Unforgettable. Exhilarating. Bliss.
Running down the signature blue-carpeted finish chute, American flag in hand, smile across my face, hands high in triumph – that is the lasting image from my experience at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final.
It was unforgettable. It was exhilarating. It was my bliss.
The race was fast, fun and left me wide-eyed like a toddler at Disney World, begging to do it again.
Here’s a recap:
While the race consists of the swim, bike and run, my favorite part is in the minutes before the gun goes off – the brief moments where you are not competitors but companions. The friendship, the laughter and the mutual hatred for neoprene and spandex create lasting bonds among a group of international strangers. Prior to the start, I had the opportunity to reconnect with friends from Arizona, Colorado, Brazil and Mexico. We embraced without hesitation, thrilled to see a familiar face and share a nervous smile. The bonds fostered before the gun are stronger than the stitching in our wetsuits. As we were led to the starting corrals, by a Canadian with a bagpipe I might add, one would think we were catching up over coffee – discussing college, training and rekindling friendships. Laughter echoed throughout the pack, and you couldn’t help but smile. On the course we are fierce, fast and unforgiving, but in the minutes before that gun goes off, we’re smiling, huddled together for warmth and laughing at the awkward starts of the men’s waves before us (sorry guys…). Nothing can replace the camaraderie – with women from Australia to Britain to the cornfields of Indiana, for just a few minutes we are a team – we are in this together.
As we lined up for the mass swim start, murmurs of “good luck” were heard, but it is the communal silence – the flighting seconds where weeks of preparation, or lack thereof in some cases, nerves, journal entries and doubts come together, creating an inescapable wall, a blockade between you and your potential. We were all facing this wall. As we waited, poised to strike, the silence, the stillness and the tranquility of those brief seconds unveiled each wall. Alone we cannot climb it, but together, we can.
The gun went off. We stormed into the water. My wall fell down.
I had one goal going into the swim: survive. After my experience at Collegiate Nationals I have feared every open water swim – fear of a repeat VCD attack. Fear of falling prey to panic and anxiety. Fear of failure. The swim course is two laps around a small island – I had swam one lap a couple days prior to the race and created a plan: if I was able to find stillness and calm around the second buoy of the first lap in the practice swim, then I should be able to do so within the third buoy of the race. I started on the far edge of the platform – hoping to stay out of everyone’s way.
“Strong and sustainable. Calm and collected.”
I repeated this mantra to myself throughout the first 300 meters. I made it to the first buoy without a kick to the head, being swum over or getting punched. I was safe. I got into my position in a small chase pack and held it. My ROKA wetsuit was comfortable, fast and didn’t pinch at my throat, helping me stay calm. I focused on breathing and sighting through the second and third buoy – and then something strange happened. I passed a couple of women. That never happens. I stayed calm and stuck to the plan – get through the first lap. I maneuvered around another buoy and found myself lodged in another pack – a combination of the lead pack from the wave after us and the chase pack in my own wave. There was some thrashing and contact, but I got through it unscathed and stuck to the plan. Strong and sustainable. Calm and collected. I held my position throughout the second loop and found myself smiling in the water, repeating a different mantra this time.
“This is Worlds, Samantha. YOU’RE RACING IN FREAKING WORLDS.”
I picked up the pace a bit through the final lap. I’ve never enjoyed the swim leg before. It’s much more fun.
Transition was long – as in over 400 meters of waddling in my wetsuit to get to my bike long. My ROKA was easy to slip off, and I took assessment of the bikes around me – some were still there! This was different. Like a robot I went through my automated transition routine, sunglasses, helmet, shoes, bike, go. While I have yet to find the confidence to manage any derivative of a flying mount, I had a faster bike mount that most of the women who did the flying mount. While they were fumbling with getting their feet into their shoes I flew past, strong and ready to go. On to the bike.
The bike was also two loops, winding through Edmonton and its surrounding countryside. It was beautiful, with just a couple of tougher climbs scattered on the course. I had one mission on the bike – to hammer. After months of injury, my run fitness was nowhere near where I wanted it to be, but I had been consistently on the bike all summer. While there hadn’t been a lot of race specific training, I got more miles on the roads this summer than I ever have, and I was ready to give it a go. Despite the race being non-drafting, meaning you have to stay at least three bike lengths from the rider in front of you, drafting was rampant. Women worked together in packs, even racing in rotating pace lines. It was frustrating. Half of the battle was keeping my legal distance, the other half was finding my edge and passing it. I’m still learning to ride hard and redline on the roads – I have no qualms with nose to stem death-wish trainer sessions, but when it comes to being a bona-fide cyclist, I have a lot of work to do.
I pushed it. I rode as hard as I could, and I realized that I have the engine to be competitive, it’s just a matter of training it for the task at hand. I passed women, rode hard and tried to integrate some strategy into my race. My race strategy included:
Lap 1: Ride hard. Hammer. Smile.
Lap 2. Drop whatever is left of the hammer. Love it.
Watching Siri Lindley (renowned triathlete and world-class coach – she coaches many of my idols) on the sidelines of Paula Findlay’s race just two days before mine reminded me of the importance of loving it – without the passion, why race? With that in mind, I blazed through about two-thirds of the second lap, picking off women, picking packs to catch and embracing my newfound comfort and confidence on the bike. Around mile 20 of the 40-kilometer course, I didn’t love quite as much. The lack of race-specific riding hit me and hard. I continued on and rode as strong as I could into the venue, but the fatigue quickly set in. I had accomplished my goal – leave it all on the bike course. On to the run.
I need to practice transitions; it was a bit rough. The air was cold and beginning to mist rain, and I had trouble with fine-motor skills, such as taking off my shoes and unbuckling my helmet. As I fumbled with my race number belt, I crossed my fingers that I would find my stride running through transition. I quickly realized I left it somewhere on the bike course.
I came into this race with zero expectations for the run – a month prior I wasn’t even sure if I could race. After four months of flirting with injury, a month of attempting a diagnosis and just three weeks of treatment – I was happy to be on the course. I logged diligent miles on the Alter-G leading up to the race; however, only two or three runs had been on the roads in the weeks leading up to Worlds– and they were not in a race setting. I set out to survive.
The run was two laps, mainly trail and packed gravel – which was great for my recovering tibial stress fracture, but not so great for speed. I managed a consistent pace throughout the first lap; my energy ebbed and waned, but I fought through. My form gradually disintegrated. I broke the run into manageable pieces – at first running aid station by aid station, eventually using every other tree as a check point. While I wasn’t being passed, I also wasn’t doing any passing. I was surviving. Brief surges of energy revived me, and when I could see the grandstand in the distance, hold the American flag in my grasp and step onto the blue carpet, a feeling of relief washed over me.
I did it.
Within minutes of finishing it dawned on me – I just ran six miles at an all-out effort, with zero shin pain. I was free.
I finished with a personal record in the swim and bike legs at the International distance. I had my first completely pain-free run since March. I placed 34th in the women’s 20-24 age group, was the tenth American to finish in this age group, and placed fifth among 19-year-old women. In the world. What a weekend.
It has been a rough year – mentally, physically and emotionally. I have endured numerous setbacks, injuries, my first bike crash and hit-and-run, panic attacks, doubts and labels. I have taken myself far too seriously, given up on my dreams, rekindled them, and experienced an exhausting number of epiphanies. I have also made new friends, explored new places and sparked a flame that cannot be dampened.
My heart flutters as I relive those brief moments standing on the platform, staring into the calm water next to my friends, companions and competitors. It flutters as I remember watching the bricks come together building my wall – my anxiety and fears providing the mortar for my doubt-ridden bricks. The anticipation and anxiety, the stuttering mantras, the apprehension, and finally, the release – the moment where every demon that has taken residence within our athletic and inner personas is released and we begin our race.
The moment we are freed to take part in our art form, our passion, our love.
The unforgettable moment of sheer bliss.
What a race.