Running Down a Dream: The USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship

Alright, so for those of you who want the quick read without the fluff (aka the stuff that makes it good! haha), click here. For those of you who want the one with all the details, well, just keep on reading and enjoy! I'm going to have to split this up into a couple posts because there is just so much craziness that happened. If you want to see what happened after the race, click here.

Okay, let's get to it now! The USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship!!

But first! Humor me while I quickly go back to a week before the race.

So here's what happened.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that my goggles were starting to develop a splinter in the nose bridge. The week before the race after I finished my swim, that splinter had developed into a full-blown crack just millimeters away from breaking in half. Begin freak out. "What am I going to do?? I can't swim with these goggles. What if I get hit and they break during the race?? I'll have to swim the race with no goggles! Ahhhh." So I called Roka and explained my situation. They were AWESOME. They sent me a brand new pair to...wait for hotel in Omaha! So when I arrived in Omaha on Wednesday, my goggles were waiting for me. Thank you Annemarie and Roka!!

On Friday, just a week before the race, was practicing my transition from the bike to the run and was just about finished (literally 50 feet from my driveway). I had hopped off my bike and was running barefoot alongside it when all of a sudden, one of my bike shoes that was still clipped onto the pedals hit the ground causing my bike to jackknife. I lost control and the bike ended up underneath me and I tumbled over top. I was running faster than 10mph when this happened so it was a pretty rough fall. I immediately thought my right pinky toe was gone; it felt like it had ripped off. I quickly grabbed my foot to try and hold it in place and after a short glance, realized it was still there, so that was good! After seeing it now, I understand why I thought it ripped off, though. The skin ripped all the way from the top of my pinky toe to underneath between my toes. It was extremely painful, but after a trip to the ER, no stitches were needed and there were no broken bones. Doc said it would just be sore for a few days so I should rest (ha!) and that I would be good to go in about a week...

Alright, now we can fast forward one week to the race!
Well my foot is/was definitely not fully healed by the time I stepped...scratch that...hobbled to the starting line. I resorted to taking 600-800mg of ibuprofen twice a day so I could tolerate the pain and did the same race morning. (For those of you who know me well, you know that I NEVER take pain pills or anti-inflammatories, so you know it was bad). Luckily, this allowed me to make it to the starting line without too much pain.


With the race being in Omaha, this meant that we were close enough for my cousin Brittany, who lives in Des Moines, to make the trip over for the day to watch me race! She helped me out and took mom's place as my tubing warmup buddy :)

The game plan

I actually had the opportunity to write a post for USA Triathlon about my pre-race buildup which you can find (here on the USAT website or here on my blog). Basically, my game plan for the race was to get behind a fast swimmer and let him pull me along, limit the damage on the bike and not let the super cyclists put too much time on me, and them all down!

The execution of said game plan

Swim: Finding fast feet [how's that for alliteration?! Eat your hearts out English teachers :) ]

I lined up in the water next to uppercase Todd (Todd Kennedy) and told him I was going to follow him so he'd better take a good line and go fast! The only problem is that he went a little too fast because I lost contact with him after about 5 minutes. It must be nice to have paddles for hands and flippers for feet! So I just tried to find somebody else who was nearby and going about the same speed as me. Unfortunately, that didn't leave me a lot of options. Now I know what you're thinking: "That's just because you're so fast Todd!" To that I reply, "HA!" The lack of options is definitely not due to the fact that I am too fast in the swim; it's because I'm too slow! All the fast guys had pulled too far ahead for me to draft off of them so I was left to Swim Solo (You know Han's brother, Swim, right? Or is it Hope's brother? haha! Jokes). Anyway, so I was swimming on my own for most of the initial discipline of the swim, bike, run trio. Before exiting the water, I passed a few guys who had fallen off the pace and climbed out in 13th place for my age and gender.

Swim time- 21:47
Swim pace- 1:19/100y
Overall swim place- 57th of 2045
Age group swim place- 13th of 112

Transition from swim to bike: MAN it's nice not having a wetsuit!

As I was coming out of the water and running into transition, I heard Coach Barb yell to me, "1:40 DOWN TODD!" That's actually really good for me because last year, I was over 2 minutes behind the leaders out of the water. Improvement! This was the first real test for my foot/toe because I was running barefoot in the grass and I honestly didn't feel it at all! I made it a point to make sure I didn't overrun my bike because transitions have been a weak spot of mine and I seem to lose a lot of time here and have even lost a couple races because of poor transitions. Transitioning from the swim to the bike is a heck of a lot easier without having to take off my wetsuit that always seems to get stuck on my ankles. This made it easier to focus on going down the correct aisle to get to my bike the fastest. As I was running to my bike, I saw uppercase Todd putting his helmet on and running out with his bike. I tapped him on the butt, ran to my bike, quickly grabbed my helmet and sunglasses, and bolted out of transition.

T1 time- 1:18
Overall T1 place- 8th of 2045
Age group T1 place- 1st of 112

Check me out zig-zagging between the other athletes as we were all running out of transition!

Bike: Signs read, "Caution" and "Slow down" Challenge Accepted!

After running for 1/4 mile barefoot through the grass and on the pavement, I finally made it to the mount line and got to jump on my bike. Like I said in my game plan above, the goal on the bike was to just push hard and not let the super cyclists get too far ahead of me in the hopes that I would still have enough time to run them down at the end. The bike course was pretty crowded, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be. I was wave 9 of 17 so I had 8 waves of people ahead of me that I had to zigzag my way through. Oh, and did I mention that it was just a two lane road that 2,000+ athletes were riding on? Now what if I told you that you're not allowed to ride too close behind someone (drafting isn't allowed on the bike in this race format) or you get a penalty? AND you can't cross the center yellow lines meaning you really had to ride in one lane of traffic on the way out and back with all those athletes. after just 9 minutes on the bike as I was cresting a baby hill, I rolled up behind an athlete, passed him within the 15 second time limit, gave him a thumbs up as I passed, and then...I saw it: a course marshal. These guys and gals ride the course on the back of a motorcycle and give penalties to athletes who draft off other racers or block others from passing. So as I was cresting the hill, I see the course marshal coming the opposite direction and he pointed right at me. All I could think was, "Oh like HELL I'm getting a drafting penalty. There's no way I was behind him for 15 seconds and the marshal couldn't even see me for 15 seconds because he was coming the other direction AND I was coming over the hill." And then I thought, "Well I guess this just means that I'm going to have to ride that much faster to make up for the 2 minute penalty I'm going to get." And then, "I have to tell Barb as I'm running out of T2 that we are going to protest this penalty!" Seriously so many thoughts flooded my mind, but what could I do except keep riding hard? So I kept after it. I was whizzing by people left and right (except not really passing on the right because that's a penalty too...) when we came to the first real test of the course: a 1/2 mile climb that went up almost 200 feet which is about a 7% grade.

SIDE NOTE: now that I'm writing this, it really doesn't seem like that much when compared to the Tour de France. Those guys frequently climb grades above 10% for several MILES. For them this would be a bunny slope! Okay, end side note.

So we had to go up this "steep" slope and people were crawling up there. Okay, not literally. But there were people who had come to a complete stop. I had just passed someone who looked like they could be in my age group so I made it a point to make sure he didn't re-pass me. I got out of the saddle and rode the entire way up just bouncing on the pedals. My speed slowed to less than 10mph (8.8mph to be exact. Way slower than my run speed!) It was taxing, but I managed to prevent that guy from taking back his position in front of me. The good news is that what goes up, must come down! And boy did I come down FAST! 40mph+ on the down side! After that freewheeling fun, I just tried to keep a consistent candence and cruise along. I still wasn't even halfway through the bike and knew that I would have to keep pushing to make sure I didn't get too far behind. At the turnaround, I had calculated that the leader of my age-group was around 3:20 ahead of me...dang. Okay, well I guess it's time to get to work then! So on the second half of the bike, I made sure to push it even harder. Oh, and remember that hill where I was going less than 10mph up the one side? Well at the crest of that hill coming from the other direction, there were volunteers standing at the top holding signs that said, "CAUTION" and "SLOW DOWN" ...yeah right. I bombed down that thing as fast as I could! Thankfully there wasn't much athlete traffic going down the hill at this time for me to try and dodge so I could just let it rip. I did my best tuck and hit 46.4mph! By far the fastest I have ever gone on my bike.
"Alright already Todd, get to the end of the bike! We've still got to hear about the run!"
Yes, you're right! Thanks for bearing (baring? Nope. Definitely NOT baring!) with me. We'll get to the run now.

Bike time- 59:32
Bike speed- 25.6mph
Overall bike place- 9th of 2045
Age group bike place- 4th of 112

Transition from the bike to the run: Oh please don't fall like I did last week!

As I was taking my feet out of my shoes, putting them on top of my pedals, and getting ready to run into transition, my right hamstring cramped up. And not like a little cramp where I could push through like I had a few times in my calves out on the bike course. No this was a big cramp where I had to stop pedaling, stand up on my shoes and stretch out my leg. This was NOT good news for the subsequent 6.2 miles I had to run right now! Especially because it was starting to get hot. Oh I didn't mention how hot it was in Omaha? Well let's just say this: when we arrived in Omaha the first day, it was 95 and felt like 108! Thankfully it had cooled down to a moderate 86 for race I was starting to cramp right before the last leg of the race and I was on my last leg (get it?! Punny!) To go along with the cramps, I also had to avoid another spill like the one I took last week. As I was running to my bike rack, there were a few times when my shoes clipped the ground and I just kept thinking, "Oh please don't fall like I did last week!" Somehow I was able to make it to my rack without a fall AND I found it with no problem. Other than having a tiny bit of trouble putting my right shoe on because I had greased it up quite a bit to protect my toe, I was in and out in a hurry. I heard dad running alongside me outside of transition and yell something about being in 4th place and that, "NOBODY BEATS YOU ON THE RUN!" I gave him a thumbs up and took off down the road. I also passed a guy who was in my 25-29 age group right as I was leaving transition so now I was in 3rd!

T2 time- 1:15
Overall T2 place- 25th of 2045
Age group T2 place- 9th of 112

Run: Tighten the screws, let 'er buck, and FINISH!

The day before the race, Coach Barb had a few athletes together for a little course briefing and she said to us, "Make sure you check the course to see where you're going to kick. Whether that's 200 (meters) or 400 (meters) out." Then, being the smart-aleck that I am, I said, "Okay so 10k! I'm a marathon runner guys. 10k to go IS when I kick!" So as I ran out of transition and got into my running groove, I heard Barb tell me I was 2:53 down from the leader. Oh man. This was the GR Tri all over again where I lost by 14 seconds. Except this time I was almost 3 minutes down instead of 2...NO! This would NOT be the GR Tri all over again; I would make sure of it.

So remember how I said it was starting to get hot? Right, well there were only 3 aid stations with water on the course and the water at said aid stations was not the coldest (aka it was like drinking bath water...refreshing!) Regardless, I made sure to grab at least one water (two if I could grab another before leaving the area), dump it over my head, and slurp a bit if there was any left. This was to keep me cool and to make sure I didn't get too dehydrated.

A cool feature of the run course was that we got to run through Century Link Stadium: home of the College World Series! As a former collegiate baseball player, I was looking forward to this. We ran around the track and as I entered the stadium I thought, "Perfect. This is just like running poles!" (A baseball conditioning drill where you run from one foul pole to the other). "I've done this 1,000 times. What's one more??" (Shout out to all my baseball coaches who made me run poles!)

After cruising around the track, it was just a straight shot back to the finish line. The only problem was that I still hadn't caught either of the guys who were ahead of me...

Right before I ran into the stadium, I heard someone tell me I was just 90 seconds down. Alright, I cut his lead in half at the halfway point. But was that to the guy ahead of me or the leader? It didn't matter. I knew it was going to be a tight finish. But I also knew that they were going to slow down more than I would (endurance competitions are, after all, a game of attrition) so I kept pushing.

I pulled up behind an athlete who was in my age group with just under 2 miles to go. For a split second, I was just going to run right behind him and take a little break in his draft. Then I thought, "No. You're going faster than him. You can pass him, drop him, and he won't be able to hold on." And so that's what I did. As I passed he said something to the effect of, "Good run. Go get him." I was doing everything I could to do just that, so I couldn't even muster a "Thanks" and kept right on going. (By the way, now that I CAN muster a thank you, thanks for the encouragement Kyle Hooker!)

Finally, I was coming to the home stretch: 1 mile to go and I could see the leader just up the road! But it didn't seem like I was gaining on him fast enough.

Negative Todd: "I'm going to run out of room again, just like GR."

Positive Todd: "No! Tighten the screws and catch him! If you're hurting, he must be dying! Don't save anything for a sprint finish! Catch him. Drop him. And hold on!"

Okay positive Todd, you win this one. So I tightened the screws ever so slightly (a term Coach Barb likes to use meaning to crank up the intensity) and I started to gain on him. But the finish line was quickly approaching. With less than 3/4 of a mile to go, he was within shouting distance.

Positive Todd: "Alright, LET 'ER BUCK!"

And so I did. I passed the leader with just over 1/2 a mile to go and he said to me, "Good run." All I could think was, "If he has enough strength left to say that to me, he's not running hard enough." But I also knew that if he had that much strength left, he might also have enough left to come back on me. 

After I passed him, I kept looking for the finish. Had I gone too hard too soon? The finish line still seemed so far away. I could feel each footstep getting heavier and harder to come by. I snuck a peek at my watch: 5.85 miles. "Quick math. That means I only have 0.25 to go. One lap around the track. Alright, I can do that. FINISH!" In hindsight, my brain clearly wasn't working because that is in fact 0.35 to go, but hey, whatever it takes right?!

And so I churned my legs over as fast as I could while, at the same time, trying to stay upright. I could hear the announcer. I could see the finish chute. "FINISH!" I heard my dad yell at me, "Run all the way through. Remember, it's about the time!" (Because even though I was in the lead for my age group, there were 17 waves total that started, meaning the overall winner could have been in an earlier or later wave than me). I gave everything I had in that last 50 yards down the red carpet and across the finish line.

Mile 1- 5:21.2
Mile 2- 5:22
Mile 3- 5:24.1
Mile 4- 5:34
Mile 5- 5:24.1
Mile 6- 5:24.3
And the rest (0.20, but 0.32 according to my watch)- 1:52.1 (5:49/mile pace)

Run time- 34:22
Run pace- 5:31 ("But Todd, you only had one mile split slower than 5:31. How did that happen?!" Well the course is laser measured meaning you would have to take the straightest line possible to run the shortest distance. With all the weaving in and out of other athletes I had to do, I ran 6.32 miles instead of the shortest 6.20 mile path).
Overall run place- 1st of 2045
Age group run place- 1st of 11

Coming down the finish chute. Look how close Chris was! I had no idea he put his hands on my shoulders and tried talking to me afterward. As you can tell, I was kind of out of it! GREAT race Chris!

The fourth discipline

I finished just 3 seconds ahead of Chris and won my age group! I am a national champion! Now I just want to point something out. Normally I don't spend a whole lot of time talking about my transitions because they aren't one of the three disciplines in triathlon. BUT with a race being won or lost by 3 seconds, they could play an important role. 

Here are Chris' splits, including transitions:
Swim- 21:05
T1- 1:20
Bike- 57:10 (the fastest bike split on the day by 2 minutes and almost 2.5 minutes faster than me!)
T2- 1:18
Run- 37:24

And mine:
Swim- 21:47
T1- 1:19
Bike- 59:32
T2- 1:15
Run- 34:22

Notice the transitions. I beat Chris by 4 seconds in transition! THAT is where I won the race. Not on the run. I've been in Chris' position before and I know how hard it can be so I was determined to cross that line first. No matter what.

So I won the 25-29 age group and was the fastest on the far. The speedy youngsters of the 20-24 age group started in the wave right after mine. So now the only question now would be if any of them would catch me and if I had won overall. Check out The Aftermath here! And see my abbreviated version on the USA Triathlon website here!

Overall results here.
My splits here