August 21, 2016
When it comes to races, participants usually have a script visualized in their minds eye. Sometimes it’s a dream. Sometimes it’s a fear. Mostly, it is a vision of what has gone before, and a realistic a hope for something a little bit better.
Some races transend expectation. This may be good or bad. Occasionally, they are both. A race that baffles the racer at the end of the day in every possible way.
This was one of those races. Nothing followed the script. Nothing was even close. It made for my worst and best race in recent memory.
My training volumes and intensity have been down from last year. I showed up to participate, not compete. But, I had thoughts that I could get my first ever podium finish. This is not because I thought I could smoke the competition. Instead, I remembered that this was a very small triathlon. Most participants got a podium award. Unfortunately, I was in the largest and most competative Age Group last year. Despite a decent showing, I ended up 5th out of 6 participants. If my age group happened to be a little smaller this time, I could get lucky and score a third place finish…maybe.
I found out last week that HITS would not be returning the Minnesota next year. Judging from last year’s event, this was not be a shock. About 50 participants in the full, 100 or so in the half, and small showings in the Sprint and Olympic distances. The medals and shirts were the same for everyone. The course was dull, even for a sprint, with only a small number of volunteers. Despite rock bottom pricing ($200 early bird pricing for the full), HITS just never caught on. Turnout is much better at local events (participants, volunteers, spectators). So, it was no surprise that this event was absent from next year’s calendar. I am starting to wonder is there even will be a 2018 HITS calendar. HITS has dropped events in Texas, Arizona, Colorado and now Minnesota. This leaves only events in New York, Florida and California. I wasn’t planning on running this event in 2017, but the loss of competition in the market is never a good thing. I truly hope that they can make a comeback.
The forcast called for a cold front to come through town the day before the event. Predicted morning temps was to hover around 50F. Fortunately, there wasn’t enough time for the lake temps to drop. The swim would be wetsuit legal, but comfortable. The run would be nice. I expected to freeze on the bike course, and I started going through my cool weather cycling wardrobe. The day before my race, HITS held their longer events (140.6 and 70.3). Those guys got clobbered with cold, rain, wind, and whitecaps. I definately got the better day of the weekend to compete.
Unfortunately, I did everything wrong leading up to this event. My training was sidetracked. I did not swim or bike for a month before this race. My running volume was down as well. I spent the day before the race watching Gwen Jorgensen win a Gold Medal in Rio (while Sarah True received a heartbreaking DNF). That night, Canada’s rock band – The Tragically Hip – streamed their final show online. The lead singer was diagnosed with brain cancer and had just had a craniotomy, chemo and radiation, and decided that he wanted to tour one last time. I had to watch the show. It was electrifying. But it also wasn’t over until 11:00 pm. Since I had a 90 minute drive to the race site the next morning, and the early transition time, I had to get up by 2:30 am. That gave me about 3 hours of sleep….
The weather turned out better and worse then expected. It ended up being warmer (high 50’s) but felt colder due to strong winds. As I arrived at the venue, I could hear (but not see) the waves crashing against the shore. This immediately started to mess with my confidence. This is odd since I have swam in far worse conditions without issue. But the cool morning air, strong winds and the sound of the waves messed with by head. I suddenly had a bad feeling about this race.
It is a small event. Parking was close to the park and I got there just as packet pick up was starting. Generic shirt again (and wrong size), chip, bib, stickers and back to the car I went. After getting most of my gear together, I hiked back to transition and got my area organized. HITS does provide a nice transition area with benches for each participant. After setting up, I decided that it would be easier to get my wetsuit on in the back of my SUV instead on the wet grass…so another hike back to the car. I was walking back to transition for the last time when I took note that I was walking barefoot…I had left my running shoes in the car. My head was clearly not in the game that morning.
After everything was in place, I headed to the beach and saw the water for the first time. The waves weren’t as bad as they sounded, but there were a lot of them, and there was a very strong current coming towards the shore.
I was the first to hop in the water for a warmup. The water was very comfortable…but the anxiety skyrocketed as soon as I started taking a few test strokes. The current and frequent waves made it impossible for me to get into a rhythm and I started panicking. The more I swam, the worse it became. I started to doubt my ability to do this event.
We were called back to shore for a quick pre-race briefing. It would be a mass start from the beach. I didn’t really pay attention to the rest as I was trying to get my heart rate and breathing under control. I couldn’t. Moments later the horn sounded. I let the small mass start (50 or so racers) go ahead and then, with an intense feeling of foreboding, I followed them into the water…
Let’s just sum it up. The swim was a complete disaster. It was my worst swim since Ironman 70.3 Racine (with the freezing lake temps, six foot swells, the current and the undertow). At least there, I had a reason to panic.
I may have been 100 feet from shore when I felt certain that I was going to drown out here. I actually turned around and started heading back to the beach. I then saw a paddle board that was closer and headed towards her instead (mostly because it was closer). I tried to calm down (didn’t really work) and the paddle boarder agreed to stay near me (since I was already about in last place and marked by the lifeguards as the most likely to need rescuing).
The course was a triangle. The first leg, I would be fighting the current the whole way. The second leg, I would have waves coming onto my right side (the side I breath from), and the third leg, the current would help me back to shore.
I swam another hundred feet and had to latch on to the board again. I was doing head up breast stroke half the time. I doubt I took more then 5-6 freestyle strokes in a row. This pattern continued until I reached the turn buoy. I grabbed on to it for a break. I looked around me and there were a couple of struggling swimmers nearby, but almost everyone was long gone. I was dreading the second leg. Waves would be hitting me in the face as I tried to breath. I figured that the first one would send me into a complete panic. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. I was able to keep my face above water, but I never found a rhythm. I was still doing a fair amount of breast stroke. I was still taking breathers on paddle boards and buoys.
By the time I reach the final turn buoy, I started to wonder if I would miss the swim cutoff. We had thirty minutes to complete the swim. It felt that I was in the water longer then that. I checked my Garmin and realized that I never started to timer. I forgot that I could have just looked at time of day since we started racing as a mass start at 7:00 am. I was having that kind of morning.
I started the final leg, and the current finally started to help me. I started to get into a rhythm, but I still fighting a very high anxiety level, and a certainty that I would get my first DNF. After what seemed like an eternity, my feet touched the sand and I crawled back onto the beach.
Swim Split – 26:57
I expected to be handing over my timing chip. Instead, I was directed to the wetsuit stripper. A quick strip later and I was in transition. I looked around and I few stragglers we’re heading out on the bike and I was the last one there. I knew I passed at least one swimmer at the end of the last leg, so I was not dead last, but I was very close. I had to start catching up. I had to vindicate myself a little bit on the bike. I tried to get through transition as fast as I could, grabbed my bike, and headed out of T1.
T1 Split – 2:38
I looked at my Garmin. It still wasn’t on. But time of day was 7:30 am. So my swim + T1 time was 30 minutes. I knew that I had made the swim cutoff and wasn’t going to get an automatic DNF. But it had been close. I felt angry and embarrassed. I knew I wasn’t quite dead last, but I was close. I least nobody would likely be passing me on the bike. Hopefully, I could start reeling people in.
It was time to redeem myself.
I attacked from behind. In the first mile, I spotted the couple that had left transition just as I arrived…
“On your left!”
A mile later, I come to another rider…
“On your left!”
Then my first group of riders…
“On your left!”
You get the idea.
By the time I had reached the turnaround (it was a simple out and back course), I had lost count.
On the way back, I counted how many were behind me. Twenty two. Not bad…
The ride back was lonely. I passed one more cyclist. Didn’t see anyone else. The stronger cyclist were way ahead of me, and I was all by myself in the middle of the pack.
It was a cold ride. Being fresh out of the lake didn’t help and the windy conditions made it worse. But the hard cycling and the sun did make for a pretty comfortable ride back.
A few more miles at a steady pace and I was back in T2.
Bike Split – 44:10
I just tried to not waste any time. Certainly room for improvement.
T2 Split – 1:13
I had found some redemption on the bike, and wanted to keep that going on the run. I still knew that a podium finish was a possibility and didn’t want to just miss it because I got lazy in the final few miles.
The first part of the course is a dirt trail. Unfortunately, torrential rains had struck the night before, and the trail was a mud run in locations. I maneuvered through as best I could and got to the road that we were racing on.
If it was cold for the bike, it was ideal for the run. I didn’t think that I would be reeling anyone in, but I wanted to be passed as little as possible. The course was again a simple out and back. On the was out, someone just flew past me. Fortunately, it was a female and not in my AG. I remembered at this point that the body markers had not placed the competitors age on the calf…I would not know if someone was in my AG or not. This would become a big deal later on.
I reached the turnaround and got some water. Several seconds later, I passed someone going out towards the turnaround. He looked my age. I glanced at his calf. His age wasn’t recorded. I had no way of knowing if he was in my age group or not. But a voice in my head told me to make damn certain that he didn’t pass me. I look further back. He still had a little bit of concrete between him and the turnaround. I had a comfortable lead with 1.5 miles to go.
I passed a small number of walkers on the way back in. None of them looked like AG competition. I glanced back occasionally. He was gaining on me, but I didn’t think that he could make up the rest of the distance in time. He was running out of run course.
Soon, I was back at the muddy path. I tried to stay in the grassy areas so I didn’t slip too much. A fall here and I would be overtaken. But, I safely maneuvered the path.
I got back to the park. I just had to get to the picnic pavilion and it would be over. Head down, final sprint, and I crossed the finish line.
Run Split – 28:27
Finish Time – 1:43:25
It certainly wasn’t the race I wanted. The swim was a disaster. The bike went well, but I was had significantly less training then last season and my bike split was slower then 2015. My run was a little faster this time, and my transitions were improved. But I was seven minutes slower overall. A podium was still a possibility, but it just depended on what the rest of my age group accomplished this day.
I got my medal and a bit of food. The first page of race results was printed and taped to a table. I looked at it. Nobody in my age group on the list. Maybe I had a chance after all. An announcement stated that the award ceremony would take place in about 30 minutes. So, a went to transition, grabbed my gear and headed to the car. After a quick clothing change and loading everything into the vehicle, I headed back to the park to see if I got lucky. I did not feel optimistic.
Upon my return, they were just setting up. I returned to the results board and a second page was posted. I scan down the age group column and started to curse. Two back-to-back M45-49 had made the list. I didn’t see anyone else in my AG. I was still in the running for third. There was still a glimmer of hope.
One last scan of the sheet and I saw it. My jaw dropped because I saw my name…
It was listed next to the first M45-49 result.
I had just won my age group. First place.
I scanned the sheets again. Nobody ahead of my in M45-49. There was one right behind me however. I was right to listen to that voice in my head. The guy chasing me on the run course was in my age group….and he was fast. His run split was 21:53. He had made up 6:30 on me in the run. If he had been 16 seconds faster, he would have won my age group. But he didn’t. I held him off. I was on a podium for the first time…and I was alone at the top.
I looked at the results again and took a pic. I texted my wife…and a few friends. I could not believe what I was seeing. The award ceremony was starting and I headed over.
The awards just kind of whizzed by. I was in a fog for most of it. The announcer got to M45-49 and I held my breath. He announced my name. First place!
I was just dazed after winning the award. Someone I was talking with earlier in the day had come over to congratulate me. He then asked “So, are you going to go to the Nationals?”
USA Triathlon National Age Group Championship. The 2016 event had just occurred a week earlier in Omaha. Some of my most talented triathlon buddies had qualified and attended. I remember reading their race reports and thinking how cool it would be to attend…but that I had no chance in the world of qualifying for it.
“You do know that you just qualified for Nationals right?”
No. No, I didn’t know that.
I got a dry mouth thinking about it. This is thiathlon equivalent to qualifying for the Boston Marathon, or the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
USAT is the national triathlon organization. They sanction almost every race in the country. They select and train the Olympic athletes, set up collegiate programs, and have a series of regional and national championships. Most events are open and no qualification is needed…except for the Olympic Distance National Age Group Championship (the sprint event held on the same weekend is open to everyone).
I started to do some research. Triathletes qualify by completing a USAT sanctioned triathlon of ANY distance (super sprint to Ironaman) and finishing 1st in their Age Group OR in the top 10% of their age group. This race was USAT sanctioned, I was first in my AG, and a sprint was acceptable distance. There was a little bit of fine print, but none of it seemed to affect me. I reached out to friends who had just finished the race a week earlier, and they confirmed what I suspected. I had just qualified for Nationals.
They warned me not to hold my breath. Next year’s championship schedule would not be announced until the end of the year, and I likely would not get an invitation until January, but I had made it. They also confirmed that the event will be in Omaha for one more year. The venue would be perfect for me. Omaha is a 6 hour drive from home (I could not imagine shipping all my gear and flying to the race), and it was a calm inland lake for the swim (I just could not bring myself to doing an ocean or Great Lakes swim again). It would be a year until the event, so I would have time train for the longer distance in the spring…and get out to do some open water training since I clearly need it. Finally, the schedule shows that the Olympic Distance is held on Saturday, and that I could also do the sprint on Sunday. Sounds like an amazing opportunity!
So, yeah, I had a script in my mind for this event. I would be middle of the pack. It would be my best chance of the year to get a podium spot if luck went my way. I panicked on the swim, I almost turned around and quit. I almost missed the cutoff on the swim and almost got a DNF. Instead, I persevered, had a strong bike, a strategic run, I won my age group, and I qualified for 2017 National Championships. None of that was ever in the script. Sometimes, dreams come true. Occasionally, things you couldn’t even dare to dream of will come true as well. You never know what race day will bring…