When I first decided to tackle the half iron distance, last winter, I was pretty set on Ironman 70.3 Augusta.
For a few reasons. 1. It was an official Ironman event, and there's of course an element of cachet (or at least the perception of one) that goes along with competing in WTC events. 2. Several friends have done it, so plenty of intel on the course was readily available. 3. Several friends were doing it again this year. 4. The swim is aided by a current that has become legendary. ("You can drop an empty potato chip bag into the water at the start and it will cross the finish line in 30 minutes" is one of the whoppers I'd heard.)
But I kept balking at the $275 price tag; plus, the race was eight months away, and ... oh, come on, I know I'm not the only commitment-phobe out there.
Anyway, as I waffled, FS Series -- the company behind the great Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary -- announced in the spring that it would host a brand-new half iron distance race, set for Sept. 23. After a bit of back and forth with myself and some advice from knowledgeable triathlete friends, I took the gamble, opting for a race that would be lucky to draw 250 participants (whereas Augusta brings in 2,500).
For a few reasons. 1. The FS race was cheaper. Way cheaper. Entry fee was announced as $100 (which was only $20 more than the last sprint I did). 2. It was at Jordan Lake, west of Cary, so it'd be a shorter drive from Charlotte. 3. It happened to fall on my birthday.
No. 3 sealed the deal.
Training started in April. As many of you know, my coach is Kelly Fillnow, who -- as many of you know -- I think is one of the most amazing friends, mentors and role models anyone could possibly hope to have. I won't spend more time trying to convince you of that; I'll just say she laid out a six-month training plan that inspired me, pushed me to (and beyond) my physical limits, and ultimately got me to race day feeling wonderfully fit and injury-free. It's a gift to have her in my corner.
Speaking of gifts, I received them in many forms on my 39th birthday this past Sunday, during the inaugural Finish Strong Half Iron Triathlon at Jordan Lake.
Gift No. 2: On race morning, organizers announced the swim would be wetsuit-legal. I'm a weak swimmer, so I reacted to the news as if -- well, as if it were my birthday. Which it was. I suspect a little creative thermometer-ing was going on out there on the lake that morning. A few days earlier, the water temp had been hovering around 81. Sunday morning, it checked in at 75. I was always taught, though, that when you receive a gift, you don't ask questions -- you just say "Thank you."
Gift No. 3: The swim was short. Very short. Like "Are-we-doing-a-half-iron-here-or-are-we-doing-an-Olympic??" short. Like 0.88 miles (per my Garmin) instead of the advertised 1.2. I came out of the water in under 30 minutes, which is much faster than I swam at Over the Mountain and Stumpy Creek (both international-distance races) earlier this year. I think this may have bothered some people. Not me. I mean, if you bust up your 5K PR, then notice everybody's watch is reading "3.01," is it really a PR? I say no. But I also say you ran the same race as everyone else; everyone had the same "advantage," just has everyone has the same "disadvantage" when a course is long, or hilly, or muddy, or whatever. In this case, frankly, I was more than happy to save myself 8 to 9 extra minutes swallowing lake water.
Gift No. 4: A Zipp wheelset, on loan from Inside Out Sports' Charlotte location. Not only do the Zipps make my Cervelo P2 look about five times cooler than it does with the stock wheels, I honestly felt like they helped me stay locked in during the flat, fast early miles. On Highway 64 around Mile 5, I looked down at my Garmin and saw I was holding a 30+ mph pace. Average pace for Miles 5-20: 21 mph. At the Jetton Park sprint last spring, I averaged 21.3 mph for 12 miles. Even if it was merely a psychological edge I got out of the borrowed wheels, I'll take it. I owe a debt of gratitude to the good folks at Inside Out Sports.
Gift No. 5: A natural ability when it comes to transitions. My chip time for T1 was 2:15, but my actual T1 time was 1:15. (I checked with others and indeed there was a discrepancy with the clocks that resulted in the official results subtracting 1 minute from our swim time and adding 1 minute to our T1 time.) That's 1:15 to strip out of the wetsuit, get ready to ride, and get out of transition. The transistion area was small, granted -- but that's still fast. T2? 38 seconds. I don't practice these things. Ever. I think it's just a matter of a smart layout, my brain working very well very quickly, and Pam cooking spray.
Gift No. 6: Coke. Kelly told me to look for it on the run course. I found it. I took a sip of it at three aid stations, and it was like drinking liquid nirvana.
Gift No. 7: Seeing my family at the halfway point of the run. My wife Amanda and my 11-year-old daughter Joie have been so massively supportive throughout all of my silly athletic pursuits over the past few years, and seeing them as I completed the first of the two out-and-backs was a big boost. I had to wave off a volunteer who shouted that I was going the wrong way so I could give Joie a low-five as Amanda snapped this great pic.
Gift No. 8: A downhill finish. The benefit of a double out-and-back run course is that after one pass, you know where every up and down is. That's the disadvantage, though, as well, since psychologically you have to ward off bad thoughts about the ups. And there were lots of rolls. As a result, there were a lot of people walking, especially on their second lap. I was determined not to be one of them. One of the main things that kept me going was I knew the last mile and a half was on a decline; all I had to do was get back to the top of that last hill, and -- as the sweetest cliche in endurance racing goes -- "it's all downhill from here." In the end, my last two miles were basically run at the same pace as my first two. Not sure I could have pulled that off without the gift of gravity.
Gift No. 9: A birthday balloon. About 150 yards from the finish line, former Charlotte resident and all-around good guy Thomas Eggar (who led a great cheerleading squad that also included girlfriend Michelle Hazelton and his daughter) handed me a birthday balloon that I grabbed without really thinking. Check it out in my finish photo:
(Note: Thomas and Michelle were there to support Charlotte's Carolyn Maye, who also completed the race and also celebrated her birthday Sunday! She's just a liitttle bit younger than me, though...)
Gift No. 10: A good friend to share a beer with post-race. Shawn Matthews did his first triathlon in May. He completed his first half iron triathlon just over four months later, finishing only a short time after me. Though our schedules don't allow us to train together very often, he's been a great motivator and someone who's brought a terrific sense of humor to a sport that often takes itself way too seriously. We didn't have a bottle opener on the trip so I bought a six-pack of (twist-off capped) Yuengling at Harris Teeter the night before. It's the best-tasting beer I've had in months, and must have looked pretty darn good to others: A woman waiting in line at the food truck who saw it in my hand offered me $20 to go get another one out of our cooler.
There are some other gifts worth mentioning. The volunteers were amazing, and if I had the money and resources to track them all down and give them all a beer, $20, plus a free pair of running shoes, I would. Eight to 10 hours of donated time, with very little thanks expected? Amazing. They're humongously selfless people who did a great job. FS Series also deserves big kudos. The staff was friendly, efficient, organized, conscientious and seemed to offer goodies you might not expect even from a more-expensive event -- shirt, medal, visor (cool), socks (nice), free lunch (burgers, fries, etc.), plus all the other amenities that come standard at a professionally run triathlon. Yeah, the swim was short. When everything else goes so right, though, it's easy to overlook 515 meters of lake.
Of course, the greatest gift is being able to do this at all. In a note to Kelly last week, I included this as a key goal:
"Have fun. It's my first 70.3. Whether I do dozens more or never do another one in my life, I'll always remember it. I want those memories to be good! "Great" would be even better! I asked Meghan [training partner Meghan Fillnow, Kelly's sister] while we were riding the other day for some tips, and one of the things she said was to take the ability to do this as a gift. I think that's great advice. That's why we do this! I'm not doing this for fame or fortune, so I hope I can enjoy every moment tomorrow. Or at least most of them!"
I figured I'd be claiming this race as the hardest thing I've ever done to this point ... but looking back ... I'm not sure it was. I think part of it is the fact that Kelly had me so well-prepared. Equally important, though, was my attitude: Have fun. Create great memories. Enjoy every moment. View the ability to do this is a gift.
Done, done, done and done. I had a very happy birthday.
OFFICIAL FINISH TIME: 5:24:21.
Rank: 42nd out of 151, 40th out of 110 men, 12th in the 35-39M age group.
Place: 87th overall (out of 151), 61st male (out of 110), 15th age group (out of 23).
Distance (per Garmin): 0.88 miles.
Place: 23rd overall (out of 151), 18th male (out of 110), 6th age group (out of 23).
Place: 50th overall (out of 151), 47th male (out of 110), 13th age group (out of 23).
Distance (per Garmin): 56.07 miles.
Average speed (per Garmin): 18.7 mph.
Average speed (per chip): 18.6 mph.
Place: 14th overall (out of 151), 13th male (out of 110), 6th age group (out of 23).
Place: 42nd overall (out of 151), 40th male (out of 110), 12th age group (out of 23).
Distance (per Garmin): 13.09.
Average pace (per Garmin): 8:35/mile.
Average pace (per chip): 8:35/mile.