As told by Kevin O’Connor:
Clermont Draft Legal Challenge Race, 2012
I woke up this morning and the temperature is a full 90 degrees colder than when I left Florida 12 hours earlier. As I worked to unpack my luggage from a 24 hour trip to Florida I discovered a multitude of muscles that I had not before known existed. After all who would expect the muscles on the side of your neck to be soar the day after a triathlon? But then again, this is the first of March and it was not a typical triathlon.
I headed down the Draft Legal Challenge Triathlon in Clermont, FL to work as a domestique for my teammate Dan Hedgecock. Dan is one of the most talented amateur triathletes in the country and is always hungry for a new challenge. With plans of racing as an Elite (Professional) next season he wanted to experience draft legal racing as he will likely have the opportunity to race both non-drafting and draft-legal triathlons as an Elite.
The race itself is set up as a “half Olympic” distance: 750m Swim, 20Km Bike, 5Km Run. In short it is roughly a one hour race. The field is limited to 75 participants per event: Junior girls, Junior boys, Age Group Women, Age Group Men, Elite Men, and Elite Women. Each race is run separately so there is no advantage for one field over the other.
Essentially it is a mass start swim event with an immediate transition to a road bike race and then followed by a 5km running race. If you want success you have to be solid in all 3 disciplines. There is a reason why the Elites whom specialize in Draft Legal Racing (Olympic style triathlon racing) can go to a non-drafting event and finish at the front of field. Draft legal racing is extremely intense, both physically and mentally.
In Draft Legal racing you are allowed to work with any other athlete in the race to gain an advantage by drafting; whether it be in the swim, bike, or run. To many this sounds like it would be easier than a non-drafting race. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that you have to have a solid swim so that you begin the bike with strong enough athletes to have a fast enough bike leg. And once off the bike if you are not a good runner you will be the last of your group as typically you will exit the bike in a pack/group.
Race day had the age group men starting at 12:30pm. The temp was an above average 89 degrees, Sunny, humid with heat index of 96, and a strong south wind of 20-25mph. This was the fourth event of the day and as we set our bikes in the transition area we got to cheer on the Age Group women. As expected they were very impressive and just seeing them got you pumped up as we started as soon as they finished.
The men’s field was filled at 75 participants. At race time we lined up by order of race registration to then choose our place on the start line. I chose the last spot on the outside of the start line. As I looked to the left I had all 74 athletes to my left and the line was quite long. This is a huge field for such a short/intense event that was filled with such talented athletes.
Standing in thigh deep water the quick blast of the air horn sent us all off and we searched for the fastest way to move in water that was too shallow to swim and too deep to run. Within 30 seconds we are all swimming towards the two turn-around buoys. I had all the space I needed as I fought with myself to move more quickly and get to the buoy in a straight line. I am not sure I could have felt worse on the swim. I checked my waste to make sure didn’t have an anchor attached. Unfortunately I did not have any anchor to release so I struggled along hoping to have the bottom of the lake come back up. Soon enough it did but that added another challenge.
The lake has a very shallow entrance for a couple hundred yards. This is why we had an in-water start. But there is nothing you can do about the exit. As I felt the sandy bottom I stood up to see a few dozen athletes in front of me doing the same song and dance: Skipping, high stepping, dolphin diving, and some combination of the three. The good news was that right in front of me was Dan. The bad news is that I have not ever finished the swim behind him. The long exit is followed by a long run to transition where I was able to pass a half dozen athletes. However, as I entered transition I could hear an athlete running me down and go by; fellow Minnesotan Patrick Parish.
Dan and I had a plan set up for the race. In fact we had strategies for all situations that may unfold. Whether I come out of the water in front of him, with him, or behind him we were prepared. One thing we needed to be aware of was Patrick’s location. Like Dan, Patrick was a Division 1 runner and last year at this race Patrick finished 3rd overall with a very solid run. So having Patrick pass me as we entered T1 and now being 5 seconds behind Dan was not on the list of situations in the contingency plans.
Coming out of the water in 45th place is something I have not experienced and did not expect. The transition was completely full of athletes as I was in the “middle of the pack” at this race. As I jump onto my bike I have Patrick just 3 seconds up and Dan another 5 seconds up. I rode at 100% from the first second and struggled into the wind as I picked up athlete after athlete but I didn’t seem to make up much time on either Dan or Patrick. Luckily that wasn’t the case and as I approached the half-way turnaround of the first lap (3 lap bike course) I caught a group of about 8 athletes in which Patrick was riding. Dan was just 5 seconds up ahead of us. It was very easy to spot at the turn around as it was a true 180 degree turn around at a cone in the road. I rode around the cone aggressively and made a huge jump to catch up to the group with Dan. One guy joined me but most importantly Patrick did not. (No offense to Patrick but I was there to help Dan and Patrick is a real threat to both Dan and of course me).
With 2 ½ laps left I was now with Dan and a few others and now we could get to work. I was going to help Dan by shielding him from the wind so that he could save his legs for the run. Well……Dan wasn’t there to sit in he was there to win and at that point in the race that meant working the entire bike. As we passed through the transition area at the end of the first lap we were now just a group of four guys, Dan, me, ‘big John’, and ‘Cobb’. We all worked together to catch and shed off group three and set our sights on the leading two groups. At each end of the bike course we could see we were making up ground on the first two groups and with a half lap left we caught the second group which had about 7 guys in it. Immediately Dan went to the front and tried to motivate the guys to keep the hammer down to catch the last 5 guys in the lead group. I was at the front of the pack with Dan on my wheel as we aggressively rode into T2 with about 10 others on our wheels.
We cut the lead group’s advantage to 20 seconds and the fact that we were able to cut 1:30 off of their initial lead was inspiring. As I changed shoes I quickly found out that I forgot to pack my running legs as they must have been left back home with my swimming arms. I have never run a slower 5km in 20+ years. And it felt like it. Unfortunately I cannot use any excuse like ‘it was a challenging course’. The run was a simple two loop out and back in midday sun with a nice 25mph breeze making certain the 90 degree air wasn’t stale.
After more than 200 triathlons this was one of the most intense races I have ever done. It was a blast! Of course I was one of the oldest guys in the field. The ‘oldest’ guy to finish ahead of me was 27 yr old Patrick with his impressive 8th place. Dan was able to run himself into 5th place. I suffered to 13th place. The race was truly stacked with incredible depth of talented athletes. Most all of the athletes were the future of our sport with everyone in the top 25 at least 10 years my junior.
Congrats to Dan and Patrick on a solid race and thanks for all the young guys who kept me humble at the event. Dan and I got to work together, overcome the unexpected in the race, execute a race plan, and remind ourselves why properly training is so important. This has been a great jump start to the season and it is nice to know the hardest race of the year is behind me.
If you want to look at the results follow the link to Results. However, don’t make fun of my swim or run splits. After all I am still recovering with sore muscles and mild sunburn.