Ryan Chartrand

I have never felt more out of place than when I strolled into a Wal-Mart in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

It’s not that I’m above shopping at Wal-Mart, it’s just that under the circumstances, the other customers in the store looked at me like I was from another planet.

I wasn’t alone in my awkwardness. I was accompanied by 39 Cal Poly triathletes who made the trek to compete at the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships in Tuscaloosa. Since we didn’t have transportation, we decided to run the 2.5 miles from our hotel to Wal-Mart to stock up on supplies before our big race.

Wearing skimpy running shorts, all 40 of us descended on the super center to the bewilderment of the locals. People just weren’t used to seeing that many skinny bodies in one place.

My trip to Wal-Mart was one of many “cultural experiences” during my time in Alabama.

Overall, the trip was an amazing experience I will never forget. The following is a day-by-day account of what went down on our trip to the South.

Day 1

We didn’t arrive in Tuscaloosa until about 10 p.m. after leaving at 5 a.m. from San Luis Obispo. All anyone wanted to do was sleep.

Day 2

First stop: Wal-Mart.

After a few hours of downtime spent relaxing at our hotel pool, we hopped a bus to downtown Tuscaloosa to check out the scene. To the people of Alabama, we may as well have been from another country. To them, we talked too fast with strange accents. But people are much friendlier in the South. Everyone took an interest in what we were doing and wished us good luck in our endeavors.

Coincidentally, our race was the same day as the University of Alabama’s spring intra-squad football scrimmage. Our race was pretty large with 1,000 triathletes representing more than 80 schools from around the country competing. But the triathlon was a tiny blip on the Tuscaloosa sports scene compared to this game.

The scrimmage sold out Bryant-Denny Stadium with more than 90,000 fans attending the game. They even had to turn people away – for a spring scrimmage.

Day 3

The day before the race. We checked in at the athlete village and picked up our race packets.

This is when the nerves started to creep in. I was severely untrained for the race because of a knee injury that cost me three weeks of training.

My hope of a top-10 finish was now just a pipe-dream, but my team desperately needed me to step up to score valuable points.

The overall team competition is scored on the places of the top three men and women from each team. This would be my last Collegiate Nationals competition, and I was determined to go out with a bang.

Day 4

Race day.

A 7 a.m. start time meant a 4 a.m. wake-up call. I barely slept the night before for a couple reasons – I over-hydrated at dinner and had to get up several times to pee, and I was anxious to get the race over with. I knew I would have to put forth a huge effort to finish with the other elite athletes in the field.

I went through my morning routine the same way I have for the last 50 or so triathlons I have competed in. I thought about all the hard work I have poured into this sport for the last few years and how this was my last opportunity to represent my school at a national competition.

I looked around at the sea of bikes in the transition area and thought how special this moment was. I looked into my teammates’ eyes and saw the electricity and focus in their faces. It was time to lay down the hammer.

I surged through the crowded 0.9-mile swim to exit the water near the lead group of athletes. The bike portion of the race has traditionally been my time to shine, and today was no different. I powered along the 25-mile route like a man possessed. I gained momentum after every person I passed. Everything was going better than planned until my legs started to cramp with about five miles left on the bike.

This was a horrible sign of things to come. I knew the 6.2-mile run would be a monumental struggle if I was already cramping on the bike. I tried to stay positive, but the doubt crept into my head as I leapt off the bike, threw on my running shoes and headed out for the last leg of my race.

As soon as the road started to incline, my legs nearly stopped moving. My calves, quads and hamstrings all seized at once, making it nearly impossible to get up the hill. But I pushed on.

I barely remember the last two miles as I fought the pain that spread through my entire body. I managed to muster one last surge to the finish. I had pushed my body to the limit, and finally, I could rest.

I ended up placing first for Cal Poly and 25th overall. I was satisfied with my race considering my level of fitness. Our team turned in a solid performance as well, placing tied for fifth with Montana, last year’s champion.

Sophomore Gordon Withers and senior Anthony Yount also scored points for our men’s team. Senior Tamara Presser, graduate student Melissa Barrett and freshman Shana Strange led the charge for our women’s team.

Nothing really compares to the feeling of accomplishment after finishing a triathlon. The feeling was magnified knowing that I represented my school and was an integral part of a team.

Post-Race Party

At the awards ceremony, different schools dressed up in wacky costumes and danced while enjoying the festivities. We celebrated as if we had just won a national championship. The details may not be suitable to print, but let’s just say a good time was had by all.

From the pageantry surrounding the race to the beautiful Southern scenery to our Wal-Mart adventure, I enjoyed everything about Alabama.

That said, it sure was nice to come home.

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