Culture

Recalled: What It’s Like To Lose An Ironman By Less Than Two Seconds

Matt Chrabot tells us, in his own words, about the epic sprint battle at Ironman Chattanooga.

With the racing world on pause as the planet continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Triathlete is dipping back into the archives and revisiting some of the biggest, most inspiring, and somewhat under-the-radar events in triathlon. Today, we’re flipping the calendar back to 2015, when the pro men’s race at Ironman Chattanooga yielded one of the closest finishes to date. Here, American pro Matt Chrabot, the race’s runner up, looks back at the one that got away.

“Having done so many draft-legal and non-drafting Olympic distance races earlier in my career, I was used to being in sprint finishes. When I won the Chicago Triathlon in 2011, [Australian] Greg Bennett and I ran together for the last mile or so and I was able to out-run him that day. I’d battled with greats like Canadian Simon Whitfield and New Zealand’s Bevan Docherty down to the line. Still, I’ve never been confident in my sprinting ability. And it’s not ideal to have to run all-out at the end of any race, especially an Ironman.

But I really wanted a win that day. And, up until about 20 miles into the run, the race seemed like it was mine. I’d built up a two-minute lead with just four miles to go. Spotters on the course were telling me that the guys behind me were slowing down and using the port-a-potties. I kept saying to myself, ‘I got this.’ But, of course, anything can happen in an Ironman, and I suddenly hit a wall. My pace per mile went from 6:30 to 7:30, which doesn’t seem like much, but it was enough to allow Germany’s Stefan Schmid and Estonia’s Kirill Kotsegarov to catch me. At first, I was nervous when they came up on me. But I quickly changed that into a positive narrative, telling myself it’s better to run with company than all alone at the front. Fortunately, they didn’t put in a surge when they caught me, so I hung right on their shoulders and the three of us ran together for a bit.

As we came up on an aid station, I grabbed a Red Bull. I’d never taken Red Bull during a race before, but being so late in the game, I had nothing to lose. It was all I needed to snap out of the rough patch and get ready to really run that last mile. The all-out sprint began with about 100 meters to go. Kirill and I dropped Stefan, and I even opened up about a five-foot lead. But as soon as we hit the carpet in the home stretch, I lost my footing. It opened the door just enough for Kirill to get slightly ahead of me. I saw the finish banner, lunged for it, and fell to the ground without knowing if I’d won or lost. I saw Karill celebrating and thought, ‘Well, I guess I finished in second.’ In the end, Karill got me by a lean. The final results say we were separated by two seconds, but it was actually less than that.

Did I learn any lessons that day? Probably to be more patient. I was eager to win and burned too many matches too early in that race. Then again, I did that in nearly every race I entered. Maybe if I held back a little earlier in the day, I would have had enough energy to hold off Karill. All I know is that if you want a win badly enough, you can convince yourself to do just about anything, including willing your legs to sprint at the after eight hours of racing.

The split-second difference between Karill and I cost me $10,000. That was the difference in prize money between first and second. So that stung a little. But given the way I raced that day, it was a positive experience overall. It wasn’t like I went out and blew a 20-minute lead. That would have been tragic. Instead, I was able to hold on and take it all the way to the line, which was huge for me. In my career, I’d won a national championship, World Cup races, and other big events. But Ironman Chattanooga stands out to me as a highlight for sure.”

In 2017, Chrabot finally got his win by taking Ironman Argentina with a comfortable 7-minute margin. After retiring from triathlon in 2018, Chrabot, now 37 and living in Lafayette, Colorado with his wife and young son, is pursuing trail running. He plans to race Pikes Peak Marathon on August 23.