What an unbelievable weekend in Galveston, TX at the Ironman 70.3 US Championships. After a 2nd and 3rd place finish the last two years in Texas I finally brought home the win and claimed the title of US Pro Champion! With the one of the strongest fields in 70.3 history, the presence of cycling legend Lance Armstrong and a nail biting late race battle for the win this is truly one of my most memorable moments in the sport.
After spending two weeks in Tucson in between races I arrived in Galveston on Thursday feeling great and excited to race. A disappointing ride here last year left me 8 minutes behind Chris Lieto off the bike and unable to defend my title as US Champion. Memories of the race have lingered in my head over the year, leaving me hungry to come back and redeem myself in Galveston. I knew this was going to be an exciting race and a great challenge when I saw the caliber of the field. Two time Ironman 70.3 World Champion Michael Raelert, the only athlete to beat Michael in a 70.3 over the last two years in Sebastian Kienle, the owner of the world’s fastest Ironman time Marino Vanhoenacker, Ronnie Schildknecht, the first man to break 8 HRs in a US Ironman and oh yah the 7x TdF winner Lance Armstrong were among the stellar start list. I was pretty sure this was not going to be an easy day.
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So everyone was obviously talking about Lance and lets face it I just cant ignore it. Lets talk a little Lance. Having him in triathlon is great and it can only add the value and growth of our sport. Lance was a pro triathlete before I knew how to spell the word let alone know what it meant, he belongs here just as much as us. Coming back to his roots is awesome and it takes some guts to come back after two decades away and toe the line. I know all the hype was around him and all the media was focused on him and its ok! I saw the focus on Lance as a positive since I was able to avoid some of the attention and come in under the radar. In fact he was in some ways at a disadvantage with all the hoop-la he has to deal with while trying to get back into the sport and race triathlon’s best athletes. That’s not an easy task. With that said I still wanted to kick his butt (and the others) on race day!
The festivities started with the pre-race press conference and with Lance present it was well attended to say the least. I had the pleasure of sitting next to him during the press conference and to chat a little with a few sidebars. Athletic talent aside I was very impressed with his stage presence. He was great with the cameras and questions, and I definitely enjoyed the lesson in media training! The press conference also gave me the chance to get past the stigma of Lance. After watching Panama 70.3 it seemed some athletes were caught up in his presence and it deterred from their performances. Having the chance to chat, remove that idea and simply see Lance as another competitor before race morning was a great benefit.
Now to the race: The day started with developing winds but relatively calm water for the swim start. As the gun fired I got off to a slow start and felt a little sluggish. Confident in the swim training I have done this year I didn’t panic, found my rhythm and gradually making my way near the front of the pack. As always I value a strong transition, along with Raelert and Stephan Poulat I stretched the field out an opened a gap going onto the bike. Once again as I started the bike I felt sluggish as Raelert pushed the pace. As we clicked off a few miles I came around and when the Lance Train caught us at mile 5 I was ready to fight. I jockeyed for position and settled into third wheel behind Vanhoenacker who I could not let get away. The pace was solid and competitors started to pop off one by one. When Lance made his break 25 miles into the ride there were only a few of the contenders left. I felt strong and along with Vanhoenacker kept my pace fast. Eventually Kienle (arguably the sport’s strongest cyclist) came passed us but not until 40 miles into the ride. As I approached the end of the ride I was excited to know I had only lost 90 seconds to Lance and Kienle was within a minute. I was in a great spot to contend for the win.
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I hit transition in fourth and quickly opened a gap on Vanhoenacker. He is a dangerous athlete and I didn’t want to have to battle him on the run! As I began to run I started to chip away at the gap to the others. While I was making up time I wasn’t running as well as I had anticipated, in fact I felt pretty bad! I struggled in the middle of the run and along with battling the others I was fighting some significant breathing issues. Before I knew it Kienle was pulling away in the lead while Schildknecht was closing on me from the third position, I was in a bad spot. Just at that low point I heard my coach Cliff English yell at me “come on T.O. the big wins are the ones that will hurt the most.” With his motivation I continued to dig and began to find my legs. With one lap remaining I was almost a minute down from the lead but I was gaining momentum. As I picked up the pace I began getting feedback, 45 seconds down…32 seconds…16…I was back in the game! I bridged to Kienle within the last two miles and as I passed he began to match my pace. I knew it would take some tactics to get the victory…almost four hours into the event and the race was just beginning. We hit the last aid station and as I grabbed water he attacked, punch number one. I bridged the gap and tucked in behind him as we hit the airport runway within the final mile. The pace slowed as we both prepared for the on slot and Kienle decided to make another move. He threw his second punch but this time I was ready and remained on his pace. I knew it I needed to make my move soon, before he could recover. We hit the last turn around and I went. I didn’t know if he would respond by I did know I couldn’t look back. I picked up my cadence got up on my toes and tried to keep the pace strong.
The only thought in my head, don’t stop until you break the tape! I stormed into the finish chute and took home the win. The finish line tape has never felt so heavy (I am pretty sure it weighed 200 lbs) but it has also never felt so gratifying. I have to tip my hat to the rest of the field, especially Kienle who made this an unbelievable competitive and fun race. I am absolutely honored to have won the US Championships against such great competitors. We brought out the best in each other in Galveston and I can’t wait to do battle again soon!