Around mile 53 on the bike I couldn’t move the crank. The incline was less than 10% but I was completely sapped of energy. I am going to fall over sideways and get carted back to the start. I was horrified by the prospect, mostly just thinking of the embarrassment. I was under trained, was too cocky, had gone out too hard, and now I was paying the price. I hadn’t given this course the respect it deserved.
This was January, and it was the first bike course preview ride for Mountain Madness, which was quickly gaining the reputation for being one of the toughest half iron distance courses ever put together in the Southeast. I did eventually make it up that hill, albeit slowly. All I could think about on the way home from that ride was how this race would not only be my first attempt at this distance, but would surely be the most physically challenging thing I’d ever done. I had never been faced with the prospect that I might potentially not finish a race, and this was a wakeup call. I knew I didn’t want to just get by, I wanted to do it right.
I set to work; more hills, more mileage, smarter nutrition. In April I got new aero bars (they needed updating anyway) and when I was shown a pair of Profile Design T3+ bars that had a dip in them specifically for leverage on a climb, I knew they were exactly what I wanted. I rode every preview ride put on by the race organizers, and even did the course a few times on my own. In the beginning it crushed me every time. Slowly I turned the tables. I got stronger on the bike, which has always been my weak link, and in the process learned every hill and turn meticulously from Carters lake to the summit of Fort Mountain. As I waded into the water on race day, I could have drawn you a map from memory.
1.2 Mile Swim: 29:38 (3rd)
Perhaps a bit too excited I took out the first 200m of the swim hard, then jumped between a few pairs of feet before I realized I was already getting fatigued and should ease up a bit. I eventually found a rhythm and comfortably sat on some feet in 4th until the first buoy. The turn was sharp (probably near 120 degrees) and the guy in front of me stopped to locate the next buoy, and so did I. We both actually sat there for a good few seconds before we spotted it. This turned out to be a good move because we ended up catching up a bit with the number 2 swimmer who’d gone off course. On the swim exit I jogged past the nice gentleman who’d essentially towed me through the whole swim (Thanks!), and had one of the best wetsuit removals ever: it fell off like a well-cooked rib off the bone. Best not to think of food now, though, lots more racing to do.
56.3 Mile Bike: 2:47:58 (5th)
Of course the first ½ mile of the Mountain Madness course features a 20% incline, and I slowly made my way up while repeating my mantra of “Relax, listen to your legs, and execute to plan.” The plan was essentially to ride the first half of the out-and-back course easy and efficiently, then push on the way home. At the first sign of lactic acid in my quads, I backed off ever so slightly. I traded spots twice but remained in 3rd and contently watched as 1 and 2 moved, slowly, out of sight. I was waiting for my moment to attack.
Miles 22 through 28 are a climb up Fort Mountain to the turnaround point. The hill was littered with chalk markings and signs, some motivational, some de-motivational (humor intended), and some were just plain great. My favorites were a series of repeating signs that said “3 Miles to go”, or one chalk marking that read. “This is what you do in your spare time?” Nearly halfway into my very first half I was actually giggling out loud, and it hit me that I was having a lot of fun.
At the top of the hill I got a split that I was 4:30 back. I’d only lost about 3 minutes on the first half. (to bring you up to speed on my cycling background… this was really good news!) I descended aggressively but never out of control and hit mile 34 with relatively fresh legs and started to hammer. By mile 36 I had moved into 2nd and according to a split from a volunteer by mile 45 I had actually closed the gap on the lead slightly. Riding up the very last long 2 mile climb I made a special note of the spot where I’d almost had to quit 4 months earlier. I felt fatigued as expected, it was starting to get hot, but I was ready to run.
13.1 Mile Run: 1:41:52 (6th Fastest)
Ouch. I had gone through great lengths to prepare for the bike course, but I repeated the same mistake on the run as I had done back on the bike in the winter. I’d run half marathons before, and even considered Atlanta’s Publix course to be a significantly hilly comparison to the terrain here. I underestimated. I trotted through the steep first few miles with a trepid ease. My gap behind leader Ryan Wolfe was only opening slightly but I was afraid to start pushing too soon. The out and back run course made busy work for the volunteers, and at mile 8 I ran past an aid station that was busy and I didn’t want to stop. Bad Move. Within the next mile I hit a hill that may as well have been a brick wall. I slowed to a walk, the first time I’ve ever done this in a running race. There was nothing there, I just felt completely empty. I’m going to have to stop, call for help. I hope I don’t pass out. Just like that bike ride in January I’d been too cocky. I hadn’t given the run course the respect it deserved. Thankfully, teammate Eric Doerhman passed me going the opposite direction and, in so many words, told me to get moving. I walk-jogged on.
By mile 10 I discovered the magic of flat, warm pepsi and even in the 80 degree heat I was revived and feeling almost frustratingly good. I put in a good last 3 miles to hold off an attack from 3rd place long course vet Paul Linck, finishing in 5:00:53. When I crossed the finish line, I was so happy to have finished regardless of placement, smile from ear to ear. This was my “aha!” moment, understanding the magic that draws so many people to long course racing.
The rest of the field started to come in including podium teammates John Rotella in 5:38:27, Brian Wainwright in 5:53:01, Dan Meyer in 6:00:03, Michael McGinniss in 6:12:58, Sean Halpin in 6:14:25, Andy Lowe in 6:18:04, and Eric Doehrman in 6:18:59. Mike Luebeck, Jaime Harris, Jorge Perez, and Jeremy Ploessel also competed on successful relay teams.
You can follow Alex on twitter at @alexswimbikerun or on his personal blog at alexsolomon.net.
Special thanks to Jaime Harris for the pictures.