You Always Remember Your First…Win: NOLA 70.3

It has been about a week now since the NOLA 70.3 (or the NOLA 67.1 duathlon, as it actually was), and I’m finally sitting down to write my blog.

Winning New Orleans was nothing short of a complete shock – to me, to my family and friends, to my coaches, and certainly to the rest of the triathlon community who had no idea who I was.  I could hardly believe it (and quite frankly, am still a bit mystified by how it all happened), but it was a thrilling experience for me, and a big win for a little first year pro against a fairly strong field of professional women, including Mirinda Carfrae (2010 Ironman World Champion), Caitlin Snow (the top American finisher at the Ironman World Championships the last two years), as well as Heather Wurtele, Amy Marsh, Magali Tesseyre and Amanda Lovato – all mutli- 70.3 and Ironman Champions.  With the level of competition in Sunday’s race, where I am developmentally as an athlete and the duathlon format – if this were a horserace and I were a horse, I definitely would have been the longshot bet!

Needless to say, the last week has been a huge emotional roller coaster for me.  I was so high on adrenaline for the first few days, I could hardly sleep, much less focus on anything at all.  I was just so amped up and kept on replaying the race again and again in my mind, trying to savor the moment for as long as I possibly could.  On Thursday I pretty much hit a brick wall and crashed big time, and spent Thursday and Friday as a total zombie.  My daily activities included waking up, eating, swimming, napping, running/ cycling, eating, napping, eating, napping, sleeping.  I was exhausted.  Luckily Matt, My coach, anticipated this all, and encouraged me to rest as much as needed, versus pushing myself back into hard training.  I finally feel back on track now and also ready to move on and get back to work.

I don’t normally write out blow by blow race reports, but given the significance of this first win for me in my triathlon career, I’m going long on this report – be forewarned!!

Race Strategy/ Plan:

Heading into race day I felt unusually relaxed.  Having gone through a hard multi-week bike and run block, I was definitely feeling a little fatigued, but on the whole I really did feel great and was looking forward to the race.  I had one simple goal: put together my first great run off the bike.  And for the first time ever, I had the confidence that I could make it happen.

In every race I had ever done previously there hadn’t been a whole lot of strategy.  Even as an age-grouper my races typically went something like this:  Come out WAY behind on the swim; hammer as hard as I could to catch up on the bike; run to hang on.  This time around I was trying something different.  We actually had a bike strategy to set me up well for a good run.  And having learned a lot about how my body responds off the bike in the prior few weeks, I was excited to give it a go and see if I could make the run breakthrough happen.

The other thing that I was going to be trying out was a slightly revised nutrition plan.  I have always had bad stomach issues on the bike, pretty much emitting a constant stream of puke from start to finish.  I always thought it was something in my fueling, but at our Hawaii training camp this spring my teammate, Matt Lieto, suggested that perhaps what I was eating BEFORE the race was playing a role.  Rather than my normal oatmeal with berries, yogurt, flax, chia, and nuts (which is what I eat every morning in training), I decided to take out all the fluff and eat just oatmeal with berries.  I also decided to cut back my fluid intake for at least the first 30 minutes on the bike to allow the nerves to settle and to build into a controlled pace.

One new race strategy and a change to my pre-race meal.  I hoped for the best.

The 2-mile Run:

Race morning came and I have to be honest, I felt just OK.  With the duathlon format, I increased my run warm up to about 35 minutes, progressing as I went, but as soon as I started running the nerves sky rocketed.  I didn’t feel that light on my feet and a relatively slow pace was feeling like a hard effort.  I tried to stay calm, but it definitely had me worried.

My plan for the 2-mile run was to go at a pace at which I would run the first three miles of an open half marathon.  Based on my current training and where my speed was, I figured 5:45-6:00 minute miles would be enough to keep me competitive, but wouldn’t thrash my legs for the rest of the race.  When the gun went off everyone went out as conservative as I, which quite frankly surprised me as I expected it to be a mad dash.  With a big group running together, I tried to take advantage and position myself on the inside to block myself from the winds, which were coming across the lake from the North.  I felt as though a lot of people would expend a lot of energy either fighting the wind or fighting for position, and my goal for the first segment was to stay as relaxed and comfortable as possible.

Coming into T1, I was pumped!  I couldn’t believe the group was together and I hoped that if I could find my legs and have a good bike that perhaps I could come into T2 with the front pack and maybe, just MAYBE, if I had a good run, position myself for a top 5 finish.  THIS was an exciting thought!

The Bike:

My bike, however, started out somewhat ominously.  First, I was a total idiot and didn’t attach my bike computer to the mount before the race, so somewhere between T1 and 200 feet out of T1 my computer was gone.  I only noticed it when I looked down to start it up and saw only the mount staring back at me.  In past races this would have been cause for panic and total freak out, but I had been doing a lot of base rides over the winter where often I would just go out with nothing but a watch to learn to ride by feel – no speed, watts, or cadence – nothing.  So rather than hitting the panic overload button, I stayed completely calm and thought to myself “OK Sarah, you’ve done this before, you just have to ride for feel.”  And with that, the missing computer was a distant memory.

I also had worn socks on the first run, so putting my shoes on out of transition turned out to be an event in and of itself!  My socks kept on sticking to the velcro on the shoes and I was a bumbling fool trying to get my feet in, get moving, and stay upright on my bike (which was proving to be serious a challenge).  Finally I got my act together, but by that point the lead group I had exited T1 with was 20 seconds up the road, and any benefit I had gained from the run was gone.

Going into the bike I knew the winds were coming from NNE, and so I expected fairly significant cross and head winds heading out, and cross/ tail winds coming back.  The wind was no joke on race day – when I was warming up in the morning I saw 15 porta potties get knocked over by big gusts….yeh….it was going to be that kind of day.  But… I also knew if I could stay mentally strong and work hard into the wind and then ride a big gear with the tail winds I could make up a lot of time.

My strategy for the bike was to build in over the first 10 miles, ride hard until about 10 miles to go, and then ease up on the power and spend some time out of my saddle in order to prep my legs for the run.  This was foreign to me.  The build and hammer I knew (and knew well), but the easing off and sitting up/ stretching was something I had to mentally get my head around.  I was scared to lose time on the bike, but I also knew this was the perfect opportunity for me to try out something new being my last race before Ironman Texas (on May 19th).

As I headed out onto the bike course I felt good and quickly caught up to the group in front.  I wondered if I was biking too hard and missing out on something that they knew and I didn’t.  I did an “effort level” check and felt comfortable with what I was putting up, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disconcerted by the fact that I was suddenly finding myself at the front of the pack.  Not only was it a new experience for me, but one I didn’t expect in the slightest.  I tried to set the intimidation of it all aside and told myself to ride my own race, and if that meant leading, I had to embrace it.  “Race within yourself, Sarah”, I repeated to myself.  And off I went.

The bike was tough.  I am not sure if the winds changed directions or what, but I felt I was fighting a head/cross wind for about 45 of the 52 miles.  It was tiring and you had to continually stay focused on the road ahead.  As I came into T2 my legs were feeling right on the edge of possible crampage and I thought, “Oh Sh*t, I totally messed this up and biked too hard!  This was not the plan”, and then thought “OK Sarah, you’ve got some ridiculously fast girls behind you, and the whole goal for this race is to have a good run.  Just go for it and see what you can do.  If you blow up, you blow up, but at least go down fighting/ trying”.  And so….I ran for my life!

The Run: 

One of the things I had learned in my training the last few weeks was that the first 12-15 minutes off the bike for me are pretty brutal.  I feel terrible, awful, and like I want to cry.  BUT, if I can push push push the limit for those 15 minutes, my legs will open up and I can comfortably hold a strong clip.  So I ran hard and about 3 miles in my body responded just how I had hoped: The pace became easier, I started to feel good and got into a rhythm.  Typically I do a terrible job keeping track of my pace – I don’t even know why I bother to wear a watch.  But, under the circumstances, I was somehow able to focus enough to check on a few of the miles and saw I was running 6:00-6:10’s – perfect.  “Just hold this pace, Sarah.  This is great.  You can do it”, I kept repeating to myself.  I have to say – I have never been one for a lot of positive self-talk during races, but there was a LOT of it going on during that run.  Like serious amounts!

When I hit mile 9, I did a time check on Heather Wurtele and Amy Marsh (who were running 2nd and 3rd), and on Rinny.  It was such a shock to see I was holding strong in the lead!  It was at that moment when the thought of winning entered my head.  I was starting to fade and my fear of hitting a wall was going up by the minute, but I just told myself that if I could avoid bonking, I might just have a chance.  I ran hard and I ran scared.  I’d never been in this position before, and I had no idea if these women had ridiculous kicks for the last 2 miles where they could instantaneously eliminate deficits as if they never existed.  I mean – these are PRO triathletes…they all practically have super powers.  I just didn’t know.  So while the THOUGHT of winning crossed my mind at mile 9, it wasn’t until I was about 200 meters from the finish when I let myself smile and realize what was actually happening.  As I approached the finish line I was SO freaking excited, and shaking, and in shock, and just overwhelmed with emotion.  I think there was a constant stream of swears swirling around there too!  I was thinking about my family and how excited they would be, and how proud I hoped my coaches would feel.  And then I started panicking about what I was supposed to do with the breaktape!  I just couldn’t believe it.  My first win!  Amazing.

I feel so fortunate for this opportunity to race as a professional this year, and I feel even more so for having had the chance to stand up on the podium with such amazing athletes and women.  As my coach, Matt Dixon, said in his most recent blog – I am not “world class” and I am very much still a developing athlete.  So it was weird for me (not to mention slightly intimidating) to be standing next to women who ARE world class and whom only two short months ago I was emulating.  I felt star struck by the chance to even meet them.  And here I was, little first year pro Sarah, standing up there with them, and standing up there as the champion.  I’m still blown away by it all.

So….that is the download!  I am so proud of the win, but also proud of having successfully executed the race in the way we had hoped.  I had a very strong bike, and I had that breakthrough run I had been hoping for – a nearly 8 minute off-the-bike PR.  I also, for the first time ever, didn’t throw up ONCE the entire race.  That, my friends, is exciting news.

Now, it is time to move forward – Ironman Texas is less than 3 weeks away and there is much work still to be done!

Thank Yous:

As I look back over the past several months and years, so much of this would not be possible without the help of so many.  I hope you all know how much I value your support, love and encouragement.

To my sponsors:  Saucony, Cervelo, Shimano, Clif Bar, CycleOps, ISM – It sounds so cheesy, but I feel incredibly lucky to be representing your brands and be part of your teams.  Thank you for this opportunity.

To my coaches: Matt and Gerry – you guys are phenomenal at what you do – sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am to have access to such a world class coaching program.  Thank you.

To my family: Mom, Dad, JM, Jeff, Vanessa, Laura, Marcia, Adam, Travis, Eliza, Zoe and My BFF for life, Avery – Seeing your joy and excitement over this result was OVER THE TOP and it meant the world to me to be able to share this moment with all of you

To my mentors, Meredith Kessler and Linsey Corbin: Thank you SO much for taking the time over the last year to educate me on all things Triathlon, and support my development in the sport.  You are amazing athletes, amazing role models, and incredible ambassadors for this amazing race.  Keep on Keepin on!

To my California crew:  Steve Pressman, Kelly Chrisman, Todd Larlee, Jennifer Tetrick, Sean Jefferson, Marky V, David Lee, Reilly Smith, Holger Beckman, Lanes 1 &2 at Tower 26, Pete Smith, Mark Vermeersch, Tina Geller and Jesse – Thank you so much for the homes to stay in, rides and swims to push me on, countless meals, PT and body work, and all of the emotional support and fun discussions that go with it – you guys are all awesome.

To my NYC peeps:  Kate, Elena, Amy, Heather, Susan Q, Carla, Ben Colice, Paul Behar, Yutaka Tamura, John Park, Daniel Pike – I miss you all terribly, but know I love you and am so thankful for your support

To my host family:  Angele and Dave – I loved meeting you both and once again, laughed my way through the weekend!  You guys are the best!

And Finally – BIG thanks to Todd Elmer – Without you dude, I would still be standing on that NYC street corner, smoking my cigarettes and only dreaming of what it would be like to be a pro athlete!

Until Next Time,

Don’t Dream It.  Be It.




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