The Decisive Moment

By John ONeill | May 15, 2013, 12 a.m. (ET)

johnLast weekend I won the U25 Elite Development Race (draft-legal sprint) in Richmond. This was a big deal for me — coming across the finish line in first is something I haven’t done in a while. Outside of the odd Turkey Trot or community 5k fundraiser, the proverbial skeletons in my closet consist of enough second and third place ribbons to paper my room at home. Winning was a feeling I needed refreshed.

The swim was how I set myself up. My swim has been coming right along over the past month at the OTC, and I knew I was on for a good one physically. But more so than just fitness, I spent some time talking with my coach about the “decisive moment” of a race — the moment that makes or breaks a performance. We talked about recognizing that moment and attacking it. Also, back at a race series in Florida I was talking with Chris Baker, a cycling specialist with triathlon experience, and he gave me a piece of advice that I’ve relied on since hearing it.

“Don’t wait for the perfect moment in a race,” he said. “Take any moment and make it perfect.”

About 300 meters into the 750-meter swim, I noticed a gap forming between me and four other swimmers. This was the decisive moment. This was the time to take that moment and make it perfect. I put a huge effort into breaking free of the second group and catching the first.

It was a good move. Like biking, there is a draft in swimming that makes a big difference. It was smooth sailing once I pulled into the draft of the leaders. I would end up getting out of the water third — easily my best swim both in effort and tactics.

The bike was bittersweet. I rode the entire race with a pack of four guys. We were organized and alternated taking pulls at the front, but apparently we weren’t very motivated. The solid swim set me up well on the bike, which was great, but we did not take advantage of our lead. There were other cyclists who got on to their bikes a full minute behind our group who would catch us in the last lap. This isn’t a good thing when you know one of those cyclists is Alex Willis, another collegiate recruit and fantastic runner. That was the bitter part. The sweet part was knowing those guys had all killed their legs on a heroic bike effort. My legs were fresh from basically soft pedaling four laps. The run was mine for the taking.

I did, however, have the pleasure of experiencing my first penalty in this race. To my coach’s disappointment, I broke the rule of unbuckling my helmet before I had racked my bike in the second transition. I was told one thing by my coach before the race: “Concentrate and don’t make any dumb mistakes.” Whoops.

johnThe consequence was a 10-second penalty served on the run. Once I had gotten rid of my bike, I took the run out hard and tried to punish Alex for being too good on the bike.  Being the competitor he is, he stuck right on my hip. I served my penalty on the first lap of the run. Once I served my time, I tore out of the box with my eyes set on a win. I pulled even with Alex again on the second lap. He was tired. He biked very hard. The leader was still in front of me but I was getting splits from a coach. First he was a full one minute and 20 seconds in front of me. Now he was just 20 seconds in front of me.

The finish was brutal. I got the leader in my sights with about 400 meters to go and passed him at a full out sprint with 300 meters to go. Once I was in the lead, I never looked back and smashed the pace down until I was home in first.

There is something special about finishing a race without anyone finishing in front of you, and it was all set up by a split-second decision in the first five minutes of the race.