We hit the road at 8 p.m. on Wednesday evening, after both having put in a full day of work. Once Caitlin made it home, it was full-on pack mode to get ready and out the door. The drive was relatively smooth, aside for a bit of rain from Houston and into Louisiana. Otherwise, we made great time and pulled into Daytona at 2 p.m local time. We settled in a bit on Thursday night, planned out our Friday schedule and hit the pillow to get some much needed rest. Friday morning we had planned to get in a bike and run, then do packet pickup and wrap up our time at the speedway with the 2:30 p.m. warmup swim. Once we arrived at the venue, we were instantly in awe. It took us a bit to get our bearings and figure out where we could and would ride our bikes. For the most part, other than riding on the track itself, we had free reign to ride as we wished. We did about 20 minutes working through our gears and varying the cadence a bit, just to make sure all was in check. At this point it was just after noon and packet pickup had begun. The line was starting to grow and we decided to push the run so we could get our packets before the line got any longer. Very glad we did! One little hiccup was looking for my USAT card, which Caitlin had put in her change purse before we left Austin. But it was nowhere to be found when we made it to the front of the line to go in for packet pickup. Under a bit of stress, it took me a bit to remember my USAT number, log in to the dashboard, and pull up my virtual card. But once I did, we were all good and made our way to get our packets. I put numbers on our bikes and we walked a short distance for bike checkin. Glad that was done, but time was ticking. So we pivoted just a bit and worked in a jog and some strides on our way back to the car and then the expo area, because we had a little fun on the schedule, too. We took a tour around the Daytona 500 track at 120mph in a pace car. So glad we decided to work that into our hectic schedule, because it truly was a unique and special experience. We weren’t too far off of our schedule at this point, so we decided to go ahead and get in the practice swim. It was nice to put the wetsuit on and get a feel for the water. It’s also good to shake everything out after all the travel. The water was a lot like most lakes in Texas. Not clear, but reasonable. It was also cold for sure. The full sleeve wetsuit was definitely the right choice. We did the sprint course, about 850 yards, then wrapped up our time at the track and headed to our AirBnB. A little chilled, but ready to wind down before the big day. Unfortunately, the water at the condo had been turned off…and wouldn’t be back on until maybe 8 p.m. Not what we wanted the night before the race when we like to try to be in bed by 7. Caitlin came across a couple of ladies who were very kind and lent us a key to a unit that did have water so we could take a shower. However, there was no hot water, so it was a quick rinse but at least we were clean. Staying in an AirBnB we make the most of making our own meals as much as possible. We kept with our Friday night tradition of homemade pizza knowing it has fueled us for each and every long Saturday workout for the past three months. Since we were now running behind schedule thanks to the curveballs, we were still up when the water came back on. The hot water worked, too, so we decided to take the coveted hot shower before slipping into bed for the night. By the time it was lights out, it was close to 11 p.m. Certainly not going to plan, but my hope was that I would at least sleep uninterrupted. And for the first time in awhile, it happened! Tiffany: The alarm woke us up at 3:30 a.m. and I was eager to get going (usually I’ll hit snooze a few times – but not on this day!). Our breakfast was overnight oats – another source of fuel that has consistently been our choice for Saturday morning. It works well for us and gives us what we need to sustain us for a long day. As usual, we sat in the car just a bit, focused on the day to come, then made the walk to set up transition. For me, it was short and sweet. We then walked back to the car to drop off the bike pump and suit up in our wetsuits. It was just under a 10 minute walk to the swim start but we were treated to a fireworks show along the way. Literal fireworks during the national anthem just before the race started. Caitlin and I made our way into the corral and looked for our target times. But the lines were already moving toward the water so we had to guess where we actually fit in. I contemplated waiting a bit longer before squeezing in with a pack of swimmers, but went ahead and edged my way up in the line. The swim start rolled quickly. I think I hit the water at 7:06 a.m. and that would be the start of a very big day. The sky was overcast and it wasn’t yet sunrise, so the water was darker than during the practice swim. I still had good feel and awareness and that didn’t bother me much. From the start I settled into the pace and perceived effort I wanted to hold for the duration. For the first 200 I was looking for some feet to latch on to and catch a draft, but I was passing everyone – dropping them like it was nothing – and there was no one catching up to me or swimming anywhere near my pace. I took that as a good sign and just tried to swim strong and maintain the effort I had going. Swimming out I kept a good line along the buoys and everything was going as planned. It was a little challenge to see the red buoys (the first 2 going out were yellow), but it didn’t impact me too much. About this point I noticed the on-again/off-again left hamstring niggle. I chalked it up to the cold water making it seize up a bit, but I won’t lie – I was a little worried about how or if this would impact the rest of my day. It never went away during the swim, but it never got worse. Right turn and then another right turn to head back to shore. Coming back it seemed the water became a bit more choppy. I also encountered a slight sighting issue and drifted right a bit before realizing and correcting my path. This probably cost me 30 seconds of swim time. I’m usually solid on sighting, so I’ll chalk it up to the darker sky, red buoys and chop/current. But I should be better aware in my sighting to ensure I stay on course. After that miscue, I kept my line and could only keep thinking about how strong I felt with my stroke. And going back to the cues Natasha gave me – keep the stroke long, call on the core to drive you through. The swim finish came quickly. In my mind I was thinking maybe 34 minutes. Even though coach’s orders were to not look at the watch at the end of the swim, I needed to know. And I’m glad I looked: 31:34 – a PR by well over 4 minutes and the perfect start to my day. Exiting the swim and into transition would take awhile. From end to end, transition was .25 miles. I told Caitlin the day before that we needed to come to terms with a little longer transition time, but to get in and out as quickly as we could. I made it to my bike and took time to put ear drops in my ears. Cold water tends to give me a bit of vertigo and I knew if I had any sloshing water in my ears on the bike it would make for a miserable ride. It probably took another 30 seconds, but for me it was time well spent. Everything else in T1 was quick. I was a little surprised as it’s been over a year since performing in transition under pressure. Still amped from the great swim, I made my way out to the bike course and my first lap around the racetrack. Luckily for me, the race strategy was to take the first 5 miles to settle the heart rate. This was perfect – because the 2-1/2 laps around the track would give me time to do just that, as well as take in the spectacle of actually riding on this monstrous track. Seeing the 31-degree banking up close and personal is indescribable and I probably had a jaw dropping moment just taking it all in. I was spot-on with the power target and my heart rate was stabilizing, all going to plan. I will say doing 2-1/2 laps on the track is a little mind game. I had to mentally check and double check to make sure I did it all right before heading out for the remainder of the ride. Off I went with fond memories of the track ride lingering in my mind, but focused on the task at hand. Now was the time to get to the real power goal and hold it. Now was the time to ride strong and come home with that sub-3 bike split. Right off the bat it was going smoothly. My power was about 2-3 watts higher than my low end goal. And I was feeling good. The roads were a little bumpy around the airport and there were a few twists and turns, but nothing bad. In fact, compared to a lot of Texas roads, this was a dream! For much of the bike ride we were on long highway straightaways. There was no elevation change, except for 2 overpasses in total, so the legs were constantly moving for the duration of the 56 miles. The long trainer rides are good for this exact moment! I have my Garmin set to lap every 5 miles on the bike. I have my Lap Normalized Power as one of the metrics on the data screens. I also had cadence, speed and heart rate. Notice: no time. This setup allowed me to really focus on the NP. Every lap I was at or above my low end target. My heart rate was lower than anticipated until the last 5 miles. Maybe I could have pushed more on the bike because of that, but I was still in my target zone and didn’t want to get greedy and risk blowing up my race. I knew if I kept my power as it was, I was still going to destroy my best bike split ever. All that went well on the bike were all the aspects I had control of. What did not go well? The aid stations – while perfectly placed – didn’t offer the best water option. Just before the first aid station I dumped my disposable sport top water bottle. Imagine my surprise when I went to grab a replacement only to receive a half liter water bottle with no lid – no sport top – nothing to keep the water in the bottle while rattling around in a bottle cage. At this point I had to strategize knowing I would not get all the water I planned for or realistically needed. At the same time, I missed my first 3 handoffs – probably rattled and surprised at what I was trying to take – and the aid station was on the left side, so I had to grab with my left hand, something I’ve never done before. Last chance, I grabbed a water bottle and held on for dear life. I drank what I could and put the rest in my bottle cage, watching more than half of it pour out onto the road below. At this point I drank some more Infinit and chased it with some of the remaining water. Fortunately up to this point I had stayed on top of hydration and nutrition so I had some in the bank. But I knew I couldn’t go 30 more miles like this. Either way, head down, and keep pumping out the target watts. I didn’t let the water throw me, but I did think through all the options and strategy I could in order to survive the rest of the ride. One thought was to actually stop at the next aid station and dilute my Infinit and take in as much water as possible. I didn’t want to do that, but I needed to have as many options available as possible. At the next aid station I went a bit McGuyver and saved my ride. I was able to bend the top of the bottle to create a “block” so the water couldn’t pass that point. It worked! Although it didn’t provide me with the exact amount of water I would really need, it was at least something and allowed me to keep drinking the Infinit and getting the necessary calories. For most of the ride I kept my head down and kept going. Watching in frustration a few draft trains passing me by, knowing I was out there doing the work for myself. As the finish drew closer – 15, 10, 5 miles to go – I could tell I was maintaining my pace and that bike PR was going down! Sure enough, after weaving through the roads heading back to the track, I made it to T2 with yet another personal best to add to my day: 2:48:43 – first time under 3 hours ever. Another great sign was seeing Caitlin coming in not far behind me. I knew she was going to crush the bike (if her bike would cooperate), so I was excited to see her day was going well, too. Once my bike was racked I started the transition to run. I had a slight issue with my left toes being a bit cold and numb. That was a challenge getting my sock on and in my running shoe. That also cost me some time, but not a huge deal. Now it was time to complete the day and bring home the big goals. I walked a bit out of transition, settling the heart rate and getting in the mind space to go out and do the job. Then, from behind, I heard a stranger’s voice say “Come on, Austin” and give me a slap on the back side. With that, I couldn’t help but pick up a nice jog coming out of transition. I settled in to where I wanted to be with the heart rate and made sure to take some deep breaths before heading into the track once again. Caitlin made her way to me and we chatted a bit – recapping our days up to that point. She was pumped for her swim time and how her bike went. I was happy for her and only hoped she could run like I had seen her do in the weeks leading up to race day. I told her to go get that podium, hoping I wouldn’t see her ahead of me much longer. But she never pulled too far away. Maybe a testament to how strong I was running. I was right on the mark with my heart rate and holding it where I needed it to be. My pace was a bit slower than I hoped, but still well ahead of my best 70.3 half marathon pace, so that was a win to me. My goal was to hold it for the first 6-7 miles and see where I was at that point. The run course, as incredible as it is to run ON the track, is challenging. There is absolutely no shade. Fortunately we had the best weather conditions you could want – 67 degrees was the high, but the clouds quickly burned off after the morning swim. Also, the first aid station was more than 2 miles into the run. That put me behind on run hydration, but I had to keep going. After the 7 mile mark I started creeping my heart rate up. Although my pace was slowing just a bit mile by mile. However I was still on track for my best run. All along the way I could see Caitlin ahead of me. But grew worried as miles 7, 8, 9 I closed the gap on her. By the time I made it to mile 10, I was on her shoulder and she was struggling. I hated that, but I had to keep going to chase down what I wanted on the day. She had to make a pit stop, so finishing together wouldn’t be an option either. The final two miles were a mental struggle and usually where I’d give in to my thoughts to ease up or walk a bit. But I was not going to do that today no matter what. I kept running. I kept checking my splits and knew I had it in the bag. In the last mile I kept looking across the course and could see the finish line area. It was getting closer and closer with every step. Not much suffering left, I picked it up as much as I could, made it to the finish chute and took it all in. This is the day I wanted. This is the race I wanted. Run time, another best: 2:06:53. Overall, a personal record by more than 36 minutes: 5:36:38. I waited just a short time before I saw Caitlin coming down the chute – beaming with a huge smile, knowing she had the day she wanted, too. There’s nothing more special to me than sharing a day like that with her. We got what we wanted and we’re only looking for more. Now we know it is possible!
Caitlin: 3:30 a.m. race morning. The alarm goes off. Any other race morning there would be a ‘snooze’ or two. Not this race. I felt ready. The alarm went off and I got up. We applied our race numbers the night before as well as making our overnight oats. So all we had to do was put our kit on, do a bit of foam rolling, place our bike bottles in our bag and we were out the door. We picked up our videographer (DJ) along the way and we were at the track shortly after 5 a.m. I set my transition up, sure to take an extra minute to look things over to make sure I had it all how I would want it as this was our first and only race of 2020. I met Tif at the end of the port-a-potty line in transition as there never seems to be enough at any race. I sent DJ on a sherpa duty to get some electrical tape from the Velofix van that was parked just outside of transition. My bar tape had begun to unravel the day before and I knew it would drive me crazy on the bike if it wasn’t addressed. As he always does, DJ came through and we were able to get that fixed. On our walk to the swim start we had an awesome surprise of a firework show that accompanied the national anthem. It certainly set the mood of the day to come. An adrenaline packed day. Tif and I had our final pre-race embrace once we joined up with the pack of swimmers making their way to the swim start. I already knew she was going to have a killer day and I couldn’t wait to see how it would all unfold. I told her I loved her and to not let me catch her. (She seeded herself faster in the swim than I did). I found the group of swimmers with the same estimated swim time I was targeting. 35-40 minutes. I got in line. And even though we had just left the port-o-potties I knew it would be a miserable swim if I didn’t take care of business again. I stepped out of line. Stood to the side as I warmed up my XTERRA Vengeance wetsuit. I got back in line and I was probably a bit further back than I originally planned for which would cause I bit of delay during the swim. Once I hit the water’s edge I was quick to dive in. No tippy toeing for me. But as soon as I hit water I knew my goggles were not tight enough to my face. A bit of water leaked in and after a few strokes I took a second to press them deeper into my face. But shortly after I never noticed the water in my goggles again as I tried to stay focused on my form. The water conditions were a bit of a challenge. It was a windy morning creating a bit of chop in the water and making sighting the buoys a challenge. I did feel that for me I was making good time in the water. What slowed me down was the couple times I swam into a swimmer ahead creating almost a complete stop (because I ended up seeding myself in a slower pack) and when the chop was so bad I had to pick my head up higher than normal to see the next buoy. But the swim exit came quicker than any 70.3 before and I was ecstatic to see on my Garmin that I had just PRed my swim be three minutes – 40:28 – as I ran up the ramp and headed to transition. Once I hit T1 I realized that I only had my goggles in my hand. No idea when or how I dropped my swim cap. But this was my first Challenge race and I would be pissed if I didn’t leave with that souvenir. I then realized that the entire transition area was spotted with swim caps that others had dropped so I grabbed one as I made my way to my bike. Got to my bike and it was great to have extra space to maneuver. For a COVID precaution, there were fewer bikes per rack. In previous times you could have fit two more bikes between mine and the next. I got out of my wetsuit and draped it over the rack, put my helmet, shoes and race belt on as it said in the race guide was mandatory to wear your bib on the bike. Unracked my bike and continued through the quarter-mile long transition area. Onto the bike the course dropped you into a small bank on the track and it was an immediate thrill. I couldn’t resist the urge to yell in excitement. It was two and a half loops on the Daytona track before exiting onto the roads to continue the 56 mile bike ride. I was so caught up in the thrill that when I made one full loop around I thought to myself that I never saw the exit out of the track. The nerves cooled just a bit and I spotted the out on my second loop. While we all rode on the lower edge of the track, it was incredible to see how steep the banks of the track our on the curves. It literally looked like a wall. How could anyone drive on that!? The remainder of the bike course was an out and back. The first aid station was at mile 24 but it seemed to come up quick. The plan was to get a new water bottle at each of the aid stations and our second bottle was a highly concentrated blend of Infinit that would last the entire bike leg. I had plenty of water left so I did not slow to grab a new bottle. There were a few times during the bike it got a bit congested with other cyclists but I surged ahead and it was fun to see the data afterwards that I was hitting the mid 300’s on power. The next aid station came and went. Still I had enough water that I didn’t think it was worth slowing. At that point I knew I was in trouble. In trouble with my wife and with my coach as it was a sign I wasn’t hydrating enough. I’ve never been good at this aspect of racing. Even training on the trainer I’m really bad at taking in enough fluids. I think the next upgrade will be a front hydration system to help with this. And again, the last aid station came and went with no stop. The last mile or so on the bike I thought I caught sight of Tif and I turned up the gear a bit to catch up to her. Turns out the the ‘Race Like A Girl’ kit looks very similar to Team Saunders from afar. So it wasn’t Tif but as I dismounted and started running into T2 I saw her! She was running her bike ahead of me and I hollered to her as she turned into her row with her bike rack. Bike time: 2:38:42. Before I reached my bike rack I had to do a detour into the port a potties (again). After a full minute of sweet relief I carried onto my transition. Re-racked, grabbed my New Balance 860s, hat, glasses and gel and continued to the run out. Tif was only a few strides ahead of me at this point. I caught up to her and said aloud ‘You’re a sweet sight to see!’ her reply back was ‘that’s a sweet sound to hear!’ In 70.3 races we never start at the same time as Tif is a much better swimmer, but it never fails that we both reconnect at some point in the race. Call it wait you want, but I think that’s fate saying we’ve got something special. We ran just a short time together before I started to pull away. I felt amazing for the first couple miles, trying to stay reserved as to not burn any early matches. At mile two my left leg made sure that I didn’t overdo it to soon. A niggle from my glute to my knee stayed with me for the remainder of the run. And at about mile 8 my right leg joined the party with its own niggle. The biggest lesson learned from this is that more weight training is a must to help strengthen the legs. As each mile passed my pace steadily dropped. I tried to be mindful of my form to help get some momentum back. Run tall. Elbows back. Keep the cadence up. And even though my heart rate was spot on, I couldn’t seem to get my pace up. My mind would drift back to my niggles and also I was going back and forth in my head if it was worth taking the time to make yet another stop in the port-o-potty. Just before mile 10 Tif came up behind me. Neither of us were moving at the pace we had hoped but this was the point in the race where we had planned to start red lining it. I knew if there was any chance of me moving at a quicker pace I would have to make a pit stop first. When I got back on course I could still see Tif ahead of me. I tried to increase my pace and heart rate but to no avail. The last three miles were a struggle for me. There were two points in this stretch that cramps set in and I had to stop and gather myself. Around the last turn of the track you could see the finish. I dug deep to empty out all that I had left. When I hit the red carpet at the beginning of the finisher chute I could see Tif waiting and cheering me on through the finish. My arms went up. I knew when I crossed that line it was a PR. And it was an incredible feeling to embrace with Tif at the line. I finished the run in 2:07:45 and overall race time of 5:35:29. This race was one for the books, including the record books! We each smashed our goals and enjoyed every minute along the way. Challenge delivered a solid race in an exceptional venue. We look forward to next year and any upcoming Challenge races there may be!