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Three Hundred and Sixty Five Days

By Alex William Willis | June 12, 2013, 12 a.m. (ET)

alexOne year ago exactly at the Dallas Pan Am Cup, I earned my spot in USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program. This year I raced in the professional field. My life has transformed drastically in the last 365 days, and though I would have never imagined that I would become a professional athlete, I am proud of what I have accomplished, and excited to build a career in this sport.

I reached out to Barb Lindquist only a week before the 2012 Dallas Pan Am Cup. She urged me to try and make it out to Texas for the Elite Development Race. I never heard of a draft-legal triathlon. I raced my first non-drafting triathlon only two months earlier. I laugh at myself when I look back at that weekend and understand just how much I have developed in this sport since.

I showed up to the pre-race clinic with a road bike and a borrowed aero helmet.  In the end I had to borrow a road bike helmet from a very kind coach. This was also my first race with proper clip in cycling shoes, so I needed extra help with setting up at the transition practices. Up until this race, I thought racing with running shoes and toe clips was a serious advantage. Despite a shaky first open water swim, and pretty much missing the point of drafting on the bike leg, I still finished top 20. Aside from all my rookie mistakes that weekend, I remember having a blast. I even met my soon-to-be coach Trista Francis and many of the athletes that I train with now.  

The rest of 2012 was filled with a lot racing and a whole new world of training. I placed well at the Hy-Vee Champs and USA Triathlon Age Group Nationals, but didn’t quite grasp an elite qualification at these top-notch amateur events. 2013 was already looking bright for me, but then on December 10 Barb informed me that I was one of six Collegiate Recruits selected to spend most of 2013 at the Olympic Training Center. After my first few months in Colorado Springs, I really started thinking of my time here as career development. I am learning all the skills of swim/bike/run, I am building my fitness and strength, and I have added so much more to my artillery with knowledge with topics like nutrition. Plus, I did nab that elusive pro card in April. Some days I still wake up and can’t believe I earned my way into the OTC. 

alexThis year the men’s pro race in Dallas started at noon on June 1. I spent the morning fueling my body and keeping my mind and body cool and calm. The heat wasn’t as bad as the previous year, but it was still going to be a brutal day. My warm-up went as planned and I even was prepared to deal with the race starting 20 minutes early due to threatening weather. I kept the run and bike warm-up to a minimum and spent more time warming up in the water so I was race ready.

After all the athletes were staged, the horn went off and we all dove into what would become a washing machine-like swim. I ended up pinched out the back of the swimmer/biker heavy pack and was even last at one point. I fought my way up to second from last before getting out of the water. The swim wasn’t necessarily bad for me as an effort; it was just really poor tactically. I worked as best I could with a small bike pack on the windy eight-lap course. But unfortunately, we were all lapped out by the leaders finishing their first loop of the run. Nothing sucks more than when an official pull you out of a race with their hand gesturing across their throats. Had the run course been the normal four laps instead of the modified five, I would have made it to the run and perhaps ran my way through most of the field. I think this was my first DNF ever, as I look back at it.

After reflecting, I understand that the result of my first professional race doesn’t represent my true abilities as a triathlete. I am still new to the sport, and there are details I am still mastering. Dallas was not a disappointment to me; it was more of a benchmark. I am concentrating on the process of becoming a balanced triathlete this year, and hanging on to bad results will distract from my progress. I know there is a great triathlete in me somewhere, waiting to emerge.

As special thanks to Angie Kandalft with Chasing 3 Race Productions, Trista Francis, Pedal Power, Melanzana, and of course USA Triathlon for believing in me and helping me to believe in myself.