Going into nationals I had a target on my back. Winning the USAT AG National Championship last year was a pretty big surprise to everyone, but this year people would have high expectations. Could I repeat my overall win?
The week leading up to the race I actually wasn’t too nervous because I had raced the course before, I knew my competition, and my body had done this many times at this point. The nerves finally kicked in on Friday, maybe in overload, as I was feeling somewhat sick trying to eat dinner. I got to bed early and surprisingly easily thanks to my earplugs. After the nighttime noises at Pigman and Trinona I learned not to travel without them.
Race morning was pretty calm. I woke up at 5 with no hurry to get to the race site since my wave wasn’t until 9:50. I ate breakfast on the drive to downtown, got setup in transition fairly quickly and found a nice place to sit down for a while and watch some racing. Since Marcus Stromberg and Gear West teammate Matt Payne were in the first heat I saw them take off for their swim and got to cheer them when the left on the bike and run.
Finally it was my turn to line up for the swim start. My age group was allowed to enter the water about 15 minutes before our start to do a short swim warm-up. After a quick out and back I waited to slide over into the start position for a deep-water send-off.
About a minute before we were supposed to take off, they announced that there would be a slight delay and we may want to get out of the water. I assumed the wait would be brief and chose to tread water for a bit. When they made the same announcement a few minutes later I decided to climb out and sit on the side. The announcer said they were going to try and bring us some water as we were all sitting in the sun roasting in our black wetsuits but that didn’t happen. Finally, about 10 minutes later, we were allowed back in the water and given four minutes to re-warm-up.
I set my sights out a few hundred yards to the center of the bridge we had to swim under, and we were off. I had clean water immediately and was able to get a good pace going. After swimming under the bridge I was headed close to shore in hopes of traveling the shortest distance possible to the next buoy. Swimming near shore I could hear Stopwatch Greg yelling “Go Heath!” How cool is that? You rarely can hear your fans from the water so it was encouraging to have a little push in the swim. I rounded the buoys and headed back towards the bridge where we’d be exiting the water. I only passed two men during the swim due to the extra long delay between heats.
To get out of the lake a ramp was built over the massive rocks along the shore. Volunteers were lined on the edges to assist in pulling athletes out of the water. This exit was definitely one of the more challenging parts of the race. After clearing the ramp I raced towards transition with Mom, Dad and Lisa right there to cheer me on. Knowing the swim exit was about 30 seconds further away from transition compared to the year prior, I took my time getting out of my wetsuit. In transition I found my row and counted racks so I knew when to start looking for my stuff and spotted it no problem. Quickly, I got my wetsuit off, helmet on and hustled to the mount line.
There were a few big bumps leaving transition where earlier in a day multiple people had flatted, so I tried to avoid those spots as much as possible. With the extra 15-20 minute delay starting, the road in front of me was wide open. Right away I could feel myself fighting the cross-wind as I headed north along the lake. After a few miles of riding north we turned around and headed back towards transition and continued further south. When I biked back past transition I knew I wasn’t where I needed to be. Keeping at it, I tried to take advantage of the big downhill on the freeway heading south. Unfortunately, with the cross-wind gusting badly, I couldn’t ride in my aero bars and maintain control of my bike. There were a few gusts where I thought I’d be down on the road for sure but I managed to keep moving. I fought the cross-wind the whole way south and was getting quite discouraged with my progress; I was banking on a huge tail wind to get me back. Finally at the southern turn around, I was ready to crank out the last few miles home but I just hadn’t hammered out the race up until that point like I needed to. I think I passed about four guys during the entire ride. I really could have used the extra motivation to chase people down.
Disappointed in my bike, I knew I had to keep moving on the run. At this point it was near noon, the sun was high with zero clouds and there was shade for, maybe, a mile total out on the course. I got a time update from my Dad running out of transition and my first thought was, no way can I win. I knew right away that I needed to get that thought out of my head, so I set my goal to reach the end of the pier, a little over a mile away. From there on out I was taking it mile by mile. I was nervous to look at my watch but at mile three I glanced at my split and I was running 6:33s (very fast Olympic pace for me) but that ended quickly. I was looking forward to the mile 4 turnaround knowing they had cups of ice. I was able to pour the ice down my suit and hold it in my hands and mouth to try to keep cool. The last two miles went poorly and at mile five I wanted to walk badly but I knew I’d never forgive myself if I did that. For the last mile I counted my steps as a distraction. Coming up on the 6-mile marker, I knew I could survive approximately two more blocks.
At the finish line per usual I immediately sat down. The volunteers tried to drag me into the med tent but I just needed some water and cold towels. I knew I won my age group but had no idea where I stood overall. A volunteer came up to me after I stood up and told me I needed to drug test. I had no idea what I was about to get into. I asked if I could quick find my family, so he followed me around for a while. Finally, I spotted Greg in his bright yellow t-shirt (HUGE thanks to Kevin O’Connor for organizing this and to everyone that wore them! See photos). He told me I won by 28 seconds, which was a relief. I was so glad at that point that I didn’t give into the pain and walk during the final 2 miles; that would have lost me the race. I told Greg I had to go drug test and I’d be back.
The drug testing area was a small fenced in location setup on the far end of transition, away from the finish line and after-party. When I arrived I was welcomed by fellow Minnesotan Dani Fischer (she just lives in Wausau, but she grew up in Rochester so Minnesotan to the core) who had also won her age-group and had to be drug tested. We had to produce 90 mL of urine, which looked like approximately a cup. Having zero urge to go, I grabbed a bottle of Gatorade and settled in. A few bottles later I was ready for my first attempt. A nice volunteer nurse escorted me into the large porta-potty to monitor me. Five minutes went by and I could only produce approximately 8 mL, which became about 5mL after transferring the contents between bottles.
After that measly showing, I knew I was going to be there for a while. It had been almost an hour since the race was over, people were clearing out, I hadn’t been able to talk to my family (other than the brief 30 seconds with Greg) or friends and the volunteers didn’t have a phone I could use. I was getting frustrated. Finally, a volunteer was willing to lend me his phone so I could at least tell my family where I was.
They were prepping to start the super sprint, transition bike pickup was closing and Dani and I were still waiting. We each had to be escorted by a drug test volunteer into transition to pick up our gear and bring it back to the drug test area. The whole time I had to carry my sealed partial sample to guarantee no one could tamper with it.
My family finally found me and sat with me as I downed a few more bottles of water and Gatorade. Trying again, I was still 5 mL shy. Almost 2 hours had passed since I arrived and I hadn’t had any food yet (think hanger). The drug test workers suggested I walk around and look for food and hopefully get my system moving. Thankfully that worked, after almost 3 hours. I was relieved to be able to go with my family to eat some well deserved food.
I was pretty disappointed to miss celebrating with my fellow Minnesotans at the finish line party as that’s the time we all really get to celebrate. The time I spent in drug testing put a pretty big damper on the day. Luckily, I was able to catch up with a few Minnesotans at the awards ceremony.
I was honored to win the race again against such a competitive field of athletes. My finish time, 2:05:07 broke my Olympic Distance Championship record from the year prior by 30 seconds. One surprise at the awards ceremony was Performance of the Day. A small committee of USAT staff got together and decided male and female winners. They selected myself and honorary Minnesotan, Greg Taylor, who is quite the character, if you see him at a race you should befriend him. I was flattered to receive this award, definitely put a little icing on the cake.
Thanks everyone who was out cheering at Nationals and an extra thanks to those sporting a bright yellow t-shirt (Thanks again for those Kevin!). I’m sorry that I missed everyone at the finish line; I wish I would have been there to congratulate you all as well, great work Minnesota! Check out the results. View more photos.
A few mentions of the race in the news and on the web: