I spent the weekend with a bunch of beautiful strangers. We were all members of Team Varlo. Varlo Sports is an apparel company that designs attractive and functional gear for triathletes. The company sponsors eight professional triathletes and has a large cadre of age group racers. I joined the 2022 team with both excitement and some trepidation.

I was excited because I’d never been a member of a formal triathlon team. Of course, I’ve got an awesome local triathlon club, but we organize and support ourselves. The Varlo team is organized and supported by a company. I was looking forward to the opportunity to train and meet like-minded athletes from around the country. The trepidation was rooted in all the newness I was preparing to experience. I’d never done any riding in the mountains, nor trained with professional athletes. I tend to be reserved when I’m in a group especially when I don’t know anyone. Being uncomfortable is the place to be, so I packed my shit and flew to Colorado with an open mind ready to push myself into all the newness.

Day 1 – Easy ride, easy run, and meet the team

We weren’t scheduled to meet for our first ride until noon, so I slept in and took my time eating and getting ready. Instead of packing and flying with Lucy, my triathlon bike, I opted to rent a road bike from Full Cycle Bikes in Boulder. They opened at 10, so I went over at about 9:50 am. As I was walking into the store, I saw a group of people wearing Varlo gear! I threw my hands up, and we yelled at each other and hugged like we were old friends. All of my trepidation and concern vanished. Everyone picked up their bikes and we headed back to our hotels to get ready for the afternoon ride.

During the briefing, Soj and the Varlo leadership team introduced themselves, and the three professionals that would lead the ride. The pros were Elizabeth Nyitray, Aaron Kolk, and Jon Fecik. Since the route was along a rural road, we were told to ride on the shoulder and keep the pack together. The pace would be easy enough to allow us to have conversations as we rode. The weather was beautiful with clear skies and light winds. I was curious to find out how being at 4000 ft of elevation would impact me so I let the majority of the group go and rode with the back of the pack.

After a beautiful hour on the bike, we put on our running shoes and did a short brick around a lake. My Achilles was still bothering me so I decided that I’d run until it began to hurt. I think I made it a half mile before I decided to walk. Ed noticed that I was missing from the group and came back to check on me. After telling him what was happening with my calf and Achilles he opted to run-walk with me. We chatted and had a great time taking some photos. Eventually, we made our way back to the parking lot and the larger group came in a little while later. We finished the day with a light buffet-style dinner.

Day 2 – Mountain Ride to Ward, CO

Today’s ride to Ward, CO began early. The town of Ward sits at 9000 feet and we were at 5000 feet. So, we were going to climb just short of 4000 vertical feet. The elevation profile is below.

Houston doesn’t have anything with this type of elevation, so I was facing a whole new athletic challenge. Typically, I am very sensitive to altitude. Going up a flight of stairs would make me feel out of breath for 10 minutes. I was very curious how my body would handle pedaling up a mountain for two hours.

We had our pre-ride briefing, checked our nutrition and hydration, and set off to climb, climb, climb. One of the challenges for me was how to dress. The temperature at the base was warm, however, we were told that cold rain is likely and can happen without much warning. Also, the temperatures at the top would be considerably cooler, so riding down at 30+ MPH would be cold especially if it had rained. I brought arm sleeves for the ascent and a packable windbreaker for the ride down.

The group stayed together for the first 3 miles so Soj and Jake could take photos. I chose to take it easy during this time and pay attention to how my body responded to the effort at altitude. Also, I was in no hurry, the landscape was beautiful and I didn’t need to be anywhere else.

Shortly after the three-mile stop, the majority of the group pulled away. I rode the remainder of the route with Ed and Ali. We laughed and talked and stopped when necessary. I was in heaven! Many groups of riders passed us on our way up and we continuously remarked how fortunate the locals are. Around 2 miles from Ward, Soj and Jake drove by so we stopped, refilled our bottles, and chatted for a little while. They warned that the big inclines were about a mile ahead before reaching the fountain landmark.

Shortly before we got to the fountain, we saw Soj and Jake parked on the side. Ali oped to get into the van and ride to the top. I came to ride all the way up and I wasn’t ready to stop. I didn’t care how difficult it was, I wanted to test myself. Ed decided to stay with me and ride to the top (not the true top, but pretty close).

Very soon after Ed and I began the ascent, we hit the steepest section! My legs burned, but I was very happy to be fighting for progress. I wanted nothing more than to feel everything at the moment. I knew that the top was close and relief would feel good and wanted to earn that feeling. Ed was struggling too and we were having a good time pushing each other.

When we made it many of the others were still there relaxing. I shouted with joy. Exclaiming that I felt like a superhero! I had just climbed my first mountain. My thighs were shaking with fatigue so I waited before we headed back down.

The ride down was super fast and scary! Once again, this was a new experience. Without pedaling, I was coasting 25+ MPH going down winding, windy roads. About halfway down, my whole being wanted to get off the bike and say fuck it! I’ll walk the rest of the way. I knew that was just fear talking, so I focused on the beauty of the mountain. The streams, snow-capped peaks, and wildflowers all served as useful points of focus. Eventually, my hands became numb because I was gripping the handlebars too tightly. Actually, my whole body had been tense and my lower back was also hurting. I tried to relax a little by focusing on my breathing but was simply overwhelmed. I resigned to hanging on until the end and it was worth every minute!

From the mountain, we went to lunch then a few of us snuck off for a quick swim before the panel discussion with the professional athletes. I was tired but decided that swimming next to professionals was an opportunity not to be missed. I tried to hang onto their feet as they did laps but couldn’t do it for very long. They were just too fast.

We hurried from the pool to change and join the rest of the group for some interviews and then a panel discussion with the three professionals. They described their journey from age group athlete to professional. Two of them are also coaching amateur athletes. One key message came from Aaron Kolk. He said one of the major differences that he sees between professionals and amateur triathletes is that amateurs think that a workout is all or none. Meaning, that if they are short on time, rather than execute the key part of a training session, they will skip it. On the other hand, a professional will use what time they have and complete at least the main set. They don’t skip workouts.

After dinner, we were done. Everyone had a lot of fun and the time passed so quickly. I enjoyed all of my time getting to know everyone and learning about what Varlo values. They are small with a big, big vision. I left feeling like I’d joined a new family. Fortunately, many of them will be at Ironman 70.3 Eagleman in a few weeks and we will meet again soon.