“You’re racing ghosts.”
Slusser Rd., lined by scorched grass and awash in the California sun, was relatively sparse with competitors this early in the race, so the purplepatch support crew at 10 mile popped in my tunnel vision. The encouragement the coaches and athletes produced was tangible, but perhaps none more than that phrase I heard Matt Dixon yell, “You’re racing ghosts.”
It perfectly captured the reality of the day: Team Every Man Jack had 15-20 athletes starting in waves from 7:10 through 8:30 a.m. Which meant that roughly 20 guys were capable of winning an Amateur title at Vineman 70.3 and I had no idea where any of them were. But Matt’s words meant he knew that I was in the hunt for that Amateur title, and for the last 3.1 miles, I ran like hell to secure a PR on this course, Amateur runner-up and Age Group win.
IRONMAN 70.3 VINEMAN
Wine country is home to arguably one of the most competitive 70.3s on the circuit, Vineman. Athletes begin by turning the serene Russian River into their own brand of washing machine for a 1.2mi swim, before heading out on a diverse 56mi bike ride through redwoods, vineyards, flats and climbs, all topped off with a 13.1mi run through the vineyards in the exposed sun. The caliber of athletes in both the amateur and the professional field is world class so race day is the truest test of ability. I was gunning for this race.
SCIENTIFIC RACE CHART, VINEMAN EDITION
I have to say, I made some really solid additions to my pre-race play list. If you can’t get amped hearing Thunderstruck at the start line of a race, check your pulse. Said playlist got me fired up and focused as I warmed up and those tunes played through my head during the race. So on the scale of Kenny G. to breaking the ROCK meter, I heated up as the race went on, like Freebird, but far less obnoxious and definitely less…Confederate.
THE SWIM 1.2mi
Full Swim Photo Album | Song: Thunderstruck by AC/DC
Image credit: Ironman
Roka errthang: Cap, R1 goggles, Maverick Pro wetsuit
Race morning saw zero clouds, which meant a sighting would be challenging with the sun right in our eyes on the way out. I discussed sighting strategy with teammate C.J. Olson before the gun went off. When it did, I saw C.J. take off more quickly than I could cover, so I settled into a group hoping that together we could sight on the buoy line. At the turn around, the depth of the water is less than 3 feet deep and I bottomed out. I stood up and dolphin dove until I got to a depth I could continue to swim. Looking back, I probably should have clawed the ground and kept “swimming” (crawling). My return line was a bit wider as I shot straight for the swim exit. As I’ve learned more about the river currents (they’re strongest in the middle), I probably lost some time. I got out of the water in 31:18. Slow, especially for Vineman, but I was feeling fresh and ready to ride my bike hard. And if I learned anything at Raleigh, it’s that I can overcome a poor swim.
THE BIKE 56mi
Strava | Full Bike Photo Album | Song: Robot Rock by Daft Punk (#helmetgoals)
The bike was the tail of two halves. Or should I say, four quarters. The first half of the bike stared down the barrel of a strong headwind and was quite challenging. Much of the second half benefited from these conditions with a fast and fun tailwind, allowing me to really get into a groove. But this year, inspired by how college basketball teams, specifically the Xavier Musketeers, handle games by breaking them up into “4 minute wars” (TV timeouts are called at the 16,12,8,4min marks in a half), I’ve been breaking my bike into four 14mi wars. I have a time goal for each quarter of the course and I work like mad to hit it, then focus on the next one. Here you can see how the wind really affected the first and second half of this course respectively:
Note: On pace in final “war,” but was slowed up in no-pass zone in final mile
Felt IA, ENVE wheels and Rudy helmet cruising through the Vineyards
I made sure to fuel and hydrate with GU hyrdation mix and gels to set up a good run, so when I hit the racks and barely any other bikes were there, I knew there was nothing left to do but strap on my Saucony Fastwitch 6 shoes and go. Fast. Because my teammate Jackson Dovey was out there doin’ work and it would take a solid effort to compete.
THE RUN 13.1mi
Strava | Full Run Photo Album | Song: Backseat Freestyle by Kendrick Lamar
Jackson started 6 minutes ahead of me as our Age Group was split in two due to size. I knew that there was no chance I would physically catch him unless he crashed and burned, so I’d keep my eyes open for any cue as to how far behind in “race time” I was. Regardless, I had to run fast.
La Crema vineyards
Just like 2014 I headed out in 5:30s. While it felt comfortable, and was assisted by the cheers by Dani and the V squad, I reeled it back to be conservative, settling into 5:45s and then 6:00s at the first grade uptick. Vineman is sneaky hard because the entire course is rolling. So while there is no “marquee” climb, it’s punchy. To my satisfaction, my body felt at home as I powered the ups and let it fly on the downs, with very little variations in pace. Whenever I crept up to 6:10, I forced it back down by tightening up form and focusing on turnover.
At mile 7 the course goes up into the vineyards of La Crema winery for a one mile loop in what feels exactly like a cross country course. I smiled, enjoyed being in my element, and embraced the pace needed in the second half of the run. As I passed an athlete, he told me Jackson was a quarter mile ahead of me. While grateful, I knew that time and distance gaps given on the course are usually a bit off, so I took this as Jackson was up to a mile ahead of me.
Once I left the vineyard I saw Jackson returning from the out and back and estimated he was a mile ahead of me. Quick math: 1mi=6minutes – or the exact amount of time Jackson started ahead of me. Meaning that, as of mile 8, we were effectively running shoulder to shoulder…while being a mile apart, if that makes sense.
FLASHBACK: 2015 Ironman World Championship in Kona Hawaii, I watched Jackson Dovey cruise through the field and finish 9th in his age group IN THE WORLD. He’s an incredible athlete and I knew that if I didn’t run even harder for the last 4.5mi of this race, I would have a hard time catching him.
Kona: Jackson was 9th in the world in his division
But that’s the beautiful thing about this team. I watched almost all of our guys do this in Kona last year, so they were all coming, it was just a matter of when. Thus execution was critical for a strong overall finish. In order to do this, your aid station game has to be as strong as your pace, so I guzzled Coke or Red Bull at each, drenching my Louis Garneau Coldblack kit and Boco visor with ice water to stay cool.
And that brings us back to mile 10. With 3.1mi to go, I get a boost from the purplepatch team and dial the pace a notch further for my fastest mile of the day. For some reason I remember the final two miles being entirely downhill. Turns out this isn’t the case. The Cleveland Cavaliers were a source of inspiration – in order to be champions, they had to fight. Effort was maximum output at all times. Nothing is given, everything is earned, and imagery of them diving for loose balls and playing to fatigue in Game 7 looped in my mind, powering me over the hills. My fastest GAP mile (grade adjusted pace) was the final mile, 12-13 as I kicked to the finish.
Down the chute, I heard my family yelling for me to go and figured it must have been really close. As I crossed I looked at Jackson with a “What-the-hell-just-happened-that-was-so-freaking-hard-omg-nuts” look and gave him a big hug. I didn’t know if I’d beat him or not, but in that moment I was just really thankful. Thankful for the opportunity to race with him and push each other to our limits; thankful for this team and all that we put in, to get this out of each other on race day.
Thankful for the opportunity to race against this guy and the rest of our squad
RESULT AND TAKEAWAYS
It turns out the effort was about :30 faster than Jackson. In a ~4hr race, that’s incredibly close. A PR for me on this course, 4:12:35, meant an Age Group win, 2nd Amatuer (teammate Jake McDonald taking the title by 2min – stud!) and 18th overall, including many of the worlds best professionals. I’m beyond encouraged by this finish and thrilled that the work to date materialized.
But like most athletes, I dug into takeaways for improvement. While I’ve really developed my bike to be competitive while maintaining a solid run, the swim is miles away from finishers 1-17 ahead of me. The great swim project will continue and teammates have been generous with their tips, especially Savage. On the bike, I think the gains will come from two areas: staying the course on the purplepatch training plan and aerodynamics. Teammate Jesse Moore has provided great insight on the latter as it pertains to position.
I’M COMING HOME! My next race is Ironman 70.3 Ohio, which takes place in Deleware just a short drive from where I grew up. Hometown crowd, home cooked meal, sleeping in “my room” – can’t wait. See ya on August 21st, Ohio!
After that the plan is to finish the season at Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz on Sep. 11 on the classic Big Kahuna course.
A big thanks again to Dani and my folks for a great weekend at Russian River and for all the support. To the D’Onofrio clan for having us over on Friday night for dinner – Kathy, you’re culinary skills are off the chart! Always good to spend time with the fam. Team EMJ, I’ve said enough – good work fellas. Purplepatch for having me ready to execute. All of our sponsors for provided the best gear – I legitimately race faster with this stuff, thank you!
See ya in O-H…!