This is my list of 20 Things at Ironman Chattanooga 2015, which will serve as a race report.
1. It was no easy task, but I met my buddy Corey in the hotel lobby at 5:45 am. No wonder I have given up on this corporate lifestyle. Getting to sleep can be tough enough for me, but before an Ironman, forget it. My total rack time was about 3 hours and I was fresh off a questionable oatmeal, banana, rice cake with peanut butter breakfast. I was also battling a minor head cold but–armed with B12 tongue drops–I soldiered through pain with way too many water bottles on the mile-walk to transition. Corey’s friends were supposed to be waiting in the darkness on random street corners, but they were nowhere to be seen. We were there in plenty of time to meet Jim around 6:15.
2. I took my time filling bike tires and stocking transition bags, but Corey was getting anxious. At one point he yelled at me, “Just put your stuff in the bag and let’s go!” He didn’t really yell, but there is a crazy energy the morning of your race. It feels like time is draining from your life. Then, we got in our first line of the day while waiting for the bus, and it was still an hour and a half before we’d be in the water. And speaking of water, I needed more! Seems like a simple thing, but no one knew where to find water. Finally, I saw a tent selling some, but didn’t have any money. Thankfully Jim’s girlfriend, Rebecca loaned me 3 dollars. Pro tip: bring a few bucks cash to transition.
3. Next, I’m sitting next to Jim on the bus to the Swim Start and realized I forgot something fairly important: my timing chip. That was a weird feeling. By some stroke of Divine Intervention the girl next to me on the bus forgot hers too and assured me we could get one at the start line. I did indeed, and the kind folks synced it up to my bib number. Good to know. If this happens to you, you still have to turn in your original chip to someone at Ironman or send it in a bubble pack per the email you get the next day.
4. The swim line was remarkable! I mean, I’m a little delirious in the morning as it is, but I couldn’t tell which way was which. People, stretched for miles, laying around on the greenway in lycra suits, some with air mattresses and many with lawn chairs. Thanks to my timing chip debacle I saw them all and walked about 2 miles in the process.
5. Around 7:30, volunteers started shouting, “Wetsuits to the right, family please leave the line,” and we started moving. I was shocked by the number of people in wetsuits. It was a “wetsuit optional” race, meaning the temperature was over 76.1 but under 78 degrees (or something like that) and anyone who opted to wear a wetsuit wasn’t eligible for prizes or Kona qualification. The air began to get heavy. The race had begun and it humbles you on the spot. In mere minutes we would begin a brutal challenge by jumping off a pier into the Tennessee River. I swang my arms to wake up my body, but in the back of my mind I knew we had the assistance of a nice current and it should be the nicest part of the day. Around 7:45 we were close enough to hear the announcer sending people off the pier. We exchanged our “good lucks” before filing into our own desolate worlds.
6. I dropped into the water around 7:50 uncertain if my timing chip would work. I decided to trust people better at this stuff than me and swam toward the first buoy. This course is “straight” downstream. No turns, no trickery, just swim. The only thing I had to do was stay near the buoy line and keep my arms moving. About a thousand yards in I decided the current wasn’t whisking me away like I hoped, but felt pretty good. Next thing I know, I looked to my left and realized I was 50 yards from the buoy line. Sometimes this happens. I get a little discombobulated and lose myself. I dug a little harder to get back into the line and realized I was losing some steam in my arms. I kept looking for the first of three bridges, but it never seemed to come. Suddenly, what I thought was an “easy” swim was feeling difficult. Wetsuit swimmers all started after non-wetsuits got into the water and around 2500 yards into the swim, I was smothered. It was almost laughable watching this neoprene army glide by. And those that didn’t glide by me simply swam over me. It was the first time I TRULY realized the power of a wetsuit.
7. I completely underestimated this swim and it bit me hard. Five hundred yards from the finish I was struggling to keep form and holding on for life. The final RED turn buoy was a dream come true, but those last 50 yards might have been the toughest part of the swim. It was suddenly a free for all. Wetsuits coming from every angle beating the crap out of me on their way to the stairs. That is when I officially called “wetsuit optional” bull shit. Either it’s wetsuit legal, or it’s not. At the very least anyone who wore one should have an asterisk next to their results.
8. I looked at my watch and saw 1:11 in the swim and was not surprised, but disappointed. The year before I watched almost everyone I knew come out of the water in less than an hour and I thought I botched any shot I had at my dream of Kona. Little did I know, most of the top racers in my age group were also over an hour in the swim. But I was still 158th in my age group out of the water. Clearly a huge chunk of guys wore wetsuits, and not only does that get on my nerves, it had significant implications on Kona slots because they based the allocation on the number of people who didn’t wear wetsuits.
9. So, I get out of the water and saw my buddy Whitney, but missed my mom, brother, and Rebekah. That kinda blows when you are wandering off into the sunrise of a 6 hour bike ride. After a disappointing swim it would have been easier to sort of give in to the day and focus on finishing, but I have a tendency to want to redeem myself. And that’s what I set out to do.
10. About 5 miles into the bike I’m zoning in on hydration and food when a bike slows down next to me and the guy says, “What’s up dude?” It was Corey. He quickly apologized for yelling at me in transition and we chatted about the swim for 15 seconds before he passed me and I dropped back into legal formation. My plan was to chill, but Corey pulled away with some early energy. About 10 miles later I pulled up beside him and took the lead. That’s when it dawned on me how nice it was to have someone in the same power range that I actually knew. For the next 70 miles or so we worked together like pros, typically staying within 50-100 yards of each other, flopping back and forth to keep each other focused.
11. This seems like a great place to bring up the topic of drafting at Ironman Chattanooga. First of all, let me just say it was nearly impossible not to draft. And what will I blame this on? Yes, wetsuits. The congestion is just undeniable. Everyone gets out of the water around the same time because of the nature of the swim. Then you add a bike course that is relatively flat and all hell breaks loose. I’m not saying there were people riding on each other’s wheels, but there was just nowhere else to go at times. I mean, I genuinely saw two people drafting right past a penalty tent. I am pretty sure Ironman just looks the other way on this race because I honestly don’t remember seeing one motorcycle official on the course.
12. The ride itself was no picnic, but felt pretty good. There are some really fast sections and at some point I decided to shoot for a 20 mph ride. I was right on pace when I hit the split back to town at about mile 104 but I genuinely thought I went the wrong way. That really threw a wrench in my day for a minute. I was a bit fuzzy and it took 3 miles before I looked back and saw the Mile 10 sign going the other way. That’s when I settled in and cruised toward town. I don’t know about you, but this is the time I start freaking out about getting a flat. I was uber cautious going over several railroad crossings and any other disruption. There’s sort of a weird echo as you get closer to dismount and it’s arguably the sweetest sound in triathlon. You know you’re about to get your ass off that hard seat and for me, it’s nearly as nice as crossing the finish line.
13. I was a little confused coming out of the run because we didn’t go down the swim-run-up-hill like they did in 2014. Instead, we ran to the bike out area, then down the River Walk from there, which was a little longer, but gave us a short downhill before the climb on mile one. That first hill is actually kind of a good thing because it reminds you to slow down a little, but everyone I talked to had a super fast Mile One (.9) splits. My plan was to start at a pace that felt super easy, then pick it up a hair around mile 6, and I think I did pretty well averaging between 9:01 and 9:36 for the first loop. Then, on the second time through, I was hoping to move that pace down on the flat sections, but I just couldn’t get my legs to move any faster. My pace fell back into the 10 min range for most of the 2nd loop.
14. Speaking of the back half, it was a grinder. I ran it a month before the race and deluded myself into thinking it wasn’t too bad, but after a 116 mile bike the hills were tough. The most surprising hill was the first short, but steep one out of the River Walk. For some reason I missed that part when I test-ran the course and it was humbling. That’s where my support crew spectated and they witnessed a lot of carnage. Once I started the second lap I threw away my pace targets and focused on one thing: Not walking. If I’ve learned anything from three Ironman races, it is this: You are almost guaranteed to hit your race goal if you just run the entire marathon. It’s not easy, but it’s the most obvious solution.
15. I finished Chattanooga in 11:28, thirty minutes faster than I did Ironman Wisconsin. Chattanooga’s bike course is 4 miles longer, so that’s 12 minutes more, and could technically mean a 42 minute personal best. In comparison, Wisconsin has a harder swim and bike, but Chattanooga’s run is definitely king. That said, my marathon times in both were almost identical. I’m not sure what any of this means, but sometimes it’s interesting to reflect. I think the difference in my bike times happened because I rode up AND down the hills at Chattanooga. In Wisconsin I coasted most of the downhills.
16. I’m a big fan of pizza, but it never tastes as good as it does after an Ironman. Some of my best work of the day was done in the athlete food tent.
17. I’ve written about volunteers before, but they never cease to amaze me. I think I saw there were 4,500 at Chattanooga and that is just a tremendous number of people joining hands to feed the cattle. Every aid station was totally stocked and well organized. Bottle exchanges were clean, and in a world where you can run into a lot of dicks, these people were uncommonly selfless.
18. Chattanooga is the perfect city for an Ironman. The layout is simple, and aside from the fact that I personally knew 4 people who got jobbed on hotel bookings, everything ran like a top . . . even in the rain. The locals embrace the active lifestyle and expressed genuine interest in the race. I never got the feeling people were pissed that we screwed up their traffic for a day.
19. The biggest thing I learned this year was that I’m still not there on the bike. I had a good ride, and pushed the edge of my capability, but it stole just enough from my legs to hamper the run. I really hoped to run an 8:30-9:00 pace, but couldn’t get there. The analogy I thought of is that your bike should be like driving a Cadillac. The engine should be huge and let you go 70 miles an hour without feeling like it’s working very hard. I went 70 miles an hour, but I was in a Kia.
20. I am happy, but humbled. I put out Kona aspirations a while back, but have a long ways to go. I’m not ready to say I didn’t work hard this summer, but it wasn’t enough. I didn’t build Cadillac miles. I was faster and more explosive, but didn’t have the chassis to pull it off at this distance. Lesson learned, and it was a brutal, but lovely experience.