By Josh Weinfull
PANAMA CITY BEACH — What would Mike Neill’s fifth consecutive Gulf Coast Triathlon win be without a story to go with it.
Adding to his four previous volumes, Neill survived almost being run off the road by a car to win this year’s race in 4 hours, 6 minutes, 33 seconds — almost 18 minutes faster than second place.
Eight miles into Saturday’s 56-mile bike leg, Neill said a car impeded his path, forcing him to reach out and balance himself on the car’s side-view mirror. Neill, 38, came to a complete stop, regrouped and finished the race.
“For as much as it might have hurt me, it got my adrenaline going and gave me a lift,” Neill said. “Luckily it wasn’t worse. There’s always something here.”
The field of slightly more than 1,000 battled a warm Gulf of Mexico that was rough enough to send some swimmers 100 yards off course from the transition entrance. Aside from a stiff wind on the bike and run course, the overcast conditions were ideal for the race, most triathletes said.
While Neill was celebrating win No. 5, Caroline Smith was basking in repeating as the women’s champion. She finished in 4:33:36, ahead of second-place Amy Kloner (4:46:54) and third-place Lindsay Borden (4:52:02) despite her own bike ordeal.
Smith was coming through the bike-to-run transition when her left shoe started to unhook from the bike. In an attempt to get off before the dismount line, she hit the brakes and fell to the ground in front of a large crowd.
A few nicks and scratches on her right arm couldn’t diminish her excitement.
“It’s pretty freaking cool,” she said a few moments after crossing the finish line. “It was a big surprise last year and this year I knew Amy was going to give me a good run for the money, and she was chasing me the whole way coming out of the swim.”
Smith, 39, had to fend off a swell of age-group triathletes, who challenged the top women pros.
Borden, fourth-place Stephanie Liles, and fifth place Amy Lichon, all knocked Lynn Haven resident Helen Libby out of third place after their times were adjusted. Libby came in sixth in 4:57:57.
“The swim was brutal,” Libby said. “The wind was worse on the swim. It was kinda nice on the bike. It’s a toss-up. Either the wind or the ridiculous heat here.”
Kloner, who was a favorite to win Saturday’s race, couldn’t put her finger on why she had one of her slower swims (37:52) and runs (1:39:53) in recent memory. To add insult to her uneven performance, Kloner was stopped near the end of her run for a 2-minute penalty for improperly racking her bike.
“That was wretched,” Kloner said. “The last time I ran a half marathon that slow was in 2005. I don’t know what happened.
“Honestly I had the two best months of training I’ve ever had. I was ready to break 1:30 on the run. I’m not complaining for second place. I’m happy with that. I was ready to win this and that’s why it’s a race.”
Neill’s margin of victory was the largest in his five wins at the GCT, but his times have been a model of consistency. Including Saturday, Neill has run his last three races in 4:06:33 (2010), 4:06:33 (2009) and 4:06:38 (2008). The British Columbia, Canada, resident was concerned for a few minutes that age-group triathlete Craig Evans could end his streak.
Evans was expecting a third-place finish, but the former Western Kentucky University swimmer came in second with his adjusted time of 4:24:18. Peter Kotland, who struggled with exhaustion after crossing the finish line was third in 4:26:21 and Simon Nalo, another Canadian, was fourth in 4:27:07.
“I’m feeling like I was melted,” said Nalo, who is a full-time police officer in Joliette, Quebec, located an hour north of Montreal. “We had snow like a month ago in Montreal, and I started doing bicycling like four weeks ago. It was too hot for me.”
It took Neill longer than usual to secure his victory. He didn’t claim the lead until there were three miles left in the bike, and once on the run he had to battle cramping in his quadriceps, a result of his near crash. His seat was tilted down after the incident, and Neill had to put more pressure on his quads to get through the bike.
The pain was a rewarding memory for Neill, who held fast to Friday’s proclamation that this will be his last Gulf Coast Triathlon.
“My quads hurt every step,” Neill said. “Every step my quads were cramping. It made for a really painful 13 miles” on the run.
“It feels great, especially to be here with so many friends and teammates from Columbus (Ohio). It hasn’t really sunk in yet. Five’s a good number.”
2010 Gulf Coast Triathlon results
* 1. Mike Neill, British Columbia, Canada 4:06:33
* 2. Craig Evans, Hendersonville, Tenn. 4:24:18
* 3. Peter Kotland, South Carolina 4:26:21
* 4. Simon Malo, Joliette, Quebec 4:27:07
* 5. Greg Mueller, South Bend, Ind. 4:30:01
* 6. Jeffery Hill, Land O Lakes 4:30:22
* 7. Kevin Boucher, Chattanooga, Tenn. 4:31:50
* 8. Bojan Maric, Marietta, Ga. 4:31:56
* 9. Aubrey Aldy, Naples 4:32:01
* 10. David Shearon, Panama City Beach 4:32:15