Tuesday, June 21, 2016


A slippery sea lion casually patrolled the cool waters just off the beachfront on the southern tip of Naval Air Station Point Mugu, shrugging off small waves that poured over his shiny back. Triathletes wrapped in black neoprene dove into the waters as soon as our finned friend passed by and made towards a bobbing, orange buoy, the first of two turn buoy's we'd be sighting for during the Armed Forces Triathlon Championship the following day.

The Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Army fields teams of eight men and five women to compete at the draft-legal, Olympic distance triathlon each year since the early 80's. In recent years, the Canadian military has sent teams to compete along side us as well. Among the men's field, it was often a tale of Navy vs Air Force, while Army was fighting for second or third. Our coach was determined for a different shade of hardware this year, though, and heavily vetted potential candidates for the team. With a former division one swimmer, and two previous podium finishers on the team, we were sure to have more depth than we've had in a long time.

The day before the race, I decided I was not going to allow myself to fall into the grips of anxiety like I had last year. For some reason, my first experience with an Armed Forces Championship brought with it more stress and pressure than I've ever felt before a race. For about an hour and a half after my course preview, I laid in bed, relaxing, breathing, praying, and generally doing nothing at all. I'm sure being in Southern California helped ease the tension, but that moment of stillness before a big race is surely an essential part of game day strategy.

As our coach was going over his expectations for how the race would play out the night before, our hotel lost power. Half suspecting foul play, we went to bed without fans or working refrigerators. As last year's winning team, the Air Force got to stay in the special hotel located right next to the race start. It was on a different grid that still had power. Hmm...

Sadly, the next morning, the lines were still dormant and I had no way to make coffee. I was about to call it quits right there but it turns out, my parents flew all the way in from Nashville to watch the race and, conveniently, were driving over that morning from a side of town that still had power. After a last minute call, they had a chance to pick up a traveler case of the black gold, no doubt saving the entire team's race performance.

Reg, the longstanding race official, got everyone lined up behind the rope on the beach, threatening penalties if it wasn't done correctly. The Canadian and US anthems were played, and without wasting any time, the horn sounded and 40 athletes dashed to the surf, diving straight through the frothy breakers and emerging over smoother waters. Every racer started the race shoulder to shoulder on the beach and it helped disperse us enough so we weren't kicking each other's faces, at first anyway.

I quickly lost track of where I was relative to others in the water, peeking my head over the surface only to check where that turn buoy was. Rounding the second buoy, I headed back towards the shore as the first of two swim laps quickly passed by. For this race, they had us get out of the water to go around the third turning buoy which was annoyingly located about 10 yards up the beach. Blood rushed from my arms to my legs, my heart rate spiked, and my bare feet griped at the loose sand. I tired to get an idea of the number of swimmers ahead of me by the number of footprints in the sand, but no avail. Turning back down toward the water, I tried to diver over a short wave to get started on the second lap. The humbling wall of water drilled me in the gut and knocked a little air out of my lungs. My head spun and my heart was almost out of control. I took a few easier strokes to get it back together. This lap was a lot less crowded. After making my way around the first turning buoy for the second time, I resigned myself to swim in the draft of another racer. Since this was a draft legal race, at this point it would not have helped me get a better bike split if I killed myself to get out of the water a few seconds faster than him.

Two hundred yards from the shore, I took stalk of the race situation and saw that my bike group would be pretty big. Was I mid pack? Was I in the first chase group? I wasn't sure but I knew I wouldn't ride alone today.

Wetsuit off, helmet, glasses on. Transitions in a high adrenaline race can be tricky but after doing these enough and going through meticulous visualizations before the start, I was practically on auto pilot, jumping onto my Pinarello, feet in shoes, mash the pedals.

A group quickly formed of four Canadians and two Air Force, then me. Good, there were plenty of people to do work for me on the front. At this point in the race, you have to start making good decisions with your placement in the peloton. If this were a typical, non-draft race, my only objective would be to hold a certain power and stay there for an hour. For this race, though, tactics on the bike could make or break your race. I had to closely monitor how much effort I was putting out when I took the lead of our train and make sure I didn't stay there too long, burning too many matches. I also didn't want to sit in for took long, soaking up the other rider's draft and not helping to keep the speed up. There were faster swimmers ahead of us on the course we needed to catch.

Screaming through the marker for the first of five laps, wind at our backs, then rounding a 90 degree turn, the two Air Force guys were no where to be seen. It was just me and the Canadians. The dudes did work and I took my turn getting flogged by the wind. It was advantageous of me to contribute at this point. If we didn't progress now, I'd have a ton of work to do on the run to catch up.

Third lap, the speed was furious, averaging over 27 mph, wind socks fully extended. We caught up to one of my teammates and simultaneously shed one of the Maple Leaves. Barrett, who came in third last year, is a great swimmer and I knew he'd have a good race today; I didn't realize how far up front I was until then. Not that I was dying yet, but it was a huge moral boost to have another strong racer on my team to pull with.

Fourth lap, my bottles were nearly drained. Under the unabated sun, I was loosing fluids quickly. We caught up with a fast Air Force swimmer, Brett King, and another Army teammate, Matt Schiller, who was riding alone and happy to see us. With our group of six, we settled into a rotating pace line, taking quick turns punching through the winds, never relenting the speed.

Bell lap, our pack sailed past a few dozen spectators, topping out at 35 miles an hour. A Navy rider was just ahead, riding alone. We picked him up and kept the speed. After some short words with my teammates, we determined that the lead group could only have one or two guys in it, last year's winner, Kyle Hooker, and perhaps another one of his Navy comrades, working to keep us away.

We made the final turn back towards the beach, dismounted and spent scarce seconds exchanging carbon fiber soles for EVA foam. The flat course had two 5k loops with two turn-around points each. A half mile down the sun-baked road, I saw the race leaders coming towards me...one, two, three, four runners ahead. Kyle was leading the chase, with Barrett boring in on him, maybe a minute back. One of the Canadians who was in my bike group was chasing him followed by the other Navy racer who was in the front bike group with Kyle.

5:53. My first mile reading from my Garmin surprised me. I was trying to negative split the run, shooting for 6:05's-6:10's for the first four miles, then picking it up from there, but I was feeling strong. Making a concerted effort to settle into the pace, not red-lining myself too much, I set my eyes on the back of that Navy runner, and started eating away at his lead. Before the first lap was done, I passed, occasionally checking behind me to see where he was and to see of anyone else from the bike leg was after me.

5:51, I shot through another large group of spectators to start the second lap. I was separated by nearly a minute between the man behind and the man in front. Watching the two leaders battle it out kept my pace up.

5:56, I had two miles left and I came to the realization that I was sitting on the podium. My neighbor from the north did not count for our awards as they were basically racing as "open" athletes. I could hardly believe that I was still feeling this fast near the end of the race. I hit the final aid station, covering my head in water, turned east with the wind on my back and pressed the pace as much as I could manage. No one was gonna catch me now.

With two Army athletes on the podium and another two in the top ten, our men's team took the overall victory for the first time in 11 years.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Play Hard

The lush green palm tree branches outside our condo were strung taught by the south-bound Pacific trade winds. It was early yet, and perhaps still there was time for the rage to die down before 1100 odd racers dived into Anaeho'omalu Bay to start this year's  Lavaman Triathlon. The sun was just starting to pierce the thick clouds, ever clinging to the tops of the two great volcano mountains of the island. The peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea were constantly shrouded in a wet, thick veil of wispy white clouds, daring the most bold to climb them in order to actually behold the summits.

The relief of cooler temperatures during the darkest hours of the night wore off quickly; the black asphalt of the Queen K highway was already radiating waves of 80, 90 degree heat as a select few athletes spun out their legs before finishing up preparations in the transition area.

Twenty minutes until the gun. Gold and white-capped swimmers, indicating their place in the elite and relay waves, warmed up in the bay. The water felt fast heading out to sea but the stiff air currents pushed salt water over our heads as we came back to shore.

I stood on the salt and pepper sand, enjoying a rush of goose bumps as I came out of the water after my warm up, knowing that it would be the last time today I could feel cool.

The elite wave in this race didn't require you to actually be a professional athlete. If you wanted that wave, it was yours simply upon request. Twelve other men were in my wave. While some racers did actually do triathlon for a living, most, like me, probably just liked the sound of "elite" and didn't want do deal with the hassle of swimming around other waves. We had the luxury of starting first and racing on a "clean" course but it meant disqualifications from age-group awards. You want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

Paddle boarders herded us back behind the starting buoys. One minute to go. Relay swimmers tried to crowd the line. I defended my spot and took an aggressive position in the water to stake my space. Thirty seconds. Cool blood was quickly replaced by pounding adrenaline that I could feel in every last vein. Another wave bobbed us up and back down. Misfire. The gun meant to set us off started the clock but didn't start the racers. The announcer haphazardly yelled, "That's it! Start!" Confusion quickly subsided and the experienced racers got on with the task.

The improved buoyancy from the salty water made me feel slippery and quick through the first leg. I was getting an wonderful draft off of two zealous relay swimmers going out too fast. Half way through the swim, I rounded the first turning buoy, shelling those two swimmers and finding a third to grapple with. I found a gold-capped swimmer. Game on.

Sea water lapped into our faces each time we tried to breathe but I managed to avoid gulping down too much. We swam head to head, yielding nothing but keeping the pace up. Some aquatic life weaved through the colorful corals beneath us, oblivious to the turmoil. A lazy sea turtle scouted out a hole in search of breakfast while the undersides of triathletes threw soft, morning shadows across the reef.

In the last 100 meters, I surged, emerging from the bay seconds ahead of my competitor. A video someone posted later showed that I was immediately followed by about six other swimmers apparently stealing my draft as I had theirs earlier. No matter. I was too focused on hopping on my wheels to notice. I sped out of transition on my Scott and wound my way out of Waikoloa's Beach Resort, passing another athlete along the way.

The unpredictable winds of the Big Island were still blowing strong, but for once, they were in our favor. I was smashing the pedals and tearing down the Queen K averaging over 26 mph, hitting speeds close to 40 on the short descents. I rode mostly alone until mile 10 when another dude came up behind me, overtaking on a climb. I tired not to let it bother me but to simply focus on my watts. If he was a pro, at least I beat him out of the water.

Approaching the turnaround, I saw Kinsey's coach, Matt Lieto, with a commanding lead on his way back to town. Quickly refilling my aero bottle, I settled back in to the rhythm coming out of the interchange. It was mostly downhill on the way back but the wind was not helping this time. I struggled to maintain my effort and kept telling myself that the wind is my friend, the wind is hurting my competition and helping me. My power started to fade. With five miles left, I had to will myself to keep the effort up. I knew what my body was capable of but my mind was getting in the way. On the final down hill, I passed Tim Marr, a local pro, and didn't see him again.

Turning back onto the beach road, I was relieved to get out of the wind but now I had another obstacle: tourist traffic. There were two intersections between me and the transition area, each guarded by a race volunteer. A mass of triathletes from other waves were headed in the opposite direction starting their bike leg. I was only the 5th racer to come in from the other direction and no one bothered to look that way. Chaos. Approaching the first intersection, a mother tried to cross the road with a young girl. She was startled when a crazed man barreling down the road screamed for her to move and rushed by in a blur. The second intersection came quickly. This time it was a race volunteer. Walking two abreast in a lane they should not have been in, ushering a car down the road, they left little room for a rider to pass by. I was still flying, wind at my back, eyes wide open. Shouting at the top of my lungs again, the volunteer took a quick side step at the last second, narrowing avoiding a nasty crash. Hopefully, they gave more mind to the racers coming in behind me.

The run started off across a trail over lava rock before taking us to the sidewalk. Again, the tourists provided another obstacle to negotiate. Fortunately, this time I was moving at less than half the speed. Most moved out of the way though a few oblivious yard birds kept their backs facing me and their ears closed, forcing me to run on the grass around them.

The Hawaii heat was doing its damage. My pace wasn't terrible but I was slowly fading. I spotted the four athletes in front on the three mile turnaround and at this point, there wasn't much hope of catching them. I also spotted those behind me and it seemed our overall placement had already been determined; I would have to start walking in order for them to catch up.

The course wound around and through the Hilton Resort. We had a handful of spectators in lawn chairs cheering us along as we passed children splashing around in one of the hotels pools. Making my way down to the ocean-side trail, I was thankful for this last technical portion of the race. The trail was about a mile long and was covered in loose sand, lava rocks and roots. Hopping and sipping over the jet-black stone forced me to slow up my pace and I was thankful for the respite.

No one was in sight, ahead or behind. I ran through a beach volley ball court and made it back to the soft sands from where we started two hours and three minutes ago. Bent over, chugging some water a volunteer handed me, I knew Kinsey was due back any time now. Not 10 minutes later, she hit the soft sands, too. I was standing right next to the finish line and the volunteer in charge of holding the finisher's banner had apparently lost her partner. In a rush, she handed it to me for Kinsey to hoist overhead. She crushed the field. The next finisher wouldn't come in for another seven minutes.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A Time to Plant

The 8 o'clock evening sky lit up with bursts of blazing blues, showering golds, and streaking silvers. The sun set about 5 hours ago and the deep blackness of Fairbanks space provided the perfect backdrop for the University's New Year's Eve fireworks display.

We strolled along the snowy path we had made under the power lines that run behind our house to get a better look at the show. Our backyard evergreens still hung on to some snow on their lower branches but after several passing weeks of dry weather, most of them had time to shrug it off their highest limbs. The new year brought record high temperatures for certain parts of the valley and we scarcely needed more than one layer to stay warm. Luna was perfectly content to jump around in the snow and chase twigs while the not-so-distant explosives ushered in 2016.

While I remember exactly what I was doing this time last year like it was just the other day, it's hard to believe everything that's happened since then. 2015 will go down as one of my most memorable years of my life.

My racing and training have been constantly adapting, changing, adjusting to new demands and routines. In Hammond, Indiana during the Armed Forces Championships, I reached a new level of pre-race anxiety. I didn't really know where it came from and I know it didn't help my performance  but I've learned to deal with it now better than I could before. My first Ironman-brand event in Victoria brought its own set of challenges. During my countless hours of training, I prepare for just about anything I can think of but training at home doesn't teach you how to race after hours in a plane, several weeks in a row, just seven days after a tough draft-legal olympic race. By the time the Alaska State Championships came around in late summer, I was near the top of my game, in close to the best shape of my life. Considering how I was only competing against 20 other men in the state, I'm not too sure if this could be really counted as a "championship," but either way, I had the fastest swim and run split of the day and it was a great moral boost for the real championships coming up in Chicago. On that sunny morning in September along Monroe Harbor, my coach was able to make it out to the start of the biggest race of my career. I had every reason to have all the confidence in the world going into this one, but something felt a little different. I had the usual butterflies to be sure, but my legs just felt like they were full of sand. I got in plenty of warm up time and had a good sweat going by the time I hit the water but for some reason, it seemed like I couldn't get my body into gear. To some degree, I spent a lot of the race shaking that feeling off and concentrating on my task. While my swim was nothing to brag about, I posted a pretty solid bike split and managed to hang on to the run enough to finish 28th out of 97 of the best age-group athletes in the world. Though there may have been a multitude of unknowable things I could have changed about the details leading up to the race, I have to keep reminding myself that this is my first year in the 25-29 age group bracket and finishing in the top 30% isn't exactly a bad start.

As a satisfying bonus to a well rounded season, the Army was nice enough to fly me to D.C. to run 10 miles around the capitol with my Alaska teammates. On the heels of a season of some of the hardest and focused training I've had, I ran six seconds faster than my goal of 1:01:40. There are fewer feelings more satisfying than exceeding my own expectations of race performance. That coupled with a chance to tour around D.C. by myself for a whole day made for an exceptionally memorable bookend to my season.   

Training and racing will always be about the process. Every result I'll ever have for the rest of my life will still leave me with a yearning to go further and finish faster. Maybe not right after I cross the finish line, or even on the drive home or the week after the race, but that feeling will come. On the crest of this new year with another exciting lineup of races, one thing I know for certain is that the soil is ripe for planting and now is the time to get to work.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Michigan mist filled the dark air above Grant Park in downtown Chicago as the early bird triathletes set up their bikes and running shoes in the soggy transition area. Transition wouldn't close for another three hours, but in their relentless pursuit to reduce as many variables as possible, some racers spare no expense, even if that means waking up at 4:00 for a 10:30 race.

The night before, an armada of swollen cumulus nimbus clouds unleashed inches of pelting rain and clapped thunder in flashing succession. Even on the lower floor of our Hampton Inn, I thought I could hear rain falling on the roof. I rose just after midnight, shaken from my five hour pre-race nap, to use the restroom before another attempt to resume my slumber. Surprisingly, I didn't have the usual oh-crap-I'm-late-for-the-race-and-forgot-to-bring-my-bike-and-running-shoes dreams, though I had plenty else going against me in the weeks leading up to the race. I had spent the last two weeks fighting a cold and a terrible and sudden knot that gripped my left shoulder. After lots of massaging and vitamin C, I made it to the Windy City in as best triathlon shape as I've ever been in.

The International Triathlon Union Grand Finals was a four day affair with races for just about every multi-sport athlete. While they had some races that were open to the public, our race was for qualified personnel only. Last year in Milwaukee, just a few hours up the road, I just barely made the cut-off for a top 25 spot in my age group. I had to make the decision with a $50 deposit then and there if I was going to race in 13 months. While I wasn't sure what kind of job I would have then, if I would even be able to get away for that race, I pulled the trigger on the off chance that I did. Since then, ITU Worlds has been my focus. On race day, I tried not to think about how upsetting it could potentially be if something went wrong.

By coincidence or divine appointment, my coach happens to live within relatively close driving distance to the last three major races I've had in the lower 48 and supported me in all three in some capacity. This time, I stayed the night at his house and got some personal swim, bike, and run lessons in the days leading up to race morning. Following his training plan, I've been able to hone in on race day, and I've gone nowhere but up under his tutelage. I owe a lot of who I am as an athlete today to him ever since we started just before last summer.

My engine primed, transition good to go, and just a few short minutes to the race start, I exchange hello's and good luck's to fellow Team USA racers. Two of my USMES teammates had made it down as well and we stuck together for a lot of the pre-race activities. My roommate from the Armed Forces Triathlon, Barrett, ended up leading our age group at the end of the day.

 For being the most competitive race I've ever done, I felt unusually calm. That wasn't necessarily a good thing. I may have just burned up a lot of nerves during my warm ups.

The clouds were still grey, the wind gusts made the water a little choppy, Monroe Harbor was cast in shadow when the "take your mark" command was given. Our wave contained only half the field of our age group. The race organizers thoughtfully limited the number of racers in each wave in an attempt to keep the course reasonably uncrowded. The water temperature was perfect. The horn sounded and we headed north, parallel to the shore. I could see spectators walking alongside. Seven hundred meters had past and I could already see red-capped swimmers I was passing, swimmers in the wave ahead of me. Ok, I'm not doing so bad.

The return journey South, towards the aquarium, proved a bit more difficult than the first half. Small waves, courtesy of the Michigan winds, buffed our sides and I had trouble at times swimming straight. I would start drafting off another swimmer only to find myself slapping his feet, then I would correct my line, sight, and realize the next bouy was over my right shoulder and I'd correct again. By the time I hit the shore, about 22 minutes from the start, I think I was finally properly warmed up. Time to shift into my favorite leg.

With yells of encouragement from my parents behind the barriers, I ran my way up to T1, wet suit sleeves dangling. I had heard a lot about this course, how it was technical and not like any other bike course I've ever ridden. Mounting, spinning up to speed, I put my head into the now sunny wind. About two miles later, I entered the subterranean part of the course. Between concrete and steal supports, rays of light bouncing off the city skyscrapers illuminated intermittent splotches of asphalt. I saw my first target ahead of me. I may have an average swim but I'll be darned if anyone passes me on the bike. I bore down on him and sliced an inside corner, dropping him quickly lest I get called for a drafting penalty. Like a strobe light, a mix of natural and artificial beams turned on and off to my right; I felt like I was zooming through the tunnels at the speed of sound. I made the first 180 degree turn and sped back towards the next intersection where I was met with several 90 degree corners in quick succession, descending down onto the Busway. My crit racing skills helped me brake at just the right time, kiss the apex, pedal to the floor, more competitors in my rear view. After two laps of mach one racing, I posted a bike split that landed me among the top 4% of all male racers that day.

My heart rate was getting close to redline as I racked my bike and got ready to finish this race. It was a long run from the dismount line to transition. With that fun out of the way, it was time to slap the running shoes on and suffer. I yelled something that probably translated into encouragement to a Team USA racer and we made for the exit. The run, unknown to me at the time, had a bonus 0.35 miles at the end of it. We made our way down Columbus Drive, hit the turn around, made for Buckingham Fountain and ran past the finisher's chute. One lap down. My Garmin was beeping my mile splits at me: 6:05, 6:04, 6:04, Ok, not bad. Keep your form but make it hurt. If anyone passes you, make them pay for it.

Abdominal cramps that typically wreck my body at this point in the race were pleasantly absent, though there was plenty of other pain to make up for it. Though my effort seemed to be slightly increasing, I could tell my pace was slackening a touch. I held on as well as I could, I convinced myself to welcome the pain back that I hadn't felt since the last race. From the sidelines I could hear my coach yelling insults and profanities at me; what a guy.

I made the last left turn from the asphalt to the cobblestones around the fountain; the end was near. A runner in my age group was ahead of me but wouldn't be for long. Cobbles gave way to blue carpet, my strides grew longer and I flew to the finish...only to find out the guy I sprinted past still hand another lap to go. I was sprinting against myself.

After most races during the season, I can only think about one thing: how can I be faster next time? With so much put into this race, all I felt this time was how satisfying it was to cash in. I certainly have room for improvement and I'm definitely looking forward to the upcoming off season, but considering how this is my first year competing in one of the most competitive age groups and placing 28th of 98 of the best amateur racers in the world, I'm very pleased with how things are going.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The First Leaf to Fall

The chain link fence surrounding the West Valley High School track was still locked up. Either someone had lost the key to the pad lock or didn't feel like getting out of bed when perhaps they should have. I suppose I can relate. I quickly hopped over to join the others who had done the same. The intervals these days seem to appear on the training plan much more regularly, my track shoes not used to kissing the brown-red Tartan more than maybe a time or two a month before now. Let's see, what was I here for today? 800's? 1000's? Or was today mile repeat day? How many more of these sessions do I even have before my next race, anyway? My Garmin buzzes to let me know it has connected to the big computers in the sky and I begin.

*  *  *
About a five hour drive away south of here, Montana Creek Campgrounds is situated alongside a popular fishing spot just off the Parks Highway. Kinsey and I parked the Jeep in the lot she reserved and we took a short evening stroll across the pedestrian bridge overlooking the tributary. Salmons of different shapes and sizes wound their way ever closer to their breeding grounds.
It was getting late but, of course, the sun was still burning bright. We pitched the Kelty and did our best to ignore the light and the noisy, probably intoxicated, campers the next lot over.
The Alaska State Triathlon start was another 50 something miles down the road. We both had training the next morning and we determined that I would drop her off along the highway (with her bike), and finish the drive to the race venue to do a warm up along the course. The water was perfect. Clear, smooth, warm. The weather was something to cherish. Everything was in place for a fun race the next day.
After we linked back up, devoured some monster sub sandwiches from a local joint, we stayed the night with our good friends down in Anchorage, Shawn and Julie.
Race morning came and, as predicted, the weather was gorgeous. There were something like 45 racers out there and I ended up racing pretty well. First out of the water, nearly fastest bike split, and the quickest run of the day landed me with the victory. While I was a little disappointed that a certain few strong individuals did not come out to race with me that day, I was happy that training was going well and that this race got put on at all this year.
Once Kinsey and I rolled back into our driveway, 8 hours and 350 miles removed from the end of the tri, I had a chance to chat with my coach about the effort and looked at some numbers and splits...Not bad, but is that really all I got? I was running alone after all, no one next to me testing my fortitude. We had another six weeks to prepare for the big one.
 *  *  *
Soldiers from 1-25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team marched in heavy uniforms along the River Road on the East side of Ft Wainwright, opposite the Chena. In this weather, PT must have been a breeze compared to what's around the corner. 
I could see a puff of breath for a brief second before it dissappeared, the white whisps coming more quickly now as the pace picked up. After passing a number of formations, I turned onto another jeep road and opened up the legs. The goal of these workouts is to randomly change up the pace every 1-2 minutes, forcing your body adapt to uncertain speed changes, or something like that. Fartleks pop up on my training calender in abundance. I try to keep it fresh by running with the Army 10-miler guys about once every other week.
 August came and went even faster than its preceeding summer months; the leaves in the Tanana valley quickly changed from green to yellow-orange just as quickly as they budded four short months ago. Kinsey and I have already had to scrape ice off the wind shields before work. It's not so much that I am dreading the winter than just missing the summer. A week from now, though, I'll get one more dose in 80 degree Chicago around the Buckingham Fountain surrounded by the World's fastest triathletes on their way to Rio.

Maybe my Illinois tan can last until the snow arrives.

Monday, June 8, 2015


The blades on the 20 meter tall wind turbine spun faster and faster, cutting into the air as the southern winds raced towards Lake Michigan just down the road. Volunteers at the race expo doubled their efforts to keep their sponsored tents pegged to the ground. Anxious age-group athletes huddled under the amphitheater's overhang watching the first drip drops from the dark clouds fall on their bikes already racked in the transition area. American flags lining the running paths in all directions flew straight and stiff as the first place finisher of the Armed Forces Championship sailed toward the finish line...

I first applied for the All Army Triathlon team at the beginning of last year. With little more than a decent cycling resume and outdated race results from my Auburn Triathlon days, my creds weren't up to the standard. After a year of getting coached, refocusing on tri, and several solid finishes within the state, they brought me on board for this year's Championship.

For the first time I think ever, our race was done in conjunction with a civilian race. Leon's Triathlon in Hammond, Indiana, just southeast of Chicago, has been running for something like 30 years and the man behind it is something of a local legend among the sport. As it so happened, my coach knows him as well and was able to feed me and the team a lot of information about the race.

It was my first draft legal multisport event, and a lot like my first (and second and third...) road race, I learned a lot about this style of racing very quickly. From the time my plane landed in Midway Airport to the morning of the race, I had all sorts of knots and anxious excitement in my stomach keeping me awake at night and twitchy during the day. All the athletes stayed in the same hotel so as I watched all these other competitors walking in with their fancy gear and matching jackets, I was starting to realize the quality of my competition.

There were five teams in total: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and this year, the Canadian military team came down and competed with us as well. I wasn't totally sure just how fast the field was, but I felt like a house cat in a field of lions at times. Never before a race did I have to employ proactive positive self-talk to calm myself down. I can only imagine what it's like for Olympians the days leading up to the games.

I had the privilege to swim, bike, and run with some of the people I identify most with on the days leading up to the race. My teammates were from all over the place in all sorts of specialties, as you would expect for an event like this; we had Apache pilots, med students, SF, National Guardsmen, and deep water divers to mention a few. There's only one event in the world that would bring us together like this and to compete at this field was really something special; this race will go down as a huge highlight of my career.

On Saturday, we took one last trip to the race venue to get in an open water swim along the course. The sun was shining, the breeze was pleasant, and the temperature agreeable. After working out some nerves splashing around in the open water, we headed back to the hotel and discussed race strategy. There are so many different ways a race like this could go down and your swim time is crucial so you can get in a bike pack you can draft with.

The night before the race, we had a dinner at the country club just across the road for the race venue. All the teams were there along with Leon himself and a few other race officials. My coach was nice enough to make the drive down and meet with me and the team. Without spending more time there than we needed, we got back to the hotel for one last bit of rest before dawn.

...The forecast was looking rough even five days out. I watched it like a hawk and was mentally preparing for contingencies. Would the swim get cancelled? Would we have to postpone? I did my best not to worry, not to think too much about it, but that proved difficult. After less than seven hours of sleep, race morning came early. We rolled out at 0540. The roads were dry, so far.

The transition area was about as close to the water exit as you could possibly get. This was going to be a fast race. Body makings, fresh air in the tires, helmet here, shoes there, rubber bands on the bike shoes, race belt, all the usual procedures. There's something calming, centering about going through the process to set up transition. After an hour, all the military athletes walked over to the stage for one of the most patriotic prerace ceremonies I've ever seen. The Canadian and American national anthems were sung, huge American flags were planted all around the venue, veterans of all sorts of America's wars were in attendance and every last Harley-Davidson flew the stars and strips and POW/MIA flags from their saddle bags. God Bless America.

Wetsuits on, we walked down to the pier. I got many reassurances from my coach and got in the water.

The gun went off then chaos ensued. Bubbles, murky water, splashing everywhere, feet on my face, face on my feet, the first buoy passed. So far, so good. I was feeling smooth. The nerves were gone and I felt calm. I've done this before, so many times before. I have nothing to worry about; the race is on. I relentlessly prepare for the race itself but spend no time preparing for the anticipation beforehand.

I zig-zagged a time or two but made it out of the water in time to join the second bike pack. My favorite bike was under my hands and feet and a group of five or six quickly formed up as we made our way through some roundabouts then out to the closed highway. After just a few kilometers, were formed a pack of eight as we caught a handful of loners. One fellow Army teammate joined me along with three Air Force, two Navy, and a Maple Leaf. The course was four loops of a 10k route, headwind one way, speedy tailwind the other. Whether unwilling, unable or a combination of both, the Navy team members refused to pull and when they were out front, killed our speed. We started out within a minute of the lead group. Nick Chase (AF), Nate Dressel (ARMY), myself and the Canadian took turns pulling hard. We had to make decisions: pull hard and catch up with those guys, maintain speed, saving a little energy, and try and catch them on the run, or force all eight members of our group to pull and risk losing time.  We could see that lead group on the turns and we gained on them at first but as we got tired and our wheel suckers proved to be dead weight,we just fought to maintain speed. I could tell they were struggling to keep up with some of our pulls and at the very least, I took pleasure in knowing that even in my draft they were suffering.

39k passed and we turned back into the access road. The sky grew dark and the wind whipped now this way and that. "It's gonna be a wet run, boys!"

Dismount, bike here, helmet off"STOP!" I was a bit dazed but kept going for my helmet strap. "STOP!" I froze. "You left your wetsuit outside the box." 15 second penalty. The thought went through my mind to place my wetsuit back inside our boxes but that thought never took action in the heat of the race. 15 seconds felt like 10 minutes. "OK." And I was outta there, my transition time still respectable even with the penalty. After looking at the results later, I would have had the fastest transition time of the day had I not been penalized.

It was like my very first footfall outside T2 matched the very first drip from the sky. As I exited, Graham was right there. "Time for the 10k of your life!" I passed a few guys quickly and my first mile was going well. 5:54. Then my quads reminded me what happens when you put out 400 watts at a time on the bike when you pull like that. I started to fade and the rain only got worse. It wasn't long before we were splashing through small puddles, then big puddles. Nick Chase past me around mile 1.5. I didn't feel too bad about it, though. He races in the pro field and it took him until just now to pass me. I could be doing worse.

I hit the mile two aid station and grabbed a cup of water to splash on my throat. Unnecessary, really, because now it was pouring. I could have just looked up with gaping maw. Then the suffering set in, that part of the race you try to forget about later. I wasn't gaining much time and at one point I just stopped looking at my splits on my Garmin. I knew I was running slow but I was hurting. I was pulling out every motivational mantra I could recite. What counts in battle is what you do when the pain sets in. Oh, yes, it had set it. Embrace the peaks, endure the troughs for both shall pass. I was certainly deep in a trough. Stop feeling sorry for yourself! Remember all those stories about Navy Seals and Green Berets! It hurts so much.

Within a mile of the finish, a Navy runner passed me. He wasn't that far ahead but my afterburners were all burnt out. He had me. Between waving flags, I could see the line at long last. I crossed in an hour, 58:58, enough to place 17th out of 58 servicemen and women finishers and third on my team.

After the line, I stood in the rain, reeling from the effort. Good ol' Graham was there, smile on his face shaking my hand.

If you want to be the best you have to beat the best and at this year's Championship, I was happy with my race but far from completely satisfied. I'm not sure how much faster I could have been if I hadn't hammered as much on the bike or maybe did a few more intervals in the pool or whatever, but, for now, I can rest knowing I had just competed among the very best of the military and came out in the top 50%.

I think it's going to be a good season. 

To Victoria!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

I might be fast

Glacial dust was all I could see. The ATV's ahead of me ran across a particularly dusty portion of riverbed and kicked up remains from what used to be rock long ago and since ground to powder by the centuries-old frozen monoliths. I eased my quad a little to the right to avoid it, no doubt causing the same problem for the guy behind me. Eventually, the dust settled and our way ahead widened, yielding views of the magnificent valley hewed from the earth ages ago by the Kink Glacier. On our left, we spotted a few mountain goats on the side of a rocky slope. To our right, the Kink River.

After some 25 miles of riding, our engines came to a halt and the only thing we could hear was the occasional crrrracking of a massive piece of ice somewhere in the distance. The Kink Glacier is a vast piece of nature, spanning your entire field of vision, almost other worldly looking.

At one point, a Black Hawk flew by fast and low, a red cross on its side, making its way back to the airfield some 50 miles away. We mounted up and headed back, stopping on occasion to snap some pictures of  a beaver dam and our mountain goat friends that had made their way down to our level to say hello. By day's end, my fellow Engineer officers and I had huge smiles across our dust-coated faces and our three day professional development had finished up.

The weekend prior, Kinsey and I drove down to Anchorage so she could meet up with her parents and race in Alaska's biggest triathlon. On Saturday before the race, I had arranged a group ride with a couple other members of USMES and we spun for an hour, getting to know new teammates and scheming about future races and rides.

The Gold Nugget Tri was on Sunday and Kinsey tore the race apart. Seeing how much she trains and the effort she puts into each training session, it wasn't too big a surprise, though I'm very biased. Spectating the race was kinda nice, but it sure got my own adrenaline going. I had to go ride some big hills later that day to, uh, relieve myself.

My race season this year is strikingly different from other seasons. During my training camp in Tucson last year, I made the decision that I was going to get fast, or, at least, faster than I currently was. Not just generally fast, but fast for one particular distance. I wanted to get as close to professional racing as my body could handle. I hired a coach, got a TT bike, and entered as many races as I could, leading up to age group nationals in Milwaukee last August. As it so happened, that was just the start of my advancement in tri. I qualified for ITU Worlds and decided I wanted to try and get on the All Army Sports team as well. I applied for that team last year but didn't quite have the creds. This year, I guess not as many people sent in their applications but I somehow made it.

The season opener was a local sprint distance. Though going through the motions was beneficial, I wasn't on top of my game that day. My numbers were low and splits inconsistent. The run wasn't bad but I knew I had more. I spent too much energy the day before on an "easy" ride, that's for sure. I've done a few other tune up races as well that went reasonably well including a 5k, a short Time Trial and a very hilly 10k trial race but I really haven't pitted myself against my real competition, all either in Anchorage or the lower 48. In training, my power numbers are steadily getting higher and I'm figuring out a few more things in the water that have really helped with a few of my test intervals. To be honest, I'm swimming faster than I think I ever have, but Fairbanks, being what it is, doesn't afford me many opportunities to go head to head with the best. There are some strong guys up here that I chase in bike races and runs, but the tri field is sparse. In just two weeks, though, the gates will fly open to kick off the season in earnest when I go against the military's best at the "World's Fastest Triathlon" a.k.a. Leon's Triathlon in Chicago. It will be my first ever draft legal tri. While I'm quite excited to use my criterium skills in a race, I'm a little anxious doing that alongside triathletes that, by and large, do not have that experience. I guess that means I'll just have to swim fast to get out ahead.

Next week, I'm throwing my name in the hat for the Army 10 miler team. This Friday I'll be racing the qualifier race on post locally. The top 12 or so runners are selected to be on the US Army Alaska (USARAK) team and get a four day Temporary Duty in D.C. to participate against every other Army team at one huge event. I'm very curious to see what kind of pace I can hold since I've never done that distance for time before but I think my odds are pretty good. Thank the Lord, I've been running healthy without injury ever since I recovered from that broken leg. I still can't believe that happened. Most days, I forgot it did. 

The week after Leon's, I'll be down in Victoria, BC doing my first ever Ironman brand event at the Victoria 70.3. This one might qualify as my first major racecation. Kinsey will head down there while I'm playing with the Military boys in Chicago and I'll join her later the next Friday. It's been 10 months since I got to explore a new city and I've never actually been to America's Hat before so between the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, a spectacular Ironman venue, and time with my parents and brother and sister-in-law, this might rank up there as one of the best racecations ever. Also, the day after Victoria, Kinsey and I have another fun event, I guess, but that's another blog post.

The schedule hardly slows down after we get back from Canada. We're planning on doing the biggest Fondo type race in the state, the Fireweed 400, the Sourdough 70.3 and others. There's always the chance that Kinsey and I could qualify for the half-iron world championships in Austria later in August but I'm not counting chickens.

Next stop, the Windy City!