Me booking down the home stretch. Me to Mom: “Were there any older women ahead of me?” Mom: “I can’t tell.     Everyone looks ancient at that point!”

I have an ambivalent relationship to the triathlon. The last one I did before Sunday’s was the MUSF tri in April at Miami University, my alma mater. I remember standing in a long, slow-moving line to get into the pool that morning, and observing thoughts in my head like I don’t want to do this and Let’s just get this over with! My mom, who has accompanied me to a few tris, had told me that I seem “I don’t know… depressed” immediately before triathlons in a way I never do before running races. I almost bailed the morning of a tri with my brother Michael last fall. Running races are different. Those mornings I feel resolved and eager to test myself, focused on my pacing strategy and how the competition looks and what the course is like. I feel confident.

But this Sunday was the first time I ever slept the night before a triathlon — a whole six hours! — and the first time I didn’t feel that same horrible way. Truly, there is nothing worse than getting up after a night of zero hours of sleep to the dread of facing a cold pond or pool swim followed by an hour of biking and another half an hour of running, in a wet bathing suit, as fast as you can. I think at least half of my resistance was solved right there.

Mom had agreed to drive and spectate, even though it’s 1.5 hours of BORING, and when I picked her up at 6:00 am, Aunt Jean also emerged from their house. She was visiting and wanted to see what this thing was all about for some crazy reason.

I was zippy. Instead of bringing my pillow along and languishing in the back seat per usual, I sat in the front and chatted with Mom the entire hour’s drive through Oxford Ohio and up to Hueston Woods. When I got out of the car I surveyed the landscape in the sunrise — Acton Lake beach, the start and transition and finish in the parking lot, the surrounding woods — and actually felt eager to start. Or at least okay with it.

The area was crowded and busy. I think there were around 350 participants in all events. There were the usual intense tri guys with their “onesies” (okay, tri suits) and their weird $10,000 bikes, but the air didn’t seem as competitive and sizing-you-up as it sometimes does. It might have been my well-rested mood, but Mom said the same thing. I signed in to get two hospital-like paper bracelets that go on your wrist and bike seat post, the event t-shirt (Note, if you’re considering racing: only amateurs wear the event t-shirt in the race itself!), and the ankle bracelet with the timing chip; then into another line to get my numbers markered onto my arm and leg. (Some people like to not wash those numbers off for days.)

I racked my bike and set up my stuff in the transition area (towel, socks, helmet, bike shoes, run shoes). I didn’t have much time to warm up, so I ran the course for about 9 minutes, which I figured was a mile. A handful of others were doing the same. My legs were still tired from working out since I didn’t taper at all for this race, but they still felt pretty speedy. We were called back for instructions, and a minute of silence for 9-11.

The duathlon launched, and then we started the sprint triathlon swim in 2-minute waves. The duathlon is a run-bike-run event that makes me glad to have a swim first — and I don’t even like the swim. First into the water were men in their 20s and elites, then men in their 30s, then men in their 40s, then all 53 of us women. I guess the older guys were after us, and the Olympic (longer) triathlon. The horn blew and I seeded myself in the group about 1/3 of the way to the front, which turned out to be perfect, with relatively few collisions and feet kicking my face on the course. The water temperature wasn’t bad, because in September lakes still tend to hold the heat of the summer. I wore an old bathing suit with a tri suit over it — a bike jersey and shorts that you can wear into the water, saving time. It’s all about saving time!

Okay. I really need to practice my swim if I want to get any faster, and honestly, I don’t make time for it. Right now I’m a smooth but slow-ish swimmer who can keep going, so that’s how I do it. Sunday’s course was substantially longer than last year’s; I knew last year it could not possibly be 750 yards (about half a mile) as advertised, and I guess they fixed it. Last year we just swam straight up the beach one-way, but this year we swam a long “T.” On the second half of the “T,” I felt I’d been swimming for a long time. I reminded myself I’d just done 30 continuous laps in the pool and I could do this — stay steady. I did feel some advantage from the strength work I’ve been doing since June, despite my always insisting swimming is a technique sport. My goggles were so fogged at the end that I couldn’t sight, so I stayed with the people around me by touch. We trudged out of the water from waist-high to the shore and began running to the transition area, and I was surprised to see I really was still in the front of the field. In the results it turned out I was 16th woman out of 53 out of the water.

For the first time, I wasn’t dizzy after the swim. I had some trouble getting my bike shoes on my wet feet, even after socks, but finally started the hilly 12.4 mile course, straight up the first steep hill out of the parking lot. (My odometer last year read 13.3 miles. Triathlons, unlike running races, often seem to measure their distances imprecisely.) I continued uphill out of the park and passed a woman walking her bike and an older man pedaling very slowly. Out on the flat road, I caught up with a red pickup driven by a woman who seemed afraid to pass the row of cyclists in front of her. I was going faster than the truck and didn’t know what to do. One of the skinny guys in a tri suit and fancy bike, probably from the Olympic distance race, caught up with us and passed the truck to the left, so I did the same. I said a couple friendly things to him as he passed, but he completely ignored me, just like guys in tri suits always do.

I passed and was passed about equally in the first couple of miles, and the field spread and I settled into a pace. There was a mid-thirties woman in a black tank and bright red, white and blue running shorts who I would pass going up every hill, and she would pass me going down. In general, I’m strong on ascents because I have good power for my size; and kind of a disaster on the descents — partly because I’m light, but partly because I’m afraid and keep hitting my brakes. This pattern, where I lose all my hard work getting ahead of people uphill on the downhills, happens in every tri.

We came to our turnaround 6 miles away in Oxford what seemed to me very quickly. The way back was uneventful, with me and the other woman trading places depending on which part of a hill we were on. On the straight-away into the park, I realized that I was breathless only on the uphills and was taking it just a little bit easy on the flats. This is a pacing mistake I criticize other runners for — using downhills as recovery when you could be using them to gain ground — and here I was doing it on my bike. At the same time, I was conscious of not redlining on the bike like I did last year and blowing up on the run, when I ended up walking for 2 minutes. So I held my conservative pace. In triathlon, they say if you say you had a great bike but a terrible run, then you did not have a great bike. It’s one sport with three parts, and you have to pace yourself.

Flag shorts woman called out something friendly to me at the end, on the last killer hill back in the park, so I knew she didn’t resent our place-trading pattern. Then we had a downhill and she passed me into transition.

Later, in the results, it turned out I was doing about the same pace in the bike as last year, actually arriving 21 seconds later. After my blow-up last year, my friend Brian had suggested slowing down at the end of the bike to catch my breath, which I thought was a great pacing idea. Overall, the bike felt easier this year and didn’t compromise my run, so I believe I was fitter, but didn’t see the result in the bike because I was deliberately holding back. In terms of the race, I gained a bit of ground on the bike leg, passing three women to become 13th out of 53 at that point.

There was a thin forty-ish woman in my row in the transition area as I racked my bike and changed shoes. We exchanged exhausted, short pleasantries and started out running in the wrong direction together, but the volunteers quickly caught us. My legs wouldn’t behave right — the infamous run-off-the-bike syndrome. I shuffled along near her for about half a mile, while my brain drifted to surreal, spacey thoughts. I considered that I had to pee and maybe I would just stop at a port-o-let and walk the rest of the race. I was actually confusing the course and the port-o-let with one at Caesar Creek. Then I thought about how if I walked, I’d be out on the course for another whole hour, and I really just wanted it over with. I told myself I could pee when it was over, though I expressed trepidation back to myself that that would not be for another 25 or 30 minutes.

All of a sudden the feeling that my legs were bungie-corded together lifted, and I settled into my normal stride. I still felt I might cramp in my calf or hamstring at any moment. But I noticed that there were two women ahead of me running what seemed to me to be very, very slowly, and that I could easily overtake them. I decided to at least pass them before I gave up and walked, and I slid past them easily.

Things got kind of weird. I perceived the entire field of men and women as running in slow motion, and I wondered why they were all running so very slowly. I perceived myself as running in half-slow motion, nowhere near my usual pace, but still faster than them. Each time I’d pass another woman, I’d look ahead and see another up the road who I could easily get to. I was passing guys too, but paying less attention since they weren’t direct competition. I started using the runner’s mental trick of imagining a big rubber band around me and the next woman I was targeting, pulling me closer, inevitably, without any extra effort.

A buff-looking twenty-something guy in red shorts and no shirt decided to pace along right behind me. I wondered how he felt about using a 46-year-old woman to pace with, especially considering his heat left six minutes before mine, so I’d already made up six minutes on him on the course. I got to the turnaround and gasped out to the two guys volunteering, “Is this the halfway point?” They said cheerfully, well, it’s the turnaround, they didn’t know if it was exactly halfway. I realized I was exhausted but felt if I had an assurance it was halfway, then I could keep going on the way I was.

Red Shorts guy jumped in front of me and proceeded to run at exactly the same pace, which irritated me the way it always does. I felt determined not to let him get out of reach, and chasing him might have helped keep me going at speed. There were fewer women left to target now. As we came into the last half mile, I was surprised to see a very mannish, muscular woman in my sights, who I’d known was going to kick my butt before the triathlon even started. Once again, at my pace I could easily pass her. I was convinced she was the one who would give chase, so I accelerated to discourage her, and passed Red Shorts as well. She did not chase.

In the home stretch, Red Shorts passed me again, to arrive 2 seconds ahead of me for a total time of 5:58 slower instead of 6:00 slower, I suppose. Or perhaps I had simply inspired him to do his best. As I waited for my age group award, people kept coming up to me and congratulating me on my run. It was a friendly, floaty feeling and so I didn’t say, well you were all just going so damn slow.

It took two days to get results to find out exactly what happened. From the bike to the run I moved from 13th to 4th in the entire race! I’ve heard it said that the run is what wins the triathlon. (Okay, I’ve also heard it said that the swim is what wins the triathlon, and I’m sure some cyclist is sitting somewhere right now saying it’s the bike that wins the triathlon.) It was the run that got Chris McCormack the Ironman Kona title this year; I think he was 6th off the bike, and completely discounted by the competition, and then he trounced them in the marathon. Well, the run is what got me from 9th last year up to 4th this year.

What was even stranger was that I ran that 5K in 22:48, which is faster than my last two plain old 5Ks of 22:56 and 23:02! I was moving faster in the run leg after more than an hour of swimming and biking, than in races where running three miles was all I had to do! I keep questioning it — was the course short? Did I (and my friend Red Shorts) go outside the lines and not do part of it? But then there is the fact of the slow-motion people and how I kept passing all of them. I guess it was real. And the weather was cool and comfortable, finally, which makes a big difference.

I know if I want to be a runner I have to train to be a runner, and if I want to be a triathlete I actually have to practice swimming and ride my bike more than once a week. I’ll probably stick with running right now because I’m doing so well with it. I’m All American (top 5%) in all events and just one second away from elite status with the elite running club, and I’m nowhere near that in triathlon. But it was a better experience this time, and I’m encouraged for my fall running plan and my future triathlons.

Mom took more death-warmed-over pictures of me that I’m saving for an album where I ponder the question why some girls look so cute when they run, and I have a big wad of snot on my lip. Aunt Jean just kept expressing wonderment over “how they do all that.” She didn’t want to say it was pretty insane-looking — not to my face.