St Croix had been on my triathlon bucket list for a couple of years, since hearing my friend Cat talk about how wonderful, yet tough, a race it is. This was to be the iconic race’s 25th anniversary year, and now living in the U.S., it would only take about 20hrs to travel there.
From day one, the beautiful Caribbean island setting and the warm welcome of Cat’s home stay and friends, made the race feel like a special experience.
At dinner on the first night, I met Cat’s home stay Todd, and local friends James, Wayne and Wynn. They entertained us with stories of their racing, some having competed at St Croix 21 times! Cat told them a story where I survived a long, lonely, horrible training day in France last year. My housemates (who had wisely cut their day short) were impressed by my efforts in the harsh conditions, and Cat joked that it was time to “Keavy the fuck up”. The guys loved it, and I heard them retell the story several times over the following days, with some heavy doses of poetic license!
There was a huge thunderstorm the night before the race. From my beach side hotel room, I watched and listened to the rain and the lightning on the shore, I got a bit scared and emotional thinking about the swim the following morning. I texted Eney, open water swimmer extraordinaire, who has been helping me with my technique. She reminded me of several techniques to keep in mind, and positive things about how wonderful it would be to challenge myself in all the elements a sea swim could bring. She reminded me that it’s a privilege and an honor to use our body to race, not least in somewhere as beautiful as St Croix. I was so reassured, I almost wanted a rough swim.
This is a small race, with a much more relaxed feel, than your average Ironman event. There were 510 athletes. We all jumped off the harbor wall and swam to the beach of the small island, just a few hundred meters from shore, from where the race would start. There was a relaxed and friendly camaraderie as we mingled and waiting for our wave’s turn to start. As my age group nervously waiting in our pre-start window, one local woman shouted to our small group, “I know this course really well, so if you all want to just follow me!”. We all laughed. Then the siren fired and we were off, every woman for themselves!
In the end, the swim was perfectly flat, unusually so, apparently. I focused on the little phrases Eney always tells me, and thoroughly enjoyed swimming in the clear, calm water. Although I’m not a strong swimmer, I much prefer the non-wetsuit swim – it feels like a much better connection with the water, and awareness of every movement. Small age group numbers, and a wave start, meant it was the least congested open water swim I’ve ever done. I lifted my head out of my movements and mantras a few times to just catch sight of the wide Caribbean sea, with the sun rising around us, and thought it really is a privilege to be there.
The bike course winds through hills, coastline, tropical forests, in one big loop around the Caribbean island. The torrential rain the night before had left the roads in a serious mess. They were strewn with debris: huge piles of gravel, mud, sand, dead frogs. Surface water hid, or potentially hid, the pot holes and cracks I knew I’d seen on the course recce.
I passed many athletes fixing punctures, and was passed by several pick up trucks ferrying athletes and their bikes off the course completely.
I felt a bit despondent in the early stages of the bike, being at the slow end of the field, barely seeing any other competitors for long stretches. I was nervous, but excited, to reach the infamous climb, ‘The Beast’. I determined that I would NOT walk.
The initial 12 and 16% hairpins warmed you up for the killer 26% (!) bend. The gradients are spray painted on each climb on the course, in case the fact wasn’t apparent by your burning legs and lungs! Turning that last, crazy steep corner, I saw everyone ahead walking their bikes. Determined to keep cycling, I remembered Todd’s tip that from that last bend, it was only 39 pedal turns “until you can breath again”. I started my count, “… 21, 22, 32, 41, 36..” realized I couldn’t actually keep count, and my number would be wildly different anyway, but thinking of numbers was still a helpful coping strategy!
Things got into a better rhythm after The Beast. The course flows around the East of the island, which I had enjoyed on my practice ride. There’s still plenty of 12-16% hills, but around such beautiful coastal scenery, they were almost a pleasure to punch up and over.
Finishing the bike, I was mostly relieved to not have injured the bike, or my self.
As I was exiting T2, Todd and Cat waved and shouted that Cat had won! We hugged, jumped up and down, cried… then Cat reminded me I best get my own run started!
I started the run fueled with pure delight at Cat’s achievement. After 18 months out of racing, dealing with bereavement and injury, I knew it had been a challenge just to get to the start line. A whole hearted performance.
I felt so good when I left T2, I remember thinking “this is going to be a great run! What am I a quarter of the way in already?”… I looked at my watch… three minutes in. I drained quickly and by 4km I was just spent and had to start walk/jogging. I took some coke at the first aid stations, then ice at each one – down my front, back, and held some in each hand. It felt so good. I got a bit obsessed about the ice! As if walking wasn’t irritating enough, I got the line “ice ice baby” stuck in my head, not the entire song, just those three words. The. Entire. Run.
Approaching the half way point, right beside the finish area, I considered just stopping. Beat and teary, I bumped into Canadian pro Sara Gross on her walk home. We had a quick chat, and Sara assured me I’d feel better if I finished. Just down the road Cat was waiting, and I told her the mess I’d made of the run and that I might just call it a day. I’m not sure I see any shame in calling it a day, if the day is essentially done. I said I wasn’t sure what the point in continuing would be. Cat suggested carrying on until the next aid station, trying to take on some coke and gels, but that it was fine for me to call it from there. Todd (who was acting as lead marshall) saw me walking and shouted “Keavy! Keavy the fuck up!”. I jogged off, laughing.
I decided the point in continuing was simply to feel what it feels like to run, or not, in that humid heat. To store that feeling in my memory bank, and know that I would learn from it, and hopefully then not experience it again.
On the last street towards the finish, an old Rasta man shouted to me, “Yeah girl, catch your breath, the finish is just there and then you’ll feel alllriiight”. Indeed!
At the finish line, a lovely medical volunteer must have decided I didn’t look too good and walked me straight into the medical tent. They covered me in cold, wet towels. Bliss. You’d think as the winner, she’d have better things to do, but Cat sat with me the whole time, chatting, making me drink, taking embarrassing photos… as I laid back and absorbed the IV.
I’m not entirely sure yet if I blew up because my nutrition wasn’t good enough for the conditions (it wasn’t bad on the bike), or if I just couldn’t mentally push through the fatigue in the heat.
My own poor performance aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my whole race experience at St Croix. I’m grateful to be surrounded by such inspiring and supportive friends. I look forward to doing it all again next year, only better.