Think you can go the distance with your professor? 

In a healthy dialogue or debate in class, you might have a fighting chance. If you want to go head to head with Chris Roy, you had better do the legwork and come prepared. It also may help to have a bit of endurance and stamina on your side.

By day, Roy, a professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, tackles complex problems in computational fluid dynamics. He teaches courses in aero/hydrodynamics, verification and validation in scientific computing, and turbulence modeling and simulation. 

Outside the classroom, Roy spends his free time training for and competing in triathlons. In 2021 alone, he competed in 12 of these endurance races. His most recent feat: qualifying for and competing at the Ironman 70.3 (also known as the half-Ironman) World Championship.

Mental toughness

Roy has always been a disciplined athlete, competitively swimming in high school and for Duke University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The skills and habits he developed and honed as a college athlete still prove valuable to him in his professional life. “As a scholar-athlete, you really need to be able to organize your time, be it for training, or your academic work,” he said. “Training and competing at that level forces you to be disciplined and focus all your energy on the goal at hand.”

As he moved into the world of academia, Roy continued his workouts and conditioning in the pool. He found swimming to be the outlet he needed to take a break from the long hours of research and mental strain that comes with computational work. “I find it to be a huge help in stress relief,” said Roy. “Swimming and later on, biking, were a way to help turn off my mind and focus on something else for a change.”

In the past decade, Roy incorporated running into his fitness regime, and he tackled his first triathlon in 2013. From there, he was hooked.

In typical engineer fashion, Roy tracks all his triathlon races in a spreadsheet. He compiles a mountain of data for each triathlon he has completed, including dates, race locations, finish times and pace for each leg, and how he performed overall. Through tracking and analyzing his results, each race proves to be a learning experience and a chance to improve on his performance.

In 2019, Roy competed in 11 triathlons. At the end of that year, he qualified for the Team USA Age Group Nationals. He was among an elite group of American athletes (approximately 18 individuals per age group) who qualified to compete at the ITU Olympic Distance Triathlon World Championship. This race was scheduled to be held in Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada, in August 2020.

Shortly after Roy qualified for the world championship race, the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. All races, competitions, and events where athletes might gather and draw crowds of spectators were halted. 

Despite the disappointment — a feeling experienced by so many during the pandemic — Roy continued on with his training. As a substitute for the formal races that were continually being postponed or canceled, Roy created his own triathlons here in the New River Valley for himself and a handful of local triathletes. As official events began to open up again in 2021, he overloaded his schedule, sometimes partaking in both a sprint race and an Olympic-distance race in the same weekend.

Roy initially did not consider competing in Ironman events, as his sights were still set on competing in the Olympic Distance World Championship in Edmonton. However, after his qualified entry was deferred and Edmonton was canceled twice, he participated in the Carilion Clinic Ironman 70.3 Virginia’s Blue Ridge triathlon in Roanoke. There he qualified in his age group for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in St. George, Utah. Fortuitously, the elevation and terrain in Blacksburg are similar to the course conditions he would soon experience across the country.

Swim. Bike. Run.

St. George, a city in southwestern Utah known for its iconic Red Rocks, hosted the 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in September. The course offered breathtaking American Southwest scenery, but also was expected to deliver extreme temperatures for the competition.

“Two weeks before the race, the daily highs reached 108 degrees, and I thought, 'what have I gotten myself into?'” said Roy. “On the race day, a rare storm came through, and it ended up being much cooler than anticipated.”


Roy finished third in the swim, 25th in the bike, and 168th in the run within his age group, for an overall finish of 44th in the 50-54 age group in St. George, Utah.
Roy finished third in the swim, 25th in the bike, and 168th in the run within his age group, for an overall finish of 44th in the 50-54 age group in St. George, Utah. Courtesy of Chris Roy.

Roy competed in the 50-54 age group, among athletes from around the world. First up: the 1.2 mile swim. The one-loop open water swim took place in the Sand Hollow Reservoir at Sand Hollow State Park near Hurricane, Utah. With the swim leg being one of his strongest, Roy had the third-fastest time of the 268 athletes in his age group. 

Straight out of the water, the athletes immediately transitioned to the cycling portion of the race. Starting at the reservoir, athletes ride around the backside of the reservoir into the City of Hurricane, then along a state route back toward St. George. Along the 56-mile loop, rolling hills punctuated the first half of the race, followed by a flat, fast section through St. George. The race culminated in a grueling climb through Snow Canyon State Park.

During this leg of Roy’s race, the aforementioned storm unleashed high winds, rain, hail, and lightning. “About 28 miles into the bike, I was riding 20-25 miles per hour while battling a 30-mile-per-hour crosswind,” Roy said. “I had to lean over to brace myself against the wind, white knuckling it and hoping not to crash.”

It helps that one of Roy’s areas of expertise in his professional life is aero/hydrodynamics — knowledge he puts to use while training and during races. Although drafting within 6 meters of another cyclist is illegal while racing, Roy does use this professional insight to his advantage. Whether it is a natural feel of his body while swimming or finding a good position on the bike, Roy is always thinking about aero/hydrodynamics.

During the cycling portion of the race, Roy finished 25th in his age group. 

For the final 13.1 miles, athletes tackled the two-loop course on foot, climbing up the Red Hills Parkway through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The course took the competitors along a bluff before returning to the finish line in the heart of downtown St. George. Admittedly, Roy said that the running portion of the race is his weakest of the three disciplines. During this leg in St. George, he began to suffer from quad and hamstring cramps, all the while enduring a run on a course with two miles of 15 percent grade downhill.

In this last leg of the race, Roy finished 168th among the runners, giving him an overall finish of 44th place in the 50-54 age group. 

So what’s next? Upon recovery from Ironman, Roy doesn’t seem to be slowing down. He continues to train, track his results, and make improvements. His next goal is to perform well at the 2022 Toyota Age Group National Championships held in Milwaukee in August, where he hopes to again qualify for Team USA and compete in the Olympic Distance World Championship in 2023. 

Regardless of the size, prestige, or location of the race, it’s guaranteed that his whole heart, body, and mind will be focused on the finish line. 

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