With two and a half miles to go in his first triathlon, Thomas Fate collapsed. The last thing he remembers was watching a boat bob lazily on the pristine surface of Applegate Lake in southern Oregon.
Blacking out is a common occurrence in endurance sports, often referred to as “bonking” or “hitting the wall.” As glycogen levels slowly deplete during the course of a race, the body loses its ability to keep going. Many athletes will try to stave off the inevitable by loading up on carbohydrates before the race or keeping a snack with them to eat.
Because Fate was new to triathlons, he hadn’t done either, which is why he found himself lying on the ground on the final stage of the Granite Man race the summer before his freshman year of high school.
“It kind of came out of nowhere,” Fate said. “I knew something was coming, but I guess my body just shut off.”
Fate doesn’t remember how long he was out. He thinks the lapse was roughly a minute, calculated by the distance the boat had traveled along the shore. No one would have blamed him for dropping out at that point. But Fate had other ideas.
“I got up, kept running and finished,” Fate said.
He doesn’t remember what place he got, but for Fate, racing has never been about winning or losing. That moment in which he blacked out provided clarity on what he loves about sports: the concept of pushing yourself until you’re running on fumes, then pushing some more.
Growing up in Grants Pass, Fate loved to run and bike. This was despite his friends not being as interested in joining him. So he turned to a group informally known as the “Weekend Warriors,” a collection of older guys who went on rides together.
“I started inviting him out on our rides and he just melded into the group,” Tom Venzon, a family friend, said. “It was neat because even though we weren’t as fast as him, he’d ride with us and you never felt you were being left in the dust.”
The group also gave Fate his first nickname, “Skinny Ass” Thomas, because he was too small to ever draft behind on rides.
“He would get out in front and wouldn’t even break the wind,” Venzon said with a laugh.
Community is something Fate enjoys about competing. He had that back home and he also found it here in Eugene — joining the Oregon club triathlon team last year as a freshman.
“Thomas is a really fun-loving guy, laid back but knows how to work hard in practice,” said club president Forrest Kollar.
The club is young and talented this year and Fate has played a key role in integrating the new faces. He is active on the group’s Facebook page, inviting anyone to join him during training sessions.
Fate has come a long way since waking up on the ground that afternoon, improving as an athlete and learning the nuances of the sport.
“I’ve always just wanted to have fun with what I do and get better at it — to see myself excel,” Fate said. “I want to keep doing this for as long as I can.”
He has also learned to always have a protein bar on hand just in case.
Follow Christopher Keizur on Twitter @chriskeizur