Our local Tri-Tremont Triathlon this past July marked my 20th year of racing triathlons. I've come far enough in my triathlon career that I was able to return to Tremont this year and take the overall win to celebrate my anniversary. When I signed up for my first triathlon I knew not a soul in the world who had ever done one before. I swam and ran competitively as a kid and my mom had a boat anchor of a steel 10 speed Ross (that's 10 gears total for all you newbies) which I borrowed for the race. The sport has grown like crazy during these past 20 years. It's become trendy and ultra-competitive, but year after year my passion and excitement for the sport has not diminished. Some strange brew consisting of equal parts stubbornness, discipline and smart training has allowed me to have success as an amateur triathlete. I've now won races at every distance except Ironman (2nd last year was a close as I've been able to get). I've achieved my personal goals of racing at Kona, the 70.3 World Champs and the ITU Off-Road World Champs.
It was following the ITU Off-Road World Champs two springs ago that I needed to do some soul-searching regarding what came next for me as a triathlete. Just going through the motions and maybe winning some more small events and competing well at larger ones wasn't really doing it for me. I've always needed big, scary, audacious goals to force me to do the work necessary to improve. If I were independently wealthy I would love to keep going back to Kona to see how much I could improve there. Qualifying, registering for, and traveling to Kona are just too damn expensive- particularly when I would only go with my whole family in tow. Kona is not one of those venues where you just ask your wife to stay home and take care of the kids while you go play triathlon on a tropical island!
For the first time I sat down and took a real look at USAT's Elite Qualifying Criteria. I was actually pretty surprised how lenient (in relative terms) some of the criteria were. Without specifically training and peaking for certain events I almost had 2 out of 3 races I needed to meet one set of criteria. At one of those races I ended up sharing a podium with pros Daniel Bretscher and Bryan Rhodes. The gap between me and Rhodesy was substantial, but still it was a podium finish alongside two established pros. My second big goal of 2012 was to try and win an Iron distance race. I fell a little short at the inaugural Michigan Titanium. I took my winnings from that race and entered the Rev3 Cedar Point full two weeks later. This painful little gamble ended up with me falling about 15 minutes short of 3rd place which would have gotten me my pro card. For any U.S. race that offers more than $20,000 in professional prize money any amateur who finishes in the top 3 is automatically eligible for a pro card. This method seems far easier than some of the other criteria and my guess is that USAT will tighten this criteria up sooner rather than later.
|2012 Decatur Tri Podium|
I hunkered down with a new strategy for 2013. It was a pretty simple strategy: quit dicking around doing every kind of racing under the sun and just focus on re-building speed at the olympic distance. I would have a spring peak for the Best of the US Amateur race and then a second peak in August for Rev3 Dells. I was hoping for bigger speed gains (long course is definitely my strength), but things were on-track for a top-3 finish at Dells. The Dell's race was yet another in a string of miserable weather races that I thrive in. I had a good swim and by about 10 miles into the bike I had ridden myself into top five. It was raining hard and I downshifted and felt my chain wrap up. Not only had it wrapped up, it had snapped and I don't carry my chain tool for short races. Game over, thanks for playing.
My wife and I met on the swim team at Augustana College. She knows better than anyone when I am skimping by on light training or when I am primed for a good race. She has always said that I can find a higher race "gear" and perform beyond the level of my training. Put me as an anchor on a relay that's behind during a critical race and I'll chase those other guys down like a fucking madman. I wouldn't have said it out loud, but pretty much within 15 seconds of realizing my chain was broken I knew I was going pro one way or another. The broken chain at my "A" race gave me a lazer-like focus and resolve to finish in the top-3 at my fall-back race plan: Rev 3 Branson.
In the few weeks between Dells and Branson I upped my bike volume, but kept everything else pretty much the same. On the Tuesday before the race I had my season best time and best-ever average power on our local 20K TT that I've done for year. Things were clicking. On paper, Branson was a very good course for me. 1/2 IM is probably my strongest distance right now. I like hills and this sucker has 3000 ft of vertical gain over 56 miles. Here's my condensed Branson race report:
|Rev3 Branson "Green Screen" pic with teammate Simply Stu!|
Branson is a point-to-point ride, so you have two transitions. The amateur field was actually quite small (around 400 for both the 1/2 and Oly combined). This ticks me off because it is one of the best venues I've raced at and because 1300 people signed up when it was a WTC event the year before. I hope Rev3 doesn't pull the plug, but racers have to come out and support! Race morning was cold, so there was a lot of fog coming off the lake. The fog was the only real challenge of the swim. I got out fast and was somewhere around 5th, but it was impossible to keep tabs on everyone because of the fog. At multiple points I was forced to stop, tread water and try to spot the next buoy in the fog. I swam a mediocre 31 minutes (hopefully that included the run to T1).
|This gives you some sense of the hills on the closed highway section of the course!|
I was confident in my cycling and my ability to ride well in the mountains. I knew my swim had kept me in contention for top 3. The climbing on this course starts almost immediately out of transition. My Powertap was a huge help in keeping it under control early on. It actually conked out on me after about 30 minutes, but I had a pretty good feel for the right effort by that time. The Branson course has a section of rollers before you get hit a gorgeous section of highway that they close down completely for the race. Racers do 2.5 laps on this sucker. The descents are wide-open and screaming fast (mid-40's mph). The ascents are long, and slow, but the grades are not very steep. I was riding pretty conservatively because I knew I was still around the top five and I had great confidence in my run as long as I didn't go crazy on the ride. Only one amateur went around me and I kept him in sight the whole ride. I caught a few age groupers as well as a bunch of female pros and one or two male pros that had started 8 and 10 minutes ahead, respectively. This was a good sign. I didn't know it at the time, but I came off the bike in 4th. I rode just under 20.5mph which would be a terrible pace on most courses, but at Branson it was good for 4th fastest in the amateur field.
I neglected to count bikes in T2, which was a bit of a rookie mistake. There were a bunch of Olympic distance bikes already there though, so it was a bit tricky. My running had really been coming along and I hadn't trashed my legs on the ride. I came into T2 just behind pro Lesley Smith. She took off at a good clip and I jumped on behind her. We quickly caught the 1 guy who went around me on the bike. Splits through mile 2 show us running at about 6:10 pace. The run course was a little convoluted and congested. For the 1/2 it was 3 loops, but there were also olympic athletes out there which made it really hard to know where you were at. Somewhere after mile 2 I took over pace-making duties for awhile. Near one of the turnarounds around mile 4 I saw a pair of guys who looked like they might have been in my race who were running well. This reminded me that I did not have things wrapped up yet and made me dig for awhile. Somewhere along the line I must have passed the guy in third. He did not try to go with us. I thought Lesley had fallen off, but as I started lagging just a bit around mile 11, she came around. This definitely helped me pick it up again the last few miles, but I couldn't stay on her shoulder. As I peeled off towards the finish shute I saw another runner just ahead of me do the same thing. Ah hell, I hoped that was one of the male pros. No such luck. It was a 19 year old kid who had smoked the swim! I had no idea he was on the same lap of the run as me. I ended up in second overall by a mere 12 seconds. My run was a 1:25:26.
Of course I didn't know my placing at the time. I thought I had it, but there was a wave that started behind mine that could have had some fast, older racers. I wasn't totally confident in the second place finish until about 1 hour later.
My buddy Andrew Starykowicz has been one of the top U.S. triathletes for awhile now. I remembered that a few years back he wrote a really well-reasoned blog post about when to go pro. I went back and found it. Starky has a background in engineering and like much of what he writes his list of considerations for going pro is analytical and doesn't contain any b.s. Truth be told, I've accomplished the things that I really cared about as an amateur. I am 34, so just hitting my long course prime, but certainly not getting any faster at the short stuff. For me the decision to go pro came down to two simple considerations: #1 I can continue to race without straining the family budget as much as I have in the past and #2 if I am honest, without this new kick in the ass, I was probably done improving in this sport. I'm not ready to say my best races are behind me.
I am well aware of where I fall within the current spectrum of U.S. professional athletes and it ain't purdy. I will say that I have beaten at least a few pros in every large race that I have done in the last few years. I will also say that there is no real line between the best amateurs and the backside of the pro field. Amateur Colin Riley has been winning everything under the sun in the Midwest this year and is still an amateur (probably not much longer). Likewise, Adam Zucco and Mark Harms both could be pro, but have other racing goals that they are pursuing.
I've realized that there is a lot of confusion as to what "professional" means within the sport of triathlon. I had to reassure some of my colleagues at Illinois Wesleyan University that I was not leaving my day job any time soon. In triathlon there is precisely zero dollars associated with going pro. In fact, I had to pay $45 for the little card you see at the top of this post (which you will note expires in December and will require me to renew again!). Nor are there any automatic sponsorships for pros. My plan is to continue to build on the solid sponsorship relations that I already had through my Evotri team. The only real immediate benefits are being able to sign up for races that are closed at any time and not having to pay entry fees for most non-WTC events. Well, those benefits and the abovementioned kick-in-the-ass to get faster! This xtranormal video actually pretty much nails it:
As I take this next step in my triathlon career, I am mostly filled with gratitude for the years of support that allowed me to get here.
First and foremost I must always thank my family for all their support and sacrifices. I certainly was not driving myself to all those road races and triathlons 20 years ago! My parents supported my brother and I through years and years of swimming, track and xc practices and races.
I do my best to train at times that don't impact my family, but inevitably with long rides and such my wife has to pick up some of my slack at home. She has been a huge supporter in helping me get my workouts in and letting travel all over the midwest for races.
My Evotri team is made up of some incredibly fun and passionate triathletes. I love getting together with my teammates whenever we can. We all are juggling complex family and work responsibilities, but keep plugging away year after year.
Evotri has enjoyed some of the best sponsor support of any age group team (and as good as some pro teams). Many of our sponsors have been with us for 6 years now.
Quintana Roo has supplied our team with top-notch Cd.01 tri bikes. I love this bike. I can go out to any race and know that nothing about my bike is holding me back. If I don't have the fastest bike split, that's all on me!
Zipp Speed Weaponry has provided the team with the fastest wheels on the planet and various other go-fast components. I've been racing a Zipp 808 Firecrest / Super-9 combo for a few years now, and would be loathe to switch to anything else. Once these wheels get up to speed, it is easier to stay there with the aerodynamic beasts.
Powertap / Cycleops has made sure that each of us has the ability to quantify our training and racing using their hubs and trainers. They have recently announced big price drops on all of their Powertap hubs and wheelsets, making them one of the cheapest and most reliable power measuring options out there.
Sram- Back when Sram Red was relatively new to the market, Sram shipped me a whole component group to race in Kona. These components are still going strong (although they have been relegated to my road bike as I've upgraded my tri bike with new Sram components). Sram continues to push the edge in terms of both form and function. I recently switched over to their new Red Yaw front derailleur and Exogram crankset. This is the best front shifting I have ever experienced on a road or tri bike.
Hub Endurance just so happens to be owned by my brother Andy. Hub Endurance has provided Evotri members with professional coaching plans. Andy has also been super-helpful with drop-shipping me all sorts of components at shop cost that I always seem to need at last-minute (like a new SRAM crank following the broken chain incident at Dells). Thanks brother!
Infinit Nutrtion has been a long-time personal sponsor. Infinit allows you to customize your own sports drink formula. Once I got my personal formula figured out it has greatly simplified my long-course nutrition plan.
Bloomington Cycle and Fitness is my awesome LBS. They are transforming the cycling scene in Bloomington-Normal through a variety of grassroots-style efforts. Riding with the BCF team has been one of the key components to the cycling improvements that I have made the past few seasons.
Super-stoked to cross one more item off my personal lifetime bucket list by going pro! Still, I'm not quite ready to call it a season and move on to cyclocross racing. I'm racing well, so I wanted to get at least one race in as a professional in 2013. With that in mind, I'm headed to North Carolina to race the Beach to Battleship Iron Distance Triathlon! The race is on Oct. 26 which gives me enough time to recover from Branson, do a small, high volume block and then hopefully rip off a big P.R. in my first pro race! Stay tuned...