ITU Grand Final (Age Group Worlds) – Edmonton, Alberta

Pre-race

Getting to Age Group Worlds has been one of my biggest goals over the past five years, and after what seems like forever, race week is finally here. The past few weeks have been filled with tons of speedwork on the bike and run, trying to hit paces I never thought I could hit, and I’ve warmed up with a couple of local sprint triathlons.  I’m as ready as I’ll possibly be.  I’ve come into this week prepared to work hard, but also to completely enjoy the experience of being a part of Team USA.

The race is in Edmonton, Alberta, yet another place that I likely wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit if it weren’t for this racing thing.  I flew up on a little Horizon Air plane along with a few other triathletes, including to my pleasant surprise, the famous Sister Madonna.*  photo56 I heard that Edmonton is known for hosting these kinds of large events and the Grand Final was held here once before, in 2001.  These are a few other notes I made about it:

  • It has a population of about a million people
  • It’s surrounded by flat plains as far as you can see.
  • The half-mile wide, winding Saskatchewan River separates the downtown and the race venue in Hawrelak Park.
  • Several tall bridges span the river and the banks of it are built up with running trails and green space.
  • It’s very pleasant and beautiful.
  • It has the largest shopping mall in North America, and yes, we checked it out.

My friend and long-time race partner, Heidi, and I spent the pre-race days keeping busy. We used the free-for-athletes public transportation to travel between downtown and the race site, scoping out the course, practicing the swim, and watching some of the Elite and Sprint races that were happening the same week.  I stayed at the Westin Edmonton, home of Team USA and the British national team, both of whom had “office space” set up on several floors of the hotel. Among the things Team USA provided for us were three dedicated bike mechanics, a team coach and a team doctor. The team headquarters distributed gear, daily schedules, maps, daily ride plans with the coach, and stationed USAT employees there to answer all of our questions.  We felt quite pampered and taken care of.

The parade of nations was first up; 6,000 athletes from 70 countries marched through downtown to the opening ceremonies, during which we had a flyover by a Canadian Air Force snowbird to get us excited, in case we weren’t already. The day before our race, we checked in our gear at Hawrelak Park. Each piece of our gear had to be looked over by an official, including our wheels, helmets, and kit. One of the officials told me that if it was windy enough, disc wheels wouldn’t be allowed, and if I chose to check in my bike with the disc, there was no turning back. I stuck with the plan to use my wheel, and took my chances.

Race Day
When the morning of the standard-distance AG triathlon and the last one of the week arrived, I headed to the race venue about 5:00 AM, catching the train and shuttle from the hotel. The temp was maybe low 40s at the race site, and I hoped I’d be able to stay warm enough until my start at 8:30.  It felt really cold!  My bike hung where I racked it last night, covered with dew. I did a thumb-check of my tires, which I’d slightly over-pumped the previous day, and then wiped down my bike. There seemed to be no wind, so I was safe with my disc.

Everything done in transition, I headed back to sit on one of the shuttles to try to stay warm, and ran into my parents. Dad gave me two of his jackets to keep warm and we found a spot to hang out while we waited for my wave. I shivered probably from nerves just as much as the cold.   My one hope, which was mostly out of my control, was that I wouldn’t have a mechanical issue. I’d attached a flat kit to my bike just in case. Normally I wouldn’t carry one for an Olympic distance race, but this was one race I needed finish no matter what.

Swimphoto 1
At approximately 8:00, I warmed up with swim bands, put on my wetsuit, dropped my clothing bag at the staging area, and gathered around with other 40-44 year old women for the start in the small-ish lake in Hawrelak Park.  Our wave had 60 participants. Canadians, USA, Australia and New Zealand made up most of the wave, with Mexico and South Africa also well-represented. There were also a few athletes from several European nations, Russia and Japan.

When our wave was 30 minutes out, a bagpiper began playing, and we marched behind him across the park lawn toward the lake and to the tent where we would chip in. My friend Heidi and I were all smiles as we walked – this is it! We waited in a corral for about 20 minutes while other waves went off, and my HR was elevated to zone 2 the whole time.  Finally, it was time to head down to the lake shore.

Per my plan, when we walked out to the platform starting area at the lake shore, I headed directly to the right. An official said to me, “Go left, that’s where the elites went!” I paused for a split second. Why would he say that? But I’d decided the day before that the right had two advantages: a more direct line to the first buoy, and less pinching at the turn if I didn’t happen to be out ahead by then. To the right it was. I stepped up on the blue-painted platform in spot #59.

I’d practiced the start the day before: Two steps and a dive. When the countdown was one minute to go, I started my watch, pulled my wetsuit sleeve over it and took a deep breath. We were asked to step onto the sand with one foot touching the platform, then we heard the words “On your mark, get set…” and then the horn. False starts were a big deal here, so I made sure I heard the horn before moving a muscle. I took two steps, then dove, then hard strokes. After a minute I could still see people on either side of me but another minute and I pulled away. Another girl also pulled away far to my left and by the first buoy I’d moved in behind her feet along with one other girl. I thought about “fighting” for the feet, but decided to just stay in a triangle pattern with the third girl. By the second buoy the other drafter had disappeared and I had the fast feet to myself for almost the entire first loop of the swim. I was feeling good and almost as if I could pass, but knowing that I’d better wait until the second lap. We caught some swimmers from the wave ahead of us during the second half of the swim loop. When we rounded the buoy near the start to begin our second lap, a bunch of the green caps we’d caught (wave ahead of us) veered too far left and I was caught in a wall of swimmers. I had to correct almost 90 degrees to make it around the buoy. The second lap was uneventful, except that I’d lost the drafting feet. I concentrated on strong but smooth strokes and as usual, when I saw the exit ramp 2-300 yards away, I ran through the swim-to-bike transition in my head. I swam until I was in knee deep water and then stood and jogged up the ramp, past the cheering spectators, along the side of transition and finally to my bike, about twenty steps down the row as I’d practiced.

Swim Time: 21:59

T-1: 3:21 
I put on my shoes and clipped my helmet (ITU rules) before touching my bike. Grabbed the bike and I’m off, ready for that starting uphill. Praying for no mechanical!

Bike20x30-ETBB3376
The bike course followed two loops, starting with an uphill. Per race plan, I didn’t worry too much about my HR as we knew it would be high with the long transition and the starting hill. I stayed in the small ring until the hill was done, and then to the big ring for the rest of the loop. I concentrated on passing those I could, holding my speed, keeping my back relaxed and my HR in target (159-164). I was thrilled that though I was being passed, it didn’t seem like a LOT of women around my age who were passing me. Nobody had their age body-marked here, so it was almost impossible to tell. The roads were rough, with cracks and small potholes marked with spray paint. I worked on staying focused, and the second loop went as well as the first. I sucked down a gel at 20K and another at 35K, plus about 20 ounces of water.

Bike time: 1:07:38
Bike pace: 22 mph

T-2: 2:56
At the dismount, my front wheel rolled over the red line and the official made me roll it back before I could go. As I ran my bike down the row, I glanced around. There were maybe ten bikes already racked, but hard to tell. But I was thrilled that I seemed to be in the top part of my wave at least. Reverse rules at racking: rack bike completely before unclipping helmet. Done, and done. Run transition is always quick. Slip feet in shoes, grab bib, visor and gel and take off running.

Run
I was supposed to run around 7 minute miles on this course, so I was disappointed that my run pace, though I was working hard, was hovering above 7. The run was also two loops, all in the park. One side of the loop was a gravel path through trees, and the other side was pavement and more open. The gravel seemed a bit sluggish and slow and perhaps that’s what slowed me down. It was fun to see my parents and Doug screaming for us at several points on the run. Again, I concentrated on passing anyone I could or staying with someone who passed me (as per my plan). If someone passed me, I’d stare at their back and try to match their pace for a bit.

The second half of the second loop I really began to feel fatigued. I’d already taken a gel but was having a hard time sucking down any water from the FULL plastic bottles they were giving us. I’m used to half-full paper cups! But remembering coach Ben’s words: I’d have to be prepared to work very hard in the last part of the run. It was almost over. I kicked it up a notch. Two Canadians were ahead of me and I would catch them! When I rounded the corner to the finish chute, I saw the grandstand wanted to grin hugely. I’d done it!  And no mechanicals. I didn’t know where I was in the placings, but it didn’t matter, I’d done my best. The Canadians were still ahead of me, and I caught sight of someone holding out the stars and stripes – is that for me? – yes, it was Kris Swarthout, the Team USA coach. I grabbed the flag, he said, “You got it,” and I took off after the one Canadian near me and passed her before the line. YAY! My biggest race ever, finished!photo60

Run time: 45:14
Run pace:  7:07
Total time: 2:21:09

Division place:  5

It wasn’t until after I saw my parents and Doug that they told me I was in fifth place.

Other details:

  • After a bike and run workout two days before the race, I did a ten-minute ice bath.
  • Complete rest the day before as there was nowhere to do a swim workout.
  • Chicken and risotto as pre-race dinner, and the usual bagel, peanut butter and powerbar before the race.

Qualifying note: Trying to qualify to race for Team USA had taken me about five years. In 2008 I tried my first USAT Nationals in Portland, OR, trying twice to get into the race, and then placing 27th in my age group. Two years later, in 2010, I tried again in Tuscaloosa, AL. I thought I’d qualified for Beijing Worlds with a 17th place, but the age-up factor added additional racers who’d be in my category next year and edged me out.  At that point, the fire was lit and I had to keep trying. I raced again in Burlington, VT and didn’t even come close with a place in the 30s for London Worlds.  I began to work with my coach, Ben, from the end of 2012 on, and Milwaukee, WI in 2013 was my ticket with a 13th place for an automatic qualification.

*Sister Madonna Buder is a finisher of over 300 triathlons and the oldest person to complete an Ironman!

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