It was 45 minutes into one of my final quality training rides 10 days before my Olympic-Sprint double attempt at this year’s USA Triathlon Age Group Nationals in Omaha. This weekend was the highlight of my race calendar this year, my attempt to qualify for Team USA in both Olympic and Sprint distances to compete at the 2017 ITU Age Group World Championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
I rode this particular route and did this particular session more times than I can count. About fifteen minutes to warm-up, which is the time it takes me to ride from my house, around Lake Harriet, around Lake Calhoun, and arriving at the southwest side of Lake of the Isles. Then four laps around the roughly 3-mile loop, each lap building in intensity to the final max-effort lap. On a good day, when I’m in peak shape, I clock 6:30 for a lap, equivalent to almost 28 mph. Then, a nice easy spin back home.
I like to ride the lakes during off hours, early in the morning, or mid-day, when car traffic tends to be lighter. Yes, there are dedicated bike trails around the lakes, but these have a posted “speed limit” of 10mph. I’m not sure anyone has ever received a citation for speeding on a bike path, but I’d like to consider myself a law-abiding citizen. So, I always opt for the road.
I rounded the north end of the lake, and attacked the west side section of the lake. It always feels like this section is an ever-so-slight downhill, but I’m probably making that up. I bridged up to a white sedan driving in front of me. A few yards diagonally off his rear right bumper (so, back a couple yards and off to the right), we rode along for half a mile at the same speed. Then, without a turn signal, he abruptly darted to the right to “park” (there’s parking on the street along the lake), cutting me off, and leaving me a fraction of a second to try and brake. I smashed into his rear right fender at about 25mph, my left ribs absorbing the brunt of the impact, and hit the pavement in a heap, landing on my left hip.
The car screeched to a stop. The driver jumped out, shocked he just took out a cyclist. A nearby pedestrian, who was walking her dog around the lake, came running over. I gingerly pealed myself from the hot asphalt, and stood up. Road rash covered the outside of my left thigh. Red blood spots seeped through the white fabric of my cycling shorts. More blood oozed out of a cut on the outside of my left ankle, the same spot I’ve torn up on two previous occasions. My hands shook as a flood of adrenaline shot through my body.
“Are you okay? I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you!” the driver repeated.
As I continued to yell at the driver for not signaling to park, I turned my attention to my bike. I scanned. I tried to focus. Well, most important thing, it was intact, and ridable. My left brake lever was bent inwards, which I bent back out. Everything else seemed okay.
“Do you want me to drive you home?” the very friendly pedestrian asked me, knowing how hard I hit the car. I thanked her but declined. I felt shaken up, and could feel some pain in my ribs, but I thought I could make the 15 minute ride back home.
Even though I didn’t see any significant damage at that point, I took down the driver’s information, just in case. This would turn out to be vitally important a few hours later.
I mustered up the strength to gently ride home. I could feel the adrenaline starting to fade as pain struck through my left side each time I tried to pull even a little on the handle bars with my left hand.
Later that afternoon I took my bike into the local bike shop just to make sure nothing serious turned up. After a few minutes, the mechanic came out to report some good news and some not so good news. On the plus side, no damage to the frame. Then the bad news. He spotted some damage to the Zipp wheels I was riding on loan from a friend of mine.
In the end, the entire issue with replacing the damaged wheels was ultimately resolved, thankfully. And I ended up renting race wheels for Age Group Nationals, so it all worked out in the end.
Except for my ribs.
I didn’t go to the Emergency Room or Urgent Care, though I probably could’ve. Instead, I saved everyone some time and money because regardless of whether my diagnosis was bruised ribs or a cracked rib, the prescription to rest and take it easy would be the same. And we all know I wasn’t going to follow that. I was never very good at complying with doctors’ recommendations when it came to sports injuries anyway. This, I suppose, was par for the course.
So, I relaxed the rest of the afternoon and monitored how I felt. If I started to feel off, or some other indication of possible internal damage, I would consider changing my stubbornness tune and actually go see a doctor. But if not, I knew I had to suck it up and train through the pain and soreness.
That was Tuesday, 10 days out from race weekend.
I took Wednesday completely off, including from work. I lounged around, went for a few walks outside, and iced my ribs.
Thursday was my first swimming test. Standing on the pool deck, about to jump in, I felt like I was about to start a race. “How much will it hurt? Will I even be able to swim? Will the pain be totally unbearable?” These questions of doubt ran on repeat up to the second I hit the water.
Well, I swam. Not very fast, or pain-free. But I swam.
Each day, things slowly improved. It seemed like a snails pace, but after those first two days post-accident, I noticed a small improvement each day.
And in the grand scheme of things, I was overwhelmingly grateful the accident wasn’t worse. At those speeds, I felt lucky to have only sustained some banged up ribs and a little road rash.
As the week went on, this feeling only increased. Three days later I read the disheartening story of the Ironman Boulder athlete who was struck and killed during the cycling leg of the event, marking the fourth time a cyclist had been killed by a motorist in Boulder County since May 2016. Two days later, shocking news broke that professional triathlete Andrew Starykowicz was hit and dragged underneath a van while on a training ride.
Thankfully, cycling and running were back to normal after a few days. The hardest thing to do with any rib injury is breathe deeply. This is a painful combination with any labored activity requiring huge amounts of ventilation, say an Olympic- or sprint-distance triathlon, both of which require a redline pace.
Even though my condition improved, I pulled out of my last tune up sprint race, one week before Nationals. Could I have raced? Sure, probably. But in this situation, wrestling with the temptation to return to competition too quickly, I thought back to the exact same experience my sophomore year at Villanova when I played soccer. I broke my ankle in the state semi-final over the summer, but psychologically pressured myself to return too quickly. I earned a starting spot the previous spring and didn’t want to lose it. So, I rushed it, played on it too soon, re-injured it, and then sat out 90 percent of what ended up being my final season as a collegiate soccer player.
I left for Omaha early on Friday morning, the day before the Olympic-distance race. Unfortunately, Stephanie couldn’t make the trip, so I flew solo. I did meet up with my parents later that night, though, who made the trip out to support.
Though only a five hour and fifteen minute drive, I made sure my food reserves were well stocked. Like many athletes, I’m a creature of habits and routines. Things need to be a certain way. For me, this means everything from having the same food to eat, the same espresso to drink, and even bringing a small fan for white noise to create a familiar sleeping environment like what I have at home.
I brought two grocery bags full of my essentials. There were several big logistical considerations when I planned my nutrition strategy for the weekend, and each item was chosen for a specific purpose. My big constraints were:
- The duration of the drive from Minneapolis to Omaha.
- The lack of quality food options along the way.
- Hot, humid weather forecasted for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
- 85 degree water temperatures for the swim.
- Racing on back-to-back days, meaning I had to efficiently recover on Saturday immediately following the race.
- The several hour time gap between when I finished the Olympic race on Saturday and the time when transition opened back up to retrieve my bike and gear.
With all that in mind, I chose my food and nutrition options for the weekend:
- UCAN Superstarch (chocolate flavor, of course) for before both races, and in one bike bottle during the Olympic race.
- UCAN Hydrate (berry flavor) for post Olympic race, and in one bike bottle during sprint.
- UCAN Snack bars (cinnamon swirl) for the car ride, Friday afternoon at the expo, and immediately after Olympic race.
- Left over rice pasta salad with spinach and tomatoes for Friday’s lunch. Funny enough, I ate this while standing under a tree outside a McDonald’s in Iowa.
- Raw cashews for snacking
- Wild rice cakes for breakfast
- Justin’s Peanut Butter single serve packets to top the rice cakes for breakfast. I chose the packets to avoid the messiness of trying to spoon from a jar.
- Bananas for snacking
- Avocado for Friday’s lunch
- Wild Planet sardines packet in olive oil and lemon for post-race on Saturday.
- Vega One single packet for post-race on Saturday.
- Natural Vitality Natural Calm magnesium for before bed Friday and Saturday nights.
- Peace Coffee Espresso each morning.
I drove directly to the race venue, Carter Lake Park, for packet-pickup and to rack my bike. Traveling alone did have its perks for this. I fall into “race mode” the day before a race, tune a lot of things out, and focus in on the ensuing event. I adopted the same seriousness back in my soccer days, and spent many years grooming the skill as I progressed up the ranks from high school, to elite club, to college, to semi-pro. For triathlon, it’s really the same routine, just with a different sport now. So that doesn’t necessarily make me a bundle of joy you want to be around. Over the years, Stephanie has become quite adept at knowing the right balance and how much distance to give me.
After getting both Olympic and sprint race packets, I went for a short bike ride to recon the run course and make sure everything was in working order. A couple brief, hard efforts, followed by a 5-10 minute run, and I was all set. Racked my bike, and headed for the hotel for some quality lounging, dinner and Olympics viewing.
I woke up at 5am Saturday morning feeling rested and fresh. Unlike some other races, I didn’t experience much trouble falling asleep the night before. I attributed it to the icebox room temperatures, which I loved, the familiarity of a small fan for white noise, and mentally knowing that 5am is my “normal” wakeup time on training days.
A quick espresso, a couple rice cakes with peanut butter for breakfast, and we were out the door.
After setting up my transition, I walked towards the lake for some alone time to focus. I visualized the race and how I wanted it to unfold. My race plan was to “get through” the swim, attack the two steep climbs and hold a strong, steady pace on the flats, and give it everything on the run. I still wasn’t 100% sure how my ribs would feel during the swim, and with a non-wetsuit swim, and bathtub-like water temperatures of 85 degrees, I just didn’t want to concede too much time.
Like every race, I spent several minutes reflecting on things I was grateful for that morning. I thought about my journey up until that point, and all the people who have helped me in some way along the way, some of whom are still living, and others who have passed.
Then it’s off to the swim start.
But at the staging area, before walking down to the starting dock, we hear an announcement that the race start has been delayed by 15 minutes.The announcer didn’t give a reason, just that the start had been delayed. It seemed a bit odd for this type of an event to delay the start for non-weather-related reasons. But, I didn’t think much of it, just a few more minutes of standing around. My wave, the first wave, now wasn’t set to go off until 7:45am, instead of 7:30am.
After our allotted 5 minute warm up to the backside of the dock, I and all the other athletes in my wave, exited the water, climbed to the race course side of the dock, and jumped back in.
The gun sounded and we were off.
I went out hard, but just hard enough to fall into a strong pace. Though a mass start, I didn’t experience much “wrestling,” or really any discomfort at all. My breathing wasn’t labored, and I quickly found an open line and assumed a fairly normal rhythm.
The course wasn’t complicated – a simple elongated rectangle. So aside from the water temperature, the only real challenge was the final side of the rectangle, coming back towards the swim exit, and having to site directly into the rising sun. I couldn’t see many of the buoys except for when I was 5 meters away from them. I followed the splashes ahead of me instead.
Coming into T1, I was pretty happy with my split. I knew it could’ve been much worse, all things considered. I heard my dad yell out I was in the mid-20’s. It wasn’t an insurmountable hole.
The bike course was an out-and-back, which I like because you can see exactly where you stand at the turnaround. It’s like a little carrot dangled out in front of you.
I went out hard on the bike, trying to catch a few athletes I saw ahead of me. It wasn’t long before I did. The first few miles were around 25-26mph, though things slipped from that with the two 8% climbs. Also, you don’t necessarily feel like it does, but swimming in warmer than normal water temperature takes a huge toll. It completely zaps the energy out of you. During those first few miles, I stood out of the saddle several times to accelerate out of turns or get up to speed, and my legs screamed in rebellion. That would never happen on a normal ride.
The two lead police motorcycles passed me coming the other way. I knew I was close to the turnaround. Then I saw the lead athlete, and his pursuers. One… two… three…I counted.
I hit the turnaround after counting 19 other athletes. “Okay, a couple more and I’m in qualification territory,” I thought to myself. “Put yourself in a good position for the run. You’ll catch ’em on the run. Be patient.”
I caught a few more, but focused on a steady effort for the second-half of the bike. I knew I was in a good position, and didn’t need to take any chances. My best discipline was still to come.
Transitions were the worst at this race. I had a horrible spot, the very first rack on the swim in / run out corner of transition. So, that meant I had to run diagonally across the massive transition area for 2000+ athletes with my bike twice, going out and coming back.
I sprinted out of transition and on to the sunny, exposed, hot run course. Wearing a hat helped a little, but the temperatures were quickly climbing.
Like the bike, the run course was another out-and-back, meaning I had more chances to mentally dangle carrots in front of me. I passed a couple more athletes in the first couple miles, and knew I was now in the top 18. I entered TD Ameritrade stadium, the turnaround, and home of the college world series. Circling the warning track, I had my eyes focused on two athletes a couple hundred meters ahead of me. No time to look at myself up on the stadium’s big screen!
I made a couple more passes, and the finish barricades finally came into view. I knew I was almost there, but more importantly, I knew I was solidly in the top 18.
One final push to the finish.
I crossed the finish line and my first instinct was the confirm what spot I was in. I still felt on edge until I knew for sure what position I was.
Well, it happened. Like how I qualified for the Boston Marathon for the first time, this was a goal I set for myself very early on in my triathlon career. I first participated at Nationals a few years ago. That’s when I was just happy to be there. That’s when I imagined what it would be like to wear the Team USA kit.
Now that will happen.
In the end, I finished 15th in my 30-34 age group.
Only partially in celebratory mode, I knew I had another race the following day to think about. Recovery started now.
First up? Ice bath!
After a couple good plunges, I found a chair in the shade to relax and replenish. Like usual, not many good food options: pasta, bread, and the like. They did have slices of grilled chicken, which I grabbed. That’s why I came prepared. On my menu was a UCAN Snack bar, Vega packet, and plenty of water.
I lounged around in the shade with my parents for the next couple hours. This was the biggest downside of being in the first wave – you have to wait longer for transition to open back up.
After retrieving my bike and other gear, it was back to the hotel for a shower and breakfast/lunch. Then, a little down time before having to head back to Carter Lake Park to rack my bike for Sunday’s sprint-distance race. From there we drove to the awards ceremony, so I could claim my Team USA spot, then back to the hotel for the evening, with a stop off at Chipotle on the way to pick up dinner.
A couple hours later it was bedtime to do it all again the next day.
Sunday morning started exactly as Saturday did. Woke up at 5am; made a small breakfast; grabbed my bags; out the door by 5:30am for the 20 minute drive back to Carter Lake.
My transition spot was almost in the exact same spot as the day before. I set things up, visualized my transition in my head, then walked over to the swim start.
Different day, same drill. My age group was the first swim wave, though today, because of the smaller number of participants, the 35-39 age group joined us.
I jumped in the water to warm up. Ouch! My ribs were sore! Yesterday’s swim was the most intense since the crash, and I felt it. Thankfully, things loosened up after a few minutes. This was one plus side of the warm water.
The swim was a lot more congested than the day before. With about the same number of athletes in the swim wave, we had half the real estate to work with. The battle to reach the first turn buoy was a lot more intense than the previous day, and I swam over someone on more than one occasion.
I rounded the second turn buoy and once again, sited directly into the sun. This time around seemed tougher. Yet, I made it out of the water around 20th (I had no idea my placement within my age group though because the swim wave consisted of two age groups).
It wasn’t the best of swims, likely some fatigue from the day before, but not too bad.
I moved up 2 spots outrunning two athletes out of transition, mounted my bike, and head out on the 20k out-and-back bike leg. The shortened course didn’t include the 200 ft climb from the previous day, and with only a few gradual rises, my pace was a bit faster than the previous day.
With the swim out of the way, my only strategy was to go as hard as possible for the remaining 45-50 minutes. They call it “sprint” for a reason. I wanted to try and gain a few more spots on the bike and not leave myself too much ground to make up on the run.
I ticked a couple off before joining up with two other athletes to form a small group in the final few miles (still observing the 3-bike length drafting rule). We traded spots a few times and entered T2 at the same time. I knew I had a battle on my hands.
I passed one of those two athletes in transition, but the other beat me out onto the run course by a few seconds. As I left transition I could see him a hundred meters up the road, along with a short string of other athletes.
This was it. I gave everything I had in the final 5k. I passed several athletes before hitting the turnaround. That one guy was still about 100 meters ahead. But I started to sense a shift. With each step, the gap closed ever so slightly, motivating me even more. I put in a small surge to bridge the gap as we passed the 2-mile mark. We ran shoulder to shoulder for a few strides, and then I pushed ahead with another surge. I kept going.
I glanced and knew I was starting to open a gap. I wanted that second Team USA spot!
But then, as we approached the finish chute and amongst the cheering spectators, I heard, “keep going, he’s coming!” The gap was tenuous. I could see the finish line.
As we entered the final 100 meters, he clawed back and was just off my left shoulder. Once I sensed him, I took off. He kept pace. We were both at our max. We sprinted the final 50-75 meters, and by half a stride, I crossed the finish line before he did (though, we ended up receiving the same time). My time, 17:54, on the 5k was a personal best, and that includes open 5k’s. I had never broken 18 minutes in a race before. Sometimes the biggest stages bring out our best performances.
Most importantly, I finished tied for 7th in 30-34 age group, which meant another qualification for the 2017 World Championships.
Ten days before I had no idea if I was going to race. I had no idea if my ribs would heal in time. I had no idea if I would be compensated for the damage to my bike. There was a lot I didn’t know, and a lot I couldn’t control. All I knew was that I would show up in Omaha and give it my best on that particular day. This past year was my best year of training ever, thanks, in part, to my Channel 3 Racing teammates. I made some tremendous breakthroughs that I’m proud of. I had some great race results leading up to Nationals, and some disappointments.
But I’m grateful for what triathlon has taught me up until this point. I’m grateful for all the support I’ve gotten along the way. I’m grateful for the wonderful partners I’m associated with: Generation UCAN and Maple Grove Cycling.
There’s a quote I love, “how you do anything is how you do everything.” More than anything, triathlon continues to show me that success – however you want to define it – is built on what others don’t see, the day-to-day stuff. And for every athlete that toes the start line, they carry along a unique story, a unique journey in order to get there. Many of these stories we never hear about. Many stories are a steady plot of “small things,” the ordinary, routine, habitual, won’t-ever-find-in-a-media-headline things. In some way, I believe my training built the resilience I needed to avoid more serious injury after the crash, and the courage to confront and negotiate with the driver who hit me.
And so it’s the small things that are the big things. And our breakthroughs and achievements don’t happen by accident or by luck. Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, we create our own luck through diligence.
So I’ll keep moving forward, and learning, and growing, all the way to Rotterdam.
Congratulations to all the other athletes who competed this past weekend. And thank you to the city of Omaha for making it an unforgettable experience.