Monday morning, a return to the usual routine of waking up, preparing the day’s work and fitting in errands and workouts. An all too familiar routine for the stark contrast of what has been an incredibly enjoyable weekend.

This past weekend marks my first venture to Florida, ever. Combined with a back-to-back race weekend meant it was probably going to be a memorable trip. While kids are whisked off to Disney, I prepared the last few hours for a race I’ve been waiting to do for 4 years.

A series of fortunate events including the cancellation of my previously scheduled flight to Orlando brought me to a 7am departure with fellow Kansas City resident and my occasional training partner, Charity. She got the go ahead last minute to attend the races in Clermont for what I could hope would be a joyous occasion for her. With my experience last August in Detroit I re-found the thrill of racing in the draft legal format and only wished that she could feel that same excitement this weekend.

After arriving in Orlando and erroneously waiting too long at the wrong over-sized baggage claim (my bad) we had our bikes, rental vehicle and were on our way. Charity graciously allowed me to tag along with her which was completely outside of her original plan (and mine). Sometimes life throws a wrench in the works, which happened to be me at this juncture, but she’s a pro at dealing with life so there was nothing to worry about.

Leaving KC in 14 degree weather and arriving in Orlando to 85 degrees, I sat in the car beaming. I couldn’t help but just smile so spontaneously I felt like a little kid. You don’t realize how much you miss the sun until its been missing from your life for quite some time then reappears suddenly.

Errands done, lunch eaten, house reservation checked-in we set off to the rental house I procured for me and the guys to set up our bikes. Somehow I forgot my bike tool and had to borrow Charity’s to get my bike together. Finally assembled and ready to go, Charity did a short ride and headed out to her hotel stay for the weekend as Kevin arrived. The first of the guys to show up to the house Kevin and I have a lot in common. We’re both too old to be doing this shit (compared to the newly minted 20 somethings kicking our asses) and we both own businesses.

Bike successfully re-assembled.

Bike successfully re-assembled.

 

Friday Morning – Pre Race Clinic

We had our schedule set, Dan arrived late in the night after continuously delayed flights for him coming out of JFK. We were running late and rushed to grab the bikes and head out to the race venue to meet with Barb and the others for the pre-race clinic with her. In the rush out the door, I forgot my bike shoes at the house, it was raining out so the roads were slick and that meant no drafting practice for me. Things had been lining up so well before I got in Orlando, what was happening? I didn’t have my head screwed on straight yet. Still wondering about various life topics, business, etc. I told myself to get my shit together and forget those things for now. We’re here to do a job and get it done right. I spent the time jogging through transition, familiarizing myself with the layouts of the winding road in and out the best I could so I could handle it tomorrow on my bike.

I joined back with the group for a little bike mount/dismount practice in my running shoes – which isn’t really the same. Afterwards we headed down to the water for swim practice in the choppiest water I’ve dealt with yet. Rainy, windy, choppy water, forgetful brain. What happened to the sunny Orlando I had yesterday? After getting my head bashed around for  15 minutes or so in the water we did some swim start and exit practice before heading out for the day.

 

Saturday – Race Day 1

Here I began to take notes so I had a candid account of what I was thinking. The race started at 8:30am, between waking up at 4am and race time we had 4 warm-ups to accomplish. First off was a run just over a mile, 5 minutes after getting out of bed. Loosen the legs, warm up the body and getting things flowing properly. With an anticipated air temperature for racing of 55 degrees and the 65 degree water temperatures I thought to myself “I guess God didn’t want me to overheat today coming from training in the 20’s to racing. On to breakfast ”

Start line for day 1 - you can notice the flags, trees and a little bit of the water to see how choppy it was.

Start line for day 1 – you can notice the flags, trees and a little bit of the water to see how choppy it was.

Heading to the race site I made a note to myself about thinking at the time “WTF are we all doing? I have no idea why we do this objectively speaking. Regardless I’m ready for a chilly but great race day.” It appears I had finally got my head screwed on at least a little bit. Still having a small moment of existential crisis, but ready to throw it away for just enjoying the day.

20 minute bike warm-up once we got to the park was chilly. The first time I’d been on my bike, on the road, since last September. Time to get comfortable drafting again and fast. Another 1.5 mile run warm-up followed by a hurried check-in and transition setup lead to 10 minutes in the water for the final warm-up getting ready to race. Then we got delayed an extra 5 minutes and got to stand in line trying to keep warm before the siren went off.

On the swim I got out well. Despite being buoyed around like a toy boat by the chop I kept in contact with a good group. Unfortunately I let up too soon at the first turn buoy which meant racing mostly alone for the next 450 meters. I caught just a little bit of some feet on the way back in, but got into transition mostly by myself.

Out onto the bike I was faced with the annoying proposition of pushing hard to get back onto someone’s wheel. A guy in front of me could have used my help to move forward and start forming a pack. Unfortunately he decided he wanted no part of me and sprinted on ahead, leaving me to more work by myself. After some jostling, passing guys and jockeying I finally reach a rider of similar speed after the first 1.5k mark. After almost taking us both out by rubbing wheels I realized, “Hey, it’s Cory, I was looking for a different uniform.” Cory was the 4th guy to stay at the house I had rented and came down last. We spent the entire bike leg splitting lead pulls between the two of us. We tried to bring other guys into the group, but they either fell off the back or were just slightly too strong for us to stick on with our accumulating fatigue.

Cory and I working together on day 1. He's leading through the turnaround and then I'll take over for a bit.

Cory and I working together on day 1. He’s leading through the turnaround and then I’ll take over for a bit.

Finally heading into transition it was time for me to put my legs to good use, what they were meant for, running. Dismount, run the bike in, take the helmet off and struggle to put the shoes on. Those shoes, it can’t have been more than 5 seconds but it felt like an eternity trying to get those damn things on my feet. Maybe it was the cold, I certainly didn’t feel it, maybe it was my brain just being numb, I don’t know. Finally I was headed off onto the run course.

Now I was at home. Pounding the pavement in cardboard thin shoes the way God intended. As I exit transition Barb shouts at me “Let’s go Jesse you’re a runner!” I can only nod in agreement, of course I am, it’s time to do this. I had no idea how fast I was going, but I was pushing as hard as I could without going red line and blowing up my engine. Lungs were working, breathing audibly hard so competitors could hear me as I crept up behind them; I knew I was pumping away about as well as I could. I think to myself at times like this “relax, allow it to hurt, be comfortable being uncomfortable, this is what you do.”

The last turnaround to come home for the day. 1200 meters to go and I see Kevin about 250-300 meters ahead of me. All I can think of is what comes naturally to me after so many years of racing, of coaches yelling things at me as I go by. I think to myself “I want him, just push as hard as you can.” With an almost imperceptible downhill that most people would mistake as flat I accelerated into the last 1000 meters. I passed a couple guys, but they didn’t matter to me. Kevin had ground on me and I didn’t like it. I should have been out of the water with him, but he has gotten much stronger in the pool this year than I have. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had put 2 minutes on me before the run. This was my time to take it back. The finish line in sight, less then 150 meters to go and I pass him and surge for one last time. Giving it all the gas I have I know if he recognizes me he’s going to come hard so I can’t look back. I’ve just got to head for the line as hard as I can and hope for the best.

Success.

Apparently he didn’t even realize it was me coming by him until after the race was over. Dan, our other housemate finished furthest up for the day by starting the day off  exiting the water 2nd and held on as best as he could for the run. Finishing 30th out of 75 for the day (click EDR Men Day 1 – read the rest of the post before looking at day 2 you cheater), considering the field is stacked with some of the best amateur guys our age in the country, I can’t complain too much for a nobody just doing what he loves.

All in all an okay way to start the race season, but frankly a disappointing swim coming out of the 750 meter swim in 12 minutes. I know I can do much better than that. The plan for day 2 was to hit the swim as hard as I could. There was no point in holding anything back. Either risk blowing up for the reward of placing farther up or settle for complacency. The plan was clear – I had to put it all on the line in the water or tomorrow didn’t matter.

 

Taking the turn extra wide out of the frame so I'm not chopping my stride at all. The arrow shows the tiny dot that is Kevin at the final turnaround from me on Day 1.

Taking the turn extra wide out of the frame so I’m not chopping my stride at all. The arrow shows the tiny dot that is Kevin at the final turnaround from me on Day 1 with 1200 meters to go.

 

Sunday – Race Day 2

I’ve never done back to back race days for triathlon like this before. I have no idea how my body will react or deal with the stress. My college coach sent me a word of encouragement and a small admonition to it being a tough double. Of course, I have to brush it off like its something I do all the time so I respond to him “Nah, it’ll be fine.” My nonchalant confidence is a default when faced with new situations. I assume I’ll be doing awesome until proven otherwise.

Assigned spots in transition with name placards and plenty of space for your stuff. Ah, this is living.

Assigned spots in transition with name placards and plenty of space for your stuff. Ah, this is living.

Our race isn’t scheduled until 10:55am for day 2. However, with our warm-up schedule and my body’s own silly clock I effectively only woke up 20 minutes later than the previous day at what would have been 4:30 without the time change (now 5:30). I decided to lie around for the remaining hour, which I believe I drifted in and out of sleep for. Then at the appointed time an hour later I got up to start the morning routine we did yesterday. Get a little mile stroll in outside with some strides to start the day right. I noted to myself that my legs were just slightly fatigued, but overall felt really good.

Breakfast, then onto the park. Bike warmup my legs aren’t responding quite as well as I’d hope. Kevin and Dan are pulling a bit harder than I want to respond to on the bike. No guarantee that this means anything as of yet since I know from history I can feel like poop and then compete well. The body can be a funny thing before you get it all the way revved up.

Fortunately with the later race start there was a lot more time to get warm-ups in without the rush around like Day 1. A little longer run warm-up at the venue plus a more solid swim warm-up for the day. Not to mention the much calmer water. Air temperature scheduled to be about 70 degrees for race start, calm wind, the lake is calm enough I can sight buoys without getting thrashed about from my weak swimming abilities. It’s shaping up to be a good day. I’d find out soon if I could really pull off what I intended.

The gun goes off at the race start and I run in after the leaders. I always pause a second before sprinting in since there’s no point in getting run over at the start by the guys much much faster than me. I grab some feet and off we go. Much smoother water today means I’m comfortable being aggressive. Barb rings in my head “stay on those feet!” no matter what I have to do I can’t let those feet go. If they’re gone grab on to some new ones. The slipstream is too important to give up today. It’s almost impossible to see what’s happening without sighting. The water is a murky copper color with a vaguely familiar and unpleasant taste – dark enough that you can’t see feet 6 inches from your face. I think back to the poster on my wall at home “Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul.”

We round the first buoy and all is well, time to put a surge in to stay on the group. No repeats of yesterday, the whole race depends on now. All I can think of now is about not losing the feet. Whatever I have to do, however hard I have to push, however high I have to jack my heart rate up that’s what I’ve got to do. Still on feet as the buoy for home comes. The group keeps infighting to stay moving towards the buoys for home. The guy I’m hanging on really doesn’t like me sitting behind him and keeps kicking hard whenever I touch his feet. Such is the life of poor planning on his part – I’m not wasting more energy than I have to. 100 meters to go and the group surges to get onto the beach. The swimmer next to me, whether intentionally or not, snags my left arm during his pull and pins it to my side then pulls my head under water. In hindsight I’m thinking to myself I should be mad and get aggressive, but at the time I simply popped up, took a deep breath and kicked hard to move ahead of him and get back on my lead swimmer.

Wetsuit stripped down taking a sharp corner into T1 on Day 2. I'm on a mission to stay with these guys.

Wetsuit stripped down taking a sharp corner into T1 on Day 2. I’m on a mission to stay with these guys.

Finally on the beach I see the clock letting me know I’m 30-40 seconds faster than  yesterday. The effort was worth it even if I can’t keep it up I know I met my minimum goal for the day. A long run up to transition means I can make up some ground with my legs. It’s time to take the wetsuit off, but where the hell is my zipper pull? It’s a foot long and I can’t find it. After fumbling with it for much too long I finally get the back unzipped and the wetsuit pulled halfway down. Into T1 I’ve passed 2 guys and gotten into a group flying out of transition with the fury of someone who just stole the only meal they’ve had all week. Onto the back of some guys today, yes, exactly what I wanted.

Our bike group has 6 guys and we’re eating into another group ahead of us. I’m probably middle of the pack of this group as far as bike strength goes, but I’m sitting behind the strongest guy. It’s making me take pulls at the front way longer than I want because he pulls so hard and won’t let off enough for me to move off and get another guy going. I let him know as much and he starts to back off to get the rotation moving faster. Into the first technical section around the transition area I make a fatal mistake. I end up at the back of the line, behind another rider with worse bike handling skills than myself so we get gapped out of transition and the stronger cyclists are gone. Now its just me and him riding together. Just like Cory and I yesterday. Damn. Not again. If life gives you lemons as they say…

Men's side of transition before the race. The course loops through here unlike regular non-draft events most amateurs can compete in.

Men’s side of transition before the race. The course loops through here unlike regular non-draft events most amateurs can compete in.

Fortunately he was willing to work hard with me and I decided we should take 30 second pulls and move off so nobody gets tired. We’re keeping relatively decent time with the bike group that left us, but they are definitely gapping us larger and larger until they pick up the bike group ahead of them that contains Kevin. No time to think about it in the moment, but I could have done a lot to have been in a group with 10-11 guys off the bike.

Shortly before we pick up a third rider who’s weaker, but able to somewhat keep pace with us, I learn my cycling companion is actually not going to be running. Later after the race I would learn his plantar fasciitis was too bad to allow him to run – a heartbreaker for someone who was a runner by trade originally. Although we are gapped, he’s offered and willing to work for me harder at the front to lead and make sure I’ve got as good of position as possible since I’ll be running and he’ll be done at the end of the bike leg. I told him as much after the race, but I’ll say it again for posterity – what a fucking champion. I just met this guy in the middle of a race, we’ve never spoken two words before meeting up on the bike leg, and he’s selfless enough to help me out by giving me slightly more time in the draft behind him so I have fresher legs to chase some guys down on the run. I make sure to return the kindness by getting up for strong pulls myself to give him a break behind me since I know he’s working as hard as he can for me. I could have just sat behind him the whole time, but that wouldn’t have served him or me if I had just been a jerk and relaxed in the draft. That’s not my style of racing. Maybe one day I’ll be arrogant enough to sit at the back and do nothing, but for now I’m stupid enough to think that I’ve got to get out there and work to keep moving forward, especially in a small group like that.

We hit the winding section before transition and I take the lead of our group on our 4th lap. It’s time to unstrap the shoes, pull the feet out and get ready to dismount the bike. This is where I leave my two companions behind and go to work doing what I do best, turning the legs over.

Rack the bike, helmet off, shoes on, go! A ritual that plays out in my head every T2. I see Barb straight out of transition, I don’t recall whether she said anything to me or not, I was focused on chasing Kevin down as soon as possible since I knew he was closer today. I don’t remember what she said, but Charity was at the junction right out of transition onto the road cheering me on. As well as some other people who knew my first name (who I can only imagine was Kevin’s family since I didn’t see them and only heard voices) and were cheering for me to “bring the funk.” It’s always a bit funny to see what people will do with my name. Strangers seem to latch onto it, but I’ll always accept the cheers nonetheless.

Today I was going to get more spots than I had yesterday, I was going to finish farther up. The run was hurting more than yesterday, not so fresh anymore, but that didn’t matter. It’s just one day, it’s only 3 miles, it will be over in an instant. So I push ahead, grabbing runners (figuratively) one by one as I slip past them with my audibly loud breathing again. Here it is, the first turnaround only 1200 meters into the run and I already see Kevin. “Good deal” I think to myself, I pass him shortly after the turn and re-focus on getting as many more guys as I can. I can’t ease up, goal 1 is done now we need some more. Always one more guy, then another and another. An insatiable craving that’s been burned into my brain over the last 13 years of racing.

The turnaround by transition Barb shouts at me “Okay Jesse, I need you to catch 5 more guys by the turnaround.” Cheers from Charity accompany Barb’s call. I’m in the zone and focused now, I give the nod which I don’t know if she can even see it’s so small. It’s my way of saying “challenge accepted.” Like clockwork I pick up the pace as soon as I know what my job is ahead of me. I can only even see 2 guys at the moment and they’re quickly lost around the bend. This can be a big psychological challenge where your brain wants to let up and I notice it calling at me. Fortunately I recognized it for what it is, a phantom lying to you. I give another surge to tell it to piss off and I get back to work. Out of the turn I can see my guys. I reel them in ever so slowly, painfully slow. Only 3 caught by the turnaround, but as I look down the road I see them dotted one by one. Now my inner nerd comes out and I quite literally think to myself “it’s time to play some pac-man and gobble these guys up.” With the last 1200 meters to go and knowing that I have a whole string of guys in front of me, including one guy who left me on the bike from the previous day, its time to put down the last 6 months of training on this winding stretch of road.

One by one they fall to the wayside. They don’t have the legs to keep up, I know it, they know it. One guy gives a little chase in behind me to try and keep up which only spurs me on harder, but the effort is useless for him. He may have spent his legs a little too much on the bike to keep up with me at this point. I keep in mind that I didn’t get my 5 by the turnaround like Barb had asked. Ignoring the little voice that wants to wallow in the failure I redouble my mental effort to say I need even more on this back stretch of road.

As I pass guys I notice ahead of me a pale broad shouldered figure that’s all too familiar. Dan. What the crap he’s doing this close to me I have no idea. He should be 10-15 spots up from this section of the race from his great swim position. I later learned he essentially got ran off the road by a poor cyclist and crashed into a bush then spent most of his bike ride grinding it out by himself. Such is draft-legal racing unfortunately.

Just like Kevin, the knowledge that I want to beat my buddy is only pushing the lung and legs harder. “Relax” I think to myself. “Focus in front of Dan, not on him.” A trick I learned long ago about myself. If I focus straight on a runner ahead of me I allow them to dictate my pace mentally and will slow down. So I look in front of them to where I want to be instead of at the back of their heads simply accepting that I’m behind. 3 guys until Dan, 2 guys, 1 guy, okay here he is and still 400 meters to go. Running past I know it’s a matter of getting into the finish now. Dan is a very competitive swimmer and we’re very much on dry-land which is my domain between the two of us. I grab 2 more guys after I passed Dan before it was all over. So I only made 3 by the turnaround, but I made it up by catching (to my recollection) 6 on the way home.

The finish line behind me, I can be satisfied for the day. It took a good deal more effort and my run lagged behind the previous day’s run by 11 seconds, which I preferred it to have gone the other direction. So compared to Day 1 I swam and biked faster, but had a slower run. Trifecta for another day I imagine.

 

A considerably better effort – or at least I thought so – bought me 26th place out of a field of 75 for day 2. The whole field was faster on the day, but I did increase my finishing spot nonetheless in an almost identical field of guys.

 

After day 1 racing and pro races we snuck a photo with Olympian Sarah Haskins who dominated the women's field. I wanted to get Barb in the photo for a "double Olympian" photo, but she was busy talking. Serendipity took hold however and she is in the background off to my right side (left of the photo) so we got her in there after all.

After day 1 racing and pro races we snuck a photo with Olympian Sarah Haskins who dominated the women’s field. I wanted to get Barb in the photo for a “double Olympian” photo, but she was busy talking. Serendipity took hold however and she is in the background off to my right side (left of the photo) so we got her in there after all. (left to right – Barb Lindquist, me (Jesse Funk), Dan Isaacson, Kevin Malone, Sarah Haskins and Charity Fluharty).

Post Race Thoughts

I wrote a long list of thoughts while sitting at the airport by myself. However, this post has gotten inordinately long as it is. So I’ll have to sum up a bit. Being able to hang with like-minded guys and around a field of such competitive athletes if only for 2 and a half days was great. Not to disparage my friends or family, but I finally felt “home” for the first time since college.

There’s an interesting dynamic within our group of athletes and I think for the most part the triathlon/endurance community as a whole. We’re all competitive as hell, but you can feel that each of us all genuinely wants the other ones to succeed. Despite racing being a zero sum game, there’s an ethos of finding a win-win where none exists between fast friends. People you only see once or twice a year that know parts of your soul only few can glimpse at without having gone through the experience themselves.

As Dan and I discussed under the fluorescent lights of the Orlando airport’s well maintained food court, we’re probably both too old to really “make it” as an Olympic hopeful like we dreamed. Our destinies probably lie in the Ironman distance if anything. In one sense though we are still young and there is still time left for us to develop, but the toll that must be exacted from each of us to get what we want is yet unknown. (From my notes) “As age and time creep along without abatement we all fight the clock to chase our dreams the best way we know how. One pull, one pedal stroke and one stride at a time. Truthfully I’m not sure any of us know any other way to live than to push as hard as we can physically and mentally every day then wake up and do it again tomorrow. Is it insanity? I’m not certified to tell…”

‘Though I can say in this moment, it certainly just feels like life.”

 

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