Battle of Waterloo: 10-Stage Triathlon Recap

I’ve been keeping busy with races this summer and thought my first 50K would be the craziest thing on the schedule. Then I did the Battle of Waterloo on Saturday, July 31st. The name comes from the park where most of it takes place, which is the Waterloo Recreation Area. It sprawls across Grass Lake and Chelsea, MI. I would consider this 10-leg triathlon to be an adventure race. It covers 42 miles with a 1.5-mile run, 20.5-mile bike, 0.45-mile swim, 4-mile run, 0.25-mile swim, 3.4-mile run, 0.7-mile swim, 3.3-mile run, 5.8-mile bike, and a 1.4-mile run. Got all that? In order to cover all of that distance, athletes need to carry swim and run gear with them. To think that I used to get hung up on the logistics and gear required for a normal triathlon. Now that seems like nothing!

I’ve debated signing up for this race in the past but the logistics were overwhelming and lack of correct gear kept me away. After I did the Ugly Dog Triathlon with Epic Races a few weeks ago I received an email reminder that the Battle of Waterloo was coming up. I realized I might actually be ready to try it. Last year I got my first dry bag/swim buoy to carry things while I swim at the lake. It tethers around my waist and I use it for my phone, keys, a little towel, and sandals. That bag wouldn’t be big enough for running shoes and I didn’t know how I’d carry it with me on the bike and while running if I did this event. It got me thinking and with a Google search I found that some buoys are bigger and come with backpack straps. If I had something like that I might be able to work through the logistical worries. I decided to order the buoy and sign up for the race!

I got the buoy the Tuesday before the race and knew I better try it out. I did a run/swim/run/swim workout at Stony Creek Metropark. As I started my run to the first lake I had to stop immediately because the bag was bouncing too much. I needed to tighten straps and inflate it to make it fit more securely. I made it to the first lake and it took me a good five minutes to transition from my running gear to swim gear. I had to deflate the bag enough to squeeze a bunch of stuff inside. Take the backpack straps off and put them in the bag. Take the waist tether out of the bag and attach it to the outside. Put socks, running shoes, sunglasses, hat, and handheld bottle in the bag. Get my swim cap and goggles out. Roll it up, clip it shut, and inflate it so it would float. I did a quick swim then had another slow transition back to running gear. During the second run the straps rubbed my shoulders and I knew I’d have to do something about that. Aside from the little annoyances, I realized it could work and it was actually kind of fun. I decided to try wrapping the straps with a pair of my running arm sleeves, which are essentially socks without the foot part. I pinned them on and although it looked silly, I hoped at least it would keep my shoulders from getting chafed.

Epic Races posted a couple of videos on their Facebook page. They had a pre-race Zoom meeting where I learned that Garmin watches only let you program five activities at a time. That was something I’ve never thought about. You mean Garmin didn’t think people might do a triathlon with 10 activities? In order to track myself I’d have to split it into two different segments. I also watched a video that demonstrated a swim through reeds and lily pads in one of the lakes. Had I known that was involved I’m not sure I would have signed up! However, they showed that it’s doable so certainly I could do it too. What was I getting myself into?

I got all of my race gear laid out the night before the race. Add my bike, a couple more bottles, and a few other things and I realized it didn’t look as overwhelming as I thought.

After doing both Tri Goddess Tri and the Ugly Dog Triathlon at Big Portage Lake State Park in recent weeks, I was getting to be very familiar with the hour and a half drive out to the area. I got to the park about an hour before the transition would close at 7:15. We really lucked out that it had cooled down, the humidity was low, the mosquitoes weren’t quite as bad, and it was a beautiful summer day for this crazy race.

71 people finished the “full battle” and 42 people did “half the battle.” We all started the run at once. I knew that the race was going to start with a course through single track trails that I had run for the other races. Always worrying about logistics, I wondered if it would be too congested. I started pretty close to the front and was relieved that people naturally began to space out based on their pace as we ran through wider stretches and up a slight hill to get to the trails. Once again, I was very appreciative that Epic Races uses Greg Sadler Photography who provided all of these great race photos!

There were a few moments when I passed someone or people passed me but it all worked out pretty well. Although the race didn’t track each individual segment because they would have needed way too many timing mats, I used my watch to keep track of my times. I got through the 1.5-mile run in 13:26. I ran to my bike, put my helmet and backpack on, then ran to the spot where we could start the ride.

20.5 miles didn’t seem too bad since Olympic triathlons have bike segments that are a few miles longer than that. Some of the course was the same as my last couple triathlons there so I knew I could expect a few rough spots on the roads. It seemed a whole lot worse than just a few spots though. It seemed like I spent the majority of the ride bouncing and rattling around on the road. I wished I had my mountain bike instead.

At one point I wanted to dodge a rough spot ahead but someone was coming behind me. It figures – I hit that rough patch and one of my water bottles went flying. I pulled over and ran back to get it. A little later I got rattled enough to launch my bottle again! Apparently I needed to bend that bottle cage for a more secure grip because it must have loosened. I’m already a bit slow on the bike so running back to collect my bottle didn’t help.

I tried to stay positive by telling myself I was just taking a nice ride to get to the beach for a swim. Once I got through this segment I’d spend the next six parts of the race either swimming or running. I finished the bike ride in 1:11:04. That averaged out to a little above 17 mph which is about my usual. We had a transition area where we racked our bikes and left our helmets. Then I ran down the road to get to the water. I wanted to say beach but there wasn’t one!

I knew from my trial workout that I was going to be slow with transitions. I was there to enjoy the challenge and told myself that I could take my good old time. I was just looking to finish and not trying to win the race. I swapped my gear on the grass and got in for a 0.45-mile swim across Clear Lake. I hit my watch which tracked a 6:07 transition. At least my first one was the slowest one of the day! To be fair, my watch makes it look like running from the bike area to the water was close to a quarter mile.

I had a really nice swim across Clear Lake aside from dealing with technical issues. I decided to lengthen my waist tether after my practice workout because the buoy was hanging a little too close to me. Well, lengthening it made it long enough to drift back to my feet. That made kicking a challenge and my left hip got annoyed. On top of that I realized I didn’t add extra air to the bag when I closed it. It had been inflated a good amount from my bike ride, but still. It may have created a little extra drag. There were a couple of things I’d need to adjust for my next swim. At least I had a few chances to learn and adjust along the way.

The swim took around 17:50 and my transition out of swim gear and into run gear took about 3:39. A little faster! Aid stations were available before and after each swim. There were extra aid stations in the middle of most of the run courses as well. Sometimes I’d stop for a cup of Gatorade or water, but I had my handheld bottle with an electrolyte drink and some chews so sometimes I’d just keep going. One of my biggest concerns was staying hydrated so I wouldn’t cramp during the swim so I tried to be smart about getting enough fluids. I ate a Picky Bar about an hour into the race while I was on the bike to get some extra calories, plus I finished a 21 oz. bottle with my electrolyte drink then too.

The next run was supposed to be around four miles. Most of the runs took us through trails and part of this one was shared with horses. A volunteer reminded us to be on the lookout, but fortunately it was just us running through there. I only had to watch out for sand, roots, and rocks. I’m not sure if it was actually four miles because 31:26 would have been a little fast for me to cover that on trails. A 4:13 transition time and then it was time to swim across Mill Lake.

Mill Lake was the one shown in the Facebook live video with the lily pads. It turns out lily pads weren’t the only thing to worry about. Almost immediately I found that the weeds were thick throughout most of the lake. I kept snagging them with my arms when I tried to swim freestyle. I got tangled in them and it made it hard to have a decent stroke. I wasn’t grossed out by them but I WAS annoyed! There was a volunteer in a kayak and I was struggling along slowly enough that I was able to chat with her as I tried to figure out how to maneuver through. A couple other swimmers were around me battling their way through as well. Eventually I tried some breaststroke and it seemed to be my best bet. Rather than stroking down through the water, my arms were just under the surface and I was able to glide through a little more easily. It never felt like I got a decent swim going but at least that segment was only a quarter mile long. The lily pads did make things interesting too. By the time I approached the shore I was feeling very grateful that my mom and dad made me take swim lessons and be a part of the swim team for much of my childhood. I didn’t always want to do it but it sure made me a good swimmer. I felt secure enough in the water even as I got tangled up. Another tricky part about these lakes was the footing getting in and out of the water. The bottom wasn’t always a nice sandy surface. Once I finally got out of the weeds I still had to navigate the rocky bottom that wasn’t especially easy to get through. When I hit my watch on the shore it said that segment took 11:43.

At that point the five-segment limit on my watch ran out. I had to wait for it to save that activity and I started a new one. The new one didn’t start with a transition time so it was recorded as part of my run time. My watch didn’t show any running pace for about 4:50 so I assume that’s how long it took for me to get rolling again. The aid station had bug spray and I decided I’d try some. My arm stung and I realized I had gotten a scratch from the weeds!

The run took us past some cabins in the woods and along the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail. Again, I’m not sure if it was actually 3.4 miles because it took me 29:57 for that segment, minus five minutes for the transition at the beginning. That pace would have been a little fast for me on trails, but who knows – maybe I was faster than I realized? I knew the run was my strength so I tried to push the best I could. I kept passing the same people during the run segments. That’s when I was fastest but they’d make up the time and get ahead of me again during the transitions! I was often annoyed by my bag bouncing despite tightening the straps as much as I could. Sometimes I held the straps together with one of my hands to help minimize it. Either way it was doable even if it was a little annoying. 4:37 for my next transition then it was time to do the final swim.

Crooked Lake was the longest swim of the day at 0.7 miles. A few of the people in transition weren’t looking forward to that length. I was just looking forward to a nice swim minus the weeds of the last lake! I was also hoping that I wouldn’t cramp. I’d felt pretty decent so far but knew that some of the inclines on the trail runs had worked my muscles pretty good. I’ve had calf cramps in the water before and that was one of my biggest worries for the day. Since it was a fairly long swim there were more buoys to sight along the way. Sometimes it took me a moment or two to make sure I was headed in the right direction but I could usually tell based on the people ahead of me as well.

It was a much nicer lake than the last one and I enjoyed the swim. I spent part of the time reflecting on what a cool experience this was. Getting to run, bike, and swim was my ideal way to spend a beautiful summer day. I don’t get many chances to swim across a pretty lake like that so I soaked it in. And I didn’t cramp! The water got a little colder as I approached the shore but it was still reasonable. I finished the swim and my walk in to the beach in 28:53.

I’m not in the following picture but it shows what the transition area was like. We often started and finished at random little spots, not big beach areas. Volunteers set up chairs for people to change into their shoes and sometimes there were picnic tables too. I found myself a little more wobbly after swimming longer this time so it helped to sit at the table as I swapped my gear. It took me a bit longer with a transition time of 5:37.

It was time for our last longer run of 3.3 miles. A good chunk of the run was on dirt roads and there was a decent climb early on before going through a gravel pit. Right now it’s the only way to get around a closed segment of the road. It definitely gave us an interesting change of scenery. Greg Sadler took some cool photos there!

I’m glad he set up in the spot he did for the photos because right after I passed him and rounded a corner, my smile disappeared and I swore. “Are you kidding me?!” There was a pretty nasty hill on the way out of the gravel pit. It just seemed cruel after having done so much already by that point! At least one more tough hill came on the dirt road too and I had a few moments where I decided to walk. We ended up on a main (paved) road for a stretch before we got back to our bikes. The roads were open to traffic which is why it’s smart to run against the flow of traffic – I could see them coming and jump into the grass. Still, when a cop car came FLYING around a corner with the siren blaring it was a bit unsettling. The run took 33:18 and then I got to the transition area with my bike for the ride back to Big Portage Lake State Park. That was a quick transition in 1:37.

The final bike ride was only 5.8 miles. That was a huge relief after I’d hated so much of the 20.5-mile ride earlier. The final ride reminded me that sometimes I actually DO like riding my bike. The road was smooth and I got to see some horses as I rode past a place with stables. It was probably around noon by then so I was more concerned about sharing the road with traffic. I tried to stay aware and hoped that my big orange buoy made me extra visible! I was in a good mood as I rode back into the park. I was almost done with the race and I was still doing just fine! Only 20:21 for that bike ride where I averaged around 16.5 mph.

I had a quick transition of 1:09 as I ran my bike back to the rack, took my helmet and backpack off, put my race bib on, and grabbed a hat. The race announcer had a long day of trying to find enough to say as people gradually trickled in, and he had fun with my last name of Boltz, commenting on how I was going to “bolt” out of there for my final run.

The last run was essentially the same as the first one and 1.4 miles long. It was definitely more enjoyable getting to run without that buoy! There was one woman way ahead of me who was a really strong runner. I had seen her power up the hills on the dirt roads that were such a struggle for me so I knew I wasn’t going to catch her. I was basically on my own for the final run and feeling good knowing that I had pulled this off. I picked up the pace a little bit at the finish line and finished the run in 13:07. I was extra motivated to push at the end because I saw that the clock was just under five hours. I didn’t know what to expect but had wondered if it might take me 4.5-5 hours to finish the race. I was suddenly motivated to get under that 5-hour mark!

It was kind of cool to see that I did well despite my leisurely transitions and no expectations! Winning my age group meant I got a cool glass and coaster.

I was excited to check out the food table once I recovered for a few minutes. I got a cup of trail mix, a peanut butter and granola wrap, an egg and cheese wrap, and mac and cheese to start. I had a couple pancakes after that plus an ice cream sandwich. I burned over 2,000 calories so I knew I needed to eat a lot and they had good options.

In general I actually felt pretty good. For five hours of racing (maybe more like 4.5 minus my transitions) it didn’t beat me up that much. I ran 4.5 hours last weekend in the heat and humidity and that totally drained me. The weather sure worked in our favor for this race and I think it made a big difference breaking the activities into smaller chunks. I may have run close to half a marathon but it was no more than 3-4 miles at a time so it didn’t feel like that much to me. For something that appeared to be really ambitious and intimidating, I felt really proud that I successfully completed it.

I can’t help but think about things I could tweak. I might use my mountain bike for the sake of not feeling so rattled during that first ride. I don’t go a whole lot faster with my skinnier tires – it’s like I have one mode when I’m on the bike no matter what bike it is. I’d rather be comfortable and possibly sacrifice a little speed. One trick some people use is tucking their shoes in their jerseys and they swim with them. I’m not sure if I’m up for wet shoes unless I get a specific kind made for that. There are a lot of swimrun events in Europe so I could learn more about what shoes they use. There may be other ways to make things quicker and easier. I wasted a bunch of time trying to clip and unclip the backpack straps. The bouncing bag was pretty annoying. Maybe I consider some other kind of pack made for running that I could put in the buoy during swims. Then I wouldn’t waste time with the straps. Maybe I get a buoy that’s big enough for my shoes and just hold it during my runs and sling it around my shoulder when I bike. I may go through the race photos to compare the different methods people used. Either way, it’s a good sign that I’m already thinking about doing it again! Epic Races has been holding this race every other year. I guess I’ll see if they reach a point where they hold it every year. I’d go! I’m really thankful for them hosting such a complicated race and for doing such an awesome job making it run so smoothly. I enjoyed testing myself and although it may sound crazy and torturous to some, I had a blast!

– Janet

Follow me on Instagram @janetboltz and Twitter @reidphotography

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