by Lauri Takacsi-Nagy
On a surprisingly chilly November morning in what is usually balmy Southern California, two Cal Triathletes, yours truly and the ever badass Kristen Curry, toed the starting line of the Chase The Turkey UCLA Aquathlon in pursuit of glory, omnium points, and what promised to be Lärabars at the finish line.
The race was set up to be 5 circles around the edge of a pool open-water style, followed by a run through UCLA campus. We arrived a little late so unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to preview the entire course and before I knew it, I was grasping the side of the pool surrounded by my competitors, anxiously waiting for the gun to go off.
Although I can never really avoid butterflies in my stomach before a race, I was able to keep them more under control this time than usual. This was mostly because I was choosing to “train through” this race, electing to maintain the usual intensity in the prior week rather than cutting down to produce a somewhat better performance. Although I knew this meant I wouldn’t be quite at my best, I also knew that I was posting solid times in practice each week and wanted an honest indication of my fitness anyway. Nonetheless, my shoulder had been nagging me, and I wanted to make this weekend jaunt down to SoCal worth the 12 hours of (Kristen) driving (me), so I was a little anxious.
As the gun went off, the usual mad, violent, hypoxic sprint that characterizes open water mass starts took place, and I quickly found myself at the back of the pack, clawing and kicking for space. I wasn’t worried, however; we had done plenty of Shelley Harper’s famous “get out speed” swim sets. Even though part of the point of “get-out speed” work was to actually outsprint people at the start, which I had now failed at miserably, the other side of the coin was to recover quickly from this anaerobic burst and keep swimming hard through the middle and end of the race, and within a lap and a half I found myself easily passing people. The clear pool water made it easy to see who I was near so I latched onto Chad Whittington, a strong triathlete and runner from UC Irvine whom I was hoping to stay with through the race. We swam the last few circles together and exited together, and after some transition clumsiness I was back on his heels going into the run.
That’s when disaster struck. Neither of us were familiar with the course, and after we made it through the first couple turns that I was familiar with, we took a wrong turn, running off campus. For a moment we looked at each other in frustration and disbelief, and the thought of quitting certainly crossed both our minds. I was ready to just call it a day, but in a split second I realized that I hadn’t come here to get a PR or run my very best race – I had come here to score points for Cal Tri and test my fitness, and quitting now wasn’t going to achieve either of those things. So I turned my back to Chad, charged back up the hill, and quickly found the nearest volunteer and got back on the course.
I calculated that I had not lost more than a minute and got a glimmer of hope that the race could still be salvaged. This hunch was validated when I saw Mohammad Charara, one of UCLA Tri’s top guys, up ahead in the distance. Mohammad is pretty new to triathlon and I had beat him out of the water by a bit, but he’s a former UCLA track runner so he’s really fast on two feet, and I figured if I could just pace off of him I might be able to draw myself back into a good position.
Eyes locked on Mohammad, I locked into my usual redline-5K pace and slowly worked through the field, drawing up to about 15 yards from him with half a mile to go. At that point he looked back and saw me, and threw in a surge which I could only barely match, so he held that gap through the finish, ultimately beating me by a couple seconds.
To my delight, I found the finish area practically empty, as only one person had finished ahead of Mohammad and me. Despite a near fiasco, I had achieved my goals for the weekend – I’d scored us some solid omnium points, and I’d found that my running and swimming were on track to be very sharp by spring, so I couldn’t really ask for anything more.
Behind me, Kristen finished third in the women’s field as well. She’s really badass, as she’s been out with a sprained ankle for ages but still decided to race, registering at the last minute. Clearly, the extra time spent in T1 fitting on an ankle brace didn’t slow her down too much! Just wait till she’s healthy, folks!
Feeling pretty elated, we headed to brunch, where I consumed a quantity of food far greater than the morning’s 26-minute exertion could possibly justify, and headed back to Berkeley along the exquisitely scenic Interstate-5, content with a good weekend of racing and looking forward to the big stuff coming up in a few months.