2015 Challenge Knoxville

Justin MetzlerUncategorized

Man…. This sport is harsh! The highs are so incredibly high but the lows are equally (and painfully) low. I consider myself a fairly level headed person but that last two months have been a true test. So before diving into Knoxville, let’s take things back for a minute and reflect on what has gone down since 70.3 Puerto Rico in March.

I grabbed an 8th place finish at Puerto Rico, pressed on some training in Clermont and then took my talents overseas and toed the line at the most competitive race I have ever been a part of in 70.3 Brazil (the Latin American Championship). The goals were high but if I am being completely honest, my perception of my physical abilities and the actuality of the fact were quite different on this first weekend in April. I was still coming into form, building my fitness and ended up suffering my way though a really tough race and placing 15th.

After some crazy travel back to the states, I packed up my life once again and drove cross country for the second time in 4 months; moving myself to the triathlon mecca that is Boulder, Colorado. Because I was on the move for an un-exaggerated 120 hours straight, I didn’t have time to throw together a written race recap but if you want the quick low-down of Brazil, here is a little video I did post race.

With a lower than expected Ironman points ranking and a dwindling bank account, Coach Jesse and I decided to pivot and embark on “route B” that we had tentatively mapped out earlier in the year. The original plan was to race 70.3 St. George (another incredibly competitive race, similar to Brazil) but we decided it would be best to forgo St. George, put less pressure on World Championship qualification and go for some confidence building results. And at this point in the year, I really needed something that was going to show I wasn’t a rookie-year one hit wonder. So I put my head down and went to work. I relished my new environment and soaked in the fresh, albeit thin, mountain air in preparation for an iconic race on the same day as St. George: Wildflower.

Riding up Carter Lake in Boulder, Colorado.

I grabbed a last minute flight to Cali, quietly confident that I had the fitness banked to be a major factor in the race. But something odd happened when I arrived in that desolate, far off location in the middle of California country hills. I ended up swimming with the main group but once I hit land, something felt very wrong. I was able to get through the 2-mile run from the swim to bike transition but right when I got onto my trusty steed, I immediately knew the day was not going to be mine. There was a clear disconnect between my mind and my body- a feeling I have never had before. Not even in training. This oddity led me to make the decision to pull out of the race after completing the bike and therefore obtaining my first DNF.

I got back to Boulder and had never been so down on myself. I questioned nearly every decision and change I have made recently (and there have been a lot of them!) I knew I had worked hard in training and had seen some good performances there but not being able to put together an accurate reflection on race day was a really tough pill to swallow. And with a much needed mid-season break looming, I itched to give my early season work one last test before a week of near complete rest. So this is where Challenge Knoxville comes into the fold.

Training coming back after Wildflower rolled smoothly and I went into the race physically feeling as prepared as I have for any race in my entire life. But mentally, I felt the pressure. Most of it was personal. Some of it was external. But it was there. So I went back to everything that has worked for me in the past and meticulously accounted for every detail leading into this race. My nutrition, my sleep, my social interaction and the travel were all accounted for and made as seamless as possible. The key was to keep the stress LOW and hanging out with some good friends at the pro-meeting was a perfect way to talk some trash with my buddy AJ and catch up with some other friends.

Hanging with fellow Maverick teammate and Boulder local, Lesley Smith.

Race morning went as smoothly as planned and I hopped in the water ready to lay it all on the course. If that meant 5 hours and 50th place, so be it. I was going to finish this one and go deep into the well. As deep as I could. And I knew if I did that, and the body was able to respond, the result would come.

I had a descent start and was in the main bunch right from the gun. A group of 5 super-elite swimmers took off in the distance and about 400m into the swim, I found myself comfortably cruising through the main bunch. Shortly thereafter, I was on the front of the group, swimming what felt like a much too easy pace but leading the charge completely on my own. I expected some company from AJ after the Michael Phelps-like comments he was throwing around at the pro meeting but he had lost a contact early on and had to spend the whole swim fighting his way back (*so he says!) I exited the water first of the main bunch with a line of athletes right on my heels and mounted my bike ready to put the hammer down.

Exiting the transition area first allowed me to comfortably slip into my shoes and take stock of who exited the swim on my feet. I quickly realized it was a strong group that could put some serious time into the leaders and create substantial separation from the chasers. And after 1 mile into the ride, our group of 5 somehow missed an early turn and went about :60 seconds off course. We quickly realized our mistake, turned around and then got back on track but the 2:00 loss allowed all of the weaker swimmers to merge with our more elite group, creating a huge bike pack that I (along with Chris Leiferman, Derek Garcia and one other) took charge of. We keep the pace high but the 10 or so guys behind us got a free-ride through the technical, hilly and wet 56-mile bike course. The four of us at the front attempted a few breakaways but the pouring rain and hairpin descents continuously brought the group back together. After a nerve-racking final 2 miles with multiple near crashes, I dismounted the bike ready to run.

As soon as we threw on the running shoes, the guys I was riding with took off as if we were about to throw down a 10k. But I know what I’m capable of. And 1:15 pace on an incredibly challenging course was not going to stick for anyone. So I played the patient game and built into the pace. I quickly reeled in two guys and spit them out the back. The hard-nosed veteran Thomas Gerlach was the only one who was able to match my effort and once I bridged up to him around the 1 mile mark, he latched onto my hip. The man was breathing very heavy, very early so I was confident as we got into the hard portions of the course. Around the 5 mile mark, I passed two of the early sprinter’s and at this point found myself running in third place. But 9 miles is a long way and Gerlach would not fade… I used my downhill running strength to gap him multiple times but he would somehow, always find his way back to my hip. He tried a few moves but I was able to respond and re-dictate the pace we were going. Around the 10 mile mark, we went through an aid station and screamed down a huge hill. I put in a little surge and got a small :15 lead on him. Just enough to be partially out of sight on the narrow trail back to the finish line.

The next 3 miles I was locked in. I left it all on the course. After all, that was my primary goal for the day. I could have had a 10:00 lead out there and I would have still put myself into a world of pain in that final 5k. Thankfully, that pace was enough to hold off Gerlach and as I entered the final portions of the course, I was able to take a quick glance over my shoulder, realize my comfortable lead and enjoy the finishing shoot.

Two words to describe how I felt after I crossed the line: relief and elation.

  1. Relief. I needed this result. Bad. I trained my ass off, threw up huge numbers there and knew I was primed for something like this. Not being able to do it at Wildflower was really challenging. But being able to prove to myself that I can get back to the race-day execution I was known for last year was seriously reassuring. 
  2. Elation. This race was a BREAKTHROUGH for me. I dictated the pace on the swim. I took charge and was able to respond to everything on the bike and then threw down the second fastest run split of the day to score my first pro podium. I was, and am, so freaking stoked. 

And although I enjoyed this result and was happy with where I ended up, I am very aware that there are still two spots I need to take down before I can be even partially satisfied. The fire burns for the back half of the year and I couldn’t be more excited to give it another shot here in a few weeks.

I want to give a special thanks to all of the Maverick Multisport sponsors and team director Chris for their incredible support. Without their backing, being competitive on this stage would be impossible.

Also a huge thanks to the mastermind behind nearly everything that I do related to this sport, Coach Jesse Kropelnicki. He does more, cares more and believes in me more than I believe in myself sometimes. Having someone like that in your corner certainly does not hurt.

The reason I was most happy about the result was that I could go into this week feeling awesome! I essentially have the entire week off to reset and recalibrate before getting back into training and taking down the back half of the year. The race schedule is still getting solidified but as always, look for me to be jetting around the globe to race the worlds most competitive triathlons.

Thanks for tuning in.

Justin

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