Just a week short of the six-month mark, I raced. Two months ago, I wasn’t sure I’d be racing at all this year, or at least not until much later in the season. Though I had been optimistic over the winter, my confidence dwindled when I stopped making progress, and I wondered if I would ever be the same again, and be able to train and compete at a high level. I contemplated retirement; I looked into going back to school, and even pondered the idea of getting a spot in a residency program this year (a.k.a. starting in a few weeks’ time). Each of these grand ideas stuck around for about a week, because as much as things sucked, and at times made me want to give up, the alternative options just did not seem worth it, so ultimately I chose to stay the course. I just needed to keep on keeping on and hope that eventually something would click, and it would (almost) be like nothing ever happened.
That something still has not clicked. Training has been a struggle and I am not feeling like myself just yet. Though I am not the greatest swimmer to begin with, my swim is still not on par with where it has been in the last year or so, and let me tell you it has been elusive these days. I’ll get excited and think that its back, then 100m later, BAM, I hit a wall! And I’ll think to myself, well, it was nice while it lasted, maybe it will stay longer next time. Since I have been spending more time in the saddle, I have been seeing improvements on the bike. My run however, is another story. Much like swimming, some days I feel great and unstoppable, and other days I’ll be slogging along a minute per mile slower than my customary aerobic pace wondering if I am going to die because that is just how bad it feels. This has been the most disconcerting for me, because running is my thing, my mojo; I earn my paycheck on the run.
While I have not been feeling quite like myself-a happy, focused, confident and capable athlete-on Sunday I have felt more like that athlete than I have in a long time. I will straight-up tell you, that it wasn’t exactly my idea to do the race. I had it in the back of my mind before I hit that rough patch in early March, but then erased that thought. Until my friend and race director John Kenny asked me (started pestering me to race)… At first I said no way. Then I said I’ll think about it. Then I brought up the idea to Brian. I pondered the idea more, but the thought of racing was absolutely terrifying to me. I had not yet done a triathlon that was not preceded by months of preparation, composed of consistent training and some stellar, confidence-boosting workouts. This was most definitely not the case leading up to this past weekend. Yes, I had been putting in some good training, but nowhere near my typical volume and lacking any intensity.
Finally after much persuasion, and a little vote of confidence, John convinced me to race. No easy feat to get this stubborn girl to change her mind, or really make up her mind in the first place. Bravo John! This was after some reflection on my early days as a triathlete (four years ago), where I did well without having a coach or a training schedule for most of the year, and without a triathlon bike; I decided to “suck it up buttercup,” and go for it. I thought if I could win back then, I could win now. Plus I had put in some solid training days while in Arizona and in the weeks since. Then “Oly tri’ showed up on my Training Peaks schedule for Sunday and sealed the deal. I registered for the race (under my own name), but decided to try to fly under the radar, and only mention the fact that I was racing in passing, if at all.
The days leading up to the race, my confidence began to grow and I started visualizing what it would be like to race and cross the finish line in first place. I still felt apprehensive, and when I told people I was racing I said, “It is going to be interesting.” I did not have any real expectations, but I did have the premonition that racing might be exactly what the doctor ordered. Or maybe someone else planted that idea. I did tell my friend and fellow professional triathlete Carolyn Pfalzgraf that maybe I just need to stop being a drama queen and just race in order to realize that things really are not as dismal as I was making them out to be.
There was no overwhelming sense of anxiety in the days leading up to the race, and I did not get worked-up like I did before my first race last season at the Lake George Triathlon. While I was not thrilled feeling under prepared, I think this allowed me to be free of any and all expectations; there were no targets to hit, I just had to go out there and do my thing. Even spending a total of 9 hours in the car, driving across the great state of Pennsylvania to visit grandma in Pittsburgh for less than 24 hours Friday into Saturday, did not faze me that much.
I went to the race by myself, after masterminding a plan that involved my friend and John’s sister, Laura, driving my car and bike to French Creek and then my sister dropping me off there on her way home from Pittsburgh. Though I was not really alone as I knew many of the people there, including John and Laura, and I was staying in a cabin with another professional triathlete, Rachel Jastrebsky. I had met Rachel’s husband, Brian, at a race in 2012, but this was my first time meeting Rachel. She was there to help with the Toughkids race and compete in the Aquavelo. It was awesome to finally meet her and spend time talking about our lives and trying to make it as a professional in the sport.
When I woke-up in the predawn hours of race day, I did not even really feel like I was racing in a few hours; but I went about my pre-race routine and worked my way into the zone. It felt natural to be racking my bike, setting-up my place in transition, and having my number inscribed in black sharpie on my arms.
I was in the last wave, so spent a lot of time waiting around in my wetsuit, and with each minute that passed, my anticipation grew. The time came to get into the water and I waded into the cold and murky lake. It was impossible to stand without my feet sinking deep into the muck, so I tread water until it was go time. I got a decent start, but missed the opportunity to jump on feet. Not that I would have been able to hang on Kim Dale’s feet for very long, as she is a former Division I swimmer (and occasional lane mate on my old masters team in Philly). My feet went numb early on in the swim, and I felt fairly gassed before the second loop, but did my best to hold as strong and steady a pace as I could. When I got out I checked my time, it was about where I expected it to be, maybe 30 seconds slower than I projected, but shook it off and made my way to T1.
No fancy moves were made in transition; I just jumped on my bike and took off. Early on I passed the second-place women, but I knew Kim was still up the road. The rumor of the hilly bike course was affirmed in the first few miles. It felt as if I was either climbing or descending the whole out-and-back course. I paid little attention to my power numbers and went more off of perceived effort. I settled in a happy place somewhere between comfortable and red-lining (which are rather close together at this point in time).
Halfway through the first lap I took the lead and did not look back. I was more aggressive on thesecond half of the bike course, and estimated that my lead was about 6-8 minutes coming off of the bike. So many emotions hit me as I rolled into T2; a mixture of excitement and fear for what lay ahead on the run. My worry subsided when I heard cheers and saw familiar faces as I ran out of transition. Rachel had jumped in as a volunteer and handed me a cup of water as I made my way onto the run course.
The combination of having not run off the bike since my last race, and my feet being frozen and numb, made the first half mile of running feel bizarre; it was as if my legs were a separate entity from my body. As I ran and picked-up momentum, the foreign feeling dissipated and I was surprised by my pace when I glanced down at my watch. It had been a very long time since I had seen a pace with the first number being a six. After that, I mostly ignored my watch; this was not the day to worry about splits. My goal was to run as hard as I could, plus all of the climbing on the course really made splits even less relevant.
The first four miles were basically all up hill. It hurt. I was cursing in my head and even made some audible grunting noises for an added dramatic effect. But, in my typical fashion, I still passed a few dudes despite the pain.
Thankfully the last two miles were downhill, so I just relaxed and let my legs turnover. Boy did it feel good to come around that last turn and see the finish line. “See Emily, racing is fun,” I thought to myself. Running across the line, I grabbed the tape and lifted it over my head, a symbolic gesture of “I’m back!!!”
I felt overjoyed, not because I finished first, but because I was racing again. I am so glad a few people spoke louder than my doubts, and convinced me to get out there and do it. Perhaps the biggest victory was psychological, as being able to put it all together when I was not feeling ready provided a huge boost of confidence and the hunger for more. I also now know how far a little heart and courage can take me.
I had a blast, made some money, and spent the weekend doing what I love to do. There was also the added bonus of seeing some friends from Philly who I had not seen in a while; shout out the T3 Triathlon Team members Anh, Kim, JJ, Stephanie, and Mark!
A huge thank you and a round of applause is in order for John Kenny, who pours his heart and soul into this race. I only caught glimpse of all of the work that went into the planning and execution of the race, but that was enough to know it is an impressive feat to put on a triathlon. I highly recommend the French Creek Triathlon for triathletes in the Philadelphia area and beyond. It is well-run, and on a challenging course, with climbing that is sure to get your legs ready for many of the hilly east coast races like Syracuse, Lake Placid, and Mount Tremblant. The location is beautiful, and if you plan ahead, you can stay in a cabin just a half-mile from the race site in French Creek State park.
Going forward, I hope to stay consistent as I ramp up my training volume and intensity. I still do not have a race schedule set for the rest of the season, but I will work on solidifying some more races in the next week or so.
Onward and upward!