Ben Eicholtz was 11 when he completed his first triathlon.
The Dalton native kept competing in the endurance events — which involve swimming, cycling and running — and 29 years later he has become a skilled triathlete who’s good enough to represent his country in international competition.
Eicholtz was a member of the U.S. Triathlon Team that competed at the 2013 International Triathlon Union (ITU) Long Distance Triathlon World Championships on June 1 in Belfort, France.
Eicholtz, 40, who graduated from Dalton High School in 1991, lives in Aliso Viejo, Calif., and works as a pharmaceutical sales representative for Novo Nordisk. In high school, he was a member of the Catamounts’ cross country, swimming and diving, and track and field teams. He attended the University of Georgia and represented that school in the 1995 USA Triathlon National Championships.
But the trip to world championships was a first for Eicholtz, who placed 75th out of 102 competitors in his 40-44 age group.
“It was definitely something on my list of goals and things to do,” he said. “It was a tremendous experience. To represent the United States — I’m never going to be in the Olympics or anything close to that, but to have the USA on my jersey and wear the red, white and blue was a great experience.”
Eicholtz has participated in numerous USA Triathlon National Championships, reaching the top 15 in five of them, but it wasn’t until last year that he competed with the intention of moving on to the next level. He qualified for this year’s world championships with a 15th-place finish in his division at last year’s Red Man Triathlon in Oklahoma City, which served as one of the USA Triathlon National Championships for 2012.
A top-20 finish was needed to qualify for the world championships. Eicholtz’s time of 5 hours, 20 minutes, 56.16 seconds in his race — which consisted of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run — would have been good enough for 11th, but he was penalized for drafting.
“A triathlon is supposed to be an individual effort,” Eicholtz said. “When you ride behind someone, it saves a bunch of energy. That’s prohibited in triathlon. It was a bogus penalty. I came into someone’s draft zone and got out of it. They are sticklers about this. I was in there for 2 seconds too long. They give you 15 seconds to get out.”
While glad to have the opportunity to compete in France, he wasn’t as successful as he might have been at the world championships after being dealt an unexpected change of plans. Originally, the race included a 4-kilometer (2.4-mile) swim, 120K (74.5-mile) bicycle ride and 30K (18.6-mile) run. However, the weather was too cold to allow swimming, Eicholtz’s strongest activity.
“I’m out here in California doing swims in the low 50s and it was a bummer to me,” he said. “Swimming is my strongest sport. It was a bummer in that regard that I didn’t get to start the race with my strongest event.”
Organizers converted the race from a triathlon to a duathlon in which participants ran 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), biked 90 kilometers (55.9 miles) and ran 20 kilometers (12.4 miles). In addition to taking away Eicholtz’s strongest phase of swimming, the race revision shortened the bike ride — his second-strongest phase — significantly.
“So it really became a runner’s race,” Eicholtz said. “I do triathlons because I like it when I can get out to a strong start in the swim, maintain or even strengthen it in the bike and then hang on in the run.
“Running when fatigued is different from running when you’re not tired. I actually run better when I’m fatigued. That’s what I train for. Most of my runs I do after cycling. With longer distance triathlons, it’s more about not getting fatigued five, six or seven hours into the event rather than running with speed. For the run to be right at the beginning, it made it especially difficult for me. Everyone ran the same race, but at that point it definitely became ‘advantage, runners.’”
He finished in five hours, 57 minutes and 33 seconds.
Eicholtz said the U.S. team didn’t do well, although he didn’t know its exact finish and the event’s website, triathlon.org, doesn’t list team finishes. Eicholtz was unacquainted with most of his teammates, because although they’re classified as a team, they don’t train together. Instead, they are a team in the sense that represent the same country at the event.
While there were challenges, Eicholtz wasn’t upset with his finish considering the level of competition.
“This was a world championship event,” Eicholtz said. “Usually when I race local Southern California events, I’ll be top five in my age group. It’s eye-opening how fast everyone was in this race.”
Eicholtz said he isn’t sure if he’ll try to return for another world championships. However, some of his children might.
His three kids — Samantha, 10, Shane, 7, and Wyatt, 6 — all play soccer, while the oldest also likes basketball. But they also take part in sports that lay the foundation for triathlon.
“They have all done running and cycling races and are good swimmers,” Eicholtz said.
If she wants to match her father, Samantha has just one more year to complete her first triathlon.
“That’s right,” Eicholtz said. “Well, I’m definitely not going to hold her to anything I’ve done. She would prefer to probably play basketball at this point, but she did do a 5K on Memorial Day, so that’s a good sign. She’s pretty fast.”