August 22, 2009
2009 USAT National Age Group Championship
After the race I stood in line for lunch at a burrito shop. The guy in front of me, a triathlete from New York, noticed I raced too. He turned around and started talking. He said this was his first time competing at a USAT National Age Group Championship. His teenaged daughter stood in front of him checking out some of the college aged dudes already seated eating lunch. His voice was tinged with disappointment and amazement at the same time. He said he finished the race in a great time but his placing was far below expectation. He kept talking, like in a run-on sentence. Everyone in the finishing area was talking to each other about racing against each other before, at other championship triathlons, and at other major events. They bragged about how good their equipment performed, about how their insane workouts delivered great results and their strange nutrition supplements provided more strength for race day. He looked down at the floor and his speech slowed but he kept talking. He mentioned everyone sported short hair, shaved their legs, wore body suits, and rode with similar sunglasses. “It’s like a cult or something.”
Triathletes in the cult are different than team focused professionals. Athletes competing in individual sports differ from those who participate in team sports. The competitors arrive to the races as equals in terms of everyone doing the same event. Individuals prove to themselves and others on their terms, not someone else’s like the situations that exist in work or structured sports leagues. At work, you need to be an employee. In a league, you need to be a member of the team. Pre-existing standards determine if you are a member of either. Then team achievements within those organizations determine the rewards and recognition. In contrast at individual events, if physical capabilities are equal, then confidence, self-control and individual determination are better predicators than raw talent in who will finish first, achieve better splits, finish quicker, or set better personal bests.
A couple of days earlier I flew into Birmingham, arriving late Thursday night. I could have been easily distracted thinking about this was the first race of four over the next four consecutive weekends, all Olympic distance triathlons, but I chose to stay focused on doing the best for Nationals. I jumped in the rental car, steered towards Tuscaloosa, and heard Sweet Home Alabama as the first song played on the local radio station. I smiled and thought, ‘Welcome to personalized southern hospitality’. An hour later, at midnight, I checked into the hotel.
On Friday I ran 30 minutes, put the bike together, worked until lunch, and did packet pick-up. The swag bag included some of the best goodies of any race. We received a red, white, and blue USAT backpack. A pair of USAT logo’d lager beer glasses. A high-tech workout gear t-shirt. Also included was a workout hat and the obligatory sports bar food samples. From the check-in area I drove to a parking lot at a University of Alabama dorm that overlooked the race’s start, transition, and finishing areas. I’m not sure the coeds who lived there appreciated the spectacle that awaited for them the next day. I parked my car, then walked down the hill and racked the bike.
The weather was hot, muggy and sunny. Everyone in the race qualified by competing in an USA Triathlon sanctioned event and finishing in at least the top third of their age group or achieving more difficult standards. People in this race were not entered “to do a triathlon.” Everyone came to compete and perform their best. Looking at the competitors’ bikes when entering the transition area supported my impression. Most of the bikes already racked were equipped with wheels that cost more than my whole bike set-up. And I raced on a bike that cost half the price of my first new car. Easy to be intimidated by other triathletes’ race equipment. Almost as easy to intimidate others with your own race equipment. I chose to ignore either approach and returned to the hotel.
Back at the hotel room I worked and watched the sky change from a beautiful blue to a dark black color with winds howling. A wet and loud thunderstorm dropped out of the sky as dinner time arrived and stayed well past bedtime. I woke up to dark skies dotted with lots of white stars. A wonderful greeting to the start of the day knowing we competitors were guaranteed a dry, hot, and humid race along with potentially the most concentrated bunch of high caliber age group triathletes than in any other race of the season.
This race married top tier racing with formal southern hospitality. The combined parties from the USAT and Tuscaloosa put on the race like a pageantry. Everyone who was part of the race, other than the racers, sported uniforms. The volunteers closest to the triathletes when racing wore like designed color tee shirts. The officials at the finish line and handlers for the elite of the elite were dressed more similar to the officials you see at Olympic events. The ambience of the race felt more like a college conference sport championship than a tri race. The permanent citizens of the Tuscaloosa, ‘the townies’, and the University of Alabama students welcomed all of us to their town though we didn’t fit their idolized football athlete mold. Sponsors were well recognized around the starting pier, the transition area, and finishing line with signs, banners, and products. Athletes were treated with great respect. And our hosts and hostesses in their signature local accents, helped everyone in answering questions, giving directions, and ensuring the entire race experience exceeded any other race. Everyone putting on the race and supporting the race were giving their all for a great race experience. I was a small player in being a part of something big and important. Their efforts made me want to give my all in return, to compete head to head with the best so I could show respect for their efforts.
The USAT Nationals Race provided everything I like about triathlon racing beginning with the peace before the action. The park setting for the staging area provided amble open spaces to lean up against a tree to get calmed and relaxed. I envisioned the pending race. I also did some people watching, seeing some serious fast athletes burning up massive amounts of energy as their anxiety took over their nerves in prepping for the Championship.
Granted, I was anxious myself. I just controlled the emotions. The higher level of racing, the higher level of anxieties. Much of the anxiety is thinking about the uncertainty of the race outcome. Not knowing whether I will beat someone who beat me before or vice-versa, not knowing my finish time, nor my finish place is part of the race equation. Not knowing how hard my mind will be able to push my body forward fast. But these uncertainties are what I like about big race attributes. These contribute to my motivation to perform at max effort.
The Black Warrior River was supposed be current free. More like a reservoir than a river. The water smelled more like a stagnant pond than a free flowing river. However, unannounced to the racers and probably not communicated to the race officials, the Army Corp of Engineers opened up the flood gates sometime during the night generating a 1 ½ mph head current based on the majority direction of swim course. To get to the race start the competitors walked out on a dock a couple of feet above the river. For this non-wetsuit race the competitors jumped in the river, turned, and grabbed the dock or took a few warm up strokes then grabbed the dock. Rumor had it, and now it is urban legend, in Heat #1, one of the 55+ male age groupers followed the steps to the start except the last one. He did not return to the dock to grab on and wait for the starting horn. The river proved stronger than his swim stroke and he flowed downstream quicker than he could swim against the current. I wished I heard the rumor before my start in Heat #3.
The course was sort of laid out in a wide rectangle and squatty in height. From the dock we swam damn quickly downstream on the bottom side of the rectangle. After 400 meters the course turned right 90 degrees. We were supposed to swim a straight line across the river along this imaginary rectangle side of 100 meters. In reality, no one in the early heats figured out the strength of the water current. For every swim stroke we took, the current pushed us downstream to our left a few feet. For all of us, the 100 meters in how birds fly to the next buoy was closer to 150 meters by how the triathletes swam. I further handicapped myself as my goggles fogged over. I didn’t care the river was dark and you could not see your hands on entry to the water. I convinced myself if I stayed with other swimmers then I would be alongside my age group peers. I chose not to push the swim leg to not end up exhausted later on in the race. Finally across the river and at the turn buoy, we went right and faced the current head-on for the next 800 meters. The other racers who started in the later heats saw what happened to us and figured out how to adjust for the current before entering the water.
For us already in the water, we didn’t know to adjust. All but the most natural and strongest swimmers looked more like suffering salmon going upstream than triathletes battling for a podium spot. We swam slowly past the start, though on the far side of the river, and continued upstream. A couple of hundred meters past this spotting point the course turned right one more time and was a straight shot into the transition area. However, as we turned the river current pushed me and all the other clueless swimmers a meter downstream for every two meters we covered going across the river. We zigzagged to reach the river bank at the transition entrance.
I had no clues where I was until stopping at the final turn. Part of the pre-race strategy for the swim included staying even with my peer group and not to push the pace as to save more energy for the bike and run. The fogged goggles presented an unrealized problem. I could not distinguish swim cap colors identifying age group classifications. I swam beside other swimmers, content with the strategy.
The older swimmers came back quicker than I expected in my age group pack. I incorrectly thought people who increased the size of the swim pack were overly hyped up peers who started with a much too quick swim pace and were now paying for the quick start with a slower pace. I slowed with them not wanting to over swim the first leg of the race. When I stopped to defog the goggles, I found more of the wrong colored swim gaps than expected. I drifted downstream from the transition area that started perpendicular to me at the last turn buoy. I re-swam lost yardage. Not a good combo for a top finishing effort. The total swim time took me 37 minutes on something I consistently completed in 23 minutes. Damn the dams.
Many of the other racers who followed in subsequent heats figured out an alternative course by adjusting their cross stream swimming for a better trajectory to the turn buoys. Presumably too they chose a wiser swim strategy than me for Nationals. Unfortunately, this was not my only disappointing swim at a National Age Group race. Tuscaloosa was my third USAT National Age Group Championship. I vaguely remembered at the 1991 Nationals in Hammond, Indiana, I came out of Wolf Lake on the swim leg fourth from last in my age group. I was way out of my league. I faired better eight years later in Nationals held at St. Joseph, Missouri.
In big events I like to experience a shot of adrenalin at crucial points of the race. Another reason this competition had everything I like in triathlon racing. I learned throughout years of racing to take a risk, especially right after making a mistake, such as I did on the swim leg by not reading the river current ahead of the start. I raced through the transition, stepped on the bike at the mount line, and pedaled like hell with a boost of self-induced adrenalin. I ramped up the intensity a notch or two, maybe too much from previous races. But to catch up here, or for me not to lose any more ground, at this level of racing, I had to step up to push myself into the role of a national contender.
The bike course consisted of two laps on a closed road and that paralleled the river and another road we climbed up an incline and on a bridge over the Black Warrior to a 180 degree turn. The road surfaces were smooth, clean from the rains, and fast. I pedaled unrestrained to make up or more accurately stated, to minimize the trailing gap from the leaders that usually increases on my bike legs.
Back in June and into July bike workouts focused on longer rides with some hill climbing. Doing the same workouts will continue to deliver the same results in races. Doing the same thing at work will continue to provide the same results. I needed speed to effectively build on my endurance and strength base. That was the focus after a couple of recovery days from Steelhead. Building speed and dropping distance allowed for a quicker biker split here. For the first lap bike traffic was minimal. I passed a few competitors from the two earlier start waves and picked up three places in my age group. Only on the second lap did more riders, younger riders, faster riders who started in later waves get folded in with all the other racers already on the course. Near the start of the second lap I gave up one of my gained spots from the first lap. Still, my pace held steady not yielding to other riders in the age group.
One of the other competitors unknowingly helped me in the transition area. My individual rack/transition space was near the north end of the transition on one of the inner rows. I dismounted the bike and entered the transition area pushing it at a steady run pace around the bikes on the inside of the fence. Near the north end someone put down bright pink masking tape on the pavement arced around the bikes and continued its curve straight into the row where my running shoes waited for a quick exchange. The pink tape line was topped off with a pink tape arrowhead ending where my transition space began. If this was Kansas, the only more memorable path would have been the Yellow Brick Road but would have been rougher on my bare feet.
The quick transition allowed me to pick off one spot in my age group before getting out on the run. In an early start wave the heat started rising in the morning and by the time we started running the temps were hot and the humidity high. The run course started flat out of the transition area. I passed two additional competitors in the age group on the flats of the first mile. Over the next five miles the run course challenged us with almost three equally spaced hills; all three steep and long. With the hills and multiple half looping turns there was peek-a-poo racing going on. Pessimistic racers lost their will to run at an aggressive catch-up pace while optimistic racers envisioned their age-group competitor right around the blind corner or just on the other side of each apex on the next hill. I became the aggressive optimist. I ran the race like an open 10K instead of hanging on for the last leg of a triathlon. Running at the current pace wasn’t going to get me closer to the next place. I pushed my body during run leg. I pushed longer, harder, faster, and smarter. The gap narrow between me and the next person in front. I continued to run faster. I tried to control the thoughts of pain in my legs, in my lungs, in my feet. This is a strange sport as the athlete controls how much harm we bring to ourselves than to others. The contact sports of football, basketball, and soccer put the athletes in the danger of harm’s way of others. For triathletes, the pain control is all handled in our own wheelhouse.
I came striding down the last hill and continued to close the gap. We came back on the flats for the final half mile to the finish line along the banks of the Black Warrior River. I continued to push myself harder and to close the gap but realized I ran out of real estate to catch the next two places of my age group competitors. On the run up to the finish my muscles were thinking, “When is this going to end?” And at the end my disappointed mind thought, “Why did the finish line come up so quickly?”
This race continued to provide everything I liked about racing, competition from start to finish. The emotional low of not catching others to the emotional high of finishing better than expected. And even the camaraderie among other triathletes whether club mates or competitors. Like people with a common bond of trying their best to be their best, ever hopeful to achieve a perfect performance day knowing damn well the goal is a moving target of perfection.
The area beyond the finishing line was appropriately sized to stand around and talk with other racers. Met the people who matched the names of elite age groupers in the tri magazines, in on-line race results, and heard stories about from others who watched them nationally for years. Peoples’ names in print became names to faces. Mine too to others, a few people knew something about my racing results but didn’t know what I looked like until this race.
Age Group Nationals in Alabama proved more than a “check box race”. It provided great volunteers, premier race conditions, super swag bag gear, and top tier talent. This event had more of everything I liked about racing, a sense of accomplishment in doing my best whether winning or losing, or somewhere in between. Also, and in a more generic race form, knowing no matter how good I think I am, triathletes at all races will tell me or prove to me otherwise through their performances. Don’t like this as much but welcome the motivation.
My age dates me with my exposure to cults. I first heard of cults in 1974 when Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the SLA. She then joined them in criminal activities, went to prison, and later pardoned. Three years later woke up one high school morning learning about the Jimmy Jones Death Punch served to followers of his cult in Guyana. Then came the Dead Heads followed by the Parrotheads. During my senior year in college, one afternoon a couple of Hare Krishnas walked right into our rental house without knocking thinking the place was still the safe house rented out by its Bloomington, Indiana Chapter in early fall 1980. We told them to get out and head back to the airport. But now in the summer of 2009 while ordering a burrito, realized I held a strong admiration of this triathlon activity, occasionally regarded by others as a misguided effort of extreme exercise and a definitive self-centered philosophy of life. All being more than cult-like traits. The lines were blurring as if being recruited for the cult or had I already crossed over? Ate lunch and drove to the airport. Chose not to play the drums for donations there. Instead, boarded a plane to Chicago and fell asleep chanting as I would be racing in Lake Michigan and on Lake Shore Drive in eight days.
Results: 141st overall. 7th in age group.