At the beginning of the bike leg, I had decided whether or not I wanted to watch the race lead ride away from me. Now, on the run, it was time to decide if I wanted to win. I had started the 5k on my own, leading the race. But Ben Bartlett from Arlington, Virginia soon caught up to me repeating what happened when I had tried to race away on the bike. While I expected and hoped to look over my shoulder and see my teammate, Ryan Peterson, he was not having one of his usual dominant days.
I looked Ben in the eyes and remembered that turning to look at your opponent meant admitting defeat. But that was not what I intended to convey. It would have been a lie. I jumped behind him and sat in the tiny amount of draft a runner can give. It was effective enough, I was able to hold his pace. Just before the turn around I tried to make a surge to take the lead and keep Bartlett from surging out of the turnaround but he wanted it more. He rounded the turnaround first and surged out of it, putting a hurt on me to stay with him.
Sitting behind Ben’s heels, hundreds of thoughts were whirring through my mind. It was obvious this had not become simply a head down, hammer-time kind of race. It was going to come down to strategy in order to drop Ben. We went through the two-mile mark at just over eleven minutes and at the same time I took a surge to take the race lead. Ben had taken a left turn wide so I cut to the inside at near an all out sprint to get a gap on him. As I ran down a desolate empty park road with only the lead bike in front and Ben just behind, I thought “That was the wrong move, he’s going to reel me in. He’s got me, I can hear his steps getting closer.”
I eased up for a second debating waiting for a sprint finish, but then I realized that this was it. That was the move, win or lose, that was it. I needed to commit. So I kept pushing, heart rate over my supposed maximum, and committed. We turned onto a downhill footpath and I kept pushing, focusing on letting my strides roll underneath me. With the finish line in sight, I looked over my shoulder again and peered into the darkness of the woods that hid my opponent. The race was over. I had won.
I crossed the finish line with no celebratory arm’s raising. I heard my coach Michael telling me to stay standing. So the second he came into transition I wrapped my arms over his shoulders. My mom was there with my dog. I leaned over to say hey to Paulo and he leaped up to try to give me a congratulatory kiss. In each of my last four races in Virginia, I have crossed the finish line first.
Ben came in a short thirteen seconds after me, all achieved in the last mile of the race which I ran in 4:55. And soon after him came Ryan to take third.
It was the exciting, competitive race I had expected, and so much more. On the swim I head butted one of my teammates from Endorphin Fitness, Joseph Anderson, which would leave me with a lasting headache for the next couple days. On the bike, Ben Bartlett caught me before we even had left Lake Anna State Park and shown me that I was not an invincible cyclist and that he was on top form. For the rest of the ride Ryan and I did everything we could to keep him in sight.
Then on the run, when faced with the question of whether I really wanted to put myself in that kind of agony, I remembered what I had told my mom. I had told her to come because I wanted to win. I wanted to beat some of the fastest guys in the state. And that promise I had made to her, the knowledge that the number 2 next to my name would last a lot longer than this pain, that led me to push myself to depths and speeds that I have never attained in a race.
I can imagine I have a target on my back from Ben and Ryan and I can imagine it will be another epic battle the next time we face each other. So I am happy that I carry the win for now but I know it may not last long unless I keep improving. I am headed out now for a brick workout. Earlier today I swam. I’ll have to keep up the hard training if I want to stay on my winning streak. With each win I get more and more targeted. I remember it was a lot easier to be the underdog, but its a lot more fun to win.
After the race I heard everyone’s excuses. “I’ve been sick. I haven’t been training. I’ve been injured. I’ve been too busy. I cramped six miles out. I struggled to get my wetsuit off.” All of their comments stripped the win away from me piece by piece. But my teammate Ryan came up to me and shook my hand, congratulated me. Unlike the others, he had no excuses for why I beat him for the first time in two years. He had been injured for six weeks but not once did he pull the injury card to take away from my win. He is a respectable opponent, one who I love losing too. Its a damn good thing too because it happens more often than not.
But many other triathletes out there felt the need to tell me why they were not on the top step today. And I could have responded informing them that I raced with a concussion, that just a few months ago I was out for six weeks with a gnarly sprained ankle. Or that my body was rejecting all fluids today and I puked all over myself multiple times in this race. Or I could tell them how I just got done with my final exams on Tuesday to finish with Dean’s List for the semester. I could tell them all my setbacks over the months and years. But that would not accomplish anything. Because its not what we face that makes us the athletes who we are, its how we respond.
I am happy to say that I am a triathlete on a team with the most mature, best competitors in Virginia. Its called Endorphin Fitness, and its a vast community and team of some of the most humble, respectable age group and elite triathletes in Virginia.