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Triathlon in the Land of Enchantment

By Alex William Willis | Oct. 05, 2012, 12 a.m. (ET)

alexIn May 2011, I graduated from the University of New Mexico in phenomenal shape after racing cross country and track for five years. Feeling that I still had more to prove to myself after college athletics ended, I toyed with the idea of continuing my running career and training for the 2012 track season. Soon I realized that the track wasn’t quite the perfect fit. Before long, I started thinking about entering the world of triathlon. I knew how to swim and only needed to pick up cycling. So on April 14 in Taos, New Mexico, I raced my first triathlon. I won the reverse sprint triathlon with the aid of a steel cyclocross bike from the 90s and ample backstroke in the pool. My journey from this first race to earning my spot as a bona fide Collegiate Recruit would not have happened without the help of the upcoming triathlon community in New Mexico.

About a month before I raced in Taos, I started training with a local triathlete, Matt Gonzales. He was kind enough to answer all of my annoying beginner questions on the sport and show me the training circuit around Albuquerque. With his persuasion I joined the local master’s swimming club and sentenced myself to 5:30 a.m. practices.

Slowly I started adding swimming and cycling into my training, and it all felt like a breath of fresh air. I loved the variety of the sport, and how so many skills are needed. What made it even better is that every person I met out training was nice and very encouraging. After the highly competitive and sometimes stressful training climate at the college level, I loved seeing people out training together in the spirit of fitness. A core group of triathletes travel around the state and compete at all local races. These amazing athletes cheer each other on through the race. It came to the point where so many people out on the course, spectator and competitor alike, would yell my name.  

It wasn’t until after my inaugural race, I was welcomed to join the Black Dog Triathlon Team by Angie Kandalaft. She runs Black Dog with a local coach, Jamie Dispenza. This amazingly dedicated woman also owns and operates Chasing3 Race Productions, which has taken control of triathlon production and timing in New Mexico. Angie asked about my equipment and plans on racing though the summer right after we met. Within a matter of days she hooked me up with a time trial bike and added me as a member to Black Dog. She was the first person that understood what kind of potential I had in the sport, and wanted to support me however she could. “You have people worried in New Mexico,” she said once while we talked about my win in Taos.

At this point, pieces starting falling into place. Not only was I starting to get the correct equipment but I was getting better on the bike and in the water. Another teammate, Nathan Romero, suggested out of the blue one night with a text message that I look up Barb Lindquist and apply for USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program. I did just that, without quite realizing the magnitude of the program I was seeking out. Barb responded quickly and encouraged my interest by giving me a checklist of credentials and performance tests to submit. Once I responded, Barb suggested I try and get to Dallas the next weekend and compete in the Elite Development Race at the Continental Cup. During these three days in June I performed well enough to earn my spot in the program and met my soon-to-be coach, Trista Francis.

alexWhat amazes me most about the people I met this summer racing in New Mexico is that most of them had started training for triathlons within the past few years, and had big goals for the seasons to come. Black Dog itself is only two years old, and started up as Chasing3 emerged from the local gravity sports shop, Sport Systems. Angie moved to New Mexico several years ago to train for her pro card in long course and work on her stained glass art, but has found herself on a mission to build up the triathlon community in New Mexico instead. After a few years of getting her foothold, she has ambitious plans starting up for the 2013 season. The popular Cochiti Lake Olympic Triathlon will now offer a $5,000 purse and a new 50.5 mile triathlon (Chica Bella) will start up as a distance unique to New Mexico (as most of the state uses 505 as an area code).

Plus, the New Mexico Open Water Triathlon Series will boast larger cash prizes and will now be joined by a pool series and a kids tri circuit. Black Dog will also start transforming to support youth, club, elite and pro divisions. I feel so fortunate that I stepped into this developing New Mexican community in this moment, and will give back however I can. After all, this state occupies that zone between the endurance sport Meccas of the Colorado Front Range and Southern Arizona. Could the Land of Enchantment be the next hot spot?