Watauga Lake Triathlon is probably the most underrated race in the southeast. I have been doing this race about every other year since it began in 2005. It’s got a challenging, beautiful course that is totally doable for a beginner but can break your heart if you go all out, excellent organization without unnecessary frills, great prizes, and always a nice BBQ lunch afterwards. And as always, the 2016 version of the race did not disappoint, only my results did.
Pre-race: running a little late and getting ready
The race site, just inside the Tennessee line on Watauga Lake, is 59 minutes from my house in Erwin. This meant I got to leave at a leisurely 6AM to get there. The only snafu was that I forgot my breakfast so I stopped at the gas station in Erwin and got a banana and granola bar.
I arrived at the race site, parked in the grass, and walked over to get my packet. I love these guys. They know me so well that they don’t have to ID me and ask me my name. I picked up my number and the biggest, fattest timing chip ankle bracelet I had ever seen. They were using these new disposable chips, which I suppose are great because the company doesn’t have to worry about losing chips, but not very good from a waste-control point of view.
The shirt this year was great – long sleeved, light blue and high tech. The large was HUGE too, which bummed some people out, but honestly works better for use as a base layer running in the winter, as you can tuck it into your tights without worrying about your gut escaping.
Went back to my car to get my stuff and go set up in the transition area, about .2 miles away. And this lady comes over and says, “I hope my tires have the right amount of air.” Okay. So I told her she was welcome to use my pump. Nothing. I continue trying to make sure I have my numbers on, bodygliding, etc. Lady: “I didn’t really know what they were supposed to have in them.” Me: “I usually put about 100 psi, that should be a good start.” Lady: “I’m not a cyclist.” Me: (internal sigh) “Why don’t you bring it over and I’ll check it real fast.” Mind you, race start was 25 minute away at this point. I really wish she’d just asked me to check her tires in the first place, or else asked someone else who didn’t look like she was scrambling to get ready for her own race. Still, I wasn’t going to be a jerk. So I pumped up her tires, tried to explain to her how to do it so she would be able to do so on her own in the future, and wished her luck in the race.
Got the rest of my stuff ready, slogged over to transition, and picked a spot on one of the racks closest to the bike-out. Hung bike in non-obtrusive location, by the seat, opposite the bike immediate to its right. Dude comes up to me and says “If you’re gonna put THAT bike there, you should turn it around and face it the opposite direction, by the seat, so it’s facing alternately to the other bikes.” Me: “Uh….that’s exactly what I did.” Dude: “No, see, the bikes should be alternating.” Me: “Well, that would mean you would need to reverse the direction of either your bike (which was to the left of mine) or this other person’s bike (who wasn’t there to alert about this supposedly huge violation of nature on a first come, first serve bike rack where there was plenty of space).” Dude: “Oh, well, um, uh.” Me: “I can turn it around if you want, but this seems to give everyone plenty of space.” Dude walks off, hopefully satisfied with the situation. Said dude went on to clobber the race field and set a new course record….he was effing fast.
So, I set up, did a half-assed warmup and hurried down to the shore, where I saw Paula Domermuth, who I used to swim with in Boone and does these things every year too. We chatted about our respective cycling adventures through Europe (she and her husband spent a couple months riding everywhere….a bit jelly). Then, the race started.
A pretty good swim.
Watauga translates to “beautiful water” and it is true. This is a clean, comfortable lake with calm water. The 1000 meter swim goes in a counter clockwise triangle, which I love as a left-side breather. I tried to sprint out and settle into a good pace. This was my first OWS since Lake Logan in early August, and the first one since I’d had helpful instruction from Janine Pleasant, who is a really good swim technique teacher – the only person out of 4 in the last 5 years who’s been able to communicate what I need to do very well.
Anyways, I swam, got out out of the 80 degree water, and felt pretty good about the whole thing. My split was 19 minutes, 43 seconds, which isn’t super impressive from a general point of view, but was my fastest non-wetsuit swim at this race to date. So yay.
A clumsy, blah bike ride.
I’ll once again mention my battle with injury this year because it’s definitely affected my top end speed and power, and muscular endurance. You really feel those things on this bike course. It’s a 22 mile loop, starts up a steep hill, which continues for about 1 mile, then you go downhill for 5 miles, then about 8 miles of flattish, then a big 1 mile climb, then a few miles mostly downhill….it can be pretty fast when you’re in shape, and pretty painful if you’re not.
My split was 1:07:26, which was the fastest female split but one of my slowest at this event. That came from a combination of things. First, I’m 10 pounds heavier than my ideal race weight – not so much a problem on the flats, but you feel it trying to power up a hill. Second, I had these stupid sunglasses that fogged up at the slightest decrease in speed. By the end of the first hill, I couldn’t see a thing, and trying to race downhill without eyeballs is kinda dangerous. So I had to scoot them down my nose and awkwardly peer over them, which definitely slowed me down. I’m sure I lost time there.
I took the flats in stride, and passed a couple of folks. Then, just before the big climb, I rode over the slightest of potholes in my aerobars. CRACK! The bolt for the right aerobar failed, and the whole bar and armrest collapsed down to the handlebar top. I had just tightened that bold the night before.
The result was that I couldn’t really use that aerobar, as it put my shoulders at nearly a 45 degree angle. Really dangerous to put weight on, as it wouldn’t take much for my whole right arm to slide out and send me tumbling. So I had to do much of the downhill and remaining flat with my left arm in the aerobar and right hand on the top of the handlebar. A bit awkward.
I did my best, but that, combined with dying on the uphills, left me with a slower than hoped for bike split.
The run: I thought I was doing okay….
My running blows right now. Seriously, I am gasping for breath and going all out to just get 8:30 mile splits for a 5K. I have also been showing signs of asthma this summer – wheezing, tight throat, all that fun stuff. So after Lake Logan 3 weeks prior, when I spent the whole run wheezing and with terrible upper back pain, only to pull out an embarrassing 25:56 5K, I thought if I started out more mellow, maybe I could avoid the breathing problems and stay relaxed as I sped up.
Sped up is a relative term. First of all, the run starts up the same steep hill the bike does. It’s so steep in places that you’re probably just as fast to walk. So I did this time around, in an effort to conserve energy. Then, on the downhill, I sped up, trying to hold what I considered an earnest yet doable pace for the middle 3.5 miles (of the 5 mile run course), which are flat. Seriously, I felt like I was moving along, but alas no.
I’d begun the run in 1st place for the women, but knew there was a good chance of getting caught when the next two women were less than 5 minutes back coming in off the bike. If either of those ladies were really fast runners, they’d get me. What surprised me more was to see that Mr. Bike Rack was coming back in from the run and passed me at the .75 mile mark, which meant he had only about .75 miles left in the race. I have NEVER had the first place guy pass me so early in the run, so I knew he was a freak of nature.
Well, I settled into my pace, and hoped I was miraculously as fast as I felt. I got to the turnaround still in first, and the next 2 ladies were a good .25-.5 miles back still. Maybe I could do this.
Got to the 4 mile mark, and the lady who was in third blows by me like I was standing still. Mile 4 is also where you have to go back up the god-awful hill, and she bounced up it like she was skipping through the daffodils. I lugged my fat ass up it all ugly like.
When I got to the final steep downhill, I said “damn my toenails” and tried to sprint for all I was worth for damage control, as this evil run course finishes on about .2 miles of considerable uphill. Hardest race finish ever. And it never gets easier.
My run split? 45:03 for 5 miles. 9 minute miles. Ugh. Not at all what I thought I was capable of, and not at all what I used to be capable of. It’d be one thing if I was barfing along the way or tripped over a dead squirrel or something, but I felt like I was working hard!
Finally, I finished in 2:13:47, nearly 10 minutes slower than my personal best here at Watauga Lake. I’d not expected a PR, but I had not expected to be this much slower either. What a grim reality check. I still came in 2nd Overall female, but a whole 2 minutes back from the winner. Yes, folks, she ran that last mile 2 minutes faster than me. Wow.
I tried really hard not to be disappointed, but I was. It’s hard to backtrack from the best of your abilities. To admit that you have just plain gotten out of shape. I got my prize (which was pretty sweet: a handmade coffee mug and a $50 gift certificate to Footsloggers!!!) and hung out a bit, talked to a person or two. Then I got in my car and cried a little and drove home.
- When your bolts get rusty, replace them. Or at least lock-tite them. That was an avoidable snafu.
- When you haven’t really raced triathlon for 2 years (surviving a few Xterras with my shitty mountain bike skills and no training last year doesn’t count), and you’re 38 years old and 10-15 pounds overweight and have asthma, you don’t come back super quick. Yet for some reason I thought I should’ve. Be patient and put in the work.
- People: do your local races. People just seem to skip over it on their race calendars for flashier events (BTW, replacing that 6 hour slog on the bike with 2 hours of pain will probably benefit you more and be way more entertaining). If all you ever do is the big-name races, eventually the really good ones will disappear. Watauga Lake Triathlon is such a gem; I hope they continue to do it year after year (Scott and Travis, thank you so much for all your time spent on this).