Who am I? What motivates me? Why do I do triathlon? What’s my favorite color? Those are none of the things I learned this year (the color is a toss up between chartreuse and goldenrod, but I’ve known that for a while).

But what did I learn? Well, they were big things. Always big things. Even if they weren’t big, I’ll spin them positively, make them seem absolutely YUGE

(ie despite exceptional xenophobia, there’s a surprising tolerance for incest. Or maybe because?)

This year was big. I mean, we didn’t just get hoverboards, we finally got exploding hoverboards. It was also the year US Olympic qualification began. 2014 had seen the season wrecking, fitness destroying (but free time for dating and a 780 GMAT enabling) femoral stress fracture, so I had to put in a lot of consistent training and nab a bunch of great results very quickly in order to be back in the game. A minor mistake in 2015 would mean my Olympic hopes would go the direction of the hoverboards.

What my Olympic hopes would be with another injury

Big moves had to be made. Distractions eliminated. Nutrition perfected. Recovery nailed. Fitness rebuilt. For that, who do you call?

Ghostbusters. Or parents.

“Hey Moooooomm, I keep breaking myself and I want it to stooooooop.”

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It took 124 years of experience to resuscitate my Olympic dream

Lesson 1: I can’t qualify for the Olympics by myself. I’ve always needed help, from great coaches, knowledgeable docs, generous sponsors, too many to name. But this really drove the humility home. My parents were semi-retired and exploring America in a trailer, but they hooked it back up to their Suburban and moved out to San Diego to help me qualify for Rio. They basically removed my need to cook, clean, or be an independent human being. Plenty of free time opened up. Enough free time to spend 12-16 hours per day in one of these brain function wreckers:

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(Did you know that in order to make the time in these legitimately effective, you need long consecutive hours? Like you can’t really leave at all, not for a second, not even to go to the bathroom. Yeah, I think I would have held back on my purchase had I known. Also, it’s impossible to accomplish anything in there. After a couple hours my brain is fried.)

So began a quest to make up for about 5 years of fisticuffs with cars, pugnacious pavement, knackered knees, Achilles issues and femur fractures in time to not just qualify for Rio Olympic trials, but absolutely nail that race and another three. My ITU ranking had dropped to a millionth (give or take), so I didn’t know if I’d get start into the first big races of the year. First step was to regain my ranking, but that began very inauspiciously when I wasted a couple grand by DNFing at the Barranquilla, Colombia Continental Cup due to a flat:

Lesson - Moustaches cause flats

Lesson 2: Facial Hair causes flats. Wait, that’s a terrible lesson. The next one will be better.

I got lucky, however, and rolled onto the first World Cups of the year: Mooloolaba and New Plymouth. Finishing 11th and 6th, I scored enough points to have essentially guaranteed entry to any race on the circuit. First hurdle cleared.

From there, Coach Sousa and I used the next races and months to piece together the components necessary for a great race at the Olympic Trials in the Rio. We had to decipher what could go wrong and things that were already less than ideal. Like the last two k of my run. They were pretty atrocious.

I get dropped hard in the last 2k by a guy old enough to be my dad (ish). 7th is only good when The Real Starky makes it so.

This became readily apparent at the Chengdu World Cup, where I felt like I was cruising for 8k and then was absolutely owned over the last 2k. The only tactic I screwed up there was not realizing I was missing about 3 gears I thought I had. Also, J-Bone Pedersen showed me my climbs on the bike were abysmal. And my swim was pretty up and down.  I used the very challenging Huatulco World Cup to simulate the Rio course and could barely manage a jog after the heat and hills (I finished 13th). So, yeah, lots of things to work on. (That all may have been a tad hyperbolic – finishing 7th and 13th at World Cups isn’t abysmal).

I look relaxed. I felt relaxed. But apparently I couldn’t run. #HuatulcoWC

Lesson 3: Training works.

The next block, then, I just focused on becoming stronger. I thought that the 6 months of training from December to May had been good, but the course in Rio would require another level of preparation altogether. Paulo did an excellent job making sure I progressed steadily and by the end of the altitude block in Flagstaff and shortish block at sea level, I could tell I’d jumped up another notch. Training with Matt McElroy (6th at the 2015 NCAA 10k) pushed me to another level of running and the daily reminders of the massive, altitude induced oxygen debt bumped up what I considered to be an acceptable amount of fatigue and pain.

I’d finished the first half of the season with consistent training and solid results. I was exceptionally fit and felt like I was peaking perfectly for the Olympic Trials in Rio. Goals accomplished!

Flagstaff is Grillington Approved

Second Half of the Season

But if the first half of the year was marked by consistency, the second half was bumpy as hell. Like jumping from smooth pavement to potholed trails mid-way through a ride. It can still be fun, but the terrain is slightly more difficult to handle.

I came out of the mid-season hammerfest training block ready for Rio. Nervous as hell, but ready to bust some caps and take some scalps. I knew Rio was going to memorable when I watched a taxi explode across from the hotel. On top of that, USAT had made sure to stock Chia seeds at the breakfast buffet! So many good things

 

Where’s Cutie? #DeathCab #Copacabomba

This race basically determined my season. I had one goal to start the year and it was the same one that inspired my athletic career when I was 9 with a picture Lenny Krayzelburg on the wall – make an Olympic team. A poor performance in Rio and Olympic qualification would be a long, uphill slog.

An auto spot was top 8 in Rio, but barring that result, selection was based off the top two scores from 5 highly competitive international races. The race in Rio was weighted by far the heaviest of the 5, so a good race here would be huge (yuge) for overall qualification.

So... that's it then. Photo:Paul Phillips

I want to be back there next August so badly…. Photo:Paul Phillips

Top 8 became basically impossible once I exited the water in the second pack. The front pack had a minute or so on us chasers by the time the 10k started, so the goal was to run an evenly paced race in order to score as many points as possible without exploding. With the potential for disaster, I executed, finishing in 15th and the first American. All of a sudden the Olympics seemed real.

I had the chance to really nail my qualification points down over the next few race, but here’s where the potholes appeared:

I broke my foot at the next race.

Bone stim and a boot. These guys became my best friends

With about 1k left of the next qualifying race, I had been ramping up the pace when I felt my foot crack. This wasn’t a ‘gradually got worse’ scenario; it was a sudden, sharp, dooming pain. I hobbled and managed to scrounge more qualification points from the race. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I was panicking internally but attempting to look calm and not limp. I hoped that if I just grinned for the next 15 minutes, I’d suddenly be able to walk.

The next day I was being pushed around the airport in a wheelchair. The 15 minute grin had not helped.

The following month was torture. Without the staff at the Chula OTC, I wouldn’t have made it. I was leading the men’s qualifying process, but the Chicago Grand Final was a key race and the rest of Team USA had the talent and opportunity to blow by me.

I tried to race. I made myself a darn innovative insole and a last minute Alter-G attempt was successfully pain free. But doubts abounded – A full 10k at race pace? Leaping off a bike barefoot going 20mph? This was a chance to qualify but also fracture my foot completely and put 2016 in doubt.

Lesson 4: Full commitment doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind

After Stockholm, I had committed to doing everything right to be prepared and healed for Chicago. I had. I lived with a bone stimulator, electro-acupuncture to keep blood flowing, or cross training and doing squats in a boot to stay in shape. But a last minute x-ray showed it would be more likely the latter and I stopped. I had to watch the rest of the world do the (2nd) coolest race of the season and potentially dash my Olympic dreams.

They weren’t dashed. I breathed. I still led, and continue to lead, the men’s Olympic qualification.

But in ITU, the stakes are always high so my season wasn’t over. Not having raced in 2014 still impacted my ranking. If I didn’t race again, I’d drop significantly, would have to create a terrible 2016 race calendar, and could easily miss the 5th and final qualification event.

So it was all hopes pinned on the final World Cup of the season, my comeback event from 2014, the Tongyeong World Cup.

I had barely run in about 2 months due to the stress fracture and my first outdoor runs would be the week of the race. The minuters I did for tune-ups wrecked my legs and my main goals gradually became:

  1. Not to refracture my foot
  2. Not to humiliate myself

But somehow, it was probably the most perfectly executed race of my career. I was out of the water comfortably in the front pack and was either with or caught up to the bike breakaways that had merit. I felt strong.

Regardless, my nightmare scenario ensued as about 60 athletes came into T2 together. So I began the run conservatively, ready for the impending explosion and immediate DNF should my foot start to hurt.

But I gradually moved up. The whole race I passed people until I settled into the second pack of around 10 guys and, with 400 to go, out kicked them to finish 5th. It was unreal. I’ve never been as happy with a race as I was with that one and I’d scored the points to have practically a guaranteed entry to the final qualification race. One hell of a way to end the season.

12182614_10153732219438754_2194159043335954378_oLesson 5: If you’re all in and still you aren’t where you want to be, find a way to go deeper.

I’d learned this lesson with the stress fracture, but had practiced it throughout the year. Back in 2014, I thought I’d been doing everything as well as humanly possible. I wasn’t even close. My nutrition, recovery, and ability to commit were lacking and the vacillation showed. 2015 recognized those weaknesses, and I asked and received help from my parents, nutritionists (thanks Liz Broad!), psychophysiologists (thanks Lindsay Thornton!), PTs (thanks Gino Cinco, Kevin Pierce, Brett Guimard, Hannah, Victor Runco, Bruce Allen), my coach, teammates, sponsors (Thanks Kestrel, Brooks, NYAC), and they didn’t let me falter.

There’s still another race, the Yokohama WTS, to determine the US Olympic qualifiers and I have a long way to go after that to achieve what I want out of triathlon. I know I’ll work as hard as I can to find new ways to improve and hopefully deserve the incredible support I’ve received so far.

ThingsWon (1 of 1)

Next, I’ll recount my off-season – regrowing my roots in Spokane and meeting the most inspirational person I’ve ever encountered.

Thanks for following,

Greg Billington