This was a race that was more than a year in the making, my debut professional race at Challenge Florida. I knew since Eagleman in 2014 that I would be turning professional the following season, making Kona my last race as an Age Grouper. A year ago I would not have predicted that this year would unfold as it did; I was expecting to pick up training in December and start racing in the spring. Well things did not quite go as I expected, but everything happens for a reason. After all of the turmoil of this past year, it really is a miracle I made it to the starting line of this race.
In the preceding weeks, my anxiety and nerves grew, and some days it was hard to shift my focus and remind myself of how consistent my training had been. I tried to treat it like any other race and not dwell on the fact that it was my first pro race. It was not until the Friday before as I was preparing to head out for the airport when I finally said, “I am in shape and ready.”
The trip down was uneventful and I witnessed a beautiful sunset as we drove down the coastline from Tampa to Venice. The usual pre-race rituals took place on Saturday with a short run and strides, a little swim, and a ride on the bike to make sure it was in working order. Only this time there was an added item on the agenda, the pro meeting.
As they were taking roll at the meeting fellow A3 athlete Iain Alexandridis turned to me and said, "It's just like the first day of school." I agreed and added, "And I am just as nervous." He offered me a few words of encouragement before the meeting began. It really was like school, basically the high school cafeteria, there was clearly a popular kids table in the middle with everyone else scattered at the other tables. It was hard not to look around, feeling a bit out of place, and I was so thankful to be with two experienced athletes, Iain, who had already done several pro races, and John Kenny who is in his 11th year racing as a professional.
I woke-up very early race morning to help ensure that I would have plenty of time and alleviate some of my stress. Surprisingly I did not feel too nervous, and was actually able to eat versus choke down oatmeal. This all changed when I arrived at transition and I stood staring at my bike for a good minute before I started unpacking my bag and setting up my spot. I had done this a dozen times before, but I fumbled through the whole process. I mostly kept my head down, trying to avoid the awkward stares.
When I finally got everything set-up I went for a short run before heading to the swim start. A lump started to rise in my throat and after zipping into my swim skin, I fought back tears as my mom hugged me and said a prayer for me. Getting in the water for a short warm-up calmed my nerves and as we lined up on the beach, I entered my zone.
The swim started on the beach and went out into the gulf around a pier, making the shape of a fish tale. Before the start I congregated with the other athletes as we were trying to figure out which way to go around the buoys as it was hard to tell while just standing on the beach, but between watching the men’s start and asking one of the race organizers we figured it out.
When the horn blew I dashed towards the water only taking a few leaps before diving into the waves and swimming. My start was good, not great, as I was not really sure where to position myself in the pack. I also felt my feet begin to cramp in the first 100m, but I stayed relaxed and managed to keep the cramping at bay for the duration of the swim. I sat on some feet after the first buoy, but shortly after the second turn buoy, where we turned to swim parallel to the shore, I felt her pace had slowed so I broke away, and before long I found myself catching up and joining the chase group of about 3 or 4 other women.
I felt as though I could be swimming a little bit harder, but I did not want to tow the group in to the swim exit so I swam with them until we made the turn back toward the shore and then pulled away battling some choppy water that made the last 200m the toughest and slowest part of the swim.
I ended up in fifth place out of the water, and with a strong start on by far my weakest discipline I knew it was going to be a good day. I was definitely surprised by my position coming out of the swim; while I have made improvements in my swim this past year, I still felt as though I was not quite at the level where I would be in the mix of a professional field, and I was happy to see most of the bikes still on the rack as I ran through transition. My transition was a little sloppy, as I felt like a deer in headlights, so I lost a few spots getting out onto the bike, but I made up for it later.
It was hard to settle in on the bike in the first couple of miles, which went through town and over a draw bridge. As soon as I got in the groove, I was feeling strong. The course was a series of out-and-backs and by the second turn around I knew I was solidly in 7th place with the top 3 very far up the road, however the fifth and six place women were in striking distance and I seemed to be closing the gap at each turnaround. By the fifth and final turnaround the woman in sixth place was only about 40 seconds up the road, so I made a push to close the gap and I eventually made the pass with about 4 miles to go.
Coming off the bike in sixth place was both exciting and terrifying, knowing I had to move up a spot and not give one up; but I was feeling strong and ready to fight for a spot on the podium. The run started out going around Gator Pond and as I rounded the last turn I could see the fifth place female on the far side of the pond. Less than a half mile up the road I made the pass just before mile one.
In my head I was cheering myself on, “You got this girl, come on, you got this. You belong here; this is your proving ground.”
After the two mile marker the course turned out to the Venetian Waterway for an out-an-back on a concrete path with no shade and lacking any cloud cover or cooling breezes. I was vaguely paying attention to the position of the other athletes so I had an idea of how far back I was from the first through fourth place women; my assessment had me safely in fifth. Before long, I found myself catching up with the first-place male pro, Eric Limkemann, who was on his second lap. I briefly pondered the fact that I might have gone out too hard, but I was still feeling good and my pace had not dropped off significantly. When he slowed to a pedestrian pace at the turnaround I passed him going around the cone, he gave me a “Good job, looking strong,” and I replied “Good job.” This boosted my confidence, as Eric is a veteran pro with countless wins to his name, and here I am in my first pro race running by him. Granted he is about twice my size and certainly taking more of a beating in the heat than I was, but this confirmed that I was running very well.
As I headed back to start the second loop, I only saw the top three go by, so I was unable to determine how far back I was from forth. After turning toward the waterway, I saw her about 50m ahead. My pace had slowed, but I felt assured that once I made the pass I would be firmly in forth. When I caught up to her, I realized it was Carly Johann a fellow A3 athlete. I muttered “good job,” as I ran alongside her about 8.5 miles in.
Then I really started to hurt. The turnaround seemed to have moved further away and I was feeling the heat. I dug deep and kept pushing as hard as I could.
“You are doing this Em, you are really doing this,” I said to myself over and over, and a wave of self-belief surged through me and carried me to the finish line. I had a huge smile on my face as I headed toward the big red arch. I wanted to leap for joy and throw my hands in the air, but I was too exhausted to do anything but drag my feet across the finish.
My mom, the all-star Sherpa, was there to greet me with a big sweaty hug. “Beautiful Emily, that was beautiful,” she exclaimed.
I am so thrilled with the result, as finishing in the top 5 and in the money was a goal I had buried in the back of my mind. However I tried to not turn it into an expectation, and I even told Brian not to count the chickens before they hatch when he said something along the lines of “when you win money at Challenge Fl…” I wanted to focus on executing a great race, and not put too much pressure on myself to obtain a certain objective outcome.
While I am no stranger to standing on the podium, a part of me felt a bit out of place, but in my heart I knew I belonged. I think my feelings of being an outsider were stemming from the sideways looks and the questioning “who are you?” I received from some of the other athletes. You may not know or care who I am now, but one day you will.
I am taking this week to rest and recover and start planning for next season. There are big things ahead and I have renewed excitement and optimism for what the future may bring.
I have countless people to thank for supporting me and for helping to make my debut professional race a success.
Thank you Adam Furlong for lending me your race wheels and for being one of my trusted advisers, along with Bill Robertson.
Thank you John Kenny for driving my bike down to Florida so I would not have to deal with the hassles of flying with a bike. Also, thanks for sharing your advice and words of wisdom.
Thank you Tom at Sourland Cycles for getting my bike in perfect working order and ready to race.
Thank you Brian for everything you have done for me this year, you have gone above and beyond your coaching duties in helping me get back on track and finish my first pro race on the podium. I am so grateful for your guidance and support.
Thank you to my family for all of your love and for your dedication to my success. Mom, you were a great Sherpa and cheerleader, and I am glad to have had you with me for this special moment.
Thanks to my sponsors.