This weekend marked the start of my 2012 season and my first race as a gluten free athlete at the Ironman 70.3 San Juan. I am proud to report I successfully defended my title and brought home the win!
After a roller coaster year in 2011 I was elated to get right back on track in San Juan. In early January I discovered that the health issues I experienced in 2011 (particularly in the 2nd half of the season) might have been related to a gluten sensitivity problem. I made the switch to gluten free and immediately began to feel “normal” again in everyday life, particularly in training. While it hasn’t been easy for a guy who absolutely loves treats, I was able to adopt the change successfully. After learning of the issue I headed out to Noosa, Australia to train for the winter. I was excited to find gluten free options EVERYWHERE! For the next two months I was able to train happy and healthy in Noosa and was ready to start racing.
I headed out from Australia back to the States the Monday of race week and made a quick trip to Boulder to collect all my race gear. After a whirlwind of packing and organizing and in a foggy haze of jetlag I headed back to the airport and out to San Juan on Thursday. When I arrived I was greeted with the same unbelievable hospitality that made me fall in love with this race last year. While still trying to manage the jetlag (I think it was a 14 hour time change) I partook in the pre-race events and began all the standard preparations for race day. While I didn’t have my traditional fudge brownie the night before the race I was able to sneak in a few gluten free cookies!
Race morning came quickly and I excited to put it all out there to defend the race title. I approached the start line with simple race plan, just put it all out there! I’d attempt to push the swim and bike as hard as possible and see who remains to battle it out on the run…no gut, no glory! As the gun went off I was able to quickly make my way to the front of the pack. A few hundred meters into the swim I made a move to the front to set the pace. The race was filled with dangerous competitors like duathlon world champions Leon Griffin and Paul Amey so I knew a fast swim would be in my favor. As we exited the water I realized there were only two athletes left on my feet. In a great position to strike early, I blitzed the transition and hit the bike solo and in front.
I settled into a strong pace while Belgian Olympian Axel Zeebroek hovered about 30 seconds back. Over the course of the bike I was able to build a solid lead over the main pack. About 43 miles into the ride Axel decided to drop the hammer. While he was able to put about 30 seconds into me in the closing miles I felt comfortable in my position with the dangerous runners a few minutes behind. I felt a bit of deja vu as I came off the bike, last year I was in a very similar position with Luke McKenzie about 60 seconds up the road.
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As I started the run I was ready to take care of business. I have been working on my glut strength this season and was looking forward to being stronger in the run course’s challenging hills. I settled in my pace and closed the gap to Axel in the first 1.5 miles of the run. The winds were down this year which made for a very hot run, especially on the exposed seawall outside the historic gates of Old San Juan. While the view was breathtaking I didn’t have time to enjoy it as I monitored my body in tough hot and humid environment. I spotted Griffin in third place and running strong. In 2008 at my first Ironman 70.3 event I battled him in similar fashion. I lead that race from the gun and with a 90 second lead and less than a mile from the finish my body failed. Griffin came storming by me and took the win. Here I was again with a 90 second lead and while I felt in control I knew that in these conditions anything could happen. I kept my foot on the pedal and on pace, I knew that if I left the door open he could easily squeeze in! As I approached the last 5km I noticed Griffin was in 2nd but he had not closed on the 90-second gap. I made sure to stay strong; with three miles left there was still room to falter and I wasn’t about to forfeit this victory!
As I approached the finish a huge feeling of joy and relief came over me. On a personal level breaking the finish line tape was a symbol of placing the challenges faced in 2011 behind me. Neither basking in the successes of last year or dwelling on the shortcomings will make me a better athlete. With a new season comes a clean slate, the triumphs and the failures are all simply experiences from which I must learn and then move on. San Juan marks a new year that will have its highs and possibly its lows. Either way they are all experiences that contribute to my growth as an athlete…but I still prefer the highs!