After a very fine 2013 season, Texan Clay Emge raced with a pro card in 2014 but was hampered by injuries, and then returned as an age grouper in 2015 to win Ironman Boulder.
Slowtwitch: Nice work in Boulder.
Clay Emge: Thanks Herbert!
ST: Clearly you made the right decision when you chose that race, but why Boulder in the first place?
Clay: I was coming off an injury, a sacral stress fracture, which kept me from running for about a 6 month period from August 2014 until February 2015. It didn’t seem likely that I’d be healthy in time to do Ironman Texas in May, which at 3 hours from my home in Tyler, TX, is by far the closest Ironman event to home. So, after racing Ironman Texas the last 3 years, I decided to shake things up a bit and see if my run would be ready for an August event.
ST: How early did you arrive and how long did you stay?
Clay: I arrived 8 days early, which turned out to be, in my humble opinion, the right amount of time to acclimate for a race at about 5000 feet of elevation. Going into the race I did a fair amount of research, and found all types of opinions ranging from “you’ll die if you don’t get there at least 2 weeks early” to “it really doesn’t matter, 5000 feet isn’t that big of a deal.” So anyone looking to do Boulder in 2016, one week is good!
ST: Did you bring a big group from Texas?
Clay: Yes indeed! My wife, my parents, my in-laws, and some good friends/training buddies from Tyler all made the trip. I also convinced a couple of friends to do the race, so they and their significant others and some of their friends came up too! It really isn’t a tough sell…convincing people in Texas to get away to Colorado in late July/early August.
ST: Going in, what were your expectations?
Clay: Without a pro field, I knew there was a chance I could place pretty well. My swim and bike, especially my bike, have been going very well, and I’ve slowly been building back my run. So the run was my biggest question mark going in, but in the build-up I did get my long runs in, at a decent pace, so that was encouraging.
ST: How did the race unfold for you?
Clay: The swim went ok. Water temp was barely too high for wetsuits, so I tried out my brand new Orca RS1 swim skin, and it felt great in the water. Times were pretty slow across the board, and I finished with a low 58, decent for me in a non-wetsuit swim.
I absolutely loved the bike course. The roads were perfectly smooth, and there was a good amount of climbing, but nothing over about an 8% grade and some very long, fast descents. I took the lead at about mile 70, but flatted at mile 90. The repair job took me about 5 minutes, and I fell to second place, but moved back into first around mile 100, and cruised into T2 with a lead of a few minutes. Even though the bike course had over 5000 feet of elevation, the thinner air and smooth roads made it fast, and I finished with an IM PR of 4:29 (4:24 after the flat)… very encouraging, as I have been working quite hard on the bike this summer.
The run went well for about the first 5 miles. After that, my legs got heavy - evidence that I either pushed the bike too hard or that I’m just not yet back in the run shape I was pre-injury - or a combination thereof. It was pretty dang hot, which was probably my saving grace because I do well in the heat, and as my splits got slower, it seemed my competitors' did too. I had an awesome bike lead-out guy, Warren, who pumped up the crowd as I was approaching, and helped me get splits on how far back competitors were as we passed them on out-and-backs. I ended up running a 3:09, my slowest IM marathon in quite a while, but on a fairly hilly run course and a hot day, I’ll take it. The finish was thrilling, and my wife, my good friend/training partner, and parents were all waiting for me in the chute! Outside the chute were a bunch of other friends, my in-laws, and hundreds of other screaming spectators - making for quite an awesome finish on Pearl Street in Downtown Boulder.
ST: How did you celebrate after?
Clay: I waited for my friends to come in, and had a blast cheering them through the chute! After going home to clean up, we were back at Pearl and enjoyed dinner with friends and family. We ordered a few pitchers of Kona Brewing Company beer, of course. Then from 10:30pm to midnight I was back at the finish line, where the MC recognized me in front of the crowd and even let me hand out a few medals!
ST: It seems you have had many changes in your life since we talked in 2013.
Clay: Indubitably. I married my beautiful wife, Kimberly, in June of 2014. We bought a house, we got another dog, and in March of this year we found out we’ll be adding another member to our family - our first human child! He should arrive around Thanksgiving.
ST: Well congrats on so many levels then. Did you also race as a pro in 2014?
Clay: Yes. After qualifying for my pro card with both IMTX and Kona in 2013, I decided to try it out. At the very least, I could always look back later in life and say that I raced as a pro triathlete. And for the cost of roughly one IM, I could do all the IM and 70.3 races I wanted! So I took it, knowing full well that my true profession and income source is engineering, and using the term "pro triathlete" very lightly, as triathlon is still more of a hobby or obsession than a career for me.
ST: But you did not renew for this year?
Clay: No. After getting hurt and missing so much time, I had a tough decision to make come December 2014, since a pro license lasts for the calendar year and would mean I’d have to race as a pro for all of 2015. At that point I still wasn’t back to running and there was no telling what 2015 had in store for me. And I put more pressure on myself racing in the pro field - which probably led to my injury in the first place. So I just wanted to focus on taking my time, rehabbing and doing more strength training and stretching.
ST: Are you considering grabbing a pro card maybe next year or the following one?
Clay: Possibly. I’ll have to see how Kona and fatherhood go first!
ST: Would you have any advice for young fast triathletes who are considering getting a pro card?
Clay: Everyone has different circumstances, but if someone has a very stable job/career in a field that has absolutely nothing to do with triathlon (like me), be very careful. Triathlon is truly a profession for a very small portion of the professional field – there’s not much money in it unless you’re at the very top. So don’t totally devote yourself to triathlon in your 20s and early 30s when you could be laying the foundation for a successful career in something else.
ST: I think you were part of the Maverick Multisport Team last year, but now it is all Cobb Mobb.
Clay: That’s correct. Racing with Maverick Multisport was a great experience last year. The team director, Chris Hutchens, works hard for his athletes and does a great job with social media and sponsors, so I learned a ton working with him. But going back to the amateur ranks allowed me to get involved with Cobb Cycling again, and I’m thrilled to be on the Cobb Mobb this year! John Cobb picked beautiful Tyler, TX to be the home base for his company, and all endurance athletes in East Texas have benefitted tremendously from it. He and his wife, Ginger, are extremely involved in our community here, putting on tri clinics and opening their doors to training classes, especially in the cold, dark winter months, that have triggered a huge growth in interest and camaraderie in our local triathlon community. Plus, they make the best saddles in the biz, so I’m very proud to be a member of their team.
ST: Other than saddles, can you pretty much pick your equipment or are there other Mobb partners involved?
Clay: Cobb has been getting into making apparel lately too, and they make some extremely comfortable tri shorts that work well with their saddles. Outside of the Mobb, I’m partnered with Orca this year, and have really enjoyed working with them. I always thought of them as just a swimming company, but it turns out they make some sweet aero products too… like shoe covers and the aero suit that Kienle won Kona in last year.
ST: Earlier this year you gave up social media for Lent. Did you give anything else up? And give us some examples of other Lent “offerings.”
Clay: No, just social media this year. I’d gotten to the point where I would check my news feed entirely too often, so it was needed and very refreshing to take a break. Even after Lent was over, I’ve continued to go on stints where I take the Facebook app off my phone, to help resist the urge to get on there. God has blessed me with a very active and busy lifestyle, and while social media isn’t inherently bad (not even close, it can be a great thing), it was starting to creep into other areas of my life and taking time out of my already busy day - time I could be spending in prayer or with my wife, etc.
ST: Will we see you in Kona?
Clay: Yes, Sir!
ST: Is the Big Cobb coming too?
Clay: He’s a fixture in Kona! His wife and his employee Seth, who is my training buddy, will also be there. I believe they’ll have a tent set up all week outside of their condo on Ali’i Drive.
ST: After that fine result in Boulder, what will be the goal in Hawaii?
Clay: A strong showing! I hope my run has progressed some between now and then. And I hope to have a fun time in Hawaii!
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Clay: I don’t believe so. Thanks for the interview!