I got my very-first-ever chance to race in the thoroughbred division last month, and by that I mean I abandoned both my F 40-44 age group and what was in all likelihood my last sip of common sense to race as an “Elite”. At the 2013 Cohasset Triathlon. Which, you may recall from my 2012 so-called race report, attracts an ever-so-slightly competitive field. If you require evidence of the “current calendar year” variety, how’s this: Olympic swimmer extraordinaire Gary Hall Jr. chose to race 2013 Cohasset not as an Elite but as an age grouper. Yeah, sure—the world-class athlete who owns ten (ten!) pretty pieces of Olympic hardware is an “age grouper”…while the 42-year-old single mother of two with a desk job who only recently stopped looking like she might drown mid flip-turn is “Elite”. Makes perfect sense, right? Oh you betcha.
Now, maybe prior knowledge of Gary’s “age grouper” status would have sent me scurrying right on back to Wave 8 with the rest of the F 40-44ers. (Since we all look like neoprene-clad seals at the start, I assumed he was in my silver-capped midst; didn’t find out his cap was green til a few days post race when I stumbled upon this crazy YouTube video.)
On second thought, knowing about Gary wouldn’t have changed a thing—not after the kind of year it’s been here. I guess handing your daughter over to a neurosurgeon so he can drill into her skull, peel back her dura and remove not only the brain tumor within but a “margin” of the good stuff—tissue responsible for memory, behavior, emotions—“just in case”… well, that kinda-sorta streamlines what qualifies as “scary” and a little ol’ race no longer makes The List. It also kinda-sorta clarifies: if you want something, chop-chop and carpe diem because who the hell knows what’s around that river bend.
So here we go, chop-chop-carpe-diem.
I could blame that brain tumor for my Cohasset decision. (Aside: If this whole brain tumor thang comes as breaking news to you, here’s a 68-character update: Gone! Benign! Dr. Joseph Madsen at Boston Children’s Hospital rocks!) Or I could blame Becky, since she unwittingly planted this arguably malignant “race Elite” seed in my own gray matter at the 2012 Title 9 Tri. I definitely can’t blame Cohasset race director Bill Burnett, who encouraged me but at the same time made certain I knew precisely how far over my head the water was:
Subj: Elite at Cohasset?
Jun 23, 2013, at 10:36 PM
TO: Bill Burnett
FR: Christine Johansen
Hi Bill: I would like to race in wave 1 as an elite at Cohasset if I can. I am already signed up as elite for Title 9 in September. Curious if switching is possible? Thanks!
Sent from my iPhone
Subj: RE: Elite at Cohasset?
Mon. Jun 24 at 3:23 AM
TO: Christine Johansen
FR: Bill Burnett
Hey Christine – this is possible…..please consider:
1) by racing elite you are no longer eligible for any age group awards
2) our elite women field went a 1:04 (total time in hour:minutes) or better last year
3) we have 10 women in the elite field
4) finally your number has already been assigned – so by switching to elite – you will still be racked with your age group – not a big deal but wanted you to know in the spirit of competitive fairness.
This is entirely your call and naturally I want to ensure you have a great race experience.
Let me know by 10:00 am this morning your decision.
Subj: Elite at Cohasset?
Jun 24, 2013, at 4:58 AM
TO: Bill Burnett
FR: Christine Johansen
Game on! Switch me! Thank you so much!!! See you next weekend! Crazy-fun 🙂
Sent from my iPhone
Thanks to my newly streamlined Scary List, Bill’s email energized me. I felt like I really did have a chance; I’d burst into Elite-dom like 15-to-1 odds Palace Malice at Belmont Stakes (just minus the mane) to win by three furlongs (swimmer translation: 660 yards).
The “Who” and the “How”
There were a lot of words in Bill’s email, but I fixated on the numbers: 10 (the size of the F-Elite field) and 1:04 (the slowest F-Elite circa 2012). I wondered the “who” of that 10 and the “how” of that 1:04…since my 2012 time was 1:09:06.5. Five minutes and six-point-five seconds is, like, a lot to shave off…especially since I had a pretty awesome-for-me 2012 race; I took 3rd in my age group, right behind the aforementioned seed-planting Becky who just the year before had been completely out of my reach.
Still, I felt like I could cover that 5:06.5 for a few good reasons. First, my frame somehow slimmed down a full ten pounds between model years 2012 and 2013, and I’ve heard that lighter = better on both the bike and the run. More importantly, the newly-svelte 135-pound cj comes fully equipped with more muscle (confirmed by both Daughter #1 and my obsessive-compulsive-ridiculously-expensive Tanita body fat scale) and more myelin (confirmed by me).
As far as the “who” question was concerned, I sensed that was better left unknown since I have a tendency to get a wee bit fixated on the competition. This was most definitely (as Coach Tim would say) a Good Call since I’d later learn that toeing the sandy start line alongside little ol’ me would be:
– Brianna Blanchard. At 24, the former Pepperdine queen of the 200, 500 and 1650 freestyle is presently fixated on traveling to Rio…with the 2016 Olympic team.
– Kaitlin Anelauskas. Captain of her high school cross-country, swimming, AND spring track teams, the now-28-year-old Kait set records as a Bentley College swimmer.
– Jessica Barton. At 24, she’s not just a professional triathlete but also a professional runner who earned her pro card at the Clermont ITU Pan American Cup in March.
– Rae Bastoni. Also 24 (are you sensing a theme here yet?), Ms. Rae will compete at Worlds in September—on the very same London course the Olympians raced this past summer.
– Sonja Kent. I saved the best for last: this 21-year-old phenom is the reigning Sprint Nationals freaking champion. Let’s put that into perspective: according to my sport’s governing body, 50,136 US females raced triathlon in 2012. Out of all of those females, Sonja won the Numero Uno sprint spot.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that I was the only Cohasset F-Elite who could legally slug down a shot of Linie Aquavit whilst the rest of the pack was still suckling at the breast. No no no, that would be entirely misleading since there was in fact one other elite woman who blew out more than 20-something candles on her last birthday cake: Maynard’s very own Becky Paige has also crossed The Big 4-0 chasm. Hurrah! The similarities end there; a card-carrying member of the aptly named (and invitation-only) Team Psycho (perhaps my invitation got lost in the mail?), Becky was the 8th woman overall at Ironman Regensburg and posted a top-ten finish (6th!) in her age group at the 70.3 World Championships in Vegas.
Right. As the kids would say, NBD. (Baby Boomer translation: No Big Deal.)
As “they” say, what you don’t know can’t kill you. (Aside: “they” are usually right, unless what you don’t know happens to involve a grade IV glioblastoma lurking in your brain. I’ve done lots of awful research this year, and trust me—that really can kill you.) So silver lining, I was blissfully unaware of all of the Wave 1 Psycho-drama and ergo basked in my newfound, Bill-bestowed Elite-dom. I took it all very seriously and by that I mean I was even more unbearably stringent than usual when it came to training, sleeping and eating…this proved to be a bit of a challenge since in the 21 days leading up to Cohasset I had not one not two but three freaking business trips—that’s more than I had in the previous 24 months combined.
I did my best to keep my cells Elitely fueled…
…and didn’t miss a single workout even when it meant swimming in this monstrosity…
Even during off-site junkets to Disney I kept my Elite-dom front and center, and by that I mean I forced myself to ride roller coasters as Mental Toughness Training (you know, just in case I didn’t get enough Mental Toughness Training between the diagnosis-triggering grand mal seizure and the sleep-deprived EEG and the too-many MRIs and the virtually-impossible-to-fathom surgery and the terrifying recovery.)
Heck, when a vacationing wee one made off with my swim gear (!) I even made a mad dash to the only store in Orlando I could find that carries the lone brand of goggles that fit my “unique” face…
In a way, the craziness of training through business travel made me feel all the more confident of my Elite-dom. After all, how many other humans would have ventured to smuggle a Ziploc baggie of protein powder past TSA? Jus’ sayin’.
Eventually my travel ended and The Big Day arrived. I woke up smiling. Viper woke up smiling too, and it is noteworthy to add that he and I woke up completely devoid of further human company; when Daughters #1 and #2 learned of our Elite-dom they quite literally sent us packing…made us get a hotel room near the race venue and refused to come, claiming we would be totally intolerable heading into our first Elite race.
Fine. Be that way!
Pre-Race: Concessions to Elite-dom
I have always worn my heart-rate monitor for races, but having it around my rib cage can cause me to get a stitch during the run. I knew I’d need all the help I could get to keep up with the Elites (whoever they were), so I made a game-day decision to forego both the data and the potential cramp. Viper approved and wanted to streamline his own race kit, too (not that he was afraid of those other bikes, nor did he have reason to be)..so I removed his Garmin bike mount:
Swim Start: “You Look Like You BELONG!”
I was hellbent on not getting frazzled when Bill rounded us up for the start. I did a bunch of bigdeepbreaths and was thankful for my goofy ear plugs since they let me burrow into my own little safe place like a hermit crab in a nice cozy shell. I pretended this was just like any other race despite ample evidence (ie, the exquisite neoprene-clad specimens swarming around me) to the contrary. (What can I say; I have mastered the art of Willing Suspension of Disbelief, otherwise known as Lying To Oneself. A handy yet occasionally dangerous skill.)
There was one thing my hermit-crab shell didn’t block out: moments before the start my friend and training partner Jim tapped me on the shoulder and leaned in so I could hear. (He has swum with me scores of times, so he knows precisely how loud to speak so his voice travels through the silicone plugs.) He shout-whispered: “CHRISTINE! You look like you BELONG!” That put a great big ol’ smile on my face and earned Jim a great big ol’ kiss on the cheek. Which in hindsight is totally awkward but…whatever happens in Cohasset stays in Cohasset, right? (Unless you blog about it. Duh.)
Bill had the silver caps gather in a circle and do that hands-in-the-center-cheer-thang. I separated from the pack, hung back. I glanced at Jim and he shot me a glance that nudged me into the circle. OK then! I don’t remember what Bill told us to chant-yell, but I did it and it was really fun.
Then we were crossing the timing mat and we were off with a bang:
If the photos aren’t enough, you can even watch this video of the swim start, which is kinda cool (NB: this is the first time I am attempting to embed a YouTube video in my blog, so fingers crossed; if all you see is white space instead of a pretty click-on-able video below, then I failed and here’s the Old-School-Plan-B link to the video.)
~ The Swim & T1 ~
The Pack: Brianna sure must have looked worthy of the Olympic 2016 slot she covets; she emerged from the water in a blazing fast 6:21…ahead of every Elite with the exception of the amazing Michael Emmons, who was eight seconds ahead of her but not for long since Brianna T1’d faster than anyone that day: a jaw-dropping 20.6 seconds. Now, that’s some super-fast wetsuit shucking; perhaps she employed an Xacto blade??? She had a nice lead but the bulk of the pack exited T1 close enough to make it a “game on” moment—Jessica trailed by a skosh, with national-freaking-sprint-champion Sonja in hot pursuit.
Order out of T1: Brianna, Jessica, Sonja.
CJ: I had a great-for-me swim, but great-for-me clearly isn’t great-for-Elite. Of the 21 non-cj Elites who started the race—that’d be 14 not-Gary-Hall amazing male athletes and 7 not-cj incredible female athletes—I emerged from the water in front of only two: my 8:56 swim split put me a few steps ahead of 37-year-old David Souza of Brookline MA (9:02) and 29-year old Allison Hall of Charlestown, MA (9:10). I T1’d in a time fast enough to land me a spot on Jet Blue’s Top Ten Fastest Transitions list, but at 56.2 seconds it didn’t, like, get me any closer to Brianna et al.
~ The Bike: Not in Kansas Anymore ~
I was a skosh over two minutes behind the bulk of the pack; their cumulative times were “in the sevens” and mine was “in the nines.” Now, in any other race, this would not be a crisis of epic proportions. Viper is darn good at his job and two minutes is not an insurmountable gap for him to close—especially since at some races the fastest chick in the water comes out of T1 with a mountain bike.
But this wasn’t just any race. Remember: I was riding with the national sprint freaking champion and women aiming for Olympic medals.
So, yeah: with 90.47619 percent of the overall elite field and 87.5 percent of the F-Elite field ahead of me out of the swim/T1, I clearly needed divine intervention…perhaps they’d all en masse for some reason heed this bike course sign:
Remember: I am pretty good at that Willing-Suspension-of-Disbelief thang, so I harnessed that, pretended the pack was just around every corner and was genuinely surprised as each passing corner failed to produce them.
In reality, the chasm between their race and my solo time trial was getting wider by the second. From the race results, it looks like they had quite the ride. Brianna lost her 1st-place standing, dropped to third as Kait and Rae pulled off the two best female bike splits of the day, riding a super-impressive 23.4 mph and 23.0 mph respectively.
Out of T2: According to my race-day reconstruction math, this would have been quite the T2 to see: the powerhouse cycling done by Kait and Rae knocked Jessica and Sonja out of their top-three spots. Looks like Kait, Rae, and Brianna zipped out of T2 pretty much en masse, and really it was an anything-could-happen moment, since the rest of the pack was capable of closing their gaps with stellar runs…
CJ: …everyone except cj that is! I rode an average of 21.4 mph, which isn’t the best I’ve got and likely had to do with the fact that there was no “fresh meat” in sight to entice Viper. It felt like a solid effort though; I was happy with my ride though I was surprised I wasn’t faster. Three other Elites rode “in the 21s” so I wasn’t completely out-classed. Still, to be in the running, I’d need to run the 5K at something close to 6:00 pace…and that only happens during repeat 400s on the track.
~ The Run: O, Jerusalem! ~
File under “fitting”: my fate was sealed on the road named (I suppose) for the city of the Last Supper and Crucifixion. It was here that I failed to heed Ephesians 4:29 and by that I mean I uttered an expletive when I glanced down at my Garmin and saw this:
Yep, last year’s entire elite field had quite literally beaten me by a mile. Which is, like, a lot.
By the time I uttered that expletive, the 2013 non-cj Elite race was totally over: Becky (who swam 1:35 pace, rode 21.7 mph and ran 7:01 pace) was the last of the lot across the line, at 1:03:55.1. Jessica set a new run course record with her 5:51 pace (!!!) run, which secured her a silver medal only 1.5 seconds behind first-place Kait, whose 6:22 pace run combined with that awesome 23.4 mph ride earned her the top step on the podium. Brianna took home the bronze–the only podium finisher to be over the one-hour mark (1:00:35.3).
Exiting the Expletive Zone
I didn’t stay in the expletive zone for long, since I knew what I was doing here and it had to do with making more myelin (see? I told you you should have Googled it) and this quote from Mia Hamm:
I was definitely “playing up” that day in Cohasset, and I knew it. So when I finally (mercifully) crossed the finish line I did so with a smile on my face and a feeling of accomplishment; by some measurements it was a lousy performance, but by others it was completely-totally-wholly awesome and I wouldn’t change a thing. (Well, unless I could magically run 6:15 pace; I would so totally change that.) That’s my story and I am sticking to it.
That’s all for now. Thanks to Bill for giving me the chance to race against these superior players, to Tim for coaching me through it and to Jim for enduring that awkward pre-race kiss. As for the rest of you: follow Mia’s lead and “play up”; follow my lead and chop-chop-carpe diem. Streamline your Scary List, keep on myelinating on whatever the heck it is that matters most to you and don’t fret—you’ll catch up to your Orbs and Oxbows yet.