The Hy-Vee Triathlon on Sunday was the most fun I have ever had racing triathlon, and one of the hardest two hours of my life both physically and mentally. I walked away with $31,750 of the famed million-dollar prize purse, but managed only an 18th pace finish after forcing myself to walk/jog the run.
I headed to Des Moines for the Hy-Vee Triathlon last week having no idea what to expect. After New York City last month I couldn’t walk for three days and was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my foot. I was determined to race Hy-Vee, however, so I followed every piece of advice I could find for how to make my bone heal faster (this included things like wishing, hoping, praying, imagining, and pretending). Still, I didn’t have the guts to test it out before the race and I figured I would find out during the race if it was ready to go.
Other than the foot, I felt great heading into Sunday’s race. I decided I would swim and ride like a man possessed and just see what happened when I got to the run. It was a Kamikaze plan, but the race had 11 laps (3 swim, 4 bike, 4 run), and the leader at the end of each lap would earn a $5,150 prime. (Originally there were only two swim laps, but a last minute change to the course – due to strong river currents – added a lap and a prime.) So if ever there was a race to take a big risk it was this one.
The swim was really technical. It was a small circuit, but a 2-knot current added a skill component that just isn’t there in most swims. In the women’s swim one girl was lapped out because she was barely able to swim faster than the current going upstream. To make things more interesting, the first buoy was about 25 meters from the start pontoon (with the current it was more like swimming 50m to get there), and the angle of the pontoon highly favored the guys with low numbers (I was 8 of 30 based on my 5150 series ranking). We swam under a bridge with several openings, which affected the strength of the current depending on the line you took. It was a really tough course!
I started next to Josh Amberger and we were stroke for stroke to the first buoy. I tried cut the buoy tight, which would have cut him off, but he outsmarted me, rolled over my back and stuck me on the rope. In the two seconds it took to get off the anchor line he was gone. Not that I could have held his feet for long if I hadn’t gotten stuck, but it was still a critical mistake that eliminated the advantage my take-out speed had gotten me. I was second for the remainder of the first lap, hitting the first run-out right with Cameron Dye and a full 25 seconds behind Josh. The second lap I settled onto Cam’s feet. With Josh locking down the swim primes I figured I would try to conserve energy. Cam, however, was swimming really strong and at the end of the second lap I started to struggle to hold his feet. Right then, Andy Potts came up on us like a bulldozer (he started in29th position and was nowhere near the front at the first buoy). I’m sure he had no idea that Josh was ahead of us and thought that he was vying for a swim prime. He took over the lead and starting the second lap I lost Cam’s feet. Luckily, I made a couple good choices coming around the final two buoys and managed to close the gap through tactics. In a normal lake swim there’s no way I would have caught back on to them.
Out of the water I was a full minute behind Amberger and just a few seconds behind both Dye and Potts. I got my feet strapped in quickly and hit the gas, taking over 2nd about a mile into the race. I put my head down and imagined I was doing a 40km time trial. With a minute deficit on Amberger I figured the first lap prime was out of reach, but with 2km to go in the first lap I saw the lead motorcycle ahead and I buried myself. With three blocks to go before the prime line I caught Josh and passed him. But with the prime line behind me I figured I should just keep riding like that, and 10km later I had a second prime. At this point the grand stands were going crazy every time I came through and it energized me to push even harder. I rode as hard as I possibly could for the remaining 20km and posted the day’s fastest split of 54:51, taking home all four lap primes and gaining a full minute lead over 2nd place, Greg Bennett, and another 30 seconds over the next athletes after him.
As soon as I hit the carpet I knew my wishes were not coming true. It was hard to believe that something could hurt more than that pain cave I had just put myself into, but over the aching muscles my foot was shooting pain up my leg on every step. The stadium in front of the capitol building was booming with people cheering and as I limped out of transition I knew I couldn’t walk in front of the people that had taken me this far. I told myself to run until there weren’t fans around, but there wasn’t any such spot. The only other race I’ve seen with so many spectators is the Hamburg ITU race. Des Moines made it impossible to quit and for the first lap I was too proud to walk.
I got half way through the first lap by doing a job/limp mix that felt a bit like galloping. At the first turnaround I saw my gap over Greg Bennett was still about 30 seconds. Suddenly I was possessed by the thought of winning the first run prime. I ran the rest of the first lap as if I were in a 1200m running race. My leg muscles still hadn’t forgiven me for what I did to them on the bike, and every step felt like I was fracturing my foot. I crossed the prime line and finally gave in. I stopped. I walked. Greg passed. The announcer assumed I was cramping, and the crowd erupted – louder than ever – cheering me onward. One step at a time I limped my way back into a lopsided jog. I wanted to quit, but Des Moines wouldn’t let me. I walk/jogged another lap and was surprised at how long it took for more people to pass me. The field was shattered, people were completely blown after the ride and nobody was running as fast as I had imagined they would. Hunter had moved up to second with Stewart Hayes on his heels. I managed to jog most of the next 7.5km and the crowd kept going crazy when I came through. I felt like a hero entering the stadium the final time, and I even tried to contend a sprint for 17th place with Jarrod Shoemaker. I lost and settled for 18th – which is not a bad finish for such a talented field.
Bunches of people have asked me how I would have done without the foot injury, and I don’t know what to say. I was completely blown after the bike, and was in no condition to run a fast 10km run. Also, I’m not sure without the foot injury I would have had the guts to ride like that, and I probably wouldn’t have had the cycling fitness that 4 weeks off my feet gave me. I made the most out of the condition I was in on the day, and I don’t regret anything. I was smart enough to walk when I needed to, and now, two days later, my foot doesn’t hurt any worse than it did before the race. Even if my legs had been fresh enough off the bike to run a fast 10k, I wouldn’t have wanted to risk ending my season. I have a lot more to do this year, and no amount of money is worth losing that opportunity.