Happy Thanksgiving everybody! I have a ton to be thankful for this year, but this post will highlight my race last weekend at IRONMAN Arizona. 7 weeks after my disappointing DNF at IRONMAN Louisville and getting sick twice, it was time to go again for my last priority race of the year. I was able to recover well after Louisville and managed to get a good block of training in with some promising workouts leading into the race. And for the first time in 5 months I was finally feeling decently acclimated to the elevation here in Denver leading to better workouts and general recovery.
After getting off work on Wednesday Rebekah, Charleigh, and I started the drive that night by driving just a couple hours to the town of Fairplay, CO. Sitting right around 10,000 ft of elevation, this town is supposedly the inspiration of South Park. It was definitely interesting doing one of my last runs before the race in the snowy mountains. And Charleigh had lots of fun there too!
Thursday included the remaining 11 hour drive to Phoenix where we would be staying with one of the head honchos of Epix Gear and friend, Tomek Barc. It was a beautiful drive and Charleigh behaved for most of it luckily. The Friday and Saturday before the race involved the last few workouts before the race on Sunday, but mostly a lot of eating and hanging out with friends. There were plenty of people in town for the race including my coach Jesse Vondracek and his family, my dad who had flown in from SC, and a ton of others. I also had a couple photo shoot sessions with Tomek in our spare time!
The Pro meeting on Friday didn’t reveal much revolutionary new information, but there were definitely a number big names on the start list. Compared to the last few races I have done, there were about twice as many guys starting this race. With many of those having quite established race results to their names. I still managed to feel pretty relaxed though as I was focused mostly on my own race and not that of others. While I, of course, wanted to place well (top 10 being paying positions) I knew that I had minimal control over how everyone else would perform on the day.
When race morning came I ended up driving down to the race venue myself to simplify things and because Charleigh had been starting to get sick the day before. Everything went pretty smoothly in the morning and I got to the swim start area just after they started letting the Pros get in the water to warm up. I gave my morning bag to my dad and got into the chilly water for a few minutes before jumping out as they went through the typical pre-race procedures. I was feeling relaxed and ready to go as we stood waiting. I even cracked some of my best dad jokes that got quite a few laughs from the other guys. It was finally time to enter the water and after a couple minutes the cannon went off! (without a countdown or warning…)
I had lined myself up pretty much towards the middle and was decently prepared for the surprise cannon shot which at least avoided anyone attempting to go early. With the first turn buoy less than 100 yards away, everybody was sprinting to get a good position before the turn which basically acts as a funnel. I was in decent position but things were pretty constantly changing as we made our way to the second buoy which was just another 100 yards or so from the first. Shortly after the second turn is where things stopped changing as much and it was easier to tell how things were panning out. I had found a couple body lengths behind a group of swimmers with some other swimmers more sporadically spread out near or behind me. I knew this was a critical point as if I let this group go I would lose the benefit of a good group to swim with and bleed time the rest of the swim. My mind thought back to the times that I had let a group like this get away and I was determined not to let it happen today. I surged hard and while it took some time, I was able to hook on to the back of this group.
For the next very long stretch until the third turn I just focused on staying efficient and not losing contact with the swimmer in front of me. The pace was steady and everything stayed relatively uneventful through the third and fourth turns. As we were swimming in the final stretch, I actually managed to move up a bit in the group and found myself right in the middle. I got whacked a few extra times by flailing arms, but it was good to know that I was safely in the middle of this group. As we rounded the buoy into the swim exit ramp I noticed Jesse right next to me. The clock had just hit 55 minutes as we came out of the water and I was happy to have come out in a personal best swim for me with a number of athletes that typically have swam faster than me in the past!
The run to transition was a long one being about a quarter mile long. I nearly slipped and wiped out at one point and was a bit more careful after that. I came through transition in decent time and got on the bike ride for what I knew would be a fast ride. There were about 5 or 6 of us that got somewhat grouped together after the first few miles of riding through town. I was feeling smooth and everything was coming pretty easily in the opening miles. I had been a little nervous about the fact that I literally hadn’t ridden my Ventum tri bike outside since the race in Louisville, but I immediately settled in and was comfortably putting out good power. Maybe a bit too good, as I decided to take the lead of our group over from David Plese and really started pushing the pace. The presence of a media moto next to us may have also motivated me a little extra.
After a couple more miles, David took the lead back and kept the pace high. I decided to keep him in range which also meant creating a gap to those behind us. There was a slight headwind heading up the Beeline Highway where most of the course takes place, and by the time I hit the turnaround there was a small gap to the chasers behind. David continued on the gas as the speed picked up on the return leg of the first of three out and backs of the bike course. David pulled away a number of times and after the first lap he managed to stay away. Meanwhile the chasers behind had just about closed the gap. The second lap the pace wasn’t quite as hot as the first, but I worked hard to try to recreate a gap. It was futile though as they were riding just as well and towards the end of the second lap Jesse, Michal McKernan, and Victor Del Corral joined me as I made the turn for lap three.
After the few miles through town, Jesse and Michal started to pull away as it became apparent that Victor was beginning to slow. By the time I made the pass on Victor, the other two were gone and I started picking it up to catch back up. I was able to catch Jesse before the final turn around, but Michal was already gone up the road. I initially attempted to drop Jesse to get a gap for the run, but it soon became apparent that he wasn’t going to let that happen. So I ended up riding the final 20 miles or so of the bike back and forth with my coach and we entered transition just a couple seconds apart.
As we came through the transition tent we learned that we were somewhere around 10th position. I cracked a few jokes as we got our shoes on and then it was time to run! Jesse had transitioned a little faster than me and was a few seconds up the road to start. I pulled even with him before long and I was feeling really good. Being a good coach he reminded me to start easy among some other advice. I looked down to see sub-6 minute/mile pace on the watch and attempted to slow things down a bit. I managed to reel in Michal after the first few miles and continued to try to stay nice and steady. I could tell that my stomach was sloshing around a bit but hoped that it would settle as everything else was still feeling pretty good and relaxed around a 6:15-6:30 pace.
Jesse pulled back up around mile 7ish and at this point my stomach was continuing to get worse. I was stuck between trying to continue to fuel/hydrate well and allowing my stomach to calm down. As we came down the hill at Papago Park, my stomach was getting bad enough to cause me to slow down and eventually cause a bathroom stop around mile 11. This wasted a minute or two before starting back and trying to get back on pace. I came through the first of two laps and I definitely wasn’t feeling nearly as good as I had started with my pace drifting slower than 7 minute/miles. The effort continued to rise and my stomach still wasn’t calm despite the earlier bathroom stop. I ended up having to make a second bathroom stop around mile 17 which was a bit quicker. Mainly because this bathroom was out of toilet paper though…
I continued to suffer through the next few miles but at least knew that many other athletes were also falling apart at this point. Around mile 22 I learned that the next athlete in front of me was only 90 seconds ahead, and the one behind only 30 seconds back! I knew I was running in about 10th at this point and knew I had to pick it up or else a top 10 finish would slip out of my grasp. I pushed HARD and found another gear for the final 5 miles in desperation to keep the pace high. I was able to force my pace back to sub 7 minute/miles despite how hard it got in hopes that it would be enough. With just over a mile left, one of the age group athletes told me that both of the next runners up the road were Pros and I realized that I had 8th and 9th place within reach!
I immediately surged and frantically tried to close the gap as quick as possible. I was able to catch the first of these two in just a few minutes and realized it was Andreas Dreitz who seemed to have burnt the last of his matches and had nothing left to give to keep up. I was then just about 10 seconds behind the 8th place athlete Jonathon Shearon. Over the last half mile I dug deep and pushed with everything I had left but could not close the gap as he knew I was there and would not give in. I ended up crossing the line completely exhausted and nearly in tears in 8:28:29 and 9th place!
It took me some time to recuperate from the effort I put in over the final miles, but I was proud to claim my best performance at the Ironman distance and nearly a 30 minute PR! After the race I got a nice long massage before hitting up the food tent. I also got to meet a number of my competitors during this time and then finally headed out to join my family and friends to watch some of the finishers come in. Jesse had ended up coming in 6th pulling out a 2:56 marathon. One day I’ll crack him in an Ironman!
I am very pleased in not only performing well on the day, but also in knowing that I still have more in me. While my nutrition strategy has improved, it’s still costing me time and placements and is something that will continually need to be addressed. I am also very happy in knowing that I am continuing to grow in all three disciplines while having been injury free for over 2 years now. I take none of this for granted and am extremely grateful for all the blessings that have allowed me to compete in this sport while traveling and helping take care of my family.
Later that day, we unfortunately ended up in the ER as Charleigh was having some difficulty breathing due to her being sick. She improved some, but we decided that I would drive back to Denver by myself so that Rebekah and Charleigh could take a flight home that wouldn’t be as stressful for Charleigh. After the awards ceremony on Monday morning I headed to Sedona with some friends from SC. Garrett and Peter had also raced with their wives (Beth and Beth) sherpa-ing. After a relaxing night in Sedona, I made the long but beautiful trip back to Denver.
I’d like to also take the time to thank the many people that helped a ton for this race. Tyler Ems for watching our dogs Riley and Hercules. Tomek and Timmie Barc for letting us stay with them and giving us a great time. Jesse Vondracek for guiding me through the best season of my tri career. My dad for cheering for me and always keeping me confident in my ability to push on. The many friends and family who follow and believe in me and my journey. My fellow athletes on course who always push me to my best. Epix Gear and Team Kattouf who have supported me over the past years before any big race results. And of course Rebekah who is always there and does an amazing job of raising my biggest fan, Charleigh.
I won’t be disappearing off the grid over the winter, but am looking forward to building for an even better 2019. I am always looking to continually improve in this sport and intend to share every step of the journey along the way to anyone to is interested enough to follow!