The evening before Challenge Knoxville, I ran into David, who I met at last years race when we had a guarded pre-race conversation in transition. We played a bit of cat and mouse intimidation but eventually figured out we were in different age groups. We became good friends over the year that followed.
Now, a year later he was in my age group, and I knew he was the one I had to beat if I intended on winning. We chatted casually while listening to the mandatory athlete meeting and I wanted to see if I could get into his head.
“How are you recovering from the Boston Marathon?,” I asked.
“Oh, I’m feeling good,” he replied with his standard confidence.
“Well, those marathons have a way of creating deep fatigue.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“I mean, DEEP fatigue you may not even be aware of.”
He just laughed.
Later, on my way back to the hotel, I saw him walking the other way and asked where he was headed.
He said, “Grabbing some dinner.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little late to be eating?”
The seeds were planted.
After another crappy pre-race sleep I sauntered to the start line around 7:30 with my wetsuit. As usual, it was raining as I stood along the Tennessee River warming up before the horn. The water temperature was 73 degrees and I had serious doubts about wearing my wetsuit, but it was a little chilly and decided I would rather risk using it.
I ran into David and, not expecting an answer, asked his swim strategy. Without missing a beat he said, “I’m going to start in the front, get to the turn buoy as fast as I can and be the first one out of the water.”
Our strategies were quite different.
I planned to ease into my swim as usual then hope for a mid-swim-burst to finish strong. I too started in the front, which was a mistake.
I always forget how hard people swim at the start of a race. I was getting the shit beat out of me by overzealous age-groupers. Slamming my left, my right, even swimming over the top. The best is when they swim past you, take 3 strokes, then stop to sight right in your path. I was bred to embrace contact, but it makes finding a groove difficult.
I expected to be out of the water in 25 minutes or less. But for some reason I couldn’t find a pocket. I’m sure it had something to do with not being used to my wetsuit but that’s just an excuse. I didn’t have it that day, but it could have been worse. Actual time was 28 minutes (1:57/100), which burns my asshole, but whatever.
Later, I found out David swam a 22 minute leg, so I didn’t know it, but I was already 6 minutes behind.
I didn’t feel “bad” leaving transition, but definitely sluggish. I had the same strategy on the bike. Start under control, be nice and warm by the first hill at mile 7, crush the climb, then kick it into gear.
My stomach was acting up in the swim, to the point where I thought I might get sick in the water and that feeling continued for a while on the bike. It’s always something in these races and I knew I couldn’t think about it too much or it would ruin my race.
I walked a fine line with hydration and sour stomach. Sipping as much as I could versus big gulps. Somewhere around the halfway mark of the ride, I started to feel better, but my legs were far from explosive. I climbed under control and used the big ring to build speed off the top before coasting the second halves of downhills. My run was a BIG question mark.
Around mile eighteen I saw another guy I met in transition last year named Cliff. He was on the side of the road messing with his bike. I passed him climbing the hill, then he passed me two minutes later only to pull over again. I saw him after the race and he was a bloody mess. Just after that climb, we hit a long and fast descent. I passed a cyclist laid out on the ground, who I later realized was Pro Triathlete Eric Limkemann. It was in that very spot that Cliff took his spill. I’m sure they both were well over 30 mph.
The last leg of the bike was fairly routine. I drank as much as much as could stomach and following my coaches orders to push my cadence for the last two miles so my legs were ready for the run.
I always chuckle at the feeling I have off the bike while tap dancing in bike shoes back to the rack. I had no idea what to expect and hadn’t ran well in 3 weeks or so.
In a spur of the moment decision I opted for no socks on the run and threw on my Pearl Izumi Streaks for the second time this year. I’ve kinda decided that they are not the best training shoes, but I love to race them. They are light, responsive, and make me feel faster.
Short, ginger steps were the name of the game for the first mile until I realized I felt pretty good. My legs were moving fast and my breath was under control. That’s when it happened.
I couldn’t believe my eyes, but David was walking toward me on the right hand side. He was obviously out of the race and I yelled, “What the fuck are you doing?”
He said, “I’m done. Injured.”
As I passed him he yelled, “You look great, go get it. Only two guys in front of you!”
For a brief moment I felt guilty about the Boston fatigue comment, but quickly forgot when I saw my first age-group-victim 20 yards in front of me. I lurked for about a 1/2 mile before making the decision to pass. I fixed my hair, zipped my top, then gave him a big smile as I blew by with immaculate form in hopes of sucking the wind from his aspirations.
For the next mile I stayed strong, but kept waiting to bonk. I kept repeating, “Just run your race and breathe” to myself. I wasn’t wearing a Garmin, but my chrono watch estimate was that I was sub 8 minute pace through 2.5 miles. And that’s when I saw the other guy I was chasing. He was at least a mile ahead of me, so I knew first place was out of contention.
Second place sounded good to me, but the guy I passed was hanging on.
I stayed within myself and told myself that if he passed me at this pace, more power to him. By mile five I felt like I held him off. I looked back a couple times and knew he was too far away if I could just stay true to my plan.
The run course ends with a long hill to the finish line and I got a tad delirious as I pushed the incline. I was breathing harder than I had all day and thought for sure he was going to make me sprint to the finish line. But he never did. I would cruise down the finisher’s chute for an easy second place.
The crew dropped a medal around my neck then graced me with a soaking wet Gatorade towel. I limped through a few handshakes, then walked over to print my results. It was all an illusion. I was not 2nd, nor 3rd, nor even 4th! I had perfectly executed my 2nd place plan into a 5th place finish.
Karma is a bitch.
(47 min/7:43 pace)
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My reaction to my split times.