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Race Result

Racer: Steve Smith
Race: ITU World Championship - Olympic Distance
Date: Saturday, December 6, 2003
Location: Various, --
Race Type: Triathlon - International Distance
Age Group: Male 30 - 34
Time: 2:09:11
Overall Place: 51
Age Group Place: 9
Comment: Queenstown, New Zealand

Race Report:

Short Story

I'm not exactly sure when I set my sights on the ITU World Championships, but I do know it was the moment I learned the event would stop in New Zealand. My first memory of stating this goal, aloud, is from November of 2000, which was pretty ambitious because

a) I didn't own a road bike, let alone a triathlon bike
(and my mountain bike had a layer of dust on it)
b) I'd done only one triathlon in my life, in 1997
c) I hadn't ridden any bike, AT ALL, since Februarly 1998
d) I could barely hold 100scy repeats on 1:45 in the pool

Long before I was a triathlete I'd wanted to visit New Zealand, so I found myself trolling eBay for a used road bike not long after I heard the race was going Down Under. Still, I had a few things going for me. I'd been running seriously for a few years and more than a year of serious soccer produced a 5K time of 17:20 in my first stab at the distance, after never breaking 40:00 in a 10K. (Indoor soccer makes for an excellent interval workout.)

Three years later, propping myself up on the ITU finishing straight, trying to breathe, trying not to fall over, I realized that, after years of focused, hard work, I'd just nailed the best race of my life, finishing 9th in my age group (and, I later learned, 51st overall). Actually, I went a bit beyond my goals as the original plan was to simply qualify for worlds and have a fine little vacation.

It wasn't happiness or pride or relief that overcame me when I could finally stand on my own, unaided. It was a deep satisfaction that I'd picked a goal and worked steadily toward it. Satisfied. That is definitely the word the describes my post-race emotions. A deep satisfaction rooted in the fact that I'd spent every ounce of fitness I brought to New Zealand. And, well yeah, there was a tinge of relief since I did not have to run another step ... I'd pushed myself to the edge during the run (and nearly gone over the edge as I crossed the finish line) and I was never more glad to stop running.

In the official results, I have the same time as the Australian (one of many) that finished ahead of me in eighth place. I can say, without a shred of regret, that I did everything I could have that day. When I think of that Aussie, I think of someone who squeezed another 8 or 12 seconds out of me, not as someone who beat me. It was one of the best examples of racing with someone, rather than against them. Besides, it wasn't like we were going for the last podium spot or anything :)

All in all, it was a perfect vacation. Well, except for the two hours wasted on Matrix Revolutions; aside from that, it was perfect.

Pre Race
I'd made my original travel plans in January of 2003; I'd discussed the situation with work and established a plan that would allow me to take six weeks of leave, giving me three weeks to prepare for the race in New Zealand (and do a bit of travel) and three weeks after the race for travel (and a bit of racing if I could find it). Unfortunately, mid-year we decided to reorganzie our company. To make a long story short, I cut my vacation to three weeks. How could I complain? It was still a three-week vacation.

I arrived in New Zealand on November 20th for the December 6th race. I rented a mini-van outfitted with a bed (raised above the van floor, providing storage). I then drove from Auckland to Queenstown and back. To put this in US terms, the drive would be similar to that from Washington D.C. to Atlanta, GA., but without the use of the interstates. I found a small sprint triathlon in the town of Napier, which I won, and then I competed in the sprint "test event" in Queenstown the weekend before the race. This race featured one loop of the three-loop bike course and two loops of the four-loop run course. It also featured competition from the likes Simon Whitfield, Brent McMahon, and Victor Plata. I was ninth overall in this race (4-minutes behind Simon, who won), and third amateur.

My first thoughts of New Zealand were strictly this: OH MY GAAAAAAWD it's windy. From the moment I set foot in Aukland until the day I left, the winds were there every day, except one (three days after the race, in Picton, as I awaited my ferry to the North Island). Once I left Auckland my thoughts were this: What a beautiful, windy country. I later learned there's a six-week period of blustery days. When I say windy, I mean windy: sustained 15-18 mph winds all day long, sometimes with bad gusts in the afternoons.

While I spent most nights in the van, the week before the race I had a hotel room in Glenorchy, a 25-minute drive outside of Queenstown on one of the most beautiful drives ever. While QT is a bustling, partying, tourist town, Glenorchy is a quiet nook of 200 residents that survives as a gateway to the beautiful Paradise valley and Mt. Aspiring National Park. Right outside of my Glenorchy motel room was the well-named, infrequently travelled, Paradise Road. Here, and on the race course, I did my last pre-race biking & running.

In the weeks before the race I did a moderate amount of biking, swimming, and running, never biking more than two hours or running more than 45 minutes. I tried to get 2-hours of training in a day, with at least some race-pace stuff, but not a lot. Two weeks before the race I did two hard brick sessions (Tue morning and Thu evening); the test event provided my last race pace workout. On the Monday before the race I did a 2-hour trail run on the Routeburn Track. The scenery was amazing (encompassing much of the scenery from the Lord of the Rings). Fitness-wise, this may not have been the best decision, but I was mentally rejuvenated with the long, comfortable effort and spectacular sights.

The week before the race I did very little hard stuff. I was looking to the recent weekend racing to provide most of last-minute fitness checks. I did, however, ride the bike course 4 times (1 loop of the three-loop course), run 8 loops over the run course over 3 runs, and swam the swim course 3 times. All mostly easy efforts with a few 30-90 seconds sessions of race-pace.

My wave left at 9:30 a.m.; we were the third wave of the morning. M20-24 and M25-29 went off ahead of us, with 20 minutes between waves. Just about ideal: late enough in the day to include some sunshine, but not so late that the ever-present winds would be at their afternoon-worst. Like most big races, we had to rack the bikes the night before. Unfortunately, the rain poured down on Friday, leaving transition quite muddy, but Saturday the sun rose upon a gorgeous day for racing. At 8:30 I went out for a 20-minute run, and then I jumped in the water for a good 15-minute swim warmup. By now I was accustomed to the 58-degree water. Just before 9:30 they walked the M30-34 group to the start. We were in the water, with one hand on the platform the pros would use to dive start on Sunday. The horn went off and I put three years of hard work to the test.

Without a doubt, I had the best swim start of my life. Watching the the first two waves, I saw big packs form. Big, busy, rough packs. I wanted to push the first 300m as hard as I could to avoid getting thrashed about. Once out of the danger zone, I wanted to pick up some fast feet and follow them in for a strong swim. For me, finding feet is more about finding someone who will push me than it is about finding someone who can pull me; I swim too easy when left to my own devices. Also, I'm not the best open-water swimmer, so I tend to do better when someone else figures out how to swim straight.

I couldn't believe how little contact I had in the swim start. In fact, I had NO contact in the swim start. A surprising fact after hearing the stories about people thrashed so bad in the swim their wetsuits were inside-out when they finished ... Exaggeration yes, but you get the idea.

The second part of my plan didn't work out quite as well. I did find some feet, but apparently I wasn't the only one in search of feet. While there wasn't much contact, there were a handful of guys jockeying for position, and I had such a good swim start that I found myself around folks with whom I couldn't keep up with, not even in their draft. So I found some feet and followed them for a short spell before having to find some new feet.

The swim course was an open rectangle: 650m out (turn left), 200m (into the wind, turn left) 650m in (to finish upshore from the start. We had moderate winds during the short section, and this is where I lost my draft. Having swum the course a few times, I had picked up my sighting points and managed to stay quite straight on this section. After making the last turn, I went a little wide, but I did better than the many people who got pushed inside the course by the winds.

I was 32nd out of the water in my age group at 22:19, a mere 1:54 behind the AG leader, Todd Menzel, of the USA, and only 1:25 back from John Reback (2003 US National Champion--overall and M30-34)

How good was my swim?

2003 USAT National Age Group Championships:

Todd Menzel: 18:48
John Reback: 19:56
Steve Smith: 21:57

Difference: 3:09 (Menzel) 2:01 (Reback)

Now, the weird thing is that no one in the M30-34 age group broke 20:00 at Worlds. The fastest swim times came, universally, from the first two waves. Even in those waves only 11 guys broke 20:00. So the course was obviously slow for some reason. Long? Maybe. Uphill? Definitely (i.e. windy/choppy water). I think the wind grew worse as the day grew older. It's just *really* unusual for no one in the M30-34 wave to have a swim-time comparable to the younger guys. And it's just as unusual when a handful of guys don't swim 18:low.

Once we exited the water it was a huge hike up-hill, maybe a 700m all the way to transition, with the first 150m uphill. It had rained all day Friday, as I mentioned, and while the uphill stretch was carpeted and clean, transition area (TA) was muddy. Heeding all the wonderful Columbia & Eagleman race reports, I took time Friday night to put duct tape across the bottom of my Speedlplay cleats. Only this time (unlike my Lums Pond race, where I first tried this) I extended the tape well outside of the sole, folding it back to make a little handle.

Once in TA, I went to strip my wetsuit and knew I pushed the swim, because I almost fell over with dizziness. It took me a moment to right myself, all while trying to remove my wetsuit. I smiled as I ran thru the messy TA with my cycling shoes on. Just before I reached the exit I reached down & quickly yanked my duct-tape cleat covers. I was on my bike & immediately passing a couple of guys dorking with their bike shoes. And my feet were dry :)

The lollipop bike course was a 3-loop course with a very short "stem" to enter the bottom of the loop. The bike/run transition was at the top of the loop, away from the swim/bike transition at the lake. I must have passed 15 guys before I reached the end of the stem, when guys from the earlier waves re-entered the bike course. Once into the loops, I noted guys from my waves as I passed them (our calves marked with our waves), but I no longer had a sense of where I was in my field of competition.

Shortly after the entering the bike loop, we hit the first, most serious climb of the bike course, McIntire's Hill. For those that did the Diamond in the Rough triathlon, the last hill in that race is the the climb that most resembles McIntire's Hill. I'm guessing around 7-8% over a little less than a mile. Once we crest this hill there's a short downhill stretch before hitting a steeper, but shorter, climb of Birkeshire hill. This hill brought us is into Arrowtown, where many of the spectators had settled in to watch people make the climb. We looped arrow Arrowtown for a few brief kilometers, before heading hitting one last climb to leave Arrowtown. A quick descent dropped us off at Millbrook resort and the bike/run transition (T2). At this point, on the first "loop" we were a little less than 8K into the 40K bike course. We would now complete two loops of the following stretch: west, away from T2, into a direct headwind and turn left to descend back into the valley. At the bottom of the descent we'd turn left again to get a little bit of tail wind with our steady crosswind and make our way back to the foot of McIntire's Hill. Up (up up up) McIntire's Hill into Arrowtown and out of Arrowtown. Throughout most of the bike, we had a good view of the cyclists ahead of us, especially at the turns where there were few trees obstructing the better, perpendicular, view of the field.

As I said, once we hit the bottom of the loop, it was hard to discern who was in the earlier waves and who was in my wave, with one exception. I was looking for the gold disc wheel of John Reback. Reback is the current US Amateur Champion. In winning our age group race at the National Championships in October, Reback managed to win the overall race as well. To top it off, he also took overall honors the World's qualifying race two weeks earlier, amongst very tough competition. Going into this race Reback was a strong candidate for athlete of the year. He's a better swimmer than me, and he rides an easily distinguishable gold-colored disc wheel. I knew if I was to have my best race I would have to catch him before the end of the third loop. He's a strong runner, and if I could hang with Reback in this race, I could hang near the top-end of the race.

The first ascent of McIntire's wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, but it was still hard. I passed a lot of guys on this hill, and one guy went buy me. I wasn't too thrilled about that, and I passed him strong before the next hill (Birkeshire) and never saw him again. Into Arrowtown for some nice flats, and then up the short hill that takes us out of Arrowtown and toward T2. There were quite a few folks at the turn in front of T2 (on our last lap, we would go straight into the field across the street). I passed a few guys strongly before the turn, and hammered out of the saddles as I came out of the turn to stay ahead of them. Right then I say the face of Tim, staring at his clipboard with his eyes bugged out. Yount is the US Team coordinator, the guy in charge or organizing all the age group triathletes. After many years in this position, travelling and working with the athletes that frequent national and world championships, he has a pretty good handle on who's who. When I went roaring by him I smiled to myself, because I read the look on his face, as he stared at his clipboard, as "Who the hell is THIS guy!" Tim looks up and yells "Go go go go!!!!" and I do. Into the headwind, I tell myself don't worry, it feels slow because it is slow, but no one's passing you. I look back, and there's a guy quite a ways back, and only one from the 4-5 I passed before the turn. Grinding into the headwind I tell myself to keep pushing, work the straights, stay aero and stay focused. As I approach the turn before our wicked descent I'm stunned. Gold wheel. Now I fully understand Tim's expression. Holy crap. I thought I could catch Reback, but not on the first loop. I catch myself. The course has a wide field of vision, and he's not close. But I will catch him. I will catch him. I will.

A minute or two later (but seemingly seconds in my mind) I make the turn. We're coming into the wicked descent where we the vast majority of the altitude gained in the three climgs around Arrowtown. This is the one section of the course where my decision to use a disc wheel *really* concerns me (there was another point a little further on). After a few kilometers of false flat down, we hit a few turns before lining up a long, straight descent. The problem was we came out of the hill's protection and into a cross wind. After riding the course (at a moderate pace, mind you) in the late afternoon, with some really bad winds, I decided it was managable. I usually descend with abandon, but not here. I stopped pedaling before the slow turn, put my hands above the brakes, and tucked. Specifically, I tucked my knees hard against my top-tube, so I could brace the bike against any headwinds.

I survived the descent to be treated to another, closer glance at the gold wheel. I will catch him. Them. There are a couple of guys around him as well. They are likely in my age group as well. This is what I love about racing at this level ... People to chase. People chasing me. Racing with people ... Behind me, ahead of me.

We finally get a bit of tail wind (and pass through the one other risky spot in terms of crosswinds) as we approach the bottom of McIntire's hill, absorbed into the M35-39 wave as we merge into the race course. More people ahead of me. No sign of Reback. Up the hill. Again someone passes me mid-hill, and again I drop him soon after the ascent. No mountain points in this race buddy (this guy was huge!!! Easily 200 pounds, and spinnging crazy, he must've brought a 27 gear or something). Only one more time up that McIntire bastard I think to myself. Thru Arrowtown and as I approach the short hill out of Arrowtown, he's there. I'll pass him before the turn at T2. I have to, or I'll get stuck behind him and the guy just ahead of him. So I push the short straight-away and get ahead for the turn. This time, Tim's out of his head yelling as I pass. Of course, Tim's out of his head yelling throughout the entire race, but I'm pretty sure I'm the first M30-34 American at this point. I soak up this energy and bike scared into the headwind. I managed to put some distance on Reback and the others in this stretch, as I looked back at the turn. Back down the wicked descent, turn to get some tailwind, thru the other dicey crosswind (not bad at all) and merged back into the bottom of the loop for the last ascent of McIntire's. I'm going strongly up the hill and yet AGAIN I get passed. This fellow, however, is stronger. An Aussie. He's seated and spinnging nicely. He's in my age group. Where the hell did he come from? I top the hill and he's a few hundred meters ahead. I'm breathing hard. I takes a few minutes to recover from the climb, a first for the race. We hit Birkeshire hill and I lose sight of the Frenchman. The pass almost gets to me, but I regain my breath, recover from the climb, and go after him. Arrow town has some flats, and it's easy to get some speed. Through the town and approaching the last hill before we hit T2, I reel the Frenchman in. We crest the last hill and he rockets down. I get in behind him. We're less than 1km from T2; I let him go ... There's no need to pass him now. It was hard to let him go, but it was the smart decisions. I spin down a bit, get my feet out of my cycling shoes and pedal the last few meters with my feet ontop of my still-clipped in cycling shoes. I hit the dismount running, only a few meters behind the Frenchman.

As it was windy & raining on Friday when I set up my bike-run transition, I'd put my shoes in a plastic bag, weighted with a rock, and the vast majority of athletes did the same. Anyway, the run course was four clockwise loops around the Millbrook Golf resort. Nestled in the mountains outside of Queenstown, the course had two juicy hills and snaked through the beautiful golf resort. There was quite a bit of construction in the area that put a small dent in the near-perfect scenery of the race. But soon this will be one of the most scenic triathlons in the world.

Leaving transition, there was a downhill run of a couple hundred meters before hitting the first hill that lasted about 300 meters. This was followed by a harsh descent, much steeper than the ascent, another quick ascent, and then some flats before slowly descending into the valley, along the golf course. Leaving the golf course, in a quieter section of the run, we hit a construction-filled zone in direct sunlight and started the tougher of the two hills that was steeper, but a bit shorter than the first hill. For me, this was the toughest part of the run course. While the first hill was a fairly straight shot, the second hill snaked around corners, the top always hidden from view. Once we crested this hill we had a gradual descent back down to T2. Four loops of that.

So, as the Frenchman and I hit transition, I realize that the race organizers, or someone, had gone through transition and uncovered everyone's shoes. I don't know about other folks, but I appreciated the effort. I got into my shoes without cramping, and without losing too much time and chased the Frnechman out of transition. He was moving at a good clip, so I sat behind him to get a check on all systems. Calves: check, breathing: check; brain: check. Pace: ... Well, it could be faster, so I follow Frenchie to the bottom of the first climb and then pass him. I didn't see him again.

The first hill wasn't bad; the descent was probably worse, just hard on the body as I let my body fall down the hill on its own accord. Into the flats I felt good, and I set my mind to pushing myself. I would later learn I was seventh into transition, so I was now in sixth place. I had no idea of this, but I did figure I was somewhere on the sharp end of the race.

Given the four loops of the course, there were people of all abilities everywhere. At the top of the hills many of the pros were out cheering people on, making comments about who looked strong, who had good technique etc. I think they were mostly trying to work off their own pre-race jitters by worrying about other athlete's races. Anyway, I was running by myself for the first loop.

Moving into the second loop I found many more of my age group, but most were behind me already. I kept pushing myself, asking myself if I had anything else. Once near the golf course again I tried to push myself a bit harder. Bad idea. Slight dizziness and general bad things brought be back down. The most surprising thing was just how subtle the change in speed was. Just that slight nudge up and down had a big impact.

Into the third loop I was even more confused by the people around me. Is he on the same loop as me? Is he? What age is HE, he's moving. Just before the last big hill, someone passed me. My age group. Australian. What loop I ask myself? Must be with me, no one has passed me with that kind of authority yet. And those Aussies are all tough bastards. I got up on his shoulder. We ran together, he eeked ahead of me on the hill, then I passed him on the downhill.

As I approached the end of the third loop, trying to hold onto my age-group competition, crisis loomed. What loop am I on? I really couldn't remember. Trying to hold onto my new-found competition I had lost track of everything else. It sounds silly now, but pushing as hard as I could, I literally couldn't focus on the situation. All I could think was this: I've spent the last three years trying to get here, and I could royally screw this up. Finally I decided: I fell back a few meters and let my run buddy go ahead. Whatever he did, I would do. He started the fourth loop.

I started the fourth loop, with my run buddy slowly pulling away. I gained some ground on the downhill, and kept him in sight. Back through the critiquing pros, through the resort, and down along the golf course, I was maybe 25 meters back now. Going up the last hill, I really pushed myself, losing no ground. On the descent, I started gaining ground only to have the distance stablize at 15 meters. I held my pace, 15 meters back, for about 20 seconds. Then I started pushing with everything I had left. I gained another 5 meters before the turn off the 4 loops. Maybe 300 meters left. I pulled up, heaving breathes. He heard me. I was about 5 meters back. He could hear me. Five meters. Two-hundred meters. Four meters. One-hundred meters. Three meters.

He motioned. He waved his arm. Come on, come on. Is that all you have. Insanely, I wonder, "Is he taunting me?" Doesn't matter, whatever his intent, it is pulling me along. I struggle to pass him. Two meters. Finish-line. I am completely spent, and completely happy.

Some Race Stats
Overall finishers: 1198
M30-34 finishers: 95

stv (# 51 - overall)
0:22:19 (#165) - 1500m
1:07:36 (# 31) - 40.2K
0:39:16 (# 95) - 10.2K

Fastest Splits (OA)
0:34:54 *

Fastest Splits (AG)

Winning Splits (OA)

Winning Splits (AG)

Female Winner (OA)

Femal Fastest Splits (OA)
0:39:30 *

* I'm not sure about some of these run splits ... The top run splits were put out by people with unremarkable races (30th & 40th in their age groups). As this was a loop course, it would be easy to miss a loop either intentionally or by mistake.