After realizing I was pretty fit in week 12 I made a late decision to drive to Knoxville, TN to race a 1/2 Ironman distance event called Challenge Knoxville. I've been a big fan of Challenge events in the US and had a sudden urge to test my fitness. I signed up for the race on Tuesday and trained pretty normal until Thursday when I backed off the workouts to rest up for a couple days.
Friday after school I made the LONG drive to Knoxville. I planned to stop a couple hours away and rest for the night but I was wide awake and ended up driving all the way to Knoxville and arriving at 1:00 AM Saturday morning. My head hit the pillow and I was out with a big day ahead. When I woke up I ate a big breakfast at the Clarion Inn and then drove down to packet pickup and get myself checked in for the race. I ran 2 miles and then went down to the river for the practice swim and got in the water to swim for about 15 minutes. I then checked out the city and visited the statue of Pat Summitt, legendary women's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. I got my bike checked into transition and drove the bike course. I knew from looking at the elevation profile this was not going to be a race with blazing fast times. The bike course was over 4,000 feet of climbing for 56 miles which would be the hilliest 1/2 Ironman distance event I've ever done. To compare, in Atlantic City next month the total feet of climbing is only about 1,000 feet for 112 miles. I wasn't nervous about the climbing but was extremely nervous about going down the hills. There are a lot of technical down hills on this course with lots of turns down fast descents. I am not very good at technical riding while going down hill and my goal was to keep my bike upright. With the chance of rain on the horizon I was even more nervous.
On race day I was up at 4:15 and made myself Kodiak Cake waffles with the waffle maker I brought from home. It was a great way to load up the tank before racing. I drove down to transition and it as sprinkling lightly. I was hoping that was the worst we were going to get since it said only about a 20% chance of rain during the race. I warmed up with a 10 minute run and made all the last minute preparations to my bike. I opted to go with no water bottles. I would have the Specialized Shiv bladder filled with 20 ounces of GU Roctane Tropical Fruit drink and then planned to refill the bladder at each of the 3 aid stations on the bike course. I made this decision due to the amount of climbing on the bike. I did not want to be carrying the extra weight from all the bottles of fluid weighting down my bike frame. For nutrition I had some GU Chomps, GU Roctane sodium pills, and 4 GU gels with me. My new race jersey for 2015 has not come in yet so I'd be wearing the Kiwami Konami long course suit which I like because of the pockets to carry some nutrition on the bike and run. This race would be my first race as an amateur in 4 years since my Elite license had expired. With a top 3 finish in the amateur race I would be able to earn back the elite license if desired.
My wave of all 39 and under competitors set off at 7:05. This was 12 minutes after the female pros entered the water. I have only been swimming for about 6 weeks so realistically I thought a good swim for me would be 30 minutes for the 1.2 miles. I was excited about swimming as an amateur because in the pro races I'm typically shot out of the back pretty quick. I was hoping to stay in a large group and conserve energy.
SWIM: At the sound of the horn we were off. I am not used to starting in such large groups and had to be careful not to get kicked or swam over. It can be pretty chaotic early in the swim. I tried to get myself into a rhythm the first few hundred yards while things thinned out a bit. They did exactly that and I found myself swimming comfortably in the midst of a pretty large group as we made our way up the Tennessee River for the first 1/2 mile. At the first turn I was in the 3rd spot of my large group and it felt extremely easy. I could see another group about 15 yards up and I made the decision to try to bridge the gap. I swam hard out of my pack and left them only to find myself working twice as hard and I closed the gap to about 5 yards but could not work myself into the group. After working very hard for about 5 minutes I decided to ease up and wait for the group I had left. By the time they caught me I had punished myself a bit too much and I was unable to hang in with the group I had left. Lesson learned...if it feels too easy that is a good thing. I ended up swimming the last 1/2 of the swim solo and exited the water and crossed the timing mat in 30:55 and was about 15th in my wave of 39 and under. I passed a few guys in transition and mounted the bike amidst a downpour realizing this could be a VERY tricky bike ride.
BIKE: My goal for the bike was to monitor my power output and try to keep my wattage as consistent as possible which would be difficult on a hilly, technical course. There would be lots of spots where I would be coasting and the 0 watts while coasting decimates the wattage average. With my goal of racing Ironman between 225 and 230 watts I thought a good goal for the 1/2 would be 250-255. I had programmed my normalized power average to read as well and I would split these averages every 7 miles so that I would have smaller sample sizes to watch. The first 5 miles of the bike was mostly through town with some technical and steep down hill sections. I hit the first 7 mile split with average power at 250 and normalized power at 264. Normalized power is more like what the effort felt like taking into account surges and putting less emphasis on the coasting. The goal is always to keep the normalized and average power as close together as possible. It's tough on sections with lots of turns and hills. I was working my way through the field of amateurs ahead of me and asking the riders as I passed if they knew what place we were in. Early on most were saying about 10 in front. My 2nd 7 mile section average power was 253 and normalized 275. I was hoping to get those #'s closer together as we approached the part of the course with less climbing. Around mile 10 we came to the first of many spots where I saw a rider down and an ambulance on scene. One of the pro riders had already crashed. I slowed way down and made the turn at the bottom of a steep descent on the wet roads and felt my back wheel slide a bit. It was enough to scare me and make me realize there would be many crashes on this day and I didn't want to be one of them!!
As the course leveled out a bit in my 3rd section of 7 miles I was able to get into a much better rhythm. My average power over the 3rd section was 270 watts vs. a normalized power of 276. I was quite surprised by my ability to hold this power output without much difficulty. Last year in June I did a sprint race and only averaged 258. I knew going into this race I was way ahead of where I was a year ago but was very surprised by the numbers. I continued to move up and heard that I was in 3rd of the amateur racers as I began my 4th section of 7 miles. This section I averaged 275 watts vs. normalized average of 278. I kept telling myself to make sure it was comfortable because I was worried this average was too high for what I was capable of. In section 5 which was the last 7 mile stretch before the really big and technical hills returned I was 271 average power and 282 normalized. It was in this section I took the lead of the 39 and under group and started passing the female pros who started 12 minutes ahead. Knowing I had the lead and being very confident in my run I took no chances over the final 21 miles with multiple technical sections. We were seeing lots of ambulances on course and before descending in one spot there was a volunteer yelling out that the descent had already caused 6 crashes. One rider behind me continued to bring me back on every down hill section before I would pull away slightly on the up hills. I was very careful as we worked our way back through town. My average power dropped pretty fast the final 10 miles with all the coasting. As it was I ended the bike with an average power of 257 watts and a normalized average of 273. My bike time was 2 hrs. 26 minutes which was a 23 mph average. I got off the bike 1st in the 39 and under wave with one rider right behind me. I then made my worst decision of the race.
RUN: I've always raced 1/2 Ironman distance events without putting socks on. This was a BAD move in the rain. It had rained the entire bike course and was still raining as I slipped on my race flats and headed out. By the time I hit the first mile in just under 6:00 I could tell my feet were getting chewed up. The blisters had formed and by mile 2 I could feel they had opened up. I was running well but the increased pain of my feet had me worried. I did not want to hurt my feet so bad that it would set me back for Atlantic City nor did I want to allow myself to change my stride to protect my feet and risk injury. By mile 3 I was doubting that I would be able to finish the race. My pace had slowed drastically as I was trying to ease the pain of my feet. I knew my only chance to finish was if I could get a pair of socks and see if they would help. As I approached the 4 mile aid station they were asking me what I wanted. My only request was a pair of socks. Thankfully...in a move of extreme generosity one of the volunteers said he would give me his socks. I stopped and removed my shoes as he took his socks off. My feet were bleeding in multiple spots. I didn't know if the socks would help but took the time to put them on and then set off. My prayers were answered and my feet did not hurt a bit after the sock stop. I was able to get back into a rhythm and began running my miles around 6:00 each. About 1/2 way into the run the rain stopped and the sun came out making for a hot and humid run on the hilly course. I got a time check at the turnaround and saw I was nearly 3:00 ahead of 2nd place in the 39 and U wave and I was guessing the overall amateur winner would come from that wave. I continued on a about 6:00/mile for the remainder of the run. The last mile was actually almost 1.5 miles based on how they had set up the finish. This added about 2 minutes to everyone's time. I never had to dig deep into the well which was great for allowing me to recover quickly from the race. I finished the run with a time of 1:22:05 which was one of the faster runs of the day including the pro athletes. I know there is more in the run tank when I need it but I'll save that for another day. I won the amateur race by just over 5 minutes with a time of 4:21:36. The top 17 athletes were pro athletes and I was 18th. I think I finished ahead of about 19 pro athletes although that is a little inflated because they were without wetsuits while we were in them. Complete results with splits can be found here. It was great meeting some of the other athletes at the finish line and conversing with them about the race. It was a great start to the year and will allow me to renew my pro license down the road if I choose to. I'm not sure that I will. I had a TON of fun racing as an amateur and to be honest have way more in common with those guys than I do with guys in the pro race. As a husband, father of 2, full-time teacher, high school coach, tea ball coach...I think I probably fit in much better racing as an amateur and with my lack of swim talent it's always proved difficult hanging in the pro races chasing from far behind after exiting the water. I was thrilled with the start to the season and made the LONG drive home arriving at 2:00 AM on Monday morning with a weekend I will remember for a long time. Thanks for reading. DREAM BIG!!