March 13, 2016 - In an effort to continually attack my limiters and leave my comfort zone, I lined up with some of the best ITU guys in the world. It wasn't pretty, but hopefully it was what I needed to do in order to progress. Leaving your comfort zone and accepting an ass whoopin' is certainly one way to improve.
Remaing open to change is important in every athlete’s development. Doing the exact same training year after year will likely yield similar results year after year. Most athletes can accept this notion, but many are too conservative to implement change themselves. With good reason too... making changes are challenging and it involves going far out of the comfort zone. Athletes typically train their strengths and ignore their weaknesses because that's much easier. But the road to improvement, which every athlete seeks, is paved from years and years of attacking one's weaknesses. Eliminating a weakness is the key to long term improvement. It’s that exact reason I found myself on the starting line at my first ITU race in Sarasota this weekend.
I first started swimming 8 years ago. Like most brand new swimmers, I couldn’t swim across the 20 yard YMCA pool. As my bike and run progressed quickly, I still couldn’t figure out how to swim. I used to think it would take years and years to become a better swimmer. Well, it did... Swimming consistently (5-7 times a week) for the last 8 years has taken my swimming to the next level. But it wasn’t just that dedication that helped me become a better swimmer, I had to completely take myself out of my comfort zone on countless occasions in order to improve. This weekend, I put myself into the most challenging swim scenario possible, an ITU sprint distance triathlon.
For a long course triathlete with no short course background, I didn’t think I would ever make this transition. But I felt like it was an important step in my development as an athlete. Long course racing is getting faster and being at the front of the race is as important as ever. If I want to swim with the best, I need to put myself in situations where I have a chance to swim with the best. This weekend, I had two opportunities to test myself, a draft legal sprint distance on Saturday and a super sprint distance on Sunday.
Despite having an insane amount of anxiety going into this race, I decided that I just needed to step up and take my beating like a man. I lined up on the pontoon and promised myself that no matter what, I would keep pushing the whole race. Like I imagined, the swim was insane. Over 50 men diving into a choppy lake and wailing on each other for over 750 meters. The turn buoys didn’t let me down either. There was plenty of fighting for position. But I was still in the thick of it, so I was doing something right. Late in the swim, I was still right at the back of the main pack. It was there I made my biggest mistake of the day; I let myself get comfortable. The pace lifted in the last 200m and I found myself about two body lengths, less than 5 seconds behind the main group. Exiting the water, they were literally right in front of me. Unfortunately, they stayed right in front of me for the next 5 minutes of ALL OUT riding. It seemed so simple, just catch the group that is 25m in front of you... just ride a little harder… But I was already going as hard as possible and I literally couldn't bring back one second. Lesson learned: if you want to be in the group, you have to be literally smack in the middle of the group. Swimming at the tail end of a group in ITU racing doesn’t ensure that you made the group!
After 5 minutes of chasing, I sat up and waited until the next group of 10 caught me. At times, we worked together well, but not well enough to catch the main group. With 2km to go, I got frustrated that not everyone was doing equal work and I decided to try my luck off the front. Another mistake… A few minutes of effort and I only gained 5 seconds. Most of those guys made that up (plus a little more) in transition. Like any race, I ran my heart out but I knew that my run was still way below where I wanted it to be after another winter of heavy swim/bike training. I crossed the line in 32rd place with a pedestrian 17:30 split for the 5km. Most of the top ITU guys were between 16:00 and 16:30 on this course, with the fastest run being around 15:30.
Overall, the experience was amazing and I was happy to be mixing it up with a completely different group of professional athletes. I knew I would take a beating, but I hope it makes me just a little better when I get back to long course racing next month. This race, and Sunday’s super sprint, proved that I can swim with the best and I am ready for the front pack at every long course race this season. After 8 years of work, I feel like I have finally checked that box. That leaves two more sports and two more boxes to check… Even though it's almost been a decade, it's still a long road ahead.
As always, special shoutout to the companies that continually stick with me through this long, crazy journey to the top. Blueseventy, Ventum, Enve, Infinit Nutrition, XX2i, Rudy Project, Giordana, Stages Cycling, Endurance Conspiracy, and Fleet Feet Cleveland.