A Place of Gratitude: Toronto Triathlon Festival Recap

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Hello, friends! Happy Monday Tuesday!

Well, it’s come and gone. On Sunday, I joined about 1,400 other athletes at my goal race for the season, the Toronto Triathlon Festival. Last week, I wrote about feeling relatively at ease about the race, knowing already that I had come leaps and bounds from last year’s first attempt. I headed into the weekend in a mostly ambivalent state of mind for this reason, although still ready to give it everything I could.

After talking with my coach last week, I ultimately decided against setting a specific time goal. Instead, I settled on three mini-goals for the race:

  1. Have a good swim (read: do not panic)
  2. Complete my ride clipped in (eep!)
  3. Cover my watch for the last part and run by feel

If you’re not interested in reading the incredibly long post ahead, here’s the skinny: check, check, and check. At the heart of this race for me was benchmarking, and I’m ready to get back down to business before my first Olympic race, which is just under five weeks away!

Anyhoo, here’s how things went…

The Day Before

Saturday morning was busy. We had friends coming from out of town to spend the night with us and race, so I was up early to clean the house and shuffle one of the dogs off for boarding. Then we headed straight to the expo so we could attend the in-person race briefing because we missed the boat on the online briefing. Poor life choices. We all make ‘em, people. After the in-person briefing was done, packet pick-up was very fast. Ryan did the swim familiarization while I waited. I didn’t want to risk my wetsuit not drying for the next morning, so I hung out while he swam.

From the moment we arrived at the expo, it was a completely different experience for me than last year. I felt at home, like I belonged there. I ran into so many people that I knew, and had a great time catching up with my Regent Park swim group friends. I miss them so much, and it was such a nice start to the weekend seeing so many smiling faces.  

We hung around a bit until our out-of-town friends arrived. I attended an event with Simon Whitfield, who talked to us about daily rituals. The expo had a great selection of vendors! Ryan had his sweat tested by Jason to see how much sodium he loses, which in turn, helps you develop an appropriate fuelling and hydration strategy. The solid black version of my tri shorts was at the expo for only $40, so I snapped them up and resisted the urge to buy more tri clothes. Other than the shorts, I picked up some gels, and a swim cap to match my sassy new swimsuit. I can’t wait to wear them both tomorrow at swim practice! Woo!

Before we exhausted ourselves too much at the expo, we went home to get our things organized, get dinner at senior-citizen-o’clock, and go to bed in anticipation of our 4:15 alarm. I ate some ginger teriyaki chicken rice bowl thing at a restaurant nearby for dinner, if that interests you. It was fine. Forgettable, and not too heavy. When we got home, I attached the stickers to my bike and helmet, taped a gel to the crossbar of my bike, and packed up the rest of my things. I was in bed by 10, and fell asleep almost immediately. I slept well and only woke up once before the alarm went off.

Race Morning

I had a cup of coffee and started in on a bottle of water. I made my breakfast of two gluten-free waffles with peanut butter and jam + banana to go. My race would not start until 10:00, so I didn’t want to eat 6 hours before and start the race hungry. Plus, I had hours to kill between the start of the Olympic race and my own race, so there was plenty of time to digest. We strapped all the bikes to the car and put our bags in the back and made the drive down to Ontario Place pretty quickly. Parking was simple, and there was a ton of it. Our parking spot was about a five minute walk from the transition area. Can’t ask for much better than that.

Like last year, I entered transition with the olympic athletes and got my area set up way early so I wouldn’t have to lug my bike and gear around while I watched the start of the olympic race. I did get a couple of looks from the volunteers that questioned my sanity of why I was there so early. The peace of mind of having my transition area set up so early was worth it. That’s the reward for a 4:15 wake-up, friends.

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Jess and I hung out and watched the start of the olympic swim, as both our Ryans were racing. I really enjoyed watching the swim, although I did see some heartbreaking DNFs in the water that made me want to cry. Once we spotted the guys and they appeared close to finishing, we moved over to the bike mount line to watch them start the ride. We missed her Ryan somehow, although managed to see my Ryan head out on the bike. By now, I had gotten a text from my coach saying she had arrived and it was close to time when I could (for real) enter transition, so I caught up with Phaedra briefly, said goodbye to Jess, and headed into the holding pen.

I really just had to double-check my set-up, and meander around transition being all social while everyone else set up their things. After one last trip to the porta-potty, I changed into my onesie and put my wetsuit on halfway, ate a banana, dropped my bag into bag check, and got out when transition closed at 9:00. We all headed down towards the swim start and started waiting out the near hour between transition closing and our swim wave, which was second to last. I took a gel 30 minutes before my wave left.

A few minutes before our start, we were allowed in a very enclosed area to “warm-up.” Due to the complexities of the venue, there really isn’t anywhere to do a proper, 15-20 minute warm-up. As I was easing myself into the water, I saw a straw from a juice pack, and a cigarette butt. Yum. I couldn’t wait to get into this cesspool and swallow a bunch of water. I took that as motivation to swim faster. Besides, Ryan helpfully pointed out that it’s the stuff you can’t see in the water that will really kill you. Duly noted.

Swim

(NB: All times and distances listed will be from my Garmin)

When the horn went off, I found myself starting in the middle of the group and to the left. Last year, I started the swim leg way at the back and off to the side. I had counted to five after the start and then got moving. Not this year. I eased into the swim very easily this time, and let people pass as they needed. My breathing settled very early on. I concentrated on sighting as well as I could, and fully extending in my stroke, while rotating my body. I was not kicking very much early on, so as not to expend all my energy. Every 100m or so, I would come up for a little breaststroke or side swimming. I really tried to keep moving the whole time.

Water conditions were perfect. Seriously. It was calm, and the water was warm. At over 17*C, it was much warmer than last year and subsequent years. Only slightly colder than Welland and Kincardine, which was nice. I was very comfortable in the (disgusting) water.

However, I admittedly did a little more watch gazing than I ought to have. I could have sworn that I saw the volunteer who saved my ass last year and paddled alongside me to the finish. That was motivation to get it done. I was eager to get out of the water and onto the bike. I felt good about my sighting, and remember thinking that I couldn’t wait to see the map when I got home.

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Before I knew it, the dock was right there. I came out of the water and popped my goggles up. I felt good. Not dizzy or otherwise disoriented, so I got moving. I tore my wetsuit down halfway, took off the goggles and cap, and ran. I passed my coach and the spectators smiling. Recalling that last year’s photo of me coming out of the water was more akin to Ursula the Sea Witch than a triathlete in transition, I was already making progress. Huzzah!

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Why, yes, I do have raccoon eyes. Photo: Finisherpix

832m//22:50 (2:44/100m)

T1 (Swim-to-bike)

As soon as I got to my area, I ripped off my wetsuit and put on my helmet. I heard cheers from the other side of the fence – it was Jess and our Ryans! They had already finished the Olympic race. I gave a thumbs up, and continued getting changed. I dabbed my feet on a towel, and put on my socks, sunglasses, and gloves. After a swig of water, I grabbed my shoes and bike and started the long run up to the bike mount line. Once you are out of the transition area, there is a short and fairly steep ramp up to a bridge that you run across and then mount your bike. The run up to the bridge wasn’t much fun. I took it easy. I was eager to try this clipping in business in a race, so as soon as I was past the orange mount line, I shuffled off to the side and put my shoes on. I struggled for a few minutes (seriously, a full few minutes) to get one of my shoes clipped in, and eventually got going without incident.

It is worth noting that the distance from my area to the bike mount line was 450m. Sportstats said my T1 was 3:23, so it looks like I spent 3:41 trying to get one of my feet clipped in. Sounds about right. I’ll definitely be working on practicing a faster start with my clips. I was across the bike mount line by this point, so all of this extra time was added to my bike split, even though I wasn’t actually moving. You live, you learn. How long can I play the newb card again?

T1: 7:04

Bike

I was excited to be on the bike. In fact, I think I was looking forward to the bike leg the most. The novelty of clipping in had me really jazzed to see how much of a difference I would see in my bike time. The first kilometre or so is weaving around side roads to get onto the highway. I immediately felt a difference in my legs with my shoes clipped in, so I was pumped to hit the road and get this party started. I briefly flirted with the idea of a 40-ish minute ride, and let the excitement set in.

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I’m having a good time! Photo: Finisherpix

Oh, HI, WIND! Where the hell did you come from?

The second I turned onto the highway, I was greeted by what seemed like a brick wall of wind coming from the east, which was the direction I was heading in for the first half of the ride. Naturally. I was not mentally prepared for the wind, and I am not an experienced rider in windy conditions. I spent so much time before the race bracing for rain. Wind? I hadn’t given the wind a second thought. Luckily, the bike course is relatively flat, with a few long and gentle ups and downs, although quite open. Sneaky. I was fighting the wind from the beginning and deflated (yes, yes. Let’s all enjoy these little puns now, hmmm?) to see I was, at times, unable to sustain more than 16 km/h.

Instead of getting into a dark place, I told myself to hang on because if the wind was this strong in my face now, surely it would push me on the way back and I could make up the time. Better to battle it now, than on the last half. Unless, the wind changed directions, which has been known to happen to me on long runs, so why not now? I digress. Ultimately, the weather is at the top of a list of things I can’t control, so I decided not to let it dictate my race. I stayed positive, encouraged riders as they passed and I passed, and smiled for the photographers. As it was an out-and-back course, I also used my distraction skills and tried to spot people I knew. I kept powering through until I got to the turnaround point, which is, of course, at the top of a hill. Bless the highway ramps. Har.

I turned around and let it rip with whatever energy I was willing to spend on the bike. I kicked my gears up so I wasn’t coasting the entire time and on some of the downhills, I was able to hit 45 km/h! That may be the fastest I had ever ridden outside. In fact, I’m certain that is the fastest I’ve ever ridden outside. Lots of adrenaline came with that. I decided then and there that I loved being clipped into my bike. How had I ridden in my running shoes before? It was a different world. Talk to me after I’ve had my first wipe-out, though, I guess. And now, I’m jinxed. My glutes and hamstrings were taking most of the work, and I totally agree that it saved a lot of energy and made for a more efficient ride.

You know what was not efficient? (Points for that segue? Thank you.) My hydration during my ride. I have practiced drinking on the bike quite a bit and my strategy is usually to drink every 10 minutes. Every time I grabbed my bottle on the ride, though, I fumbled and struggled to get it back quickly. With all the bumps and grooves on the highway and the high speeds I was hitting on the second half, I really struggled to take in more than a microsip. I know this will change as I get more comfortable riding and drinking. By the end of the ride, though, I had barely taken in 250ml of fluid. Oops. BTW: My drink of choice for longer workouts and races is Nuun Performance. Right now, I’m drinking the Orange Mango flavour.

On the other hand, taping my gel to the crossbar of my bike was positively genius. The plan was to take it roughly 10 minutes before I finished my ride, and I did so without crashing. I took the gel a little bit at a time and took the hairpin turn to come off the highway and finish the ride.

I clipped out just before the dismount line without issue, and jogged my bike back to transition. Coming down that hill after my ride with my bike and shoes in tow was no joke, and I had to take it super slow, lest I wipe out. Can you imagine how embarrassing that would have been? Ah, well.

It wasn’t quite the ride I had hoped for, and a good lesson in preparing for the unexpected. I am ever grateful that it didn’t rain, and I think I handled the wind very well.

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Look, Ma! Clipped in! Photo: Finisherpix

18km//43:41 (24.7 km/h)

T2 (Bike-to-run)

I scurried back to my area and racked my bike. I dropped my shoes instantly, and took off my gloves and helmet. I slipped into my running shoes and put on my hat, bib, and wristband to cover my watch. Jess and Ryans were still there cheering and I was so grateful to have them there for the confidence boost.

T2: 3:59

Run

To be honest, this was the part of the race I was looking forward to the least. I tried not to focus on the potential for disaster due to my poor hydration, and just got moving. Almost right out of the gate, Phaedra was there with her cowbell and I immediately perked up. I focused on running at 6-7 RPE and trying to start conservatively by feel.

The run course was a 5km out-and-back, so I broke things up mentally: first kilometre, turnaround point, 4km (when, if I was feeling good, I could drop the proverbial hammer.). The first kilometre seemed to last forever. When I finally felt my watch vibrate and beep, the temptation to look was high. I’m happy to report that I didn’t. Gold star, please. I also saw Damara a little before this point, one of my Ragnar teammates, which I had not been expecting. Yay for Ragnar reunions! Come to think of it, several of us raced at TTF on Sunday. Heh.

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Pact with self: Always smile for the photographers! Photo: Finisherpix

When I got to the first aid station, I took a cup of Nuun to drink and a cup of water. For the first time in my life, I dumped the water over my head. While it wasn’t particularly sweltering and there was some cloud cover, it helped keep my temperature in check. I repeated this at all 4 aid stations.

While I wouldn’t say the wheels ever completely came off, I struggled after the halfway point. There is a fairly challenging hill right after the halfway point, and I walked. Once I got moving again, I decided I would draw positivity from those around me, given I didn’t have my trusty sidekick with me this year. Three times, I saw people who had motivated me on the ride and I told them so. We all encouraged each other on the run to get it finished.

I saw my coach one last time in the final few hundred metres, and I was definitely ready to be finished. Spectators were great in the final stretch, and athletes who had already finished were on the sidelines cheering us all in, which I appreciated.

Just like last year, my friend Mark was near the finish cheering for the Tribe athletes. We occasionally joke about that final stretch last year, when I yelled at him, “I’m never f*cking doing this again!” I was in much better spirits this year, and yelled to him, “I can’t f*cking wait to do this again!”

I turned the corner and gunned it to the finish. By “gunned it,” I mean I ran a 5:16/km for about 50m. It was all I had left, and I dropped a victorious f bomb as I neared the finish.

5km//31:07 (6:12/km)  

Overall Time: 1:48:41 (27/34 AG, 154/191 Gender, 375/435 Overall)

After brief chats with everyone who was immediately at the finish line, I collected a Clif bar, and took a photo with Phaedra (and met a fellow athlete from Team PK – Hi, Charlotte!!!). After that, I hightailed it to the beer tent because #priorities.

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The Ryan Sandwich reunited! Photo: Phaedra Kennedy

The Benchmark

Let’s take a look at the numbers in comparison to last year, shall we? Drum roll, please.

Swim:

2016: 35:51

2017: 22:50

Difference: 13:01

T1:

2016: 5:16

2017: 7:04

Difference: +1:48

Bike:

2016: 51:38

2017:43:41

Difference: 7:57

T2:

2016: 2:38

2017: 3:59

Difference: +1:21

Run:

2016: 46:41

2017: 31:07

Difference: 15:34

Age Group Ranking:

2016: 30/31

2017: 27/34

Gender Ranking:

2016: 157/160

2017: 154/191

Overall Ranking:

2016: 323/330

2017: 375/435

Parts of my race didn’t go the way I had hoped, although I think I coped fairly well. It’s hard to argue with the numbers. There is no question that I’ve made a huge improvement over the last year, which was exactly what I wanted to measure on Sunday. As you can see, there is quite a bit of work to be done on improving my transitions. I fully expected them to be slower than Welland. I had much more distance to cover in transition at TTF, and my cycling shoe change added some time. Previously, I would change into my running shoes in T1, and keep them on for the remainder of the race, which made for a very fast T2. It’s extra time I’m more than willing to add for now because, in the long term, it will help me be a better cyclist.

The unexpected wind threw me for a loop. It felt too early in the race to let it wear me down, so I chose to save my suffering for the run. In all honesty, I had been hoping for a better bike split. I know it is coming and, like most parts of my triathlon training over the last 8 months, I’m trying hard to be patient.

Having a positive attitude while I’m racing is not something that comes easily to me. I surprised myself on Sunday with how nothing fazed me. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and it all comes down to gratitude.    

I know there has been a whole lot of whining from me throughout this process: I’m not ready, I’m not fit enough, I’m not sure I’m cut out for triathlon, I can’t swim well, I’ll never get it together on the run, and the list goes on. Having had such a successful race at Welland, I was seriously asking myself what I had left to race for, and the answer was staring me in the face on Sunday – it was all the people around me who help me silence my inner critic. My attitude went from ambivalence to immediate excitement with every hug, high five, and encouragement for a good race.

Having my coach there to cheer me on was very special, and I am so, so thankful. Week after week, she pushes me when I need it, and also gives me slack when I need it. There is absolutely no question that I wouldn’t have gotten to the start line without her, and I know that the best is yet to come. Right, PK? Right???

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Happy coach, happy athlete! Photo: Phaedra Kennedy

As my first triathlon, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Toronto Triathlon Festival, and I’m really glad it was on my race schedule this year. It was a great event with top-notch organizers and volunteers, a great venue (except the cesspool that is Lake Ontario), and truly the best community of people. I can now look ahead with trepidation for what lies ahead this summer, but some confidence that it is at least possible, which I would not have been able to say at this time last year. As a measurement of progress and improvement, I achieved all of my goals on Sunday.

Mission accomplished.

The biggest thanks go to Ryan, Phaedra, Tribe Fitness, Toronto Triathlon Club, North York Aquatic Club, and every single one of my amazing and supportive friends and family. You all make this little hobby of mine possible. Thanks for believing in me. xo   

    

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