Two weeks after a decent race in Almere, I toed the line as a professional triathlete for the very first time. Leading up to the race my nerves were controlled – I felt relaxed in a way, because as an age-grouper, I put full pressure on myself on taking the win. But now, stepping into the unknown, the win wasn’t the aim. To have a good race, to put myself in a challenging environment amongst the top female triathletes in the world, and to test the course in preparation for the full distance later in November.
But come race morning I was a nervous wreck. I was scared of failing, fearing the gun would go off and the girls would disappear into the distance. I told myself I wasn’t ready, I shouldn’t be here. I did a land warm up and then rushed to the start line where I found most of the girls already waiting. The girls were nice, there were nerves amongst us all but it wasn’t tense. After the Men had been set off, the women were announced one by one and we got in the water ready to go just a few minutes later.
It wasn’t long until the gun went off and my thoughts disappeared. The only thought going through my head was, ‘Swim! Swim! Swim!’. I started flailing my arms as quickly as I could, got a little kick going and fought for a position on some suitable feet. I could see a pack forming and I could feel myself drafting off the back. Yes! This is good, come on Leanne, stick to their feet. I thought about Hugh and his super ability in the open water and my whimpyness that has limited me in the past. “he would be proud of me if he saw me now”. I was proud of me. We were moving pretty quickly and I was still hanging on. How cool is this, I’m swimming with the main pack, I’m really doing it. Just before the first turn which marked roughly the half way point, the group started veering straight into one of the sight buoys. I see the feet in front of me choosing the left side while the rest all go right. I was not ready for this dilemma! I don’t want to take the risk of being disqualified or something because of going left of the buoy. But I also don’t want to leave this lovely draft I’m in! I quickly decide to go right and try to catch some feet there but as soon as I come out of the draft zone I feel myself struggling to keep up the pace. I attempt a surge to get back to the group but I don’t seem to be making up any ground. Slowly I lose the hope that I will get back on and know it might be a lonely and long way back from here. They pull away from me and I notice there are two other lost athletes, one just in front of me has let go of the pack as well and one behind me sitting on my feet. My arms now start to feel the effort of the first half and when I try to pick up my turnover my arms just don’t seem to respond. I eventually make it to the end of the swim and notice that I’ve dropped the other girl.
When I get to T1 my bike is not the only one left standing (one of my goals!) and I see my mum cheering loud and proud. This whole pro transition is a luxury and I do enjoy the quick turn around and get on my bike to start the 90km that lie ahead of me. The course is very simple so I quickly get into my aero position and try to push my target power. Right away I can feel my legs screaming that it’s too much. I try to shut it off and tell myself it’s just a mental thing, I have to push through it for a bit and it will get better. But unfortunately things don’t get better. My quads hurt and are lacking power, my glutes tight and restrictive. I see coach Luc a few times and he encourages me from his little moped as he makes his way around the course going back and forth between his son and me. After I pass a few girls he makes an extra gesture ‘come on Leanne!’. But my body was still not cooperating and it was a fight that lasted 2h29min. About 9min too long. But I also knew I was here for the experience. I was in a good position at the moment to come top 5 as my best discipline still remained to catch a few more girls.
In T2 I try to stay relaxed and composed, but as I run away from my bike my foot slides away underneath me on the wet, slippery garage floor. My other one follows and for a moment everyone including myself thinks I’m going to have a dramatic fall. I can hear the ‘Oohh and aahh’s’ and see the worry in the volunteers. Somehow, I manage to save myself and carry on tiptoeing to my bag and then the comfort of a chair.
I run off at a very comfortable pace as I discussed with Luc; I would start conservative and then pick it up. By this time it was grueling, hot and humid. I don’t know what pace I’m running, my watch says 4:40 so I believe it, and think its going to be a long day. But another couple kilometers at this plodding pace and my watch has suddenly changed to an average pace of 4:15. Okay, that’s not too bad. Pretty quickly I pass the first girl ahead of me and am now in 6th position. I also very quickly learn to use the aid stations optimally. Three little water baggies, two cups of ice – one down the front of my suit one down the back. I drink one water bag, throw one over my head and chest, and keep the other for in between the aid stations. They are just one kilometer apart but even that is too long to go without water. I nail down this technique and start to slowly get into some kind of rhythm. Luc tells me there are still 5 girls ahead, but only the top two girls are running a quicker pace. I’m not exactly sure how far ahead the other girls are but I don’t want to push on too much and risk blowing up. I know I am running conservatively; is it too conservative? Constant doubts and questions fill my head but I keep treading on and see some girls nearing. I pass another girl, now running in 5th. With one lap to go I pass another girl. Now in 4th place, I know 3rd is quite far ahead of me. I don’t have the confidence to charge forward to close the gap, too scared to blow up in the process and loose my fourth place. Worried that there are other girls coming from behind, I try to gauge where they are and ask Luc, “Anyone behind me?!”. He says they’re over 3min down now but, “Don’t stop running!”. With that in mind I make my way to the finish line, pretty satisfied to have run myself up to 4th in my very first Pro race.
Quickly after crossing the line I meet the other girls and we have a short chat about the brutal conditions. One of them courageously lets herself fall into the ice bath. For a few seconds it seems to be a relief, but she quickly realizes how cold it is and rushes out. I then do the same, go head under into the freezing cold water. And I too, then rush out when my feet go numb and my fingers lose sensation. I then spot my mum on the other side of the fence. We both shed a little tear, letting go of the stress and build up of nerves, and relief that I’ve come out on the other side! For a few moments I am happy and satisfied with my performance, but not soon after I start to dwell on the negatives. I didn’t stay with the pack in the swim, I had no power on the bike and lost way too much time, I didn’t run anywhere near my capabilities and was too conservative. These are the main thoughts going through my head for the next few days, and I am kicking myself for not showing my best performance. But I am now trying to remind myself that we all have our off-days. Taking my professional license meant putting myself in a much more challenging field. This is what I asked for – this is what I got. And coming 4th amongst these top triathletes isn’t such a bad result. I have to take away all the positives from this race and use them in my preparations for the next one – the full distance on the very same course. I now know what the conditions are like, I know the course, I know how to use the aid stations on the run, and I know the importance of hydration and cooling. I know I can stick on some feet in the swim – I am capable of swimming in a pack if I position myself well but it will take 100% concentration and focus.
It has taken me a few days to get back into the swing of training and to find the motivation and confidence to keep working towards my ‘big day’. At the end of November I will toe the line again for my second ever Pro race; stronger, more experienced, and hopefully a little more confident.