Those that ultimately triumphed did so through calm, calculated efforts, knowing that any error of too-intense effort in the unrelenting heat would spell certain disaster. Ultimately, it was Kevin Collington and Meredith Kessler that overcame Mother Nature's odds and outraced their rivals to claim victory.
The four men first out of the FINIS swim course in the men's professional field set a standard that lasted well into the bike. Australian Jake Montgomery clocked the fastest time (24:28) and was trailed closely by Matt Chrabot (USA), Kevin Collington (USA) and Alberto Alessandroni (ITA). The quartet stuck together through the bike's early miles, and although Montgomery momentarily fell behind near mile 14, he quickly reconnected to his competitors and never again faltered. The group enjoyed a three-minute-and-growing advantage over the closest men behind, including John Kenny (USA), Dan Feeney (USA), Chris Leiferman (USA), Jake Rhyner (USA), Justin Park (USA) and Mike Hermanson (USA).
Just before the mile 30 mark, Alessandroni was forced to serve a two-minute stand down penalty, a mistake that left him lagging two minutes behind through T2, despite pushing the same bike pace as the group ahead. The real mover over the Profile Design bike course was Leiferman, however, his 2:04:44 split proving the fastest of the day and powering him ahead of Alessandroni prior to the run start.
Meanwhile, all eyes were on T2 waiting for the trio of Collington, Chrabot and Montgomery–three former ITU athletes trained in top-speed transitions. While the three men arrived in unison off the bike, it was Collington first on his feet, followed by his former Olympic Training Center roommate Chrabot in second and Montgomery in third onto the run. Leiferman, having slashed the gap to 1:22 bolted out of T2 on the chase, followed a minute later by Alessandroni. Then, crickets; nearly nine minutes passed until any sign of the next male pro.
By lap two of the four-loop run, it was clear that Collington was comfortable in the blistering heat. He loped forward with an easy stride and a 2:30 cushion to Chrabot.
Chrabot and Alessandroni, now in 3rd, also appeared strong, but Montgomery showed signs of struggle. Ultimately Leiferman caught the Australian; otherwise the men's positions remained fixed until the finish. Collington crossed the line in first, clocking a 1:20:25 half marathon–the time an indicator of today's heat–and 3:53:50 overall, winning by a 5:32 margin over Chrabot.
"That felt great!" said Collington at the finish. "I thought I would go out and set a pace I could cruise for 13 miles. I felt great the whole way!"
Unflustered by the conditions that curtailed many an athlete's race day, Collington explained: "I've learned to race in the heat. You just have to go steady and slow down and get what you need at the aid stations. If you try to gun it you wind up in the med tent."
"Thanks to all the volunteers," Collington added. "That's one of the hardest jobs in this heat and sun, to be out there all day!"
In the women's race, "lead and never look back" sums up Meredith Kessler's crushing performance. Starting with a 26:32 swim, Kessler (USA) owned each leg of the CHALLENGEWILLIAMSBURG course. Second out of the water was Kiwi pro Anna Cleaver (NZL), followed closely by Jenny Leiser (USA), both less than a minute back. Once onto the bike Kessler begin to do what she does best–steadily push the pace and increase her advantage mile after mile. At mile 15 her lead was 2:50; at mile 30 it was 4:38; by the time she rolled into T2 Kessler had a five-minute buffer.
Meanwhile, the battle for podium bragging rights and a piece of the top-five 15k prize purse played out behind Kessler. April Lea Gellatly (USA), Jenny Leiser (USA) and Cleaver all took turns leading the chase, but by mile 30 Gellatly had enough of the other women's company and opened up a gap of her own, putting a quick minute into her competition. Katie Thomas (USA) was also riding hard, only 30 seconds back in fifth. Gellatly continued to surge, and by T2 she head earned two minutes over Leiser and Thomas. Cleaver, feeling unwell, fell further back, and sadly illness ended her day part way into the run.
Kessler's T2 advantage–where she landed 13th overall, despite starting three minutes in arrears to the pro men–continued to grow, and with more than a 12-minute lead halfway through the run it would have taken a major upset to derail the Kessler train. Her eventual finish of 4:27:46 scored a victory nearly 14 minutes ahead of second place.
But the women behind the landslide winner never let off the gas all day long, painting an impressive picture of perseverance in Kessler's wake. Gellatly and Thomas were especially strong adversaries, with Gellatly holding the lead but Thomas threatening throughout the run; ultimately the two finished 30 seconds apart. Leiser stayed strong for fourth, and Alyssa Godesky (USA), an ultra runner before turning to triathlon, clocked the second-fastest women's run (1:42:23, second to Kessler's 1:35:50) to battle her way into fifth.
"This is the hottest race I've ever participated in! Ever, ever! So all those athletes out there–they're amazing!" exclaimed an admiring Kessler through a veil of sweat at the finish.
Compliments continued to pour from the ever-gracious champion. "The reason I came here was because of the Challenge Family crew–Stu, Ashley, Holly, Charlie, Eric, Sean and the entire team. They make the difference and they're the whole reason I wanted to race here."
"It's so nice to share the podium with Kevin," added Kessler. "My fellow purplepatch athlete! Our coach Matt Dixon must be doing something right!"
Also of note in today's field was CHALLENGEFAMILYAMERICAS ambassador Dr. Andy Baldwin, who despite suffering in the heat was all smiles on course and managed to earn second place in the men's 35-39 age group. "I'm just happy I finished," said Baldwin. "There were times out there when I thought I couldn't do it. The run was a battle with the heat! But it was great to see all the fans out there and all the Challenge Family staff and volunteers cheering–that helped! Now it's time to celebrate!"
Complete results for 2015 may be found at www.challenge-williamsburg.com/results.