Monday, June 1, 2009

Armed Forces Triathlon Championships

Every year for well over a decade now, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard meet up at Pt. Mugu Naval Air Base. We also had the Canadian teams as well, so we had a full house. This isn’t about a joint service mission or training. It’s not about aircraft, combat vehicles or other weapons of war. We’re not even working together as one team (the US Military). We come to compete against each other in the sport of triathlon. Some are just home from the war, some are heading out soon, others are waiting until their time comes and for some this will be their last military duty. This is not only a great way for us to blow off some steam and live a week of a world class athlete, but gives us a chance to see how we stack up against the best athletes in the military. We have Navy Seals, Combat Rescue Officers, Rangers, and Commandos numbered among us, but special forces isn’t triathlon. That said, we compete in the only draft legal ITU race in America that has amateurs, elites and pros competing head-to-head.

This has been a goal race for me since 2003 when I first competed. It was a great secret until then, which took me a couple years of searching before I found out who to talk to and get myself on the team. The top six to nine qualify for the Military World Championships, which I’ve done four times. This is one of the greatest experiences I’ve had as an athlete, so I train hard every year for the honor. This year there would not be a world championships as the host country cancelled about a year ago and we were unable to find a replacement. I thought the lack of a world championship would make the race less competitive, but I was wrong. It seems that the rest of these ultra competitive athletes want the incredible test that our championship always brings. I also suspect that Tim O’Donnell’s separation from the Navy played a roll on the level of competition. He’s won the last six and Mike Hagen won the six before that, so it seemed that we’d finally have a slim chance of standing atop the podium.

My training plan was supposed to deliver me to this race fit enough to exit the swim in a good enough place to ride in just about any pack on the road. I was supposed to be strong enough that I could bridge the gap from my pack to one ahead of me, which I was certain there would be due to the speed of many of the pro racers in the field. I was supposed to be able to hold my own against nearly anyone racing when it came to the run, but things didn’t turn out that way at the end of my training. As an athlete that rarely suffered an injury that truly limited my training and racing, I found myself trying to overcome injuries for nearly all of the 11 weeks leading up to the race. I lost a lot of motivation and commitment when my computer was erased along with all my training data. The pool at FAFB was also closed 92 days due to snow loading, which cost me dearly in the swim. Despite the losses, I forced myself to do everything I could to peak up for the race. I lost weight, did some hard training and put everything together in what I thought would be just enough time to pull out of this tail spin.

Mike McCoy and I went down together on Wednesday for the race on Saturday. He’s been dropping me in the swim and bike lately, but my goal was to stay close enough in the swim to bridge the gap in T1 and try to break away on the bike. When it comes down to the run, only small gains can be made if you have the right person to draft into the usually moderate to strong winds. We got a bunch of free training and racing gear, a few meals, free rooms and other events to keep us from getting too bored when we weren’t doing whatever taper training we thought necessary prior to the race.

The women started the two-loop ocean swim ahead of the men by some unknown amount of time. I’m wearing my new Zoot Zenith and didn’t want to test my ability to take it off while wearing a watch. After the last female rounded the first buoy about 350m away, it was our turn to do our ITU beach start. I lined up in the back and decided to start out comfortably hard and work my way into the race rather than fight my way into a fearful panic. I had a bit of a lazy start, but I made it over the waves well and managed to tuck under the incoming waves as I got started swimming. I swam wide and found myself holding my own bit of space and feeling fairly relaxed. There was no need to worry now because I know I did everything I could for this year’s race, even though I’m in worse swim shape than December and worse run shape than in February. As I swam I focused on how pleased I was to have not given up on myself. I felt good about my chances, despite having almost half the men’s field pulling away quickly.

We rounded the first buoy and headed into the headwind and crashing waves. Ironically, I seemed to hit every breath at just the right time. When I thought I was going to inhale some salt water, I got lucky and took in just air. Later, I would discover that many had a terrible struggle here, so I felt even more fortunate considering I had my way with the ocean twice on that stretch. As the swim went on, I found myself holding a position in a rather large group. That bode well for the bike, but I still tried to pick it up on lap two. I spent a lot of time looking at swim cap numbers to later share stories with those I swam against. The best part about the swim was on the last stretch when I began to wonder just how far McCoy was ahead of me. I looked back and to my left and a half body length back is #37, Mike McCoy. Sometimes I get the feeling that things will be OK before I have any proof that they actually will. Seeing #37 was a great confirmation for me. I knew he was ready for this race, especially on the bike, so I settled down and cruised on in. My time was 25:06.98, good for 40th among 108. The fastest swim time was 21:52.70 by Nicholas Vandam (not sure on spelling, but that’s how it is in results. They didn’t spell my name correctly, so at least I was able copy correctly from what I had). I suspect that Nicholas and several others swim well under 20 for 1500m. I didn’t do my homework, but when this race normally has a half dozen sub 20:00 1500m swimmers, I seriously doubt that it’s accurate when a field with several top pros has only five go sub 22:30.

T1 went fairly well for me. I tried what is essentially a new wet suit for a big race. Normally that’s a terrible idea, but I was so grateful to Zoot that I did it anyway. I also had a few swims in it prior to the race. The Zenith didn’t exactly come right off, but I was going as hard as I could and managed to have a great split to make sure I exited T1 with the many others strung out in the swim with me.

My only real point of contention was that the transition area was not equidistant. We had racks on the left with a fence at the end of each rack. We’d have to run down the rack to our bike and then back to the run path. Although I did not have the worst spot in the transition area, I had a worse spot than all but a few of the men in the race. I was determined to be so fast that it didn’t matter, but no matter how fast I go, running extra distance costs time regardless of how I try to sugar coat it. Moreover, being at the end meant I had a lot of athletes to navigate around coming and going in T1 and possibly in T2. I don’t like to complain, but this is a national championship and should have a level playing field. This wasn’t and I figured it would cost me a minimum of 8 seconds.

It was a tangled mess getting to my bike and getting back out of T1, but I was very aggressive and found my way to the mount line before McCoy. I sat up and waited for him, but it turns out that waiting was not necessary. We had a plan for one of us to break away and have the other surge to catch up, but our communication was off and I got boxed in after my pull nearing the first 90-degree turn. There would be a total of 21 90-degree turns and four at 45-degrees. Exiting that first 90, McCoy took off and I could do nothing but sit there and see glimpses of his attack around the helmets of the riders in front of me. Eventually I got out the back side and finally had some open road to work with. I rode hard for a couple miles before realizing I wasn’t going to get him. In the mean time, I had a couple Army guys constantly nagging me to quit pushing so hard because that’s not how to pace line. I told them “This is nationals. I’m not here to practice riding in a pace line and I don’t care if the pack is comfortable with my pace. If you can’t draft me, then slow down.” The pack split, which is a good thing since I’d rather have fewer riders to contend with.

McCoy eventually eased up and we caught back up to him. I had a lot of trouble getting a good draft or finding the pace line that efficient. Half the time I thought I’d be run into the ditch or have a rider shoot off the front and clip my front wheel. I’ve never seen riders peel off the front so fast that it looked like they were swerving around a dangerous object at the last moment. Things got reckless, so I sat off the back with a gap for all but a few sections where the group was under control. McCoy drove the pace most of the time as we reeled in group after group and spit one after another out the back. I constantly had to bridge, but even wasting the energy was better to me than to risk crashing. I rode the 5th fastest time on the day with a 55:06.93. McCoy had the fastest time of the day with a 54:49.29. Drafting on a flat course can be dangerous, but it can be fun too.

T2 was my place to shine, but coming in with a group of about 10 with McCoy and two others having gotten away on the last lap and about 10 seconds up on us, the transition area was cluttered again. I did my best to get in and out, but my heel wouldn’t go in my shoe. It felt like it took forever, but I would guess that I only lost about four to six seconds. My legs were fairly tired, but I was ready to get to the run.

To my absolute amazement, I heard that the first female had just headed out and thought I heard them say something about number ten male heading onto the course as I was about to head out myself. This was good news. We had a four loop run course, which would really only allow me to see where I was on lap one. The course would be flooded with athletes coming and going, so I started my count. As we approached the first out-and-back, I realized the few people I had moved by put me in a pack of four holding spots nine through 12. If I could finish first among them, then I’d be really pleased. My goal was to go top 10 and it looked likely now.

McCoy jumped on my six and I drug us through the first section of headwind. It was tough, but there were athletes to catch and the run is where I make my move. Despite being exhausted and running hard enough to start dropping people, McCoy told me it was now or never and I had to go. We were though the first of four sections of headwind, so I took off. In this race, I always push too hard and somehow my body doesn’t shut me down. On lap 2, I had one of the four still on my six as I pulled him through the wind. I was loosing my senses, so it was just my racing instinct. I was going to beat him the tough guy way, which is to run so hard that he burnt out drafting me. Lap three he was still there. I lost track of my laps until I heard one lap to go for the leader. As we approached the final section of head wind, I surged and got a gap on my parasite. Knowing my pain put him in pain, I pushed even harder to make sure he couldn’t come back. At that point I realized I was catching a couple more in front of me that were running quickly. I didn’t know what lap they were on, but a carrot is a carrot. I was starting to make some unpleasant noises in my attempt to continue on with the pace. Eventually I made the final turn and had only closed slightly. We had very little left to go, so I started my surge for the finish early and kept pushing harder and harder. Despite my best efforts, I could not catch those two who happened to be right in front of me. My run time was 37:14.39, good for 9th on the day. We ran 6.4 miles, so adjusting for the extra would have put my 10K at 36:09. It’s not a great time, but it’s respectable and kept me from getting passed. The fastest time was 34:08.98, so I absolutely got hammered.

As it all turns out, I crossed the line in 7th. Completely spent more than previous years, I couldn’t even walk with help. I had to lock myself up there refusing to move. Luckily, the doctors know my number before the race starts and have it called into them as I’m approaching the finish. In seven years they’ve come to know how hard I push here and I was pleased that I was able to find it within myself to push to the limits again. I do it for my team, for my country and for myself, but it really sucks feeling like I could die. They worked on me until awards. I put my warm-ups on that a team mate brought to me and stumbled to awards. Unlike previous years, I did not get to stand up front to be named to Team USA. We wouldn’t have one this year, but it felt just about as good. I didn’t go top six, but I probably would have gotten the first roll down. It felt like this year was more competitive than ever and I was glad everything came together at the last moment like it did. My overall time was 1:59:00.56. The two guys in front of me finished 7.81 and 9.06 seconds in front of me. That’s right in the ball park of the minimum amount I thought I’d lose in T1 before the race started. It’s difficult to tell what it actually was, but drives home the point that equidistant transitions are really important in these big races. If I had passed just one of those guys, then the Air Force would have been one place up in the overall. The number of other athletes we had may have moved up a spot too, so that’s unfortunate.

The Air Force Women dominated and easily won the women's team competition.

A couple names will no longer be listed among us. A personal favorite of mine is Dan Frost who had a flat, but managed to salvage his race for something less than he would have had, but better than a DNF. You will be missed Frosty. Heidi Grimm will be going out in style tying the record of 6 wins, which two men have done. Also, Mike McCoy will be moving to Illinois for a couple years, so I’ll be on my own in training again, but I hope things work out next year like they were supposed to this year. If they do, then I’ll be on my way to Holland or Belgium, depending on who hosts worlds. Bottom line, I'm extremely grateful that I have the opportunity to be part of such an awesome group of individuals.