This is a much longer post than normal, but I wanted to record my thoughts. I also spent a lot of time reading blogs about other people’s experiences leading up to this race, so I hope this might motivate someone or help them feel less nervous about their first race.
After months of training the day was finally here; I was about to do my first half triathlon.
My nerves were high as I walked the few blocks from my hotel room to the transition area of the race. When I arrived the whole scene had an otherworldly feel to it. At 5am, it was still very dark, so temporary lights had been set up to illuminate the entire transition area which held 2700+ bikes. A man with a megaphone announced over and over “you must be marked before you can enter transition”, while a seemingly never-ending line of people quietly boarded buses that would fill and pull away. It all had the feel of something much more sinister than a race!
I got my race number and age (my birthday’s in November so I always appear a year older at these races) marked on my arms and legs and went to set up transition. Once set up I chatted with a couple other girls near me who were doing the tri for the first time as well while I waited for someone in our group to come pump my tires. This was just the beginning of the amazing support I would receive all day from my group, Music That Moves, and my amazing coach Nicole. (I write about our group here if you want to check that out.)
Once all transitions were set and tires pumped, our group gathered together and boarded a bus. There were 50-60 buses that ran non-stop for hours, shuttling athletes and spectators to the start of the swim on the other side of the river. My husband Jeff came with me which was a comfort because the nerves were still high.
At the swim start we slowly made our way up to the place in line where we wanted to start the swim. Volunteers held signs showing swimming times and you just lined up near the time in which you expected to finish the swim. We found our number and then all headed off to the porta johns together (friends that go together, stay together?…something like that)
Night was now fading into a beautiful sunrise. I glanced out at the river. A man in a kayak glided along the water which now reflected orange from the sky, as a full moon, now low on the horizon and huge in size, set over the river. The scene was beautiful and so peaceful. Soon I would be in that water.
We all struggled into our wetsuits and soon heard the first gun go off to signal the start of the race for the professional athletes. The swim was upstream against the current for a bit and then downstream the rest of the way. A little while later word began to spread throughout the crowd that they were eliminating the upstream portion of the swim for the age group swimmers (anyone who isn’t a pro); the current was just too strong to swim against. I cheered out loud when I heard that.
After that news the mood changed. Nerves left and we all spent the remaining time in line joking around. It was a long wait but we made the best of it, dancing to the music, taking seemingly 100s of group photos, and making friends with the people around us. Soon it was time to say goodbye to our coaches and spouses and friends, so they could go get in place to see us get out of the water.
And then, finally, my race began!
I made my way down the ramp to the water, we were single file now, and once we reached the dock we jumped into the water two at a time. After waiting so long and knowing the swim would be easy, it was actually a relief to finally get in the water. It was my calmest start to a triathlon swim ever.
I jumped in and immediately got into a groove. The morning was beautiful and the water temperature felt great with my wetsuit on. I swam and let my friend the current carried me along. There were so many kayaks in the water that it was relatively easy to see where I needed to go. I managed to swim on my own most of the time. Only twice did I get tangled up in a group of people, which always creates a chaos of kicking each other and intertwined limbs, but luckily I quickly got out each time. Then there they were, the last two red buoys that signaled where to exit the swim. I had done it, the swim was over!
I was pulled out of the water by volunteers and stumbled up the shore. I heard my name screamed out, but didn’t see who was shouting it because I was too focused on getting out of the top of my wetsuit. I managed to pull it down to my waist just in time to come to the peelers. Now this is a brand new thing to me with getting into half triathlons, but they actually have volunteers who pull the wetsuit off of you. It was the best thing! I ran up to a woman, laid back on my elbows, and with one quick pull she had the entire suit off of me. The entire exchange took probably 20 seconds. “Wow, thank you so much”, I cried as I ran off into transition. She was amazing!
I ran into the transition area and there were volunteers waiting with gloved hands covered in sunscreen. I got a good thick coat all over my arms, legs, and back because the sun was now out in full force. The rest of transition was quick and soon I was hoping on my bike to the cheers of my Music That Moves (MTM) group.
The first 5 miles out of town were slow and bumpy. There are a number of pot holes, bumps, train tracks to cross, and sharp turns. My favorite part of those first 5 or so miles was passing a house where a group of people were cheering with a huge sign that said “Yay! You didn’t drown!” “Yeesss!”, I yelled to them as I passed.
Once we got through the town of St. Elmo and into Georgia the course settled down as the road turned into a highway. It was smooth and flat and fast and we were all able to spread out some. It was at this point that I began to have fun! The weather was beautiful (last time I rode this course it was 40 and raining) and the ride was just so much fun. I never went all out because I knew I had a run still in front of me, but I felt good the entire ride.
The highway turned into a section of rolling hills which caused everyone to bunch up again as people began to pass each other. There was a section for miles where I would pass this guy, Red-Man as I began to call him (red bike and kit), as we climbed each hill and then he would fly by me going down it. Sometimes the passing of bikes uphill would be three deep as the differences in ability to climb hills played out. For the most part, though, everyone seemed very conscientious and took care to alert each other as they passed.
We rode through the country with beautiful views of the valley and Lookout Mountain to our right. Then through farmland dotted with cows and barns and green fields. Soon I reach the dreaded hill. You have to make a left turn so sharp that you have to really break and then immediately go into a steep hill climb. I made the turn, dropped my gears, and climbed to the top. Everyone I was around on the hill was well spread out and making it up quickly. We all reached the top and enjoyed the ride down the other side; no issues!
My only issue on the ride came at the first aid station. I grabbed a water bottle from a volunteer and went to put it in my torpedo water bottle holder and the torpedo came out of the holder, stuck to the water bottle. After a few panicked moments of attempting to separate the two, I realized I wasn’t coordinated enough to do so on a bike and pulled over. After that I was much more careful.
Towards the end of the ride, one of my MTM teammates and I caught up to each other and rode back into town together. We talked about how fun that ride had been. It was a great ride. He then took off past me toward transition and I soon followed, ready to get off the bike and begin my final stage of the race.
Transition 2 was quick as well and, as I was leaving the transition area, my coach Nicole was there screaming at me that I’ve got this. I again stopped at the volunteers to get lathered with sunscreen (what a great service!) and wound my way out of transition.
The first mile is always the worst; legs are just not happy to be moving. And this mile was especially bad because within a few hundred yards I was out of the shade going uphill and, for the first time, realized just how hot this run was going to be. It was sunny and in the mid-80s and I felt every degree. Luckily a few of my MTM group were there to cheer me on, which definitely helped. When one asked how I was, I yelled back “This sucks!”.
That hill in the full sun was bad. I wondered if I could finish. But then, just like that, I reached the top and had a nice long downhill run, passing the 1 mile marker. The course turned uphill again and, at the top of this hill like a beautiful mirage, the first aid station appeared. I did just what my coach told me to do- I walked through the aid station and first used my base salt, grabbed a water, then a coke, then water again to dump on my head. They had wet sponges and ice which I dumped down my shirt. I began to run again past the aid station feeling much cooler, munching on ice from my sports bra, and thought to myself, I’ve got this!
I repeated this pattern at each aid station (there was one every mile-ish) and it worked really really well. I had no issues nutrition or hydration-wise and felt good. In fact, despite the heat, I think this was my best hydrated race ever.
The first 4 or so miles were rough as my body adjusted to the run, but after that I got into a good groove. I dropped my speed to right under a 10 minute mile and just plodded along. I usually go all out when I race, so it was actually nice to just kind of jog with no goal but to finish. Soon I was at mile 6 and told myself, “wow, I’m half way done!” (close enough!). You have to make a second loop around this point, but at least I knew this was the final loop.
The heat was definitely a factor though, probably more of a mental game than anything else. I tried to keep my mind occupied so I wouldn’t think about it. People had written lots of motivational and funny sayings with chalk on the ground along the greenway which a good portion of the race was along. It was fun to read all of those. I also talked to a lot of people. You would just kind of find yourself running alongside someone and have a little conversation- “this heat sucks, right?, is this your first half?, where are you from?, how was your bike ride?”, etc, etc. I met so many people and, for a huge portion of them, this was their first half as well.
But the best part, by far, of motivating myself through the run was our MTM group. They spread themselves out all over the run course so every couple miles I would run by one of them. They would scream my name, ask how I was doing, ask if I needed anything, and really encourage me. There were so many of them that other runners started coming up to me saying, “so you’re Heather, you have a lot of fans” or “I sure wish I had as many cheerleaders as you do”. They were the best!
Each loop of the run included crossing two separate bridges over the Tennessee River. It was in full sun, but every so often a breeze would blow up from the water and you would hear a collective “awww” from the runners. When I started my fourth crossing of the river I began to get really excited because I was almost finished. I had seen my husband at the third crossing of the river and knew the next time I’d see him now was at the finish line.
Coming off the bridge I turned a corner and there were two the the MTM coaches yelling at me that I was almost there, just a half mile left all downhill. They pointed to a sign with an arrow that said Finish Line and I took off down that hill, all smiles.
The finish line was so much fun; so many people cheering including my whole group. I crossed the line with a huge smile, really enjoying the moment. My coach Nicole was there at the finish line and was the one to put the finishers medal around my neck. What a special moment to have the person that had first encouraged me to even attempt this and had then trained me so I could finish, be the one to place the medal on me! Nicole gave me a hug, told me that I did great, and then said, “now you need to do a full Ironman,”. Too soon, I told her, too soon!
All ten of us finished the race. There were no major issues and everyone did better, I think, than they ever thought they would do. One of my favorite parts of the day was screaming at and high-fiving people as they ran towards the finish line. To see the joy in people’s faces as they completed the Ironman was just the best! Everyone can accomplish so much more than they realize.
As our Music That Moves coaches say, do something that scares you!