Monday, August 3, 2009

US Aquathlon National Championship Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 4; 17th Edition
426.7 miles raced (1500 M swam!) in 2009

Race: US Aquathlon National Championship
Place: Canton, NC
Miles from home: 1906 miles
Weather: 70s; rainingAugust is going to be busy and chock full of travel, racing, and planning. The second weekend of this month has me directing the revamped Drake Well Marathon in my hometown of Titusville. The third weekend has me attempting my 100th lifetime marathon. The fourth week has me heading to Yellowstone before coming back to be a presenter at the Park City Marathon. But before that, I had the US Aquathlon Championship race in Canton, NC just a short drive from the artsy town of Asheville.
The Aquathlon is a relatively new event combing the disciplines of swimming and running – basically a triathlon without the bike. Given my relatively good swimming background and my modest successes in running, the thought of combining the two events appealed to me greatly. In fact, upon completion of my first triathlon last summer, an event that I very admittedly went into with only a layman’s amount of training , my desire to test these athletic waters grew.

While never a complaint, this spring and early summer had been extremely busy for me both racewise and personally. I was fortunate to be the featured speaker at some well-known marathons, some marathons in their first year with great potential and others on a rebound after a lengthy hiatus. I have been extremely fortunate to have book signings nationwide and spend many hours running with some salt of the earth type people. Nevertheless, in four months time I had only spent three weekends in my own apartment and was bushed. I had been able to get in as much swimming in a few weeks as I had done in the past 10 years but believe me, that was not a hard total to beat! My mileage for the year was down overall from this same point last year but I was still feeling lethargic and tired. My Achilles has been bothering me more lately and I am hoping it will miraculously cure itself every morning. However, when I race, all those things seem to go away. I was hoping the same would be true in this National Championship race.

Coupling with ROAD ID, a product I have championed for a long time which just so happens to be made by two people who have become very good friends even though we have never had the occasion to meet in person, I found myself competing in a National Championship race with no where near the training I ideally would have liked to have. Then again, when do we rarely feel we have put in the proper training? Often it is usually too little and sometimes too much. But it has been quite a long time since I had jumped into uncharted waters like I was here in Canton.
I had done my usual research into an event with the caveat that no matter what the previous results from similar races showed, that I neither knew what that race day had been like weather-wise or what had transpired amongst the runners nor did I have any idea how many other athletes, just like myself, were taking their first attempt at the event and hoping to do well too. But that did not keep the expectations from being soaringly high. Unfortunately, some of that energy was wasted in the days before the event.

Travel to the Race:It is no secret whatsoever the utter disdain I hold for the entire airline industry. I have time and time again asserted that, in my opinion, what made my 52 Marathons in 52 weekends special was not the marathon running but rather doing so without missing a single weekend. No injuries, no missed flights, no forgotten shoes or timing chips stayed me from completely the task. The fact that I was able to get faster as the year went on was a surprising bonus and says a great deal about what the human body can do, but it was the logistics involved that made the accomplishment so unique. So when my flight left relatively on time from Salt Lake City heading to Atlanta I was pleased. I count my blessings each time on flights not out of a fear of flying but a fear of having so many important factors completely out of my hands and up to the whims of seemingly fickle fates. As such the hour long flight from Atlanta to Asheville was all that was between me and spending time with my friend and fellow athlete Kate who was acting as my crew for the weekend. Just a quick shot up the air road would have me at my destination.

Unfortunately one of the worst dealings I would have with air travel had me changing concourses no less than five times, being put on standby, taken on, being booked for a flight on the entire wrong DAY, spending hours waiting and calling and waiting and talking and waiting and hoping that THIS flight would be the one where that holy trinity of plane, pilot and crew would all arrive at the same time in order for me to continue my trip.

Finally, eight hours after I was originally supposed to leave Atlanta, I eked my way onto a plane; to the wrong city. As Asheville had two flights directly cancelled and numerous others pushed back after “weather” in the Atlanta area, I realized that I needed to do something. (As an aside, there is always “weather”, airline people. Saying we will experience “some weather” on the flight is like saying we will be breathing “some air” tomorrow) as the next guaranteed flight to Asheville was not until 5:19 PM on Saturday (the night before the race) and lord knows if that would be canceled, I leapt into action.

Of course, if I had simply left Atlanta when the first flight had been canceled and drove to Asheville I would have been there in four hours. But now, the only flight I could possibly get on, and it kept getting pushed back because of the continuous “Choose your Missing Magical Flight Ingredient” game being played by the airlines, took me to Greensboro, a solid 2.5 hour drive from Asheville. Part of the reason of paying for the more expensive flight to Asheville instead of Charlotte or Raleigh or wherever else was to AVOID any such driving. But I had no choice. I could not risk not making the event.

So a flight to the wrong city, a diversion of a vehicle picking me up and a long drive from two exhausted people had me setting foot in Asheville at 2 AM- just 9 hours after I was originally scheduled to get there. Now that’s the way to make sure you will completely suck at your first ever national championship race in a completely new discipline! I did however, either though disillusionment or just pure hope, convince myself that the vast majority of my competitors had done the same travel route and had it just as bad, if not worse than I. This somehow calmed me greatly. (Speaking to Kate about what was going on all day long she said “I expected you to be much more unhappy about this entire thing”.) Now I just needed to sleep which I did with no problem whatsoever.

The day before the race was exciting. With 99 marathons in the bank, I still get excited on race day and enjoy perusing the expos when I get a chance to sneak away from my booth. But a little of that pre-race excitement is gone and will never come back. I have simply been to too many races for it to be all sparkly and glittery any more. But here I was learning. Finding out where to put my drop bag for the transition from swim to run. Testing the water to see how cold it was. Getting nervously competitive as I looked at all these fit athletes who I sincerely felt I could compete with at a top level.

With a full one mile swim followed by just a 5k race, I felt the long swim would make up for my lack of both experience and speed in the 5k distance. To me, the swim really leveled the playing field. Again, this made no sense whatsoever given my pretty pathetic training schedule with regard to hitting the pool. But logic rarely plays a solid part in the mind of the athlete when they are trying to psyche themselves up for a race. In fact, the more I thought about, the swim with the short run would probably draw a lot of top notch swimmers and triathletes. And it was the National Championship race! What was I thinking?!

After leaving the race area and driving back to the hotel, Kate and I then grabbed a bite to eat at a local steakhouse. In spite of being pretty tired, I had trouble falling asleep. I think excitement was taking over. Or maybe the Mountain Dew.

Race Day:The forecast called for scattered thunderstorms in the area all night leading up to and including the race. So when we woke to no rain but only cloudy skies, I was quite pleased. Having the race called because of lightning would not make me a happy camper. We drove to the Lake Logan recreational area where on top of the USAT Championship race, an international distance tri was being held as well. I went to the transition area to see where I would put my stuff. I noticed first of all that the trek from the water to the transition area was a little bit of a hike. That distance was something I hadn’t figured into my overall time and definitely was going to have an effect.

I had broken the cardinal rule of racing too. The day before at the expo I had let nerves overtake me a little bit and when presented with a pretty good deal on a wetsuit, decided to both buy it and wear it during the race. Never try anything new, Dane! So here I was setting up my little transition area with my new wetsuit, some shoes, my singlet and a bottle of water. All around me aquathloners (?), were doing the same but they all seemed to have 19 times the equipment that I did. Fortunately I was not worried or feeling I needed that gear but I was most assuredly curious why they needed all they thought they did.

Kate was ready with her camera to document the event and as time started to get close to the 8 AM start time, I donned my wetsuit, and got ready to do a quick swim from the exit of the swim leg to where it all began a few hundred yards away. I was thinking about my only other open water swim of this distance, back at the Nation’s Triathlon in 2007. Asked to be the swim leg of a relay I jumped at the opportunity even though I had not swam a competitive race in almost a decade and only had a month to prepare. I ended up swimming a 22:19 there and was quite pleased. While hardly putting n the time which would have been ideal for this swim leg, I had done much more time in the pool than for that race in DC. I expected a 20 minute high or maybe even something approaching a 19 minute was possible. In either case, I was relaxed and happy.

After my quick warm-up I had to exit the water and let the triathletes get ready to start.

My heat was the 4th one of the day, starting at 8:20 AM. When it came time for my wave to get in the water, I was excited but still playful. I looked back and amongst all the bystanders on the shore, somehow picked out Kate. So I waved to her.

Ten seconds later the horn started and away we went.

Swim:Almost immediately I was getting passed by swimmers. I assumed they were overeager athletes who did not know their speed or endurance and would so be burnt out. I felt calm and smooth in the water but a little out of place. How hard is hard? Will I still be able to run fast after the 1500 meters in the lake? Am I not swimming fast enough?

The swim was basically three sides of a rectangle as we swam away from the start for 500 meters, made a right turn for ~200 meters, made another right turn, swimming past the start, under a bridge and to the dock.

Whenever I would sight myself to make sure I was swimming in a straight line I could see churning water ahead but could never really tell how many there were and how far ahead they were. As I neared the first turn I was pleased with my straight line of swimming and seeming speed.

A short 200 meters later we made another right turn and now I was mostly alone. I was swimming right next to another athlete and we were swimming at the exact speed. I could not tell if that was good or bad. All I could dowas keep going. I headed towards the bridge and did my best to not run into the concrete pylons holding the bridge up. As I passed the pylon some underwater branches scraped my hand pretty fiercely. “Well, screw you branches,” I thought.

Fifty yards later the swim was over and as I climbed the wooden later a pair of strong hands helped me out of the water. “Thanks, guys!” I shouted and clicked my watch. 23:40. Ugh. How did THAT happen? 90 seconds slower than I had done two years with less training? I would later learn that I was a shockingly low (to me, at least) 44th overall in the swim. I had expected to be in the top 10. No time to think, I had my first ever swim-to-run transition in my life coming up.

Transition: In a quick second, I had forgotten my swim time. It was pouring down rain. The grassy area leading from the inlet out of the lake to wear my running shoes had been was already a muddy mess. Wonderful. I passed a few swimmers out of the water and quickly ran into the changing area. Off came to the wetsuit relatively easily for my first time ever taken one off in competition. My ROAD ID short sleeve shirt was drenched and probably weighed about 5 pounds. I had happened to pack my See Dane Run singlet in my pack as well and as I slipped my shoes on I did my best to slide this rather tight singlet on over my soaking wet body. I noticed that almost everyone in front of me has gone shirtless for the 5k as they came out of the changing area. unfortunately, I had not had the foresight to pin my bib number to my shorts and therefore did not have that option. Live and learn.

Leaving the changing area with my shirt still half way down my body, I was ready to go do or die on this run. My watch told me my transition time was 1:23 or 31st slowest of all the male competitors. Man, not good at all!

Mile 1: While I was in a more familiar element, I have only done a handful of 5ks in the past 5 years. Plus I had never ran one after previously exerting myself unless you count the PT Cruiser Challenge I won in 2005 which consisted of a 15k, a 5k and a marathon in a 24 hour period. The 5k had followed the finish of the 15k by one hour and I had surprised myself with my time in that race so I figured who knew what would happen here.

As I crossed over the bridge I had swum under moments before, I saw Kate for the first time. But focused on the task ahead, and shielding my eyes from the pouring rain, I didn't even have a chance for a smile.

She had not been able to pick me out of the swimmers before but here snapped a quick picture. Almost immediately I had passed a few runners. In a few hundred more yards, I had passed a few more. By the time the first mile was done I had been able to fly by a good baker’s dozen like they were standing still. Even with the slight uphill through this first mile I was able to clock a 6:08 mile.

Mile 2: As the rain continued to pour down I neared the turn at the 1.5 point. Here the first runners started to come back at me and I for the first time had 100% confirmation I would not catch them. They were simply too far ahead. But very few of them looked “good.” Their steps look labored and were breathing rapidly. Damn it, why is this run only a 5k?! With a full mile swim (or close enough to it) one would expect the run would easily be a 15k. No time to think about that now, as I turned around and passed a few more runners. Now we headed back up the biggest uphill of the race which wasn’t bad at all but I felt it for sure. As I clicked my watch to record a rather disappointing 6:32 mile, the only runner of the entire race who would pass me, whizzed by.

Mile 3: Ok, buddy. You are working for this one, I thought. I immediately fell into his shadow and we began to pass runner after runner. I could see from the markings on his calf that he was a mere 23 years old and therefore did not figure into my plans to make sure I qualified for the World Championship race in Australia. Unlike running events where mere times are needed to gain entry, races like the Ironman triathlon in Kona and the World Aquathlon Championship to be held in Gold Coast, Australia this year require participants to best those in their age groups. So besides pride, there was no reason for me to try to beat this young whippersnapper (who I would learn later had just finished his collegiate running career.) But I was going to use him to pull me along. (In the running picture above, you can see him in the background just coming onto the bridge. I am surprised I held him off for 2 miles.)

And pull me along he did. While I eventually fell off his pace to finish 10 seconds behind him overall, his speed had allowed me to run the 10th fastest 5k of the day with a last mile of 5:25. That’s more like it! (More than likely, the second mile was long and third mile short with an average time of the two being right around 6 minutes - or what I ran the first mile in.)

My final time of 43:58 was disappointing and humbling as well as confusing. I still have no idea how I had swam so much slower than expected. I don’t blame the wetsuit and its newness. In fact, I am sure it helped me. Perhaps the weekend’s travel snafus had sucked life out of me. Maybe I was still spent from the Leadville Marathon. There is really not explanation.

However, when it all shook out, my second place in my age group ended up being enough to qualify me for the US Aquathlon National Team. I would get the opportunity to represent my country in the World Championship race!

In a race full of lessons, one stood out clear: I really enjoyed this multi-sport stuff. Now I simply have to convince that a 5k is just WAY too short to accurately reflect what the athletes should be running if they are swimming 1500 meters and I may just have something.

Until then, I have one month to ready myself in the pool for the race in Australia. As soon as I direct the Drake Well Marathon. And race my 100th lifetime marathon. I am sure I will get some swimming in there somewhere!


Anonymous said...

Advice...practice transitions over and over. Both for the gear transition as well as physically training the body to switch gears. As you learned by your transiton timed compared to others some multisport races are won and lost in the transition. Can be precious second - even minutes. Do some "brick" workouts to accomplish.

Ross said...


You have such a gift with your storytelling. I always feel like I am right there at the race with you.

Congratulations on being able to represent our country at the World Championships!

1L said...

Never trust the airlines, Dane - epecially when they take you through Atlanta in the summer! Sorry about the messed up travel schedule, but congrats on a great job - off to Autstralia - very impressive.

Janet K said...

I was at that event too! Very similar story, travel nightmare! I was supposed to go to LaGuardia when they closed it. poorest swim of my life! But I too am going to Australia! Loved your story. Congrats!