August 20, 2011
USAT Nationals Age Group Olympic Distance
The night before the USAT Nationals Age Group Olympic Distance triathlon race in Burlington, Vermont I became an honorary member of Team Wade enjoying the camaraderie of triathletes. The team included a husband and wife with the last name Wade and a couple of guys with the first name of Wade. Wade Grow was the triathlete who convinced me to race in my first Ironman in Provo, Utah nine years earlier. I met Steve Wade there, who over the years inspired me to be forever resilient to personal setbacks. His wife, Becky Wade, raced with Steve and on her own. And elite triathlete Wade Hoiland was also a founding member of Team Wade. A stellar team who collectively earned multiple podium finishes, All-American status, and membership on the national US teams at a variety of World Championships held all over the globe. Steve also qualified and raced in Kona before any of us did. Grow once turned in the quickest split at a World Championship race. And all of them too modest to let on about any of their collective accomplishments. Imagine being asked to join such an elite group of racers in the sport of triathloning. I felted both honored and humbled.
I flew into Manchester, New Hampshire on Thursday evening, then drove 3 hours across New Hampshire and Vermont to Burlington. In front of me was an aggressively busy schedule: Work all morning, break for lunch and race check-in, work all afternoon, rack bike, and follow that for a pre-race dinner with Team Wade. Saturday morning would be the USA Age Group Nationals Championship followed by a three plus hour drive to Gilford, New Hampshire to check-in for weekend race #2, Timberman Ironman 70.3.
The drive to Burlington was beautiful. I drove over mountains, by mirror flat lakes, and through quaint towns punctuated with church steeples worthy of full page calendars once the maple tree leaves changed colors. The Vermont highway signs warned me of moose crossings and bear crossings. I didn’t realize how much wilderness lived in the wooded mountains of the east to terrorize non-expecting triathletes from the Midwest. In addition to being out raced on the road by fast cycling triathletes on Saturday, I now needed to stay clear of rouge wildlife that lurked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont that I drove through to get to the two planned weekend races.
Before entering a small town to stop for dinner, a group of six kids played outside a cottage on a densely wooded lake. The late summer evening sun skimmed the treetops casting long shadows across the shore of the cottage lined lake. In the fading sunlight three girls and three boys, all of them pre-teens, played on a homemade pontoon floating dock. They were at a true age of innocence. Too young to feel awkward being around others of a different sex and too old to think of themselves as kids. They laughed. They pushed each other into the water. They pulled themselves back up on the float, flipped their wet hair, and repeated the sequence. They enjoyed a late summer evening swim filled with fun and laughter before school began anew with no worries.
When we were kids, swimming and summers were not measured by speed or distance but by how much fun we enjoyed. We measured that on how much we laughed and spent time away from our parents. We were all at that age once. Either out on floating dock, playing ball, or hanging out somewhere in some similar social setting with the opposite sex. No responsibilities. No peer pressure. No problems. Then student life morphed into a two branched monster with worries of earning a spot on the honor role that later matured into worries of graduating from school on one branch. And a second branch of connecting with the right cliques and finding long-term relationships. After that came the stress to land a job and earn the progressive promotions of a professional career while balancing marriage, parenthood, and triathloning racing. I watched the kids and wistfully thought to myself, “Oh to be young again.”
As I drove by one of them they looked and smiled at me. I turned away. I was invading their party. If ESP is real, then I interrupted her smile and thoughts of, “Ah, to be young!”
After dinner continued to drive on to Burlington and thought about the upcoming race. I related to the pre-teens on the dock. I was in Vermont to race well. I peaked my training for the two days of races with focus being on Nationals. I expected a great race for me that would compare to good for top competitors in my age group. I was at an age in my racing hobby to be as confident with my peer group as ever in my life. No longer was at an age of triathlon innocence to hold a fairy tale belief I could win age group but I held lots of confidence to do well and not embarrass myself at Nationals. I would measure my fulfillment on comparative place instead of medals and plaques.
Near Burlington the terrain looked familiar. I had been there once before, on my honeymoon.
Friday morning came early. I woke, stretched, and went on an easy 30 minute run. Spent most of the run time envisioning the next day’s race sequence from warm up, swim start, bike riding, and running relaxed for a quick trip to the finish line. While I focused on what I would do in the race, I envisioned racing amongst some fast peers. This race would not be the usual race of being passed by elite speedsters or rushing by slower racers and lots of empty spaces in between. No, this race would be contested stroke to stroke on the swim. There would be full time eye contact spacing on the bike. And then on the run we would run stride for stride until someone cracks and breaks stride due to over exertion from too much hard breathing or an unsustainable heart rate that cannot keep up with the body needs. All of this was what I mentally prepared for the night before the race.
After my workout I ate, put my bike together, and then worked. I ventured out for lunch and then checked in for the race on the University of New Hampshire campus. I returned to the hotel and worked some more. For work, I was part of a big project on an ERP system implementation with a short timeline and contractors who wanted to bill us lots of worthless hours to the project. Imagine a triathlon coach billed you for his hours and your race results were falling short of his training program promises. While you received input on workouts but they were issued without the insight of understanding the whys by your tri coach. Paying for useless coaching hours and workouts does not provide you with the value of knowledge to achieve your race goals. Know your coaches’ capabilities, like a business should know their consultant capabilities for value. Workouts without whys costs athletes cash without received benefits. What you get is multiple hours of training for a poor coaches high fees without your high finishes. Hold them both accountable. From start to finish. From a conceptual project to full implementation. From fun as a youth to fulfillment as a masters aged triathlete.
The USAT organization attracted top tier amateur talent for the Nationals Age Group championship races in both the Olympic and Sprint Distance races. The triathlons of both distances were held back to back on Saturday morning. Competitors were not allowed to double up for both events. Lake Champlain offered clean calm waters within a world class park setting. USAT secured closed roads for the bike course with smooth and well swept surface. And for the run, they established a course with picturesque views on the streets of the city through the downtown area lined with great crowds of spectators, and anchored by superior volunteers. USA tri brought everything together to put on a memorable event for everyone involved with the races.
From the swim start we could look west across eight miles of Lake Champlain into the beautiful green heavily forested Adirondacks Mountains of New York State. And to the north we could look up into the seemingly never ending narrows of the “6th Great Lake”. We queued up in our respectively age group waves on the pier in Waterfront Park. Loosely at first as different age groupers with different colored swim caps mingled to finish getting into wetsuits while talking with other competitors. Then as each group moved closer to starting area, the age group competitors’ waves with common color swim caps compressed into a smaller area until the racers jumped into Lake Champlain for the start of the race.
Before stepping on the pier to join the proper age group queue I spotted a woman walk by with her head darting around. I estimated she was about the age my mom would have been if still alive. She was looking for something. I found myself feeling like a parent-child. I reflected back as a child of innocence and then abruptly projected myself forward as a middle age adult child helping my parents as they moved through their sunset years.
“What are you looking for?”
She turned around, “Where do you guys finish the swim and get out of the water?” She talked like a friend of her kids as when we were teenagers.
I stepped up behind her and gently placed my right arm over her left shoulder and pointed across the course to the water exit. Nothing sexual on my part. Did this because my Mother and aunt did that to me as a kid. Only a couple of times, but both times I was uncertain of where I was supposed to go and both times felt so assured of their directions that each of them gave me and how that touch combined with verbal directions helped me understand. Hope the woman felt as assured as I did when needing an extra sense of security. I responded in how my mom and aunt did to help me as a kid. And now as a parent, I understood why they provided comfort on those two special occasions.
I briefly watched as she headed off in the right direction. Then did final adjustments to the wetsuit and headed off to join my brethren of same colored swim caps to start our competition. A couple of minutes later the starter directed us to jump into Lake Champlain. We treaded water until the horn went off signaling the start of our wave to determine the best age-groupers that chose to race in Burlington this year.
On the swim I quickly dropped into a steady swim stroke pattern. Likely because of the parity of swimmers around me in the age-group wave. The compressed wave of swimmers looked like a pod of dolphins swimming on the water surface. Once the race was underway I was more attuned to the peaceful pace of hand splashing into the water followed by an exhale of air as the bubbles rushed to the surface of Lake Champlain than when treading water with anticipation of a mass lunge to the first buoy.
The peacefulness lasted 150 meters until someone locked on my draft. The guy pushed the soles of my feet with his fingers for almost the whole swim leg. I stroked. He poked. He drafted. I became annoyed. I sped up. He sped up. I slowed down. He slowed down. I had enough. With less than 100 meters to go I broke stroke so he reached up and grabbed a calf. I slapped my foot down on his hand and forearm. He quickly scooted over and then swam right by me!
We exited to a cheering group of spectators who lined the path to the transition. I’m not sure the woman made it over there but if she did, I hope she found the race exciting.
On the bike we headed south out of Burlington on Pine Street for four miles then took a 90 degree left hand turn onto Swift Road for a couple of miles then turned right. The course was closed to traffic. The turns were well marked but no mile markers nor aid stations existed. For Olympic championship race we were expected to be self-contained on nutrition.
Racers rode an 11 mile elliptical loop starting south on Spear Street. Headed east on Irish Hill Road to Dorset Street. Turned right for a half mile and then went east on Shelburne Hinesburg Road for a quick out and back of a mile ride and headed north to return towards Burlington for the other half of the elliptical loop on Dorset Street. We turned left at Swift Road south of town and retraced our ride back to the transition in Battery Park. A strange course layout but it worked. We gained 1,100 feet of climbing over the 40 kilometer course. Never too hilly and never too flat. Definitely offered a mix of climbing, descents, and technical turns. A fair race for a championship course. Most of the climbing was in the first four miles and then rolling to false flats thereafter until the last four miles of downhill towards city center. Road surface conditions were good and never a concern for safety. I do not recall any spectators out on the bike course either due to the limited access or mental focus of racing.
At the transition exit to start the run I heard Wade Grow calling out age-group places. The run leg started out difficult as we steadily gained 300’ of elevation in the first mile. Usually during the first mile of the run competitors will stride out loosening up their legs from spinning on the bike and then pick up the pace for a speedy run. At the National Championships, competitiveness and adrenalin fueled most racers to forego conventional wisdom and run out of the transition and turn in an all-out performance for pride and self-satisfaction. I was thoroughly winded during the whole climb but pushed my physical limits the whole way. I breathed so hard on the initial climb my side ached. My leg muscles burned as the lactic acid built up. My arms were heavy from dropping into oxygen debt from a near max aerobic effort on the swim and bike legs. For my effort on the climb I gained back 10 age group places lost during the bike leg.
One thing made me different was no matter how much time I lost on the swim, and bike legs, I never felt totally out of the possibility of winning my age group. Always felt at the start of the run leg, if I had the split of a lifetime, I could get a win. Or at a minimum, set a PR in trying. I couldn’t but that was my motivational mindset to try!
At the apex of the climb we turned left and were treated to a subtle but noticeable downhill to stride out and pick-up speed. Over the next three miles we leveled back to lake elevation. The final two miles were on a path along a railroad track to the finish line. I seemed to be running at the same max pace the whole 10 kilometers. Instead of thinking speed to go faster, I focused on staying relaxed but pumping my arms combined with five foot running strides without over-striding. My pace allowed me to gain more spots forward on the last mile. One those guys was John Noonan. We raced against each other in the 800 Meters when he was on the Southern Illinois University Track Team in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I wrote about him earlier in the book when he beat be me soundly at the Musselman half ironman race in 2009 and then again at the Providence IM 70.3 race in 2010. All three times I out swam him but he passed me on the bike each time. Never caught him on a run leg until today, by a mere six seconds. I didn’t run faster near the end, others around me seemed to be cracking.
After the race I overheard competitors say, “If you ever qualify for Nationals, then you need to compete at them.”
Another racer summed up his experience as: “It was a blast.”
A more nature loving competitor mentioned Burlington was a, “Beautiful location.”
One woman focused on the people and stated, “Great volunteers. Great spectators.”
And one guy thought the freebies were awesome, “Best swag of any race. Shirt. Logo’d glassware. Race belt. Logo’d towel.”
Right after the race I already started prepping for next day’s race. I downed two, ice cold chocolate Gatorade recovery drinks. I checked in with the members of Team Wade. Steve finished in 23rd place for his age-group. There other three founding members were slated for the Sprint race. I left the race site within minutes after they re-opened the transition area, an hour after I finished. Wade Hoiland finished 6th, Wade Grow grabbed 13th and Becky Wade 24th in their respective age groups. A respectable showing for Team Wade at Nationals.
In 10th place, two minutes ahead of us was Tom McGee. He kicked my butt in Connecticut in 2009. Tom also beat multiple times at other National Championships and he himself was an individual winner in Milwaukee in 2013 & 2014 after this race. In 9th place was Barry Lewis who beat me in 2012 in Philadelphia which you will read about in a couple of day. Likewise, Paul Brinkmann who finished 8th will beat me in Milwaukee in both the Sprint and Olympic distance races in multiple years and beat me at World’s in Chicago in 2015. In 6th place was Tom Mather, a former Indiana University track teammate. He was a long distance guy at 5K and 10K when I ran the 800 meters there. Mather ran the quickest run split in Vermont in our age group. I had the second quickest in age group. Lee Wather, who crushed me by five + minutes in Oklahoma two months earlier, crushed me by six minutes and finished in 4th place. The age-group winner was Ebon Jones who beat me a week after the Oklahoma race by 30 minutes at Eagleman Ironman 70.3 in Maryland but only by eight minutes in Vermont. Fate made me a triathlete but my destiny of how well I competed at Nationals was still a depressing blow to my ego. Some good triathletes showed up for Nationals and I was honored to be able to compete against them. I summed up my accomplishment this way, I performed at the top of my level. I felt humbled but fulfilled in getting beat by most of the best triathletes from the US in my age group in Vermont.
Results: 194th overall. 11th in age group.