Let’s step back to Fall 2015. The leaves were changing, I had spent more than enough time on the tri bike for anyone’s
season lifetime, and rather than hunker down for a winter of indoor spinning, my thoughts turned to the outdoors. “I like nature! I love swimming in open water, running on trails, exploring parks…I know, I should try an off-road triathlon! Sure, the bike will be different, but I can figure that out.” Triathletes, if you ever utter the words “but I can figure that out,” pause for a moment, question that assumption…but do it anyway.
Bright orange mountain bike in hand, I headed for the trails. Luckily, DC’s only legal mountain bike trails are in my neighborhood (Ward 7’s unofficial motto: “We may be a food desert, but we also have a forest!”). As far as mountain bike trails go, these are quite tame–mostly flat and wide, with few rocks or logs or sand traps or other hazards. So naturally, I managed to fly over my handlebars into a small embankment and have a (ok, several) meltdown for being unable to bunny hop over a small log.
But this was the fall, and I had plenty of time to practice, so why not sign up for an off-road triathlon? I think you can guess what happened next. Fall turned into winter turned into unsafe riding conditions. Plus, I didn’t want to ride alone, limiting my options further. (Despite being in DC, these trails don’t see a lot of human action; when I run them, I usually see 0-1 people and 5+ deer.) Sure, I spent many quality hours on the indoor bike trainer, but that doesn’t exactly build mountain bike handling skills.
With time running out on the calendar, last week I figured anything was better than nothing, and took the bike on a 90 minute spin at a good quip, feeling confident and strong…because it was the totally flat and extremely wide C&O Canal Towpath.
This weekend was the big event: Xterra Jersey Devil in Barnegat Township, New Jersey, home to the famous Pine Barrens. If you click on that link, you will know more about this area than I did before the race (pro: glad I didn’t know about the carnivorous plants, con: wish I had known that it would be so sandy, so I could, um, learn how to ride in sand). While the distances were in line with most sprint triathlons, my former LUNA teammate (slash pro triathlete slash off-road beast slash all-around nice person) Kara LaPoint warned me that off-road races take quite a bit longer to complete, so plan hydration and nutrition accordingly. (Cue the ominous music.)
The first race of the season always feels awkward, like any moment will come the realization that I’ve forgotten something. And that moment did come. Again and again. Things I forgot to bring: USAT card (and no cell reception to pull it online), race belt, extra swim cap, towel, sandals, clothes that made sense for the weather (50 and pouring). But I pulled a Tim Gunn and made it work. (Fun fact: a shoelace can make a perfectly adequate race belt in a pinch!)
Usually, my pre-race strategy is to drive the bike course and bike the run course the day prior. This time, however, neither one of those things was possible. Besides, I wanted to know what I was up against. Answer: the bike course was at the max of my comfort level, but definitely doable. The run was basically an obstacle course, trekking through the woods from flag to flag, hopping over and under logs, crossing creeks and bogs, and hoping that the wood planks covering mud lakes didn’t slide out under our feet. Good times.
Race morning came, as did the downpours and plunging temperature. Yayyyyy. Unlike road triathlons, which can start around 7 AM, this one started at 9 to allow for people to scope out the course again. Did I do that? No. But I did get my bike checked by the mechanic and learned that I had inflated my tires adequately to ensure I would be fishtailing around every turn. Lesson: Sand + mud = lower tire pressure (23 psi, not 55!).
We had the pre-race briefing and headed down to the swim start. Usually, the run from the swim to the transition area is just a minute or two, on smooth concrete, sand, or carpet. This being an off-road tri, it was more like half a mile over rocky, acorn-strewn trail. But no one complained or freaked out. They just positioned an extra pair of running shoes (or their bike shoes) by the lake. This was, for me, the biggest difference between “regular” and off-road triathlons: the former is [stereo]typically filled with type A, high strung individuals who obsess over everything, freak out about the swim being too cold/long/rough/present, get pissy if they can’t pass someone right away on their $10,000 bike, and grumble if the run course isn’t exactly as advertised, with evenly spaced aid stations. (I’m not saying all road triathletes are like this, but be honest, we’ve all seen it.) The vibe at this race, however, was delightfully low key. People didn’t complain. When the race director said they had to reroute the run course due to flooding, everyone thanked him for making it work. Everyone wished each other luck pre-race, cheered each other on during the race, and helped pack up the site afterward. So refreshing!
Now that we’ve had all that buildup, here’s how the race went: swim = good! Cold, fast, single wave, drafting fun, managed to get to the front pack, done in a jif. Probably a bit short but the water was in the 50s so no one was complaining. T1 run = easy because I had placed my running shoes there. These were also my biking shoes, since I haven’t switched to the clip in pedals/shoes on my mountain bike yet. (Remember, terrified newbie.) Bike = less scary and frustrating than feared, but still not my favorite. Usually, I pass people on the bike, not the other way around. This was weird for me. Luckily, people were very nice about it, patiently waiting for a good spot to go around (or I pulled over) and thanking me. This means, however, that for the first time ever, I absolutely loved the run. No more biking! Plus, the trail was so narrow and overgrown, I was glad to not be any taller or wider. Sorry, dudes. The trail was even muddier than yesterday, between the rain and people running it before me. Fun! But really, for a race like this, if you aren’t getting dirty, you aren’t doing it right. And I did it right.
Post-race had some highs and lows. Highs: friendly volunteers handing out food and even opening bottles for us because our hands were frozen, seeing I’d snagged 1st in my age group, learning there were warm showers we could use. Lows: Mild hypothermia while returning to the swim start to get the bag with the car keys, waiting in the pouring rain to hose off my bike (unfortunately, the rain was not sufficient), wandering around the woods in search of the shower, arriving at the award ceremony to learn they had started early and I had missed my name.
But still, overall a good experience. I’m proud of myself for venturing out of my comfort zone. The race also made me really excited about this summer’s swim-run in Engadin, since it skips the bike part (and makes up for it with 9x run and 8x swim). Also, I want to extend big shout outs to my sponsors, Rose Physical Therapy and LUNA bars. The awesome folks at Rose helped me move past a string of shoulder and hip injuries this winter, getting back up to speed just in time for the race. And LUNA is always so wonderful with their nutrition (I mean, what’s not to love?), gear that warmed me up after the race, and supportive team atmosphere. Also, thanks to my coach for building my post-injury fitness and letting me write my workout notes in emojis and f-bombs, as needed.