THE RIDE OF HIS LIFE: NORTHPORT MAN TURNED WHIM INTO LIFELONG CHALLENGE
It all started with a dare.
A few years after he graduated from Auburn University with a degree in industrial design, Blake Gill and two of his friends jokingly challenged each other to sign up for the Mullet Man Triathlon hosted by the iconic Flora-Bama beach bar in Pensacola, Florida.
While Gill had ridden mountain bikes growing up, even competing in a few weekend tournaments in high school, he hadn’t cycled much in college. Nor had he ever been much of a runner or swimmer. That didn’t stop him and his buddies from competing – well, participating – in the Mullet Man.
“It was kind of a dare between friends to get out there and do something crazy,” Gill said. “I’m not even sure how we finished but I don’t think it was good.”
Unremarkably and to no one’s surprise, Gill and his friends lagged behind the serious competitors and finished far from the top of the leaderboard. But something clicked for Gill that day. He enjoyed the competition and especially enjoyed testing and exceeding his physical limits.
Gill’s buddies have hardly ridden a bike since, but for him the Mullet Man spawned an endurance sports career that has spanned a decade and has included XTERRA off-road triathlons, Ironman competitions and everything in between.
At the time that Gill competed in the Mullet Man, he was working the night shift at a Chick-fil-A store in the Village Mall in Auburn. His wife, Ashley, was the store’s operator, and, having graduated from Auburn a semester before Blake, was one of the youngest operators in the country. The Gills moved to Northport in 2009 to open what has become one of the most successful Chick-fil-A stores in the country.
Since coming to the Tuscaloosa area, the Gills have both made a name for themselves, with Ashley winning Northport Citizen of the Year honors in 2015 and Blake becoming one of the area’s most dominant endurance athletes.
“If he’s going to line up for a local mountain bike race, you know he’s going to compete for the win,” said Randy Charles, a friend of Gill’s and a fellow cyclist.
But he has competed in more than just local endurance events. Gill’s desire to continually push past what he thought he could do has led him across the country and even over the Pacific Ocean, where he competed in the XTERRA World Championships in the fall of 2014. One of only 800 people in the world who qualified for the event, Gill worked through a 1.5-kilometer swim, biked 30 kilometers and pushed through a 10-kilometer trail run to top it all off.
“That was the hardest race I’ve ever done,” Gill said. “I just wanted to quit.”
Gill wouldn’t let himself stop. He pedaled over sugar cane stalks and volcanic mountains, ran through forests and across sandy beaches, and fought through turbulent waves in the Pacific Ocean.
“The waves were like 6 feet tall,” Gill said. “It’s like being in a washing machine.”
Gill was meticulous and dedicated during his training process, even hiring a coach to keep him responsible; but he couldn’t simulate the strength of the waves that he struggled through off the Maui coast. At least, not with the swimming ergometer machine that sits in his garage.
Tasked with taking care of their two children, Gracie, 10, and Levi, 6, in the morning, Gill doesn’t have the luxury of being able to run to the gym or rec center to workout. Therefore, the majority of his 12-hours a week training happens in the wood-paneled garage that he’s transformed into a makeshift gym complete with a bike, treadmill and swimming machine.
“I do indoor training just for simplicity,” Gill said. “I can walk into the garage, do whatever I need to do, walk back in the house and take a shower. When the kids were little, I’d be at home taking care of them. You can’t leave the house and ride for two hours. This way, I could put them in front of a screen and ride my bike.”
The garage also houses Gill’s bikes; of which he has several, including a bamboo and carbon fiber frame he constructed himself. Besides trying to fix any machine that happens to malfunction at Chick-fil-A, building the bamboo bike was one of the few occasions Gill has had the pleasure of putting his industrial design degree to work. The bamboo bike is rideable, even though it currently rests on the wall near Gill’s growing surplus of race bibs and medals.
Gill’s cache of medals is a testament to the 36-year old’s dedication to pushing himself and remaining at the top of his level. Although he’s an amateur XTERRA competitor, Gill has outperformed professionals in several races and usually competes at the top of his age group. Most recently, Gill finished 4th in his division and 24th overall at the Oak Mountain XTERRA race in May.
Unlike many of his peers, Gill has the luxury of a flexible schedule. While most of his competitors and friends wake up early to squeeze a run in before work, Gill can go for a late-morning run at the Riverwalk after dropping the kids off at school. Then, he’ll head into Chick-fil-A for the rest of the afternoon.
“Luckily, we are blessed with time and owning our own business and I’m able to train when other people are at their jobs, you know,” Gill said. “That helps a lot.”
Having a malleable work schedule allows Gill to compete in about 12 races a year, half of which are local runs. The other half is comprised of three or four XTERRA triathlons, a couple of trail races and now an Ironman or two. Besides going to Maui for XTERRA Worlds, Gill has completed races in Key Biscayne, Florida, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Panama City, Florida and Ogden, Utah. He competes on an endurance racing team called Team Stages Cycling. The weekend races make for fun family trips, especially when there’s a marathon at Disney World.
Despite a jam-packed racing schedule, family life and helping Ashley run the Chick-fil-A, Gill shouldered even more responsibility four years ago when he agreed to help bring a National Interscholastic Cycling Association team to the Tuscaloosa area.
“NICA brought an Alabama league here four years ago and the guy who was over it in Birmingham came here and asked me if I would be willing to start a team,” Gill said.
That’s exactly what Gill did.
With the help of other local cyclists, including Charles, Gill recruited students from several nearby high schools and started training them at Munny Sokol Park. Most of the students who signed up had never ridden a bike competitively and some didn’t even own a bike. The goal for Gill wasn’t to form a super team of trail riders. It was simply to spread the sport he loves.
Initially, training consisted of teaching the students the basics of trail riding. But soon, the young riders were competing in races across the state.
“The kids get out there, some of them don’t even have a bike when they sign up for the team and then they’re killing it by the end of the season,” Gill said. “You see them keep riding. That’s cool.”
Gill took a step back from the team this past season, but his impact on youth cycling in Tuscaloosa has already been solidified.
“It was pretty obvious that the student-athletes and the parents have a lot of respect for Blake,” Charles said. “Just the way he represents himself, represents the sport and knowing how he is as a competitor. He’s got a demeanor about him. He could be very funny, but he’s also quiet, but he’s also very serious. I just notice that there’s a lot of respect for him among the kids and the parents as an individual and a father too.”
As he gets closer to 40, Gill is starting to feel the aches and pains even more. That won’t stop him from competing as long as he possibly can. After all, he hopes to one day compete in a triathlon with his entire family.
“A life goal, a bucket list item, would be to do a triathlon together,” Gill said.
Gill says that would be the crowning moment of his storied career.