What the Hell Happened to Triathlon?

The last time I planned a full triathlon season was 2011. It wasn’t cheap then, but it was still do-able.

Then I quit for a couple years, and then I did a few races here and there, let’s do an Ironman before grad school, and some collegiate stuff — which is still do-able and fun and in the original spirit of triathlon. But now, after the summer pilot project of ‘what would happen if I actually trained for serious and didn’t also work like 70 hours/week,’ I’m actually for real back into triathlon. And I’m trying to put together a whole season and plan for 2016. For the first time in five years.

It turns out in those five years triathlon got terrible and expensive.

First, I wanted to do Oceanside 70.3. A nice, early race to kick-off the year that I can drive to. Hah. Turns out that race now sells out 10 months in advance or something. Who knows. By the time I wanted to sign up seven months beforehand it was too late. Then, I wanted to do Escape from Alcatraz. I love Escape from Alcatraz. Hah. Too bad for me. It’s $750 this year, up from $420, because, I dunno, because they think it can be. Because they think they don’t need triathletes as much as triathletes need them. Because they don’t even really need triathletes at all; in the current endurance sport landscape, they can just make it a destination bucket-list recreational event. Then I thought I’d do Vineman 70.3, since I want to do a half in the summer and it’s really the only big one, and it’s a 45-minute drive from my house. I was determined not to miss registration for Vineman.

Oh, but then Vineman got bought by Ironman (World Triathlon Corporation).

So this Monday I set an alarm on my phone to make sure I was at my computer at 9 a.m. ready to register. I thought this was crazy. What has triathlon become. But I was determined not to miss registration, and every other year setting an alarm would have been enough to guarantee it. At 9 a.m. the site said registration wasn’t open. At 9:05 it still said it wasn’t open yet. At 9:06 it said it was open, but “on hold.” At that point, I checked their twitter and facebook, figured there was some kind of technical problem, and wasn’t too worried about it. I was there; I was pressing refresh; I’d get in, no worries.

At 9:20 a.m. they said all registrations were technically sold out. There were so many people in the process of registering that all spots were “on hold.” You could keep refreshing and maybe a spot would open up, if someone didn’t finish their registration, but that was it. What the hell?? I’d been there the whole time and it never even became available. I spent another hour pressing refresh. At one point, I even got in and a few steps through the registration process and then it said “on hold” again. I was not the only one having this problem. It sounded like with so many priority early club registrations and Ironman All World Athletes, there couldn’t have even been that many spots open.

At 10:20 it was officially sold out, without it ever really having become available.

The extra fun thing is that Vineman used to have a waitlist, and most people would get in off the waitlist as people dropped out. But now that it’s a WTC/Ironman-owned event, there is no waitlist anymore. Because once they sell out of general reg spots, Ironman just wants to sell Ironman Foundation spots at double the price.

I was pissed. I was so mad. What has triathlon become? I can’t afford this. But I want to do a half in the summer and even at double the price, Vineman was still my best option. All the other halves at that time would cost a flight and a hotel and bike transport. What option did I have? But I was so mad, I was close to tears. I don’t want to give them my money. I made Steve make the decision. He said, logically, it made sense to buy a Foundation spot into the race. There really isn’t a better option. So I did.

I think the Vineman crew does a good job with their races and I think their hand was forced here. There was a paragraph in the letter that they sent to past participants to announce the Ironman acquisition that said a lot:

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What that says is that you guys did this to yourselves. You wanted Ironman events and now that’s what you have.

It used to be possible to have a local season that hit the big races and didn’t bankrupt you completely. It used to be possible to do triathlon and feel like you were still doing something that was in the original spirit of getting out there and trying something hard, that wasn’t about the backpacks and logos and bragging rights and selling of manufactured dreams. And that just isn’t really possible now. Literally. The sport has changed since I last did a full season, and triathletes have no one to blame for that but themselves.

So, you fuckers better sign up for Wildflower and the back-and-better TriCal Alcatraz race. Because if TriCal goes under, I wouldn’t be surprised if they implement a scorched Earth policy on the way out. This is what you asked for.

What USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals Is Like

Here’s a story: At nationals, there was a Snapchat that everyone used. It wasn’t official. Just some guy from one of the colleges had made an account. All 1,200 athletes friended him, sent in snaps, which he screenshot-ed and then added to the nationals story. And then everyone clicked through all thousands of snaps. It was The Thing in Clemson. Most of it was selfies with funny captions or random pictures of people. There were poop jokes, a few bare asses, party plans, basically anything that was sort of ridiculous and fun. USAT must have gotten word of how all the kids were into the Snapchat, because then they made an official one. It was only official-like stuff of the actual races, nothing untoward or crazy. And no one used it. No one.

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Here are some observations and things that happened:

  • The official type people said at the awards ceremony that the nationals club championship has been happening since the early 1990s. Um, yeah. I dunno about that. Not unless you’re counting all those years Wildflower declared itself “the national college championships.” The first USAT-produced nationals was in 2007, I’m pretty sure.
  • The official type people also talked a lot about the sport becoming NCAA and the future of draft-legal racing. But I’m not sure they’ve actually talked to all the college students they’re supposedly speaking for. Because everyone I talked to didn’t really know too much about what the official people were talking about.
  • Another thing that happened at the awards ceremony: one team dressed up in horse heads staged an impromptu horse race around the gym.
  • When it came time to compete for the spirit award (which we should have won, by the way), the Santa Barbara team got up and did a song dressed as Pac-Man and whatever those things are that Pac-Man eats. Halfway through the song there was a turn and they stripped off their pants and started running around as underwear Pac-Man. The USAT official people didn’t seem to quite know what to do with that either.
  • Everyone shows up for nationals a few days early. Lots of driving overnight and long-distance bus trips. Then the hotels all get overrun with college triathletes.
  • There are more parents and friends that come to watch too than there used to be.
  • The main race (the non-drafting Olympic) is also much more serious than it used to be. There is seeding and a set number of spots for each team for each of the waves. There’s a gap between the men’s and women’s races. Transition closes early and there’s tons of USAT officials. It is very legit.
  • It is also very competitive.
  • Arguably, the top 3-5 were always pretty competitive. But now it’s competitive all the way through the top 100 or something. The depth has evolved. Especially on the women’s side—a development that I think you can see across the sport actually. Here are two charts The Kids made (I’m not 100% sure what analysis is suggested by these charts or what conclusions can be made in a broader sense, so let me know if you have analysis thoughts):

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  • The swim is the most brutal part. There’s so many fast swimmers collegiately. But that’s not true in the age groups, so where do they all go? Do they forget how to swim?
  • Colorado always has really good bikers.
  • Surprisingly, I don’t think there were any bad accidents. Even in the rain.
  • And, then, as is the custom, mostly everyone goes out after the awards ceremony and has a huge party that is sort of just declared a party wherever there happen to be triathletes in the same place. I felt kind of bad for the regular Clemson students who were confused by all these people wandering around their bars. And, then, everyone has to start the overnight bus rides and early morning cross-country flights back…

Race Report: Collegiate Nationals

Last Wednesday afternoon, 25 of us flew to Atlanta and then drove to Clemson, South Carolina. We raced Saturday, in the rain, and then flew back Sunday morning. You would think that being in Clemson for four days with nothing but a two-hour race to do, there would have been some free time.

Hah.

USA Triathlon Collegiate Nationals was fun and exhausting and insanely competitive and maybe what it was and what USA Triathlon thinks it was are not exactly the same thing. But that’s another topic.

Short version: I raced harder than I have in a while. Maybe since Alcatraz last year (though IM Canada was a different kind of hard). Saturday, I swam and I biked hard and then I hung on during the run and tried not to throw up before the finish line. And it almost all came together for a really crazy good day. Instead, it was just a good day, which I’m still very happy with, and I finished 17th in 2:16.

Long version: It was pouring on Saturday morning. And the boys raced first (in the downpour). That meant I ended up with four hours to kill in the rain. We went and slept in the car for a little bit, turned on the heater some, and tried to eat enough for all the extra time but not so much that we threw up. I was struggling with this last thing. By the time we finally did start at 10:40 a.m., I was hungry, but also had been gagging on everything I tried to eat. Basically, I was not dealing well with the anticipation of the hurt that was to come. Even if you know you do better in the rain and when conditions suck, that doesn’t mean you’re going to enjoy it.

And, even with all those hours, I still managed to lose my timing chip and had to run to get to the start on time. Naturally. (Side note: If you sprint up to the officials’ tent, wearing a sweatshirt and a gold skirt over running tights, and gasp out “Ilostmytimingchip,” they really won’t know what to do.)

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The swim start was awful. I’m pretty sure collegiate swim starts are what give me nightmares about triathlon. It was insanely aggressive and there was nowhere to go when the people behind you and the people next to you decided that you were the only thing between them and their dreams of glory. Eventually, it calmed down a little bit. And, then, I just swam hard. I would have told you that I always swim hard and that I didn’t feel like I was swimming any harder this time. In fact, I had no idea if I was sucking or doing great. It turns out that in the past, apparently, I have not been swimming as hard as I could have. I came out of the water in 23:15ish, which was really fast for the day, and put me pretty high up (for me) going into the bike.

There’s some kind of lesson here, but I don’t really know what I did differently other than not even a little breaststroke.

My real goal for the day was to bike hard. I have not been killing it on my bike lately, so I wanted to put in a really solid effort. It stopped raining for the girls race, so it was just overcast (which is great) and cool-ish (for South Carolina). But, when I put my head down to get to work, I couldn’t find anything. I was up and down, all over the place that first lap. I got passed by some girls, which doesn’t usually happen that early, but I suppose it was a result of swimming faster than usual. I had a gel and tried to drink some and hoped I could will the legs to come around. Eventually, they sort of did. My second and third laps were stronger, with the last lap actually feeling the best and, by then, I was edge of throwing up, so I figured that meant I was going pretty hard.

It turned out, though, that all my laps were pretty evenly split, so it may have all been in my head. It also got more crowded those last laps, so it might have just been easier mentally to pick people off. Either way, I biked a fairly strong 1:07:45ish and my head told me I was doing pretty good.

Apparently, I decided to do a trackstand in the middle of the race?
Apparently, I decided to do a trackstand in the middle of the race?

Originally, I had thought I’d get through the swim, move up on the bike, and then pick off some more places on the run. But doing better on the swim-bike meant there just weren’t that many more places I was capable of moving up on the run. Maybe that’d be different if I could run a 37. But, I can’t (for now…). Instead, I was killing myself to simply maintain position.

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The run was an out and back. They called it two laps, but you had to go back and forth twice each lap, so it was really basically four laps. Every one of those there was a long false flat hill we went up and then down. I started out right on the heels of two very fast runners and by halfway through the first lap I realized they weren’t opening up the gap on me (which meant I must be running pretty good) and I was just hanging off a big pack of girls that included 10th, but I also realized vomit was coming up the back of my throat. It was getting very muggy at that point and I became seriously concerned about my ability to complete the course.

I’m not sure what I thought about then. It’s sort of a blur. But I think the middle of the run was one of the few times on the day I sort of lost focus. Eventually, I realized that I was only having to swallow vomit on the uphill sections and that I was making up time on the downhills, so it was easier to get through then. Also, there were so many people on course the second lap, I had no idea who was ahead and who was behind.

On the last uphill, with a half-mile to go, someone said that a girl was coming up on me. I literally mouthed, “Fuck.” What did I have left to give? I tried to pick it up some and, as I got closer, everyone was yelling that she was coming and I needed to go. I picked it up more. I made the sharp turn onto the grass, through a mud pit, another sharp turn in what was a bog by then, and I was full-on as hard as I could go. I made it across the finish line, fell over, and threw up a little bit. It took me a few minutes to get off the ground.

It was ugly and it was rough, but I’m pretty sure that I could not have gone any harder on Saturday. And that’s really all you can ask of yourself.

The day before it started raining. Everyone actually did well too, and I wish they would tell us how we placed, because I think it wasn't bad.
The day before it started raining. Everyone actually did well too, and I wish they would tell us how we placed, because I think it wasn’t bad.

USAT Collegiate Nationals

Tomorrow’s the day. Collegiate nationals has changed a lot since the last time I did it in 2007. Now there’s a whole Snapchat story everyone keeps sending things into and more Specialized Shivs than I’ve ever seen at a race. But one things still the same: rough weather. It’s supposed to storm and possibly thunder all day. Fingers crossed guys.

Training Week: From the L.A. Marathon to May

I stopped posting my weekly training logs not because I wasn’t training (or because I got too busy, though I did that too). Instead, I thought maybe I’d try something else: not really laying it all down in writing. At first, I thought maybe I’d just stop writing down my weekly workouts on the internets. But, then, I sort of stopped writing them down at all. I picked up my training calendar the other day and realized I hadn’t filled in a square on it in two weeks.

This wasn’t a deliberate decision exactly. It’s more that I knew I just wanted to get in three hard weeks between the LA Marathon and collegiate nationals. I also knew, generally, what I wanted to do: work on my Olympic-pace biking. So I decided it might be good, for a change, not to sweat the details too much. Or, at least not to do so publicly, in a concrete way.

Not that worrying about details isn’t a good idea. Because it is. And, obviously, there are a lot of details I’m still concerning myself with. But this is just sort of an experiment to see if maybe keeping things a little looser and just in my head helps at all with whatever. Plus, extra bonus, it means that I’m sticking to The Kids’ training plan slightly more, with changes to approximately reflect my own life schedule (because workouts can only be two of the three: social, convenient, or good for your training) and my own strengths/weaknesses.

I love The Kids. They are fun and fast and a little bit nutty. And we have definitely been hitting on some of my weakness, like, um, speed. So, we’ll see how it all works out.

Here’s my rough training weeks since the marathon:

Less running. But a long trail run in Marin, naturally. And weekly track workouts, which just further confirm speed is not my strong point, but at least I’m getting better. Maybe. I’m not sure, actually.

Two or three Olympic-distance pace workouts on my bike to fine-tune the pace. And two harder workouts to push a pace slightly past that a little bit. These I feel good about. I think.

Swimming some, whatever. And a little strength work, but not much.

And that’s that. Two more workouts planned then pretty much resting/tapering into nationals. (Which I know is not really a For Real taper, but I’m doing Wildflower the week after and Alcatraz three or four weeks after that, so it’s what makes sense for me, in my head.)

What Does It Feel Like to Go Hard?

Sunday I raced the West Coast Collegiate Triathlon Conference championship in San Luis Obispo. Because I am a moron and I thought why not follow-up one of your most debilitating non-finishes with 30-40 hours straight of thesis work, complete emotional and mental fatigue, and then an Olympic-distance triathlon.

The race was fine. Whatever.

I almost threw up at the start simply from the overwhelming desire to not do it. But then I did it anyway. Needless to say it was not my most amazing effort ever.

During the race, though, I actually felt like I was keeping it together. I felt like I was mentally totally in it. When I got out of it for a little bit, I came back. I felt like I was redlining and going as hard as I could, which was my only real goal. Since I had no knowledge of the course and no real computer or anything on my bike and it seemed slow and windy, I was just going off that feel. The only problem is that my “feel” is all messed up.

It turned out that what “felt” like redlining as-hard-as-I-could-go pace, was really more like moderately hard pace. This occurred to me about two-thirds through the bike when I started getting passed. Then I tried to go harder, but I’m still sort of a mess about twisty steep descents on my bike, so that didn’t go great. It’s not that I’m consciously trying to be conservative on descents; it’s just that subconsciously my brain is screaming, “NO MORE FAKE TEETH!

That my feel might not be accurate occurred to me again just before the turnaround on the run. The girl who was winning was on her way back and I looked as her as she went by, 10 minutes ahead of me or whatever stupid ungodly amount I was behind her and seven other girls by. She won collegiate nationals last year and she’s definitely a fast runner, but she was also so clearly trying so much harder than I was. I “felt” like I was running hard and strong and keeping a high cadence and could not possibly go any harder, but she looked like she might keel over before she reached the finish. (I was going to put a picture of her in here, but that seemed pseudo-creepy. Suffice it to say that she, generally, looks like she’s killing herself on the run.) Yeah, she probably is a more talented runner than I am. Even at the same effort, she would probably still be faster than me. But, we weren’t even at the same effort. She was pushing herself so much harder than I was. And that’s probably what really separates people: how hard you can push yourself.

For comparison, here is a picture of me as I sprinted my 7-minute mile into the finish and tried to not throw up:

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Side note: There was another different sprint race going on at the same time, hence the woman behind me who is clearly not of college age.

That doesn’t look like I might keel over does it? It looks like I’m trying hard, but not that hard.

So I’m on a personal mission now to re-remember what hard feels like. Granted my whole perception last week was distorted because, oh man, I was really messed up after the two-thirds-of-a-marathon, and I didn’t run at all between the lying down on the side of the road last Sunday and the pre-race warm-up this Sunday. But still. If I’m going to go through the trouble of racing and being in a bunch of pain anyway, I might as well really make it hurt.

Training Week 16: Feb. 16-22

This is the week I both realized the L.A. Marathon is less than three weeks away and I haven’t run enough for it, and also that I need to work on my biking short-course speed because collegiate triathlon is fast. Oh, and also, sleep, tired, breakdown, crying, etc, etc.

In case you were wondering: the end of this story is that those things don’t all go together really.

Monday

Ran 2 hours, 40 minutes up in Marin, on a variation of my favorite loop. Exactly how far it was is currently a topic of debate between my Garmin and I. But, the one thing we can agree on is that it was really hilly and debilitating.

Tuesday

I was really messed up from that run. Maybe it was longer or harder than either the Garmin or I think. Maybe I’m really not ready for this marathon. Swam 1,400 meters (ew, meters) and struggled through the day.

Wednesday

Rode 25 miles on the TT with 4 x 3 minutes at “hard” pace. Because I haven’t had time to put the Power Tap on my TT bike yet (which is going to happen this weekend!) and because I was riding on the beach bike path (which is not ideal for, well, anything), this was possibly stupid. I don’t actually know.

Crossfitted. Weirdly, the gym I randomly ended up going to down here turns out to be one of the legit Crossfit gyms and one of the girls in the story I wrote about Grid trains there. So, that was sort of like ‘ohhh, heeeeeey, just ignore me over here doing my weakass deadlifts.’

Thursday

Rest. I was messed up this week. Yoga’d and rolled and called it.

Friday

Ran 6.5ish miles in the morning with a few 1 minute pick-ups, because racing Sunday.

Swam 1,750 yards with a few pick-ups. Felt ok about all this.

Saturday

Rode 10 miles with the pre-race standard: a few hard sprints and a bit at race pace. Skipped swimming, for life reasons. Felt semi-ok about all this.

Sunday

UCSD Tri: Did the UC San Diego sprint race and, wow, I almost had a total mental breakdown in the middle of this. The summary is: I couldn’t figure out why so many people were ahead of me. (The answer—that they’re going faster—should have been obvious.)

I swam great, for me, but came out far enough back that spectators stop counting at that point. When you’re the third woman, they tell you you’re the third woman. When you’re 17th, they’re like ‘yay, Kelly, you can do it.’ Collegiate triathletes are fast swimmers; there are a number of reasons for this, which can be discussed at some other point, but the end result is that my actually-pretty-ok swimming lands me pretty far back. I, then, started to pass people on the bike and thought I was killing it until two people passed me at the end of the first lap and another at the start of the second. That motivated me enough to try to pick it up, but then I had a lap-and-a-half long meltdown, where I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me and why I wasn’t biking faster. I did catch one of the girls, but then another (really annoyingly drafting) girl re-caught me, and I couldn’t drop her and my legs were killing me and I suck and I should probably just quit and it’s clearly not my day and, oh my god, how am I so far back.

By the time I started the run, I was very discouraged and maybe 15 seconds back of annoying drafting girl. I spent most of the first lap of the run feeling bad about and sorry for myself. But, I still managed to pass one person and I was kind of getting a tempo going. At the start of the second lap, I caught the annoying girl and from there I actually raced a race. I spent the second and third laps trying to reel people in and finally feeling like I was moving. Towards the end, I almost had another meltdown when I realized a group of girls was ahead of me that I did not expect to be ahead of me. I mean, man, I just kept passing people and there just kept being more people. BUT—and this is a big but—instead of crying, I picked it up, passed them, slipped and half-fell, and got right back up to kick hard to the finish.

I ended up 7th. I was not thrilled about this. In retrospect, though, I knew it was a very competitive race. Colleges had come from far away and all the good people out here on the West Coast were there. I had expected it to be tough and it was. I was also really proud of myself for not entirely falling apart and coming back from the near brink. What is most interesting, though, is that when I looked at the results later it became clear that my biking didn’t suck as much as I thought it did (especially if I had actually not had the meltdown in the middle) and my running wasn’t as great as I felt like it was. Really, it was all mostly in my head.

TOTAL: 9:25

I don’t know. I’m having panic attacks and if I had the time I’d be panic training, but I don’t have the time, so instead I’m like panic not training? I don’t know. I need to work on my biking and my running and my swimming and my not having weird breakdowns.

At the UCSD Race Today

Me: Do you know how many girls were ahead of me?
USC person: Out the swim?
Me: No, at the end. You know I don’t care about the swim.

The answer was six. It was a competitive race for a local collegiate sprint. But, it gave me a good idea of where I stack up two months out from nationals.

Why Collegiate Triathlon Is Awesome

The USC tri team at nationals two years ago. (Triathlete Magazine)
The USC tri team at nationals two years ago. (Triathlete Magazine)

I’ve written before about why I don’t think triathlon should become NCAA, and I’m going to go ahead and double-down on that argument—although I will admit some of the issues and questions are being addressed (but not all). But, what I want to talk about today is why collegiate triathlon is sort of awesome. Unfortunately, part of what makes it awesome, I think, will be killed with systemic corporatization. So, get in while you can.

This weekend, I’m heading down to San Diego with the USC Tri Kids (aka The Kids) to do the UCSD race. I signed up for $50 and I signed up only because The Kids told me to. For the collegiate triathlete, there is no season outside the collegiate season, there is nothing else to worry about, there is no larger annoying triathlete community obsessing about Kona. Collegiate triathlon exists in a vacuum, in many ways. And, that vacuum is still relatively untouched by the things that eventually touch all sports.

This is why collegiate triathlon is awesome.

People talk a lot about how collegiate triathlon is The Future. These athletes are so fast and they must be developed. We will never win Olympic medals unless we start shepherding our 18-year-olds into the Olympic development funnel.

The thing is, though, yeah, some of the collegiate triathletes are fast, but plenty of them aren’t. Some of them will become Olympians, but lots of them won’t. And, that’s fine. Hell, it’s better than fine. Last year, I was sitting in the shade on the boat ramp at Wildflower while the collegiate wave went off, because I started almost two hours after them (ugh), and I listened to the announcer rave about how these racers were The Future. The college race was the highlight of the day. Yet, despite having a cold and coughing up green stuff and starting so much later in the heat and behind every. single. old. man., I went faster across that course than all the collegiate women except one (who was faster than me by less than a minute). This isn’t a humblebrag. There were another four or five age group girls who were faster than me that day. The point I’m making is that yeah, some of the collegiate triathletes are crazy fast, some of them will be once they learn how to swim or ride a bike or sleep, but creating a breeding ground for greatness isn’t actually what collegiate triathlon is about. Not really.

(Now, I’ve totally jinxed it and I’m going to lose to lots and lots of collegiate women this weekend. But, in my defense, the fast ones are largely out here on the West Coast. Largely. So, when I lose it’ll be because they’re good and not because I suck, or something.)

But, what makes collegiate triathlon awesome is that not one of those kids at Wildflower gave a shit about the fact that everyone in the 25-29 age group had beaten them. They did not care. I don’t think they even knew. They only cared about the other collegiate racers.They were racing in a vacuum. It was a vacuum of tunnel vision and trying your hardest and the joy of racing.

That’s why collegiate triathlon is awesome. Because you can pay your $25, show up and know you’re going to have some good hard racing, and maybe you’ll win a water bottle, maybe you won’t. Maybe there’ll be future Olympians at your little race around campus, because some of these kids are fast, and maybe there won’t be. It’s awesome, because it doesn’t seem to care about the most expensive gear, or qualifying for bigger races, or cultivating sponsors with your Twitter account. Hell, they don’t even seem to worry much about any of the classic triathlete things: gadgets and training zones and what some study of five people said might give you a tiny advantage if you sit in a sauna after your workouts. Sometimes, this drives me nuts, because The Kids can make a one-hour ride last three hours, and training zones have a purpose. But, that’s what triathlon was like before we all became triathletes.

It turns out the UCSD race is actually part of a big weekend-long Tri-palooza thing, and Julie Moss was there for the draft-legal race today (because, you know, we’ve got to funnel all these kids into draft-legal racing or we’ll never win medals!). And, Meb is part of some big awards dinner tonight. And, that’s cool. It really is very cool. But, part of me keeps thinking I’m not ready yet for real triathlon again.