Triathlon has been pretty good to me. This time, it took me to the beautiful island of Cozumel, Mexico for the International Triathlon Union (ITU) Age Group World Championships.
Now you all remember what happened the week before the USAT Age Group National Championship, right? If not, let me refresh your memory with a nice little picture.
Yep, I crashed my bike and ended up with a badly injured foot. Silly me, I was thinking that nothing bad would happen before the world championship because I got it out of the way for the national championship. Well, when it rains, it pours...literally. Just 10 days before the race in Cozumel, we got a big rain storm in East Lansing. For some reason, the sump pump in the house couldn't handle it and my room in the basement ended up flooding; I came home to a soaked floor. We ended up having to take everything out of the room, move it to the living area, and I had to sleep on a mattress on the floor upstairs (not really the restful sleep I was hoping for before the biggest race of my season). Take a look at the pictures below to see more. (And yes, that is black mold that I have been living with for maybe about a year.) As I write this, it's 3 weeks after the rainstorm and I am still not back in my room. Although, I should note that my mom drove to East Lansing and reorganized everything for me so there is at least some semblance of order now. Thanks mom!
I guess it's a good thing that I had the chance to practice dealing with some serious adversity before the national championship so this was a little easier to handle (if handling something like this can be easy...) Regardless, the race must go on! So I packed up my bike and made my way down to Cozumel.
We had a full day of travel which involved flying to Chicago and then Cancun. From Cancun, we took a shuttle to Playa del Carmen. After arriving in Playa and hauling our bags and bikes about half a mile down cobblestones, we finally got to the ferry that would take us to Cozumel. While on the ferry, I noticed someone decked out in Team USA gear. And not the Team USA gear that I got for the age group race. No, this was Olympic team gear! Olympic triathlete, Ben Kanute, had also hopped aboard our ferry so of course I went over and talked his ear off the entire 45 minute ride :)
Once we arrived in Cozumel, we could finally relax a bit and take in some amazing views. Thanks goes out to Elaine Sheikh and her parents for letting my dad and I stay with at this amazing place!
Now a lot of people think that because I'm in Cozumel, that means I am going to be hanging out poolside or at the beach or exploring the local flavor. But this wasn't really a vacation; I had a world championship race to compete in! We arrived on Tuesday and my race wasn't until Sunday so I couldn't drain myself by doing 'touristy' things. About the most 'touristy' thing dad and I did was attending the opening ceremonies where we had our very own parade of nations. I was actually pretty bored most of the week. Aside from getting my tune-up workouts in, I just spent time sitting in the condo and trying to stay cool.
Oh, did I mention that it is freaking hot here?! Not only is it warm (high 80s most of the time), but it's also EXTREMELY humid! I'm talking 80% or more humidity throughout the day and in the mornings it's usually up at 100%!
And speaking of workouts...I found a local pool to swim in one day and you'll never guess who I ran into. It was none other than Olympic gold medalist, Gwen Jorgensen! Right as I was getting out of the pool, she was getting in and got in MY lane! Basically, I warmed up the lane for her ;) I even got to talk to her! I said, "Hi Gwen." To which she replied (in a friendly tone), "Hi." I was wearing my team USA jersey and she was look ed at me like, "Is this someone I should know, but just forgot their name?" I told her good luck with her race this weekend (she raced the World Championship and finished 2nd!) and she said, "Thanks." I didn't even think of it at the time, but I should have asked for a picture! Instead, I just took a picture of her while she was swimming.
Okay, now that I've sufficiently bored you with all the stuff that happened BEFORE the race, let's get to the good stuff. Although, I think it's ALL good, but I might be a little biased ;)
Swim- Swept away
This was my first ocean swim that I've done in a race. Let's do highs and lows for swimming in the ocean.
Highs: the salt water makes you more buoyant (aka floaty!) Great for non-swimmers like me. The water is crystal clear and you can see everything.
Lows: the salt water is salty! It tastes bad if you get it in your mouth and burns if you get it in your eyes. The water is crystal clear and you can see everything (and get distracted by the crazy colorful fish swimming around). Oceans have very strong currents.
A few days prior to my race, the sprint distance world championship took place. The currents had been so strong that people were being swept out to sea... literally! They ended up 500m off-course (which is a LOT for a course that is only 750m). So the race officials decided to shorten the swim to keep everyone safe (yay for a shorter swim!!)
I lined up with a few of my USA teammates, Robert Fain, Andrew Weinstein, and Tommy Barton. I knew Robert was a good swimmer, so I started right next to him to hopefully catch his draft. The announcer told us to "Take your marks." and what seemed like before he finished his sentence, the horn blasted and we were off! Almost immediately, I caught an elbow to the face (thanks Robert! I guess that's what I get for trying to piggyback him! haha). At first, I thought my goggles had cracked or broken entirely because of the force that I got hit with. Fortunately, they stayed on my face. Unfortunately, they had been dislodged ever so slightly so that my left eye slowly started filling up with salt water. Every time I lifted my head up to sight (which was every 10 strokes or so and I took ~700 strokes so you do the math...okay, I'll do the math for you: at least 70 times I lifted my head to sight!), I would get the salt water in my eye and it BURNED! After making sure I was on the right course and put my head back down, I had to squeeze my eyes shut tight to get rid of that burning sensation.
And that strong current, yeah it was still there. The swim course was essentially a down and back. So one way you're swimming with the current and the other way, against it (or in our case, with very briefly, against FOREVER, and with very briefly again.) So the start was a barn burner because it was with the current, but swimming against the current it felt like I was barely moving. It honestly felt like the longest swim of my life. I tried to do my best to stay with the speedy swimmers, but I just couldn't hang on. I even tried to bridge the gap a couple times because they were only about 15 feet ahead of me, but I just couldn't quite get there. After the eternity of swimming against the current, I finally made it to our turn and could finally swim with the current again. The problem was that it was so strong, it was pushing me farther downstream than I needed to go to swim around the buoy. I was swimming perpendicular to the shore, but not making much headway. A few athletes even got tangled up in the ropes of the buoy because it pushed them so much.
Elaine's wave started 7 minutes before mine and I had joked with her that I was going to pass her in the water. Well, little did I know that it would actually happen because she was one of those athletes who ended up tangled in the ropes! We talked about it later and she told me that she saw somebody pass her right after she got untangled and noticed the "Buckingham" on my butt and thought, "Oh hey, there's Todd! Crap! He told me he was going to pass me. I was not happy!" Sorry Elaine! But thanks for keeping the buoy lines occupied so I couldn't get tangled up in them :)
So I was able to make it out of the water unscathed (except for the burning eyes) in 13th position (that's a high!), but almost 3 minutes down (definitely a low.) Oh well, nothing to do except close the gap!
Swim time- 18:53 (shortened to 1250 yards)
Swim pace- 1:30/100y
Swim place- 13th
Bike- Mmm pancakes
The bike course was just my style: out and back and flat as a pancake. This meant that I didn't have to do a lot of shifting and could just focus on getting in the groove and staying steady. Before the race, I did everything I could to make my bike as light and aerodynamic as possible. I took the extra water bottle holder off and even took the little caps off my tire tubes! (The bike guy told me it would make the bike more aerodynamic). Right out of transition, I passed Robert who had stopped at the side of the road. I thought he'd gotten a penalty...bummer! Turns out he just dropped his spare tube and went to pick it up so he DIDN'T get a penalty. I really wanted to push the pace on the bike because that's where I seem to lose a lot of time to the leaders. I was doing a lot of passing, but it was hard to keep track of who was in my age group and who wasn't (the two waves of 18-19 and 20-24 male and female started 7-10 minutes before me). I also only got passed twice. The first time by a Brit and the second time by an Aussie. I tried to keep up with the Brit for a while, but didn't want to wear myself out too much. Instead, I just tried to keep him in sight. The Aussie who passed me was a big guy so he made quite a big draft. I stayed behind him for a little bit (within legal limits, of course), but then felt like he was going too slow and reminded myself that I needed to ride my own race or "You do you!" as my good friend Todd Kennedy likes to say. He's right, too. If I wanted to win this thing, I couldn't let someone else dictate my pace. I had to keep pushing on.
After the turn around, I passed Tommy Barton, the lead American in our age group up to that point who just so happened to win the sprint race a few days earlier. What a beast! On the way back, I could still see the Brit who had passed me early on in the bike and I could tell that I was slowly gaining on him. Once I got to within shouting distance, I put in a little extra effort so I could get close enough to get a little draft (again, staying in the legal limits). My thought process was this: "He's going about the same speed as me. If I can let him set the pace for a bit, I can turn my brain off and save some energy before heading out on the run." So I stayed behind him, but then noticed my speed was dropping more than I wanted it to. So I took Todd's advice again ("You do you"), rode my own race, and passed him. We played leapfrog for a couple miles, but eventually, I stayed clear of him and rode into transition with the 2nd fastest bike split in my age group.
Bike time- 56:58
Bike speed- 26.2mph
Bike place- 2nd
Run- Everything hurts (but run faster!)
Finally, it was time for the run! My bread and butter. I knew I was close to the top of my age group, but I didn't know exactly what place I was in. As I ran out of transition, my dad yelled that I was about 2 minutes behind the leader who was from New Zealand. That's it? Piece of cake compared to the 3 minutes I had to overcome in Omaha! The only problem was that Cozumel was much hotter and more humid than in Omaha. And the course was not very conducive to running fast; there were so many turns! Count 'em: in the two loops, there were twenty-six 90 degree turns and seven 180 degree turns.
This just made it really hard for me to get into ANY kind of a rhythm. After the first mile, I looked at my watch and saw 5:34. I thought, "Okay, not as fast as normal, but I feel okay. Just hold this pace and you'll be fine!" I had also cut the lead to 1 minute 30 seconds and was gaining on the Kiwi and FAST! Mile 2 was another 5:34 and the lead was just 1 minute. But then something happened. I grabbed a particularly chilly cup of water and dumped it over my head. Immediately, my body was covered in goosebumps and just kind of shut down. It's hard to explain, but I think what might have happened was this (bear with me as I get a little science-y!): when I dumped the ice-cold water on my head, my brain sent a signal to my blood vessels to vasoconstrict (or close up). This reduces the amount of blood (and therefore, oxygen) that can get to my muscles. Without the extra oxygen, I wasn't able to run as fast which caused my pace to decrease dramatically. Mile 3 rang in at 5:55 and I knew the second 5k loop was just going to be about survival. The next time update I got from my dad was still at 1 minute; I wasn't gaining anymore. But I told myself that I needed to keep pushing because if I'm hurting, they've got to be dying. So push I did, but my legs just wouldn't respond. Both hamstrings were on the verge of cramping right where the hamstrings and the glutes meet (yep, right at my butt!) I even had someone pass me on the run. At first, I thought it was someone from my age group (it had to be, right?) After looking at his calf, though, I saw that it was someone from the 30-34 age group that started 10 minutes behind me...what?! How was that possible? This guy must have been flying! He even motioned for me to run right behind him and try to stay with him. I literally said, "I can't" and he started to pull away. (After thinking about it, he HAD to have been on his first lap when he caught me because there is no way he could have caught up after starting 10 minutes behind). Miles 4 and 5 were both right around 6:05, but somehow I was gaining on the leader again. It was down to 45 seconds! But I knew with just one mile left, the chances of catching him were not good. But dangit if I wasn't going to try! I picked up the pace ever so slightly, passed the ONE guy who had passed me from the 30-34 age group, and went through mile 6 in 5:55; the lead was under 30 seconds. Unfortunately, there was only a quarter of a mile to go and this time, I was going to run out of room.
As I ran down the finish chute, I tried to be in the moment of the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP! I grabbed a flag from one of the Team USA managers, took in the crowd, checked over my shoulder to make sure nobody was closing in on me, and finished the race holding the stars and stripes.
Run time- 36:43
Run pace- 5:55/mile
Run place- 2nd
After I crossed the finish line, I almost collapsed. Exhausted. My run time was 30 seconds slower per mile than I normally go. This might not sound like a lot, but that adds up to about 2-3 minutes over the course of the 10k. But as I said before, it was hot, humid, and painful. For the second time in as many races, I told the finish line volunteers that I needed help. They asked if I wanted to go to the med tent and I was adamant that I wasn't going to do that again. So I slung my arms over two volunteers and they essentially carried me to the athlete cool-down area where I could get into the ice baths they had for us. That felt SO good! I submerged my entire body just to try and cool down. After about 20 minutes, I finally felt good enough where I could stand up without getting light-headed.
I ended up finishing 3rd in my age group (a Mexican athlete was actually ahead of Greg from New Zealand) with the 2nd fastest bike and run splits (Check out the results from my age group here.) The problem was that I came out of the water almost 3 minutes behind the guy who finished 2nd and 1 minute behind the guy who finished 1st. Normally a 1 minute deficit out of the water is no problem for me to make up. I even biked 30 seconds faster than him! But this guy had home-field advantage being Mexican born and was able to handle the heat on the run better than I was. He still only ran 20 seconds faster than I did, too. And like I said, that run was a pretty big disappointment for me.
Overall time- 1:56:02
Age group place- 3rd
Overall place- 10th*
*After looking through the results to see where I finished overall, I noticed that several male athletes from the 20-24 and 30-34 age groups had extremely similar swim and bike splits. And by extremely similar I mean almost identical (bike splits of 57:49, 57:51, 57:53, and two at 56:43). This means that they were drafting (i.e., riding right behind one another to reduce the air resistance and save energy...up to 30%!) Not only does drafting result in faster bike splits, but it also are able to run faster after the bike with that energy they saved. Drafting is not allowed in my race and should have resulted in a 2 minute penalty for each of these athletes. So outside of my age group, there was only one athlete who beat me and he was in the 35-39 category. Now I know what you're thinking, "Todd, how did you let an old guy beat you?!" (cue the comments about 35-39 being old :P). Well this was not your normal 35-39 year old. No, this was a former Olympic triathlete from Mexico who raced at the 2008 games in Beijing. He beat me by over 4 minutes and not one of my splits was faster than his...dang!
After the race, dad and I went back to the condo where I could relax for a bit before the awards ceremony. Of course I had to stop by the local supermarket to try out one of the sweets they had in their bakery before heading back, though :) I got a concha blanca. "The concha blanca is a sweet bread that serves as a staple item in the Mexican culture. With its complementary white frosting, this product resembles a sea shell that curious customers can't wait to try. Enjoyable at breakfast time or as a midday snack, this product is versatile and satisfying." It definitely wasn't as sweet as American desserts and it actually tasted more like a dinner roll with a bit of powdered sugar on top. It sure does look pretty, though! Don't worry Rise Grand Rapids, you have nothing to worry about!
The awards ceremony was nice, but long. Everything is on Mexico time down there which means everything runs 20-30 minutes behind schedule (this is equivalent to Canada time for those of you more familiar with our north-of-the-border brothers). I got to share the bronze podium with fellow American Cecilia Davis-Hayes and we got to wrap ourselves in the American flag...pretty cool! I came away with a bronze medal and an awesome Columbia Threadneedle trophy (Columbia Threadneedle is an investment group that is the main sponsor of the ITU).
The following morning, my alarm clock went off far too early (5am). We had to be on the ferry back to Playa del Carmen to hop on the shuttle that would take us back to Cancun so we could catch our flight back to Michigan. You think it sounds long, right? You're telling me! And then guess what happened? Our ferry got delayed. Great. The good news is that I was able to get a cinnamon roll from a local bakery right down the road! It sure was tasty, but definitely not as sweet as the ones back home. While I was enjoying my cinnamon roll, dad made some friends with the birds :)
It was a long day once we finally got on the road (or on the water and then on the road and then in the air). We had a bit of a layover in Charlotte, NC before heading back to Michigan. It was around dinner time while we were there and I was just walking around the airport. I like doing this because 1. I know I'm going to be sitting for another few hours on the plane and 2. The people watching in airports is great! :P While I was out, Elaine's mom, Sarah, stopped and picked up dinner for me. And by dinner, I mean ANOTHER cinnamon roll! (That makes two on the day :D) That was probably the best dinner I've had in a while. Thanks Sarah!
Eventually, we made it back to Michigan. Unfortunately, I still had to pick up my car from a friend's, transfer all my stuff from my dad's car to my car, and drive an hour and a half drive back to East Lansing from Grand Rapids. I didn't get back until past midnight and by the time I finally got to sleep, it was around 1am. Clearly, I was delirious because I took a bathroom selfie haha.
So what are my final thoughts on the race? I had an awesome bike split (the 2nd fastest!) , but my swim and the run (which is normally my strength) just weren't there. I came out of the water in 13th and even though I had the 2nd fastest run split, it was still 2-3 minutes slower than I usually run. This would have put me in line for the win in my age group by almost a minute. That being said, the conditions on race day were BRUTAL. I mean, just watch this video. This was the elite men's race that took place in the evening after my race. It was hot, humid, and painful, but I crossed the finish line with a smile on my face. I know I couldn't have gone any harder and I'm happy to come away with a 3rd place podium finish.
Congrats to all the Team USA athletes and everyone who raced in Cozumel. Just finishing that race is an accomplishment in itself and we should all be proud! Thanks to Tim Yount, Lauren Rios, and Megan Weagley, the Team USA managers, for all their hard work, communication, and coordination during race week. Tim was giving me splits out on the course, Lauren answered every text/email I sent her (and there were a lot!), and Megan handed me the flag as I was ran down the finish chute. You would be hard-pressed to find a harder working and more caring group than these three and I just want to say thanks again to you guys! Thanks to Coach Barb, as always, for getting me ready to have my best race possible. And thanks to you all for following along and for all the good luck texts and messages. I'm humbled that you care so much!
And thanks especially to my dad for always being there for me (Bagman extraordinaire!), my mom for sending me fast thoughts and being at the race in spirit (I heard your whistle!), my brother for showing me it's okay to chase your dreams, Mark and Matt Jacobs at MojoFIT for helping me get to the race, and James Fry and Nick Van Liere at Rise Grand Rapids for their support. I can't wait to meet up with you guys next month after the Grand Rapids Marathon!
Speaking of the Grand Rapids Marathon, that will be my last race of the season. Dad is running the marathon too and mom is doing the half! Since the races start at the same time, mom said it's her goal to cross the finish line before me :P I'm actually not going to the race trying to run a super fast time so that shouldn't be a problem for her. I'm mainly going to improve my Boston Marathon qualifying time so I can start the race with other runners who are the same speed as me.
Aaaand that's all folks! I will see you next time after the Grand Rapids Marathon on October 23rd.