I'm at my father in laws house in Ashland with very spotty internet. Sorry for the rough editing!
Achieving a long term goal is without question the greatest feeling an athlete can ever experience. Last September the weekend we bought our new home I decided that was going to start riding my bike every day before work. My revelation last year was that I did not know the first thing about training myself as a cyclist. Talking with cyclist after cyclist it became apparent that the recipe for fast racing seasons was found through hour after mind numbing hour of easy rides on the trainer in the off season. It was during those early morning rides that the idea was hatched to devote my 2012 racing season to the USA Triathlon Sprint National race. Somewhere in the course of every training ride over the past year I have thought about this race. The last two weeks of my preparation have been filled with conflicting emotions. There have been moments of joy thinking about the months of hard work that went into creating this strength. I’ve also been sad at times knowing that within a few days I would only been left with that odd nostalgia following a big race.
Saturday afternoon Mary, Steve, and I set out from Ashland with a vague idea of how to get to Burlington in a relatively straight line. Twenty miles into the journey we were already questioning ourselves and whether or not we should have stuck to the main roads to connect with Route 89. Warren, New Hampshire appears to be like interstellar space when it comes to cell phone service so we stopped and bought a good old fashion road map. Steve was a perfect navigator and never had to re-calibrate like my Map Quest app on my phone. Once we hit 89 we made great time while rocking out hard to Alice in Chains and my new favorite band Tool. Arriving in Burlington always swells me with emotions. There’s an irony in the fact that my career as a competitive distance runner ended in the very same park that I would be trying to capture my first national title in my new sport. Contrary to last years race when I was ailing with low white blood cells and microscopic colitis, I felt simply fantastic. For some reason there was also a lack of mojo in Burlington last year. Everything was falling into place in real time this year. We found a great parking spot on Main Street and were able to check in and drop our bikes with little complication. From the park our trip to our hotel was significantly shorter than expected and an absolute breeze. We unloaded and were back in town within an hour assuming that we would have to wait an hour for a table at any of the hotspots on Church Street. The squares kept falling into place when we were able to get into our first choice without a wait! Mary and Steve did an amazing job of keeping me relaxed and laughing all night which always makes a big difference in my race day performance. Mary and Steve thought dinner was an excellent time to have an intervention with me regarding my swim. Steve is convinced that if I dedicate my winter to swim racing that I can be a top flight pro in the next couple of years. Steve and I knocked back a couple of glasses of red wine while we loaded up on heaping piles of spaghetti and meatballs. I was much more interested in Mary’s spicy shrimp penne but we decided that it would be a little to intense for my stomach the night before a race. Back at the hotel we got everything in order for race morning then did our best to get a good night of sleep. I took a little longer to drift off than I would have liked but overall I had a pretty solid night of rest given the amount of pressure I was putting on myself for the race.
I knew waking up on race day that I had good legs. I further confirmed this with a quick walk to the car to pre pack some belongings. The messages my body were sending me were all good and I started to get goosebumps with anticipation. I downed a bagel and some oatmeal with two small cups of Monte Alto Peruvian dark roast that I had smuggled across state lines. Mary was aces on the commute to the race and was able to drop us right at the entrance to the transition zone. Sixteen hundred bikes all lined up is a pretty daunting site when trying to stay calm before a race. Steve and I made relatively short work with our transition set-ups and were ready to hang out for a while while the other races started.
The wave starts of these championship races have obvious advantages and disadvantages. Everyone in their divisions gets to have their own race against their main rivals which is a great set-up. Essentially there are seventeen different races happening out on the course at any given moment. The tactics vary so mush within these races that matching results in the overall seems like a moot point in my opinion. If there was some way that top competitors from each division could match up in a single wave then there would be a meaningful overall result. Enough of my rant, back to the recap.
Mary met back up with Steve and I as we waited on the dock. I did a light five minute run on the grass forty-five minutes before the start before squeezing into my new Orca Apex wetsuit. The mood stayed light and relaxed all the way up to the start. I’m sure a number of my competitors had written me off as a dope because I was so relaxed. I’m sure I gave the impression of someone who was there to participate and have a good time with the experience. While there was partial truth to that I also had the quiet confidence of the best training block of my life in the immediate rearview mirror. The volunteers ushered us through the first gate and it stuck me again how relaxed I was opposed to the previous year. I knew my swim was still a question mark but I also knew that if I stayed relaxed that I could overcome anything short of a disaster. Once we were through the yacht club I dove into the lake and started my swim warm-up. My excitement continued to grow as I had the rare experience of feeling fast and relaxed in the water. As we were corralled the the line for five minutes of treading water I just kept focusing on relaxation. I knew that it was going to be an aggressive and fast start. I knew that I was going to be behind. I just needed to trust that it would all work out in the end.
At the horn I was overtaken, dunked, grabbed, and kicked like never before. To my surprise at the first turn I had settled into the back of the main pack. I found a clear line the entire second straight and felt as if I was finding a good rhythm. In hindsight I wish that I had been more aggressive on this stretch but it didn’t seem to cost me to much distance. The third stretch was undoubtably my worst of the race. I got off line quickly and the rising sun made it nearly impossible to sight the next turn buoy. I actually ended up stopping twice on this stretch to look where I was going before continuing with the race. It was a bit of a mess! My last two-hundred was my best triathlon swimming ever! I was moving well and catching people that were out above their heads with the leaders. The second I beached it was game on! A shot of adrenaline coursed through my veins as I ran up the boat ramp and I transformed into the most dangerous predator in the race. Into the transition everything felt relaxed and smooth as chaos reined all around.
My best estimate was that I gave a little over two minutes away to the top guys so I knew that I needed to make short work of the transition and get on the bike as quickly as possible so I could get to work. I sprinted out of T1 at full speed and had an awesome flying mount into my shoes which I had rubber banded to my bike for the first time. Past Mary and out of Waterfront park I had already overtaken a few of the swimmers. Riding out of town the whole race was in front of me as I cranked out high watts on the big ring. Back into town approaching the Battery Street hill I daydreamed momentarily about the marathon in 2010. This was the point when it dawned on me that I was not going to be able to hang on with Justin Fyffe and that I was not going to run 2:20. I decided in that moment that Battery Street was going to be different this time around. I mashed a huge gear up the hill and the thought never crossed my mind to get off the big ring. I was flying past several competitors and started to break into the previous waves. Schism by Tool started to scream in my head as I raged on with every pedal stroke. Onto the bypass I saw a group ahead “working together” and threw another log on the fire to catch and pass them. Every time the grade tilted upward I instantly caught whatever was ahead of me and quickly dispatched the remains. After the second turnaround I got locked into a serious battle with a competitor that I had passed. I dared a glance down at the speedometer and was slightly stunned to see that we were flying up a hill at twenty-eight miles per hour! My legs were screaming now with every stroke as I did my best to drop this guy. After the third turnaround we were heading back to town and I knew that that battle would continue on the downhill. This guy had a sick bike and a very slick disk on the back that was killing me at top speed. While we were locked in this battle we were passing everyone in sight. We had a USAT motorcycle following the last four miles so we had to be extra careful about playing by the rules. Looking back now I’m curious if he got slapped with a penalty because a few times he seemed to ride my wheel a little longer than I was comfortable with. Up the exit ramp I knew the end was near and that I could throw whatever was left at the last mile and a half of the bike leg. Down Battery Street I took huge risks and did not heed any of the warnings to slow down. Finally I was able to separate from my rival of the last twenty minutes. Into the park I was so jacked up thinking about the run that my mouth was watering.
Off the bike at the dismount line I went into a frantic sprint to get into my flats and onto the run as soon as humanly possible. Racking my bike I felt like the Hulk, literally bursting out of my skin to get on the run. I was in and out in an instant and went to work dismantling the lead of the swim bikers. Up the major climb the adrenaline wore off and the pain of the run began. When the climb leveled I could see a number of my competitors up the road and they all appeared to be flying. The next athlete in my sights set the stage for what was about to happen. I got overly excited and closed a twenty meter gap in under two-hundred meter. After the pass was executed it dawned on me that I was on the best run leg of my life. Suddenly I was locked into five minute pace and everything became a blur. I was obsessed with looking up the road. Literally craving another person to catch and pass. Heading down the hill onto the bike path I made peace with the fact that whatever happened was ok because I had literally done everything perfect all day up to that point. This feeling seemingly emboldened me further for the last mile of the race. Running down that godforsaken bike path that had shattered my dreams two years prior was liberating. Back into the outskirts of the park I could see a lone figure dressed in black in the distance. I knew what had to be done. In my head I knew that I had to catch and beat him. It was the whole race right there in the last two minutes. By the time we hit the three mile mark I had reduced the gap to fifteen yards. My summer workouts with Greg echoed in my head and I kicked with every shred of energy that last two-hundred meters. By a hundred to go I had drawn even but I wanted more so I dug down even further. I dug to that dark place deep within that we all have. That place we all hate to go but know that we will inevitably have to visit from time to time. That brittle piece of glass protecting the fire extinguisher that can save us all. That terrible and beautiful residue in our inner crucible that can produce jaw dropping feats of strength and will when the time is right. The screaming in my head was a deafening roar that numbed my bones to the core and then it was over. Through the chute my stomach contorted in ever possible shape. I dry heaved so hard that I felt my collapsed stomach push against my spine. I swelled with intense pride as I walked to the boardwalk continually fighting the urge to wither and wretch. I sat and basked in the perfection of the moment and the sheer brilliance of the Vermont sun. Every nerve ending and synapse fired with beautiful messages of joy and self-satisfaction. Whatever the outcome, life was most assuredly good.
Walking back to find Mary I had a brief conversation with the athlete that I had passed in the last hundred. He was gathered with his family that looked at me with the slightest tinge of disgust. I commented on how badly I wanted the race and how hard it was to catch and overtake him in the waning stages of the run. What I assumed to be his mother shot back a curt “why did you have to catch him?” I sensed that my company was not a welcome addition so I gave them my best wishes and continued on looking for Mary. Elation and shattered emotions separated by mere seconds.
Mary was waiting on the other side of the park where I had passed her moments ago. Mary was so supportive and stoked about my race that she was nearly speechless. Steve’s recent streak of consistent running made a huge difference in his performance from other races this year and he was able to finish strong. Had Steve checked the clydesdale box on his entry he would have made the podium in that highly competitive division. We all sat and reveled in the astonishing perfection of the day. The weather, the company, the race, simply everything. The final result ended up being the national championship in the division that I had been chasing since September. When I got my my finish split readout I was shocked that it said that I had won! Looking at the complete results the years hard work is shown but also reveal the potential that still lies ahead. I had the fastest run split of the sixteen hundred competitors in 15:46. I knew that I had that in my legs given my recent workouts and performances. I really think that without the shocking first hill that I could have scared 15:30. Overall I had the fourth fastest bike leg coming in at just under twenty-five and a half miles per hour. Last year I struggled to ride above twenty-three miles per hour in races so the hours, days and months of hard worked gained me two miles per hour in race settings. Even with my hard work in the pool and ponds this year I only managed the three hundred and twenty-third fastest swim in the field. There is a weight and enormity in the discrepancy between my swim and those of the other top races. If I could swim the two plus minutes faster that the other top men routinely produce I would have walked away unquestionably the best. Looking ahead to next years world championships in London I know that I can be in contention for the win if I can address this weakness with the same zeal and passion as I did with the bike this year. First and foremost I think I need to build strength and power in my shoulders before diving head first into swim training.
Lastly I would like to thank everyone that has supported this journey over the past year. When I made the transition to triathlon full time several people questioned my decision. I got a lot of comments suggesting that I was leaving to much on the table with running. I knew in my heart that if I dedicated myself to this new venture that I would be able to succeed at a very high level. Mary has been there every step of the way as the most supportive wife in the world. When I started setting the alarm clock for 4:18 in the morning she never questioned my motives. Every step of every race she has been there by my side. Success and failure can be separated by mere seconds in this sport and she has always kept me level headed through the roller coaster of my emotions. I could never have done any of this without her!