A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from USAT telling me that I was eligible to register for the 2015 USAT Age Group National Championships. To say that I was excited would be an understatement.
I paid the registration fee and made the necessary (though somewhat poorly-managed) arrangements to get the time off from work.
We borrowed my mother-in-law’s car for the journey from Columbus, Ohio to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. America, for those who don’t know, is a very, very big country. And it was settled by moderns rather late on, so the roads are straight. And, even before the moderns were around, glaciers made it very, very flat.
So the drive from Columbus to Milwaukee (and the return trip) were somewhat boring. At least on the way there we had the excitement of anticipation.
The festivities started on Thursday, while we were still on the road.
We arrived at our hotel at around 1 on Friday morning. While we were checking in, the receptionist at told us that her boss was planning to raise the rates that evening. That weekend was the USAT Age Group Nationals (which attracted 4,000 or so athletes—and their entourages) and the start of the Wisconsin State Fair, and there was a ball game that weekend. (When we got back to the hotel on the night of the race, there was a sign on the door saying they were sold out!)
It was made worse by the extensive roadworks that were going on. As the waitress at one of the restaurants we ate at told us: "There are only two seasons in the Midwest: winter and construction."
All of that, and the road closures for the race, made Downtown Milwaukee something of a maze. But with the help of ubiquitous GPS we found places to park and made our way to check-in.
Everything about the race was bigger and better than anything I’ve seen before at a triathlon.
Packet Pick Up
The overriding feature of the weekend was the organisation. It started with the packet pick up and expo. Unlike the other big races I’ve done, the expo was outside. The weather was beautiful, just the occasional rain shower.
The queue for the packet pick up was long, and it wound through the alleys of the expo like one of those segmented plastic snakes. The gaps were made up of bikes (Oh, the bikes!). One or two people then the back or front end of a bicycle. One or two more people, another bike.
But the line moved fast. And when we got to the front, we found out why. There were two volunteers checking IDs and giving out race numbers. From there we were directed by number to a specific part of the tent. Announcing my number, I received my race packet and a smile, and a wristband.
We were directed out of the side of the tent to collect a free pair of compression socks. Having been measured, I was told they were out of my size. Not to worry. I was given a card with an email address and told to email when I got home, and they would be shipped to me from Canada. Fine by me!
There was a lot of expensive gear on offer at the expo. I had to walk past it rapidly to avoid too much distraction and gear envy. I had a race to focus, and the next stage was to leave my bike in transition.
Setting Up Transition
Transition was huge! Most of the races I’ve done have had at most maybe 200 people. This time there was space for 4,000 or so bikes. So there were 10 or so rows of bike racks, in two files.
Even in small races, transition can get pretty busy. Because of this, I like to have my bike easily accessible during the first transition. And in this race, I think by virtue of my age-group start time, my bike was in the first row.
I racked my bike by the saddle in my assigned spot, and did my usual mental recce of the transition area.
Where am I going to come in from the swim? How do I get to my bike from there? Once I’ve got myself ready to ride, where do I go from there? Where does the bike course re-enter transition? Where is the run out?
The finish line was obvious, marked as it was by a giant arch, emblazoned with the words:
USAT Age Group National Championships
It was starting to feel more real.
And then I left my bike, in a field, over night, to get rained on. Some people covered their bikes with plastic. I wasn’t that prepared, but it didn’t matter. My bike’s seen worse than a few spots of rain and the light morning dew that was on it the next day.
Welcome to the Great Lakes
The next order of business was the swim practice. This was an open opportunity to check out (most of) the swim course from the water. Holy cow, was Lake Michigan chilly! 64°F on Friday morning for the swim practice. It took a moment to get used to the cold, but once I did, I settled into a nice groove—looking for feet to swim on, and trying to pick up drafts.
The clarity of the water helped with that. It was beautiful, like swimming in a pool.
After the swim practice, with a good idea of how the course was laid out, I found Katy, executed a quick ‘Euro-change’, and we went off in search of the Hyatt for some administrative stuff, and a treat.
I’m not a big one for ‘rules’ in real life, but in games I think they’re important. Without rules, games become entirely frivolous. With rules, they’re only a little bit frivolous.
At the races I’ve done in the past, it seemed that the rules were often given little more than lip service. (Not to put a downer on organisers of the other races. This weekend showed how complicated it is to enforce the rules in a triathlon—especially one with multiple wave starts.)
Not so in the National Championships, perhpas understandably. And so I wanted to go to the rule briefing to see what was up. Also, I wanted to be in place for the special guest who was speaking after the rules briefing.
I was expecting the briefing to be a dull lecture given by some fusty schoolteacher from Pink Floyd’s The Wall:
- Something, something, no drafting
- No pudding until you’ve finished your meat
- Something, something, pass on the left, ride on the right
- Something, something, bike sheds
It was anything but. The race referee was good-humoured, down-to-earth, realistic, and patient with all questions: the persnickty, the edge-casey, the bizarre.
There were some warnings about the more serious infractions. For instance, failing to inform race officials of a decision to DNF (did not finish) carries not only a disqualification from the race in question, but a one-year suspension from USAT membership. The reason: "If don’t cross the finish line, and you don’t tell an official, people start to think you’re dead, and you’ve just decided to take a bicycle tour of Milwaukee." So you’ve got to think, fair enough.
When time started to run out, they offered to take questions in the foyer. A surprising number of people took them up on it. Pre-big-race nerves, I guess.
I stayed glued to my seat, because I knew what was coming next.
A similar number of people flowed in to the Regency Ballroom for the keynote speaker. He was a man who needed little introduction to a room full of triathletes.
For the rest of you, here’s a quick précis: Mark Allen won the Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawai’i six times in a row between 1989 and 1995 (the only athlete with back-to-back victories in six attempts—he did not compete in the 1994 race) and he remains, at 37 in 1995, the oldest Ironman world champion.
Allen entertained the crowd for a good thirty minutes or so with stories from his struggles against Dave Scott, the only other man to have won six Ironman world titles. He had a number of pearls of wisdom to share. I wrote only one of them down word-for-word:
Self-confidence comes from silence.
Instead of beating yourself up with all the ways you’re a fraud or you’re not good enough, or even, paradoxically, that you are good enough, and that you can do it, the secret to Allen’s success was an ability to silence his mind.
He used two words to push himself past Dave Scott and on to his first Ironman victory in seven attempts: "Shut up."
Sometimes that’s all it takes. Just shut up. Get out of your own way, get out of your head, let your body take over. Of course, that’s easier said (or not) than done. The brain is pretty good at thinking it’s going to die whenever the body’s under even a little bit of stress. (Note to self: look into applications for cognitive behavioural therapy in endurance sport.)
I always feel like I’m overly cautious with my race set up. I spend an inordinate amount of time checking the routes into and out of transition. I practise putting my helmet on from the top of the bars at least ten times before I walk away. I go through the motions of putting my socks and shoes on. I imagine snapping the race belt around my waist and heading out onto the run.
It must work, though. I hardly ever remember transition. Like being unaware of the drive home from work, my brain is on autopilot at my bike in transition. And, to my money, that’s a huge boon. The more the brain can be focused on the challenge of the bike and the run, and the less it has to think about the procedural aspects of the race, the better.
I slept better than usual the night before the race. That could have something to do with the lack of sleep I had on the way to Milwaukee. My sleep schedule is scruffy anyway, so I don’t know that usual sleep stuff applies to me. (I could be horribly wrong, but I’ve no real way of testing it at the moment.)
I woke to my first alarm at around 4:30 am. My wave was due off at 7:30, and I wanted to get some food in three hours out. That’s the standard advice. We took an electric kettle with us, so I could make my instant oatmeal with raisins, peanut butter, and honey. I ate it at the ubiquitous hotel-room desk.
Then it was time for something I’ve never done before—the application of temporary tattoos for my race number and age. I had two race numbers to put on each arm, two race numbers on each leg, and my age on my right calf.
I haven’t worn temporary tattoos since I was a kid. It seems like they’ve come a long way. These were really easy to apply and stayed on very nicely. (I only just got them off this evening, Wednesday, by rubbing them pretty hard under a hot shower. (Though I must admit, I was trying to avoid rubbing them off before Masters’ on Tuesday night!)
The race tats made it official. It was time to race. We headed out around 5:30. On the way to transition, Nature called. As I sat in the porta-loo, I began to regret eating barbecue ribs for dinner the night before the race. Should’ve had the fish, I thought. Too late now, I replied. (Luckily it was nothing more than a ring-stinger.
After dealing with Nature’s demands, I headed to transition to set up my spot. Down went the polar bear Coke towel. Then my shoes. Cycling shoes first, with socks placed in them, rolled for easy donning. Then running shoes, with race belt across them.
The helmet was a trickier affair. For all the times I practise putting it on, I’ve not figured out how to put it on my handlebars so it’ll still be there when I arrive at my bike, inevitably after everyone around me has been through.
I made a rookie mistake and set my saddle too high before we left. I had to remember to take a multitool with me to fix that before the start of the race. Too high of a saddle would have hampered my ride position and made the run (and the bike) very difficult. Fixed it, and it was time to head toward the start.
I get quiet before my races. I try to ‘go inside myself’, whatever that means. I turn the music up loud, so it makes my ears bounce a bit. There are a few tracks that I keep on standby as tempo guides. Rage Against the Machine’s Tire Me is a pretty good run tempo for me. Pretty much anything from The Prodigy’s Fat of the Land works, too.
I gave Katy a kiss, and my wedding ring (I don’t like to swim with it on, it feels like it’s going to fall off, and I don’t need that distraction), and walked to the swim start.
The Start Line
The guy in front of me was struggling to zip his wetsuit. I offered to help, and when I was done, he said it was his first big race like this "with the fast guys," so he was going to stick toward the back of the swim.
I took his advice.
There was time for a ten or fifteen minute warm-up before the first wave—my wave—got under way. I knew from yesterday that the water was going to be cold, but this time I was prepared.
I dove off the dock into the beautifully clear water. A few strokes to get used to the temperature, a few more to find some kind of pace, and I was good.
We were ushered back to the dock for the start.
It was a long time between then and the start of the race. After a few minutes, the complaints started. People’s arms hurt from holding on to the dock (one of the rules was that we all had to start with a hand on the dock). It was cold. They didn’t want to listen to the mayor’s speech. At a certain point you just want to get started, I can get behind that.
And sure enough, the words soon came from USAT President Barry Siff: "You are in the hands of the starter." Seconds later, the klaxon sounded, and the washing machine began. I took the advice of my single-serving friend with the wetsuit. I hung on to the dock for an extra five seconds or so. The fast guys were really fast. When I looked at the times of the fastest swimmers, they finished the course in two-thirds of the time it took me. When we got back, I said to Katy: "I can’t imagine what it feels like to swim half as fast again as that."
The swim went well. The warm-up made it more bearable. And I was glad I’d had the swim practice the day before so I was aware of the temperature. I was even able to mix it up a little bit in the middle of the swim. I was passing people, and they were passing me. I swam on some feet for a while. I was able to catch a couple of drafts.
I was out of the water in about half an hour.
The main thing I remember about the bike was the sound of the disc-wheels passing me. In most races, I come out of the water somewhere near last place and make my way through the field from there. It’s rare that people pass me and stay away on the bike.
In Chicago, I was outclassed. Every couple of minutes I’d hear another one of them coming. WOOM, WOOM, WOOM, WOOM. They sound like motorbikes!
I still passed a few people on the bike. But for the most part, people were going past me like I was standing still.
When I got back to Masters’ on Tuesday, Nick said "We’ve got to work on your bike." Don’t I know it!
The course itself was sort of a high-rise tour of Milwaukee’s shoreline. Of course, my focus was on the race, and more specifically, staying out of the referee’s notebook. (There was something of the ‘driving test’ to it. People riding past you on motorbikes, making invisible notes that may or may not be about you, and probably won’t be good.) I got through the race with no penalties, which was reassuring.
At two points, the race crossed railway tracks. These can be a difficult proposition on a bike. At least once, I’ve come a cropper on tracks that cross the road at shallow angles. In Milwaukee, they avoided such problems with strips of red carpet across the track. (There was nothing obvious about what to do, or what would happen, in the event of a train crossing. Probably would be best to stop, though.)
The course was fine enough. Given the location of the swim, and the chaos that was Downtown Milwaukee, the coast road was a good choice. It was, however, the only time I’ve wished I’d recce’d the course before the race.
The out-and-back sections gave over rather abruptly to transition, so, without this knowledge, I’d had no time to do my usual soft-pedaling, stretching routine on the bike.
I like to try and loosen up my back a bit, before the run. That wasn’t to be the case today, but I did throw in a couple of back bends before I headed out for the run.
Speaking of which, the run course was sneaky. It was another case where I wished I’d recce’d before the race.
It was also an out an back, out along a promontory, and then alongside the bike course. The trick was that the turnaround was much farther away than I’d anticipated. The trip out into the lake was significantly longer than the distance from that point to the finish.
But, I was able to keep to my usual form of picking people off on the run. Only a couple of people passed me and stayed away; including the chap who finished ahead of me in my age group, by only ten or fifteen seconds.
He passed me with about two miles to go, and I tried to hang on, but I haven’t been running enough this season, apparently. There was nothing left in my legs, and I couldn’t kick—no matter how hard I tried, how deep I dug.
Paradoxically, Mark Allen’s words from the day before were on a loop in my head: "Self-confidence comes from silence." If we can silence the mind, the body can do much more than we would ever imagine. But even Allen’s other mantra-to-try (simply: "Shut up.") didn’t work.
I’ve been meditating recently, and I think (or hope) that this will let me find the silence I need. It’ll surely take a while to take effect, but maybe by the time of the Columbus Marathon in October, I might be able to silence my mind and Just. Keep. Running.
After the race, we got a real treat. That evening saw an élite super sprint race. The pros raced 325 meters in the lake, do a 5k draft-legal bike, and then run 1.5k. Then they did it all again. (I can’t imagine what the water felt like the second time round!)
There was some drama in the women’s race, with athletes getting mixed up in transition and taking various bike parts to various body parts. But it made for an exciting race.
The Evening After
After we got everything unloaded from the car, we took a trip to a frozen custard store that was straight out of the fifties. Kopp’s is something of a Milwaukee institution. And they have good gluten-free French fries (long, very boring, somewhat petty, story) and frozen custard.
We took them back to the hotel and watched Star Trek: The Next Generation for a few hours before falling asleep.
All in all, it was a great experience. Wonderful to be immersed in the sport of triathlon for two whole days, and have nothing but racing on my mind for the whole time! Can’t wait for Omaha next year.