By Beril Polat
When I qualified for NCAA Nationals after racing at Bearathlon (UC-Berkeley), I felt very honored. I never really thought I would make it to NCAA Nationals when I used to swim varsity in undergrad, but here I was, going for triathlon. I was ready to take on the challenge and go race at Nationals although I knew that the competition was going to be fast. I packed my good old Hyundai Tucson again and drove from San Diego to Tempe, Arizona with Zack. I’m glad he was with me because the roads were pretty boring along the way. We arrived to our hotel on Friday night and went to sleep right away.
The next day, Coach Kim, Zack and I did a bike/run course preview to make sure that I know all the U-turns and hills on the bike course. Coach Kim was racing the same morning before my race so it was beneficial for him too (He is an amazing athlete and my triathlon goals for future.)!We checked the transition area to make sure I give myself enough time to put my feet in my bike shoes. After the technical course session, I attended the mandatory race meeting where they explained us once again the draft-legal race rules. For the first timers, it sounds very intimidating however, I believe draft-legal races are much more fun than classic races because the race becomes a team work on the bike (unless you have racers who refuse the pull the pace-line in your pack or you lost your pack and riding alone the whole course).
The morning of the race I was feeling great! I was pumped to be racing at Tempe and I felt confident about the course. I heard the good news from Zack who was cheering on Coach Kim. He won his age group!! I was ready to go there and do the same. After breakfast at the hotel, I made my way to the transition area. I warmed up for 10 minutes in water to be ready to sprint and started waiting on the line-up call. Before the line-up call on the beach, I picked a spot on the starting mat to stand on for the swim start. I tried to choose the shortest distance to the first sighting buoy (a tip from Coach Kim) so I won’t lose time in the mass start. However, right after “Get on your mark” and the starting honk, I realized my relatively slow run to the water caused me to be stuck in between two other swimmers. The whole swim course I tried to get out of the girls but I wasn’t able to. And by the time I left them behind, I have lost the leading pack.
Coming out of water, I realized that I was way too behind to be able to catch the leading or chasing pack on the bike. Nonetheless, I sprinted to the transition, grabbed my bike and ran out. I could see the leading pack right in front of me but I wasn’t able to close it on my own. It was a battle during the first lap to catch up but then two other racers caught up to me which helped me get out of the no-men’s- land. I was able to rest for a little bit but still worked real hard to catch the leading pack. Once I was at the run, I knew I had a lot to close up. It started getting really hot so I decided to drink and dump water above my head at every aid station. I could feel the fatigue on my legs from the work I did on the bike but I was determined to not stop at any cost. I just kept my form up and ran with the fastest pace I could maintain without collapsing. It was a struggle but hey, I was racing against the fastest women in collegiate triathlon in US.
Although a moment of frustration and panic took over me during bike, I got over it after it was done. I learned that small mistakes during draft legal race carry over and accumulate until the end. Hence, I know now how to be more strategic about it. Overall, it was a humbling experience to have my coach, his wife, Zack and Justin be there for me and support me during my race. I needed the cheer to forget about what happened earlier in the race. I was very proud to be part of the NCAA Women’s Triathlon Program and I hope we can encourage more women to come out and race!