First, thanks to Dan Frost for being so kind and generous to get me to the air port. I was essentially stranded due to an administrative error that had all of Team Air Force leaving on Sunday, as we do every year, while I had a Monday flight.
Every year I compete in the Armed Forces Championships at Pt. Mugu Naval Air Station just west of Malibu. This year wasn't like the other years. It was in early April rather than late May to as late as early August. Normally I hit my peak in August and September. This year, there would be absolutely no open water swimming and very little road time on the bike. That's very disheartening considering how difficult it is to train around child care for what all my years of racing tells me is easily one of the most competitive races in the country.
I can honestly say that I did my very best to train. My goal was to qualify for the Military World Games in Brazil. I believed it was a reasonable possibility. I also believed that I was barely able to get things lined up and having the speed/ability didn't guarantee a great performance. I needed to hit a home run with my preparation and racing smartly. Sometimes we miss a scheduled drink, supplement or whatever or perhaps just get to it later than planned. I needed to do what I do best, which is to find a way to get the best my body is capable of on race day. My fear was in the possibility that I'd fail to do that. I was concerned that I'd have a terrible swim and have to ride on my own while others worked in packs to leave me further behind. I feared my somewhat unfamiliar road bike and low mileage would leave me running out of gas early and force me to fight harder than I should to keep from having a completely miserable time and place. That over-the-top bike effort would leave me shot for the run on a year where I'm not capable of my typical top five run time. That could equate to running so slowly that on a race like this I'd be that guy out there so long after the others finished that it could be said that I didn't belong in that race. My fear was essentially that I'd have a humiliating performance in a race that I've always given my best to and have always been a podium threat.
Here's how it all went down ...
I took some chances with my training, but was smart and paid close attention to how I was feeling as well as playing on things that have proven to be successful for me that others would not do. I ate well, but not too much. I slept A LOT leading up to the race because I knew I wouldn't sleep well the night before. My race morning meal and hydration went as planned. Even the usual stress of doing things last minute was ameliorated due to having everything done the night before. I had my best wheels on for the first time ever on this course. I even rehearsed my race strategy, hydration and supplementation to perfection. I was good to go.
Standing on the beach in my wet suit (thanks Zoot), staring down the 54 degree ocean water, I had visions of a violent churning of water from the fists and feet and waves and water sweeping over me while I took in water as swimming turns into survival. I've had two pretty bad swims in my life. Both were because I just didn't feel like I could get enough air as the wet suit felt like it was squeezing my lungs empty and the subsequent struggle lead to me getting swam over and fighting for air. Compared to what I was about to face, I would have loved to have a swim like that.
The waves pulled sand away to create a trough of water in the normally gradual increase of water depth. So as we ran from the beach into the water, most wiped out as the ground disappeared beneath us. We began to swim shortly as we ran into the higher level of sand that was only ankle deep. The waves crashing over that were brutal and pulled us backward. I stood up to run again and found myself bracing with both feet in the sand as I was pushed backward because I couldn't dig my feet/toes in deep enough to hold my place. Fighting through it, I was soon swimming, but that didn't last long. The crowd merged in on me. I was punched for the first time ever in a race. Then I was punched again and again and kicked. I was swam over. Someone grabbed a foot and pulled me back. Someone grabbed the opposing shoulder and pulled me back. I was pushed down and over and pulled again. I respect these people enough I didn't fight back when I normally would and couldn't believe that something that was too much to be accidental was actually on purpose. My place near the front felt like a death trap as I was quickly taking in water and my forward momentum was replaced with a struggle to get back to and stay at the surface. I tried to signal for help, but got none. In fact, it wasn't until the wave of roughly sixty athletes was almost completely ahead of me that I felt safe enough to try to race again.
It took me to nearly the end of the first lap to recover from my ordeal. Pride was the only thing that kept me going as it felt like all the work and preparation was wasted on something that some very selfish and inconsiderate athletes took from me. My troubles weren't over, but I no longer feared for my life. I had some idiot swimming on my feet. I'm all for taking advantage of any situation on the course as long as it's legal, safe and smart. He wasn't just swimming on my feet, but he was pushing them down with a great amount of regularity. With the feet and hips constantly dropping, this guy was slowing down the guy he wanted to draft to get a better swim time. Again, I fought the urge to plant my size 10 in his face, but I was certainly pissed.
There was not a stated rule against turning the triangle swim into a square by swimming straight in and running on the beach the length of the leg perpendicular to shore. We normally have buoys that we have to swim inside of, but they didn't put them there, so I took advantage. As a result, I moved up from roughly 50th to perhaps 40th in my wave. Having ran past the buoy on the beach and to the point I swam almost straight out to the first turn buoy, I avoided the few people that I was passing and save the difficult conditions of the ocean, lap two was much better. In all, I had the 28th fastest men's swim time on a course that proved to be either too long, extremely difficult or a combination of both. My swim time was 26:08! The fastest swim time was 21:49 by an extremely fast swimmer who allegedly swims in the 17 minute range. It is what it is though ... which was the most awful swim of my life.
Once out of water, I had a respectable transition, even if it was slow for me. My left foot got stuck and it took some effort to get that duck foot out. I think the fastest time was :50 with mine being :59. Transitions are usually comparable for men and women, so I felt a bit better to see that there weren't any females under 1:07.
The race got a lot less interesting after the swim. I worked hard, found a group, stuck with them for the first two of four laps. I'm still very apprehensive about going around corners, which requires more effort to keep up on the many turns, but I was able to do it. With the majority of the field not being skilled at drafting, turns were wide, so I tried to be at the front or back at every turn. The first 90-degree turn on lap 3 was where I got dropped. I had to pull a little extra long to avoid being on the side of the pace line when we turned. That long pull, my weakness on the corner and the fact that I was the only USAF guy in the pack made that an excellent point for them to attack me. Being what I sincerely believe is as much fortune as strong racing, I've been to more Military World Championships than any other current military member, so I suppose it was a smart move for them to attack. I was alone for roughly a lap before getting swept up by another pack on the last lap, but I lost 2 minutes to the pack I was in.
My pack was unusually tentative approaching transition, so I blasted to the front as I would rather enter an empty transition area in the lead of a pack rather than trying to navigate around a pack in T2. As a result, it actually affected the overall standings when all was said and done. My T2 was good, but I took a little extra time to get a gel and some salt tablets. Losing a few seconds in T2 for what would probably be a lot more on the run was worth the sacrifice ... even if I do love a great transition. The few seconds came as we have to keep things in a little bin and there was no other good way for me to store things, so they were under my wet suit as were my shoes.
I had biked pretty hard out there, so my legs were tired and my conditioning heading into the race left me with more speed than strength. It would require patience, but I ran controlled and slightly slower than I felt I could to recover in hopes of still having a pretty mean run time. Several athletes from my pack got away from me as the first lap was a lesson in patience. Lap two I felt better and gradually increased the pace for a half mile before settling into a pretty hard effort that was just faster than what I felt I could certainly do. I was moving up then from what I counted as 29th starting the run (including those who passed me in the first half mile from my final bike pack). When I got to the final turn, with a mile to go, I had about four or five athletes that were in range. I wasn't wearing a watch, but I'm really confident that it was my fastest mile of the race.
I caught all the athletes I figured were in reach, even the ones that were improbable. One of which later told me that I edge him out regularly. This guy was in my first bike pack, got dropped and finished with me, then ran away in the first four miles. I caught him, blew by, then increased the pace early to try to prevent anyone from trying to come back. I started early and had made all my passes with over a quarter to go, so I was just trying to send a message that I wasn't worth trying to catch. This guy came storming back and we ended up with a mad sprint to the line. I pulled it out and beat him by a second! It's amazing how a race like this can come down to a sprint. My run time was 35:28 for what I measured as 6 miles, but can allegedly be closer to 5.95 miles. I know I'm supposed to stretch the truth or mislead people by posting the time and letting them think it was a 10K, but that why try to paint your eyes so you can see the race if I'm going to give a false impression?
My overall place for the Armed Forces Competition was 18th. Team Canada was there to qualify their national team as well, so I think three of them finished in front of me. Either way, I ran down 8 athletes and finished with a 1:59:14. I was firmly in a scoring position for Team USAF. We had a pretty fair margin over Team Navy as we won the team competition for the second year in a row. The same was true for the women. In addition, we had repeat overall champions from our team last year. The men score eight of twelve while the women score four of six. The USAF women had all six athletes finish top ten, but more importantly, they took the top four spots. I've always said their team was so strong that they could compete with the other three branches (Navy and Coast Guard compete as Team Navy) combined. With a perfect score, that was certainly evident. The USAF men won 85 to 97.
Shout outs: James Bales for finally getting to train and winning for the second year in a row with a pretty amazing performance. My good friend Michael McCoy for finishing 9th a month before he retires! He's ageless. Coleen and Erin, who are sisters, finishing 2nd and 3rd overall for the women. Erin was listed as the first alternate, but an injury to a primary got her into the big race and she didn't disappoint. We now joke that she's the 7th best female triathlete in the USAF, but the 3rd best in the military. I guess that means she's 3rd best in the USAF too :). They're both really great people, so it's fun to watch them do so well. I was also glad to see Rachel Beckmann return to a draft legal race that she loathes and have her usual dominant bike and run to storm back into it. The top six men and women, or whomever the spots roll down to as athletes are available, will be competing in Brazil in July in the 2nd Military World Games Triathlon.