This is the second installment of my series on Team USA members. I suspect there may be a lot more, as TeamUSA people tend to be interesting. This story is so unique that it deserves its own blog post.
Before ever meeting Jenna Hay, I met her mom and dad. Her parents were travelling with her as her support staff. Jenna was a recent college grad (like, in the last few weeks). Her trip from Duathlon Nationals (Long Course) to Worlds has already been published by local TV in Dallas. I met her in Zofingen, but not until I first met and had breakfast with her parents. They were both proud of their daughter and were excited to be watching her compete on Duathlon’s biggest stage.
Two days before the race, a group of 30 of us took a test ride on parts of the course. Jenna, another young man named Bryce (no photo) and I did the entire 50km loop. Although Bryce and I had nice aero bikes, Jenna was riding a road bike and was happy to do so. Her advice for newbies included, “hold off on buying all of the fancy equipment. It is 100% the athlete that wins races, not the bike, or aero helmet, or fancy clip-in shoes. Before dropping tons of cash, make sure multisport is something you are passionate for and want to pursue.”
When I asked Jenna what goes on inside her head during a long distance event, she offered some thoughtful advise. She shared, “I never consider myself to be suffering during a race. Even when I am in pain, being smothered by the heat, or reaching a wall in my strength I am still having the time of my life. I love racing, and it’s hard to be sad when you’re doing something you love! But when the going gets tough, I think about friends and family. I have been blessed in my life to know people who inspire me to push myself, whether it is because they have forced me to or because they have set a wonderful example. I am also a fairly imaginative person, so entertaining myself during the long runs and bike rides is not too hard. I typically imagine myself being cheered on as I cross the finish line, and if I’m feeling really loopy, I’ll imagine myself in funny situations. That has caused me to burst out laughing in the middle of a race, which definitely freaks out those around me. You could say it’s a race strategy! The final method I use to keep a positive attitude is to smile. Spectators love to see a competitor, someone who should be miserable and exhausted, jogging by with a huge smile and pep in their step. I love waving and joking around with people watching the race. Making them smile makes me happy, which makes it easier to run through discomfort.”
The ladies start the course an hour ahead of the boys, preventing a lot of log jams on the course. After the race started, I didn’t see Jenna until the final run was nearly over, and the rain was pouring down. She had a big smile on her face and laughed out loud. She had a great 150km bike and was enjoying the final run, as best as her body would let her.
After my race was over, and I took a warm epsom salt bath to ease my muscle pain and headed back to the stadium. As Jenna entered the stadium, the crowd roared like it had for no other competitor up to that moment. Her smile and look of happiness were compelling. People naturally love Jenna. At the awards ceremony when she was crowned World Champion for the women’s Under 25, you could only sense that there is a lot more racing ahead of Jenna.
After the event, I strongly recommended that she reach out to Kristen Armstrong about learning road cycling from the best. America needs a new Elite cyclist to take up the torch as best in the World, and Jenna has it in her to be that girl.
Beginning a few months ago, people began asking questions regarding the upcoming Olympics. The most common form came out like this. “So, what time is your event down in Rio?”
“Um, I’m not going,” would come to mind and come out of my mouth, but that response didn’t answer the “why not?” that everyone seemed to ask. Delivering a monolog that addressed incorrect assumptions gracefully isn’t always easy. The question got asked so many times that I feel a need to get the publish the answer.
Sadly, duathlon is not currently an Olympic Sport. Most sports are not Olympic Sports, for that matter. There is no bowling (America’s most actively participated in sport) nor football (America’s most financially invested sport). The best we get as duathlete is to compete in World Championships, and those are yearly.
Skill and money play huge roles in Olympic participation. Olympians are typically the most elite athletes in a sport, but being the best is not enough. For single person events, like Triathlon, in a best case scenario, a country gets to send 3 people. Few countries don’t get to send that many, and most countries send no one at all. Most sports don’t support a financially viable pro league, or if there is a league, it requires supplemental income and sponsorship to make things work. One of the outcomes of great likelihood is to meet a former Olympian and learn that he/she is broke. We don’t get the best of the best training and support without raising money on our own to pay for what we think will give us an edge. There is some assistance from national groups and governments, (in my case, USA Triathlon helps elite athletes), but it doesn’t cover all the costs, or even come close. More than one athlete has missed a game because they ran out of money.
I am an age group competitor, meaning I may get to know and hang out with the elite athletes who get to go, but in my sport, no way is a 50-year-old is heading to the Olympics as an elite endurance athlete. I don’t have the VO2 max of the young kids out there…even if I do beat them, now and then. In any given sport, there may be a few hundred people who get to do TeamUSA competitions, and of those, only a small handful ever get to by Olympians.
The people who make up TeamUSA are the best part of most events. Here are some stories of the people who participated in the 2016 Powerman Duathlon World Championships.
Ben and Sarah Looney are professional chefs/nutritionists from Texas. As you can imagine, they eat well and workout hard. Their fitness is obvious. Both of them qualified for Zofingen, and they decided to save their money and jointly compete this last year. They travelled with another couple, Julie and Monty Hardy, as Money was also competing, and the two couples knew each from other events.
Ben and Sarah were working together when he began chasing her. Ben learned that Sarah’s dad was an Ironman guy, and he was the one that encouraged Sarah to take up triathlon. Ben had always had an inkling of interest in multisport racing but hadn’t pursued it with any zeal. According to Ben, “I figured what better way to get close to her than by hanging out with her dad and training with them both. I had ulterior motives, but in the process became really passionate about duathlon and triathlon, as well as Sarah. I actually asked her dad to go on a training ride and at the end asked him if I could marry his daughter. The rest is history!” What a brilliant idea to ask your future father in law a real important “yes or no” question when he is on a natural high!
Sarah Looney views the suffering of long race competition with an attitude that the rest of us could learn from. She shared with me, “I try to remember those that are suffering more than I am, who can’t just quit when things get hard – like my Grandma who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, a friend battling cancer – they can’t just say “this disease is harder than I thought, I think I’ll stop for a while.” And of course I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a good post-race breakfast or a nice glass of wine doesn’t push me towards the finish line …just kidding! But seriously ;)”
They two of them hope to compete and do future races together.
Cora Sturlz is a “seasoned” athlete (meaning, she is old, like me!), with a long history of competition. Cora has competed in Nordic skiing, road biking, basketball, and a few paddling races and says she was known as “Velcro hands” when she played women’s soccer. I know her as the woman who played the role of everyone’s friend during the last two Worlds in Zofingen. Cora demonstrates both with actions and words that no matter how bad the race is (rain, suffering on mountains, etc), she has a look on her face that says, “I can do this, and so can you!” Cora says, “just focusing on the next step or breath and coming back to the now usually helps with the harder moments.”
Cora has finished Powerman Zofingen 4 times, now. Her goal is to join the jubilee club for people who complete the Powerman Zofingen 10 times. She encourages other Americans at qualifying event to give Powerman Zofingen a fair try. Even though nearly a quarter of all athletes dropping out of the race, Cora is confident. Her goal of joining the Jubilee club has an attitude of confidence built into it that she will not become a statistic during any of her 10 years of trying.
Her inspiration to race has been documented by local Washington State newspapers as well as others on TeamUSA who get to hang out with her before and after events. She says, “I guess multisport has taught me to roll with the punches, and be self-sufficient. Each successive race was another learning experience and I’m not sure the lessons can be learned without the experiences. I read everything I could find on multisport. If I could, I would tell other women looking to get into multisport to just wear the same outfit for each leg of the race!”
Cora’s history of no-so-healthy living is documented. She used to smoke and ignore signs that her health was degrading. Cora found a magic moment when she was departing her 20s when she decided to make the change. The rest in now history, and her uniform proves it.
World Championship experiences can’t be recreated, as they are all so different. However, the relationships we make can last us all of our lives. Cora is loved by all and her encouraging attitude lifts the spirits of those who are nervous. Every TeamUSA needs a Cora in the lineup!
Next time, I will profile a couple of other athletes and share with you what I have heard from them. Stay tuned.
Amazing what a year’s experience in a competition is worth. I had a great time this year at the World Championships in Long Course Duathlon, and this story explains some of the “why” behind that. Zofingen, Switzerland, is very small Swiss village and Powerman Zofingen is the town’s biggest event each year.
I entered the town, pulling my bike bag and suitcase with confidence. After navigating the Swiss trains, I knew which streets to walk down to get to the hotel, and the hotel receptionist was the same girl as last year. One of my blogs about my experiences during last year’s race was sent out to all the TeamUSA athletes who were in attendance, and more than one or two people came to me and introduced themselves to me, before I even got to settle in, saying that they read this blog. After dropping my stuff in my room and building my bike, I headed downstairs to meet more folks in the hotel. For most in attendance from the USA, Swiss culture was something they learned about it school but had not yet experienced. Adding to their uncertainty was a mild feeling of trepidation over what is often called the hardest race that the International Triathlon Union (ITU) sanctions. Adding to my previous Powerman Zofingen experience, I also had the benefit of speaking German (albeit a bit rusty).
After a few minutes in the lobby, I found 12 people following me to dinner. This pattern would last much of the week. Friday morning was slated as a bike ride. A group of 20 or so athletes with bikes showed up outside the hotel after breakfast the next morning. Fortunately, by this time, there were others in attendance who had Powerman Zofingen experience, and I didn’t feel a need to account for everyone, as I did the night before at dinner. The bike course is a 50k loop (31 miles) that goes through several small Swiss villages. The majority of the route is flat, but there are 3 climbs on the route, and for many Americans who don’t get to practice on hills, there is a sense of fear associated with the unknown nature of the climbs.
Before ever arriving in Zofingen, I planned to ride the whole loop at a casual pace before the race. My only memory of the course includes last year’s competition; I had no reference as to how beautiful the course is….all I remember was going all-out while looking at my electronics that displayed power, heart rate and pedal balance. I never really watched the countryside as it passed by, and I wanted to experience of “real” Switzerland before racing again.
At the top of the first climb, all but two others in the group turned around and headed back to the hotel. For the three of us who kept going, it was a great hour! I can’t put to words how awesome the stress free joyride through the Swiss Countryside felt. Color images of cows, pigs, chickens and hawks now sit in my mind, next to images of racing last year. During the previous year’s race, a man wearing a chicken outfit stepped on the course in front of me during one of the harder climbs, and he ran next to me while i rode, all the way to the top of the hill. It scared me. This year, when we reached what I now call, “the chicken point,” I stopped to take a picture.
Later, as we rode though some of the flats, we stopped at a village watering hole to refill our water bottles with spring water, straight from the ground. Historically, Swiss villages would all have a public water fountain and trough for farmers and shepherds to fill up their water skins and let their animals drink as they moved them between higher ground in the summer and the valleys in the winter. The water was cool and tasted great!
Even though I didn’t get a good night’s sleep, I did have a great breakfast and I felt relaxed and in control on race day. On the 5-minute walk to the transition area, I reflected on all the training that got me to this point. All of those early morning rides and runs that I had done throughout the summer, prepared me for this moment, on this day. I felt blessed to step into transition, healthy and rested. I have made it a habit to walk through transition, taking pictures with my selfie stick and praying for people. Last year, everyone whom I asked if I could pray for gladly agreed. This year, two folks didn’t. That was a new experience, as even non-Christians usually get it that any advantage they can get is a good one.
Across from me in transition was Serna Alexander, a Colombian rider who was 15 years my junior. We both prayed for each other, me, in English, and he, in Spanish.
We were next to each other nearly the entire race, back and forth, and we always had a greeting when one of us passed the other. He wore white Colombian gear, me in the red, white and blue. My time competing with him will surely be the most memorable part of the actual race. Later, at the awards ceremony, he showed up wearing a collar and a long flowing black robe. Turns out Serna was Pastor Alexendar!
Both before and during the race, I fostered a new friendship with Arne Olav from Norway. Arne speaks great English and had Zofingen experience. He kicked my butt during the race, but when we did pass each other, I made sure to ask him if he had checked his email today! I can only imagine that I will see him and his family on our trip to Denmark, Sweden and Norway in 2018.
About 5k from the finish line, the rain started coming down, and salty sweat was dripping from my wet head and face into my eyes. I stopped at another one of the Swiss watering holes on the final hill before the end of the race and washed my face, arms and hands thoroughly. Stepping away from the watering hole and returning to running form was borderline surreal. I had been going over 8 hours at that point and yet felt pretty darn strong. I was not expecting any positive feelings, as last year at this time, I was in pain. It was great to realize how much my fitness had improved in a single year.
As soon as I crossed the finish line, I went directly to the hotel to take a bath and soak in Epsom salts. I had carried a kg of them all the way from North Carolina and knew that a 20-minute soak will help to remove the yuck in my muscles and obscure the pain associated with an endurance event. The salt bath worked like a charm! Once I got out of the tub, I headed back to the race to watch others cross the finish line and just chat over the events. No pain or discomfort in my legs, unlike last year, even after sitting for 30 minutes.
It was a bummer, albeit a predictable one, to see so many Americans drop out of the race. Each had real reasons that no one but them will be able to understand. Many were ashamed to share of their choice to stop racing with me, but some knew that they needed to come back and finish what they started. You know who you are. Those who fail but stand up, ready to fight again, are the athletes that most inspire me.
I had some real accomplishments at this year’s race. I was top American in my age category and 4th out of 36 Americans, overall. Every American who finished ahead was young enough to be my child! In addition, I didn’t get a penalty this year, and when I crossed the finish line, I felt that I could have kept going. I never had a “panic” moment, but I did have a “what the heck am I doing?” moment when Emma Pooley, the world champion, passed me on lap two. She was going so fast that I thought I was in the wrong chain ring.
In retrospect, I am sure that I cannot and will not prepare for and race in Zofingen again, while my wife and I have children at home. Success at Powerman Zofingen requires a lot of early morning running and bike rides on trainers throughout the winter. While I am out in training mode, my wife carries the burden of morning chores, as I would be long gone by the time the rest of house starts waking up. She had to do all the laundry, mow the grass and put up with my afternoon naps. My employees had to tolerate a scheduling fiasco that included finding time to meet both with customers and with me when I wasn’t doing Pilates, running at the US National Whitewater Center or climbing the Blue Ridge Parkway. I can’t say thank you enough for all the people whom made this trip possible.
Yet, it is by having this singleness of focus that I can stay young and compete. Since returning to the US and resting, I competed in the Weymouth Woods Ultra Marathon the following Saturday, 6 days after Zofingen. The course covered three loops in a sandy course in Eastern NC. I was nowhere near the front on laps 1 and 2, yet despite running in sand occasionally up to my ankle, I never needed to slow down and ended up winning first place, overall.
When I look at this plaque, I conclude that Zofingen fitness won this award, not my skills as an Ultra Runner. That sort of result may never happen again, as I am now racing into my 50s. First place in a marathon should happen when you are 20 or 30, not when you are 50!
Next year, my A race is the ITU World Championships in Canada in Standard distance, not Long distance. Although much shorter, the effort and build up will be just as big…but without all the half marathons that lead up to it.
Stay tuned. The next two blog posts will be about the people behind the faces of TeamUSA. There are some interesting and fascinating people that make up the athletes in this sport, and the next two posts will be to bring some attention to them.
Worlds are about 4 weeks away, and working out consumes me. This race is a 10k run, 150k bike and a 30k run, all taking place in central Switzerland. Preparation takes more out of me than anything else I do these days.
Here is a summary of what the last 5 days have looked like.
Day 1: On Saturday, I did a 5 K run before getting on my road bike and embarking on a 105k bike ride in Central NC. It should only have been a 100k ride, but I got a bit lost…. oh well. Once the ride was over, I put my running shoes back on and ran another 5k. After that 2nd run, I sat down and ate a meal with the other riders. Once I got back home 45 minutes later, I jumped in our pool in lieu of taking a shower, and followed that up with a nap. All in all, I worked out in aerobic or better zones for over 4 hours.
Day 2: Sunday was recovery. That means extra rest and lots of food preparation for the upcoming week. My wife and I cooked a lot of veggies in coconut oil, as well as meat kabobs and quinoa. We put the meals in individual serving containers that we can quickly reheat. After a long workout, I need to get nutrition of the highest quality, as soon as I can. Having meals pre-made, readily available, is a key part of success.
Day 3: Monday started with an 8k run that ended with 8 sets of 200 meter sprints. Once done, I headed into the basement to perform some heavy lifting on 6 basic exercises: dead lift, bench press, squats, chin ups, press ups and planks. I followed this up with a recovery shake and a 2 hour sales conference call before finding a cool place to take a nap. Then, back to work-proposals, emails, conference calls, etc.
Day 4: Tuesday happened too quickly. I woke up before 5 am and headed to the US National Whitewater Center to run a half marathon on the trails. The paths were more difficult than usual, as the trails were muddy from rain the night before, and the humidity was high. My Garmin didn’t track my distance correctly, making me feel like I was running like a grandma. I had to change my shirt in the middle of the run when I made it back to the car, as it was soaked and my nipples were starting to bleed…yuck! Before 8:30, I had already consumed 5 liters of water. Right from the Whitewater Center, I headed to our local Pilates studio to do work on the reformer with Heather for about 50 minutes. Then, off to work before heading to a local church for a men’s meeting than evening. I was in bed before 9.
Day 5: Today started with a 4-hour bike ride on my trainer. The goal of this ride was to spend lots of time at a high cadence to engage and strengthen my fast twitch muscles. Once done, I had a 3 egg omelet with lots of veggies in it (no meat), and a huge blueberry pancake covered in apples slices and Greek yogurt. Then, I took a nap before heading to work. I am part time company president these days, at best.
Tomorrow is supposed to be more Pilates and a run in the evening. This weekend is a Gran Fondo in Boone, NC. This race is part of the National Championship Series, and it will take me on a 170k bike ride that includes 4 timed uphill climbs. Fortunately, the forecast calls for cooler temperatures than what we are used to getting in Central, NC, these days!
I try to close each night with time with my family. With our youngest son doing physical therapy weekly and running cross country daily, my wife and I share (she does way more than I do!) the task of shuttling him around, as we still have another few months before he can drive alone.