Sep 23, 2009

Nationals Part 2: Going For Broke

Triathlon is a very interesting sport. You spend all year with a few goals in mind. You think about them while your working, while your training, even while your sleeping. You think about how that "magical" race is going to unfold. You think about how you are going to push yourself past the limits of the human body. You tell yourself that you'll have the courage to dig deep. You convince yourself that you will push until you break. You convince yourself that they will have to pick your limp body off the course before you give up. It is a good thing that we have the ability to trick ourselves. It's a good thing we can forget our last race enough to stand on that starting line again. Racing defines our lives. It makes us who we are. Racing is a test. It is much more than who can get to the finish line the fastest. Pre put it beautifully, "I don't race to see who is the fastest, I race to see who has the most guts."

The alarm wasn't supposed to go off for several more hours, but I was already turning in my sleep. The hotel bed wasn't nearly as comfortable as it was the night before. I awoke before the alarm had a chance to ring. I had a good feeling about today, it was the day I had been waiting for all year. Eager to get to the race site, Stern showed up at my hotel a little early. We both felt the nerves. Those who have never had the opportunity to experience the morning before a big race may not understand, but it is a feeling you remember for a lifetime.

The spotlights glared over transition. We still couldn't see. Late season races mean starting well before the sun comes up. Something about jogging down a deserted street in the dark made me feel alive. It made me feel like I was about to embark on an epic journey. As I ran along the calm lake, the rain started to pour. My body was soaked, but that was the last thing on my mind. Nothing in the world could take me from the task at hand.

As I got back to transition, the rain had picked up considerably. I put on my wetsuit early to stay warm. A half hour before the race was scheduled to start, McArthur Road began to flood. It was the last thing I expected to happen. In a heart beat, an element of uncertainty was introduced. Rumors of a swim-run-swim circulated. I laughed at the thought of hundreds of tired athletes trying to put their wetsuits back on after running 13.1 miles. After a 40 minute delay, they decided to start the race under one condition. If we came to a flooded section of the course, we were supposed to dismount and run through. Tri season wasn't even over and I was supposed to start practicing my cyclocross skills?

The water was luke warm. I couldn't believe it was wetsuit legal. Luckily the outside air was cold and we welcomed the warmth of the small lake. My plan was to quickly find open water and then settle into a very relaxed pace. I wanted to remain as comfortable as possible. "10 seconds athletes!" I had one of the straightest routes to the turn around. These first few hundred meters could be exciting.

The water around us turned red. A couple hundred athletes started ripping through the shallow lake water. The dark red clay that lined lake floor turned the lake water blood red. I'm sure it was an interesting site from the beach. After finding a good rhythm, I found myself alone towards the front of the wave. I was swimming well and could tell right away. My stroke was long and smooth. I felt much more powerful than usual. I pushed the pace around the turn-around buoy, I wanted a fast swim split. The swim went by in a flash. As I dolphin dived up the long concrete ramp towards the timing mat, I knew I had the best swim of the season. I checked my watch... 27:10.

I kept my HR low through transition. I hoped that I would have the ability to find my legs quickly. As a pedaled around the lake, I felt something I hadn't felt all year. My legs didn't feel empty! As I pushed the pace onto McArthur, the rain picked up again. Six miles into the bike I approached the first flooded section of the course. I didn't know it at the time, but I was one of the first people to go through. The volunteers weren't there to tell us to dismount. As I approached, It was much too late to slow down and dismount... I was committed. The water was 8inches deep. I rolled through slowly hoping to stay on my bike. Another athlete to my right did the same. This was a race. To me, it was completely acceptable to take chances.

At mile 25, I had no clue what place I was sitting in. I assumed I was towards the front. Top 20? Maybe even top 10? A mile before hitting the turn around, I saw the lead rider, Tim Hola. A minute behind him was Willy Pickhart. I knew both athletes' reputations quite well. I looked up for more riders but didn't see any... just the turn around. I was sitting in 3rd position overall, only 4 minutes down. The thought of that gave me a surge of energy. I hammered through the rain back towards the lake. I hadn't been near another athlete for 50 miles. I knew there were guys behind me who wanted my position. I was just going to have to fight for it.

I got off the bike in 2 hours and 25 minutes. I knew that it would be one of the faster times. The bike course was wet, flooded, and poorly paved. I didn't expect any blazing bike splits. I ran out of transition as the announcer's voice rang over the loud speaker. "Here comes the third athlete to get onto the run course. AJ Baucco from Cleveland Heights, Ohio!" I reminded myself that this race was mine.

I ran very conservatively for the first 3 miles... 6:25, 6:40, 6:15. Just like Jim told me, I would come into my pace. I started to feel really strong. My pace dropped to just above 6 minutes per mile as I hit the first turn around. I had a nice lead on my chasers, at least 3 minutes. As I ran back to transition to start the second loop, I started passing other athletes running in the opposite direction. They knew I was out in the front of the race and that gave me confidence. This race was mine and I was really starting to believe it. As I ran by my Dad at mile 6, I had this feeling deep down. This was the race that I had been waiting for my entire life. I finished the first 6.55 mile loop in 42 minutes. I felt like I had been conservative in my pacing. I saw my chasers for the first time. They were running hard, but I still had 2 minutes on both of them. As I hit mile 7, I started to slow a bit. My body began feeling heavy. I was starting to struggle a little bit. Mile 7 ended up being 7 minutes... I told myself I could get it back. By mile 8, I was finally passed. It was the first time all day. He made me feel like I was running backwards. I told myself it was okay. But was it? At mile 8.5, I was passed again. This one broke my heart a little bit. I was falling apart. I tried to keep it together. I knew this was the moment where I had to begin to dig deeper than I thought was possible. But, my body was telling me to stop. To quit. To give up. No one would care if I just gave up. In a race, your mind becomes your worst enemy. That is where the epic battle begins. The mind is the toughest opponent. I started to wonder if I would be able to finish again.

My pace was staggering. There was no more kick in my step. I was suffering. All I needed to do was hold on for a few more miles. I just couldn't pick up my pace. I wondered if I had been drinking enough liquid in the rainy conditions. Too late now, I was bonking hard as ever. At mile 11, I grabbed a tall, flat soda. I begged it to save me. At mile 11.5, I could taste the finish. I could see it in the distance. As I approached mile 12, a pack of three runners passed me. The knife was in my chest. They just twisted it. As I watched them run away from me, I got pissed off for the first time all day. I felt the sugar from the coke run through my veins like a drug. This was it. Stop being a wimp and run! My pace dropped, my stride opened and I began to kick for the finish.

The more I race the more I feel like I am searching for that perfect race. As endurance athletes are we ever happy? I have accomplished a great deal in the last few years. I won two triathlons, podium'd at many others, and finished a world championship race. I have never crossed the line and been satisfied enough to say "That's it. That is the best race I will ever have in my life." I known that will never happen. I just hope that someday I will look back on how I lived my life and be truly happy. If that happens, all of the suffering, the pain, the loneliness, the self-doubt, the struggle... it will all be worth it. I am my biggest enemy, my toughest competitor. I always have been. I know that I can accomplish great things in my life and I won't be happy until I do. I'm not an athlete. I don't have any great skills. I don't even think I was born with the ability that most elite endurance athletes were given. I was just given this burning passion to better myself. I'm not sure if it is a blessing or a curse. But it is mine... It burns deep inside me and it is going to take me places.

I ended up crossing the line in 4:27:25. I was 8th overall at a national championship. I was also 1st in the M20-24 division. I guess that means I am an age group national champion. I can't help but laugh when i write that. If you knew me a few years ago, you'd laugh too. I guess that anything is possible... who knows what the next few years will bring.

1 comment:

  1. You're such a good story teller, i feel like i was there!!! Im so proud of you!