Standing amid a sea of time trial bikes and aero helmets at bike check in, I suddenly felt like a roadie with a pair of running shoes. I felt overwhelmed, unprepared and majorly in over my head. I was the new kid on the block and, as I watched people move about transition with precision in preparation for the race, I felt like it. At least finding my bike during the race would be easy, I figured, since it seemed like the only road bike on the rack.
I had arrived in Ottawa for Age Group Duathlon World Championships excited and nervous. It wasn’t the first time I was travelling to Canada’s capital city with these feelings. I did my undergraduate degree in the city of Ottawa and, here I was again, all jittery but ready to see what the opportunity would bring. As my first big international event I had high hopes for a good performance but, like the first day of university, I felt like I was in over my head.
Since the race would be only my fourth multisport event, I had plenty of questions and a lot to learn. I met many athletes who were well seasoned, telling stories about previous world champs, mentioning split times that made my head spin, all while they stood over bikes that appeared to cost as much as my university tuition. I tried to soak it all in but it was overwhelming. Thankfully, just like I did during my freshman year at university, I found other teammates who were just like me with limited experience in the world of multisport. All clad in the bold red and white uniforms of Team Canada, everyone had all arrived at this competition but from very different roads.
My journey to Ottawa 2013, like most I suspect, wasn’t exactly a straight line. There were crashes, small injuries, big injuries, and I had moved continents twice in the past 6 months. I realized, however, my biggest hurdle would be my inexperience and the lack of self confidence that went along with it. I was physically ready but would I crash attempting a flying mount? How big did 12 meters look on the road and, even if I did my best to avoid it, what would I do if I got a drafting penalty? What if I came dead last? Would my injuries hold up? What if my knee strapping fell off?
Just like after a few weeks of university when I had settled into classes, the constant noise of questions that permanently occupied my mind finally fell silent on race morning. I entered transition on the morning of the race and suddenly I wasn’t so concerned with what I didn’t have or didn’t know; I was totally focused on what I did have and what was going to bring to the race. My sudden grasp of confidence wasn’t actually so sudden. After months of physical preparation, this, as a friend reminded me, was actually just the last 1%. The hard work was already done.
2km into the first run, however, it didn’t feel like all the hard work was behind me! I had bolted off the start line, afraid to miss the front run pack, and I was already suffering. Pretty soon I was at the back of the front split and then I was dangling off the back. 3Km in the race and I was alone. I knew I had to keep something in the tank for the rest of the race. I couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed with my legs when I dropped off but then I looked down at my watch: I was on PB 10km pace.
I struggled through the rest of the run and sprinted into transition, later finding out I had clocked a 10km personal best. I was completely focused on the next task at hand that required a skill I had only recently learned: a flying mount. I found my transition station and, as I approached the mount line clutching my handle bars, I hopped on to my bike. Just as easily, I slid into my shoes. Transition one, big check mark.
Since my background is cycling, I was never worried about the 40km bike component. I love riding my bike and suffering through 40km is standard issue. I pedalled away as hard as I could, relishing the technical points of the course where I was easily passing riders struggling to control their time trial bikes and enjoying the cheers and smiles from my family and friends along the course. Inevitably, however, I felt like a sail boat compared to everyone else tucked in their fast aero positions and the train-like sound of their disk wheels echoed their advantage as they flew past me. Although I was managing to make ground on every uphill, no matter how much power I put into the pedals, I felt like I was standing still. I clocked one of the slowest bike splits in the front field and slipped from 4th to 7th.
I entered the second transition with pure focus but I was shocked out of my race trance when a marshall started shouting at me. I stared at him, completely stunned, trying to figure out what I had done wrong. “Both bars,” he kept repeating. “Sorry?” I nervously questioned, feeling a sense of panic rising up the back of my throat.“Both bars over the rail,” he explained. I profusely shouted back my apologies as I tried almost in vain to get my curved bars over the rail, adding in desperation that I didn’t know about the rule so he would keep his penalty card in his pocket. I was having trouble but finally a powerful slam forced the curved bars to hook on to the rail and I was released with his blessing. Transition two, little check mark.
With only 5km of running left of the race, I urged my legs to quickly find a rhythm as I burst out of transition. My legs felt wobbly. Really wobbly. I felt my face grimace with each stride and the small hills on the course felt like mountains. “20 minutes,” I repeated to myself, “it’s only 20 minutes of work and then you can stop.” I felt like I was shuffling but I moved into 6th position. I hit another bad patch at the half way mark but the sight of 1km to go sign beckoned me to hit the accelerator. I summoned what I had left to muscle over the last hill and, as I crested, the sight of the finish venue spurred me on. I ran as fast as I could to the finish line which, to be honest, probably wasn’t any faster than I was already going, but it felt faster and I wanted to cross the line completely empty.
As I sprinted towards the finish line, a course marshall told me to keep left and then added: “Great! You’re still smiling!” “Uh, nope, that’s a grimace of pain mister,” I thought to myself as I charged past him, legs on fire. I was the 22nd female across line, placing 6th in my age group. I was a bit disappointed with the result after the race but, in hindsight, I had a brilliant day out.
I also realized, in hindsight, the best moment of the race was actually that split second interaction with the course marshall during my sprint. What he said in passing seemed sum up my entire Worlds experience perfectly. From the jittery process of selection, countless hours of tough training, struggling through weeks of physio and months of rehab after pulling my hamstring, arriving in Ottawa completely unsure of myself, and every other challenge in between to finishing 6th…that marshall was right, I was still smiling.