Behind the Scenes: An Insider’s Glimpse into the ITU Age Group World Championships
It’s October. World Championships time. Ironman. World Triathlon (formerly ITU). PTO. It’s fun to watch and for a few of you to participate. With Worlds in mind, I’m sharing a race report I wrote in 2018 after returning from Gold Coast, Australia, and the ITU World Championships racing for age group Team USA. It deals with the following: Goal setting, setbacks, perseverance, injuries, tri-travel, race strategy, last-minute emergencies, draft-legal racing (for the first time), rookie mistakes, dashed hopes, attitude adjustment, and a few other things, so if any of those interest you, happy reading!
Race Report – ITU Age Group World Championships, Gold Coast, Australia
Some race seasons go almost perfectly. Last year was one of those for me. Besides a sprained ankle, the season went incredibly well, and all my goals were achieved. I won a National Championship on my “home court” right here in Omaha in front of friends, family, and particularly, my then 86 year old mom and 90 year old dad…in their honor.
This year, every step has been a challenge…well, at least post-April. I ended last season with that National Championship and started this season in April with my first duathlon National Championship. Since then, two significant challenges have followed me for the last five months.
One – The ITU World Championship sprint race is now a “draft-legal” race, meaning that while cycling, you can get right behind other riders, catching their draft and saving up to 30% of your energy. Sometimes, just an inch or two separates the front tires from the back tires as riders pack up as tightly as possible. Triathlon or time trial bikes are not allowed. Only road bikes are permitted. After riding a triathlon bike for 23 years, switching to a road bike was a switcheroo that my body struggled to adjust to and, this would be my first draft-legal race. I couldn’t seem to find my running legs off that road bike, though it was an incredibly fast bike. “Can’t teach an old dog (body) new tricks?”
Two – In July, I developed a bad case of tendonitis/bursitis in my upper hamstring and lower glutes. It severely hampered my run training and race speed. In fact, I lost almost all of my run training for the month of August. I did water running and the elliptical machine, but it’s not the same. I did two races at the beginning of August, and both were terrible. The injury would not let me open up my stride and run normally. It wasn’t about just running through some pain. It shut me down.
So, Worlds in Australia was up in the air the 5-6 weeks leading to it. I went back and forth 100 times on going or not going. Could I go and just “get through it” with a below-average run? Yes. But, I’d set my goal on getting on the podium. I knew that was a very high goal to set, but based on my past World’s finishes – 20th, 8th, and 6th, and looking at the results from the last few years, I thought I could be in the hunt for a podium spot if I had a perfect race, ending it with a very fast run.
Two weeks before the race, I decided to go to a track and see if I could crank out one, only one mile, at least a 6:30 pace. I’d need to do that and then rip off two more even faster at Worlds. With a couple of buddies to pace me, I did a 6:28. But, was pooped at the end of it and my injury made it a huge struggle. Hmmmm… After lots of prayer and discussion with Jen, family, and close friends, the verdict was in. GO! I’d forever wonder what the outcome would have been if I didn’t.
One of the worst things one can do with my injury is to sit. How do you get to Australia? You sit on a plane for a total of 18 hours on three flights. Not good, but the decision was made. After I arrived early on the Saturday before the race, I decided I’d try to run an easy 3 miles Sunday evening and again Tuesday. The race was Thursday. Sundays’ three miler felt horrible. Painfully and slowly, I got in the three but was super discouraged at the end. So, I scratched the Tuesday run and decided just to rest. I did swim and bike leading up to the race, and with those workouts, I’d have to be content.
The day before the race was very busy with long registration lines, bike check-in, the Team USA photo, the March of the Nations and the opening ceremonies. My race started at 10 a.m. the next morning. Due to jet lag, I’d been waking up between 3:30 a.m. – 4:30am. Race morning, it was about 4 a.m., so I got up and ate breakfast. I read scripture and listened to some of my favorite faith-building music. I felt encouraged as I left my Airbnb for the race site.
It was a typical Spring day on the Gold Coast. Sunny with a high that would reach the low 70s and very little humidity. Perfect weather and a beautiful location! I walked my bike into the transition area and hung it on the rack. I was setting up my shoes, helmet, etc. and bang…my front tire blew. Just hanging there. Pssssssss…. Oh boy. Mini-panic attack. I’d left my spare innertubes a 15-minute walk away in my car. Long story short…someone gave me an extra tube and I fixed it. Whew. Glad it blew there and not while racing on it.
I did a quick warm-up swim off to the side of the swim start, and before I knew it, I was in the coral with about 70 other Worlds qualifiers in the 60-64 age group. I boldly went right to the front of the line. There was a five minute break between the swim heat before us and our group. With one minute to go before our wave started, they released us down to the edge of the water. I, again, boldly went straight to the front line, far left.
The gun went off, and so did everyone….they all just went off on each other. Total chaos. A street fight in water. I’ve done mass Ironman starts with 2,000 people thrashing around, but this was as bad or worse than any of those. “Stay calm…nice, easy strokes…breathe…relax.” Bam, got kicked in the goggles by someone, and fortunately, the goggles stayed on. The swimmer behind me kept pushing my legs down as he swam up my back.
I looked for open water, but there really wasn’t any. Unlike most races, everyone in this one is excellent and the group doesn’t spread out much until the last third of the half-mile distance. I tried to push that last part knowing guys were going to be out of the water well before me. I glanced at my watch as I exited the water and headed to my bike at an all-out sprint. 12:20something. OK, I’ll take that, considering the mayhem. Got to my bike, and the wetsuit stripped off almost perfectly until the very end. I looked like a rookie jumping around, trying to get it off my heels. I had lubed up a ton but still struggled. Maybe I was trying too hard…moving a bit too fast?
I grabbed the bike and headed out towards the street. Struggled getting on it, again, looking a bit like a rookie. What’s the matter with me? Come on! Once I mounted my steed, I was off and immediately started picking people off. Within two miles, I caught a pack of about 8 guys, all in my age group. I congratulated myself on quickly catching up with the leaders in my age group. So far, this race is going great.
Wow. Here I am at a World Championship race, in the lead pack, taking turns pulling on the front of the train…actually leading my age group at times! Except, I wasn’t. I found out after the race, the 3-4 guys out of the water first were about a minute up the road, working together to hold off my group, the chase group.
We were flying along in a tight pack, everyone drafting except the leader! It was scary, exciting, fast, dangerous, exhilarating and a bit insane all rolled into one. As mentioned, it was my first draft-legal race, and I must admit it was a blast. I still prefer non-drafting races, but it was, well, crazy-fun in a suicidal kind of way. A couple of times I thought about pushing past this group, launching out on my own cause I thought I could ride faster than the group. Perhaps a couple of guys would have gone with me, and we could have worked together. But, I thought we WERE the lead group and I’d be just fine saving some leg strength for the run.
We cruised into the transition area and I quickly racked my bike, tossed on my running shoes and took off with three Aussies just in front of me. Again, I thought we were the top four in our age group, so I figured I only had to pick off one of them to get on the podium. I was hoping for the best. I was hoping my injury would loosen up as I ran, not tighten up. Within 400 yards, I knew it probably wasn’t going to happen. I was in pain and couldn’t stride out the way I wanted and needed to. I fought. I battled. I wanted it and dug deep, but my body wouldn’t respond.
I was actually in 8th place starting the run. I ran a 6:55 for my first mile. OK. Maybe there is still some hope, but no. A couple of guys in my age group ran by me. It was a two-loop run course, and after pushing as hard as I could for the first loop, I was spent. I dreaded the second loop but then changed my mindset. How blessed was I to be there? Such a beautiful spot. Racing in a World Championship race in a Team USA uniform. I smiled and decided to thank the Lord and just be grateful. I would run as hard as I could and finish wherever…I knew the podium was not going to happen. I did pray for a top-ten finish. The last mile and a half felt like ten. I came into the finish line area and heard some friends call my name, cheering me in. It was a bitter/sweet moment.
I cross the line in 1:10:02. The top three / medal winners all went 1:07:something. I’ve done that before. I DIDN’T do that when I needed to, but it’s certainly not out of reach. That’s the frustrating part. No excuses though. To get on the podium, I would have needed to run a sub-19 min. 5K. I did that in London at Worlds. But not this day. Not even close. Interesting enough, the Silver and Bronze medalists both started the run behind me in 9th and 13th. They had fabulous runs up to to 2nd and 3rd. Wow. Impressive. Worlds is no joke. These guys are the fastest in the, well, world!
Back home, family and friends were watching the live feed. It’s pretty cool technology. I knew they could track things but didn’t know they could actually watch the finish. I took extra time to thank the volunteers, telling them that without them, the race couldn’t have happened. I came through the recovery area and saw Mark Long, a friend of mine. It was good to debrief with him just a bit. I then discovered that I’d gotten 10th, an answer to prayer. A bit later, I learned that an Aussie that finished ahead of me had been disqualified, and I’d move up to 9th. I’ll take it. Now, I just need eight more guys to get disqualified. Haha.
I picked up my gear bag and then called home. Then, I chatted with some friends, hung out, and just savored the day a bit. I felt a strange mix of disappointment and satisfaction. I’d given my all, and that’s all you can do. But I knew I could have raced better. Much better…if only….wait. Don’t go there. As I mulled over my race, I thought of this – I need to let the sting of disappointment be the fuel of future motivation.
My plan, at least at this point, is not to do Worlds again until I age up, which is not for four years. I can enjoy the next couple of years/seasons doing local and regional races, staying fit and racing hard but without the pressure of a HUGE race. Then, God-willing, I’ll do Nationals when I’m 64 and qualify for Worlds and race it again when I’m the young guy in the 65-69 age group. That race, is in Abu Dhabi. Get ready for a hot one!
If you’ve read this far, you’re a glutton for punishment. You’re almost done. I realize how blessed and fortunate I am. At National Championship competitions, I’ve finished 13th, 9th, 6th, 5th, and three 1st, counting the duathlon title. At Worlds I’ve finished 20th/95 (Olympic distance), 8th/60, 6th/99 and this year, 9th/70 at the Sprint distance. Three Top 10s at Worlds and three national titles are accomplishments I could have never dreamed of when I got into this sport 24 yrs. ago. Never. I’m the guy that didn’t make a varsity team in any sport in high school. Racing in Canada, Hawaii, Germany, England and Australia has been incredible. Racing for Team USA four times has been a huge honor. I’m abundantly blessed.
My support team is amazing. My wife Jen and two kids are incredible. The companies that help me are so encouraging. God has been very gracious and kind to me, giving me a bit of talent that I’ve tried to develop and use for His glory and the benefit of others. So this year is a wrap. I’ve already put on a few lbs. I’ve not worked out for a week. I’m getting over the 15 hours of jet-lag that go with this kind of trip. I’m enjoying being home. There really isn’t any place like home.