As you probably know, this past weekend (well, Sunday, specifically) was the date of my first ever triathlon. After feeling pretty grumpy (this was anxiety-related–I never feel good the day before a big race and I’m probably pretty unpleasant to be around for this reason) on Saturday and sleeping pretty fitfully, I woke up early Sunday morning to somewhat overcast skies. I checked the weather online while wondering what would happen if there were thunderstorms or something during the triathlon. It was at this point that I realized I’d never been in a race (big or small) that had been threatened by inclement weather. I mean, a bit of rain, yes. A thunderstorm or other meteorological event that might create a safety hazard, no. I was both relieved and confused when I looked at Intellicast. Relieved because there was nothing major on the Doppler radar, and the hourly forecast showed possible scattered thunderstorms later in the morning (starting around 10 or 11, at which point I would be well out of the water). Confused because in spite of what Intellicast said, it was raining outside and there was definitely thunder and lightning.
As Mike and I were on our way out to the car, a bolt of lightning struck so close to where we were that it set off a nearby car’s alarm system. There was a huge clap of thunder, and we considered going back inside. Instead, though, Mike put the bike on his car’s ridiculous complicated bike rack, and I trembled with fear inside the dry car. I ran through a mental checklist of everything I would need that day: swim cap, goggles, a number of different race numbers, a couple water bottles, fuel options, etc. It didn’t occur to me to add an umbrella to that list because Intellicast seemed to think the rain we were having wouldn’t last. Ha.
By the time we arrived at the race site, it was pouring. At this point, though, it was just rain. Nothing electrical. We made our way to the transition area where I set all my stuff up and carefully placed a plastic bag over it so that it wouldn’t get soaked if there was anymore (unexpected) rain. The race was supposed to start at 8, and my wave didn’t start until after 9, so I brought a banana back out of the transition area with me. Mike and I proceeded to stand around and wait as the race announcer repeatedly said they would probably delay the start, but not have to alter the course in any way. For some reason, deep down, I felt unconvinced. It was for this reason that I wasn’t surprised when he then starting talking about the race officials considering the possibility of canceling the swim portion.
Originally, they were going to make the call about the swim portion by 7:30 am. As Mike and I (and hundreds of other athletes and spectators) stood around, frequently seeking shelter from a passing storm (yay for standing under trees during thunderstorms! This was literally the only shelter to be found), the race officials continued to postpone their decision. Finally, around 8, the race director got on the PA system and announced that the swim was officially canceled. The swim leg of the triathlon would be replaced by a 1.5-mile run, meaning that my first triathlon was actually going to be a duathlon. I tried to tell myself not to be disappointed by this as I went back to the transition area to get my running gear. I stuffed a packet or two of Gu chomps in my tri suit and headed back out to chit chat with Mike a bit more before heading over to the corral area for the 8:30 (or in my case, 9:36) am start.
I am not entirely sure what time the race got started. By the time my wave (#13) was called up to the corral, it was closer to 10 am than it was to 9:30. It had been a while since I’d eaten anything and I wasn’t feel all that well-fueled at that point, but I reminded myself it was just a 1.5-mile run (which even in my shape I could do in my sleep) and that once I got back to the transition area I would have time to get something in my body. When our wave started, the weather was pretty clear and things were going well. I felt strong and hit a good stride early on. I didn’t push but ran at a comfortable pace and found myself going between an 8:00-8:15/mile by the time I reached the halfway point. I was able to keep that pace on the way back, but I don’t know what my exact split was for this leg since I didn’t stop my watch timer until I’d been in the transition area for a bit (I sometimes forget these things, especially when I have other things on my mind).
As I grabbed my bike in the transition area, I felt strong and excited about what lay ahead of me. Things hadn’t started out in an ideal manner, but I kind of got a rush from running my bike through the transition area on my way to the course. Mentally, I was preparing myself for a strong second leg, but one that wouldn’t hinder my performance in the 5k. At the same time, I reminded myself that my main goal was to finish and to enjoy myself.
The bike leg of the tri duathlon consisted of two laps of the course, for a total of 15.5 miles. Prior to Sunday, I’d had exactly one ride on my bike. The rest of my lackluster training had taken place on various stationary bikes. I didn’t know what to expect from this leg. This wasn’t helped by the fact that it started raining again at this point. As I pedaled through the course, trying to remember all the rules about drafting and passing (and realizing that it didn’t seem like anyone else was nearly as concerned about them as I was, although I do have to say that the majority of people were very polite and stayed to the right of the course, and warned when they were going to pass you), it continued to rain. Occasionally, there would be thunder, and the sky would light up from lightning in the area. None of the course volunteers said anything about this, so I just kept going. Things took a major turn for the worse during the second lap. Although I was still feeling strong, the skies had grown dark. The clouds were looking ominous, the rain was much more aggressive, and I was having a hard time distinguishing the thunder from the wind rushing through my eyes. The lightning was frequent and very close by. We were biking through Fairmount Park, and there were no safe areas to pull over and wait the storm out. Plus, it wasn’t clear how long you’d have to wait if you had a place to pull over. So instead of stopping, I pedaled harder and obsessively told myself that although I was soaking wet and riding an instrument made of metal, I was also on rubber tires, wearing rubber-soled shoes, and holding onto rubber-coated handlebars. And that I was not the tallest object in the area. Cold comfort, but it was all I had at that point.
As I was frantically cycling into the finish of the 15.5-mile ride (literally feeling like a storm cloud was right behind me), I noticed there were no riders coming in the opposite direction. This seemed a little odd–not only would there normally have been people at least starting their second loop (if not other waves who’d left later possibly beginning their first), the road looked abandoned and ominous. I pedaled harder, not wanting to be the only target in an open space. By the time I made it to the finish, course volunteers were instructing us to dismount and get off the course. Although no one said anything explicitly, it was clear that the race was canceled. Some women (those who’d been in the earlier waves) had been able to finish the whole thing. I guess I should have been happy I got to finish 2/3 of it…and I was, but as I ran to the rack where I’d left my visor after switching it out for my helmet after the first run, and passing a bunch of women wearing medals, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in how things had turned out.
As I was exiting the transition area to find Mike and my sister Charlotte, the storm turned into something ridiculous. It was like standing under a waterfall. The lightning and thunder were both directly overhead and the thought of either getting hit or seeing someone else get hit was terrifying. I met up with Mike and Charlotte and we tried to get back to the car as soon as possible, but since everyone else had the same idea as us, this was no easy task. The trek back to the car was terrifying. The areas we had to walk through that weren’t paved (the entire transition area, large expanses of grass, etc) were flooded with water and it was incredibly scary to have to walk through something like that while lightning struck very close by, on all sides. People were panicking everywhere and as a result things moved slowly. We got caught in a few traffic jams (foot traffic, that is) because it was absolute chaos. This just made matters worse–no one wanted to be outside longer than they needed to, and being in a situation that slowed them down made people extremely tense. I am amazed that we all got out of there unscathed. I really thought I was going to see someone get hit by lightning. Or be the person that was hit.
Naturally, by the time we got close to the car, the storm had calmed down quite a bit. By that time, we were completely soaked, though, so it didn’t matter much.
Looking at my splits from the race (I did the bike leg in 1:09:30), I feel disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to see how the 5k would have gone. I felt so good during the parts of the race I got to complete, and I’m happy about that. I was really lacking in confidence heading into this whole experience, and I am really pleased that of all the things that could have gone wrong this weekend, my performance was not on the list. But I can’t help but feel a little frustrated with the whole experience, and I’m frankly a little confused about how the whole situation was handled.
As I said, it took the race officials a pretty long time to make a decision about what to do regarding the swim leg of the race. Although I had no access to Doppler radar at that point, I find it hard to believe that the squall line that ended up canceling the race was not visible when they were looking at it. Was it really not there? If it was there, was it that hard to track its course? It just seems like something that big must have been visible, but then again, I don’t know. I want to trust that the race officials made the best choice with the information they had, but it also seems odd to me that there was no contingency plan in place for something like this: no rain date, no alternate plan in the event that something went wrong. Also, I completed as much of the course as I could. I feel like I earned a medal for that. In fact, I sort of expected an email or something today from the race officials about what happens if you weren’t able to finish because of the weather (or, frankly, just an acknowledgment of what happened in general, maybe an apology for making a bad decision that put people’s lives in jeopardy)–do I get a discount on registration for next year? I feel like that would be the minimum they could do. This was, by no means, an insignificant expense. Honestly, I feel like they should either offer those of us who participated in this event either a refund, or free registration for next year. Do I get a medal mailed to me? I finished what I could and I would have kept going if it had been an option. The whole thing feels incomplete, and in a way, I feel like it never happened. There was never any official word that the race was canceled, it was just clear based on everyone’s actions. In the back of my mind, too, there’s this nagging feeling that maybe if the race had been started closer to 8 am, and if they hadn’t delayed the decision about the swim portion until the very last minute, and they had started the waves every six minutes like they were supposed to (I first waited in my corral for about ten minutes, and then at the starting line for another 5-10 before we got to go, for NO discernible reason–I mean, we were no longer in a situation where there was a danger of too many people being in the water at once, so the wave thing at this point was a bit artificial), I would have been able to finish. Maybe that means I would have been running through a dangerous storm instead of riding through one, but I would at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I got to finish what I started.
To top if all off, later in the afternoon, I got an email about results from active.com. I looked up my name, and there’s no time listed. Not even a DNF. There are, oddly enough, results for other women who were in my wave, and whose times were in the 1:30s, which is longer than I was even able to be on the course. I have no idea what is going on with that. And I still have my timing chip, because there was no one around to take it from me by the time I was told to get off the course. I really hope no one is expecting me to pay the $35 fee when I return it.
Phew. That was long. And all it really adds up to is the fact that my first triathlon will have to wait another year. Also, apparently I’m not alone in the way I feel about how this whole thing was handled, although I have to say I can’t agree with ICANDOIT. Um, people could have died. I think we all have a right to be angry about that.