Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Race Of My Life - 2012 USAT Sprint National Championships

Weeks/Days Leading Up To The Race – I’d had a great season leading up to Nationals. Couple of overall wins, age group wins in every race, two sub-20 minute 5K’s off the bike…only thing I had to deal with was a nagging sciatic problem that effected my hamstring and glute with pain. It caused me to miss some run training that I knew would not allow me to be at the top of my game for Nationals.

Then, a week before Nationals, on an 8 mile run (my longest distance of my whole season) I strained a muscle in my upper calf. I couldn’t believe it. I was pretty down that I’d probably blown my chance for a good finish at Nationals. I knew right then I’d not run again until eight days later when I got off my bike in the race. Would it be better in one week? I tried to treat it aggressively and I had Dr. Faye Jones at Blair Chiropractic Center give me Active Release Technique treatments on it. Biking and swimming didn’t bother it at all.

So, though I’d had a good season, I knew that I probably needed more running miles under my belt to do well at the big dance. I hadn’t done the long distance bike rides like I’d done last year. 40 milers were “long” this season with one 60 miler recorded. On the drive up to Burlington from Manchester, NH where we’d flown into, I felt my chest tightening up with a chest cold coming on. Really? This was very bad news and I had pretty much given up hope of a high finishing place.

We arrived in Burlington, VT on Thursday after our flights were messed up and spending the night unexpectantly in Chicago…but United Airlines paid for a room at the Hilton and two meals. Nice. The weather in Burlington was beautiful and the forecast was good. Race was on Sunday. When we got to town I registered, picked up my packet and we drove the course. We tried to lay low on Friday and Saturday. I went for a swim in the lake on Friday with some friends from Omaha and I rode my bike for 30 minutes before checking it in.

Race Morning – It was a beautiful morning. 50 degrees and an off shore breeze made the water nice and calm. I warmed up, stretched, got everything set up in transition and with Jen, headed to the swim start. I felt relaxed and at peace. I’d prayed a lot about my race and asked the Lord for a “clean” race, meaning no mechanical problems or flats on the bike and no leg issues on the run that would cause me to have to slow down or drop out. I didn’t ask for anything I’d not worked for. I’d thought about this day, every workout I’d done for the last year. I was here last year, injured and hobbled to 13th in my age group. This year, I wanted to do much better.

Goals…well, top ten at Nationals would be nice. Top five, much better. A top three podium spot would be, absolutely amazing, and winning? THAT was a dream that was way, way out there. It was a goal I really didn’t think was in the realm of reality. I was going up against guys currently USAT ranked # 1, 3, 12 and 13 in the nation in my age group. I was ranked 19th. On paper, I was a long shot to even get on the podium. But, I still had peace and knew this was in God’s hands. I’d done all I could to prepare and I knew I had friends back home praying for a clean race for me. My chest cold had not really developed and though it still felt tight, I was happy to breathe fairly normally.

750 Meter Swim – 12:40 – Just before the start of the race, treading water waiting for the starting horn to sound, I smiled and thanked God for letting me be in this race. Again, peace… I spied the course which had two right hand turns around the first two buoys, the second one taking us right into the rising sun and basically blinding us all. We needed to make about a 120 degree turn around that buoy to head for the third one, then the fourth, then the finish.

Horn sounded! “Stay calm and don’t go crazy, Lincoln,” I told myself. First buoy, not too crowded. I was off to a good start though I could see the faster swimmers already opening up a gap. Around the second buoy and, I couldn’t see anything because of the sun and splashing. Here, I made a bad mistake by turning closer to 180 degrees instead of 120 and, without knowing it, I was heading straight back the way I’d come. My brain thought I was on course but I wasn’t. I swam straight into another swimmer coming straight at me. “What is he doing???” I swerved to the left, looked left to see the “train” of swimmers going away from me to my left. I realized then what I’d done, so I swam back towards the line of swimmers going the correct direction, realizing I’d just lost precious time and maybe shot a hole in my race just a few minutes into it.

Once back on track I swam strong to the finish. Jen, watching from the shore, became very worried when she counted about 14 swimmers in my heat coming out of the water ahead of me. Before the race, I’d decided I wasn’t going to wear a watch and I took the computer/speedometer off my bike because I wanted to just go all out and race by my heart and not numbers. So, I had no idea how much time I’d lost because I didn’t know my swim time. I wanted to swim under 12 minutes which I’d done in other races this year for that distance. Little did I know that I was almost two minutes behind the leader(s).

Transition 1 – 1:32 – Out of the water and sprinting for the transition area, I didn’t see or hear Jen so I didn’t know where I stood place wise. I had a good transition, with my great Xterra wetsuit coming off quickly. Helmet and Zeal sunglasses on, I went running as fast as I could towards the bike mount area. I did see one of my biggest rivals getting his helmet on when I ran by so I thought I was doing better off than I actually was. Good transition though.

12.4 Mile Bike – 30:43 The route headed south through town about 1.5 miles, then a u-turn and back through town, then out of town to the north about four-five miles, turn around and come back. There was a huge long hill at about the 2.5 mile point. I put my head down and quoted Rocky Balboa when he shoved Clubber Lang at the end of a round saying, “You ain’t so bad. You ain’t so bad!” And, it really wasn’t.

One other funny thing was that I saw my shadow early in the bike and noticed something was sticking up out of my helmet. What? I then realized the straw from my aero bottle on my aerobars had pulled out when I lifted my helmet off my bike handlebars where I put it before the race. The straw sticks straight up and I used it as an anchor for my helmet by having it stick up through a center air hole in the top of my helmet. I put my helmet there upside down. When I pulled my helmet off the aerobars to put it on, I’d pulled the straw out of the bottle and it was sticking up out of my helmet. Wow. Never had done that before. I pulled it out of the helmet and stuck it back in the bottle.

My Valdora bike felt light and fast and I really started picking up the speed. I’d hoped for a ride between 31 and 32 minutes. I flew back into the transition area for the bike to run switch, not knowing I’d just nailed the fastest bike split of everyone in my age group. I’d averaged 24.3mph, which, on that course, I never would have guessed I could have done.

Transition 2 – 1:09 - I jumped off my bike and ran hard with it to my transition spot. Racked my bike, helmet off, Hoka One One shoes on, grab my hat and race belt/number and took off. I had to run all the way around the transition area to head out on the run course. As I was running I heard them call the name of the next guy coming in and it was a fabulous triathlete / duathlete (run, bike, run). This guy is a five time triathlon National Champion and two time duathlon National Champion, a silver medalist at the World Duathlon Championships and a 9 hour 55 minute Ironman. Great!

3.1 mile / 5K Run – 19:20 – As I exited the transition area I saw and heard my wife, Jen, yell that she thought I was in second place. Seriously??? You mean I passed 13 or so guys during the bike? Unbelievable! I started to get excited, then really nervous. The run starts with a very nasty, steep hill that last a few hundred yards. I prayed hard that my calves wouldn’t cramp up as I jogged up that beast. I’d practiced this dozens of times in training – every time I ran up a hill, I pretended it was this one. Shortened my stride, leaned forward at the waist, pumped with my arms and slowly crested the top of the hill.

I tried to open up ASAP as I didn’t have much time to ease into this run. I saw a guy probably 300 yds. ahead of me running really fast. I knew he had to be in my age group and if Jen was correct, that I was in second place, then he was in first. Ahead of me was this guy running fast and behind me was the multiple national champion chasing me. Wow! I later found out that the runner ahead of me was the # 1 ranked triathlete in the nation in my age group. I felt like a sandwich and I was the baloney in the middle.

I ran as hard as I could and went through the first mile mark guessing I’d run about 7:15 for that mile. The hill and just getting to the run made for a fairly slow mile. Now it was time to open it up. I ran hard and noticed that I was slowly reeling in the first place guy but not quickly at all. By the two mile mark, the athlete behind me hadn’t caught me (though I didn’t know how far back he was) and I had closed the gap on the leader to about 100 yds.

At about the 2 ¼ mile mark I was really hurting badly. This was the moment of decision…do I settle for a probable podium spot whether second or third, or, do I try to find one more gear and catch the leader for the national title? My body was screaming to settle for current position. My head was telling me that if I didn’t give 110% and give my everything to catch him, I’d regret it forever. It was at that point that the possibility of becoming the National Champion spurred me forward to go for it. I thought of all my family and friends that were praying for me, not that I’d get something I didn’t earn, but that I’d give my all. I thought of Jen waiting for me at the finish line, looking for me and believing in me.

So, somehow, I found one more gear and began to close the final gap to the leader. With about 300 yards to go I caught him. Now…do I try to run by him, stay right behind him and try to out-sprint him at the finish line or run beside him to see what he’d do? Jen told me the day before if this scenario came up to keep right on going by whoever I had come up on. So, I tried to run by him looking strong and powerful even though I wanted to stop and puke. I had one singular focus these last 300 yard – the finish line. If he comes back on me or if the guy behind me catches me in the last 300, so be it. I was giving my all and started sprinting with all I had.

Now, understand, watching an old man sprint is not a pretty sight. I felt on the very edge of losing control, tripping or passing out, but on I ran. 150 yds, 100 yds, 50 yards, now on the red carpet that led to the finish line and I sprinted with all I had crossing the line without either guy behind me catching me. I fell in the grass and couldn’t move. I’d run the fastest 5K in years, averaging 6:15 miles. But, if you take out that slow first mile, my last two were right at six minute miles, the last one maybe sub-six minutes.

After lying there for a minute and then sitting up for another minute, I got up knowing that I had nothing left. I’d given everything I had and then some. I shuffled out of the finish area and saw Jen, who hugged me and told me I’d won. I was not readily convinced. Twice this season, initial results had not been what I thought and I ended up disappointed. We walked over to the computer tent where they print off your results and hand them to you on a little piece of paper. Jen took the paper, looked at it and told me it said I was # 1 in my group – National Champion! She wept for joy for me but, I still did not emotionally embrace it. What if a mistake had been made? What if I got a penalty while on the bike?

It would take an hour for the penalties to be posted. So, the wait began. I chatted with other athletes and friends for a while and then we got my bike and gear and walked to the car putting that stuff in it and then walked back to the race area. The penalties were all listed and there was a page and a half of race numbers listed. Each triathlete that got tagged for drafting or some other penalty had two minutes added to their time. Jen and I went through the list three times and, my number did NOT appear! Final results – I was the National Champion. This was beyond belief. Seriously, this was the best athletic day of my life.

Post Race - We went back to the room and I got cleaned up. We then drove to the Burlington Sheraton for the awards ceremony held in their big ballroom. It seemed full with several hundred people attending. On the stage there was a huge podium with third, second and the highest level in the middle, first. I still couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that I’d be standing on that block. I still wondered if some mistake had been made. No mistake. They got to my age group and they called up Curt Eggers, multiple-time national champ, then Thomas McGee, the # 1 ranked triathlete in the nation in my age group, then me. Gold medal around my neck…up on top of the podium and I looked out at the crowd. It was surreal.

Curt and Thomas were very gracious and both offered sincere and gracious congratulations to me.

Off the podium we went and for me, a stop at a table reserved for the National Champions in each age group. There I got to pick up a National Champion racing top. So cool! Then, out to the hallway to sign up for the slot on Team USA for 2013 World Championships in London.

Final Thoughts – Coming back from 1:40 down after the swim for the win against such a competitive field tells me that God answered my prayers and those praying for me. I had a clean race, my bike worked great and so did my running legs. That’s all I wanted. I dug deeper than any other race in my life and went deep into the pain well. It was so worth it. I’ve been blessed to receive congratulatory calls, texts, emails and Facebook messages from friends all over the place – as far away as South Africa and Italy. Jen was awesome for me the whole week leading up to the race and on race day. My folks were super interested in the race, prayed for me and were thrilled when I called them to tell them the results. I also want to thank several fantastic companies who have helped me so much: Hammer Nutrition, Zeal Optics, Little Red Barn Beef, Valdora, Skin Strong, Barracuda, Zensah, Xterra Wetsuits, Dr. Faye Jones, Lion Gear and Hoka One One running shoes.

Several years ago, I told Jen that I’d set some tri goals for my life. Here they were: When I’m 65 (and new to the 65-59 age group), be on the podium at Nationals (top 3). When I age up to the 70-74 age group, win the National Championship. When I spring into the 75-79 age group, be on the podium at the ITU World Championship, and, when I turn 80, win Worlds. I figured if I could just stay alive, I’d out-live my competition and eventually become the World Champion. I’m blessed to say, I’m a bit ahead of schedule and I thank God for that.
Joshua 1:9, "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not fear or be dismayed for the Lord your God is with you."
1 Samuel 2:30, "Those who honor Me, I will honor."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Omaha Triathlon Report

My primary goals for this race were to have it be a little "tune up" for Nationals two weeks later and, not to get injured. Goals accomplished. I went a bit slower part of the time with those goals in mind. 5th out of the water in the sprint distance race (swim was long I think), I quickly hopped on my Valdora and started up the long, double stair step hill that makes up most of the first two miles. This is not a fast bike course. After that initial climb the rest is up and down the whole time. I started the bike in 4th and came in in 2nd with two guys close behind me.

The first place "kid," who is a high school swimmer / cross country runner, was about 1:15 ahead of me. Thought I might be able to catch him depending on what kind of runner he was. Well, he was a good one! He opened up the gap on me more during the run and, at about the 1 mile point, a second high school kid ran by me. Looking around it was clear I wasn't going to catch either of them and the guy behind me wasn't going to catch me, so I cruised the rest of the run and finished 3rd overall and 1st in my age group. Happy with the race but it didn't feel quite as good as the weekend before in Lincoln, NE or two weeks before that in MN. Oh well, no problem.

I'm always thankful to finish a race strong, feeling good and uninjured. It's fun racing against "kids" that could...almost, be my grandkids! They're quick though. Too quick for me on this day. Maybe next time!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cornhusker State Games Triathlon Race Report

"Man, Pros Are Fast!"

Used to be that everyone would race and they'd give the best awards to the top 3 males and females overall, then the top 3 in each age group would get awards as well. Now, many race directors have a new category - Elite Division, or, Championship Division. Most race web sites don't really give a description of what that category is or how fast one should be to race in it.

Last race, up in Minnesota, I didn't sign up for the Elite Division because I thought it would be like, junior pros or the pro-want-to-be types or actual pros. So I raced with the age groupers and beat all those who were in the Elite wave and got 2nd overall by 1/10th of a second (see post below this one.) Next race up for me was the Cornhusker State Games Tri in Lincoln, NE. Based on the MN race, I signed up for the "Championship Division," which I guessed was the Elite group. May as well give it a go...

It's been super hot in NE and it was nice to have the temps the night before the race get down to the 60s. Race morning dawned and it was beautiful. Drove to Lincoln with my buddy and next door neighbor Matt who had done this race twice before - good source of information! Set up transition, warmed up and then they called us all to line up with those in our heat. I walk up to 7 other guys who all could have been my kids I think. There was a legit pro who was 24 yrs. old and, looked the part - lean, strong with a great swim background as a collegiate Division 1 swimmer.

Everyone else looked fast too. I thought I might be in for a very embarrassing morning. My wife, Jen was there as were my parents and two other couples that are good friends all ready to cheer me on.

The eight of us got in the water for the 750m swim, which turned out to be 650m. I immediately noticed that they were all ahead of me pretty quickly. Great. The embarrassment started already. Felt good actually on the swim and tried to stay within myself knowing the other two events are my faster events. Around the last buoy I saw several running up the beach as I still had further to go. I hit the beach and started to pull down my Xterra Skinsuit as I sprinted for the bikes. Fast T1 and off on the bike. Still thought I was last in the Elite wave. Saw a friend, Brandon, up ahead of me. He's a better swimmer and biker than I am and I felt good that I'd kept the gap to maybe...30 seconds or so.

The bike course was a three lapper so it made for good viewing for my family and friends. My wife, Jen, was able to call out how far behind I was. As I started my 3rd and final lap she yelled that I was one minute behind first place. What??? How could that be? No time to figure it out now, so I rode the hilly bike course for the 3rd time and last and went by the one Pro...who was riding along on a flat tire! Wow! I buzzed back into the park towards T2. Fast dismount and I saw my friend Brandon running out of transition as I was running in. Super quick T2 and I was out running. As I was leaving, I heard Jen yell that I was in 2nd place! No way! Seriously?

I was actually 5th out of the water, had passed one guy in T1 and passed another two on the bike. Amazing! I settled into the run trying to run through a tight left calf, which, by God's grace slowly loosened up. Slowly, very slowly I started to reel in Brandon who was leading the race. Right around the 1st mile, I heard footsteps on the path...someone coming up behind me...and flying by me - the Pro, Sam Holmes. Ran by me fast! OK, so we know who's going to win this thing and now Brandon and I are fighting for 2nd place. It took me a full two miles to catch Brandon as he was running faster than he ever had in a triathlon.

I had one mile to go and just prayed that my legs wouldn't tighten up. Felt strong and with a few hundred yards to go, I was filled with gratitude to God and to my family. I knew they'd be cheering for me as I brought it home, 2nd only to the Pro. I ran it in and felt so very blessed. Yes, I'd been super intimidated by the lean, young guys in the Championship wave, but, somehow I'd beat them all...except that stink'in Pro. Sam is actually a super nice guy. Just wished they'd had a "Pros Only" category :)

The results were posted and an age grouper had actually beaten me by nine seconds so I appeared on the list as 3rd overall, 2nd in the Championship heat. I'll take it. Very thankful. A pro, who'd had a flat tire, beat me and it was only a sprint distance race. Man, Pros are fast!