Age Group Nationals: a Proud and Humbling Journey
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today who sheds his blood [sweat & tears] with me shall be my brother…” – Henry V (IV.iii.), William Shakespeare.
Journeys tend to lead you to places you expected, planned, and hoped for, but sometimes they lead you to places you never expected. The latter happened to me last week when my journey led me to the USAT Age Group Nationals to compete against the best in the country. I mean, it’s impossible to plan for something you didn’t know existed two months ago.
I learned of my qualification from Coach Joe after I finished in the top 10% in my age group at the Pleasant Prairie Triathlon. I had no idea what this meant or even where the USAT Nationals race was. When I was informed it was in Burlington, VT, my head was spinning with a whole lot of questions. Do I go? How would I get there? Am I ready for this part of the journey? How do I get my bike there? So like I always do when I don’t know something, I started asking a lot of questions, went to the website to research the race, and found out what I needed to do to sign up. Just to be sure I had actually qualified, I emailed the USAT website my results and inquired if that would qualify me to attend the race. The answer was yes, but the race was already at capacity. There were no open slots but I could get on the wait list. So I thought, “OK, that’s that.” I tried and it didn’t work. Then two days later I got an email from Coach Joe and a Facebook post from Jason, letting me know that they had just opened up 500 extra slots for the race. The dilemma was right back in my lap to make a decision. That weekend I sat down with my wife, Cheryl, and we discussed what my next step should be. With little hesitation, Cheryl said, “You qualified for something this special, there’s no way you shouldn’t go.” She sensed how much this meant to me. The decision was made; I was headed to Burlington.
I arrived in Burlington on Thursday afternoon and headed over to the hotel to unpack. While unpacking I discovered that Cheryl had put a small stuffed lion, one of our dog Tucker’s toys, in my bag wrapped in a note that said, “Love you, good luck, and have fun.” This I need to explain a little. When I used to travel a lot for my job, Cheryl would sneak these stuffed toys into my bag as a way of us staying connected during my trips. So as this went on, I started taking pictures of them during my trips and sending them to her, very similar to the fad of Flat Stanley. You may call it strange; you may call it weird; you may even call it crazy; I call it how we keep our relationship fun and interesting and our way of saying I love you when we’re apart. So as usual I took pictures of it throughout my journey in Burlington. Some of these pictures show the lion at the hotel, at the swim venue, and, of course, in transition on the bike. Lion rode the bike into transition on Friday afternoon and got a lot of attention going in. A few people asked me if that was USAT legal and that if he was riding with me tomorrow he’d of course have to have a helmet. I politely answered, “I couldn’t find a helmet small enough.” Lion even came with me on race day, although he was relegated to my transition pack. Again, keeping me tethered to Cheryl at home, who couldn’t make the journey with me yet found a small way to be there in spirit. God, I love her for keeping our relationship fresh and special.
With the unpacking done, I headed over to the expo to get my race packet and get fitted for my rental bike, a Triad SL full carbon bike. It was one sweet ride. Walking into the expo and seeing the USAT race banner gave me chills and had me starting to realize I was really here amongst some of the best athletes in the country, me being one of them. The dream that had started only weeks earlier was actually here. It was an awesome moment. This was the first time on the trip where I was both proud of my accomplishments that got me here and humbled at the same time. There would be many more moments like this throughout the journey and experience of Nationals. There is a poem by Rudyard Kipling called “If” and it says, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster And treat those two imposters just the same; Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!” I relate the triumph and disaster as I would the pride of being part of this national event with the humbleness that must go along with it. No one ever gets to the higher levels of any endeavor without help and I train everyday with such talented athletes within the Experience Triathlon family. I was there representing them and in part because of them. I’m so proud and humbled to be part of a team that fosters both team and self accomplishment. It was also not lost on me that I was the only athlete in my age group representing Illinois, again proud and humbled.
At the expo, I met up with my fellow ET athlete, Jeff P., or as he so bluntly put it later in our journey, my Miss Daisy. While at the expo, we retrieved our goodies and then waited to get our bike fit that would take 30 minutes to complete before going to get some dinner. Jeff’s was scheduled at 4:00 and mine at 4:30. So much for the plan. Jeff’s finally was complete at 6:00 and I didn’t leave the expo until 7:15. Needless to say we didn’t get to have dinner together on Thursday in the typical sense. We both went to separate restaurants and while there, Jeff left me a text to ask if I was done at the expo. He told me he was having dinner at Three Tomatoes. What a coincidence, so was I. Thinking we were in the exact same restaurant, I asked my waiter if they had other Three Tomatoes and he informed me there was one in downtown Burlington. Still, very strange that we picked the same place to have dinner.
Friday morning at 5:30 AM came early and I was off to meet up with Jeff to get our swim, bike, and run workouts in before mid morning. Luckily, Jeff’s hotel was within walking distance to the event and it would become our base of operations during the weekend. While we walked over to the practice swim area we were able to get a good look at the swim and transition areas for both the sprint and Olympic races. The water on Friday was slightly rough with the waves somewhere between 1-2 feet, not perfect but doable. As we slipped on our wetsuits, we got to meet some of our fellow athletes and chat about the upcoming race. Heading to the water, we had to sign in. At that point it wasn’t evident why until as we exited, they asked us to initial next to where we signed. Just making sure those who went in the water also came out, good idea I thought. The water was 74 degrees and with the wetsuit a little warm, but overall it was good to get in the water and do some swimming to help calm the nerves. After the swim it was off to our base to do a quick transition to our new bikes and get some saddle time with our new mounts. It’s here I have to say thank God Jeff was as good a navigator as he was! With only a small amount of searching, he had us on a portion of the bike course and riding some straights to allow us to get into aero and test out the positioning. The bikes turned out to be pretty well fit with no major issues. We headed back to base to transition to the run and our final workout of the day. Our running shoes on, we decided to head back down towards the lake and run a portion of the race venue along Lake Champlain. Now my instructions, and I’m sure Jeff’s too, from Joe for these workouts were, “You’re going to see people riding and running the hills of the course, DON’T DO IT!” Now you have to understand, the hotel was midway between the lake and the top of the hill and I hate to tell you, coach, but it was impossible to not do some of the hills although we avoided them as much as possible. Of course, that was true until Jeff made us walk the “short cut” from the lake to the hotel up a 20% incline, gravel walkway. Our workouts complete, we again headed back to base for a well-deserved breakfast of protein and carbs at the hotel. With breakfast done and us very well fed, we headed out to scope out the bike course with Jeff navigating and me driving. As we drove the course we commented on the overall shape of the roads, hills, and layout of the bike course and we both came to the conclusion that it wasn’t as bad as it looked on paper. That determination would change dramatically come race day. With few dissenters, most of the racers we talked to on race day would say the same thing. “It was a deceptively tough bike course.” With the bike course reviewed, I dropped Jeff off at the hotel and made plans to meet back at the base, again Jeff’s hotel, at 4:30 PM so we could check our bikes into transition and head over to the pasta dinner we had both signed up for. It should become quite evident at this point why Jeff called himself my Miss Daisy. I basically, and gladly I might add, drove him all over Burlington, VT, which just added to our overall journey during Nationals.
I, or should I say Hoke, Miss Daisy’s driver, picked Jeff up promptly at 5:00 PM and headed over to the pasta dinner at the local elementary school that supported the Rotary Club. At the pasta dinner Friday night, we sat with two couples, one from Idaho that was in the 70-74 age group, and the other from Bakersfield, CA, in the 55-59 age group. We had some great conversation about where we were from and how we qualified for the Nationals. The gentleman from Idaho was looking forward to qualifying for the World Championship in Auckland, New Zealand; all he had to do was finish the race, an accomplishment in itself at that stage of life, to qualify to represent USA next year. Another little thing I learned is if you place in the top 18 in your age group during the Nationals, you automatically qualify for the World Championships in 2012 and get to wear the Team USA jersey. Pretty neat! Rich, who was from CA, also had aspirations to qualify for Worlds but in a far tougher age group with over 80 entries. I have no idea if the gentleman from Idaho qualified. However, running into Rich after the race on Saturday, Jeff and I found out that he finished 14th. Way to go, Rich, and good luck in New Zealand next year! After the pasta dinner, Jeff and I headed back to base and made our final plans to meet the next morning at 5:30 to head to transition. During the drive back I talked with Coach Joe about the race, how I was doing, and wanted to make sure I was mentally prepared for the challenge. His final statement was, “Trust your training and execute the plan, you’re ready.” I would use that mantra as I prepared for the race. After dropping Jeff off and driving back to the hotel, I had some time to think about how much all the well wishes on Facebook throughout the day meant to me; it was as if you were all there with us. At the time I didn’t know it, but those thoughts of support would really help me finish the race strong and push past the pain. I’m not sure I was embracing the pain but the thought of Cheryl and everyone else being there at the finish line, even in spirit, helped me. The cheer crew came through again, OUTSTANDING!!!
Saturday, August 20th, race morning, wasn’t like the other race mornings this year. I awoke alone with thoughts of Cheryl at home and the upcoming race on my mind, knowing she would be watching the race on the web stream. The weather was cooperating with light winds, sixty degrees to start with a high by race finish in the low seventies – another great day to race. Slowly I gathered everything I needed for the race and headed out the door to meet up with Jeff. As we walked towards transition with everyone else, both of us in deep thought, race planning, and not talking much, I again felt proud and humbled to be part of this journey. After transition was set up, Jeff and I walked over by the water and sat down to watch the Coast Guard set the buoys in place for the swim and to think race strategy one last time while things were relatively quiet. One of the demons I had for this race, besides the course and competition, was the in water swim start. With the exception of Chicago, all my other races were beach starts and I was a little nervous of the in water start. Oh well, it was what it was and I’d deal with it as best I could. We also saw the USAT officials take the water temp at the shoreline, 74 degrees; we were now officially wetsuit legal. We also noticed that the far turn buoys that were supposed to be yellow were now orange. This would come into play for me as the swim started. The waiting over, transition checked and double checked, we headed over to the swim start a few hundred yards down the beach. While walking over to the start I stopped and just had to pet a Golden Retriever puppy named Sade walking towards us. For those of you who know me well, I love animals, especially dogs, and especially Golden Retrievers like our animal son Tucker. I asked if I could pet her and the answer was yes, as long as I didn’t mind her jumping on me. Of course, I did not. She not only jumped on me but had plenty of kisses to go along with it. Normally I’d get a kiss from Cheryl before each race start, and this time it was Cheryl’s spirit in this puppy named Sade that gave me my pre race kiss. Heck, I wasn’t about to ask Jeff for it – he may have actually done it. Back to business. It was time to exchange good luck wishes with Jeff and concentrate on the race. Jeff went in the water at 7:36 AM and me just six minutes later. As our wave moved into the dock area, we were allowed to get into a much calmer water than our practice swim while they were lining up the wave in front of us for their start. It was time to slay the in water start demon, so bring it on. This demon was very short lived, as I realized it gave me five to eight minutes to get acclimated to being in the water. By the time the race started, I was so comfortable in the water I had not one feeling of anxiety during the entire swim, beautiful. I’m really a fan of in water starts now because it allows you to do, at least in my mind, the very unnatural act of relieving yourself in your wetsuit easily. It’s not a very comfortable feeling and not something you can practice in training.
That done, we lined up for the start, the horn sounded, and we were off. I had lined up to the left and in about the third row of the 75 racers that were in my wave. Moving along the first 200 meters towards the first buoy, all was uneventful until I hit the turn. I actually got punched on the left side of my head on the turn by someone’s stroke that made me see stars. Thank god I listened to Coach Joe back at our Madison camp in 2010 who advised us newbies to put our goggles UNDER our swim caps and not over because I would have surely had them knocked off. All those wave start practices at Centennial also paid off because I didn’t miss a beat and kept on swimming. Even though I wasn’t sure I could still see out of my left eye, I started sighting for the next orange buoy. Did I tell you my wave’s cap was blaze orange? As I sighted for the buoy all I saw was orange heads popping up left and right and it was tough to pick out the actual buoy in the sea of caps. Finally I sighted on the actual buoy and, making great progress to the next turn, I again got punched on the left side of the head. I started thinking I was actually getting used to this abuse. Sighting to my next turn, I found myself looking directly into the rising sun. OK, we can get past this challenge too, and I found the buoy and made the turn towards shore and the two yellow buoys that were much more easily spotted. I emerged at the Coast Guard boat ramp at just less than 28 minutes, beating my time from the Pleasant Prairie swim by just under a minute. Everything was going along very well, thank you. One thing that I noticed was different in this swim than in others is when it got crowded in the other races I would swim “wider” and people moved over. In this swim the caliber of racers was such that that didn’t work as well and I found myself, at times, fighting for position. Recognizing this small change again made me proud and humble to be here.
Going in to transition and getting off my wetsuit wasn’t as good. In my haste to get the wetsuit off, I had pulled both arms down at the same time and now both my hands were tangled in the wetsuit as I continually tried to pull the opposite arm free. This was not working as planned. I finally realized I was going to have to pull my right arm back into the wetsuit to expose my fingers to get the left arm out. That done and at the bike, I got my helmet on and it was out to the bike mount point and my famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, flying mount. Once past the bike mount line my flying mount went as planned and I was out onto the bike course for the four mile incline out of town. The bike course was made up of a lot of steep hills and, initially, wound through the town of Burlington then out to a more rural setting. Part of the bike course actually was on the interstate highway system that the governor of VT had closed down for the triathlon, pretty neat. The one nice thing about an out and back course is that the incline you had to climb out of T1 you get to take advantage of on the way back. At one point on the way back I hit over 40 MPH, Yahoo! That is, until I hit a small swale in the roadway that made my rear tire hop to the left a few inches, put my heart in my throat, and had me thanking God I was hanging onto the aero bars at that precise moment. That little scare behind me and the dismount line coming up, I again completed an uneventful flying dismount and was into transition. One thing I noticed that I hadn’t seen in all my other races was throughout the entire bike race there was always the sound of motorcycles. USAT officials were shadowing the groups of riders that were drafting, blocking, and not passing in a timely manner. Coach Suzy’s talk during Summer Camp on USAT rules really came in handy during this portion of the race. That makes two tips and counting that I picked up from ET Summer Camp. See, I was paying attention, contrary to popular belief.
Moving through T2, I noticed lots of equipment scattered throughout transition and in the running lanes. I actually had to hop over numerous aero helmets that were lying there. That being said, I made it to my rack space without incident and flew through T2 at a PR of 1:01 and feeling good and ready to go, and then I hit the hill. Now I have to say here that coming off the bike portion I knew I had expended more energy than I should have; I knew it while I was doing it and tried to let up but I just couldn’t. Back to the hill, I’m probably going to take some liberty here on the size and steepness of this hill but it was one tough mother. It was a quarter mile long and as far as I could see, straight up. I’m sure someone like Drew, with his mathematical background, could tell me what the percent of incline would be if it’s a quarter mile long and an elevation gain of 70 feet but it’s got to be double digits. All I know is I was running while some were walking and I wasn’t getting to the top very fast, but I got there and the remainder of the run was relatively flat. My legs were in OK shape after the bike and I was committed to run the best I could and was moving at a good pace. At mile three I encountered an unusual part of the course. After running through a cone lined parking lot with an aid station, we came upon a hard packed mud trail with huge tire ruts on either side filled with mud and water that was about 100 yards long. It was absolutely the strangest portion of any run course I’ve encountered. I told a fellow runner that was running along the side towards the ruts to go ahead of me and move to the middle of the trail; they did and thanked me for it. The remainder of the run was along the shores of Lake Champlain on an asphalt trail. With a half mile left to go, I started to pick the pace up with the thought of Cheryl watching on her laptop and all the well wishes through Facebook. In my mind I pictured everyone waiting for me at the finish and I wasn’t going to disappoint anyone by not finishing strong. I even passed two racers in my age group in the chute and finished at a sprint. I was so focused on finishing I almost lost the, “Way to go, Jim!” from my fellow ET athlete, Jeff, near the finish line. I did hear you, it just took a while to register it was you. As I stumbled through the finish line mass of people, I was greeted by the volunteer congratulating me on my race and the finisher’s medal. A little farther along there was Jeff waiting, too; we shook hands and congratulated each other on a nice race. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I normally get a kiss from Cheryl at the end of every race, anyway he probably would have told me his heart is for Joe. Maybe next time, Jeff?
We hung out at the food tent eating Subway sandwiches, chips, and drinking some really bad Gatorade Recovery #3 (I was able to locate some chocolate milk instead and ditched the recovery drink) and talking about the race. Once the food was down I had to get my bag out of bag check so I could call my greatest supporter, Cheryl, and talk with her. Cheryl was so proud of me and we said how much we loved and missed each other. She told me she heard my name called out when I got out of the swim and also saw me cross the finish line, which was great to hear because I was thinking of her at that exact moment, wishing she was there with me. You may not have been physically with me but you, and Tucker, were there with me in spirit and I felt it. The next call was to Coach Joe, who congratulated us on a strong finish, and, of course, asked how we felt. Lastly was a picture of both Jeff and I at transition that I posted to Facebook and sent to Joe to show everyone at Run Club. We got back into transition around 11:30, retrieved our gear, and returned the rental bikes to the Tri-Cycle people. All of the waiting and planning for the race was over, as was the race. It was time to leave Lake Champlain behind and head back to the base (Jeff’s hotel) up that same hill that Jeff told me was a short cut. Really, Jeff? We made plans for me to, yep, you guessed it, pick him up later that evening and have some well deserved drinks and dinner.
Jeff and I had dinner at a small restaurant in downtown Burlington that evening and the only thing better than the food and drinks was sharing this journey with Jeff in conversation, in race planning, in race strategy, in joking, and in the race. It brings to mind a poem from Shakespeare. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today who sheds his blood [sweat & tears] with me shall be my brother.” I took liberty on the wording but the meaning is the same and extends to the entire ET family. Too quickly the evening came to an end and we were headed back to our hotels to catch up on some much needed sleep.
It seems all too often we anticipate these events and they seem to take forever to come and then they are here and they just fly by. The whole experience was one I will remember forever. Thank you to my wife, Cheryl, who has stood by me every step of the way, encouraging me, loving me, and being my partner through all of this. I don’t know how I could have done it without your support. Thanks, Jeff, for being part of, and adding to, my journey and the memory. Thank you to Coach Joe for nurturing the athlete inside me to attain the success I have in such a short time. And for understanding two weeks before race day that I was physically and mentally depleted and having me take some time off so I could come back stronger and rejuvenated. Thanks to the entire Experience Triathlon Coaching Staff that take coaching as an art form – that from my point of view they have mastered. And finally to all those that wished both Jeff and I good luck via email, Facebook, and text messages, thank you. It was a proud and humble end to a great 2011 racing season and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead for me on this journey called life.