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Race Report: ITU Long Distance Aquabike Worlds

Team USA Kit

Buckle up – this baby is lengthy!

The Pre-Race

Wow – what a long road to get here! It all started when I broke my hip last year. As a result, I couldn’t do the Rev3 Maine Half Iron Triathlon…but I could do the aquabike. And let’s be honest – I had fun, but with two flat tires, that just wasn’t my day. And since I’ll make any excuse to go to the Outer Banks, I ended up doing the half distance aquabike at the OBX Triathlon, where I did well enough to qualify for Worlds this year.

To say I was surprised when I got an email from USA Triathlon asking me to join Team USA is an understatement…when something so incredible that you’ve never even dreamed of it happening actually happens…that’s just plain shock! I was driving through France with Eugene when I got the note, and it was all I could think about. It took some courage to actually commit to joining the team, but I saw a quote that jumped out at me and knew it was a sign.

Team USA Inspiration

So, off to Penticton I was to complete in the ITU World Multisport Festival, representing Team USA in the Long Distance Aquabike race consisting of a 1.9 mile swim and a 74.5 mile bike.

This required some changes in planning for the season. While my big goal was still to cross the finish line at IRONMAN 70.3 Atlantic City (the ultimate win in the hip recovery process), Worlds became my other A race. Essentially, this meant I’d be doing a bit more swimming and cycling than standard 70.3 training…along with a little less running, leaving me more than ready for the Atlantic City swim and bike and maybe a little undertrained for the run. Given that I wanted to really ease back into running slowly, I felt pretty good about this approach.

Eugene, my dad and I arrived in Penticton on Thursday afternoon with plenty of time to settle in before my race Sunday. We stayed at an incredible AirBnB just a block and a half from the race start – we could not have asked for a better location and being in a house rather than a hotel was a huge win. The few days before the race passed in a flurry of bike fittings (I rented a bike for this race and had it fit to the exact specifications as my bike at home), race wheel pick up, athlete meetings, and a meetup with my Team SOAS Racing ladies (spoiler alert: they seriously rock. also, ignore my hideous Team USA outfit):

Team SOAS at The Peach

The environment around Penticton was pretty sweet. The small city was completely overtaken with triathletes, and locals seemed to enjoy it. The city hosts Challenge Penticton, was previously the home of IRONMAN Canada, and also has a number of other smaller races…so they’ve seen their fair share of type A triathlete visitors over the years.

Alto Cycling Wheels

One really cool thing about being a member of Team USA for this trip is that we had a team of people onsite to provide support and ensure that we could all race at our highest level. I took advantage of the massage therapist and the bike mechanics, and also could have had access to a doctor, chiropractor or coach if I needed them. So cool! Can every race be like that, please?

The day before the race, I started getting texts from friends and family wearing custom Team Belisle shirts — turns out, my Mom had gone above and beyond to get my nearest & dearest to send photos of themselves in the shirts from wherever they were! I definitely teared up and felt so supported and loved. You can catch them all in these Instagram galleries: one and two.

Last thing to call out before we finally get to race day – we had to pack bags for the swim to bike transition as well as post-aquabike finish bags (e.g., sneakers to wear across the finish line) and drop those off the day before the race. This was new to me and made me feel a little anxious…but I ended up loving it! How exhilarating to have this big step out of the way before race day! How clean and tidy transition was! Now I know why IRONMAN and other big races do this!

Race Morning

 

Okanagan Lake - Penticton, BC

I got a great night of sleep before race day and woke feeling mostly excited and a little nervous. I knew I was in for an adventure! Choked down the pre-race breakfast formula (mashed up banana, oatmeal, egg white, a bit of protein powder, cinnamon and peanut butter cooked and all mixed together), sipped some coffee and got moving.

It was a chilly morning with temperatures in the high 40s, so I bundled up and headed over to transition (less than 10 minutes from our door!) to add nutrition to my transition bags. Added my bike computer & hydration bottles to my bike, pumped up tired and gave it a quick check – UH OH! The back wheel was not rolling properly…I hightailed it over to the mechanic who was extremely calm under pressure as I held back tears and sent panicked texts to Eugene.

Luckily the cortisol spike was unnecessary as he was able to fix it in a matter of minutes and I was back in business. What a lifesaver! I then made my way over to the swim start area to meet Eugene and my dad.

Swim

ITU Aquabike Worlds

The pros started first with a helicopter swarming overhead (um, what?) and I shimmied into my wetsuit and got into my corral with all of the women under the age of 45. As soon as I put my swim cap on I sensed I was in trouble – it was made of the cheapest material ever and wasn’t fitting great from the getgo (#longhairproblems). More on that in a bit…

This was a beach start, so everyone waited behind a line in the sand they sound a horned (with zero countdown before – so weird) and the crew flew off into the water! I had no problem starting in the second row of people (out of two rows total!) and easy my way into the water.

With the help of my Dad and Eugene I’d identified some shallow parts in the starting area, so I had lined myself up to avoid those and luckily that was a success. The course was basically a huge U — 1100 meters straight out, then an 800 meter gradual right turn, and 1100 meters back to shore (finishing about ¼ mile down the shore from where we started).

The water in this lake was just plain incredible. Warm, clear, clean and such a joy to swim in. I was able to sight perfectly and while I was definitely in a pack of women, I never felt crowded or too jostled around. The 1100 meter mark came quickly and the different-colored-buoys signified the start of the turn.

Two big things happened at this point: 1) I started passing people who had started 5 minutes ahead of me (the 45+ men) and 2) my swim cap started slipping off. Naturally, I ignored it hoping it would not get any worse, but sadly that was not the case. I kept trying to reposition the cap but nothing seemed to help. The cap issues were extremely distracting and the 800 meter turn felt like it was taking absolutely forever. Finally, about 1700m into the swim I gave up, treaded water for a second, took my swim cap all the way off and put it back on…only to promptly poke a hole in it. Dear ITU: do better with your swim cap quality!

Despite the hole, the swim cap was in a much better place and I was beginning to head towards shore in the final ⅓ of the swim. I had been with a group of women for most of the swim (not on anyone’s feet, but in the same pack) and we slowly started overtaking more and more men. There were tons of women in front of us…but we were by no means the back of the pack either. Woo!

Finally I got to the point where I could sight off of shore rather than aiming for the next buoy – such an awesome feeling. I picked up the pace a bit, focused on taking nice long, smooth strokes and swam until my fingertips touched the bottom. I was back on land!

This was by far my longest open water swim so I had no idea what to expect from a timing perspective – was thrilled to see 1:07 on the watch despite losing what I believe is at least 2-3 minutes to the swim cap issues.

 

Time: 1:07:20, 4/6 age group, 290/341 overall (including men and women — not great, but this is Worlds we’re talking about here!). My Garmin put me at 1:55 for 100 yards, which I am great with on my longest open water swim ever — especially since it includes some unplanned treading water.

 

T1: T1 was weird as this was my first time using a bag — a volunteer grabbed my bag for me and I headed into the changing tent! I grabbed a chair and got to work sipping my nutrition, getting my bike shoes and helmet on while a kind volunteer slathered me with sunscreen and loaded up my pockets with fuel. Then I was off to grab my bike and head out onto the course!

Time: 5:46, 4/6 age group again, 271/341 overall  (including men and women)

 

Bike

I hopped on my bike, absolutely covered in sunscreen, and almost immediately saw Eugene and my Dad in their special Team Belisle shirts (made by my mom) cheering me on. So fun! Eugene later told me he noticed that my hair looked crazy — yup, sounds about right.

TriathLauren Bike Course

Guys, this bike course? It was incredible. After driving it a few days prior with my Dad and Eugene, I knew I was in for some serious climbing, but first….an out and back stretch totaling 14ish miles along Lake Okanagan. This part was awesome!

Since the female aquabikers were the last wave to start, and I came out towards the end of the pack, I ended up passing quite a few people on this section. We were very exposed to winds here, and while you could certainly feel some crosswinds, it was nothing too serious. And certainly not enough to slow me down since I averaged around 20mph for this section (woo!). Note: this is the moment when I started to fall in love with my Alto wheels…

I was still feeling fabulous and full of energy at the turnaround (about 7.5 miles in) – that was good since I had almost 70 more miles to go! I roared back into town wondering why my cadence sensor wasn’t picking up…and then remembered that I hadn’t actually put my cadence sensor on the bike. D’oh. In fact, I still can’t find my cadence sensor even though I swore I packed it. That mystery may never be solved. Luckily I don’t normally have a problem maintaining 90rpm and I most definitely know what it feels like on the legs, so I didn’t let this throw me off.

When I came back into town at the 14 mile mark, I knew exactly where my Dad and Eugene would be since we’d designated a spot — I saw them before they knew I was coming! I am sure it was harder to spot me than usual since I was in my Team USA kit (like hundreds of other people out there) instead of my Team SOAS attire that is bright and stands out a bunch. I decided that this meant I showed up before they were expecting me, and took this as a big confidence boost that I was flying out there.

After passing by them, we had a fairly technical section through downtown Penticton — this included some tight turns and while I didn’t see any crashes, I did hear later on that there were several — hoping everyone is fully recovered by now!

 

Once we made it through town it was time for 2 laps around Skaha Lake, each of which required two long climbs — they don’t make them like this in the D.C. area:

Hills - ITU Aquabike World Championships

That’s right — these hills took 15-20 minutes to climb. Yikes! I think in D.C. we call those mountains, but in British Columbia they’re no big deal. At about mile 20 (no hills climbed yet) a few of the pro men passed me — because of their start time and the fact that they’re way, way faster, most of the pro men were already ahead of me on their second loop, but I did get to enjoy a few “stragglers” as they whizzed past. On the first of the four climbs, the pro women passed by – holy moly, what a difference vs. us age groupers. We may be good enough to ride at the World Championships but we were peanuts compared to those women. So awesome!

I didn’t love the descent for the first/third climb – it was quite steep and technical, with a left turn at the bottom, but the descent for climb #2 and #4 was amazing! It was a long, straight, gradual downhill that let you pick up awesome speed — I averaged over 25mph for those 4ish mile stretches.

From miles 20-60, I had been nearby groups of people without too much passing action going on as the racers were pretty spread out by this time. Some people passed me on climbs and the technical descents, but I’d usually catch up to them on the flat portions. Somewhere in this portion of the ride is also when I started feeling a searing pain on one part of the right side of my lower back. This was new to me, so I thought maybe it was my Team USA kit rubbing and creating a raw spot. Of course..that wasn’t it at all – just a very tight spot in my back. Luckily getting out of aero now and then helped it, and by the end of the ride it stopped bothering me.

This is also when it started to get really hot out. It was very dry (there were serious wildfires not too far away) and the sun was beating down, so I was really focused on staying hydrated/fueled and keeping my heart rate down. I do not envy the people who had to run later in the day!

By miles 60+, I started passing more people as they started getting worn out – especially those not used to climbing. At this point I was at the furthest race distance I’d done (previously had only done 56 in a half distance aquabike), but still feeling great, sticking to my Tailwind for nutrition and not feeling too hot.

Once I made it up the fourth climb at mile 65, I felt awesome — only 10 miles to go – and almost half was downhill! This is when I started getting aggressive and feeling like I could/should start passing more people, and that I did. By mile 71 I was back in town and ready for some short stretches to the finish. This part had a few small hills, which felt treacherous at this point even though I had barely noticed them earlier in the race — yup, my zone 3 effort sustained for more than 4 hours on the bike was definitely showing.

The closer I got to the finish line in downtown Penticton, the more I wanted to pass people (what if they are in my age group!?, I thought), so I tried as hard as I could to sustain a solid effort all the way through. Not easy when there were a ton of turns, but I did my best! Once we were close to the finish there were a ton of fans out and about, which made it super fun.

Lauren Belisle at ITU Aquabike Worlds

 

As I turned the corner to the finish, I spotted Eugene (no Dad sighting this time, though he saw me!) and sprinted to….where? The aquabike finish line was NOT well marked — it was about ⅓ of a mile before the other bike course finish and it ended up being pretty anticlimactic, but luckily I managed to spot it and efforted accordingly. Apparently others weren’t so lucky and some had meltdowns re: finding the finish line. Yikes!

Time: 4:26:26, averaging 16.5 mph (not bad with those hills!), 4/6 in my age group (again) and 274/341 overall (including men and women).

 

Done (swim bike done, get it!?) 

After crossing the aquabike finish, I soft pedaled into transition, where I promptly fell off my bike (not quite, but I was pooped!) and slowly wheeled it back into transition. From there, we were able to grab our transition bags, pop on sneakers, and head across the official World Championship finish line. This part wasn’t timed, but let us get finisher photos and really enjoy the moment. The Team USA folks even handed us mini flags to carry across the finish line – fun!

TriathLauren - ITU Worlds Finish Line

After 5:39:32, I walked across the finish line as 4th in my age group in the ITU Long Distance Aquabike World Championships! This was good enough for 267/341 total – an amazing feat for someone who was shocked to even make Team USA.

I am immensely proud of myself for this accomplishment and couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I cannot thank Eugene and my Dad enough for being there in person to cheer me on, as well as my Mom for coordinating an amazing support crew from all over the US!

Team Belisle at ITU Aquabike Worlds

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