Character and Sportsmanship in Triathlon

Last Sunday at 6:35 a.m., I was prepping to race the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington, DC. This would be the largest triathlon I’d ever entered. It was a beautiful morning in our nation’s capital. The sunrise over the Washington Monument was spectacular; the sky perfectly blue and clear. I was pumped up, to say the least. I had a few pre-race jitters, but I was super excited. I said to myself, “Let’s do this!”

Triathlons begin with the swim and then racers’ biking and running gear is organized and waiting in individual transition areas. The Nation’s Tri staff had a strict closing time of 6:55 a.m. At that point, everyone had to be out of the transition area and making the 100-yard walk to the start on the bank of the Potomac River.

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While there were some nerves, I felt great about the race and confident in my training. Before I started my walk out of the transition area to get a “good-luck” from my cheering section, I felt I needed to check my bike’s tire pressure.

Front tire. Check.  Back tire. Holy shit, it’s flat.

Was this really happening?

While I’ve changed a tire tube before, I’ve never done so in less than 15 minutes under such an intense time crunch. Here I am, at the Nation’s Triathlon, my back tire is flat before the race begins and I’m thinking, “All that training for nothing, race over.”

This is where the sport of triathlon separates itself from other competitions.

Sportsmanship, support, encouragement and comradery seem so paramount with this sport.  The events that unfolded during the next 15 minutes will show you why triathlons are so special.

Once I realized my back tire was flat, three of the competitors near me saw the horror on my face and quickly volunteered, jumping into action to assist me with getting the tire fixed.  Luis, Jeff and Jeff, all direct competitors in the 40-44 age group, showed a side of this sport only witnessed as a participant of triathlons. IMG_20170910_062333

Ten minutes prior to realizing I had a flat tire, we were all organizing our stuff, chatting about other races we’ve competed in, discussing the water temperature, and other normal transition area pre-race conversations.  Then suddenly, we were all hunkered over my flat tire, working on fixing this unfortunate situation with only minutes until the proverbial transition area doors slammed shut.

The weather was cool and everyone’s hands were a little numb.  Taking a tire off the rim is hard enough on its own, but when temps are frigid, your hands are cold, and the clock is ticking, it is especially difficult.

As added pressure, the announcer was counting down, over the loud speaker, every minute we had to get out of the transition area.

Luis, Jeff and Jeff could’ve easily said there was no way to get the tube out, replaced, put back on the bike and pumped up in 15 minutes or less. They could have told me I was on my own, that it was my problem, but they didn’t say these things. These guys helped a fellow competitor during a desperate time of need.  With about two minutes to spare, my tire was fixed and pressurized to 100psi.

Wow, my heart was absolutely pounding; all pre-race jitters were gone and out the window. During those 15 minutes when I would have normally been thinking about the swim or how cold the water was going to be (69 degrees), all my focus was on fixing my flat tire.  Any anxiety had disappeared very quickly.  I was ready! Somewhat in shock, IMG_20170910_065433but I was ready to get the race started.

The Nation’s Triathlon was my absolute best triathlon to date. I finished the race in 67th place overall, out of 491 racers and was 7th in my age group, out of 30.  I had personal best times in each segment of the race and finished feeling very proud of how I performed in this amazing event.

I could find tons of inspiration from many parts of the race or could easily write about the unbelievable weekend I had in DC.  My race results and memories of the entire weekend will always hold a special place in my heart, but the acts of those three men was the first thing I wanted to highlight on my blog. Luis, Jeff and Jeff, whom I’d never met before and will probably never see again, willingly gave away some of their pre-race preparation time to help me overcome the adversity of a flat tire.

The sportsmanship and character of the competitors and racers like Luis, Jeff and Jeff, is what makes triathlon so special.  Yes, the sense of accomplishment and adrenaline rush you get at the end of a race help make the sport addictive, but it’s more than that.  The support and encouragement that you feel as a triathlete, even from direct competitors, is something that can only be experienced as a participant in this great sport.

Many times, I’ll hear, “nice pace, keep it up,” or “great job, keep pushing,” as racers pass me or run alongside me during the run.  No matter how fast or slow I am, other racers and spectators are always encouraging and cheering one another along the way.

Last week, three competitors pitched in to help me in a crunch, allowing me to compete in one of the most amazing triathlons in the country.  I will never be able to repay them for their acts of kindness, but I will always remember the generosity of Luis, Jeff and Jeff.  They put me, a fellow competitor, before themselves during that integral 15 minutes before the race.

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What really inspired me was the 2nd place overall finisher was Jeff Zickus, bib number 1422.  I was bib number 1421; our bikes were right beside each other in transition.  This Jeff was one of the Jeffs that willingly helped me with my flat tire before the race and who went on to stand on the podium as the 2nd place overall male finisher. I knew I wasn’t going to win the race that morning, but I had goals set to beat my previous times.  Someone that finishes 2nd overall goes into the event knowing he can and was trying to win the race.  Jeff wanted to win, coming very close, yet he took the time, prior to the race, to help me with my tire. That’s some amazing sportsmanship right there.

For many reasons, the Nation’s Triathlon in 2017 and the weekend in DC, will always hold a special place in my memory.  Today, though, is about how the acts of complete strangers inspired me in such a great way.  I hope sharing what inspired me can also motivate someone else out there because what Luis, Jeff and Jeff did to help was beyond special.

Have a great week!

Matthew

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