“Dude, are you sure you should race?” one of my teammates from Virginia Tech asked me.
“I don’t know man, I’ll just give it a shot,” I responded as I wiped the vomit from my lower lip with my sleeve. The race hadn’t even begun and I had already lost my breakfast and all my fluids. At the time I thought I was about to have the worst race of my life. I had no idea I was in fact about to break down some barriers in triathlon that when I was a kid, I had never thought possible.
In the cool October temperatures, I treaded water next to a man who I knew would be tough competition. I hoped to come out of the swim with him to seal a strong race. After 200 meters, however, he had already put a body length on me and would end up swimming away to a minute gap before the 1500 was over. The lead pack of swimmers split and in the choppy water, my weakness for my limited range of conditions for a strong swim was revealed. I ended up in the second pack with several of my teammates from Tech that I would see every time I’d turn to breathe. It was a comfortable pack to be in, all of us being supportive of each other. Typically in swimming packs everyone is fighting but obviously as teammates it was a truce, a mutual desire to end the swim the soonest.
When I exited the water, my two main competitors had over a minute on me. I went out on the chilly two-loop bike leg hammering. I reeled in several athletes as my body rejected all the fluids I consumed. Puke streamed from my mouth just minutes after I would take sips of gatorade from my bottle. I kept trying to consume but my body kept repeating the cycle. Fortunately the extremely cool temperatures meant this illness seemingly didn’t effect my performance whatsoever.
On the second loop of the bike I really put the hammer down. I had worked my way back to second place overall and built a gap on a runner who I knew would surely threaten to chase me down on the third leg.
When I came off the bike the puking stopped and the real race began. Clay Petty from Navy, having not let me even catch him on the bike, with a strong 10k would race to the win for sure. But another athlete was going to come after me from behind. And even with me dropping sub-5:40 miles for the first 5k, faster than I have ever run in an olympic triathlon 10k, he caught me and would race away to a second place finish.
I can’t complain about my third place finish. While I was extremely excited about a 1 next to my name from last year’s race, that win was in a race that was nowhere near as competitive as this year’s race. Last year I raced to a win with a time that was five minutes slower than my time this year on the same course. I swam two minutes faster, biked the same split, and ran three minutes faster. I am so excited to finish the season off with a breakthrough race and despite the much needed couple weeks of down time, I am ready to begin some hard training to continue the improvement at Collegiate Nationals next year. Having raced to an Olympic distance personal record of 1:58:57, I am psyched to improve on that.
I am still very frustrated with the bending of the rules that continues to happen in these end of the season races. Earlier this year I was caught up in a miserable collection of allegations for activities on the bike that I will never forget. It is an awful feeling to be accused of racing an unfair race and not a situation I ever want to be in. I ended up receiving a DNF for heat exhaustion that would surely have led me to the hospital had I continued. However, I cannot say that the decision to not finish that race did not also have something to do with the embarrassment of trying to use tactics to beat my opponents instead of my body.
At the finish line, I was so excited for the best race of my life and so excited that my opponents had beat me with a fair race. Congratulations were genuine and I was and still am content with my placement. However, later in the day, rumors became truth and I heard that out on the course there were some more position violations that went unseen by the officials. While these violations in all honesty probably do not affect the outcome of the race, it still hurts to not know for sure. It is also tough to know that the remorse felt from competitors who clearly defied the rules last weekend did not translate to an extreme sensitivity to them.
It is a triple threat to draft on the bike. The athlete gets benefit of a faster bike split, and saved energy from a faster run split, and the opponent wastes energy trying to drop the cheater. Tactically, it is a great idea to draft. Morally, the story is different. Every competitive triathlete will recognize this huge benefit at some point. Some in that will respect the benefit and need for the rules, others will recognize the benefit of breaking them.
I refuse to let this ruin the excitement for the sport because I know that in reality the outcome of this race probably would not have changed.