Hot, Sweaty, Happy … Omaha 2016
USA Triathlon National Age Group Championships, Omaha, NE – August 13, 2016
1.5 km / 40 km / 10 km
So, this was it, the triathlon highlight of the year, my A-race for 2016.
Leading up to the race
The plan was for Neil King and I to make the 8-hour trip to Omaha together sometime on Wednesday before the race, spending Thursday and Friday to do course reconnaissance, taken advantage of the open swims to get familiar with the water and its temps, and to do some final workouts to somewhat get used to the Omaha weather. Then race on Saturday and support Craig Peterson in his race on Sunday, before heading back to Northern Minnesota.
Aber erstens kommt es anders und zweitens als man denkt.
(But, first it always goes differently, and second never as you expect)
About two weeks before the Nationals, Neil developed some pain in his foot around the ball of his big toe. A few days later he was diagnosed with a fractured first metatarsal. There went his A-race and my travel and racing partner.
I’m so thankful for great friends like Lisa and Craig Peterson. They agreed to already head to Omaha with me on Wednesday afternoon instead of following Neil and I on Thursday morning. So, instead of heading over to Fargo and down I-29; I drove to the Cities, went for a shake-out run with Craig, packed their van with all of our luggage and bikes, and, as soon as Lisa came from work, we headed south on I-35 and then east on I-80 towards Omaha. Traffic along I-35 went pretty slow because of a major car crash around Austin, MN, so we did not arrive at our hotel until 1 a.m. on Thursday morning. I was ready to just fall on the bed and go to sleep.
The weather forecast for Thursday was hot, hot, hot, and humid. I think we ended up with a high of 98°F (37°C) in the shade and a heat index of about 110°F (43°C). We had decided to do the run and bike course reconnaissance first thing in the morning when the temps were somewhat bearable. At 10 a.m. when we started scouting the run course on our bikes, it was already 84°F (29°C) in the shade. The verdict for the run course was: pretty flat but no shade what so ever. The middle half of the course between Levi Carter Park and the TD Ameritrade stadium was leading through an industrial area which was not very scenic, but, hey, I’m not sightseeing while I’m racing. We proceeded driving the bike route in the van with the air conditioning on full blast. The bike course promised to be a relatively fast ride, with exception of a 1.75-mile stretch along North River Drive between Ponca Road and County Road P40. The 0.5 mile northbound climb had inclines of up to 11% grade and the 1.2 mile southbound climb had two inclines of up to 8% grade. To get a feel for the ascend and descend and its swooping curves, we parked the van at the bottom of the hill, and rode it once in either direction. It was noon by that time and 88°F (31°C) in the shade. We saw quite a few people who rode the whole course in these temps. We just called it a day with regard to physical activity. I had originally planned to run through a few transitions in the afternoon, but it just got way too hot for my taste. Lisa had originally planned to participate in the “Untimed Undie Run” on Thursday evening, but I think it also got too hot for her and she decided against it.
Good thing a thunderstorm rolled through during the night, so the temps Friday morning, even though still humid, were more bearable. I started the day with a 20-minute primer run in Levi Carter Park, and later we went to the Swim Practice in Carter Lake to test the water. The water was 87°F (30°C) that morning, and it felt fine for a relaxed dip but not necessarily for a fast swim. The water was also very cloudy and below water you could barely see beyond the shoulder of your outstretched arm, but luckily there were not weeds to fight against. I practiced using the exit ramp several times to find the best way out of the water, because I was somewhat concerned about the metal steps leading from the ramp to shore and about the blue mats that covered the ramp and the run to the transition because they seemed to get slippery when wet.
We returned to the race site later that day to put my bike in the transition area and for Lisa to run the “Tri It 5K”. I found that I did not only have a cool race number “1200” but also lucked out with an almost perfect transition spot. (For big races like Nationals the transition spot is assigned, i.e. it is not first come first pick.) Coming from the ‘Swim In’ I had the last spot in row E, so no searching for the bike, just run to the end of the line. In addition, my down wheel was facing the ‘Bike Out’ which allowed for a bee line run to the exit. And since ‘Bike In’ and ‘Bike Out’ were in the same corner, I of all my competitors had the shortest run with the bike. I could have not hoped for anything better.
I was also really glad that Lisa got to run the 5K and experience running down the finishing chute. I certainly hope she had fun doing it after she missed the Undie Run the night before.
Morning of the race
Race morning started with my alarm going off at 4:05 a.m. giving me time to slowly wake up during a relaxed morning shower and my morning stretching routine. Even though my wave was not scheduled to start until 8:28 a.m. I still had decided to be at the transition when it opened at 5:30 a.m. And good thing it was because traffic to the race site became a nightmare later, forcing the organizers to delay the start of the race by 15 minutes. Setting up the transition, a few more runs through the flow of the transition, including the long run to and from the mount/dismount lines, a warm up run and stretch, and a few nervous runs to the port-a-potties let the time pass by quickly. The lake water had cooled down by 2 degrees and was not a “chilly” 85°F (29°C) 😛
While standing in the corral waiting for my wave to be ushered onto the starting pantoon, I started to chat with the woman, Andrea Leber, standing next to me. Turns out, she is originally from Basel, Switzerland, and so for the rest of the day, whenever we bumped into each other, we switched back and forth between speaking German or English.
Swim > 25:49; 1:34 / 100 yds; 8th age group
Around 8:35 a.m., we finally could walk onto the dock to start our warm up. Walking on the floating dock was pretty interesting; with all the competitors of a wave walking on it at the same time, it felt like walking on a ship or rope bridge, as the dock was swaying side to side. I liked how they had organized the warm up, with the warm-up area to the east of the dock and the actual swim stretching towards the south-west of the dock.
It was an in water start with one hand on the dock and no place to push off from the dock. As the horn went off, I did a strong kick as I swung my top arm forward (the one I used to hold on to the dock), and within a few strokes I seemed to be totally by myself. At this point I was breathing toward my right and nobody with my wave’s red cap was within sight. As I switched my breathing to my left side, I saw a few other swimmers of my wave, but I also realized that I was in a pretty strong position. The cloudy water and the drawn out nature of the field did not allow for any drafting, at least not for me. After about a little more than half the swim distance, I was in a big ‘gaggle’ of the yellow hats of the wave that had started 7 minutes ahead of mine, and a slalom race for the water exit began.
I originally had decided to use the right side of the exit ramp, just as a matter of preference. As I approached the exit I saw another red hat going the same direction and I went to the left side. This might have turned out to be a good thing as it was generally the ones on the right hand side that were more likely to slip on the blue mats lining the exit because they had to take tighter turns. Luckily the exit ramp was not too congested, so I could swim right on top of the ramp, jump to my feet, and run up the set of stairs without bumping into anybody. The stairs and the blue, slippery mats did not pose a problem, as originally feared.
The athlete exiting with me was Colleen De Reuck, an Olympic marathon runner, and Honolulu and Berlin marathon winner. She beat me by 0.2 seconds out of the water. Arrgh! Had I known it was her, I would have pushed just a tad harder to cross the timing mat ahead of her, because leading up to Nationals, friends and I had joked that, if nothing else, I can beat her on the swim.
A lot of people complained afterwards that the swim was supposedly long. According to my Garmin data, the distance was pretty much on the money; and my time of 25:49.1 was also what I would expect from a non-wetsuit swim in really warm water (about 2 minutes slower than for a wetsuit legal swim in a Minnesota lake).
T1 > 1:42; 3rd age group
Once again, I was one of the fastest of my age group in the transition, if only one could win races in the transition :-).
Because of the non-wetsuit swim, there was obviously no wetsuit to haggle with. I also had decided to race in my Team USA kit and not to use a swim skin which made for a rather smooth transition. I saw others who had decided to race in a swim skin struggling to take them off at their transition spot which allowed me to gain on them.
I entered T1 in 8th spot and left it in 7th spot. I might not have beaten Collen De Reuck out of the water, but, I definitely beat her in the transition and started the bike leg ahead of her :-). Yet, this was the last time I was ahead of her.
Bike > 1:12:48; 20.5 mph; 10th age group
Garmin data > 21.0 mph
The bike speed in the official results is somewhat misleading because it includes an almost 200 m long run with the bike from the edge of the transition area where the timing mat was located to the mount line and then again from the dismount line to the transition area. These long runs had its own challenges. I found that many of the slower athletes, who chose to walk their bike during this part, did not tend to stay to the right but walk all over. This forced the faster athletes to either slalom around them, which is not easy while guiding a bike; or to constantly yell “On your left”, hoping that they would move out of the way in time.
Three athletes were also blocking the mount line, standing next to each other just beyond the line trying to straddle the bike. I could barely squeeze by on the left hand side and hit my ankle on my bike doing so.
I really liked the bike course. The first 7 miles were fast, very smooth aside from some train tracks, and not technical at all. We seemed to just fly along. But ‘Bam!’ there came Hummel Hill with its up to 11% grade. Everything seemed to come to a standstill. Athletes were riding three, if not sometimes four, deep, leaving little room to pass. My speed dropped from over 20 mph at the bottom of the hill to a minimum of 6.22 mph near the top of the hill. But boy did I love going down this hill on the way back. I reached a top speed of 41 mph, and I was not even in my aerobars. To dare going down this hill in aerobars I need a few more attempts at it and less people around me. Like it was, I was constantly yelling “On your left! On your left!”
The section from the hill to the turn around and back to the hill was pretty flat and fast again. I was somewhat slower during this part. Maybe because it had a few tighter 90 degree turns, or maybe because I was really struggling with the drafting rules during this sections. Several times I actually had to stop pedaling and sit up in the saddle to at least show that I’m attempting to get out of the drafting zone in a somewhat timely fashion after being passed by another athlete. It is not easy to adhere to the drafting rules on a busy course like this, especially if you are surrounded by athletes who are very similar to you in their performance level.
The U-turn at the turn around was pretty tight and many athletes had problems taking the turn. While previewing the course on Thursday, I had practiced taking the U-turn and had pretty quickly realized that it would be best to clip out the inside foot for a tight turn radius. As a consequence, I could almost hug the turn cone while another athlete just ahead of me almost ran off the road and had to come to a full stop because she had decided to stay clipped in.
I thought that I was passed by two athletes in my age group towards the end of the bike but that I did not pass any. Turns out I was passed by three and I passed two. So I started the bike leg in 7th spot and returned in 8th spot.
T2 > 1:33; 3rd age group
What can I say about T2?
IN in 8th spot, OUT in 6th spot, 3rd fastest in my age group. So it must have been a pretty good transition, right?
Actually, as I bent over to put on my shoes, my right quads cramped up. I had to stand up for a moment to try to release the cramp before I could bend over again. I only could think, “oh uh, not good for the run.” But at least, I did not take the wrong turn in the transition area and did not have to back track my steps as one of my competitors :-).
Run > 49:28; 7:56 min/mi > 12th age group
Garmin > 6.33 miles > 7:50 min/mi
The run, oh my God, the run! I was suffering! I was suffering big time.
It all started out quite well. Luckily, once I started the short cramp I experienced in my quads during T2 did not bother me again, and I averaged a 7:23 min/mi pace for the first mile, right at my target pace. But the longer I was running the more I felt the sun burning on my shoulders and I started baking; and my pace slowed to a 7:35 min/mi for mile two, a 7:41 min/ mi for mile three, until it settled on a 8:05 min/mi pace for the remainder of the run, about 40 sec slower than where I would have liked to be. We would have been thankful for any kind of shade, but none was to be had on this route. Luckily the organizers had anticipated hot racing conditions and had set up a water station about every ¾ of a mile. Unfortunately, the stations were not long enough for the large number of athletes coming through at any given time, and it was at times difficult to get a drink. I was not able to grab anything at the second station and later had to slow down and even grab stuff off the tables to make sure I got my fluids. They also did not seem to have any ice available, at least not when I came through. I anticipate that this will improve next year.
My Garmin watch was still set up to beep every ¼ mile from a previous workout, and towards the end of the run I was just counting down the ¼ miles to keep my mind of the heat and humidity. Everybody competed under the same conditions, and so I was not the only one suffering. Andrea Leber, my new Swiss friend passed me (and many others) during the end of the race. She lives in Virgina Beach and seemed to revel in these conditions. She ran from 13th position at the beginning of the run to finish 5th in our age group. So, in the end I was not able to hold my 6th spot from the beginning of the run.
Overall > 2:31:21; 7th age group
Any cold liquid and ice was a welcome sight after crossing the finish line. I’m thankful to Lisa and Craig for pointing out the recovery tend with ice baths. Soaking in the ice-cold water “hurt so good”.
But before soaking in the ice bath, I needed to get my race print out to see my results. My first glance did not even go for my time or splits but for my Division Place: 7th! Top 10 finish! My best finish at Nationals! I was so excited. Now, let’s just hope I did not get a surprise penalty like the first year in Milwaukee, WI back in 2014. I went back to the officials tent several times to check on penalties, but there were so many infractions to go over by the officials that it took them a long time to finalize the report. In the meantime, we ate, we hung out and relaxed, we got my stuff out of the transition area and stored it in the car, we went to the swim area for a practice swim for Craig, Craig put his bike into the transition area for tomorrow’s sprint triathlon, etc. But finally the report was out and I was in the clear: 7th place in my age group. Yeah! Big time smiley face :-). Now I definitely had a reason to go to the award ceremony this evening: I was on the podium! But otherwise no big celebrations yet, Craig still had to race the next morning.
This also meant, no sleeping in the next morning. We had to be at the race site early again and check out of our hotel prior to that. The morning was spent supporting Craig in his sprint triathlon. He ended up finishing 14th in his age group and because he is aging up to a new age group next year, he also qualified for Team USA for next year’s Sprint World Championships. Congratulations Craig!
We celebrated our success that evening back in Minneapolis with Black Sheep pizza and Izzy’s ice cream!
What’s coming up next?
On August 28, I will be racing the Superior Man 41.5 in Duluth, MN.
(click on any picture to enlarge)