This is my race report for what was meant to be the capstone of a six week training trip in the US Virgin Island. I headed down to Saint Croix on March 25th, six weeks ago, and trained as hard as I could on the island. I wanted to get used to every inch of the 70.3 mile course and to acclimate to the heat so that I could avoid any heat related issues at my races this year. Last year I crushed the first two legs of the race and I wanted to prove that with proper preparation I could finish the job in dramatic style. Yeah, I had a bit of an attitude – though until now I believe I hid it pretty well – and I also felt like I needed to prove something. I wanted to prove to myself that my races at the beginning of last season were a preview of my capabilities and I wanted to put a cork in all the whispers telling me I can’t race so hard and that I need to slow down. (Seriously, screw that, I will race as hard as I can whenever I toe the line. If I fail before the end it’s because I failed to prepare or because of nutrition or some element of luck, but if I have to race lite then maybe that race just isn’t for me.)
It started off well this year. I had a solid swim, and it was easy. I swam with Tim O’Donnell (eventual winner), Josh Amberger, Brad Kahlefeldt, and Sam Douglas. I took the lead on the bike in the first mile and as I passed TO he said “be smart this year Ben” or some such warning that was considerate, but that was already part of my race plan. I knew with perfect road conditions that it would be hard to get away in the beginning, and it’s true that the real race starts at the top of the Beast – a 1200 meter climb that averages around 15% grade – around 21 miles into the 56 mile bike course. I felt good so I went to the front and pushed the pace a little. I wanted to make sure the gas was on leading up to the Beast, and I thought that after a tough climb I could keep the heat on and make the rest of the pack suffer to stay with me. The last 16 miles of the bike course are by far the hardest and I wanted anyone still with me to be tired when they hit the relentless series of 10% grade “rollers” on the east end of the island.
A great plan, but when we got to the base of the beast my intentions became dreams. We started climbing and I just couldn’t get my pedals to turn over. I didn’t have the torque that I’ve had every other day of training on that hill. I was slower on my ascent that any other day in the past 6 weeks, and I lost 45 seconds to the other men. I spun over the crest and kept my effort up much higher than what I could sustain, but I wanted… needed to close that gap and a straight section into the wind (like miles 25 to 39) is normally where I can make up time gaps like that. It felt like an ITU race, where you have to lay it all out there to make a pack. In five miles I closed the gap to 20 seconds and thought I could give it one more push to close what was left. That’s when the cramping started. My quads and adductors clenched – bilaterally – the first cramping I’ve had in six weeks in Saint Croix. I had to back off momentarily to let them release and as I let off the gas I noticed that I was coughing. Now, it sounds strange, but when you’re in a race – even a 4+ hour race, you tend to focus on the race more than your body. It really hurts to push that hard and if you can focus on the road, the competitors, the need to take the lead then it takes the focus off the pain and off the suffering. When you have to back off for cramps it shifts that focus from external anchors to internal and suddenly you notice everything that’s going on with your body that was being ignored. So I may have been coughing for a minute or 30, I have no idea, but when I noticed it was when the cramping shifted my focus. It was wet coughing and I was cramping and I was struggling to push recovery watts. I was falling apart and my lungs were full of fluid. I knew my dream of victory was gone, but I was determined to finish the damn race. First I thought of Abby. I had promised her that I would stop if I ever had symptoms like in Quassy last year when I was hospitalized. But since I had already decided not to stop I favored the plan of focusing on the cramping and ignoring the coughing.
Around mile 45 I was caught by the chase pack, including Greg Bennett. I was climbing Grassy Point, and as they came by Greg told me to just stay with them until the top of the climb. I did my best and my legs clenched and felt like the muscles were ripping apart as I pedals squares to the top. I audibly moaned in pain but made it to the crest with the group and followed them for another mile before being dropped on the next double digit grade. It was amazing how fast I was dropped this time. I saw them crest a hill right ahead of me and when I made it over the top the last of the pack was already nearly out of sight. I was in a bad place. and the coughing was getting worse.
With a mile to go on the bike we round this corner, fresh off the last descent, and ride paralell to the run course all the way to transition. Last year I saw the eventual winner, Richie Cunningham, coming through that turn as I was running out. So when I saw Tim and Brad running past as I rounded that turn I knew I was 10 minutes down already. I also knew there was no way I could run well I my current state and that the smart thing to do would be to call it a day. And any other day I probably would have, but with everything I put into this race, and all the emotions tied to last year’s heat stroke during the run – I had to finish. I started off walking. I tried to jog and when I did the coughing became uncontrollable. I walked a lot. Volunteers encouraged me to run, I kept walking. I jogged when the coughing stopped, walked when it started again. The cramping was gone, but I couldn’t exert myself and breath at the same time. It got better as I went and the second lap of the run I was able to jog easy without much trouble. It actually seemed to help my lungs to breath really deeply. I finished in just under 5 hours, and certainly I was the last of the pro men. I don’t think I was even close to the top of my age group, time-wise. But I finished. And I did it for me, which in itself is a shift from the motivation I had going in. I wanted to prove to you and everyone else that I could destroy one of the hardest courses in triathlon. Instead, I proved to myself that I could finish a race, even if I was no longer “competing”.
My trip to Saint Croix wasn’t “capped” by the race. And in a way that’s okay. The experience I had on the island was incredible. I really enjoyed spending time with my homestay family, the Gleasons, my swimming crew at Cain Bay, the dolphins swim team, the VI Tri Club members, the local cyclists who showed me around and helped me get through my tougher training days, and all the other individuals that make Saint Croix such a wonderful place. All ego aside, it’s the people of Saint Croix that made this race in particular such a draw for me to return to. It would have been nice to do well, but when I look back at the trip I’ll probably remember far more about the people and the training and the great times I had in Saint Croix than the five hours of suffering I did on my last day.
For now it’s back to Chicago for recovery and rethinking. Was this caused by an illness, or something else? My next race will be CapTex on May 26th, and I’m looking forward to getting back to the Olympic format that I know so well.