There are few times I look forward to more than the pre-race week. I’ve especially come to love pre-race weeks with long haul travel…..a guaranteed 10-15 hour time period where I HAVE to sit still, sleep, and watch movies?? Um, sign me up!
And to this point, those times were the best. Generally smooth sailing. 25 Ironmans in (plus Hillary’s 66!), we had to have seen it all right?
I’ll get right to it. I was leaving on a day when the east coast was getting pummeled by rain. I had actually opted for a slightly more expensive flight over to minimize layovers (from Virginia it’s quite easy to get suckered into a 3-stop 31 hour journey to Asia for quite cheap!) with the rationale that then my bike would surely make it – after all, I was to arrive in Taiwan on Wednesday so I didn’t have much of a cushion. I find that arriving 72-hours before the race really suits me when I need to make a massive time change though (Taiwan is exactly 12 hours ahead of Virginia which can be tough to adjust to!)
With the weather, before I even got to the airport I realized I was going to miss my connection at JFK to my long haul flight. After 2 hours on the phone with the airline, I was sorted onto another option, and I thought the worst was over. No bags had even been checked at that point, things were still seemingly smooth sailing. Flights from there were easy, I knocked out about 8 hours of sleep, the movies South Paw and Why Him? on the flights, started reading Joanna Zeiger’s book, The Champion Mindset, and then settled in for my arrival in Taipei.
Once I arrived, after about 20 hours of flying, my bike bags apparently hadn’t made the trip. I filed the necessary info with the airlines, and headed out in a daze as I still had to get to the other airport in Taipei to catch a domestic flight (about 30 miles away). I was too tired to really think about any option other than the bags eventually making it, but I did email the race folks to give them a heads up that we might want to start working on a plan B…..
Wednesday afternoon (The race is Saturday)
I arrived in Taitung around 2:30 and Dougal and I had a seamless transition over to our BnB. Imagine it like Real World Taitung : “This is the true story, of ten professional triathletes, picked to live in a house, race together, and have their lives taped. Find out what happens, when people stop being polite, and start getting real…” . Just kidding, kind of. It is super fun when you have 10+ people coming together though from all parts of the world and sharing the experience of a race in a city where no one speaks the language. There is certainly an element of team work as we all figure out how to do the various pre-race activities. I went for a jog in my trail shoes (what I had traveled in), had some pizza at Uncle Pete’s, and thought for sure, my bike would arrive tomorrow and all would be right. But even still, just a few hours after I had been in touch with her, Belinda Granger sent word that a brand new CEEPO was being build up in Taipei and would be mine for the race if I needed it.
I woke up Thursday feeling like the race was now much closer and I didn’t really have a cushion anymore to procrastinate waiting and hoping on my bags. The online tracker still gave no indication that my bags had even been located, and the race folks who were on the case also didn’t have good news yet. I went to go check out the swim location, with some borrowed goggles (Thanks Dougal!) and cap, and got in my pre-race swim. Then came check-in, and expo time. Normally I wouldn’t really participate in the expo much, but this was going to be different. It was go time, and I had to start to get some shit together! I made a list of what it was going to take for me to get through this race, and we just started checking things off:
Running shoes proved to be a special treat. At the first store I kept asking for a US 9.5 of various models and they kept bringing me a 9. I’d try it on and show it was too small, ask for a 9.5 and they’d go in the back and come back with another 9. Okay, let me try the next store. Same thing! Finally one of the women, through various forms of charades, explained to me that women’s shoe sizes stop at 9. If I wanted bigger, I needed to shop on the men’s models. Awesome, right?! If I’m wearing brand new shoes, why not make them built for men too! I settled on a pair of Mizunos, also picked up some stretchy laces and a race belt, and felt good about checking things off the list.
The CEEPO tent was busy building up the bike for me. Yep, building up a *brand new* bike. I am totally and completely spoiled by my friends in this sport. We kept perusing the expo for the other items to buy: 30 gels, bike shoes, cleats, spare tubes and valve extenders. In addition to CEEPO, the folks at Vision also were integral to helping me get this show on the road. They gave me an ISM demo saddle so I could at least sit on a saddle I’m used to, and set me up with a set of race wheels (clinchers) to race on. The Giant tent also helped out by lending me their trainer for the night as by the time the bike was built, it was raining and dark outside so I needed a way to try to fit myself indoors.
A plate of fried rice and dumplings later, the bike fit began. After about 90 min -2 hours of me spinning, explaining to Sam Clark what “felt weird,” and him tweaking it, we were both pretty much over it. Tweaking a fit on the bike you know and ride is one thing, but having to learn all the intricacies of how a new bike is built and gets adjusted – with an important race looming overhead — not super fun. We called it a day, and then of course, about 30 minutes later one of the race folks showed up with some good news: my bike had been located and was in Taipei! It should make it to Taitung tomorrow. Cue the relief of it being found, and also the frustration of the last 24 hours doing all the – now unnecessary – things. But, if that hadn’t been done, the bike wouldn’t have been found, right?
I woke up Friday feeling so much better about things. There was still plenty of stress as basically I had to just sit and wait for the bike, wondering when it would arrive and then worrying about fitting in everything that would then happen around the activities set up for the pros, as well as check in. It was still a bit rainy in Taitung, so I shot an email off to the race folks asking if there was any indication when it would arrive as I was hoping not to get the CEEPO all gritty and gross riding in the wet rain for my pre-race spin if I could avoid it. They said they didn’t have that information, so just go ahead and ride the CEEPO. I did just that, but all the while thinking “thank god I have my bike coming.” This was nothing about the bike itself – the bike rides great. But it wasn’t the fit I’ve been riding for hours and hours, it wasn’t the wheels, it wasn’t my bottle setup….it simply wasn’t mine.
Mike, from Challenge Taiwan, was waiting at the BnB when I arrived back. Hoping for good news I said hello…..and then he had to relay the bad news. My bike was still located…..only now somehow it was in LA. It wasn’t going to make it here for the race.
The good part was then at least all my questions were answered: I would be racing on the new bike and new gear, that was just going to be it. The last major question was the water temperature as it had been sitting right on the line between wetsuit legal and not. Finally the announcement was made around 1pm: wetsuits would be allowed. Back to the expo to buy literally the only women’s medium wetsuit 2XU had brought with them. With borrowing Sam’s helmet and Dougal’s goggles, I now had everything I needed. I was ready to go!
So, let’s get real for a second. I should make it clear that during the entire process here I was considerably stressed and quite honestly just plain sad and disappointed. I had added this race to my calendar because I knew I was fit to perform quite well in this field. While it’s not impossible to pull off a great finish with borrowed gear, I knew that kind of Cinderella story would be a bit far fetched, all things considered. But, crying, yelling, and being frustrated and sad wasn’t going to get anything done or get me any closer to the finish line and a paycheck. Instead of focusing on those things, I had to replace all of those thoughts with the ones about all the people who were coming to my aid to help me pull this off through various means of lending me things and even more importantly morale support: Sam, Dougal, Kate, Belinda, Megan & the crew from CEEPO, Julie, Kent, Mark and the Vision folks, the Giant guys, and Charlie and Mike from Challenge. I simply couldn’t have a breakdown when there were that many people going out of their way to help me. I just had to adjust expectations and remind myself that all you can do is all you can do.
A wrapup now: I’d be swimming in a wetsuit I had literally never worn in the water. I’d be biking on a bike, shoes, and helmet I had work for 75 minutes. I’d be using a nutrition plan I never had used before. I’d be running in shoes I ran in for 30 minutes. And I’d be doing this in Taiwan which is known to be a wild ride even when all your stuff is there!
Adventure awaits, right?
Honestly after Friday afternoon, I was looking forward to the race so much because that meant there was no more questions or figuring things out, it was finally time to just execute and see what would happen. I set things up race morning, got into my brand new wetsuit, and before I knew it we were off at 6am. The male and female pros all started together, and with a relatively small group in wetsuits that first 250 meters or so was fast and HARD. A few of us held on, until we couldn’t, and then I settled in with 2 others. This felt like one of those times the swim just unfolds as I like it – I was able to stay in contact with them at an effort level I felt comfortable with, and while the second loop got a bit crowded with some of the slower age group swimmers, I was able to escape the swim without any major breaststroke kicks to the chest! I saw the clock read 58 on my exit, and was with Verena, so I knew I was in contact with at least one other woman racing. Well…….here goes nothing. I hopped onto the bike and started to chase. Immediately my legs and glutes were BURNING. As much as I had tweaked the position and rode a few intervals the day before, there’s a difference in a pre-race ride and riding as hard as you ride in the race, and right from the start I knew that more than anything else, this was just a different feeling than when I ride my own bike hard. That said though, eventually the burning turns to numbness and you simply just push through! I lost contact with Verena, but after 36 miles I had pulled Lucie into view. That was a positive thing and between that and my garmin avg speed reading, I knew I was riding just fine.
A note about this bike course: it is one of the most beautiful I have ever ridden, but it is WILD. The course is open during the race, which means double decker tour buses, banana trucks, cars, older people on scooters, dogs, construction crews, and basically any one else could be out there – and doesn’t really care there’s a race going on! This might mean you actually do stop at an intersection, or have to stop to avoid hitting a dog or a car that just abruptly pulled in front. In a nutshell, you have to be super heads up and aware the ENTIRE ride…I think all of the pros said they had to stop and unclip at least once to remain safe. The good side of that is that it was a major distraction from me from the fact that I was riding a new whip. I didn’t have time to think about the aero pads chafing my forearms when I was avoiding obstacles every mile!
We had a pretty decent headwind on the way out of the loop, which meant tailwinds all the way home and I was very pleased with the 5:12ish I saw as I came off the bike. What I was not pleased with how those first few steps felt. As I ran into T2, I felt more new muscles in my legs and back than I even knew I had. There was no time to waste though – I was about 3 minutes down on 3rd place, and 5th place was about 3 minutes back. I had to get moving. Shoes on and out I went. We got lucky that the weather never got super hot like it’s well known to be in Taiwan. The humidity was certainly there, but cloud cover was definitely our friend. I forced out the first 5k and slowly the reality of the situation was setting in: this was not going to be a Cinderella story! As much as things hurt, I just kept going. Around halfway when Lucie caught me, we hit a section of the course where you can see for quite a ways ahead as you circle the long lake. I was able to catch sight of the next 2 girls and see that yes, things were changing up ahead. Unlike any other race, except maybe Kona, the run here really changes things up. People *will* implode. Just keep going. The support of the community and the other athletes was so, so great. And when things got lonely on that second loop it was super helpful to have Sam leapfrogging along as I knew that meant Hillary would get word if I didn’t keep running. And then she’d surely make me pay later!
I finished up the race in 4th place, narrowly under 10 hours. This is my fourth 4th place! Surely now I can move on from this, right!?? A payday, an adventure, and a good old fashioned reminder that triathlon really isn’t about the gear. It’s easy to forget that sometimes.
I am forever grateful to those companies and people I have mentioned throughout who helped me put this day together. And also to my sponsors who supported and understood that their gear wouldn’t get showcased. It means so much to have good friends and companies who ride out the highs, and the lows, with me. Xie xie!
Alyssa is a Smashfest Queen-sponsored professional triathlete and coach with TeamHPB. Read more about her and follow her blog on her website here.