Sarah's IronGirl Columbia Race Report

Guestblogger Sarah joins us today with her report from IronGirl Columbia. We couldn't be prouder of our little sis for fighting her way to a second place OVERALL finish. Just how did she pull that off? Continue reading to find out. --Laurel and Bec

IronGirl Columbia Race Report

As I stood among a sea of women in multi-colored caps, I couldn’t have been more pumped to race. It had been nearly a year since I entered a triathlon. But after a (mostly) successful few months of training–uninterrupted by injury or illness—I was confident and excited about  this race. Besides, I’d always wanted to complete an Irongirl. No time like, uh, right now.

But as the announcers called the 10th wave—those with the powder blue caps—down to the water’s edge, I froze. Maybe it was nerves or a tsunami of self doubt, but all of a sudden the adrenaline drained from my body. Instead of pushing my way up to the front as I would do in a running race, I slunk back towards the middle of the pack. It was advertised as a time-trial start, with women starting two at a time five seconds apart, so I told myself I’d get just as fair of a start no matter where—or when—I began.

Big mistake.

As the volunteers began releasing bunches of women three or four at a time in front of me, I noticed a significant bottleneck at the edge of the ramp leading into the water. Although we were told our race chip activated as soon as we crossed a bright orange strip of tape at our feet, many of the competitors were walking into the water and even stopping before they dipped their toes in. I quickly tried to assess a direct path into the water, but there were too many bodies blocking my way. So, when I got the go-ahead—at least 90 seconds after the first women in my wave took off—I ran into the water, navigating around a dozen or so stalled bodies as I plunged in. As it turns out, I was the 507th woman to start the race. Did I give myself a handicap or what?

From that point on, it was as though I was a minnow swimming among a herd of sea horses (yep, I said herd. Remember, I’m a writer for National Geographic!).  I’d take a few strokes, hit a body. Angle my body in another direction. Take a few more strokes, and narrowly miss a blow from another body. Circling the buoys was a painfully slow slog—there were just so many people and not enough real estate. I came to a complete stop at one point, treaded water for a few seconds, then started again. Not ideal. 

Yes, the swim was sloppy. But as I told myself in the water, that’s what triathlon is all about.  It’s scenarios like this that make us stronger, smarter athletes. We’re not always going to have clean water, or faster swimmers to draft off of. The best athletes are the ones who can deal with these challenges without getting frustrated. So I continued in the swim-stop-swim pattern until the bitter end, when I stood up and took off on the grassy stretch towards T1 like I stole something.

Swim Split: 18:45.00 (.62 miles). 2nd out of 162 for age-group, 24 out of 1,142 overall.

Lesson Learned: For the love of Pete, go to the front of the pack next time. As inconvenient as it was for me to swim around people, I’m sure I frightened a few first-timers off by swimming up on them.  And for that, I’m sorry, ladies!

The Bike

Here’s where things got really fun. Let me put it out there: I am a weak biker. Unlike swimming and running, which I grew up doing, I’ve never been coached on the bike—and I’ve taken significant time (we’re talking years) away from actual biking—unless you count spin classes at the gym. I don’t really know what I’m doing, although I am learning. So I had minimal expectations about this ride. After riding the course a week prior, I knew I’d have an advantage on the many hills, but that I’d have trouble on the descents.  And that was pretty much the story for this segment: I’d past a good ten people on the climbs, and then they’d all bomb by me on the downhills. Not. Cool. I can only imagine how demoralizing the race would’ve been if there were men out there passing me, too.

Just as I was feeling kinda sorry for myself for being such a wuss, a guardian angel came along. OK, so she was just a really cheerful woman offering advice and encouragement to other riders, but her presence lifted me out of a dark place and revived my motivation.  Feeding off of her energy, I began chatting with the other ladies and cheering them on, too. Why the heck not? It was the Irongirl, after all. If you can’t be all rah-rah sisterhood girlpower here, than where can you be? 

That spirit buoyed me all the way to T2, where I came in on FIRE. OK, maybe I was only going like 16mph, but I felt fan-freaking-tastic. I spotted my mom up against the barriers and gave her a huge smile before dismounting my bike. I hit another wall entering transition as women were walking their bikes down the hill toward the rack (and, true to form, I wanted to RUN), but nothing was going to slow me down. I had thangs  to do!

Bike Split: 51:24 (16 miles).  6 out of 162 for age-group; 30 out of 1,142 overall

Lesson Learned: Don’t be afraid to lighten up on the ride. Unfurrow that brow and have a little fun. You can still go fast and be friendly.

The Run

Ahhh, the run.  I was actually looking forward to that 3.4-mile rolling journey. I knew I put myself at a major disadvantage by starting so far back in my wave, and I told myself that it was GO time. No holding back. I felt pretty decent from the start, despite that hilly bike. I love a good chase—and with a few hundred women ahead of me, I had plenty of work to do. But as I checked out the calf number on each competitor I passed, I didn’t see a single woman from my age group. Which totally bummed me out because I assumed that meant an age-group top 3 was out of my reach. 

And when that doubt started to set in? Here’s what I told myself:  Exactly six years ago to the day, I was in a hospital bed experiencing the worst pain I’ve ever endured. 8 hours into my labor with Eamon, he stopped progressing and I’d yet to have an epidural. Yeah, that’s pain. Running 3-something miles? Piece. Of. Cake. Or at least that’s what I believed at the moment.

So I ran, and picked up the pace. And picked off runner after runner. The finishing stretch came upon me and I was just so excited to be so happy and feel so great at the end of a race. When I passed my mom and sister, I waved and yelled, “See ya at the finish line!” which I probably wouldn’t—and couldn’t—do in like 90 percent of my races.  

Run Split: 23: 12 (3.4 miles), 1 out of 162 for age-group, 2nd out of 1,142 overall
Lesson Learned:
No matter how tired you are, nothing compares to the pain and exhaustion of labor. So suck it up, buttercup. All the way to the finish line.

The Big Surprise

Triathlon’s a tricky sport: Unless you’re a pro or elite and start in the first wave, you really never know where you stand as you’re racing. Like I said, I was pretty much racing myself out there, which proved to be a good thing. Dialed in to my own race, I managed to stay mentally tough the entire time and didn’t let the typical fear of “what if she passes me?” or “what if I can’t catch her?” even enter my mind. I didn’t even wear a watch. I went by feel, and crossed the finish line with the satisfaction that I turned in a solid effort. For me.

After the race, as my friend Kristen and I packed up our stuff, we debated sticking around for the awards ceremony. We hadn’t seen any results and we weren’t sure if it would be worth it. Eventually, we made our way over to the timing tent where I plugged in my race number and received a print out with my results.  When I looked at the little piece of paper, I literally did not believe what I saw.

Second. Overall. Out of 1,142 finishers. This couldn’t be. Me? I’d never, ever placed overall in a triathlon. This was a mistake. I showed the print out to race director Brian Satola, who happened to be walking by. “Yep, that’s right. Congrats,” he confirmed.

I was overwhelmed. Shocked, acutually. I had no idea how this was possible, but I wasn’t going to argue with it. Without splits (there was a data corruption in the timing box in T2), I wasn’t able to determine the way things worked out.

By now I’ve figured out that my run catapulted me over a bunch of other women . After a so-so swim and bike, I turned in the second-fastest run of the day, earning me valuable seconds over the other ladies. In fact, only 32 separated me from 3rd, 4th, and 5th places.  So, thank you, running legs. You sure come in handy at times. 

To be clear, the winner Samantha Bird beat me by 10 minutes. She turned in a pro-worthy performance and I clearly have a lot of work to do. So that’s what I’m up to now. Learning from my mistakes and working even harder, I have nowhere to go but up. --Sarah