Eagleman was my big target race for the first half of the season and after having a very successful Knoxville race, I was excited to do my first WTC/Ironman brand race as these events always bring a higher level of competition than most of the local races I’ve competed in the past. I had been warned by too many people how hot, humid, and windy the course conditions get despite being a relatively early summer race in the mid-Atlantic. True to the hype, the race lived up to its reputation with high temperatures of 90 degrees and winds of 10-14mph. This race has been the toughest race I’ve ever done and it tested my will as an athlete. It definitely humbled me in many ways.
Despite feeling confident and mentally ready to race, I’ll admit that I had doubt about my heat acclimation preparation as I had done too few sessions to get properly acclimatized. Following the same pre-race ritual and nutritional preparation I did in Knoxville, I was feeling relaxed and ready to go. It was surprising that the swim would be wetsuit legal given how hot it was and even though wearing a wetsuit is always faster I debated whether I should still wear mine – I did. At the swim start I connected with my friend and also former Villanova swimmer, Mike Phinney. Mike is one of the top triathletes in the country (he also ended up winning the overall Age Group category) and I knew that if I wanted to give myself a chance to be a contender in this race, I needed to stay close to him. At the swim start I was feeling good but halfway through I started feeling really hot inside the wetsuit. At that point I was still swimming next to Mike but towards the last part of the swim, Mike pulled away and I decided it was best to slow down a bit as I was already putting a bigger effort than planned.
Unlike my previous two races this year, as soon as I got out of the water my heart was pounding hard and I felt a bit dizzy. I tried my best to regain my bearings exiting transition and immediately focused on lowering my heart rate. Knowing what type of bike effort I had been able to sustain in Knoxville, I was determined to at least match it or, if needed, lower it given the heat and wind conditions. It took me almost the first third of the bike leg to find a good rhythm to my legs and aero position. But by the half way mark, my left quad started twitching and cramping a bit. The sun was also coming out in full force and I could feel my neck radiating heat. I knew then that I needed to lower the bike effort significantly and resolved to trade my leg power output for a more aero position. I figured this way I could still sustain good speed as the course is very flat and there was a slight tailwind the last 6-8 miles. I also slowed down at every bike aid station to get fresh water to drink and to cool down. I got a bit upset during the last part of the bike that I couldn’t fully get my legs to stop twitching even though I kept slowing down.
As soon as I got out of the bike, I knew that the half marathon ahead was going to be a tough battle. This time around I had no happy feelings about my readiness to run whatsoever. By now the heat was beaming full fledge and all I could think of was to find ways to cool down. From the get go my legs were on the verge of fully cramping. My mind immediately took me to places I have never experienced during training or racing. It was a good thing that Irma and coach Greg were cheering around the second mile marker because I almost wanted to start walking right before I saw them. There was no Nina Simone inspiration that could save me out of this one. I knew that if I kept focusing on the negative aspects that were happening I would not even succeed at finishing the race so I made a deal with myself to 1) think about happy thoughts (happy moments with Irma and Isa, happy moments racing, happy songs, happy anything!) and 2) commit to simply make it to the next run aid station and cool off as much as I could. This strategy to break down the run into pieces helped a ton and it carried me through the darkest moments. As much as I was hurting during the run, there were dozens of athletes hurting just as much, and to see everyone’s resilience to push themselves was inspiring. As I approached the finishing chute, I took a moment to appreciate that day’s racing and not quitting despite the brutal conditions.
Being someone who loves to race and compete, it was hard to accept the fact that my body couldn’t respond to what I wanted it do or that I didn’t get the result I wanted. But one of the best lessons I’ve learned from coach Greg is the importance of properly framing racing in a healthy way and not letting the pressure of desperately wanting a specific result discourage or drain your emotional energy. I’ve had a good streak of better-than-expected results for each of my previous three races and I knew that at some point that streak was going to be tested. This race taught me a ton of important lessons and I will certainly take everything learned to continue improving. Like many other things in life, what defines us is often how well we rise after falling. I know this much about myself: I am ready to rise again.