Sunday, May 12, 2013

Collegiate Nationals Wrap-up

The USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships, or Collegiate Nats, is an event that I look forward to every year.  As someone who both 1) didn't find the sport of triathlon until grad school and 2) used up their NCAA eligibility in undergrad (rowing), I have been very lucky and grateful that triathlon is a club sport that allows grad students up to age 28 to participate.  My primary training partners and some of my favorite people in Wisconsin are from the Wisconsin Tri Team.  Team members brought me into the sport and showed me the ropes, and it's a pleasure for me to now be able to do the same for other members of the team.  Any chance to race with them is always a good time, so of course there's no way I would have missed Nats in Tempe, AZ this year.  In addition to the chance to race/bond with my team all weekend, it's also a chance for me to meet up with other friends I've made from around the country through my involvement with the USAT Collegiate Committee and other aspects of the sport.  It's also just a great race to be a spectator at.  Schools are known to dress up in crazy outfits, and the spirit everywhere is unique and really special.

The Badger "scooter gang" at Collegiate Nats in Tuscaloosa, 2012
Collegiate Nats has continued to grow and change every year along with collegiate triathlon in general.  The field of college age triathletes keeps getting larger and deeper in talent.  USAT has identified the college years as a missing piece of the Olympic triathlete development pipeline in the U.S., as many talented young triathletes have typically chosen to swim or run in NCAA programs in college and put triathlon on hold.  Another complication for developing successful Olympic athletes is that most triathlons in the U.S. are a non-drafting format, while the Olympics are a draft-legal, "ITU style" looped format with a different set of rules and required skill set. Women's triathlon is currently looking promising as an NCAA emerging sport, but the implementation of that would still be a few years away.  In the early years of collegiate triathlon competition there was just one national championship race every year, a non-drafting Olympic distance race.  To help bridge the gaps between junior elite triathlon competition (which is ITU style), U-25 (formerly U-23) and pro/elite ITU racing, USAT has increasing been working to incorporate draft-legal racing into collegiate tri.  Last year at Collegiate Nats the first ever draft-legal collegiate race was held- a mixed team relay, to help draw a large number of participants and create interest and excitement among the collegiate athletes.  The race was a success, so USAT kept it plus added another race this year- an individual draft-legal sprint race.  It was decided that the mixed relay would be kept just for fun/bragging rights, but the individual draft-legal race would be scored.  Individuals could then be scored for a combined draft-legal + non-drafting championship, and team scores would be made up of the top 4 non-drafting scores + the top draft-legal score per team per gender.  Game changer!

Suddenly the weekend got a lot more complicated for teams.  The nature of draft-legal (DL) races requires them to have much smaller fields than the non-drafting race, so only a few people per team, at most, would be racing those.  The draft-legal athletes were also required to be on road bikes instead of tri bikes, and some other types of aero gear (helmets and wheels) were allowed for the Olympic race but not for the DL ones.  Between picking which athletes would go in which races, getting all the gear for ~20 people across the country, and then shuffling athletes between races and hotel and meetings and airports all weekend, the team definitely had a logistical challenge, and as one of the lucky few athletes who had chosen/was chosen to do all 3 races, I was flying around all weekend.  As a result I missed catching up with a few people I'd wanted to meet up with, but the weekend was still a blast!
Weekend bonus: getting to hang out with my sister Aeryn, who lives near Tempe.  She even had a sweet little care package waiting for me upon arrival late Wednesday night!

On to the race reports!

Friday a.m.: Individual draft-legal sprint

This was quite a new experience for me, and was honestly the part of the weekend I was most terrified about.  I did the DL mixed relay at last year's Collegiate Nats and have completed a handful of collegiate cycling road races and criteriums, but something about draft-legal tri was very intimidating.  I think my concern was that it is SO tactical that I knew I'd have to do a great job adjust my plan on the fly to put Wisconsin in the best finish position.  My teammate Ellie would be in the same race.  Since only one person per team counted towards the team score, we tried to plan out what each of us would do in a dozen different scenarios to ensure that our first person finished well while our second wouldn't end up too tuckered out for the Olympic distance the next day.  Ellie and I were pretty close in ability on the swim and run, with her having the edge on the swim and myself on the run, so things would depend a lot on where we each ended up on the bike.  The distances for the race were half an Olympic, so 750m swim/20k bike/5k run.

It was fun to show up and see all of our names on our individual spots in the transition area- it felt very "pro."  I'm sorry I forgot to get a picture of mine! After watching our teammate Robbie race in the men's race (he did great!) it was time for us to line up.  Unlike the men's race, we weren't allowed to wear wetsuits-- the water had warmed up half a degree to be just over the cut-off.  We entered the water by number, which had basically been assigned randomly, and chose starting spots along a wall for a push start. The swim course was a strange kind of loop and a half, and it was crowded the whole time.  I got flustered and ended up swimming sloppily, but near the end I spotted a flash of white a few meters ahead and suspected it was Ellie.  I tried to stay with her and ended up chasing her up the metal stairs 4 seconds behind, with the 13th best swim at 12:04.  Transition was fast and furious. I didn't do a flying mount since I hadn't been practicing it, so I hit the bike with my shoes already on and started to hammer to catch the girls in front of me.

working with a few companions on the bike
The bike course consisted of 4 5k laps, with a small hill at the far end of each and a 180 at the end closer to transition.  Less than half a mile in I came by Ellie, who was having some trouble getting her feet in her bike shoes.  I yelled encouragement as I passed, but knew it was in our best interest for me to keep chasing the couple girls I saw just up the road.  As a much stronger swim/biker than I am a runner, and also knowing that a hard bike would hurt my legs less for the rest of the weekend than a hard run, I tried to use the bike to advance as far as I could.  I flew by a few weaker cyclists, and after 2 laps found myself part of a strong group of 5 for a while.  Still a bit gassed from my long chase, I missed the boat when two of them made a move off the front.  In fact, in an in-race first for me, I found myself throwing up off the side of my bike (luckily missing it and my leg) on lap 3.  Oops.  Still not quite sure what that was about, but I felt a little better afterwards.  I stuck with the remaining 2 girls for the remainder of the ride, contributing to the pace-setting when I could (which honestly was not often by that point).  I was trying to save a little bit of energy for the run, and both other girls seemed a little fresher than I was.  I was off the bike in 33:44 (6th best) after a tricky flying dismount around a U turn into transition.  Eesh!
The day had grown quite hot by this point, in the high eighties and the sun was shining brightly.  Coming out of transition the Air Force Academy girl (Sam Morrison) took off like she was running a 100m dash, so I was content to just let her go.  Meanwhile, the UCLA girl and I swapped places a couple times over the 2 lap, virtually out-and-back run.  I felt pretty strong considering the heat and the hard bike, and there was a big gap to the next girls behind us.  I made sure to yell to Ellie as I passed so she would know she could bring it in easy.  The course must have been slightly long, because no one ended up breaking 20 and there were definitely a number of very fast girls in that field.  Thankful for the gap behind me, I brought it home in a pretty comfortable tempo pace for the 9th fastest run at 23:06 as well as a 9th place finish at 1:10:08.  After that, the focus changed quickly changed to recovery, and I made sure to spend some quality time in the NormaTec recovery boot tent :) Still on tap for the the rest of the day was a mixed relay briefing, Collegiate Committee meeting, and pasta party with the team at Tempe Marketplace, so I had to spend a bit more time on my feet but tried to stay as loose as possible.

Ellie and I post sprint: Wisco girls showing a little Rev3 love

Saturday a.m.: Olympic distance

The girls were slated to go second again- the men started at 7:30, while the first wave of women was at 10:50.  I enjoyed cheering for my teammates and some other Midwest conference friends at various points on the course: T1 exit, swim exit, bike, run finish.  The day was quickly heating up as the men were finishing, and after our top 4 were in it was time for me to "warm" up. Ha.  Managing heat was, as usual, a major concern for our team at this race.  I opted to wear my white arm coolers, which had helped a lot in some of my more successful hot races in recent years like Vegas in 2011.

I started on the inside of the swim course, a long rectangle, and stayed there throughout.  In fact, I think I was a bit too far to the inside at many points, because the bulk of the field seemed pretty far away.  Needless to say, I didn't find anyone to draft.  My lats felt tired (from the poor swim the day before?) and I never found a groove, so I just tried to keep turning over.  I couldn't wait to get out of the water and onto my bike. After watching countless men slip on the metal swim exit steps earlier in the morning, I was happy to make it out without incident. Time: 23:26.

The transition area was really large and the ends of the bike racks were not numbered, but lucklily I'd taken careful note of the landmarks near mine.  The 40k course was 2 laps with 2 180 degree turns on each.  My bike legs felt pretty good right away, but I kept an eye on my power to avoid going out too hard.  Even riding fairly conservatively I passed quite a few girls in the first 15 minutes of the ride, which was fun. The first 180 was a couple lanes wide and was no problem, especially on the first lap.  The second one bordered on ridiculous: the width of just a car lane + bike lane, bounded on each side by a curb (no room for error!).  We hadn't previewed this part of the course, and I panicked slightly when I saw it on the first lap, unclipping one foot to ensure I could complete it safely.  On the second lap, I started to pass through slower girls on their first lap who started in late waves, so some of the turns got a bit congested.  Luckily I hit the second 180 on my own the second time, and gritted my teeth and made it through with a hard lean, without unclipping.  Whew.  About 45 min into the ride I ran out of water... darn desert.  My legs wanted to push a bit harder, but I decided to play it safe considering the very hot run coming up, and eased off a bit. Time: 1:00:54, 17th best (the course turned out to only be 22.4 miles-of course they shortened my favorite part :/ ).

enjoying the cheers at the end of lap 1
The run course was a single big 10k loop that went across the river for a long stretch.  Through the course of the bike I had moved up into the top 25 and came out of T2 right behind Tess Amer, a Colorado athlete who I knew was very good.  Awesome!  My legs actually felt pretty solid and I focused on my cadence.  We went along at a quick but manageable pace.  My heart rate started to feel like it was climbing, though, as my body heated up.  The first aid station was a mile in, and I yelled ahead for the things I wanted, but the ice arrived a little too late.  I plowed through without it, not wanting to let Tess get away.  Half a mile later, however, I felt my temp spiking and slowed a little to keep things under control.  It was 90* and the run had zero shade.  From then on, my run was damage control.  I'd lost my little baggie of salt tablets somewhere in T2, so I had to wing it.  At every aid station I drank Gatorade for the electrolytes; poured water on my head, jersey, and arm coolers; and grabbed as much ice as I could.  I had to walk a little to pick up everything.  Ice went down the sports bra, under the hat (I'd worn a full cap specifically to carry ice), even some down the shorts.  I held ice in my hands, in my mouth, anything I could think of to try to cool off.  It helped a little bit, and I was able to increase my pace after each aid station, only to begin crashing again a few minutes later.  Girls were starting to stream by me and I was just doing my best to keep it together, both physically and mentally.  Many parts of the run, particularly the part across the river, were quiet and a bit lonely- just us girls and our demons.  On a short out a back section near mile 4 I spotted my friend Alison from Iowa, a speedy runner, a minute or two down from me and made it a goal to try to hold her off.  Finally near mile 5 we hit the last stretch and ran into a few spectators to lift our spirits.  I spotted Kevin, the collegiate committee chair, and made a quick joke as I ran by.  Alison passed me close to the 6 mile mark and I did my best to summon an extra gear into the finish line.  Time: 48:39.  Certainly slow for me, but not as bad a blow-up as the year the girls started second in Tuscaloosa.  Thank goodness for that...

Final result: 2:15:34, 37th out of 406.  In hindsight, I think I should've found a way to carry a third water bottle on the bike, and/or slowed down at the first aid station for ice and more fluids.  Aside from that, I think I managed the heat as best as I knew how.  It's so hard every year to have a national championship in a hot place in April while there is often still snow on the ground in Wisconsin- no time to acclimate.  But we are not the only school in this position, and just have to do the best we can.

I have a history of heat issues at this point, ending up in the med tent both years in Tuscaloosa, in 2011 at Vegas, and last year at Door County.  If I don't end up in medical, does it mean I could/should have gone harder?  I don't know.  Is that an unhealthy criterion to judge by?  Maybe.

Saturday p.m.: Mixed Team Relay

By the time I finished my lengthy stay in the ice bath, got food, and watched a few more teammates finish, it was already time to get ready for the afternoon relay.  This meant scrubbing off race number tattoos and applying new ones, switching my pedals back to the road bike, putting number stickers on my road helmet and a new swim cap, fetching timing straps for myself and my teammates, etc.  Crazy.  I checked to make sure my brakes weren't rubbing, since the bike had been handled several times by a couple different people since the race the day before.  Everything seemed fine.  The race consisted of teams of 4 from each school.  Each person completed a 250m swim, 5k bike, and 1.2k run before tagging the next person on their team.  The order was female/male/female/male, and I would be leading our team off.

Swim: this was the most physical swim I have ever been in.  I was crawling over people and bring clawed at from the minute the horn sounded.  It was a struggle just to breathe in all the splashing.  My being-coordinated streak came to a crashing halt as I slipped not once, but twice climbing out of the water on the metal stairs. Yowtch. I dashed out, grabbed my bike, hopped on and felt a little bit of a shimmy. "Tire pressure must be a little low," I thought as I gently took the left turn onto the road.

Low was an understatement.  As soon as I started to turn I felt the rear wheel slide out from beneath me.  Instinctively I tried to correct it by jamming myself the other way, but the tire wouldn't let me stick it.  Instead, I wobbled briefly before coming down on the pavement on my other side.  GET UP.  Luckily I got out of the way without any of the girls hitting me.  I felt the rear tire: completely flat.  Well, that explained the crash.  Other than that, the bike looked ok.  Some of my teammates ran over as I looked around helplessly.  Was there neutral support?  Can I keep going?  Soon I was handed a wheel.  Everything was a blur.  I must have lost a minute or two; everyone else was long gone.  But I finally hopped back on the bike to some cheers and tore off in an adrenaline-fueled frenzy to the now-familiar 5k loop.  Surprisingly I caught and blew by one girl, but the rest of the field wasn't even in sight.  I felt kind of stupid all by myself but treated it like a crazy TT in my drops.  As I passed by transition at the end of the loop I heard teammates screaming that we were still in- go, go, go!  Coming off the bike I could see a few girls ahead in the distance and set off in hot pursuit.  In a run this short, there was nothing to save- it was full gas the whole way. To my surprise and delight I managed to squeeze by a couple more girls before tagging my teammate Alex.  Hey, at least we weren't last!  I always enjoy having something to chase.  Alex, Mali, and David all did great and brought us past a few more teams by the end. 

I ended up 6th in the individual combined standings (draft-legal + Olympic) and the team ended up  16th overall, with 13th place for the women and 21st for the men.  Not too bad for a Midwest team, but I know we can do even better.  I was recently elected president of the team for next year, and I have some big goals for us :)

Some of the team accepting our award for UW Rec Sports Club of the Year!  A week post Nationals.

The awards ceremony that evening was a good time as always, and our team found a few others to celebrate with (shout out to UW-Eau Claire).  I held my last meeting as Midwest Collegiate Commissioner, a position I will miss despite all the work.  It has allowed me to meet so many amazing people over the past 2 years.  In my final year as a collegiate athlete (I better finish my doctorate next summer!!!) I'm excited to have such a great team and great friends, and to really savor the experience.

On Wisconsin!

1 comment :