Experience Knows Best

By John ONeill | March 20, 2013, 12 a.m. (ET)

Two weeks ago, I got on a plane to Florida with great anticipation of my first draft-legal races and, truly, my introduction to triathlon racing. Presently, I am happy to report solid results from both the Clermont and Sarasota U25 Elite Development Races. I finished 5th in Clermont and in Sarasota I would clean up my race to finish 4th, literally riding on the heels of the podium. I’ve been training my tail off with the other collegiate recruits, and I’d be willing to say most of the others were equally fired up on their finishes. 

johnThe first of the two races was in Clermont. The course was gorgeous for a tall runner like myself – long run into and out of the water, long transitions and a non-technical bike course. However, the race would be my first draft-legal triathlon and only my second triathlon ever. Safe to say I had some butterflies.

I went into Clermont knowing that it would be largely a learning experience. My first and only previous triathlon last year was not smooth: freezing cold weather with no wetsuit, forgetting where my spot was in the first transition and then knocking over the entire bike rack in the second transition. There would certainly be lessons to learn at the race, but I told myself before leaving Colorado that I’d be damned to return unhappy with a bad finish. 

I’ve always thought that the worst part of any race is standing at the start line and waiting for the gun to go off. Clermont was no exception. 78 guys lined the start and I looked down the row wondering how solid each and every one of them was. When the gun finally went off, the tension was replaced with adrenaline. The swim was chaos – people crawling over others as if they were logs in the water. I got out in a good position but quickly realized I swim about as well as well in open water as a drunken man walks home from the bar. I zigzagged my way to the buoys constantly struggling to keep a straight line, always correcting and trying to sight over the whitewash of the group. I would end up holding a fast enough line to get out of the water near the top group.

Heading into transition 1 and on the bike is where I would make my mistakes. I felt my timing chip come off as I headed to the first transition. Fearing a penalty, I stopped, went back and picked it up. Once on my bike, I saw the first group just up in front of me and I made haste to get into my shoes. This would be my second mistake. By the time I got both feet in my shoes, the front pack had already formed and was pushing away from me. Riding in no man’s land, I was swallowed by the second pack and rode the remainder of the race there. I was able to run from about 20th place to 5th but ran out of room to make gains on the top four. I was happy with the effort but frustrated with the dumb mistakes that cost me a front pack berth on the bike.

johnLuckily, the trip to Florida allowed for two races in successive weekends. I spent time between races working on my faults – cornering on the bike, faster transitions, sprinting on top of my shoes and sighting in open water. I had an awesome group of Collegiate Recruits and coaches to give me pointers. Come Sarasota, the butterflies that held me back in Clermont were replaced with raw determination. I knew what to fix and felt stronger across the board. 

The swim in Sarasota would prove much rougher than in Clermont. I took a start position near the middle and got pulverized in the initial sprint. Once I hit the first buoy, though, it was lights out. I found some open water and passed hoards of people. I was stoked to see myself right in the front group when I got out of the water. I ditched my swim gear, grabbed my bike and sprinted like hell out of my shoes until the pack formed and I felt comfortable getting set. In the end, the run would come down to me chasing down the top three into the finish line. I would miss the podium by two seconds.

Going forward, in training especially, I know exactly what I need to work on. The finishes in Florida were good, but by no means were they good enough.  The race season is officially upon us and I look forward to progressing as best as experience and motivation will allow me.