Challenge Daytona Race Report
December 6, 2020
Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Fla
0.5mi Swim, 12.4mi Bike, 3.1mi Run
And the rockets red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night,
That our flag was still there
Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free
And the home of the brave
Fireworks began exploding overhead and all around us as the national anthem was sung. Who would’ve thunk that my first time to the epicenter of Nascar would be for a triathlon. I only grew up an hour and a half away, our family business advertised with stock cars, and tons of my friends had been to the Daytona 500 multiple times in their lives. Me though, I’d never appreciated Nascar. Now that I race in a sport that not everyone understands and appreciates though I understand Nascar better. It’s all about positioning, drafting, calculating when to make your move etc. But here I was, standing on the edge of a manmade lake in the middle of Daytona International Speedway getting ready to swim, bike and run my way in one of the most iconic sporting venues in the world. This was Challenge Daytona!
The Paratriathlon/Physically Challenged wave was set to go off at 7:00 AM with the age groupers to follow at 7:02. A 2min head start wasn’t a lot, but it would have to do. We had some of the top Paratriathlon swimmers in the world in our little group. Reo Bronze Medalist, Melissa Stockwell, Silver Medalist Hailey Danz, and Gold Medalist Grace Norman. Throw in Jamie Brown and Eric McElvenny and we had a pretty strong crew. A 2min head start through still meant that the fastest age group swimmers would catch and run over us. We were given the go ahead and Zack and I let our teammates slide down the bank, into the water and go. Then it was our turn. We hit the water and I immediately started swimming hard.
I focused on staying out front with my stroke and trying to pull and push the water straight back behind me. Swim straight, swim smooth, swim strong. The water was a balmy 65 degrees, so perfectly comfortable in a wetsuit. I didn’t feel my strongest but I kept pressing and pushing the effort. I felt a foot just at the edge of my reach and wondered if I could possibly be on Hailey’s foot. In the pool I can out swim Hailey in almost anything under 200 meters. Anything over that she kicks my ass. I tried to just stay as close to her as possible. I knew though that by March I’d need to be out swimming Hailey in a 750 meter open water swim if I wanted to have a chance at beating Aaron at the Continental championship.
When I’m swimming in open water time seems to stand still. I tried singing a song in my head to find my race cadence but no matter how many times I heard the refrain in my head I didn’t feel time passing. Then all of a sudden I felt someone’s hands on my feet and someone almost coming up in between Zack and me. Then they were gone and I felt someone grabbing at my feet. I kicked out hard to let them know that was not ok with me. Then someone came by on my right and I accidentally grabbed a handful of heel. Welcome back to age group racing where the swim is more or less an all out brawl. Damn we’re spoiled racing at the World Triathlon level where 99% of the time it’s a civil swim and there aren’t that many of us.
Finally, I felt the sandy bottom under my fingers. I popped up and Zack swung around to my right. We were out of practice and it took me a minute to get my bearings, get hold of Zack and start running. We ran up out of the water and into transition. Having not had a ton of time before the race start I wasn’t sure about the run into transition so I struggled moving fast and peeling my wetsuit down at the same time. We got to the bike and I fumbled with my wetsuit before Zack was able to grab it and help me strip it off. I grabbed my shoes, helmet and glasses, got them on, got to my feet, unpacked the bike and we started running. We ran for what seemed like forever until we got to the mount line. I heard us running up on someone and them clip clopping in there bike shoes. We stopped, threw our legs over the bike, clipped in and took off.
Swim Time: 13min 5sec
Transition 1: 3min 19sec
Left turn, right turn, through a little tunnel, then out onto the track.
Once we were out on the speedway I relaxed a little bit. Zack and I know how to time trial on the bike. We know how to just put our heads down and go hard. We’d been stalking the Strava profiles of mean of the pros that would be at the professional race later today and we felt we could challenge a top 10 overall time on the Daytona International Speedway Strava segment. So once we were out on the track we started to push the pace. We held back just enough because we wanted to really be able to run well off the bike. The track was buttery smooth and the turns were so gentle I didn’t even notice us coming around them. For our first lap we passed a few people but had the majority of the track to ourselves. Then the second lap got more crowded and we started yelling “on your left,” or “on your right.” Typically on a course like this we’d ride on the left and pass on the right. However, there were bikes strewn across the track. Zack steered us up onto the banking to try and get around some people. Having never ridden together on a velodrome though we didn’t quite have enough lean to avoid almost pedal striking against the 31 degree banking. So our time up on the wall was brief. We’d go up on the banking quickly just to get around someone lower down. We were still moving fast though.
By the third lap the track was very crowded. Zack and I were constantly easing off the pedals, hitting the breaks and slaloming through age groupers. A couple of the faster cyclists had hooked onto our wheel and were following us and trying to help us out a bit in yelling out that we were coming. Nevertheless we’re pretty sure we freaked out more than a few age groupers as the Chinook came flying past them.
After our third lap on the track we did a little curvy loop out by the Daytona Airport. However, this section of the course was horribly marked. There were no course marshalls, only one traffic cone and a bunch of people on bikes going every which way. We followed someone that looked like they knew what they were doing, did some kind of crazy little loop, and later found out that we rode a little extra. Eric had latched onto our wheel by then as well and followed us. After our crazy little extra loop, Eric pulled up alongside and just behind of us and we all exchanged some puzzled remarks as we soft pedaled through a little technical section before getting back on what we were confident was the right course.
We came around a corner and dove into a pedestrian tunnel. I couldn’t help but tense up and clench the bars a little tighter as I heard walls rushing by me. All I could think was, “Don’t crash!” We came out of the tunnel and back onto the track. We hammered for a short stretch then made the turn to head into T2. Zack was looking down the road for a good place to slip our feet out of our shoes. Then a woman started pointing at the ground indicating to us that the dismount line was just ahead. We’d gotten our right feet out but didn’t have time to get our left feet out. So we dismounted still wearing our left cycling shoes. Then someone came screaming by us on a bike and Zack saw the actual dismount line about 50 meters ahead. We were ticked.
I clod hopped my way running with one cycling shoe and one barefoot. We again were very out of practice and messed up turning our bike to rack it. Finally, I got around and removed my helmet and left shoe. I got my running shoes on, grabbed the run tether, stepped into it and we were off. Transition 2 seemed to take forever though. I held back just a bit on the run through T2 using that time to let my legs lose the jelly feeling so that I could really open it up on the run.
Bike Time: 29min 25sec
Transition 2: 2min 31sec
“Narrow path. Hard left, hard right. We’re a little more open. Plenty of space. 6:35 pace, bring it up a bit.”
I ran with a tight upper body for the first few hundred meters as we navigated through a tight space to get out to the smooth wide open track. Once we were out on the track though I forced my shoulders to relax, my arms to swing, and my feet to kick up behind me. “High hands, relax the shoulders, show the bottom of your shoe, lean,” I kept telling myself. I felt myself beginning to flow. There were a couple times when I had to step toward Zack and I’d tighten up, but for the most part I felt in control. I found a gear that I thought I could hold but I couldn’t go past it. I tried upping the effort a few times but couldn’t find that little extra kick. My breathing was hard but not out of control.
Zack passed me a water bottle at two aid stations and I was able to wet my mouth and splash a little on my head. I continued running hard. Zack giving me constant pace updates. 6:20, 6:10, 6:05, 5:55, 6:00. I tried to stay consistent.
“I can still see Eric, let’s try to reign him in,” Zack said. I tried upping the pace. Then Grace came up to my left shoulder and passed me. I tried matching her pace, I couldn’t let Grace beat me! Grace was running out of her mind though and dropped me fast. I refocused and tried to chip away at the gap Grace had opened up on me little by little. But the gap kept growing and I wasn’t getting any faster.
I tried imagining Thibaud, or Antoine, or Brad, or Aaron running up behind me. I tried every mental trick I knew but the extra gear just wasn’t there. Zack kept reminding me to lean. I leaned and my pace would improve, but then I’d lose concentration and struggle.
We entered the finishing shoot and I sprinted with everything I had. We hit the finish line with no fan fair, and very few people in front or behind us. I almost wondered if we’d actually crossed the finish line because it was so empty. Guess that’s how a finish line during a pandemic is… Quiet.
Run Time: 19min 14sec
We collected our finisher medals, grabbed a bottle of water and headed toward transition. My watch had dinged 3 miles right around the start of the finishing shoot and Zack had started his run watch in transition. So we weren’t really sure what my exact run time was until we went back and looked at the results online later. Checking out Strava it looked like Eric’s run was just short of an official 3.1mi/5km run, and mine was as well. But on the other hand the race organization told us it was 5km. At the end of the day we can only run the distance we’re provided and if the race is listed as a 5k then that’s what we run and that’s our time. So I ran a 5k personal best of 19:14. For not having done any speed work since February, I was pretty darn happy with that. I was disappointed in my swim as I felt I should’ve been faster. The bike was fun although crowding prevented us from really seeing what we could do Finally, regardless of the run distance I paced it very well. Looking back at our run data on our watches and Strava later, I had only a 4sec spread from mile 1 to mile 3. Meaning my slowest mile was only 4sec slower than my fastest mile. Maybe there’s something to this pacing thing.
We collected our gear and headed back to the car to load up. Then we wandered around for a few minutes to find a place to take a couple good photos. Along the way we ran into several of my old Central Florida Triathlon teammates. Zack was quite surprised at how many people kept calling out to me by name. It was good to see a few familiar faces and to witness the excitement of a race. We unfortunately couldn’t stick around for very long though. We had to drive up to Charlotte for another week of bike fit and wind tunnel testing. So after grabbing a quick pic next to a race car we headed back to the van, got in, found some breakfast along the way and started our drive to North Carolina.
Thank you to Challenge Daytona for putting on a fun and safe race. It was great to close out this crazy 2020 with something that felt close to normal.
Thank you to USA Triathlon’s Amanda Duke and our coaches Derick, Chris and greg for helping us have a fun and safe training camp and race experience. Thanks to our dietician Sally for coming along and cheering hard, making sure we all ate right, and for helping look after Skye a few times when he needed to get out a little extra energy. And thanks to all my teammates—Zack, Howie, Hailey, Melissa, Grace, Eric and Jamie—for a great training camp week and race day. It was great to be around you all again and share so many miles, laughs and smiles again. Here’s to much more successful racing in 2021.