Renown Olympic Cycling & Triathlon Coach Neal Henderson Toes the Line in Penticton, Wins Big

By Neal Henderson, Reprinted with Permission

Sending out a massive thank you to my family – especially Jane, Abby & Renee for the support as I traveled to yet another race…but this time with a focus on trying to get the best out of myself on the course at the 2017 ITU Aquabike world championships in Penticton, Canada.

Last year when the ITU announced the inclusion of Aquabike (basically triathlon without the run – just swim 🏊🏼 & bike 🚴🏻) at this year’s long distance & multisport world champs in Canada I knew I had to go for it.

Way back in 1998 I had placed 2nd in my age-group at the XTERRA World Champs in Maui, and I always wanted another chance at an age-group world title. (Yeah, I’m nuts.)

To qualify for the race this year, we had to qualify in November of 2016 at the USA Triathlon Aquabike national champs at the MiamiMan race in Florida. I had kept in touch with a former roommate from my graduate school days coaching the CU Triathlon Club team at CU-Boulder who is now Dr. Timothy James in Portland, OR – and convinced him to join me & try to qualify.

Even though I was pretty shot from an exhausting 2015-2016 Olympic cycle getting athletes ready to compete in Rio, and then hitting the presentation circuit last fall to share some of the work we with coaches at USA Cycling & USA Triathlon coaching clinics, as well as to business folks sharing our development & use of technology from IBM to help our Team USA women’s team pursuit squad earn Silver in Rio I found just enough fitness to quality for Penticton, as did Tim. I was 4th in my age-group there…good enough, but I knew I could do better.

I was very clear about my goal of shooting for the top step of the podium today until Thursday night…when I noticed the name Stephen Sheldrake of New Zealand on the start list. Steven was also an elite triathlete back when I raced as an elite…and he was clearly faster back then. (Like 24 minutes faster than me at a 2002 draft legal ITU race we both did in St. Kitts)

I checked out his results on the ITU website & noticed that he won this year’s world masters triathlon champs in the 40-44 age group as well as winning the Aquathlon (swim + run) world champs here in Penticton on Friday…so Stephen was definitely going to be fast.

Today’s swim was 3K long…and the few swims that I was able to get in “with” the APEX Coaching crew (okay, definitely hanging on for dear life at the back) had prepared me reasonably well. Unfortunately, I didn’t put together my best work in the water and exited in 9th or 10th place in the age group…about 8 minutes behind the leader (Stephen, of course).

I got on the bike and started out hitting my power & speed goals without straining, so I knew things were going well. The long distance triathlon athletes were also on the same course and had started before us, so there was plenty of passing to be done.

About 40km into the 120km bike a tall guy from Canada who was in my age-group went by me. I tried to keep him in sight, but he rolled away through one of the busier parts of the course…and I never saw him again. Dang.

I was pretty sure that there were still other guys in my age-group ahead so I just kept the pressure on the pedals & held a good pace averaging 40 km/hr (24.8 miles/hour for non SI folks).

On the second hilly lap of the bike course I was able to keep basically the same effort while lots of athletes who had been in front of me started to fade. I got stung by a bee on my left inner thigh…and once a very long time ago on a bike ride I got stung by something and had a full emergency room required anaphylactic reaction…so I started getting a little concerned.

Fortunately after a couple of minutes nothing bad happened, so I resumed the flogging full bore. I was absolutely smashing myself in the final 10km hoping that I might see the tall Canadian or Stephen in the distance – as I wasn’t going down without a fight.

By this point my stomach wasn’t super interested in the intensity of effort that I was putting out after nearly 4 hours of racing and there was a bit of a GI rebellion going on. Sorry to anyone that I passed on those final few miles as I was definitely losing some weight along the side of the course.

As I finally approached the finish line, I knew that at least Stephen & the Canadian (McNaughton was his last name…I kept repeating in my mind some stupid car commercial that I’ve heard too many times – “Big Mike Naughton is Ford…” because it rhymed with McNaughton…and my racing brain gets pretty stupid – http://www.mikenaughtonford.com) would have finished ahead of me. I was just hoping that somehow I had finished on the podium.

As I got to the transition there were two bikes on the rack…indicating that maybe I was 3rd. I waited for Tim to finish in the transition area and then we pitted ourselves off in an unofficial and completely stupid & pointless final 50 Meter sprint together down the ITU blue carpet finish line (our official time for the Aquabike was taken just before we entered transition so when we actually crossed the finish line was irrelevant). I’m probably going to be most sore from that tomorrow. And Tuesday. And maybe Wednesday, too.

About 30-minutes later I pulled up the online results at https://www.sportstats.ca/display-results.xhtml?raceid=45828 and my heart sank a little.

4th

And 4th is NOT the worst place…as I’ve learned as a coach of many athletes who have finished 4th at major events (like the Olympics), but 4th is one of the most difficult positions to finish.

So, I was a little bummed…but I had given everything I had in me and was okay with 4th. Then, as I looked a little closer I noticed that I was actually 4th overall…and 3rd in the 40-44 age group, so I was psyched again. And as much as I would have loved to be a couple spots higher on the podium, I’m happy with what I did and might even be content. For now.

Which for those who know who ridiculously competitive I am, is definitely saying something. So thanks again to my more than patient wife for letting me indulge my silly competitive obsessions and as well thank you to all the coaches and athletes at APEX Coaching who inspire me and keep me in my place…at least most of the time. I think.

Thanks to everyone at USA Triathlon for keeping things smooth and organized both in the lead up and to everything here in Penticton.

And, much more importantly a HUGE congratulations a couple of phenomenal APEX Coaching athletes: new father Joe Gambles who took a stellar 3rd place in the men’s elite ITU Long Distance Triathlon here today and to Ellen Hart who won her 3rd world title in the women’s 55-59 age group in the Long Distance Triathlon to go with her two Duathlon ( standard and draft-legal) world titles & her silver medal in the Aquathlon earlier this week here in Penticton.

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