As much as I love to race in new places and experience new challenges, there are really few things better than going back to race in East TN where I grew up. The Ironman 70.3 World Championship being in Chattanooga this year gave me the perfect opportunity to do that, and to do it against the best in the world. To make it even better Jessi was able to come watch her first triathlon of the season, we got to spend some time with friends and family, and I was joined by a large group of guys from Team Every Man Jack. And of course without all of their support, plus our great sponsors, competing at these races wouldn’t even be possible.
The course was amazing, as was the competition. Apparently the course was one of the hardest 70.3 courses people have seen, but I’ve only seen one other 70.3 course and to me it just seemed like a bunch of fun hills to play on. I had a strong bike, and actually a swim that could have been worse and a run that could have been better, to put me 19th in AG and tied for 99th overall. For a world championship, at that distance, I’m pretty happy to come away with a top 100.
Despite it being so close to home, getting there turned out to be quite the ordeal. On Monday I returned from a wedding in Pittsburgh to my home near DC. On Tuesday I took the bus, metro, and Amtrak from home to Wilson, NC, where my father-in-law picked me up to go meet my family in Goldsboro. On Wednesday we drove (and I biked partway) from Goldsboro to my parents’ house in TN. And finally on Thursday evening Jessi and I drove down to Chattanooga from my parents’ house, where I joined my teammates and was finally able to start focusing on the race.
A few of my teammates have been with me at my previous races this year, but nothing like this. I think we had nearly our whole team there, which was awesome for the support and motivation, and for just getting to spend the weekend with such a great group. I also of course had friends and family in the area and we were fortunate to get to spend some time with Daniel and Patty Hamilton (I met Daniel when he handily beat me at my first 50 miler a couple of years ago) and for Jessi and our son to be able to stay with my relatives Dave and Angela.
For the first time of any Ironman event I’ve done, I actually had no major issues with my gear leading up to the race. I owe a huge thank you to The Bicycle Place for getting my bike ready and in top shape, and it was incredible to not have to worry about anything the evening before checking my bike in. I dropped it off in its incredibly tiny spot on the rack, and was good to relax the rest of the day.
I had been dreading the swim at this race even more than usual. I had assumed it would not be wetsuit legal, which fortunately (for me) it did turn out to be, and the majority of the swim would be upstream in the Tennessee River. A tough swim gives a bigger advantage to the good swimmers, which clearly is not me.
The start was a bit unique. We lined up in corrals and every 10 seconds or so a small group of us would dive into the river. I was somewhere near the middle of my age group’s wave and had the usual goal of trying not to completely ruin my race with the swim. I think I did that despite the tough course and the fact that we had to swim under two bridges (a completely inexplicable fear I’ve had since childhood).
One thing that was actually oddly comforting was the taste of the water. This was the same river I spent half my childhood summers in and it was surprising how distinctly familiar it felt. I was about 100 miles upstream as a kid, though, and always on a ski, tube, or kneeboard. The only swimming I did was Marco Polo.
Probably due to the larger and more top-heavy field there was even more jostling during the swim than normal, but that’s something I’ve mostly come to expect. I got kicked in the face twice, elbowed in the face once, and one guy grabbed me around the waist and pulled me under right as I was about to take a breath. I try not to worry about things in races I can’t control, though, and that’s one of them. Fortunately my goggles never came off and I didn’t suck down much water.
I came out of the river in 33:15. I had told myself I would be thrilled with below 31, and content with below 35, so I was right in the middle of that range. I had made it out of the water, and for me the racing now began.
I didn’t have a clear plan on the bike. I just knew the course was supposed to be tough, and I knew there would be a lot of incredibly good cyclists on it. My results on the bike in training had also taken a pretty big leap since my last race. I decided I really had nothing to lose, and would go for it on the big climb up Lookout Mountain at the beginning of the course.
I was a little bit tight from the swim, but fortunately no butt daggers like at 2017 Ironman Lake Placid. I had worked with Terrel Hale to address that issue in the weeks between the races, and it appears to have paid off. I felt good going up the mountain, and steadily started moving up through the good swimmers. At such high power going up the hill my front wheel was flexing enough to rub on my brake a little, but I think just enough to be extremely annoying without causing any real harm. Once near the top, we had a section of rolling hills and some more gradual ascents that I really enjoyed.
After that, an incredibly fun descent awaited us. It was just the right amount of curvy: enough to add some real excitement to it, but not enough to need the brakes or cause much danger. I was in the 40-45 mph range for nearly all of the 4 mile descent. Once at the bottom, the back half of the course was a pretty straightforward route with light rolling hills over to Chickamauga and back up to Chattanooga.
Unfortunately, the thrill of a great course was dampened a bit by the extensive amount of drafting and riding on the left side of the course (making passing difficult). If you’ve never experienced drafting on a bike, it’s hard to believe how much it helps. If done for much of a race it can help more than cutting the course, doping, or almost any other way you can cheat. Unfortunately it often also helps more than the penalty that people (may) get for doing it. With such a large, competitive field, some issues with spacing here and there are almost inevitable. But an extremely disappointing number of people seemed to use this as an excuse for cheating, and the enforcement appeared to be rather lax.
From the top of the initial climb, until I was finally able to drop them with about 10 miles to go, a group of 6 were constantly passing me in a tight, unquestionable paceline. I would need to put out a big surge to pass all 6 at once, then sure enough a few minutes later they would all roll by me again in a line. I said earlier that I try not to let things I can’t control bother me, but this was infuriating. I took solace in sitting there brooding and thinking “alright, let’s see you draft off of me once we get to the run.”
My anger at least may have propelled me to a solid bike leg, though, as I came in at 2:23:43, just a bit faster than I thought I could do, and at 13% more power than I had done at 2017 Ironman Syracuse 70.3 (and no wrecks!). The last 6 miles were also actually my strongest, although I guess that isn’t too shocking given my preference for and greater strength at the full iron distance.
Normally when I get to the run my goal is to close the gap on whoever is left in front of me. This was the world championship, though, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that. With the swim wave start and the number of people still in front of me, there was also no way I would be able to identify who was actually in front of me vs. on a different lap or from an earlier starting wave. I took off out of transition with the goal to just run a smart race and have fun doing it.
The run was two laps, with a slight hill at the beginning followed by a gradual descent to the river, and then two nice hills on the north side of the river near GPS (Girls Preparatory School). As usual, I loved the hills and saw them as great opportunities to move up. Something unusual, though, is that my quads were a bit twitchy and had that “pre-cramp” feeling early on in the run. This may have been the price I paid for a faster bike split. I held myself in check on the climbs on the first lap to minimize the risk of a disaster. At that point, I figured I probably had more to lose than to gain.
On the second lap my pace did slow a bit from miles 8-11. The heat had started to sneak up on me and I once again didn’t hydrate as well as I should have on the run (it’s just so hard to get in much water from those aid station cups without slowing down). By the time I hit the hills near the end of the lap, though, I knew I would be fine to make it to the finish line. I opened up the reserves and finished with a strong couple of miles.
Outside of the hydration, I feel the run went fairly well. I was mostly consistent, and avoided a blow up. I do feel like I could have pushed it more and gone a few minutes faster. I ended up with a 1:22:46 – a good time given the hilly course, but far from the best of the day and further down the list of fastest run splits than I expected. If my goal was just to run a smart race and enjoy it, though, then mission accomplished.
I finished with 4:25:35, good enough for a tie for 99th place overall and 19th in my age group. The good thing is that I don’t feel like there’s a lot I could have done better, and for me to move up into podium position I would have had to do about 6 minutes better. Given that this was essentially part of my Kona training, and the fact that they had to pump 2 liters of IV into me after the race, I don’t think those 6 minutes were within my grasp that day. My nutrition was pretty on point, with a full bottle of Perpeteum to start the bike and a few gels over the rest of the race, but I have got to get better at hydrating during the run (especially given the heat that Kona will have).
It was an odd feeling going into this race without a clear goal, and knowing that I probably wouldn’t come away with a podium finish. It’s a different mindset, and in a way it was kind of freeing. I got to enjoy a great weekend with my teammates and family, and since I didn’t have any expectations being able to say top 100 in the world was a pretty cool bonus.
The race also reinforced a few things for me. The first, is that it would be nearly impossible for me to compete at the absolute highest level of the sport while not being a better swimmer. The 33:15 that I was pretty happy with brought me out of the water in 781st place. I closed the gap on a lot of people, but the guys at the top are extraordinarily good at all 3 things, as they should be. There’s not a lot of ground that can be made up on them in the bike and run. For me to get significantly better at the swim, it would require a huge dedication of time and probably significant in-person coaching. Those are things that I’m just not able or willing to invest in right now, not to mention how miserable I would be spending that much time in a pool. The positive of this is that it makes it that much easier for me to be content with my triathlon results and focus on running for the long-term.
The second thing the race reinforced is that I’m just built to go longer, not faster. Sure, there’s a correlation between speeds at pretty much all distances if you train right, so maybe part of it is my training and experience, but I’ve always done better as races get longer (and vice versa). The type of pain is different, different physical adaptations are needed, and maybe above all the mental strategy is different. I’ve primarily focused on the iron distance this summer, with a couple of 70.3s for fun and training, so I’m excited to see how Kona goes. The competition will be even stiffer and the swim won’t be wetsuit legal, but the distance and the tough conditions will give more time for other people to fall apart as I keep chuggin’ along. In any case, it will be another exciting experience.
The weekend also reinforced how much more fun these “solo” sports are if you’re surrounded by the right people. Visiting my family for the week, having Jessi and friends at the race, and spending the weekend with my teammates were really the highlights of the trip. The race was a good excuse for all that to happen (and pretty fun itself). One of the reasons I love endurance sports is because of the “me time” it gives me during training, but I do love to race. Getting to see the results of the training and sharing it with others is pretty awesome.
The final thing the race reinforced to me is that Chattanooga is just an awesome city. I love the people, the downtown area, the food, the location, and there are lots of great things for families to do. On top of that it’s an outdoor lover’s paradise between the mountains, the river, and the great places to bike (road or mountain). I’m really looking forward to returning in a few months to run the Lookout Mountain 50 Miler again. Biking up and down the mountain was fun, but it just went by too fast. 😉