Part I 5am. Sunday, July 28th. It’s pouring outside. I’ve just finished a bowl of cereal and I’m now sitting in my living room, waiting for my ride to come knocking at the back door. As I double check my gear bag, I start to wonder if the weather has changed his mind about the early morning trip to the race start. I wouldn’t blame him if he did. ‘Knock, knock’. Right on schedule, Pat Soloski arrives. We load up and hit the road.
The drive downtown feels like déjà vu for good reason. Today marks the sixth triathlon that I have done in this town. Every step of the check-in/race prep process is second nature. Auto-pilot gets me into the Allegheny River, staring upstream along the in-water start. You wouldn’t have to push too hard to get me to admit that I’m a little tired. Regardless, anything can happen on this day and as the horn blasts, I know that there is no place that I would rather be.
Swim (1500m) – 23:16 The trip up-river is a melee of arms and legs. Everyone knows to get to the turn buoy as quickly as possible so you can start working with the current instead of against it. This proves to be easier said than done. As a group of us approaches the yellow inflatable pill-buoy, it begins to drift up the river! No one has a clue what is pulling it against the current. All that we know is that it is floating in the last direction that we want to go. Clearly this is a special circumstance and I decide to make an executive decision. “Just turn now, fellas,” I shout the handful of athletes that have come to a stop in the water and are questioning what to do.
And so we journey on downstream, crossing under two bridges before turning in towards Heinz Field and the swim exit.
T1 – :35 I find some familiar faces waiting along the cement path that leads to transition. “You’re in 17th!” my Dad yells from his spot next to my Mom and Erinn. “Five and a half minutes behind first!” This is not the best news in the world. First place is what I’m gunning for and 5:30 is a solid chunk of time to gain back over the next hour and a half. If there’s one thing that this crazy sport has taught me though, it’s that you may be down but you’re never out!
Bike (40k) – 1:00:24 Two-loop courses in an amateur field are always interesting. I enter straight into attack mode, hoping to pass as many opponents as possible before the second loop. At that point athletes from later waves will enter the field, making my targets harder to recognize.
The rain begins to settle as I climb my way out of town within the HOV lane of the 279 North. By the time I reach the turnaround at the top of loop one, I have turned 17th into 10th. I can name a couple good reasons why my quads are on fire but I decide to forget ‘em and press on harder with confidence.
“Seventh place! Five-twenty behind the leader!!” my Dad shouts as I pass transition and roll back up the freeway for loop two. My position is progressing nicely but I need to be putting more of a dent in that time separation.
Slimer and I take on the second half with more ferocity than the first. Two more spots and thirty more seconds is the payoff.
T2 – :37 With my bike back on the rack and my flats on, I strike out onto the city’s river trail in 5th place. I have 10,000 meters to erase a 4:50 lead.
Run (10k) – 34:03 I chase invisible foes through a corridor of natural and manmade beauty that runs alongside the Allegheny River. The narrow trail is lined with trees and only opens at moments to accent some of the town’s most aesthetic features. Without a soul in sight, I am forced to create my own grueling pace without the slightest evidence that it will pay off. This is what we runners call “no man’s land.”
It takes a strong will to pull out of no man’s land and in this tired body, will is fading. Fortunately, I have a kick-ass brother-in-law who decided to ride his bike along the course to gage the progress of the competition. “They’re up there, EB. And they’re struggling!” Brett’s words yank me straight out of the darkness. In my mind’s eye, I can now see all of my targets, up around the next bend, becoming closer with every one of my strides.
The field is pretty spread out when I cross the leaders’ paths heading into the turn around. I ramp up my pace and target fourth as I make the turn towards home. Before long, third place becomes the focus.
“Come on, EB! You’re looking WAY stronger than the rest of ‘em. Keep getting after it!” Brett provides one more boost along the homestretch and it ends up being crucial. Third place is no slouch in the running department and it takes a serious effort to put him in the rearview.
What was once a vision finally comes into focus as I gain ground on second place and catch sight of the leader ahead. There’s only one problem. I’m running on fumes and the finish line is less than a quarter mile ahead. Positioned right where I needed him, Pat Soloski tells me exactly what I need to do. “Relax, stay smooth, and run him down!” I take off, throwing everything I have left into the fire.
Second place catches wind of my efforts and glances back to check my position. Normally, looking back is a sure-fire sign of weakness. In this case, it’s strategy. Colin Gundling is a man who has more left in his tank, and is playing it safe. The final 200 meters is a cat-and-mouse game where the mouse gets away. For the fifth time in this town, the overall victory (Eric Angstadt) barely slips through my fingers (the 4:50 lead was dwindled to :32). But my head is high and my smile is wide…and here’s why:
Part II 5am. Saturday, July 27th. Twenty-eight hours earlier. The sky is clear and I am waiting in my living room. Pat Soloski knocks at the back door. Right on time.
We make our way through the darkness and towards the city lights. After checking in and setting up transition, I prepare my body to once again take on the challenge that has been haunting me for four years now. As I run out along the Ohio River, my mind replays strong workouts and successful races of the recent past. These thoughts remind me that I don’t have to go another year with a monkey on my back. Execute to my full potential today and the hatchet will be buried.
Swim (600m) – 8:48 An all-out effort with unwavering focus is what it takes to remain within a reasonable distance of the lead. Each stroke is an intricate mechanism. Pull hard, exit late, recover quickly, glide briefly, pull hard, etc. My arms burn and by chest heaves. With every breath, I glimpse my city sliding along beside me. I press on. I want to make her proud.
T1 – :34 My family relays some precious info to me as I throw on my helmet. I’m in 5th with 1:15 to make up. This is doable but only with a killer bike split that I know is in me. Time to pull it out.
Bike (20k) – 29:53 The road is essentially deserted; like something out of a zombie flick. The long expanse of the 279 allows for a view of my competitors. Four dots, decreasing in size lay before me. There’s no possible way that they are all going the same speed. All I need to do is make sure that the smallest dot doesn’t get any smaller.
At the turnaround, I’m in third place and I know exactly whom I am up against. It’s the same scenario as last year; I just want a different result. Memories of second and third place finishes on this course get me up and out of the saddle, cranking hard to crest the hill that descends into the city.
Despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to gain any ground on the two remaining dots ahead. We’re all locked in at a max pace. My only hope is to hold on and get to my weapon of choice as soon as possible.
T2 – :34 Great triathletes are strong in all three disciplines. You may be able to beat them in one leg of the race, but a triple-threat will almost always win out. Now off on the run are three triathletes with two of the three disciplines locked down. Dan Meehan (1st) and Ian Baun (2nd) are swimmer/cyclists; a strong, young pair that has earned a 1:45 head start on this runner/cyclist heading into the 5k. As I tear out of T2, I’m running on a hope that these two worthy opponents have not become triple-threats since last we met.
Run (5k) – 16:39 Dan Meehan broke last year’s tape twelve seconds in front of me. His run then was 2:20 slower than mine. Had the course been a quarter mile longer, we would have been neck-and-neck. It is this thought that drives me on with a fury; racing as if Dan Meehan was right next to me; not tucked away, hidden in the trail ahead.
As I catch up to Ian around mile one, we exchange words of encouragement for one another. Having challenged each other before, we now respect one another; like brothers in arms.
There is still no sign of Dan as I pull away from Ian. A 5k offers no time to get lost in no-man’s land so I begin to visualize the turnaround in order to keep the pace tight. The turnaround will provide a means to gauge our separation. It’s also the only opportunity to put some fear into young Meehan’s heart. The sooner we pass each other after he makes the turn, the more self-destructive his thoughts will become.
I count roughly thirty seconds between us at the turn. That should be threatening enough, but there’s still no way to be certain what sort of runner Dan has become over the past year. He could be toying with me; cruising until I run up alongside him only to then drop the hammer and leave me in the dust. It’s a nasty thought, but not nearly as unsettling as the thought of giving up.
My stomach begins to knot-up as I make my move. I ride the line of nausea in order to reel him in. I almost hold my breath while I make my pass, hoping that a surge is not the young man’s response. “You’re one hell of a runner” is the only response I get. I return the compliment, knowing that Dan’s run split will be faster than it was last year (he ends up besting it by :35!). I might be passing him now, but ‘look out!’ because he and Ian clearly don’t have far to go before reaching triple-threat status.
A wave of relief rushes over me. For the first time in four years I am able to view the road ahead of me, unoccupied by my opponents. The last half-mile along the shore of the Allegheny River becomes a victory lap. PNC Park seems to roar as I run by its foundation; as if the stadium was packed and cheering me on. A finishing chute made up of dear family and friends brings me home.
Fellow Pitt Panther, Curtis Larimer is first to speak up. “Enjoy it, EB! You earned it!”
Next in line is my high school track coach, Jay Seward. As we exchange a hi-five, I try my hardest to give a look that says “Thank you. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
My best buddies, Nishan & Alex Williams welcome me home in their own way. Alex cheers and jumps like the wonderfully enthusiastic yoga instructor that she is. Nish delivers a solid slap to my butt and shouts “Let’s GO!!” like he was cheering on the Steelers.
Before I break the tape, I see my family. Sister Samantha with baby Caroline; Mom with Dad; and of course, my number one…McMonster. They’ve wanted this for me for so long and I feel their pride and joy as I finally win the Pittsburgh Triathlon.
Winning a major race in your hometown is one of the most rewarding experiences that an athlete could ask for. As I cool down with Curt and Pat, I breathe in the energy of the city. Even though I’m living 2,500 miles away, in this moment I feel more at home in the City of Champions than ever before. Pittsburgh is where I learned what it means to be an athlete. I try to honor it every time I train or toe the line. Today, I feel like I was able to prove how hard I work for Pittsburgh; and that means the world to me.
After a celebration meal at Eat n’ Park, it’s off to home to relax and prepare for tomorrow. For two years now, the Pittsburgh Tri has grown into a two-day event. In less than 24 hours I’ll be driving towards those city lights yet again.
Special Thanks To: Pat Soloski for being the best chauffeur a former coach could ask for. Nishan & Alex Williams for getting up at the crack of dawn to come cheer their buddy on. Curtis Larimer for cooling down with me on both days and making me feel like we were right back at Pitt, competing together. Jay Seward for teaching me what it means to be an endurance athlete. Mom, Dad, Samantha, Brett, Eli, Caroline & Charlie for their unbridled love and support. Thanks for making Pittsburgh my home! Erinn for joining me on yet another “Mission: Possible”. Shout-outs to Dan Meehan and Ian Baun for both PRing on the sprint course by over 1:30. Both of their run splits were also faster than last year, meaning that they’re putting in the work and getting closer to becoming triple-threats. Bravo!
Next Competition: USAT Nationals – Olympic & Sprint Distances (Milwaukee, WI) – Saturday & Sunday, August 10th & 11th