I won this event last year so I was aware that it was a small race with low entry fees. I was under no illusions when I registered this year that I was signing up for a high-budget event. I did check to see if some of the more sketchy points from 2014 had been remedied this year. That being the case, I went ahead with my small-scale title defense.
On race morning I almost pulled the plug. The weather was looking iffy and knowing the course I was a bit uncomfortable racing in those conditions. But I went ahead and made the drive with the understanding that I would make a last minute call whether to actually race or not. As it turned out, the weather wasn't a factor so I am happy I didn't preemptively end my day.
The swim - for the first time this season - went well. I felt much more powerful in the water and was able to break away at the gun and exit the water by myself in the lead. Granted, it was only 500 meters and it's hard to really judge your swimming over that distance in the open water. We'll see if some of the new stuff I've been working on in training translates to the Olympic distance in August when I cover that distance a few times.
Before the race started I ran into up and coming athlete, Rob Hollinger. Rob was a runner in college (up until last May) and he's really making an impression on the triathlon scene this year. In June he won the well attended Patriot Half, so he's got a solid background and I knew he'd be a real test. I've actually been working with Rob on his swim so I was really aware of how well he is racing. I also knew that I had to have a big gap starting the run in order to win. He's got very good run speed- like 1:16 in a half ironman.
As I headed out on the bike I went hard early. The course has a ton of turns and bends in the road and my goal was to stay out of sight. Long story short, I was successful in doing that. I rode very well and came into the second transition with a rather large lead.
HOWEVER... the fact that I survived the bike at all is a miracle. Every single intersection for the first half of the course was uncontrolled, as was one of the final turns. I honestly thought I was going to die. There were police and volunteers at each station, but they were all in their cars. It's certainly not their fault. It's standard practice for the race director to have a car pre-drive the course and notify the intersections that the first bike will be arriving soon. Clearly that didn't happen. As a result, there was lots of slowing and accelerating on my part as I tried to navigate downtown Concord without being run over. It was a disaster. I understand not paying for a lead car/motorcycle, but it is totally unacceptable not to notify the police and volunteers that the race is underway. It's dangerous and irresponsible. As a race director I can not even imagine how this was not dealt with properly. Safety - especially on the swim and bike - are priorities 1 and 1a. Had I not been paying attention to what was happening out there, or rather not happening, there's a serious possibility I could have been run over. Fortunately, I had enough sense to slow down through town and defer to vehicular traffic so I didn't become road kill.
Back to racing. As I left transition on the run I was enjoying a big lead. But I knew that no lead was really safe when the guy chasing me down could run in the 16:30 range over the mostly off-road course. I ran really hard for the first mile and a half hoping to stay out of sight. I was successful in doing this, but I was starting to pay a toll by mile 2. Things started to really hurt as I entered the final trail section of the course. By that time I was within Rob's sights and I could tell that he was closing. I was on pace to run in the low 18 minute range for 5k - which probably would have been in the 17:45 range on roads - but he was gaining fast. All I wanted was for the finish line to show up. With about 200 meters left to go it was still out of sight and I could see that Rob was only about 10 seconds behind me. I mustered up about 100 meters of hard running and then cruised into the finishing chute as Rob came barreling in three seconds later. For never really seeing each other during the race, it turned out to be a pretty exciting finish.
As we cooled down on some of the roads surrounding the course the two of us noticed that athletes were using a different trail than we had. Not only were they using the wrong one but they were being directed by a volunteer to do so. I knew we'd gone the right way - both because of the course maps and because I'd done the race the year before. It turned out to be a huge mess for the RD after the race, but it could have been avoided. The VERY AREA where this happened was something I brought up to the race director after last year's race. He'd asked what he could improve and both Stephen and I commented that he needed markings in the grass and signage on that trail as it can be a confusing area. I was really disappointed to see that he hand't made that improvement this year. It caused an unnecessary headache for the race organizers and a lot of disappointment and frustration for those athletes. What concerns me isn't so much that people got lost on the course it's that two experienced racers (and an experienced RD) had brought this to the race's attention last year and it wasn't remedied. That's not a good sign. And it's part of the reason I don't think I'll return next year. I can't go back knowing that things might be just as unsafe in 2016 as they were this year.
I've been around long enough to expereince all sorts of courses and race organizers. I've seen the best of the best as well as some super sketchy situations. What happened this past weekend was on the concerning side of that spectrum. I really hope things get turned around in the future. It's a small race, but it gets some decent attendance from the local area. It's a beginner friendly race in that it's not intimidating and very low key. That said, the fact that it's beginner friendly is even more reason to go above and beyond with safety and course set up. If corrected, this could be a really fun race for people. If not, I'm afraid to go back.
While I was disappointed in the way the race was set up I was actually really happy with the way I raced. I took away a number of positives and can see that I'm headed in a good direction for my bigger races this year. And regardless of where it happens, it's fun to be on the top step of the podium.
Fortunately, I'm headed to one of the best organized races in the country this weekend at the Beach to Beacon 10k! It's a race I've been looking forward to for months and I can't wait to experience it and hopefully throw down a solid time.