Race Report: Desert Triathlon, Olympic-ish distance, March 2, 2014

Woo, a triathlon race report in early March! There’s a first time for everything.

Obviously, a sport that requires unfrozen water and clear, more-or-less intact roads is a seasonal one. The season of tolerable weather conditions season is SHORT in Chicagoland. It is LONG (if not endless) in California. Although one could pretty much race around the calendar in Southern California, the Desert Triathlon is generally accepted as the season kick-off event in these parts, or at least among the people I’ve fallen in with. It takes place in beautiful Palm Springs –or is it Palm Desert? Or La Quinta? I don’t know; it’s all the same to me.

As a Midwesterner from a specific community of athletes who has never done this event, the analogous race for me is the Galena Triathlon, which takes place in mid-May in very-northwestern Illinois. First of all… BWAHAHAHAHAAAAA, this year I’ll have done at least two triathlons, including Wildflower long course, plus an outdoor swim meet or two by the time Galena kicks off (sorry/not sorry). Galena is usually the debut of shorts, let alone tri-kits. Pale, chapped skin sees the sun for the first time in many months, spectators are blinded, and but for our forgetfulness, someone would make a killing selling sunscreen at the post-race party. Secondly, I could not help but constantly draw parallels between the two events.

  • Both are local destination events, as in you *could* make a really fun weekend of it.
  • Both are basically gatherings of friends/teams pridefully showing off some of the “off-season” work they’ve been putting in.
  • Neither abides by USAT rules in terms of age groups, officiating, or results.
  • For anyone who cares (which should be EVERYONE because EVERYONE knows triathlon results MEAN EVERYTHING), both can be construed as the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS.

Dusty and James Adams, for two, constantly joke about how competitive and serious Desert Tri is, and how the results set you up for the rest of your season. That’s how I always saw Galena, too: for me, a disappointing result at Galena equaled a meh season; a surprising result led to some notoriety and good placing in other events. (I did Galena five times. The first three times I didn’t even place. The fourth time I was bowled over to find myself on the OVERALL podium and that was the season I was gobsmacked to qualify for Kona.)

Well, coming from such a competitive environment, the joke was on me. Yeah, people come out to the Desert and want to race well. The difference is that here they OPENLY throw down challenges to each other because it’s a community of support. Dusty and James had a friendly wager going, as it’s James’ first year in Dusty’s age group. Cortney Haile and I talked about race tactics the night before and tried to figure out if and how I could help her on the swim, where we might see each other on the course, and who else may show up to race. My experience at Galena had always been much more side-eye cloak and dagger “I hope I crush him/her and he/she can’t catch me on the bike…” or “I beat him/her today therefore I’m officially a better athlete!” type BS. I’m embarrassed I ever played into it and am sorry, but winning points in your tri club, beating your crosstown rival, or shaming your teammate over a couple of seconds is S-T-U-P-I-D when you could be sharing a more positive experience by helping each other.

Triathlon shouldn’t be like this.

Also unlike Galena, the Desert Tri has a pro/elite field with their own wave. More importantly, it has absolutely zero logistics or terrain to deal with: one transition area adjacent to the start and finish line; flat as a pancake. This is helpful in an early-season race, but it does little to shake out the field, so clumps form on the bike, the race comes down to the run (boo!), and there’s no advantage for people who have done the race before (yaay!). The swim course is in a tiny glassy lake with cold, opaque water. The bike course is a series of 90-degree turns, out toward a rectangular loop you do twice before returning back to transition. The run goes twice around the bitty lake, with some sand/gravel/chunky pavement sections. If I had come straight from Chicago to do this event, the run would have been tricky because I’ve only recently developed some sense of footing on uneven ground (says the girl who busted open her face two months ago).


After an early morning of getting my chamois properly greased up and my body fueled with caffeine, we arrived at the race site for a generally laid-back pre-race set up. Dusty and I opted to do a warm-up ride straight from out parking spot, then racked our bikes, then went about the business of setting up transition. This may have cost us THE MOST IDEAL spot on the transition rack, but saved us from multiple trips back and forth. It was pretty fun being at such a small race again and watching newbies mark their spaces with chalk and spray cooking oil under their wetsuits.

Speaking of wetsuits, once I finally squeezed into my trusty and custom BlueSeventy Helix, Dusty and I went for a quick warm-up in the lake …uh… just as the race was starting and they were telling everyone to get OUT of the water. The few strokes we managed to get in helped, although the water was pretty chilly.

Happy? Cold? Nervous? Peeing right now? Not sure, but the race is about to start. (Thanks Aaron Hanson for the pic.)
Happy? Cold? Nervous? Peeing right now? Not sure, but the race is about to start. (Thanks Aaron Hanson for the pic.) Custom wetsuits from BlueSeventy

Dusty went off to elbow his way up to the front of his wave while I marfed around for a few moments with Cortney and Erin Maruoka. Cortney and I basically shrugged at each other and admitted we forgot how to do these things. (Cortney, BTW, was 25th in our age group per 2013 USAT rankings, so I take her race-day humility with a shovel full of salt.) I also realized I hadn’t really looked at where I’d be entering transition relative to my bike, so thanks to the newb who marked our row with all that chalk! I usually elbow my way to the front, too, but Coach Steve told me to build into this race –don’t go out and hammer the swim, just find some feet and work it. Although I ended up starting in the front row per usual, I didn’t stress about my position relative to the first buoy.

Good thing, since I heard one woman next to me (we’ll call her “Sleeveless” after her wetsuit) turn to her friend and say “I’ve never swum 3/4ths of a mile before!” I made a mental note to get around her as soon as possible, but the gun fires and Sleeveless TOOK OFF. I was actually stuck to her for the first five minutes of the race –as though our wetsuits were conjoined or something. I couldn’t get far enough away from her, or from the woman on the other side of me, and we all breathed into each other’s faces. It may have been the most contact I’ve ever had at a swim, which is crazy.

After sighting for the far buoy caused me to crisscross over Sleeveless’ kicking feet several times, I just paused a beat and let her go. I’d rather chase her from a distance than be stressed out about our proximity for the next 10+ minutes. Sleeveless continued to pull ahead, though, and I knew there were maybe two more white-capped women from our wave ahead of HER, so I chased Sleeveless for the remainder of our swim, letting her plow the way through the waves of yellow, green, and silver caps ahead of us.

I trotted through transition at a relaxed but strong pace, although the pavement was a little ouchy. I took a few deep breaths while I put my glasses and helmet on and wiping my feet on a towel (note to self, why not bring a plush bathmat next time?). Finally, I grabbed my bike and swung around toward the bike out.

Here’s the part I need work on: my pride. I leave my shoes clipped into my pedals—because SO PRO!—even though I cannot fathom ever being coordinated enough to do a flying mount. Instead I haul my leg over my saddle and shove off, never fast enough to get a foot on top of either shoe before the crank turns downward again and my shoes start dragging on the ground. I seriously lost like five places while staring at my feet, trying to get my act together. DON’T DO THAT ANYMORE.

(Thanks Aaron Hanson for the pic!)
(Thanks Aaron Hanson for the pic!)

Off on the bike we went. Dusty and I had warmed up on the opening four miles so I knew it would be a good place to catch my breath and settle in. Although there are a few tiny bumps in both the terrain and the road surface, I got down in aero position almost immediately and slowed my breath rate down. I chose a Reynolds 58 front and element disc in the rear, by the way.

As I described, the bike course is two loops over a straightforward series of 90-degree turns. The roads were fine except at these intersections where gravel, asphalt patches, and poorly placed traffic cones –and sometimes other competitors— forced me to slooow   wa a a  a   y     d   o    w     n. The first loop was relatively uneventful except for White Unitard Guy who I caught up to and passed, then he passed me back and slowed down, then I repassed just as Hammertime was passing me at a pace not that much faster than my own. And again, there’s no terrain to break up the field, only the turns in the road, where I could see some women who passed me out of transition working together to bridge forward, and another woman almost within reach, again and again, after each turn.

Did I mention that USAT rules don’t apply to this race as it is both unsanctioned and unofficiated? Meaning… you’re on some unspoken honor system when it comes to “the rules.” Whatever they are here, I know it wasn’t the strict honor code thing to do, but Hammertime was right in front of me and I didn’t make a big effort to drop back out of his draft zone. OK? Sorry. During the second loop, the course became much more congested with competitors of various abilities. As they merged onto the course, there were many road bikes, a hybrid or two, maybe a mountain bike, young and old, men who hate getting passed and women who seemed confused about where I came from. I pedaled on, this time more concerned with watching out for various obstacles (a few bottles, more bumps in the road, speed differentials) than with interpreting the rules. No one was following any rough guideline of road etiquette at this point.

I turned off the loop to head back toward transition and a woman I kept seeing rounding the corners ahead of me was just ahead –I finally caught up to her. As I did with Sleeveless during the swim, though, I made the executive decision to stay behind her instead of blowing out my legs over the last few miles just before the run, my weakest leg. Between her branded water bottles, I recognized her as “Jen,” someone my friend Amanda told me to look for. Actually, Amanda told me to grab on to her feet during the swim (YEAHSURE, she swam at Tennessee? I was DIII, yo!), but I missed that train and was only catching her now. Amanda said she was really good… but maybe she was a swim/biker like me and couldn’t run? I took my chances.

Whereas T1 showcases my weakness, T2 is where I rockit: I got my feet out of my shoes, came to a stop right on top of the dismount line (no flying dismounts for me either), and ran straight to my rack. I tossed my bike onto the bar, and took some relaxed breaths as I carefully but quickly slipped my bare feet into my running shoes (first time using these ones barefoot), making sure to keep the tongue straight and not get any pebbles stuck inside. I scooped up my race belt, Garmin, and visor in one hand and took off running, putting them each on on the fly.

Although near a few men, I saw no women during the opening mile of the run. I concentrated on settling into a sustainable pace, thinking that I’d try to drop the hammer the second time around the lake. The opening mile, which I hadn’t scouted, was up a sand dune, down into a gulley of cruddy pavement, over a concrete culvert, and around a few blind turns before settling into the circumference of the lake. Amanda’s friend Jen-of-Tennessee-Swimming passed me like I was standing still at that point, and we said breathless “good jobs” to each other before she passed me and I added “I think you know my friend Amanda Wendorff…?”

“OH YEAH AMANDA! She’s a rock star!”

“Yeah. So are you. Go get it!” Bye, can’t talk anymore, running. Sorry.

We rounded the lake and several men came by, but I still didn’t see any women. At the completion of the first loop, the lead woman from the elite wave came by me. I pretended her cheers were for me and kept chugging.

Rumble Bunny chugging along with the lead elite woman's biker coming up behind me. I don't know what happened to Nytro there.... (Thanks Tyler Olsen for the photo.)
Rumble Bunny chugging along with the lead elite woman’s biker coming up behind me. I don’t know what happened to Nytro there…. (Thanks Tyler Olsen for the photo.)

Over the dune, through the gulley, onto the culvert, and around the blind turns, then I finally had a chance to see what was coming behind me. Cortney. CORTNEY! CORTNEEEEEYYYYYYYYY! Nooooooo. Well OK fine, INEVITABLE: she’s a phenomenal runner. I tried to maintain my pace, or preferably drop it instead of just rolling over and giving up. There were also several women with Cortney but I couldn’t get a feel for their pace out of the corner of my eye. I tried to act on the resolutions I made at my last race in November: don’t give up until the finish line. Don’t give in just because I’ve convinced myself “I can’t run.” Keep going because YOU NEVER KNOW.

Over the next half mile I started to wonder if Cortney plus the other seven women I thought I saw back there would pass me all at once, like a pack of wolves? Or…wait, this is a two loop run course, maybe the non-Cortneys were just starting their first loop! I just came up with that little silver lining when I heard a familiar voice huffing behind me. Here she comes. CORTNEEEEYYYYYY!

She passed me with something less than two miles to go and said “we’re almost done!” I didn’t have a chance to ask her about the other girls before she disappeared over the horizon, so I just kept chugging. Several friends were spectating near the finish line and for once I DIDN’T make funny faces or yell something dumb back at them, I just focused on the finish line until I crossed it.


Swim (billed as .75 mile, actually .88ish): 18:02 (1:14/100yards)

Bike (24 miles): 1:04:31 (22.3 mph)

Run (5.86 miles): 44:12 (7:32min/mile)

Total: 2:08:59. 3rd F35-39, 10th F overall (including elite wave), 212 women participating.

The post-race scene was typical: lots people and dog-watching, congratulating, hovering around the results table, meet-n-greeting, repacking of all the tri shit, and the ever-important food foraging and water guzzling. I talked to Jen a bit, rehashed the race with Cortney, said hello to friends and friends-of-friends EVEN THOUGH THEY’RE ON OTHER TEAMS (gasp). When awards time rolled around, Cortney and I held hands on our way up to fetch our medals, and Jen, Cortney and I “cheersed” our podium medals together. Good times, great fun, excellent support.

Desert Tri National SoCal World Champs, I like the way you roll.


3 thoughts on “Race Report: Desert Triathlon, Olympic-ish distance, March 2, 2014

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