What I Learned From My First Pro Race

What I Learned From My First Pro Race

Alan Dempsey pro triathleteChattanooga 70.3. My first race as a pro triathlete. It could have gone better in some ways. In other ways it was exactly as I expected.

I’ve never been known for handling stress and anxiety very well, especially the pre-race variety. I’ve spent many of the last hours before the start of a bike race having panic attacks, freak-outs, and rage vent sessions. I like to think I can coach my athletes well with pre-race anxiety and that I give them sound advice. But I’ve never been able to follow any of it myself. Once, while on the way to a crit in Quebec, a 3 hour drive away, I realized I forgot my race license; not really a big deal in hindsight. They’ll accept a photo on your phone of your license. But I didn’t know that until I actually got there. For about 90min of the 3 hour drive I was full on anxiety. It was a back and forth of raging at the steering wheel and hurling insults at myself. Why? Because reasons. As usually is the case, everything worked out fine. I was allowed to race without my license.

This was not the case in Chattanooga. I honestly can say I’ve never felt so relaxed and so prepared for a race. There were some hiccups and a last minute decision to change out my rubber because of a suspicious looking cut in my tyre –it’s funny how when you’re calm and relaxed, stressful things tend to happen less…. I’m not sure how I can explain the difference from this race and my other races. Maybe it’s just a healthier environment? It definitely is. But it’s also more than that. I think I’ve just matured as an athlete. I’ve spoken with other pros about their decision to turn pro. Some of them have mentioned readiness as a factor. They had a discussion with their coach or mentor about whether they were ready for that step. This wasn’t necessarily the case for me. I wasn’t ready to turn pro. But taking that step forced me to really reflect on what that would mean and what responsibilities that designation would come with. Being a pro can’t just simply mean eligibility for prize money.

When I told my coach about my fear of being looked down on by the other pros for not having earned my pro card, he told me that if that was my concern, then I had a responsibility to be the poster boy for why Triathlon Canada decided to relax the qualifications for pro/elite status. And that’s been in the back of my mind since. And so when I started reflecting on what it means to be pro, I created my own criteria. It will be awhile before I’m fit enough to really compete and/or be a contender. I’ll be a back-of-the-back pro for a good long while. And I can’t do anything about that. I’m putting in my training hours, eating right, and recovering well. How fast I become is not up to me. That will be determined by my genetics and how well my body responds to the training. But I can control a good number of things. And one of those things is my mentality and my perspective on racing. Being pro means not freaking out about forgotten race licenses. Being pro is not being concerned about water temperature and accepting a non-wetsuit swim with a nod. Being a pro is not panic training, not starving myself the week before a race because I feel too overweight still, not worrying if my fitness is good enough, and not losing all hope when a race plan goes to shit.

Seasoned pros might read this and think how naive I am. Some might think it arrogant to talk about what it means to be a pro after just one pro race. Fair. Totally fair. These aren’t general and objective rules. These are the criteria I’ve given myself based on my experience; based on a lot of reflection from a failed bike racing career; based on the incredible bike racers I’ve had the pleasure of calling teammates, some of whom are now pros; and based on the athletes I coach. With every race, I’ll have learned a little something, I’ll have reflected a little more. And after every race I’ll get one step closer to being a seasoned pro. For now, I’ll stick with the goals I’ve set before me.

Okay, Back to Chattanooga. 

I honestly can say I’ve never felt so relaxed and so prepared for a race. Let’s go back to there.

Going into this race, I felt so strong. Maybe not the strongest I’ve ever been on the bike, but the most prepared I’ve ever been for the sport of triathlon. As Coach Ian always says, you can’t look at triathlon as three separate sports. It’s one single sport with three components.

The Swim
Standing on the dock with Starky, Matt Russell, Vanderlinden, Andy Potts, and all the veteran pros was not as intimidating as you might think. Coming from the bike racing world and being predominately a triathlon coach, I never really focussed on following triathlon as a fan. I was concerned more with its execution for the sake of my athletes. I know the names and faces of most bike racers, even the Conti guys and gals. With triathlon, I know who Andy Potts is, for example, but there is no way I could point him out in a lineup. So standing on the dock, I knew the names of the people I was racing against and I was familiar with most of their amazing accomplishments, but I couldn’t tell one from the other. That made the swim start much easier. They’re all just a bunch of dudes in speed suits.

“Is it too late to race as an age grouper,” quips the newb.

Dead air.

Okay.

No jokes at the start line.

Noted.

So as it turns out, drafting while swimming is just like drafting while cycling. If you drift off the back and out of the draft, you’re gone. I was there. I was in the pack. And it felt easy. I was even overtaking a guy. And by overtaking I mean literally swimming over top of him. He kicked me in the head. Just ease up for a second and drop back and sit in his draft. Second goes by. He gone. And now I’m by myself. I had one of my fastest swims ever –current notwithstanding– but I was still the last pro  [okay technically second last pro] out of the water. What else can I say about that? I need more practice swimming.

The Bike
Wow. I always thought the back of a bike race was the loneliest place to be in a race. Apparently it’s the front of a triathlon. Sure most of the pros were ahead of me, but there were still 2000 or so age groupers behind me. I was alone basically the entire 90km.

I didn’t have a good bike split. I felt good. But I couldn’t get a rhythm going. It wasn’t a hilly course but there were some rollers in the mid section that I didn’t know about and they made it hard to get things going the way I wanted. I also had lactic burn the entire course. Don’t know what else to say. I was 10 minutes off my goal pace.

Alan Dempsey Chattanooga 70.3The Run
Do we have to talk about the run? The heat was gnarly. I couldn’t find a rhythm for the first 9km. Partly it was psychological. Partly it was just too damned hot. If I had to do this race again right now, I would be able to find the legs to get it going from the start. That was a major lesson learned. Races are not easy. I keep telling myself that I started feeling better on the second loop. I didn’t. I still felt awful. But the age groupers were on course during my second loop and I didn’t want them to see the P on my calf and think, “Wow, look at that pro. He’s walking.” So I started running. And every age grouper I passed, I shouted encouragement. And every time I did that, I thought to myself, “You can’t shout encouragement and then run 10m up the road and start walking.” So I just kept running.

I also kept recalling that pro (can’t remember his name) who was having a terrible race. He walked the run. But he cheered on every single age grouper that passed him. Now I know that I was doing my first pro race. And I know that I’m a shit pro. But they don’t. I might not be able to inspire anyone but that little P on my calf might. So I tried to be as pro as possible and demonstrate what resilience and perseverance is so that little P on my calf could help someone else find that perseverance to keep going. Being pro should be setting the example for everyone else to follow right? Next time I have to find that mentality to push through even without any other age groupers on course.

Final Thoughts
You want to know my time and place? Dead last. D.F.L. Time? Meh. I broke 5 hours. I finished. I learned a lot about myself. I identified a number of weaknesses. I also identified a number of strengths that I am not yet using to my advantage. It was just a race. It had its successes and it had its failures. The next race will have its own set of successes and failures. And the one after that. And the one after that. It’s a process. And as long as I continue to take something away from this process that feels good and makes me hungry for more, I’ll keep doing it.

Next up is Eagleman 70.3

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