Where do you spend the winter months training?
Learning to Race the International Circuit
International competition is central for elite athletes and triathlon is no exception. While the U.S. boasts an impressive number of professional International Triathlon Union (ITU) triathletes, most World Cup and World Triathlon Series (WTS) races are held on foreign soil and mean competing against incredible athletes from all over the world. I was able to experience this last summer. Racing four times in Europe, I experienced the global racing circuit and saw what it takes to succeed on the highest level against the best in the world. Many of my competitors were women who have been living the nomadic athlete lifestyle of travel and change for years. I saw the success, experience and maturity of these fellow triathletes and hoped to learn quickly. From managing pre-race nutrition and deciphering labels in Hungarian grocers to shifting training environments, climates and time zones overnight, racing abroad requires some serious adaptation.
After a productive offseason this winter, I took my first trip across the Pacific to race the Mooloolaba and New Plymouth World Cups "down under" in Australia and New Zealand, respectively. I boarded the 14-hour flight armed with compression socks, a neck pillow and race nutrition essentials I wasn't sure would be available on the other side of the world. The Qantas flight attendant, airport immigration officer and others throughout the journey seemed to know of the race I was heading to. It is exciting to realize that ITU racing is a big deal in Oceania and Europe. The crowds spectating races are huge and there is often a festival or celebration set up around the event by the hosting city. Pre-race briefings feel like a United Nations congregation of very fit people. While the ITU scene in the United States is not quite as mighty, I hope that it won't be long before draft legal triathlon reaches this level of “cool” at home.
Along with other U.S. athletes, I arrived in Mooloolaba a week before the race; I had time to absorb the shock of humidity and the 17-hour time change. A common language (though Aussie slang is sometimes as unrecognizable as Catalan Spanish) certainly eased things but overall I have felt more confident, comfortable and experienced in maneuvering a new environment and establishing the conditions I need to succeed. Even riding on the left side of the road felt almost natural after the first day. USA Triathlon does a tremendous amount to facilitate the ease of adjusting before competition. Logistics are taken care of and what is left to me is the task of best preparing my body to cross the finish line fastest on race day. When that day came I toed the line with a stacked field of women, some Olympians, some I had raced before and three other Americans. Despite the most bizarre start I have seen in an ITU race (deep water treading and holding onto a rope for some and feet floating on the rope for others), I had a decent swim and coming out of the water just behind a group, I used the long run to transition to latch on and start the bike right behind them. The four-lap bike had a total of eight sizable hills. Some strong veterans of the sport hammered at the front of my group, the chase pack, and we caught the front girls on the third lap. With few tactics, I came into T2 at the back of this big group and was one of the last to get out on the run. The hot and hard bike caught up with me by the run, a painful one, but I came across in 12th, my best finish yet in a World Cup. Though I knew better of what to expect than I did at my first round on the World Cup last summer, I was quickly reminded that the bar is set quite high for attaining excellence in this sport. Racing is fast and aggressive, courses can be hot and hilly and there is no room for mistakes.
The job down under is half complete and coming up this weekend is the New Plymouth World Cup. Staying focused and maintaining my environment for both recovery and training is critical. Racing on the international circuit takes me to some amazing places but truly maximizing these opportunities is a skill to be learned.