When I was looking for a school to run for in college, there were many different factors involved. Coaching staff, running locations, weather, academics, etc., were all considered. At the top of the list, however, and what ultimately helped me decide to run for Northern Arizona University, was the team. I had run for a great high school program, and my best friends were all on my cross country team. I wanted to have a similar experience in college, and I was lucky to find that at NAU. My best memory as a runner is standing on the podium with my teammates at the 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships, lifting a fourth place team trophy over our heads.
Fast forward a few years and I am now competing as a professional athlete in triathlons, which is very much an individual sport, especially at this level. My success is now determined solely by my own efforts, not six other teammates. While I love and thrive on the challenge this offers, I do miss traveling with my friends, encouraging each other on the course, and the camaraderie from a good performance. Thanks to my improved performances at ITU Continental Cups, USA Triathlon asked me to be a part of the 2012 FISU World University Triathlon Championships team. Of course I was thrilled to be selected to represent Team USA for the first time for selfish reasons, I however had no idea that I would likely be getting one last opportunity to compete for a team.
From our homes scattered across the United States, we all arrived at the Shangrila hotel in Yilan County of Taiwan last Wednesday for Saturday’s race. There were five men (Ryan Bice, Chris Braden, Kalen Darling, Dustin McLarty and myself), three women (Jessica Broderick, Julie Rechel and Kaitlin Shiver), and an amazing support staff of four (Steve Kelley, Brent Hamula, Brian Hughes and Jennifer Hutchison). Between sharing every meal at the hotel buffet, training sessions and race meetings, we quickly grew quite close.
Unlike nearly every other elite level triathlon, the World University Championships has a team classification where the best three finishers on each team score. Lowest score wins — just like cross country! Before the race, we all went over different race scenarios and talked about how we might get our best possible score. Dustin McLarty and Kalen Darling, both accomplished swimmers, decided to try a two-man breakaway out of the swim. They successfully achieved a 40-second gap and rode together for just over one 10 k lap. Dustin felt amazingly well in the very hot, humid and windy conditions and decided to continue on alone. By the end of the bike, Dustin had achieved nearly a 3-minute advantage.
Back in the peloton, Ryan Bice and Chris Braden rode near the back of the pack to not contribute to the chase. Kalen Darling eventually joined the main bunch, and actually rode on the front in some sections with a tailwind, soft pedaling to slow the group down. I had missed the main bunch out of the swim by an agonizing 20 seconds, so I was time trialing alone about a minute back of the field. Thanks to my teammates’ efforts to help Dustin get away, I never fell behind by more than 80 seconds.
The run course was a straight out-and-back with two 180-degree turns, so I was quickly able to see how each of my teammates was doing. Dustin looked great, holding a large gap to second place. The rest were mixed in with the bunch a couple minutes back. Unfortunately, Dustin’s monstrous effort on the swim in 87 degrees and the bike, where the heat index reached 105 degrees, was too much and he slowed to a jog and then to a walk. Once I saw that, I knew I would be a scorer for Team USA and my old “fifth man” mindset kicked in.
I was able to run up to second place on our team and 11th overall to help Team USA tie for third place with South Africa. Unfortunately we lost the tie-break with South Africa and just missed the podium. Still, we all had a great time and I think we all learned a lot (for me: swim another 20 seconds faster!). After the race there was a great closing ceremony and an authentic Taiwanese dinner (with lots of foods I did not recognize) where we were able to mingle with the other teams.After a door-to-door 22-hour trip home from Yilan-Taipei-Los Angeles-Simi Valley, I was a bit toasted and have spent the past couple days recovering from the race and from the travel. Thanks to USAT and our great support crew for making this trip happen and allowing all of us one last opportunity to really compete as a team.