2016: Doin’ the Pro Thang

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My endurance sports background started at the age of 13 when I ran the St. Malachi 2mi road race (holla, my Cleveland peeps!) in 1997, which evolved into racing middle school and high school cross country and track. While I felt as though I had found my niche, I never managed to qualify for the state meet in CC or track, and saw myself as a mediocre talent for quite some time. However, I need to credit my high school coach, Barb, with planting the seed that I could be better than I thought.

The first time I thought racing as a pro might be a realistic possibility was after Ironman Arizona in 2011, my first Ironman. I placed 4th overall amateur in 9:04, one place outside of earning pro status. That race was truly a “did that really just happen?” kind of experience that completely changed the way I saw myself as an athlete. This is also when other people started asking me if I would race pro. At the time, it was very exciting to think about doing so, but it felt premature; I wanted to gain more experience as an athlete, especially at the IM distance. Sure enough, I experienced some adversity at my next two races, the Ironman World Championship 2012 and Ironman Texas 2013. I learned a lot, applied it, and had the race I was hoping for at my next Ironman World Championship.  I did exactly what I wanted to do and it was a very gratifying experience to take control of my race, resulting in one of the fastest overall amateur runs that year.

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Janée’s sign for me during the run at Kona 2013

After meeting my goals in Hawaii, the pull of Kona wasn’t nearly as great in 2014 (doesn’t mean I don’t want to ever go back though!).  I decided to focus on 70.3 distance to recharge and race more frequently. I won a HITS half iron (no pros) to start the year and then had my best placing ever at an IM 70.3 event with 2nd amateur and 9th including pros at Buffalo Springs. I was shocked to learn after the race that I had the fastest overall run of the race – this was a signal to me that racing pro was another step closer to becoming realistic. I won another half iron distance race in September (no pros) and closed out the year with 3rd overall amateur at Austin 70.3, solidifying some consistency at the front of the amateur field.

Prior to my 2015 season, a friend asked me what my next goals were – I said I wanted to be the first overall amateur at an Ironman and I wanted to go under 9 hours. I started the year with Puerto Rico 70.3 in March.  Since I was working during the trip to Puerto Rico, I spent a lot of time working on my feet in the sun in the days leading up to the race, but I had put in some solid training and was feeling fit. I finished as the 2nd amateur, again with the fastest overall run split, which qualified me for the pro card if I wanted it to take it. Next up, though, was Ironman Texas.

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I showed my greatest consistency and dedication to training for that race, and Janée remarked on a number of occasions that I seemed so much less zombie-like when getting through the toughest weeks of training. I was taking the training more seriously and I was handling it better.

At Texas, I met my goals – I finished first overall amateur in 8:55. Beyond the amateur win though, I had the unique and crazy experience of running with eventual winner, Matt Hanson, for all 8+ miles of the last lap of his record-setting race (my second of three laps). This eye-opening experience, coupled with finishing two places outside the money at the North American IM Championship, again indicated to me that perhaps I was ready to give pro racing a try.

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The improvement I’ve seen over the last several years,  the results and consistency I’ve had, my approach to and ability to better handle training, and some perspective gained along the way have all factored into the decision to race as a pro. We also moved to a great training environment at 5,000′, I have a flexible work schedule, and I see this as a timely opportunity to test myself while Janée pursues her PhD.

Considering the relatively small amount of money in triathlon, I don’t view this as a career change and I’m not quitting my job. However, I have considered myself an ambassador for the sport for some time for Racelab,  as a member of NAU’s tri club, as a coach, and as someone new athletes can come to with questions. I love the sport, I love the training, and I love helping people get into it. As a pro, I look forward to being able to race among the best in the sport; I’ll be lining up with many I have idolized. I’ll get to start in the first wave – no more starting 10+ waves back and having to get through hundreds of people before seeing a somewhat clear course. No more worrying about races selling out, and the cost of racing will be much less. I look forward to new challenges, new experiences, and getting out of my comfort zone!

Thanks a ton to all who have supported me along the way, especially Janée, my coach of over ten years, Bettina, my parents, and friends.  Let’s GET UGLY this year!

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2014 Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs Race Report

Better late than never, I suppose…

I was excited to head back to Lubbock because Buffalo Springs, despite being an Ironman 70.3 event, still has that “mom and pop” local race kind of feel to it. It seems more laid back while still being professionally run, and I had a good experience there in 2012. This time though, I was heat acclimatized and not in the process of starting  a build for an Ironman (Kona) like I was last time. I was swimming and running faster than ever, and I was a little unsure of my bike fitness due to the different terrain here in Austin (I consistently ride slower here than in Flagstaff).

I made the 5.5hr drive out to Lubbock on Saturday morning. It’s very rare for me to head to races solo, but Janee made the decision to stay home and spend time with our dog, Matilda. Her health had declined in the last two weeks and we knew our time with her was very limited. I went to this race with a heavy heart, as many of us know it’s incredibly hard to lose a family pet.

I did the usual pre-race prep of all of my race gear and noted that the forecast called for up to 20mph wind out of the SSW and a high temp of 100 degrees. I knew this could make it interesting! I left my hotel around 435am on race day despite my start time not being until 6:54am – last time I left later and waited in a LONG line of cars leading to transition and I barely made it in time. This was much better and I had plenty of time to make sure everything was good to go, rather than the mad rush of adrenaline that was 2012.

The swim:

I was disappointed to learn that I was in the 10th of 11 swim waves. The traditionally fastest age groups of any 70.3 race were in the 9th and 10th waves with each wave only 3 minutes ahead of the next, which tends to cause a great deal of congestion as the back waves catch each of the next ones ahead. I had been swimming well in training, so this was going to be a good benchmark to see how well it transferred to open water, so I was worried about how much this congestion would affect things. It’s also presumably a disadvantage when it comes to overall amateur standings for the later waves who have to swim through more people than the waves that started earlier. Either way, I decided I’d stick as much to the inside/close to the buoy line as possible and hope for the best. If I had to briefly swim inside the buoy line, it would likely not be nearly as far as if I swam further to the outside of any groups.

This race start is unique in that it’s one of the few that I ever do that has a beach start where everyone goes sprinting into the water trying to run as far as possible before diving in. I have zero practice with this, but I lined up at the front, ran hard, kept my knees high, and I think I did pretty well. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have any luck finding faster feet to follow. I was slowed only a little a few times before getting to the second buoy, but after that, I had mostly clean water ahead of me while sticking left along the buoy line. This was much, much different than 2012 where, over and over, I came upon slower groups swimming four abreast that I’d have to completely re-route to get around.

The rest of the swim went smoothly and I got out of the water in the high 29s, a nearly three minute improvement for this race. Pre-race, I thought I had a decent shot of swimming in the 28s, partly from pool times and partly because I swam 29:05 at Marble Falls, but an improvement is an improvement! Side note: I got the swim distance at 1.21 miles. I did use a wetsuit stripper and transition went so-so. It had been awhile since the last time I did this, but I opted to put my bike shoes on in transition rather than having them on the bike and hopping on barefoot. This was with the thought that we’d be immediately climbing a steep hill right out of transition and I didn’t want to get caught climbing that whole thing barefoot/out of my shoes.

Swim split – 29:52
Split rank – 6th in M30-34, 74th overall
(2012: 23rd in M25-29, 254th overall)

Bike:

Up the steep-ass hill we went, along the park road, and out into the country. It was clear right away that we had a strong tailwind while going north and it felt like the disc wheel was acting like a sail because I was just moving. Going east, it was noticeably more of a crosswind but the speed hovered around 25-26mph, so I knew the forecast was probably right, wind out of the south/southwest. I passed 45 of the 73 that swam faster than I did in the first 13 miles of the bike leg, and things were much more sparse after that: I only passed 12 in the last 43 miles! Luckily it was rare that the next rider ahead was too far ahead to see, so I always had a target to work towards.  The southbound sections were a grind into the wind along with steep uphills out of the valleys. Return trips were screaming fast (and borderline scary going into those same valleys again). The second southbound stretch included “The Hill,” which was not part of the course in 2012. It actually had a switchback and was a super slow climb, plus you couldn’t make up for it on the return trip due to the tight turns on the descent. On the westbound stretch (where it was 25-26mph going the other direction), it was now a struggle to hold 20mph into the head/crosswind. Gusting wind made the bike very twitchy and hard to control, but I saw it as my chance to grit my teeth, stay aero, and try to drop a guy I couldn’t seem to shake. This made the difference, as I gained considerable distance on him over the next few miles. The average pace dwindled throughout the ride to quite a bit below my 2012 average, but these conditions were much more challenging and I hoped it was affecting everyone else just as much.

Elevation profile + HR

Elevation profile + HR

Bike split – 2:27:17
Bike rank – 1st in 30-34, 2nd overall amateur split, 14th with professionals
Bike fuel – 5oz of First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot per hour (400cal/hr, 1000 cal total) 20-30oz of water per hour

Run:

Onto the run, I felt heavy and uncomfortable, but as I said, my run had been stronger than ever leading into this race, so I was still confident I would run well. Boy though, I did not expect to be alone already for such long stretches! I didn’t see anyone ahead of me for a few miles and overall, only passed a handful of people. I knew this was a good sign, I just thought I’d have many more people to pass from the waves ahead of me. Around 4 miles, I started seeing the lead pros coming back and I looked forward to seeing how many AGers were ahead of me since this is an out-and-back course. I had to pay very close attention because many top AGers look just like the pros! On the long, windy, hot, straight stretch known at “Energy Lab II,” I spotted only one AGer ahead of me and as we passed, I checked my time. When I got to the turnaround, I did the math and realized he had over 8 minutes on me. Yikes! I was hoping he started at least 6 minutes ahead of me (hopefully not 3:00…) and I might have a chance to get him in overall time. The only thing I could do was keep pushing as hard as I could despite not being able to race toe to toe. It was still no-man’s land for the most part and it was really hot but I just tried to stay wet and take it one mile at a time. Also seeing the oncoming racers during my return trip made things a bit more bearable and encouraging, as many of them offered their support. How awesome is that? They’re out there suffering just as badly but still cheering on other racers.

Early in the run. Photo by Jon Walk

Early in the run with intimidating facial hair arrangement. Photo by Jon Walk

My fastest mile of the day was the 9th at 5:42, although it had a good downhill in it. The last three miles were painful but all were low 6:0X, which I am pleased to have held onto to finish it out – the first three miles (this same stretch, other direction) were 5:5X. I crossed the line in 4:20:22, around a minute slower than 2012, but I knew it was a better performance considering the conditions and I could simply tell based on the lack of people around me for the entire run compared to last time. Now it was time to see whether I “caught” the other guy!

Run split – 1:19:38
Split rank – 1st overall
Run fuel – Three tangerine PowerGels, 1 SaltStick cap about half way through, water at every aid station

Run profile + HR. Avg HR = 166

Run profile + HR. Avg HR = 166

Run splits - "GAP" = Grade Adjusted Pace

Run splits – “GAP” = Grade Adjusted Pace

I went and talked to the timing people to figure out where I placed and they broke the news: I was 2nd overall amateur…by 17 seconds! Ha, wow. I was immediately disappointed and of course wondering where I could’ve save that time, but after awhile, I came to terms with it and realized I had a great race. This was my best overall finish in an IM 70.3 race and I was shocked to learn I had the fastest overall run, including the pros – this took the sting off of those 17 seconds, big time. I was stoked. The first overall amateur was Tim Hola, who is not only consistently good, but I learned he’s a good guy after talking to him for awhile after the race. He won his age group by an incredible 29 minutes.

A few days after the race, Herbert Krabel from Slowtwitch.com contacted me for an interview after they had apparently noticed the overall run split. It’s quite an honor to have been interviewed by them and it can be found here.

Seeking athletes to make faster!

As many of you know from when I discussed it here, I’ve started coaching triathletes and runners with Racelab. Coaching has been my goal since 2006, and I am thrilled to finally put my dreams into action!  Following my enlistment in the Air Force, I moved to NAU to earn my BS in Exercise Science, where I learned about human physiology, nutrition, exercise testing and planning, and biomechanics among other things.  I am now a USA Triathlon certified coach, and I have loved my first year of coaching.  (As a side note, I have a “Coached Athletes” tab at the top of this page where I’ll continue to post updates about athletes that I coach.)

I am passionate about helping athletes to improve and achieve their goals.  It is so rewarding to see people push themselves to accomplishments they weren’t sure were possible, whether it’s a couch potato completing his first 5k or an experienced athlete winning her 30th race with a new personal best.  I have 15 years of personal training and racing experience as a runner plus 5 years as a triathlete, and I am eager to share my expanding knowledge and experience.

Now that Kona is behind me, I am actively seeking more athletes.  I set up individualized training plans which take into consideration factors like experience, fitness level, time availability, and goals. Athletes are encouraged to contact me at any time with questions, concerns, or comments; I think it is very important to be available for my athletes and to adjust training according to situations that come up.  Racelab’s head coach, Bettina Warnholtz, approves all of my schedules, so my coaching is backed up by her 15+ years of coaching experience and expertise.  She is a USAT Level II certified coach and has coached me since 2004. Whether you’re a beginner looking to complete your first race, a seasoned veteran that wants to improve and/or is looking for a more structured plan, or anywhere in between, feel free to contact me at josh@racelab.com (and spread the word)!