Part 1: The Build Up to the World Championships

By Sarah Wassner Flynn

image.jpg

Earlier this year, I had to write up my bio for the MCRRC Racing Team--my local club running crew. In it, I listed a rather ambitious goal: Place in the top 15 at the ITU World Age Group Championships in Cozumel, Mexico. There was no hard evidence to support this goal--I just figured if I worked hard enough, gained more strength and experience, perhaps a top-15 finish was within my reach.

After being selected for TeamRev3 in the fall and given the opportunity to represent the team at various Rev3 events--I chose Knoxville, TN, Williamsburg,  VA, the Poconos, PA, and Cedar Point, OH, as well as two local Rev3 sprints--I had an aggressive racing schedule set before me. All told, the World Champs would come at the tail end of a season that included a total of 9 competitions in various distances and capacities (sprints, olympic-distance, and relays). I began to look at Worlds less as my “A” race and more of my “bonus” race. I wanted to keep expectations realistic about my ability to sustain my fitness--and my motivation--from April to late September.

In May, I linked up with a cycling coach, Andrew Galbraith of Machine M3, and he helped me frame a training plan which would have me peaking in August for the National Championships in Omaha, and again at Worlds. Part of the program were early morning (4:10 am wakeups!) cycling workouts on a Wahoo Kickr trainer--which uses wireless technology to track metrics like cadence and power while you spin. In only my second season of competitive triathlon, it was my foray into the technical world of cycling and I soon realized that I had so much work to do. My swim and run were there--but I lagged (and still do) as a biker.

Meanwhile, in July, I began to feel pain in my left foot, near my ankle, while I ran. The pain was exacerbated by some tough track workouts and I was limping around for days afterwards. With the National Champs in Omaha looming large, I scaled back my miles and kept my fingers’ crossed that it would go away. The pain reached a hilt in Omaha, when after the especially brutal and hot race, I couldn’t put any weight on my foot. Still, I was able to place 9th in my age-group and qualify for the 2017 World Championships in Rotterdam. It was an unexpected result and one that I would’ve been happy to end my season with--had I not already booked a trip to Cozumel.

I wound up taking more than two weeks off of running entirely following Omaha; a visit to a foot specialist indicating that it was likely an impinged and inflamed nerve. With each passing day, I felt less and less confident about Worlds. I made up my mind that even if I couldn’t run--and had to stop after the bike--I’d still compete. I went through the motions of traveling and preparing to race even though the run was a huge question mark in my mind. Yes, I wanted to cross that finish line in the worst way, but at what cost?

A run in Cozumel upon my arrival further sunk my confidence. The heat and humidity seemed unbearable. I could barely slog out four easy miles. I doubted my abilities and thought about calling it days before the race. I’d still get a vacation out of it and the experience of being a participant at a world championship--if not a finisher.

But I had made it this far. And had a stash of Team USA gear to proudly wear and events to attend, including the Parade of Nations which I’d arrived days ahead of my race for. The experience of parading down the main street of Cozumel in our team-issued uniforms, having people chant “USA” and waving the stars and stripes in our direction was everything I hoped it would be. Being around my friends Christina Meyer and Katie Tobin, plus new teammates and meeting so many friendly and excited athletes--some in their 80s!--helped shift my perspective from “ugh, why do I really have to do this?” to “how lucky am I to get to do this?”

Although I still battled the typical (and, inevitable) nerves, I had a running internal dialogue reminding me that this would be, above all else, FUN. Mark flew in on Friday, bringing a welcome distraction from all of the triathlon talk. We took my pre-race relaxation seriously and spent most of Saturday lounging under a palapa by the ocean, being served frosty drinks (I limited myself to one pina colada) and hashing out plans for the rest of our time on the island. In the evening, we made our way to the race site, Marina Fonatur (dubbed “Triathlon Park”), about 15 miles from our hotel.

There, in a square field the size of a soccer field, I found my designated spot in the massive transition area, my name and an American flag printed on a small card stuck to a metal rack. I carefully racked my bike and assessed my plan for running in from the swim and out for the bike and run--figuring out the quickest route in what would likely be a lengthy transition. As I glanced around, I couldn’t help but be intimidated by the chiseled athletes around me, many with tell-tale “M Dot” tattoos gracing their toned calves, carefully tending to their gleaming bikes no doubt much more expensive than mine and equipped with sturdy, thousand-dollar race wheels. I pulled out my phone and texted my sisters for a quick dose of empathy, tapping, “I’m a tiny fish in a big pond here.”

“Don’t get psyched out before the race even begins,” Laurel instantly replied. “Just focus on you.”

Leaving my bike dangling on the rack for the night, I walked over to the blue carpet ubiquitous to ITU races. I caught a glimpse of the finish arch and was overwhelmed by emotion. There it was. A symbolic capstone to two years of hard work and decades of dreaming about the athlete I wanted to become. Only a night’s sleep and a couple of hours of racing separated me from that finishing shoot. Forget the foot pain and my questionable fitness level; my mid-range bike, my lack of international competition.  I deserved to be here.

Watching the elite women’s race only boosted my excitement. The field was comprised of athletes fresh off the Olympics, including gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen and all of the other top Americans. It had been a while since I’d watched an ITU pro race in person and these girls definitely deliver: The competition is fierce and the criterium-style format plays to the spectators. Sitting among new-found Team USA friends, we watched in amazement as they flew by us in tight packs on their bikes and, later, battling the 85-degree temps on the run. The journalist in me was wishing I was among the throngs of reporters positioned by the finish line, ready to pick up sound bites from eventual winner Flora Duffy and the other women diving to the finish, all sinewy, sweaty limbs. But I had other work to do.

Next up: Part II--The Race