Last year I signed up for the Clermont Draft Legal Challenge with a throbbing swollen sprained ankle. I was a broken man. I needed a way to get out and test myself before Collegiate Nationals though and this was my opportunity. However, this year is different. I am in the best shape of my life, having no injuries since those ripped ligaments over a year ago.
My friends and I left Blacksburg in the first hours of spring break to drive through the night to Clermont, Florida, just outside of Orlando. We arrived at the race site to meet some of my teammates from Endorphin Fitness at 9:30 in the morning. During warm-up I could tell my body was in good shape. However, having ignored the warnings of the dozens of people warning me about my reddening back, I got the wicked sunburn that my ignorance deserved. After warm up checked into our sketchy hotel with abandoned buildings and residents that looked more like beached whales than humans and headed to grab some Chipotle lunch.
This was one of only a few draft legal triathlons in the United States ever. With the draft legal style of racing comes a completely different set of tactics. To ride away from someone in a draft illegal race, you simply go faster. However, when they can sit on your wheel and save 30% energy, winning takes more than just effort. Having raced myself to a category 2 cyclist, I knew I had the upper hand on the bike leg over most of my competitors. So the key to successful race laid almost solely in the swim.
When the officials began lining us up for the swim, they announced that they would be lining us up in order of registration. Fortunately I had actually registered before the race hit the seventy-five man cap. Unfortunately, I almost didn’t so my choice of starting positions was less than ideal. The far left starting position was about ten meters closer to the first buoy. Additionally, the race director had decided to start us in about waist deep water out in the lake because of extremely low lake levels. However, the far left started in much shallower water and therefore would be a much faster start.
With all my competitors who signed up before me having figured this out as well, I took my starting position on the far right. Knowing this disadvantage, as we walked out to the starting line, trudging through the water, I realized even more so the importance of a fast start. However, with seventy-five testosterone fueled bodies lined up shoulder to shoulder, a fast start is about as hard as breaking through a defensive line in a football game.
Having made it out alive from the start of the race, I began dolphin diving when the water hit about waist deep on the stretch back to shore. As I popped up and down, out and into the water, I could see some of my teammates just ahead. I knew it would be crucial to get in their pack on the bike. I sacrificed every bit of aerobic energy to catch them but it still was not enough. They both headed into transition just in front of me.
Out on the bike I hammered from the start to limit my competitors from sitting on. Within the first mile I had moved from thirtieth place into the top fifteen. Soon, I settled into a pack of three other guys, the only three who had seen the need to stay on my wheel at all costs. I recognized one of them as a top five finisher at Age Group Nationals less than six months earlier. The other two were older obviously out just for the enjoyment of the racing style and not seeking to bury me on the run. It was a good group, one I was willing to work with. We reeled in one after another of our competitors watching them attempt to grab onto our wheels only to be popped off at the slightest incline or headwind. We were like a black hole to our competition, sucking in every last one of them. On the last lap of the three loop bike course, we reeled in a group of six or seven guys who had been just up the road for almost the whole twenty kilometer bike leg. We immediately rode to the front of this group and popped several of the riders off the back.
Heading into T2, I was in the top 10 and just fifteen seconds off the eventual winner of the race. I had confidence in my run, having run several mid 16 minute 5k’s this year off the bike in training. The ninety degree midday heat, however, wanted to tell a different story than one my training had prepared for.
I headed out on the run just on the heels of the eventual 3rd place finisher. I felt comfortable in my pace and quick stride. My legs felt solid. But less than half a kilometer later, I felt the heat that I had ignored for nearly an hour. Out on the open road in the midday sun in central Florida, my back radiated with the sunburn from the day before and my head seized with cramps from dehydration. My pace slowed to account for the risks that I was taking by pushing my limits and soon my inspiration came with it. One of my competitors collapsed on the side of the road just behind me. He is an athlete I respect, one who finished top twenty at Collegiate Nationals the year before. I knew at this point that we weren’t tooling around. This heat was real and none of us were acclimated to it in the least bit. Despite the hours of baking trainer rides in my basement and bundled runs to mimic the climate I would race in, I was in over my head. My body temperature soared to over 104 and with my organs cooking, my goals changed.
I have never been able to handle the heat as well as most triathletes and too many times I have faced heat exhaustion and once heat stroke. I can deny myself of many restrictions in this sport. I have always believed if you think you can, you can. But with heat, many times I have refused to believe I cannot race as well in the heat and every time I have ended up in an ambulance. Acknowledging that I am not as strong will save my life and has actually proven to be more successful in racing. Heading towards the finish, I managed to hold off one of my competitors in the final straight to finish twelfth place, the exact same place I earned last year in this race. However, with the competition taking a major step up from last year, I am content with my result. I barely ran sub 6 minute/mile pace off the bike, a pace that I thought I could leave for races of half ironman distance.
Having had a really solid race up until the run was disappointing. Heading into the race, I felt my run was my strongest leg and to hop off the bike with complete excitement and confidence only to have that crumble within minutes was extremely frustrating. With a week off from classes for spring break, however, my friends and I headed down to the Florida Keys and I completely forgot about the less than ideal run. The draft legal style of racing is extremely exciting and I get an opportunity to implement my cycling tactics that I have honed over seven years of bike racing in addition to showing my fitness in a triathlon. I’m definitely coming back to this race for the third year next year. Having missed the draft legal style racing after aging out of the junior category, I am thrilled that I have these opportunities to race it again.