They Can't Take That Away From Me...

What a blur. That's what today's Breath of Life Olympic distance triathlon felt like.

I remember the race in flashes.  The chaos of entering the water and literally grappling with several people through the first buoy.  Elbows over other competitors' shoulders.  Elbows in my head.  My foot buried in a competitor's torso who grabbed my leg for momentum at a buoy.  Bedlam in the water.  The only way I can describe it more visually is that swimming in this break felt like watching the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan when the soldiers are scrambling underwater to get their bearings while their heart-rate is going through the roof from the panic.

Of course, there were no machine gun nests and pissed off Nazis at this event.

On second thought, bad comparison.

Back to the swim.  The water in Ventura Harbor is putrid.  The kind where you truly regret gulping in your mouth.  I thought so much about how awful the water was that a few times I had to re-focus my concentration on my swim stroke.  The color was just as bad.  Brown, murky, muddy...only punctuated by moments of jolting warm or coldness determined by whether you swam through someone's pee stream.  The ocean water was so thick the pee seemed to pool together, almost like an oil spill.

It was that kind of swim.  But the worst part was the course map itself.  Nobody -- not even the lifeguards stationed on paddle boards in the marina -- had any idea where they were during the swim.  You just sort of followed the people around you and hoped you weren't going too far off course. I got lucky.  My Garmin watch data map revealed only a few spots where I needed to recalibrate direction.

The uncertainty of my bearings and my displeasure with the water actually worked in favor of a personal best time.  I just wanted to get the hell out of the water, and because I wasn't sure when the turnaround was coming back to shore, I maintained a stronger pace than usual.  Therefore, I was literally astonished to find the shore on my right and catching glimpses of a cheering crowd when I thought I was just getting to the turnaround buoy.  At first I thought it was a different crowd watching from a separate viewing area.  Then, my foggy goggles spied arched balloons.

"I'm here already!" I exclaimed internally.

I made it out of the water in 24:55, by my Garmin watch.  Nearly five minutes faster than my Wildflower swim.

After a fairly quick transition, it was time to get my bike on.  I was encouraged to see my friend Chris just leaving the transition area, for that meant my swim time was even more competitive as that's his specialty. (Later, Stephanie would tell me that I was among the last two-thirds out of the water, causing her worry.)  My Fortius teammate, David, was nowhere to be found though.  He was long gone, perhaps with him my only shot at qualifying for the age-group national championships I coveted.

I vowed to catch him and Chris, though in my head I figured they were as good as gone.  They're both strong cyclists and runners, and with a couple-minute lead I wasn't sure if I could close the gap. It took all three laps of the course, but I found them on my final lap, on Victoria Avenue just past Gonzales.  We exchanged some friendly banter and then it was back to the races.

I felt strong on the bike today. I was rarely passed and while my back ached, little else did.  The difference of racing on a tri bike compared to a roadie cannot be understated.  Proper equipment -- including an aero helmet and race wheels, definitely makes a difference.  And I was able to catch my breath more easily after a hard swim.

Whatever gains I made with my sturdy Cervelo were returned thanks to the USAT, the governing body of the sport that officially sanctioned this race as an age group national qualifier.  Apparently I did something wrong during the race that warranted a two-minute penalty.  I have no idea about the infraction (I'll find out Tuesday according to the website), but I do know when it occurred. I believe it was on my second or third lap off Fifth Street.  A motorcycle pace vehicle with two riders pulled up alongside another rider and me.  The motorbike hovered at our pace, with the person riding in the second seat scribbling furiously into a notebook and then speeding away.  I had a sinking feeling that "something bad" just happened, but I seriously don't know what.  The experience felt akin to getting a moving speeding ticket.  The only thing missing was the pink receipt telling me when to appear in court.  At least I'd know what I did though!  I do know I had someone on my right who was slower than me, which pushed me wider in the left lane.  I remained within the legal cones and I ultimately passed that cyclist.  Moreover, despite yesterday's blog post, I strictly avoided drafting because I knew there would be serious penalties for doing so.  I truly, in my eyes, was following the rules of the road today.

When I learned of this penalty after checking the results this afternoon, I filed an immediate protest.  The penalty would cost me my well-deserved spot as a qualifier.  By one minute.  Two people with slower times will go to Alabama and I most likely won't. Rubbish!  I hope they know their spots are tarnished.  They were not faster than me.

But I didn't know any of this as I jammed my bike into the rack and bolted out for my 10k run.  And bolt I did.  This was by far my best run in any race of any kind.  I felt light, strong and fast -- even letting out a primal yell in the T2 area about how goooood I felt!  This was compounded by my fantastic fiance greeting me halfway through the first mile.  She staked out a spot on the course where she could run beside me and offer support in an unobtrusive way.   I was running well before, but I picked up speed and confidence at this point.  It was good medicine.

The rest of the run comes back to me in flashes as well.  Rounding a corner on the pier after seeing my Fortius teammate Mike and giving him a forceful high-five. Entering the residential neighborhood for the first of my two laps.  Sipping a fraction of the water I grabbed from the first station realizing I wasn't thirsty -- that the three-fourths of the Perpetuem bottle consumed on the bike would be enough. Finally!  I've nailed race-day nutrition. Oatmeal two hours before.  Half a banana 30 minutes before.  A gel 15 minutes before.  Half a Clif bar on the bike.  And eating half of a Hammer gel at mile three realizing I wasn't hungry enough to need the rest and that screwing up my breathing pattern was a bigger risk. Seeing friends going out on the run as I was chugging hard at the fifth mile to find extra speed.  Confirming during that fifth mile with a hopeful glance at my watch that I was going to break 2:30:00 -- if I just held it together.  If I just continued to focus on my breathing and STAY IN THE MOMENT, like Coach Gerardo and Richard showed me this past Wednesday.  Oh, how important that workout had become!  Scorning a poor defenseless female runner who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, blocking my ability to pass on a sharp right turn at a narrow choke point. (Whomever you are, I'm sorry for yelling "c'mon c'mon!" to get you to clear space for me.  I know I startled you.)

And that final sixth mile.  Which seemed to go on forever.  One volunteer in a USC hat told me it was a quarter mile to go at what turned out to be a half-mile away.  Mike was at the restaurant perch again telling me another quarter mile to go.  That moment almost broke me as I had timed my finishing kick off the first man.  The toughest part was the final 150 yards, as the course made a sharp left turn that stripped momentum and my ability to figure out where the hell the finish line was. Of course, this prompted me to shout, "Where the fuck do I go!?" to the volunteers who pointed frantically at the right path.

Finally, mercifully, the finish line.  And it read 2:25:59 as I made my final desperate sprint down the chute.  Where I promptly grabbed a water bottle and doused myself with hit.  Elated.  Breathless.  Confident.

The closest I'd probably ever get to spraying champagne in a winners circle.  That's how that moment felt.  VICTORY!  Surprising victory...pushing through physical barriers and mental doubts.

I had qualified for nationals just now.  I competed among the best, and despite my lack of size or deep-dish wheels, I was equal to the task.

I did it!

Only to find out several hours later that no, apparently I had not.

But that is also rubbish.  I DID do it. I can hang with these bigger, stronger, tanned, buffed Adonis warriors.  And I will qualify at some point.  And there will be NOTHING the USAT will do about it.

And there is still plenty to celebrate.  Personal bests all over the place.  Friends completing their first Olympic distance triathlon.  Everyone competing together, supporting each other.

I love this sport.

Just not the suits who run it.

144 days and counting.