I’m a Groupie!

I’m a Groupie!

by Jeff P.

For those of you just beginning your journey into the world of triathlons or thinking about taking up the mantle of a tri lifestyle, I will have to admit there will be times you will say, “What in the world did I sign up for?”

Early morning workouts, sore knees and hips, black toenails, deprivation of favorite junk food and adult beverages, bike crashes, extremes in weather conditions, dehydration and saddle sores are just a few of the things that come up in discussion amongst triathletes sharing their battle stories at social events. Heaven help the wide-eyed newbie that joins that conversation only to hear about nagging fungal issues and bloody nipples. Those are the realities of a tri lifestyle we accept with a smile, knowing our challenges are not original sins. We have endured to see ourselves past all those hiccups because the end result is the realization of magical moment when all things converge perfectly in the midst of a race and we simply say, “God, I am doing a triathlon!”

Racing alone is a great fix to satisfy the cravings of a powerful addiction of any tri junkie. We want it, need it, and are always looking for the next hit. All of us admit freely we are hooked, but claim to have control over it…. not. What if I were to say there are opportunities to experience bigger and better? Would you be interested? This past weekend, I went to the Hy-Vee 5150 Championship and had an overall experience that was unlike any other high I’ve encountered in my triathlon career. Don’t get me wrong, my first (and only) Ironman race ranks at the top, but this weekend gave me an opportunity so unique and exhilarating that it has its own special place in my memories.

Friday afternoon was the beginning of the family trip to Des Moines, Iowa. We had three days off and the brilliant idea to combine our passions for triathlon racing and family by inviting my mother, father and sister with her family to come and join us for a fun weekend of triathlon spectating. Of course, when you have four kids and three young adults along, it can’t be all about triathlon twenty-four/seven. Other events were planned to make it a great weekend for all ages.

The race itself wasn’t going to be until Sunday morning and would be one of several triathlon events taking place throughout the day. Maxine, my lovely wife and fellow tri junkie, and I would be participating in the Hy-Vee Age Group Triathlon while concurrently, the Hy-Vee 5150 Championship with qualifying elite amateurs from around the world would be competing on the same Olympic distance course. Later in the day, the professional triathletes would compete in the Hy-Vee elite cup on a different course for over a million dollars in prizes. It would give Maxine and me the opportunity to not only race, but to later watch those amazing pros do what they do so well. Yet, from the very moment we pulled into the hotel, we could sense how amazing of a weekend it was going to be.

Our host hotel was downtown near the river, the starting point for the swim portion of the pro race. Most of the other amateur athletes were in hotels near Gray’s Lake just outside of the downtown area and where the amateur races would begin. I was a little bummed to be further away from our transition area, but my pouting ceased when I entered the hotel lobby and noticed there were a lot of skinny and extremely fit looking people meandering around with big luggage boxes – big enough to fit a bike in. So, maybe we wouldn’t be the only triathletes in the hotel. After checking in and dumping our stuff off in the suite we were sharing with my folks, we headed downstairs to join the rest of the family and watched as they enjoyed the complimentary happy hour cocktails courtesy of the hotel management. We were unable to imbibe the adult intoxicants ourselves due to a self-imposed, pre-race teetotalism. It was okay. It would make the post-race celebration all the more refreshing. In the midst of reconnecting with the family, Maxine went to room with one of my girls and when she came back, I was instantly subjected to a vigorous arm rattling as she spouted, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

She just met Miranda Carfrae in the elevator and had a polite conversation with her. Wow! Not every day one gets to meet the current World Ironman Champion in an elevator. Lucky her. Going back to the room, I saw a sign offering welcome to the Hy-Vee elite pros to the hotel. It turned out the hotel was the sponsor hotel for the professional triathletes and their families in town for the race. How cool is that? We were going to see some of our triathlon idols while staying in this hotel. Maxine and I were like a couple of kids making an inaugural trip to Disney and seeing their favorite characters for the first time; only, our characters were real, live triathlon gods and goddesses! We saw a few lesser known pros as we stalked around for a little while and then went to a concert featuring the 90’s band, Gin Blossom, put together by a race sponsor in the parking lot outside our hotel. I didn’t see any pros there. In fact, I didn’t see anybody that resembled a triathlete at the concert. I suspect the dutiful triathlete was already in bed sleeping in prep for the race in two days. We soon made our way to our room for needed rest, but as we exited the elevator to our floor, I ran right into Andy Potts heading to his room….”Oh my God! Oh my God!” Even all unshaven and scruffy, I could recognize him. I sighed and almost swooned as he entered his room. Andy Potts was three doors down from my room! Wow! The day couldn’t have ended better.

The next morning was the beginning of a busy, pre-race day.  Maxine and I got in a short, predawn ride and run around downtown to fire up those race muscles. I ran a few times around the hotel hoping to see one of the pros whom I might sprint by and psych them out as the mysterious, late entrant racer they have never seen before. Alas, I fear they saw me from their windows and refused to come out till I was done. Of course, as I entered my hotel room and looked outside, I saw Greg and Holly Bennett, triathlon’s famous racing couple, running together around the hotel. As much as I wanted to go and chase down some really fast rabbits, I had to hold myself back and save it for my race. Besides, I still had lots on the agenda for the day, including getting breakfast.  Breakfast was where we saw a few of the pros taking advantage of the complimentary morning buffet of eggs, oatmeal, waffles, fruits and other tasty assortments. Wow! They eat real food just like me! Always thought their food was all powdered shakes, capsules and enemas. I bumped into Hunter Kemper watching after his little girl teetering and wobbling around and in between the tables. Wow! They can reproduce. They are almost human. Some of the pros were in the workout room running on treadmills. Again, Wow! They have to work out like me as well. The more I see of the pros, the more I am convinced of the greatness of the sport I participate in. What other sport has such gifted members who come across so down to earth? Triathlon racing is a small community compared to other major sports, but in the small microcosm of that hotel over those few days, those exceptional athletes loomed large in my book. Soon enough, most of the pros left for their rooms likely to kick up their feet and rest up for the race next day – advice that I seemed to never learn.

With a roomful of kids and twenty-four hours to kill, what better way to prepare for a race the next day than to go to an amusement park. After Maxine and I attended our mandatory pre-race briefing and picked up our registration packet and swag, we headed out to meet the family at “Adventureland” amusement park. If you lived any length of time in Iowa over the last forty years, you made a regular if not annual pilgrimage to the biggest amusement park in the state. It’s one of those places that hold fond memories for my family. Yet it is a childhood memory that seems far more elaborate and grander in scale than the adult reality I saw as I walked around the park chasing after the kids who were determined to be just out of eyesight ahead. Still, it was fun to show the kids that the old man still had a taste for voluntary vertigo and nausea as we rode all the rides Adventureland had to offer. I am sure there are those who would say it may be risky to be expending all that energy the day before a race, but that’s the balance one has to strike between the inherent selfish demands of the sport and needs of the family. Today was not a day to tip the scales. For a few hours, I could forget about triathlons and enjoy spoiling the kids. Before long, Mother Nature had something to say about the day and started continually drizzling rain. It was time to go. Our bikes were due in transition late that afternoon. After a quick jaunt over to Gray’s Lake to secure and weatherproof the bikes, we were back at the hotel for pasta and an evening of relaxation.

My parents took over the kids while Maxine and I went to the hotel pub to partake in the nightly special offering of penne pasta with meat sauce. There was nothing special about the food or the ambiance of the restaurant, but it was nice to get away for a few moments to ourselves and digest the food and the day’s events. We talked to a college triathlete from Florida sitting at the next table. Nice and very polite kid – I was envious of his youth. We exchanged wishes of good luck in tomorrow’s race and he left us to ourselves. Halfway through our salads, Maxine seemed to be staring over my shoulder with a slight wide-eyed look. She then instructed me to casually look at the table directly behind me. With a wandering eye thoroughly inspecting the various cracks in the ceiling paint, I slowly turned to see the back of a man with shortly trimmed, brown hair, darkly tanned skin and wearing a thin, knitted sweater. I didn’t quite know who it was until he turned to one of his dinner companions and his side profile came into view. My mental jaw dropped. All I could silently say was, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

It was Chris “Macca” McCormick, the reigning World Ironman Champion and one of my bucket list people I have always wanted to meet. I am two feet away from him. Inside I am dying, but outwardly I think I said to Max, “That’s nice.”

Maxine was all over this. She knew I was fan of Macca and wasn’t about to let this opportunity escape me. She was getting a picture. She has always been far braver about these kinds of social moments than I ever was and again, she knew me well enough to know I wasn’t going to initiate anything even with one of my triathlon idols two feet away. I anxiously conceded to her plan of waiting till he was done eating and leaving the restaurant before she would ask for a picture of him with me. We never ate pasta slower as we waited what seemed like forever when suddenly I saw Maxine jump up and say, “Mr. McCormick…”

He couldn’t have been more gracious as he shook my hand and asked if I was racing tomorrow. I muttered some incoherent words in response and stood there staring at the Aussie legend. I did remember to thank him for a good read, as I recently finished the mini autobiography he published this year. He fired back with a big “Thank you!” and a chuckle, as he was wondering who it was that bought his book. With that, we stood side by side like old friends and posed for a permanent memory. Reluctantly, I had to let him go and in return for his freedom, he offered us both a round of “Good luck!” and set off on his way, friends in tow. I was on cloud nine. What I hope was a relatively minor disruption in Macca’s existence left me feeling on top of my world and forever cemented a positive impression of him. It almost seemed like the race the next day was going to be an afterthought in comparison to my experience that evening. However, I knew better and with a beaming smile I headed off to bed and slept well, dreaming about the race and inviting my new best, Aussie friend over for a few pints of Foster’s and some shrimp on the barbie.

A few hours later, Max and I were awake and silently gathering our gear together for the race. Suitcases and small children in sleeping bags were strewn about the floor, making for a treacherous walk about in the dark. We munched on bananas and oatmeal, our typical pre-race meal. With a bottle of Diet Coke for Maxine and a bottle of Gatorade for me, we tip-toed our way into the hallway and down to the lobby. There was no one else there as I suspected the pros were sleeping blissfully for a few more hours since their race wasn’t until that afternoon. With a goodbye wave to the assistant hotel manager on duty that night, we stepped out into the coolness of the fifty-five degree early morn breeze. Weather called for cool temps with mostly sunny skies and a wind of fifteen to twenty miles per hour. I have always favored the cooler temps for racing but the wind could be a factor.

The drive to the athlete parking area of Gray’s Lake was short and with the bikes already racked, we decided to rest in the car for thirty minutes before setting up our gear. We were in one of the last waves to start a good hour and half after the first wave would leave. We still had to get our stuff set up and out of transition by six thirty, leaving us almost two hours of waiting to go off. We had learned the day before that the water temp earlier in the week was over eighty degrees, making the race wetsuit illegal. As we walked the mile from the car to the transition, we heard the announcer state that the water temp was seventy-four degrees, thus making it wetsuit legal. However, neither of us had our suits with us – they were still in the car a mile away and it was six fifteen. Crap! We quickly came up with a plan to get our gear set up in transition and exit wearing our tri-suits. Then Maxine, who still had flip flops on (I wore my run shoes to the race and had to leave them in transition), would run to the car and get our suits while I stood shivering in the breezy, cool air, barefooted and waiting for salvation in the form of insulating rubber. Soon enough she was back and we were quickly in our suits and a state of warm relief.

The elite amateurs began the race with full wave starts running from the beach into the water. Subsequent to the elites and physically challenged divisions, all remaining age groupers left in groups of six triathletes in a time trial fashion from the sandy shores. Wave after wave of six swimmers left for the water and after what seemed like an eternity or at least three visits to the port-o-potty, I was lined up on the beach with my five fellow competitors to rush into the water. A booming “GO!” from the swim start official was our cue. The water was great. Reasonable temperatures, low chop on the surface and minimal impact from a blinding morning low sun. The course was a rectangle with a slight kink in the middle allowing the course to bend around the L-shaped lake and still get in the fifteen hundred meters. Others informed me later that they thought the water tasted like gasoline owing to the number of jet skis present to ensure our safety in the water. I didn’t remember tasting any oil by-products. Due to some slower than average times in previous tri events, I decided to push myself a little bit with a stronger stroke and put more emphasis on sighting the buoys to keep my line straighter. My efforts paid off as I exited the water in 26:42, which was a little better than average for all age groupers. Hitting the beach, I started running with the confidence of a decent swim only to discover I was still running and still running down the longest pre-T1 chute I’ve ever experienced. I finally got into transition, pulled my suit off and grabbed my gear and bike to enjoy yet another long run to bike out. After two minutes and fifty seconds, I was out on the bike course – and that was one of the quicker transition times!

Flying mount onto the bike went smoothly. Had to be careful leaving the park as they had a no passing zone until everyone left the park about a quarter of a mile away. It slowed me down a little as I did get stuck behind a competitor, but soon enough the passing zone ended and I was around my obstacle and off to find some open Iowa country roads. It turned out most of the roads were of the curbed, suburban kind. No matter, I was flying anyways. The course was actually a fairly technical one with lots of turns and a couple of turnabouts. Who knew there were hills in Iowa? A lot of rollers dotted the course. The bigger challenge came in the form of many bikes being present from earlier waves, so I spent a lot of time weaving in and out of passing zones. A few newbies were present to hear me bark out, “On your left!”

After 1:05:25, I found my way back to Gray’s Lake and the transition. Dismount was smooth as well. I ran again, down the long transition to my rack position. I was surprised to find only five other bikes in my long bike rack. There were only five racers ahead of me, possibly. I still wasn’t sure if my rack was the only rack for my age group, but I took off for the run out with a goal to chase down some rabbits. In one minute fifty-four, I was Elmer Fudd!

For the majority of the run course, it was dead flat – it was my kind of course. The sun was heating up a little due to the lateness of my swim start, but it wasn’t unendurable. I began a deliberate process of chasing down runners in front of me, hoping to catch someone in my age group. I could tell the ages of my rabbits as the race officials saw fit to have every competitor put a temporary age tattoo upon their left rear calf.  The course went around the lake itself in the first two to three miles, including a bridge crossing over a distant part of the lake from the swim start beach location. Eventually, the course turned towards the downtown and the capitol building at the heart of the city atop an impressive hill overlooking the urban sprawl. On this turn, I passed my first rabbit in my age group and was hungry for more. My appetite was satisfied by two more as I approached the final mile. I was cruising comfortably at a 6:15 pace when the “hill” came into view. It was a steep third of a mile climb on a road that ringed the capitol building. Lots of fellow racers were walking the stretch, but with my family watching and a couple of rabbits to still catch, I motored up the hill. When relief seemed to be in sight atop the hill, the course turned sharply into a carpeted finishing chute lined by grandstands on one side and a large athlete recovery area on the other side. The entire area was in the shadow of the golden dome of the capitol building. The music was blaring, the crowds were cheering and I saw a few racers still ahead of me. I saw my family in the stand waving their arms, inspiring my legs to give a little bit more. I didn’t notice the entire finish area was still on a slight incline, making it difficult to pour top notch speed. I wasn’t going to catch any more rabbits, but soon enough, I was across the finish with my arms raised. Just like an Ironman race, the announcer proclaimed my finish with my name to the applause of the crowd. It was a run time of 39:01.

Moments later, I was in the recovery area enjoying some water and chocolate chip cookies with a finisher medal around my neck. I had no idea how I did. I finished with an overall time of 2:15:50. I wasn’t real impressed as it wasn’t close to my PR; however, I was happy with that time given the technical bike ride and the crazy hill at the finish. I found the family and got a round of congratulations and waited for Maxine to come from her race. Maxine came in soon after and looked great when she crossed the finish line. Knowing we had to shuttle back to Gray’s Lake to get our stuff and the pros were going to go off at one thirty for the women’s race, I sent the rest of the family back to the hotel to wait for us and we would begin our spectator duties from the river where the pros would start their race. As Maxine and I walked to the shuttle bus pick up, one last look at the race results billboard revealed I had finished third in my age group. Wow! I was very excited. There would be a podium celebration for me. It also meant Maxine and I had to wait to receive my medal and leave my family wondering where we were without a cell phone to call them.  You guessed it – my phone was in transition back at Gray’s Lake. So, my parents missed my first podium experience. Nonetheless, I stepped onto that podium, received my bronze medal and raised my arms in triumph with my two fellow age group winners. Seeing the crowds applaud was a very cool experience I won’t soon forget.

Once the celebration was over, it was back to the transition area to gather up my things to bring back to the hotel. With a beaming smile, I showed off my medal to rest of the family who offered more congratulations. It was followed by a quick shower and into my street clothes to begin a fun afternoon of spectating. The pros put on an impressive display of talent and endurance as both the women and men struggled in the fast moving currents of the river swim and both a bike and run leg that required repeated trips up the capitol hill before an exciting finish and a hefty payday. The winners of this race took home more money than the winner of the Ironman World Championship!

After a full day of triathlon events, we enjoyed a family dinner at a local Chinese restaurant and settled back into the hotel for a restful evening of conversation before retiring for a long desired evening nap with no blaring morning alarm. The race season was over. It was time to recover. The off season began with one last breakfast buffet amongst my idols of the triathlon world. Then soon enough, we kissed the family, said our goodbyes and loaded the kids into the van with a rear packed to the gills with tri gear and kid stuff. One last look towards the hotel entrance area, I saw Hunter Kemper stuffing the rear of his own vehicle with all his tri gear and kid’s stuff on his way to home or the next event…  I guess my triathlon idols are truly not that much different than me.

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