My first foray into the iron distance racing of 2014 was at the inaugural Challenge Atlantic City held in Atlantic City, New Jersey on June 29th. It was sure to be a spectacular race, as all the Challenge Family races are, and I was really excited. Having a really solid spring of training, including a specific block leading in to the race, I was feeling really confident and strong. To add to the excitement, both Jenn and my dad surprised me by buying plane tickets to come watch the race (although I’m still pretty sure dad mostly came to rip it up at the casinos!) We all had separate flights, and although my connecting flight on wednesday evening was cancelled due to storms, I managed to catch a late morning flight on thursday, after a lot of standing in lines and only a few hours sleep.
Atlantic City proved to be a rather interesting place as we made our way to the cool Flagship Resort that the outstanding race organizers put us up in. I hadn’t realized how much damage at happened during the big hurricane a few years ago, and I ALSO didn’t realize how many casinos were in AC! I seemed like a small version of Vegas, just MASSIVE towering casinos everywhere! Quite the spectacle, especially since I was expecting a quite oceanside town (guess I should’ve done some research eh?) Another thing that struck me was that it was much hotter than I had anticipated; with the humidity factor, it ‘felt like’ high 30’s to low 40’s at points.
I got all settled in, went through my pre-race routine, and got myself to race morning unscathed (including the typical lack of any form of sleep the night before.) I had brought my new Nineteen Rouge SS (swim skin) in case the swim was not wetsuit legal, as the general forecasted temps for the ocean at this time float around 70-72F. Well, we were swimming in a protected bay, so the water temp was 80F. Lucky me I brought my new suit!! I usually never like using the swim skin suits due to chafing, but the new Rogue SS has brilliant glued seams around the arm and neck holes to prevent it.
Race morning floated by, with transitions quite literally ON AN AIRFIELD. The old municipal airport (Bader Field) had shut down, so we got to use the runways and grass sections for parking and transitions. I was feeling REALLY good, better than I ever have in my life. I had a good feeling about this race.
The gun went off, and I had a great start. I managed to get near the front of a pack, which I noticed included Scott Defilipis, Ryan Cain (the other Canadian in the pro field,) and quite a few of the US Pro Tri team members. I got into a great rhythm, feeling relaxed and not having to put out a big effort to keep in the bunch. USAT (the sanctioning body for triathlon in the USA,) doesn’t have strict rules for non-wetsuit swims pertaining to swim skins; where the rest of the world uses the rule that the swim skin must be a 100% fabric material, not extending beyond the knee or shoulder, USAT allows rubberized suits that go down to your ankles (and many athletes had them.) Regardless though, I put in a big surge during the final few hundred meters, and managed to pull away from the group to get out on the bike. I had my usual smooth T1 (which, even though I missed grabbing my bag the first time past, still had the fastest T1 of the day. Hey, a win’s a win.)
Out onto the bike, I was feeling really strong. I had to remind myself to be patient, and dial it WAY back. It’s a long day out there, and going too hard too early will make it much more so (as many people can probably tell you from experience.) I found myself comfortably riding with a bunch of solid guys, and every time someone made a break, we would slowly bring them back. USAT has some intense rules about drafting zones and a rule about staggering, that states no matter the distance of the athlete directly in front of you, you must not follow directly behind them (ie. if they’re on the white line riding, you can’t ride on the white line, even if they’re 500m up the road. Somewhat redundant, but rules are rules.)
We got into the big Hammonton bike loop (two loops through the self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the USA,) and we were slowly putting time into the main group up the road. I was feeling very confident, and fuelling perfectly. Then, all of a sudden, I heard the last thing an athlete wants to hear when they’re racing: “PULL OVER!!!” It was a race referee (which we had three motorcycle officials following us the whole time up to this point,) calling me out for a ‘Failure to Stagger’ penalty. I pulled over, and questioned the referee, who made references to the stagger rule that included a 2 meter minimum stagger distance (which is incorrect,) that he claimed I was breaking. I didn’t argue with him, I just quietly served my penalty as is good race etiquette.
On a side note, I’ve since contacted the head referee from the race, who talked with this individual referee, and has made the decision that I was wrongfully penalized and was in fact following the rules correctly. It’s too late to get those 4 minutes and the proceeding domino effect back, but vindication that I wasn’t in the wrong feels good, especially when I have such a big distaste for cheating and cheaters.
It was frustrating as hell to watch the pack ride away, and after a few minutes watch more athletes slowly trickle by. I just told myself I needed to be patient when I started going again, and keep my emotions out of it. Even though this was the strategy, my power file says otherwise, showing that I was riding for 30-40 minutes much higher than I had originally planned. Not a lot, but definitely enough. The rest of the ride went by without a hitch, even bringing back many of the athletes that rode by during my penalty, and catching some of the guys I had originally been riding with. The last 30 miles of the bike were not only into a bloody stiff Atlantic Ocean headwind, but we were also riding in the third lane of a 3 lane highway, INTO ONCOMING TRAFFIC! So imagine that kind of wind. The big ‘Wind Farms’ (essentially huge fields of monstrous wind turbines) that we passed on the way back indicated this was probably fairly standard for Atlantic City, but regardless, it just seemed to kill me and zap my energy on the way home. Coming into T2, I was happy to be off the bike and getting ready for what I had been training damn hard for the last few months, the marathon. I had pulled myself back to the top 10, and was ready to run. I threw my Compressport Calf Guards on (colour coordinated, as usual,) and headed out. I slowly started pulling back guys, maintaining a light and steady pace that I was sure I could hold all day. I ripped through the first half in about 42 minutes, right on pace with where I wanted to be. Into 6th I went, confident I could maintain my position and have a successful race after overcoming the penalty. I was flying along, enjoying the incredible scenery along the course (6 story Elephant House anyone?) and just chewing away at the course in little bites, my strategy for dealing with big distances. Things were going smoothly.
But then, I got a dreaded feeling. I call them the ‘cold shivers,’ a distinct feeling where a cool wave flushes over my body. I’ve had it before, although Wildflower in May was the first time it had ever happened during a race for me. It’s the feeling you get at the onset of heat exhaustion, and I was only about 8 miles into the run.
Bad. News. Within a few minutes, my pace started to dramatically slow down. After about 40 minutes, I put in a surge for a few miles, with a big “SHUT UP LEGS” and trying desperately to hold off the guys charging behind, but it was useless. Throwing every cup at every aid station in the direction of my face, hoping desperately that enough made it in my mouth to resuscitate me, was an act of futility. The damage had been done, and it was a downhill slope the rest of the run. Seeing video of me in the last 5km was a prime example of how to perform the ‘Ironman Shuffle.’ I hadn’t prepared for the heat in any way, and since it had been a very mild spring/summer so far in Vancouver, I hadn’t had any time to adapt. With absolutely no wind on the run, it became stifling. The run course was a mentally tough one, as you run 2.5 huge loops (well, technically out-and-backs,) along the famous Atlantic City boardwalk, comprised 100% out of 2″ wood slates laid out at a 45 degree angle. Knowing you have to go all the way back to the other end is tough. Then you have to go back to the other end. Then back. Then back again. You get the picture? But I have to exclaim it is probably one of the most exciting and mentally stimulating run course I’ve ever seen. There are people EVERY SINGLE STEP of that marathon, cheering you on like you’re a huge star. When you get close to the casinos, the people are so deep in points at times that I actually had to run off the course to get around them. Definitely a run course like no other.
After my literal meltdown, I managed to scrape myself to the finish line with a 3:20 marathon in 9:09, good enough to claim 9th in the pro field. I was so happy to be done, forgetting how much that distance freakin hurt. I finished out the afternoon hanging out with Jenn and dad, and finished the evening with burgers, beers, and making friends with Dylan McNiece, the 4th place finisher. I had an incredible race experience, with Challenge putting on yet another top-notch world-class event. I’ve never in my life seen such a well controlled bike course, with hundreds of police and military personnel blocking every intersection along the entire length of the course. I also don’t think I’ve seen that many traffic cones in a 9 hour period. For a first year event, it went particularly smooth, and the vibe and excitement of finally becoming a member of the Challenge Family at this race was incredible. I will certainly consider doing the race again next year, even though flat courses don’t suit me well, as it was such a well-done event. I’m a huge fan of the Challenge Family races, and this one yet again delivered with flair and class.
Massive thank you to every single support team member out there, especially Jenn and Dad who I’m fairly sure covered more distance than I did at the race, leapfrogging me to cheer and photograph at every opportunity, and to Coach Björn Ossenbrink, who made sure I was ready, both mentally and physically. Without the support of my team, friends, family, and sponsors, I’d never have made it to the race in the condition I was in. Even with the unfortunate undeserved penalty, I pushed through to finish and honour everyone who has believed in me and given me the high-fives that keep me going on the hard days. I hope everyone is having a stellar summer so far, looks like the weather is getting seriously AWESOME for us now! Happy training everyone, and be safe!!!