Earlier this year I had a “good” triathlon dream where I found myself running down the finishing chute in first place for my first win as a professional at a big race. This was unusual since every single other triathlon dream I’ve ever had has been more of the nightmare variety where I’m late for the swim start, my helmet is nowhere to be found when I arrive at my bike in T1, or my wetsuit has inexplicably shrunk and I can’t fit into it no matter how much I wriggle and suck in my gut. It’s funny how the mind works when we’re asleep, latching onto our deepest fears and desires and presenting them plainly yet fleetingly during our moments of repose. I haven’t been able to rid my subconscious completely of these bad triathlon dreams, but I’ve held that one rare perfect dream close to my heart all season long; and as I watched my fitness progress through the hours of consistent hard work I allowed myself to believe that perhaps the dream could become tangible reality after all…someday.

Well, “someday” arrived on September 11, 2011 when I surprised myself by winning the REV3 Cedar Point Full Rev (iron-distance) race in Sandusky, Ohio. I’m still over the moon with this outcome! It was one of those rare near-perfect days when everything simply fell into place and it *almost* seemed easy. I had just two minor blips during the bike leg (keep reading for the full scoop) but otherwise things went smoothly and the race ended up being a great celebration of all the hard work that has gone into this year. It was actually a double victory, as fellow Purdue University grad Andrew Starykowicz won the men’s race. Andrew and I both got our starts in multi-sport with the Purdue Triathlon Club, and REV3 Cedar Point was the first major triathlon win for either one of us. Boiler up!

Here’s how my day unfolded: I led wire-to-wire, which was a scenario beyond my wildest dreams! I fully expected super-swimmer Hillary Biscay to lead out of the water; she is one of the strongest swimmers on the long-course circuit and has more than 50 Ironman races under her belt. I had a great start in the sludge-y shallows of Lake Erie and was able to establish an early lead, thanks to the dolphin dive training from my draft-legal racing years. I felt good and quickly found a solid rhythm. It was a wetsuit-legal swim, which honestly doesn’t matter to me one way or the other as long as the water temperature is measured accurately; I’m equally comfortable in my BlueSeventy Helix wetsuit, PZ3TX, or PointZero swimskin. I was waiting for Hillary to come zooming by, but in the meantime I focused on keeping my stroke balanced. By the start of the second lap I had become acutely aware that my goggles were too tight for this long of a distance, so that was a good motivation to keep swimming fast and get out of the water and onto the bike. When I exited the water I took a peek back and was surprised to see a bit of a gap back to the next swimmer. Bonus! To borrow from Chris McCormack’s book, I had built myself a nice little “margin of error” early in the race.

T1 went smoothly; my Rudy Project Wingspan helmet was waiting for me right where it should be in transition, I grabbed my bike, did a good flying mount (thanks again to my ITU days!) and settled down to work. One really fun thing about the bike is that I got to ride right by my host family’s house at both the start and finish of the course. Thank you Krista at REV3 for setting me up with this homestay, and thanks to Hope and Roger for your hospitality and support the entire race weekend! I really enjoyed the bike course; it didn’t have the hills that I loved so much at Quassy, but I grew up only 3 hours east of Sandusky and the gentle rollers through the cornfields feel like home to me. I felt strong for most of the ride, with just one slightly down patch early in the second loop when I wondered if I had gone too hard at the beginning of the ride.

The two blips I alluded to earlier occurred late in the first loop; neither one cost me a lot of time (maybe 30-45 seconds each) but they were momentarily jarring. Blip #1 was a right-hand turn that was marked which should not have been a turn at all; due to an unfinished section of road the REV3 team had been forced to change the course a couple of days before the race and this was an arrow from the original course that had inadvertently been left on the road. Whoops! Several of the pro men rode extra miles, and the two guys near to me at that point (as well as the camera crew) all made the wrong turn. We quickly realized our mistake and turned around to get back on track, and one of the guys (I believe it was Brandon Marsh) stopped and peeled the errant arrow off of the road to prevent the entire field from straying off course. That was a classy thing to do; I’m a bit ashamed I didn’t think of it myself.

The other blip was that I was initially given a stand-down penalty for a dropped water bottle—which I didn’t drop! Just past the town of Berlin a motorcycle pulled up beside me and the camera crew, and a race official called out “Number 27, pull over and stand down for a penalty!” I slowed down and asked what I had done, and he said that I had dropped a water bottle at the last turn. I looked down at my bike and saw two water bottles—which is all that I had carried the whole day! I was flabbergasted and tried to explain that despite having 3 bottle cages on my bike, I had purposefully only been carrying two bottles all day long, and seeing as I still had two bottles there could be no way I had dropped one of them. I told the official he could look at the race footage if he didn’t believe me, that the camera crew had been following me most of the day. I’m not sure why I said that, considering that it would have taken them longer than what my penalty was worth to go back and review the race footage…but I’m glad I did say it because it made the camera guys realize what was going on, and they looked at their own motorcycle and realized that THEY had dropped a water bottle!!! The camera crew then came to my rescue, revealed to the official that it was in fact they who had dropped a bottle, and the race official grudgingly let me go. He even apologized a little further up the road which I appreciated. I have all the respect in the world for the race officials, and in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t have been the end of my race to just keep quiet and serve the penalty…but I knew I was not in the wrong, and that if I let a bad call like that go it would have somehow been an insult to my integrity.

After those mishaps, the rest of the bike went smoothly. I stayed right on track with my nutrition plan (consisting of Kona Punch PowerGels, PowerBar Energy Bites, and boiled potatoes). It cooled down a bit for the last ten miles or so and there was evidence of rain on the roads, but I didn’t get caught in any downpours all day long. I was able to build my lead a bit more throughout the bike, so I hit T2 with a decent cushion. The big question mark was if it was going to be enough to hold off the strong runners in the field. 26.2 miles is a long way! Kate Major (a.k.a “Mrs. Consistency”) has been running me down all season long, and Kathleen Caulkins was riding well and is a dangerous runner. My run splits the first several miles made me a little nervous; they seemed a bit fast but I felt good and decided to adopt my “zen running” attitude that I generally follow in training. There are a couple of spots at the far end of the run course that give you a look at where the competition is and it appeared that Kathleen and Kate were gaining ground. I tried not to panic, to instead focus on holding my rhythm and remind myself that it’s a long day and you never know what might happen. My next look at these ladies was at the beginning of lap #2; Kate had just moved into second place and Kathleen was walking. Her day unfortunately ended early but Kate was still creeping up behind me. I thought, “If I don’t blow up I should be able to hold on for second place.” At about mile 21 that mantra surprisingly changed. I got a good look at Kate on two successive out-and-back sections, realized she was about a mile behind and losing ground, did the mental math…and that’s when it dawned on me: I was going to win this thing!

The last 5 miles were a real pleasure to run. I know that’s a little batty to say after already having covered 135+ miles on your own manpower but it’s true. I had the best cheering squad of family and friends that you could possibly hope for yelling for me at various points along the course the entire day, plus the incredibly supportive REV3 crew, spectators, volunteers, other competitors, and the positive energy of a whole network of friends and family who couldn’t make the trip but were still rooting for me remotely throughout the day. Thank you one and all for your part in making the day so special! Running down the finishing chute, waving the American flag and lifting that finishing tape up above my head was an even sweeter feeling than I had imagined in my dream back in the beginnings of this season.

The breakdown: swim 56:09 bike 5:05:10 run 3:14:12 overall 9:19:15

This is a huge breakthrough for me, with an overall improvement from my lone other iron-distance triathlon by 48 minutes. The biggest chunks of time came off the bike and run splits. I’ve been known as more of a swimmer/biker so it’s especially satisfying to throw down a respectable run split, proving to myself and those who doubted my running ability that I am becoming what I aim to be: an all-around strong triathlete. REV3 Cedar Point 2011 is absolutely the best performance I have ever put together. The momentum is with me now, and I’m excited to see what the future holds!

[youtube width=”100%”]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iskbHhfjNk[/youtube]

Thanks to: REV3—you guys are like family to me now!; my awesome cheering section consisting of Mom, Betsy, Zach, Courtney, Lucy, Zuzana, Alex, Mishka, and Jill; Hope and Roger Franklin for hosting me; Albert for accepting the inevitability of early mornings; Rich for his company on the long brick days; and to my sponsors PowerBar, BlueSeventy, Rudy Project, Wasatch Running Center, and Maxxis for their support.

To follow Malaika and her Triathlon journey, visit http://malaikahomo.blogspot.com/