ATLANTIC CITY - Jeff Paul had a little voice in his head pushing him on to win Sunday's Challenge Atlantic City Triathlon.
"I kept thinking about my 5-year-old son, Owen, back at home," said Paul, a resident of Le Claire, Iowa. "After every race, he's like, 'Dad, did you win?' I kept thinking, that's the first thing he's going to ask me, and I wanted to be able to say yes, so I just dug down and kept clawing back. All of a sudden at the last turn ... I knew I had it. Owen will be excited."
Sometimes, it's not how you finish the race but where - or when - you started.
Paul didn't cross the finish line first in Sunday's Challenge Atlantic City, but he won the ultra-triathlon race by mere seconds ahead of Petr Vabrousek of the Czech Republic.
It made for a confusing scene at the finish line of the Ironman-distance Challenge - a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2 mile run that took competitors from the back bays of Atlantic City, out to the blueberry fields of Hammonton and pine woods of Wharton State Forest, and back to the famous Boardwalk.
Paul, 35, a full-time high school teacher and basketball coach, started the race in the water several minutes behind Vabrousek, but he caught up to the Czech pro on the run leg and - despite crossing the finish line seconds behind Vabrousek - finished the race in a total elapsed time of nine hours, 14 minutes and 28.036 seconds, three minutes and 22 seconds ahead of Vabrousek's time.
"I figured that if I kept it within a few minutes I'd have a shot at winning," Paul said. "They didn't start everybody together in the water. I just hung back a little bit at the start and it worked to my advantage."
It was also a victory for amateurism. Vabrousek, who won the Czech National Distance Championships in his hometown last week, was one of the few pro triathletes to enter Sunday's Challenge. The winner of last year's inaugural Challenge, Sweden's Fredrik Croneborg, did not enter this year's race.
"I'm glad a few pros showed up, that made it more of a challenge for me," said Paul, who ran the Challenge as a pro last year, finishing 14th overall. "I decided that with two kids and a full time job I had a lot more in common with the amateurs than the pros. I started training in February and this is the race that I wanted to peak for. It was just what I wanted."
Suzy Serpico of Columbia, MD, was the first female finisher of the Full Triathlon Challenge, completing the grueling race in 10:20:44.7. Serpico still had enough energy at the end to pick up her eager new puppy, Lucy, and carry her across the finish line. "She's the first dog to cross the finish line," Serpico said.
An elementary school physical education teacher and running coach, Serpico finally won an Ironman-distance race in her 14th try. "Sometimes everything falls into place and you've just got to appreciate it," she said. "I tell my students and my clients, every time you can get out to do this is a very good day."
Eric Schrading of Galloway, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Pleasantville, also had a great day at the Challenge, finishing sixth overall in the Full Triathlon with a time of 10:13:22.2.
Race organizer Stephen Del Monte, founder of Wildwood-based DelMoSports Inc., added a Half Triathlon to this year's Challenge. Some 300 athletes registered to race the full distance with some 900 racing the half distance, which cut down on roadway and Boardwalk congestion this year.
Many endurance athletes accepted the Challenge with teams in a relay format, including six Race2Rebuild Challenge relay teams which raise money to support rebuilding efforts for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
"They do a phenomenal job," Schrading said of DelMoSports. "(Del Monte) gets all the volunteers, it's very well organized. "I'm just real excited to have this here in Atlantic City. It's nice to be able to drive 15 minutes to do this, compete in a race for 10 hours, and drive home after. All in a day's work."