I ran through it three times. And after that, I lay trying to fall asleep, running through it another dozen times. It was one of the only technical finishes to a triathlon I have ever seen. People always practice the bike course, taking the turns at speed or at minimum drive it so they know what to expect. But no one ever thinks the run will matter. I didn’t either, but I thought I better not take my chances. The year before, this exact race was seemingly going to come down to a sprint finish. Ben Bartlett caught me early in the run and we ran together for the next two miles. But not wanting to wait till the end to get the win, I sprinted past him with one mile to go to take the lead. The final sub-5 minute mile was enough to win by a mere twelve seconds.
Turns out twelve seconds was an eternity margin to win by compared to this past Sunday. It was one in a million of local triathlons, an exciting battle not won by a guy minutes ahead of the rest of the field. Everyone knew it would be that way going into it but no one could predict the extent of the excitement that was to come.
At 5:30 the morning of the race, my roommates, the people running the race, were up and beginning preparation for their long day ahead. In a brief amount of time that the cabin door remained open, Paulo, my canine buddy, managed to escape. At such an early hour, I laid on the sofa in my sleeping bag not wanting to get up for at least another hour. I heard the faint, concerned call “Paulo!” outside the open door and was way too familiar with what had happened. The little demon thinks it is an absolute blast to run away. Jason, one of the crew for Setup Events working his last race after seven years of commitment, was following Paulo trying to encourage him to come back. I put on my flip flops and in no mood to extend the chase any longer, side swiped Paulo to the ground as he distractedly ran from Jason. It was an excellent start to my morning and one that will definitely go down as the most unique addition to my prerace preparation.
But with a broken valve on my tubular tire, it was great for me to wake so early. I grabbed all my stuff and drove the two minutes to the race site. The previous day the valve had broken on my tire mounted to my disc wheel. This was looking to be the first race without my favorite super fast wheel. The night before I could hardly sleep because of the worry. I felt out of place. I felt like I should not be racing, like I was not ready to race. Just the day before I had found my seatpost collar had broken and my hubs needed cleaning. It felt like a disaster with my bike that I depend so much on needing so much maintenance. But when I approached the race day mechanic with Race Day Tech and he confidently, quickly, and beautifully replaced my rear tire, I felt ready to go. All the pieces were coming together thanks to Race Day Tech.
We lined up and at 9:00 AM the gun went off. After over sixty triathlons in my life, I am not one to typically be surprised by aggression at swim starts. But this local race with a small seventy man wave was probably the most brutal swim I have ever done. One hundred meters into the 750 meter swim, one hostile competitor grabbed my ankle and pulled me backwards. There are a lot of things that are acceptable in open water swims because of their physical nature, but there is nothing that pisses me off more than when someone grabs ankles. Little did this guy know, he was grabbing the wrong dude’s ankle. I have learned some techniques throughout these seven years of racing that ruin ankle grabber’s cheating ways and sometimes probably even ruin their days. If you consider the logic of such a tactic, it takes a real idiot to consider it beneficial. Imagine, your arm is fully extended and you wrap your hand around another swimmers ankle. Next you reel him backwards. It seems brilliant. “Free speed!” you think. But now where are you? Right freaking next to the angry swimmer is where you are. More specifically your fragile head is right next to his powerful legs. With one swift breaststroke kick I think he’ll probably reconsider before grabbing another swimmers ankle. But the swim continued like this with people beating the crud out of each other. I did what I could to find a solid draft and some fresh water but my competition seemed to think this was the Sugar Bowl.
I came out of the water in seventh place and ran into transition to see my competition just leaving T1. My coach, Michael Harlow, was racing out with my teammate from Endorphin Fitness, Ryan Peterson, right on his heels. This was the race, less than thirty seconds ahead of me. When I was out onto the road it was three miles later that I passed Ryan to take third place and two miles after that I raced into second. I began to see Michael powering it out doing his best to try to stay away from me. Michael and I know each other as athletes better than anyone else knows us. That reality makes for some interesting races. Michael knew that he should do everything he can to stay away from me on the bike, knowing that instantly if I caught him I would try to end the race with a launching effort to attain a significant time gap on him. But if he could stay away from me, he knew he could probably keep the gap on the run.
Seeing Michael up the road, I thought for sure the gap would be reduced with each passing hill. But each time, he maintained the fifteen seconds or so he had on me. It wasn’t until halfway through the eighteen mile bike course that I caught him. Within seconds I launched the 450 watt effort to break Michael’s spirit. But it was to no avail. He knew what I was doing and knew I could not sustain it. I kept pushing though to try to stay away, to try to bury him. But I looked back to see Michael sitting well out of the draft zone keeping the gap steady at just a few seconds. To me there was no point in continuing hammering. I dropped my wattage and rode steady below my potential. If I could not drop Michael, my only competitor at this point, there was no sense in racing at my hardest to have him destroy my tired body on the run.
After a couple miles, I did something I have never done in a race. I sat up, out of aero position, and waved Michael to pass me. I needed a tactical advantage riding from behind and Michael wasn’t willing to sacrifice the race to another competitor to deny me of this. He rode by me saying, “There’s a guy behind us,” to clarify that this wasn’t a two man race. Just last year, Michael and I both made the mistake of letting the race come down to the run with an unknown competitor who ended up being a college runner. He wasn’t willing to take that chance again. I was.
With Michael in the lead and me just sitting a few seconds behind him, an unknown competitor who I had passed a few miles earlier came racing past us. He probably had not a clue what we were doing just letting him catch back up to us. But, with confidence in my running against everyone except Michael, I thought the race would be fine if it came down to the run.
But again, just a couple miles later, I had another go at getting away from my two competitors. I popped up to 800 watts for a few seconds to come from third and race into the lead. I started on a hill but soon was rolling at almost thirty miles an hour. After almost a mile I looked back once again to see that neither of the guys had been deterred by my effort. We were all going to roll into T2 together.
We descended towards Lake Anna with each of us only a few seconds from the other. From a hundred yards back, I saw the leader, Michael Phinney of Yardley, Pennsylvania come in too hot to the dismount line and crash. His body went tumbling and his bike followed. It looked awful but there was no time to spectate. He was soon back up racing into T2. With excited spectators lining the course, the distraction was apparent but I grabbed my brakes and landed a clean dismount. I racked my bike with Michael but, struggling just for a second with my shoe, watched him sprint out in the lead. Following just a second back, I sprinted to catch back up.
Earlier in the season, a Liberty University triathlete, Joseph Anderson, had launched out of T2 and found my weak spot: the first mile off the bike. He got a gap on me right from the gun and ran away to the finish. Mentally, more than anything, this tactic was effective. To make me believe he was stronger destroyed my confidence. But I knew what Michael was doing. He sprinted up the first hill right out of transition. I stayed a couple seconds behind Michael for the next two miles, keeping the gap stable while making sure I didn’t blow myself up reeling him in too fast.
The run course is one of the few technical ones. With a half mile uphill on road right out of transition, the race finished with a half mile downhill on a winding foot path. Sandwiched in the middle are two miles of flat, fast running. This is where I caught Michael. The gap closed from five seconds to zero in less than a quarter mile, showing that no distance is significant enough in a triathlon. When I caught Michael, he adopted the attitude that I had on the bike. There was no sense in him continuing this pace for me to simply sprint by him at the finish. This was going to be a tactical race down the end. He slowed his pace to a minute per mile less than we had been running. It felt like we were crawling. But with his heavy breathing subsiding, I knew I needed to make a move before he recovered. I launched to the other side of the road, running sub-four minutes per mile pace. I hammered and hammered but heard his footsteps sitting directly behind me. I slowed and drifted back to the other side, turning around to see if playing these tactics was going to keep us both from the win. There was no one in sight. Michael took the lead again heading onto the footpath.
It was an eerie feeling in there, me and one of my best friends, running steadily with no words exchanged, through the thick woods on a very technical footpath. With my heart rate slowing, the pain was replaced with anxiety. I had planned on this race being a cycling race with a celebratory run. I had no idea it would come down to this. But with each step passing by, we were coming closer and closer to a sprint finish. Never in my life have I considered a sprint finish something worthy of placing my bet on. I always want to end the race earlier rather than later, especially with such a strong opponent as Michael. With a quarter mile left, I had one more go at taking the win. I sprinted down the path feeling totally out of control. In that moment I wondered what would happen if one of us fell. I imagined later that, as friends, we would help one another and simply let the person who did not fall take a celebratory run across the line. But we were both making it down fine, taking the turns at full speed on sore legs. Michael was right behind me.
I saw the woods open up onto the lake. I knew we were closing in on the final stretch. I knew this chicane. I had practiced it. I was ready for it. But so was Michael. We banked left, then right, then popped out for a grassy finishing straight. I heard him behind me. I kicked it out of the bank giving everything I had. I pounded my sore legs into the ground, leaning forward to push all my momentum. I wanted it. I wanted it badly. I drove my legs down and shoved myself forward, pulling every bit of energy out, recruiting every muscle fiber I had in my lower body. He came by me as soon as we came out of the last turn, elbows flailing, both of us side by side. For a moment I thought I could hold him off. But then I realized that was just him shifting into sixth gear. Michael raced away to take the win by just a couple yards. We both were trashed at the finish line. Michael collapsed and I was held up only by the frustration of losing. Gwynne with Setup Events said to me, “Thanks for the show!” and that helped lighten the mood. I realized the enjoyment of such a competitive race and realized the entertainment we had just unintentionally put on. Michael Phinney held it together for a great run despite his gnarly crash and took the final podium spot crossing the finish line just over a minute behind me and Michael.
But I can’t and say I wasn’t bummed. Of course the race had been a blast but I had lost and not only that but had lost so close to the finish. I learned a lot from this race, however, and because of that I consider this loss more beneficial than any of my wins. I learned that I can afford to be more reliant on my running, that I do not have to get away from people on the bike. That would have saved me some much needed energy that could have been beneficial in a sprint. I also learned that even with a race lasting over an hour, sprint speed is way more important than I ever thought. I’m definitely putting some sprint work into my training in the next few months.
Triathlon is always seen as a brute time trial. While so many people acknowledge the benefit to relying heavily on tactics in cycling racing, it is apparent from races like this past weekend that tactics play a key role in triathlon as well. It is a poker game with bluffs, gambling, and a little bit of luck. With every blow Michael and I threw at each other, we could each respond with equal power until the end. That is the sport of triathlon: an intense battle of strength, tactics, and passion.