2021 National Duathlon Championships Race Report
By Cindy Abrami, NASM-Corrective Exercise Specialist, UESCA Running and Multisport Coach and holds a BS in Nutrition
It was so great to be back to racing, and even better that the first race back was the USAT National Duathlon Championships. It had been over a year since my last race (March 2020 Desert Tri Duathlon) and to say I was rusty would be an understatement.
To provide a proper race report, I should start with the months before the race. It takes a lot to get to a start line. Sometimes I think it’s harder to get to a start line than the finish line. I didn’t go into this race at 100% capacity. Approximately a year ago (around May/June 2020) I began to have a strange issue with my medial ankle. It wasn’t running related and for many months didn’t bother my running at all. It didn’t cause me much concern as I only felt it when doing stabilization and plyometric work during strength sessions. I figured it would work itself out like most things do.
Unfortunately it only grew worse and by November of 2020 it began to affect running. It became painful to run and I began to compensate in different ways. My running stride changed and I sort of limped through my runs, overloading my uninjured side. I eventually had it checked by a couple of physical therapists. My symptoms were unclear as there were different sensations going on. We thought it was likely the Posterior Tibial Tendon but that didn’t explain the very specific tenderness I felt on the medial ankle bone. I decided it would be wise to take a break from running (which is never easy to do and is always a big, bold decision). I took a 6 week break during which I spent much more time on the bike and continued to do a lot of strength and conditioning. After the lay-off, I went on my first run. Long story short, it was just as bad as before. Essentially nothing healed or changed. I was unwilling to continue to lay off from running so I tried to get back toward my normal training regimen, albeit, in a lot of pain. I was pretty sure the previous diagnosis was incorrect.
I eventually got a proper diagnosis in March 2021. I had periostitis on the ankle bone and slightly up the posterior tibia. This is an inflammation of the lining of the bone (periosteum). This condition is usually seen further up the leg and manifests as shin splints. So I had (currently still have) an ankle splint so to speak. This is a painful condition but was expected to heal. Oddly, running wasn’t the culprit (although running was very painful). The main aggravators were some of the regular strength training moves I was doing (most anything that caused me to have to balance on one leg, along with jumping and exercises that required a lot of dorsiflexion). So I altered my strength training to remove any exercise that caused pain. I also reluctantly dialed back on my quality runs since harder running seemed to contribute to the issue a bit. Therefore, training was not optimal for this race.
As I approached the championships, the ankle was slowing improving but I was yet unable to train as I normally do. Additionally I knew I would not be as strong on my runs during the race. So I tried to appreciate the things I could do and capitalize on the training I could do. Try as I might to be excited and positive, I was apprehensive and very nervous coming into the race.
We traveled to Tuscaloosa, AL for the championships. It was a beautiful venue along a brilliant river. The transition area and finish line was at an epic amphitheater. Half of the run course was on a shaded bike path along the river. Our hotel was walking distance to the venue and there were more than 700 other athletes that were there for the race. Everywhere you went you saw them. Bikes everywhere. It’s so fun to be in that environment. Everyone was so friendly and happy to be there.
We arrived on Thursday afternoon and were excited to go down to the race venue and check things out. It was warm. Temperatures had become unseasonably warm just for us. How nice. We visited the Athlete Village, checked out the transition area and eventually went on an evening run to preview the run course. All the Covid protocols were in place. We had to have a temperature check once a day and masks were worn any time you were in the village or transition area.
Typically duathlon courses include loops which makes it very spectator friendly and therefore even more exciting for the athletes as well. This sprint course was a 5K run (actually slightly longer), 20K bike, 3K run and the first run was two laps of the run loop. The bike course was a single loop out-and-back with some rolling climbs. The final run was one lap of the run loop plus a little extra to the finish line.
The heat was a factor and I had to be mindful of staying hydrated and out of the heat in the days leading up to my Sunday race. But I was happy to have the opportunity to watch the Standard Duathlon and Non-Draft Sprint Duathlon on Saturday. It made me all the more nervous for my race but was also helpful to be in that atmosphere. John raced in the Non-Draft Sprint which went off at 1:00 PM in the afternoon and they had the worst of the heat.
Finally it was race day, Sunday morning. My race was the Draft-Legal Sprint. Draft-legal means that you are allowed to draft on the bike. There are different rules and equipment requirements and these types of races can play out in many different ways.
I had to arrive early (6:30 am) in order to set up my transition before the men’s race started. As is my typical routine, I set up my transition and practiced a run through to ensure my head knew what to do on both of my transitions and then I headed out for an initial warm-up/shake out run on the run course, running about 2 miles. I felt my ankle but as I warmed up it became less noticeable. The women’s race was scheduled to start about an hour after the men’s race. In draft-legal it’s important that the men and women aren’t mixed in together as it is not legal to draft with the opposite gender. So after my shake-out run I had about 2 hours before my race, during which I spent a lot of time hydrating, and going through my pre-hab work while I watched an exciting men’s race.
30 minutes before my race start I went out on my second warm up run (about a mile this time) and I found a shady area to do strides and dynamic stretches. I was feeling my ankle throughout all of this but not as intensely as had been the case. The better warmed up the ankle was the better but I had to be careful with the heat and needed to keep my core temperature down as best I could.
My strategy. I always have some type of plan and it depends on how the waves are set up. With this race it was tricky because they put the women into two main waves (49 and younger in wave 1 and 50 and older in wave 2) and within each wave they staggered the start, letting 5 athletes start every 5 seconds (that was an attempt to keep athletes more spread out due to covid). The two waves were about 90 seconds apart. So strategy is important because I was hoping to get out on the bike with some strong younger women. This meant I needed to catch up with the wave ahead of me on the first run. But on the injury side of things, I had to actually hold back because I had been having serious issues with my left leg cramping up because of how I was compensating. If I pushed too hard the run would go very badly. It was the biggest concern on my mind. A secondary concern was the heat as it had grown to mid-80’s by race start. That is much warmer than I was acclimated too and I therefore planned to grab water at every aid station and pour it over my head (and try to drink some too).
Here’s how it played out.
Wave 1 was off and running and our wave was on stand-by. Masks came off and we grouped into lines of 5 athletes. Though I had wanted to go off in the first stagger, others filled those spots and I ended up in the second stagger. I was soon off and running and I tried to show proper discipline to hold my pace back and let the race come to me. It’s easy to focus on who’s ahead and go too hard to catch them. Thankfully, even with a relaxed pace, I passed the first stagger of women within 800 meters. I was at that point the first in my age group but my mind shifted to how my body was feeling. I wasn’t feeling much pain but my left leg was edging toward that crampy feeling. As much as I would have loved to just be able to freely run, I was teetering on a cliff. As mentioned, the first run (which was a little over a 5K) was two laps of the run course. Lap one went as planned and felt ok but lap two did not. I was passed by a woman in my age group and my leg was tightening up. I began to limp, my stride altered and my heart began to sink. I gingerly made my u-turn to head back for the final section of the run and was really only a few strides behind this particular competitor but within that last section I had to stop and shake out the leg twice. It was frustrating in many ways and I was at some point just trying to get back to transition in hopes that I could recover with a strong bike leg. My mind was not in a good place.
I stumbled into transition and made a mistake. I went down the wrong row. In draft-legal, transitions are critical and after a sub-par run, I’m now staring at the place my bike is supposed to be and can’t figure out why it’s not there. It took several panicked seconds before I realized it was one row over. I had to run back and around. This is such a bad mistake and my frustration grew. But I found my bike and went through my shoe change. My next challenge was to run uphill in my cycling shoes with my bike to get to the Bike Out. This was expectedly painful for my ankle and just added to my dismay. I finally mounted and was onto the bike.
As difficult and sub-par as my first run was, one wonderful thing that came out of it is that I did in fact catch many of the younger women from the wave ahead of me. My theory was that some of these women, though not super fast runners, would be stellar cyclists. My race was about to take a turn for the better. Just as I was working my legs into feeling life on the bike, the first woman passed me. She was flying and I had that first “moment of truth” – could I go after her and grab her wheel? This is where I must profusely thank the group of guys I have the privilege to train with on the bike. For weeks and weeks I’ve been growing stronger on the bike hanging onto wheels, hitting unreal intervals, pushing short bursts of power and gaining confidence. Thank you to Fred Maggiore, Dave Parker, Raoul Martin, Doctor Mike, Fast Bob, Jon Martin. You are proof that training with athletes who are faster and stronger than you, makes you faster and stronger. Every week I kept telling myself, as hard as it is, this is exactly what I need. So back to the race. I was in fact able to grab her wheel and she and I worked together to lift our pace. I soon passed the competitor in my age group and she was unable to hold pace with us. This lifted my spirits and began to improve my mental space. The bike course was hard and everyone had to work. My legs were almost always on that red line and I periodically worried if I could hold on with this constant pressure. But I repeated in my head, “if you can hold onto Raoul’s wheel, you can hold onto any woman’s wheel.” We were joined by a few other strong women and our little group of two grew to four and then five. I mostly remained second wheel and took my turns at the front. I found that I was able to pull the pace up the climbs and others were able to push it on the flats and descents. As we neared the half-way u-turn, we heard someone yell out “on your left.” A single rider came flying by and she was strong. At this point there were only three of us left in our little group (2 had been dropped on the climbs) and we successfully locked onto this new wheel. The journey back was easier as it trended down. We still had some climbs and false flats but more descents as well. We had a really strong group and everyone was working together. We didn’t want to lose anyone in this group because everyone contributed. I actually almost enjoyed these final miles and I began turning my mind to the final run. I wasn’t looking forward to it which is just so not like me but at least this time I was coming in with the lead. So we arrived back at the dismount line. My dismount was not great and my left foot got a bit caught as I tried to slip it out of my shoe but I eventually got myself off the bike.
Next challenge – run in socks downhill through transition. This REALLY HURT. The worst thing for my ankle is being barefoot. I literally limped down the hill. And to make matters worse, one of the women who had been riding with me made the same mistake I had made in T-1, she went down the wrong row. However, she corrected it by running directly across my path and I ran right into her. I couldn’t stop my momentum. No real harm done but it was an interruption to my progress. I soon made it to my spot. Helmet off, shoes on (again a painful endeavor as I balanced on my injured ankle to slip the other shoe on).
I would have loved to charge out onto my final run but I was not feeling like charging. I did however immediately start picking off my cycling pack which gave me a bit of encouragement. Again I hit every aid station (3 of them) to keep the core temperature down. I was feeling the heat (everyone was). I passed every runner who was in sight and then just focused on relaxing and getting to the finish line. My second run didn’t feel great but I didn’t have any actual physical disruption this time.
I was so happy to snake my way through the section leading to the finish, and to make that final right turn that led to the finish line. I forgot to check the board to see if I had any penalties. In draft-legal, if you incur any type of penalty you have to serve it in a penalty tent. The only way to know if you have a penalty is to check a white board to see if your race number is listed. If you have a penalty but fail to serve it at a tent you are disqualified. So it’s important to check just in case. I did not have any penalties as it turns out so all was good, but it was yet another mental error. I pushed it through to the finish. I immediately felt that elation that you only get at a finish line. And all I wanted was ice water and shade.
Though my race wasn’t as strong as I’d hoped, it was hard fought. It was hard to even get to the race and have any bit of confidence to give it a go. So to come out with a National Champion Title means so much. I finished 1st in my age group (50-54) and was the 3rd Master (those over 40) and was 7th overall female. I earned my slot to the 2022 World Championships which will be held in Townsville, Australia. I have also since learned that this year’s World Championship event (2021) has been cancelled so I get to hold the reigning World Championship title for one more year and this provides me a year to get my body healthy again. So I am now looking toward 2022 with gratitude and hope.
I was grateful and proud to wear the Betty Designs race kit for the first time and to meet other Betty Design athletes at this race. I am grateful for my husband who trains and races with me and makes all of this so fun and meaningful. I am grateful for my training friends and partners who make training fun and challenging. And just endlessly thankful for the support of all of the friends who provided well wishes, tracked our races and sent phone calls, texts, messages, comments and videos. That is really what makes all of this worth it.