The CHALLENGEFAMILYAMERICAS season officially got underway with CHALLENGEKNOXVILLE presented by Pilot Flying J on the site of the 1982 World's Fair Park under rain soaked skies on Sunday morning. The cooler than expected weather conditions were welcomed by most athletes after a few days foreboding high heat and humidity that never materialized on race day.
The professional field vied for a 25k Euro prize purse in the Half Distance, paying 10-deep in both the men's and women's ranks. In the men's field, the victory was a repeat of sorts for winner Cameron Dye (USA), as the Boulder, Colorado native is a former champion of the previous Rev3 Olympic Distance Triathlon. In the women's race, Lesley Smith (USA) used a never-give-up attitude to come from behind, running her way through the pack nearly seven minutes faster than any other female to nab the lead within the last few hundred yards.
Kevin Ryan (USA) led the men out of the Tennessee River in 24:13, followed a few seconds later by pre-race favorite Dye and Chris Lutz (USA). Another top ranked favorite and renowned swimmer, Eric Limkemann (USA) emerged in 24:22. Dye, a short-course specialist stepping up to the longer Half Distance (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run), immediately set to work opening a gap on his rivals. He charged forward in the pouring rain, conditions that play to his confidence on the bike, steadily increasing his lead from 1:12 at mile 12 to 3:20 at mile 35 and ultimately to 6:00 by the time he reached T2. His 2:11:07 bike split was easily the fastest of the day by more than four minutes.
Limkemann and Ryan played a game of leapfrog behind Dye, working together to try and catch the man in front, but to no avail. Lutz and James Hadley (GBR) paired up in fourth and fifth position, two minutes behind Limkemann and Ryan, yet ultimately were absorbed by a large chase group including Kyle Pawlacyzk (USA), Chris Leiferman (USA), Justin Metzler (USA), AJ Baucco (USA), Tony White (USA), Nick Brodnicki (USA) and Derek Garcia (USA). Unfortunately Limkemann's day ended early when he fell victim to the slippery roads, sliding into a mailbox in the final miles of the bike and earning a shin laceration and a trip to the hospital, rather than a podium position. Ryan successfully kept away from the chase pack, reaching T2 six minutes behind Dye yet 2:30 ahead of the others, who then entered transition in rapid succession.
Once onto the run, Ryan was eventually swallowed up by the group, and instead it was a hard-charging Leiferman who worked away at Dye's lead, cutting it down to 6:30 by mile 4.5. But Dye continued on in steadfast fashion, refusing to relinquish much real estate. By mile 8, still with a 6:00 lead, it was apparent that a strong and smooth Dye would likely claim victory, which he did in 3:59:27.
"I really like racing in the rain. You don't get too hot, the conditions are tough, but everybody suffers a little bit and it serves the mentally strong well," said Dye after his victory. "I wanted to stay within myself on the bike. I wasn't conservative but I was very aware of my power on the bike. It was nice to know I was steadily putting time into them, doing what I wanted to do but not having to overexert. I got off the bike feeling like I put in a good ride but I wasn't totally cached and I felt like I could put in a decent run. That's a super hard run course, constant ups and downs, but I was really happy with what I was able to do."
In the women's race, it was no surprise to see swimming speedster Jennifer Spieldenner (USA) first out of the water in 25:15, accompanied soon after by rookie pro Heather Lendway (USA). 30 seconds further back were Rebeccah Wassner (USA), Rebekah Keat (AUS) and Jenny Leiser (USA).
Spieldenner maintained a lead in the early miles of the bike but Wassner was steadily gaining and only eight seconds behind at mile 16. Also pre-race podium threats, Rachel McBride (CAN) was 1:00 back with Keat closing in, while Lendway had dropped back 2:25 in arrears. It seemed just a matter of time until Wassner took the lead, which she did at mile 22. Spieldenner didn't let the new leader out of her sight, however, plus the pair were joined by McBride, and Keat continued to close in at only :22 down.
By mile 36, McBride, Keat and Spieldenner were together with Wassner now trailing by half a minute. As the bike leg was coming to a close, McBride and Keat swapped turns in the lead, with Spieldenner falling off the faster pace. At T2, Keat had worked away from Spieldenner by a full minute, Wassner followed another minute later, and two others–Jeannie Seymour (RSA) and Kristen Marchant (USA) had worked their way into the top five.
Nagging calf trouble saw Keat drop back to second and ultimately abandon the race at mile seven, leaving McBride the clear leader at the turnaround. Unbeknownst to McBride, however, Lesley Smith (USA) was working her way swiftly through the women's field. At mile 10 she was 4:34 down and victory for McBride still seemed secure. Even until the final stretch of the Knoxville Greenway into World's Fair Park, everyone watching assumed McBride the winner. But Smith's unmatchable foot speed propelled her ever-faster forward, and she pipped McBride for the win with mere yards to go, finishing in 4:31:20 with McBride following in 4:31:51. Smith outran the competition by nearly seven minutes, clocking a run 1:23:43 run split. Another speedy runner, Seymour also made significant ground, finishing third overall. Rebeccah Wassner held onto fourth, Marchant placed fifth and Rebeccah's twin, Laurel, claimed sixth.
"I was really lonely on the bike, and it was rainy, but I kept telling myself the 'Don't quit' poem that I learned in high school. I saw Rachel the last 200 meters on the run and I just tried to conjure up some old running speed and knew it was almost the end. The only advice my coach gave me was to run like 'heck', so I just tried to do that," said Smith, elated with winning the title.
Also of note in the women's race was a gutsy performance by Laura Siddall (GBR) whose chain broke at mile 53 when she was riding in seventh place and in contention for a piece of the 25k Euro prize. She slipped off her cycling shoes, ran the remainder of the bike and then completed the half marathon to a hard-earned finish, off the podium but pleased with her effort.
CHALLENGEFAMILYAMERICAS ambassador Dr. Andy Baldwin raced the CHALLENGEKNOXVILLE Half as his first event in the CHALLENGEFAMILY series. Despite also being delayed on the bike by a slight detour onto the slippery pavement, and sustaining a fair amount of road rash, he was all smiles after the race and is already looking forward to CHALLENGEWILLIAMSBURG on June 14th.
Complete results for 2015 CHALLENGEKNOXVILLE presented by Pilot Flying J may be found at: http://challenge-knoxville.com/results/