Race weekend began on Friday afternoon for me this time – since I’ve been to the big races that encompass a whole weekend, I wanted to create the same vibe here – to get away a little bit, to not be driving to the site the day before the race; instead to take care of all the travel and check-in and registration on Friday, then have Saturday to entirely enjoy – the morning on my own,
and the afternoon with friends. I was stuck in some traffic, but the day of buffer made any rush to get here quite irrelevant. (As an aside, one thing that I notice about Chicago that seems different than New York: there’s hardly any horn-honking here! Squeeze in, and hurry up – but no need for constant pushing.) Friday found me meandering through the large race expo, restraining myself from buying super-expensive gear, (marveling as usual at how good-looking I think triathletes are), meeting some of the Illinois TNT members, sitting on the Hilton rooftop tapping away at my keys as the sun set behind the Sears Tower, and going to bed super early. Yep, it’s vacation.
I often think about what draws people to triathlon, and – if they’re anything like me – what keeps them coming back to it. I spent a lot of this sunny Saturday morning thinking about this, as I strolled from the hotel out to the race course, which was filled with runners, walkers, and bicyclists. Some of them were probably the “usual” Saturday morning Chicago crowd, and some were certainly race-participants completing their final workouts. The racers are easy to spot because if their aero bars and race clothes didn’t give them away, the numbers written on their arms and legs always do. (I brought my own black marker so that I could save my body marking for after my final Saturday bath!) Triathletes don’t all look the same – they’re different shapes and sizes and ages, they wear different clothes and ride different bikes. Coming to a huge race like Chicago makes the diversity of the sport even more evident, and I like it.
Saturday was a day for preparations and Team in Training camaraderie. All of the Madison folks arrived by mid-day, and some of us had lunch together before walking to the race site to familiarize ourselves with what was about to happen. We had planned a short swim, but there was too much race set-up and boating going on. At least we got to see the swim area, practice the long walk along the beach from the swim exit to the transition, and get a feel for the huge transition area. We also had a chance to go together to the race expo and get our numbers, timing chips, T-shirts, and various free goodies! I saw a talk with a couple of my favorite pro’s, Andy Potts and Sarah Haskins (who won on Sunday), but didn’t have time to stay and meet them. One of the things I love about the sport is that its top professionals seem like down-to-earth, approachable, fun people. At all levels, triathletes support each other.
Evening brought the traditional Team in Training pasta party dinner: this is an important focusing time for our Team. Because this was a comparatively small TNT event (about 150 athletes from mostly Illinois and Wisconsin), rather than eat in an impersonal hotel ballroom, we gathered at Morton’s Steakhouse on Wacker Drive for quite a classy and delicious dinner. Here we gathered as a Team of athletes with different backgrounds and abilities, but with a common purpose. We remembered and honored our patient friends and family members and heroes, we celebrated our fund raising accomplishments, we recognized those who volunteer their time in various capacities to make this organization the best of its kind, and we heard thanks first-hand from one of our triathlete teammates who also had Leukemia… and got better. Out of the 150, I was the only one to be recognized this evening for achieving the Triple Crown, and was thrilled to stand among my friends and accept the pin I had waited years to receive.
Saturday evening eventually faded then gave way suddenly to Sunday morning, 3:45am. The Chicago Triathlon is actually the world’s largest triathlon – around 9,000 athletes, with a super-sprint and kids’ tri on Saturday followed by Sprint and Olympic-distances on Sunday. Compare this to some of the other local races I’ve done this year… usually around 200 athletes. Wow. Imagine what 7,000 bikes look like – transition is huge, busy, and exciting. On race morning, transition opens at 4:15am and closes at 5:45am – everyone needs to get in and get set up during that time, because the race begins at 6:00am. To get all those people through the course, though, the race starts in waves. Something like 60 waves in this case, 4 minutes apart from each other. The men ages 30-34 (like me) are in wave 49 – so after I leave my things in transition at 5:30, the day is mine until 9:28, when my wave begins the race! My race morning included walking back to the hotel, packing up and checking out, getting more breakfast and coffee, then coming back to the race site to watch the action and cheer on my friends. One down side was no safe place to put things down during the race, which meant no camera for most of the day after I stored my bag.
OK, 1,000 words into the race report and I’m about to start the race. (Have you noticed that the race itself is cool, but the experiences of the season, the Team, the friends, and the race weekend is what it’s all about?!) It’s craziness at the waterfront: swimmers going by in both directions, runners coming through, some athletes sleeping on the grass waiting and other athletes suiting up and getting ready to go. By 9:00am, the sun is well up into the cloudless sky and it’s hot already, and I put my black neoprene wetsuit on in the shade, and dump cups of water down it from time to time to stay cool. I see off my teammate Lynn who’s two waves in front of me, and find my own place in line. (Dare I tell the world inside secrets of triathlon like how this is the place where you pee one last time, in your wetsuit where no one will ever notice?)
Lake Michigan is calm – and refreshingly cool at 72 degrees. The water is clear and I can see the bottom about 10 feet below. The swim goes along the sheet-pile shoreline wall, which means that swimmers have the comfort of never being very far out to sea, anyone whose nerves gets the better of them has ladders and whatnot to hold on to, fans can sit right next to the water and see the swimmers up-close, and the course is super-easy to navigate! My earplugs are in, I find some uncrowded water near the wall, and I go into the zone. In the calm water, I have the fun of actually seeing the bottom go by, and feeling like I’m really gliding forward. I had not put a lot of focus onto swim training this past month, so I could not draw power from my strength, but good form comes from the mind – I spent the swim focusing on all the techniques of swimming smooth, easy, and efficiently; I found my groove and settled in. Every so often I’d come up to another swimmer, move around, and continue on. I noticed myself moving up through the field, which felt great, especially since I was focusing on gliding easily – swimming slowly, really. One of the other swimmers looked familiar… who knew, right beside me was Lynn! I startled her a bit when I shouted out to her, but it was really fun to happen to connect in the water amidst all the commotion.
My swim ended a half hour after it began, and I came up the stairs onto the lakeside path to T1. We had seen this the previous day so we could be ready: the run was about 1/4-mile! I timed it and noticed later it took a whole 2:37 to do this run… and think I was smart to stop and take off my wetsuit just after getting out of the water, so I could start getting cooler and dryer on the trek. I found my bike quickly from the landmarks I had memorized earlier that morning, put on bike shoes and helmet, and headed for the road – another long journey of pushing my bike past the rows and rows and rows of other bikes, then over the grass, then through some trees, then finally to the road!
My favorite part: the bike leg. I’m feeling good on my race bike and race wheels, coming off a smooth and fast transition after a refreshing swim. My heart is pounding, but I know that if I start steady but not too fast, I’ll be feeling calm and smooth within a few minutes. The bike course is on Lakeshore Drive – a road with four lanes in each direction. Today, the inside two lanes are filled with bikes, and the outside two are actively full of ordinary city-driving cars. It’s fun to be flying past the slow-moving inbound traffic – and also fun to be passing lots of other riders. Because bikes are making a loop on this road, bikes are inside and cars are outside… so all the bike passing is done on the outside – in this case, on the right. It’s a little unusual, but I got the hang of it quickly. “Passing right” felt funny – but I was happy to say it! Team in Training jerseys were all over the place, and we shouted “Go team!” and “Great ride!” to each other. The flat bike course allowed me to lock in and ride, getting out of the saddle to climb the slight inclines for overpasses, and eating some energy food at my planned times. One fellow biker had the same bike, and nearly the same pace, which was fun. The lakeside route and Chicago skyline were stunning, though I kept most of my focus on the road to dodge other riders, pavement cracks, and potholes. It was disappointing to see the riders broken down in the middle who had crashed or flatted – some of them were simply walking it back to transition. It was a thrill to ride fast for a whole 40k, and a relief to complete it without incident, and I made my way back into transition – though the trees and over the grass and past the rows and rows and rows of bikes – to the spot I had claimed more than 6 hours earlier. T2 usually feels “too easy” – put away the bike, change shoes, put on hat, grab number, and go!
It was getting hot. The sun was high and the bike’s cooling wind was finished. I recalled my race at Green Lake earlier in the summer where I faded later in the fun, and was careful not to go out too fast. The crowds were great and I felt so proud to receive their cheers of “Go Team” and the like. Big support like this really makes a big difference – more and more as the races get harder. Today’s race was about to get really, really hard. I hear that the midday temperature made it into the mid- or upper 90’s. I felt the sun beating down on me and knew that I had to stay smart with my pace: racing today was a fine line between doing one’s very best and going away in an ambulance. A lot of participants seemed to be doing the latter. Many others were walking: some because they knew they had to, and others because they had no other choice. I think one of the things I – and many of my friends who are hooked on racing – strangely crave in this race environment is finding the borderline between personal best and complete disaster. It’s my own body, but it’s hard to know, especially as the seasons go on and my mind gains more power over it. On a hot day like this one, it’s not just about balancing energy, muscles, and fuel with the running, but factoring in extreme heat as well.
Mile two and a new experience: complete leg failure. My left leg felt funny, I looked down and it wasn’t moving right, either. Then, for the first time, it stopped working – the hamstring cramped and wouldn’t run any more. Oh yes, and it hurt a ton. I have no idea how long I was at the side of the path with my eyes closed, bent over, breathing, and stretching it gently out – there are no clocks in a yoga room or a meditation chapel. I have no idea how many runners went by or spectators looked on, because there was nothing else but me and my breath in that instant – it was really quite spiritual, to say the least. Then the cramp was over, and I stood up and started walking ahead. Move gently, get electrolytes, and go to the finish line. Fortunately, a TNT coach was right up the road who was able to give me just the boost I needed to get back into a trot… at all the subsequent water stations I took on extra Gatorade, and water to rinse it down and dump all over myself to cool off.
The day sort of reminded me of the Disney marathon – only hotter. The extra electrolytes had my leg under control and I settled into a run, albeit what felt like a slow one. I kept smiling and high-fiving my TNT teammates who passed on the path, I tried to take in the beaches and the skyline and the impressive Chicago scene. I kept breathing and standing up straight and putting one foot in front of the other, until eventually I came to the end. The crowd became dense again, and my focus on making it to the finish shifted to a focus on celebrating the finish. As I zipped up my jersey for my photo finish, I felt two feel taller and fast as a pro. The crowds were a blur but I could feel their support and hear their cheers – and suddenly I had finished!
I spent extra time in the finishers’ area. Several cups of Gatorade, several laps of slow-walking. A visit to the wet-towel tub, including a moment of grabbing the hose from the kid who was filling the tub and spraying it all over myself! A few moments standing in front of the mist-blowing fans letting the cool air blow over me and some tears fall between me, my honored patient heroes, my teammates, and the success I earned that day from my own hard work, diligent preparation, and perseverance. A few hours of meeting up with teammates as they finished their races, then collecting gear and making the drive back to Madison. And a lifetime, of course, with the race completed and the medal to prove it.
Turns out I was going pretty fast, too. If you’re interested in the stats, you can surf on over to http://results.active.com/pages/oneResult.jsp?pID=89708010&rsID=98011