The Big Stage
“There were six minutes between waves. Six minutes to lean my head back, look up at the sky and find that calm before the torrent storm of arms and legs. Thanks be to the higher power that gave me the opportunity to pursue dreams that at one time seemed far stretched. One minute to gain focus on the horizon and the first buoy. The bull horn sounded; it began.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the USAT Age Group National Championship in Burlington, VT. Getting to this event began last year as I finished up my Ironman journey and met with Coach Joe to discuss what my goals were for the 2011 training and race season. I knew I wanted to go with shorter distance triathlons and take a break for a year from half irons or full iron distances. My body and mind was in need of a break from the rigors of many long training days. Speed was a feeling I wanted to experience again. Yet, even with doing the Olympic distance racing again, I wanted a goal, an endpoint to the full season of racing and training. That’s when Coach Joe suggested that I try and qualify for the National Championship. This year, it was in a northern climate, which would make for a better race experience weather-wise than the previous two years in the searing August heat of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The venue would be great and I would get the opportunity to see some great triathletes. I was sold. It was now a matter of putting together a series of races that allowed me to put forth a qualifying time that would gain me entry to the national stage of triathlon racing. Coach Joe’s task was to build a training program bringing back some of the speed I lost in long distance racing.
I spent the off season doing a lot more core strength training, developing more power on the bike through CompuTrainer classes and getting back my run speed through shorter but faster interval runs. In the beginning, I was a little sluggish with my training as I was still trying to recover from the beating of long distance training. I also struggled with the mental aspects of coming down off the high of attaining such a monumental goal in finishing an Ironman race. Eventually, as I focused on the new goal and started to feel better physically, the pieces began to come together and training was producing noticeable results in faster and faster paces on the run and bike. I was able to train without being tired or sore. Getting up in the morning to work out was fun again. It wasn’t so lonely anymore trying to get long rides or runs in by myself before or after ET group workouts. Before long, the off season and ramp up season was completed and I was ready for the race season.
To qualify for the National Championship, I chose three races to compete in: Leon’s Fastest triathlon, Pleasant Prairie triathlon, and Evergreen triathlon. I chose these races for my familiarity with them and ease of travel distance to the race venue. My plan was very successful as I qualified by finishing in the top ten percent in my age group in each race, which was the requisite qualification standard for the national event. In fact, I was in the top five percent in every race. After competing in those races and gaining my entrant qualification, I discovered through a letter from USAT that I had qualified based on my racing performance and end of the year ranking from last year. Didn’t even need to compete in any of these races. No matter, I still enjoyed racing and hanging out with the entire Experience Triathlon crew whom I love so much. It was on to Nationals.
I will have to admit there was a moment of doubt in my decision to go. Most of my concerns with going centered on the logistics of getting there. This was the furthest I had gone to attend a triathlon race and was going to be the most expensive adventure as well. The biggest of my concerns was getting my bike and gear there. I know lots of triathletes do this all the time and have very few problems, but I had never done it before and it seemed like such an expensive headache to go through the breakdown, shipping, and build-up of the bike on the way there and back. I came close to not going and looking for some local races to fill the void. After a good conversation with Coach Joe and the realization that this might be a once in a lifetime event for me, I let go of my concerns and worked on finding solutions to circumventing the road blocks on my path to Vermont. Sure enough, the answers came as I got my plane ticket, my rental car, the hotel room and the race entry sorted out. Even the bike became less of an issue as I got an e-mail from a company called Tri-Cycle Rentals with an offer to provide a pro-setup tri bike with on site fitting. This was exactly what I was looking for. I didn’t have to haul my bike to Vermont. A great bike would be there for me and I would be professionally fitted. While it wasn’t going to be the bike I was instinctually in tune with, I was convinced I could gut it out over the distance of an Olympic triathlon race. With my greatest concerns allayed, everything was ready for an awesome experience at the USAT Age Group National Championship.
As I finished prepping for the trip, I learned I wouldn’t be taking the journey alone. One of my fellow ET team members, Jim R., also qualified and was going as well – how great was that! The ET team was going to be well represented in Vermont. Jim and I had similar goals in mind: to experience something we loved to do, but on a grander scale. We were realists – podium finishing at this level was still a part of our dreams for the moment, yet we could still be in community with some of the fastest triathletes in the United States in pursuit of common ambitions of personal triumph. The first step was walking aboard the plane to Vermont.
It was high noon on Thursday. My first glimpse of Vermont was seeing Lake Champlain and the surrounding green mountains through the window of my plane flying overhead. The venue town of Burlington rose up from the eastern shores. Several taller buildings peeked out between the trees that covered most of the streets and homes below. Docks extended out into the waters and were straddled with sailboats. Several ferryboats ventured out into the slight chop beyond the break walls that protected the harbor. Out on the furthest point of the break wall, there was a lonely, small but ever vigilant lighthouse. Further inland, a few open expanses popped up to reveal the campus brick and mortar of the University of Vermont. The plane began its descent into utopia and within moments, I was immersed into the environs of the Green Mountain state. As much as I wanted to find a hilltop and continue to soak in the world around me, I was in focused, pre-race mode and I had things to accomplish before Saturday’s race. Jim can attest to my overly obsessive planning, as he received an email attachment listing my hourly agenda for the entire weekend. I’m sure he had to be thinking, “I thought we left Coach Joe at home?” First task, hotel room – done. Next, race registration – done. This was where I met up with Jim as we had different flights. The ET team was together. It was on to getting our rental bikes.
Now, many of you may wonder why in the world anyone would get rental bikes for a National Championship race. Well, for Jim and I, it came down to economics in the face of our previously stated objectives of racing in this event. The cost to tear down, transport, rebuild and repeat this process again was about double the cost of renting what turned out to be pro caliber bikes. It came with a professional fitting and didn’t require any more work than test riding, racing and dropping off the bike fifty yards from transition after the race. I thought it was an acceptable option for the shorter distance race. Don’t know that I would do this for a half iron or full iron race. The only negative that Jim and I encountered was the time it took to get our bikes. We were getting brand new bikes just out of the box and when we arrived for our fitting, they were still in the box unassembled. It took about two hours to get bike fitted for me and Jim was still in the early stages of his fitting when I was done. I encountered my first hiccup in my agenda as I was planning on dinner with Jim, but I was starving and needed some sustenance since my last meal was breakfast some nine hours ago. We agreed to separate and fend for ourselves that night. Pasta joint, here I come.
Downtown Burlington was a beautiful and typically quaint college town with its small main street shops and eateries surrounding a central square of green. The sidewalks were covered in breadboard signs announcing nightly specials. One only had to step inside any of the numerous corralled areas and have a seat. I found a friendly looking place called The 3 Tomatoes. That must’ve been a little white lie ‘cause for an Italian restaurant, they had way more than three tomatoes. The food was good and during the meal I was texting Jim to make sure he was okay. He was set on the bike and was eating at an Italian place himself. He sent a text informing me he was eating at a place called The 3 Tomatoes… What? Where are you? It turned out that he was eating at the similarly named restaurant, but in a nearby town close to his hotel. How funny was that? We compared entrées and agreed that we had found a good restaurant worth coming back to. With our meals and personable, texting chat complete, we called it a night and agreed to meet up the next day for tune-up workouts.
Friday, the day before the race: a time to loosen up the limbs and discover what the venue and the course had to offer us flat-landers from the Midwest. Jim parked by my hotel and we walked down to the lakeshore for the first time for a quick swim. The water was seventy-four degrees, which meant the race would be wetsuit legal – good! The swim from the dock of the community sailing center was wonderful. There were minimal waves except those caused by hundreds of our triathlete friends swimming with us. After a few laps in the water, we headed back to the hotel for a quick change and then got in our bike ride and run – no complaints, just bliss. Our reward for our mini prep work was a big breakfast buffet and great conversation at the hotel. Afterwards, we drove the bike course to see what we might expect the next day. Our initial perception suggested it was a very doable course of roller hills with some technical turns and roads that reminded us a lot of the worn chip and seal roads of the Midwest backroads. With that, we were all set with our obligatory items on my agenda. The rest of the day was devoted to rest and keeping the feet up. Later in the afternoon, we took our bikes for mandatory check-in at the transition area and then took a quick trip to a pasta dinner sponsored by a local Rotary Club. We got to meet some fellow triathletes from Bakersfield, California and Boise, Idaho. It was a memorable conversation with Ralph, the seventy-two year old Boise triathlete. He looked in awesome shape and I expected he would do well as he had aspirations to go to the World Championship in New Zealand. He told me that the key to his success in triathlon came down to simply outliving all his fellow competitors… hilarious, but possibly true. Maybe that’s the strategy I need to employ – stay healthy forever and encourage my fellow age groupers to drink and smoke to their hearts’ content. After one last macadamia cookie, Jim and I parted ways till the next day – race day.
Five o’clock Saturday morning came on the heels of an uninterrupted, eight hour sleep. I felt good. Even in the unfamiliar surroundings, I followed my pre race rituals of dressing and eating to a tee. Within a half hour, I was meeting Jim in the hotel lobby. With me, I had my wetsuit, helmet and all the gear I needed in my Ironman swim shoulder bag. I had learned just before I left for Vermont that all race bags and nonessential race gear would not be allowed to be left in the transition area and had to be dropped off at a bag check area. I had remembered watching Craig Alexander last year at Racine half coming into transition before the race with a wetsuit, helmet and a small swim bag. Could it be done? Yes it could! Everything I needed fit into that small bag and after my transition area was set up, I placed my little bag under my towel unbeknownst to the officials – no bag check in needed, thank you.
After set up, Jim and I had an hour and a half before our waves started, so we found a couple of chairs and took in the view of the morning lake. Several Coast Guard boats were helping race officials set up the turn buoys for the swim. No anxieties – just calmness like the water before us. It was going to be a beautiful day with temps in the low seventies during the race and mild inland winds. Before long, it was time to stretch out and get a jog in to fire up the legs. It was race time.
I was in the third wave and Jim was in the fourth. It was to be a treading water start for each wave. The march of the penguins to the docks was uneventful except for Jim petting every dog we passed and taking a few licks in the face from the last one before we stepped onto the dock. He informed me that usually he got a good luck kiss from his wife before his races… I giggled and informed him that his good luck doggie kisses would be a part of this recap. We then shook hands and wished each other good luck and I headed for the dock’s edge and jumped in with my age group competitors. Again, the water was wonderful. The course was a clockwise rectangle with a final left hand turn into a boat loading area. There were six minutes between waves. Six minutes to lean my head back, look up at the sky and find that calm before the torrent storm of arms and legs. Thanks be to the higher power that gave me the opportunity to pursue dreams that at one time seemed far stretched. One minute to gain focus on the horizon and the first buoy. The bull horn sounded; it began. There was nothing very memorable about the swim other than I found my open water and did my level best to swim straight from buoy to buoy. No punches, no kicks to the head… nothing. Soon enough, I was walking up the boat ramp to the cheering of the spectators. Suit was half way down and cap and goggles off as I ran into transition. Twenty seven minutes had passed and another minute and forty-nine seconds through transition found me doing my best wobbling flying mount and out onto the bike course.
The beginning of the course consisted of a zigzagging, upward climb away from the lakeshore to get to yet another long, gradually ascending hill that was peppered with short but steep climbs that ultimately transitioned into rolling hills in the countryside. There were some hills on this course. I expected this when I reviewed the race course online many months ago. Even as I drove the course the previous days, I knew the hills were there, but it was still a little bit of a surprise as I trudged along on my rental bike. A few riders passed me – they had to be natives of Vermont or whatever hilly locale they came from. I kept a very positive frame of mind, however. I knew that whatever went up had to come down. Once past the halfway turn around point, it became easier to fly. In fact, some of those racers who passed me on the way out got a salutation from me on the way back. My biggest worry was watching for the race course officials who were all over the course on their motorcycles. Tons of racers were docked for drafting and failure to overtake. Fortunately, I didn’t earn the attention of the refs. Before long, the town and the lakeshore were in sight and inspired me to pour on even more speed towards transition. After an hour and nine minutes, I was gliding to a smooth barefoot dismount and into transition. I noticed that there were a number of bikes back ahead of me. No matter, my goal was being realized as I was having the time of my life racing amongst all these great athletes. Bike racked, helmet traded for a visor and run shoes on – I was all set for the run as I crossed the timing mat for the start of the ten kilometer run… or so I thought.
Ten meters out of transition, I remembered something important…my race belt/number. Crap! What do I do! I can’t go back across the timing mat! I quickly asked a transition volunteer what to do. He asked my number and then quickly said, “Forget about! Go! Go!” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I took off. I had to hope that the refs wouldn’t be strict or very aware of looking for the race belt. I blocked the thought out of my mind. I had a 10K to do and the course quickly reminded me of that as just outside of transition was the steepest hill I have ever climbed on a run in my life! It was a third of a mile long. I shuffled my way up the hill, driving past those that opted to walk up the hill. I have never walked on a race course before and I wasn’t about to start today. Soon enough, relief was in sight with the flat road atop the hill. Alright, it was time to crank up the speed to make up for lost time in transition and on the hill. The rest of the run was relatively flat or slightly downhill as it wound its way through town and the state park that abutted the lake. An Xterra moment came in the form of a muddy trail run for a short distance in the middle of the course. After that it was smooth sailing back to the finish area on a gradually declining, paved trail. The lake view was awe inspiring and propelled me forward as I passed a number of runners, some responding with noticeable groans. One racer picked up the pace and ran with me for about a half mile before she also peeled off and let me go. Not a single racer passed me the entire run. As great as I felt about that, I did realize that many of the faster runners were already ahead of me, but that was okay. I was having the time of my life running so free. After a sharp right turn around some lakeside buildings, the transition and the finish area came into sight. I turned on the after burners and saw one last “rabbit” in my age group between me and the finish. I leaned forward and narrowly edged him out at the finish to gain one more spot in the rankings (it was literally a fraction of a second difference between me and him). I was so focused on the run that I barely noticed the carpeted chute I finished on with flanking jumbotrons capturing the finishing moments of all the racers. I was done. I was ecstatic. I wanted water. Two bottles later, I looked over my time. I finished with a respectable 2:19:18 time. When it was all done it put me at an average 72 out of 132 competitors in my age group, but I didn’t feel average. I had just raced with the best of the best on a challenging course and I got to share the adventure with a good friend in Jim, who came in shortly after I did with a phenomenal time exceeding his own expectations. How cool is that?
The immediate post race festivities consisted of talking with fellow racers, sharing a sub sandwich with Jared, the Subway Guy, and waiting to get my gear out of transition. Another classic statement from Jim came during this waiting time. As we approached transition and looked over the sea of bikes present, Jim said, “Wow! There must be a billion dollars’ worth of bikes in there!” True enough. At this event, I wouldn’t have expected to see many aluminum Schwinn or Huffy bikes. I saw Ralph, the seventy-two year old from Boise, come in and sure enough, he was on his way to New Zealand for Worlds. I was so jealous. After we collected our gear and dropped off our rental bikes, Jim and I headed back to our hotels and got cleaned up and put in some rest time after our obligatory calls to our spouses, family, friends and Coach Joe. Our tangible reward came in the form of dinner on an outdoor patio at a local pub called The Farmhouse. We disregarded our diets and enjoyed some pulled pork, slaw and cornbread along with a couple of glasses of great stout beer. We talked into the setting sun about the race, our families and life outside triathlon. I learned a lot more about Jim than his affinity for kissing dogs. I think that was the best part about the whole journey – I gained a friend whom I shared a most excellent adventure with. I look forward to sharing with him future races, workouts, conversations and beers.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and I awoke Sunday morning and readied myself for a plane ride back to Chicago. Before I left, I went to another bistro with an outdoor seating area and enjoyed the most delicious French toast and strawberry casserole. Reluctantly, I met Jim at the airport and we boarded the plane. After takeoff, I got one last look at Lake Champlain and the beautiful, green lands surrounding it – amazing. In what seemed like only a moment, we were touching down at O’Hare. With bags in hand and a few handshakes, Jim and I parted ways to find our respective spouses and tell once again about the amazing journey we took together.
I want to thank my family for giving me the opportunity to experience another bucket list item. This crazy obsession for the triathlon lifestyle wouldn’t be possible without their patience, understanding and support. Also, I wanted to give Coach Joe a big Thank You for getting me through another successful race season injury free. It was another Break Through year. Dream, Believe, Achieve and Become.