It's hard not to smile when we get to share the finish experience together.
From the first time I crossed the finish line in Lubbock (Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake 2018), it instantly became a special place to me and a challenge I knew I wanted to take every summer. While the course has changed over the years, it’s still challenging in its own way and I love the feel of anticipation as the calendar turns to June each year and Lubbock is on the horizon.
The 2022 edition featured one transition at Dunbar Historical Lake, a point-to-point run course for the first time since moving out of Buffalo Springs Lake. I wasn’t particularly excited about this change but I didn’t let it impact me in the mindset leading into race day.
Caitlin and I positioned ourselves around the 35 minute swim group. I anticipated it would be a slower swim since it was not wetsuit legal for the first time in race history. And I was fine with that!
She went out in front of me and then I followed as the next swimmer in the corral. My focus was to find a comfortably hard rhythm and settle in, and look for feet where I could find them.
The first 200 meters seemed to go quickly. I felt good, I caught a few drafts, and I kept telling myself “If you love doing this, you might as well give it your all.”
Aside from the zero visibility in the water, there wasn’t anything too dramatic in the early stretches. I did feel some contact along the way and one swimmer kicked my watch which either lapped or stopped my Garmin. At the time I just thought it was the auto split but I didn’t put too much thought into it. No matter what, all I could control was my swim and my effort - regardless of what the watch was doing.
I made the two quick right turns and then entered the long stretch to the finish. My habit is to count the buoys and my strokes, which is similar to what I do in the pool when counting laps. This gives me an awareness of where I am on the course and how to gauge my effort toward the end.
In this stretch there were a few moments where I really noticed the chop on the water. Of course there weren’t any whitecaps, but there was a definite push of water across the course, similar to a crosswind on the bike. I didn’t realize just how much until I saw the video footage post-race. While relatively calm and protected, there were still elements that impacted the swim along the way.
The final 300 meters of the swim seemed to go in slow motion. Probably partially due to the chop. I didn’t feel like my effort changed, in fact I consciously tried to pick up the pace. Go figure, the one time I really wanted to dissect my race swim data, it was not to be due to the watch debacle in the early moments of the swim.
I kept plugging along to the exit, made my way to the dock and got out and headed into transition while trying to catch my breath and reacclimatize to being vertical again. In my mind it “felt” like a 39 minute swim, but I had no idea. I did hear Natasha tell me it was a Top 10 swim. I thought about responding and asking if it was 39 minutes, but I was still trying to catch my breath and I was focused on moving forward and about to turn into T1.
Turns out I was fourth out of the water - something I wouldn't find out until later in the race.
Before the next race I’m going to do some transition practices. As much as I know how to do it, I definitely get race brain after the swim and look like an absolute noob. I decided to pack my nutrition in my jersey - but bobbled forever feeling for my back pocket. Then I felt anything less than smooth getting the shoes and helmet on. Lots to improve here and I feel like I can make that fix with a bit of conscious focus and practice.
Even with all that, I still managed to move up a place to third in my age group coming out of T1 and had the sixth fastest T1 in the age group.
Coming out of T1 the cruel part of this race is starting uphill. An athlete to my left was struggling to mount his bike and weaving a bit in my direction. I had to take a little time to get out of his way while at the same time focus on mounting my bike, clipping in and going off. Again, not my smoothest or best effort. Much room to improve.
But finally, I was able to get going, and experience the full range of emotions for the next 56 miles.
The bike was hard. Every section of headwind brought into question the “why” of doing this insane sport. My why on this day was proving that I don’t give up when it gets hard, reaffirming my resilience, and most importantly, finding my way to the finish line after all I have endured.
I pedaled and kept pedaling. Every mile of the course. Whether I was cruising at 25 miles per hour or grinding at 12. I knew my mindset was in a different place when I giggled a few different times along the way - as I was battling those relentless headwinds. I focused on surviving the hard parts, keeping in mind that I knew there would be segments of tailwind to come - and when that time came I focused on using it to my advantage.
While more than the first 35 miles of the ride I averaged just above 15mph, I was able to turn that into a victory in the final 21 miles - with the help of the tailwind - and boost that average to 17.5mph overall. I even strung together 15 consecutive miles averaging just over 23mph.
It was hard to stay in any kind of negative headspace during the bike for very long. Between the numerous cheers from fellow triathletes, friends, strangers, fans and followers…and getting to see Caitlin twice - crushing it - it helped keep me moving forward.
One moment in particular that gave me a boost was when Caitlin came up from behind and I could hear her say “Hey, Hotpants” (an inside joke between us), and then as she came up beside me she told me I was third in the swim. I had no idea, honestly, because all I knew coming out of the water was “Top 10” - and at that moment I know the pride and accomplishment definitely gave me a few more watts in the moment.
As she rode off, I focused on that swim, and wondered what my actual time was. And I won’t lie, I envisioned going back to the Ironman tracker app after the race and grabbing a screenshot of that. I may not be “elite” overall, but I’m damn proud of what I did in the swim portion and elated to have something to show for it.
Turns out, I was fourth overall in my age group swim, but still, super proud of that accomplishment.
I made it back to T2 and was glad to be there. Aren’t we all? I struggled a bit with some mobility in my lower back at first when getting off the bike and made my way to the rack. I feel like I handled this transition better, but still, so much work to do in this aspect.
To the run and facing the mental and physical hurdles of yet another new run course. I knew it would be a challenge in the first six miles going from the lake to Texas Tech. I knew part of the challenge included some short steep hills as well as a lack of shade from the intense west Texas sun. Fortunately, the wind was at our backs on this long stretch heading from east to west.
As I began the run I contemplated what my focus would be for 13.1 miles to get me through. Sometimes I use negative experiences to motivate me, and had that thought at the beginning of this run. But I didn't let myself go there. I wanted to race from a positive mindset as best possible.
I focused on my pace. I focused on the sound of my strides. I focused on my breath. I focused on the sound of my bib whisking my left hip every step along the way.
I focused on the random strangers complimenting my kit. Commenting on my socks. Telling me they love our channel, they follow us, how our Lubbock course preview video was spot-on.
I made it to each aid station to gather water and ice. There I walked briskly and resumed my stride. Moving forward, one step at a time, I made it to the Tech campus feeling strong.
Once at Tech, I did the short segment then the loop around the stadium. I’m a little bummed the race photographer didn’t capture my Heisman pose. I walked briskly up the exit ramp and then started my first of two loops around campus.
Further ahead of me I could see Caitlin finishing her first loop. She was walking. My heart sank. I wanted to stop and walk, too. But I knew I wanted this to be over as soon as possible, so I kept going. And Caitlin didn’t walk long, soon she was getting back up to speed.
I continued my trek and just before Mile 8 I told myself this was a good pace, to hold it and it would be a good day.
And then, the back side of the run course, everything changed.
The headwind that was so dominant and prevalent on the bike was making its presence felt on the run course. The final two miles of the loop was a persistent headwind that felt like running into a brick wall. It was intense and almost defeating.
All I could do was shuffle and try not to think too much about it. All I could do was hope that around the next curve, around the next corner, around the next bend, this wind would go away. But for two miles it was a constant reminder of what elements Lubbock could bring. Thankfully, at least it wasn’t hot!
To add to the torture of the wind, there were no aid stations in those two miles. None! It was a mental desert that you just had to dig deep and survive. And I was already thinking about how the final two miles of the race were going to be a huge gut check struggle.
As I came around to complete my first lap and veered left at the split for Lap 2 and the finish line, I knew Caitlin was done with her day, based on where I saw her on the course earlier. So I peeled my eyes for her along the finish chute. And there she was - in her bright orange kit - along the rail just past the finish. I mustered up my loudest, mightiest voice and called out “Caitlin” hoping she would hear me - and she did!
Then I could see her sprinting out of the finish chute and made her way to me on the course. We had a quick moment for an embrace and all I wanted to know was how she finished. She told me 6th with a time of 5:35. While I was proud of her finish and her time on this intense day, I was sad for her because we both wanted her to win a Buffalo trophy.
I told her that the last three miles for me would be a struggle, and she encouraged me to race mighty. I was ready to be done, to make that final lap and to get back in her arms for good.
I continued my plan of walking the aid stations and when I made my way back to the final two miles, I took a few more walk breaks. All along the way I counted every mile. I kept telling myself to just get to 12. Just get to 12.
That mile marker was a sight for sore eyes. From there my plan was to run a quarter mile, walk about 200, repeat again and then finish out the remainder running as best I could.
As I was finishing my last walk break I heard someone from behind saying “Team Saunders. I follow you. Go Team Saunders….” Then he made his way up beside me, we chatted a bit, and I passed him some salt - he said he was cramping and just trying to get to the finish.
I wasn’t cramping, but my legs were heavy. I was tired of battling the wind, and just willing myself to the finish. As I turned the final corner to the finish chute, I found a little extra energy to make it toward the finish, and of course, bring a little life to the spectators along the way. I ran as hard as I could into Caitlin’s arms and was so glad to just be done!
While it wasn’t any type of PR and wasn’t sub-6, it was nice to finally race without pain - aside from the “normal” pain you feel when covering 70.3 miles.
I would say my feelings are mixed on this race. I know the swim here is slow - and without a wetsuit I expected it would be even slower this year. It was, but I also felt like my effort was good considering the elements, and finishing fourth in my age group is something to be proud of. Coming out of T1 in third is a nice thought, too. If I can figure out how to bike and run, look out!
The bike was probably as good as it could have been without completely trashing my legs for the run. I kept a positive mindset for the most part and still ended the day with a respectable 3:12 split. But… I want to be at the point where I can ride stronger in that wind, where I can find more power earlier in the course and hold that for the duration. Still so much work to do, and coming off the injury, it feels like a lot of work is almost starting back from the bottom again.
For the run, I am pleased with how I handled the first six miles. While I wasn’t setting any speed records, I kept the paces consistent and made it to the halfway point feeling like I had enough in me to finish strong. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hold it together, the wind played mind games with me, and I had to resort to walking in a race more than I can ever recall.
I’m not sure what the answer is to getting faster, to putting it all together in a race again, but I’ll keep working for it.
I know part of it will take having others who believe in me and support me and having positive energy, fewer worries and a lot less stress in my circle.
I know another part is still getting back to being fully healthy. Even though I didn’t race with pain, I truly haven’t been 100% at all this year, and if I’m not able to train at 100%, I know I can’t race at 100%.
Boulder is just around the corner. I hope Lubbock is just the starting point for building positive momentum in all the ways possible, and I look forward to the back half of this season to keep striving for more.
A month leading into this race the Texas weather was intense, setting many record high temps. So it was almost guaranteed that it would not be wetsuit legal.
Just days before the race there was word, if true or not I’m still not sure, that water was being pumped into the lake to help drop the temp to 72. With that info, our final swim before heading to Lubbock I got back into my wetsuit to help break it in. The day before the race the water temp was said to be 79. Not wetsuit. Ok, no biggie as we always bring both the wetsuits and the swim skins.
But still a little hopeful that the Saturday night rain storm that blew in would possibly drop the water temp enough to be wetsuit legal. That was not the case. What the Saturday night storm brought us instead was sustained winds of 20 mph with gust up to 33. As soon as we stepped out of our Airbnb race morning we knew the wind would play out to be the most challenging factor for the day.
As we seeded ourselves in the swim corral it was fun having our friend Jeana come up behind us and we could chat a little bit about the day ahead of us. Also, the best part about self seed is that Tif and I can always start together which is special for us.
I knew the swim would be were I would lose the most time. I don’t say this in a negative manner, I just know I still have a lot of room for improvement.
Out of the water in 48:54, 12th in my AG. Slow, yes. But I did not let this negatively affect me. I knew my bike was strong and I could make up ground there.
I believe the bike is the strongest discipline for me. But, one big area of the bike that I can improve on is the ability to be able to pee on the bike. Lubbock 2021 and this past Texas 70.3 I had to slow down considerably on the bike to be able ‘to go’. Hilly courses I don’t have this issue, just the flat ones. I knew I needed to do something different on this flat course. I decided on the plan to just completely stop and get off to do this. The perfect time to do this was at the turn around at the mid point. I figured since I was already slowing way down for the turn that better to stop just after the turn instead of pulling over on a fast straight away.
It came as no surprise, but always comforting, that many riders that passed me as I stood on the side of the road asked if I was ok or if I needed anything. Thank you to all that did.
I did this trick one other time as I made a final turn near mile 50.
As I knew I would, I made up some time on the bike. Passing many fellow competitors and not allowing any females to pass me. Coming into T2 with a 2:46:51 bike split and 7th in my AG.
This would be all the time I would make up for the day. The run I was able to maintain position, I passed one fellow female in my AG early into the run, but also about the same time I was passed by one. I tried to keep pace as long as I could. Keeping focus on my form and to keep the thoughts positive.
The backside of the Texas Tech campus I started to fade as there was about a 2 mile stretch with no aid station. I’m pretty certain this was not the RD plan, but it was just too windy to set an aid station up. I fell behind slightly on nutrition and hydration during that stretch and it affected me on the second loop. I started to fade and it became a big struggle to keep running.
I always allow myself to walk the aid stations to ensure I get all I need, but about mile 11 I started to run/walk.
The whole race up until that point I was aware of my pacing, but didn’t stress about hitting any type of time goal. But at mile 11 I knew I had time to spare to be able to hit a sub 2 hour half marathon time. I think that I slowed on the run more that I would have liked to. Showing me I still have some mental toughness to gain.
The finish chute came into sight and picked up the speed. Funny how a finish line will do that. I crossed the line with my guns up, a smile on my face and a 1:56:22 run split. Always grateful to not only just start a race, but to finish it.
A big win for the day is that I had the fastest transitions in my AG.
The most rewarding moments. Every single “Let’s Go Team Saunders!”, “I watch your YouTube”, “Thank you for what you give to the community”, every single person that came up to us to say hi or snap a photo with us. The feelings really gave us a high.
Thank you to all that follow our journey and come say hi at the next race!