Nick Sterghos - vegetarian champ

In just his fourth ever triathlon, Nicholas Sterghos was the third highest United States Military Academy scorer in the 2007 Collegiate Nationals, finishing 33rd overall in 2:02:12 with a 36:27 run helping West Point to a third place finish among the men’s teams. Although he flatted at Collegiate Nationals in 2008, Sterghos came through big time this year as second cadet, finished 8th overall, with a 35:10 run and a 2:06:08 finish just five minutes off the winning time and helping his squad to another third place finish. But that was just the warm-up. One week later, Sterghos covered the United States Military Academy in glory, taking first overall at the USA Triathlon short course Duathlon Age Group National Championship in Richmond, Virginia. On Sunday April 26, Sterghos set personal bests of 32:24 in the opening 10k run and 15:16 in the closing 5k run to finish in 1:49:02, win the 20-24 men’s division and take a 1 minute 20 second margin of victory for the overall.

Sterghos is a senior at West Point and will be stationed next year at Fort Hood Texas assigned to the air defense branch with fellow cadet Nicholas Vandam to begin his five years military service. Sterghos has military in his blood – his father and grandfather both attended the Citadel, a proud southern military college. His grandfather served in the Army and his father spent 24 years in the Navy Reserve. The Sterghos family is from Cornelia, Georgia, in the northeast part of the state. He was an all-state cross country and track runner and former swimmer, an Eagle Scout and had a 4.0 GPA in high school before enrolling at West Point.

While thriving at West Point and its 24/7 devotion to team effort, Sterghos is noted for his devotion to a vegetarian diet – not an easy row to hoe at the military academy – and addiction to as many extra miles of biking and running as he can cram into a West Pointer’s long day of classes, military training, sports training and ravenous eating.

Slowtwitch: What does this championship mean to you? Where does it fit in your athletic career?

Nicholas: It means a lot. I never had a nation national championship title. It’s like another stepping stone to my future athletic aspirations. Hopefully one day I want to be a pro triathlete. Of course this was a run-bike-run. Throw in the swim and it’s another confidence builder for my sports career. My goal is to eventually get into the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.

ST: You had the best balanced run-bike-run in the field, but the second place man Eneas Freyre of Connecticut in the 30-34 age group, had a race-worst 2:56 T1! Then he had a race-best 56:08 bike! Were you even aware of this with so many waves competing simultaneously?

Nicholas: I wasn’t aware of anyone outside my wave, which included 18-19, 20-24 and 25-29. Unfortunately for him, he must have had something go wrong to have a 2:56 transition. But the way I see it, triathlon is not just swim-bike-run. It also includes transitions and I have worked on mine. In my wave, I was not the first to finish the 10k run. But I passed guys in transition that ran ahead of me. I work on my transitions because every second counts. So I didn’t know how others beside my wave were going. I was a little surprised to find out I won. The guys 30 and over are pretty sharp in endurance.

ST: You had a good 8th place finish at Lubbock. Was it hard to race back to back weekends? Or did that first race serve as a good warm-up for

Nicholas: After Lubbock, I saw it more as a warm-up. Even my coach Tony DeBoom told me that going into Richmond having done USAT Triathlon Collegiate Nationals would be a good warm-up. Racing at Lubbock kind of helped me get a nice pace and feel for what it felt to go fast. Happily, I wasn't sore and was able to translate the pace next weekend.

ST: Was Richmond as easy on you as Lubbock?

Nicholas: I discovered that Duathlon is a whole different sport. I am still recovering from those two runs and a bike. They exacted a big toll on my body. It took me until Wednesday to get over muscle breakdown.

ST: Take me through your race. Were there moments when you felt tired or hurting or did it all go smoothly?

Nicholas: My plan from the beginning was to run a nice smooth solid race throughout. When the gun went off, I made sure not to go out sprinting like a bat out of hell with all the people out front. In my wave, I ran in the middle of the pack going into the two mile mark, and then picked it up a little. I just kept attacking the next person in front of me. By the end of the first run I was 3rd or 4th in my wave. I made sure to stay smooth the whole run, and kept my breathing smooth knowing I had another run to go and making sure that I didn't kill myself before the duathlon was finished. Coming into T1, I got ready mentally to grab my bike and get out fast and ride away.

ST: How did the bike start for you?

Nicholas: When I got out on the bike course, I thought it was pretty tough. But I’m a guy who likes rolling hills – I only had to touch my brake a few times on 90 degree turns. So I rode smooth through all the turns and going up and down all the hills I was able to keep momentum.

ST: Was anything different to go faster than Lubbock?

Nicholas: This was my third race on my new Serotta titanium triathlon bike. It was really great to finally get the hang of it. I had raced one short race before Lubbock and although I had a good race at Collegiate Nationals, I still did not feel used to the bike. But by Richmond, I felt comfortable in the aero position and it felt smooth changing gears. Still, after the race, I had a sort of a muscle spasm from relying more on the aero position. Even three days later, my back was a little sore.

ST: Did this win take some of the hurt away from finishing third at Collegiate Nationals as a team?

Nicholas: After we finished third at Collegiate Nationals it felt unexpected. Even last year we went into Collegiate Nationals in Tuscaloosa thinking ‘OK we have done the work. We ought to clinch the national collegiate title. Even more so this year, we felt we were going to win. When we got third, it was not so bad. But sometimes when you set really high goals and want to be number one, you feel that even second place is the first loser.
I do not think my race took the sting away from disappointment of Lubbock. My teammates congratulated me on the win. And fellow West Point Triathlon team member Randy Wintermantel won the national championship in the women’s 20-24 age group. And we also had three freshmen freshman who raced and continued to improve and did great. All this was nice, but I do not think it takes away how we felt about Lubbock.

ST: Looking back, could you have done better at Lubbock?

Nicholas: It’s hard to say. After the race, if you don’t meet yer goals – my goal was to finish in the top -- I thought about what I might have done. Did I really have a good race? When I look at the results maybe I could have done better. At the same time, it’s easy to look back and find fault. Maybe my bike could have been faster. I’m not sure, though. My heart rate was low and I went into the bike pretty fresh and ready to go. Unfortunately before the race I contemplated putting on longer tights to cover my calves on the bike because the water was very cold. I got a cramp the first seven miles and my legs did not warm up until halfway through the bike. Then I got over the cramps and started rolling on the bike. Maybe I could have run faster in Collegiate Nationals if conditions were better. But I was hurting the whole way.

ST: How much does it help you to not do the swim?

Nicholas: It was definitely much easier for me on the bike this past week I felt like the sun warmed my legs … I wouldn’t say my swim is the weakest part, but it is weaker than I’d like it to be. Overall, I feel I have a strong swim, but not one of the top. Generally if conditions are good and the course is measured correctly, I expect to come out a few minutes down from the great swimmers in 19:45 to 20:00. That puts me little behind. But the top swimmers are usually not as good runners, so it comes down to the bike.

ST: Do you plan to go to Triathlon Worlds or Duathlon Worlds?

Nicholas: I qualified for the ITU triathlon world championships. Unfortunately, I have an officer’s basic course for my Army service right during triathlon worlds. I could do the duathlon worlds the following week and cram it in the five says between the first and second rounds of Army training. I could do it but it would be a question of whether I can travel so much and rush to get to the next airport. Duathlon Worlds is held in North Carolina, so logistics aren’t impossible.

ST: Were your 32:25 10k and 15:16 5k runs at Richmond personal bests?

Nicholas: Yes, but I am not sure they were the right distances. I’m thinking they are a little short. I have no doubt that one day I can do those times, but without exact knowledge and correct measurements, you can’t be sure I did it last weekend. They had to change the course a little bit because they had problems with trains going through the run course.
My best 10k on a course I trust had the correct distance was a 35 flat coming off the bike at Worlds last year in Vancouver. I have never raced a straight up 10k road race. I might do one this summer at Peachtree in Atlanta near my home town. I have a good seeding time in the first wave after the pros.

ST: Why did you have such a great day in Richmond?

Nicholas: Richmond did have great competition. I didn’t expect to win. But I had confidence to think I could win if I went out hard, and pushed hard all the way. I also think that race temperatures were really high and they might have got to a lot of people on the race course. Also, before the race, I think some people felt 'Oooh, it’s hot!’ and psyched themselves out before the race. I come from Georgia and I’m used to the heat and humidity. I am not acclimated to it at the moment. But I have had experience traveling from New York to hot races and dealing with changes in climate. The biggest thing is to be confident and not let small things like heat affect your mentality going into the race.

ST: Do you realize you are National Champion?

Nicholas: I know I am. But I haven’t really walked out of my room and jumped into air and yelled. I am just looking at my future aspirations. I know I did great but I won't let myself get too overzealous over one race. I have a future races to focus on and this will be a stepping stone for me and now it’s time to go on and prepare for the future.

ST: You are well known at West Point for being a vegetarian and for the always putting in some extra miles in your training. Did those two things help you?

Nicholas: To my way of thinking, I’m not just a vegetarian. I’m really a vegan in practice. I do not consume dairy or meat at all and I only eat fish once every two months. I avoid all animal products. I might be an outlier to people who eat other ways. I guess I do not see a lot of people at high levels in sport eat my way, although I know there are some. But I think what I do is the right way to eat. I study all the ingredients and I know I can get all adequate nutrition. I think it gives me a big advantage.

ST: When did you start to practice vegetarianism?

Nicholas: It started before triathlon. Joel Thurman was a freshman and a friend of mine on the cross country team who believed in this philosophy. He was on a kind of a vegan diet. He told me there have been many studies comparing people who eat strictly vegetables to those who don’t. The studies found that people who avoid dairy and meat products live longer, don't have as much disease and are not as sick. He taught me some of the ways to get the nutrition you need on a vegetarian diet, and I started getting into it.

ST: What effect did it have on you?

Nicholas: I think that is one aspect of being a triathlete, to get the best performance. I stay on this diet because I think I feel better each day. And basically I think it’s one of those little things that has a big positive effect.

ST: Some people suggest that a vegetarian diet is lacking some essential nutrients.

Nicholas: A lot of people don't know how to diet the right way. They think that people eating a lot of vegetables and fruits and not eating meat or dairy leaves aren't getting enough protein. Vegetables actually have more protein per calorie than meat does. You just have to eat more of it. And you have to eat the right kinds of vegetables -- usually dark green vegetables. I eat a lot of nuts. A lot of beans. Yeah a lot of soy products and tofu.

ST: The West point mess hall doesn’t have a complete vegetarian selection by any means. Many of your fellow triathlon team members rely on peanut butter. How do you stay on the vegetarian path?

Nicholas: Every three weeks I go to the grocery store. I eat a lot of salad and I’ll buy frozen vegetables and stock up on beans. I usually go out and buy almond butter – it‘s better than peanut butter. It’s worth the cost. At mess hall, Monday through Wednesday they have buffet-style dinners that are optional and I fill up extra greens in Ziploc bags and take it to my room.

ST: Your coach kids you that you like to overtrain and holds you back at times.

Nicholas: I guess that I actually do a little bit more than the workouts given by Coach Tony DeBoom. I know that can be dangerous to walk a thin line. So I try to do it very carefully. I think it has been a benefit to me because I have a bigger base, a bigger aerobic engine. I tried to do it last year a bit more and I got injured. This year I listen more to Tony and I do almost 100 percent what he says. But at times I feel like I have to go the extra mile,. But this year I make sure not to overdo it or go into intense overtraining. I think I overtrain smartly.

ST: You ever crave certain foods?

Nicholas: I have been on this diet for almost two years and I have never had cravings for meat. Even when I see other people eating meat, it seems almost gross and disgusting to me. I have had cravings for pizza, but over the past year I have not really had a many cravings. I think it’s been because I eat the right way. I get all the essential things I need and therefore I do not get craving signals. Hey I am, not 100 percent sure. I haven’t had blood tests to see if I am really getting enough nutrition. But so far we just started, I feel good when I do workouts. It’s just a matter that when I need to go to the next level, maybe I might need to moderate my diet. And maybe down the road I will modify my diet when I get to more intense training.

ST: Have you been given any ticker tape parades?

Nicholas: The big thing now is graduation. My championship is not a big deal. They did send a letter to the whole school with highlights of all the top performances by West Point athletes this spring. So I’ve gotten a lot of congratulations from different officers and NCOs and coaches and classmates. There have been other very good performances I look up to. A good friend of mine John Anderson went sub 14 at the 5k at the Penn Relays. I used to be a runner and that is amazing in itself.