic, but a swimmer belts me hard in the right goggle after the second buoy turn. I get slower and slower, more and more tired, my goggles fuller and fuller of water, and by the time the kayak boy expresses his concern, I can't see the shore at all.

Better form would have made the leaky goggles a minor nuisance instead of a major contributing complication. I've got work to do. My main regret is that with my goggles full of water I couldn't actually see any of the shirtless kayak guys. Damn.

Anyway, no panic, enough strength to tell the kayak dude that I'm fine. Breathing steady and deep. Keep the stroke moving. When I finally hit sand, I belt pell-mell for the shore and up the mats. I just want to get to the bike. Tina Fleecs cheers me up out of the water — wow, it's good to hear her voice, mostly to prove that my cognitive function has not completely waterlogged.

I'm breathing heavily, utterly drained, and my sides hurt. No slowing down. Plenty of time to work it out on the bike. Out of transition in a hurry, clipping in. I take off like the hounds of hell have a taste for my blood already in their mouths. At mile three I realize I'm going too hard but it's too late. It will just have to hurt really damn bad.

Nobody passes me on the bike. I pass everybody. That's cool. Granted, because of my slow swim, most of the riders at this point are newer athletes on heavier bikes. But not all. From the time I clip in until I get stuck behind the farm truck riding the double yellow at mile 9, I stay in the pressure cooker. It hurts. Quads burning. Sides still stitched. Manage to suck down a bottle of water and Emergen-C and a gel (which unbeknownst to me got partly smeared on my face so I looked like a four-year-old with chocolate pudding drool. My race pics are going to be FANTASTIC).

Looking back, I could've spent more time down and aero, but was riding upright to breathe for the first ten minutes. So my swim cost me on the bike too. Will you just look at all the room for improvement for next year.

I had predicted a 35 minute bike for myself, and came in at 33:32. At our post-race beer and debriefing that afternoon, I crowed to the Major MudBunny (who had the race of the day, 1:18, absolutely demolished both the swim and the bike even though she also got stuck behind a farm vehicle) about my improvement on the bike. She reminded me that I was on a much better bike this year.

It's true. I'm crazy in love with my bike. Hey, somebody tell me why so many people coast down into transition? Wow. I am pouring on speed in my drops the whole way down the last hills. Plenty of time to brake and dismount. I don't get it.

On to the run. The sharp edge of the swim exhaustion is worn off, leaving the dull blunt force of the race exhaustion. Hydration's fine. The sugar from the gel kicks in. And my legs feel like pieces of rusted pipe, so everything normal. I go out fast and hard and as soon as I feel my breath shallowing, back off to a short, high-cadence stride, focusing on relaxed legs, vertical upper body, not crossing my arms in front of my body, deep belly breaths.

It is so godawfully hot. The sunshine is like a razor. It's worse than the Prairie Punisher, and I didn't think that was possible. It was a brutal run for everybody; there should have been a slate of women at a 6-minute pace. From the results it looks like all the regulars were running a half to a full minute slower than normal. True for me as well, a 10:08 pace. The Major and I both noted later that our socks were soaked the whole run and that this wasn't from wet feet after the swim.

On the way out, my legs feel locked up. But I know they're moving. They're moving faster than my perception. So when the sun shaves the last bit of energy out of me and the thoughts start crossing my mind that I want to walk, that it would stop hurting if I just walked, I'm ready. I know I still have room to run.

I slow my cadence. I say, "If it was easy everybody would do it." I say, "You didn't come this far to walk." I say, "I can hurt."

The run is a gradual stairstep up to the horseshoe turn, where I grab a bottle of water, drink, and walk out a few steps, then pick it up, my hips and legs finally unlocking and my stride becoming loose and easy, breath natural. Three people pass me on the run. At about .3 miles out, I hear footsteps. Oh no WAY. She is close to my pace and closing in. I'm not going to let this happen. I edge faster. She passes me. She's about five inches taller, strong-looking with a walnut-colored deep tan, and has a 43 on her calf, just like mine. All leg, good posture, but she's hot and suffering.

I hang on to her and on the next uphill, kick in and pass. Just over the top of the hill, she stretches her legs and flies by. I think: Maybe she's used it up. .2 miles. It's early, but OK, here we go: time to show what you've got. I pass her with increasing speed and don't hear her behind me again — but I feel her there, over my shoulder, and remember that flailing lost sprint to the finish at Draper against the fifteen-year-old...

Last turn. Uphill grassy sprint. Go. Go. Go. The voices and cheers of the crowd a blur of noise. Buried, buried, buried. Pain. Every last ounce. I double over, par usual, after the finisher medal and chip removal, and heave in and out. Seriously, one of these days I'm going to totally puke in the hair of the person who makes me stand still for chip removal right after I cross the line.

What a great race. Horrible swim. Great race.

Was so blitzed by the effort that I didn't want to stay and hang out and look for friends. I did see my run competition. "Great race, 43," I said, which made her laugh. "Back at you, 43," she said.

N. (who took fantastic photos, as always, will post later) waited while I picked up my finisher's shirt and results printout, changed clothes, and packed up my transition. We met Jen and Seth under a tree, where Seth poured the four of us a champagne toast and Jen and I basked in our newly displayed badassedness.

WINforKC women, here's to the effort and to racing you again. Next season, 'cause I'm done for 2010. Cheers!