I have more than just an inkling that something happens to active healthy women when they turn 30 years old; they acquire superpowers, and find themselves able to do remarkable things. Babies, motherhood, big promotions, and striving for life’s balance all fall into the catagory of jaw-dropping, awe inspiring achievements that women are adding to their scorecards at/around this time en masse and if their prowess is approached gracefully, it will last the entirety of their early 30’s and, if they use it properly and treat themselves well, into their 40’s (and maybe even beyond.) Strength, power, determination, pain threshold, and a knowledge of ourselves are all characteristics that are becoming exponentially more impressive in this time — and for those of us only dabbling in a few of the above, but also toeing starting lines and leaping as the gun goes off, our ability to race gracefully (and wicked fast) is our feat of beauty. A beauty that you notice, even if you’re standing amongst the crowd of women as the gun goes off, and even if you’re meant to compete against them.
I’ve been learning quite a few lessons about grace and beauty lately from these women around me, and from someplace within myself as well. And this past weekend at the Wildflower Long Course Triathlon was no exception. In fact, what a perfect place to learn lessons on the subject – a challenge that would require poise, on a gorgeous wild course.
This festival had been on my triathlon to-do list for as long as I can remember. It’s on most triathletes bucket list or favorites list, likely – a festival of thousands of triathletes, camping out in the middle of rural California to enjoy a weekend of challenging racing in the sun. Despite the heat, sleeping on the ground, and the smells of Gu mixed with sweat, tire rubber, and funnel cake that are wafting off of Lake San Antonio as the festival closes and the racers pack up their Zipp wheels for home on Sunday night, it is a sight to be seen…and a course to be raced.
And I had come to do just that; after years of focusing my efforts on full-Iron-distance racing, the past few months had been spent starting to convert myself to a half-Iron, or Long Course, athlete and was ready to give the fabled hills and heat of Wildflower a shot. I had no idea how I would fare. After winning Vineman last year, as a newly powerful 30 year old, evidently able to leap over 112 mile bike rides with a single bound and smile my way through a grueling hot and hilly marathon, I apparently had more in my mid-life body than I had thought. These legs had gone on from there only to rack up 4 or five more victories, and crush a handful of road and trail marathons in the months since. After spending my late 20’s being better than average and dedicated to the hilt, my body decided to work with what it was given (by the 30-year-old-superpower fairy.) Of course, here at Wildflower, with a world-wide reputation and a dominating women’s field to match, I was going to get a chance to stack up and smack down with a few other ladies with strong bodies, minds and agendas. So here we went, barreling head-first towards the agenda.
More than just one of the most challenging 70.3 races around, the athletes competing at this distance, (some 1450 men and 420 women) had the opportunity to qualify for the 2012 ITU Long Course World Championships if we placed top five in our age groups. As usual, my expectations of self were high – with my fitness base, a sub-5:00 hour 70.3 time is just waiting in the wings and this would land me near to the best of the best, but not at the top of the field. A reality I could deal with. But there were variables in this scenario; this would be far and away the largest event I had ever competed in, and the day would be as hot as the most grueling races I’ve run. I was surrounded by super-powered 30-year old ladies, a good handful of us chomping at the bit to turn pro in the years to come, and many whom had been whittling and whittling at this distance to make it so. After so many grand successes under my belt in the past few months, I had a sneaking suspicion that a slice of humble pie was ordered up for me….I just didn’t know when it would be delivered.
Maybe I could have my pie and eat it too. Or maybe, I would just eat it.
Dawn arrived and my eyes fluttered open quickly
as if I had just been waiting for the dawn to peek over the hills. My body was oddly at ease and didn’t fumble through final preparations with my equipment. I was calm and collected. I had put in the time to become ready to run this distance and run it well. I had done the work. Body marking, bike check in, transition set up, last sips of water. Time to put on my super suit, and GO. I arrived early and quiet to the swim start, smiling, poised, and taking in these first moments of the day. In the blink of an eye, all of this – all that I had been anticipating for months – would be over. You could visibly see the stress painted on the face of the girls around me – for some, this inspires small talk;
“I’m always nervous when I get to this point,” one little lady reported.
“This is my first triathlon,” stated another with a pale face.
To each, I responded with the same answer, aloud but reconfirming for myself as well, “the swim is the shake out. Once the gun goes off, you do just what you know how to do and that’s how the day begins.”
And so it did. We, the lead pack, dove into the water and cruised out of the chute and into Lake San Antonio, wearing our white caps, stroking furious and fast and aiming for our own lines. There weren’t many elbow checks or violent kicks here – we all knew there wasn’t much purpose in that. It only took a few minutes for us to catch up to the women’s wave that had started before us and soon we dispersed amongst them across the course, making it nearly impossible to see whom was whom, and whom had gone where. Each of us was just working to move as quickly and efficiently through the water as possible so as to check this first leg off the list. My new wetsuit acted like a rubber band on my arms, but my body sliced through the water and I reminded myself to take the moments to exhale any nervous energy that had developed now that we were in the process of barreling towards the finishline. “Listen, Lentine, just listen.” I reminded myself. Out, back, breathe left/right. Rotate, kick, pull, glide. Soon enough, I was sighting off the cliff side where throngs of spectators were awaiting us. I could see one or two white caps; as I suspected I was not the first out of the water, but no matter. A long day lie ahead. My feet touched bottom and I was running, ripping at my wetsuit sleeves balanced and focused. Towards my bike, and into the next two ultimatums of the day.
The transition area was filled with bikes belonging to my field, boosting my confidence about my position. Still, I knew there were ladies ahead of me. Laying on the pavement, wriggling out of my wetsuit I reminded myself that the goal of the day was to race beautifully. No train wrecks. Helmet on, sunglasses, shoes to be tightened once on the bike I was off and rolling, and rolling fast. It’s taken a few years, but I can now say with confidence that the bike is a strong suit of mine. It must be the Italian blood coursing through my veins. Hills don’t bother me, I love big gears and the wind in my hair, and virtual soundtracks play in my little brain as I rock along. At 10 miles in, I had exited the park boundary and was cruising passing men now….but still graceful ladies. High cadence, heart rate at ease, and hunkered down in my aerobars I was hunting for hills. By mile 15, two girls had caught up to me and we were playing yo-yo – they would hammer on the flats for a little bit, and then we’d meet a little hill and I’d cruise by with a little salutation – “good work, girly” or “have a great day!” No response. Maybe they didn’t speak English? This didn’t seem like the language of good competition and mutual respect that I’d learned to speak on the course. This lack of sportsmanship inspired me to just push harder, breathing easy and with a smile, responding the same way if and when we encounter one another again. I blew past both of them with ease and a hum of my wheels and said low but audibly, “have a beautiful race, girl.” She looked me right in the eye, surprised as I pulled away.
Miles 20, 30, 35 ticked by and I was right on schedule; taking in nutrition, swiping water bottles at aid stations as I thanked the volunteers for helping me crush this course, and checking in with my proverbial self. My wheels hummed, and I felt strong above them. Rolling through the bucolic hills, smattered with bright yellow mustard and patch-worked together with iron and barbed wire we pushed, the road black and composed ahead. A beautiful cake walk that told us nothing about the daunting climb that awaited at mile 42. The legendary Nasty Grade – weaving through a canyon where, for the first time all day, competitors are without a cross wind of sorts. I approached the incline, I took a little gulp – and sat back in the saddle. The competitors ahead of me were taking it at a slow crawl, and the heat was radiating off the asphalt. No one was speaking now, only huffing, louder than the bugs and birds chirping around us. I shifted down down down and kept my cadence high, put pressure on the pedals strong and began to overtake the field, quickly and almost too easily. Apparently, not many had saved a smidge for this beast. I came quickly upon a few other girls that must have snuck past me in the water and they received the same audible pats on the back as the others had before them, though at this point in the race they looked parched and confused with my passing. We wouldn’t see each other again for the remains of the day.
To the first false summit, and then the second, with energy left to spare. Before I knew it, I was descending like a rocket down the back side of the climb, rolling right towards the last moments of this race. As anticipated, my flight into the empty transition area, and the tying of my running shoes, seemed to pass by in fast forward. I took the stairs out of the transition area two by two and tap danced my way out onto the course – fast, light, and surprisingly un-phased. I quickly found a cadence that I felt I could keep and settled in to watch the miles tick by. “In roughly an hour and a half, you’ll be passing beneath that finish line,” I told myself, ” the actual time until then depends completely on how you play your cards, and how well you wear your poker face.”
The breeze on the bike had masked the true heat of the day and I began to feel it on my shoulders and neck, blazing. Over the pavement and into the little shelter of the trees I cruised, hunting an aid station and water almost immediately. Most of the run would be on the soft trails that wove through the hills and campsites above the lake – some shade, some singletrack, and lots of fast, steep, short hills. This run is the real challenge of the Wildflower and I planned to run it wisely, rather than as a renegade. I would set the standard in these first couple of miles, then hold steady until the last 4 miles, legging it out with all that I had left.
The water that I was pouring over my head at each station, and sipping on as I ran out, was evaporating in mere moments and it didn’t take long for me to realize that these 13 miles were going to take all of my concentration just to stay hydrated, focused and on task. I cruised manageably through the field, not as fast as I had wanted, but steady as can be. Miles 2, 4, 6 flew by – and I focused on what I thought my body needed (salt? water? nutrition? to stop thinking that I have a blister on my right foot?) As we wound around the southern shore of the lake a fellow Luna teammate blew past me, tossing me a huge smile and looking strong and confident. She was running beautifully and I couldn’t help but admire her cadence and steady gait as she pounded through the miles. I decided to keep her in site – if for no other reason than to remember that racing elegantly really was the goal, and by this I didn’t mean with an ounce of priss. NO. Racing elegantly meant with confidence, drive, strength and grace. Finishing no matter where I did within the field, dripping with sweat, and wearing my own blood if need be — but there would be nothing ugly about the tribute to self I’d be wearing when I crossed the line.
Miles 7 and 8 rolled by, and we runners sponged extra shade as we ran through the deafening cheers of sunburned spectators in sombreros with open beers in the campsites. Then, fresh with enthusiasm, we descended upon the heartbreaking 9th, 10th and 11th miles of the run (a long decent followed immediately by a turn around where you look back to where you came and run UP again followed by a cruise on exposed.) If you could fare this, you were rewarded with a mile long decent home. My pace dropped well into the 7:00/mile zone as I zeroed in on the turn-around – this far from the finish line, I was ready to pour on everything I had left. Steady, strong and back up the incline. I had flashbacks of Vineman – one foot in front of the other, passing a few as I went and sharing the bits of positive energy that we could spare. I crested the top of the hill and felt that sense of relief in knowing that the hardest part was over. One half of my brain flipped the switch and told my legs to kick. The other half expected someone to wrap me in a cold towel and icy cold drink right there. Ah, mirage. And that’s when I hit rock bottom.
It came on quickly, without warning, and the wormhole was deep. My legs just didn’t want to keep running, but they also couldn’t stop. Each step felt as if I was moving in place, though my brain told me that the finish line was just a few moments away. A bonk? Delerium? The wall? Still, my teammate was in front of me and I could see her gazelle-esque strides, attempting to match them to my own. I am sure a frightened smirk crossed my face; I was half relieved to have this feeling of complete emptiness – it meant that my cakewalk of a race was not an indication that I had felt anything in the tank. Instead, I had raced wisely, managed well — it was only that now, as I started to pour in on in those last miles that I had reached system overload. There simply wasn’t any more speed to spare. And so, tuning in again, I realized I was going to have to cruise into the finish line at a 7:20 mile or so, one foot strike at a time and well within my limits, avoiding the wonderful feeling of the all-out sprint that is pure satisfaction in the last minutes of a long day. I rolled my shoulders back, took a deep breath, and set my gaze straight ahead, relaxing my neck, face and closing my eyes long enough to reset the sights they saw. The nebulous clouds and hazy confusion that I had started to perceive in my moments of darkness cleared and the sunlight of the day blinded me again. It was time to finish this thing, and go home.
Humming a little tune, I let my legs spin downhill, under control. Through the flags at the finish, with a big smile, and arms held high as I and crossed the line where my name was called and my time was announced: 5:25. I was the 7th woman (or was it 8th) in my age group, the 16th woman overall, well within the finishing field for the professional ladies but not yet actually among them. Still, a very excellent result, and within range for a World Championship roll-down slot; I would take this day. As I met my husband in the finish area, I noticed he was scanning my face for disappointment. Before he could say a word, I prempted him:
“I raced MY race,” I said. “I gave it everything I had, and had a great day out there. Textbook management. It was spectacular.” I looked him in the eye with the same calm that had said goodbye with a wink earlier in the day, and, at the same moment, looked within and sighed, thanking my body for doing exactly as I had asked it to.
“Good.” He replied, allowing a smile to crack across his face. ” You raced beautifully.”
Just hours after finishing at Wildflower, I was already thinking about whatever is next; better, faster, more. But in the least materialistic sense of all these things. First things first – racing with grace, both inside and out, staying strong and healthy are paramount. I would not be a competitor, or true to myself if I didn’t want to learn and improve from my experiences. I was not at the top of the heap, where my every desire lies. I want to be that girl that is the wicked fastest, and I do have the time and the grace to get there, so this preparation of allure begins again. . I may have the chance to race at the World Championships after all, and have to wait patiently to hear about the prospects. I should have the opportunity to accept the invitation, know that I will arrive at the starting line with a little bit of beauty, grace, strength, and everything else that I have.
I know that our superpowers only weaken if we don’t use them, practice and polish them. The more I race, and strive to be that graceful woman that I follow on the course, the more I’ll learn about beauty, grace, and strength. And the more I learn, the more infinite it seems that the vessel holding these treasures truly is.