One word: HARD.
I'm not kidding when I say this was one of the hardest races I've done, probably the hardest, even though it was only a sprint. It was my first ever draft legal race, so I wasn't 100% sure what to expect.
Pre-race: I got into Orlando in the early afternoon right at the same time and met Pat, but we then took quite a while to drive around to find something to eat/drink, which was a big mistake because I already had fallen asleep on the plane when the flight attendants came around with drinks, so I had a MASSIVE headache, but eventually that subsided. I got to the pre-race meeting and quickly realized that I was among the older competitors. Evidently last year, there was a Junior Elite (16-19 year olds) race that was separate from the Age Group Draft Legal, but this year there wasn't. This format of racing is far more popular, with more opportunities for younger triathletes, which is why I felt like the old man in the room at all of 21 years old. Obviously that's not entirely true, but I'm used to being at most triathlons where the average age is somewhere between 35 and 50 and I'm the young kid. It was just strange.
Anyway, went through the standard meeting stuff, with a lot more indepth coverage of the draft legal rules. The meeting ended, and Pat and I drove back across the state to Cocoa Beach, which is where we were staying. We figured that we'd rather spend spring break in Cocoa Beach than Clermont, and I was willing to drive an hour and a half on race morning.
Race morning: It's SO nice not racing super-early, because I was able to wake up at 6:30 and not feel rushed or like I'd missed the start. Instead, I had plenty of time to finish getting my stuff together and have a real breakfast down in the hotel lobby. Driving over to Clermont I started to get a bit nervous because it suddenly hit me that I was no longer in offseason mode; it was distinctly race time. We got there on the early side because I wanted to watch a little bit of the races before mine, so we managed to catch pieces of the youth (under 15) races. Even those kids were impressive!
As far as warming up, I set up my transition, went for a couple miles running before I was quickly soaked in sweat, with the 90ish degree temps. Once I felt good to go, I went down to the water and made sure I got in a really solid swim warmup; I probably did close to the full race course of 750m because I knew how important the swim was, and that it'd be redline from the start.
Staging for the start was by number, and I managed to get a spot relatively in the middle of the line, which was fine by me. Now I was getting really nervous.
Swim: 12:01, 26th
We started in about thigh-high water and it was a solid 50ish meters of dolphin diving to start, which was great for making you feel like you were having a heart attack. That managed to eliminate some of the horror stories I'd heard about the swim in draft legal races being absolute mayhem, or maybe that's because I was in the second main pack. Regardless, I don't think I've ever swam that hard. It felt like I was sprinting the whole time, even when I was on somebody's feet. Sure, 12:01 isn't a good time for "750 meters" but there's no way that was accurate between the dolphin diving out and the even longer run up, which seriously made me think I was going to have a heart attack. I started dolphin diving one right after the other, but eventually I got too tired and had to dive, swim with a short stroke, dive, take a few steps, dive, and some other sort of pattern like that.
A long runup, and I managed to do halfway decent mounting my bike. This video shows how bad some of it was. I made a brief appearance actually on my bike, not straddling the top tube. I thank cyclocross for that.
Bike: 33:12 (22.4 mph), 44th
Woof. I had NO idea what I was doing out there. My strategy the whole time was to try not to get dropped and to try not to crash. The second part nearly went out the window before I was even 100% clear of the transition area when one rider went down in front of me and he and his bike were strewn across the narrow section of pavement, and another rider went off the road to avoid him and nearly hit a tree, but I think they both managed to right themselves and get back on course. My swim put me in the spot to at least get into the second large pack, at least. I tried to sit in a fair amount and catch some draft, but everybody kept dropping to the back of the pack and I was in front for the first little elevation change, which also happened to be into a headwind. I absolutely HAMMERED this hill, and right before we hit the top, I felt myself slipping off and towards the back to sayings of "nice pull, man!" Then the group was out of sight :(
From there on, which was maybe 1/3 of the way into the first of three laps, I was pretty much by myself. Every now and then, a straggler with a weak swim but strong bike would catch up with me and we'd be together and trade a couple of pulls before hitting a hill or turn where I'd inevitably lose them, but otherwise I was just alone with no real organization. Finally on the last lap, the next major pack came and swallowed me up, in turn picking up some of the most recent riders who'd passed me. I was able to ride this pack in for the last mile or so, but it wasn't much; I was cooked.
As soon as I got off the bike, it was not a pleasant experience. At this point, the pro men were setting up their transitions in the area adjacent to ours, so I could see some looks of empathy on their face; I'm pretty sure it was obvious that this was my first draft legal race when they saw me coming through alone between packs each time. However, I took off on the run as quick as I could, legs feeling like somebody replaced them with Jello and strapped a cinderblock to my thighs (I just combined two common triathlete running metaphors...beat that)
Run: 23:01 (7:25/mi), 40th
So I said I "took off" as fast as I could, because I knew draft legal races, even the run is very tactical and it's a gamesmanship of sorts. I didn't think I could go any faster, my legs and lungs were ready to both explode, then I looked down at my Garmin and saw 7:36. That was a bit disappointing. I tried opening up my stride, quickening it; nothing seemed to work. I was hurting BAD. Now, everybody says the course was long, or slow, or whatever, but nothing can explain a 23 minute 5k other than my legs were just absolutely obliterated. I've never felt anything like that kind of fatigue. I definitely got passed a fair amount, but I tried my best to work up on anybody that it looked like I was even with or even gaining ground, so I did manage to pick off a few. One guy that I sighted at probably the 1.5ish mile, I could tell I was slowly gaining ground on and I was just finally about to catch him entering the finish chute, but then he had to go in the penalty box for some earlier infraction. There was nobody else near me and I knew I had at least :15 on him, so that's why I'm pretty sure I actually walked across the finish line, or a very, very slow trot.
Overall: 1:10:10, 35th/77
A learning experience, for sure. Glad I did it, and this won't be the last one of these I do.