Take #2 (for race reports this season). ACTION!
Challenge Knoxville was my first ever professional triathlon three years ago. This past weekend it became my 10th pro start (and eventually my 8th pro finish). Now I can finally say after 10 starts I’m finally getting the hang of ‘elite’ racing.
Lead up: Heading into Knoxville things felt good. I spent a lot of my training since St. Anthony’s tri focusing on mental strategies along with my physical training. I had forgotten how to race when I got to the line at St. Anthony’s and after that painful reminder of a race I wasn’t going into Knoxville with anything but a sound mental strategy. As an aside, Knoxville has been a rough race for me in the past. As my first pro race I competed in the Olympic distance three years ago and things went badly in some really tough conditions. Then last year I came into the race sick and decided to DNF after a lack-luster bike ride. I wanted redemption.
So Christa and I made out way to Knoxville on Friday to set up for the weekend in the empty house of my buddy Andy (we didn’t break in, he was off at a wedding). After getting into town, picking up my packet and dropping off some stuff we enjoyed a nice dinner with some fellow members of the Cobb Mobb triathlon team. Good people!
Saturday was pretty relaxed too. Woke up without an alarm, breakfast, a pre-ride of some of the bigger climbs and descents on the course, a quick run with Christa, a quick swim in the river, back home for lunch, back to the finish for the pro meeting and finally off to an early dinner. Might sound busy but that’s the least amount of stuff I’ve ever done the day before a race. I felt very relaxed. Things were looking good.
Race morning: Alarm went off at 3:45am. I popped out of bed, took a quick shower and started in on breakfast. My staple breakfast is always a giant bowl of steel cut or quick cooking Trader Joe’s Oats with salt, almond butter, chia seeds, flax, banana, blue berries and maybe some other fruit for good measure. I enjoyed this with some water. In past years I’ve eaten a bunch more after my oatmeal (and I typically do every morning of a training week) but for the first two races of this year I really haven’t felt too hungry come race morning. After breakfast I got my things together, pumped my tires and we headed off to transition. After parking, I got out on the bike for a warm up followed by a quick run and set my transition spot up. I try to get to transition as early as possible on race morning so I have some time to “relax”. I hate feeling rushed before a race.
My general mood was pretty good. I’m always a little snappy with my nerves but I actually felt quite confident and prepared (first time for this really). I kissed Christa, got a quick swim warm up in and waited for the gun (which ended up as someone yelling GO!).
Swim: With 32 guys starting the race it was a bit of mayhem out there. I tend to position myself in the 2nd row of swims like this because I know from the gun I’ll have some fast feet to follow. I’m not too concerned about clean water at the beginning as I am more interested in not having to completely kill myself to stay with the pack. So I shoot for feet immediately (in hindsight I think I’m going to line up on the front line from now on because I’m having less and less of an issue going out with everyone). So the swim started and the group stayed together pretty tightly aside from a few studs like Cam and Eric for the first few hundred meters. Then about half-way to the first turn buoy there was a surge. It happened right in front of me and as I saw the feet I was following quickly gap me by half a body length I dug in as hard as I could and bridged back up after 7 or 8 strokes. Those hurt badly but I was able to catch my breath when I hit some feet again. From there I’m pretty sure I was the connecting link between the 1st pack and the 2nd pack because a few guys came around to my side and swam on the feet of a few guys ahead of us. Within a few minutes there came another surge though and I (along with the guys at my side) couldn’t respond. I watched the 1/2 body length gap open and dug in to push again but it was to no avail as the gap just got wider and wider. I was thankful it wasn’t just me as 3 or 4 guys around me couldn’t make the jump either.
Through the first 2 turns (the only real turns on the course) I led the second pack until a few guys came around me and we all stayed put until the end. Then at the end of the swim we all hauled ourselves out of the water onto a boat dock and I was able to see I was in good company in the 2nd pack (and I eventually found out the 1st pack had only put a minute into us which is awesome… well excluding the studs off the front who had 4 minutes).
T1: I stayed with everyone and got on my bike with the group. Success.
Bike: Rain. Rain. And more rain. It ALWAYS rains on this course and that makes for a ROUGH day out there. This is definitely one of the more technical half-iron bike courses out there and you need to be confident to ride some of the descents in dry conditions, wet conditions can be a nightmare for folks. I, for one, was extremely excited about the rain as I know the course well and have zero issues with taking chances. I felt very confident the rain would play to my advantage.
As our 2nd pack left T2 we had a whole ton of folks screaming at us to “STAY RIGHT” (and as Christa shouted to me, the 1st pack went off course right out of transition and completely negated their 1 minute gap on us). The 1st pack came back on course just as we rode out so we were a giant pack of 20-some guys right from the get-go. Fine by me!
This is when the race really started and almost ended for many guys. Right here at mile 1 through, maybe, mile 10. It was balls-out riding to break anyone who didn’t want to go right then and there. My PM wasn’t working in the rain yet so I told myself to commit to the pace no matter what and go with the big boys. Holy hell did that hurt for a while too. I really had to put myself out there to stay on the first pack because with 32 guys in the race, 3 of which were out ahead of us, I needed to be in that lead group to have any chance of a good day. Once the pace came down and the dust settled (or it just started raining harder) we had 12 guys in the lead chase group (chasing down those three dudes up ahead).
From those 12 guys the rest of the race was a mix of soft-pedaling and pure threshold riding around the hills and flats trying to pop guys off. We eventually lost a few guys due to a mechanical, a stagger penalty and just getting popped. As we entered the last 10-15 miles of the course we had 8 guys in the lead chase with 2 guys up the road (1 guy, Eric Limkemann, had the unfortunate displeasure of crashing out while in 2nd position on the bike, luckily he will be ok, his bike, not so much).
The course was super sketchy in the rain with guys sliding all over the road as we tried to attack corners and descents (one guys went down right in front of me) but things got really bad when we made it to the last 10ish miles of the race and entered the Olympic course with A LOT of age group athletes. It was a total nightmare at that point trying to descend around people who were just riding their brakes all over the place (which I totally get). As we flew by all the age groupers some folks were really nice and others got really mad at us… but whatcha gona do!? We were racing!
Heading back into transition the group stayed together so everyone entered T2 in the top 10.
T2: Really, really smooth for me even with getting my socks on.
Run: Ok, this is where I really had to buckle down. I ALWAYS let my head get the best of my on these runs but today would be different. Just about everyone from my bike group took off at sub-6 pace out of T2. I’m just not that fast yet so I hung back for a 6:15. Not too shabby but I already knew my race was about limiting my losses to the faster guys coming from behind. I wasn’t sure what type of time gap we had on the second chase pack (it was 5-minutes) but I knew the longer I could keep them away the better chance I had to push myself at the finish. So I started my lonely march. Miles 1, 2, 3 went by smoothly on the greenway and I kept my paces under 6:30 with a high tempo/low threshold heart rate. Mile 4 was my first test as it greets you with this massive hill. I had to do a little strategic walking because I was maxing out my HR a bit but as I crested I was greeted by wonderful volunteers and an aid station. Miles 5 and 6 I got my shit back together (although slower) and brought my paces back down to the 6:40s as I entered the hilliest section of the course. At this point I was getting really lonely. I had been running alone for 6 miles and desperately wanted someone to pace with. I was doing ok mentally but it was so quite out there with no spectators, I needed a friend!
Then mile 7 came right after the turn-around. I saw how far the leaders were ahead of me and knew I could keep the top-10 in reach if anyone were to fall apart ahead of me. I also saw my gaps to the guys trying to chase me down. I was slowing a bit but hanging in there. Miles 8 and 9 I lost my marbles. I had my first passer and he just blew by me. I was demoralized when I couldn’t even take a step with him. My head was woozie, everything hurt and I was having a really hard time focusing on anything. I knew something was wrong but I just couldn’t think clearly enough to figure it out. I was in rough shape. Needless to say another guy came by me. I tried to go with him too but it just wasn’t happening. I didn’t realize it at the time but I needed calories really badly. I was sweating just fine, HR was in check… I needed fuel. Thankfully I start putting my hand-held to my mouth a little more often. I started to perk up a bit and find my legs again. Somewhere in mile 10 (I think) my friend John Fecik passed me. I tried to go with him but I couldn’t yet. Thankfully I was back on a part of the course with other athletes turning around during their Championship or Olympic-distances races so I start getting pace rabbits to work with and pass. The combo of people and finally getting some fuel back into me really did wonders for my last 2 miles as I started to find a rhythm again and bring my pace back down. I couldn’t really run fast anymore but at this point I was able to hold off any more passers… which is HUGE for me.
Finish: I finished 16th out of 32 guys. While I’ve had highly placings before this is by far the most amount of people I’ve beaten in a pro field. I’m happy with the result. I had a dismal run split BUT it wasn’t a particularly fast day on an already slower course so I can live with it.
- I’m almost ready to make the first pack in the swim. I’m really, really close.
- I feel very confident in my bike moving forward. Once my PM started working I stayed well below my target watts riding with the group. I know I can push the bike more even with the 3rd fastest bike split on the day 🙂
- My run isn’t fast yet but it is ready…. I just need to fuel better on the run
- My run fueling sucked. I need more calories
- This was my most complete race to date
- If I used 75% of my fitness in St. Anthony’s I used about 80-85% at this race
To my amazing wife, Christa, who makes all of this possible, to the master planner Grant who is building our grand design, to Ed and my thoughts of ‘windshield’ all race to keep looking forward, to USPRO Tri for all the gear and support, to EnduroPacks for keeping my healthy, to the Cobb Mobb for all the support, to Andy and Jenny for letting us crash at your place for the weekend, to my family and friends for all the messages, notes and support, to the volunteers, race officials and everyone else on course for making the race happen and finally to you and you and you (and everyone else) for supporting and believing in me.
One race at a time, I am getting there. Today is a good day!