I already knew my good friends and fellow competitors, Frank Fisher and Phillip Rowan, were committed to the event as well, and I looked forward to racing with them. Frank is a phenomenal swimmer – I can’t touch him in the water – and his bike is almost as good as his swim. Phillip is a phenomenal runner – I can’t touch him in a pair of sneaks – and his bike is almost as good as his run. My strength is my bike, and I’ve tried to develop my swim and run to be as good as I can. So the three of us were all contenders, but in order to feel like this race was anything more than a hard training session with my regular training buddies we needed more competition. So, when I discovered that another friend and competitor that I hadn’t raced all year, John Worden from Durham, had signed up my competitive juices started flowing. John rarely has any problem beating me in a triathlon, and as far as I can remember I only bested him once in a measly pool swim style sprint triathlon (Azalea Triathlon, 2008). All three half iron races we had both competed in John had passed me quite handedly on the last 20 miles of the bike course or early on in the run and never looked back. I was excited to have another crack at my good friend at this distance.
Sometime late in September or so, an unknown signed up for the race with a strong racing background. Joel Bell was a triathlon coach from Virginia Beach and had thrown up some impressive races recently. His swim was okay, but his bike was strong, and his run was unbelievable. I picked him as the race favorite, and spent a lot of time trying to develop a race strategy that would get me ahead of him early enough in the race to contest for the win.
My goal time was to beat 4:30. I hoped to swim under 0:30, finish the bike with as much time under the 3:00 mark as I could, and then run something as close to 1:30 as possible. My personal best for the distance was 4:35:36 (White Lake Half Iron, 2007), so I was looking to beat that and then some.
Fast forward to race week and the smack talk was getting pretty thick between Frank, Phillip, John and I. Frank had announced he had a secret race strategy that was “risky but the payoff could be huge.” Phillip was looking super strong, and most importantly for him, very healthy. He has a tendency to be injury prone, but no signs of that going into this race. His third attempt at this distance, Phillip was concerned about cramping on the run - an affliction that reared its ugly head on both previous attempts. (Phillip is 54 years old by the way. But don’t let that age fool you. He has kicked tons of young fellers to the curb that have tried to hang with him.) John was planning on staying at my house the night before the race to minimize the long drive he’d have from Durham. I joked that I would spike his coffee with ex lax among other ways of sabotaging his race. I also joked to Frank that if Angie saw he had an insurmountable lead on me at any point in the race she would ride along side him and insist to any race marshals present that she was his coach attempting to pace him (which is an automatic disqualification and a rule Frank knows only too well – a whole nother story there!).
But for all the smack talk, what was messing with our heads the most leading up to the race was the cold weather. Temperatures were expected to be in the low 40’s on race morning. This boded well for the run, especially for me as I’m convinced I suffer exponentially as the temperature rises. But nobody was excited about swimming in cooler water and then getting out for a bike ride, all wet, and freezing. Phillip was the most vocal about it, and for all his worrying he did his best to acclimate by hitting the Pamlico River a few times for practice swims the last two weeks before the race. He also showed up with a brand new long-sleeve wetsuit. I tried to remain as stoic as possible so as not to let on any apparent weaknesses. But by race morning, I was just as cold as the rest of them. Angie had done John’s and my body marking at the house, so we wouldn’t have to strip down in the cold weather at the race site to get it done by volunteers. I had heavy socks on as I milled around getting everything ready before the race. Angie was shivering wearing a great big fleece blanket she had acquired from who-knows-where. I ducked into the porta-potty 3 times before getting in my wetsuit – partly to take care of business (as Frank says, “Success in triathlon starts with success in the bathroom.”) and partly because I thought it’d be warmer in there. It wasn’t.
With 30 minutes to go, John and I got in our wetsuits and Angie zipped us in. She’s the only one I trust to get this right. Once in, I realized I hadn’t put any Body Glide lubrication on my neck to keep the wetsuit from chafing me. John said the same thing, and followed it with, “But that won’t cause any pain til after the race so we don’t have to worry about that now!” We eased into the river to get used to the temps, and I immediately peed in the wetsuit to accelerate the warming process and take advantage of the last chance to empty the bladder before the race, when such tasks get far more difficult to accomplish.
Swim Leg: 1.2 miles
Once we were lined up to start the race, with the first wave being all the men, I positioned myself in the front, middle of the pack. I had become increasingly confident about my swimming ability this year, so I was not concerned about the physical beating that usually takes place when you’re a middle-of-the-packer. Frank, I noticed, was lined up on the far left, clearly ready to scoot around all us mediocre swimmers by comparison. My plan was to stay on Frank’s feet up to the first turn buoy to distance myself from John, Joel, and Phillip, but with him on the far left side I had no chance of finding his feet. The gun went off and I started stroking. I was surprised to see how many guys were ahead of and with me so early on. I swam within my ability, and kept the pace under control. After rounding the first buoy, I could see I was in a chasing pack with Frank enjoying a good gap on us. I tried to work with the group, jockeying for position and trying to find a good pair of feet I could trust to follow. But it seemed those leading the pack were mistakenly heading for a red channel marker rather than the second orange turn buoy. So I veered to the right to make my own line for the buoy. Immediately I started to overtake the rest of the guys in the pack. Evidently, and I didn’t know it then, John was in that pack and fully aware of where I was. He knew he needed to stay with me and quickly got on my feet and followed. Shortly after turning the last buoy, I overtook the last guy in our chase pack. Frank looked to be 100’s of yards ahead – what an incredible lead he had! I came out of the water about 2 minutes behind him, completely unaware that John was right behind me. It seems, John had improved his swim immensely this year as well, and kept that fact under my radar too!
Swim Time: 00:28:39 (Personal best for this distance, assuming distance is correct)
Running to my bike in T1, I caught a glimpse of Angie cheering me on. Man, I love that woman. I got to my bike, peeled off the wetsuit and began the process of putting on arm warmers, socks, and gloves – 3 items I’ve never had to deal with in a triathlon…….3 items that don’t go on very well when you’re wet and cold either. It took forever! Angie was hollering at me to hurry up and get out of there; that Frank had already left about 30 seconds ago; that 2 more guys had already left ahead of me; and that John was almost there too (in my hypoxic state, this is what I understood her to say but she was telling me that he was about to overtake me heading out of T1 – I just expected errantly that he was still in the water). Finally, I grabbed my bike and took off…..not just a little frustrated at the fight it took to get dressed.
T1 Time: 00:02:26
Bike Leg: 56 miles
Out on the bike, I immediately felt good, even though my legs felt like pins and needles were being stuck in them from the freezing cold I felt as I tried to cut through the air. A glance at the speedometer and I noted I was moving at just under 23 mph – come on, Bruce, a little faster! I caught the two that had beaten me through transition in the first couple miles. A quick word of encouragement to one of them (Seth, who I knew to be a good swimmer) and I was off. The plan at this point was to catch Frank as soon as possible and open a larger gap on the guys behind me. I fully expected John to catch me like he always did sometime in the latter part of the bike. Had I known he had come out of the water with me and not with a one or two minute gap behind as I had expected, I would have biked a bit more scared than I did. As it was, I pedaled myself into no-man’s land on the hunt for Frank and was surprised when I rounded a corner and there he was about ¼ mile ahead. At this point we were about 14 miles in and I had expected not to catch him for many more miles, if at all. I turned onto hwy 264 and began pursuit, but told myself not to chase too hard for fear of tiring myself out.
Then I noticed there appeared to be another cyclist up there with him. I wondered who that could be as I slowly got closer. I couldn’t believe another swim ringer had gotten out in the lead. Turning north off of 92, I caught the unknown cyclist and noticed it was a girl wrapped up like it was the dead of winter. I figured she was just a cyclist out for a training ride that got caught up in the event, but later found out she was part of a team. As Frank made the right turn back onto 264, I hoped he hadn’t noticed me yet coming up behind, but I think I saw his ultra-long aero helmet twist in my direction. (If you’re trying to be fast, and you’re wearing an aero helmet, you do your best to keep your head up and look forward at all times to stay as aerodynamic as possible. So you have to use the turns on the course to minimize how much you turn your head when you look behind to check on the competition.) This section of 264 was extremely rough, and it was impossible to find a good, smooth line to stay on. I locked my eyes on the back of Frank as he followed the lead-out vehicle, a white Pontiac Solstice with its hazards on. I desperately wanted to take over the rights of leading the race and following the lead-out car as I have never had that privilege in the bike leg of a triathlon before. Even the few races that I’ve won, I only took the lead on the run segment (well, this year at the Outer Banks Triathlon I had the lead from the start of the swim but it did not have a lead-out car on the bike course so I’m not counting it).
As for bike nutrition, I had a gel flask full of banana flavored Hammer gel that had congealed in the cold weather and was difficult to squeeze out. I also had Sport Quest Metasalt salt tablets, VO2Max Endurance tablets, and Hammer Antifatigue tablets that I took every hour. I was not drinking very much due to the cool temperatures, which in hindsight I believe was a big mistake. But my onboard bottles contained Carbopro for carbs and Heed for electrolytes.
At mile 19, I caught up to Frank. As I passed I mentioned something about how rough the road was and suggested he try to keep pace, as I didn’t think I was moving much faster than him anyway. I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand a word I said as my lips were still a little numb from the cold, and I think what I said sounded a little incoherent anyway. I settled into my pace, enjoying the time behind the lead-out car. There was one advantage I hadn’t realized to being in the lead, behind the car. Its role is to guide the leader of the race through the course, but also to give traffic some sort of idea what’s going on from a safety perspective. So, any oncoming vehicle passing me had to pass the car too. I essentially had full use of the entire lane, so on the rougher roads I could use a smoother line in the middle of the lane if the shoulder was rough. You can’t do that riding in no-man’s land, as you’d be inviting oncoming traffic to mow you down if you went around hogging the whole lane.
Every now and then, Angie and Frank’s wife, Anne, would drive by shouting something unintelligible but probably encouraging. The rest of the ride was pretty uneventful though as I tried to keep the pace high without expending too much energy. By now I was rolling between 24 and 25 mph with a slight tailwind. Nobody was in sight behind me on those country roads and I wondered what was going on back there and what would happen on the run course. I hoped I was building an insurmountable lead, but knew better than that. Every now and then I stood up to pedal and assessed how the quads felt. All was good and I kept telling myself it was my running form that had become really strong as of late, and that whatever was going on behind me was one thing, but I was setting myself up for a great run. I enjoyed coming up on the volunteers manning corners before they expected anyone and startling them into getting into position with their “turn here” signs.
Once I was back in the town of Washington and on River Road with about 2 miles to go, I took one last look back and saw someone was gaining on me. Arrrg! I expected it to be John. I was disappointed to not have the lead I was building hope for, but told myself again that it was during the run that I intended to have my best part of the race. John would have to fight hard to run with me. As I came into T2 with folks cheering for the leader, I saw the second place guy come in. It wasn’t John……it was Joel. Oh crap! Knowing he was an awesome runner a burst of reality hit that I could no longer hold on to the lead of this race.
Bike Time: 2:23:14
I had a fast T2 time. Nothing much to report on here. I yanked off the gloves and arm warmers, put on my shoes, ditched the Giro Advantage aero helmet, and took off running while Joel fumbled to get his bike gear off. I also grabbed a fresh set of salt and endurance pills.
T2 Time: 0:00:37
Run Leg: 13.1 miles
I ran through Washington Park following the lead-out biker and made the left onto the bridge on River Rd. This was my first chance to get a quick glance behind me and see where Joel was. He was a faster runner, but a burst of energy flowed through me and I intended to make him fight to take over the lead. Glancing over my shoulder, he was nowhere in sight. Wow, maybe he’s having some sort of trouble! I might have a shot still! So I kept the pace high. At the first mile marker I checked my pace. 6:45. Much faster than my expected 7:00 pace. I hit the first water station and tried to down some more salt and endurance pills. I fumbled for the right ones and instead just turned the container up and took in 2 or 3 of whatever came out. A few more steps and then I took another look behind me and saw Joel at the water station. He had actually stopped to take in fluids! Wow, I thought again, he’s struggling to find his running legs. Pour on more energy! I hit mile 2 and was still at a 6:45 pace. It was a pace I couldn’t maintain, and shortly after that the hopes faded as Joel passed me at a pace I could not follow. My guess is earlier he was taking his time, knowing full well he was a faster runner than me and just wanted to pounce on the lead on his own terms. I settled into a pace that was more comfortable and concentrated on hanging on to 2nd place.
At this point, we had reached the drawbridge on hwy 17. We both hit the metal grate with our feet and both clearly did not feel comfortable on that surface, so we leapt up on the high and very narrow sidewalk. It would later turn out that many people fell trying to run on that slippery grate, or by having to leap back down onto it from the sidewalk as runners approached each other playing chicken for the prime real estate.
I reached the first turn around and checked the clock. Now run back, and whatever time it takes to get to the third place guy, double it, and that’s your lead on him. The next one was John, and I had about 6:00 on him. That’s a good lead, I thought, but don’t slack because John has outrun me every time at this distance. Frank was right behind him. Some other guys I didn’t recognize were behind them a bit, and when I got back to the drawbridge here came Phillip, looking strong. I was already on the high and narrow sidewalk when I saw him do the same as Joel and I had done – run two steps on the grate, make a mental note not to do that anymore, and then risk cramping a hamstring by leaping up on the sidewalk. Except I was already on it and there was hardly any room for both of us. I took the outside lane hoping he would leap off, but he didn’t want to get off anymore than I did. He passed by me as I leaned over the side of the bridge to let him by, picturing in my head what it would look like if I leaned too far and fell over the bridge back into the Pamlico. I remember thinking Phillip looked in good shape as he was running by and I hoped he would finally have a good half iron race and join me at an Ironman one day.
People coming the other way shouted words of encouragement, willing me to catch Joel. What they didn’t understand was he was pulling away from me – I wasn’t gaining on him. A couple times a car would pass by and shout my name too. I wondered who it was and guessed it was someone from work that happened to be driving by. At this point my pace was getting harder to keep up. The leg muscles were feeling tight, probably because I hadn’t hydrated properly on the bike leg or early in the run. I was chanting inside my head “JUST-KEEP-MO-VING! JUST-KEEP-MO-VING!” as motivation. I had also developed the need to pee since some time during the bike leg, but figured if John was closing the gap I couldn’t waste any precious seconds going to the bathroom. I ran to the turnaround near the finish line, saw Angie who said something encouraging, told her I needed to pee, and started my second lap, again checking the time to get a split on John. If I still had 6:00 on him I told myself I could stop to pee. If he saw he had chipped away at my lead and I gave away some more time to pee, he might feel he had a chance to reel me in at the next turnaround as well. I wanted to make sure at the next turnaround there was no chance he or anyone was going to catch me.
At this point there were lots of people on the course starting their first lap. Robert Hickner, a fellow Tricredible, was just in front of me on his first lap. There was a time when he and I were competitive in the local 5Ks. I looked forward to running him down, and then I saw John coming my way again. I still had 6:00 on him so, once he passed, I stopped right there in the middle of the road and peed. Nobody was around to see me at that particular instant anyway. Getting back into my run, I felt better for the moment not having to think about peeing. I focused on Hickner as someone not only to pass, but to pass the time as well. I passed him on the bridge and he said something about a flat tire he had had. That guy has the worst luck!
At the last turnaround I still had over 4:00 on John and knew at this point 2nd place was just a formality as long as I kept moving. I came upon Phillip as I came back into Washington and he looked like he was hurting. Unfortunately, his cramps had reared up again. I hated it for him and thought immediately there would never be a chance to do an Ironman with him one day. I checked my watch and saw I would be just shy of my 4:30 goal unless I sprinted these last couple miles. But I didn’t have it in me and settled to maintain my pace. My legs were hurting and I just wanted to be done with the race and with the season.
Run Time: 1:36:32
I crossed the finish line in 4:31:27, elated to be done. Not just with the race, but this was the end of a long season. A little boy handed me a metal and I caught my breath. I waited at the finish line for my friends to finish and congratulate them as well. We had all suffered out there together, and I respect those guys so much. John came in 3rd about 3 minutes later, Frank in 4th at 4:49, and Phillip in 9th at 5:02. Frank, Phillip, and I had personal bests for the half distance.