Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon. Or “never quit” triathlon.

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I almost didn’t earn this medal.

This is my 5th year racing triathlons.  My 6th Olympic distance triathlon.  My 23rd triathlon and 26th multisport race.  At this point, it should be old hat; I can do it with my eyes closed.  I’ve been dubbed “IronMom” by my training partners for my ability to herd cats and organize the hell out of our training and race logistics.

But today’s race experience was a new one; a triathlon comedy of errors.  If you’ve ever wondered why athletes can be so superstitious and stick to traditions, I may be able to help you with that.

As I drove down to Chattanooga for the race, I thought to myself that I didn’t pack my bags using my trusty “Race Packing List” that I use then double-check before every race. No worries, I know I have everything, I’ve done this a dozen times, I’m good.

Initially, I planned that my training buddy and I would take my car with our bikes and stuff down to the race start, but due to space and the set up of her water bottles that were already filled, we took her car instead.  No big deal, she has more room anyway, I’ll pay for parking for us.

In the parking garage, I realize I left my transition mat and towel (that I have used at nearly every single race I’ve ever done) in my backpack that I put in my car before we left the hotel.  We really don’t have the time to go back and don’t really want to.  My training buddy offers to let me use her bag as my “mat.”  Yeah, that’ll work, it’s not a problem.

I didn’t get to do my usual warm up before the race. We had to set up in transition super early because we didn’t check our bikes in the night before and we had to take a shuttle to the swim start. I hopped on my bike in my flip flops just to check the gears and get in a low gear so I could run out of transition and start pedaling easily.  That’s ok if I don’t warm up.  It’s just an Olympic, I’ll be fine.

As I’m leaving transition to hop on the shuttle, I realize I still have my phone and my car keys in my pockets in my kit top.  Oops, I don’t need these for the race at all.  Why didn’t I leave those in my training buddy’s car?  Oh well, that’s alright, I’ll just put them in a baggie at my transition area and they’ll be fine.

Race starts. It is a 0.9 mile swim.  At about 0.47 mile I realize something.  Something big.

It rained for a couple days leading up to the race, and the transition area was a grassy area that became a grassy, muddy area.  I usually try to keep my bike shoes attached to my bike in transition.  This allows me to avoid the time it takes to put on the shoes, and to quickly run through transition in bare feet as opposed to the “reverse high heel” effect from the cleats, as well as avoid getting mud and grass stuck in my cleats which makes it harder to clip into my pedals.

At mile 0.47 I realize I pulled out rubber bands to hold my bike shoes in place, but I never attached my shoes to my bike.  Argh, I can’t do my quick transition trick.  But wait.  A quick mental picture of my transition set up and I realize I don’t have bike shoes at transition period.  Just run shoes.  My bike shoes are in my car.  Back at my hotel.

Immediately I think, well I guess I will get my first DNF (do not finish) in a race.  I’m angry and sad.  Then I think, I do not want to have this conversation with my coach later today about why I did not finish the race.  Well maybe I can race without my bike shoes…nope not on this hilly course with extended climbing.  What am I going to do?  If I’m going to DNF, then I better swim as fast as I can and get the best swim time ever since this is my only event today.  Maybe they will let me just go straight to the run and do an Aquathon (swim then run).  No, I really wanted to see what this bike course is like.  Hill climbing is the only thing I’m halfway decent on the bike, plus I just had a bunch of work done on the bike and fit the past week.  I wanted to ride.  But how?

Then I remembered that there is a rule that if you veer off course, you can return to the course as long as you return exactly where you left the course.  I was pretty sure our hotel was really close to the bike course, I would just have to bike a little extra, go to my car, get my shoes and get back on course.  But I still wasn’t sure if that rule stood for this race. Those were my 2 options: DNF, or grab my car key from my bag, bike barefoot to my hotel, get my shoes and get back on course.  I decided to try to do the latter.

As soon as I exited the swim I started yelling that I needed to speak with a referee or race official.  Eventually two race officials ran over to me.   I explained my situation and they confirmed that I could carry out my plan to get my shoes as long as I got back on the course exactly where I left the course.

So I took off out of transition barefoot.  And rode the first 1.5 miles, up two big hills, barefoot on my pedals.  Turns out my hotel was right on the bike course.  I pulled in, confusing a volunteer in the process, and unlocked my car, grabbed my shoes, put them on and got back on course.  I don’t know how long I was stopped.  Maybe a minute.  But at least I knew I was going to attempt to finish the race.

I didn’t really stress out the rest of the race.  At that point, I was happy to just finish.  I had a super fast swim, thanks to the current and probably a couple bouts of sprinting when I considered DNF’ing.  The bike was actually a pretty decent time.  I wanted to try to make up some time from my chat with officials in transition and getting my key out of my bag, then biking barefoot and retrieving the shoes from my car.  However, I also knew that whatever happened at least I was still on the course, so no need to burn myself out.  Thankfully, with the rain, it cooled off and the run wasn’t as miserably hot as anticipated.  I was a little worn out from my ordeal earlier in the race, and I’ve been fighting some injuries so it wasn’t my fastest run.  I also knew I just wanted to finish, something I didn’t think I’d get to do.

I did finally have that conversation with my coach.  I was so proud of myself for finishing the race.  She wouldn’t be mad at me for a DNF over something silly like forgetting my shoes.  Her response, “I probably would have just quit. I can’t believe you did all that.”  I told her I asked myself what would coach do, and I found a way to keep going.  Fortunately, my keys were in my bag at transition, my shoes were in my car not my training buddy’s car, and fortunately my hotel was right on the bike course.  If the stars didn’t align for each of those situations, it would have been a DNF.

Turns out I very nearly PR’d on this course. Perhaps without all the mishaps and weird strokes of luck I would have set a new PR.  But I’m just happy I was able to finish and earn that medal.

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