In the weeks leading up to the Columbia Triathlon, I actually considered a DNS for the first time in my life. My post Barkley “indulgence period” had been a bit longer than expected and I hadn’t kept myself in the best shape. There were also delays getting some rather important parts for my new bike, like, you know, wheels. Finally, some big travel had come up for work that would sandwich the race. I had to travel to Europe the week of the race, which was a bit of a disaster where I averaged less than 4 hours of sleep per night including spending a night homeless on the rainy streets of London, and then go straight from the race to the airport to fly to Hong Kong.
The race was planned as a tune-up to jumpstart my triathlon season, though. I figured that no matter the outcome, I would at least accomplish that. I also still had the incredible support of my family, and teammates even more amazing than I originally thought, so I moved forward with my plans.
In the end, things didn’t really work out the way that I planned. After finishing 2nd overall, I noticed from my GPS data that I missed a turn on the run course. I reported myself to the race director and got DQ’d. I can’t thank the RD enough for everything he did to try to get the best outcome after my course error, but in the end rules are rules. I’m still glad I did the race, and if nothing else it was great preparation for the rest of the season. It’s also an outstanding event with a course that I really love (I can’t get enough hills).
I arrived home late Friday night pretty wrecked from my trip, but at that point my mind was already made up to do the race. I had paid the entry, sorted out the logistics, and probably needed something to kick me back into gear. It would also be my first triathlon as part of Team Every Man Jack, and my first with my new Felt bike and Roka wetsuit, all of which I was pretty excited about. And besides, sometimes a rough race can be an incredibly valuable experience to have.
On Saturday morning I managed to push myself out of bed to drive about an hour up to Baltimore to meet Matt Bender, one of my teammates who had generously offered to let me borrow his wheels for the race. From there it was a trip to The Bicycle Place, where Mike quickly got my bike squared away and ready for the race. I didn’t feel great about my own condition going into the race, but at least my equipment was in top shape.
I grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed out to check in and get my bike racked. In my rush, I made the brilliant move of assuming that the check in was at the same location as it was the previous year. I arrived to an empty parking lot, and then lost another half hour getting over to the actual check in location. I finally made it to transition, where it seemed like my bike was the last one to get racked. I was in the first slot, and had the lowest bib number. No pressure.
After a full day rushing around I finally got home, only to start rushing to prepare for the race and pack up for my trip to Hong Kong. I had to have everything laid out and planned perfectly to get through the race and to the airport on time. Clothes and parts flew everywhere as I stuffed things into carefully chosen bags and compartments. When it all settled, I had time for a few hours of sleep before heading back to the race.
It was a relief just to get to the race. I was finally there, everything was ready, and the conditions were good. They were definitely much better than the cold start the year before. I went through my usual routine: laying all my transition gear out on my Pirates towel that I got at a game back in grad school, checking my tires, making sure my brakes aren’t rubbing, filling my water bottles, and putting my shoes on my bike. Then it was off to the bathroom one last time before I started working myself into my wetsuit.
The swim was a two person at a time start. One of my primary challenges here was that there are usually only 10 or so people in the elite wave at this race, and regardless of what my overall abilities are, I’m by no means an elite swimmer. In 2016 I quickly got left behind and found myself swimming all alone. Shortly after that, I found myself swimming about 100 yards off course. By the time I came out of the water I was so far behind that I basically phoned it in, finished the race, and then went on a hard 50 mile bike ride afterwards.
This year was a similar situation. Shortly after we started I saw the other swimmers steadily pulling away. I quickly realized that I was going to be solo again. I tried not to panic or lose form. I focused on keeping my pace and making sure I didn’t add any extra distance to my swim this time. I actually enjoy open water swimming much more than being at the pool, but it’s a bit nerve-wracking being out there in a race all alone.
I made it around the crucial turn buoys that I missed the year before, and with a few minor course corrections here and there I managed to stay mostly on course. One day maybe I’ll learn how to actually swim in a straight line. As I came out of the water, I took a quick peek behind me and noticed something interesting. I wasn’t the last out of the water! There was still someone else out there. With this bolt of confidence, I headed into transition to strip off my wetsuit and get out on the bike to start making up ground.
I finished the swim in 25:25, a full 2 minutes quicker than I had the year before. My Garmin would later tell me that I still swam an extra 135 m, but it’s hard to trust open water distances measured by wrist-based GPS (the whole constantly getting dunked underwater thing doesn’t give the best signal reliability).
No matter how many times I do a flying mount, I’m scared I’m going to fall. Fortunately, I made it cleanly into the saddle and started to play the catch up game. In previous Olympic distance races, I’ve left far too much in the tank on the bike. I’ll feel like I’m really ready to get going at around mile 20, and then the next thing I know it’s over. With this in mind, I tried to push a bit more at the start. Much to my dismay, though, there was no one ahead of me in sight. I pushed on well into the course, and still, nobody.
Finally, after what seemed like half the bike leg, I got someone in my sights. This is where the game begins. With a burst of energy I caught up, got by them, and lined the next person up. Being able to see someone in front of me is such a huge motivation to me, and if I have a steady string of people that I can pick off on the bike and the run, I like my chances. Sure enough, once I had closed that initial gap between myself and the people who actually know how to swim, I began to steadily see people out in front of me.
Suddenly, I saw a motorcycle escort! Had I managed to catch all the way up to the leader? I pushed to close the gap and find that sure enough, I’ve caught the leader. The female leader. I pushed past her and focused on the next person. It was a bit disappointing after getting my hopes up, but I wasn’t discouraged. I was still feeling good.
By the end of the bike I had worked my way up to 3rd place, just within striking distance and right where I want to be for my strongest part of the race. I came in at 1:06:23, 6 minutes faster than my 2016 time.
The run is where my mindset completely changes. On the swim, I’m trying not to drown. On the bike, I’m recovering the time I lost on the swim to get myself back in position. On the run, it’s go time. I took off out of transition to go after the last two people in front of me. I got on the trail, followed it around the lake, and about half way through the run I had 2nd place in my sights. He was moving well, and honestly I was a bit surprised that I had caught up to him that quickly with the pace he was going at.
I got my usual burst of energy, which was strengthened by the fact that he was in a UMD kit. My time at NC State gave me a “strong dislike” of UMD and the usual antics of their fans at sporting events, and I was relishing the opportunity to chase down a Terrapin. After a good battle for a mile or so, I finally got by him. In the meantime I caught sight of 1st place coming around a loop section of the course, and realized there was absolutely no way I could catch him. It looked like I’d have another podium, but again short of the top.
It would be absurd for me not to be happy with that outcome, though, especially given my week and my conditioning at the time. I cruised through the finish line at 2:08:59, nearly 15 minutes better than my time in 2016. I was happy just to have my first race of the year under my belt. I found the 1st place finisher, Davis Frease, congratulated him and chatted for a bit. He’s a great guy, and I get to look forward to a rematch against him at IM 70.3 Syracuse and hopefully many more races in the future. The swim portion isn’t quite as important at 70.3 and 140.6 distances. 🙂
I scrambled to get everything together and get out of the race and to the airport. I got loaded up and headed back to Matt Bender’s place to return his wheels and to leave my bike at his place for the week. I was also fortunately able to get a shower before my ~20 hour trip to Hong Kong. I quickly got changed and repacked, and stopped for a few pictures with him as I headed out the door. He noticed that my trophy actually said 2nd Place Female… I had the wrong one!
There was no time to worry about that, though. I had to get to the airport! For the 3rd time in a week I found myself in a mad rush to make it in time for a last of the day international flight. I got my post-race cooldown run sprinting to the ticket counter to get my bags checked in. I just missed the one hour cutoff by two minutes, but fortunately they still let me check my bag. I get through security, grabbed something to eat, and with fewer minutes to spare than my improvement in time at the race, I was in my seat headed to Hong Kong. Can’t you see how thrilled I was?
Not so fast my friend
When I finished the race, I noticed that my run distance was about half a mile short. I shrugged it off, assuming it was a combination of GPS error and a short course (some triathlons don’t exactly have accurate course distances). Once I was able to look at my Garmin data, though, I carefully compared it to the course map. It didn’t take long for me to notice that I had missed a turn and cut just over half a mile off of the run.
If you look at the map above, and compare it to my Garmin map from earlier, you’ll notice that I missed the little section in the lower left. You’ll also notice from the course map that the other trails around the lake aren’t marked, and the only written direction is “Head Northeast around lake.” I did exactly that. After an extremely well marked and marshalled bike course I was not expecting to be on the lookout for tiny pieces of tape on the ground telling me to take a left turn that nearly doubles back right at the start of the run. I was also in the unfortunate position where, in 3rd place, I was the first person to not have a bike escort but I was also far enough up front that there were no other runners around.
But, regardless of whether it’s reasonable to have expected me to know to turn there, it would not have been fair to the other runners for nothing to be done. Or more specifically it would not have been fair to Andrew Frommer, the guy from UMD that I never would have caught up to if not for my accidental shortcut. So I emailed the RD to let him know what happened.
The error cut 3-4 minutes from my time. Had that been added back, even with a penalty, I would have still been in 3rd place. The letter of the law is unbending, though, and despite the wishes of the RD and the head official to not DQ me, the outcome enforced by USAT was a DQ due to the “substantial and unfair advantage” that I received. We can debate all day about situations where the letter of the law is required vs. ones where the spirit of the law is appropriate, but the thing that bothers me a bit on the penalty is the consistency of the rules. Drafting, which is a deliberate act of cheating, can save much more time than cutting the course. It’s only a time penalty, though, which is usually less than the time saved from the act itself. Although not the choice of the competitors themselves, I would even say that the leaders getting escorts is substantial and unfair.
The other thing that bothers me is that disproportionate penalties actually lower the integrity of the sport. I’m still glad I came forward, I’d do it again, and I’m much happier with this outcome than if I had kept something I didn’t deserve and that someone else had earned. I believe that for many people, though, decisions like these will deter them from coming forward. For doing the right thing I was made to feel like a cheater, completely stripped of what I had worked for, and an even more inaccurate outcome was produced (instead of two people each one position out of place the result is one person way out of place and nearly the entire field one position out of place). If decisions like this were handled in a reasonable manner, more people would be willing to come forward in similar situations. Instead, you have an environment where nearly everyone I spoke with between realizing my mistake and emailing the RD recommended I not say anything because the end result would be even worse and that it wasn’t worth it.
If my main objective for the race was to shake off some of the early season rust, it certainly served its purpose. I got to go through the paces, test out my new wetsuit and bike, and race a course I love in an awesome environment with great race officials and competitors. The only real consequences of the DQ are that the results won’t show up on my Athlinks profile (oh no!) and the race won’t count towards my USAT rankings. By the end of the season the race would have been replaced by others in my rankings anyway, though. So, you know, far worse things have happened. I was actually reminded of Scott Stallings, my good childhood friend who is now on the PGA Tour and found himself in a similar situation. After unknowingly taking a banned substance, despite never failing a drug test, he turned himself in and suffered a year long suspension.
And that brings me to my final thought. Any sort of shortcut: drafting, course cutting, doping, or anything else, whether it’s intentional or accidental, destroys the entire purpose of sports if not dealt with appropriately. We work hard to see what our limits are and to see what we’re capable of, both as individuals and collectively as human beings. That’s the spirit of sports. Shortcuts completely undermine that. Whether we’re lying just to ourselves or to everybody around us, we’ll never actually find our limits and what we’re truly capable of if our results are false. So I can’t comprehend what the purpose of taking any sort of shortcut even is.
But sadly, cheating is a real thing, even in amateur sports. That’s why I’m joining my Team Every Man Jack teammates in taking the Clean Sport Collective pledge: I pledge to honor myself, competitors, sport and society by choosing to stay clean of performance enhancing drugs. Choosing to not play by the rules steals from hard working athletes who chose to do the right thing and challenges the health and integrity of sport. I will be a positive example in the community as an advocate and ambassador for clean sport. I pledge that I have and will always train clean, compete clean, and live clean.
And yes, I’m also a geek. 😉 I had to re-use that link costume from the Boston Marathon somehow.