“But innocence is gone, and what was right is wrong…”
2019 Robious Landing Triathlon
2/14 AG 24/255 Overall
June 30, 2019 – The Robious Landing Sprint Triathlon is the only tri I’ve done every year since getting into the sport in 2014, and its pretty much my favorite race. I typically sign up as soon as registration opens, so as race week 2019 approached I looked for my pre-race email. By the time that Wednesday of race week rolled around and I didn’t have a participant email, I logged onto the race website and looked at the newly released bib list. My name was missing, and I was convinced that the race had flubbed up.
An exhaustive review of my inbox and deleted mail folders ensued, and I finally came to the conclusion that I’d only registered for the race in my head. Online registration had closed by that point, and there was nothing confirming that walk up registration was still an option. After kicking myself several dozen times over the next few days, I presented myself at packet pickup and finally confirmed that I could register in person. I’d have a crappy bib number and rack location, but at least I was racing.
My friend Clay Westbay was also racing, and I offered to give him a ride to the race site so his wife (Michelle) could sleep in a bit. I reminded Clay that I’m completely anal about getting to transition as soon as it opens, but thankfully he was a good sport. He didn’t even forget his GPS this time and make me turn around and go back to get it. We made it to Robious Landing around 5:30 a.m. and got ourselves set up in transition. After doing the obligatory pre-race routine of porta-pottying, warming up and stretching, it was time to walk up to the swim start.
The swim start is about 650 meters upriver from transition, and its a fairly long walk on dirt/gravel trails in bare feet. Thanks to his under-40 youthfulness, Clay was in the first swim wave, with me in the second wave a few minutes behind him. After wishing him luck, we parted ways and got ourselves ready to start.
Swim (Stopped in progress)
The swim had been cancelled two of the last three years due to dangerously high river conditions because of storms, but the river was low and slow this time around – the slowest I’d ever seen it for the race. I was happy about that since I usually do pretty well in the swim, and I wanted as little current-assist for the field as possible. Clay and the rest of the under-40 men took off at 7:00 a.m., and then my swim wave entered the water and swam backwards against the current until it was time for us to begin. After a few minutes the horn sounded and we took off. I got into a nice groove right out of the gates, and I love the Robious swim, so I felt totally comfortable. I was swimming really well for about 200 meters, and then everything went sideways.
I heard “stop, stop stop,” and when I looked up, two girls on paddle boards had blocked the center of the river where we were swimming. They said that a swimmer from the first wave had gone under, and to my right there was a volunteer who’d been in a kayak bobbing up and down trying to find him where he’d gone under. My swim wave was told to stay put, so we began treading water backwards to keep the current from taking us downstream. After several minutes, however, we really didn’t know what to do and were getting tired of fighting the current. Thus, we began swim (slowly) towards the swim finish about 450 meters down river. All of us were pretty much in shock about what was happening.
As we approached the swim exit, it was was apparent that the spectators didn’t know what was happening. I think that some of them were aware that there was an issue upstream, but none knew the severity of the situation. They were yelling at us to “go” and were saying “great job,” but they must have been confused by the fact that we were all moving so slowly.
At that point, I didn’t know what we were supposed to do, but I presumed that all of the swimming for the day was over. The first swim wave had already finished the swim and had gone out onto the bike course, and the remaining swim waves were upstream still waiting to start. As I walked towards the transition area I saw one of the race officials, who obviously was on top of the situation since he had a radio in his hand. He told me that the swim was cancelled for all participants, and that my swim wave should get our bikes and then head out onto the bike course. Our race would begin as soon as we exited transition.
As I looked around at the other guys in my swim wave, we were all a bit shell shocked and bewildered. It had been about 15-20 minutes since the swimmer had gone under and the rescue operation was ongoing, so everyone was assuming the worst. My primary concern once I got back to transition was checking to see if Clay’s bike was still racked, and thankfully it was gone. That meant that he’d completed his swim and was out on the bike course.
Quite frankly, I didn’t really know what to do, so I took a few minutes to collect myself. Quitting wouldn’t do anything to help the situation, but I still felt ambiguous about racing after what had just occurred during the swim. Some of the other guys began to head out onto the bike course, so I figured that I would as well, so I put on my helmet and shoes and walked over to the mounting area.
Bike: 51:54 (21.8 mph) (1/14 AG)
Honestly, I don’t recall a ton of the details of the race itself, and I think I’ve tried to block a lot of the day from my memory. I don’t even remember riding with Clay to the race, but I’m sure we did since we had planned it out so his wife could arrive later in the morning. In fact, Michelle was going to bring my kids with her when she came (since Leigh Anne was out of town), but ultimately, they decided to stay home and I’m glad they did.
The Robious bike is an out and back (with two turns), and is uphill going out and downhill coming back in. There’s a long climb just before the turnaround cone, with the steepest portion at the end. I took off up the hill away from the river and then turned right onto Robious Road. I determined early on that I wasn’t going to look at my GPS until I finished the ride, and just figured that I’d ride hard as I could and see where that left me.
I was pretty much riding all alone since the guys in my swim wave took our time in collecting ourselves and taking off, and I finally saw guys from the first swim wave heading back towards me as I was a few miles from the turnaround point. I was thinking to myself that those guys had no idea what had occurred since they’d all kept swimming as the tragedy was unfolding behind them. I wondered what they’d find when they got back to transition.
I rode hard up the hill to the turnaround cone, and my most vivid memory from the ride is seeing Mindy directing the bikes around the cone since she was volunteering. She asked me how I was doing, and I said something like, “terrible, I think someone drowned.” Since she didn’t have a radio, the news hadn’t made its way to her yet – not that it needed to at that point.
I rounded the cone and screamed back down the hill I’d just climbed. I saw a few guys from my swim wave climbing up the other side, but by the time I got back to Robious Road I’d stopped seeing bikers coming in the other direction. As I headed east on Robious for several miles I saw no one, and I wondered if they’d let anyone else start the bike after my wave. By the time I got within a mile of the bike finish, however, I began to seek other bikers trickling out onto the course. Apparently, the swimmers behind my wave eventually walked back down to transition and began a time trial start.
I cruised down the hill towards the transition area and tried to get my heart rate under control for the run. I finally glanced at my GPS and saw that I’d averaged just under 22 mph for the ride, which was very good considering the hills. My time of 51:54 was the fastest in my age group, and TrainingPeaks would later tell me that I set an all-time 20 minute heart rate record during my climb to the turnaround point. I guess I’d lost myself somewhere in my thoughts and pushed myself pretty hard even though I was feeling a bit numb.
T2: :51 (3/14/ AG)
I had a fast transition, but it was only good enough for third in my age group. As you can see from my pre-race picture above, my bike was racked off the beaten path against the outer fence, so that cost me a bit of time. As I entered and exited T2 there was some crowd support, but it was definitely muted when compared to prior years. As I headed out on the run, there were still a good amount of bikers waiting for their turn to take off in the time trial start.
Run: 23:46 (7:39 min/mile)
Mile 1 (8:27)
The Robious run is always slow. You’re on winding dirt/gravel trails for the first mile, and you have to watch your footing. There are also a few small hills thrown in, which keep you from getting going. I did check my pace as I was running, and was disappointed to see 8:27 for the first mile. In actuality, I’d probably been a bit further than a mile when my GPS tripped since it gets a little wonky on trails. The GPS only checks your location every few seconds, so when you’re winding around it doesn’t realize that you’ve gone quite as far as you have.
Mile 2 (7:29)
The second mile is basically an out and back in a nearby neighborhood, and the pavement finally allows you to open up a bit. The downside is that you’re running in direct sunlight, but the temperature wasn’t as bad as it’d been in years past. Still, the humidity was high, so there was some overheating going on. Clay was half-way out of the neighborhood when I was half-way in, and we exchanged nods as we passed. He was still blissfully ignorant of what had happened during the swim, and wouldn’t find out until he finished.
After I hit the turnaround cone I tried to accelerate a little bit more, but that was largely unsuccessful. My legs were pretty beat from the bike and my willpower was somewhat lacking as well.
Mile 3 (7:49)
The last mile was out of the neighborhood and back into the wooded trails, but there was a little running on pavement to another turnaround cone. As with most of the race, I was basically running alone, so there wasn’t anyone near me to push me. I did feel like I was pushing hard, but I don’t think I had the motivation to find that final gear. I wound through the trails some more and finally began to hear the noise coming from the finishing area. I came out of the woods one last time into the finishing chute to find a very muted crowd. I crossed the finish line in 1:16:29, which left me 2/14 in my age group. I’d missed first pace by 31 seconds, and as always seems to be the case, I got passed on the run.
After finishing, I learned that the rescue operation was still ongoing, and by that point, everyone knew what the outcome was going to be so there was a somber mood about the crowd. They cancelled the post-race awards, which was fine since no one really felt like celebrating anyways. Eventually, someone told me who it was that hadn’t made it out of the water, and it was someone that I’d met several times, but not someone that I knew well. I frequent the restaurant where he worked though, and his bike is hanging on the wall next to the bar. Its a sad reminder of a terrible day.
As the news stories began to come out after the race, I was disturbed and angered by the coverage. The journalists interviewed people who had nothing to do with the race, and who knew nothing about the incident itself. The interviews seemed to be designed to give misinformation about the river conditions, and one reporter even broadcast that the incident happened during an “obstacle course race.” Given the magnitude of the situation, the media could have done better – for the race and for the family.
Anyways, I could go way down the rabbit hole with my personal and professional feelings about what happened, but that wouldn’t really serve any purpose. Suffice it to say that the Richmond triathlon community came together in a great way after the race to try to help support the family of the deceased, and hopefully the family was able to find some solace in that effort.
Personally, I didn’t have a race on my calendar until the OBX Half-Iron triathlon in September, and I was glad that I didn’t have to focus on another race for a while. Sometimes we lose sight of just how easy it is for things to go wrong in this sport, and the Robious Landing Triathlon was a sober reminder of that fact. That was in addition to Bob Busher getting hit by a car on the bike course at the RTC Sprint Triathlon in April. You hear about bad things happening in other races, but you never really think they’ll happen to you or to those around you. Training and racing triathlons isn’t easy and it isn’t always fun, but we all do it because the positives far outweigh the negatives. Unfortunately, 2019 wasn’t off to a good start, and my rose colored glasses and been shattered for sure.