It’s that time of the year again: collegiate triathlon season, the eight months of the year that college students travel near and far to test the limits of human endurance in swimming, cycling, and running. Yes, they pay to do this. Yes, they claim it’s “fun.”
Bunch of masochists.
Now a little over a month in, I wanted to write an update on the season so far – and it’s been busy! I’ve raced in three WCCTC points races and finished a Gran Fondo, my first bike-only race. I completed a track cycling course at the San Diego Velodrome (and now have to buy another bike). And last weekend, I went to Tempe, Arizona to cheer on B as she raced 80 other qualifiers at the women’s NCAA Triathlon National Championships.
This year’s painfest kicked off at Bearathlon, hosted by the UC Berkeley Bears, nominated for “Most Original Race Name” along with Stanford’s Treeathlon, UCLA’s Ironbruin, and UCSD’s Tritonman.
When signing up for this race a few months back, Coach Kim suggested I compete in both the Draft Legal and Classic. Each race is half the distance of our championship race in April, so it would be good early season training, he suggested. “What a great idea!” I thought.
Fast-forward to the brief, one-hour gap between races. “What a terrible idea!”
But this story begins a few hours earlier, back when I was still feeling confident about my decision to race twice on the same day. Or maybe I was just too delirious from waking up at 4:30 AM to worry about it.
Anyway, our team had to show up extra early for the draft legal briefing, and if you’ve ever been to one, you’ve been to them all. Didn’t put all equipment in the bin provided? Penalty. Didn’t have on your helmet before touching your bike? Penalty. Dismount after the dismount line? Penalty. They even use the same damn PowerPoint presentation. “We woke up early for this?!”
In all fairness, Bearathlon served as the regional qualifier for the Women’s NCAA Collegiate Triathlon National Championships, so everything had to be legit. And it was legit. From the customized caps to the laminated transition spot markers to the body markings to the free shirts and socks to the awards after, everything was one step above a typical club collegiate race. Like the men’s race.
The women started first, and I’ll leave it to them to write about their race (see race reports on UCSD Triathlon’s website). Spoiler alert: B took 6th overall and qualified for NCAA Nationals! More on that later.
Once the women finished, we swapped bikes in transition and readied at water’s edge to start. I met some ex-varsity swimmers from North Central College who came all the way to Berkeley from Naperville, Illinois for their first ever draft legal triathlon, so I figured the swim was going to be fast. And it was. The first swimmer was out at 9:38.0 whereas I came out at 10:30.6 in 7th. 3rd – 15th were only about 30 seconds apart, so going into the bike leg it was still anyone’s race.
The run from the waterfront to transition was about a quarter mile on mostly uneven, rocky pavement, probably one of the most painful transition runs I’ve ever experienced (remember, we’re barefoot after the swim). I don’t know how they were able to run so much faster, but the leaders gained about 20 seconds on me during the transition run, and I started the bike in 11th. Catch-up time.
Now on the bike course, I immediately had two other cyclists in my draft pack, and we began closing quickly on those ahead. We passed one, then another, and they didn’t hold on – maybe they were the first-timers from Illinois? Almost at the first turnaround, we could see the lead pack not far in front of us. My pack pushed ahead, closing on the lead pack, encouraging each other as we did so – part of the reason I love racing draft legal. At turnaround #2 (of 6) we saw we were still about 15 seconds behind the leader, when suddenly the racer behind me crossed my back wheel and went down. “Are you okay?!” He immediately got up and hopped back on his bike, but by then our pack had already dropped him.
By turnaround #3 I could tell we were going to catch the lead pack, which we did halfway to turnaround #4. Anyone’s race. Some of the competitors attacked, attempting to pull away from the group, but none succeeded in separating for longer than a few seconds. Although we dropped a few athletes, our pack held mostly together, eventually heading down the home stretch five-deep. Now I attacked, but the other four stayed with me. We entered T2 together, only seconds apart.
I left transition in 4th place. I could see all three competitors ahead of me: Cullen Goss, Jose Gonzalez, and Kevin Jervis, all from Cal Poly. Cullen was sick, and halfway into the first lap of the run course he pulled off to breathe. Kudos to him for pushing so hard despite not feeling well. Jose and Kevin seemed to be pulling away, but I kept my pace steady at 6:00/mile, the fastest I thought I could hold for the 5K. By the halfway point, Kevin had pulled far enough away (he was holding 5:22/mile pace) that 1st place was no longer in contention, but Jose and I were fewer than 15 second apart. I started to descend, and as I passed Jose, he increased his pace with me. We ran neck-and-neck for a quarter mile or so, but I could hear his breathing was much harder than mine. About a tenth of a mile from the finish, I pulled ahead and went on to take second place. First race done.
In the hour between races, I ate, swapped race wheels, cassettes, and brake pads, wrote new race numbers, and regretted my decision to race twice. Too late to back out, I headed to the waterfront for the start of the classic sprint. I elected not to re-warm up.
The classic was much less exciting: no accidents, fewer lead changes, no sprint finish. Of note, I did have the fastest swim split, only 20 seconds slower than in the preceding race. Sadly, thanks to already bruised feet, I gave up nearly 40 seconds to the leader running barefoot to transition. Bike was just over a minute slower than earlier, and the run only 40 seconds slower. I finished in 3rd, overall pleased, and thoroughly exhausted.
Giro di San Diego Gran Fondo
Two other students in my department, Mauricio and Patrick, talked me into doing my first ever bike-only race with them: 113 miles and 11,100 feet of climbing. Sure, why not?
For the first ten miles or so, all the participants stayed together as one group, the largest drafting pack I’ve ever been part of. The wind resistance was so negligible we were holding 20 mph with virtually no effort required. Our police escorts left us and the pack scattered. My teammates and I stuck together for the first climb, and then onvthe downhill I lost sight of both. We had agreed earlier that should we get separated, we’d meet at the top of Mount Palomar, so I pushed on, drafting with a group of seemingly experienced cyclists including one impressively strong one-legged cyclist.
I saw the first rest stop – AKA stuff-yourself-full-of-cookies-and-bananas-and-Nutella-sandwiches stop – and enjoyed some refueling as I waited for my teammates. Eventually Mauricio arrived without Patrick who had flatted a couple miles back. I would have been surprised had he not flatted every training ride we went on before the race (but don’t feel bad, Patrick). A couple cookies later and still no Patrick, we decided to begin climbing and hope he would eventually join us at the summit.
Part of the draw to this race is the timed 13.5-mile, 4,500-foot climb of Mount Palomar with “King Of the Mountain” (KOM) awards given to the fastest climbers. I’d not been averaging much if any elevation gain in my training in weeks prior, but given it was a race, my competitive side got the best of me and I took it a little harder than I should have. I ended up finishing the climb in 4th overall, which is great, except 1) we still had 2/3 of the race left and my legs were shot, and 2) I missed the podium in a 1-hour and 15-minute-long time trial by 2 seconds. Womp.
Team Econ Cycles eventually regrouped at the top, at which point the temperature was in the mid-90s (and not a cloud in the sky!), our legs were shredded, and we were significantly behind the leaders after three flats between us. Needless to say, there was some talk about doing the metric century instead of the full thing, but the sunk-cost fallacy ruled in the end.
With the hardest part behind us – no, there were still 70 miles left! And now my hamstrings were cramping, so severely that I had to stop pedaling. I dismounted and tried to relax, stretch, shake, and nothing would work. Eventually the cramping subsided long enough that I could one-leg pedal to the downhill portion of the mountain. Then my favorite part: descending.
The rest of the ride, our team stayed together, sharing the wind, helping fix flats (we ended the day with three for Mauricio and two for Patrick), and trying not to get killed by the bike-hating drivers of east San Diego county. After 9 hours and 41 minutes and who knows how many calories, we finally finished. Then off to Green Flash for some celebratory drinks (we drove there).
UCSD Sports Clubs asks that after each race, one or two representatives from the team submit race reports. The following is mine for this year’s Coveskipper.
I’ve come full circle – this time last year, I was writing my race report for my first ever race as a Triton. And what a great year it’s been! *Happy tears*.
Coveskipper is the first of two races that our team hosts, the second being Tritonman. Coveskipper is an Aquathlon – a swim-run – which means no bike racks in transition. Which means setup and breakdown is a breeze. Happy volunteer here.
For most races, I try to taper at least a few days before the event, but I blew that this go-round. After missing a few workouts during an unusually busy week, I didn’t want to lose fitness by tapering. So race morning, muscles were pretty sore. And by electing to not “carb up” for the race, burst speed was pretty much non-existent. You could say I had low expectations going into the race. My strategy was to take it relatively easy on the swim and hold zone 4 pace on the run.
I’ll be the first to admit that strategy sucked. If anything, the conservative swim mentality spilled over into the race start as I ended up in a sea of kicking feet and thrashing elbows rather than out in the front where I like to be. Coveskipper has a two-lap swim course with a beach turnaround between laps. I exited the water after lap one feeling pretty beat, which by my lackadaisical entry for lap two was obvious to everyone watching on shore.
Fortunately, by the time I passed the first buoy, the pack had broken up enough that I could comfortably draft off the leaders without getting hit in the face. After a couple of sighting strokes, I noticed that the swim leaders were my teammates, Barry and Torin. We turned buoy number 2 with Barry and Torin leading neck and neck and me right behind drafting along. Heading into shore, I picked up the pace, positioning myself next to my teammates. We exited the water essentially together, but after missing the first of two timing pads entering transition, doubling back to cross both, getting my wetsuit caught under the timing chip, and stopping to take a breath and drink some water, I left transition quite a bit behind. Oh well, time to play catch up.
Given my diet and recent training emphasis on longer distance events, I knew I needed to stay beneath lactate threshold, less I’d burn up the little glycogen in my body. I started off holding a 6-minute mile pace with a comfortable two steps in, two out breathing pattern. San Diego State’s Graham Root and I rubbed elbows all the way to the first turnaround, where I counted two other SDSU athletes in first/second and Barry close behind in third. Heading back towards the second turnaround, Graham pulled ahead, catching up to Barry in the process, now about ten seconds in front of me. I hit the halfway point in 5th place, still holding a comfortable pace.
Last lap. Now I started to descend, aiming to hit lactate threshold somewhere near the last turnaround. I saw ahead of me that Barry was dropping Graham in 4th. I hit sub 5:45/mile pace, eventually passing Graham. Almost to the last turnaround, I catch up to Barry, and we exchange some words of encouragement. We hit the last turnaround with 2nd place in our sight. LET’S GO!!!
On a day in which I had not been sore, depleted of glycogen, or botched my transition, second place would have come down to an exciting all-out sprint at the finish. Sunday was not that day. Sorry for being anticlimactic.
So, I finished third, Barry close behind in fourth. Overall, a better performance for UCSD than last year when Barry and I took sixth and fifth, respectfully.
Then, everyone’s favorite part: food. Jason’s grilling, and it’s cheat day. Which means burgers WITH buns. AND non-sugar-free ketchup. Booyah. Everyone’s a winner.
Special thanks to Race-Director Andie for yet another flawlessly directed race, Chris for mad photography skills, APX and Zoot for the podium awards, the UCSD Tri Team for volunteering, and the other teams for racing!
NCAA Triathlon Nationals
I’m wrapping up this blog post as B and I drive back from Tempe, Arizona. As I wrote above, B qualified at the Berkeley Bearathlon to compete against 80 of the fastest women in the country at the NCAA Women’s Triathlon National Championships. Though I did not race this weekend, I think I had more fun than most of the participants, watching incredible displays of athleticism and soaking up the suspense throughout. And for once I got to cheer on Coach Kim (usually the reverse) in the age group draft legal preceding B’s race.
I underestimated Tempe. Before this weekend, my only experiences with Arizona cities were from flying over Phoenix, so I expected Tempe to look like a sandy petri dish growing a human colony. Instead, I found a city with energy and character, beautiful Buttes, funky shops, delicious food, and perfect weather. Basically San Diego without an ocean. But before I commit to move there I’ve been told I need to experience the 110+ degree summer heat.
Coach Kim raced first, and after a monster swim, strong bike, and descent on the run finished first in his age group. A couple hours later, the nation’s fastest – including some varsity athletes, previously varsity athletes, and a top-10 Olympic Trials swimmer – took off for the swim. With so many swimmers and only 100 yards until the first turn buoy, everyone wanted to sprint ahead of the pack to avoid the masses of flailing arms and legs. As fun as it was to watch, I was glad to be safely ashore for this one.
As a spectator, position on the bike course is always a surprise. One can see each racer for two short glimpses per lap, but the rest is out of view, making each pass suspenseful. B started on the bike course caught in “no man’s land” between two large packs, but by the second time she passed by, she had some drafting help. She held her distance behind the leaders, but with a drafting pack half the size of the one in front, was unable to close the gap.
Now to the run, and at almost noon on a sunny fall day in Tempe, the temperature reached the mid-80s. I was sweating just standing there – imagine the poor athletes! At the aid station next to where I was spectating, athletes were taking a couple sips of water and dumping the rest on themselves. B looked uncomfortably hot, though still holding up better than most. A little over an hour on the course and B finished, 9th among Division II athletes and 31st overall, beating out some varsity athletes. Did I mention she’s only been doing triathlon for a year?
At the finish, B didn’t seem too pleased, mostly because of her less than ideal position on the bike course. But that’s part of the game in draft legal: sometimes you get a fast pack, sometimes you’re stuck time-trialing alone. Regardless of the result, B felt lucky to take part in an NCAA-sanctioned national championship – only the fourth one ever for triathlon. As the sport continues to grow, hopefully more schools will field teams and eventually produce Olympic-caliber athletes as consistently as we do for swimming and basketball. And with Gwen Jorgenson retiring from triathlon to focus on marathon running, hopefully soon!