On Saturday morning, I sat in the plane as it sped down the runway towards Austin, Texas. I had a date with the Paratriathlon National Championship! The CapTex Triathlon would host professionals, age groupers, and the best paratriathletes in North America who were racing to see who was the best of the best. In March, I had qualified for this race when I completed the C Different Triathlon in one hour and seventeen minutes. In that race, the swim was only 500 meters compared to Nationals where the swim would be 750 meters. The best advantage I had was that Ironman triathlete, Justin Sternberg, would guide me for Nationals just as he did in March.
I arrived in Austin shortly before 9:00a.m. As I made my way through the airport, I heard the beautiful voice of Keri Schindler, one of the co-founders of the Dare2Tri Chicago Paratriathlon Club. Keri and the rest of the Dare2Tri executives had named me to the Dare2Tri Elite Team for 2013 and this would be my first race as a member of said talented crew. Shortly after hearing Keri's voice, I heard Melissa Stockwell's voice. I joined them and soon began to meet other athletes and staff members of the Dare2Tri Elite Team. Together, we made our way to the hotel which would be our home for the next few days. I found myself in awe of the splendid, amazing, and talented individuals in whose presence I found myself. Each person had an incredible story. Each person had achieved so much to get to this weekend. Saturday night was the team dinner. It was a spectacular experience.
On Sunday, Justin arrived. He and I met up with folks from the C Different Foundation. Not only had Justin come to me via the C Different Foundation, CDF was gracious enough to let me borrow one of their top racing tandems for the race. Justin and I took a swim in open water. Justin said if I could relax in that water, I would be fine on race day. I also took the opportunity to practice some more in a neighboring pool. After the swim, we made our way to the mandatory meetings where the highlight was finally meeting the lovely and talented Amanda Duke, Program Manager for Paratriathlon. After the meetings, we picked up my race packet then headed to transition to check in the bike.
Justin and I met up with the Adame family for dinner. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel to relax. Justin and I set out our race items. I was calm. Usually, I would be suffering anxiety attacks especially about the swim, but I was not doing so. I trusted in my Xterra wetsuit and in Justin's ability to help me through the swim. We had raced together and I knew we would be fine. After all, all I had to do was stay close coming out of the swim and then do my best to dominate the bike and run to win the Tri 6A division and be crowned the national champion. Of course, that is easily written, but not as easily done.
Memorial Day. Race morning. I was up by 4:00a.m. I slowly began to prepare. I started to panic a little, but Justin said to relax. The water looked like a sheet of glass. It was calm so I should remain calm. A quarter after 5:00a.m. we made our way to the race. After several pictures with both the C Different Foundation and Dare2Tri Chicago crews, I walked towards the swim start. I was relaxed or as relaxed as I could be. I thought of model, actress, pro triathlete, Jenna Parker. Her guidance and friendship had brought me to this point. Prior to knowing and working with her, I could have never begun to dream I would find myself at the National Championships. Since getting to know her, I find myself becoming better, stronger, and faster. I knew today would be a celebration. Today was about fun. Winning is fun. Moments before the start of the swim are not as joyous. I made my way into the water. Then we had to work our way to the start. The pro men and women had gone off already. The Paratriathlon National Championship wave was next. It was go time!
I was scared. Justin shouted at me to relax. I took deep breaths. I moved my arms. I kicked my feet. Water hit my face. My heart sank. I was sensing a panic attack. I wanted to stand up and say I want out. The water was too deep. This was the national championship. There was not any time to panic. The clock had started. My competition, Brandon Adame and his guide, Ron were on the move. I could not fall behind by too much. I kept moving. From time-to-time I would hear Justin shout for me to fall back in line. I would veer to one side. I needed to line myself up again. I found a comfort level. I would notice myself moving effortlessly for a couple strokes. Then my arms would get caught in the tether which connected Justin and me. It would throw off my rhythm. I would calmly free my arm and resume my stroke. At other times, I would feel some anxiety. I started to get tired. I was scared. Am I running out of steam already? I felt my body sagging. I did not think my position was good. My legs were tired. I would correct it only to feel my arms getting tired. I was nervous. I did my best to relax. I had to keep going. I was in a race against the clock. More important, I was in a race against Brandon and Ron. My head popped out of the water. I could hear spectators cheering. I could hear other waves going off. We were near shore. The public address announcer's voice was getting louder. the end was close. I heard voices shout my name. Besides Justin, there were others. I was almost at the end. Then I heard Justin informing me to stand. As I stood up, volunteers surrounded me. Cheers greeted me. Yells and screams filled my ears as people called out my name. I moved towards the wetsuit strippers. Just as they did in March, the strippers ripped of my suit in one motion. I loved racing! Where it use to take me minutes to remove my wetsuit, I can now be out of the suit within seconds. Justin and I made our way to our bike. Helmet, shoes, and tandem. We moved towards the exit. It was time to mount. I was nervous. I had not practiced clipping in and I remembered how I struggled with it in March. Within seconds, I was clipped in on my right side. Justin started to move slowly. I tried once. Twice. Bam! I was clipped in on the left side. It was time to have fun. Time to begin the chase! That is when Justin informed me that in fact, I would not be chasing Brandon and Ron. Justin and I were the hunted. We had actually made our way out of the swim and first transition ahead of Brandon and Ron. I thought to myself, this is my race to lose. Then again, I had never been in a championship race. Brandon has. He has more experience. He has shined on a national stage. this was my first taste of the national championship setting.
Justin and I powered our way through the bike course. As we made our way, I would hear people calling out to me. Then Justin said, "You know what? We've finished one loop. One more to go!" We needed to keep building the lead. We needed to open a large gap to make it impossible for Brandon and Ron to catch us. Unfortunately, at Nationals, this is not so easily done. When two great athletes are chasing, it will take more than a strong bike time to win. Heading into the race, I felt that I had to keep my bike time under thirty-five minutes for the twenty kilometer. Justin and I rolled into the second transition having biked the course in under thirty-five minutes. I was feeling great and strong. As I changed into my running gear and took some water, Justin told me brandon and Ron were rolling towards transition. What? I had delivered my fastest ever bike time yet had not been able to build a large enough gap. It was time to hit the run course.
I started to run. I had hoped that this race would be a replay of the March event. I had hoped the run portion would serve as a coronation. I wanted to build a lead where I could live in the moment and celebrate throughout the 5 kilometer run. Instead, I had to deliver the run of my life. I tried to shake out the bike from my legs. I could not. I tried to move faster, but I could not find my running rhythm. Running is my favorite of the three disciplines yet on this day, it was the one with which I seemed to be struggling. I needed to push. Justin wanted me to turn it on. I could not. This opening mile was taking forever. I started to question how much I wanted to win. My mind and body hurt. Justin spotted Brandon and Ron. They were gaining. They were only a few hundred meters away. They were catching us. It was not suppose to end like this. I had not run all those repeats I had not run all those track workouts to fly to Austin and in the biggest race of my life, fold down the stretch and let Brandon beat me at my favorite discipline. I should own the course. Instead, I was losing the championship on it. Justin said, "Come on, this is where you win it. You need to dig." I heard mike Wong, Dare2Tri Chicago teammate, run by. "Come on Is, you got this. Run strong." Mike was the one who upon hearing my previous half marathon personal best said, "Come on Is, I've seen you run. You're faster than that. You're more talented." As Justin and I made our way, I heard someone yell out, "You just got passed by Matty Reed." I laughed. Justin said, "no it's true. Did you hear that guy passing us? That was the great matty Reed." I started wondering at which point will Brandon and Ron catch us? Will I have enough to respond with a late charge? Even if they pass, Justin and I should be able to out sprint them at the end. Maybe on a different day under different circumstances, but not today. I was not feeling it. I said to myself, "I'm so sorry Jenna. I wasn't suppose to fade like this." Almost immediately I said, "You know what. I'm not going to." Jenna has taught me so much about being tough being a champion. I have watched Kimberly Shah, Jennifer Pfaff, and other friends rise up during championship miles. Justin said, "Think of it this way, you have two miles to go. If you go now, you're day is done in fifteen minutes." There is a reason Keri and the Dare2Tri Chicago staff put me on this elite team. There is a reason why Matt Miller, founder of the C Different Foundation, has always believed I could be great. This was my race my national championship. I had earned it. It was time to go out and take it! I thought to myself, "If Brandon and Ron want this title, they are going to have to out sprint me for two miles. Let's play!" I picked up the pace. Justin rejoiced. I pushed more. I was moving. I had found my running rhythm. With 1.5 miles to go, I had won this race. There was no way I would be denied. With every step with every meter, Justin and I were widening the gap. There would be no catching. there would be no need for a final mad dash at the end. I was on the precipice of cementing my championship status. One mile left. I had moved fast. I had done as Jenna, Kimberly, and Jennifer had taught me. There would be no fade. This final mile would be a coronation! The happier Justin became, the faster I felt that I moved. We neared the end. Only minutes remained. I could hear the public address announcer in the distance. I moved faster to end it sooner. 500 meters to go. That much remained between me and my first ever national championship. I could feel it. I could taste it. I heard a man say my name and call out my division. He was relaying the message as I made the final turn and entered the final shoot. I heard the announcer say my name and call me a national champion. I raced towards the finish line. I raised my arms triumphantly. I crossed the finish line. I was the Tri 6A national champion at the Paratriathlon Nationals hosted as part of the CapTex Triathlon.
Prior to two months ago, I had never completed a sprint distance triathlon in under two hours and twenty minutes yet, since March, I had raced home in 1:17 in one event and in 1:27 at the national championship. Justin had taken me the distance in both events. Justin had helped me overcome the swim to stand atop the podium and make myself a player for selection consideration to race at Worlds in London on September 11. To be the best you have to beat the best. I had done so by fending off the great Brandon and Ron duo. Justin had taken me every step of the way in what is simply the best performance of my triathlon racing life. Thank you Justin. Thank you Jenna. Thank you Dare2Tri Chicago Paratriathlon Club. Thank you C Different Foundation. Thank you Pinnacle Performance Company.