ATLANTIC CITY — The runner who crosses the finish line first usually wins the race.
But that wasn’t the case Sunday in the Challenge Atlantic City triathlon.
Professional triathlete Petr Vabrousek, from the Czech Republic, was the first athlete to finish the full 1.2-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.
But Iowan Jeff Paul was the winner in 9 hours, 14 minutes and 28 seconds.
Paul started his swim leg of the race around 4 minutes after the first Ironman triathletes hit the water.
“I’m not a real strong swimmer, and I knew there was only like 250 people in this race, so I wanted to stay back and have some people to pass along the way,” he said.
The race started on the bays by Bader Field and carved through Atlantic County and around Wharton State Forest before coming back to Atlantic City, finishing in front of Boardwalk Hall.
Vabrousek had a 4-minute lead with 8 miles to go in the marathon leg of the race, but Paul knew he had that time cushion.
By the last mile, Paulhad cut the lead to 27 seconds. He finished just seconds behind Vabrousek, whose time was 9:17.50.
The win was Paul’s second and his favorite.
“I had to dig, I had to fight for this one,” he said. “I kept thinking about my son (Owen). He’s 5, and he always asks after a race, ‘Dad, did you win?’ and I kept thinking, God, I want to tell him yes, I want to tell him I won.”
The run course brought the triathletes up and down the Boardwalk several times, sometimes forcing them to weave through crowds of tourists who strayed into the running lane.
“I like it because there are so many people out here,” said Paul, a history teacher and professional triathlete. “I think a lot of them don’t really know what’s going on. You run into people, but it’s a cool atmosphere. If they market it and brought the energy down to the fans and the spectators that are just walking around, I think this could be a premier event in the United States.”
More than 850 athletes entered the half-Ironman and more than 250 for the longer race.
“Most Ironman races, you go out and you don’t see anyone for 22 miles and then you come back and everyone is at the finish line,” Paul said. “This race, there’s people all over.”
While Vabrousek and Paul blazed through a full Ironman course, Rob Verhelst, a fireman from Madison, Wisconsin, might have had more iron in his backbone than any of the actual Ironman finishers.
He is pursuing a world record of 23 half-Ironman triathlons in one calendar year. He finished his 13th Sunday.
The twist? Verhelst wears full firefighter gear, weighing about 50 pounds, for the 13.1-mile run portion of the race.
The record isn’t just for self-interest. Verhelst raises money for a number of causes, including a foundation he started called Fireman Rob, which provides teddy bears to children’s hospitals.
Verhelst, who worked as part of the recovery effort in New York after 9/11, completed his first Ironman on the 10-year anniversary of the attack.
“Twenty-two is the world record right now, held by someone who wore just regular triathlon gear,” he said. “I’m stepping it up a notch and wearing full firefighter gear.
“I want to have people see what difference we can make in this world, and that was my idea. And everyone can take something different from it.”
As fate would have it, if Verhelst is successful, he’ll break the world record at Ironman Wisconsin on Sept. 13, the site of his first triathlon.
Heat and fatigue forced him to slow to a walk toward the end, but he picked up the pace for the last 100 yards and finished to the cheers of the crowd.
“It was beautiful, definitely on the Boardwalk. It’s cool because the people are great,” he said.
“But you’d never know New Jersey is as pretty as it is unless you’re on a bike ride out in the woods.”