By Bettina Younge, PhD
Photos by Courtney Stapleton
ISSUE #16, June/July 2002 – April 20 was the big day for CU triathletes. Last September, 51 buffs started training for this day and the race of their lives: the National Collegiate Championships in Memphis, TN.
The big journey began early in the week: Tuesday afternoon the athletes loaded their bikes into trailers; Wednesday morning 10 drivers took off with all the bikes toward Memphis; and finally Wednesday night the remaining 41 competitors and a few helpers left for Elvis’s home turf. Approximately 23 hours, one team run, a Denny’s breakfast, and, for many, only a nap later, the team arrived in Memphis.
The team jumped in the camp-side pond before dusk after they discovered that swimming in the lake was not allowed. The pond, about hip deep and rather murky, had to do for the wetsuit-dressed athletes. At least everyone had an open-water swim under their belt before the big race.
Friday went by quickly with two major tasks: checking out the race-course and registering. By dinnertime, camp was bustling with pre-race preparations, but it turned quiet as everyone settled in for a good night’s sleep before the big event.
Saturday morning was hot, in keeping with Memphis’s recent record temperatures. By 8:30 a.m., everyone had picked up their timing chips, listened to the final waves and start times, and convened for a last team picture and the (previously banned) team cheer. By 9:20 a.m., the first wave took off a little late for their 9 a.m. start. The swim followed the lakeshore counterclockwise around a few islands. The first swimmer snaked through the 75-degree water in just over 19 minutes. Justin Caskey, CU’s top performer in the first wave, followed at 22:41, chasing the leaders in his strong suit-the bike. Tim O’Donnell from the US Naval Academy logged the fastest swim time of the day at 18:37. Most of CU’s top athletes emerged from the water in about 20-22 minutes.
After a 30-minute break to allow the bike course to clear out, the two women’s waves took off. Sara McLarty, an old nemesis of Sara Tarkington’s and a NCAA swimmer (she just clocked around 16:30 in a 1500 meter), came out of the water in 19:38. Less than two minutes behind her with the 5th fastest swim of the day was freshman Jaime Sisler, competing in her second Olympic distance triathlon event.
The 24-mile bike course consisted of three loops, so team spirit ran high as the athletes passed and pushed each other. The buffalo field along the side of the course didn’t hurt the CU Buffaloes’ energy either (we think we saw Ralphie!). The course was relatively flat compared to the training grounds in Colorado, though the heat and the lack of aid stations took a toll on a few athletes.
Near the end of the bike, gaps between the leaders and chasers were closing. For the men, Justin Caskey had the 5th fastest bike of the day, and both he and Chris Valenti were within reach of the podium. The women’s competition was even tighter. Tarkington put in the fastest bike split of the day. McLarty was about to enter her weakest leg of the triathlon only about a minute and a half ahead of runner Tarkington.
The scenic (though none of the competitors noticed that day!) run course-
one 10-kilometer loop-led the racers through Shelby Farms and along mostly paved bike trails. Valenti was suffering from the heat during the bike leg and focused on a steady run performance to finish as high as possible; Caskey and Ottersberg also knew that they had to give their best for the men’s team competition.
In the women’s event, Gilbert moved into the lead but knew she wasn’t home free-a wave with several strong competitors, including her teammates Tarkington, Sisler, and Wlad, as well as McLarty, were 10 minutes behind her. Tarkington passed McLarty only two miles into the race and knew she had overtaken the leader; Sisler followed suit at about mile four. Coming into the finish, the team new that Tarkington had won the women’s title with a 2:10:22. Then, as Sisler, the next finisher from the second wave, came in only 39 seconds slower than Gilbert at 2:13:46, the team started to realize that their women must have swept the podium. Not much later, the entire team (minus one athlete who flatted) had, despite the heat, successfully finished the race.
In the men’s race, Chris Valenti finished as the top CU scorer in 5th place with a 1:56:14; freshman Justin Caskey took 10th place with 1:58:47; and sophomore Blake Ottersberg came in 32nd place with 2:03:17. The men’s team placed second overall with an average time of 1:59:26 compared to first-place finisher Navy with an average time of 1:58:01. Other top performers for CU were Jean-Paul Henry (2:03:26), Armando Galarraga (2:04:33), and Lucas Llado (2:05:59).
In the women’s event, CU was guaranteed the win given the 1-2-3 place finish and an average time of 2:12:55. The women’s team from the University of Wisconsin at Madison was the runner-up with an average time of 2:20:03. Other top CU performers were Kerrie Wlad (2:18:31), Amber Rydholm (2:19:19) and Erin Huck (2:20:30) – in fact, together, Kerrie, Amber, and Erin would still have defeated runner-up Wisconsin in the team’s competition!
Overall, CU beat the second-place team by over 35 minutes, earning back the National Collegiate Championship. And we have more great news. Everyone except soon-to-be-pro Chris Valenti will be back next year!
We would like to thank our sponsors for their support in our quest: Boulder Center of Sports Medicine, Smartwool, Rudy Project, Louis Garneau, Runner’s Choice, Aegis, Mickey C’s Bagels, Atlas Snowshoes, Total Trainer, and Zipp Weaponry.