May 29, 2021 - After 18 months of not competing due to the pandemic, nothing beats a return to racing immediately for National Championship titles! Day 1 at the Duathlon National Championships presented an opportunity that was not to be missed.... and a medal haul that is worthy of any medal Monday.
We've all been at different paths to get to our new start lines to be multi-sport athletes again. For me, it was a return to Duathlon Nationals this year as a carry over double race event weekend that I had planned to do last year in preparation to compete at the draft legal sprint duathlon World Championshipin in Almere, Netherlands. This year I knew I wouldn't be going to Almere since it was just a few weeks before Ironman Chattanooga which is my primary fall event. I kept Duathlon Nationals on the calendar since I do like duathlon and I've had prior success in earning national championships in the past. Wanting to return the podium is a great motivator and one that I could focus my winter training on, especially since I have been gingerly bringing along my hamstring from an injury last fall doing an Ultramarathon running challenge. Leading into the race I knew I had the fitness but the question was overall run speed and if my hamstring would allow me to run - especially on back to back race days. I was hoping that the first race day I would be in a position to manage my run so that I could save some energy for the following race day. It didn't unfold that way but things don't usually go to plan!
I chose to do the back to back sprint distance races with the non-draft Sprint race on Saturday afternoon and the draft legal race on Sunday morning. With the events being in Tuscaloosa, racing in the heat was a distinct possibility so I had put together a limited heat acclimation regimine to get my body ready. I couldn't prepare for the heat fully since it was very unseasonably cool in the weeks leading up to the event and the sauna at my local YMCA didn't open up until just 1 week prior to the event. I struggle in hot conditions and can lose up to 10 lbs per hour in fluid loss so any preparation I can do helps that scenario. And did I ever need it! The weather turned very hot for the event weekend and we were in store for a hot couple days of racing. On race day it was an effort to stay cool for as long as possible given we had a 1:05pm start time. Once I was racked about 1 hour before our start, I put on my ice vest (best purchase ever- pro cycling ice vest used to keep cyclists cool when on trainers before a time trial) and started my warm ups. I had a teammate who was not racing that event I was able to handoff the ice vest to while in the starting chute which really made the build up in the 90+ degree heat. Due to covid protocols, we started in pods of about 5-7 athletes staggered a few seconds apart. Wanting to stay in contact with the front of the field, I started in the second pod.
The heartbeat music that is synonymous with big events started and it was back to racing- finally! I knew this opening run would be a shock to the system... it always is at this level. And as we got started, it did not disappoint with a blistering opening pace. The opening run was a 2 lap course with the first half of the lap on the open road and then on a shaded bike path for the return segment. After a quick opening mile and a thinning of the field, I was about 10th and already feeling warm from the heat. Recognizing I was already getting hot, I backed off a bit in the shaded section and worked to settle in a quick pace. I picked off a couple more athletes before coming into transition and that's when the race really started.
I am extremely fast in transitions- both in triathlons and duathlons, which made a difference today. Coming out of transition, I moved up to 4th place and was focused on trying to close the gap to the leaders. What I did not expect was to quickly get passed on the bike.... normally I am the one that hunts on the bike. I wasn't worried and had the confidence that once I got my legs going that I would be able to regain the spot. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and what I didn't know at the time was that I was in a battle with a former pro cyclist. For the remainder of the ride, I could not reel this athlete in. I was able to keep in within reach, between 50-150 meters but never actually catch him. I was hot and didn't really want to push hard to bridge the gap just to potentially blow up and never see him again. We both gained a spot due to a flat by another athlete so now I knew we were going to be fighting for a podium position. On the return segment just a few miles out from transition, I had a really heartbreaking moment when going over a bridge, my brand new Mavic Comete disc gave a huge CRACK noise like a gun shot which immediately made me concerned I had broken my wheel (I did) and get a flat (I didn't). Riding conservatively for another 1/2 mile, everything seemed to be rolling ok so I set my mind back on the final run.
As I rolled back into transition, I saw the athlete in front of me just finishing racking their bike and only a few seconds ahead of me. With another fast transition, I cut the gap dramatically and found myself only about 15-20 meters behind the 3rd overall athlete. But it was hot, I didn't want to run hard. But I had to- opportunities like this must be taken, regardless of what happens tomorrow. I focused on his cadence and made mine a bit faster. I picked up the pace through a couple corners and about 1.5k into our nearly 3k run, I was on his feet. Hitting the turn around, he asked- "How old are you?" With a chuckle, I replied with "39." He then replied with a clap "Yeah, 43!" This meant he was in my Age Group and we were fighting for the overall masters title too... I am 39 but don't turn 40 until August so we both were racing against each other. I knew that the last 1k or so I would have to bury myself to ensure I got enough time since I didn't know where he started in relation to me. I put my head down and just put max effort into running as hard as I could to the finish. And he didn't go with me. Coming into the finishing area, I sprinted as much as I could and across the line. It was hot and I had to push and make myself suffer in the Alabama heat. But I didn't know if it was good enough. The announcers were talking about our battle but I didn't know if I had enough time to be ahead. And due to covid, there were no live results- so I quickly went to back check to get my phone.
The text message from my wife with the screen shot of the results was the first thing I saw. I had done it, with 10 seconds to spare. I didn't believe it and had to check the tracker app to see it for real, I had earned my third duathlon national title and with it, a 3rd overall for the race and the first masters athlete - wow!
You never know when an opportunity like that will present itself. I mentally had went through this scenario many times re-assuring myself that going deep on the first race day must be done if its for a national title. You never will know how the following day's event will go regardless of how much you save the day before. And this was especially true for this weekend. I was extremely dehydrated after the event and the following day's race for the draft legal duathlon was painful. I normally am better on the second day of racing (especially on draft legal events) but this was a painful march around Tuscaloosa. Not recovered from the day before, the warmth in the morning didn't help and I battled a dehydrated and fatigued body the entire event. But I smiled though. I smiled that I was back to racing again, back with the multisport community, and that I earned my National title and podium finish about 18 hours prior.