Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | September 19, 2010

A Supposedly Fun Thing, Part 2: The Art of Racing in the Rain



The starting line.


5AM found me sitting tensely in the car as we weaved down dark country roads, following a long line of vehicles adorned with bikes headed to the Lake Geneva Triathlon Series. The sky was pitch black. A slight drizzle spat on us. As we got closer to the start, more cars joined our pilgrimage, a string of headlights streaming through the night.

I arrived at the transition area to find a long line of athletes snaking through the parking lot. Apparently race officials were body marking athletes before they went into transition, and the process was slow. I waved goodbye to my husband and took my spot at the back of the line. More athletes poured in. There were hundreds of us gathered in the predawn darkness, anxious yet half asleep. We stood there with our bikes and bags and gear, moving forward inches at a time. Then the rain began, an earnest downpour. I heard a race official yell that the markers weren’t working in the rain, so they gave up bodymarking and let us stream into transition. Spectators ran for cover, athletes ran for the bike racks.

It was still pitch black, so I dashed to an area near a street light and found a spot. I kept my gear in a plastic trashbag, hoping to keep it somewhat dry. By this time, I was soaked, so I was anxious to put on my wetsuit on and warm up. Fortunately, the rain stopped and I was able to chat with the other athletes around me. I asked if anyone was doing the Half-Iron distance. No one was; everyone was doing the shorter Sprint or Olympic distances. Apparently, I was the only fool around.

I donned my wetsuit and went to the start line for the pre-race talk. Again, I chatted with the other triathletes nearby, and again I discovered that everyone else was doing the shorter distances. I was the only Half-Iron athlete within earshot. I didn’t know whether to feel hard-core or stupid, but stupid was winning. I was surrounded by younger people, fitter people, people with zero percent body fat and calves of steel. Yet I was doing a harder, longer race than they were doing. Yes, stupid seemed to be the appropriate word. I began to think I should have taken up knitting instead of triathlons. What was I thinking when I signed up for this one? I did not belong here. I belonged at a Starbucks. A warm, dry Starbucks.

I looked anxiously at the sky which was slowly becoming tinged with a cold blue light. There were ominous clouds, but no thunder or lightning. My greatest fear was that all or part of the race would be canceled and all my months of meticulous training would go to waste. Finally the race director announced, much to my relief, that the race would take place in its entirety, in spite of the weather. I breathed a sigh of relief and made my way down the beach for my pre-race swim.

Usually the pre-race swim is something I dread, but this time it was like coming in from the cold. The water was warmer than the air, and after shivering in my wet clothes for over an hour, it felt wonderful. But my pre-race swim was brief; the start of the race was at hand. After 9 months of training, dreading, and wondering if I could do it, the time had finally come to stand at the start line. The horn blew, and 170 of us, all the Half-Iron athletes, made our way into the water to begin our 70.3-mile odyssey.

The water was rough as we set out on our 1.2-mile swim. Three people stopped within the first 25 yards, including a woman who seemed to be having a panic attack. On the beach, tensions had been high and I got the feeling a lot of people weren’t used to swimming in choppy conditions. I, however, had spent much of the summer training on Flathead Lake, which has the impressive ability to go from flat calm to whitecapping in a matter of seconds. The gentle waves on tiny Lake Geneva didn’t bother me.

Due to the dark skies and choppy conditions, I had a hard time seeing the buoys, so I just took them one at a time. I tried to find someone to pace off of, but the murky water made it hard to follow anyone. Alas, I had to swim alone. For a while I was next to a gal, roughly in sync with her. It was at that point that I realized one of the things I don’t like about swimming: it is too antisocial. This girl and I were swimming together for at least 10 minutes, just inches away from each other, but I never got a chance to talk to her. If we were engaged in a sport where one could breathe normally, I could have said, “So, is this your first 70.3? Where are you from? Have you been to Lake Geneva before?” But no, swimming doesn’t allow for chit chat. I sighed (as best as one can sigh underwater) and swam along.

Before I knew what was happening, I found myself headed towards shore. I ran out of the water and up the beach. I, an avowed non-swimmer, had just done a 1.2 mile swim, and I wasn’t even miserable. I took off my wetsuit, fished my biking stuff out of my bag, grabbed my bike and was off. I saw my husband briefly on the roadside. He seemed surprised to see me. I was in a pack of riders, and he is probably used to me being much further back and all alone. Of course, at that point I was also mixed in with the Olympic Distance athletes. Soon enough, however, the courses split. The shorter Olympic Distance course went straight ahead, the longer Half course to the right. I hesitated for a second. It would be really easy just to go straight, wouldn’t it? But no, this was what I had trained for all summer long. There would be no wimping out now. I turned right and began my 56-mile ride.

The crowd of cyclists thinned considerably. But the rain had subsided and the dreaded swim was over, so I was in a good mood. As I passed other racers, I would say “On your left,” and then, because I was feeling perky, “Good morning. Nice weather, eh?” What responses did I get in return? Nothing. Silence. Glares. It was a rough crowd. Chastened, I pedaled on. I passed people, people passed me. We thinned out and settled in to our paces.

I wasn’t sure how long the swim had taken me, since I forgot to look at the clock as I left transition. I looked at my cycling computer; it said the time was 7:30AM, but I knew we’d had a start delay. I just didn’t know how long. Therefore, I was riding blind in terms of what my race time was.

My goal was to finish the triathlon in under 7 hours. I figured an hour for the swim, just over 3 on the bike, and 2.5 on the run. However, the most important thing was to simply finish. I knew the wet road conditions would slow me down considerably, since I am a big baby when it comes to turning and descending. It might very well take me 3.5 hours on the bike, depending on how many turns and hills the course had. But better to finish over 7 hours than to take a turn too fast, wipe out, and not finish at all. Still, 7 hours would be nice. I kept an eye on my pace and pedaled along. Then the rain began again.

It was light at first, just dripping a little off my helmet. Then, it poured. It was as if someone was standing above me with a hose. At one point, it was a hard-driving rain, and it actually stung my legs. To make matters worse, the course turned westward, and I was riding straight into the wind. I looked down at my pace which had dropped to a paltry 12 miles per hour. I took my goal of an under-7 finish and threw it away.

The wind whipped rain in my face. I yelled to the cows on the roadside “I am not happy!” When I signed up for this event, I thought September in Wisconsin sounded lovely. I envisioned a sunny blue sky, warm dry air, beautiful farmland, bucolic views tinted with the palette of fall, maybe some sunflowers growing on the side of the road. Instead, I was dripping wet and unable to see anything because of the driving rain in my face. I was shivering. My feet were numb. I debated with myself whether or not it was possible to get frostbite when the temperature was above freezing. I was not having fun. Yes, deciding to do a Half-Ironman was clearly the stupidest thing I have ever done.

Fortunately, during second hour on the bike, the rain let up. My cycling computer was no longer working (the driving rain had caused the sensor to slip on the spoke), so I was riding more blind than ever. I had no idea what my pace was, and no idea how far into the race I was. Finally, I got to a turn where a race volunteer said “Under 5 miles to go.” That was it? Gee, that wasn’t so bad. Well, the wind-driven rain part was bad, but the rain had stopped over an hour ago and I had gradually dried off. I sped down the hill and into transition. My transition was slower than I would have liked, but I desperately needed to get some of those wet clothes off. Dry socks, dry shoes, a dry jacket and I was ready to go. I headed out on the 13.1-mile run.

As I got to the transition exit, I saw the race clock for the first time that morning. 4:38. I quickly did the math; I needed to do the run in 2:22 to get under 7 total. Could I do a 2:22 half-marathon? Well, normally yes, but as the last leg of a tough, hilly tri? Maybe not. I ran onto the course and within minutes hit Killer Hill. I looked up the road at the steep and endless hill in front of me. “You have got to be kidding,” I mumbled. There might have been an expletive in there, too. Once again, I took my under-7 finish, wadded it up into a ball and threw it out the window.

I got to the top of the hill, but my pace was dropping. Having  given up the under-7 dream, I had lost my motivation. Another woman came up behind me and fell into pace beside me. We talked about the race, or more precisely, she talked about the race and I grunted acknowledgements when appropriate. She, it turned out, had not done the swim or the bike. She was just doing the run. For fun. So, she had energy, something that eluded me at that particular moment. She was a bit of a talker and she drenched me with stories. Stories about that triathlon in previous years, stories about her marathons, stories about her biking group, stories about her wallet getting stolen. She was pacing me along and keeping me entertained. I was delighted. Unfortunately, she was on her second lap of the two-loop course. As we approached the finish, she went on under the banner, I turned to repeat the loop. I thanked her, but probably not enough. So Donna, if you are out there, thank you for keeping me distracted and helping me get up those hills. I don’t think I could have done it alone. And I hope you get your wallet back.

My family was standing near the finish line/turnaround point to cheer me on, so after I left Donna, I ran by them and gave them each a high-five. I was so happy to see them, and so distracted by Donna’s stories, that I almost forgot to check the time. I turned back and looked at the clock. 5:54. Could I run 6.55 miles in just over an hour? Hell yes, I could. I got to Killer Hill again, and naturally I slowed. But I didn’t slow by much. I kept a constant eye on my pace, doing the math in my head. What did my split times need to be to make it? How far down did I need to get my average pace? My brain was working as quickly as my legs. I did the math, ticked off the miles, and kicked it up. As I came down Killer Hill towards the finish, I was pretty sure I had it. I made the turn towards the finish banner and looked at the clock. I was still far away but squinted to make out the numbers: 7:02.  I was heartbroken. I felt my eyes well up. I stared at the pavement in front of me and told myself that my main goal was to finish. I reminded myself that it was an accomplishment to get to that banner, regardless of the time. I pushed the tears out of my eyes, looked ahead and kept running.

As I got to the finish banner, however, I realized I had mis-read the clock. It quite clearly said 6:59. My heart soared. Suddenly I realized that I had: 1) finished 2) while upright 3) without throwing up, and 4) under 7 hours. In fact, my time was 6:59:19. 41 seconds to spare. I saw my husband and kids waiting for me, and I burst into tears. With their help, and Nina’s help, and AJ’s help, and with support from my friends and family, I had done it. I had done something I had thought was absolutely impossible. I even lived to write about it. Would this finally cure me of my Athletic Event Related Psychosis, my irrational desire to sign up for races that I have no right to be doing? Possibly, we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, I think I’ll surf on over to the Ironman Wisconsin 2011 website and see if registration is still open. Just curious. Really.


  1. Brilliant blog entry. It made my fear go away. Even am gonna try for Tri 🙂 At the moment am training for Dubai Marathon Jan’ 2011. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

    • Thank you! Trust me, if I can do a tri, anyone can do it. In the meantime, good luck at Dubai Marathon!

  2. OMG, what a great race report (just read both parts 1 & 2). Just awesome. So happy for you. What a brutal, rainy, hilly race but you triumphed! Just awesome. No wonder you went around telling everyone you had just done a half-ironman. Yikes!

    • Thanks so much! And I am still telling people I did it, including complete strangers at the grocery store. I think they are starting to get annoyed by me….

  3. Sue- you inspire me. You’re writing, your motivation and lack of which results in amazing stories and more inspiration! Thank you, and congratulations!!

    • Thank you! As for inspiration, I should inspire you to *not* do athletic events on the same day as me, since I seem to be the rain magnet.

  4. I am sure I will milk this triathlon for another blog post (why not??) but until then, I want to make sure I adequately thank my fantastic tri coach Nina Jack. I felt great at the end of the race, and it is because I was well-trained. You too can be a triathlete, just talk to Nina: Thank you Nina!

  5. I’m sorry but it WAS funny because I could so well relate to everything you wrote. You did very well in nasty conditions! I recognize that Lake Geneva beach but I’ve been there in better conditions. 🙂 Anyway, great job! Be proud! So, is an IM in your future? I did two half IM’s and never considered an IM but I am slow in the best of conditions. 🙂

    • Thanks! But you know what is really funny? The idea of me doing a full IM. Of course, I used to say that about a tri of any kind, so I guess you never know….

  6. Sue, what a life story in a story. You did not quit and the sub 7 came to you as much as you to it.

    Can’t wait to read that full IM report. Perhaps you can find one in FLA during hurricane season?

    – Richard 🙂

    • That has me laughing out loud. Thanks Richard!

  7. Sue, you are amazing. You trained like a madwoman this summer (in more ways than one, I’m sure you are thinking:-)) and even though sometimes it just wasn’t fun, or wasn’t exactly what you wanted to be doing that day, you always stayed focused, remembered the “Why” and pushed harder. When others quit, you forge ahead. When others complain, you find the humor. When others don’t even try, you go for the big challenges, proving nothing is impossible, and that you should never say never. I am so inspired by you, your training, your family, your outlook on life and you constant determination to finish what you start. Working with you has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I hope that you never stop bragging about your 70.3 accomplishment because you deserve every ounce of glory. Thank you Sue! Now, onto the Chicago Marathon….ooooh, I have goose bumps already!!!!

    • It is all because of you Nina; I just did what I was told and I was completely prepared and well trained. Really, if I can do it, then with your help anyone can do it!

  8. Sue, fabulous post, fabulous race. You are inspiring. Yay!

    • Thanks Pamela (somehow missed this comment until now -sorry!)

  9. Girl…you can write!! I really enjoyed the tri blog…it’s 10:45pm…it’s going to be rough getting up at 5:30am…and parent conferences tomorrow night! I just couldn’t stop reading. I’ve only done a sprint tri…I think it’s soon time for a 70.whatever!

    • Thanks Elaine! I apologize in advance for the sleep deprivation. Maybe you will have triathlon dreams tonight??

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