I started off the season early this year with a new Challenge Family race in Dubai. I placed 16th there against a start list as glittered with big names as a world championship. I’m never satisfied with a finish behind other athletes but I don’t think I could have raced any faster, either through execution or preparation.
My 16th place finish takes into account a penalty of four minutes that was given to me and four other athletes for taking a wrong turn on the race course. There has been quite a bit of chatter about this on social media, Slowtwitch and other pro blogs, and I’ll give my take on it in the body of my race report. In short, I followed other athletes and what I believed to be an official through a turn. The markings on the course were either lacking or had been blown over, and I was too far back to see the lead vehicles. I knew from studying the course maps to expect a U-Turn and I had no doubt during the race that I was following the correct route. It cut about 2.3km off the length of my ride, and the officials decided to equalize that with a quite generous 4-minute penalty, which would have been about 30 seconds longer than our average speed would indicate that segment to take. So while I crossed the line in 10th place, my adjusted time placed me 16th.
It’s been a busy winter. Since my last race I took two months off – both needed and deserved after another strong season of racing in 2014. I traveled over the holidays with Abby, and we got engaged. I was elected to the USA Triathlon Board of Directors, managed to make Dean’s list again in my MBA courses at University of Chicago, and I started working at SRAM in Product Management.
When I signed up for such a busy schedule I figured I would keep active, but postpone serious training until March, when my MBA internship at SRAM ends and Chicago thaws a bit.
But then Challenge Family announced a “Triple Crown” series in the Middle East, with big prize money on the line and a massive $1,000,000 bonus at the end for the series winner. With about 9 weeks to go before the race I decided to put my head down and see if I could get myself in shape. I figured if someone was going to win that $1M it might as well be me. Plus, I’d never been to Dubai and it sounded like fun (it was).
For those 9 weeks my week looked like this:
Monday: “off day” yoga at lunch, or an 8 mile run with coworkers if my legs could handle it
Tuesday: 5-7:30 am brick (indoor, obviously), train to work by 8:30, swim 60 minutes at lunch, class from 6-9pm, home for some ice cream and bed
Wednesday: sleep in to 6am, work by 8am, 60 minute run at lunch with coworkers on the lakeshore (brrrr…), PM workout at WellFit Triahtlon Club (I lead a class there once a week), home by 9pm for a late dinner and bed
Thursday: 5-7:30am brick, work by 8:30, lunch swim, home by 7pm
Friday: 5-7:30 bike ride, lunch run from work on the lakeshore
Saturday: 2hr am swim, long trainer ride, long run on the treadmill
Sunday: same as Saturday
It was not an easy schedule, but I gained fitness as quickly over those nine weeks as I ever have, even with full-time training. The biggest sacrifice was in my social life. I gave that up for sleep.
By the time Dubai rolled around at the end of February, I felt pretty good. I was putting out numbers on the bike that looked like mid-season power numbers. I knew my endurance was questionable without any really long efforts, but I thought I had a chance – and the only way I could find out is to go and give it a shot. My swim has never been too much of an issue, and my runs were periodically impressive – though it’s hard to judge efforts from under layers of clothing, face masks, and ski goggles to protect from sub-zero “lake effect” winds on the lakefront.
I arrived in Dubai with a homestay arranged through the Dubai Triathlon Club. My family was fantastic, keeping me fed and arranging all my transportation needs while I was there. They were definitely the highlight of my trip and no matter what happened on race day my trip would have been a success because of them.
The race itself was unique in location, but once on site it felt like any other high budget race (think high profile 70.3 or Rev3 race). That is to say that I felt right at home, and was able to prepare for race day without distractions from anything abnormal.
The swim was wetsuit legal, as strong winds had blown in and churned up cold water, dropping the temp to 21C the night before. As winds continued to pound the shore, the first leg of the race was really choppy, but I managed to stay near the front and was in fine position starting the bike leg of the race.
I passed a number of athletes in the beginning and with the 20mph tail wind I was locked into my biggest gear, hitting sustained 30mph speeds on flat ground. But once the course changed directions I got knocked around by that wind. My disc was nearly blown out from under me on the first turn and I began taking roundabouts at gingerly speeds (not really typical of my riding style, but without any outdoor riding experience I’m a bit rusty with handling). I settled in around 5th place with a group ahead about 30 seconds and Andy Potts right behind me.
We rode straight inland and were on wide, clean boulevards in the middle of sandy, exposed desert. The signs had been blown over at most of the intersections and I was pushing pretty hard to stay in contact with the motorcycles and athletes ahead because it was hard to know going into a roundabout where I was supposed to exit. Typically there were cones planted at some point in the turn that indicated it was time to exit the circle. I later found out that I and four other athletes made a premature U-Turn at one of these intersections. I had no idea until several hours after finishing. It’s really too bad that it happened. It changed the dynamics of the race. I don’t remember any point in the race where there was not a motorcycle with us five, and even after we split into a group of three and a group of two there was still a marshal bouncing back and forth and keeping us honest. I ca only imagine that the marshal made the same mistake as us.
By the final 30km of the bike, as we headed back into strengthening winds my legs were making it clear that my volume has not been sufficient for the effort I was putting in. My power numbers were dropping to pathetic levels and the wind began to push me around. I felt my whole upper body tightening up to control the bike, which is counter-productive, as a relaxed body is much more efficient into the wind.
Starting the run I had what is becoming a familiar feeling as I race more long distance races: pure relief to be off the saddle. I started running and felt awesome. All the fatigue in my legs from the bike seems to melt as I stretched out my torso and leaned into the wind. I was so relaxed I felt like my eyes close and my cheeks shake in the wind. My first couple of miles went by in 5:20 pace, and I dropped the men behind me. Unfortunately, this feeling passed, I woke up, my legs reminded me that had just put out far more effort than any of their training sessions this year, and with a tail wind on the 2nd 5k I struggled to hold the pace I had set out with. I ended up even splitting the 21k in 1:14:51, with five men passing me along the way. I crossed the line 10th and was lucky enough to be selected for drug testing. The chaperone was friendly, as has been my luck, and I made a new friend while wondering between massage, medical and anti-doping tents to recover from the race.
It was several hours later that I heard about the protest filed by some of my competitors, naming me, Potts, Bazone, Raelert, and Kung. I was confused because I didn’t believe I had done anything wrong. It did make clear why there were two SUVs right in front of Martin Jensen when he passed us 80km into the bike – he had apparently been leading the race and was passing us a second time. I remember yelling to the ref as he passed that he was drafting off the cars, and him making frustrated gestures of his own. In hindsight, the ref probably made the same wrong turn as us and was likely as confused as the rest of us.
So within minutes of getting back to my homestay I found out that I needed to find a ride to the host hotel for a hearing. It was 2:30pm at this point and the hearing was set for 3pm 20 minutes away. Giving up my long desired shower I headed to the hotel where the five of us, plus several of the guys who had noticed what went wrong were there. Going into the room Andy Potts and I expressed concern that this could turn ugly, with lots of emotion and money on the line. We were worried people would speak words they would regret. But this group was well mannered. The athletes protesting didn’t ever accuse us of malicious intent. They expressed that they too had been confused and it was luck that they had spotted some clue as to which way to go at that intersection. They admitted they had nearly gone the wrong way as well, and didn’t feel the athletes should be held at fault for the mistake. Those of us that had gone the wrong way were still confused about where, how, and why the moto with us had not informed us of the wrongdoing. We talked about it, then left for the jury to deliberate. I was told to stay at the hotel while they made a decision, but the decision never came. Hours later, at the award banquet I was finally called into a nearby tent where, just before award presentation, the group was informed that a penalty would be enforced.
By the time I made it home, around 9:30pm, I finally got my shower and then downloaded the file from my Garmin. I compared it to the course map and found that we had missed approximately 2.3km from the published map. Validated in the judge’s decision, I felt terrible for making a mistake, frustrated that the process had taken eight hours to reach a decision, and a sense of hollowness knowing that the dynamics of the race had been altered by a set of unfortunate events. At the time (in short) I was pretty upset.
Looking back, I’m really impressed with the conduct of the athletes involved. It makes me proud that with $300k on the line a group of athletes can sit in a room and politely and calmly discuss something so terrible as course cutting, without resorting to inflammatory remarks, or even peaking the kind of emotion that ruins friendships. I’m proud to be part of a professional group like this, and to know that my competitors respect my as much I respect them.
16th Place in a field of 70 world class professional men. I could make excuses about how hard it is training in Chicago and how busy I am, but in truth I love it. And if you enjoy what you do you’ll succeed. I don’t think I could have raced better in February, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the season takes me. If Challenge Dubai is any indication, 2015 will be a great season.
Note: the images above are from Tri-Mag Germany – I didn’t take any during the race.