About 400 yards up the road, the brake lights from the lead vehicle snapped me back into the moment. He went straight, I would go left, and I now knew I was close and going to make it. The road was smooth and I picked my line, doing my best to keep turning the legs over as I put in one last dig. I was closing quickly and now heard for the first time the muffled din of music from transition, punctuated occasionally by the PA announcer calling out the last of the swim waves.
Approaching transition, I quickly inventoried all the fancy metrics I had been ignoring-- normalized power, heart rate, average speed and distance. Today, they simply didn't matter. I was riding as hard as I possibly could, all out, and I didn't internalize them, didn't process my data. What mattered was that I was at my limit and just chasing for that little bit of extra effort and speed. This is what makes sprint racing awesome-- the fact you get to chase competitors on the road, not a power number, and those times when you "blow up" are just part of the deal. And today, things were looking up.
Roughly 9 miles earlier in the ride, I had made a big tactical decision at the turnaround. I knew that same tailwind that pushed us out had set us up for a return leg of 9 miles into a headwind and would make for a tough closing stretch for everyone. I had worked my way steadily through the field on the outbound leg, sensing that no one on the road had the bike legs to come with me. I also knew that because it was hot and humid, the run would be a wildcard . Someone from the field might be sitting on blistering 5k-- but I definitely wasn't setting on any 5k PRs today.
So my best play was to put as much time into the field as possible before T2, and I needed to make something happen. I have done a lot of Zwift racing in my training in my buildup this year, and I've launched some pretty big (and definitely some pretty dumb) attacks from the safety of my trainer. I've also learned a lot of lessons along the way about tactics and my own psychology.
Some moves stick, some don't, but that is racing, and that is what makes it fun. Each time, there comes a moment where I inevitably say myself… "screw it, let's do it!" and I commit. That moment came just after the turnaround, where I pulled into first, put in a big dig, and went all-in on the attack. I decided that if anyone was going to catch me, they were going to have to do it on the run. It was going to be a painful 20 minutes of riding if I was going to hold on to T2.
Fast forward then back to the entrance to Frank Murphy park. A small crowd of spectators had formed and in a moment I was on them, hanging a hard left, and rounding back towards bike in. I looked back briefly down the road to see if anyone had stuck around. No one was in sight. The attack had worked. I had averaged just under 26 mph for the ride-- an all-time best ride for me-- and the fastest bike split of the day.
It was a short stretch of pavement from the turn to the dismount line so I had to move quickly. I unvelcroed, removed my right foot, then my left, and I swung my right leg over and behind my seat to set up my dismount. As I have visualized and practiced hundreds of times (I literally do this after EVERY ride, even on the trainer in the dead of winter), I dismounted cleanly and in-stride.
I racked my bike, slid my shoes on, grabbed my cap and belt and was away. I heard the PA announcer as I passed through run out say that "we just heard that the first athlete is in transition and heading out onto the run course," and I grinned ear to ear heading out onto the empty 5k course.
It was a lonely out-and-back run on an exposed and hot country road. I ran scared, not knowing how strong the runners in the field behind me would prove to be. I pushed it as hard as I could, but could feel that I was paying for my bike effort and the heat was taking no prisoners. I focused on a quick cadence and allowed myself to look backwards to see if anyone was behind as I clicked off my first mile in 6:20. Still no one in sight.
I got to the turn-around, and then almost to mile 2 before seeing the next runner on the road. A little mental math told me I was up a couple of minutes, but I knew someone could still come out of the age group waves. My watch beeped 6:22 and I allowed myself passing through mile 2 to finally imagine myself winning the race.
The countdown and mental negotiation began in earnest with just a mile remaining. Just six more minutes! I thought about all of the track sessions, winter runs, and late night treadmill runs while travelling and at hotel gyms that had lead me here. Just 4 more minutes. You love running, I reminded myself. Just half a mile. That's not even a loop of the bike path around the park at home. Just to the arch. So close. Just down the hill.
Finally, I stole one more look back to make sure I wasn't going to get out-sprinted and saw the finishing tape in front of me. I've never broken the tape before, so it was a special experience. Definitely unreal. I grabbed it, slammed it, and took a bit of time to soak in what I had just accomplished. I had just won the freaking race!
I still tempered my expectations a bit, knowing that a winner might still come out of the AG waves, as I had started elite. I didn't let myself get too high until the final results were posted. My time held up, though second place came from a later wave. In the end, I got my crystal lighthouse, capping off a nearly perfect race for me.
Coming in, I knew I wanted to finish under 1:10, and finished in 1:09 high. Based on past results, most years, 1:08-1:09 is good enough to win. Had it turned into a footrace, could I have gone faster? Maybe, but I didn't have to. Ultimately, in that heat, the race was won on the bike. I minimized my losses in the water, raced to my strengths, and held it together on the run.
What a day! What a race! What a weekend!
So what are the takeaways?
- Racing is awesome. Mixing it up, pushing your limits, failing and succeeding are all part of the game. I've learned to embrace each part of it, the ups and the downs, and learn from each time I toe the line.
- Swimming matters: You can't win a race in the swim, but you can lose it. I've been swimming a lot more this year and a lot harder, trying to minimize my losses out of the water. I'm not where I want to be yet, but I'm definitely improving and my swim has kept me in the hunt.
- Zwift (trainer) riding and gravel riding translates well to TT'ing: I choose to ride indoors or off of the roads whenever possible. It's a personal choice, due to both schedule and safety. This means that 3 hour weekend and late night Zwift rides are a staple of my training. We're also blessed with great trails in Madison (Military Ridge/ Badger State) and I'm trying to ride more gravel as a way to get outside.
- The run remains a work in progress and is the next area for improvement: I've been running well, but not to potential. I know this will come with more experience and training.
Next up for me, Tri'ing for Children Triathlon (sprint) and then Steelhead 70.3 in August. Thanks for reading and until next time,