Running Down a Dream

By Todd Buckingham | Aug. 23, 2016, 3 p.m. (ET)

Wow! What a weekend. The USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships were more than I could have ever dreamed of. Allow me to explain ... but first, we have to go back to a week before the race. So here's what happened.

First: A few weeks ago, I noticed my goggles were starting to develop a splinter in the nose bridge, which developed into a full-blown crack. Begin freak out. "What am I going to do? I can't swim with these goggles. What if I get hit and they break during the race? I'll have to swim the race with no goggles! Ahhhh." So I called Roka and explained my situation. They were awesome and sent me a brand new pair to ... wait for it ... my hotel in Omaha! So when I arrived in Omaha on Wednesday, my goggles were waiting for me.

Worst: A week before the race, I was practicing my bike-to-run transition. I hopped off my bike and was running barefoot alongside it when all of a sudden, one of my bike shoes that was still clipped onto the pedals hit the ground causing my bike to jackknife. I lost control, the bike ended up underneath me and I tumbled over top. I immediately thought my right pinky toe was gone; it felt like it had ripped off. I quickly grabbed my foot and after a short glance, I realized it was still there (so that was good!). The skin ripped all the way from the top of my pinky toe to underneath between my toes. It was extremely painful, but after a trip to the ER, no stitches were needed and there were no broken bones. Doc said it would just be sore for a few days so I should rest (ha!) and that I would be good to go in about a week. 

Now we can fast-forward one week to the race! My foot was not fully healed by the time I stepped ... scratch that ... hobbled to the starting line.

Todd BuckinghamPre-race game plan
My game plan was to get behind a fast swimmer and let him pull me along, limit the damage on the bike and not let the super cyclists put too much time on me, and then run them all down! [Read more about my game plan here.]

So how did I execute it? Let's find out!

The swim: Finding fast feet
I lined up in the water next to my friend and told him I was going to follow him so he'd better take a good line and go fast! The only problem was that he went a little too fast because I lost contact with him after about 5 minutes. I tried to find somebody else nearby, who was going the same speed as me. That didn't leave many options. The fast guys pulled too far ahead for me to draft off of them so I was left to Swim Solo (You know Han's brother, Swim, right? Or is it Hope's brother? haha! Jokes). I clambered out of the water in 13th place for my age and gender.

Swim time- 21:47

The bike: Signs read "CAUTION" and "SLOW DOWN" ... yeah right!
The goal on the bike was to push hard and not let the super cyclists get too far ahead of me in the hopes that I would still have enough time to run them down at the end. The bike course was crowded, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be. I was wave nine of 17 so I had eight waves of people ahead of me that I had to zigzag my way through. I was whizzing by people left and right (except not really passing on the right because that will earn you a 2-minute penalty!) when we came to the first real test of the course: a 1/2-mile climb that went up almost 200 feet.

I had just passed someone in my age group so I made it a point that he didn't re-pass me. I got out of the saddle and rode the entire way up just bouncing on the pedals. It was taxing, but I managed to prevent that guy from taking back his position in front of me. The good news is that what goes up, must come down! Coming back toward the finish on the opposite side of this hill, there were volunteers standing at the top holding signs that read “caution” and “slow down.” Thankfully there wasn't much athlete traffic going down the hill at this time for me to try and dodge so I could just let it rip. I finished the bike with the ninth fastest time overall and fourth in my age group.

Bike time- 59:32 

Todd BuckinghamThe run: Tighten the screws, let 'er buck and FINISH!
As I ran out of transition, I passed another athlete in my age group. Now I was in third! I got into my running groove and heard Coach Barb tell me I was 2:53 down from the leader. Oh man. I still had a lot of time to make up.

A cool feature of the run course was that we got to run through Century Link Stadium: home of the College World Series! As a former collegiate baseball player, this made me feel right at home. After cruising around the track, it was just a straight shot back to the finish line. The only problem was that I still hadn't caught either of the guys who were ahead of me.

Right before I ran into the stadium, I heard someone tell me I was just 90 seconds down. But was that to the guy ahead of me or the leader? It didn't matter. I knew it was going to be a tight finish, so I kept pushing.

I pulled up behind an athlete who was in my age group with just under 2 miles to go. As I passed he said something to the effect of, "Good run. Go get him." I was doing everything I could to do just that, so I couldn't even muster a thanks and kept right on going. (By the way, now that I CAN muster a thank you, thanks for the encouragement, Kyle Hooker!) 

Finally, I was coming down the home stretch: 1 mile to go and I could see the leader just up the road! It didn't seem like I was gaining on him fast enough. That's when some thoughts started running through my mind.

Negative Todd: I'm going to run out of room again, just like the Grand Rapids Tri.
Positive Todd: No! Tighten the screws and catch him. Don't save anything for a sprint finish. Catch him. Drop him. And hold on! 

OK positive Todd, you win this one. So I tightened the screws ever so slightly (a term Coach Barb uses, meaning to crank up the intensity) and I started to gain on him. But the finish line was quickly approaching. With less than three-quarters of a mile to go, he was within shouting distance.

Positive Todd: All right, LET 'ER BUCK!

And so I did. I passed the leader with just over a half mile to go and he said to me, "Good run." All I could think was, if he has enough strength left to say that to me, he's not running hard enough. But I also knew that if he had that much strength left, he might also have enough left to come back on me.

After I passed him, I kept looking for the finish. Had I gone too hard too soon? The finish line seemed so far away. I could feel each footstep getting heavier and harder to come by.

Todd BuckinghamI churned my legs over as fast as I could while, at the same time, trying to stay upright. I could hear the announcer. I could see the finish chute. "FINISH!" I heard my dad yell at me, "Run all the way through. Remember, it's about the time!" (Because even though I was in the lead for my age group, there were 17 waves total, meaning the overall winner could have been in an earlier or later wave than me). I gave everything I had in that last 50 yards down the red carpet and crossed the finish line with the fastest overall run split on the day and a first place finish, just 3 seconds ahead of second. I had won my age group. I am a national champion!

Run time- 34:22

Now the question was, would anybody else catch me from a later wave? With the 20-24 men right behind me, I was nervous, but somehow, I was able to swim, bike and run faster than anybody else. I was the overall champion too! It still doesn't feel real.

The world championships are coming up in Cozumel next month so I'm doing everything I can to represent the U.S. and have another strong finish. 

I couldn't have done this without the support of a many people, including sponsors, Coach Barb and my family. 

If you want to read more about my races and the life of a Ph.D. student who moonlights as a triathlete, visit toddbuckingham.com. You can also follow me on Instagram and Twitter for an inside look at my life! Spoilers: it's mainly food and desserts.

Find more coverage from the 2016 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships at usatriathlon.org/AGNCcoverage.