Hundreds of vehicles, racks full of bikes and bumpers covered in stickers with funny decimal points, traveled in unison toward the pre-dawn warehouse of Rockett’s Landing. I, along with my teammates, my neighbors, my parents, and Richmond’s thriving multi-sport community would be a part of an inaugural half-iron-distance (1.2-mile swim/ 56-mile bike/13.1 mile run) competition, organized by Richmond Multisports. The riverfront in the city’s East End would be a mecca of endurance junkies from dawn to dusk on a perfectly cool and sunny September day. “Let’s do this!” I thought to myself as we reached the parking lot.
My first love and forever passion will be running, but I completely changed it up this year and joined TriGirls to transform myself into a triathlete over the summer. Not only did I make some great friends, but I felt like I was truly prepared to make it through 5-6 hours of constant exercise. Since I am used to being intensely competitive when I “just” run, it was hard work to tame my race outlook. Riding is not my strength, so I was constantly giving myself a pep talk to “just have fun” while leaving it all out there. In more blunt terms, I was coaching myself not to have a freak out when someone who is 30 years older passes me (which happened often) at mile 40.
As I blasted Cake’s “Going the Distance” in the car to inspire me en route to the race, I began to be fearful I would be the race car left on the track at the end of the song. No, I thought, knock it off – have fun!
In brief: I laughed; I cried; I shivered my way through 70.3 miles of riverfront racing. Here’s the lowdown.
On the Scene
The transition area was in the parking lot in front Conch Republic restaurant. Easy parking, a well-organized set up to rack the bikes, and a super friendly volunteer crew allayed my nerves. After black body marking, using the restroom 11 times, and lots of high fives from my best training mates, I was ready to line up dockside.
The out-and-back swim launched from the dock right under The Boathouserestaurant. I felt pretty hardcore because I was one of a handful of people without a wetsuit. Being in the third wave allowed me lots of mental prep time. I filled it with a good number of jumping jacks, asked for warm up hugs from strangers, and turned around to gaze longingly at the rooftop bar deck, reminiscing about sunset happy hours that seemed like only yesterday. Sigh.
Before I knew it, I was in the chop with a hundred other hot pink coneheads and the race had started. The water was the perfect temperature, with minimal current, and I was rolling. This was going to be a good day. I felt like there was no other place I would rather be. The swim out to the orange buoy in the distance was within easy sight and safety kayakers were well positioned, offering great encouragement.
I rolled right up to the dock ready to saddle up. Oh wait – I have to get to transition. As I bounded down the dock and up the stairs feeling superbly confident from my swim, I became pretty chilly. Actually, this is an understatement. But hey, I realized, I don’t have to spend ten minutes peeling off a wetsuit before the ride, because I’m already half naked and ready to ride. See ya later, suckers!
I mounted the bike and pedaled my guts out to warm up, before settling into a conservative, but pressing pace as Haddad’s Lake appeared on my left. This local amusement lake resort reminds me of the kitschy vintage postcards, with hand written memories of 1950s family vacations, sold in antique stores. For the next ½ hour, I entertained myself with creating what I would write in a postcard from my race.
The course meandered along the river, on to country and main roads to route 5, through Henrico and Charles City Counties. The turns were clearly marked in bright yellow arrows, with police officers or volunteers at every turn. It would have been impossible to get lost.
The course roads were not closed off to traffic, but it was generally safe and enjoyable. One three mile section had been recently “roughed up” for repaving, forcing me to slow down substantially, while jarring through the road crevasses and praying that I would not get a flat. Phew – I made it unscathed.
A right hand turn onto route 5 at about the 40-mile mark was quite nerve-wracking with a few rage-filled pick up trucks. All of those people who spent extra time peeling off their wetsuits had blown by me in the bike by now, as well, so I was at a low point after my short-lived lead.
Two peanut butter sandwiches, four water bottles, and almost 3 hours later, I was ready for my favorite part – the run. Thank goodness.
My training must have worked well, because I felt ready to roll off of the bike. It was challenging not to go too fast right away, as I was so excited to get to my favorite part of the race.
In stark contrast to the countryside ride, the run course cut through Richmond’s urban pedestrian paths. With the river on my left, I flew through the paved Virginia Capital Trail, down through the canal, and onto the floodwall. There was never an opportunity to become bored, as I was always step hopping, bridge crossing, or hill climbing. The water stops were spread out well and it was fun to support other racers on the spectator friendly layout.
The half marathon course consisted of two identical loops, with the true test of grit and endurance coming in the second loop. After feeling like I could conquer the world and moving at a seven minute per mile clip in loop one, I hit the wall hard and in drastic fashion with about five miles to go. Maybe I should have run slower to start or pounded another PB sandwich on the bike? Too late now.
With the New Market hill looming in the distance, I decided I would feel better after I crested that hill. When confronting rough patches in previous races, I’ve learned that I cannot give myself an option to “feel bad.” Telling myself to suck it up and forcing minute-long surges does the trick. Speed surges always make me snap out of the slog. It amazed me to emerge from that rough patch with time to spare. I motored down to Brown’s Island with the certainty that I would crank it all the way in.
With two miles to go, I was refocused and running strong. The inflatable finish line was in sight and the announcer’s voice was beckoning me to get there sooner. As soon as I hit the dirt next to the boathouse, I was in a full out sprint, unable to feel my legs moving. I flew by a few people in the last hundred meters and abruptly halted. I have never been happier to be finished a race in my life!
Marathons and road races require endurance and mental toughness, but this half-iron triathlon was quite an epic journey. The vast range of athletic skill, planning, on-the-spot adaptability, and excitement required provides for an unmatched, awesome experience. Perhaps what made it exceptionally special was the pride and privilege I felt to complete the adventure in my own city, with my best friends, and right in and on the James.
Overall, each portion of the race was well planned and executed. The race director offered organized pre-race rides and swims and pre-marked courses (to practice!). Volunteers were knowledgeable and very supportive on race day. The course exposed racers to diverse parts of Richmond and was spectator friendly. Extra points for a finish line, keg, too. Most importantly, it was a ton of fun (even when it hurt)!
Come on out for some Richmond Rox action next year and live the adventure of a hometown half-iron.