How do you describe a moment that you will forever remember, one that you can feel altering your very future. It’s quite tricky you see, but thankfully I’ve never been shy with words and expression so this post is dedicated to the USA Paratriathlon National Championship race in Austin, TX this past weekend.
The race was held over Memorial Day weekend, which in itself is a celebration and remembrance of the brave lives that have sacrificed so much for their country and to protect our freedom. The power that compels so many individuals was on stage throughout the entire weekend, and it struck me to the core.
It all started on Saturday morning with meeting the rest of the Achilles Tri team at the Central Park Engineer’s gate dark and early at 3:45am. We loaded all our gear and were on our way to the airport. Now, I was not anxious about traveling with all my gear, however my biggest worry was making it to Austin on time. My USAT classification appointment was scheduled for 1:30 pm at the Hyatt Regency, and with my flight landing at 11:30 am, any sort of flight delay could jeopardize my entire race and Championship contention. Thankfully my confidence was restored in American Airlines and we actually landed 10 minutes early!
I quickly made my way over to the Hyatt and met up with some friends before my classification. I entered my classification knowing I would become a Tri-3, but had to go through the prodding and poking to make it official. After several minutes of strength and balance testing; it became official, I would be competing in one of the most competitive classifications, the dubious “Les Autres” (Simply translated to ‘All Others’).
Later in the evening we would attend the Wounded Warriors Dinner, which was an incredible dinner, with phenomenal athletes and speakers, including Melissa Stockwell and John Register. Their words were a true inspiration, and was a precursor to the entire weekend. I also got to see some old friends, and make new ones with those who I’d be competing with. It was a long day, and was glad to make it back home to get some sleep.
We had a good early wake up call on Sunday morning to take a trip to an open-water pool called Barton Springs in Austin. This was one of the more interesting places I’ve seen, essentially an open water springs enclosed with multiple pool ramp entrances. It was a great way to get an open water practice in before the race. I felt great and fast in the water, which gave me a lot of confidence going into Monday.
After our swim we made our way to the Hyatt for athlete pickup, briefings, and bike check. This is where I got to meet the elite competitors in my category, in addition to my old buddy Sean Vangerena; I met David Kyle and Craig Vogtsberger. These are the guys I am going to be chasing for years to come, and I wanted them to know that.
After all the meetings were over, and bikes were officially checked into transition; it was time to go home and get some much needed rest and sleep before the day everyone was waiting for. I surprisingly got a phenomenal sleep that night, mostly cause I did my best Betty White impersonation and went to bed at 8:15. Alarm went off at 4:05 am, and it was race morning; which meant it was time to show everyone what you’re worth.
We arrived at transition, where I met up with my handler and set up my station; had a few anxious laughs with my transition mates; and heard much debate as to whether to wear a wetsuit or not in the balmy 81 degree Lady Bird Lake. Since my swim is not that strong, I decided to wear my suit and get any advantage I was afforded.
All the Paratriathletes were able to get in the water right after the pro start to get a light warm up which I jumped right in to make sure my goggles were nice and tight with no leakage; and before I knew it I was treading water at the start line of the 1st wave. The gun sounded and rang through me like a cannon..this was it; the last 7 months of teaching myself how to swim with 1 arm, re-learning how to ride a bicycle; and running until the pain stopped. The 5 am mornings, the late nights on the trainer; and the all the miles were made for me to perform at this moment.
Before I go into my full race detail, I’d briefly like to explain my expectations. This is my 1st full season in Triathlon, and this National Championship race will have been my first full open water swim race. I knew the guys in my category and what they are capable of, and was fully aware I was not at that level yet. My goal was to finish the race in under 1 hour and 30 minutes, which was an aggressive goal for me – but that’s the whole point of racing, pushing yourself to the edge you’ve never encountered before, and breaking it down. I wanted to run my race, and just see where I landed. More importantly, my goal was to show that I’m on the scene and I’m here to stay. In a couple years, I will hopefully be nipping at the backs of the top elite athletes.
Now back to the grits, the swim began and I started pushing myself hard and tried to get into a rhythm. It was tough because I had difficulty sighting and trying to stay on course. I was able to keep pace through the first turn buoy of the leg, however there was a slight current once I made the turn and during the return portion of the swim. With the fact I swim with 1 arm, I naturally pull to the right side, add any sort of current and I get pushed off line easily. I sighted as much as I could, but had to significantly correct myself 4 or 5 times as I was way off course. I lost a lot of efficiency in this way, and probably ended up swimming an extra 100 yards more than necessary with my corrections. I got out of the water in around 18:30, which is on pace with my slow long distance pace; but not my race pace. I didn’t have a slow swim, it just wasn’t a fast race swim. I need to do a lot of open water practice, and start swimming with the fishes.
I had a quick transition and was on my bike and started to push my cadence. Mike Johnston, a Tri-5 National Champion Paratriathlete got on the bike at the same time, and I tried to keep up with him as long as I could; but he eventually pulled away. The bike course was a fairly flat technical course with a couple hairpin turns, and some sharp angles at the bottom of flying hills. For the sprint distance, we had to do 2 loops of the course. I completed my 1st loop in around 21 minutes, and knew if I had any chance of finishing under my 1:30 goal, I’d have to hammer the 2nd loop and make up the time I lost in the water. I pushed myself hard and increased my speed and power, and was happy pulling into the bike dismount off the course. I jumped off the bike, with only a slight delay in getting my left foot clipped out. Sprinted into transition with my bike, racked it and started gearing up for the run.
I ran out of T2 at around 1:05 and slightly disappointed realizing there was little chance I could break my 1:30 goal; but I pushed myself and kept one foot in front of the other. The 1st mile was tough cause it was hot and crossing over the bridge was wide open. I had just come up to Melissa Stockwell, the current Tri-2 Champion and 2 time USAT Athlete of the year; I thought to myself holy toledo, I’m catching up to Melissa, which made me push my foot cadence a little faster, and keep the jelly legs moving. It would turn out to be great pairing, and one in which we stayed with each other and both pushed one another through the entire run.
Since I had completely forgotten to hit the ‘lap’ button on my Garmin watch to change from swim to bike, and from bike to run; the mile times were not coming up on my watch; so I really had no idea how far was left in the run. It felt like we were coming to the finish with more spectators around, and all of sudden Melissa turns on the afterburners and pulls alongside me. I quickly realized, this is the final sprint; so I turn to her as she’s flying past me, and simply said..”Let’s Do This;” and started sprinting myself. We came to the final tunnel and I struggled as hard as I could to keep up with her sprint, we both crossed the Finish Line at the same time, and embraced each other with a victorious hug. This will undoubtedly be a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. I won’t remember my finishing time 10 years from now, or that I had a slow slim; but I will never forget the feeling of crossing that Finish Line side by side with Melissa…thank you forever.
At the end of the day my finish time was 1 hour 33 minutes and 57 seconds, good enough for 4th place in my category. I missed my goal by 3 minutes and 58 seconds, but I am incredibly happy with my overall performance. I accomplished what I set out to do, and that was to run a good clean race to the best of my ability, and see where I end up.
I know now where I need to be to compete with the top guys in my Category, and what I have to do to achieve that goal. Now comes the fun part of putting in the work to get faster EveryDay! I hope I showed my competition that I’m here now, and ain’t going anywhere anytime soon; and for the next years to come I am going to find a way to get to the top podium spot, and contend for a National Championship.
As I started off with, I’m not shy with words; and one of the greatest aspects of this past weekend, besides the race; was meeting all the other Paratriathletes in our field. That has always been my favorite part of being involved in the disabled sports world..just interacting with other athletes. Hearing their stories, talking about how they compete at such elite high levels. Creating friendships and bonds that last outside the competitive arena.
By doing this, the moments of this weekend last forever.
Next up is Denver on June 10th, racing a mile high is going to be fun (and painful)!
Here’s the Highlight reel of the weekend -
2012 USAT Paratriathlon National Championship Highlights