Race Report: Challenge Knoxville Half 5/17/15

The Build-Up

This race report begins with a simple question that Amber—my girlfriend—asked me on Thursday night before the race. “Are you excited to race Knoxville?” she asked. It was one of those questions that she probably just asked out of kindness, in attempt to create conversation, but the question struck much deeper than my superficial “yeah” response.

Amber couldn't come to Knoxville, but she was with me.

As I thought more about her question that night, I knew I felt something about the race; however, it wasn’t my normal feeling of eagerness as much as it was a feeling of anxiety with a touch of dread. Usually, I am excited to race. I think it is important to be excited to race because it gives me that extra edge to go out hard and suffer. This one was different. I was dealing with some really negative stuff. I’m glad Amber asked me the question in the first place because the anxiety was somewhere deep in my unconscious and Amber’s question woke me up to it. Awareness is always the first step to improving situations. Now that it was on my mind, however, I wasn’t quite sure where this anxiety was coming from and what to do with it. What I did know was that if I didn’t work through it, I would have lost the race before I even started because I wasn’t mentally prepared to battle. I went to bed to sleep on it.

On Friday, I woke up and ruminated over the question all morning. It was really starting to get to me. Why wasn’t I excited? Why wasn’t I excited? Why wasn’t I excited? After about 5 hours of repeating this question in my head, I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere. I decided to put the question aside. Worst comes to worst, I would race by going through the motions.

Challenge Knoxville took place at Worlds Fair Park

When I woke up Saturday morning, it came to me out of the blue. It’s funny how ideas form in your head when you’re not actively thinking about them. There were two things weighing me down. First, I realized that I was holding on to some baggage from a previous event. This goes back to Eagleman 2013 when I had one of the worst races of my life and it has haunted me ever since. My plan going into that race was to hold back on the bike and to run hard. I ended up having one of the slowest rides of my life and still ended up having an awful run. This totally killed my confidence in my run and reinforced that I need to bike as hard as I can to get in front of the race because I’m never going to run fast enough to outrun my competitors. Further, I’m always going to blow up at the end of the run. As irrational as these beliefs are, I’ve had trouble disproving them. In fact, I haven’t wanted to disprove them. Eagleman in June 2013 was the last half I did. I’ve been avoiding the distance like a plague ever since, until I chose to do this race in Knoxville. I thought I had let go of my experience at Eagleman, but it was still there.   

Second, I woke up to realize that I misplaced my goal—or rather, I had a secret goal: I wouldn’t be happy unless I won this race. This seemed nearly impossible to me with athletes like Cam Dye in the field. I was putting pressure on myself to go on a suicide mission early with a 100% risk of blowing up and not being able to finish the race. No wonder I was anxious! Looking back, this was a very irrational goal with a very irrational plan to execute.  

Challenge moves in with Huge Tracker-Trailers to Set Up!

Once I realized that I was still holding on the Eagleman 2013 experience and had this misplaced-secrete goal on my mind, I came into the full realization of why I was dreading this race. It was time to reframe. I asked myself the question, “what would make this race exciting for me?” The answer to that question was pretty simple. I didn’t need win the race, I just wanted to finish strong. If I could do this, I bet that I could finish around 10th place. The plan fell into place a little after that. To finish strong, I would need to swim, bike, and run conservatively. More specifically for the run, I wanted to start conservatively for the first 2 miles, get into a rhythm for miles 3 through 10, and then build the final 3.1 miles. These process goals were much more realistic and gave me something that I could control.  

The Race…

Race day morning was the ritual as usual. Oatmeal and Coffee for breakfast, a stretch cord warm up to get my latts and shoulders engaged, a run with pick-ups, and a 10 minute warm up swim with a few pick-ups.

When the gun went off, we started with a roll up to speed rather than the smack in the face all-out effort that comes with Olympic distance racing. I’m sure one or two guys surged in the beginning, but everyone else built for the first 400meters or so. The group strung out. I was swimming within my ability level and found myself in position with a group of guys that ended up about a minute or so behind the front pack. It was nice to finally swim with a larger group! I swam a 28:14, a PR by over 3 minutes. I was happy to see that the front pack left transition as I was running into it. I was still in the hunt for my 10th place.

Heading towards T2 with a Group!

I got out on the bike with a pack of about 12 riders and we were all riding together legally. This was the first time I was riding with a large pack like this and it came naturally to me. The first thing that I noticed was how wet to roads were. I didn’t expect rain and it was pouring. The roads were dicey, especially around the first couple of turns. Everyone was taking them cautiously. At every turn, I could feel my back tire skidding which made me feel really uncomfortable, especially riding so close to the other guys (at times, side by side per USAT rules). About a mile into the race, we caught up with the front group. A little down the road we hit a railroad track and my front bottle popped out. I decided to go back and get it. It would only take about 20 seconds to pick up, it wasn’t worth the 2 minute penalty, and I was confident that I could catch up with this group. I got the bottle and started to work my way back to the group. It only took me about a mile before I caught back up and I ended up riding through them.

I road on my own for a few miles.  Going through the turns, my back wheel continued to skid. At one point, I actually stopped to check if my back tire was flat, but it was completely filled. I figured that there was just a lot of oil on the road and that it would be smart to play this one safe. If I road with the group, I was still in contention for my top 10 goal. The pack of riders road past me and I caught the back of the train.

It’s amazing just how easy it is to ride with the group. Half the time I was out of my aerobars and coasting, yet we were moving pretty quickly. We were legally staggered with 10 meters to the guy directly in front of us and roughly 5 meters to the guy staggered to the right of left of us. Every time the front guy switches to the opposite side of the road, we all have to switch. When this happens, and it happens a lot over 56 miles, each person gets a .5-1 second draft from the guy he is switching sides with. It was surprising to me how much this all adds up to an easier, but still legal ride. 

Zane's and Specialized hooked me up with an Evade Tri Hemet and It's Awesome!

At a turn around, I saw a pack of riders riding a few minutes ahead of us and I counted 10 riders. I banked that I would be able to run 1-2 of those guys down and out run everyone in the pack I was with if I stuck with the group I was in. My 10th place goal was still in sight. I told myself to conserve, conserve, conserve, and not make a move until mile 3 of the run. I stayed safe through the end of the ride. I ended up averaging 225 watts, a good 50 watts avg less than I put out at IM Chattanooga last year. In other words, the ride was stupid easy for me and I knew I set myself up to have a strong run, I just had to be patient. I ended up riding 2:24, about 15 minutes slower than my 56 mile PR.  

Heading towards the Finish

I ran into transition, slipped on my shoes, slapped on my fuel belt, and ran out. Some guys charged out of transition, but I told myself to be patient, to find my form, to let my back loosen up, and then see what I could do. I’ve charge out of transition before in a half and it’s been a huge mistake, making those last few miles a struggle. I still took the first mile out a little faster than I wanted. I ended up running 6:05’s for those first 2 miles until I settled in. It was conservative enough to stay strong. I reeled one or two guys in the first 4 miles, and ran close to another until about mile 9 when I dropped him. I got passed by a guy or two around mile 9.5 and told myself to be patient and stay within my ability level. I still had about 3 miles to close in on them. I passed another athlete around mile 10.5 and knew that this was my opportunity to start pushing for the line. I increased my effort and tried to close on the guy just ahead of me. I kept getting closer and closer, working a little harder over the final mile while keeping that 10th male pro goal on the back of my mind. I knew I could out-sprint someone in the final 400m if I had the opportunity. I ended up not catching anyone, but I finished strong like I wanted. I ended up running 6:25 pace for 1:24:03. A PR of about 2 minutes.  
My overall time was 4:18:40 and I took 15th place overall.

The Finish Line!

The Reflection

Reflecting back on the race and hearing other pro athletes account's, I realize that I made some mistakes and also did some things really well. Maybe the biggest mistake was not taping down my front water bottle. As my friend and fellow pro Nick Brodnicki pointed out to me later, I was in the front pack when I dropped that bottle. Unbeknownst to me during the race, that pack split in two and I caught on to the 2nd pack. I probably should have kept riding strong to catch up to the font pack early in the ride. They must have only been a minute or so ahead and I think I could have caught them less than half way through the course. At what cost? I don’t know. I also should have left some additional air out of my tires. Not planning for the rain, I pumped them up to my usual 110-115psi. I think I would have had better grip around 95-100psi.

What did I do well? I did a solid job on my nutrition plan, taking in 6 gels on the bike with water and some light Gatorade mix and taking in one gel, some Gatorade, and some water on the run. I didn’t have any cramps and my energy was good, so I will continue to use this plan in the future. I worked with the group well in both the swim and bike. I saved a ton of energy to prepare for that run and ended up running well for me.  

Fellow CEC Training Partner Rachael McBride Took 2nd!

The thing I’m most proud of, however, is that I worked through the emotions that I had coming into the race and proved to myself that I can finish the race strong. That gave me a whole lot of confidence. I'm in a much better place mentally for my next half. No doubt, I will be smarter and faster.

What’s next up? The plan is to race Cedar Lake Sprint next week followed by Eagleman 70.3 on June 14th! After that, I will race Philly Olympic. I can honestly say I’m very excited to race these races! Hope to see you there!

Challenge takes Care of their Athletes in Ways that Matter!

A special thanks to Zane’s Cycles, Connecticut Cycle Center, Dr. AJ Gagliardi of Muscle and Joint Performance Chiropractic, Amber, my Parents, Coach Cliff English, my fans, and Challenge Family for all the great support!