TL;DR: Coming off of Lake Placid I decided to race Ironman Louisville to try to qualify for the IM World Championships in Kona. So I tuned up at the Culpeper International, trained through the Ironman 70.3 Worlds in Chattanooga (while still having a good race), and showed up at IMLou looking for redemption, with the primary goal of running a 3:15 marathon. Ultimately I raced a balanced race, nailed my run, coming in at 3:16, and ran myself from around 10th to 3rd in my age group, earning a Kona slot in the process.
Coming off of Ironman Lake Placid, I had a clear goal ahead of me, have fun and perform well in September’s Ironman 70.3 World Championships, which was being held in Chattanooga, TN. This race was a priority for Team Every Man Jack, and we were well represented there, with over 30 athletes participating. But as I got a little distance from racing Lake Placid, I couldn’t help but feel like I had a great opportunity to take on the full Ironman distance again in 2017. I mean, I was in killer shape coming out of that race, still very hungry and energized from what I would call my first “good” Ironman performance. So I talked to my family, looked at which courses might best suit my strengths and minimize my weaknesses, and threw my hat in the ring for Ironman Louisville in October. IMLou and I have a sorted history (more on that later), but it really is the best late-season race for my particular style of racing. And to top it off, I had three other teammates planning to race, so I knew I’d have friends out there to help give me a push when I would need it. It doesn’t hurt that I love to race as well. I knew it was the right decision when I made it, and from the first moment had no second thoughts.
Transitioning from Full to Half
Coming out of IMLP I needed to transition mentally to get ready to race a bit shorter distance. And as I said before, I love racing, so I decided to sign up for the Culpeper International Distance Triathlon just two weeks later. I had raced that before, and knew it to be not only an excellently put on race (VTSMTS really does an amazing job with all their races), but also one that would be a great course for the coming 70.3 Worlds, with the rolling bike course and rolling run course. It is definitely not a place to go for a PR. But the ride and run are just beautiful, and there is always a good field that turns up to race.
So, come Sunday August 6th I was up early, out the door and in the car headed to race. One of the best parts about the VTSMTS series is that their races are both laid back, and really well organized. I got there, got checked in, and got my transition set up in what seemed like record time. I had plenty of time to say hello to Rachel and Richard (who I swim with quite a lot, and were also racing) go for a quick warm up run, and chat with several of my fellow competitors before it was time to swim. It was warm, and a lake swim, so not wetsuit legal, but I had my Roka Viper swimskin, so I knew I’d be fast through the water. I lined up on the outside of the pack, to give myself room to get free, and at the gun was off. By the time I got to the first turn buoy, I could see that I was clear of most of the field, and swimming in 3rd. 1st was way out front. I later learned this was the eventual race winner, Bryan Rivera, who would lead wire to wire. Ken-Ichi Hino was sitting in 2nd, and is a good swimmer, so I followed him all the way around and into transition.
Coming out of T1 I felt good and was smooth getting out onto the road. Ken-Ichi was not too far ahead, and still insight, but Bryan was nowhere to be seen. Oh well. I focused on Ken-Ichi, and caught and passed him about 5 miles into the ride. From there I focused on steady application of power, being smooth and comfortable, and getting ready to run hard. The first time I raced Culpeper I really suffered on the run, as I didn’t give either the bike or run courses the credit they was due. I knew I wouldn’t make that mistake twice. So after a fast, but uneventful, bike, I was into T2 in 2nd place overall.
Going out onto the run, I felt good, but knew that running a flat out 10k would be a bit of a shock coming off of IMLP, so I tried to settle in and not overdo it early, but put myself into a position to maintain speed or get faster for the entire run. After about ¾ of a mile, I felt good, and was running the right pace, fast, but sustainable. The run is a two loop run, and while on it I could see that I was gaining on Bryan, and that Ken-Ichi was gaining on me, so kept my foot on the gas, and tried to get myself into 1st, and stay out of 3rd. Ultimately, while I was gaining on Bryan, I ran out of room. His superior swim and bike performances, coupled with a super strong run, were too much to overcome, but I did hang on and end up in 2nd overall.
Post-race I got to relax, do a transition run with Ken-Ichi, and spend time catching up with my friends Rachel and Richard. All in all, it was a perfect way to shift gears and start the prep for 70.3 Worlds in Chattanooga, and start the build towards Ironman Louisville.
Worlds in the friendliest city in the south
August went by in a blur of long workouts and life stuff. Before I knew it, it was time to get ready and drive to Chattanooga for Worlds. Because of my decision to tackle Ironman Louisville and chance a Kona Slot, my coach, John Heuisler, and I agreed that I’d mostly train through 70.3 Worlds to put myself into the best position possible for my finale. So due to that decision, I was able to approach this huge race with a really relaxed attitude. I think this paid dividends for me, as I got to really enjoy this amazing event more than I would have otherwise, I think.
I headed down to Chattanooga on Thursday, as I was driving and wanted the extra time in town. I did the drive solo, which actually went super well thanks to a really interesting audiobook (World War Z) and a break in rural TN for a 1 hour bike and 20 minute run. If I ever have to do a long drive solo, I’m totally breaking for a short workout in the middle. It makes such a big difference in how you feel when you arrive! Because Team EMJ had such a big contingent racing, the team had arranged for rental houses for any of us who wanted them. I ended up staying with my family (who came the day before the race), my teammates Sean Cooley and Darren Mounts, and Darren’s amazing wife Holly. I think hanging out with these guys was the best part of the whole weekend! We had a blast, lots of laughs, and some great meals together.
Friday morning we caught up with the rest of our teammates and went for a full team practice swim in the river and did a walk of the expo. It was great to see so many of the guys who motivate me out there together, hanging out, laughing, and getting ready. Friday night was a full team dinner, where I got to meet many people’s spouses and significant others. Then back to the house to sleep, and onto Saturday. I love the day before a big race, primarily because you do an easy workout, get a big breakfast, and just relax until bike check in. And honestly, it’s really about the big breakfast. Ryan Linden, Greg Grosicki, and Corey Robinson and I all arranged to meet up for an easy ride, and then go to a restaurant I had found at the May 70.3 Chattanooga race, the Daily Ration. I can only say this: if you are in Chattanooga, go to this place. It is one of the best breakfasts I have ever had. Amazing.
Then it was back to the house, meet the family (who got in mid-afternoon) and get the bike and bags ready for the bike check-in. EMJ does that as a team whenever possible, and we all got together for this one. The line of matchy-matchy lululemon gear was pretty crazy! Then back to the house for an easy dinner for with my house, followed by one of the most hysterical trips to the park ever, where the group of us met some really kind and funny locals. Bedtime came easily and come Sunday morning I felt good, and ready to race. I was in an early wave, so Kara drove me down to the transition while the kids stayed in the house with Sean, Darren, and Holly. That was a first, and a nice one at that. I got the bike all set up (this time with all shifting functional), and did my run warm-up and started getting in the zone to race.
The 70.3 Worlds course was tougher on every leg than the 70.3 Chattanooga I raced in May. The swim had over half going either into or across the rivers current. But thankfully, the current was relatively light and wetsuit legal. So at least there was that. I headed down to the corral and caught up with my training partner, David Weeks, and my EMJ teammates who were also in the 35-39 age group. We loosened up, chatted, and got ready for the start. And just like that, the race was on! I got into the water cleanly and settled into my pace. I focused like I normally do on swimming long, smooth strokes, and working hard, but not jacking up my heart rate. I was able to find mostly open water the entire swim, and was out and heading towards transition before I knew it, solidly in the front quarter of the pack.
T1 went smoothly, and I was out on my bike in no time. The bike course was mostly flat for the first 5 miles, then presented an almost 3 mile climb up to the top of Lookout Mountain. That was followed with about 15 miles of rollers along the ridgeline, then a fast descent into the valley, and a lightly rolling fast ride back into town. I used the first 5 miles to get nutrition in, and get settled in for the big climb. I hit the climb feeling good, had the right gearing, and climbed smoothly, passing a ton of guys on the way up. Once I hit the ridgeline I focused on riding strong and smart, paying attention to my power zones, waiting for what was the most fun part of the race, the big descent. If there is one thing I love about biking, it is fast mountain descents. This one was nice and steep, and presented two lanes in each direction, and no super sharp turns, so it was very possible to ride as fast as you possibly could, never leave the aero position, and never touch your brakes. Which is exactly what I did, maxing out just under 48mph. So much fun! Then I settled into the valley ride, which presented a lot of flat riding with a few notable climbs. It was on one of these, with about 15 miles to go, that drama struck.
One of the problems with Worlds-level races is that everyone is good on the swim, bike and run. So no matter what you do, there are bound to be packs of guys along the road. As a racer, not much you can do, but do you best to follow the rules, surge to get ahead when you have to, and try to ride your race. Going up a late hill I came on a group of about 10-12 guys. I passed about half, but was really feeling the effort, so decided to slot in and slow down to create the required gap between me and the rider ahead of me. Well, this was a really stupid thing for me to do. I should have spent the match, kept up the pass, and just gone to the front. Because when I slotted in I heard an official’s moto behind me. I kept opening up the gap so that I wouldn’t be drafting, but the official rode beside me and gave me a penalty. I couldn’t be mad because I knew I was in the wrong and had made a stupid decision. Live and learn. I’ll never make that mistake again. I acknowledged the official when she told me to report to the next penalty tent, and kept focusing on my race. As I was supposed to, I reported to the penalty tent right before T2. What I didn’t realize was that I had earned a 5 minute penalty. That really stinks. I had to sit there on my bike for 5 minutes, watching guys blow by me headed into transition. Talk about frustrating! But I had a nice chat with the official, who was from Australia, and actually thanked him sincerely for doing his best to enforce the rules. While I was disappointed to be penalized going up a hill, I do realize that I earned it, and I was in the wrong, and that I’m really grateful to have dedicated officials out there doing their best to make races safe and fair. Once the penalty was done, I was back onto my bike for about 50 feet and then right into T2.
I grabbed my run gear and while in transition saw several of my teammates. We all got out quickly and headed off for the tough, hilly run. I fell into my pace smoothly and felt pretty good as I started, having no trouble maintaining my race pace. The first 3 or so miles went smoothly, with me pushing hard, but in a sustainable way. I was able to hold tough on the hills, and felt good through the first lap. About 2/3rds through the 2nd lap I caught up to David Weeks and was able to talk to him a bit, then caught up to my teammate Bradley Kuper-Smith in the last 0.1 mile and was able to finish with him. I ended up finishing 36th in my age group, with the 5 minute penalty costing me about 10 places. That stings, but was a good lesson.
It was great to see so many of my teammates at the finish, and to watch many others finish their days. The camaraderie that I’ve found on Team EMJ is really amazing. We grabbed our stuff from transition, went back to the house, and got cleaned up for the EMJ post-race party. That was the best way to cap off the weekend, getting to meet up with my teammates, friends and family, share beers, stories, and laughs. The night was capped off with a great burger, then heading to bed to get ready for the early departure to drive back home to Virginia and get back to real life. What an awesome experience!
Work still to be done
After coming back from Chattanooga I settled into my last few weeks of hard training, getting myself ready for Ironman Louisville just 5 weeks later. As I said earlier, I really felt coming out of Lake Placid that I was in the best shape of my life, and my mind was in a really good place, and I didn’t want to waste that. I was excited to take on the Ironman distance again, and put the lessons I learned in Lake Placid to use. Thankfully my coach (John Heuisler), family, friends, and teammates were all behind me. The training went smoothly and I got some really high quality work in, capping it with some really strong runs. John had told me that the IMLou prep would really be heavily run-focused. I was happy about that, as that is where I felt like I was weakest coming out of LP.
Fast forward to race week. I felt like my training had really gone to plan and physically and mentally was feeling good and ready to race. I knew what I needed to do. I felt like all that was left was to just to get to Louisville and get it done. So predictably, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday felt like they were taking forever to pass, with the anticipation of race day coupled with the lighter than normal load. But time did pass, and eventually it was Thursday morning and I was rushing to get last minute packing done and the car all set up for the afternoon start to our drive. The plan was to drive to Huntington, WV on Thursday afternoon/evening, then wake up early and finish the drive to Louisville Friday morning. We beat the traffic out of DC and really enjoyed the drive through western VA and WV. The highlight of the drive was listening to the Stages podcast about Ironman WC in Kona. I learned a ton listening to Mark Allen and Dave Scott, though could have done with a little less Lance. Friday morning had everyone up early, and we found an awesome spot called Peace, Love and Little Donuts on the way out of Huntington. Highly recommend it. Like Duck Donuts, totally custom, fantastic donuts of all types, and perfectly bite sized! We made great time into Louisville, and I was able to catch up with my teammates Greg Grosicki and Corey Robinson to get checked in. Ironman Louisville is really centrally located to downtown Louisville, with most stuff happening on the Great Lawn, downtown right on the Ohio River. The finish line is one of the best in Ironman racing, finishing right in the center of their outdoor, covered, party area called Fourth Street Live. All of this was an easy walk from our downtown hotel.
After checking in, I went back to my hotel, got a run in, and started getting myself ready for Saturday’s bike check in. Then we were off to the AirBnB that Greg and Corey were staying in for a home cooked meal. Having good, healthy food before the race was huge, plus getting to relax with my teammates and all the families together was really nice. Greg and I met up Saturday morning for a check ride, then went out to the river to meet Corey for a swim. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring our timing chips and caps, and none of us were able to get in the water. We chalked it up to a silly mistake and used it as an opportunity to beat the crowds into an awesome breakfast spot for the ritual big pancake breakfast the day before the race. After that, I finished my gear prep, relaxed a bit and met Greg, Corey, and Colin Martin for bike check in. All went smoothly there, back to Greg and Corey’s AirBnB for a good healthy dinner, then an early bedtime to get ready for race day, finally!
So, at the beginning I said that I had a history with Ironman Louisville. My very first Ironman was in Louisville in 2008. That was back when it was held in August, and miserably hot. I had a great race through the bike, but fell apart on the run. I finished, though, well enough to go to the roll down and hope against hope that I might get a slot. I didn’t, but that was when I realized that I actually could go to Kona someday and race against the best. I was hooked. I came back to Louisville in 2013 looking for redemption after a tough time earlier that season at Ironman Texas, and overdid it on the bike, and dropped out after walking for about 5 miles. My very first DNF in a triathlon was in Louisville. So there was definitely some trepidation when I decided to tackle Louisville for a third time. But hey, isn’t the 3rd time supposed to be a charm?
Back to race morning. I was up about 10 minutes before my alarm, got my food in easily, and was out the door to walk down to transition and set up my bike. One of the nice aspects of the Louisville transition/start/finish logistics is that everything is central. My hotel was less than a mile from both the transition and the start. So after checking the bike, I came back to the hotel to use the restroom, give the girls a kiss, and jog down to swim start for the action. In the past I would have stressed much more about this, as IMLou does a time trial start, where you line up and jump one at a time into the river to start swimming. You don’t want to be at the end of that line, and people line up ridiculously early to avoid that. But new for 2017 was a self-seeded time trial start. Genius! They had corrals for people’s projected swim time, and it really helped keep people starting around those of their ability. So I was able to show up at the swim start at a normal time, and get into the corral for those planning to swim sub-60 minutes. It was one of the easiest experiences I’ve ever had for an Ironman swim start. I met Greg, Corey and Colin there, and we all got our wetsuits on and got ready to go.
Keeping in Louisville tradition, they played the National Anthem, then “My Old Kentucky Home”. Then the cannon went off and we started streaming into the water. I was in within minutes of the start and off on my 9+ hour journey for redemption. My swim was largely uneventful, and I was able to stay smooth and long in my Roka wetsuit. I felt really comfortable, and never let my heart rate go up too much. A few surges were needed here and there, but largely I had room to swim and was able to hold a good line start to finish. I came out of the water, into the tent and saw my teammate Greg, who was well on his way to torching the course. Got shoes and helmet on, ran out to the bike then out with the bike to the mount line and I was off to take on the rolling Kentucky hills.
On the bike I really tried to settle in, but when Colin Martin came by me and told me how fast we’d swum, I’ll admit the excitement and adrenaline got to me and I definitely powered through those first 10-15 miles a bit harder than I should of. But having learned my lesson in Louisville about over-biking, I spent the majority of the first lap focusing on keeping my power numbers where they were supposed to be. I got to see my family twice on the first lap, and that was a big boost as well. But largely I focused on riding smooth, taking advantage of the tailwind, and riding smooth into the headwind. And I tried to really take it all in, both the beautiful scenery, and the crazy weather. The second loop was largely uneventful, but I was expecting the headwind to taper off and it never really seemed to. The last 25-30 miles of the bike were pretty rough, and had me really questioning what I was doing out there. I did my best to stay focused on my power numbers, and rolled into transition right at my target.
After handing my bike to a volunteer, I was off to the changing tent. I made sure to take my time as the bike had really taken a lot out of me, and I wanted to make sure I could get my head right before running. I didn’t feel great at all, but knew that I just needed to trust my training, find my pace, and see what happened. Seeing my family as I started the run, just outside of transition, was a big boost, and I just put my head down and tried to find my rhythm. Sure enough, by the 2nd mile I had settled in, my body had shifted gears, and I was running right on the pace I wanted to. Things were starting to look up! One of the reasons I was looking forward to running in Louisville is that the course is largely flat. That doesn’t make it easy on any level, but I’m pretty good at running steady for a long time, and as I found my rhythm I was able to do that. I spent a few miles running with Corey Robinson, who caught me at the first aid station, then settled in for the long haul. The course is a 2 loop out and back, so I was able to see my family 4 times before the finish, and see my teammates around every turn around. Those things, coupled with tons of people cheering, really helped me fight through the dark spots and keep running. Every time I really was starting to suffer, I’d take in some calories, say to myself “It is supposed to be hard”, and keep working on nailing my pace. I wish I could say the run was more dramatic that it actually was, but ultimately, in my head, I just kept focused on running a 3:15 marathon, knowing that I was capable of that, and that if I did, and somehow I wasn’t in contention for a Kona slot, then it just wasn’t meant to be. So I just kept running as steady as I could, focused on the pace and the 3:15.
Apparently, though, it was a bit more dramatic for those spectating. I had come out of the water in 5th AG or so, gave up a bunch of spots on the bike, and started the run somewhere around 10th in my age group. Top 3 go to Kona, everyone else would be on the outside looking in. Another fact that I didn’t know until later was that a bunch of guys came from Europe, specifically looking to punch a ticket in Louisville. So there were more than the normal guys out there chasing. But I had told my family specifically that I didn’t want to know my position/placing, I just wanted to focus on my race, for better or for worse. But by Kara’s cheering in the last lap, I had a pretty good feeling something special was about to happen. By sticking my pace, I had run myself from around 10th all the way up into 3rd place in my age group. As I crossed the line, knowing I had just run a 3:16 marathon (close enough for government work) I was ecstatic. 6 Ironmans later, 9 years, and 3 trips to Louisville, and I had finally raced the Ironman I knew I was capable of. Finally crossed having a run I am proud of. Finally finished top 3 in my age group and earned the slot to Kona. I saw Kara and the kids and we shared the moment that all four of us had put so much into making happen. It was one of the most special experiences of my athletic life, and on par with winning Eastern Sprints during my senior year in college.
Greg had come in about 20 min prior, punching his ticket to Kona with a 2nd place AG and 4th place Amateur performance. Not too bad for his first try at the distance. And Corey and Colin were in really quickly after me, with all four of us EMJ boys coming in 9:35 or faster. Not a bad day’s work if I do say so myself.
Now, for all the beers!
So, I do have to say that I had no idea that 2018 would turn out to be as epic of a year of triathlon as it has. I’m still processing it, to be honest, but I’m really happy and proud of all that I’ve accomplished, and of being able to be a part of something that is so much bigger, with my coach, my teammates, my training partner David, my friends through training and racing, my family, and everyone who pushed me, cheered me, challenged me, and never let me settle. Triathlon may be an individual effort, but it is very much a team sport. And with that, I’m trying my best to embrace the downtime, recover, recharge, relax, and drink all the beers and eat all the food! I hope everyone enjoys their offseason, holidays, friends and family. And here’s to 2018, the World Championship year!
And just in case you are hungry for more pictures, here ya go: