By Mike Stanek
The TL/DR is that I recommend this race. Atlantic City is weird and super sketchy, but the race is close and convenient. And while not the fastest course out there, it is fast enough to have a solid time—maybe even a PR. I was super happy with the result after putting in some hard work this season with my coach Darren, and I am pumped for 2018 Worlds in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
For those of you with more time to kill…
Things that usually don’t go together are casinos, boardwalks, nightclubs, and… triathlon. But somehow they make it all work with Atlantic City 70.3. After having an amazing time at Worlds in Australia in 2016 with our DM teammates and a few college friends, and after having had to miss 2017 Worlds in Chattanooga, I wanted to try my best to get a 2018 Worlds slot early on in the qualification process. The timing for Atlantic City was ideal, even after I added Ironman Maryland to my season at the last minute. And I was excited to be able to just drive to a race after all of the travel logistics with Ironman Canada.
I drove up to New Jersey on Friday afternoon, getting out of DC before traffic picked up. My sister Becca, her boyfriend Nate, and their pup Matilda were going to drive down from Brooklyn that night to Sherpa and provide a little company for the weekend. After a 3.5 hour drive, I was rolling up into the race site to check in. The athlete village/check-in area, along with the swim and T1/T2, isn’t near the boardwalk and casinos – it’s at an old airfield across the channel from Atlantic City itself. The finish line and awards are over in Atlantic City on the boardwalk, though, so a little logistical planning in advance of race day is required.
I had never been to Atlantic City before, and it is quite an interesting place. We got an Airbnb near the finish line and just off the boardwalk, thinking it would be great to have a small kitchen and a little more space than a hotel room, though I’m not sure I’d do that again unless we stay down the beach from Atlantic City. It was super sketchy, and I’ve never been so glad to drop my bike off to the relative security of the transition area the day before a race.
As everyone on the team knows, it had been a nice and chilly September leading into race weekend, but then mother nature decided to turn the humidity and heat back on for a few more weeks. Saturday morning was a foggy, humid mess, but I got my pre-race workouts in despite being a little apprehensive taking the bike out on the AC roads. The fog burned off and it started becoming uncomfortably hot as I checked the bike in. That afternoon, we realized that we probably should have made Saturday dinner reservations in advance. That mistake actually resulted in one of our better decisions of the weekend… 5pm dinner at the Rainforest Café, seated next to a terrifying animatronic gorilla. But they had bland tourist food. And beer. So all was right with the world.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that on some race days you wake up and know you’re ready to go, while on other days you really have to convince yourself to get racing when the gun goes off. Luckily, despite having been to a bender of a wedding weekend the previous week in Seattle, my body was saying it was go time.
The race started on time, fog free, and in a rolling format with 5-6 athletes jumping in at a time. As I started lining up, I noticed that the self-seeding seemed a little off: about a hundred athletes were seeding themselves in the “Under 26 minutes” wave. I made the last minute call to move up into that corral just so that I wasn’t too far back from the start of the race (surprise: pretty sure no one swam under 26 minutes). After making my way through some slow swimmers, the rest of the swim was pretty clear. It was well-marked and, thankfully, didn’t seem too polluted. After making the turn back in towards the swim exit, I could feel a head current from the tide. Forward progress slowed a bit, but still came out of the water in 28 minutes.
I both loved and hated the bike course. It is pretty flat, though there are a number of technical turns and freeway bridges/ramps that slowed things down each lap. And speaking of laps, there were 2.5 of them. The first lap was completely clear, and I passed a few people (and got passed by the eventual overall winner). The second lap was super crowded with a stream of people just starting their bike. Thankfully, most people were not blocking and were riding single file to the right. There were a few dangerous riders and a few dangerous stretches on the toll road, and unfortunately I did see a number of riders down through the course. Towards the end of the last half loop, as I took an aggressive corner over some rough road, my bike hit a pothole hard. On a training ride, I would have immediately stopped to see what I just broke given the sounds it made. But it was a race, so I kept going. Turns out, I had messed up the front tire and air was slowly leaking out, but made it back to T2 with a little PSI left – even though the bike course was sneakily >57 miles.
As I rolled into T2, a spectator yelled that I was in 4th but that some other guys were coming in behind me hot. I was honestly a bit surprised that I was that far in front, but knew that it was likely some guys had started a few minutes back on the swim. It did nonetheless make me haul ass through T2, which in turn made me forget to grab some nutrition and drop my flask somewhere near the exit of T2. I knew that could become a big problem towards the end of the run, particularly if it started heating up, but decided just to try my luck with water and coke from the course and to keep pushing. I ran the first few miles with a former Marine (with one lung!) who had just done 70.3 Worlds the weekend before in Chattanooga. He started fatiguing, so I pushed on solo. The sun started coming out and it started feeling a little sauna-like, and my pace started fading around the halfway point on the exposed boardwalk run.
I kept it together the best I could, and despite getting passed by the eventual 3rd and 4th overall guys in the last few miles, I was able to cross the finish line 6th overall (and 3rd AG) with a 4:28. Given that we only had 30 Worlds slots for the race, I knew that even the bigger age groups would only get 2 slots. I was lucky enough that the top two guys (who were also 1st and 2nd overall) passed on taking their slots, so I was able to take the first of the two M30-34 slots.
I left Atlantic City excited to knock out Ironman Maryland (coming up soon!), but also grateful to have the progress I’ve made this season reflected in a race result. That doesn’t always happen. It takes a lot of consistent work to keep building and improving in triathlon between seasons and races, which is not easy for those of us with demanding jobs and other life priorities. It also takes trust in a great coach and training partner (thanks Darren and Meridian Performance!). It also really helps when we have a great team and network around us to keep us on track (and to sometimes get us off track at a team happy hour).