Two Unexpected Lessons I Learned at Nationals

By Ana Hotaling | Aug. 24, 2017, 3:47 p.m. (ET)

Age-group athlete Ana Hotaling shares her thoughts from the 2017 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships weekend. Read about her prerace journey here.

ana hotaling

8/10: Two days and counting. We rolled into Omaha around 2 p.m., having stopped in Iowa overnight after driving all day from Michigan. A mix-up at our hotel — I’d reserved one room with two beds, not two rooms with one bed — was swiftly resolved, then we headed out to Carter Park. First stop: packet pick-up, where I collected both my Oly and Sprint packets and had red and blue wristbands snapped on by friendly volunteers. We then popped into the official merchandise tent, where I eventually settled on a Nationals tank top and a USAT car magnet (which I promptly lost). Next up: the Expo. I headed to Quintana Roo to buy a bracket for my rear derailleur. The new PRsix and PRfive models on display and I did my best not to drool too overtly.

Jae was floored by the enormity of it all: the size of transition, the cars from all over the country, the carpeted staging area, the athletes already out previewing courses. While he gaped, I located my transition space for the Oly. Fourth row in, second section down, exactly even with the bright blue flag. I practiced jogging to my spot from Swim In a few times, then located Bike In, Bike Out and Run Out. The sooner I had these memorized, the better.

8/11: One day and counting. Mandatory bike check-in! I managed to get my bike to my transition spot on the very first try. Looking up and down at the racked bikes, I felt major gratitude to my bike shop, which had lent me clinchers for the weekend. We spent perhaps another hour at the Expo, where Jae checked out various vendors and I wavered at the Roka booth, ultimately deciding against a swimskin (for now) before heading down to the practice swim.

My friend Erin had informed me that the water at Omaha was murky, and I’d had visions of thick algal mats. The lake turned out to be calm and inviting, the only drawback being that the water was so green that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Other than that, it was heavenly. I stroked out to the first buoy, then turned toward the exit ramp — 500 yards done at a comfy 1:57 pace. Perfect.

8/12: Olympic-Distance Race Day. Despite being out the door by 5 a.m., we ran into major traffic: all the cars in Omaha seemed to be heading into Carter Park. Worried that I wouldn’t make it before transition closed, I abandoned my family to the gridlock and walked the 1.2 miles to the race venue. As I hurriedly set up, the 30-minute delay was announced. Phew! Meeting up with my friend Katy, we headed to the lakeshore, where spectators were converging to view the swim leg. After watching the first two waves, I wished Katy a great race and headed to swim start. 

When I last checked, my age group had 104 participants, and it sure seemed like everyone was present on the dock. As most of the ladies started warming up, I reviewed my race strategy: go conservative today, race like heck tomorrow. I therefore chose to do yoga poses instead of getting accustomed to the water. Fun was the key word for the day.

And fun it was! I held back as everybody bolted forward, then glided past a good number of swimmers from my wave and others. As I trotted my bike toward the mount line, Bryce raced alongside the fencing, yelling that his grandmother ran faster than me. Laughing, I took off to tackle the hilly bike course and was thrilled to pass participants slowly chugging up River Road Hill. I flashed victory Vs at the course photographer and simply enjoyed the feel of the breeze on my face as I pedaled back toward the park. On the run course, the sun and temperature were rising higher and higher and triathletes were bonking in the heat. I jogged at a relaxed 9:43 pace, accepting water at each aid station and cheering on fellow Team RWB runners. As the arch came into view, I considered doing my traditional sprint to the finish, but quickly remembered my strategy and stuck to my pace. Olympic distance: done! I was in great shape, with oodles of energy left for the sprint.

I PR’d by 18 minutes. Go figure.

ana hotaling

8/13: Sprint-Distance Race Day. No traffic or delays this morning. I swiftly set up my transition spot, then headed to the swim start area. Unlike yesterday, I was all business today. I had my eyes set on a top-10 finish, a goal that was underscored by the race announcer broadcasting my name as one of the athletes to watch in my age group. As the heartbeats resounded over the PA, I sighted the yellow triangular buoy and readied myself for a speedy swim.

And I swam speedily for the first 20 or so strokes. According to Jae’s video footage, I was one of the five lead swimmers heading out from the dock … and then suddenly I was one of the last swimmers. “What the heck happened?” Jae yelled as I clambered out of the water. What happened? I had caught up with another of the lead swimmers but, due to the lack of visibility and my utter focus on my strokes, I didn’t notice I was swimming over her until her feet solidly collided with my stomach, then my mouth — leaving me in bad shape. I considered calling it quits right there and then. There was no way I’d catch up with the leaders again. My race was over. But I’ve never DNF’d, not once. Wiping the blood off my mouth, I decided to turn the sprint into an exercise in perseverance. The bike leg was excruciating, as my body position — bent over my aero bars — exacerbated the stomach cramps. I gritted my teeth for the entire leg. On the run leg, the pounding of my head echoed the pounding of my feet as I dashed past all the aid stations and kicked at the chute, sprinting across the finish line … and straight into the medical tent. Sprint distance: done!

The aftermath: Although it was far from funny then, I look back at my performance at Nationals and laugh. Sure, the bruises were no laughing matter, but I’m amused by how fate taught me two important lessons that weekend. First, never pass up an opportunity to challenge myself. If I PR’d in the Oly without really trying, how well would I have done if I’d actually raced? Second, a winning season doesn’t guarantee a top finish. Expect the unexpected and roll with the punches … or the kicks, in my case. There’s always another race, and come August 2018, I’ll be in Cleveland, ready to race again.

Find race recaps, video highlights, social coverage, photos and more from the 2017 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships at usatriathlon.org/agnc17coverage.