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.