After years of having the Hammerfest Triathlon on my “to do” list, I finally made it to Branford, Connecticut for the September classic. This was the race’s 20th year. For two decades, it has been an important fundraiser for Brian’s Hope, a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation dedicated to stopping the progression of Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). According to the website, “The foundation is named in honor of Brian Kelley, a young man from Branford who was diagnosed with ALD at the age of six. By working to broaden ALD awareness, support medical research, and promote the passage of newborn screening nationwide, we hope to see the day when no young boy will endure the challenges Brian has faced throughout the past twenty years.”
I’ve done Brian’s Beachside Boogie duathlon a few times, last in 2012, which is also a fundraiser for Brian’s Hope. Back then, I had the pleasure to meet Brian and my age group award was painted by him. It is displayed proudly in my room at my parent’s shoreline home in Old Lyme. Like Old Lyme, Branford is a Long Island Sound community with a lot of character. The 1/2 mile swim, 13.5 mile bike, and 3.6 mile run is technical and challenging. The start/finish and transition areas are at the Owenego Beach Club, a beautiful spot on the Sound.
I got up super early (4:30 A.M.) so that I could get there for 6:00 A.M. I wanted to pre-ride the bike loop, which you do twice during the race. I checked my iPhone early and saw news that motivated me for the day. I’ve been inspired by Karl Meltzer’s attempt to break Scott Jurek’s Appalachian Trail supported speed record, and the news I got when I awoke was good. He reached Springer Mountain, Georgia early this morning in time. That news pumped me up. Jurek just set the record last summer, and helped Meltzer beat his own record by crewing and pacing him. Debbie and I tried to catch the Speedgoat when he was passing through NH, VT, MA, CT, and NY, but missed him on three occasions! We were so close, but had to settle for following his progress online. So, today, I was fueled by Meltzer’s success.
I got to Branford before sunrise and accomplished the task of riding the bike loop. I didn’t preview the run, but that was OK because I had studied a map. The start was at dead low tide, which made for an interesting swim. Thankfully the bottom was sandy and soft because we had to run the first/last 100 yards or so because it was too shallow to swim. Once it was deep enough, you could swim, though it was rough–in two ways. The incoming waves were choppy by Long Island Sound standards, and the congestion in the first wave was rough too, as bodies banged against each other in the current. Once we made the turn at the far buoy and made for the beach again, it smoothed out with a little push from behind.
From the beach, you climbed a set of steps, and then there was an uphill run, mostly on pavement, to the transition area. I ran gingerly trying to protect my feet, which are sensitive to hard asphalt. My swim was OK, but I had already ceded three and a half minutes to the Nathan Barry, the leader, by the time it was over, which is a ridiculous deficit. I didn’t have to worry about catching him because he put even more time into me on the bike and run. I loved the bike leg. Once I settled in, I started picking off the faster swimmers. The temperature was mild, but it was humid, so it felt warmer. By the end of the first 6.5 mile lap, I moved up to fifth spot and closed in on Jon Arellano in fourth.
Jon is one of my favorite rivals. He and I battled all summer long, at the Winding Trails Summer Tri Series. The two of us are an even match. He always swims faster, as he did today, gaining a minute on me. I’m the stronger biker, and lately, he has been the better runner. So, I wasn’t surprised when I caught him that he wouldn’t let go of me. Between mile seven and mile 11, we must have traded places ten times. Because we were on the road, things played out a little differently. At Winding Trails, the race is off-road and a bit more hilly, so when I go by him, that’s that. He never comes back on me…until the run, when the real battling begins. Today, with the flat roads neutralizing my advantage, he was able to hang on and challenge me. Every time he went by, I dropped back to give him the three or four bike lengths necessary to avoid the draft. When the road pitched up or we came to a challenging corner, I moved in front. He dropped back, and we did the whole “dance” over again.
We came into lapped traffic, which can be a bit sketchy, so I tried to get away. Every time I though I was clear, he came up on my left shoulder again. It was a bit frustrating because we beat the snot out of each other all summer long and I was hoping that this wasn’t going to come down to a painful sprint finish again. Eventually, we came to a long drag with good pavement, and I put my chain in the 11-cog and just buried myself as I tucked low in my aero bars. After a few minutes, he didn’t appear, so I figured I had opened a gap, but I didn’t look. I never look. I got to T2 and quickly donned my running shoes, grabbed my cap, and was off. I got a split to the guy in front of me and they said it was 35 seconds. I figured there were more guys up the road because I never saw him and would have. I also knew that there was a pace scooter for the leader and it wasn’t in sight.
I focused on my own run with the goal of keeping Jon behind me. Five of the ten summer races came down to all-out sprints between us and they hurt like heck. We finished one/two or two/one eight of the ten times. Like I said, I don’t think I have another rival like Jon. We respect each other immensely. He has a few years on me, but we are both pretty tough for masters athletes with families and day jobs. The run course loops, twists, and turns, with a few spots that have race traffic going both ways. I saw the leader once, but not knowing the course, had no idea how far in front he was. It turned out to be nearly eight minutes by the finish, so I never had a chance. He was motoring.
There were a few good pitches on the course, which was more hilly than you would think for a shoreline race. At the left hand corner near the end of the long drag coming up Pawson Road where it intersects with Linden Ave., I took a glance back. Like I said, I never look back, but this time I did. I had too. I stole a glance. I needed to see where Jon was because I could feel him closing in on me. I know he has faster 5K speed than me, at least right now, but this was a bit longer, and the race whole race being longer than Winding Trails, which usually takes us 51 minutes, was in my favor. It was just a glance, and he looked to be 10 seconds back, which I judged to be close enough to catch me if I didn’t get my butt moving. I turned left on Linden and enjoyed seeing all the other athletes starting their run loop (there were multiple waves). The view of the rocky beach along the Sound was fantastic.
I figured that if I picked it up a bit on the 1/2 mile stretch before the finish, that I could hold him off. There was a tailwind and I took advantage of it as I ratcheted up the pace. Thankfully, he didn’t close the gap. I actually extended it to 19 seconds at the finish and felt good about being the first Master to get across the line. His run time was two seconds faster, but it wasn’t enough to make up what I gained on the bike. The podium was up the road, so I settled for fourth and first in my 40-44 age group. Jon is in the 45-49 division, so he still got his prize, but on the day, I got the best of him. We are both proud of being fast Masters. The guys in front of us were much younger. It’s fun to type that. We had a good chat at the finish line and compared notes on how the race unfolded. I love the “race within the race.” I’m fortunate to be towards the front of these triathlons, but I encourage anyone to have those inter-race battles regardless of their position.
Barry smoked the field, winning in 1:00:51. He was followed closely by another stellar Connecticut triathlete, Jon Fecik, in 1:01:28. Third went to David Ellis in 1:06:48 who definitely had more than the reported 35 seconds after T2, because I gained 56 seconds on the run, but never saw him. The first female finisher was Jennifer Massengale in 1:17:07. She was followed by Marie Labriola and Heather Stanish, neither of who were far behind her.
I did another loop of the bike course to cool down, and then I rode on a bit of the run course to cheer the late finishers. I saw some old friends at the awards ceremony. There was a mini-expo with a Brian’s Hope booth and other sponsors showing their wares. Nice words were said about the success of this fundraiser, the history, and the hard work of the race staff. The volunteers were awesome. Even on my cool down, I was getting cheers and shouts from the course marshals. I stopped to check out the M114 Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle that was in front of the Battery A Connecticut National Guard facility on the bike course. That was cool.
For breakfast, I went to Claire’s Corner Copia in New Haven, one of my favorite vegan friendly spots, and was home by lunch. Hammerfest was my last triathlon of the year. I cleaned my Seven Kameha SLX and moved it to our exercise room where it is parked in the offseason. It’s back to the dirt next weekend with the Vermont 50 Mile Mountain Bike, and then cyclocross season resumes in earnest with nearly 20 races planned through early January.