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Ironman Canada, the race

It has taken me two weeks to work up enough mental stamina to delve back into a race that challenged and drained me so much physically. I finished my second long distance triathlon two weeks ago up in Whistler, BC. Perhaps part of my hesitation to relive the day through words is, I’m not entirely confident in myself to portray the race adequately by words alone. I’ve included pictures, but truly, they don’t even come close sharing Canada’s natural splendor and glory. I may have raced an Ironman, but there never seemed to exist a shortage of snow-capped mountains, clear lakes, forests so thick to make a sunny day turn dark, and wildlife to keep one’s gaze looking and begging for more.

Much of the Ironman festivities take place in Whistler Village, home of the 2010 Olympics. Bryan and I stayed in a condo in the heart of the village, just a walking distance from the Olympic rings that seemed to draw a never-ending crowd for pictures. During the week that preceded the race, Bryan and I did our best to lay low, but we also enjoyed daily walks on the myriad of trails through the village and surrounding woods. Knowing we’d miss it on race day, we explored the happenings of the Whistler Farmers Market on Sunday, full of vendors selling everything from hand-crafted woodwork to chocolates, spices, and local produce.

When the Ironman personnel began setting up the tents, we remembered what we’d come up here to do, and much of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were spent getting in our final pre-race workouts and laying low. Really low. Yet that’s hard to do in a place with so much to offer.
Sunday morning arrived far sooner than I’d hoped it would, but Bryan and I made our way to T2 to drop off our Special Needs bags, as well as load our run nutrition in our Run Bags. Volunteers looked far too cheerful, eager to mark us up and send us on our way via school buses that took us to Rainbow Park, the swim start.

Photo by Jon Gessele
Such a clear, gorgeous morning greeted us as we approached Alta Lake. Fog rolled over the calmest waters I’d ever seen, making an Ironman swim actually look pleasant. Having witnessed the hellacious waters at Coeur d’Alene’s Ironman just about a month prior, I was already thanking God for guiding me in my decision to enjoy what Whistler had to offer.

The morning felt cold. When I do this race again, I will pack far warmer clothes. I couldn’t help but admire peoples’ fine judgment in bringing flip flops to walk around in T1, as my feet burned walking on the cold grass, as if I was walking on ice.

Photo by Jon Gessele
Bryan and I stood together outside of T1, waiting for our turn after the pros had their 10-minute head start. Bryan wanted to start closest to the buoy line, and as we made our way out in the water for a deep-water start, I realized later we didn’t get nearly close enough. After the gun went off, a clear first 100 yards suddenly turned deadly with not a single inch of room to take a stroke. Thankfully, a quick glance to my right allowed me to notice an open pocket, for which I quickly crawled and grappled my way. Out of the melee of flailing limbs, I met calm water with open arms. Literally. Swimming has never felt so good in my Blue Seventy Helix. The first lap flew by, and the second one did as well. I coasted along in peoples’ bubbles, and I swam my way to the transition mat in a time of 1:03:09, about 4 minutes faster than last year’s swim at Ironman CDA.
Photo by Jon Gessele

My volunteer who stuck by me in the tent proved invaluable. She guided me out of my swim gear, and before I realized it, I’d asked to be slathered with sunscreen, hopped on my bike, and thanked God I’d made it out of the swim without any damages, without any stomach upset, and with a power meter that read accurate power outputs right from the get-go. I could eat! I downed my GU Roctane gel and so began the bike ride I’d known all along would challenge me on many different levels.

Representing Big Sexy Racing. Photo by Jon Gessele
1.     Stay within yourself. Don’t you dare go outside of your power zones.
2.     Eat.
3.     Drink.
4.     I’m serious. Bide your time.

I broke up the bike ride like this:

1.     Ride to Callaghan Valley road.
2.     Climb Callaghan Valley to the Olympic Village. Be conservative.
3.     Coast down Callaghan Valley and ride back into Whistler. Don’t die letting ‘er rip down those hills.
4.     Pass through Whistler and enjoy the ride to Pemberton.
5.     Enjoy eating that PB+J sandwich and be thankful for Ruby’s Lube to relieve “pressure areas.”
6.     Ride the out and back in Pemberton. You better keep your power output steady.
7.     Grow balls and climb the four hills out of Pemberton.
8.     Twenty kilometers out of Whistler: don’t you dare let your power numbers drop.

As it turns out, my plan worked pretty well. Here were the few exceptions:

1.     I received a warning from one of the course marshals about following too closely up a 10% grade hill, climbing at a speed that equated to “just pedal so you don’t fall over.”
2.     The headwind that almost always greets cyclists coming down Callaghan Valley road decided not to blow when I flew down it. Cyclists surrounded me. I dropped down into aero hoping that any second I’d meet the wind to slow me down, but I realized midway down it the headwind didn’t exist. I prayed I wouldn’t lose it, then I prayed again someone in front of me didn’t lose it, and I finally remembered I probably shouldn’t hold my breath as I approached the bottom of what seemed to be my never ending death ride.
3.     For some reason, I found the ride back through Pemberton meadows after the turn around to be especially difficult. Pushing a wattage I’d once thought easy was a little disconcerting when I still had to climb my way back to Whistler.
4.     I didn’t grow balls, but I did climb those four—or more?—hills out of Pemberton with quads screaming and reeling from spasms.
5.     Twenty kilometers out of Whistler may mark the end of the hills, but it certainly isn’t flat. If it is, well, my legs were toast. It took a considerable amount of mental diligence and masochism to make me push through such pain in my toes (it’s time for new shoes when it feels as though someone is poking needles under your nails) and such fatigue in my quads just to keep my power numbers from falling.

In the end, I managed to stay at the high end of my range for power output, finishing my bike ride in 6 hours and 4 minutes. I knew this ride would be slower than at Ironman CDA, but I reminded myself my primary goal for this race was not to come out with a faster bike split, but with a faster run split instead.

First mile. Photo by Jon Gessele
It turns out, I did. Believe me, I had plenty of reservations when, in the T2 tent, I couldn’t even sit in the chair to don my shoes without my quads cramping into painful spasms. The ladies didn’t have any salt, so I decided the only thing I could do was move. I reassured myself I’d taken in all my nutrition on the bike, even a little extra. I maintained and controlled my effort just as my coach instructed. I’d done everything I needed to do. Now to run my run.

I loved this run course. A two loop run, I managed to break it into smaller sections: through the woods around Lost Lake, back to the Village, through the crazies at the golf course, over the bridge on Green Lake, through the dark woods, a quick out and back along the highway, then turn back for home and do it all over again. I kept my desired pace through mile 13, at which point I had to stop at the special needs and apply Ruby’s Lube to what felt like blistering toes. After taking care of my feet, I set out at a run again, but my pace had slowed. I managed to play a mental game with myself, pushing to each mile marker but upon reaching it, striving again for the next one. I didn’t let myself walk until the aid station at mile 19, at which point I managed to run between aid stations but walk through them to take in water, ice, and coke.

Photo by Jon Gessele
The last mile finally arrived, and with it, left knee pain so great as to cause me to limp. I knew coming into this race my body had maintained an injury-free status, so I pushed myself through it even though it aimed to slow me down. I dared not walk. I did plenty of walking at Ironman CDA last year, and that would not happen again.

What a relief to find the intersection that guided those on to their second loop and others—like myself—toward the finish line. Stepping off the curb from the trail to the road felt terrible, yet I relished the ascent up to the village walk as I made my final turn toward the finish line. I didn’t hear what song played as I enjoyed the last 200 yards through the chute. I did, however, notice the clock and felt excitement swell in my chest, knowing I’d beaten my time at Ironman CDA, if only by about 5 minutes. In the end, it meant I’d run a sub-4 hour marathon. Pure happiness ensued.

While Bryan finished his race, I hung out in the medical tent with ice to my knee. I took inventory and noticed I’d come out pretty well. I didn’t even have a blister or lost toenail, just a knee that needed attention. Bryan accomplished what he had set out to do and crossed the line in just under 12 hours. We both hung out in the common area before making the painful walk back to our rooms—bike and transition bags in tow—to clean up, eat, and enjoy an evening cheering in the last of the Ironmen before attempting sleep.


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