By Gina Horath
If you had asked me a few months ago if I was thinking of doing the draft legal race at collegiate nationals I would have told you a flat out no. Heck, if you had asked me 1 week before the race I still would have told you no. I wanted to focus and put all my energy into the Olympic distance race, hoping for a top 10 finish. Plus I was definitely planning on doing our team relay Saturday afternoon… which would mean 3 races?? That’s just crazy. But even with these thoughts, a part of me absolutely LOVES draft-legal racing It is such an exciting type of racing; you’re going head to head with your competition the entire time, and it takes skill in all 3 sports to have a shot at doing well. So in the days leading up to the race I kept going back and forth, thinking I would have regrets not racing. It was this slight indecision that ultimately got me roped into racing DL—which I have Coach Chris Burnham to blame (or thank).
Thursday afternoon we arrived in Tempe, Arizona and I immediately went to the pre-race meeting at the race course and met up with Bill, who was also racing DL for the guys. Alongside ~100 other athletes and their coaches we listened to what felt like a million rules and technicalities you can get penalized for in that race. Rack your bike this way, rack your bike that way, blah blah blah. I eventually tuned it all out and just thought “I know what I need to do.” But even with this attitude, I still had doubts and concerns. You see, unlike non-draft legal racing, you cannot plan out your race. So much of what happens is dependent on the athletes around you- which is both the exciting and daunting factor to these races. So back at the hotel after dinner, I sat down with Chris and he talked me through my race strategy. The ONLY thing I was concerned about in this race was the swim and the first 2 min of the bike, which would set me up for the rest of my race. If I wasn’t going to be in or near the front group where I wanted to be, the plan was to drop out and save myself for the following day, or rather to at least jog the finish so I could still score points for the team. Chris had (what I thought to be) the best advice he could have possibly given me that night. He told me: just go out there and race 100% and do not think about anything else, let me decide when and if to hold you back. It was so much easier knowing I could just go race, and leave the “thinking” to him, in a manner of speaking.
I didn’t sleep great Friday night (not surprising), and then woke up at 6am with ready-to-start-the-day Dave Berry. The rest of the team left for the race course after breakfast but I didn’t race until 11 so I hung out at the hotel until just before Bill’s race. I was so lucky to have Jeff with me to try to keep me relaxed and distracted before I raced. Because let me tell you, I don’t think I have ever been this nervous before a race! It was kind of ridiculous. A little later we rode to the course just in time to catch the start of the men’s race. Bill had an amazing swim and after a lap by himself on the bike, rode with the front pack of about 6 guys. I remember thinking to myself: wow, I wish my race would be like that! But I knew that it would likely play out very differently. And good thing too, because I didn’t want to lose my saddle and get a flat! Just joking Bill. But, like his mom Carol told me before I went out there- all the bad luck is gone now, so you can have a good race!
The rest of the team left to ride over the course, and I got ready. It was weird warming up alone and not having my teammates by my side. After the swim warm up they pulled us out of the water and had us all stand by the start. I’m pretty sure it was just for 10 minutes but it felt like thirty. Did I mention I was nervous? I was lucky Craig was around because he gave me a much-needed hug, and said “Kat says good luck too.” (Kat had already texted me twice that morning, but what are best friends for?) Finally we got back in the water and swam over to our starting positions on the wall. The gun went off and I was swimming great for the first 50 yards, and then everyone was knocking into each other for the REST OF THE SWIM. Ugh, the worst. After the first lap of the swim I knew I was more or less stuck where I was, so I sat behind a group of girls for the second lap. The officials on the steps out of the water were pulling racers out but it was too crowded in the pack I came out with, so I hoisted myself out and ran as fast as I could into transition hoping in the back of my mind I wasn’t too far back. I slipped as I rounded the corner into T1 and landed on my elbow, but got up just as fast as I had fallen and sprinted to my transition spot.
The bike ended up being the most important part of the race. I started out further back than I had hoped for, but caught half the field in those 12 miles. Coming out of transition I got one foot in one shoe, but rode with the other one on top of my shoe until I was certain I was latched onto the girls just ahead of me and had time to deal with it. Half a lap later both my feet were in my shoes and it was time to make up some ground. I was riding with a few other girls, all of whom were VERY strong cyclists. We worked together and moved up over the course of four laps. There were random surges and sprints out of some of the turns but I was confident in my bike handling skills and took most of the corners fast- something that I’m sure caused a few of the other girls to get dropped early on. By the end of the bike we had caught everyone but the front group of four, and our huge pack entered T2 and the run together. I immediately saw a ton of my teammates lining the run course, which gave me a boost of motivation. At this point the best I could hope for was 5th place since the other girls had gapped us pretty well. Luckily for me my run is the strongest part of my race, and I did what I needed to do, and clenched that 5th spot. This finish (I found out later) was also good enough to grant me my elite license- I can now race as a professional triathlete!
This race (and the whole weekend) would not have been possible without my team, coaches, sponsors, and everyone who has believed in me up to this point. Shout out to UCSD Masters for turning me into a swimmer (can I say that now?), and to my family and friends for putting up with all the triathlon talk and time that seems to take over my life sometimes. You guys really are the best.
For those of you that did not want to read this annoyingly long race report and skipped to the end, here is the recap: Collegiate Nationals Draft Legal sprint. Swim sucked, bike was hard but made my race, run was great. 5th place finish. Love my team and family/friends/supporters. I am now a pro triathlete ;)