July 24, 2011
On Saturday morning I did my usual pre-race day workout, an easy 30 minute run. For the first time since last year’s race in Ohio, I jumped in my car and drove to the next tri race on my US and world journey. Destination: Omaha, Nebraska, 400 miles, one way from the rented townhouse in the Twin Cities area. As I traveled down Interstate 35 south into Iowa I saw more than a usual number of bikes mounted on cars, SUV’s, and trucks. This continued when headed west on Interstate 80. Not an unusual sight when driving to big races but two things stood out. One, didn’t expect the Omaha Triathlon to be a big of event to draw so many racers from this far away. Secondly, most of the bikes were road bikes, not tri bikes. I was used to being passed and passing vehicles with tri bikes but on this trip it was all about road bikes. Also full bike trailers pulled by small passenger vans filled with people decked out in cycling gear. Finally, experienced a flash back to Iowa in 1988 when Chris and I moved there as honeymooners. These cyclist were part of the convoy headed to the start of the 2011 edition of RAGBRAI. Its full name: Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. The organized non-competitive bike event put on by The Des Moines Register newspaper. Riders start by dipping their rear wheels in the Missouri River (or the Big Sioux River if starting in Sioux City or further north) and end the trip by rolling their front bike wheels into the Mississippi River along the eastern border of Iowa.
Weather conditions were sunny, windy, and humid for the drive to Omaha. There was a chance of rain coming in overnight and lasting into early morning. Rain dominated the weather for much of the spring and flooding remained an issue in the heartland of America’s grain belt into the summer. Almost two months passed since competing in races affected by flooding, yet I was back in the Missouri River Valley impacted again by flooding. The Midwest was awash in water, the whole central part of the US really. The Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers hit flood stage at many points. In May alone, almost a full year of rain fell across the upper Missouri River basin. Other contributing factors to the mass quantities of water included a Rocky Mountain snowpack at over 200% above normal and actions taken by the Corps of Engineers personal to control flooding. In the Omaha area I drove directly into the closed interchange of Interstate 29 and Interstate 680 north of Council Bluffs, Iowa. It had been closed since mid-June. This required me to back track east, then go north to catch the Lincoln Highway into Nebraska and turn onto Highway 75. I arrived as the last pre-race day mandatory orientation meeting started.
The Missouri River topped out at 36 feet above flood stage and flowed three times its average speed at 12 mph. Good thing we were not scheduled to swim in the Missouri River but the nearby Glenn Cunningham Reservoir in Omaha.
I got motivated when learning about the swim location. Over the years I met more than 100 above average track milers and at least two great ones, Jim Ryun and Glenn Cunningham. I wrote briefly about Jim earlier in the book. I met Mr. Cunningham during spring break when I was a sophomore at Indiana University in 1979. Our IU Track Coach, Sam Bell, learned Mr. Cunningham was in Memphis, Tennessee and arranged for us to meet with him in conjunction with a promotion he was doing for Sprite Sprints, some running road race series. Cunningham’s running resume was extensive. He was the world record holder in the Mile Run and 880 yard run. He competed in two Olympic Games representing the US and won a silver medal in the 1500 Meter Run. He also earned the US Amateur Athlete of the year award. Mr. Cunningham shared that his coach once timed him during practice with a sub-4 minute mile run. Some accounts claim he did it multiple times though he only mentioned the one time to us. What was amazing to Mr. Cunningham’s achievements was he lost all of his toes on his left foot to a terrible house fire at the age of 8. He also lost his 13 year old brother in the same fire when someone mistakenly poured gasoline into a fuel container marked as kerosene. The boys filled the heater with the mislabeled fuel. The gasoline vapors ignited with tragic results.
Think about walking without toes. There would be less springiness in your step. Then take that up a level when running and running fast and not have additional leverage or spring. Glenn, the great miler, overcame the loss of his brother and toes, the pain of healing burned tissue and skin, and then had the mental ability to run a mile faster than anyone else on this planet.
Mr. Cunningham and his wife were exceptional human beings in other ways too. They opened up their home to orphaned children and kids in need to help others with food, shelter, and growing up in a house of love and religion. Mr. Cunningham was an overachiever and top role model for everyone who wanted to learn how to pay it forward. He was simply a sensational, yet humble person.
A number of racers described the Omaha Triathlon as a classy “Big” time event on a small scale. Mid-westerners would sum up their experiences this way: lots of competitors in a well-organized event complete with an Expo, required pre-race talks, quality and colorful sporty high tech fabric race shirts. Everything a triathlete would experience in a National event without the left and right coast athletes sporting trendy equipment and either coasts’ attitudes. This was all about experiencing the big time components of a top notch triathlon without the drama, costs, or attitudes. The race director (RD) delivered to each triathlete a solid race event experience from sign-up through the actual race into a solid post-race celebration. He also provided the opportunity for the triathletes to fulfill hopes, reach significant race goals, and leave the race site with a solid feeling of self-esteem for race accomplishments.
On early Sunday morning I stepped out of my hotel room into the pre-dawn darkness and headed for the race site. Lightening flashed on the far away edges of the horizon but stars filled the clear skies overhead. Winds were relatively light though race conditions would be hot and humid under sunny skies when we jumped in the water in three hours.
I checked in at the race, got body marked, racked my bike, and found a spot to watch as other entrants and spectators walked along the same path I just covered. An hour later I started to stretch and warm up. I quickly had company. Two dogs, 45-55 pounds each, came over to greet me. They were friendly, well behaved and wanted attention. I petted them, scratched them under their chins, and gave them a couple of solid dog pats on their rumps. They both could have handled the run leg on a couple of relay teams if given the chance.
I continued on with my standard race warm-up routine. I finished stretching, went for a one mile run, and did some pick-up strides. I shed my warm up gear then headed over to the boat ramp for the race start.
I paid honor to a great runner and exceptional American before plunging into the lake in Omaha. I stood on the outskirts of Omaha getting ready to swim 1500 meters. This was same distance as Mr. Cunningham’s Olympic run distance. I waded into the reservoir with the same name as him with of humble worthiness and treaded water until the horn sounded. The water was clean and too warm to be a wetsuit legal race. Age groupers were sent off in a steady flow of waves. The plan was to send off each wave 3 minutes apart but the RD shared before the start if everyone was in the water and ready to go, then the wave would start. Racers were soon in place so we went off quickly. The course was safely secured and well monitored by lifeguards.
The transition area was set up in the grass 100 meters from the swim exit. Racers covered the ground easily. We grabbed our bikes and rode out of the park and through a small neighborhood. The course continued a couple of miles east then turned left onto State Highway 36. We headed northwest and then angled west for nine miles. The race was contested over a fully closed course. The highway outside of the park was ours to tuck down into an aero position on our bikes to beat the wind and other competitors.
With no motorized vehicular traffic allowed on the course, we were not concerned with some stray motorist crossing through a blocked off side street and broad-siding some overly focused, in the zone triathlete. While the no traffic allowed us to stay tucked in an aero position, the hills forced us to get out of the saddle a few times to work hard on the climbs. Oblivious to out of state competitors before the race were the number and steepness of the hills in the Omaha area. More than visitors expected. Triathletes exceeded 40 miles per hour going downhill while a few dropped down to single digits pedaling uphill. We were forever rolling on the highway. Racers stated they were surprised how hilly the course played out though they drove Highway 36 the day before the event.
I raced on my red Kestrel 200 SCi, my back-up racing bike. My primary bike was in a storage room at a hotel in Boulder, Colorado. I dropped it off after the race in Wyoming before flying out of the Denver airport. I would be using that race bike for the Boulder Ironman 70.3 race in 14 days. The Kestrel 200 SCi was an antique amongst all the racked bikes but it will be forever comfortable for me to race on. And it was still fast in Omaha. Equipped with a Specialized tri spoke rear wheel, I felt it fit in symbolically with the new-age windmills that started dotting the plains in Nebraska with the oncoming of the 21st century. At the halfway point of the bike course, we did a 180 degree turn and re-traced our ride back to the transition area. While we rode those same rolling hills in reverse, my quads hurt more on the second half of the bike leg. The hills seemed to of gained some additional height too. I slowed down though my perceived level of effort remained constant. We racked our bikes, then transitioned into a hot, humid, and rolling hills run leg.
What strength and flexibility the hills on the bike did not take away from, the heat and hills during the run did. On this leg of the race all competitors entered the final phase of Omaha Triathlon survivorfest. The unbearable heat and humidity flushed our sweat glands constantly. We covered the 10 kilometers on an out and back course that went westward along the dam of the reservoir for 1,000 meters then turned right and ran parallel to the reservoir with a couple of in and out dips at the Sprint race turnaround. The Olympic course racers continued north towards the far end of the park by a few scattered houses and farms in the countryside before reaching our turnaround point and headed back over the same course to the finish line. The run course included six significant climbs ranging from a 30 foot gain to a 70 foot gain in elevation. The course either angled down or up always delivering a constant strain on the quads and knees.
On the run, I also recognized Jen Sommermann, who I met in West Virginia in 2010. She reached state #28 in Nebraska on her 50 state journey. Jen also talked to competitors during the awards ceremony to increase their awareness of ovarian cancer and her objective to raise $100,000 during her journey to fund research to find a cure for it and to educate women about the disease.
A few days after the Omaha Tri I learned the Glenn C. Cunningham Reservoir was named after a local long-time politician in the area, not the world famous, former world record holder in the mile run, Glenn Cunningham. Oh well, what I once believed, motivated for that day’s race. I also learned to not let facts impair our motivation to accomplish our goals for any reason.
Results: 8th overall. 1st in age group.