Back in January, a race director from South Carolina proposed that we Mid-Atlantic Collegiate triathletes pitch to the NCAA triathlon as a varsity sport. When I heard about this opportunity, I was extremely excited and told the other officers of Virginia Tech triathlon team about the race. However, with weeks going by with no word on whether the race would actually happen, none of us were overly committed to keeping that day on our calendar open. But when Taylor Knight of the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Triathlon Conference (MACTC) sent me an email with a link to the race website, I immediately signed up and encouraged my teammates to do so as well. He told me of some of the other competition he was rallying and it seemed an opportunity that I definitely wanted to be a part of.
The race would be held in Lake Lure, North Carolina within a small resort nestled at the Northern end of the Lake. It would be draft legal format with a race cap of 50 competitors. The swim was scheduled to be a 1000m with a thirty kilometer bike course and finish with a six kilometer run. I watched the participant list grow from a few to over thirty as the race came closer and closer. Collegiate athletes were obviously excited about this. To be a part of the growth of triathlon was going to be a very exciting event.
However, last week, the negatives of a first time event became brutally apparent. The race director sent out the pre race packet via email and had altered the course. Restrictions of the venue had turned a gentle, exciting race into a bloodthirsty battle. Because of this, the bike course had been altered to 12 loops of 2.5 kilometers. Additionally, with draft legal style racing, if an athlete is lapped, he is instantly disqualified and must exit the course.
I immediately emailed the race director politely explaining that I estimated with such short loops, over half of the field would be lapped and disqualified. He politely responded that this is an elite event and he understands that some competitors may want to switch to the more forgiving draft illegal sprint event held earlier in the day. I responded explaining that what the field consisted of were some of the fastest collegiate athletes in the nation and some who are not quite as fast. That combination was lethal for a first time race. Most of the competitors would be unable to finish and thus would most likely never want to come back. Additionally, it would be bad press for a growing sport in a high press race. He said he had no option and that a large hill in the middle of the bike course would slow the laps down giving the slower athletes more of a buffer. With four Virginia Tech athletes signed up for the elite event, the anxiety of not knowing how this race would run was not something I needed so close to the event.
We left campus on Friday afternoon with three vans and eighteen athletes, the majority of whom would compete in the sprint race. We were staying ine one of our team member’s grandparents’ house. Knowing my grandparents, I was hesitant that eighteen active, excited college students would be disastrous for older adults to let into their house. However, when we arrived at a charity dinner that our host had found for us, I saw there was nothing to worry about. This fit couple was obviously extremely excited and prepared to host us. As we were trying to park the car, my friend Scott was driving the car and being directed by an older gentleman. The man walks up to the window and Scott tells him we’re here for the pasta dinner.
“You’re not from the south, are you?” he asks with a grin on his face.
Scott looks at me, puzzled and looks back at the man. “Well, I’m from Richmond.”
“Ehhhhhh,” the man responds. Culture shock to the maximum. Here we were, previously being told we were from the south from everyone north of us only to find ourselves in the real south being called northerners. “You’re hear for the shrimp n’ grits,” the man says. Ah, no italian food here, only real ‘Merican shrimp n’ grits.
We parked the car and headed in for our dinner. An organization was hosting the dinner for charity and Stephen’s grandparents had been kind enough to buy us all tickets. We walked in, all eighteen hungry college students and brought the average age down from about 84 to a youthful 82. A gospel choir stood up at the front singing chants like “Jesus is nifty.” The culture shock only continued when a server gave me some grits with shrimp cream sauce and almost slopped meat sauce on my pasta. Having not eaten beef in almost a decade, I wasn’t looking to end my streak the night before a race.
A non-Christian vegetarian finds himself in a gospel singing, shrimp and grits dinner. I decided that the southern shrimp n’ grits dish was my favorite pre race meal ever. I have never had so much fun the night before a race in my life. I was absolutely ecstatic. I felt like we had driven five hours to another country. The culture was so pronounced and exciting and happy and beautiful that I wanted to stay at the party till the locals’ bedtime, around seven pm. Alas, we could not stay. We had to visit the race site for a pre race meeting, one where hopefully all our questions about this new race would be answered.
On a covered deck at the resort, I asked an official that I vaguely recognized if this was where the prerace meeting was to be held.
“I don’t know. Does this look like a good place to you?” he responded with a straight face.
My teammates and I look at each other confused. None of us knew if it was an attempt at humor or if he was just being an asshole. Then he asked if we had brought our bikes for bike check. This was not announced, nor would it have made any difference because we could have simply altered our bikes before the race. He acted like we were idiots for missing the non existent memo and then I remembered him. I had met him last year a another triathlon and dealt with similar denigration.
We quietly walked away and took seats when the meeting was about to begin. The race director was a jolly man who was extremely excited about the race. It was evident how much effort and money he had put into this event and wanted things to go smoothly. However, with each excited tangent, he was abruptly and rudely put back on track by the official. It was awkward to witness the rude power hungry attitude of the official. He, despite not having planned a single bit of this race, thought he could come in for a couple days and run the show. It was apparent, though, that he had no idea what he was talking about.
A Navy athlete politely asked if people would be disqualified if they were to be lapped on the run.
“We’ll get to that after, okay?” the official rudely responded.
“Well, actually, I’d like to know the answer as well,” I said, raising my hand.
“No, okay? You won’t be disqualified if you are lapped on the run,” he snapped. However, that is all it would have taken was the simple answer, “No,” so we could all hear it and know what the rules were.
Soon they brought up a slide showing that the run course would hop onto the bike course after only half a kilometer. I raised my hand to ask if cyclists, who were still passing through there, would they be stopped. The official blew off my question like it was nonsensical. Minutes later, the race director says, “He has a good point. Runners may be coming through here as cyclists are finishing the course. Runners will have the right of way. Cyclists will be stopped here.” He clarified in a very polite, direct way but still that was yet another place where people could be disqualified for not being fast enough. This was getting scarier. I was beginning to be concerned that I might not even be able to finish the race. After many other athletes having issues with the official throughout the duration of the meeting, we were eventually released to head out.
One of my teammates, after hearing about the strength of the field and the unforgiving nature of the race opted to transfer his entry to the sprint race. He was not alone as some entire teams transferred. We drove to our home for the night on back roads that curved around the lake.
The next morning we woke to pouring rain. This was the most frightening course I have ever raced on and wet roads would only make it gnarlier. Chris Brown and I were the duo from Tech attempting to take on the strengths of some teams racing with four guys. We pulled our bikes out of the van as our teammates headed out on the course racing the sprint. On the first lap, I was grabbing brake on the downhill and finding I didn’t have enough gears for the uphill. The next warm up lap I only touched my brakes. And then after that I found that no brakes were necessary anywhere on the course. I could ride the entirety of an extremely technical, wet bike course without even tapping my brakes.
We were taken off the course when our teammates in the sprint began to arrive from out on their much less technical bike course. One after another, Hokies came in leading the race and would eventually take five of the top 10 places and win the team award.
Chris and I headed down to the swim and began our warm-up for a fast, shortened, two-loop 750 meter swim. Soon the officials lined us up on the beach and we were off with the blast of a horn. I began the swim right behind a powerhouse swimmer, Dave Macfarlane from Navy. I rounded the first buoy in the top five but with a swift breast stroke kick to the face from one of my competitors, I popped back a few places. I quickly regained my composure and continued the free-for-all swim. A pack of us swam just a few seconds behind the leader but by the end o the swim, Dave’s lead had grown to thirty seconds.
I transitioned quickly and soon was in fourth place on the bike. I quickly caught Joseph Anderson of Liberty and Dan Feeney of University of Delaware. I knew this was a solid group to be in and when a Navy athlete caught us from behind, we were a force to be reckoned with. We took the turns fast, hammered the flats, and powered up the 12% grade hill. Seeing that the UD and Navy athletes were a little less comfortable on the wet pavement, I popped behind Anderson as we screamed down the hill. At the bottom, I saw that the other two had fallen off the pace and were a ways behind. With a wooden bridge just after the bottom, I knew that the wet wood wouldn’t support my turning bicycle so popped my bike upright for that brief section. However, the Navy athlete did not and I heard the sound of scraping metal, carbon fiber, and flesh skipping across the bridge. As I looked back, Anderson rode away a bit while Feeney hesitated.
I saw an opportunity to get away from one of my biggest competitors and bridged up to Joseph. Soon, Dan was nowhere within sight and it was apparent he was not having one of his usual strong days. Joseph and I found ourselves all alone with Dave still up the road. We heard splits to him and I recognized that we weren’t gaining on him. There was seemingly no benefit to drafting and with such a technical and physically demanding course, may have actually been worse than riding alone. Dave was chasing down athlete after athlete up the road and was forced to even cause the disqualification his own teammates.
We were picking off the scraps of the destruction up the road but soon we saw what I had prayed would not happen after seeing the Navy rider go down. Another athlete had crashed on the bridge and I later learned he was one of at least five to crash in the race. Blood was everywhere and an ambulance blocked the majority of the course. With a brief look, Joseph and I skirted around the mess. After several laps, the ambulance was gone with a Duke triathlete with a shredded face and a broken femur as its passenger. This race had turned into something that was accomplishing exactly the opposite for our sport. Triathlon was looking like a sport of the Ancient Roman times, a brutal bloody and deadly sport, none of which are true about triathlon.
Stoked to have made it to the run, I enjoyed myself for the six kilometer run and watched Joseph run away to second place and Dave would further increase his lead over all of us. Soon, with the out and back course, we saw that there were only three other athletes who had survived. Dave, Joseph, and I had unintentionally ripped apart the field. We had over a three minute gap on the fourth place athlete by the start of the run. It was madness. But fortunately for me and Virginia Tech, Chris had amazingly made it to the run after a weaker swim. He had crushed the bike to remain in contention and being the only team with two finishers, Virginia Tech Triathlon took the team title.
This was nothing like any race I have ever done and while I enjoyed the thrill of it, was not a sustainable way to race. It was incredibly dangerous but in that was extremely exhilarating. My predictions of the chaos that would ensue were modest compared to what actually happened. Had I known the destruction that would occur, I would not have supported this event. It is apparent that the event was rushed and really needs a larger, safer venue. The problem was not the race director. No one was at fault for the issues with this event. It was due to the confines of the venue. The race director is incredible for organizing this. However, triathlon at the Collegiate level is not at the point where everyone can pop out of the swim and race together. There was a drastic gap between the winner and the first guy lapped out and even the fourth place athlete. That variation in level was what led to such nineteen people getting lapped. Additionally, with the bike leg being such a crucial part to the race, the course definitely needs to be easier for an amateur field. With that said, this is only the start. I hope that the NCAA recognizes the flaws with the setup on Saturday and sees potential in the sport that made the Olympics over a decade ago but has yet to become prominent in American collegiate athletics.