Sunday, September 26, 2010

USAT National Championships

My teammate Dan Mackenzie and I traveled to Tuscaloosa, AL this weekend for the USAT Pro/Elite National Championship, along with 42 other pro men. This race was also an ITU Pan Am cup race, so was draft-legal on road bikes as opposed to time trial non-drafting format, and included some guys from Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Barbados. I’d never raced in a such a strong field before, as there were over 15 guys who race at the World Cup level, including a group of Olympians and all the US National team guys, whose ITU races & travel expenses are covered by USAT. Some also live at the Olympic training centers for free. I was looking around the room at the pro meeting 2 days prior to the race, and it was a bit overwhelming. It’s important to be confident, but at the same time you know where you stand as a swimmer, starting swim training at age 25 instead of having years in the sport. I knew who almost everyone in the room was, from watching them on TV or reading about them online. It was stacked to say the least. A few big names were winner Brenden Sexton of Austraila, Olympians Jarrod Shoemaker, Matt Reed, and Greg Bennett, US National Champ Matt Charbot. It basically included all the top US ITU athletes, minus Olympian Hunter Kemper who was injured. Many of these guys have been racing triathlon for 10-15 years.

Going into the race I thought it would be all about the swim for me, like all ITU races are... but by the end of the day I realized for the first time, it wasn’t really about the swim do to the circumstances. It turned out, if I would have swam 20 seconds faster, or slower for that matter, it really wouldn’t have mattered. I knew a huge main pack would form, and then the rest of us. We all knew the heat and humidity would affect the day, as it was in the mid 90s by our 2:15pm start time, and river water temps were about 85. As expected, a huge swim pack of about 20 of the 44 guys stayed together and grouped up on the bike. A chase pack formed a bit back, and then a string of a bunch of guys all coming out the water somewhat alone. That included me. Looking around, there was no group within reach in front of me to attempt to go solo on the bike and bridge up to, but also no one right behind me to work with. So, I caught up to one guy, rode with him for a lap before he was dropped, and then waited until Sean (recently 8th in the World Duathlon Championships) and Darin Shearer bridged up to me. The 3 of us worked together for the rest of the 8 lap bike portion, wishing we had a group of 20 to pull us along as opposed to only 3. But, this is part of draft-legal racing with the swim being our weakness, and the tough part about racing ITU for us, since coming out of the water 30 or 45 seconds back of a large pack. We kept moving up on athletes who got dropped from the packs ahead. Some joined us, and some were dropped and eventually lapped out of the race (ITU rule). I felt strong on the bike, and went through both large water bottles early, as it was very hot. I started cramping late into the bike, and took 3 salt tablets immediately, which I think helped. The cramps stayed until about 10 min into the run, and then disappeared. I debated trying to break away after I had gapped my group on the top of the hill, but realized riding 2 laps solo would be very tough if I tried, and I’d likely get pulled back in by the group

The run turned into another sufferfest, just like Chicago. With temps around 95 and sun beating down, people were dropping, including myself and Jefferson, who is a 29 min 10k runner who ran for Nike/Oregon Track Club. It was a struggle to keep shuffling, and ice cup after ice cup being poured down the jersey, I made it to the line in 28th place. It was ugly, and embarrassing, but I knew it was the right thing, to keep on gutting it out. By the end of the day, 16 out of the 44 athletes didn’t finish, they either were lapped out on the bike, or succumbed to the heat.

Hot, dizzy, and discouraged, I took a while just sit down in the athlete’s lounge and do nothing. Just sit. It was cool to be a part of the race, but anytime you run 11 min. slower than usual, no matter the reason, discouragement is there. Running well in heat is always possible, but much more difficult when you’ve been red-lining it in the swim and on the bike for 80 minutes leading into it.

The week before the race, I almost decided not to go after my teammate Jordan switched to race the non-drafting format Westchester Tri in New York, which had prize money too but a legitimate shot at it, with most of the top US guys at Nationals and for us being better at non-drafting events.

My 2010 season is likely over, unless I race in November. All in all, it was not a great season as far as my results went. However, I earned my pro license in May, learned a ton about racing, and have thoroughly enjoyed getting a chance to pursue my goals. I’ve learned the importance of needing to stay consistent in training, to choose races carefully that play to your strengths and make sense financially. ITU racing is fun, especially with the big names there and TV helicopters overhead like yesterday, but it’s also expensive, difficult to make money, but doesn’t make much sense if swimming is your weakest discipline. I will still keep working the hardest at improving my swim, and may race 1 or 2 draft-legal races next year, but the focus will be on non-drafting and Ironman 70.3’s, which I think will suit me well. At the beginning of the year my goal was to turn pro, and that was it, nothing further. I thought I’d likely stop if I achieved that goal. I’m taking what I learned this year and making necessary changes, which will be big this next year (more to come on that soon). As long as I can cover my costs, have support, am racing for the right reasons, and taking care of my responsibilities, I’d love to keep going. Just like last year, I’ll say it again. One more year. Thanks for your support.

P.S. I am getting my USAT coaching certification in January, and am seeking additional athletes of all levels to coach. Spread the word!

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