By Cymon Kersch
Sometimes you win. Sometimes you learn. Clermont was definitely a learning experience.
Last fall, while racing cyclocross during a break from triathlon, Steelhead coach Shawn Bostad and I heard of the Clermont Draft-Legal Challenge in Florida. The race is a sprint distance draft-legal triathlon, which means it’s short and fast with the bike leg more like a road race than a time trial. The event has an elite-development race (EDR) field, in which the top three Americans qualify for their Pro card. Having just taken about six weeks off after ITU Triathlon Worlds, I was nervous to sign up for the race, which was only four months out. But life is full of risks and challenges so I registered to race in the EDR field for both days of weekend racing. Over the next few months as training volume and intensity ticked up, I rode a roller coaster of feeling both desperately foolish and unprepared and boldly excited for the speedy sprint race, whose date was rapidly approaching.
Fast forward to race weekend. Shawn and I flew out of Portland super early on Thursday, March 1, arriving in Orlando’s humidity mid-afternoon. We drove the forty minutes to Clermont, where we stayed in a house with other athletes and coaches. Shawn and I immediately headed out for a shake-out run with some pops of speed. It was the first time in months I’d run outside in shorts and a tank top and it felt wonderful. I put my bike together, ate and went to bed early - the next few days were going to be busy!
The alarm the next morning at 6:30 felt like 3:30 with the time difference, but after a quick breakfast, we took off to the race venue for a course preview. A group of seven of us set off on the bike course to practice drafting, corners, and a continuously rotating paceline… until I got a flat tire. After a quick tire change, we switched to transition practice, but when I grabbed my bike to practice mounts the tire was flat again. Shawn found the culprit - a tiny piece of metal which repeatedly burst the tube.
Transition tip #1: Use your index finger as a guide next to the helmet buckle to clip it in without fumbling around.
Next up was a swim course preview and open water skills practice. I had joked on the drive from Orlando that there would be alligators; sure enough, at the beach we found a “Warning! Alligators” sign. The sign also read “Warning! Dark water” Great...We wouldn’t even see the alligators coming. Probably better that way - we’ll swim faster! The water looked like dark iced tea. Apparently this comes from tannins released from the trees around the lake. We tried to practice drafting, but the dark water made it impossible to follow the bubbles from the swimmer’s kick in front of you. After practicing beach starts with Olympic triathlete and coach, Barb Lindquist, we attended the athlete briefing, returned to the house, double checked my fixed tire, ate, packed up race bags and went to bed.
Swimming transition tip #1: With a beach start, run into the water to knee deep, then do a few dolphin dives before switching to swimming. Exiting the water is the same strategy in reverse: Start the dolphin dives as soon as your fingers touch the bottom and then run up to the beach.
The following morning was Race Day #1. At the race briefing we had been told there was no way the race would be wetsuit legal (but maybe bring it just in case). As I finished setting up my gear in transition, one of the officials told us the race was wetsuit legal. The water temperature was warm enough, but due to air temperature and wave conditions, it qualified as a wetsuit swim. The look on all of the athletes’ faces was hilarious. Blank stare, giant eyes, it was the look of “no freaking way, he must be kidding.” Nope, not kidding. I walked down to the water with my wetsuit for a warm up swim. When I exited the cove into the open lake, the waves picked up dramatically. This was very different than how calm it had been the day before.
Transition tip #2: When setting up transition gear always think: “Helmet on bike, sunglasses in helmet, shoes on bike, Garmin on bike (turned on, with Auto Power Down OFF).”
Race prep tip: Always bring your wetsuit no matter what is predicted. Officials make a call an hour before each wave starts; it can even change wave-to-wave.
Race #1: The women’s EDR field lined up on the beach. The horn sounded and we thrashed into the water. It was a mob. The swim was like a boxing match in a wave pool. It was incomparable to any other triathlon swim I’d experienced. After a decent opening 100 yards, I was near the front, but as we hit the waves and the arms flailed around me, I panicked a little. I lifted my head forward to sight and breath, only to inhale and choke down water. Later, when asked what I felt during the swim, my answer was “anxiety.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I rolled over twice onto my back to catch my breath and calm down a little during the first half of the swim and swam wide around every buoy to avoid the mob. I’ve never been so relieved to round the last buoy and see the beach ahead of me. I came out of the water around 18th out of 45 women. My background sport is swimming, so this did not bode well, but you can’t think that during a race.
If there is one thing that saved me during this particular race it was to stay in a present mindset; don’t think about what you just finished or what you have to do next, just think about what to execute at that exact time.
The swim was done; on to transition. I ran up the beach, trying to get my wetsuit off while running up the sand. In transition I got stuck, per usual, in my wetsuit. Eventually, I threw the wetsuit in my basket, clipped my helmet on, and ran off to the mount line with my bike.
Swimming transition tip #2: If you have to run on sand, wait until you get off the beach to start taking off your wetsuit.
Swimming transition tip #3: Cut the bottom of your wetsuit at an angle up your calf instead of straight across to make an easier exit from the wetsuit.
After an uncoordinated mount I was finally onto the next discipline. I had been really looking forward to the excitement of a draft legal race and gosh was it fun! I latched on to a group of about five women, rotating the pull for the next half hour. The bike course was an out and back course that we repeated four times. My bike pack was decently organized with a few strong riders and during the final lap we caught a large pack that had started far ahead. Coming into transition at the end of the bike I was at the front pulling the now merged giant group and completely forgot about the dismount. The line suddenly appeared in front of me, I quickly managed to pull one foot out, but didn’t have time for the second. It was the world’s most awkward dismount and I ran into transition with one shoe on the bike and one shoe on my foot. I struggled to slam on my running shoes and I fell from first in my group into transition to nearly last coming out, leaving me in 15th place at the start of the run. I thought there was zero chance I could get into one of the Pro qualifying positions, especially as my legs felt terrible.
Half way through the 5K, my legs finally started loosening up. I picked up the pace on the second half catching a few women. Coming into the final mile I was running in a pack of four, knowing the first person in our pack would finish about 7th overall, well out of the top three. I thought, how badly am I willing to hurt to place 7th? Is it worth it? About a half mile from the finish I decided it is always worth it. That is why we race. I kicked up the pace. The other women didn’t respond and were soon off my shoulder. I saw the finish line and didn’t look back. I crossed the finish line in 7th.
We came to this race with two main goals: To experience draft legal racing and to try to qualify for a Pro card. I knew that I had not raced well and I felt a little embarrassed and disappointed. Shawn found me mulling around at the finish and mentioned that existing pros and internationals finishing ahead of me would not count for the three Pro qualification slots. It wasn’t until that evening that we received the final word: I had nabbed that third spot and earned my Pro card. I was elated, particularly as I knew I could race faster and smarter.
For Race #2 I applied some of the learnings from Day 1. The race start on day 2 was even windier. Right before the start, officials cut the swim course in half due to wind and waves.
My second race was no better than on Day 1, but I learned more valuable lessons to prepare me for future competitions, including how to fuel and hydrate for two-day race weekends. After the race, we packed up my bike and met Barb and the other athletes for 3.5 hours of swimming, running drills and technique work. From there, Shawn and I drove straight to the airport for an evening flight, arriving back in Portland (still in running shorts) at 2:00 a.m. It was freezing and we were exhausted.
Despite a sub-par race performance, my experience in Clermont was still one of the best weekends I could have imagined. I achieved my goals of gaining experience in draft legal triathlon and earning a Pro card. It’s never easy to come away from a race experience knowing you did not perform as well as you could, but it certainly fuels the drive and ambition to train harder to improve and race faster and smarter the next time!
My Top 10 Clermont Learnings
1. There are different types of swim starts. Make a plan for in-water vs. diving vs. running beach starts. For beach starts practice dolphin dives, they are also just plain fun! Also, if you have to run on sand, don’t mess with getting your wetsuit off until you hit more solid ground.
2. Swimming through waves is hard, but it is hard for everyone. Trust your swimming experience. Sight forward, then breath to the side, preferably on the side away from the waves. Mentally wrap your head around a wavy swim before you start, acknowledging that it will be tough, but you’re ready to tackle the challenge.
3. To help with the swim-bike transition cut the bottom of your wetsuit at an angle to make a bigger hole for your foot, practice putting your helmet on (using your index finger as a guide to help buckle it quickly), and practice flying mounts… a lot. Your helmet should be the first thing on and last thing off in transitions. Do not touch the bike without your helmet on.
4. Be brave on the bike. A lot of time can be lost (or gained) in corners. Also, make a mental note of where the dismount line is, especially if it’s somewhere that can sneak up on you, like right after a corner.
5. To help get running shoes on quickly, shake baby powder in your shoes and use race laces.
6. The race is not over until you cross the finish line. No matter how the swim and the bike go, give the run everything! Every second counts.
7. Stay in the moment. The beauty of triathlon is that there are multiple sports; if one part does not go quite as planned, there are more opportunities to keep racing through transitions and onto other disciplines.
8. Drills take a long time in practice, but they’re worth it. My new favorite swimming drill that I learned during the trip is placing a pull paddle against the top of your head and try to swim without it falling off. You have to hold it while you push off the wall, but then it should stay as long as you moving forward in a straight line. Try to keep it from falling off even as you turn to breath. When/where it falls off in your stroke can highlight imbalances in your stroke and become a technique area to focus on. For me, it fell off when I pulled with my left arm, but not my right arm. Turns out I was crossing over the midline. Now I’m working to correct that to become better balanced throughout my whole stroke.
9. Mental space. It is important to be in the right mindset at the start of the race. Psych yourself up, not out, for the parts you know will be challenging and maybe a little scary (like arms flying around you in the swim).
10. There is a positive outcome to every race, sometimes you have to look a little harder. But it’s always there. A sub-optimal race just means you have areas to improve :-D