Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Josh Billings RunAground

“It is a darned sight easier to find six men who can tell exactly 

how a thing ought to be did than to find one who will do it.”
---- Josh Billings 

Overlooking Stockbridge Bowl in the "Heart of the Berkshires" at Tanglewood.

The 2015 North Country Endurance Challenge was cancelled and my teammate John McCarthy was tentatively planning heading back to compete at The Josh. Plenty of energy to spare and green lights flashing, we turned our attention to the Josh Billings RunAground on Sunday, September 20, 2015. This would be my very first Josh Billings and instead, I would be going head to head with my previous years teammate in the same division!

Opening the Fall multisport racing season with the Josh Billings, one of the country’s oldest continually run multisport triathlons! Putting a twist on the modern triathlon, The Josh starts with a 27 mile mass start road cycle, a not to be taken lightly 5 mile flat-water paddle, finishing with a net uphill smack in the face 6 mile road run.

Team "Accidents Happen" became Team "Babies Happen!"
It’s truly an action packed multisport event. The top teams delivering epic athletic performances, competition from first to last place are buzzing with stratospheric amounts of energy.  Almost 500 competitors across 40 divisions all making their way from Great Barrington to the spectacular venue of Tanglewood in Lenox.

Sharing in the race experience as a family and with friends is unique. Good friends John, Crystal and our little daughters alongside us for a wonderful weekend in Western, MA found the perfect balance and placed our racing addictions in perspective. In the photo above, John and I with our 20lb packages the day before the event exploring some wilderness trails locally. I still think his secret plan was to tire me before race day. So much for tapering the day before but I conceded, handing the ball full of joy off to my wife for the final 5km... it was all downhill from there!

Weather can be unpredictable in the Berkshires. Much chillier that morning than anyone anticipated with a nipping wind chill and certainly Stockbridge Bowl was likely going to be a torrent of head and cross winds.  A race is not without its challenges, but stage was set and the framework for an amazing bluebird day with plentiful spectators and racers alike was about to begin. We were almost go time!

The mass start began at Great Barrington Airport as an alternative location because roadwork in the center of town moved the course. Typically the course sends you through town and hangs a tight left turn before taking another quick right turn up a steep hill slowing things down and separating much of the pack. On the new course, we would be starting under a cautionary controlled start for safety because much of the beginning was fast and flat.

I am on the left (long red sleeve, white helmet) getting passed by this huge pack. Final climb before the finish
(Photo by John Marran Photography)

There appeared to be about 50-60 elite and category riders sectioned off in the corral.  John and I positioned ourselves about 3-4 rows back in the sport pack.  Michael McCusker, organizer of the Berkshire Highlands Pentathlon, was adjacent to us in that very same starting pack.  High fives and friendly conversation ensued!

Riding out of the airport in a controlled start for overall safety of the 500 bikers would remain for ~3 miles at no greater than 15mph. At the signal, the controlled start ended and made a break for the front. In less than half mile the road turned sharply to the right and an immediate uphill attack ensued pushing the intensity separating the majority of riders into packs. Over the top of the hill the third pack formed and about 25-30 riders assembled.  I remained there until mile 21 feeling like an overall strong cycle but lessons in group riding was learned.

Over committing in the hills during several surges eventually led to getting dropped. Could not hang onto the pack and made a mistake letting off the gas a little too much and drifting off the back.  I was facing a headwind at the time and slowly watched the pack move away from me.  Was by myself for 3 long miles until the 4th very large pack caught me at the bottom of the final climb passing Tanglewood.  They moved past me with a ridiculous amount of energy. I must have been passed by 30 riders in less than 10 seconds.  I finished ~12 minutes behind the leaders, in other words, I got my butt kicked all over the place in the cycling leg.  After joining the massive third pack of riders, I finished respectively with a time of 1:20:06 and in 75th place overall.

Paddling strong is key to this event and historically, plays a huge role in finishing with top teams battling it out overall and at the top of your division. Iron competitors are allowed to use ICF classification of boats which is understandable because any handicap on the water puts the soloist at a greater disadvantage coming into the water tired and then into a long run.  It certainly keeps things competitive at the top of the solo field. I chose to use my Fenn Millennium Surf Ski which is 21 feet long and just north of 17" wide.  It weighs about 35 lbs.

The paddle requires two full laps around the perimeter of Stockbridge Bowl.  This body of water is the perfect oval.  Buoys mark the perimeter of the course and paddlers must stay on the shoreline side of the buoys.

Josh Billings would absolutely test my threshold racing this surfski, paddling with grueling head/cross winds and 20mph gusts. There were many capsizes along the short turn in the course, as paddlers were battered continuously by wind driven chop doing everything in their power to remain upright. Then came the challenge of paddling into the constant resistance of that head wind along the long stretch back around the bowl.  Both circuits in complete fear of breaking down, loosing control of my stroke or balance in the chop and hints of capsizing ensued.

Holding it together in adverse paddling conditions challenging and overtaking position that would send me into the run with an advantage of time. Moving up in the standings 40 places with a time of 56:00 and 35th place overall! Could I preserve this lead on my nearest solo competitors going into what presumably was my weakest leg of the event?

Stockbridge Bowl becomes a "sea" of paddlers stretching end to end, all the way around its 2.5 mile oval circumference
(Photo by Stephanie Zollshan — The Berkshire Eagle)

Kari Crowe competing in the 2015 Josh Billings
(Photo by Stephanie Zollshan — The Berkshire Eagle)
Kari Crowe, women's solo record holder at The Josh, was out there in the massive crowd of cyclists. This year she was competing on a two person team where she was cycling and paddling, saving her legs for other fall events and no doubt trails not road running. I had spotted her in the bike coral earlier as I was working my way towards my buddy John and sent a 'high-five' her way and wished her luck.

The Josh Billings run is net uphill, nothing extraordinary but will be hard pressed to match your personal best 10km personal best on this approximate 6 mile course distance. I defended my position with a controlled and confident run in the hills breaking the 45 minutes mark.Nothing earth shattering but as a solo competitor this is a portion of the race that requires absolute proper nutrition and hydration prior to beginning this final effort.  Result was a 3:00:13 finish ranked 36th overall of 449, 16th of 248 kayaking and most notably 5th overall solo of 125 alongside two friends in John McCarthy of Ludlow (4th) and Josh Flanagan of Cohasset (2nd).  Other incredible competition in the top 5 were some "oldies but goodies" in Kent Lemme and Jack Morse.

Friendly faces of the MRA Multisport were also representing at The Josh.  MRA athlete Kate Egnaczak competed in the SUP division with a 2nd place category finish in 4:01 and Rich Victor who competed in his first Josh rounded out a solid performance with a 3:43 finish time.
Look who was waiting and cheering for us at the finish line!
Noelle and her little friend Rose absolutely enjoy all the sights and sounds around them. Must be that incredible amount of energy in the atmosphere surrounding the competition!!!

History was made at the 39th Josh Billings with the top overall team Pittsfield Health Food Center taking the victory with a 4 person team in the kayak class with a lightning fast time of 2 hours 23 minutes! Never before has a team taken the overall fastest time in the kayak category. With that said, surf skis will now be allowed in the team categories where before were restricted for use only by solo competitors. Perhaps The Josh was waiting for the moment a kayak team took that overall spot to announce dropping the surf ski restriction in the team based category. There is a huge following of surf ski racing and deep competition in the Northeast. This change could forever see the top teams battling it out in surf skis for years to come.

Team Allen Heights continued their achievements with a strong second place finish and top overall canoe 2 hours 27 minutes. This team also made history the prior year with a record 4th in a row overall title. Despite the surf ski announcement, Allen Heights remain steadfast and on "Any Given Sunday" could reclaim the champion title at The Josh. Vermont Sports Connection rounded out the top three with a time of 2 hours 36 minutes undoubtedly one of the top teams for many years at this competition.
Sweetest Finish Line Reward Ever!
Josh, John and I.  2nd, 4th, 5th overall solo finishes at the Josh!

All the hard work and preparation would not be possible without the unending support of our wives. Taking position on the starting line and knowing that when you finish they will be there to greet you never mind the result.   At the end of the day, Astrid and Noelle are my shining stars and seeing their shining, happy faces brightens my day.

Work Hard, Train Hard, Play Harder!