Ironman Chattanooga Race Report

This was the first Ironman where my passion for the race was not there for a long, long time. With my baby girl at home, a new job, and the current state of professionals in triathlon, I waited to sign up until the last minute in August. I started the season gung ho about competing in Rev3 races throughout the year, with IM Chattanooga as a culminating event after a season of Olympics and Halfs. When Rev3 cut the pro prize purse, it really hit me hard. And that feeling did not, and really has not, let up over the year. This year has been difficult in the fact that I feel like I don’t have a “place” in the triathlon world. I feel lost.  You have the top professionals, the guys who are winning races, demonstrating an absolutely unreal ability to swim/bike/run at the highest levels.  You have the top age groupers, who dominate for top amateur bragging rights.  And then there are guys like me.  I’m not performing at the highest level of the sport, and I certainly cannot make a living off of racing events. At the same time, I desire tough, deep competition, and with the exception of Ironman Hawaii, I can’t find that in the amatuer fields any more. So I’ve been racing in pro races, finishing in the top 10, but never cracking the podium spots and garnering attention. When the Rev3 series discontinued their pro races, I was left with very few options for viable races that fit my personal calendar and were within driving distance. Then when IM announced they were cutting their pro races down to a select few, I was even more disheartened. I don’t race pro to make a living; I won’t pretend that I do. I race pro because that’s the best place for me now, and it’s pushing me to be a better athlete. So to pretend that I might be able to just fly to whatever race Ironman deems worthy of having a professional race throughout the year, no matter what time of the year it may be, is foolish on my part. So although I love the sport, it just was the culmination of those depressing events that tempered my enthusiasm for really getting after the training for this race. I did what I needed to do, but it took a lot of encouragement from my wife, Tori on many days where I just wasn’t feeling the love from triathlon.

Before I knew it, I was heading to Chattanooga. Chattanooga is a really neat city, and I would recommend visiting, especially if you love the outdoors and you love being active. I wish I had more time to explore the city and all it had to offer. With the race looming, I had to pick and choose my pre-race activities. My dad and I traveled up Lookout Mountain and toured Point Park, which is a National Park dedicated to the Civil War battle that took place there 150 years ago. Then we were able to meet one of my old high school friends for lunch the day before the race and catch up. Then, I went back to my hotel room to get a good night’s rest before the race.

When the race organizers said that the pro men were starting at 7:20am, I knew we would start the race right at or just before dawn. I entered the water and swam upstream for a minute or two before relaxing and floating back to the starting line. There was a pontoon boat across from the dock with a rope suspended in between for the pros to latch onto while we waited for the cannon. I positioned myself in the center in the second row, hoping to get caught up and dragged along in the wake of all the speedy swimmers. When the cannon fired, that’s precisely what happened. I went out, guns blazing and took part in the melee that is a professional Ironman swim start. I knew there were a bunch of guys ahead of me, but the pace was sizzling, and I just kept telling myself to stay latched onto the feet of the guys right ahead of me so that I could stay in contact. So 1/3 of the way through the swim I was really excited – I knew that I was right on the back end of the main group, which was really a best case scenario for me. Then in about five seconds it was gone. I lost the feet of the one guy directly in front of me, and a small gap opened. I immediately put in a surge to get back on, but my surging was only enough to keep the gap where it was. Then my surging resulted in only losing ground little by little. Then I recognized the fact that I was going pretty much all out, 15 minutes into an Ironman, and I knew that catching the pack was not a possibility anymore. If I wanted to have a successful race, I had better calm down and finish the swim at my own comfort level. So the pack gradually disappeared up the river, and I was alone. I stayed that way the rest of the swim. I thought for a while that the “main pack” had actually been the end of the pro field, because I found it incredibly odd that after losing contact, no one else was up with me or passing me. Fortunately when I exited the water, I noticed a decent crew of swimmers about 15-30 seconds behind me.

So of course the time for this swim meant absolutely nothing because of the massive current we had assisting us, but I was so proud of my swim in the fact that I put myself in great position from the start, stayed with the main pack for a good amount of time, and even after falling off the group, still kept everyone else at bay.

Once onto the bike, a couple of the guys who were right behind me in the swim took charge and set pace. One was Kyle Pawlaczyk, an old college teammate who coaches in Richmond, VA. I was extremely comfortable riding through town, but the effort was just slightly higher than I was planning on riding, so I eased off the gas a bit and really tried to hone in on my target watts. Kyle and a crew of about three other guys took off, and after 20 miles or so, they were out of sight. For the remaining 96 miles of the bike, the pattern would be: get passed by a pro, watch him slowly ride out of sight, get passed by another pro, watch him ride out of sight, etc etc. After the first 20 miles of the bike, I don’t think I passed one pro rider, but I was passd by probably 15. It was a bit demoralizing, but at the same time, I was right where I needed to be for how I had trained, and I trusted that I would have the run to come back on many of those guys later on. I ended up coming through 112 miles in 4:46 flat, which would have been a 2 min IM bike split PR, but of course the bike had four more miles, so my final split was just under 4:56.

When I hopped off my bike, I did not feel good. My back was super tight, my legs did not feel fluid at all, and mentally, I was in a rough spot. I knew I was back in the race, in the mid 20’s (actually 26th) and I had a lot of ground to make up. It took me a mile or so, and then I finally loosened up and got into a good rhythm. There were a couple guys up the road that I could see, so I immediately went to work, gliding past them as I ticked off the miles. After passing three guys we hit a long stretch of highway, and I could see nobody. So from a mental and emotional standpoint, this was the lowest point for me all day. I was still behind over half the pro field, I couldn’t see anyone within a quarter mile of me, and I had 21 miles left to run. So I did what I typically do when that happens and just stopped thinking and ran. I read the billboards on the side of the highway, I played “see how many steps you can take with the gel flask in your right hand before you have to switch to your left hand” game, I thought about keeping a smooth, effortless stride. After three miles of that lonely slog, I finally saw someone. Then it was on. I did not do my due diligence, and I was not familiar with the run course, so when I crossed the river and was faced with a massive half mile climb, I was pleasantly surprised. The entire north shore loop was an IM runner’s dream. Climb after punishing climb, that loop sapped a great deal of energy out of me, but it also brought a ton of guys back to me faster than I could have possibly imagined. Over the next four miles, I passed another six guys. Then it was back to the flat section. Although I had lots of age group athletes to run down, I did not see any pros over the next seven miles. Then we got back to the north shore loop, and magically, there were guys walking and shuffling all over the place. I wasn’t running incredibly fast at this point, but I was making up tons of ground on the guys ahead of me. With a mile to go, I knew that placing in the money was out of the question, but it was still a real possibility that I might go under 8:40, so I really pushed hard and in the process passed one more competitor just after the 26 miler marker to take the 10th spot overall. I finished in 8:39:32, a 12 min PR, and also put down a 2:56:09, an IM run PR by just under two and a half minutes.

So where does this leave me in terms of triathlon? Right now I’m not sure. I have registered for the Boston Marathon next April, and I’m really looking forward to that. I will take some time this off season to look at various options for races in the summer/fall and see what may fit. I am definitely excited about how I raced in Chattanooga, and I know I have better performances in me. I just need to keep chipping away at the swim and the bike and hopefully put myself closer to the front at the start of the run.

I’m thankful for all of the support that I received from my wife, my Virginia and Michigan families, the Snapple Triathlon Team, and my training partners. Without it, this breakthrough would not have been possible.