AquaBike National Championship Race Report
For the past few years the United States Triathlon Association has sponsored a National Championship in the discipline of AquaBike. The AquaBike event is a triathlon without the run at the end. The distances vary from year to year, but this year the distances were 1.2 miles for the swim in beautiful Lake Erie, and 56 miles of cycling on the rough roads surrounding Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio. Fortunately or unfortunately, the AquaBike National Championship has grown in popularity and although it is still a bike race with a short swim to begin, it is now being populated by quality swimmers as well as top notch cyclists.
National Championships are fun events. Regardless of the size of the field the quality of the participants is usually quite high and, of course, the participants come from all over the country. In any sport or race the goal of being a National Champion attracts many of the top competitors in the country. The National Championship AquaBike is no different. As I prepared my transition area, it was obvious of the quality of the field by the number of athletes wearing Team USA jerseys. This was not your average local race.
After waking up early and driving to the bicycle transition area, I spent a few minutes setting up. I also spun my rear wheel on my Trek Speed Concept TT bike and noticed that the brakes were just barely not rubbing. I tried over and over to lock the rear wheel in differently in order to center my wheel, but it was never just perfect. So I took my bike over to the mechanical area and they said that they could remove a cover from the rear frame, adjust the brakes so that they were slightly more centered and put everything back together. I asked what the likelihood of success was and they said quite high if I left them alone. I left and they did a nice job. Riding 56 miles with a slight brake rub would have been a bit annoying.
I then packed up my stuff and walked down the beach for a ½ mile to the swim start. This was a terrifying walk as every participant took immediate notice of the three to four foot breaking waves. It was extremely hard to see the first turn buoy that was 500 yards away directly into Lake Erie and the waves. This was going to be a difficult swim and I am a swimmer. I did a short warm-up, realized how hard it was going to be and returned to the beach. As the 100 of us amassed in the starting corral, we all talked about the difficult water and the fact that 13 people had already been rescued from the full distance ironman race that had begun an hour earlier. It was going to be easy to create some uncertainty in all of the competitors. A few of the under 30 year old “real” swimmers were smiling because they knew that it was their day. I knew I would finish, I just had no idea how tired I would be. I was not smiling.
Being a top notch former competitor swimmer and a top 15 or 20 swimmer in my age group at the one mile pool distance, my goal is always to finish the swim without expending much energy. This allows me to race against tired cyclists while I am fresh. As I began the race, I quickly realized I was going to be tired. It was a real battle fighting the waves. Sighting was difficult because you could not see over the waves. There was no drafting because everyone was just trying to survive. Nobody was able to keep any type of consistent swimming stroke. The 500 yards out to the first buoy seemed to take forever. Then we turned to a 90 degree angle with the breakers and it was better but still a very up and down ride. Then we finally turned home. I basically tried to relax during the swim and do the best I could. I finished 17th out of all age groups and won my age group by over 5 minutes in just over 33 minutes of swimming. But there were clearly some young studs as the top swimmer went in the 26 minute range. My 1.2 mile swim in a pool setting is about 25 to 26 minutes. My garmin said that I went 1.37 miles in the swim leg rather than 1.2 miles. That is certainly possible. It looked like a straight line on the map, but it never felt straight in the water. When I ran up the beach after the swim the cowbells and cheering was very appreciated, but I knew I was tired.
I took about an extra thirty seconds in my transition area just to gather my wits. I still had the third fastest transition in my age group. But a five minute lead in the swim is nothing on a 56 mile bike ride. As I previously mentioned, the AquaBike is really a bike race and it is a lot about pacing. I left the Cedar Point amusement parking lot in good aero position and took off on the Lake Erie causeway. As I rounded the first corner and settled into aero I hit a huge asphalt bump that caused me to slip and my wet elbow flew off my right aero pad almost putting me hard into the pavement. Fortunately, I did not fall, but I decided that it might be wiser/safer to ride in the up position until a smoother riding surface could be found. After about five miles we turned onto a nice road.
As the race continued I decided that holding a 20 mph average was going to be my goal with a low 140 heart rate. I had originally hoped for 21 mph or even 22 mph, but the tough swim and the fact that this course had some hills, rough roads and a 14 to 16 mph win, made all of my early optimistic goals moot. As I maintained my heart rate in the low 140’s, I passed the 20 mile mark at 58 minutes and the 40K mark at 1:09 which is faster than my Ivesdale TT. From mile 25 to mile 30 began a five mile ascent of about 2.4% into the wind. As I reached the 30 mile mark I was still slightly under 90 minutes and turning downhill and back into the wind. At the 40 mile mark I was about 1:59, so my pacing was reasonable.
Unfortunately, from about mile 40 to 45 I encountered some resistance in my right calf. It would periodically want to cramp up. When this happens on a group ride I usually just tuck in and take it easy for a while. But this was not a group ride. Over the final 12 or so miles I experienced light cramping and then had to ride back on the rough road that I started on. A couple of people in my age group passed me in the last three or so miles and that was disheartening. In the end it moved me from fourth to sixth, which I guess is better than being moved off of the podium. I was seven minutes from being on a National Championship podium. I learned a lot and hope to do better next year.
I want to thank all of my WildCard teammates for riding with me throughout the summer and helping to get me into shape. Next year the goal is the Age Group National Triathlon Championships at the Olympic Distance with a goal of qualifying for one of those really impressive Team USA jerseys. It will take about five minutes of improvement in the 2 ½ hour race, so we shall see.