At the end of last season I decided to set a certain goal. Something I had been hesitant to do for awhile but that had always been in the back of my mind. With my steady progression in racing triathlons I was still gaining speed and hadn’t yet plateaued. The idea of racing as a Professional had occurred to me before but always seemed like a far off goal that may never happen. I began to realize that goal was getting closer as my work was paying off through the years. So last October I started making it verbally known that my goal was to qualify for my Professional Triathlon license. This public verbalization made the “idea” more of a commitment than ever before. The past 6 months has brought focused training and changes to my life focused on the intent of improving my fitness and performance. These changes brought about noticeable improvements in my racing this Spring and catapulted my confidence leading into this weekend, my first qualifying attempt.
There are multiple criteria that one can meet to earn their Professional Triathlete license. One includes placing in the top 3 of all Amateur (non-pro) athletes at races that have prize purses of $20,000 or more. I chose 2 races that fit that criteria, the first of which was St. Anthony’s Olympic Distance Triathlon. This race is huge and brings out a large pro and amateur field as an early season classic. This race has been running for over 30 years and the competition doesn’t get any tougher for this distance without going to a National Championship event. It has been over a year and a half since I’ve done a race of this caliber, and I got destroyed then! I just had to hope and pray that my hard work would pay off to be enough to take top 3 in this stellar field.
I traveled to St Petersburg, Fl with Rebekah Friday morning for the race on Sunday. We were staying at The Watergarden Inn Bed and Breakfast with fellow Team Kattouf athlete Garrett Molzer and his wife Beth. While I had never met either of them before, I got good vibes from messaging with him and we got along great over the weekend! Friday and Saturday was spent enjoying St Petersburg and relaxing with a couple short workouts interspersed in attempt to get used to the increased warmth. While it wasn’t too much warmer than South Carolina, the heat still tends to bring up my heart rate at any given effort. After a longer than expected journey to eat at a Mexican restaurant Saturday night, we got to bed for the big day ahead.
After a 1 Kookie breakfast and getting all the gear together, I headed out to the race site which was conveniently only a half mile away. The set up went quickly and after some goofing around with Garrett and Beth, we headed over to the race start. We watched the Pro men and women start at 6:50 and 6:53 respectively before getting in for my 7:00 start time. I lined up next to swim stud and Bluffton resident Yorlirry (George) Moreno knowing he would probably leave me in his wake. The swim was just cool enough to be wetsuit legal which provided a bit of extra buoyancy, and the bay was smoother than any prior years. This would make for a faster swim than previous years. We started as the cannon fired and were off to our 2 hours of suffering!
I got off to a good start and held steady with some of the fast swimmers for about the first 30 seconds before the quicker swimmers began to start advancing. While my swim speed has been improving some over the winter, I haven’t focused as much on endurance in the water. While this was not as evident a week ago in Charleston for the half, when competing against such a stellar field it was apparent that I would not be able to hold their pace for the distance. I attempted to get into a rhythm and draft off feet when I could, but no solid pack formed for the duration of the swim. This wasn’t quite as I hoped for but could only try to exit the water without too much of a deficit to the leaders. I was pretty gassed at the end of the swim, and Rebekah informed me that I was somewhere around 16th as I headed into the first transition. Not an ideal swim, but I knew that I would only gain from there on out.
Upon scoping out the bike course the day before and in prior weeks online, I noticed it is very flat but extremely technical with some brick portions and even a number of speed “humps”. I got my feet in without difficulties while riding the brick portion at the start and immediately proceeded to start passing athletes. My heart rate had skyrocketed from the swim and I was unable to maintain a high power for a large portion of the beginning of the bike, but still managed to steadily pass cyclists until about mile 8. At that point the road cleared and I was not able to see any more athletes up the road other than the occasional pro women that I passed. My heart rate slowly lowered over the next 8-10 miles as I was able finally start pushing better power and get into a better groove. Unfortunately, my rear brake was not cooperating fully and would not fully release on many of the corners that I took. The worst part being when attempting to accelerate out of corners, my wheel would rub until the brake was able to finish releasing. This was very annoying and is a problem I need to address before it occurs again. The Trek Speed Concept is a great bike and I’m hoping this is something that can be easily resolved.
On an out and back section around mile 18 of the bike, I spotted a consistent line of athletes ahead of me heading the opposite direction. I wasn’t sure of the exact number, but it was more than I wanted. I also spotted another line of athletes a little ways back that were attempting to bridge the gap. I spent the rest of the course attempting to close ground on the athletes ahead but was not able to catch any before arriving back to transition 2 for the run.
I got my bike on the rack and stuffed my dirt covered feet in my running shoes, grabbed my gear, and took off. After a few steps I dropped my sunglasses and had to turn back to grab them! This panic put a pep in my step as I head out to try to work my way up field. I honestly had hoped that by this point I would have already been a little further up in the field, but that was not meant to be. My legs didn’t feel terrible, but the effort level was very high. I tried to settle into a hard yet maintainable pace for the first mile as I set my goal of the first 2 runners I could see. I learned that there were somewhere around 6 runners ahead of me. Not good news as I couldn’t see many people up the road. I suffered through some hard miles for the first half in the hopes that it might pay off in me getting closer to the front. The legs were still working and the paces stayed in the 5:40’s despite feeling like death.
The halfway turnaround was the one point I would be able to see who was ahead and by how much. I counted 1, 2, and then 3 athletes ahead of me before the turn around. That meant I was running in 4th and after some quick math, I realized I was about a minute down from the next guy. That’s a big gap for only a 5k left. I was admittedly dejected after realizing this. I convinced myself that I had to see this through to the end though. I continued pushing hard and did not let the pace drop. Then, around mile 4, I saw the next athlete up the road and he looked closer! Not much, but some. I was gaining! The next mile I pushed hard and put out my fastest mile split in around 5:30. It was enough for the pass and only 1 mile to go! The effort level was only going up, and the race wasn’t over as another athlete was now closing from behind me. I was determined to not give up 3rd place after I had worked so hard to get there. I reached deeper than I have in a race in years and finally came down the finish chute, finishing 7 seconds ahead of 4th place and qualifying for my license to race as a Professional Triathlete!
I am ecstatic to have achieved this placement and that my successes in local races and workouts transferred to a larger stage. While I still have a lot of work to do to get anywhere near the front of a pro field, I am satisfied in the fact that I set my goal high, and achieved it. I learned many things about myself at this race as well, including areas of improvement for the future. I am confident that this will not be my peak though, but rather another step in my journey!
Next up will be Chattanooga 70.3 in one month. I plan this to probably be my last race as an amateur before registering for an pro license and will allow me the opportunity to qualify a second time. I am also interested to see if I perform better in the longer distance as compared to this weekend where it took me awhile to settle into good paces. I am very excited for the future and the opportunity to grow as an athlete!