Returning to defend an Ironman title is a rare and special experience. Winning one takes so much work, luck, and support, and returning in form to properly defend requires even more I find. Fortunately for me, I came prepared this year, having done the work I felt was necessary in training, diet, recovery, mental preparation, and creating a support network that was surely unrivaled in this northern Idaho town. Between my lovely girlfriend, parents, the Hutter family, Zoot Sports, local friends and fans, my coach, and my massage therapist, I had built a cocoon that put me in the proper place to emerge as a contender on race day. In addition, training partners, coaches, extended family, and all other sponsors played a critical role in my lead-up to race day, and I thank them for such dedicated support.
So I toed the line with a clear mind and no excuses, just a hunger for the elation that comes with an Ironman win. Admittedly, I was spoiled a bit, having won 3 of the last 4 I raced. But I didn’t feel cocky, just confident and prepared. The chop on the lake made the swimming challenging, and we lost more time than we should have to Andy, but I knew it would be a chase no matter what. By 40 miles Maiki and I had pulled back more than half the deficit and gotten rid of Viktor, who was content to try and sit behind us.
The next block of miles unfurled slowly, with high winds and a gap that had stalled out a little, around 2 minutes. Maiki pushed hard and left me behind, his trademark move. I wasn’t too concerned, as I felt I was riding within my plan, and knew the run was strong. Around 85 miles I crested a hill and got a split from my dad that the gap to Andy was only 45 seconds, and I had started to feel strong again. I pressed on, convinced I would make the catch soon. Unfortunately, the race had other plans for me. Only a short while later, while making a pass on an age-group athlete, a strong gust of wind blew him into my path, and with no time or space to avoid a collision, I ran directly up the back of him. We both crashed heavily, my front wheel colliding with his rear cassette, puncturing and shredding it badly. My first thoughts were disbelief. It couldn’t be real. Couldn’t be happening. But it was. So, I gathered myself, and checked on the other athlete. His back was sore, and he was also stunned, so I helped get him up and off the course. I gathered our bikes as others came to help. His bike was basically unscathed, and he needed some time to sit once we determined he had no serious injuries. I went to work fixing my tire, knowing that I needed to stay in the race and punch my ticket to Kona, even if a win was slipping away. I fixed the flat with my one spare, but the tube bubbled out of the considerable hole created by the crash. Even at low psi, I knew it was unlikely to last long. By this time, I was able to help the other athlete onto his bike and to get moving again with the help of a couple volunteers. It was time to turn my mind to racing as hard as I could from this point forward.
I pressed on with some nervousness, making it about 6 miles before my front tire blew. Desperation began to creep in as I lost even more chunks of time. I spotted a neutral support car, but he was on a mission to help another athlete. I rolled very slowly forward with all my weight on the rear tire, covering another mile or two before a scooter with spare wheels came through. I grabbed one, and rode hard to finish the last 15 or so miles of the bike.
I heard big time gaps from the crowd, but did my best to put it out of my mind. If I was so sure of a good run before the crash, why should it be any different now? My knee was a little swollen, and I had some cuts and scrapes, but it was time to go like hell. I took the first mile out hard, and it didn’t feel very good, but I ignored the pain and chalked it up to being slightly uphill. By mile 3 I had found my groove, but the new concern was if I was going way beyond a sustainable pace. It didn’t matter, I was running in fourth and needed the podium, had a hunger to test myself. So I stayed on the throttle, getting gaps that kept falling to the leaders. My half split through town was just over 1:20, and I pushed back the negative thoughts and visions of an epic implosion, focusing on form and nutrition. By 15 miles I believed I would at least catch Maiki, which I did at 19 miles, and then I just stopped being concerned with a final outcome. I was going to the dark place that took everything I had, all of my heart. I was testing my limits and rewriting them in a big way, and the gap to Andy and Viktor kept falling. Finally, I was less than 1 minute down to Viktor, pushing with every remaining bit in the last miles. I could see him, and he was looking over his shoulder, but in the end I could not close the gap, finishing about 40 seconds down in 3rd. I looked down at my watch, which had recorded my best marathon effort by far, 2:43:59. Of course it was bittersweet, but I did what I could to stay positive. The good news was that I secured my Kona spot, and completely changed my perspective on what I am capable of over the Iron distance.
I must take another moment to recognize some of the key people and supporters who made this another memorable event. To Kelsey and my family who made the trip north. To the Hutter family for their incredible hospitality and good energy. To Marcos, my massage guru who also traveled with me and kept me in top form. To all my sponsors: Zoot, Specialized, Clif Bar, Tender Belly, IMT Wines, Fuelbelt, Zipp/SRAM, Oakley, and Vector 450. Finally, to the race organizers, volunteers, fans, and community of CDA. Thanks! See you in Kona…