The Island Lake Triathlon has become a favorite early-season race for me over the years. I returned to race the Olympic distance for my fourth time on Saturday, June 4. The race was presented by Epic Races and I can always count on them for a great race day experience. I had it on my calendar as my first potential triathlon for the season and finally committed a couple weeks before the race. The season is short and I was anxious to get out there!
I took a short break from running after the Boston Marathon in mid-April then gradually worked back up to my usual routine of running 5-6 days per week. I can always expect the run to be my strongest segment of any triathlon. I swim year-round, although I’ve been a little disappointed in my consistency for the past couple years. Still, I usually make it to the pool at least twice a week, I’ve been getting enough distance in, and I did an open water swim the week of the race so I could practice with my wetsuit. I knew I might not be as fast as I’d like to be but I should be good for the swim. I concentrated on running so much leading up to Boston that I basically neglected the bike until a week after the race. I knew I better step up if I wanted to get ready for a triathlon six weeks later. I peaked with a 40-mile ride so I knew I would be fine to cover the race distance. My bike routes were flat aside from a few hills here and there. I didn’t do much prep for a course with rolling hills but I knew I’d done enough that I would be able to get through it.
Even when I know I’m ready, nerves always kick in the night before the race – especially when it’s the first race of the season. So much gear and so many logistics to think about. I’ve made plenty of checklists over the years to make sure I have the gear and routine down, but I still spent a chunk of time gathering everything as I reassured myself on Friday night.
Island Lake Recreation Area is in Brighton, MI. I hit the road around 5am on race day so I would get there an hour before the transition area was due to close at 7:15. It was a clear morning around 50° and the water was 74°. I worried a bit about trying to spot buoys since we’d be swimming directly toward the sun, but with the cool temps and no wind everything else seemed pretty ideal.
I collected my packet by the beach, sorted things out in the car, then took everything over to the transition area.
I really liked that the transition area was organized based on race distance and age group. Usually we’re organized by race number or it’s first-come-first-serve. Racking our bikes with other people in the same age group worked really well. I don’t get too hung up on the competitive part of the race but it’s still nice to see where I stand. After the swim people can see if anyone has headed out for the bike segment yet, then later see how many have returned their bikes and gone out to run. Plus, it was nice to chat with other women in my category before the race. We weren’t squeezed in too tight either which is always a bonus.
I made a bathroom trip then it was time to get into my wetsuit. I had a few minutes to get in the water before the pre-race meeting at the beach and it felt just right. I kept shielding my eyes from the sun as I looked at the course. I didn’t know how I would find those buoys with the sun in my face! Aside from that concern I really didn’t battle any nerves before the race.
All of the race photos that follow are courtesy of Greg Sadler Photography and his team. They even get in the water to get some great shots! I love that Epic Races gives us free downloads of these awesome photos as a part of our race registration.
I had plenty of time to wait for the start of my race because each person started individually about three seconds apart. I prefer that method SO much more than a crazy mass start. My age group was literally the last one to start for the Olympic race. That gave me the opportunity to watch the other swimmers and make sure I knew where I was supposed to go. Despite temps in the low 50s somehow I didn’t freeze as I waited. I started 11 minutes after the first person went. I was glad I wouldn’t have to worry about many people grabbing my feet as they came from behind other than a few of the lead swimmers. They had time to start the second of their two loops while I waited to start my first!
Sometimes my breathing is bad with the excitement of the start of the race but fortunately I felt comfortable throughout the whole swim. Being spaced out really helps. I believe the buoys remained in place after a sprint triathlon that took place on Wednesday night. We had been told that the weeds were pretty bad and I think they wanted to take advantage of a route that minimized going into the weeds. I barely noticed weeds so the route they used definitely worked.
We were supposed to get 1500m from our two-loop swim. At first I basically followed the crowd until I got close enough to actually spot the first orange buoy. The sun didn’t make it easy on the way out but I managed just fine. I was thankful that the other races (sprint, mini-sprint, etc.) wouldn’t start until the last Olympic athlete started the second loop. The last time I did this race we had to swim three loops and there was MAJOR congestion with everyone in the water by the time I did my third loop. It was so much easier this time. I had moments when I caught up to people who veered my direction or when I had to pause for a few seconds to get some space, but otherwise things were pretty smooth.
When I approached the beach at the end of my swim and the water got shallow enough, I stood up to wade through the rest and saw Greg Sadler taking photos. He has photographed so many races that I’ve done and we follow each other on Instagram so he recognized me and gave me a nice greeting. He got a good smile out of me when I normally would look beat up coming out of the water!
I didn’t have the energy to run up the grass to the transition area but did my best. Another woman in my age group showed up soon after me and commented that the swim must have been short. I briefly glanced at my watch when I started my T1 time and then it hit me that it said 20:47. It should take me closer to half an hour to swim 1500m and there’s no way I was that fast. After the race when I looked at my Garmin stats and converted yards to meters I realized I swam my typical pace of 2:00/100m for a total of around 1,050m. Maybe we should have done three loops again this year!
As usual, my first transition time was pretty slow – 3:59. I always struggle to get the wetsuit off and over my feet. One of the people who works for Epic Races jokingly (I think!) said to everyone in general, “This is a race. Your transition is part of your time! Get your socks on!” It made me laugh because I knew I was racking up a bunch of time.
With temps in the low 50s I worried that being wet on the bike would cause me to freeze so I added a long sleeve shirt. I had full-fingered gloves that I intended to wear as well but didn’t realize I had totally forgotten about them until I was out on the course. Oh well! Luckily I didn’t get too cold. Maybe I could have survived without the shirt too but I didn’t get too warm so I guess it was fine.
The bike course was two loops and was supposed to be somewhere around 24 miles. After racing the course several times in the past I knew exactly what I was getting into with the rolling hills. There are a few climbs that are a little challenging but they don’t last too long and there are plenty of fast downhill stretches to make up for it. I was prepared for people to whiz past me like they always do since the bike is my weakness. That didn’t happen much which was a combination of me getting a good head start from a decent swim, and the fact that my age group was last to start so a lot of the fast people may have already gotten well ahead of me.
I had to keep my mind busy while I was out there for nearly an hour and a half. I told myself I was just out there doing my thing, enjoying a nice day, and that everyone was a badass for doing this. So many people have looked at me in bewilderment when I’ve explained going out to swim, bike, and run and then told them the distances I would cover. However fast or slow each of us went, we were all pushing ourselves to do something special.
Sometimes I feel like I’m out on my own by the second loop when all of the fast people have passed and I’m lingering behind. This time it seemed like I always had someone to watch in front of me or heading the opposite direction though and it may have helped mentally.
I had some sips of water from one bottle and drank about half of my bottle with a Nuun electrolyte mix. I think the cool temps kept me from getting very thirsty. I knew I better eat something too and pulled a Picky Bar out of my jersey pocket during the second loop. I picked a bad time for it though. I quickly realized I was on a patch with seals running across the road that rattled me every few seconds. I started to squeeze the Picky Bar up to get a bite, then each bump shook me enough to squeeze the bar further out of the wrapper and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop it. In no time my bar was on the road and I only got one bite out of it. I still had the wrapper so I was glad I didn’t litter. I had a couple packs of Clif Bloks in my pocket too so at least I had something else. I knew I better wait until the road was smoother!
After an hour and 28 minutes I finished my ride. I got off the bike at the dismount line and someone asked how it was out there. I kind of hesitated wondering how I should answer. “Alright?” That made them laugh so I added, “I’m not the best biker!” Once again I got through a ride without a flat tire and I averaged my typical speed. I suppose that’s enough to consider it successful!
I was shocked as I ran my bike into transition and saw my friend Lisa! I asked what she was doing there and of course she said she was there to cheer for me. I had no idea she was coming so that was pretty awesome. She looked at my past race times to figure out when she might be able to expect me. My transition spot was close to the edge so I was able to talk to her while I racked my bike. Thankfully I’m usually pretty quick during the second transition (48 seconds) since I just had to take my shirt and helmet off and grab my hat. I told Lisa the worst part was over. She said the rest would be easy and I said now I “only” had about 50 more minutes.
Next it was time for two loops of the run. In the past we’ve always started out by running up a steep grassy hill. I was kind of thrown off that flags routed me a different way and I almost wondered if I was going the right direction. I ended up on the paved path and knew I’d follow that into Kensington Metropark before hitting a turnaround. I was shocked when I looked at my watch and saw that I ran the first mile in 7:25. My legs felt heavy and numb and I guess they were so numb I went faster than I realized. The numbness must have worn off after that because I didn’t keep it up!
The run is my time to try to catch up for my slowness on the bike. It always gives me a little boost when I’m able to catch people and it keeps me going strong. I also kept distracted because so many people were out there heading both directions. It was such a gorgeous day that plenty of people were out for walks or bike rides on the same path so there was some weaving involved.
Island Lake’s path connects to Kensington’s under the highway. On the way back there’s a decent climb after coming out of the dark. On tired legs it felt steeper than it was and slowed me down a bit. I wasn’t too excited about doing it again during the second loop.
I got to the point where we turned down a short, steep hill where I had to be careful about my momentum so I wouldn’t wipe out on the grass and roots. Then there was a stretch in the grass near the beach before turning to go up that grassy hill that I dreaded. It almost felt like I slowed down to a walk but I kept grinding. One more loop before I made my way to the finish. I saw Lisa off to the side and waved as she took some pictures.
Next I mugged for Greg Sadler who took a nice series of finishing photos.
I had to recover for a few minutes after my strong finish. I chatted with Lisa and also caught Greg for a minute or two when he wasn’t busy shooting other finishers. According to my Garmin the course was a little shorter than the anticipated 6.2 miles.
I’m always curious to see how my run splits break down. I started fast, slowed down, but still finished strong. I was pretty happy to average 7:45 per mile.
Here’s how the whole race broke down according to my Garmin.
The official results changed a bunch of times as more people finished. They continued to change over the next couple days as certain things must have been sorted out and I think this shows the final standings? Somehow my transition times got messed up and my bike split wasn’t broken out separately, but I know my Garmin is close, give or take a few seconds.
Either way, I showed up as third in my age group all along which was good for a prize. I could choose a water bottle or coaster and I chose the coaster.
I always figure it’s best if people don’t spectate my races because there is so much downtime. Since Lisa is a runner she was smart and used the downtime to get eight miles in. It made me feel better that she was able to enjoy the park too and use that extra time efficiently. It was so nice to have her there and we had a chance to hang out for a bit after the race as I sampled nearly all of the treats that were available. In addition to the great race photos, I can always count on Epic Races for the best post-race food. Pancakes, egg and cheese wraps, mac & cheese, cookies, ice cream sandwiches, etc. I get SO excited about good food after a race and they do it right. I kind of cringed at the price when I signed up for the race but triathlons involve a lot more than typical running races and the food and free photos certainly made it worthwhile.
Lisa asked how I felt about the race. I didn’t have any specific expectations going in or certain goals to achieve so it’s kind of tricky to nail down. I was definitely happy though. I knew I wasn’t going into the race in peak shape and doubted I would PR. Typically it’s hard to compare triathlon times because the courses and distances can vary so much. I can’t even compare this one to the prior three I’ve done on the same course because the swim distance was clearly shorter. I think the bike segment is the easiest to compare because that route didn’t vary at all. I rode just under 1:27:00 in 2017, but this time and the other two times were 1:28-something. At least I was in my usual territory. Things went smoothly and that was my biggest measure of success.
I keep thinking that I want to try a half Ironman someday but still don’t know if I’m there yet. Even if I don’t do one this season I’ll surely try to get more Olympic races in and maybe another 1/3 Iron race like I did last summer. I love the adventure and feeling of accomplishment from doing these crazy things.
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OUTSTANDING post, story, photos, experience and CONGRATS on being totally awesome. Can’t wait to hear more about it!!
Thank you so much, Maureen! I appreciate you taking the time to read it and for your support!