KO KO-nquering KO-lumbia!

Columbia Tri is my favorite race of the year. I could be accused of saying that about Black Fly and Quassy as well, but Columbia really is special: it’s the first tri I did with Penelope, the course is fantastically hilly, and there are teenage boys with water guns at about mile 3 of the run every year! I’ve done it three years running and each time, I’ve had a great experience.

Except this year.

This year started off with a horrible experience.

The swim is my strength. I could swim all day. Put me in water and I am one happy camper. I’ve loved water ever since my dad proved to me that the Terminator doesn’t exist (for some reason, I grew up thinking he was an underwater creature) and there are no Loch Ness monsters in the Utah lakes of my childhood.

I'm the one on the left, brimming with joy and wearing oversized goggles. That's Phebe on the right!
Going into Columbia, my goal was to PR on the swim and bike. I’ve been battling a hamstring injury for the past 8 months, so a 10K run PR was not on the horizon. The swim base I’d built up over the last 3 months found me stronger and more confident in the water, so I was setting my sights on breaking 21 minutes…a stretch goal, but not unreachable.

As our lovely bright orange caps were bobbing in the water, I found my friend Sarah Littlefield. We giggled about goggles, then there was a frantic discussion about what buoys were turn buoys vs sighting buoys amongst our age group wave. As the announcer counted down from 10, I jockeyed for a position strong and center. My plan was to hit it hard the first 200 meters, find a good position behind some fast feet, and hold on for 0.9 miles. 21, 21, 21…I could do it!

And we were off! First three strokes were strong. I immediately found myself jammed between 2 other strong swimmers – a Mindy sandwich, if you will. Beast-to-my-right’s fist pounded my right temple. Beast-to-my-left’s elbow knocked my ribcage. I felt frantic. This was by far the most aggressive triathlon start I’d ever been in (although nothing compares to the Chessie Bayswim start).

Within 15 meters, I couldn’t breathe. This wasn’t a “you went out too fast” spiked HR…this was a pure, fight-for-every-breath panic attack. I switched from breathing every 3 to breathing every 2 strokes. I still couldn’t catch a breath. Nasty weed water went down as I tried to force my inhales to catch any oxygen. I did breaststroke for 2 strokes then forced my head down. Don’t be pathetic, Mindy. Hold on to those feet. Just swim.

But it got worse. I gave up on following feet. I backstroked. That’s right, I backstroked. I pulled a 180, looked up at the wonderfully calm blue sky, and yelled at myself for being a wuss. You can do this. You love water. You’re not a flounderer. Flip back over and suck it up. Breath.

But I was still gasping for air. I couldn’t re-calibrate myself. There was no mantra going through my head other than “F*%# F*#@ F*!^!!” I tugged at my wetsuit collar – it was constricting me. I breast-stroked and glanced desperately around. The three women in my wave had pulled ahead and were leaving me stranded with a cluster of girls zooming in to my feet. 

There were spectators to my right on the shore, but they couldn’t tell I was about to die. They didn’t know they were about to witness a drowning that day. I wanted to scream at the kayaker to give me some oxygen – I didn’t want him to whip me off the course, I just wanted him to make this stupid panic attack disappear.

I whimpered. Like a puppy. I whimpered because I felt sorry for myself that it had come to this. “I don’t even want to race anymore. Gasp. I just want to – gasp - get out of the water. Gasp. I just want the swim to be over. Gasp. Get me out of here. Gasp,” I thought to myself.  I backstroked so that I wouldn’t be run over by the onslaught of my wave coming towards my feet. I watched as they came up…and passed me. The whole wave passed me and I was so bummed.

This race was not going to end with Mindy coming out of the water having backstroked the entire course. “Ugh, get your swimming mojo ON, Mindy!!!”  I cursed at myself as girls passed me as if I were a white buoy. So I swam. Slowly, at first, stroking with caution intention and a fear that I would drown. I forced myself to breath bubbles out, just like they teach 5-year-olds, and concentrated on a long inhale every two strokes. Just making sure I got the oxygen. Just making sure I could breathe again.

I hit the first buoy and my HR settled. My breathing was back to normal. The panic attack had passed – and I started to pick up the pace to catch up with those girls who had deserted me in my minutes of dire need. By the second buoy, I was gaining on the main lead pack, so I pushed it a bit harder on the final and longest stretch.

Out of the water in the exact swim split as last year…down to the second…but was just happy to have survived that swim. After the race, several people tried to assuage my freak-out about my panic attack by telling me that panic attacks happen in cold water (but the water wasn’t cold), maybe I should have warmed up in the water (but I’ve done plenty of races with no warmup at all), maybe it was an asthma attack (I don’t have asthma), at least this didn’t happen at Lake Placid (?? I don’t know why she said this, as it very well may…), and “it happens to everybody”. I don’t know how it could have been prevented, I just know that I am no longer immune to the dreaded panic attack.

Lessons learned:
I hate panic attacks.
I love oxygen.
Backstroke saved me.

Coming out of the swim with my training buddy Sarah Littlefield hot on my heels!
0.9-Mile Swim: 21:57; 16th Female, 3rd AG

So after this ordeal, I strapped on Mr. Patriotic Sperm Helmet and hopped onto Penelope for a joy ride through Columbia. I am used to people passing me out of the water, so it was no surprise that I was passed plenty of times. I even got passed by a 14-year-old boy. I know, I know. He was fast! Practically dancing on his pedals! I mean, when you weigh all of 60 pounds, you’re flying up those hills that everybody else is switch-backing up.

Biking with Mr Patriotic Sperm Helmet!
So instead of reflecting on the woes of dropping in place and confidence throughout the bike course, I’m going to tell you about an event that was my first.

I peed on the bike!!!!!

I do think this justifies 5 exclamation marks. I have always viewed peeing on the bike as vulgar, disgusting, repulsive…wouldn’t you rather risk 20 seconds than pee on your leg, your carbon-soled shoes, and your shiny tri bike? But I really needed to pee. And I knew I would need to practice peeing while racing since my Ironman is a mere 2 months away.
I stopped pedaling. I concentrated. Focus on peeing. Focus. Focus. OK, I knew I had to pee. Where was this stream?
To any cyclists behind me, it was obvious what I was trying to do. Why else would anyone stop pedaling and coast standing on a flat stretch?

I focused harder. Felt the trickle run down my leg. Finished my business and got back into aero position. Success!!

26-mile Bike: 1:20:30; 70-something Female, 6th AG

Nothing exciting like a panic attack or peeing to write about in the run, except to confirm that the hills are indeed massive. I always underestimate them and they always surprise me again.
The water gun boys were there again this year at mile 3…yes, please, spray me!!!

10K Run: 48:39; 30-something Female, 7th AG

Columbia remains my favorite tri, despite the panic attack. Who wouldn’t love a tri that gives a free duffle bag (future present for dad!), female-cut t-shirts, and a chance to conquer some pretty tough hills in the early season?

Columbia Tri: 2:34:22; 18th Female, 3rd AG

A bit of a disappointment to have added more than 4 minutes to my time from last year on the same course, but all the more incentive to return stronger next year!

Lessons Learned:

SWIM: I am not immune to panic attacks in the water. It got me, and it got me good. Holy crap, I never want to experience that feeling again. But I’m proud of handling it in stride, even though it meant resorting to backstroke and losing valuable feet at the beginning of the swim.

BIKE: Need to work on the hills. Can’t get passed by another 14-year-old on the bike – my quads were 5 times the size of his, yet I still couldn’t match his speed! Looking forward to this Memorial weekend’s girl’s training weekend at Skyline!
Yikes! Look at the elevation chart on the bike course!
RUN: Glad my hammie held up with no pain. Time to start training runs again – cramming as many smart miles as I can into the training program before Ironman hits and it’s game time.

Post-race with Snapple teammates!
 And an overly enthusiastic Congratulations!!!!! to Bart for his VA Run Sprint Tri win that same day! 

To read about my 2011 Columbia Race, click here
And for other triathlon race reports, click here
And for my triathlon photo album, click here!

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