Up until this point, Rotterdam has been fun. The architecture is beautiful, the bike culture is something I will envy forever and the cheese counters are the stuff of my dreams. However, none of those are the reasons I took an eight-hour flight to Europe.
Enter the ITU Age Group World Championships.
At 48° F, race start is really cold. I have to wear my wetsuit, sweat pants, sweatshirt, John’s hat and John’s coat just to stop from shivering! At least the weather is clear though. There’s been a lot of rain the past few days. The race director called the Rotterdam weather “raw” and I’m inclined to agree.
The first 50m are an all-out sprint to get ahead of the pack and catch the feet of the lead duo. Fortunately, I manage the first (thanks to four years of competitive swimming at Northwestern University – GO CATS!), but I manage to lose the leader’s draft about 500m in.
Still, it’s a good swim for me. The water is clear and smooth. I’m able to sight easily and the right angles in the course give me the opportunity to sight behind me as well and get an idea of where the pack is. This is something I’ve never been able to do in a race before and it’s pretty cool! It’s also pretty cool to know that I’m solidly in third place when I climb up the stairs and start running toward T1.
T1: 400m run
Coming out of the swim, there is a 400m run to T1. Most people would call this an extraordinarily long run-out, but as a Chicago native, this feels like home! 400m is the same length as the run-to-bike transition in the Transamerica Chicago Triathlon, which I did for the fifth time only three weeks ago.
The only difference is that the carpets covering the course are blue instead of red.
I run at a nice, fast pace. I’m too far behind my age-group leaders to pass them before transition, but I want to make sure that nobody behind my can pass me either!
Once I’m in transition, I grab my gels, my Team USA beanie (still 48° F – which will be great for the run, but in the meantime, I want to preserve my body heat), my helmet and my bike. Again, I’m trying to keep the pace fast so that I don’t get passed in transition. There’ll be time to bring my heart rate down as I navigate the technical turns out of T1. I run my bike across the line and nail the mount.
So far, so good. I’m in third place.
As I bike, I’m now even more grateful for the clear weather than I was at race start. The bike course is technically challenging but gorgeous. We ride across the iconic Erasmus bridge, past the Tropicana Building and lots of cobblestones. So many cobblestones and cobblestones with speed bumps! I’m really grateful for Sexy’s carbon frame as I navigate this part of the course.
In terms of strategy, my goal here is not to lose ground and maintain a good pace. Even though I end up forfeiting a few spots to stronger cyclists, I eventually settle in behind Rye (GBR). She’s more aero than I am, so she gains distance on the straight-aways, but Sexy and I make up lots of distance on the technical turns.
There are a few small hiccups, like losing my water bottle at mile 5 or having difficulty getting my helmet to sit right on top of my beanie, but overall, I’m happy with this leg of the course. I’m in the top 10 going into the run, which is ahead of where I thought I’d be!
This is when the trouble starts. First, I unbuckle my helmet as soon as I get into transition. Oops. That’s not legal per ITU rules. I’m supposed to wait until my bike is racked! I’m stopped by a judge and made to wait until I can re-buckle my helmet. With numb fingers from the bike, this isn’t an easy task and easily costs me 15 seconds. Then, once I run my bike to the rack and properly remove my helmet, I run into trouble again.
I’m probably one of the few runners in my age group who is using socks for this race. In a close, competitive race, the 15-20 seconds lost to putting socks on or tying shoes can mean the difference of several places.
However, for me, socks aren’t an option. They’re a necessity. I’ve already had one visit to the medical tent this year for bleeding feet and don’t want another. I’ll try running flats and no socks again next year, but my feet can’t handle any more abuse this season — not if I want to be able to walk back to the Airbnb anyway.
Like the bike helmet, my fingers and toes are just a little too numb to work properly. So, 15 seconds turns to 30. I start to panic as I see multiple athletes pass me in transition. No! No! After training so hard all season, it’s really frustrating to watch people slip ahead of me because of mundane things socks and helmets.
After my less-than-efficient T2, I head into the run with a lot of adrenaline on board. I have a lot of ground to catch up and I’ve lost sight of my bike buddy, Rye.
However, the frustration lasts only a few moments before I’m dumped onto the course. I can say, hands-down that this is the best run course I’ve ever done:
You’re surrounded by trees, and well-manicured park on all sides.
Suddenly, the cool temperatures are a benefit rather than a downside.
The course is mostly flat with just enough short, sharp hills to make it interesting.
You get whole water bottles at aid stations. This is amazing! They don’t spill! They’re easy to grab!
And there are spectators shouting “Go USA!!!” as you pass. That’s an amazing feeling right there.
All of that translates into a run that just feels good. There’s no other way to describe it. I’m passing the girls who passed me in transition and everything seems to be working. My feet are happy inside their socks. My legs are feeling good despite the plane ride and erratic taper. Everything is working!
And then my race belt breaks. With 1k left until the finish line. Oops. Well, there’s not much to do at this point except hold my race belt up and grab an American flag as I near the finish line.
John meets me after. He’s in a state of disbelief and so am I. Despite my misgivings throughout the race, despite the early mornings throughout the year, all my training has paid off. Beyond my wildest expectations, I’m now the F25 age group World Champion. It may be post-race mood swings, but I’m in tears. Happy, excited, wonderful tears. This is a fantastic way to end the season and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.