You know I had my misgivings (to put it mildly) about this race. So you can imagine my immense relief as I turned the corner and spied the finish line in the distance. Laser-focused on the inflated archway, I heard a familiar voice: "GO MOM!"
I looked ahead to the left of the chutes and there was my husband and three kids. I had no idea they were going to come and yet, there they were cheering me on, waving signs, hooting and hollering. I had run 2 miles in the rain, biked 10 miles in a downpour and was about to finish the hardest, hilliest 3.1 I'd ever done.
Sweet relief was 50 yards away, and there was my family. Oh my God. Overwhelmed and exhausted, I...well, let's go back a bit and we'll get to the thrilling conclusion below.
Flash back about 20 hours and Sandy and I pull into the registration area to pick up our packets. We got them and Sandy tested the water as she was going to do the tri, while I was doing the duathlon.
Massachusetts open water in early May
As we drove away, we drove parts of the race course. It was hilly - comprising a decent chunk of a state park - and we knew that going in. Given both of us were not, let's say, the most confident gear shifters, we were concerned about how we'd handle the hills, but, hey, it was too late to really worry about that now.
Sandy and I went for a race-eve dinner and talked through what we needed to do to prep, stuff to do - or not - on race day. This conversation was mostly me asking questions and Sandy observing, repeatedly, "You didn't read the race packet, did you?" I did not. The 16-page document scared me shitless, to be frank. I'm used to running, where you get an email from race organizers a few days before the event: "Please pick up your packet the day before. There are water stops at Miles 1 and 2. Beer and pizza after." This tri race packet was frightening - rules, regs and all matter of stuff that freaked me out and made me feel like I was in over my head.
Sandy talked me through most of the "Don't forgets" and "Remember this-es" and we parted ways to go pack and hopefully sleep a bit.
I went home and packed my gym bag with a change of clothes for post-race; my running metronome (no headphones or music allowed); race watch; baseball hat; prescription sunglasses; one cycling shoe (more on this later); helmet; phone; cycling shorts; wallet; RoadID; a long-sleeve tech shirt in case it gets cold; a sweatshirt; a trash bag; and a water bottle.
One of the cool things about a multi-sport event is you can bring a bag of stuff (most of which you need) and leave it at the start, in your spot with your bike. Compared to running, where you leave everything locked in your trunk and only carry a car key and maybe your phone, this is a luxury.
I went out and put the bike rack on my husband's car, then inflated Rocinante's tires to 100 psi. Yes, I named the bike. The name makes sense, believe me. Race prep done.
A ridiculous amount of crap
I love first thing in the morning - no one is up but me. Even though it's early, I can eat my breakfast in peace, read the newspaper and start my day quietly. As I sat and read, I heard, "Plink...plink." Crap, rain hitting the pellet stove chimney. It's raining, ah, crud. I knew rain was in the forecast, but I was hoping it would hold off. The race is 30 minutes from my house, maybe it's not raining there.
Then I wondered, why am I doing this on Mother's Day? My day! Now, I think Mother's Day is a crock designed to sell cards, flowers and the like, so it's not that I expect a big production. However, why do I set out to do these hard things, and why did I choose one on Mother's Day?
Unable to find a definitive answer, I tidied up, grabbed my bag and quietly slipped out of the silent house, ready to get on with this foolishness.
As I entered the state park, where the race began and ended, I passed by full parking lot after full parking lot. Then I noticed athletes biking to the start/transition areas with their bags on their backs. This concerned me on two levels: First, I was apparently late enough where I was in No Man's Land parking. Second, I'd have to hump my crap and my bike to the start. Everyone was biking with special tri bags sitting on their backs like a big backpack. I can barely balance myself on the bike, how would I fare biking uphill (yeah, did I mention you had to go uphill to get to the start?) with a heavy duffle bag hanging off to one side? Not well, I can tell you.
I parked where I was told and called Sandy: "Um, I have to bike to the start?" This may have been in the race packet, I guess I should have read it afterall. If I knew I had to haul to the start, I would have condensed and brought a backpack.
Oh, and by now, it was lightly raining. Awesome. Happy Mother's Day. I was about to lose my shit, but I took a few deep breaths and did what I have found works best: See what others are doing. Yes, some people were biking to the start, but others were walking their bikes and bags in the opposite direction. OK, I can do that.
I got Rocinante off the rack, slung my bag over my shoulder and started what was a 15-minute walk - in the rain - to the start/transition area. Once in, a put my race number on my shirt, the bike and my helmet. Then I ran into my college roommate, Wayde, who happened to be volunteering. His job was to mark runners' bodies with their numbers. 546 went on both biceps and my right hand as I asked, "Is this to ID me if I go off into the woods?" He didn't answer. I found that unnerving.
"How old are you on your next birthday, 43?" he asked.
I nodded. 43 D (for duathlon) went on my right calf. If you have a thing about revealing your age, do not enter a multisport event.
All inked up, numbers on, I was then allowed to enter the transition area, rack Rocinante and get ready. As I walked in, Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" played over the PA: "Everything's gonna be all right/Everything's gonna be allright". Let's hope so, Bob. Sandy did give me the hot tip to bring a trash bag, because rain was expected. Amazingly, I remembered and tossed my duffle bag into the trash bag to keep my gear dry because it was now steadily raining.
Roc, ready to roll
With about 5 minutes to spare before we were to be kicked out of the transition area (where you leave your bike and bag of crap), I found Sandy and we good luck'd each other. I also ran into my friend, Lisa, who has done the race several times and was the person to put the bug in my ear on this one. She was relentlessly positive and supportive: "Go slow. Race your race. You got this." If you say so...
Everyone stood, got pre-race instructions (sharp turn warnings, road condition warnings; steep hill warnings, truly all warnings), had a moment of silence for the Marathon victims and then listened to the National Anthem. Before big races (the half-marathons, usually) I always tear up at the Anthem. I'm not sure why, maybe it's the excitement that this event I worked hard for is finally here. Maybe it's that I actually showed up. Regardless, I took the tearing up as a good sign. This was going to be OK.
Organizers shuttled the duathletes to the start and we were off for a 2-mile out and back. The triathletes would go off, be organized and start the swim later. About 100 yards after the start, I heard, "Go Melissa!" Terry, a friend of mine and Sandy's, was standing in the rain cheering me on. I was so grateful to see her, given I didn't have a cheering section. What a great treat.
Driven by the steady beats of the metronome, I ran the out and back. It was hilly. Awesome. But when I got into the transition area to prepare to cycle, I looked at my watch and was surprised I ran much faster than I have all year. I didn't feel like I was pushing or trying to "race" others, so that was a nice surprise.
I hit the transition area and changed my shoe. Yes, shoe, singular. So far, I only clip in on the left side. I like the clip because it creates a good, solid pedal stroke but I can't clip in on both feet yet as I'm still worried about tipping over if I forget to clip out before stopping or panic, etc. On my last ride, I clipped in on the left, which worked well. My right, dominant foot was still free, and if I felt I had to stop, I could just pull it off the pedal without worrying about twisting, unclipping and then planting my foot.
Given this was my first race, I thought of cycling in my running shoes and not clipping in at all, but given the rain and the lack of cages on my pedals, I was worried my shoes may slip off the pedals, which are built for clips, not sneakers. So clip in I did.
By the time I got to transition, it started to pour. Driving rain. My clothes were soaked, my socks and shoes were soaked. Everything was sopping wet. I switched my left running shoe for my cycling shoe, dropped my metronome in the duffel bag, toweled off my seat, handlebars and brakes, and then shoved everything back in the trash bag. I just wanted to get the cycling over with. I fastened my helmet, walked the bike to the Bike Out area and when directed, mounted and started the cycling leg...up another hill. WTF is with this course?
I made sure I was in a low gear and started up the hill. I immediately had one problem: my sunglasses were very hard to see through, splattered with raindrops. First, it was overcast and the tint made everything darker, and second the lenses were continually splattered with raindrops, yet I had to wear them as they are prescription and I am severely nearsighted. I can run without them (as I don't run that fast), but biking without prescription sunglasses would be suicide. I tried nudging them down my nose and peering over them, but that was more distracting. Oh, yeah, and I'm doing this all going uphill in an effing rainstorm - in heavy bike traffic.
I took it slow and steady and stayed to the left, allowing faster cyclists - really, every other cyclist - to pass me. I wish I counted how many times I heard, "On your left" during the 10 miles. Had to be 50+. But I'd just nod my head to let them know I heard them and would not wobble into their path.
I made it up the initial hill and assessed my situation. This was my first cycling race. Through essentially a forest. In a downpour. With limited visibility. I would take this very slow. So I did. The rain was unrelenting. My head was soaked through the gaps in my helmet and my feet and socks were drenched. At one pedal position, it was raining directly into my cycling shoe. It felt like someone was pouring a cup on water in my shoe. Horrid.
Soaked shoes drying post-race.
Throughout the 10 miles I watched cyclist after cyclist pass me, and I'd see how old they were by their calves. 63? WTG, girl, you look fantastic. I checked out people's calves, wow, they looked like they were carved out of marble.
One of my concerns going into the race was surviving hills. Still getting used to the bike, I sometimes hit hills in the wrong gear and pay for it. Maybe once a ride I have to dismount and do the walk of shame up the hill if I'm in the wrong gear and can't recover in time. I didn't want to do that during this race, so I paid special attention to the gears and ensuring I hit hills in the right one. But at the same time, I had to concentrate on the riders around me, most of whom were zooming by in close range. There was a lot of processing going on, but I can proudly say that even with all those hills I rode each one, no walking.
From Miles 1-2 there is a very large climb, one I heard of and read about before the race. It was too rainy to even try to read the computer on the handlebars that gives time, distance and speed to gauge when it was coming. But I knew we were in for it when I heard a cyclist off to my left say in a low voice, "Oh, here it comes..." Still, just took it in a low gear and took my time.
Pretty soon we were up and over the hill and heading onto a major route - with traffic, as in cars, trucks, etc. Still in a downpour. Hooray. I spied Wayde where he said he would be, at the bottom of a hill, flagging us to turn right. I yelled at him, "THIS SUCKS!" I heard him laugh as I took the turn. After the race he noted with a laugh, "You looked scared shitless."
I was, the degree of difficulty on this race was off the charts for me. It was hilly. There was a lot of bike traffic. It was pouring nonstop. And now we were heading for open roads with vehicular traffic. All I could think of is, "Next Mother's Day I will be at a spa."
But for now, I was navigating speeding cars, trucks and bikes on my left. It was pouring, my clothes were soaked and my wet brakes made a creepy squeak as they tried to grip wet tires off a wet road. But I soldiered on.
Soon I saw the Mile 5 sign and thought, "Halfway done. Survive this and you've got it made." It was at this point I realized I never changed into my cycling shorts. I was wearing compression running knickers and I figured I'd just slip the cycling shorts over for an extra degree of padding. In my concern about the cycling segment and the rain, I apparently forgot. I also forgot to change shirts. I had that long-sleeved - and dry - tech T in my bag that would have come in extremely handy as I was now wet and cold.
Around Mile 6 I spied a nice, high curb, one I could coast up to and stop, resting my right foot on the curb without having to dismount. I did just that so I could get some water. Between navigating bike and car traffic and the weather, the thought of trying to get my water bottle out of the cage, drink from it, then get it back in the cage - all while riding - seemed like a recipe for disaster. Five seconds after I pulled over to the curb, I heard a cyclist behind me, "Are you OK?" "Yeah, can't drink and ride, thanks," I assured her. I have to say, the other athletes were really supportive. With personalized bibs, spectators or staff would shout, "Good job, Melissa!" or "You got this 546!" Whether offering support up a hill or just checking to see if you were OK, the athletes and the race staff were great.
Before the race they warned us of a steep decent around Mile 7.5. I thought of that and realized, "Wait, if there's a steep descent that means there's a steep ascent." And it was. Once up and down that hill, I figured the worst of the hills were over. I was wrong. The 2-mile out and back in the first run segment was the end of the bike course, so up, up, up the hill we went near the end.
Alongside the road was a homemade sign: "CRUSH THIS HILL." Here's a hint: If you ever see a sign like this, it means the hill absolutely sucks. Which is did. But as I made the final turn at the top of the hill and the descent into the dismount area, I saw runners starting the last 5K. Wait, the cycling is almost over. If I can live through this, I can run the 5K and then I am a duathlete.
With about a mile left in the bike, I saw Terry again. "Let's go, Melissa!" she yelled. I replied, "Tell Keith I'm alive." Terry knows my husband and I figured she could offer an update on Facebook to him.
The road to the dismount area was downhill (of course). I pumped my brakes to slow down gradually and about 25 yards out thought one thing: UNCLIP YOUR LEFT FOOT. UNCLIP YOUR LEFT FOOT. I would be damned if I survived that hellish cycling segment only to tip over at dismount. I unclipped in time, but then my shoe had little purchase on the left pedal. But I really didn't need it as I wasn't pedaling, just coasting to dismount. I slowed to a stop as directed by a race official.
I put my left foot down on the ground and tilted the bike left, then gently, slowly swung my right leg over. I started to walk the bike back to transition and my legs didn't seem to want to work. They were stiff from cycling for 50 or so minutes and my quads felt like cement. How could I run?
At this point, I kinda didn't care. I survived the bike. Hell, I'd walk the 3.1 miles if I had to. Nothing was stopping me now. I racked the bike again, changed out of a soaking wet cleat into a damp running shoe, removed my helmet and walked over to the Run Out area. I ran out when directed and we were heading...up another hill. My quads felt terrible, so I walked a bit, ran a bit, walked a bit until they loosened up.
About a mile into the 5K I realized I forgot my metronome. Crap. Will have to keep pace in my head. I won't lie, the 5K portion was hard coming off the bike. My legs were tired, my quads were stiff and all I wanted was to be done. Plus, I developed a bloody blister on my right heel. I've never blistered in my 3 years of running, I think the wet socks and wet shoes did me in. And the course was still hilly. I was about 2 miles in and stopped to a walk to give myself a breather, a woman passed me and good naturedly said, "Hey, 546! No stopping now, you only have 1 mile left, let's go!" So I did, slowly shuffling, but running.
The last mile of the 5K mirrored the first mile of the first run leg, just in reverse. I knew we were close. I could hear the race announcers rattling off finishers as they crossed the timing pads. Soon we were at Mile 3 and I could see the finish line arch in the distance. We just had to pass through this short, wooded pathway, then the chutes were in the distance.
I came through the woods with one vision: the chutes. It's at this point of every race that you realize you are essentially done. You did it. You set out to do something and you did. All you need to do is look fierce for your finish line picture and cross the timing pads.
With this on my mind, I emerged from the woods and heard: "GO MOM!" Through my tired, wet fog I realized I knew that voice. I looked for the source and saw my husband and three children, all holding signs and hollering with joy. I have never been that surprised in my life.
See, my family rarely comes to see me race and I am fine with that. Races are early in the morning, usually a decent drive and to get three little kids up, fed and dressed in time is a lot of work. Plus, when they get on the site, it's boring if you're not racing. I never wanted to stick my husband with that. They did come to see me race at Gillette Stadium last year and it was great. That was enough for me.
Keith had asked me earlier in the week if I wanted them to come watch and I said no. I was apprehensive about this race and I didn't want to stress of knowing my family was there and waiting. Plus, it was early and I'd be mostly likely out on the course for 2 hours. They'd be bored, whiny, etc. And today it was raining. I couldn't ask them to wait in the rain.
But there they were. As I passed them, I heard Keith say to the kids, "Go!" and my 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son jumped the chute and ran to the end with me. I was choked up, shocked, tired, wet and on the verge of tears all at once. I can't imagine what the finish line picture will look like. My face should be priceless. I came over the pads and grabbed a water. A volunteered congratulated me and asked for the timing chip around my left ankle. I started to bend to get it and she said, kindly, "No, let me do it."
I walked around the chutes and found Keith and the kids and started to cry. Happy Mother's Day, indeed.
Sandy and I post-race. We almost look like we know what we're doing.
Post-race. Everything's wet.