It took the Achaeans (Greeks) 10 long years and many harsh battles before they were finally able to bring about the fall of Troy. The rivalry between Craig Spreadbury and Jason Smith may very well last longer than the Trojan War! The only way to property portray this Race Epic is in multiple installments…. Enjoy!
Part 1: The Pre-Race Dinner
On September 11th, 2011, roughly 1,500 people jumped into the balmy waters of Lake Las Vegas for the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. Of those 1,500 racers, 132 were in my age group, and of those 132 guys, I was really only concerned with one of them. Jason K. Smith.
Like any great rivalry, the competition started the day we met and this race would really only be another battle in a war that will likely last as long as we are both breathing. I’ve lost count of the times we’ve sprinted for a county line signpost or paced each other up Casitas Pass only to sprint over the top and hammer down the other side. In scored triathlons, we had split the season series, and though my victory was largely (completely) due to Jason ‘chicken-winging’ his way around the Wildflower course, it still counts. The scoreboard doesn’t lie.
Although I’d started my sandbagging talk in late August, the gamesmanship for this race didn’t begin in earnest until the night before the race. Jason showed up for dinner with a big grin on his face and a rolled up poster in his hand. He walked up to the table and unfurled the poster with a flourish, placing it in front of me. It was an official race poster with the words “To: Craig, Loser buys fro-yo! Your buddy, Jason Smith”, scrawled across the rolling desert background. The message was clear, I could read between the lines of indelible black marker, the gauntlet had been thrown down.
I played it cool. Like cooler than cool. Ice cold. With my best attempt at detached bemusement, I slowly took a sip of beer. “Thanks Jason, I’ll drink to that.” I raised an eyebrow, wordlessly challenging him to order a beer himself. I saw the fear in his eyes as he hesitated, probably hearing his coach’s voice in his head lecturing on proper pre-race fueling, before he finally yielded. He signaled the waiter with the universal sign for “Bring me one of those”.
We both sipped our beer as the rest of the table chattered about random topics, I’m not sure what, I wasn’t listening, I was formulating my next move. The waiter returned to take our order, he made his way around the table stopping behind me. “I’ll have what’s he’s having” I said, waving my beer mug in Jason’s direction. “But sir, he hasn’t ordered yet.” “That’s OK, just bring me whatever you bring him.” Jason looked at me with a puzzled expression, trying to figure out what I was up to. Such indifference to pre-race fueling was either a sign of confidence or sloppiness, I wanted to keep him guessing. I didn’t know what he’d order, but I knew I could eat anything he could… and a little bit more. He launched into his custom, off-menu pasta order. I turned my attention to the other end of the table, not paying attention to his order.
Our food soon arrived. The grin quickly disappeared from my face as I looked at the plate placed in front of me with dismay. Pesto? Pesto? How did he know pesto was my kryptonite? That delicious blend of basil, parmesan, pine nuts and olive oil that left my taste buds dancing but my guts in turmoil. I looked up at Jason, but too late, he’d already seen the anguish on my face. I tried to stall, hoping I could convince Jos to switch meals with me, “So Jason, what time are you heading down to transition tomorrow?” but he wasn’t having it. “I’m not sure, why don’t you eat up and I’ll tell you?” He replied with a smirk. I grudgingly began to eat, not wanting to show further weakness so close to the race, even as I could feel that green poison coating my innards.
Part 2: The Swim and T1
Race morning came early, the pros went off at 6:30, our wave was sent off at 6:50. I made no less than four trips to the port-a-lets in the morning in a desperate attempt to purge the poisonous pesto from my system lest it come back to haunt me later in the race. Smiiiiiiiiith!!
Eventually, it was our turn to enter the water. It was warm, like warmer than Los Baños, so no wetsuits were allowed. I lined up wide to the right, in part an attempt to avoid the inevitable start-line melee, but mostly to stay clear of that drafting chump, Jason K. Smith.
The course was a simple out and back hugging the shoreline of the narrow lake. I made it to the turn without incident but as I rounded the first buoy, I caught a flash of red out of the corner of my eye. Smith! I looked again quickly but he was gone, like a mirage in the Las Vegas desert. I thought for a second that my mind was playing tricks on me, but suddenly I felt a tap on my foot. And then another. There would be no ridding myself of him now. I resigned myself to pulling him to the finish, but decided to make it hard on him. As we overtook swimmers that had started in the earlier waves I swerved from side to side randomly like a get-away driver weaving through traffic hoping that even if I couldn’t lose him, I could at least make it uncomfortable.
The ramp out of the water was narrow and congested with a handful of swimmers wobbling on their new-found land legs. I jumped from the water and was immediately stalled behind a couple people from an earlier wave. Again I saw a flash of red to my left and heard a girlish laugh as Smith shot by me and crossed the timing mat a half step in front of me. “Ha! I got you f#%&er!” I heard him yell. Arggggh!
I fell into stride beside him as we rounded the edge of the lake on the long run to transition. I noticed a few other guys from our age group had hung with us on the swim, but I wasn’t worried about them… some would finish ahead of us, most would finish behind. Either way I still only had one goal in mind.
I quickly made my way to my transition bag. I stripped off my swim skin and threw it in my transition bag with my cap and goggles and ran to my bike. No need for the change tent. I saw Smith still at his bike as I was leaving transition. I knew I had an edge on him in transitions and needed to make it count because he’d make up time on me on the bike. His T1 is always slow, it takes him precious seconds to arrange his frosted locks in a manner that fits under his aero helmet. My efficiently-cut-hair poses no such impediment for me.
Part 3: The Bike and T2
I hit the bike at a hard but controlled pace. I won’t lie, the hot Las Vegas desert had me scared. There were too many examples of previous race meltdowns from Arizona or Hawaii that I was anxious to put behind me. Too many shattered podium dreams lying on the run course along with my very-non-metaphorical vomit.
I rode hard for the first few miles. Alone. I made my way past slower riders, all the while trying to hold a steady effort, concentrating on consistent fueling and hydration. The silky-smooth asphalt was my new best friend. No bumps, no cracks, no chip-seal, the polar opposite of the Rincon Hwy that I’d spent so many hours training on. Despite my calm focus, I could feel the inevitable, inexorable approach of The Smith.
In a flash my concentration was broken as Smith rode past my left side, his girlish little chicken legs pushing his bike forward with surprising force. My early conservative pace on the bike had left my legs fresh, and we were already almost half way into the ride. I increased my effort slowly, lifting my pace to keep Smith in sight, his red leotard visible in the distance. I had to keep my focus. Smith is the master of the sneak attack. Anyone who has ever split a pizza with him knows that if you let your guard down for a second, he’ll make you pay. Turn your back for a moment to refill your beer and all that will be left of that gooey, delicious pizza will be a few, sad little olives on the tray. The bike course was no different. My mission was to keep him in sight. I wanted my pizza.
We reached the turnaround and began the trip into Henderson. Our pace was steady and our rotation was efficient. The winds were light, and even sitting five or six lengths off the next rider’s wheel, there was a perceptible draft effect. We worked our way through the field, euro-a-holes would jump on our wheel as we passed but were quickly shelled off the back on the climbs.
I found myself on the front of the group as we approached a race photographer stationed at the side of the road. I flashed my best ‘blue steel’ and flexed my massive arms for what I was sure would be a cover photo for next year’s race, but as I did so, I felt an object strike the side of my helmet. Smith had snuck up beside me and mock-punched me in the side of the head just as the photographer snapped a picture. Again he cackled like a little girl… an evil little girl. Smiiiiiiiiith!!
I seethed in silent rage as I dropped to the back of the strung-out line of riders that had joined us. Again, there were others from our age group with us, but still they did not concern me. I could see flags waving in the distance, we were approaching the Timex Watch Bonus Zone. The first pros through that point on the course were awarded a cash prime. I decided it was time to make a statement. I launched out of the saddle and mashed the pedals with frenetic urgency. Smoke billowed from my power meter as I flashed past Smith at the crest of the hill and showed the spectators a clean pair of wheels. I sat up Cippolini-style, complete with a two arm salute and a look back over my shoulder at the riders in my wake. Message sent. I had good legs. That was the first time I caught a whiff of it. Fear.
Smith and I drove the pace into Henderson, attempting to free ourselves of the group, but it was to no avail. They had latched on and wouldn’t let go. This race would be decided on the run course.
The memory of Smith passing me at swim finish was still as fresh in mind as if it had happened only two and half hours before. Defeat was not an option this time. Not again. Not like that. In the last few miles of the ride, I dropped to the back of the group and began to make preparations for a full-frontal assault on the bike finish.
I coolly removed my feet from shoes, and began my acceleration as we approached the line. I acrobatically dismounted my bike at a dead run. In fact, so smooth and graceful was my dismount that had any of the Cirque du Soleil directors been witness, I probably would have been handed a contract on the spot. “Non merci”, I would have said, “je porte des shorts de vélo, pas de collants de ballet.” As it was, a volunteer grabbed my bike from me as I sprinted for the arch marking the bike finish, passing Smith just as we crossed the line. We’d covered 57.2 miles of race course and it was still a dead heat.
I quickly made my way through transition and hit the run course. There were four of us from our age group within a few seconds of each other. Smith was in the lead by a handful of seconds.
Part 4: The Run and Epilogue
There was an impressive contingent of family and friends from Santa Barbara and points beyond watching the race. They were all gathered near the transition exit and cheered loudly as we ran past. Jason and I ran the first mile together with two others from our age group. It was a slight downhill to the turnaround before we’d head back up the hill. Our legs were fresh and our footfalls were light. I checked my watch. 5:55 for the first mile. I felt my coach on my shoulder, “Too fast! Back off or you’ll blow up!”
For once, I listened. We made the u-turn and headed back up the hill and I backed off on my effort slightly. One of the guys we were running with dropped behind us, one surged ahead. Smith and I marked each other, neither willing to give up a step. As we made our way past the transition area, past our friends, we ran together stride for stride. Up the hill we continued, to the u-turn at the top and then back down the hill.
The guy that had dropped us on the uphill was just up the road and looked to be fading. Smith and I looked at each other. Fresh meat. For the briefest of moments, we were allies, aligned with a common goal. We picked up our pace slightly and quickly passed him. We rounded the corner back past the transition area. I decided to put in another dig, so I sprinted out of the corner as fast as I could go, momentarily catching Smith off guard. I passed our friends in full stride, waving and smiling as I went by, Smith trailed behind by half a stride. Yet another intermediate sprint had gone in my favor, but I immediately sensed that it was a Pyrrhic victory. My breathing felt labored, a strong cramp formed in my abdomen and I was forced to slow my pace. Smith glanced back as I fell a few steps behind and then turned forward, probably not expecting to see me again. I certainly wasn’t expecting to get back even with him. Passes made that late in a race are almost always permanent.
We continued through the second lap, I could see his red leotard in the distance slowly pulling away. As we reached the turn at the top of the hill, he was over fifty yards ahead. It was all or nothing at that point, only five miles to go. I started guzzling as much Coke as I could, desperately hoping that a quick shot of sugar and caffeine would kick-start my system. The cramp began to loosen its vice-like grip on my abdomen, my stride lengthened, and ever so slowly, the red leotard got closer.
With a mile and a half to go, I was only a few strides behind The Smith. As he moved over to grab aid from a volunteer, my mind flashed back to last year’s Ironman World Championship when Chris McCormack passed Andreas Raelert at the aid station on Palani Hill. I tried to surge past him in one smooth attack, but the cramp tightened again, almost causing me to double over in agony. He pulled even with me and we continued up the hill and through the turn, stride for stride, neither of us willing to back down. With a half mile to go, it was still a dead heat. The race would finish in the only way an epic battle like that could, with a finishing chute sprint for the finish line.
At that point, it wasn’t even about who won or lost. We had raced hard and fast for almost four and a half hours, and in the end were separated by only a handful of seconds. We had pushed each other to the breaking point and had emerged intact on the other side. In a way, we were both winners. In another more correct way, I was the winner. Hahahaha! Suck it Smith!!
As anyone that stayed awake long enough to read this entire ‘race report’ can probably guess, I had a lot of fun in Las Vegas. Having a great friend and training buddy out on course made it feel more like an epic training day than the World Championships. Once again, I was floored by the incredible support from the Santa Barbara community, from our friends that made the trip out to watch the race to the people back home sending messages of support.
Fortunately for me, I age up to M35-39 next year so it will be a few years before we’ll race head to head again. I guess I will just have to hold onto the title for a little while! On the bright side, Jason can have a year to dominate his age group before Kyle ages up and he has to go head to head with him. I can’t wait to read about that!
Also, if anyone is interested in what really happened at the race, talk to Jason. I made the decision about five words into this report that I wasn’t going to let the facts get in the way of a good story…
Written By Craig Spreadbury