I am officially a collegiate racer again. And a collegiate race winner! (Oops, should have buried the lead more.) Oh, how the times have changed — except not really.
Yesterday was the UCLA IronBruin Triathlon. I raced it with the USC team for fun, because collegiate triathlon is fun; it’s supposed to be fun. But, I wasn’t particularly excited about it. I’ve been a scared bike handler since smashing my teeth out back in April. Usually that kind of fear passes, but it hasn’t yet. So, the last thing that sounded appealing was a four-loop bike course with a ton of downhill turns, filled with a lot of people who are just learning to ride their bikes. There’s nothing wrong with just learning to ride a bike. I fell a lot when I was learning to ride my bike on the Cal triathlon team. I was also terrified, then, of crashing or of crashing someone else out.
But, no one crashed (badly) yesterday. And, I did not fall off my bike while trying to dismount this time. The race wasn’t terrible, though it hurt terribly.
For all that collegiate triathlon is growing, it’s still pretty grassroots-y. We swam eight laps up and down a pool, ducking under the lane lines at each end, with five seconds between people starting. I passed one guy who started ahead of me and was passed by two girls behind me, though I just jumped on the feet of the second girl as she went by and that worked pretty well.
The bike hurt, but it’s supposed to hurt. And, anyway, I’m pretty sure my limiter was technical, not aerobic. There were so many sharp turns that I braked so poorly and swore a lot going into. The only thing that kept me pushing it at the end — instead of getting distracted thinking about how to dismount on a downhill — was one girl I had caught coming back on me.
She hit the start of the run right ahead of me too. Apparently, my super fast transition and speed skills are super fast compared to adult Ironman athletes, but not so much compared to 19-year-olds. It was just as well, though. We were both pushing each other to run really hard at the start. Even though, with the five second gaps between start times, I was technically already about a minute ahead of her, I was so worried she would make it up. So, I just hung right next to her. And it hurt. I thought I couldn’t hold it and worried that, with my lack of fitness, I should have started more conservatively. Then, slowly, I started to pull away from her and go with one of the guys on our team, who was right ahead of me. But, I was scared. I was scared she would catch me and I’d blow up. When I caught another girl, who was actually beating me by 10 seconds (with the weird start times), I was scared I wouldn’t be able to gap her enough to make up the time difference. I was scared someone else out there, who I couldn’t see, was probably beating me. I just kept trying to run as fast as I could. I race well when I race scared.
And I would have sworn to you I was running crazy fast, especially as it started downhill in the last mile. But I wasn’t. I was running a 20:15 5K. I definitely benefited during the race from not having a watch going and from not knowing how exactly I was stacking up. These are some high-level mental tricks at their finest.
In the end I won by 35 seconds over some high school girl I never saw, who will probably be much, much faster than me soon.
Then I took the aerobars off my bike, re-set my transition, and ran with my bike back up the hill to get to the start of the draft-legal mixed team relay on time. (Fortunately, it did not start on time. Unfortunately, no one told me that was going to be the case before I ran my bike up the hill with just seconds to spare.) It was insanely rough. I swam the hardest 200m of my life and I came out of the water last, which meant I was on my bike last, which meant I was sprinting to make up time over the entire 17 minute race, which meant I really did want to throw up when I finally finished.
Collegiate triathlon has changed some since I last did it in 2007. It’s attracted more money and people. The top racers were always good, but there’s more of them now and, on the aggregate, they’re faster. Some of those fast people are now doing the draft-legal stuff that’s been added, which I think meant that many of them did not do the regular collegiate race I did. And, there’s more racers across-the-board, at every level, which changes the nature of the small homegrown triathlon.
It’s changed, but I’ve changed more. Sure, I’ve gotten better and I know a stupid amount about triathlon and training now, but I’d like to think what I’ve also learned is when to get serious and when not to. Oh, and one last thing has changed. I raced in a really short pair of spandex shorts, which I’ve done before but not in a few years, since I usually have uniform shorts for races. It’s uncomfortable — because they’re short and the seam rubs on the bike seat and the inside of your thighs — but it wasn’t a problem the last time I raced in them. This time, however, I finished with four inches of chafing down the inside of each thigh, so bad it’s oozy and slightly bleeding and hurts to wear pants (and also shorts and dresses). Apparently, my thighs have gotten larger since I last raced in these shorts. So, that’s new too.