Athlete Insight - Saint Louis Triathlon Race Report with Sarah Rockwell

PG > PR (Personal Growth is Greater than a Personal Record)

 From left to right: Karen, Sarah, and Teresa

From left to right: Karen, Sarah, and Teresa

As I write this, I am not the same athlete I was last year. I’m not even the same athlete I was when I registered for Ironman Louisville. The last few months have brought an astounding (to me) level of personal growth that last Sunday’s race amplified. If you’ve read my blog already, this will be familiar (but shorter, I promise). And while the story ends with a massive PR, it’s the PG that I’m most proud of.

Some history: last year, I completed the sprint distance at the inaugural St. Louis Triathlon and had a miserable, panic-filled open water swim. Like, THE WORST swim panic I’ve ever experienced…but I loved the rest of the course. So obviously, this year I signed up for the Olympic – twice as long as the sprint, and my nemesis distance.

I’ve done one other Olympic distance tri before, at Lake Mattoon years ago. It was 103 degrees without the heat index, on blacktop roads that cut through humidity-laden corn fields in direct sun. I had no idea what I was doing, was riding a borrowed, old aluminum road bike, and ended up trudging, not even walking, the entire 10K. My total time was over 4 hours and 15 minutes. Not pretty. So I needed vengeance on this distance, as well as on the lake swim that caused me so much panic the year before.

PRE RACE PREP
Normally, this would be where I talk about how anxious I was in the days leading up to the race. But unbelievably, I was completely calm and *GASP* excited for race day. I knew I was ready. I knew I had done everything in my control to prepare, and whatever was going to happen, I just had to go with it and make the best of it. This is the best mental state I’ve ever been in going into a race. I was calm, cool and collected.

Packet pickup was at the former Ram’s practice facility, which was pretty cool. It was well organized, and went smoothly. I attended the athlete meeting, asked a question, stayed hydrated, and left to drive the new bike course. After that, I went home to retrieve my tri bucket to reserve a spot in transition. Overnight storms were in the forecast, and I didn’t want to leave my new baby overnight.

 

After that, I went home and prepped my bike and helmet with race numbers, mixed up my nutrition and put it in the fridge and gathered all of my race gear. Then I treated my legs to an Air Relax session to release any tightness.

Once everything was gathered, it was time to rest. My awesome hubby made my usual pre-race dinner so I could stay off my feet – shredded chicken with roasted potatoes. I re-read my race plan a few times, went over my mantras in my mind and reminded myself how ready I was. I slept really well that night and woke up ready.

RACE RECAP

I woke up before my alarm, rested but with a twinge in my right calf. I started hydrating and hoping for a good pre-race poop. You know exactly what I’m talking about.

Once I arrived, I had my transition set up in no time. In fact, for the first time, I set up transition and walked away. I didn’t double check it a million times. I was confident all was well. This is the first of the many differences in how I handled the day. I didn’t fret or waste energy on worrying about nothing. High five!
 

I had very few nerves. On the one hand, I set no expectations other than to not panic on the swim. On the other hand, I desperately wanted to break the 3 hour mark for this distance AND it would be amazing to be in the top 10 for my age group. I’m a slow runner, and that’s always where I lose out to others in my group. But my biggest goal was to truly RACE this race. To not hold back for fear of exhaustion. To push myself every single time things got hard. To cross the line and want to die because I left it all on the course. Confession: I have never, ever done this before. Even at Ohio last year, I finished with lots in the tank and could have done more. I let my head stop my body from doing all it could. Not this time.

I put on my wetsuit and headed over to swim warmup. The water felt AMAZING. My goggles weren’t leaking, my wetsuit felt as good as it could (I hate that thing, but it helps), and I was so ready to just GO. I hopped back out, gathered with friends and prepared for the start.

THE SWIM…DUN DUN DUUUUUUN…
I got in the water to wait for our wave to start. For the first time EVER, I was able to pee in the water. Everyone always talks about peeing in the water or on the bike, but I never can. It was a relief to know I was starting totally empty and ready to hydrate.

 

And then finally, it was time. Purple caps line up! Normally, I hide in the back or to the far side to avoid as much human contact as possible in the swim. But this year? Oh hell no. I lined up front row center. Yeah, I’m going to get hit, but I can do this. A touch won’t kill me. I can do this. I am stronger than I’ve ever been. I can do this. I WILL do this, and I will NOT panic. I can handle pain. I will not fail at this. (Me last year: WHO IS THIS GIRL???!???!?)

3…2…1…GO!
We were off! I hit that first buoy in no time. I was getting hit, scratched, kicked, grabbed…all things that would normally ignite a full-fledged panic attack, elevating my heart rate and making it impossible to control my breath. But NOT THIS TIME.

 

 

Dudes. I WAS AN ANIMAL. Yeah, I swam an extra 200 meters in the process, but I bobbed and weaved and swam and hit and kicked back. Despite my hydration and nutrition being on point leading up to this, I must have been holding tension in my legs as both calves locked up on me at different times. I managed to work through them while making forward progress. The last 200 meters were a total shit show, tons of churning and flailing arms all around me, and it felt like forever before my feet hit solid ground. But as I came out of the water, I saw Sam, Tori and Teresa, who were so happy to see me out already and I could hear them rooting me on. My husband was there, too, telling me I rocked the swim. Knowing how mentally strong I was, I felt amazing and so accomplished with that swim. #nailedit

T1
With a wetsuit, I knew I wasn’t going to get through transition in less than two minutes. I got it down half way as I ran to my spot, then sat down and fought hip and calf cramps as I yanked my legs out. I stayed seated to put on my shoes, sunglasses and helmet, then told myself to get up and go already. I grabbed my bike and awkwardly ran out…this was my first transition in road shoes instead of MTB shoes, so it was a weird sensation to hobble like that. I got to the mount line, and hit the road, no problems. Which is huge, because I’m not really good at getting on my bike. Sounds stupid, but it’s a skill I need more practice on.

THE BIKE
I got myself situated on the bike as I approached the first turn onto the course, then…BAM. Headwind. So loud. Then I realized it wasn’t a pure headwind. It was a crosswind, and I was getting moved around a lot. I’ve improved a lot with my new bike and deeper race wheels when it comes to wind, but of all the elements Mother Nature can throw at us, wind is the WORST for me. It messes with my head, wears me down and freaks me the hell out.

When the crosswind was moving me, I simply came out of aero to feel more in control. It was a crowded course, so I didn’t want to risk blowing into someone passing. For the more intense headwind sections, I just geared down to avoid the lactic acid burn as much as possible while still putting out some power. I don’t think I have mastered this balance yet, but I did really well for where my skills are right now. I’ve only had about 10 hours on my new bike, so I was happy with my ability to stay in control and just hammer through. The wind slowed me more than I hoped, so my average wasn’t where I wanted it for a ‘flat, fast’ bike course, but the tailwind on the way back helped make up for it. I used it to my full advantage and dug in.

Seriously, the wind was such an instant shift at the turnarounds. Coming back, the U-turn took us from head/cross to tail/cross instantly, letting you just hammer back to speed. That part was awesome. Turning for the second loop took you from quiet speed to loud, roaring torture. But you knew you’d be getting that tailwind on the way back, so it was much easier to quiet my self doubt and just push through.

For the first time, I passed more people than passed me. It was a great feeling. I loved being on my bike, even in the wind. I had to watch how hard I pushed at some points because I could feel cramps waiting to ignite in my right calf the whole time. I had to temper my urge to push with the reality of what my body needed – without going too soft, which is the mistake I make the most. I MAYBE could have pushed a little more on the bike, but my HR was beyond where my race plan said to be, so I think I played it correctly.

Turning back in to T2 was where the pressure set in and I knew I had to get my head in the right place.

T2
I ran my bike in, changed shoes, swapped my helmet for a visor, and lost a few seconds to putting my race belt on before grabbing my water bottle and taking off. I just needed to take a deep breath, so I used the time to put on my belt versus running out while putting it on. All in all, I could have transitioned a little faster, but needed to center myself before heading out for the run.

THE RUN
Of all the things I’m improving at, I am getting very strong at suffering on the run. But I am not fast. I REALLY, desperately want to be fast, and I’m slowly improving, but I’m still not fast. And knowing this was a 10K meant no matter how well the swim or bike went, I would lose any chance at a podium spot on the run (if I had a chance at all, which is always slim for me and I’m fine with that…for now). BUT I knew I had a chance at being top 10 in my age group if I kept my shit together and suffered well.

 

Creve is my running spot. We were racing on my home turf. I know this place like the back of my hand. I knew where there’d be direct sun, where the few small inclines were (downhill going out, uphill coming back), where things smell the worst, etc. There was zero chance of me screwing anything up on a technicality out here. Everything that happened on the run was 100% the result of the effort I put in…which is PRESSURE.

The first two miles were a total breeze. I had seen Tim and my friends at transition, was passing lots of people I knew as they were on their way back in for the sprint, saw our coaches who said I looked so strong…I was feeling really happy with my effort. Mile three was still pretty good. I hit the turnaround and started feeling a bit dizzy, so I took part of a gel. Mile 4 was THE WORST. It dragged along and took forever. I just kept telling myself, “This is all you have to do today. 2 more miles and you are DONE for the day. You have done this distance so many times, your legs can do it, just push.” I lost some pace in that mile, which I am disappointed about, but my heart rate was high and I was doing work, so I can’t be upset with my effort. I was pushing through, suffering, embracing the suck.

I lost my ability to say ‘Good job’ to other racers around the 3.5 mile mark, so I was just zoned in and focused on my movement. I saw Sam, Tori and Teresa again with about .7 left to go, and was sloshy, so I threw them my handheld and really dug deep. They yelled encouragement as I passed and I questioned how much more I had to give.

This is an important moment for me. Before now, I would have questioned my ability, convinced myself I was maxed and slowed down. I would have succumbed to my inner negatron and let myself suffer less. But as soon as I questioned what I had left, it encouraged me to keep pushing and find out. NOW was the moment to not give up. NOW was the time to push. My heart rate was sky high, my legs were burning and as I made the final turn, that voice came back. What do you even have left to push to the finish? Can you even manage to sprint it in now?

THE FINISH

SHUT UP, VOICE, I CAN DO THIS. I dug deep, put on my wheels and picked up the pace. Then I saw my people near the finish, heard them screaming my name and I went full sprinter mode. Nothing mattered but pushing as hard as I could. I hit the finish line and thought I was going to vomit.
 

SUCCESS. For the first time, I really, truly, 100% raced a race. I didn’t just complete it. I RACED it. And I loved it.

Even better? I accomplished every single goal I had. I didn’t panic on the swim, I RACED the whole thing, I broke 3 hours (2:58:09) and ranked 9th out of 25 in my age group. Not just top ten, but I was faster than 16 people. That’s HUGE for me.

I smiled the whole day and never once questioned if I could finish the race. I knew I could do this, I just didn’t know what my potential was. And I have to say, finding it was pretty amazing. Of course I have improvements to keep making – who doesn’t? And speed isn’t in the plans when I’m building to Ironman, but knowing I had this in me has shown me there’s so much left I haven’t even discovered yet. There’s a lot more to come, a lot more to discover, a lot more to accomplish. And I’m 100% ready for it!