Last Friday I competed in my fourth Paratriathlon World Championship, a race that turned out to be the most dramatic and challenging ITU event that I’ve experienced yet. This year I was lucky enough for Worlds to take place in Chicago, the beloved city that I have called home for the last six years. I had come off the Test Event in Rio feeling good and ready to spend the next six weeks building for my final race of the year. With an undefeated record in 2015, I was determined to keep my streak alive through Chicago.
The weeks leading up to Worlds felt like a series of setback after setback. After staying relatively healthy all year, my body seemed to decide to fall apart at the worst possible time. Between ongoing hamstring issues in my good leg, fitting issues with my running leg, and a stomach virus that hijacked a week of training, my coach Kimberly and I had to alter my workouts in the weeks before Worlds, including my taper. It was not the ideal peak phase by any means, but we were still confident that things would come together the way we wanted them to. I had some real breakthrough running workouts in the midst of all of this, and my times on all my track workouts and long runs started dropping substantially. After failing to put together a solid 5K race all year, I was hopeful that all of that new speed would manifest itself on the run course in Chicago.
The two days before the race were an absolute whirlwind. It turns out that having a World Championship race in your own town is even more complicated than traveling to one. Wednesday and Thursday were jam-packed with meetings, course review, strategizing with coach, precovery at Edge, and valuable time with my teammates.
I awoke race morning to the massive thunderstorm that they had been predicting all week. There was still lightning at 4am when I walked across the street from my hotel to Kimberly’s house. Going above and beyond standard coaching duties, she made me breakfast, threw my equipment on her back, and rode her bike over to Buckingham Fountain with me to help me set up.
Miraculously, an hour before my 7am start, the storm subsided and the sky opened up, revealing the sunshine that stayed there through the duration of the race. As we walked down to the swim start, we ran into Team Hailstorm, a rowdy crew made up of family and friends from every corner of my life, complete with glow-in-the-dark signs, Hailstorm t-shirts, and cowbells. It meant the world to know that I would have so many people cheering for me on the course, and was the perfect sendoff before getting into the water.
The swim was uneventful, and I came out of the water fifth out of seven, 2 and a half minutes down from the leader. It was slightly less than the gap I’ve had in previous races this season, and was comfortable with the distance I needed to make up.
The first lap of the 4.5-lap bike was all about feeling out the course, especially the three 180-degree turns on each lap. Although I have ridden the course before, the wet roads changed the conditions pretty dramatically. On my second 180-degree turn of the first lap, I took the corner at a decent speed with near perfect lines. But there was a strip of hard plastic along the intersection that was slicker than the rest of the road, and as I was coming out of the turn, my rear wheel caught the plastic and skidded out. The bike and I went down, with my right hip absorbing most of the blow. I recovered quickly and got back on the bike, only losing about 20 seconds. But I was shaken, and I ended up riding the rest of the course much more conservatively that I would have liked. As an aggressive rider who likes to take turns with a lot of speed, that crash took away one of my secret weapons.
Nevertheless, I kept pounding through the bike, making up ground on my competitors with each lap. I ended up passing Rakel from Spain and Allysa from the US, moving from fifth to third place. When I made it into T2 to transition to the run, Liisa from Finland and Melissa from the US were putting on their running legs. We all left within 30 seconds of each other, and as we started the 3-lap run course I knew that it was anybody’s race.
Within the first few hundred meters, I could tell that my legs did not have that fresh feeling that would be required if I wanted to pull off a breakthrough run. I was aware of the tightness in my hamstring with every takeoff, and my legs just felt heavy and flat. That first lap was a serious struggle. I had Melissa in my sight about 100 meters in front of me, and knew that Liisa was not far behind. But my body was fatigued, my form was suffering, and I was having a hard time making up ground.
Then at the beginning of the second lap, Allysa blew passed me. She looked stronger than ever, and I knew there was no way I’d be able to hang with her. Now in third place with two more competitors not far behind, my mind and body were right on the verge of checking out. I went into the race hoping to win, and now I might not even make the podium.
But then a minute or two later, I reached Kimberly, who was standing along the course with her watch in hand. “You’re 20 seconds behind Melissa,” she shouted. “It’s time to pick it up.” I don’t know why I actually listened to her, but somehow, that was all I needed. I picked my pace up ever so slightly, but it was enough to start to see the distance between me and Melissa shorten.
I spent the entire second lap closing the gap, then as we were about to start the final lap, I went in for the pass. Now usually when you pass someone on the run, they fall back pretty quickly. Not Melissa. She picked up her pace to meet mine, then pushed it even faster. For an entire half a lap, there we were, shoulder to shoulder, like two racehorses jockeying for that first position. The pace was a tough one to maintain, and as much as I wanted to surge ahead, I didn’t want to burn my match too quickly. I knew this could very well come down to a sprint finish, and I needed to keep a little gas in the tank if I wanted to kick it at the finish.
Then with about 800m to go, I kicked it up one more gear and slowly started to pull away. By the time I reached the blue carpet that led into the finish chute, I was in the clear but sprinted it out to bring home a second place finish. I ended up coming in 42 seconds behind Allysa, with Melissa 22 seconds after me. It was by far the closest race PT2 women have ever seen.
The medal ceremony that followed was without a doubt that most moving one that I’ve ever been a part of. To stand on that podium with two friends that I love and respect as our national anthem played; to watch three American flags rise against the backdrop of my city’s beautiful skyline; to look out at the grandstand and see my family and friends that traveled from near and far to be a part of this day. It was a moment that I will not soon forget.
The other highlight of the day? Coming out of the finish area and reuniting with the 25+ people that made up my cheering team. Some of them knew each other and others did not, but they somehow managed to meet each other on the course, united by the desire to support me in fulfilling a dream. It felt like walking into a surprise party with everyone that you care about, and the love almost knocked me off my feet. The Road to Rio is not a road that one walks alone, as it truly takes a team of dozens. Seeing so many dedicated members of my team was a reminder of just how lucky I am.
As I reflect on how my day panned out, there are only a couple things that I wish had gone better. While the crash on the bike was obviously not part of my plan, I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of the race. Allysa was on fire that day, and even if I had started the run a minute ahead of her, I’m sure she still would have caught me. My frustration with my race comes from the fact that I was not able to put together the run that I know I am capable of doing. I’m disappointed that my legs weren’t able to deliver on the one day that I really needed them.
However, whatever frustration or disappointment I may have is overshadowed by the pride I feel in knowing that I put up my best effort despite it not being my perfect day. And I almost feel like that is a win in and of itself. When you’re not feeling 100% physically, it is easy to loosen the reigns, to back off the pace, to tell yourself it’s not in the cards and therefore stop trying. But to know that you are not going to have the run of your life and still fight for it as if you are—that is an exercise in mental fortitude that only makes you stronger. I’ll admit that that kind of determination would not have been possible without Melissa forcing me there. She pushed a pace that I never would have maintained on my own, and helped take me to a place that my legs didn’t think they could go. And when I crossed that finish line, I fell to the ground in exhaustion, knowing that I gave that that run absolutely everything that I had. I had put up my best effort on THAT day, and that is really all I could ask for.
With all of that said, I am very much at peace with how everything went. I know that some days you have “it” and sometimes you don’t, and that is just a part of racing. And in this increasingly competitive class, if you want to win, you have to have a near perfect day. In all honesty, I think it’s pretty exciting that the women in our classification are close enough to one another that the results can come down to something as simple as who is having a better day. That is the reality of elite racing, and I think it’s pretty awesome that we have gotten to that point. So yes, I would have loved to have crossed that finish line first—but Allysa earned every last bit of that win, and I seriously could not be happier for her. And while this may not have been one of those days where my stars aligned, I’m at peace knowing that I will have many more great days ahead of me.
Perhaps the most exciting thing to come out of this race is the fact that I officially secured my spot in Rio, and became the first US athlete to qualify for the Paralympic Team. After I provisionally qualified at the Test Event in Rio last month, we just needed to earn a country spot in order to make my qualification official, which we got by Allysa winning Worlds. Allysa and Melissa will spend the first half of 2016 trying to secure their spots as well, and all three of us are hopeful that we will all be competing alongside each other in Rio next year.
This race marks the end of my 2015 triathlon season, and I’ll be honest in saying that I’m ready for a little R&R. I’ll be taking it easy for the next few weeks, allowing my body to recover before we kickstart the offseason and do it all again. September 2016 may sound like a long way off, but time seems to be flying so fast these days that it will be here before I know it. I know what I need to work on heading into the Paralypmic year, and I am excited to get even faster in 2016. And if Worlds this year was any indication, 2016 is going to be a fast one for all of us.