My First, Last, and Most Terrifying Ocean Swim:TriRock Clearwater Olympic Race Recap


A destination beach race sounded like just the perfect note to end a busy and successful season on.  
 
Always ready for a challenge, I thought I would tackle something that I was deathly afraid of-an ocean swim.  And a very long one at that! In classic Ashley-fashion, I had completely skipped over the Olympic distance when I signed up for my first half.  So logically (?), I signed up for the Olympic distance at TriRock in Clearwater. I had only swum in the ocean once before-my second ever triathlon in Jekyll and it was rough (18 minutes for 600 yards rough). I was terrified to say the least.

My friend Kim and I planned to make a girl’s weekend out of it, and since she has a competitive swimming background, I figured she would be able to allay my fears and get me psyched up for the race.  After I signed up for the Olympic distance, Kim told me she was terrified of sharks and was therefore, debating signing up for the sprint. Ahhh!!!  Kim is an incredible athlete, having raced her first 70.3 in the spring and completed her first Ironman in Chattanooga this September after overcoming several major injuries.  An Olympic distance in Clearwater would allow her bragging rights for racing every distance triathlon in 2014. Combined with the fact that she is an Ironman and therefore, can’t back down from a daunting task, she of course signed up for the Olympic after all!

 
Fast forward to race day weekend…

On Saturday, Kim and I walked from our hotel to the finish line/transition area for the expo and packet pick up (there are numerous quaint, old-Florida style hotels within walking distance with off-season rates).  After spending some time checking out all the great vendors at the expo and picking up our packets, we went to scope out the transition area and the swim course.   Upon locating our racks at the very back, we were disappointed to see that the bike in/out and run in/out were at the front of transition, along with the swim entrance. Our transition times would be much longer than the athletes near the front of transition.

 Prior to arriving in Clearwater, I had planned on trying to get a swim in Saturday to get comfortable in the ocean, but the day was chilly and overcast with a strong breeze bringing in an impending thunderstorm. White caps were forming just off the beach, and we could barely see the temporary buoys marking the course that was far more offshore than I had anticipated!  We quickly decided that trying to swim that day would do more harm than good.  Kim at one point mentioned that she would probably see a dolphin, panic thinking it was a shark, and not be able to finish the race. I too, had been fighting nerves over the toothy creatures. We certainly had a lot of shark risk factors going against us - early morning, near a pier, on the other side of a sand bar, murky, post-storm water… cue Jaws music….

 
Can you see the course buoys? Neither can I... If you can find the channel marker in the middle,
 they are the little white marks beyond it, and to the immediate left and a ways to the right
 

Tired and anxious, we went back to the hotel. Kim pulled up Urban and found Rumba, a restaurant that was a little bit of a drive, but had great reviews.  It wound up being the best beach restaurant I had ever been to, with great service, a fun atmosphere, and UHmazing food! Most surprisingly, the prices were better than most chain restaurants.  Kim ordered the mahi mahi, which was the biggest serving of fish I have ever seen in my life! We both got the crab macaroni and cheese, which I think was a house specialty and mouth watering good (writing about this is agony!).
 
Race Morning

Come 4:15 Sunday morning, I was in such a deep food coma that I barely woke up to my alarm.  Kim and I got ready in a nervous daze, packing all of our cold weather tri gear. With a combination of the clouds, potential rain, and wind, not to mention frigid water, we tried to be as prepared as possible. 

We started our five or ten minute walk through the drizzling rain to the race area with what we thought was plenty of time to spare, only to find a line around the block to enter transition! Only once we got to one of the 5 body markers did we realize that you only had to stand in line if you needed body marking L   I was very fortunate that my rack was on higher land, but Kim was not so lucky, as the transition was literally flooded from the overnight rains.  After wasting precious time waiting to enter transition, I was now racing to get my transition area set up and wet suit on.  I sprinted toward the exit just as the close of transition was being announced and ran into Kim as we were being herded out to the beach.  Upon speaking with another athlete, she found out that the bike in/out and run in/out signs at the front of transition were not actually where you ran and biked in and out of transition!! Go figure.  You actually had to leave transition from the back (near our racks) and run under a TriRock arch which we had thought was part of the finish (the arch said NOTHING about bike/run in/out) then run along the side of transition to the front and leave from where the posted bike in/out and run in/out were. It’s impossible to describe and just as impossible to figure out in person.  I wasn’t happy to be finding this out just as transition was closing, but at least we weren’t at a disadvantage as we had previously thought.

 The Start

The Gulf was 67 degrees by our 7 a.m. start time. Securely in our wetsuits, and still shivering on the beach, Kim and I said our goodbyes and reassured each other that the water looked calm.  The start would be a wave start, but also a time trial start, which was new to both of us. Sounds really crazy, but it actually worked pretty great. Kim was in the first wave (military and first responders) and I was in the third wave (all women). Within our waves, we went out three at a time across the timing mat, down the beach, and into the ocean.  The starts went quickly, and Kim probably started only about five minutes or so ahead of me.



 
Taking off for the start. I look like I am going into battle!


 

I somehow wound up at the front of my wave.  Heart racing, I ran down the hard-packed beach and into the surf, quickly realizing that running into the ocean versus jumping off a dock like I did in Augusta is much, much worse!  I was so cold that I couldn’t fall into my stroke without gasping. At the verge of hyperventilating, I flipped onto my side and tried to side stroke, but it was too much effort against the swells that were hitting me off of my right shoulder. From this vantage point, it was quite apparent that the ocean was, in fact, not calm at all.  If I had tried to swim the day before and realized how rough it was, I don’t think I would have been able to convince myself to start the race that morning.

The Swim

Once I got my breathing somewhat under control, I realized that my goggles were leaking. Or maybe I realized my goggles were leaking, which made me forget about the cold, and I stopped hyperventilating.  Either way, I walked across a sand bar just off the shore, trying to maintain forward motion while fixing my goggles. No luck. Once again, it was swim (thrash)-adjust-thrash-adjust. I must have looked pitiful, and safety volunteers started making their way over, waving at me.  I signaled I was ok, and after what felt like ten minutes of hardly making any ground, I finally figured out that my swim cap was stuck underneath my goggle lens.

First crisis averted, and now it was time to contend with the swells. No matter what side I tried to breathe to, I was getting hit in the face, and sputtering and coughing up water.  Each time I sighted toward the mark, I could see that I was being pushed way off course. This wasn’t working. Other athletes around me were either clinging to buoys or swimming right along like it was a darn pool, and I started to wonder how in the world I was going to make it without getting pulled out. I wasn’t even half way to the first marker. Knowing I had to make a decision now to keep going or give up, I decided not to look back at the shore and started back stroking, which allowed me to get a little headway. I finally got to the mark, fought the waves around it, and looked toward the pier.

 
The wacky course. Pretty difficult to sight from the start to the first mark.
Also swimming straight is hard when you are back stroking!
 
My heart simultaneously sank and started thumping with fear. I didn’t realize just how far beyond the end of the pier we were.  Middle of the freakin ocean far!!  Now, I had to face the giant rollers head on.  Although I have sailed in much, much worse conditions in the Tampa Bay area, I’ve never actually been by myself, no life jacket, no boat, treading water in the trough of a wave, looking up at swells that blocked the horizon. I was terrified, and I literally started praying not to drown. After abandoning a last ditch attempt at freestyle stroke, I started back stroking again. My throat and sinuses were on fire from ingesting so much salt water as the rollers constantly broke over my head. The ONLY good things about back stroking practically the whole swim, were 1) I was able to constantly sight off the buoys I had passed and therefore swim fairly straight and 2) the swim went by super quickly when I wasn’t constantly focusing on where I was going, but only where I had gone.

I fought my inner demons like never before, as scenarios raced through my mind, like how I could convince the volunteers to at least let me participate in the bike and run after they pulled me out of the water.  Very slowly and by the grace of God, I made it to the final turn buoy without any assistance, even though athletes around me were constantly using (and abusing) the volunteers.  One guy would stop for awhile on a volunteer’s board until they told him to move, then quickly pass me again once he started swimming. This leap-frogging, when he was obviously a better swimmer than me, infuriated me!


Making my way back to shore with the waves at my back, I could now freestyle, as long as I breathed to my right. And then it hit me. Pier. Sharks. Ahhhhhhh!!! I had been so overcome with the cold water, my goggles, and then the waves, that I never had a time to worry about sharks. I tried to get in pace with the other swimmers around me, so when I felt something bump my foot, I figured it was just another swimmer.  I turned to look and there was NO ONE THERE. I started kicking like crazy, then realized, crap! That’s the complete OPPOSITE of what I should have done! Realizing the odds were in my favor because I still had a foot, I swam as fast as I could to the shore.

 
Where we were, and where sharks HAD been. 

After the race, Kim and I were recounting our horrific swim survival stories from the day.  An awesome swimmer and one of the first athletes in the water, there weren’t any other athletes around her as she rounded the final buoy and started to swim along the pier. Just as she had feared, when she approached the sand bar by the beach, there was a fin within arm’s reach in front of her. As it surfaced again, she realized it was only a dolphin and she would live to survive (and dominate) another race. I don’t know what hit my foot, but we definitely weren’t alone on that final leg to shore!

As terrified and phobic I was of a .93 mile ocean swim…. It was ten times worse.  Dozens of yellow swim caps, like little, bobbing, ironic smiley faces, had passed me on the first leg of the swim, so I knew any kind of podium was not in my future.  Ecstatic to have conquered something so tough when it would have been much easier to give up or get pulled out, I glanced at my Garmin. 37 minutes of pure hell. I thought that my watch was messed up because there was no way I finished in 37 minutes!
 
Distance: .93 miles
Official Swim Time: 00:37:35   
Pace: 02:30/100m                    
Division Rank: 190/267
(Ranking is all men and women for some reason)

 
'Ohmygosh I made it... Ohmygosh I made it!'

Smiling like crazy, I ran into transition.  I took forever! My time was almost as long as my transition in Augusta, partly due to the long run up the beach. I didn’t stand a chance at this point, so I wanted to be comfortable for the rest of the day. I got my wet suit off, snatched my bike off the rack, pulled on my socks and Soas Racing arm warmers (this would be my first ride with them, and I LOVED them!) and strategically started zigzagging through the huge puddles of standing water.  Out of transition, I had what felt like my best flying mount in a race and I was finally on my bike and in my comfort zone. Off for a fast, flat 24 miles!!
 
T1: 3:53
 
Bike Course

 
Leaving T1 and trying to get the salt taste out of my mouth
 
Or not.  I effortlessly tackled the first overpass, only to find there were lots of little hills, and from glancing over the course map, I already knew there were 90 degree turns at least every mile. I quickly realized I wouldn’t be setting any PR bike splits this race.  Telling myself I was still at a hill climbing advantage over the locals, I forced my legs to pedal as hard as they could.  Fortunately, the bike course was the best supported course I’ve ever raced, which made the time and tedious turns go by quickly. At every intersection there were at least two cops, and every little neighborhood entrance or smaller intersection had at least one. Like a broken record, I must have said thank you 200 times!! I loved how welcoming and friendly they all were.
 
 
So many turns...
 
About mile 15, we circled back toward the beach and merged in with the sprint athletes.   The route wound along a golf course, through some modest neighborhoods and finally inside a neighborhood of sprawling mansions along the shore, yet the roads were the worst I’ve ever raced on!!! Pissed, I slowed way down so I wouldn’t go down or get a flat. Finally out of the neighborhood, with about five miles to go and close to a 19 mph average, I was ready to spin and get my legs refreshed for the run, as I assumed this final stretch along the beach would be flat and fast. Sadly, I rounded the final big turn and hit a wall of wind that made me struggle to maintain a 17 mph average.

To make matters worse, instead of having the whole road as we had until now, we only had a single lane on the busy beach highway.  It was getting crowded with the slower sprint athletes, some on beach cruisers. As I was coming up to a steep bridge, I rode up on two friends who were chatting and riding side by side to the left side of the small emergency lane, and I knew I needed to pass them before beginning the ascent. A girl just in front of me yelled ‘on your left’ and slowed, not able to get by.  I also yelled, but they just looked up confused.  I continued yelling, ‘Get over! We don’t have room!!’ Just before I was forced to swerve into car traffic, they moved over single file.  Further up, one competitor hit a traffic cone and wiped out right in front of me as he was trying to pass several athletes who were walking up the bridge. On the descent, I hit well over 30 in the little emergency lane, sandwiched between the slower, zigzagging athletes on my right and 50 mph car traffic on my left. To say it was nerve-wracking is an understatement.


Loving my new Soas Racing arm warmers!
Just need to figure out how to get them ALL the way on, on the go 

As a disclaimer so you do not think I am a jerk, I love that this race is a big draw for locals and athletes new to the triathlon community, but I feel that TriRock should have organized the courses a little better to make it safer for everyone. I am sure climbing up a steep bridge, while trying to make room for faster athletes, was terrifying for first time or newer triathletes.

 As the bike course wound to an end, I was a bit down on myself that I hadn’t seemed to be able to catch any of the age group female athletes that had crushed me in the swim.  Knowing I was way behind, I spotted Kim, who had rounded the first run loop (did I say she was an awesome athlete!?). Swapping cheers perked me up a bit, and I ran to my rack.  Shocked, I nearly burst into tears. Not a single bike anywhere near me!!! I guess that kicked my butt back in gear, because I had a great T2 time! Knowing the run is my weakest point, I took off, hoping to hold onto my lead.
 
Distance: 24 miles
Official Time: 01:19:58
Pace: 18.0 mph
Rank: 151/264

T2: 01:53
 
 The Run

The run was enjoyable, but not easy. There was music every mile, and the course was an out and back, with a huge bridge and a smaller pedestrian bridge that we had to run up and down twice!  It was tough, but not impossible, and actually a fun little challenge. The aid stations were great and wonderfully supported, and all the other athletes were so nice!

 
Check out those bridges! And my terribly slow run! Never pretended to be a good runner.
However, I was ecstatic to be only one minute slower than my only 10k race.


I fought nagging calf cramps within the first half mile, but instead of fighting through like usual until I could not literally take another step, I decided to be more proactive. As soon as they started bothering me, I stopped twice for about 30 seconds, relaxed and massaged the muscle, before running again. This seemed to work, and my calves didn’t give me too much trouble the rest of the race.   About half way through, Kim ran past me on her way back to the finish. We high fived and I cheered her on as much as I could to an awesome finish! She had killed the run course!

 
As I got around mile four, I tried to pick up my pace, but for whatever reason, my feet had started going numb half way through the bike, and continued the trend on the run. By now, I couldn’t feel them at all, and when I tried to speed up, I felt like I was running in a bouncy house! Just when I could see the finish line, and thought I was about to finish, they routed us left and along transition. In the last quarter of a mile, the course had two 90 degree turns, and one 180 degree turn, which was maddening, then ran us BACK up toward the finish. However, TriRock had an awesome announcer, and as soon as I made the turn, I heard her calling my name.  There were people everywhere cheering and I spotted and high fived Kim. The announcer went on to wish me a happy birthday (Kim tipped her off!) and the other spectators joined in as I ran to the finish. Best finish EVER J
 

High-fiving Kim at the finish
 

Run Distance: 6.2 miles
Official Time: 1:02:04
Run Pace: 10:01/mile
Rank: 206/264

 
First Olympic Overall Time: 03:05:25
2nd Age Group
 
 
Kim and I with our 2nd place trophies
 
 
Post race was pretty awesome! With our race bib food voucher we got a HUGE, breakfast burrito provided by a local restaurant.  Garmin had a booth set up to immediately print a finisher ticket with all of your splits and ranking which was an awesome plus. Kim and I stuck around for the awards ceremony, as she had placed second in the military/first responders division, and I had placed third in our age group.  If she had been eligible for age group awards, she would have won our age group, with an impressive time that was 17 minutes faster than my finish!  I was completely floored that I podiumed after that tough swim and in my first Olympic!!!!

 
 
Loubie, my ride or die!

Overall Thoughts

 So that said, TriRock was pretty much what I was looking for-a FUN end to a great race season. It wasn’t the most organized event (e.g. the long transition line and bizarre, confusing transition area), nor was it the best course, but the announcer, the music, and the energy was great. If you are looking for a fun event, definitely check out Clearwater TriRock.  If you are a serious athlete looking for a fast race however, you might want to stay away.  Personally, I will never, ever again do another ocean swim ever again (I thought throughout the race that if I had signed up for Ironman Florida last weekend, I would be crying my eyes out right now). EVER. Have fun with that! But, even though it was by the skin of my teeth and waaaay worse than I ever imagined, I conquered my fears, finished the race and brought a successful race season to a fun end!

Comments

  1. For the record......I loved reading this and have read your prior blog posts to. I admire you for testing and pushing your limits. I don't know that I could ever do any of it....BUT I KNOW I COULD NOT AND WONT EVER DO AN OCEAN SWIM!!!! :) LOL....for real...I was sweating reading this.....I am terrified of sharks! Congrats Girl!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is Alex Clark by the way lol

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am sorry, I just saw your comments. Thanks so much for reading and your kind words! That means so much! I know I can be long-winded, so I am glad that it's at least relatable at times ;) I am right there with you on the sharks! I know it's irrational, you are more likely to get in a car wreck on the interstate, or get hit on the bike course, but at least then I have more control than I do over big creatures lurking in the deep... By the way, don't sell yourself short! I am convinced that any determined person can do these types of races. In my opinion, they are more mentally challenging than physically challenging, which is perhaps why it is so addicting!! I hope you are well :D

      Ashley

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