With her age-group triathlon national title in her spandex pocket, Kristine Banks-Smith took advantage of a rare opportunity to cut loose and do something with her friends.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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They decided on the Triple Bypass, the iconic Colorado bike race from Evergreen to Vail that, to mere mortals, is as scary as its name. Fun, right? Well, for Banks-Smith, yeah, it was, as the 37-year-old Denver woman spent a lot of lonely hours in the bike saddle preparing for the triathlon racing season.
“It was perfect,” she said. “Colorado is so beautiful up there.”
Banks-Smith is one of several Colorado athletes to win an age-group national title from USA Triathlon. The event, held Aug. 8-9, brought more than 6,000 amateur qualifiers to Milwaukee to race sprint and Olympic distances against the country’s best in their five-year age divisions. It’s taken place since 1983.
It’s a little misleading to say these are regular people with jobs. Most pro triathletes have jobs, too, because the sport doesn’t pay as well as, say, the NFL. But they are people you might see in a Colorado brewery, or playing with their kids in a park or spending late nights in the office. And Colorado has an outsize share of national champions.
“I think the hardest part is the mental side,” Banks-Smith said. “Most of us are that type of personality that we want to do well at whatever we do. We want to be high performers at work as well as triathlon. It’s all stress, even good stress, and that can affect your training.”
Qualifying for the age-group championships isn’t too difficult for committed athletes, as you can get in by finishing in the top 25% of select races. But the champions are just as committed as pros, even if they may not have the same blessed genetics.
Training is a second job for them.
“They are as focused and hardcore as anyone in the sport, elites included,” said Tim Yount, chief sport development officer. “If they have to get a workout in at 10 p.m. or 5 a.m., that’s what they do.”
The sport continues to grow. The sheer numbers of top age-groupers shows that, and the event is the most important of the year for many of them, Yount said, especially because sprint and Olympic distances don’t have as many showcase events as the Ironman competitions.
“If you’re a star,” he said, “you’re there.”
As proof, Yount said the 70-74 age group has never been deeper, and he expects the older age groups to continue to blossom.
“It used to be you just had to outlive the competition,” he said. “But if you ever meet someone who finishes on the podium, you should bow to them.”
What could have been
Some of the top amateurs aren’t pros simply because of bad luck. Banks-Smith, who is from Australia, ran at a national level in high school and never lost the love for going hard.
“There’s something sadistic in me that loves that red line,” she said and laughed. “That’s my favorite part about a race. Who is willing to hurt the most?”
But she had some injuries that could qualify her as an extra in a horror movie. Doctors cut her femur in half in 2016 after a bad knee injury revealed that doctors needed to reconstruct her leg to prevent another knee injury. A year later, doctors discovered a growth in her colon and cut her abdomen openin half.
She didn’t race for five years and now that she’s approaching 40, she doesn’t think she’d be a top pro, even though she has the points to be one. She admits she takes pride in her age-group titles — she won last year too — and doesn’t want to just be a mediocre pro. She likes her life as an accountant and enjoys training 15 hours a week with some coaching and sponsorships that get her discounts, including riding for Blue 70 Racing. She doesn’t have a lot of high-end equipment, preferring to spend her money on keeping her body together and performing well.
“I have a career that I love,” Banks-Smith said. “Because of the injuries, I didn’t get to perform my best until this later age. I feel blessed now. I have a lot of gratitude.”
Jim Fuller of Greeley, who owns an accounting business, went to the race twice when he was 64 and 65 and has competed in triathlons and running races for decades. He won his first national title this year at age 70 in the Olympic distance. He decided to go back to take advantage of entering a new age group and because his cousin and a training partner, Brenda Lynch of Greeley, was going this year. Fuller didn’t realize he’d won until a friend he’d gotten to know at other events told him.
“I heard the announcers say my name,” Fuller said of his finish, “but I was hurting.”
Every race is important, Fuller said, and Colorado has some of the best in the country.
Olympic-Distance National Championships from Colorado
1,500-meter swim, 40K bike, 10K run
Overall Male (and 25-29 age-group winner): Matthew Guenter of Boulder
F35-39: Kristine Banks-Smith of Denver
F55-59: Steph Popelar of Elizabeth
M70-74: Jim Fuller of Greeley
M75-79: Charley Perez of Englewood2022
Sprint National Championships from Colorado
*385-meter swim, 10.7K bike, 2.5K run — Course shortened due to rain
Overall Male (and 25-29): Guenter again
Overall Female (and 20-24): Shannon Feran of Grand Junction
Female Grandmasters (50+): Steph Popelar of Elizabeth
M85-89: Kenneth Fleischhacker of Littleton
He does more than a half-dozen every season and doesn’t put one above the other.
“You never know when you might not be racing,” he said, in reference to his age and the demands he places on his body.
Still, he admits winning a title made him feel good.
“You’re at the start, in the water, with 100 people, and more than 80 of them are really good,” he said. “When you realize you’re first out of all that, well, wow.”
A way of life
Even when you’re 75, as Charley Perez of Englewood is, there’s someone chasing you.
He won his second age-group title in the Olympic distance, for 75-79, by quite a bit this year. He was watching for a competitor who is a much better runner and purposely got off the bike with a 9-minute lead, hoping to hang on in the 10K that completes the race.
“I was doing math in my head,” Perez said. “But he cramped up. If he had been there, it would have been much closer.”
Perez’s success lends credibility to his coaching business, but he’d be racing even if he was retired after a lifetime of being active. He started coaching triathletes in 2001 and became certified by USAT three years later. He founded the Rocky Mountain Triathlon Club in 2003, and it grew from 25 members to more than 400 this year. He still writes training plans for the group once a week.
“I really don’t have an offseason,” Perez said. “Training has become a way of life.”
There are a few athletes such as Banks-Smith who qualify to be a pro but remain an amateur. Matt Guenter, 25 of Boulder, won both the Olympic and sprint races overall. He has not only pondered turning pro, but USAT officials would like to see him try. He’s happy to remain an amateur for now. He’s thrilled with his overall wins, something he targeted four years ago after going to the age-group nationals for the first time.
“I know I’m very far off to win anything in the pro ranks,” Guenter said. “There’s plenty of great competition in the amateur ranks. I don’t feel like I’m sandbagging it.”
Guenter works as an engineer, and that wouldn’t change, he said, even if he did go pro.
Lockheed-Martin, his employer, allows him a flexible schedule, sometimes letting him work late at night so he can train in the afternoon while there’s sunlight.
He has some athletic ability: He swam at Penn State University. That’s one reason he’s stayed in sprint and Olympic, as the swim matters less in the longer distances of an Ironman. But he did compete in a half-Ironman and won by 10 minutes this year.
“I was the worst on the team at Penn State, and I struggled mentally, being at the bottom of the pile,” he said. “I’m scared being at the back of the pack. I enjoy winning, to be honest.”
Guenter, in fact, enjoys knowing he has other things in his life. Those other things can be distracting, as Banks-Smith acknowledged, but they can also be beneficial.
“If a race goes wrong, that’s all a pro has, and so their mental health goes along with it,” he said. “That was an issue for me at Penn State. My entire identity is not tied to this sport.”
If he wins next year, he may decide he will get more satisfaction out of testing himself in the pro ranks, but that’s not assured.
He makes sacrifices to train, but he’s learned a little balance. He even thinks that balance may help him.
“I’ve had more social gatherings in the last month than I’ve had in the last two years combined,” he said. “I think that’s why I had such a good year this year. My friends will feel the same about me if I don’t win.”
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