The USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in Milwaukee featured a large and competitive field. The top 18 finishers in each age group have the opportunity to represent the USA at the international championships next year in Chicago. Last year, I finished in the top 1/3 but was still almost 9 minutes too slow to qualify. I didn't have any realistic chance of shaving 9 minutes this year, but my goal was to do as well or better as I had a year ago.
There were over 200 competitors in my age group, which was one of the largest in the event. Each group was supposed to be given ample time to warm up in the water, but I had less than 2 minutes from the time I reached the dock until the time the horn sounded for our start. The opening 400 meters or so were very intense, after which I settled into my rhythm as the pack started to string out. It seemed like there were too few people around me and I became concerned that maybe I had backed off too much. I had a good swim last year. How could I do as well this year if I fell behind so early? I focused on a strong rotation and pull and told myself to push harder, knowing that I could rest my core and arms on the bike. Looking at my watch on the swim exit, I had completed 1500m in under 25 minutes. This was about 90 seconds faster than my previous PR, set at the same race last year. I felt excited and thought a great race was at hand. I should have been concerned. Triathlon is not the place to set swimming records by such margins, as there is still much racing ahead.
I also experimented with positioning my timing chip under my wetsuit cuff in hopes that removing the wetsuit would be easier and faster. As Martin has illustrated several times this year, races do not make good laboratories. The experiment backfired badly as I worked the suit into a big wad over my left ankle. I thought I was going to have to track down a box cutter or something from a volunteer station to remove the thing, but probably would have severed an Achilles tendon in the process. I finally took a deep breath, pulled the suit back on to my left leg, and then very slowly peeled it off. The time I had gained in the water was lost, as my first transition took a whopping 4:15.
I knew better than to panic on the bike to try to make up lost time. That would only dig the hole deeper. If I had any hope of salvaging the race, it would have to wait for the second half of the run. However, even attempting to establish a conservative power output on the bike was a huge struggle. I felt bad from the start and had trouble digesting gel and energy drink. About 4 miles into the ride, I knew I had gone too hard on the swim and was paying the price. Another 5 miles down the road, I started to feel a little stronger, but it was fleeting. I would finish the bike leg 15 watts and almost 2 minutes behind my mark from the prior year.
Things did not improve on the run. I tried not to look often at my watch, but focused on breathing and setting a sustainable pace. There was no chance of topping last year's performance, but I could stop the bleeding. I felt the effects of the heat about half way in, and taking a cue from Martin, I slipped some ice under my cap at the next aid station. It helped propel me to the finish, and despite the labored start to the run, I did not slow down further in the second half.
The end result was 2:22:32, almost 6 minutes slower than last year. I placed 130th and outside the top half. Last year I made the top third and automatically qualified for this championship race. I'll have to do it in another race to qualify next year.
Compared to 2013, my season has been a big disappointment in almost every tangible measure. Power output and pace have been down and minor victories, such as the swim PR, have been mostly hollow. Still, I am blessed to have the good health, supportive family, time, and means to pursue this sport. Sometimes we need to be broken down a little to appreciate how good we have it.