Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga marked my first return to real racing—and by “real,” I mean back competing against some of the best triathletes in the world—since being hit by a car last September. I had performed a test run, competing at a smaller Olympic distance race about a month before this one, but there were still many, many questions about my fitness level; my performance; and, most importantly, my confidence and psyche.
My training leading into 70.3 Chattanooga had been largely low key. I had accumulated a solid amount of volume, but after so many months without focused training while my body recovered from all of the injuries stemming from the accident, most of the work that I had put in to date was largely aerobic in nature. Put simply, just pure base training. Obviously, base work is highly integral to overall fitness level and serves as the foundation for high performance, but heading into a race without incorporating any intensity whatsoever doesn’t instill the type of confidence in your ability that promotes being “race ready.” As such, there were several question marks leading into the event, both physically and mentally.
Race morning brought with it a decent amount of wind, creating some unexpected chop in the otherwise
usually calm Tennessee River. The swim was a source of a large amount of concern for me. In early April, after countless months of physical therapy had failed to rehabilitate my shoulder that was injured in the accident, an MRI revealed that I have a torn rotator cuff. Surgery will likely be required, but after so many months away from racing, I simply could not afford to take another year devoted to recovery from my injuries. Therefore, pain management is the chosen solution for now.
The injury saps a fair bit of power from my swim stroke, so I wasn’t sure how well I would swim amidst the flailing arms and legs of the other professionals vying for position in the opening meters. I found a good rhythm as we swam upstream before making a u-turn to head down the river. However, as we rounded the turn buoy, I simply did not have the power to surge and stay on the feet of the swimmer in front of me. As a result, I lost the lead pack and ended up exiting about 90 seconds down on the leaders. Not a great outcome, but not disastrous either.
After a quick transition, it was onto the bike for 56 miles of rolling terrain. The strategy here was pretty simple: stick to my plan. With only base riding miles under my belt, this event was not the time to get caught up in race tactics, surges and the like. A smooth, steady effort was the only way I would likely have any legs to run on for the half-marathon.
I never felt very good at all on the bike, so I simply focused on staying within myself and just getting the best out of what I had on the day. Sadly, my regular health struggles have forced me to get used to this type of situation. I rode solo for a large portion of the ride, with only a few miles spent working my way through a group, so I didn’t really have any idea what was going on up the road ahead of me. Much to my surprise, however, when I entered the second transition someone informed me that, while Sebastian Kienle and Sam Appleton were off the front, I was still only 90 seconds down on the main pack in 9th place. Somehow, despite not feeling great, I had minimized the damage and stayed even with the group on the ride.
I set off on the run still not feeling solid, but found a pace that, while not fast, seemed to be sustainable for 13.1 miles. On the two-lap course, I figured I would have an opportunity to see whether I was making up any ground. I picked off only one spot on the first lap, but all of the sudden the body started coming around and feeling good at mile 9. My health issues create some odd responses in my body (after all, who starts to feel good at mile 9 of a half-Ironman??), but I simply was pleased to finally have some legs. Using this newfound energy, I was able to finish strong on the back half of the run and, surprisingly, move my way into 4th place with the third-fastest run of the day.
As I crossed the finish line, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t put any limitations on what I could accomplish in this first race back, but by the same token, nothing to date had indicated that one step off the podium was a possibility. And given where I sat just a few months prior, toiling through weeks and weeks of physical therapy wondering if I would ever return to full health, I was more than pleased with this finish.
There is still plenty of work to be done, but my result at 70.3 Chattanooga was a strong first step. And for someone who wasn’t even sure he would continue in the sport, this finish was a great indication that I have not made a massive mistake to dive back into the sport.
Next up is Ironman 70.3 Raleigh in two weeks. One step at a time…