ITU World Triathlon Grand Final Rotterdam 2017

“Team USA….Greg Gaitan”

     Hearing my name announced as a member of Team USA was the realization of a goal I set when I learned three years ago that the ITU World Triathlon Championships would be in Rotterdam, Holland.I wanted to race on Team USA after hearing about how thrilling an experience it was from SB Tri club members Fred Maggiore and Kyle Visin. I chose to qualify for the Sprint draft legal race because being a strong swimmer, I would have a solid chance of getting into the lead pack on the bike. This would allow me to work with other riders in the pack to gain more separation from the rest of the field.

     Team USA is comprised of up to 18 members per age group based on results from the USAT Olympic and Sprint Age Group Nationals held annually in August. For the Sprint team, some of the spots also come from a qualifying race that is draft legal. I had qualified at the qualifying race held last year in New Orleans.

     Draft legal racing differs greatly from non draft legal racing in that aero bars and discs wheels are not allowed. In traditional non draft legal triathlons, the emphasis is on maintaining a steady and constant power output on the bike avoiding the burning of too many “matches” before hitting the run. In draft legal triathlons, there are many surges in effort on the bike responding to attacks and counterattacks of other riders.  It is criterium type racing. It’s important to be able to ride in tight packs and communicate with other riders in the pack. To prepare, I rode often with the local roadies and added more short high power interval workouts on the trainer. 

     I arrived in Rotterdam Wednesday prior to Sunday’s race with rain in the forecast for the week. The poor weather unfortunately made it tough to do much in final race preparation training. It also resulted in the cancellation of Thursday’s Parade of Nations where all of the athletes walk together with their teammates in uniform to the opening ceremonies. Friday was busy attending a Team USA meeting lead by our coach. The meeting went over draft legal rules, race logistics, and course layout. The race would be a point to point to point which meant it would have two separate transition spots. The bike course would be very technical containing several sharp turns, coursing over three bridges and riding over stretches of cobblestone throughout the city. I had watched a virtual ride of the course before arriving and was looking forward to the scheduled team ride on the course following the meeting. Unfortunately, the rain made it tough to ride the entire course but it felt good to spin the legs and get a feel for the course as I hadn’t ridden in five days.

It felt great to squeeze in a 30 minute run around a beautiful lake Friday evening. I had never had such little training the week leading up to a race but took solace in realizing that it allowed me some extra rest. I spent Saturday touring Rotterdam admiring the modern architecture with my wife and uncle.

     The day of the race was finally here and the weather was cool but clear! The Standard (Olympic) distance race was in the morning and the Sprint race was in the afternoon making my start time 1:40. Given the cool weather, heat wouldn’t be an issue racing so late in the day. It was nice to enjoy a civilized breakfast in the daylight where I was actually hungry. After a quick subway ride, I arrived at the race with my heart pumping!

     At the team meeting we were warned that the ITU officials would be strict about what could be left in each transition area. Basically running shoes only in T2 and bike, helmet, shoes and an empty gear bag in T1. Because we would not be returning to T1, we would have to stuff our swim cap, goggles and wetsuit in the gear bag so that it could be picked up following the race, at the finish line. I tried to familiarize myself as best as I could with the two different transition areas, but found it difficult with the size of the race venue.

     My wave would be the second to go following the 45-49 year old age group. We were to report to the holding corral 10 minutes prior to our launch. It was such a thrill to stand shoulder to shoulder with nearly 100 men from all over the world who had also qualified for this race. After the first wave was launched, we were lead out to the pontoon as our names were announced. When I heard my name, I waved out to my wife and uncle and gave a big thumbs up. With a minute before start time, all went quiet as we were told by the starter to jump into the water and put one hand on the pontoon as we waited for the horn to blow. And we were off!                      

      Being a strong swimmer, I was out in front for the first half of the swim and remained near the front throughout. The swim was in a cove which made for no significant issues with the current. I knew the run to T1 would be long (approximately 500 meters) and include stretches of cobblestone. It felt like I was running forever in my wetsuit and was gassed when I got to my bike. Taking my wetsuit off was like peeling off skin! The run to the mount line was about half as long but was easier sans wetsuit. I had no issues with my flying mount unlike my near disastrous mount at Age Group Nationals a month prior.

     The bike portion was the highlight of the race and a complete blast. For the first few minutes, I was in no man’s land trying hard to reel in a rider from Ireland to no avail. Fortunately, a USA teammate caught up to me and we then worked together to bridge the gap and and pass Ireland before coming upon a pack of three riders from Great Britain. We rotated pulls varying in time from 30 to 180 seconds and did a good job of communicating the sharp turns ahead. There were plenty of wet patches to watch for but lowering my tire pressure to 90 psi helped keep me upright. Save for a bee sting on the arm, the ride was as good as I could hope for. We were never passed and caught many including riders from the preceding wave. My dismount was smooth and it was off to the run which would be through a well shaded park.

     As any triathlete knows, running off the bike is never easy no matter what the distance. As I started, my legs felt  like limp noodles and sadly I had nothing left in the tank. Rather than get frustrated, I was determined to give it my best and take it all in enjoying the fact that I was racing at Worlds. I got passed by quite a few uber fast Europeans and USA teammates easily running sub 19 minute 5K’s!

      As the finish line approached, I saw the USA team manager in the chute handing out US flags. I was probably passed by a few more while grabbing the flag but it didn’t matter. I was happy and proud to be representing my country. This was beyond a doubt the best race experience of my life!