In case things like, you know, the potential for Hurricane Sam to turn into an Ida and COVID-19 stats crowded out your news last Sunday, you might have missed that I took third in the USA Triathlon Long Course Aquabike National Championships in my age group (45-49). (And yes, that race title is almost as long as the race itself.)
If you’re unfamiliar with this sport I’m confident will soon be a Tiktok trend, aquabike is a swim followed by a bike. Aquabike athletes attend the same race and start at the same time as the triathletes. As the triathletes head off on their run, aquabikers rack their bikes, then stroll over the finish line to grab a race pic and turn in the timing chip.
I’ve drafted this race report a few times, and found that when a race goes really well, it’s a little boring for the reader. The quick and dirty is that I was third in my age group after the 1.2 mile swim, and I was third in my age group after the 56-mile bike. In other words, I didn’t pass anybody in my age group, and nobody passed me either.
That’s not to say it was a boring day. The scenery was downright gorgeous. Seven Lakes Drive in Harriman State Park is appropriately named. Yes, when you ride 56 miles, you also climb over 4,000 feet (hello, quads!), but because we rode two loops, we also passed 14 lakes. Riding/walking/being near water is my preferred state, so just yay. And with the exception of about 9 miles, the pavement was beautifully smooth.
I was hoping to finish in the swim in <35 minutes, and came in 34:xx. I wanted <3:05 on the bike, and came in at 3:06. I executed my fueling well; my only hiccup, if you can call it that, was that an aid station hand-off—my water bottle for a Gatorade—was a little choppy.
I definitely achieved my goal: to RACE and see what my almost-50-year-old, not-running-anymore body and my mind, who prefers a good comfort zone, is capable of.
To fill in the gaps from how I went from mere mortal to National Champion aquabiker—a sentence I never dreamed I’d type—here’s a snapshot of the work I did over seven months:
I took it out of my hands.
I hired Coaches Jennifer Harrison and Elizabeth Waterstraat, who oversee our triathlon and Heart + Sole programs. Both are top triathletes, and I wanted to surround myself with their no-nonsense, front-of-pack vibes. Since I was wading into uncharted athletic territory, I knew I need expertise, accountability, and some tough love. (When I threw out the idea that twice-weekly swims were sufficient, Jen laughed politely. “You need three.” Got it, coach.)
I worked on my physical weaknesses.
Open water swimming was (is?) the biggest one. Even though I’m a strong swimmer, I vastly prefer following a tiled line at the bottom of the pool instead of trying to figure out where I am in open water—and thinking about what sharks are surely lurking at the bottom of the small, fresh-water pond.
The local open water available to me is 25 minutes away with no traffic, and requires a Master’s swimming membership, another small fee, and two volunteer stints to monitor swimmers. In another training cycle, the drive alone would’ve been excuse enough not to make it work. After my first race at the end of June in open water left me a little more anxious than I’d like, I swam outside as many Saturdays as my schedule would allow. Practicing sighting, getting used to no walls, slithering into and sliding out of my wetsuit: All super helpful for familiarity and (a little) more ease.
I tried not to worry (too much) about the numbers.
Which is not to say I didn’t get obsessed by the numbers. Because I did. Especially on FTP tests, where gaining a watt seemed to be harder than going back to sleep after that 2 am hormonal wake-up. Over time, though, I stopped checking my average split for 100 yards after a swim, and I often forgot to glance at the average mph on outdoor bike rides. Instead, my confidence grew under a blanket of consistency as I completed workout after workout as best I could on that day. (That said, one set of numbers guided my training: my heart rate on the bike. I can recite my zones now faster than I can recall my kids’ birthdays.)
I tried not to be my own harshest critic.
Back when my running days were slowly fading, I used to think of the aquabike as two-thirds of nothing; without the run—the activity that requires the most grit—it felt a little a cop-out. But then I lost running permanently, and it became a way to still stay connected in triathlon, a sport that is my happy place.
As I competed in three aquabikes this season, I talked to aquabikers who had knee and hip replacements, whose feet ached after running, who, like me, were chronically injured knew, as they aged, running wasn’t doing their body any more favors. These were still serious, focused athletes who pushed themselves and were fierce competitors. If I was going to line up with them, I needed to think of myself the same way.
Similarly, I stopped qualifying that I was going to the National Championships with the caveat that, “anyone can enter.” While that is true, this is also true: people who spend the time training for and the expenses to get to the National Championships are there to Race. Just like I was.
I gave myself space—and knowledge—around race day.
My usual MO is to be blase (read: lazy) around race day; the hills are going to be there, so why worry about climbing them before I’m actually on them?
The coaches asked for a race plan every Monday of a race week; they wanted to know about nutrition, weather, the course, and what the plan would be I lost my goggles, got a flat tire. At first, the plan felt like another to-do, but once I typed things out, I realized taking 20 minutes on Monday to prep for a weekend race relieved a lot of decision making, anxiety, and rushing. (Remember that one time I forgot to bring a bike helmet to a 70.3? Yeah, didn’t want to relive that.)
At the National Championships, I was so intent on the correct prep that when Coach Liz saw my coffee note (“ok if it’s not possible”), she called foul. “If you have it before every race, you definitely need it on Sunday.” Got it, coach. So on Saturday afternoon, I bought a Starbucks latte to microwave the following morning. I had to hit the road at 4:15 am, and no coffee shops would be open.
I worked on mental strength–and cultivated a mantra in advance.
Or two, actually. In previous races, I had some phrases come to me during the event—I get to do this, Dimity—but this time, I actively worked on them prior to race. During the Learning to Race podcast, the coaches and I talked about engaging in workouts: not tuning into Hoarders on a long indoor bike ride, but instead, listening to music and tuning into how my feet felt on the pedals, how I was breathing, how my effort increased at the end of a hard piece.
Similarly, Coach Liz talked about how, when she flew to a race, her goal was to get on the flight home with no regrets. I liked the simplicity of that goal.
I practiced often. “I won my basement today!” I typed in one workout report after a 3-hour trainer ride. “I really tried stay in and feel water today,” I typed in another, a swim workout that had a 1,000 and 800-meter pieces.
Consistent engagement, especially in longer endurance races, can be elusive, but each time I felt my mind wandering, I repeated to myself, “Stay engaged, Dimity. No regrets. Stay engaged, Dimity. No regrets.”
And that’s exactly what I did. I stayed engaged. I had no regrets.
#167 showed up and RACED—and as I walked across the finish line, my smile says it all.