Renee Black - USAT Nationals

USAT Age Group Nationals

In September of 2013, shortly after hitting the submit button registering for the inaugural addition of Ironman Chattanooga 2014, I received an email from USAT informing me that I had qualified to race at Age Group Nationals. First thought … cool! Second thought … what the heck is age group nationals? After a little time on the Google I learned that participating in this race meant competing against some of the best age group folks in the nation. With each passing year I would receive the qualification email and find some excuse not to go. In full transparency I didn’t see the point in spending a large amount of money and time traveling to a distant location just to get my butt kicked. After the 2016 season was over I decided to stop letting fear hold me back. I registered for the Olympic distance race with a pie-in-the-sky goal of finishing in the top 25 of my age group in 2017 in Omaha, Nebraska. 

On August 9th, my most trusted tri-roadie (my dear husband, Todd) and I set out on our cross country adventure. As soon as I arrived to athlete check-in I knew this was going to be a top-notch race experience. I was surrounded by world-class age groupers who were super friendly and eager to share their stories. I quickly learned at the athlete briefing that the race officials don’t mess around and have no trouble handing out penalties and DQs. It was odd. Even though I felt like a baby guppy swimming in a shark tank I was so excited! Maybe it was because I had let go of any performance expectations. Maybe it was all those incredible cards of support I had received from friends and family right before I left. All I knew was that I was ready to race!

Race morning alarm rang at 3:45 AM. I hoisted myself out of bed and completed my typical pre-race morning routine. I told Todd I wanted to leave at 5:00 AM for my 7:07 AM start time. We were only a ten minute drive from the venue but I had read story after story of traffic jams from last year’s race. Our ten minute drive turned into a 50 minute crawl to the race venue. I was prepared. Todd was driving and in charge of playing my favorite, upbeat race songs while I kept my hoodie over my head and my eyes closed. If I can’t see it or hear it, it can’t stress me out. 

After transition set up and warm up were completed I went through my final mental pre-race checklist. Just as I was about to eat my pre-race snack it was announced that race start would be delayed 15 minutes due to traffic. Honestly, this was a relief to me. I was feeling a tad rushed and this gave me a bit of a buffer. A few minutes later that delay was bumped to 20 minutes and then finally 30 minutes. I casually made my way to swim start. I found a quiet place in the grass and did some simple breathing exercises. Again, I have no control over this. No need to stress. 

Fortunately, Omaha was experiencing unseasonably cool temperatures which made for excellent race day conditions … except for the swim start. Carter Lake was 81 degrees and the air temperature was 61. This meant that after completing the swim warm up I spent a solid five minutes standing on the dock shivering uncontrollably from head to toe. We were finally allowed back in the water for our “dock start”. For the next 2 minutes there was lots of nervous chatter. One minute! Thirty seconds! At ten seconds to go they started playing a very loud and slow heart beat over the intercom system. The air horn sounded and we were off! 

Swim was a rectangle shape course. Heading out, I had lots of clear water and was swimming smooth. Coming back, I started hitting some traffic and had more than one occasion of just flat out running into someone. I was able to keep my bearings and resist the urge to water wrestle with any of my competitors. Before I knew it I was out of the water and onto the bike.

I know what you are thinking. It’s Omaha! This has to be the flattest bike course ever! Well … kind of. A participant from last year told me earlier, “I think they purposefully went out and found every hill Omaha has and put it on the course”. It was an out-and-back course with one climb at mile 5. That climb was only a half mile and topped out at a 9% grade. And of course we had the pleasure of climbing the other side on the way back into town. Luckily, we had driven the course the day before and I knew that there was a bit more “up” to the course on the way back in than on the way out. With all this in mind, I headed out on course with a metered effort. The first half was great! I was smiling and having a great time! The climb was fine and I was managing to catch some of the faster swimmers in my age group. I hit the turnaround in the middle of a corn field (no exaggeration here) and headed back. I was quickly greeted by two things: a headwind and an upset stomach.

My first action was to stay calm. No need to panic. I decided to throw it into a bit of an easier gear and reduce my effort in hopes of saving my legs for the run and calming my stomach. I really needed to take a second gel but the thought of putting anything on my stomach at that time was just flat out nauseating. So I slowly sipped on my Skratch/BCAA bottle and focused on breathing. About five miles before T2 my stomach calmed down and so did the headwind. I picked the pace back up and finished the bike strong.

Coming out of T2 I had no idea what to expect. I knew my reduced nutrition on the bike would come back to haunt me on the run. I just didn’t know when or how. I decided to once again let go of the worry and just run. This is Nationals. Give it everything you’ve got. The run was a two-loop, flat-as-can-be course. The temps were still great and the humidity low. A set up for a terrific run. The first loop felt great! I was knocking off sub 8-minute miles and feeling like that was a sustainable pace. About a half mile into the 2nd loop, I felt a niggle in the right quad, followed quickly by a niggle in my right abdominal area. Yep, my body was starting to cramp up. Now, I’m irritated. I have perfect running conditions. I have spent months in “zone 4 efforts” training for these last 24 minutes of racing. I had no choice but to slow down. I took in a gel and some water and gave myself an out. Walk for thirty seconds. If the niggles quiet down start running again. And that’s what I did. My run was slow at first but I continued to drink and steadily pick up the pace. As the pace increased the cramping returned and I would be forced to slow the pace once again. And for the next 1.5 miles this is how I managed the race. At mile 5.5 I decided I’d had enough. I started running at my sub-8 pace again. Basically daring my body to quit. If I was going out on the run course at Nationals I was going to do it right. The quad and the stomach expressed their unhappiness with my decision and I responded by turning the screws a bit more. Before I knew it I was hitting that finisher’s red carpet with a smile on my face! 

I finished nowhere near my preseason top 25 AG goal and I honestly couldn’t care less. I had a blast! I smiled more than I have ever smiled at a race and genuinely enjoyed the experience; cramping, head wind and all! I’m looking forward to the chance to qualify and race again in 2018. I still have my pie in the sky goals. Someday I will find that top 25 finish and someday I will represent Team USA at the World Championships. Until that day comes I will keep smiling, keep pushing my body beyond its perceived limits and keep having fun playing triathlon!!