More than 4300 athletes representing all 50 states descended on Milwaukee August 9-10 for the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships. More than 1700 of those would race the Sunday Sprint event – my first ‘A’ race of the 2014 season – in hopes of earning a coveted spot on Team USA for the 2015 World Championships in Chicago next September. (Around 500 crazies did both events, racing the Olympic distance (1500m swim – 40K bike – 10K run) on Saturday and following with the Sprint (750m – 20K – 5K) on Sunday; several in my age group qualified at both distances – impressive!)
Dwarfing every other sprint distance race in both size and competition, this event presented some unique challenges.
Age groupers in USAT sanctioned events consist of everyone who is not a certified elite; the “elites” that take part in most local races are high level age groupers at sanctioned events. If you end up on the podium here, you have done some work! The level of competition this year was a big step up not only from the local circuit, but also from last year’s Sprint Championship. Twice as many athletes entered the 35-39 age group this year. It seemed the opportunity to race Worlds in Chicago attracted more high-level guys: the Champion from last year finished fourth this year; the winning time was more than two minutes faster; and the 25th best time this year was more than five minutes faster in a race lasting just over an hour.
The sheer size of the Sprint was fairly unique. More than 100 athletes in each wave makes for some tight water space on a relatively short 750m course, which is always a challenge for me. More on that later.
That likely once-in-a-lifetime shot at donning the Stars and Stripes at an international event was my motivation for making the journey. As the host nation, the US qualified up to 25 spots in each age group; normally, we send only the top 18.
I spent almost seven months gearing up for this race, focusing on the sprint distance, raising and sustaining speed. This was a big deal to me! It was difficult to relax all weekend. My parents made the drive from Indy, there to support as they have been so many times in the past. This was the first opportunity to spend a race weekend with my dad in several years. While he didn’t attend the race – he is nursing a badly collapsed ankle – he and my mom were excellent company to help keep my nerves as calm as could be.
I freely admit that swimming is not the strength of my triathlon-ing skills. I am a little guy by most standards. Nowhere am I reminded of that fact more than during in-water swim starts in large races. As I mentioned in my earlier race report, start on the beach, let me run into the water, and I’m good! Make me fight for space? Not so much…
My goal was to find clean water – no other swimmers to interfere – as soon as possible. “Never” does not qualify as ASAP; I had to fight for space the entire swim.
I was kicked a few times, took an open-handed “punch” to the jaw – all part of a natural swim stroke, and had guys trying to swim over top of me as though we were puppies fighting for a spot at the teet. It was a fight to keep any space I could, and I seemingly had six swimmers around me the entire leg. I managed to tough out the contact (I delivered a few shots myself, just part of the deal) and keep my stroke decently intact. In the end, I was pretty pleased with my swim time (11:44 over ~820m true course length, 1:25/100m), despite the challenges finding clean water.
Still, the fighting took a lot out of me, and I was out of the water right around 30th (as told by the spectators): not where I wanted to be heading into T1, but in the hunt for a Team spot with my better events still to come.
Fortunately, I brought my speedy transitions with me from California. In sprint tris, transitions can make or break you. By posting the 11th best change from swim to bike, I passed five athletes in transition, in a couple of cases making up more than 40 seconds of “free time”, equivalent to about 50 meters of swim distance. I didn’t know it at the time, but I left the first transition holding the last qualifying spot!
Looking at course maps in the weeks leading up to the race, I noticed that there would be some hills involved. I’d spent most of the season working on my time-trialing, and not much at all in the hills and mountains around San Diego. While the hills on the Milwaukee course weren’t massive by any stretch, the total length of the climbs was well over one-quarter of the entire bike course. As a little guy, I’ve got an advantage in that I carry less weight than a lot of others, but long, sustained higher power efforts like that take a lot out of me.
Today was no different.
I felt very good in the flats and was generally making up time and positions on the faster swimmers. Even on the climbs, I held my own, and eventually settled in a good place around the same group of guys. At USAT races, drafting is illegal, so staying out of the groups is important. Better to drop a few seconds than risk a 2-minute penalty for drafting or failing to yield.
It was on the bike that I started to struggle keeping focused. Where two weeks ago I was so good about letting go of the competition and racing within myself, here I became concerned with my place. I knew I was 30th (or so) out of the water as supporters of other athletes were yelling out placing to those around me. I started counting in my head how many guys I’d passed – unaware of the positions gained in transition – and soon became worried that I wasn’t making up enough on the bike. In the back of my mind, I knew I had the run left: usually my strongest leg. I battled like this back and forth with myself throughout the ride, but kept a good cadence and pretty good pace.
In the end, my bike leg was pretty strong. I managed right around 24 mph average over the 20K including the three hills, which was pretty good all things considered!
As I entered T2, I knew I was close to a qualifying spot, but still wasn’t sure of exactly where I stood. A solid flying dismount into T2 set the table for the sixth fastest T2 in the group, gaining me as much as 20 seconds on competitors around me: more “free time.”
But as I left T2, I noticed that my legs – which always, ALWAYS lie to you at this point in a race – were feeling heavier and more painful than normal during a sprint. I tried pushing through, making a couple of quick passes out of transition.
Another fan was counting aloud to herself as I passed.
I distinctly heard “26.”
I had no idea where I was – certainly no clue that I’d made up any ground in transition either time – other than that I was right on the cusp of qualifying. My goals flashed in my head as the meters ticked by. I’d told my wife and parents, “I’ll be ecstatic to podium (top 5); I expect to qualify.”
My expectations were being met with a big dose of competitive reality from a more talented and deeper field than I anticipated, and I didn’t handle it well at all. Rather than focusing on technique and digging deeper, I found my thoughts consumed by whom had to catch and how much ground I was gaining. Fortunately, I was still gaining ground on a few competitors, but I also got passed by one or two as well. Just short of mile 3 of the 5k, I was convinced I was just outside the top 25. I had one runner that I was closing on and would eventually catch… but a stronger finisher passed me in the final 100m. I just didn’t have anything left in the tank – or at least nothing I could muster with my mind scattered all over the place.
Ultimately, my run was disappointing for me (19:19, 6:13/mi) not because I was 45 seconds slower than my goal time, but moreso how it happened. It was completely mental; the physical barriers were likely no worse than most other races, but I let my head get the best of me on that run.
By the time I seemingly staggered across the finish line, my thoughts were no longer consumed with qualifying. I was glad the race was over, desperately seeking water, and very wobbly. My mom found me shortly after I crossed the finish line and asked how I felt. I told her, “I have no idea… I got my butt kicked in the water.”
She said she had counted me in somewhere around 18th certainly top 25, and likely top 20.
I was pleasantly surprised, though at first I thought she was wrong! Here I’d felt like I was in the fight of my sporting life to hold on to the last qualifying spot, and all the while I’d been in a pretty good position. In the end, she was dead on, I crossed the finish line 18th in the age group. After assessing penalties (thus making the results official), I ended up 17th. Unfortunately, the race officials penalized the athlete that passed me in the last 100m two minutes for failure to yield while he was being passed on the bike. That two minutes cost him a qualifying spot, as he ended up 28th.
Remember that minute I gained in transitions relative to many around me? That was the difference between 17th and 24th. In the official qualifying results, I ended up 18th (USAT ranks the athletes based on their time projected in the age group they will be in 2015. I dropped one spot as two 39 year-olds moved up to 40-44, and three 34 year-olds moved into 35-39). Those transitions – that minute gained – saved my qualifying bacon: two more 34 year-olds would have beaten me, making me 26th and just outside the window.
There are four sports in triathlon. Practicing transitions pays off.
So, I qualified for Team USA in one of the toughest age groups out there. I get a little rush when I read that – it’s the coolest thing I’ve accomplished in any sport in my life! I am happy that I managed to do it finishing inside the top 18 as well. I am proud to know that I would’ve qualified regardless of whether the US was hosting Worlds next year or not. I don’t know why it makes any difference, but for some reason it does.
I received a tremendous outpouring of support on Facebook, Instagram (@Tripurple_Kurt), texts and handshakes at work over the past few days. I appreciate all of it! Thanks for celebrating with me! Thanks for coming along on whatever small or long part of the ride you did! It’s much more fun and meaningful knowing people are watching and care.
I’m not sure what I’m going to do the rest of this season. I have eyes on a couple of races here in California, but I’m going to relax for a few days before I make any decisions. 2015 will certainly bring big things again… but for now, I think I’ll have a beer with my wife!
Category results here.