Joy is where high performance goals turn into reality.– Wendy Neely, Masters Coach
It’s hard to put this season and World Championship experience into words, truly. I began thinking about this race two and a half years ago, back in 2019, when I began placing overall at half ironman triathlons. The half ironman distance (often referred to as a 70.3) consists of 1.2 mile open water swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run and is my favorite distance to race. When Covid took the entire 2020 race season away from us, I knew I had to make this year count. I’m no spring chicken at 30, which some of you may chuckle at, but it’s the cold hard reality of racing at an elite level. As someone who, like many, got into the sport as an adult, you feel a certain subtle time clock ticking as every year passes. This marks my 4th season of triathlon (again, thanks Covid for robbing me of my final year in the 25-29 age group!) and I am thrilled at how it turned out.
2021 in Review:
- North American Championship, St. George 70.3, May: 3rd Overall, 2nd Age Group
- Lake Wilderness Olympic Triathlon: First Overall Female, 5th Overall Male/Female
- Lake Whatcom Olympic Triathlon: DNF, went off course!
- Oregon 70.3: 2nd Overall, 1st Age Group
- Black Diamond 70.3: First Overall Female, 3rd Overall Male/Female
- Bonney Lake Olympic Triathlon: First Overall Female, 3rd Overall Male/Female
- Ironman 70.3 World Championships, St George, September: 8th Overall, 3rd American Amateur, 2nd Age Group
My goals for this year were to improve and have fun, first and foremost. I learned to swim when I got into triathlon at age 26, which is a major disadvantage as I race girls who grew up swimming. I spent a lot of 2020 swimming in the lake, since Covid shut down the pools for several months in Washington, and knew I would have my work cut out for me in the winter. I am blessed to work for a club swim team as the head performance coach, so when pools reopened my coworker, Adrienne, began swimming with me several times a week. This, in addition to Masters swim training, has really helped me improve both my technique, endurance, and confidence in the water! I also knew I needed to improve my bike and run to be competitive across the board. I found a new passion and joy in bike racing, which helped change up my training in a fun way!
Starting this season, I knew I had potential. Elliot, my husband, fellow triathlete, and coach, has always been extremely honest with me about where I stand in the sport. We both acknowledge that triathlon is a hobby – it will never be the way we pay our bills- so taking racing too seriously with lofty dreams of racing professionally would not only be delusional based on where I’m at, it would kill the fun of triathlon. Professional triathletes make very little off race winnings (you usually have to place top three as a pro to be “in the money”) so acquiring sponsors is the primary income source, something I’ve always felt very uncomfortable with. If I like a product, I’ll use it and tell people about it, but promoting it for financial gain…no thanks. There’s also an added pressure to perform at races while representing these brands, and I don’t think I’d like that. I also love what I do for a living (I work full time in personal training, performance coaching/marketing for a club swim team, and triathlon coaching) and don’t currently feel like I could give that up to focus on triathlon, which is what racing competitively at the pro level requires. Never say never, but after being asked repeatedly how I feel about pro racing, there is my honest thinking!
Elliot and I chose to race St. George 70.3 in May, which was North American Championships, as our season opener to preview the course for racing World Champs later that year. World Championship races are by qualification only, so we also hoped we would both secure a slot to return in September. The course was slightly different and slightly more challenging this past weekend for Worlds than it was in the spring, but I enjoyed it! While all the races I did this year were awesome and taught me something, this race in particular is noteworthy. I’m excited to share the experience with you!
Race week was filled with nervous energy, lots of traveling (we drove 16 hours to St. George), and a lot of good times with fellow athletes and friends. We stayed with Dave and Kimberly Tindall, good friends and athletes, Simon Shi, up and coming superstar, and Juan & Camila from Colombia at the world’s best Air BnB! Everyone in the house was racing, so we kept each other calm, joked about the race, and really had a fun time. I also received tons of encouraging notes from my athletes, coworkers, good friends, family, and coaches which was really meaningful!
The water temp was taken on race morning, and at 78* it was declare a non-wetsuit swim. For me, this is a disadvantage as I learned to swim later in life and a wetsuit definitely makes it easier for me to keep up in the water. My age group (30-34 years old) was also one of the last waves to be sent off, so we had a lot of traffic as we caught slower, older age groups the entire time. A crowded, non-wetsuit swim favors someone with a strong swim and/or a swim background, where it has always slowed me down in the past. I didn’t panic when Elliot informed me at 4:30 on race morning to pack my swim skin instead of my wetsuit though. I had been working on my swim a ton, and I was excited for a challenge! Plus, I do feel like a world championship should be a “real” swim, and boy was it ever! It was very physical, as open water swim races usually are especially in a world championship field. I got punched in the eye, kicked in the face, pushed into a buoy, and pushed to shore by swells brought on by strong winds. The first half, despite being filled with nerves and dodging people, went by fast. I remember smiling while breathing to my left side, as I could see the large crowds lined up on the shore watching us start. How cool was it to be here? My first world championship. I took it all in.
I got dropped by the first group I started with and the next group that came through, which is common. I always start near the front and hold on as long as I can. I struggle with congestion, and typically lose feet easily if I get jostled around. Something to work on for sure! I stayed calm and held my tempo effort, reminding myself today was going to be a long day and if I couldn’t hold a certain effort to let it go and race MY race. I hoped another strong-ish swimmer from a later wave would come through to help me! The swim is draft legal, which means you can sit behind another swimmer and save a significant amount of energy. Thankfully, a girl came by and I knew I couldn’t let her go. We swam the entire second half together, weaving through women from age groups released up to 4 waves in front of us.
Sand Hollow is an absolutely gorgeous place to swim, and I tried to acknowledge the scenery of each venue I race even if I’m dying a bit from the effort! The blue water against the surrounding red rocks is breathtaking. I smiled as the shoreline approached, glanced at my time and headed into transition towards my bike. I was hoping for a 33-35 minute swim, and finished in 34 minutes and change, a 7+ minute PR from my last and only non-wetsuit half ironman swim.
I headed out on the bike hot on the heels of a familiar girl in my age group, Carolyn. The bike is not draft legal in triathlon: athletes must keep a legal distance of 12 meters apart to avoid receiving a drafting penalty of up to 5 minutes. This athlete and I respectfully worked together right off the bat without impeding on the drafting rules.
The sky looked dark from the start of the bike, the wind was blowing hard and picking up, and an occasional flash of lightning struck. I hoped we were going to be allowed to finish! Right before the swim start, a gentleman mentioned a storm was expected to hit around 10:30. At mile 10 of the bike, 10:31 am, we got hit by 20-30 mph winds, pelting rain, and eventually hail. I was still riding with the gal in my age group, so I yelled at her as I went by to stay in this with me and not throw in the towel until race officials pulled us off the course. She nodded her head to show her support, and yelled “Let’s do this, girl!” I shifted into a big gear, leaned into the wind, and put the hammer down. Whenever I glanced back, Carolyn was still with me. This helped me hold the aggressive effort into the driving wind and rain.
The middle of the bike course was uneventful and somewhat boring. I eased my effort a bit to conserve some energy, but know in the future I have to keep the gas on to stay with the race leaders. Around mile 48, just before the final big climb, I was passed by a really strong female. She went on to win my age group and place 5th overall. I made the decision to let her go, and continue focusing on my pace and effort to set myself up for the run.
Tough weather usually favors me. It may be easy for some to throw in the towel when Mother Nature flexes her muscles, but I just grit my teeth and flex mine back. I knew I could gain an advantage if I took some risks and kept my effort up while others may play it safe, ease up, or even quit. We had really bad conditions for about 20-30 minutes, but they kept the race going and eventually it cleared up. The course is very highly, but fair. If you go up, you get to descend afterwards. This keeps it exciting, as you constantly have to adjust your gearing and effort. I absolutely love this course. It is as gorgeous as it is challenging, with a notable 4 mile climb up Snow Canyon at the end of the course and a total of 3,639 ft of elevation gain. This race favors a strong cyclist without a doubt, and while I never post the fastest bike split of the day, I usually move up significantly on the bike. I was 46th in my age group out of the water, and moved up to 3rd in my age group on the bike, posting a time of 2 hours and 39 minutes. While this was about 4 minutes slower than what I did in May, I knew the weather was a significant factor in the times today and wasn’t concerned at all.
My legs started to feel heavy about halfway through the bike, but I’m fairly used to feeling that way. If you’re really racing a 70.3, it shouldn’t feel good all the time. What if I don’t do well on the run? I thought to myself. “But what if you do.” I remember saying to myself out loud as I jumped off my bike and ran into transition to change out of my bike shoes and into my run gear. I was concerned about the run, as I knew it was very hilly and challenging with a total of 1500 feet of elevation gain, but reminded myself to fuel a bit extra and to trust my training.
I saw Elliot and our friend Sascha as soon as I left the transition area. “You’re in third!” Elliot yelled at me. Honestly, I was smiling and over the moon just to see him, as I had told Elliot all week that I would just be happy if I survived the swim and got through the bike without a mechanical. “I biked really hard!” I yelled at him as if to prepare him to see slow run splits come through on the Ironman Tracker app, which is allows you to see an athletes times as they cross timing mats out on the course. I enjoy running over these timing mats, as I know loved ones are watching the race from all over the county in long distance support of me. To all of you who were enjoying the battle play out from afar, THANK YOU. It lifts my spirits out there!
My stomach felt queasy, as the sun was out and the air felt both warm and humid. The amateur race had 3,459 total participants, and the age women started very late in the morning as a result of this. For example, Elliot started at 7:41 am and I started at 9:25 am. I adjusted my pre-race fueling as best as I could, but it was around 12:45 pm when I started the run. That’s lunchtime! However painful the race was, I knew at this point I would finishing the race no matter what. Nothing within my control could now bar me from crossing the finish line, so I just ignored my pace and moved my legs.
The run course in May was a simple out and back, but this time around it was a looped course that started with about 3 miles steady uphill and away from town into a sharp incline about a mile uphill before flattening out and turning into a steep downhill back through town. I remembered the hill from spring, but running it twice was a cruel new twist! The course was absolutely packed with people and aid stations were nearly impossible to use. Many people were walking, some were just laying down on the side of the road crying in pain, and several were shouting profanities. I blocked it out and focused on positive things. I smiled so much because HELLO world championships, and truthfully I was playing defense. I had a quiet goal of finishing top 5 in my age group, and with the knowledge I was in third all I had to do was prevent any women from passing me. Typically I move up on the run a few spots, so I trusted whatever my legs could give me was enough. I didn’t concern myself with the slower than expected splits.
The skies opened up for me around mile 4, and it was the one rare and shining moment that I felt truly amazing, confident and at ease in this race. I started feeling better and running well as I came back through town to huge crowds of people. Elliot updated me I had moved into 2nd place in my age group but wasn’t sure of where I stood overall due to the wave starts, so to just focus on running hard. At that time, I was filled with confidence but knew I had my work cut out for me heading away from the crowds and back up that terrible hill. It took everything in me to overcome the quad and calf cramps from the brutal terrain, but I closed my eyes occasionally and willed my muscles to continue working for me. This was the last race of the year, and I did not want to spend off season regretting anything. I believed I was capable of some incredible things, but those things don’t come easy.
“Be patient, be present, be gentle, be kind.” I kept thinking to myself. It was important to me that I encourage other women out there, so I tried to tell every woman good job as I went by with the exception of when I was running up the steep sections (I needed all the air I could get there!) While I was taking this race seriously, I had to allow small moments to give back to the universe a little by sharing moments with my competitors. The last 2 miles were pure pain, and I was passed by a very strong gal that went on to place 3rd overall. I tried to stay with her for as long as I could, and surged for a half mile or so, but eventually had let her go. You told your mother you would put yourself in the hospital to reach your potential, so stand by your word, I remember thinking. Another gal came by gunning for the finish, so I gathered myself knowing every second would eventually count, I sprinted with her. Spectators were cheering for us “Thatta way ladies!” “That’s why they call this a race!” When I saw the finish, I was overcome with emotion. Pain came as a searing reminder that I had pushed myself to the very limit, and I collapsed on the nearest stretch of grass and sobbed for a while as I came in and out of consciousness. Several people asked if they could help me, but I brushed it off as pure elation and eventually wobbled to my feet to find Elliot. I promptly threw up the remnants of fueling in my body, received medical attention from several kind volunteers and medical staff, and found my way to Elliot with the help of a good friend, Sascha!
He confirmed I finished 2nd in my age group, 3rd American amateur, and 8th amateur female overall. YESSSS!!!! Sadly, he also informed, my friendly rival Dave had beat me for the third time this year. Next year, Dave! We headed back to our AirBnB to enjoy pizza before attending age group awards, which was an amazing experience. Triathlon legend Dave Scott handed me my award, which was so cool, and standing on stage with the other men and women who placed top 5 in my age group in front of a cheering crowd was incredibly affirming. My dream really was coming true!
Finishing time: 4:52:19
In a nutshell, the season went exactly how I had hoped. I got my qualifying worlds sport early in the year while simultaneously qualifying for my pro license. I won all the local races I entered and placed overall with the men. I had a bad race that resulted in a DNF, which taught me a lot, and I bounced back. I achieved USAT All American status for the first time. I competed in my first World Championship event, placed in the top 10 overall in the world AND podiumed in my age group. All the things I knew I was capable of doing, I accomplished and I’m incredibly proud of that. I also got beat by over 20 minutes by another age group female AND by a 50 year old dude named Dave, so I’m as motivated to improve again as I am pleased with my year.
The women at the front of the age group race were at a completely different level than me, and I need a better gear in the swim, bike, and run to race with them in the future. I think it’s important to acknowledge your achievements while staying humble and continuously craving growth. You have to get beat in order to grow, and I got beat across the board. While I could pursue a pro racing experience, I know I would struggle with the pressure and anxiety, and I don’t want to hinder my performance or ruin the fun experience of racing triathlon. I also really love engaging in a race, and I’m very clearly not at the level where I could engage in a pro level field. I’m going to race as an amateur again next year and enjoy myself as much possible while reaching for the next level. I have no idea what I can really do yet but, with Elliot’s help, along with all my support system of training buddies, friends, family, etc, I hope to find out. I know I have a lot to learn and I look forward to the opportunity to not only continue succeeding, but also failing. It’s in the failures we learn the most and I know I, like everyone, will have tough times and good times ahead.
I’m passionate about triathlon because its unpredictable, challenging, scary, humbling, and incredibly rewarding. I hope you consider giving it a try if you haven’t already! If I can do it, you can too. If there’s anything I hope to communicate to you from this race and season summary, it would be to challenge yourself, live in the moment, and find something that lights your soul on fire. I’m so goddamn lucky I get to do this!
Thank you for reading this. Wishing you the best!