Vineman 70.3 + A Note

The last time I did Vineman 70.3 was in 2011. I went 5:07 and ended up peeing on myself. It was not a high point — though it was probably a standard point then — in my triathlon career.

This year, I wanted to do much much better and I wanted to go hard. That was my plan. Just go hard. Stay in it. See what happens.

Naturally, somehow, I ran out of time before the race and ended up being that person who is sprinting down the beach, wetsuit in hand, as my wave gets in the water to warm-up. Some guys in the wave behind me helped and I still was in the water with five minutes to go. So. Whatever. Tons of time. Stop being so triathlete about everything.

Steve provided helpful Twitter updates as I was swimming:

The swim, itself, was weird. I was all of a sudden in first and I kept waiting for the girl swimming with me to pull away, only she didn’t. It never felt insanely hard, but I figured we had to be swimming fast, right? I’ve never been in first in a swim before, so I’m just going to assume this is good? Maybe it doesn’t feel that hard because I’m killing it? It actually turns out that if you feel like it’s not particularly hard that should probably be a clue. I was wildly appalled that we ended up swimming a 29:11. But it’s just as well I don’t wear a watch during the swim and only found this out after the race. Note to work on: Stop thinking of self as “just a moderately OK swimmer who is only in the front by mistake.”

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I got on the bike first after arguing with a spectator about whether or not the “hill” at the mount line was too steep to start on. He said it was. I said I’m from around here, this isn’t even a hill.

The girl I’d been swimming with caught me pretty quickly, but I decided she’d come back to me later. Then Emily caught me around 45 minutes in. Objectively, I knew I was biking well. Power, speed, time, catching pro girls. Why was I getting passed so much then? What the hell was going on? I briefly had a ‘maybe my power meter is broken’ line of thought, and then decided it’d be fine. Fiiiiiine. Just keep going hard and they’ll come back to you. This is what I told myself all day. That and: if you don’t eat and drink no one is going to come back to you.

Around two hours in, I caught back up to the first girl and was catching some of the pro women who started right before us (and watching some of the 45-year-old men’s pace lines as they went by). I sort of zoned out a little at the end and maybe lost some time because all of a sudden I was at 2:39 and pulling into the school — and I definitely thought I’d be pulling in a few minutes before that.

It’s fine, fiiiiiine, just keep going hard and they’ll come back to you.

As I biked in, I saw Emily headed out on the run. I thought, that’s what, 4 minutes? I can totally make up 4 minutes, just run hard, it’s fiine. It’s probably just as well I didn’t know it was really like 7 minutes.

I ran hard. 6:40s, 6:50s on the hills, and there were lots of hills. It’s possible I ran a 6:30 first mile. But I felt good, pounding gels and water. I kept thinking I’d come around a corner and see Emily way up ahead on the road. I kept thinking if I just ran hard the race would come back to me. At the winery, I saw Leslie coming out as I headed in. She told me after that she didn’t recognize me because I was running so fast, so there you go. Apparently, when I stumbled into the finish later I was totally recognizable.

It wasn’t until the turnaround that I finally saw anyone in my race. And there wasn’t much to think at that point but: well, shit. Emily was still 3-4 minutes ahead of me and Christine was maybe a bit over a minute behind me and moving significantly faster. I was basically running in third, it just hadn’t happened yet. That’s just math. But I’m sort of proud of what I thought and did at that point: There wasn’t much I could do with 4.5 miles to go; I hadn’t played my cards well enough early enough to get enough time on the swim + bike. All I could do now was keep running as hard as I could, because you never know.

Around 9 miles I also ran straight into a wall. Everything started to hurt, just overwhelming heavy pain. This is what I looked like still trying to run 7:15s:

I was fighting and struggling, and it’s all a bit of a blur. But I made it to the last mile without Christine catching me and really thought I was going to be able to do it. I could see the school up ahead, and then she blew by. And my legs were 100% jello. They just gave out. She put a whole minute on me in that last 5 minutes. But eventually I made it to the finish and my legs buckled and I sort of leaned into whatever was closest, which turned out to be a table of medals. And people were calling for medical and I was like: It’s fine, I’m fiiiiiiine, Imma just sit down for a little bit. Hah.

Next time, I’ll finally run a sub-1:30. Next time.

Now, a note that needs some goddamn head-on addressing:

The top three in our age group were the top three amateurs overall, and very fast. In the aftermath of it being stupid insanely competitive, two comments stood out.

  • Steve was looking at either the 30-34 or 35-39 men’s podium (I don’t remember which) and was like: Hey, that’s sort of do-able; if I get in shape again, I could have a shot at that, as opposed to how insane the women’s category was, comparatively. And I pointed out that’s precisely because there are fewer men racing age group who really should be racing elite. Yes, there are individuals here and there, but look at the top 10 amateurs at Kona, for example, more of those men will be racing elite next year than the women. The overall aggregate effect of this, which isn’t a comment on the competitiveness of any one specific race or age group, is that the men’s age groups feel still within shot, if you trained hard, sure, but not impossible. Which brings us to the second point…
  • A friend on twitter, who’s also 30-34, was like ‘Ugh, that’s so ridiculous it makes me just want to quit, since I’d never have a shot.’ That is exactly the problem with the current situation, with fewer top AG women feeling they have a reason to move up, fewer opportunities for them at the top, it has a debilitating effect that trickles down in the sport. This stifles growth and development. This also isn’t to comment on any specific person, everyone has their reasons obviously, but the net overall effect is a chilling self-perpetuating cycle where the only way you can compete in the age groups is to be good enough to race in the elite field — which seems oxymoronic.

Look, I get that people think this is a weird argument coming from me specifically; I was one of those top three women this weekend. I get that the fact that six years ago I qualified for an elite license and am instead currently racing age group stresses everyone out and has been causing a lot of whispering, so let’s clear up some facts.

1. I was not qualified to race elite, even if I had wanted to, at the start of this year. Literally. Did not meet qualification criteria. I am racing the only category I was qualified to race this season. So chill out.

2. Until races this spring, I last qualified for my elite license six years ago. Once. During that six years, I didn’t even do triathlon at all for a few of them. There are lots of people who have qualified to race elite lots of times a lot more recently than me who are still racing age group. The only difference between them and me is they never took their license before. The difference is definitely not in ability, training volume, time, lifestyle, or resources.

3. Yes, I plan to move up. Let me finish out the fucking season I’ve already paid for, but no I don’t intend to stay here forever. The problem is not with moving up on a schedule, but with never doing so.

4. And this is a bit more philosophical, but: I am a LOT faster than I ever was when I raced elite. I started training for real last summer just to see if I could get good. I needed this year to build a base, and test out if I could actually sustain the training without getting hurt, and make sure I didn’t make the same mistakes I did last time around, and set up my work schedule and support structure and environment, and get my mindset screwed on so I could really be professional about things when the time came. And, yet, I still lose the age group plenty of times. It’s gotten overall faster since I last raced regularly. I never would qualify now for an elite license on my old fitness. And that’s good for the sport, but partially there’s also this class of elite AGers that I don’t remember from before. That system is the problem. I know I have a specific story, but there’s NOT some giant problem of people who used to race elite coming back to age group after taking a break. There’s like four of us in the country and we’re not even the fastest. It’s like worrying about voter fraud; it’s not really a real thing. I know it’d be easier for me to not be the one pointing out the problems with how our women’s age groups are set up, but hell, if anyone knows firsthand the ripple effects on women of our current system it’s me. When we don’t have a separate elite-amateur category, when we don’t force the best people to upgrade, when we don’t have opportunities for women at the top level to encourage them to move up, when we have systemic and cultural attitudes that discourage women from owning their success, this is what you get.

Why More Triathletes Should Take Their ‘Pro’ License

I was reading the newest issue of Inside Tri this weekend and they featured a section of pros spouting off anonymously. That included this quote, which I suspect is an attitude many people (women) have:

Say shit anonymously that you'd never cop to in real life, sure.
Say shit anonymously that you’d never cop to in real life, sure.

This is idiotic. The idea that you shouldn’t take your elite license, challenge yourself, move up in competition, because you don’t meet some other imaginary standard — besides the actual standard that has been set by USA Triathlon — and won’t be good enough and should be embarrassed is wrong-headed and is hurting the women’s side of the sport. When seven women show up for a race where the prize money goes ten deep, the problem clearly isn’t that there are too many professional women.

The elite license is an ELITE license, not a professional license and certainly not commentary on whether or not you make a living racing — or, really, racing and coaching and putting on clinics and shilling for sponsors and media appearances and writing and providing analysis — because few people do make a living that way. USA Triathlon is very clear and specific about this. It is an elite license. It is simply a categorization that says you hit the ceiling in terms of performance, and nothing else. (Really, triathlon would be better off if there were more categories, like in cycling, with mandatory upgrades and a clear process of development.)

Because let’s be very clear. If you keep winning your age group and overall amateur titles and qualify repeatedly for your elite license, you have hit the ceiling in age group competition. Contrary to what this anonymous person says, you should not be happy continuing to beat on people that you’ve already beaten on.

There are lots of individual reasons people might not take their elite license in triathlon — because they’re waiting until next year or they have some specific goal they want to achieve first or their sponsors asked them not to (though *COUGH* why there are such big sponsors in amateur competition is another quandary for another day) or they don’t want to focus on triathlon — so I’m not attempting to judge any of those individual reasons. But, the fact remains that far, far fewer women who have qualified again and again and again choose to get their elite license. Largely, this is because women are afraid they’ll be last or embarrassed or people will judge them or they won’t get to stand on a podium and be admired or they think they’re not real “professionals.” Most women read this anonymous quote and think, ‘Oh my god, that’s true. That would be so embarrassing.’ Most male triathletes I know read it and think, ‘Screw you. I’m going to do great.’

Before I took my elite license in 2010, I never lost my age group. (Actually, that’s not true. I lost it at Age Group Nationals where I had a terrible race and fell apart and had a mechanical and had to get an IV, etc, etc.) I set an age group course record at Pacific Grove, which was previously held by another woman who is now a successful pro. Clearly I was near the top of the overall amateur field, because you have to be in order to qualify for your elite license. (Contrary to what this anonymous person says you can’t get your elite license and race as a pro if you’re just competitive or top five in your age group.) But, I wasn’t the best, not even close. I hadn’t won Nationals overall or a super big race like Alcatraz and there were tons of women I had never beat.

But, when I looked at those women I found that they were all women who had qualified repeatedly and repeatedly to get their elite license and hadn’t done so. In terms of quality, they weren’t amateurs — no matter what their card said.

I opted instead of continuing to sandbag my age group, to get my elite license. And, I did not do well in the pro fields, finishing near the back or back of the middle almost always. There are lots of reasons in my own life for this. But, for the most part I actually was performing about the same or better, but there is such a gap between the top pro girls and the top amateur girls, that I kept being made to feel like I was a failure, even though I wasn’t.

By comparison, the equivalent people on the men’s side have lots of competition around them and it fosters the development of the up-and-comers. If there were more women, if more women didn’t listen to the haters, if more women who are at that top of the amateur field opted to become ‘pros,’ then it would be better for all of them/us. It would be better for the sport, both in terms of developing the lower-level pros and also in terms of encouraging those amateurs who now would have a shot at the podium once these un-beatable girls have moved on. It would be a better race and it would be more fun.

So, female triathletes, let me encourage you for a second:

Plenty of girls who were the same speed as me, a couple minutes faster or a couple minutes slower, have gone on to be very successful pros. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out until you try. (The first year as a pro, everyone will tell you, is almost always hard – especially for women. Because there are so few women, it can be pretty desolate out there racing. It can be very different and very challenging. You know what would fix that? More women going ‘pro.’ And, once you get through that, it gets better.) Nearly everyone who is good now was not at some point. Even this anonymous person who is saying they’d be embarrassed to finish so far back, probably finished pretty far back at the beginning of their career.

The help that comes with getting your elite license — some race fees here and there or a little prize money or a homestay at some races — can be enough to make a difference if you’re on the cusp. It can be enough to help develop someone into a great triathlete. And, also, it’s way better than paying for all that stuff.

Didn’t you, really, get into this sport to see what you could do? Wasn’t that the whole point in the first place? It wasn’t to qualify for such-and-such a race or have people think you’re hot shit or earn sponsorships or get to stand on the top of a podium. It was to see how well you could do. So? Do that. There’s no reason that changes just because of this line that is being drawn. Step over that line and keep going.

Look, I have come in D.F.L. in a pro race. Dead fucking last. It sucks. But, you know what would have been really embarrassing? Continuing to take age group prizes from some girl who deserves it more, who probably would never get the chance if I kept doing the same thing I always did just so I could feel good about myself. That would be embarrassing.

And, I’m not even saying so anonymously.