Let’s start off with a few facts:
- The pros swam the entire 1.2 mile swim course that included an upriver portion.
- The AG athletes swam all down river and only .8 miles.
So no, I didn’t actually beat all the pros.
Race morning was much better than anticipated. All week, the weather was showing close to, if not, 100% chance of thunderstorms. While it rained overnight, we were fortunate to wake up race morning to no rain, overcast skies, and a much less chance of rain during the race. I walked down to transition and set up the rest of my gear (my bike was already there) before boarding a bus to get shuttled to the swim start. Once over at the start, I made my way to the front (it was a self-seeding rolling start) and hung out with all my teammates until the start of the race. The pro men started at 6:50 a.m. and the women at 6:55. AG was supposed to start at 7:00, but we just kept waiting and waiting. The next thing we noticed, a boat was moving the first red turn buoy from up river to diagonally across the Tennessee River. Obviously chatter and confusion started amongst all the athletes. Shortly thereafter, the IM official announced they were changing the AG swim because they felt the pros struggled more than expected with the roughly 400 meter upriver portion. Now, the AG athletes would be swimming all down river and roughly .8 of a mile (vs 1.2 mile swim the pros had).
The AG race didn’t start until just after 7:15. I was about 20 or so people back from the start with all my Every Man Jack teammates. I started off well and actually felt quite good. I’m sure the current certainly helped me feel strong. I ended up swimming 14:48 for roughly 1400 yards (according to my Garmin (for comparison sake, 1.2 miles should be roughly 2100 yards)) which comes out to a blazing 1:05/100 yard pace. Obviously the current is the only reason I swam that fast.
T1 starts with a run along the river before running up a steep ramp to get to the parking lot area our bikes are in. I used this opportunity to try and make up a little time by running hard to my bike. I got out of my Roka wetsuit better than last week at KC Triathlon and headed out to bike after putting on my helmet.
Coming into the race, I fully planned to be a little more conservative than normal on the bike. My longest ride leading up to race day was only 61 miles (I’m not counting EMJ camp in late February as it wasn’t part of my race specific build). Unfortunately, I had to adjust a few key training sessions and longer rides due to poor weather. Plus, I had raced the two weeks prior to this race, so those weekends also didn’t allow for longer, 70.3 type miles and intervals.
I settled into my range of watts I was hoping to hold over the ride. I focused on hydration and nutrition early because I not only knew it’d be important for a good run, but also I likely wasn’t as hydrated pre-race as I needed and it was already quite humid. Seven miles into the ride, my EMJ teammate, Reid Foster, flew by me like I wasn’t moving. Reid is deep in his build for IM Boulder and an incredibly strong cyclist, so I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him again during the bike. Just a mile later, a group of 3 came rolling by me. One of the athletes was in my AG, so I was disappointed to see the three of them drafting and rotating with only a few bike lengths between each other. Not much I can do about it, so I just got back to focusing on my own race while watching this group of three (soon to be four after a female pro joined) slowly pull away from me for the next 10 miles. Around 22 miles, another EMJ teammate, Mike Vulanich, came rolling past me. I know Mike is a great runner, so I wanted to keep him within sight for as long as I could. Eventually, the pace was just a little too much for me, so I eased off and went back to doing my own thing again. I knew the second half of the ride would be quicker with a slight tailwind, and the rolling hills were slight downhill vs slight uphill like on the first half. I used this time to dial back and recover a bit because around 75 minutes, I was starting to get a little tired, a bit of a headache and my eyes were hurting. I can only assume that was because I was in the aero position and looking up for longer than I’m used to. My headache was probably a combo of being dehydrated since it was humid and from my eyes hurting. Fortunately, I just went through the second aid station and I decided to grab a Gatorade (i.e electrolytes to help my headache (hopefully)). I took a bit of a risk here since I’ve never had full Gatorade in a race. I typically dilute it with roughly 50/50 water/Gatorade mix since it’s strong and can upset the stomach. I seemed to handle it just fine, and it did help the headache ease a bit. It never fully went away, but it also didn’t get worse. Around 42 miles, the sun started to peak out and I was hoping it would go away since I was already feeling the humidity; and, fortunately it did! The last aid station at 45 miles was much needed. Back in 2015 for my full Ironman, this is where I got a full banana at roughly mile 105. This time, I got a half banana and it was incredible. I think I was just craving real food after eating all my Picky Bars and just finishing off my GU Chomps. After the aid station and making the right turn, there’s just 11 miles left. I was starting to feel a little better but still didn’t want to push it too hard and ruin my chances for a good run. I was able to pass two of my teammates during this time and just kept a good rhythm all the way back to transition. I also made it a point to drink my entire bottle of 50/50 water/Gatorade that I just refilled from the aid station. I wanted to start the run topped off hydration/electrolyte wise. Overall, I’m quite happy with my bike ride of 2:19:25 for the 56.5 miles. Could I have gone faster? I’m sure I could have, but it likely wasn’t in my best interest for my overall time. I hit the range of watts I wanted, but what is more interesting to me is my HR was unusually low with an average of 136 for the bike ride. Not sure what to make of that, so I didn’t, I just went to go run.
T2 was nice and smooth. I racked my bike, put on my Sock Guy socks and Saucony Kinvara 7’s, got my race belt and took off to start the run. But first, I needed to make a quick pit stop.
After coming out of the porta potty, I saw my EMJ teammate Jack McAfee running by. I know Jack is a very strong runner, so I picked up my pace a bit to catch him so we could start the run together. We had a nice conversation for the first out and back section where I asked him, among other things, about what pace he’s planning to run. He told me 5:50’s and I was just targeting 6:00 pace, but decided to stay with him for a while despite our pace the first half mile being 5:33 pace! It was fun talking to him, and running with people is always more fun. But just like with the bike, I knew I needed to run my own race and not dig a hole early by going too fast. I really wanted to throw down a fast run split because I felt coming into the race I was in some of my best run shape I’ve been in for several years. As we went up the first hill approaching mile 1, I told Jack to have fun and dropped back a bit and rolled through in 5:46. The first aid station was just after the first mile. Going into the run, I decided I’d just play nutrition by ear and go off feel. If I felt like I needed the electrolytes, I’d do water/Gatorade mix in a cup. If I just wanted only water then I’d do that. Calorie wise was also by feel but I figured I’d primarily rely on Clif Bloks (which is what is available on course). At the first aid station, I took in some water and for some reason grabbed a Clif Bar. I have absolutely no idea why since there are so many better options that are easier to get down while running fast. Plus, I have never eaten a bar while running in training. In between mile 1 and 2, I gave myself the “oh what the hell” speech and decided I’d actually eat this Clif Bar instead of just carrying it. However, I also remembered IM Chattanooga when I tried to do this without water and it was disastrous and impossible to get down. So, as the second aid station approached, I ate the bar and washed it down with water/Gatorade mix. Doesn’t that just sound so appetizing? Somehow, it worked, but I probably wouldn’t suggest it.
For the first four miles, I actually felt really good and smooth going 5:57, 5:50, and 5:50 for miles 2 through 4. I knew the hills were looming, but felt quite good and didn’t feel like I was over extending myself yet. During this section, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and just having a good time by joking with volunteers, encouraging my teammates as they ran past me in the opposite direction on out and backs, and letting positive thoughts flow like crazy. The first tough hill came at mile 5 and slowed me down to a 6:10 mile. Up to this point, I had kept Jack in sight and caught him on this hill. I encouraged him to hang in there as I knew he was starting to struggle. I passed Reid going across the bridge to the other side of the river and ran mile 6 in 5:47. I don’t remember many of my mile splits during the race, but I do remember doing a double take here because I caught a glance of my cumulative time. I saw 35:XX, so I looked closer and saw 35:23 and laughed on the inside because last week at KC Triathlon, I ran 10k (6.11 officially on my Garmin) in 35:35. What’s crazy is that no negative thoughts crept into my mind about running too fast or not being able to sustain this pace. I just remember laughing a bit on the inside and carrying on. I also heard just after this from Jordan (EMJ teammate spectating) that I was in 2nd overall with just Mike in front of me. I got across the pedestrian bridge and went through mile 7 in 5:55. Again, the split didn’t register with me; I was just out running, having a good time, and still feeling good, relatively speaking. Something clicked starting lap two and I started feeling great. I went through mile 8 and 9 in 5:31 and 5:33. I even gave my mom a high five as I passed her. I went through mile 10 in 5:51 and was in the lead now and knew I just needed to get through 3 more miles and 3 more tough climbs. I was holding my 5:50 pace before getting to the same tough hill at mile 5 that slowed me on lap 1. This hill slowed me down again as I shuffled my way up it at 7:30-8 min pace and went through mile 11 in 6:23. I do not like that hill and I’m not looking forward to running it two more times at 70.3 World’s in September. This was really the first time I specifically remember hurting. I definitely had pain and soreness prior to this, but I was in a groove and rolling, so I think I subconsciously blocked it. Similar to the mile splits, I saw them (and felt the pain) but nothing was registering. There was no positive self-talk or “just get to the X time or distance or hill or turn or aid station and reassess”, bargaining with yourself type of things going on inside my head. I was just out running and having fun. Going back across the bridge and river I knew I had just 2 miles and 2 hills left. I went through mile 12 in 5:45 and couldn’t believe it. I took in one last cup of water/Gatorade mix at the last aid station prior to running up and over the pedestrian only bridge. This bridge hurt, a lot. I specifically remember my form breaking down early on the climb across the bridge. I was starting to “sit” and let my hips really drop. I wasn’t running on my toes, and I started leaning back, especially my head. So, I shortened my stride, got on my toes, had a slight lean forward and told myself to tough it out for less than a half mile and it’d be all downhill (literally) from there. I made it up and over the bridge and saw my dad on the other side. He noticed my form was terrible and told me to just keep it together down the hill. I tried my best to finish as strong as I could. I knew my pace up the bridge wasn’t good, so when I heard my watch buzz at mile 13 and saw another sub 6 (5:54) I knew I was flying down the hill. I might have pushed that downhill a bit too much and overestimated how far the finish line was because I fell apart the last .06 (I had 13.06 officially on my Garmin) which made for a very painful last 25 seconds of the race. I crossed the finish line and was beyond thrilled to be done. I stopped my watch and saw 1:16:42. I was utterly exhausted so it didn’t register right away, but after I got some water it all hit me and I was so incredibly happy.
Shortly after finishing, Mike came across the line followed shortly by another athlete (Alan). I found out Alan started the swim later than me and only finished roughly 1:30 behind me. Crap! Did he just beat me?!? Instantly I asked my dad to check his overall time on his phone to see if he had beaten me. After about 10 minutes when Alan’s result finally updated, I found out I lost the overall title by 8 seconds…8 stinking seconds. I, naturally, didn’t believe it and then started playing the “what if” game. After several hours, I found out a bit more. Alan had run at the Olympic Trials Marathon before and is clearly legit. I also found out he outran me by 10 seconds. It would have been a lot of fun to race him head-to-head since we nearly ran the exact same time and finished 8 seconds apart. That means that since it was a rolling start, I virtually started the run 2 seconds in front of him.
Overall, I couldn’t be happier. Yeah, I whined and complained about 8 seconds for several hours, but I got over it. Coming into the race, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. Not only were there weather concerns, this was also my third straight weekend of racing and I was coming off a race where I was not happy with my run. In hindsight, I can now see that I carried a bit too much fatigue into Kansas City Triathlon. So I had doubts that I’d still be too fatigued to put up a fast time on a challenging course. If you had told me coming into the race I would run a 1:16 half marathon on this course, I would have signed up in a heartbeat. Absolutely no way I thought I’d run that fast. Only 2 people out ran me (Alan in 1:16:32 and a pro in 1:16:11). I honestly thought 1:18 would be incredible (hence me targeting 6-minute pace pre-race). In early April, I ran a solo (i.e. no swim or bike before it) half marathon in 1:14:25 on a course that is similar in elevation gain as Chattanooga, but I don’t view it as hard because the hills come early in the race whereas Chattanooga has the hills in the last 3 miles of each lap (5-7 and 11-13). So, to be only 2:18 slower than that time is just unbelievable to me and arguably one of my best run performances I’ve had.
Thank you so much to all my teammates racing in Chattanooga this weekend. The support, encouragement, and motivation were tremendous and much needed. Thank you, Purplepatch Fitness, for getting me ready to tackle this course and to Paul Buick for working with me on saddle and bike fit to get me dialed in for race day. To all Team Every Man Jack’s sponsors, thank you so much!
Start of run looking fresh…..
… vs mile 11 (downhill was painful) and mile 13 with my ugly face