Why I Needed to Escape the Cape

When I learned about the Escape the Cape triathlon in 2013, I knew it would be a race I needed to experience. What follows is the race report I wrote for the Mid-Maryland Triathlon Club after I finished the event in 2014. Enjoy. And if you feel inspired to tackle one of your own fears, Just Jump.

I am from Cape May, and when I learned about the inaugural event last year I was so very disappointed that I couldn’t participate. I was either recovering from or preparing for a gallbladder-ectomy and knew I didn’t not have adequate time to heal and train for such an experience. I was also still adapting to my new normal after being diagnosed with Chron’s Disease and Celiac Disease (on top of a relatively new soy allergy!)  Plus, I was not a fan of open water (terrified of it, actually) and needed to really work on my swim before I could attempt to jump into the Delaware Bay. I needed time to mentally prepare to tackle some really big fears.

Time to Let Go

susanschoolpicCape May is a beautiful place. Though I have fond memories of it from my childhood, what I mostly remember is how I was teased and bullied by the kids in my neighborhood and school. One of the girls that lived across the street (who was easily 2-3 times my size) would yell “Mooooose Burger” on a regular basis. I was in the 2nd grade when she moved in, and she often threatened to “kick my a**” but never came through. Once, when I was in the 7th grade and feeling particularly brave, I replied to one of her threats with, “You’ve been saying that since I was in the 2nd grade. Why should I believe you now?” That resulted in her attacking me after school that day along with another girl. Honestly, the only thing that got hurt was the palms of my hands, my banana clip when she pulled it out of my hair, and my ego. She ran off after I bopped her in the eye as she held me in a choke hold saying “if I have a black eye, I’m gonna kick your a**” That day when I got home from school, shaken and disheveled, my big sister came to my rescue and gave the girls a piece of her mind. I was thankful to have someone come to my rescue. It helped me feel so much less alone.

Then there was the boy who punched me in the face on the bus one day, sending us both to the principal’s office to be disciplined. He was so rude and mean. He gave me a fat lip, and I got in trouble for it. Nice. The people who were supposed to protect and keep me safe didn’t, and I was told I did something wrong. And the boy who put a booger in my hair on the bus ride home that I only discovered when I pushed some hair around my ear when I got off the bus. And the embarrassment of falling out of my bus seat one day on the way to school when the drive took a wide turn and since we were all in our heavy coats, there just wasn’t enough room for me on the seat. Everyone stared at me and no one offered to help.

Cape May is were I was living when my father left us (I was 10) and turned the world as I knew it upside down.

Yes, beautiful Cape May is where the ick from childhood lived… and going there would often bring uncomfortableness to my life. Abandoned is a much better word for what he did, as I’ve seen him all of 4 times since then and it would be 6 years before I saw him the first time.

Then, there was the ferry boat. HATED IT as a kid. We took it often as a way to get to Richmond to visit family. My mother would sleep in the car below deck, and my sister and I would wander around dealing with sea-sickness. I regularly had unexplained visions of some large person running up from behind and throwing me overboard, leaving me in the water as I watched the boat float away.

When I learned about Escape the Cape, I knew it would be a way for me to face my fears of the open water and the ferry boat. It was a bonus that this event happened in the place where I could also use the experience to let go of the pain from my youth. My first 3 triathlons were Iron Girl sprints and were about proving to myself I had strength, power, and confidence. This one would be my first International and a way to let go of what I allowed to hold me back for too long. This was about emotional release far more than physical ability.

Preparing for the Big Day

I took two of Anne Johnson’s swim clinics this winter with the intention of improving my stroke. Sure, I could swim the distance, inefficiently. I needed to work on technique… desperately. Anne was able to effectively teach me how to breath and rotate. I fought her on bilateral breathing. I didn’t give up – I really CAN bilateral breath now!

I scored a free wetsuit last September by simply standing at the Xterra Booth for the Nation’s Tri in DC and took advantage of having free access to open water and managed 2 practice workouts in the suit before an open water swim clinic on June 1. Originally, I planned to do an OWS clinic in May. It was cancelled due to drama with Tri Columbia and uncertainty about favorite races, but I didn’t let that stop me from finding a place to practice. I knew the June 1 clinic would be a big help.

The first OWS I learned that ear plugs prevent vertigo in cold water. Would have SUCKED to learn that a week before the big race. The second OWS I learned I could swim a mile in the open water in a wetsuit way faster than without and that pulling it up higher meant my neck wasn’t squished. The third OWS was my clinic – and I cried with relief at the end. I was ready to jump into the Bay and let go. I had done the work and was prepared. Each of my practice swims was in smooth, calm water. I kept hoping for chop so I could practice in it. No chop. I decided the universe was telling me there would be no chop on race day. At the end of the clinic, I knew I still needed to work on my technique. But I could easily swim in the wetsuit without panicking or getting vertigo. I. Was. Ready. and it felt awesome.

Most of my bike time this winter was on a trainer. Only once did I get out on an actual road before the race. I knew that my goals for this race were to jump, swim, and finish (not last). I got the trainer for my birthday in November and got my butt used to being in the saddle for a long period of time. Cape May is flat. In my mind, I assumed if I could handle hilly Howard County, flat Cape May would be a breeze. I would later learn something very important about riding on flat surfaces.

I sort of practiced running. I never ran more than 3.5/4 miles and was planning to at least run/walk the entire 5 miles. I figured out if I walked .25 then ran a mile, I would do the run in an hour. Or so I thought. I did a couple of brick workouts just to keep my body used to the bike/run portion. Other than that, I didn’t do much for that.

Race Day Approaches

justjumpI drove up to Cape May on Saturday morning. My husband and children originally planned to go with me. The kids were going to do the youth Splash and Dash and they would all wait for me at the finish. Life happened, and the kids’ could not go with me. They were performing in their school production of Willy Wonka on Saturday, and it was just not meant to be.

Part of me felt like the universe was allowing time for my sister and me to create special memories. She still lives in Cape May, and we have our own history and baggage that together we recently worked through. I was so excited that she would be there at the end of this amazing journey with me. I had carried her distance sheers with me for all of my other events and was super thrilled that she would meet me at the finish.

On the drive up I received a message from a friend wishing me luck. I told her that I was picturing myself jumping off the boat surrounded by love that has always been in my life and would always be in my life and when I landed it would be in a sea (or bay) of peace. I hadn’t figured out yet the motto for this experience that I would ask my sister to write on me in sharpie. I had the words “You got this” written on my leg or shoulder for my 2nd two races as a reminder that my family and friends cheering for me from afar believed in me… I just needed to believe in myself. For Escape the Cape, I would write “Just Jump” on my hands so I could see it all morning while I prepared.

Race Day:

My sister made me my race morning breakfast the night before: sweet potato and egg. She drove me to the ferry terminal in the morning and told me the only thing that separated me from letting go or holding on was 12 feet. I didn’t have to carry the hurt and pain around anymore. It was only 12 feet.I wandered off to set up my transition area. This was my first co-ed race and my first experience being in an area where I could choose my own spot on a rack. It was a little weird, but I coped. I was dressed from head to toe in my MMTC gear (figuring it would make me look all intimidating and like I knew what I was doing). I pumped up my tires and laid all my stuff out on my red MMTC tri mat. Wait, back up – I picked my transition spot the day before the race, not on race morning. I noticed I was surrounded by men and was amazed at how freely they all jammed their hands down their pants to rub anti-chaffing stick on their junk. I wasn’t offended by it at all, just in complete awe at the comfort level.

When the time came to get in line to board the ferry, I followed the pack and somehow managed to get in line so I would board very early. It took a long time for the boat to load. I positioned myself in the front middle of the 2nd deck. I wanted to see everyone come in and watch the boat fill. I also wanted half a chance of finding myself in a crowd when the pics got posted. I spoke with a few folks and just waited. I didn’t want to lose my spot. Not yet. I needed to see how people get off the boat. What’s the process?

I was feeling nervous about the jump and focused on what I had learned in swim clinics: slow down, breathe, rotate, relax. Have a plan.

There was motivating party music on the boat as we loaded and pulled out from the dock. I saw  someone climb high and take a picture of the boat filled with people and put my hands out. Just Jump was written on my palms, and I wanted it to show (Funny story, turns out the friendly dude that I asked to write the word “Just” on my right palm was the winner of the 2013 race. He struck up a conversation with me in transition about my breakfast and I had no clue he was a local name.).

I heard Phillip Phillips’ “Home” and felt my husband whisper to me that I never have been alone on the journey – he’s here now and all I need to do is let go.Mine

The Sprints Launch

We stopped to prepare to start launching the sprint athletes into the water. A man named Doug Kirk was the spokesperson of the event. Diagnosed with cancer a year ago and not expected to live passed June 2013, he contacted the race director and was able to get a spot in the race. He shared with the crowd that cancer took many things from him, and may take his life. But, “Racing is mine” and he was racing. He reminded us that we all have crap to deal with. And today, we leave it on the boat and race. It was perfect. I quietly responded that I was happy to leave it and had no intention of picking it up at the end of the day.

Swim Course: 27:11

The current was unbelievable. The buoys were lined up so swimmers would head in a left diagonal towards the beach. But the current pulled everyone to the right and away from the buoys. The current was strong enough that a couple of people had to be rescued from the other side of the jetty. It was a little scarey to see the water patrol dudes wiz off on their jet skis to assist.

The boat had to reposition itself 3 times before all of the sprint athletes were off. Then we repositioned for the international starts. I brought food and my pre-race drink in containers I would leave behind in a recycle bin so I wouldn’t go hungry. There was free food and drinks on the boat, I just have too many food issues that prevent me from happily enjoying something as simple as a soft pretzel.

All the international athletes were asked to stage in the loading area to prepare to launch. There were big showers/fountains we could walk through to get wet and feel the water. It was clear you just walked up to the front and jumped. There was no actual attempt at guessing where you landed for a time trial start. Not a big deal. It meant I left on my terms, not someone else’s.

I heard 2 more songs on the radio that reminded me of my 11 year old thespian daughter who said “Mom, there’s no need to be nervous when you are confident and prepared” when I asked her if she ever got stage fright. Another reminder I was surrounded in love for this journey.

It was my turn… I walked up to the front, a little teary, but ready. All I had to do was jump. The rest was a victory lap.

launchI jumped, threw my hands to the sky in the hopes that the “Just Jump” on my palms would show in the free picture I was about to get to document the experience, bent my legs (so my wetsuit legs wouldn’t fold back), took a breath, covered my face (we were warned that if we didn’t our caps and goggles would likely go missing) and splashed into the water.

Amazing! I surfaced, got my bearings and started swimming. I knew the current was helping, but I couldn’t actually feel it. I just kept saying my brain “I won. I already won. Keep swimming – you already did it.”

It was hard to tell which way to track. There is LOADS of support in the water and kayaks everywhere. At one point I was told to swim for the shore. I ended up getting to the beach at .85 miles (according to my Garmin) in 20 minutes. Yes, a damn fast current.

Got a massive cramp in my left calf and walked the .5ish miles back to my transition area. Didn’t care… I had already won. I needed to run later and drive home… I wasn’t killing myself or my body to get to transition.Saw my sister at transition and beamed… I did it :)

I contemplated ending there. I had already achieved my goal. But then I wouldn’t get the medal.

T1: 9:35

So laughable, really. But I didn’t care. I already won. I took my time. I was REALLY glad I had a pitcher of water so I could rinse of my feet. Dealing with sand in my wet shoes would have been so un-fun for me. I took a long drink, sucked down a gel, got out of the wetsuit, and left. For sure the bike would be simple. It was flat. Turned on the Road ID app for my phone so my husband and sister could track me on the bike and run. So very thankful for that.

Bike: 1:16:13

It is supposed to be a 20 mile course. At the pre-race meeting you learn it’s not even 19. I had trouble with my Garmin and it never switched from swim to bike, and I tracked it at under 15. Who knows. I was nervous that there were no supports on the bike course outside of police and volunteers. I said a silent prayer that I would not blow a tire or fall. I had the supplies and knowledge to deal, just didn’t want to and knew there would be no one on the course to assist should I run into trouble (Thank you Princeton Sports for helping at Iron Girl races!!)

The course is a loop that goes up and over the West Cape May Bridge twice in each cycle. For the international distance you do the loop twice. I had planned to ride the course once before race day. Getting an extra practice swim in seemed more important. The first loop I got passed by lots of people. Oh well. I was just having fun at this point.

The neighborhoods you ride through had handfuls of people in addition to volunteers at every corner. I learned that getting sprayed with a hose while riding my bike was not so much fun when you rely on your prescription sunglasses to see and they are suddenly covered in water. The sprayers responded well to “no thank you!”

Halfway through the first lap I realized poo-pooing a flat course was dumb and I was very thankful for the hours I’d spent on my trainer. Flat courses require constant power. There is no down to recover or get a break.

I had to pee and wondered if I had it in me to go on my bike. I did not – and thought I would swing to the port-a-john on the way to the run. On the second loop it occurred to me:


In my highway of life, the hills are always worth the down greeting you on the other side. Without hills (challenges to face), there is no growth and life is boring. The trick is to balance the hills with the flat roads.

And I wondered why in the heck all the runners I was passing had soaking wet feet. Shouldn’t they be dry by now from the swim?

T2: 3:23

There is quite a bit of space between the bike in/out, run in/out, and my transition spot. When I dismounted my bike I got another nasty cramp. This time it was on the sole of my left foot. Didn’t care. I just had to get through the run. I was almost done. I changed my shoes, took another huge drink (I downed my Vega electrolyte mixture throughout the bike).

Run: 1:18:21

runMy plan was to walk .25 then run a mile and do the 5 mile run in an hour. Yeah, well, then I got to the sand. And the coast line. I understood why all the runners had sopping wet feet and was super thankful I didn’t not have on brand new shoes. And I walked – in the sand. Never saw the port-a-john and REALLY had to go. Oh well – what was another hour?
The first .75 miles of the run is in sand. Then there’s a 1-2 mile stretch followed by another “too long stretch” back in the sand. The course is an out and back. The turn around is on the beach with no timing mat to tell when you go there. Someone suggested I turn around early. I did not.

That would be cheating. I can’t cheat life. Experience has taught me that it only catches up with a vengeance and I wanted no part of that. What good would the medal be if I cheated?

I kept going. It sucked. I knew I was not coming in at my hour mark and didn’t care. I had already won :) This race wasn’t about beating times or hurting myself.

I sang “one foot in front of the other” from Frosty the Snowman the whole course.

The Finish

I joked with the police and volunteers that the turtle class was coming – we were almost done. With a smile on my face, I ran the last .2 and jumped over the finish line. I showed my sister that the Just Jump I had on my palms washed away on the swim… symbolic that it was all over. I vowed that if I ever did it again it would be the aqua bike all the way. Running in sand was stupid. And I wasn’t last. I was 397/401 overall and 122/125 women. I even beat someone younger than I am!


Lessons Learned

  1. Use the rub on sunscreen. I applied the spray on “works when you’re wet” kind twice. You wouldn’t know it by looking at my shoulders.
  2. Ride more on flat courses… a LOT more. Flat bike riding is not for the untrained.
  3. Focus on nutrition. I’m not convinced the cramps and/or my bike performance isn’t also connected to lack of nutrients.
  4. Push harder on the bike. I may have been able to come in faster. Mentally, I was along for a celebration and held back for fear of giving too much too soon. This may be the lesson I work on for the next race I do… push harder, don’t hold back.
  5. Work on the power part of the swim.

What’s Next?

I don’t have plans for any races right now. I need a break from tackling inner demons

UPDATE: Escape the Cape 2015

etc-logo-newThis just in – Escape the Cape 2015 registration was open for 24 hours on October 1. I was set on doing the Auqua-Bike, for no other reason than to experience the jump and the swim, all for the thrill of it. Me + 5 miles of sand was not an option… until I checked out the registration page and learned that Aqua-Bike isn’t an option for 2015. I decided that my desire to jump off the boat and swim again was worth dealing with 5 miles of sand… so I will return to the Cape in 2015 for my next Escape! And this time, I’ll have about 15 other Mid-Maryland Tri Club members with me along for the ride. I can’t wait!


  1. Awesome! I’m signed up…and I too am not looking forward to 5 miles of sand.

  2. I foresee club trips to Sandy Point just to practice sand running. I’d like to do more running than walking next time in the hopes that one day, I might podium. I’d have a much stronger chance at this event with intentional training :)

  3. What courage! Can’t wait to have you back and I know you’re going to have a blast!!!

  4. Beautifully written and congratulations! I will also be jumping off the boat in 2015 and facing my demon of running in the sand after a dismal run at Tri the Wildwoods. I will probably be spending a lot of time at Sandy Point as well this off season. Good luck in June!

  5. What a great read – glad you enjoyed the day!

    (I was the guy with the funny accent in the spot right next to you in transition)

  6. John Torres :

    I LOVE THIS POST!!! We can all identify with some of your struggles in life and as a triathlete. Hope to meet you at ETC next year! :-)

  7. I’m so glad you enjoyed this! Thanks for commenting and happy training. I promise to have all sorts of words written all over myself again next year so you can find me :)

  8. Thanks for commenting. I remember you! I was thankful that you were so friendly and helpful. I appreciated your wisdom and suggestions for the day. And I wish I would have asked for your sunscreen lotion, lol!

  9. One year I plan to do all three in the DelMo series. Maybe 2015. Any tips for Tri the Wildwoods? I’m already planning to take trips to Sandy Point… I can at least pretend I know what I’m doing for ETC then, hahaha.

  10. Thanks for commenting! No doubt, it will be a blast. Your events are amazing. DelMo Sports goes above and beyond pampering all of its athletes… despite the sand. Thanks for all you do to make ETC the best experience for athletes and their spectators.

  11. Mike Nicely :

    Speechless. Very well written. I saw your pics being posted by your sister that day.

  12. I too faced life altering experiences that made me want to do this race the first year … Into the 2nd year I knew something was off with me and saw the pleas of Doug Kirk and gladly and proudly knew he needed my spot more than I did … I reached out to Steve and pleaded with him to allow me to give Doug my spot …and thankfully he did … The only 2 things I wanted from Steve and Doug was to allow me to do this for Doug with no repayment … And to Doug shake my hand when you cross the finish line … Which he did …. I ended up with 2 surgeries last year … And this year I’m back and jan 2 starts my training … This event holds so much for me as my husband being a local boy … Unexpectedly took his life in 7/4/2010 and I know if he was here he would have been proud for me to accomplish my goal … This year I start a 2nd chapter in my life with new love and support and together we will train and kick ass to cross this finish line !!!! See you all race day !!!

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