Montana World Championships

This past weekend marked a return to my roots in triathlon racing, as I boarded a plane and flew north to do battle on the storied grounds of the Grizzly Triathlon, in Missoula, Montana. As it were, these very same grounds were a serious point of contention, since course changes through the years had left Todd Struckman’s “course record” (more appropriately a race record) intact since 2001.  With the addition of the treacherous “s” curves behind Eastgate Shopping Center on the bike, and more importantly, “The Hill,” which climbs the initial portion of the Smokejumpers Trail on the run, the course had become significantly slower and the record remained just out of reach. My last two efforts left me knocking on the door, coming up just 28 seconds, and then a mere 7 seconds shy, but I temporarily retreated from future battles in 2010 having stockpiled 5 straight titles to match such legends as Calamity Seeley and David “Blastoff” Berkhoff.  With triathlon as a job, I sought out new challenges and potential sources of income, passing on each new iteration in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Still, the fire to become the all-time wins leader and to end the bothersome conversation surrounding the record burned in me, and when Calamity pulled out an improbable victory in last year’s edition to run his tally to 6 wins, I knew it was time to return and reclaim the precious stone which indicates the champion’s status.

So nearly ten years to the date of my first triathlon in 2004, I was floating high above the Wind River, Teton, and Bitterroot ranges, dreaming of how to best another class field full of returning champions. My biggest rival on paper was fellow Movember Man, Matt Lieto, who had won the race in 2012 and was the last man to break the hour barrier. Of course one could never discount the tenacity and cunning of Calamity Seeley, nor the almost robotic precision and execution from neo-pro Andy Drobeck (T1000).  Add to the mix the up-and-comers from the University of Montana triathlon team, and it was sure to be another classic battle at the Montana World Championships.


With less than a full rotation of the earth to spend before the race after landing in Zoo Town, I made sure to limit my strolls down memory lane to just a few visits with friends and a nice spin in the Rattlesnake. I’m always taken with the enormity of the landscape in Montana, and this time was no different, as I soaked in the undulating pine-covered hills, rolling rivers, and generous open heavens that are the inspiration for the state’s nickname, “Big Sky Country.”


It seems no matter how many years I race, how well I prepare, and how many times I drop Richie Cunningham on bike rides, I still get nervous for this classic race. Entering the Griz pool sparks a cascade of memories from my days of learning to swim on the University club team, and I am right back to my first triathlon in 2004, a memorable clash with Calamity that left me in 2nd place by 19 seconds. One might think that I would be brimming with confidence after some good races this season and 5 titles at this event, but I knew to keep things in check and remember that anything can happen, especially at Griz…


After an entire morning of competitors testing themselves on the course, it was finally time for the Elite heat to enter the water. With all his charm, my coach and co-director of the event had persuaded the pool staff to cool the waters to 80 degrees from ~84, but it still ends up quite toasty after 1000 yards.  Even so, I felt good, and put my mind to the task at hand. It was time to focus, especially since an anonymous donor had offered up $3,000 to any man or woman breaking the record, to be donated to a charity of the victor’s choice.


With the sound of Shaun Radley’s booming voice, we were underway, and Matt Lieto and I went stroke for stroke through the first several hundred yards. So much so that we were doing our best imitation of open water within the confines of the lane lines. Rather than risk a back and forth battle with Matt on the bike,  I instead rolled the dice on an “attack” at the halfway mark, opening a small gap that eventually grew to 18 seconds by the end of the swim.  I was content with the swim, although not happy, clocking in just over 11 minutes. More crucially, I had grabbed the bull by the horns early and took to the bike with intentions of breaking the record.


Across the footbridge and into the near stall of the sharp “s” turns, my steed stayed true and light, weaving me through unscathed. Now was the time: pour the power on and grimace my way through the heart of a steady breeze in Hellgate Canyon. There was no looking back, just a flood of memories from my early days of triathlon training: Coach Chad Latino yelling at us like we were football players during brick workouts in Turah, long runs up Pattee and around Sentinel, swims upstream in the Clark Fork river, late night swim practice at the U of M, and bike rides up Butler Creek, Big Flat, South Hills, Alberton…


Back to the moment and stinging pain of the redline 20k effort, I could see at the turnaround my lead was growing over the chasers. I was going big, and it was working.  Like a reassuring pat on the back from an old friend, the wind stayed true to it’s unspoken promise and began propelling me home, helping me gather speed and precious time over Todd’s 13 year-old record performance.


Nothing in life is guaranteed, so I absorbed the precious moment and opportunity that was at my feet, quite literally.  The run shoes went on quickly and I bolted from transition like a spooked gazelle, chased not only by the hungry lions in this race, but perhaps by my own demons from previous unfinished business at this race, cringing momentarily with a thought of how painfully close I had come in 2010…


A couple updates from friends gave me differing splits and generally unreliable data, especially considering that I had no idea exactly how much distance remained. There was only one option and it as to go FULL GAS. At least this way if I came up short, I would know that I had given what I had on the day, even though restless nights would undoubtedly ensue. Each moment that felt even one iota too easy, I was back on top of my highest gear, gasping desperately for more oxygen, less lactate, more heart, less doubt. I thought of training sessions I had done, willing my legs to turnover faster, ever faster. Despite concern that “The Hill” might be my undoing, glided up the shale covered slope as if lifted by an invisible force, a pulley system rigged on yet unrealized dreams and past dissapointments.


Down the other side, past the turnaround, and still in panicked flight down the Kim Williams trail, I saw my opportunity lying just ahead, seemingly indifferent to my exertion, mocking my previous inadequate attempts and reminding me of how it would be an entire year before I could try again. I could feel the deep burn in legs and lungs, and let the cozy thought nestle in my mind of how a first place finish would be good enough. Just stop this madness and coast in, kiss some babies, do an interview with the local paper, and call it good. You’ve got this in the bag. No sense in risking injury. It’s silly to dream of breaking that record on such a harder course!  The mischievous thoughts swirled. My pace slowed. My body reveled in its victory, convincing me to return to a more normal level of physical activity.


But it did not last. I turned my mind to the UM Tri team, and all it had done to set up my career as a triathlete.  To how badly I wanted the record.  I dug deep and pressed into the final kilometer of the run, turning along the chain link fence, through the parking lot and around the basketball courts for home. The crowds were cheering loudly as I rounded the final corner, entering the wide open finish chute. I glanced up momentarily in my oxygen-deprived state and saw 55:54. I had done it! And with time to spare. I had finally cracked the code in my 7th attempt, and put the conversation to bed.


Post-race was a wonderful celebratory dinner at famed Big Sky Brewery, and then some good fun downtown in Missoula with my Montana crew, dancing and revisiting some of my favorite haunts from college. I am looking forward to getting back up to Montana after racing Ironman Coeur d’Alene later this summer. Such a wonderful place. A big thanks goes out to all my support crew and sponsors, coaches, friends, and family. Looking forward to a year’s worth of Montana World Champion status!