On Sunday, October 2, Lower School science teacher Dean Kelly, Upper School English teacher Tim Donahue, and fifth grade head teacher Charles Miller joined forces to win the MightyMan Half Ironman triathlon in Montauk, NY. “BWL,” as the team was known, completed the 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run in 4 hours and 28 minutes, nearly five minutes clear of any of the other 300 individual or relay team competitors.
Talk for the event literally began around the water cooler last spring, when the trio of bike-commuting teachers broached subjects like stair-climbing technique, optimal rest time between running intervals, and the value of the negative split. “I knew these guys were serious when they were putting chia seeds (thought to increase endurance) in their salads,” said Kelly.
“It’s very hard to race this distance on your own,” said Donahue, who has completed about fifty shorter sprint and Olympic-length triathlons. “That would take serious training time. Being on a team really mitigates the suffering … and I love the fact that we have this strong team right within our school.”
On the first day of school this year, the trio set its crosshairs on the Montauk race in early October, when the water is still warm, but the air is generally cooler and more conducive to hard exertion. Rated as a “must do” event by Triathlon magazine, the MightyMan course begins in a saltwater pond just outside the center of Montauk, then reaches all points of the easternmost tip of Long Island. The bike course gains 2,000 vertical feet of total climb; the hillier run course gains 800 vertical feet.
When the team rolled out for the 6:40 a.m. race start, they were greeted by an ominous, windswept rain. But as daylight broke, the skies brightened and the water went from a chop to a ripple. “We were so lucky to have relatively calm water. No one needs to make this any harder,” said Kelly, the group’s swimmer.
Though he rode his bike 1,600 miles through northern Europe this summer, and though he placed 5th out of 265 in a 5k road race the day before the event, Kelly had been tapped for the water. With little formal training in the technically complex discipline, he decided to take a crash course. Each morning during the month leading up to the event, he hit the pool at 6 a.m. for a mile-long swim. He borrowed a wetsuit from a friend and took his steely vigor with him to the line. “I was nervous,” he said. “I knew the rest of my teammates would be strong in their events … But once I made it to the buoy at the other end of the pond, I knew it had it in me, and at that point, I put it into second gear and passed as many people as I possibly could.”
Relay teams began in the last of five waves of athletes, 12 minutes behind the first wave, so Kelly was able to pass over a hundred people as he clocked 34:52 for the 1.2 miles. He reeled in several more as he dashed through the transition area and handed the timing chip to Donahue, the group’s biker.
“I have never done a triathlon as part of a team,” Donahue said, “so my first thought was that I didn’t want to get a flat and let the guys down. My next thought was that I wanted to have fairly even splits.” He rode the first 28-mile loop in just under 1:12 and the second in 1:13, for a time of 2:25 for the 56 miles, averaging 23.2 mph. “I’ve never raced close to that distance on a bike,” he said, “so I’m pleased I was able to hang on. It was a really affirming way to end the season.”
Donahue passed over a hundred more on his ride, so when he handed off to Miller, it was clear the team was gaining. But no one anticipated the hurt Miller would put on the competition during his fiendish half marathon leg. “It was funny to see Charles in his orange shoes looking so much fresher than everyone else out there,” said Kelly. A middle distance runner when at Colgate University, Miller had been training with his Urban Athletics team for the Fifth Avenue Mile one week prior. “Coming off all that short speed work, I was worried about blowing up. I needed to pace myself,” he said. Having no knowledge of what his body might feel into the far longer race, he set off on a conservative pace of just under seven minutes per mile. “The first 10k felt too comfortable. I anticipated lactic acid settling in and crippling my stride, but it never came.” He battled through slight cramps mid-way through, but then torched the last five miles, picking up speed on the hills and flat out sprinting the last half-mile to the finish. He clocked a 1:26, for a 6:33 pace.
When Miller charged into the stadium, the event announcer simply said, “Wow!” Still, because of the team’s 12-minute deficit at the start, Miller was not the first athlete to cross the line, and the group had no idea it was the day’s winner. Fortunately, their three-person cheering section was at the line to set it straight. “The fact that it was a BWL relay made the win that much more rewarding. I can guarantee you that no team or competitor expected to lose to three schoolteachers that morning,” Miller said.
“If we could team up for a winter triathlon, we would,” said Kelly. “We’re definitely going to do this again.”