Tom S. 2016 Age Group National Championship – Omaha, NE
USAT Age Group Olympic Distance National Championship
This being my second Age Group National Championships, I learned a bit from my time last year and focused a lot on my pre-race plan. In 2015 I spent a huge amount of time and energy on pre-race anxiety because I had not fully planned out my pre-race experience. This year, I came up with a detailed itinerary planning out every moment from the time I woke up on the morning of my flight, spanning to the start time of my wave two days later. I planned out all of my meals, down to the exact dish that I was eating, when I was previewing the course, when I was going to bed, when I woke up, when I would head over to the venue – everything. I knew that if didn’t have to worry about logistical issues, I could focus solely on my race. Luckily, coach was totally on board with following the itinerary I set out, and we were able to get in a good partial preview of the course along with a partial preview of the swim.
Perhaps “take a left at the corn” wasn’t the best direction for the cue sheet
The bike course was an “out and back” with one hill of significance, which we climbed twice from either side. The first side was a bit steeper, which made for a tough climb at the beginning of the race and a technical decent at the end. It was great being able to preview that hill and check out some of the roads leading up to the hill. The rest of the course was flat, straight farm roads, so no need to preview those.
The night before I had my new normal pre-race dinner; pasta with meatballs. As an aside, the Italian food in Nebraska isn’t too great. I got to bed early, and thanks to the one hour time difference, I was able to fall asleep early and got a full night of sleep.
The morning of the race I had my normal breakfast: Wheaties, the breakfast of champions. As usual, I tried to really fill myself up the night before, so my breakfast was smaller to just “top off the tank.” Coach, still totally on board with my itinerary, picked me up at my hotel 10 minutes ahead of schedule. We were some of the first people at the venue.
Transition set up was a bit challenging. As Nebraska is toward the end of its time zone, first morning light was way later than expected and I needed to use my cell phone flashlight to attempt to see what I was doing. Twenty minutes before swim warm-up opened I started my active stretching, and 10 minutes prior I did some light running. Right before I went to head over to swim start, I took in a gel with caffeine; which is my new pre-race addition this year that has been working well.
Yes. I need to work on my set-up a bit more for next year. The socks likely need to go.
The swim did not start well at all. My goggles broke and split in half the moment I tried to place them over my eyes. I had two spare sets with me, luckily, but neither had been really vetted by me for triathlon use. I had my practice red lens Swedish Goggles (or Sweeds), which are a goggle without a silicone eye gasket, and my tinted TYRs. The Sweeds are great, and were a staple of my swimming career. I chose those as my replacements, but as I walked over to swim start, the sun was just too blinding. I didn’t really trust the TYRs because they have leaked whenever I tried to use them, but I decided that I would just tighten the straps as much as I could stand and go with them. Once I had them on, I could tell they were the right choice because the sun glare was significantly reduced. Lesson learned though, when they say to bring two pairs of goggles to a race, they mean bring two pairs of goggles you know you can race in.
My best “not panicked” look.
Due to unknown issues, swim warmup and start was delayed 15 minutes. I chatted up some of my fellow 30-34 year olds in the entry corral, covertly judging whether I thought they had any chance to beat me. My confidence has been way up this season thanks to some podium spots at competitive races, but at this race there was some serious competition.
After a very brief warmup, we all lined up in the water with one hand on a makeshift dock that the event built for the race. Everyone was engaged in some nervous small talk, and before we knew it (literally, because there was no countdown to the start horn) an air horn signaled the start.
I really took off from the start to try to get away from the group. As we all started from the exact same line on the dock, we weren’t really able to “self-seed” ourselves based on swimming ability like you can in most races. My goal was to get out of the main pack. I escaped in less than 30 seconds and was in clear water with about 5 or so other swimmers. A swimmer to my left really took off, and I let him go. I had two swimmers to my right that I was keeping pace with well. As the swim is my strongest event, I have started holding back a bit on the swim and drafting off a lead group to conserve energy for the bike. The key to this strategy, though, is finding a group I can trust.
The course was not well marked with buoys. The sight buoys were not to be trusted as they clearly did not line up with the turn buoys. Luckily, I spotted the turn buoys really well (good choice on the goggles), and just continued to sight off the yellow turn buoys. Eventually, the two swimmers to my right joined up with me and we started a drafting group. These two other swimmers were really bent on being the lead swimmer, so I just hung back, let them sight, and focused on my own efficiency. There is a whole lot more time to get in the front.
Eventually a third swimmer joined us and we rounded the turn buoys. I tried to see how far back we were from the lead group, but I could only make out one or two swimmers ahead of us. I was not sure how fast we were going, but at least I knew everyone else was going slower than us. Our group formed into a paceline, and my feet started getting tapped by, as I then found out, a fifth swimmer in our group. Some of the guys tried to jockey for a better position, but once again, I just kept my line and sighted on the finish.
My swim was 21:31.4. Definitely my slowest swim in a while, but this race was not wetsuit legal and the water was 84 degrees. I did not feel like I was overheating, but there is something to say about how fast you swim, and how fast you feel in really warm water. This water just didn’t feel fast, and everyone’s times seemed to reflect that. I was hoping for a faster swim, but I was able to shake off the extra 1:30 from my goal swim time and assumed I could make it up in spades on the bike. Little did I know that slower than expected was going to be the theme for the day.
Sixth out of the water in my wave. Not too shabby.
There was no beach to exit on, so they built a ramp to get us out of the water. The ramp was generally fine, except someone decided it was a good idea to have metal steps going over some jagged rocks instead of keeping the continuous ramp. I generally try to keep a running stride though transition, but I was careful over those steps. I was able to keep pace with a lot of members of my swim paceline in transition.
I was slowed a bit because, this season, I have been wearing socks on the bike and run. I feel that I can make better power on the bike and run faster with them. I lost about 15 seconds for that in transition. Surprisingly, the extra 15 seconds didn’t matter much because I was able to catch two of the guys who got their bikes off the rack before me. Nonetheless, the run out of transition was unusually long, the exit chute alone was at least 150 yards, and I could feel myself breathing heavy. I slowed down a bit, because the last thing I wanted was to be winded on the bike.
When I got on the bike and I was feeling pretty good. Right out of the race venue I was able to pass someone else from my swim paceline. It is not ideal because I had to get out of the saddle to make sure I made the pass legally. I was not thrilled about burning matches less than 2 miles into the bike, but last year I passed exactly 0 people on the bike, so passing at least one person felt good.
The ride to the aforementioned hill was pretty flat and I felt like I was putting down good power. I caught up with a guy in a Team USA kit, who for purposes of this report I will call Reynolds – mainly because its his last name and was boldly silkscreened above the USA on the back of his kit. It took me about 2 miles, but I eventually get into a position to pass Reynolds, which was really enthusing. People are usually only able to get USA kits if they have qualified for and competed (or will compete) in the Age Group World Championship (or are a pro, who aren’t allowed to compete in age group events). If I am passing people who qualified for the World Championships, I think to myself, I have to be doing pretty well.
At this point we were approaching the sole hill on the course. As I mentioned, the first side was much steeper and I was a bit concerned about the climb. At this point I was even more concerned because I was pushing a little harder than I wanted. Shortly into the climb I decided that I was going to save my legs and just try to lay down as much power as I could at a high RPM. I ended up getting passed by two guys, but at that point I felt like I may have been able to pass them back on the downhill. One of them was another guy in a USA kit, but oddly, he had no name above the USA.
Coming down the hill, Reynolds passed me and made his way for no-name USA kit. I let him go and made sure I dropped out the passing zone. Last year I received a penalty for position on the bike course, and I wanted to make sure I steered clear of any penalties this year. Reynolds got up close to no-name USA kit, well within the passing zone, for a good 15-20 seconds. He then moved to the left for another 10-15 seconds and failed to pass no-name USA. Right as this happened, a USAT official motorcycle pulled up to the side of them and clearly noted Reynolds’ failure to pass. I was really glad I made sure to let Reynolds go. That penalty could have easily been mine.
I continued trying to lay down power as best I could, and stayed in my aero position around nearly every turn less than a full 90 degrees. Every time I looked at my watch I was around 25 mph, which was a good pace for me to meet my goal average speed of 23.8 mph or greater. Yet, when I reached the turnaround at mile 12.5, I clicked over on my watch to check my average pace and was shocked to see I was at 22.9 mph. This was way below my goal. Maybe the hill took more out of my average than I thought? Where did I go wrong? I think to myself that it’s really time to lay down the power if I want to be anywhere around 24 mph over the 40k.
The second half of the course seemed short. Not much passing or being passed. The climb on the back side of the hill was a bit more gradual, and even though I switched into my small chain ring, I thought I tackled the hill much better on the back side than the front side. I toyed with not taking in any nutrition at all, but I considered it more of an insurance policy and I took in about 2/3 of my cliff shot. The run promised to be hot and I definitely didn’t want to be short on electrolytes. The caffeine in the gel wouldn’t hurt either.
I ended up trading places with Reynolds a few more times over the last few miles. The last time I looked down at my watch I was averaging 23.2 mph. At this point, I was already formulating excuses for my poor performance in my head. I was feeling really defeated. As I turned onto the roadway leading to the transition area I un-velcro’ed my shoes for my flying dismount. This was way too early, and I ended up having to pedal with open shoes for about a half mile. Eventually I saw bike dismount, and removed my feet from my shoes, and other than a dropped chain, had a successful dismount.
Including the super long runs to and from bike mount/dismount, my bike split was a 1:06, a very disappointing result for me. The prior year I did the same time on my entry level road bike. I guess I will have to chalk this up to a deceptively difficult bike course.
If you look real closely, you can actually see my brain trying to formulate excuses for the poor bike split.
My saving grace mentally was that someone yelled out “you’re number 13” as I was going into transition. At least I knew I was doing well position wise. At that point I realized that perhaps a lot of people were having trouble with the course. Reynolds, of course, was right with me in transition and made it to the rack before me. I quickly dumped my bike and helmet, and put on my running gear with plenty of time to leave transition right on Reynolds’ heals.
As I was going out onto the run course, my name was announced by the race MC as being one of the athletes making his way out onto the run course. Well, “announced” is a generous term. The MC said my first name and valiantly attempted to pronounce my very Italian last name. That wasn’t my concern though. My concern was the time he announced: 1 hour 32 minutes. The run course was flat, and I was hoping for as close to a 40 minute 10k split as possible, but my goal in this race, WORST CASE, was sub 2:10. I would have had to run a 38 minute 10k to get to my worst case goal, and I knew that wasn’t happening. I was wholly discouraged. I was looking at a finish at about the same time as my race the prior year. Still, the only thing keeping me going was that I was (now) number 14 in my age group.
I messed up my watch a bit and started it a bit late – about a minute to be exact – but nothing too detrimental to my pacing. I stuck on the heels of Reynolds, but my legs were hurting really bad already. My one mile split came up pretty quick, a 6:36. That gave me a little confidence. I hurt, but at least I was moving well. At that point a guy came up on my left, passed me and told me “good job”; an easy compliment when you’re passing someone, but I returned the compliment to him. Reynolds tried to hold pace with the passing guy and started to pull away, but he couldn’t keep up either.
The run course was another out and back, with the claim to fame being a turn-around along the warning track of the baseball stadium where they hold the College World Series. Yet to get there, after a first mile along a tree-lined street, you were on a straight and flat road through an industrial park. The road provided just a hair over 0 shade from the then warming sun. Because it was a completely straight road, you could see the stadium looming in the distance. Every step was more painful because the stadium just didn’t seem to get any closer.
At that point Reynolds was still in sight, but I knew I was not catching him. At each aide station I grabbed water, to dump on my head, and Gatorade, that I managed to get a few sips of. Shortly after mile 1 my stomach started bothering me, but I was not quite sure if I needed to intake more or less liquid. Miles 2 and 3 were 6:37 and 6:40 respectively. I was slowing down a bit, but not too terrible. Now I was thinking that I could maybe squeeze in the 40 minute 10k split. Still on my way to the stadium, I got passed by two other guys who I knew I was not catching.
The run around the warning track at the stadium was painful. The soft dirt definitely changed your stride a bit, and it really targeted some tired muscles. The dirt also made footsteps more audible, and I could hear someone coming from behind me. When that guy passed me, I tried to latch onto his heal, but lost him after a half mile. Mile 4 came up at 6:39, and I was still hurting, but not terrible.
The heat, or something, started getting to me right after mile 4. Was I bonking? Was I dehydrated? Was I overheating? I had no idea, but I knew I was going from regular suffering, to heavy legs. At that point, there is no one around me. Reynolds and Co. were long off the front, but I was not seeing or hearing anyone behind me. Mile 5 clicked off at 6:46; better than expected. I had glanced down at my watch during mile 5 and saw a couple 7:00+ reports as my current pace. I absolutely knew I could not walk, but there was nothing I would have rather done at that point.
Shortly after mile 5 the course entered the tree lined streets again, providing some shade. I was seeing a lot more people coming in the other direction from the other waves, which gave me some feeling that I was almost home. I kept glancing down at my watch around every .1 miles trying to see how far I was away from the finish. I knew I started my watch late, so I was assuming all I had to do was make it to around 6 miles (by the count of my watch) to the finish.
Eventually, I started to recognize the expo area and knew the finish line was less than a half mile away. As I approached, I looked behind me and didn’t see anyone, which was a good thing. I got beat at the finish last year and I wasn’t going to do it again this year, especially as I figured I was in the top 20. As I crossed the finish line I gave a few good fist pumps. I did the same thing last year, purely for vanity so I could post a cool finish photo as my Facebook picture. This year, I didn’t even think when I did it; I was just that happy that I finished the race and didn’t walk. It just came to me.
As I mentally promised myself on the run, once I got off the finish carpet, I collapsed to the ground. Medical staff and volunteers didn’t like that too much as they all rushed to my aide and I had to assure them that “Yes, I am okay. This is just how I recover.” I did get an extra ice towel out of it though.
I got 6.2 miles on my watch with a time of 41:30, which was approximately 6:42 pace. The course must have been somewhat long because, and this was where the late start on my watch comes in, my official time was 42:30. My guess is that the course was about .2 miles too long. I am overall happy with a 41:30 for 6.2 miles, and I guess I’m happy with a 42:30 for 6.4 miles.
Definitely in some pain
After the finish Carol (my wonderful wife, who is a saint for coming to all of my races, and also, not so coincidentally, is grammar checking this race report) let me know almost immediately that she thought I was number 18. That was the magic number that I needed to place at or under to qualify for the age group World Championships. In the moment, it didn’t matter to me much. My time was 2:13:15. I completely missed my reach goal of 2:06, my realistic goal of 2:08 and even my “safe” goal of under 2:10. I instantly started talking to some of the other finishers and asked them how they thought their time was. Unanimously, everyone thought the course was really slow. The winner of our age-group, a spot which is usually well below 2:00, did not even break the 2 hour mark. Still, it was little condolence.
Ironically, Reynolds came up to me in the recovery tent to apologize for trading places with me so much on the bike. He said he was trying to avoid a penalty because he was penalized the year before. Sorry Reynolds, tough break again this year. After penalties are assessed, I ended up 16th in my age-group. With USA Triathlon’s age-up rule for qualification for World Championships, I still missed the guaranteed slot, but only a week later I was awarded a roll-down position.
A little less fan-fare getting an email on your phone.
So, September 2017 I will be representing the United States of America in Rotterdam, Netherlands in the ITU Age Group World Championship. While I missed my sub 2:10 time goal, making the age group Team USA squad was another goal for my time in Omaha, and I am glad I achieved that. There are plenty of other opportunities to go sub 2:10, but only once a year to qualify for the World Championships, so my time in Omaha was well spent. Now time to set an Olympic distance time goal for 2017!
TOTAL TIME: 2:13:15.7