This was it. The only weekend of the season that mattered. The other races were fun train-thru events, but this was the biggest main event since IM Wisconsin. It was an event that I never imagined that I would be invited to compete in.
As a middle to back of the pack age-grooper that occasionally managed to place in the top 10-25%, I was never a podium threat. That changed last season when I won my age group at a local triathlon. This had the effect of getting me invited to the USA Triathlon National Championships in Omaha. It is my first qualification/invitation only race. That’s a jaw dropping accomplishment for someone that had never been athletic and who had spent most of his adult life as an obese couch potato. I have not been as excited or nervous about an event since Wisconsin.
My anxiety level had skyrocketed because I had a really bad swim towards the end of my last season. This race would be twice the distance. That scared me.
To make matters worse, I looked at last year’s event schedule. My age group was second to last and the time cut-offs were much tighter then any triathlon I had ever seen. I did not think that I could make the cutoffs if I was in one of the final waves. I need not have worried. The schedule this year had a bit more of a buffer, and my Age Group was seeded much earlier. This allowed me an extra 2 hours that I would not have had last year.
The weather forecast was another wild card. There was a week of 100+F days in Omaha before race weekend and the water temp was recorded as 86F! Long range forecast was for low 90’s on race day. Fortunately, the weather pattern shifted and we had a string of high 70’s and low 80’s around race weekend.
This event has 2 races. The first is the Olympic Distance Triathlon. I had to qualify to register for this race by winning (or finishing in the top 10%) of my age group at a USAT sanctioned triathlon of ANY distance. So, only the top athletes get invited to this race. The field is stacked with National and World Champions and is one of the 4 most competitive Age Group Triathlon races IN THE WORLD (other 3 being the ITU World Championships, Ironman World Championships, and Ironman 70.3 World Championships). The top athletes today would be invited to represent Team USA at the ITU (International Triathlon Union) Age Group World Championships in Australia next year.
In other words, I was WAY out of my league here.
I was ok with that. I had qualified for this event fair and square. I earned my spot. It was a thrill to participate and a privilege to be invited. But, looking at last year’s results, I had no doubt that I would get a DLF (Dead Last Finish) in my Age Group. It was truly a case where I was honored just to participate.
I drove from Minneapolis to Omaha on Thursday. I was hoping to get to the race venues early enough to sign in at early packet pickup that afternoon. I arrived about 30 minutes before they shutdown for the day. It was quiet and the process was a breeze. Bib, disposable timing chip (cool!), swim cap, shirt, visor, and goodie bag. The swag was…blah. The shirt indicated USAT National Championships (but did not specify which event or year). The visor only had the USAT logo. The bag at least noted the event.
After that, I went to the Event Merchandise store (if you wanted anything commemorating the weekend, you had to but it) and I picked up a name T-shirt, running shirt with course map, coffee mug, magnet and sticker. I thought about the jacket and hat but neither excited me so I left them in the store.
After packet pickup, I headed into Omaha to grab some food. There are two dishes that Omaha in known for…one of them is steak (big surprise there). I had a couple of places that I wanted to check out but I only made it to one of them…The Drover. I had the Whiskey Marinated Filet (medium rare) with all the fixing.
The steak was awesome! The place was very busy (I could see why) and I was there much longer then I thought I would be. Once I was done, I headed off to my hotel for some much needed sleep.
The next day, I got my stuff organized and had to check in my bike in transition. While at the venue, I took in the sights at the expo and I scoped out the course. The lake was calm and warm. A temporary dock was set up for an in-water race start. The lake was your typical Midwest lake: small with green water, but warm and tranquil. Organizers had arranged for a practice swim if desired. I skipped this, but it was nice just taking it all in. I then drove the bike course. It was mostly flat and straight, but there was one really big hill. It was long, steep, lots of twists and turns, narrow, and really intimidating. It would be a serious test of my ability.
After this, I went to the race briefing. Race briefing was annoying. Like really, really annoying. For about an hour, the head referee went on and on about the most insignificant rules and that we should expect the refs to enforce them forcefully. For example, we are issued a bike sticker with our bib number on it. It needs to be positioned so it could be easily viewed from either side of the bike. If referees have to squint to read the bike number (i.e. If the sticker is crooked or if the underseat bike bag was partially obscuring the number), then we would get a time penalty. Sure, referees need to be able to identify who is racing by having an identifiable bib number, but we don’t just have that one number. We have the number temporary tattooed on our bodies in FOUR locations (both upper arms, both outer calfs) and THREE stickers on our helmet. There was similar silliness about bib stickers on our swim caps (that also had the bib number written on both sides with a sharpie) even though they would not stick on the cap (penalty for littering if the sticker or swim cap fell off during the swim), or if the Bib was not attached when leaving transition for the run (holding it and attaching it while running is against the rules I guess). Ultimately, the ref had a one hour power trip and it soured the good vibes I had of the event to that point.
After that, I needed more good food. Aside from steak, Omaha is known for Ruben Sandwiches (they claim to be the birthplace of the Ruben…who knew?) Now, I have never liked Rubens but I was certainly open to trying one again. There is endless debate in Omaha about who makes the best Ruben in town. The consistent answer was Crescent Moon Ale House so I checked it out. It was a dive bar (always a good sign) and the sandwich did not disappoint. It is almost worth the trip to Omaha. Highly recommended if you are ever in town.
After that, I headed back to the hotel knowing I had a long day ahead.