It has taken me over a month to write this race report. But with it I hope to put this race in the past. Very rarely am I disappointed with my performance. I can have off days, just like anyone else. It is, in reality, rare that, as a triathlete, I attain some god-liked fueled rhythm where everything feels effortless. I am not saying my performance is god-like. Simply, sometimes racing feels effortless. As hypocritical as this sounds, sometimes it feels effortless to exert myself beyond belief, to push my body to the limit. But at Collegiate Nationals in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I did not get that feeling and unfortunately had the opposite of that effortless exertion.
At I Love the Tavern Triathlon four years ago I had my first experience of one of those days. But that day, I pushed through the agony ans suffering. I didn’t want to be out there. I didn’t want to be racing but the pain of abandoning or the pain of accepting defeat I knew would be too much. I persevered and finished the event. The second I crossed the finish line, I walked straight out of the finish chute. I bee lined over to a patio a distance away from the crowd of spectators and finishers. My mom followed me, not knowing what was going on but knowing something was not right. The tears had begun immediately when I had crossed the finish line. It was a kind of weakness I never wanted to feel again. My coach, who had finished second overall in the race, came over and having had similar experiences in the past, knew exactly what was going on.
“It hurt just a little too much, didn’t it?” he asked.
Between sobs, I responded, “Yeah.”
That was it. It was as simple as that. I felt the exact opposite of a god-like power. It hurt just a little too much. But in hindsight, I have more to be proud of with I Love the Tavern Triathlon in 2008 than in any other race in my seven year career of racing. It was not my day, but determined as I was, I refused to accept that. The rest of the day I was disappointed about how my physiology had let me down. My body had rejected the race. But what makes me proud of that race was my refusal to accept that and instead endure to the finish.
But a month ago at Collegiate Nationals, I did not persevere through the pain like I did on that day in 2009. And because of that, I am more ashamed of my performance this race than any other race I have ever done.
My attitude was completely solid and stable in the days leading up to the race. I was so excited. I was in the best shape of my life and ready to absolutely crush the course. I crunched the numbers and put together times that I could realistically attain and each time I added the splits up, the math showed a phenomenal race. My confidence was there and my body was ready to race.
Last year at this race, I was plagued with anxiety. I had dealt a sprained ankle just three months before the race and as a result my training consisted of about six weeks of quality work. I was a nervous wreck about the race because of my lack of preparation. The confidence, along with the speed, was not there and the results show that. I was almost purely running off fitness that I had attained in the years leading up to the race.
But this year was different. I was ready and could not be more excited about showing my capability.
In the corral before the race, all the red cap men stood there. The anxiety that I was surrounded by was apparent by my competitors jumpiness and twitchy muscles. But I was calm and collected and more than anything else, excited. Every competitive college triathlete was here. Teams shouted their chants. My Hokie teammates yelled the Virginia Tech cheer at the top of their lungs. The energy was ridiculous and put an ear to ear grin on my face. But soon I knew the sound would be muffled by water and we would be racing the biggest race of the year.
The guard keeping the men off the floating dock then stepped aside. Everyone hustled down and began jumping in the water. The spectators were going absolutely ballistic. At some races it has been so serious and dead silent that I could hear the sound of my own heartbeat. But this one was completely different. These were college triathletes but despite our exterior showing a fun, lighthearted attitude, we were about to try to bury every other competitor out there.
I walked all the way to the end of the dock, knowing that a place off to the side would help me get some cleaner water to swim in. I lined up and looked to see two other Mid-Atlantic triathletes right next to me. In a wave of over one hundred and seventy guys, Joseph Anderson and Dave Macfarlane, the two guys that I stood on the podium with just a few weeks ago at the Collegiate Team Elite Triathlon in Lake Lure, North Carolina, were treading water right next to me. With our swim caps, wetsuits, and goggles on, we hardly recognized each other.
“Oh hey Grayson,” Joseph said and laughed.
Dave turned around and had a similar reaction. We were all stunned that we had chosen the same starting position.
After a bit of prerace words, Dave got out one last statement before the countdown began. “Let’s not kill each other right here at the start.”
“Agreed,” Joseph and I both responded.
I opted out of treading right on the start line to instead begin the race directly behind Joseph. I had used this strategy at the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Regional Championships in the fall and had one of my best swims ever. Joseph is a slightly better open water swimmer than myself so with the draft I was able to hang on his heels for the first part of the race. But with the craziness of a national championships, I soon lost him in the chaos. I was on my own in a field of really fast strangers. I kept my composure in the battling around buoys but without much practice this year in my seven year old wetsuit which had lost its elasticity, my deltoids were losing strength. My form disintegrated to a much shorter stroke.
Despite realizing this issue with my decaying wetsuit halfway into the National Championships, I salvaged a fairly strong swim. With such a huge field with many of the triathletes coming from single sport backgrounds, I knew my placement coming out of the water was of no importance. After the first loop of a two loop bike course, I had passed around sixty guys. About four miles in on the bike, I had my first opponent come flying by me. I was very familiar with who it was, having marked him before the race as someone I needed to exit the swim before. Ben Hall from Louisiana had come in ninth in this race last year and it wasn’t because of his swim. He is an insanely fast cyclist, having the fourth fastest bike split at Nationals in 2011.
When he passed me, I let him get about ten meters in front of me and locked in behind him. My heart rate shot up and my legs burned worse than they would in the entire race. I knew it was a risk to try to hang with him, but I knew the risk was worth the potential top finish. Soon we were out on a wide open bridge at the end of the bike loop and my heart rate was dropping. Ben took one look back and saw me behind him. We had both met while being drug tested last year at Age Group Nationals in Burlington, Vermont. He knew he could probably outrun me. There was no concern with me staying with him.
But as we passed athlete after athlete, many hopped onto the pain train led by Ben. Many of these athletes had no concept of what a seven meter draft zone looks like while racing or maybe they simply did not care but they attempted to turn the pain train into a rotating pace line. After a couple miles, with their rested legs, they began passing me and Ben. They moved up quickly to the lead but realized the effort than Ben was having to do to maintain such a fast speed. Their pace slowed and Ben and I were forced to re-pass each and every one of them. After another three miles of this inconsistent shuffling, I accepted the issue and sat well off the back. A Draft Marshall drove up next to me at one point and sat there, staring me down waiting for one false move to penalize. In all honesty I was happy to see them out there. They are not the villainous trigger happy officials cheaters make them seem and it is disappointing and embarrassing for self-respecting collegiate triathletes that drafting is such an issue. This race is notorious for penalties.
But a few miles into the next lap, with my strategy to avoid cheating, and Ben hammering in the lead, he began to pull away. I accelerated past the field of guys to try to reel in the fifteen second gap Ben had established. As I rode by them I had to restrain myself to keep from cursing them all.
Ben held the gap on me for the rest of the ride but we both reeled in many, many more guys. I rolled up to T2 with my screaming teammates informing me I was in twentieth place. I couldn’t be happier about this. I could walk away from a National Championships in 20th place with full excitement. I was stoked for the run and the first three miles of the run showed that. I came out on the run right behind another Mid-Atlantic triathlete, Clay Petty from Navy, an excellent runner who I knew would run away from me instantly. As expected, Clay ran the fifth fastest to place him seventh in the Undergraduate division.
Knowing I could not compete with that, I held my own pace steady at 5:55 minutes per mile. The course begins with challenging rolling hills but the last three miles flattens out for an out and back along the river. Knowing this course well, I ran past transition excited to have kept the pace quick only to accelerate on the flatter part of the course. I maintained my position all the way up to the start of the fourth mile.
But this is where the race turned sour. After such an exciting race thus far, I lost focus. I cannot say that the pain became unbearable because the pain is always unbearable. It always hurts like hell, pain that we could never see ourselves voluntarily suscepting ourselves to but somehow I have always managed. But today, my attention to the pain, to the competition, to succeeding, was lost to the pain. It wasn’t a conscious decision to slow down because the pain was too overwhelming. That is something people who don’t race do not understand. To put oneself through such agony takes focus. So when a racer slows down before he or she hits the wall, it is not a decision to slow, but rather lack of a decision to keep going fast. Our bodies tell us to slow down the entire time. The difference between successful triathletes and unsuccessful ones is whether they listen to that command from the burning muscles.
But I have always held myself to higher standards than acceptance of less than my best. When life has been challenging is the real test of perseverance. Nationals was the most challenging and rigorous experience of my life but I imagined I could handle it. And on that day in April, I guess I couldn’t. For the next two miles I ran a pace that is common on my recovery runs but plays no role in any short course triathlon. I went from twentieth place to thirty fifth in two miles. When the road turned back towards transition, I began to realize what I had just done and mentally recovered to run a normal last mile. But the damage was done. I had lost it mentally and that was going to distress me for weeks to come.
The finish was uneventful but the fatigue I had accumulated over the long race was still enough to nearly bring me down. The disappointment hit me immediately. I wanted another chance. I wanted to replay the race, to start from the beginning. I had run one of the slowest 10k splits I have run in years despite being capable of running faster than I ever have.
I had let down my teammates, my coach, and my parents who have funded so much of my racing. My pride was shot. I did not want to talk to anyone that night. A night that is supposed to be celebratory at our accomplishment after months of hard work was ruined for me. My team had placed many places lower than we had the previous year. I felt no sense of success besides the phenomenal races of many of my teammates. I watched my teammates celebrate our eighteenth place and criticized their happy mood. To me, we had failed. This was no success story. We didn’t come in as underdogs in a field of professionals to take the win. We came from a huge university nestled in a city fostering an incredible training environment and had come in eighteenth. After a quiet dinner, I took my grumpy, bitter mood to bed.
The next day on the drive hard I told one of my friends that I was going to seriously reflect on what I was doing in the sport of triathlon. I have always wondered if the constant dissatisfaction coming with being a competitive athlete is a healthy lifestyle. Of course betterment always results from it but I have been critical of the businessman who works long hours to grow his company to run out all of the competition in the area. I can see no difference between this Scrooge-like businessman and a top level triathlete as far as contentedness. For the few days after Nationals, I intensely questioned if this was something I wanted to do, someone I wanted to be. While other people may look at 25th undergrad and think, “That is fast,” there is never that belief within a competitive racer. There never is that feeling of “Wow, I am fast!” It is always, “I can go faster.” And in all honesty, I would never want someone on any of my teams who ever believes they are fast. At that point they would have reached their best; they would be the fastest they would ever be which is less than their best. There is faster, but if an athlete is truly competitive, there is never fast.
What I was questioning in these days after the race was if I wanted to be a part of this or if I simply wanted to be content. In the beginning I believed if I reached a certain speed or if I began to win races then I would be content. But I soon realized with winning does not come contentment. With it only comes the desire to set course records or to win a more competitive race. And even then, if someone were truly capable of winning any race they signed up for, comes the pursuit of world records and then the pursuit of beating personally set world records. In acknowledging this, I needed to decide if I could enjoy racing any more with realizing there will never be this attainment of fast.
My conclusion only took a few days. Four days later I wanted to race again. Less than a week later I had signed up for Age Group Nationals which would take place in late summer. This is my sport. I love it more than I have ever loved a passion before. What was necessary was not an abandonment to the sport but rather an abandonment of emotional ties to my performance. First and foremost this sport needs to be fun. Beating people is a blast and going faster is always exciting but if it is done in all seriousness with the result being the only fun element, then I could not function as a happy triathlete. That is what I see as the difference between the triathlete and the businessman. I raced Collegiate Nationals like the owner of Walmart may have raced a triathlon. The cliche monopolistic businessman and the triathlete may both never be content but at least a triathlete can be happy.
With these realizations that triathlon makes me happy, I lost the emotional low that I adopted after Nationals. Three days after the race, all the Nationals finishers from Virginia Tech gave brief recaps about their race to the rest of the team. When it came time to speak about my race I hesitated and avoided mentioning any of the lack of willpower that kept me from a higher position. I was still ashamed about my performance. But just a week later at the next team meeting, I lost all shame in my performance. One of my teammates, the fastest runner on the team and the year before one of the fastest high school runners in the nation, talked about his ultra marathon the weekend before. He spoke of how well his race was going and then towards the end how he decided he did not want to be doing it anymore. He didn’t want to be racing. So he stopped and walked the rest of the race. He talked with so much contentment with his performance that I realized it was not worth it to tie myself so deeply to a lapse in my focus. Yeah it sucks that it was on the biggest stage of the year. But knowing how I have raced myself into an ambulance many times previously, I know I am capable of pushing to the limit. I just happened, for the first time in the seven years I have been racing, to not be as focused as I would have hoped that day. Whatever, though, it was Collegiate Nationals and should have been fun. And for that matter, it is triathlon, and it should be fun.
I always seem to learn the most in my weakest moments. Collegiate Nationals is no different story. I will probably face a similar lack of inspiration another time in my triathlon career but next time I’ll understand the ridiculousness of seeing myself as weak because of one display of weakness. Besides, I still can say I am the twenty-fifth fastest undergraduate in the nation and that is pretty damn cool.