Ironman Maryland was the focus of my 2016 triathlon season, and it was a relief just to get to race day. My wife Jessi was 35 weeks pregnant, and with twins we knew that in the weeks leading up to the race that they could arrive at any time. I had continued training as if the race was a sure thing, but obviously the race was far from my most important concern and at any moment I could be dropping everything and end up with my first DNS (did not start).
To add to the uncertainty, the weather forecast for the week of the race had become increasingly menacing. The year before, with just 3 days until the race and right after I had checked in, Ironman Maryland was postponed by two weeks due to weather. Most of the course is in a coastal marsh, that comes close to flooding just with high tide. Two days out parts of the bike course were already under water, and the rain was expected to continue.
Fortunately, we made it to the day before the event and everything was still a go. I got my bike checked into transition and was ready to head off to dinner and to bed, when I gave my bike one last check. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) I found a significant slit in my rear tire. I frantically took off to find a replacement, but the vendors at the race village had closed and all I had with me was a set of thin time trial tires. Given the wet conditions I didn’t want the added puncture risk, but I decided it was better than a thicker tire with a slit in it. By the time I got back to transition, though, it was closed. I was going to have to get to transition early enough to change it in the morning.
Given that it was the night before the race, along with the added stress from the tire, I actually slept fairly well that night. It was a step up from the year before, when my wheels hadn’t shown up at the race.
We got there as soon as transition opened in the morning and I got to work on my bike. I decided to move my remaining good thick tire to the rear and put the time trial tire on the front. I was finally good to go again, and started getting myself ready for the race. I got warmed up and into my wetsuit just in time, when they announced a delay to the swim start. We all sat around anxiously through various announcements until eventually they canceled the swim. For the second year in a row, I wouldn’t have a full 140.6 and all those awful, miserable hours in the pool had been for nothing.
I jumped back into action, though, and started getting ready for the bike. They wold be doing a time trial start and I was in the earlier portion of the field. The bike had also been shortened due to flooding, but supposedly by only 4 miles. It fortunately seemed like the rain might hold off during the actual race.
Even with the time trial start, the elimination of the swim left riders bunched up pretty tightly, and not necessarily in order of ability. There was a significant amount of maneuvering and jockeying for position, with many people noticeably taking advantage of the situation to illegally draft. I stayed mostly to the left, as I was fairly constantly going around a steady stream of people. The wind wasn’t quite as bad this year as in 2015, but for the first half of the bike the weather was still fairly brutal at times. Big gusts of wind and a misty rain that made visibility next to zero at times added to the thick traffic to make for pretty dicey conditions.
The weather on the bike was pretty rough, with some sections of really strong headwinds, a couple of gusts that about blew me over, and periods of rain / fog that left me with almost no visibility. But no flats! I did have to stop and pull some electrical tape off my tire, which mainly just really scared me and cost me maybe 30 seconds or so.
Around the start of the second loop, though, the weather cleared up a bit. And in typical fashion for me, I started feeling stronger and started to push harder. Just as I did, I heard a horrible noise on my front tire. I thought that my worst triathlon fear had happened: a flat. I slowed to a stop, only to find that my tire looked just fine. As I inspected it more closely I found that the culprit was just a piece of electrical tape that had gotten stuck to it. I was glad to have only lost about 30 second, and took off again to make up the time.
I had paced myself and timed my nutrition for 108 miles, but suddenly I found myself approaching transition at only around 100 miles. They had shortened the course even more, and I came in at 4:07. I was close to my goal pace, there hadn’t been any disasters, and I was ready to get to what I do best: running.
On the run I planned on around a 2:58. I started off just naturally putting out a 6:30ish pace, though, and it felt right so I kept going. Fortunately I beat high tide and the worst of the flooding, but I did tweak a muscle pretty bad trying to hurdle a puddle. That cost me about 30 seconds as I stopped to work it out. Due to the race’s time trial start I wasn’t sure of my exact position, but the run course involves multiple out and backs and gives you a lot of opportunities to see the other runners. This also allowed Patrick to run around and pop up all over the course, updating me as best as he could on my position and giving me incredible support. Based on his feedback and my own observations I was fairly confident of who was in the lead, and I was gaining on him.
In the last few miles I knew that I was close, and I pushed in as best as I could and sprinted to the finish thinking that I was going for the win. As I crossed the line they announced it: “John Kelly, your current 1st place overall finisher.” I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited that I did the only thing I could: collapse into the arms of one of the volunteers. Patrick came and got me and wheeled me to the medical tent.
As we waited, Patrick was keeping track of the race and told me there was one guy near the very back of the starting order who looked like he could overtake me. I felt pretty confident, though. My bike time was only a few minutes slower and I had just run a 2:53 marathon in rough conditions. When I exited the tent a local reporter interviewed me, and left me with the encouraging note that he hoped I was the winner so that he didn’t have to interview anyone else. Sure enough, though, about 20 minutes later someone came in and beat me. I ended up finishing second overall, though, and still punched my ticket to Kona.
Overall I beat my time goals, and I got my Kona slot. If my times were extrapolated to the full distance including the swim I think I would have done somewhere around 8:40. I also feel like my race strategy was good and I actually ate well and consistently for maybe the first time ever. There was nothing in this race that I can look at and say, “dang that really cost me big.” I did fade a bit with around 6 miles to go, but not horribly. I actually like that because it means I had nothing left and died at just the right time.
Second place is exceeded my goal and I’m very proud of the finish. If you had told me 3 years earlier that I was going to have that result, when I had just run a marathon by itself in 3:38 and couldn’t swim 100 meters in less than 3 minutes, I would have said that you were certifiably insane. I also grabbed my Kona slot, something that I recognize I’m extremely to do this early on. Those slots are much more difficult to come by than a Boston Marathon bib. I think that the way that they’re currently allocated is pretty horrible, but I won’t get into that. The tl;dr is that the possibility of finishing 3rd overall and not getting a slot is ridiculous.
For 20 minutes, though, I thought I was an Ironman champion, and having that snatched away definitely stung. After finishing I felt confident that I had it. If you had told me I would come off the bike 2.5 minutes behind, run a 2:53 marathon, and lose, I would have thought you were crazy. I have to give the guy credit, though; he had an outstanding race and he earned it. He was also a great guy and a gracious winner. I’ll be looking forward to seeing him back out on the course and getting the opportunity to race him head to head without a time trial start.
And more importantly, in a much more impressive feat of endurance, Jessi carried the twins nearly 4 more weeks before giving birth to a healthy boy and girl at 38.5 weeks. I owe yet another tremendous debt to her for her support of (and even her agreement to, given the circumstances) me training for and doing this race. Without her, and without my brother coming to the race to help out and run half a marathon himself providing me updates and motivation, there’s no way I would be headed to Kona. With each race I’m realizing more and more how much ultrarunning and triathlons are actually team sports, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have amazing teammates.
2016 Ironman Maryland race day video