I’m fidgeting in my zipped up wetsuit, standing on the dock of the lagoon in front of Discovery World. Hundreds of middle-aged, though very fit women are crowded onto the dock with me, waiting to lower themselves into the water. The sunrise lights up Lake Michigan and the air is warm, but not as warm as it could be for Milwaukee. The wavy blue water is very cold – we know because we’ve all just hauled ourselves out of it after warming up.
I’ve lost my teammate somewhere and I feel like I always do before the swim: introverted and jittery. I take a few deep breaths and think through the first part of my race: Strong strokes off the line, then look around for some fast feet to draft, ease up just a tiny bit, then swim smoothly.
I bend my head down, stretching my neck, and then I see something on the ground.
Blood, a spreading circle of it, pools under my foot. A lot of it. I lift my foot and red droplets fall as if from a leaky faucet, splashing onto the dock. I whip my head around, looking for something or someone who could help. The other women, just as race-focused as I am, don’t seem to notice me quietly freaking out. I bend over and lift the flap of severed flesh. It’s hanging off the side of my big toe, and we’re about to start the race.
The USAT Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee is my third real attempt at a Team USA slot, after trying in Tuscaloosa and Burlington. It’s become a long-term goal of mine to get that top-18 spot that will allow me to compete in the Olympic-distance World Champs.
Milwaukee on race weekend is filled with people in various kinds of tri gear running around, sitting in restaurants and whizzing by on their expensive bikes. The city over the past few days has been fun and pleasant, with good restaurants and a charming river walk area, and I’m looking forward to sampling some local beer after the race. Despite the different location this year, I know what I’m in for: A regular triathlon, just hundreds of times bigger and with a lot of incredibly fast competition.
On race day, I drive in from my hotel and park in an open garage facing Lake Michigan, then sit there for a few minutes looking at the sun coming up over the amazing winged Milwaukee Art Museum. My bike is racked somewhere down below and I feel ready to go. I’d been proud of myself yesterday for finally figuring out how to get my disc wheel pumped up with my adapter quickly and all by myself. (It’s an older Zipp with a tiny access opening, and every time I wiggle the crack pipe out of it I’m sure I’m going to tear the valve off.)
I eat my bagel and peanut butter without the anxiety about 70.3 race nutrition. I still plan to drink a lot on the bike due to the heat here, but I can relax a little bit about calories and water.
Once I go to the transition area and look over everything, I do my run warmup and check in my gear. (This was a “clean” transition. We can have nothing except what was needed to race, and anything else had to be checked in a clear plastic bag.) We are allowed to get in the lagoon and swim for about fifteen minutes before the race start, which benefits us early starters. This year the 40-44 women start in the second wave. Last year, in Burlington, we were the second to last, so this feels luxurious. After warmup, we have to haul ourselves up onto a dock three to four feet above the water surface. Random participants help pull us up, but as I wrench myself onto the dock with the help of someone’s hand, my foot catches on something. I don’t think anything about it until I look down at my foot later and see that I’m standing in a pool of blood.
After a moment of panic, I hop over to a USAT volunteer. “Do you have a band aid?” I ask, knowing that what I really need is stitches or steri-strips. This is beyond band aids. “Or, tape?” He doesn’t have anything and he has no suggestions, and he seems preoccupied, as one would, with starting a three-thousand-person race. I examine it again – it’s deep and blood is still pouring out, and I think about the two-and-a-half hours ahead of me, possible flesh-eating bacteria, tight fitting bike shoes, and I have no idea what I’m going to do.
Since he can’t help me, I look around for anything I can use to close up my toe, and then the loudspeaker crackles with an announcement. There is come kind of traffic delay on the highway, and we will need to wait while it’s cleared. I am saved by a last-minute race delay! I can’t believe it. I sprint, trailing blood, to an event security officer on a bike whose fanny pack looks first-aid-like. All he has are band aids and tape, but we tape my toe as tightly as possible, and a more thorough job can wait until the post-race medical tent.
So, somewhat rattled, I start the swim. I get in a lead pack of a few girls, and actually find some perfect speedy feet to follow until the first turn. We swim across the lagoon and under a bridge. Spectators crowding the bridge and hanging over are screaming for us and I can hear them with each turn of my head. I love it! I begin to feel wiped out after the bridge, and I feel myself slow down, but I still hang onto my lead group. We turn and head back to the exit ramp. Fortunately, it’s not the same ramp that slashed my toe, and I am pulled up by volunteers and am off running to transition.
Swim time: 22:22
Division place: 7
I pedal out and benefit – again – from being the second wave to start. The course is open and empty. I spin strongly but let my HR calm down until it’s in the mid-160s and I hold it there. I suddenly feel like I’m working ten times harder than I was in Boise, though my HR is virtually the same. I hope I can hold this. There’s a gradual hill heading over a bridge out of downtown, and suddenly I realize I’m feeling flat. My legs feel unresponsive and slightly achy. Would this feeling go away? Well, this feels bad for sure, but I have a race plan and there is nothing to do but follow it. I pedal on, willing the lactic-acid feeling to lessen with each revolution of my pedals. I focus on the beauty of the course: the bridge on the ascent has a view of sparkling blue Lake Michigan on one side of us and the sunlit city on the other. And on the other side, a descent helps me get back into the rhythm.
Bike time: 1:09:38
Bike pace: 21.4
I fly off my bike, hang it by the saddle, and slip my feet into my running shoes. I grab my visor and a gel, and I’m off. My bike-to-run transition always feels quick and simple. This run is on a flat path along the waterfront park that circles back to finish on the lake road. The sun beats down and the air is already getting uncomfortably warm. I glance at my heart rate, push it up to the mid-170s. Ouch, but I can hold it. It’s just a 10K. The air is getting hotter. I see my teammate up ahead and she looks good and strong. (Later, I find out she was hugely struggling and had thrown up twice – displaying impressive grit to finish the race strongly.) I pass a girl in a Team USA kit after gaining on her for a couple of miles. I maintain my pace heading into the pain cave of the last few miles, feeling nothing but my muscles screaming, my heart racing, sweat pouring off me, and my feet pounding the pavement. I stare at the back of the person I’m going to catch before the finish. I grab a quick drink and some ice to hold in my palms and hammer out the last two miles.
Run time: 45:16
Run pace: 7:17
Overall time: 2:21:08
Overall division place: 13
It takes a minute to sink in. I don’t need to wait for a rolldown, or an age-up factor, or a wait list of any kind. I’m IN!!! My teammate Heidi gets in too, and we go out that night and celebrate, drinking a sampling of Milwaukee beer to toast to what we’ve finally done after trying Nationals in almost every other part of the country. Milwaukee did it for us. We are heading to UTI Worlds in Edmonton one year from now!
Huge thanks to Ben, whose coaching over the past year has pushed me to new levels of fitness, confidence and commitment. And to my family for letting me do these awesome and fun races and being excited for me!