Last fall, I got talked in to racing Challenge Atlantic City with a bunch of BLTCE teammates. Don and Mindy were the expo managers. It sounded fun to be part of the inaugural Challenge USA triathlon, so wise decision or not, I registered for the full iron-distance triathlon to be held June 29, even though I was already registered for Ironman Mont-Tremblant August 17. That’s right, two full distance triathlons, a mere seven weeks apart. Peer pressure will make a competitive woman do amazing things.
Atlantic City is a 3.5 hour drive from DC (if there’s no traffic), a 1:15 flight from Michigan, and a 2-hour drive from Lansdale, PA, so my parents decided to fly from Michigan, and three of my dearest friends (including SuperSherpa KLapp) decided to come down from PA, to support me. This was going to be awesome!
If you’ve read my blog at all this spring you know the training has been going fairly well, except that I’ve been slacking in the pool. I headed in to CAC with the hopes of breaking 12 hours in the race, which would set a PR (my previous PR was 12:12), and racing strong in front of my family and friends. I’ve put in a lot of time on the bike this spring, so I especially wanted to post a solid bike ride. My running has been consistent, and even though I didn’t brick enough I entered this race thinking I had a shot at sub-12.
I got to Atlantic City on Friday afternoon after sitting in horrendous traffic on I-95, and met up with my parents. We went to the expo and I got my race packet, then we had an early dinner and did some shopping before an early bedtime. Saturday morning was spent on the beach. Kristen Kramer came down from PA to spend Saturday with me, Mom and Dad. She and Mom stayed on the beach while Dad accompanied me to bike check-in at transition. I saw Marjorie and Kang, and we took a quick photo. We saw Matt too, but he wasn’t in our picture.
(Kang, me and Marjorie.)
Suddenly, after I racked my bike, I felt exhausted from the sun, so I headed back to the hotel to lie down in the air conditioning.
We had an early dinner at an amazing Italian restaurant and the BLTCE team was all there. There was not room for four extra people at their table but we ate at the bar so we were all together in spirit anyway! We took a group photo before splitting off and heading back to our hotels to get some rest.
(Me, Mom and Kramer heading to dinner.)
I told Kramer that I was not an exciting date the night before a big race (just ask KLapp, who accompanied me to Sweden) so when I got in bed at 8:30 Saturday night, it was not a surprise to her. J We watched Dateline and I dozed a little bit. I slept off and on between 9:30 and midnight, but then I actually fell asleep till the alarm woke me at 4:17 a.m. It was race day! I got out of bed, thrilled with a decent night of sleep (Sleeping for 4 hours before an iron distance tri? What a treat!), made coffee and my breakfast (a Trader Joe’s British muffin with almond butter, jelly and cookie/cocoa butter) and donned my race kit. I put on silver eyeshadow, which as a silly superstition I do before every race. I made sure I had all the nutrition I needed for the day, grabbed my swim gear bag, and headed down to the hotel entrance where Mom and Dad were waiting for me in my little rental car.
On our way to the transition area, which was about two miles from the hotel, I spotted an athlete walking quickly in the direction of transition. I figured he had missed the shuttle (he had) so I asked Dad to pull over. We picked him up, and he thanked us profusely for the ride. His name was Scott and he was from PA, and his first Ironman was in Louisville last year. Louisville was also my first…ah, the memories!
(Me and Dad before the race start.)
I got to transition to put the nutrition on my bike, pump up my tires, etc., and heard the announcement that the water in the bay was 80 degrees and the race was not wetsuit legal for those of us seeking awards. There would be a wetsuit swim wave at the very end of the swim, but most of us would go without. I’m fine with that since I’m (usually) a very good swimmer. “Bring it on,” I thought! I saw a bunch of BLTCE friends in transition, and told Christian (who was starting his swim in a wave 18 minutes ahead of me) that I would catch him by mile 70 on the bike. We both laughed…it’s all in good fun and the spirit of healthy competition. Right? He’s would be my toughest BLTCE competition of the day.
(Leigh Ann, me, Mindy and Marjorie pre-race.)
When it was time for the national anthem, three Navy SEAL skydivers jumped out of a plane. They did some cool formation stuff, then one unfurled an American flag and the other two linked up for a face-first plunge toward the earth. Such a cool start to the race! The swim waves began. It was race time!
(Such a cool start to a race!)
We walked into our corral, which was the tenth out of 13 waves, and a couple of the girls near me asked how many Ironmans I had done. I told them this was my third, and they were both competing in their first full 140.6, so I told them to stick to their pace, eat a lot on the bike, and that this would be the best day of their lives!
Finally it was time for our wave, so we walked onto the dock, I mugged for Dad’s camera, we got into the water and finally the horn went off. The first 400 meters of the swim were lovely. Smooth water, easy to sight the first and second turn buoys, and I was cruising.
(Can you spot me?)
Then, everything changed. The swim course was a Y-shape and we hugged the coastline most of the way. The sun was rising, which made sighting the buoys nearly impossible. The water was so shallow, I hit a spot where it was only 18 inches deep, so I had to walk through muck until the water got deeper. The current was going every direction, people were cutting buoys and I was having a rough time. It felt like the swim was 3.4 miles long…the course went on, and on, and on. And on. I was fairly miserable, which never happens to me during the swim. I passed a whole lot of people, since 9 waves had begun before me, but it was never too crowded because the waves were spaced out well. I only got a couple of rib-kicks and elbows to the head the whole swim.
After what felt like forever, I finally made the last turn and saw the dock. It took way too long to get there, and as I came off the ramp up toward transition, I saw the race clock and I wanted to cry. I swam a 1:18? That is 15 minutes slower than my last two Ironman swims – I mean, I swam a 1:03 in Louisville without a wetsuit! I saw my mom at the chute on the way toward transition and I said, “That was so slow!” I ran under the fresh water coming off the fire truck, grabbed my bike gear bag, ran in to the changing tent, put on my bike gear, stuffed my jersey pockets with extra nutrition and quickly exited the tent and ran toward my bike. Mom and Dad were standing by the fence and said, “You can make up that time on the bike!”
(Exiting the water. Such a slow swim!)
Ok, it was time to ride.
2.4 mile swim: 1:18:13
The ride took us out of transition and toward the Atlantic City Expressway. It took me about 20 miles of riding before I got that terrible swim out of my head and was able to think about the upcoming ride. I would later learn that nearly everyone was about 15 minutes slow on the swim, but that didn’t help at all at the time, nor would their slow times make a difference in my attempt at a PR.
I was flying – flying – on the bike for the first 30 miles or so. My average was 20.6mph without even pushing my heart rate above Zone 2. I felt like I was going to have a really good bike split. In training I’ve been focusing a lot on the ride, which I believe is time well spent, since the bike ride takes up about half the clock time of any triathlon.
We rode off the Atlantic City Expressway and into Hammonton, where we navigated two loops of about 20 miles. This part was fun. Totally flat, mostly good roads, some headwind and tailwind at parts but relatively minor breezes, and I easily kept my average speed in the high 19s. Easily – what? How did I do that???
Twice we rode through a downtown area lined with spectators and an announcer, who called out our race numbers and words of encouragement as we rode by. There were cowbells and cheers and a huge Challenge Family arch we got to ride through. Those types of spots during races are really motivational, and I had fun whizzing by the crowds. But, after the downtown cheering section I had a very close call at one particular left turn. I came to an intersection with a traffic light, where there were police directing traffic. An officer waved an SUV ahead as I approached, and instead of driving through the intersection the SUV stopped right in the middle of the intersection. I had to hit the brakes hard as I banked into my left turn, and my rear wheel skidded. I almost fell over but managed to right myself and kept going. Phew! Close call. A wipeout during a tri is something I hope I never have to experience.
(I need to buy this photo.)
After 82 miles on the bike we turned back onto the AC Expressway for the remaining 30 miles…and then things got tough. All week we’d been warned about the possibility of strong headwinds on that last section of the ride, but the weather forecast was only calling for 10mph winds so I didn’t think it would be too bad. I was wrong. Now, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the wind in Sweden, but still, battling the elements while riding on a wide-open expressway, opposing traffic (yes, we were riding against traffic with nothing to separate us from cars driving 65mph except a line of traffic cones), started to really challenge the mental aspect of this ride. My pace, which had averaged 19.7 through 82 miles, suddenly dropped and I was battling to keep it above 15. In aero and out, it was a challenge. I gritted my teeth and kept grinding those pedals, watching my average mph fall as the miles continued. I passed Don around mile 85 and we chatted for a quick moment about what a struggle the ride was. I caught Christian around mile 103 – it took much longer than the 70 I originally predicted. We were all having a rough time out there. But I kept pedaling, savoring the thought of the moment I could get off the bike and out of the wind. And, I have to say, I passed more people than passed me on the ride. Maybe some of that has to do with the swim wave start, because during a mass start I’m usually one of the first out of the water so the stronger cyclists catch me after they finish the swim. But, it was a good feeling to pass more than be passed. That’s never happened to me during a big race.
Nutrition on the bike went something like this: 6 raspberry figgy bars, a granola bar, half a pbj sandwich, a banana, two sleeves of Clif Blocks, 4 bottles of water and 2 bottles of Skratch hydration mix.
Finally, finally, I saw the left turn that would take me back to transition and I joyfully thanked the police officers who were covering that intersection. I rode into the chute and gladly handed Sandra to the bike catcher at the dismount line. I’d broken 6 hours on the ride, despite the wind!
I tried to jog toward the gear bag area but realized my feet were sore. I mean, sore. I took my shoes off and walked in my socks, right past my friend Earl who was volunteering. After about 20 yards I finally connected that he’d been saying my name so I turned around and waved before heading to get my run gear bag. I saw the Stromanator and Jen Wright and a couple other people (sorry guys, I can’t even remember who right now) and grabbed my run gear bag. I almost made the wrong turn into the men’s changing tent but caught myself before that happened. I grabbed the first available seat in the women’s changing tent and took a deep breath. I took my time in there to make sure I had everything I needed for the upcoming 26.2 mile run. The volunteers in there were awesome! I hit the loo and then headed out for the run. It was a slow transition but I wanted to make sure I was ready for the marathon.
112-mile bike: 5:51:57 (19.07 mph avg pace)
The beginning of the run took us on a quick jog down the airport runway, as transition was at Bader Field, the nation’s oldest airport. As I headed out I saw Brian beginning the marathon portion of his relay. It was an out-and-back on the runway and after the turn I saw Christian, much too close behind me. “Stay back, IronSparty,” I thought. I had an 18-minute lead on him because his swim wave started earlier than mine, but I was concerned he was a threat because he is a strong runner and just a few weeks earlier he posted a 4:53-ish 70.3. A contender for sure!
As I was running off Bader Field The Havillator jogged with me for a few hundred meters and encouraged me by telling me I was third in my age group. What?!? No way! I couldn’t believe it.
I kept running, checked my Garmin and saw that I was running a 7:24 pace. Slow down, Deb, this is going to be a long run. Take it easy, breathe. Settle in to a manageable pace.
Around mile 1, I settled in with a guy named Randy from the Badgers club, and we ran together for the next 20 miles. He had just run a BQ marathon a few weeks before, and was participating on a relay this day. I know he was holding back his pace and I told him to go on ahead, but he’s preparing for his first Ironman in Florida this November and he wanted to run with me to see my strategy. He said he wanted to go sub-12 and since that’s what I was hoping for, he said this was exactly what he needed.
(Me and my running buddy Randy. Would you believe he’s 61?)
Miles 2-7 of the run are on a desolate, hot road with not much to look at, but after that the run was entirely on the boardwalk. There was a lane coned off and we did two loops, which means we got to see our fans at least 4-5 times as we ran. I enjoyed running on the boardwalk – the boards had a little bit of give and were easier on the legs than asphalt. There were only a few loose boards or nails sticking out of the boardwalk, so for the most part it wasn’t a dangerous endeavor. However, I have a couple of minor complaints. There were a lot of people in Atlantic City who were oblivious to, or did not care about, the race, and we had to watch out for them as we ran, because they’d walk right into the race lane without looking. We’d have to yell at them to get out of the way, and many of them just stood there looking at us as we ran at them. We had to dodge a bunch of people, and always be aware. Cigarette smoke and fried funnel cakes are also not the best smells during an endurance race.
(Still feeling good at about 12 miles in to the run)
The Challenge volunteers were helpful but there were just so many people in front of the major hotels and casinos that total crowd control was almost impossible. I also wasn’t thrilled at the placement of the aid stations. On the north end of the boardwalk they were spaced what seemed like every half mile or so, but then on the south end it was almost two miles between aid stations. On a hot, sunny day with not a cloud in the sky, two miles is a long way to run without aid. On the positive side, the music coming from the bars and cafes was awesome and provided us with energy and motivation as we endured.
(And, we’re still going…)
Randy and I continued running, but walking the aid stations to take in nutrition. I had two Clif Blocks at the beginning of the run, then took in water and coke at every aid station, plus a cup full of ice down the sports bra to keep me cool. At two stations I forced down half a banana to keep my stomach happy. I hit the loo around mile 16 and continued on. I spotted lots of friends and family on the run, including BLTCE teammates Jen and Leigh Ann, plus Kristen Kramer, and my parents. On the last loop of the run, I saw Kristin (my Sweden Sherpa!) and Susan cheering alongside my other friends. I looked at my watch and knew I needed to keep it steady if I was going to break 12 hours.
At mile 21.5 Randy got some bad cramps and had to walk. I hated to leave him but I told him I had to keep going if I was going to get my PR and he encouraged me to do so. I continued, down the quiet section of the boardwalk. I ran the whole way except through the aid stations, and as I hit the final turnaround at mile 23.5 I knew I would meet my goal if I just kept running easy, but solidly.
I could see Boardwalk Hall in the distance, 2.5 miles ahead, and I knew the finish line was there because I’d already run by it 4 times during the race. So I kept running. Since the run course was out-and-back loops, I saw Randy, still walking, and he encouraged me on. I saw Tobias, the Stromanator and Mindy (all of whom I’d seen several times on the run – along with Christian and Brian) and they all encouraged me toward the finish. It’s so awesome to see friends out there!
At the final aid station I took a cup of water and poured it over my head and face (gotta look good for the photos!), then settled in to a slight push for the final mile. The noise got louder as I approached the finish chute. I saw Kang and maybe John (again, I can’t exactly remember) probably a tenth of a mile before the finish. I entered the chute and started to get a little overwhelmed with emotion, which always happens when I finish an iron distance tri.
(Coming up the finish chute! Almost there!)
As I entered the chute I saw my friends and family ahead of me, jumping and cheering like crazy. I held it together and finished strong, and heard “Number 726, Deborah Hopkins, welcome to the Challenge Family!” as I came across the red carpet at the finish line.
(Thank you, dad, for taking the best finish chute photo EVER! I like my new finish line pose. 🙂 )
Someone handed me a mylar blanket, asked if I was okay, and walked me to get my medal and finisher’s shirt. Somehow I missed my post-race photo, which is a huge bummer because the Challenge organization was giving us the photos for free, and I walked out of the finisher’s area to find my family and friends.
26.2-mile run: 4:35:20
Final race time: 11:55:54
I visited with my friends and family, took some pictures, then hobbled inside Boardwalk Hall to get my morning gear bag and to check out the food situation. It was bleak – airport sandwiches and soft pretzels. No, thanks. I appreciated the iced tea, but nothing else even looked good. I wanted chocolate milk! I changed into my sweats and met my family and friends back outside. What a day! What a race! I guess having an even-numbered race bib didn’t hurt my day!
(Look at the size of that medal!)
(I might need some help getting back up…)
(Love my family!)
(Really love my family!)
I had ice cream for dinner – three scoops from Ben & Jerry’s. The next morning there was an awards banquet, and it turns out I finished third in my age group so I got a trophy! My parents were there, along with BLTCE teammates, and it was very cool to get called up on stage at such a major international event. This is by far my favorite podium finish! If you look at the trophy closely you’ll see it says “2.4 mile swim, 112 mile ride, 126.2 mile run.” Too funny, adding an extra hundred miles to the marathon! A typo that I will cherish forever.
(On stage for the AG awards.)
(I got a trophy!)
I really enjoyed racing Challenge Atlantic City. The organization was wonderful and the volunteers stellar. The course itself could benefit from a few changes but overall it was a fantastic experience. It was so special to be there with about 12 BLTCE friends, plus my parents and my adopted PA family cheering me on. KLapp has now been there for my last two iron distance tri finishes, and my parents were there for my first and third.
I could write about how much room I still have for improvement, but I won’t do that here. I remain happy with my race. It wasn’t perfect, and I have another chance coming up in six weeks when I take on Ironman Mont-Tremblant, but for now I’m happy with my sub-12, and I’m enjoying a recovery week at the beach in Avalon.
I’m so lucky, so blessed, to be able to do this stuff. Life is good!