The ITU Long Course World Championship was an unforgettable experience and I can’t thank enough my wife and family and others who made it possible for me to come to Denmark to represent the USA. Standing on top of the podium with an American flag is definitely one of my proudest sporting moments. Sure, it’s an amateur age group win, and I’m not exactly very fond of triathlon age groups, but I’m still going to enjoy that it’s a world championship and a gold medal (ok, probably a nickel alloy with a goldish colored plating on it, but, close enough).
Coming out on top of my age group by just 32 seconds still feels a bit surreal, and on reflection I think it gives me a bit of early closure on triathlon – I feel I can walk away at the end of the year without regret, satisfied with the goals I’ve accomplished. I owe an enormous thank you to my wife and other family and friends, including my Team EMJ teammates and the companies that work with us, any of which could have easily made the difference of 32 seconds.
Journey to Denmark
The original reason my triathlon plans went through 2018 was for the chance to suit up for Team USA. I had been planning this trip since before the exact dates and location of the race were even known. Late last year I found out I would be headed to Odense, Denmark for the ITU Long Course World Championship.
My trip actually started by traveling to Tennessee, and there was no better way to start it. I visited family as we celebrated my grandma’s 90th birthday and America’s birthday, and in between those I got some great time in at Frozen Head. Then my wife and I headed to the mountains for a great weekend to celebrate our 10th anniversary.
Then, it was off to Denmark finally. I was excited for the chance to experience a new culture and explore a new place even if only through a race. As I rode the train through the Danish countryside from the airport, though, it seemed to look a lot like Ohio. What had been drastically different to that point was the upgrade to SAS’s economy plus I lucked out with, which turned out to be almost as good as United business. And SAS doesn’t charge $200 for a bike (although no airline can prevent TSA from detaching a bike from its bag’s frame and breaking the rear derailleur).
I arrived in Odense (I think it’s pronounced O-den-se… kind of like Thor’s last name without the ‘n’ on the end) and went straight to my Airbnb, a nice little apartment within walking distance of the train station and all the important race locations. It may not be the biggest, most impressive city (their big claim to fame is being the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen), but being able to minimize the typically enormous logistics of triathlon by having everything within walking distance was absolutely wonderful. And the city did have some really nice areas and nearby attractions that I just didn’t have the time to explore.
The only real logistical hurdle I had after arriving was grocery shopping when everything was written in a different language (strategy: look at the picture, make sure it’s not liquorice or pickled fish, and then just hope for the best). Fortunately there were at least some familiar faces there, as my old high school cross country teammate Chris Parks was also racing and was there with his fiancée Kristin Simpson. It was awesome to still have friends and some great support all the way over on another continent.
After an overnight flight where I slept almost none, I settled in that first night and slept nearly 13 hours until noon. That turned out to be a big mistake. The two nights before the race I struggled to get to sleep and stay asleep at a decent hour, waking up hot both nights from the lack of air conditioning and then being unable to get back to sleep, my body still apparently thinking that I was in a time zone 6 hours to the west and that I could just fall asleep later and wake up at noon.
The morning of the race my main concern was just making sure I didn’t violate any of ITU’s enormously long list of rules. It’s like a game of Simon Says where the losers just wasted a lot of money and time preparing and traveling to a race they won’t get to compete in. Satisfied that everything was right, I headed to the swim start as ready as I’ve ever been for a swim start.
Then, one of the worst ideas in all of sports: the mass swim start. I fully support having a start where people get to race directly against each other rather than a rolling start where no one knows exactly what their time is relative to anyone else, but everyone at once in the water is also not good competitively. Plus it can be downright dangerous. A start with seeded groups (based on overall expected finishing time instead of age groups or expected swim time) would be simple and provide the best of both worlds. But, another rant, another day.
We treaded water endlessly, spending nearly an extra 10 minutes to be sure no one was a foot past the starting buoys (because that would have made all the difference). Then the starter raised his arm and said, “Ready…” And that’s all I heard. As he started to say what I assume was “set” the person behind me grabbed my shoulder and pulled me underwater, using my body to launch himself over the top of me and forward across the starting line. Ahhh, swimming. You’re the best.
Then, I began the game of trying not to get kicked in the face or having my goggles ripped off or my wetsuit unzipped. Triathletes in general are awesome people, but there are some jerks out there. Give those jerks the anonymity provided by an open water start, and all bets are off.
Eventually a bit of space opened up and I settled into a nice rhythm. On my practice swim the day before I had felt really good and my pace was great. This felt similar. I was unable to find a group to draft with, but I felt fairly consistent and didn’t swim off course nearly as bad as I often do. The biggest problem came when I dove back into the water from a platform we had to cross midway and knocked my own goggles off my face in the process.
As I approached the end of the 3,000 meter swim, I was wondering excitedly whether I was under 51 minutes or under 48. I had set my watch to vibrate every 3 minutes, but thought I may have missed one of them. As I started running into transition I checked my watch. I had missed two of them. #%&!%. One of these days, swimming, one of these days…
My official swim time was 51:49. I have no idea why the pace that felt the same as the day before was so much slower. But nothing I could do about it then. All that mattered is that once again I had a lot of work to do, and I headed for my bike to get to it.
I immediately began making up ground. With the mass start, I at least knew that on the first lap of the bike course everyone physically in front of me was also actually in front of me in the race. Little by little, I moved forward until around mile 15, when suddenly there was no one left in front of me. As I was trying to figure out why there was such a big gap in front of me, an enormous Dane blew by me. Seriously, he had to be at least 6’ 4”, and if this had been a draft legal race I would have just hit the jackpot. After letting him finish the pass and dropping back out of the draft zone I surged and stayed with him. I couldn’t let people pass me on the bike, especially with yet another disappointing swim.
A few miles later I finally saw about a dozen riders out across a field as they went around a bend in the road. I had serious doubts, but was starting to become hopeful that I was catching up to the good swimmers. I had done my scouting the night before and knew who in my age group would be in front of me after the swim and present an overall challenge. As the Dane and I worked our way past the group, I scanned the numbers looking for my key competition. None were to be found.
I passed the Dane at the end of the first lap going up a small hill (sometimes it pays to be large and strong, and sometimes it pays to be small and light). The course was extremely flat, but did have a few of those small hills that, along with a lot of turns and high winds, really drained power and made the course slower than I expected.
Winding through some of the old villages out there with the locals out to cheer us on was pretty cool. There were even quite a few cheers of “Go USA!” If nothing else, I was happy to know that most people seemed to in fact not hate us and could separate their feelings towards certain politicians from their feelings towards a guy out riding his bike, and that goodwill built over decades of support and good relations following WW2 could not be easily destroyed.
I continued steadily on the 2nd lap. I knew there must still be at least 3 people in front of me in my age group, though, and I began to accept that I was going to again need to get the job done on the run. After prematurely unstrapping my shoes thinking that transition was just around the corner, I rode about another 2 km before finally turning down into a parking garage to start the run.
I had put out solid power, much more than any Ironman I’d ever done and close to my best in a half Ironman. But this time, it was somehow high power and low speed (Denver and Kona had been high speed with low power). My official time was a 3:07:06 (Strava link), which I did not expect made up the ground I needed to after the swim.
I saw two options at this point: stick to my game plan of a 6:15 pace for the 30.6 km run, or go for broke and do what I thought would be necessary to catch the leaders. I quickly did some math, and set out at a 6 minute flat pace. That would put me at about 2 minutes under 6 hours for the race, and right around where I felt my main competition should finish.
So off I went, on the hunt, and with “Welcome to the Jungle” for some reason blasting in my head (I admit I didn’t see a lot of Denmark, but I don’t think there are any jungles there). The course was 4 loops, so on the 2nd loop (about 5 miles in) things started getting congested and I once again couldn’t be sure who was in front of me. I at least still had the numbers of the people I knew should be in front: a Dane (Søren Sørensen), a German (Jan Seewald), and a couple of guys from the UK (Michael Rixon and Benjamin Terry). Every time I saw a bib from one of those countries I was momentarily energized as I peered to read the bib number.
I passed Benjamin and Jan on the 3rd lap. At that point I was convinced that Michael must have dropped out or had something happen where I passed him without noticing. From my pre-race scouting, Søren is who I expected to be in front, and I began focusing on finding him. Kristin and a guy there with Team USA had been trying to keep me updated on my place each time I came by, but I don’t think the tracking app was working perfectly and I kept getting conflicting reports. With the race being in Denmark, there were of course a lot of Danish athletes out there and I was repeatedly met with disappointment each time I closed in on one and saw that they were not Søren.
With a few miles to go, I had all but given up on catching him. I was also hurting pretty badly at that point. I had managed to stay quite close to a 6 minute pace, and the thoughts began entering my mind that it wasn’t worth it to continue that effort. “Just enjoy the moment, you’ll probably never suit up for Team USA again. It won’t be worth it to keep this intensity. Think how much worse the recovery and interruption of training for your next race will be.”
But none of those thoughts seemed to matter. At a point where my mind is normally doing everything it can to bargain with my body to go just a bit further, my body was on cruise control. From decades of being overly competitive and refusing to give up, it seemed to be conditioned to simply not let me quit on this big of a stage and with USA plastered across my chest. With my body leading the charge for once, my mind scrambled to give it some back up. “You can still go sub 6! But you’re gonna have to move!”
So I used everything I had left, my pace slowing slightly but maintaining a pace in the 6:20s over the last few miles. My final time for the run was 1:55:44, a 6:04 pace (Strava link). If the race had been 7 miles further I’m pretty confident I would have set a marathon PR. I not only came in just under 6 hours (5:59:43), in the last km I passed Michael Rixon, who I was convinced must have already been behind me.
I sat down after the finish and Michael came in shortly behind me. He told me I had won. Søren had dropped out. I didn’t really believe it at first, but after he walked away I couldn’t help but get a giddy smile on my face. World champion, and a gold for Team USA. Sure, it was an age group world championship; it’s not like I won the elite race or the Olympics or something, but at that point I didn’t care.
To clarify on that: I think the tiny 5 year triathlon age groups are ridiculous (let’s just put everyone in their own group and then we can all win all the time!). As a 33 year old, I should be racing against everyone for the overall win. But with wave starts, multi-lap courses, and an incentive structure that cares about nothing but those age groups (most of the time there aren’t even overall awards of any kind), it’s one of those situations where the rules might be absurd but until / unless they change you have to play by them if you want to compete.
The last time I tried not to play by them I nearly lost my chance to compete for Team USA to begin with. At the qualifying race I put myself in the “open division,” which is usually set aside for amateurs who want to compete against the best regardless of age group. Despite being the fastest overall, starting in the same wave as my age group, and finishing 15 minutes ahead of the next person in my age group, I was not officially labeled as being in an age group and USAT at first tried to tell me I couldn’t qualify (I must admit, there was a bit of a “how you like me now” feeling towards USAT after this race).
But enough on that. At some point if I have time I’d like to do a separate post on the triathlon qualifying and awards structure. This time, though, I played the game the way that they wanted me to and so I’m going to enjoy the outcome and the title that comes with it. It’s truly something I’ll have with me the rest of my life, and standing on top of that podium with an American flag is without a doubt one of my proudest sporting moments. I was also actually the fastest American there that day, including the pros, and the fastest amateur on the run (7th amateur overall).
I’ve now also been on both sides of a close finish. After missing the podium at Kona last year by less than 2 minutes, I came out on top in this race by just 32 seconds. Knowing the number of things that can easily cause that amount of time difference in a triathlon, and that I will likely never have the opportunity to race on that stage again, coming out on top feels incredibly fortunate and a bit surreal, almost like how I would have scripted it. It also makes me feel bad for Michael Rixon, but I’m hoping that he’ll have another opportunity and make the most of it. I had the chance to chat with him and Jan for a while after the race and they’re both great guys – the kind that the sport can never have enough of but that already greatly outnumber the jerks who try to drown people on the swim.
And honestly, it kind of gives me closure on triathlon. Driven by last year’s podium miss, I’m still going to go back to Kona and give it everything I’ve got, but if I come up short again I think I’ll be alright with it. I can walk away from triathlon without regret, feeling satisfied with the goals I’ve accomplished. I do hope that I’m able to retain the fire necessary to train right for Kona, but even if I don’t there’s a heck of a lot more to life than triathlon or running. I’m going to enjoy those things as much as possible and be sure they get the attention they deserve. I’ll always have my energy focused somewhere, but everything has an opportunity cost and it’s important to constantly re-evaluate those as both the opportunity value and the cost change. And for me the value of some things, like all those hours spent in the pool (especially given the frustrating lack of race improvement that has resulted from them), are quite a bit lower now.
I was once again pretty low calorie for this race. With it being shorter than most races that I focus on, I felt I could rely more on my topped off glycogen stores and that I wouldn’t need as much. I started the bike with two servings of Perpeteum, and after that I had a Hammer bar and a gel. On the run all I had was one gel and some sips of Coke at aid stations (sometimes even just rinsing). In total, I had 600-700 calories, or just over 100 / hour. I was definitely in pain and fatigued towards the end, but I never felt like I was bonking or out of energy / calories.