CHALLENGE AC- For this entry I will add in what I was thinking throughout the race. Those thoughts will be in italics.
Jen and I flew out of Chicago on Friday morning headed for Trenton, New Jersey. It is always stressful to fly with my bike. Since having a wheel damaged in 2009 I have always been worried about packing the bike tightly into a case. I pre-paid the bike as a checked bag for $15.00 hoping they would ignore the $75.00 bike charge. This worked to my advantage on the way home but not on the way back. On the way home when asked what was in the case I responded by saying "carbon fiber materials" and they passed it through without the bike fee. I learned my lesson by saying "a bicycle" in Chicago where I was assessed the additional $75.00.
We arrived at our homestay, Tom and Cindy Flournoy's home on Friday evening after checking in for the race and picking up our packet. I met Tom and Cindy during my trip to Atlantic City last year when I was given a home stay while racing as a professional athlete. I never knew how much that home stay would impact me as Tom and I have become good friends and he invited me back again this year. Needless to say, without his invitation and tremendous hospitality I would not have returned to Atlantic City to race. His family and the entire stay was incredible to Jen and I. We were extremely spoiled. Tom would be racing the full ironman distance event as well.
Saturday was spent making sure the bike was running well, attending the pre-race meeting, and making all the logistical preparations such as packing transition bags, special-needs bags, and checking in the bike. At the pre-race meeting we were told that the race would be a time-trial start which meant athletes would enter the water 1 at a time after walking across a timing mat on the dock leading down to the backwaters of the Atlantic Ocean. I prefer to have mass starts so you know what place you are in relative to everyone else rather than trying to guess when someone else went into the water. I decided it would be more fun to start further back in line to have a few people to pass out on the bike and run portions of the long 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run that would greet us the next morning. About 8 weeks ago the race announced they would be cancelling the professional prize purse. I am racing as an amateur this year (a wife, 2 children, full-time job, high school coach, tee ball coach...I felt I had much more in common with amateurs than pros) so that had no bearing on my race but I was still a bit disappointed. I like seeing where I would stack up against a pro field. I like racing on the same course as the professionals and it adds a tremendous amount of competitiveness to the field. I was excited to hear that 3 professional athletes had made the decision to race despite the lack of a prize purse. I knew that would make a top 3 overall finish a big challenge. The evening before the race a TERRIBLE storm blew through Atlantic City. The storm brought wind gusts of 40+ mph and a ton of rain. It was actually quite remarkable the race even was held. The storm blew bikes off the racks, knocked over nearly ever porta-potty, and threw change tents and medical tents in all sorts of directions. The Challenge staff and volunteers worked tirelessly through the night to ensure that the race would happen. HUGE thanks to all those volunteers!!
Race Morning- Tom and I drove to Bader Field (home of the first US airport which is no longer an airport) at 5:00 AM. The 1/2 IM distance race was scheduled to begin around 6:00 with the full distance race starting at 7:00. I realized the rain had caused some mechanical problems with my bike brakes which I tried to fix. I made sure all my nutrition was attached to the bike and it was ready to go. My drive train had just been cleaned at Healthy Habits prior to leaving for the trip. It's amazing how much easier a bike is to pedal when the drive train is cleaned. I'd recommend having that done before big races. I then warmed up with a mile run and did some stretching before putting on my Xterra wetsuit and heading down to the dock for the swim start. Tom and I decided to enter the water together about 1/2 way into the group of athletes jumping into the bay. We started about 4 minutes behind the first people to enter. I knew this would give me a chance to pass more people throughout the race but also knew it meant the swim would be a bit more crowded.
SWIM: Upon jumping into the bay I wanted to start off smooth and relaxed. Long, smooth strokes. Make sure you site often with so many swimmers already in the water of mixed abilities. Relax, relax, relax. I made my way through lots of swimmers early and mostly avoided contact with them. The water was 75 degrees which made the swim wetsuit legal. I was hoping to swim 1 hr. 4 minutes or under. The swim was a 2 loop course. OUCH!!! What did I just run into?? I was stopped in my tracks about 10 minutes into the swim. I just ran into a freakin dock!! Idiot. Watch where you are going. You are lucky you didn't get hurt worse. My shoulder and head hit the dock hard and I was reminded of the importance of sighting. The dock stuck out into the water a bit and I swam right into it. Get back into a rhythm. Try to stay relaxed. Breath every 3 strokes. By 20 minutes into the swim it had really thinned out. I was waiting for someone to come around me so I could try to get on their feet and swim as a group but that opportunity never came. At the far end of the first loop we made a left hand turn and it was immediately noticeable that we were swimming into a current. It was challenging to make progress to the next buoy. I increased the effort to get around that one and the current subsided. As I swam past where we began to start the 2nd loop I glanced at my watch. 30:40. That's on pace for a 1:01:20 if I can hold this. That would be a great start to the day. Keep the rhythm. Even if you drop off pace a minute or 2 you will still be under goal time. Throughout the 2nd loop I continued to swim solo and occasionally passed a swimmer here or there. It was a very lonely swim but went by rather quickly. The 2nd half is why you swam 20 of the last 25 days. This is why you do all your swimming open water without stopping. This is why you swam 80 minutes straight out at Lake G. You can swim a strong 2nd half. Hold form. As I began to close out the 2nd loop I could see the exit dock ahead. I tried to increase my kick a little to get more blood to my legs and I arrived at the dock where 2 volunteers greeted me and helped pull me out of the water. I ran up the dock and across the timing mat to hit the split on my Garmin. My swim time was 1:04:19 which was the 6th fastest of the race. For me the ranking was more important than the time. Ranking 6th means the swim was very good for me. I typically do not rank that high in a swim with over 150 athletes and a few of them professional athletes. Shoot! I didn't hold pace as well on the 2nd lap as I would have liked. All in all, not a bad swim being right near my goal time of under 1 hr. 4 minutes. Get through transition quick!
BIKE: I grabbed my bike gear bag which had only my helmet, socks, and sunglasses in it along with a few GU's and an energy bar that I would stash in the pockets of my Kiwami Rio Long Distance suit. I like this suit because of the pockets and compression. It makes carrying nutrition in a long race very simple. I saw Eric Schrading in the change tent. Eric is a friend of Tom's and an exceptional triathlete himself. We exchanged hellos and I was out of the change tent quickly. It was too quickly as it turned out. I forgot to put on my socks for the bike. I quickly found my bike and headed out onto the bike course. My goal for the bike was to ride inside my goal wattage of 225-230. I would hit the lap button on my Garmin every 7 miles to restart the average wattage which is what I was paying attention to. I split every 7 mile average watts for a couple reasons. The first is that 7 goes into 112 an even number of 16 times. The 2nd is that 7 miles splits are small enough that a surge in effort will be reflected in my average power. If I didn't split as often I may have higher efforts without being able to gauge that due to the larger sample size in distance. Stay relaxed. Start easy and let the legs get warmed up. Stay on the low end of the power goal for the first seven mile split. The bike course is very flat. The entire course has only 1,500 feet of climbing. To put this in perspective when I ride 30 miles around my house I get that many feet of climbing. It is a course that is ideal for staying in the aero position for a LONG time without many turns or steep hills. We began the ride mostly into headwinds for the first half. I stayed right on my power target through the early stages. I passed a few riders and asked if they had any idea how many were in front of us. I was hearing about 10. I knew Jen and Tom's son Will would be at mile 17 and I hoped to get an update from them. I went through 7 miles at 228 watts. The next 7 was 226. I hit mile 17 and saw Jen and Will. They were yelling something to me but with the wind in my face all I heard were muffled screams. Dang it! What place am I in? How far to the next rider? It was a lonely ride. What is that noise? My back wheel is rubbing on my brake pad. I thought I had that fixed in transition! I can't ride 112 miles with my brakes rubbing on my wheel. I have to stop. I stopped and got off my bike and tried to open up my brake pads more. They seemed to be all the way open and I was going to have to deal with the rear wheel rubbing. Frustrating!! Why didn't I bring the tool with me to open them up more. Why didn't I make that adjustment this morning? I pressed on and hit splits 3, 4, 5, and 6 at 229, 227, 230, and 229 watts respectively. I had one high calorie drink bottle between my aero bars that was nearing the end. I had GU Chomps and GU Roctane Electrolyte Capsules in my fuel cell.
Once we hit mile 45 we took a turn and had the wind at our backs finally. My speeds greatly increased from a 22 mph average and it began to climb up near 23 mph average. My wattage held firm as I went through 7 mile split numbers 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 at 227, 229, 229, 232, and 227 respectively. My lower back was beginning to tighten up a lot. I was having to get out of the aero position more and more often. I knew Jen and Will would be at mile 80 to give me an update and since it had been nearly 2.5 hours with only passing 3 riders on the course I was hoping I would get good news. I figured I had to be near the front riding this consistently. Where is everyone? This is getting very lonely. Keep focusing on a smooth effort. You've trained a lot of miles in this wattage. Last year you only averaged 218 watts on this course and rode a 4:52. This year you can average 10 watts higher and ride faster. Set yourself up to run well. The toughest part into the wind is behind you. You'll get a tail wind on the ride back into town.
RUN: I entered the change tent and was thankful to remove my bike shoes in exchange for running flats. The outside of my left foot was not feeling very good. I sat on the ground in the change tent and attempted to stretch out my lower back and my left hop, both problematic areas on my body in this moment. The amazing volunteers kept asking what I needed and I had them bring me about 8 glasses of water. I used the facilities in transition and headed out not knowing what to expect. The first mile was an out and back down the runway at the Bader Field airport before making way towards the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk. Beginning the run I tried desperately to get into a rhythm. Smooth strides. Things will loosen up. Don't check your pace yet. You don't want to know what it is. Just get into a smooth rhythm and let the body come back to life. After exiting Bader and heading towards the boardwalk I glanced down to see my average pace was 7:02. Not bad. I'd be thrilled to hold that and this is starting to feel like running. My body is starting to feel normal again. Foot pain is gone and hip and back feel good. This can be a good run. Keep breathing very relaxed. Long way to go.
I entered the boardwalk and knew exactly what to expect having done this race a year ago. The temperature feels very warm with almost no shade at all on the boardwalk. I started to feel really good and saw my average pace per mile was dropping lower and lower. When it got to 6:40/mile I told myself to level it out. No need to go faster. You want this to feel relaxed for as long as possible. If you run 6:40 pace you will gain on the leaders. You'll get a time check at the first turnaround about 3 miles into the run. Before I arrived at the first turn I spotted the leaders coming back. I knew to look at my watch to see how far behind them I was. There's the leader. Petr V. He is good. I can't believe I'm this close to him. He was top 7 last year in the pro race. I thought this would be an easy win for him. He doesn't look that good. If I keep running like this I can catch him. When I made the first turnaround on the boardwalk I did the math and found I was only down by 7 minutes to the leader and 3 minutes to 2nd place. 3rd had dropped out so I was in 3rd. I started 3-4 minutes back so I'm really only behind by probably 3-4 minutes. That is nothing in the marathon! I can do this! I feel awesome. Keep this rhythm going. The run is multiple loops on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I LOVE this run course. It is extremely crowded with beach goers, shoppers, and tourists. They don't close the boardwalk down for the race so you find yourself navigating through the masses. It brings an energy and atmosphere to the run course unlike any Ironman distance race I have ever done. I started to pass by spectators and tourists out walking on the boardwalk and I would say, "What a nice day to be at the beach!" I was trying anything to keep my mind relaxed and from thinking about the race itself. I wanted this to feel like any other long run. The reality was that the sun was beating down extremely hard on us. Without any shade it felt SUPER hot when the sun was not hidden by clouds. When it did duck behind any cloud cover the effort felt much easier and I prayed it would stay behind the clouds. It did not for very long. My pace stayed at 6:40 through mile 8 and then it slowly began to come up. For a couple miles it was 6:42...then 6:44. By mile 10 I had trimmed the lead down to under 2 minutes which meant I was actually winning the race if I was correct in thinking I started 3-4 minutes behind the race leader Peter V from Czech Republic. I had passed the runner in 2nd, pro triathlete Matt Shanks who beat me at this race a year ago.
The first time I saw Jen and Will was at mile 11. I said, "I thought you guys got lost, I'm almost half way done." Jen asked me how I was feeling and I replied "Awesome!" At every aid station I was asking for 2 cups of water and 1 cup of ice. I was dumping the ice into my jersey in an effort to keep my core temp down and was drinking one cup and pouring the other on my head. When my temperature lowered the pace was easier. As time would drag on before the next aid station I could feel my body heating up again. Where is the next aid station? I'm roasting out here. I need to cool down. Keep this rhythm. You are going to win this thing! Dream Big! All day! You can run this pace all day! I was trying to will myself to hold pace and feel relaxed but the reality was I was getting really hot and the effort was becoming difficult by 13.1 miles...still with 13.1 to go. As I approached the 1/2 way point I was really looking forward to getting my special needs bag. I had 4 GU's in there that I wanted along with 20 ounces of Coke. When I passed this point I asked for special needs and they gave me blank looks and said they didn't know where it was. Damn it! I need that bag! Where the hell is it? My body is starting to become a wreck quickly. I had the lead down to about 20 seconds and felt like I could almost reach out and touch the leader Petr V. but I was beginning to suffer. At mile 15 I could no longer see him. For the first time the lead was going back out. We passed by the finish line and I thought for sure the special needs bag would be there. More blank stares. No one knew. I was beginning to run 9:00 pace and felt like the race was falling apart. Why is this happening to me now? I knew the lack of long runs over the past six weeks would haunt me. My body is failing and this is going to be a long and disappointing last 10 miles. I need to get to an aid station and try to load up on calories to see if my body responds to anything. Any moment now I'm going to get passed back by 2nd place. At mile 17 I stopped and was not happy. I asked them where special needs was and they had no clue. I ate pretzels, drank 3 cups of coke, ate oranges, took in Gatorade, and water. I was feeling sorry for myself and the pity party had begun.
At the mile 18 turnaround the lead had grown back to over 4 minutes. I thought my day was done. I figured I had 8 miles to suffer through and hoped to hang on for top 3. I was calling out to them for special needs with no hope in sight. It's here!!! Special needs! Thank God! Get it quick please. I'm suffering. I need this. I grabbed my 4 GU's and guzzled about 15 ounces of coke before heading out hoping my body would come back to life. Within a half mile I started to feel a bit better. When I get done with this race and call home I'll talk to the kids and the first thing Owen is going to ask me is if I won. I'm going to have to tell him I got 3rd. No! Get going. This is far from over. You still have 7 miles. That's a Bix @ 6 training run. You can do this. You don't feel that bad. Come on!
As quickly as things had gone down hill they started to get better. I was starting to feel back into a rhythm. My average pace had gone all the way up to 7:15 through the dark miles but now I was holding that pace. 6 miles. You are up Brady hill and onto Kirkwood. The real race starts at mile 20. Don't give up! You are running now. Nothing hurts. You are back in this thing. Get to the next turn and find out what the damage is. 5 miles...that's Monday's training run. 35 minutes and you'll be done. Hang in there. You can do this. 4 miles...Moonlight Chase...that's less than 30 minutes. I feel awesome. I'm going to tell Owen I won this race. You have to be gaining again. You have a 3-4 minute cushion by starting later. We made our 2nd to last turn at about mile 23. I didn't get a time check but could tell I was gaining.
I pushed on hard toward the final turn. We crossed by the finish line with just over 2.5 miles to go. We would be making our final turn with just over 1 mile to go. It would be the last time I would get a time check. I was navigating through the crowds like a man possessed. I was not in any pain. I was running as fast as I could and my average pace was coming down. 7:14...7:13. There's the turn. He's right there! I'm going to win this! He's only 30 seconds ahead with 1.25 miles to go. This means I'm probably winning by 3 minutes if he started near the front of the swim. Come on! Finish this thing! I could see Petr V. looking back constantly. He knew I was close. He was picking up his pace and instead of running on the left side of the course where I could see him he moved far to the right and was mixed in with the large crowd of people walking on the board walk. He's running scared now! Push on! You can match this pace. You've got this. 1 mile to go. Hit the split! See what you can run this mile in. 4 laps on the track. Drive the knees! Go! No pain! As we approached the finish line I had closed the gap to about 15 seconds. I could not quite catch him to cross the line first but it didn't matter. I knew that I had won because I started the race 3-4 minutes behind him. I was thrilled as I crossed the line. Jen hugged me in celebration and I said I had to be the winner. She ran to the timing station and printed his ticket and mine and YES..I had won by 3.5 minutes!!! I was thrilled. The local newspaper came over to interview me thinking I was 2nd but then when I explained that he started ahead and showed them the times they realized I was the winner. I was near tears thinking about how I had almost lost the race between miles 15 and 18 but then got it back together. It's pretty rare in endurance racing to see someone start drifting back late in a race only to regain good form and come back to win. NEVER GIVE UP!! My run time was the fastest of all the individual racers with 3 hrs. 8 minutes, 19 seconds. It wasn't the sub-3 I was hoping for but in the difficult conditions of sun and heat I'll take it! My overall time was 9:14:28. 2nd place Petr Vabrousek was 9:17:50. 3rd place Matthew Shanks was 9:22:55.
I was thrilled to watch finishers come in for a few hours. It never gets old watching others finish an Ironman distance race! It is so cool to see the emotion and in a Challenge race to see them with family members crossing the finish line. CONGRATS to all the finishers of Challenge AC!! What an achievement!! Complete results with splits can be found by clicking here. My friend Tom Flournoy experienced a ton of cramping on the run but rather than call it quits he walked as fast as he could the final miles and still won his age group! Eric Shrading was 6th individual in 10 hrs. 13 minutes winning the 45-49 age group! Amazing! I can only hope to be in that kind of shape in 15 years. One last congrats goes to an athlete I'm coaching this year, Jason Rangel. Jason is from Illinois and raced is first Ironman on Sunday in Idaho. He had to deal with high temps well over 100 degrees and finished his first race in outstanding fashion posting a time of 11 hrs. 19 minutes!! I'm so proud of him for the hard work he put in over the past 30 weeks. Jen was yelling updates on his race to me as I was racing and it was inspiring!
When Tom, Eric, and I went to pick up our bikes later in the evening I saw Peter Vabrousek. I congratulated him on a great race and he was not happy. He told me he had no idea the race was on chip timing and he thought he won. He said had he known that it was a chip timed race he would have gone 10 minutes faster. I was quite surprised by his reaction. 99% of the pro triathletes I have met are extremely humble and great sports. I wondered how he could not realize the times were based on the chip when we were told at the pre-race meeting and we had to walk over a timing mat to start our time before we got into the water. He said he had taken the entire bike ride easy and ran easy until the final turn when he realized I was so close to him. After that final turn I still cut his lead in 1/2 over the final mile...Then on Monday at the awards he spent at least 10 minutes talking with the race director and when they announced the results they took him out completely so he wouldn't stand on the podium as 2nd place. I can't be certain but my guess is that he asked not to be called up for 2nd.
Local Atlantic City media links with stories from the event can be read by clicking the Press of Atlantic City or in the Shore News Today. At home the event was publicized by QC Online.
Although there are certainly some things that Challenge can improve on for future races, I loved my experience. I feel like had it not been for the staff at Challenge the storm would have caused this race to get cancelled. I love the atmosphere of the run and I think the only thing keeping this race from being one of the top Ironman distance events in the US is increasing the # of registrations in the full event. They had over 800 in the 1/2 but less than 250 in the full. It would be great to see Challenge bring back the pro race to this event. That adds a lot of excitement. I have to give HUGE thanks to my wife Jen for coming to the race with me. I'll remember this weekend forever. I also owe a GREAT deal of thanks to Tom and Cindy Flournoy for hosting us . Our stay was TREMENDOUS! I have to thank some of my race sponsors who make all this possible...Healthy Habits, Kaminski Pain and Performance Care, Xterra Wetsuits, Zipp, and definitely GU Energy Labs. The GU's and the Roctane Electrolyte tablets were a lifesaver! Lastly to the 19 businesses and countless individuals that have supported my racing by contributing to the iHope Foundation!! This foundation and this mission to provide iPads and scholarships is why I am motivated to train and race. I cannot thank you enough. It's surreal for me to think a kid without much for athletic genetics who one time weighed over 200 lbs could win an Ironman distance event. Now I've done it twice. It's a great reminder to never give up...to set BIG dreams for yourself...to always believe those are possible. Nothing is impossible when you DREAM BIG!!