The unlikely (appropriate?) scene of my transformation from CJ Runs Like a Girl to Wicked Witch of the MetroWest: the otherwise chipper, cheerful, you-can-do-this-yes-you-can all-girl race, the Title 9 Women’s Only Sprint Triathlon in Hopkinton, Mass. on September 9th.
Now, we’ve had a tough few weeks here on Denoncourt Street, and by that I don’t mean the standard work-is-nutty-and-the-kids-are-driving-me-nuts variety; I mean the kind that start with a shrieking ambulance and careen right onto the ER-CAT-scan-MRI-sleep-deprived-EEG freeway. So as I headed to packet pick-up the day prior to Title 9, I wasn’t feeling like a horrible, terrible, very-bad person; I was feeling like a drained, beat-up, ok-life-I-give-up person. But the race would reunite three of the 4Cs (my clamshell-earning-but-sadly-never-receiving Hyannis Marathon relay team). And both daughters—one of whom was the reason the aforementioned ambulance shrieked—were not only very much alive but also well enough to come cheer me on. The single-minded focus that high-speed pothole avoidance requires would be just what the doctor ordered.
I found my name on the great big alphabetized list of 700-ish pre-registered athletes. I was thrilled to see that sea of names—the race was sold out. Nice.
Johansen, Christine: / AGE GROUP 40-44 / CAP COLOR BLUE / BIB NUMBER 236.
236. Not a very noteworthy number, but I’ve had insanely high standards ever since I was issued that triply-lucky 24777 at the 2011 Boston Marathon. Still, bib numbers = tarot cards to me, so I searched for a sign. All I came up with is that I had worn that exact number once before, at the 2011 Scituate Duathlon. It was my first race with my then-brand-new Quintana Roo and I got a silver medal for coming in 2nd AG.
Since toeing the line alongside me at Title 9 would be Rebecca Padera, one of my season’s prime competitors, maybe my Scituate-repeating #236 was an omen it’d be another silver-medal day. Becky could easily ace our age-group podium, and depending on who showed up and how I felt, I might earn the step below her. That would be kinda nice, I thought. She has always beaten me fairly handily but I did podium with her once—at the 2012 Cohasset Sprint. When she passed me on the run at Mile 3 of the Age Group National Championships, she was rocking along rather effortlessly…at what looked to be my “repeat 400s” speed. She is just that fast, and as we all know, I am….working on it.
Next I scanned the list for Christy (aka C4) and Christine (aka C3.) They like numbers, too, and since they couldn’t pick up their packets on Saturday I’d text them their numbers. C4 would be # 183; C3 would be #435.
Then I looked up Becky— I don’t know why, since I don’t have her cell number so there’d be no silly texting. I guess I looked because I was excited to race her. Since you rack your bike with your age group and numbers are assigned by rack, her number should be something very close to mine.
When I found her amidst the Ps, my jaw dropped and my eyes bulged; she wasn’t 235 or 237—she wasn’t 200-anything.
Padera, Rebecca: / ELITE / CAP COLOR RED / BIB NUMBER 1.
What? What??? WHAT????? My eyes must be deceiving me, I thought. Surely it’s the lingering effects from that sleep-deprived EEG thing… I looked twice…three times. Nope, those characters just weren’t changing. Becky had somehow been dubbed “elite” and given a tarot card—I mean bib number—that required zero psychic skills to read. Everyone knows what “#1” means.
My heart raced. I found a Max Performance official in the big white tent, tried to sound all nonchalant (which I was not) and casually inquired how “elite” status was conferred. Self-selection at registration, he said. With a click of a button several months ago, Becky had taken herself not just out of my wave (red-capped elites would go first; my blue-capped wave would go five minutes after), but out of my league.
Bold! Brazen! Infuriating!
You guessed it—cue the Wicked Witch music.
I started punching away at my iPhone, but not to giddily text C3 and C4 their bib numbers. My texts were revved-up rants to training partners and my coach; I employed ALL CAPS as well as the acronym “WTF” followed by a string of question marks and exclamation points.
Their responses all conveyed the same basic thing: Go. Get. Her!
As if I needed encouragement.
My mind’s TV briefly flickered on the “Best of Becky” channel—a highlight reel featuring her smooth stride as she breezed past in Cohasset…her stellar hill-handling skills at Nationals…the massive 2:01 chasm in our finishing times on this very course in May. I didn’t just flip the channel—since a flipped channel can always be flipped back and usually does at the very worst moment possible. I pulled out a sledgehammer and blasted the damn screen to smithereens.
“Stop calling her ‘Becky,’ “ one friend counseled. “She’s now ‘Toast’.”
OK, I needed a plan.
Step 1: Select Code Name.
At Cisco, all big projects get a “code name”—something to rally the troops behind. While Cisco’s realm is all things IT, you wouldn’t know it from our project names; I am currently involved in both “Operation Yoda” and “Operation Chewbacca.” (Kid you not. Sometimes trying to keep track of which project is which drives me so crazy that I threaten to go all Darth Vader-ish; at the very least I think I should be issued my very own light saber to cut through the bullshit.) My code name would motivate, not obfuscate. And so Operation Beat Becky held its inaugural meeting right there in the still-under-construction transition area. (A quorum was reached with just me and my iPhone. Keepin’ it simple.)
Step 2: Reconsider Wave.
It was suggested that I might join the ranks of the few, the proud, the “elite.” In the “do it” column: if Becky and I were in the same wave we’d start at the same time and there would be no question where I was vis-à-vis Numero Uno—it could even come right down to the wire and I could channel my inner Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce as needed. If I started with Wave 2, I’d always be five minutes behind her, so who finished first would be clear as mud until the results were posted. In the “don’t do it” column: “Elite” means something special to me. Jarrod is elite. Alicia is elite. I am a fast age grouper and the sanctity of some words should be preserved. Plus, I love-love-love passing people on the bike, and being in Wave 2 would by definition give me more people to pass. Decision made: I’d stay put in Wave 2.
Step 3: Identify Minions.
It’s tough work being evil; even the best—Lex Luthor…Two Face…the aforementioned Wicked Witch—need the assistance of a loyal lackey or two. Daughter #1 would serve as Head Minion; assorted friends and training partners would round out the bench. I gave my Head Minion explicit instructions: she was to hit the “start” button on her phone’s stopwatch function when the airhorn bleeted to start Wave 1. She would time “Toast’s” swim, then wait on the beach until I emerged from completing my swim leg. Once she had seen me remove my goofy silicone earplugs so I could actually hear (I may be evil but I’m still fussy about water in my ears,) she’d yell two numbers at me: Toast’s swim time and my position in my wave. We even practiced: “I’ll say it like, ‘8 minutes / eighth red cap’.” Atta minion—I mean atta girl.
The rest of the minions made up my ego support crew; whenever they spotted me, they were to tell me how much better I looked than Becky. (Remaining “on message” was key, I stressed; truth was superfluous.)
Pre-Race. I arrived later than I wanted to—6:15 instead of 6 am. The reason for the delay: the Dunkin Donuts’ trainee took a ridiculous amount of time to make breakfast for Head Minion and Daughter #2. (As a race volunteer, Daughter #2 was excused from minion duties.) This cost me the very best rack position, which I had scoped out the day prior. I was extremely grumpy about that—every notch down the row I had to go could add, like, whole milliseconds to my time. The Elites racked right next to BIKE OUT—waaay away from the riff-raff. Bigdeepbreaths. Fortunately, the second woman to arrive had left a sizable gap between her bike and the spot I coveted, so I nabbed it. She protested: “Oh, they told me there would be plenty of room in the rack and there’d be no need for us to squeeze in together!” she said, “inviting” me to move in a passive-aggressive manner. I simply put in my earplugs and pretended I didn’t hear her. (See what I told you?!? What has become of me?!?) She eventually re-racked down several notches.
The swim. As we walked to the swim start, I avoided the usual race-day banter. Ear plugs sure do come in handy. And when the announcer asked my wave to “give it up” for Wave 1, I did not. Conserving my energy. Once Wave 1 departed, Wave 2 took to the water for warm-ups. I don’t think lions swim, but I felt like a lion pacing in its cage—I swam fast for 20 yards, turned around and swam back. Lather, rinse, repeat. Fairly certain I scared half the wave. Sorry about that, ladies—the devil made me do it. And then we were off, and I was up with the faster of the Wave 2 swimmers. We overtook the slower part of Wave 1 (it included not only Elites but also all athletes up to age 34 plus the Athenas.) I have not become horrible or terrible enough to hurt a slowbie, so dodging those who required the assistance of “swim buddies” forced me to sight frequently and slow down substantially.
When I emerged, The Plan went off beautifully. Head Minion waited until precisely the right moment and when my unplugged ear was close enough to hear she yelled: “8:07! SIXTH IN YOUR WAVE!” Good thing I had sledgehammered the TV or that highlight loop might have started playing; my Garmin said 9:07. Becky was winning. I sprinted into transition like Usain Bolt. (Only he has never had to sprint in a wetsuit. That I know of.)
Becky: 8:07 swim / 1:36 T1 (5th/631)
Me: 9:01 swim / 1:34 T1 (23rd/631)
The bike. In the first few miles, the course has these fantastic sweeping downhills with great sight lines…and massive frost heaves. Hopkinton State Park, I think I can speak for all triathletes here: we are willing to chip in if you’ll repave this. Combine the bumps with my still crash-rattled-brain and my desire to burn up the bike and, well, it was a dangerous combination. I rode those downhills with my left arm in the aerobar, my right hand on the brake hood. An unusual position for sure… but it worked. I passed and passed and passed… by Mile 4 I had passed virtually everyone and was riding solo (I had passed all but three riders, I’d later learn.) While I hadn’t passed Becky, I was fairly certain I’d scored a better bike split. Gut feel, mostly based on the fact that when I glanced at my Garmin several times on a very flat section, it said I was going between 26 and 28 mph. As I hit the dismount line I channeled Usain again, imagining how he’d sprint whilst pushing a bike.
Becky: 33:04 bike / 1:02 T2 (9th/631)
Me: 30:19 bike / :47 T2 (1st/631)
The run. I felt solid, but not in the usual leaden way…in a good, strong way. For some reason a quick cadence came naturally and I had to urge myself to chill out on the initial hill. Around Mile 2 there’s this out-and-back—you go .2 miles up a slight incline, then turn around and head back the same .2 miles. As I was starting that ascent the lead runners were coming down. I was within .4 miles of the lead runners—and one was Becky. Who had started five full minutes before me. I didn’t need a PhD from MIT to figure this math out; unless I let things go horribly pair-shaped, this race was on. Even though it had been fewer than 48 hours since I had worn earplugs in an attempt to dampen the sledge-hammer-like sound as the MRI machine captured images of my daughter’s head, at that moment, I didn’t feel like a weary, worried mom; I felt like Number One. When I got to the turnaround, I realized I may not “just” be in line to accomplish Operation Beat Becky…I had a shot at placing overall. I refused the Gatorade the volunteers offered but demanded to know my place; I was the fourth runner to come through. Smile.
Fast-forward through the next mile and cut right to the finish. (Trust me, there’s an awful hill–you’re lucky to be missing it.) Now, it is not abnormal for me to puke at the end of a race; what can I say, I am a bit of a race-day puker. When my heart-rate crashes from the 180 of my finishing kick to 140-ish when I run out of timing mat, my stomach decides it is time to purge that lake water I swallowed on the swim. But this time the urge to puke actually came during the kick, somewhere around the 100 yards-to-go mark. A new and exciting experience. When the timing-chip-collecting volunteer knelt down to take mine off my ankle, I told her she might want to move fast. She got the drift.
Official run times:
Becky: 21:26 (1st/631)
Me: 22:57 (13th/631)
I was the fifth to cross the line, but with the whole wave/time differential we had to wait for the results to know for sure. It was a long wait. I got a post-race massage. Celebrated the finishes of C3 and C4. Changed into compression tights and wiped down Viper with some of the water I didn’t drink a sip of on the bike leg. In a way it didn’t matter what the results would say, as I knew I’d done my very best, but in a way nothing else mattered. I stalked the white van where the organizers were chunking the data. (This cracked me up…”girl stalks white van” sounds a lot like “man bites dog.”)
Official Overall Times:
- Bib #46 Ginger Howell (25-29) 1:04:05
- Bib #214 Cindy Regnante (40-44) 1:04:06
- Bib #236, Christine Johansen (40-44) 1:04:36
- Bib #2 Karen Gregorczyk (ELITE) 1:04:58
- Bib #1 Rebecca Padera (ELITE) 1:05:14
Once the results were final, I texted my coach to change project status from “in progress” to “mission accomplished.” In the final of our rapid-fire-typo-laden exchanges, I noted that Becky trains under another top-level coach. So when I beat Becky, I said, he beat his competition, too.
His response: “I like that.” I guess that means we’re all a little evil on race days. 🙂
Since the race, I’ve been offered some very good reasons one might self-select as an “elite;” the reasons are so good in fact that I might just might be tempted to self-select into elite-dom at next year’s Title 9. I’d do so knowing full well that putting a low number on my chest would also put a great big bulls-eye on my back.
Well, that’s all for now. As usual, thanks for stopping by. Explore your inner sledgehammer side, avoid puking on the timing-chip collector’s head and develop your very own bench of minions in the event you ever set your sights on world and/or tri domination. Tell your kids you love them and please don’t hate me too-too much for being a horrible, terrible, very bad person…I’ll see you at Buzzard’s Bay!