Saturday, September 03, 2011

Race Report - Ironman Canada

For our second (and perhaps last?) Ironman race, Jeff and I picked IM Canada for a few reasons:
  • Within driving distance of home - just over 6 hours without stops or any delays at the border
  • Single loop run, bike, and swim courses - the only single loop course other than Kona
  • "Epic" bike course with two mountain passes - we like to climb
  • It's in Canada - we have a saying, "everything's betting in Canada," because, well, it is!
We got lucky and were able to register online last August; the first time it hadn't sold out with in-person registration. I put in my vacation request the week before registering, explaining that I needed to know a year in advance if it was going to be okay to miss 4 days of work during the busiest time of the year. Fortunately, my boss and entire team are incredibly supportive and made this easy for me.

We started ramping up our training around March, with a plan that I cobbled together based on a friend's professionally developed plan, with tons of tweaks, including my incredibly scientific (not!) run/bike/swim 45/45/10 training effort mix ratio (I figure that's the ratio of level of effort for the race, so training should about equal that), balancing in workout schedules, other training events, etc. We also learned from the other IM experience, and added more running, more bricks, and overall more volume. We joined the Cycle U tri team this year, which provided track workouts, some coaching, a few clinics, and a very sharp race kit (i.e. triathlon-specific shorts and top for races). We also got terrific virtual support leading up to the race from the team. We did a lot of long rides in the spring with team HPC - the best and hardest of which was the Chelan Century. That ride includes a climb that is the hardest thing I've ever done on a bike. As another rider commented to me at the top (I'd let him know I was training for IM Canada), "that climb flattens Richter Pass" (the first of the two passes on the Canada course). We picked what was supposed to be a hot 70.3 race for our tune-up race, ChelanMan, which was a lot of fun and would have been terrific simulation for Canada, had it not been cool and wet the day we were there - a very rare situation. We traveled to the race location, Penticton, B.C., in July and biked most of the bike course (skipped an out-and-back in the middle) and swam in the lake and had a really lovely little vacation. It was good to get familiar with the area and see just how hard those climbs really are. Turns out, not so hard, but long, with a lot of tough rolling hills in between, which makes for a tough, but fun and amazingly scenic ride.

We arrived in Penticton for the Sunday race Thursday evening. We were lucky to get a room in town within a mile of the race start and just a few blocks of the run course. We did a short tune-up ride on the way into town, just catching the last of the evening sun. We caught of first glances of other racers, distinctive with their IM gear (visors! jackets! m-dot tattoos!), low body-fat, and silver bracelets. In the past, I've let the sight of other racers get in my head, and compare myself unfavorably to them (I'm not skinny - how can I possibly be ready?), but having successfully done one of these things before and having had a very successful season (a 1st and a 3rd place age group finish at the two races I've done this summer), I reminded myself that there are a lot of very fit and impressive looking racers who have finished after me in races before, and this one probably wouldn't be any different.

Friday we checked in, checked out the merchandise tent (Ironman is nothing if not a money-making enterprise), then went for fruit smoothies at a local fruit stand recommended by our friend Silvia - Iron Pirate, Fit with Fido volunteer, and IM race volunteer extraordinaire (more about Silvia later). We spent the rest of the afternoon sorting gear and prepping bikes (Jeff prepped bikes; I made lists and sorted out bags). Saturday, we went for a short swim, bike ride, and run, dropping off bikes on the way back to the hotel. On the bike ride, I felt a sharp pinch pain in my leg that I attributed to a rock bouncing off the asphalt at the time, but it continued to hurt, and a nurse in the med tent checking in volunteers for the race confirmed that it was a bee or wasp sting. It continued to swell and grow into a sore patch about 5 inches wide, despite some ice and benadryl. My parents arrived that evening after a few days in the Canadian Rockies, fortunate to get a last minute room at our hotel - they had thought that they'd need to stay in Kelowna, an hour north, which would have made for a very early morning if they'd come down for the race start. We had dinner at a local Greek restaurant, which ended up being a much longer walk to and from the hotel than we'd thought - in retrospect, we should have driven. I mixed up all of the race fluids - gel bottles filled with thick Perpetuum mix, Clif drink mix for bike water bottles, and packed the special needs bags with zip lock backs of salt & vinegar potato chips and clif blocks and gels. We ended up getting to sleep ~ 11 pm - not early, but late enough that we actually fell asleep and got a moderately decent sleep, considering what was to come.

We got up at 4:45 for coffee and bagels/peanut butter/banana breakfast. Jeff also had some cereal. We gathered up all of our stuff and got out the door to join the throngs of other racers and spectators heading for the start. The walk ended up being longer than we thought - being diverted around the finish line and associated tents - but got into the race area ~ 6 am for body marking. Our friend Silvia drew our numbers (very clear and perfectly placed) and gave pre-race hugs and we headed into transition. Jeff topped off all of our tires while I filled water bottles, and we were in line for porta-potties ~ 6:30. We finally reached the front of the line just as the Canadian national anthem was sung for the professional start at 6:45. We donned wet suits, got another pre-race hug from Silvia, and headed out to the beach for the start. We placed ourselves at the far right of the field, which was on the inside of the race buoys. I got near the front of the pack and Jeff seeded himself in the middle. Another round of "Oh, Canada," and we were off, promptly at 7.

The swim was the part of the race I'd been dreading the most. Just thinking about it made my stomach clench up remembering the panic I felt on the IM CDA swim. This time was much better. The first 10 minutes or so were very crowded - there were people on all sides with very little room to move, but no one seemed to be trying to push over or past anyone. I think folks self-seeded very well, and we all seemed to be going the same speed with the same effort. I had to stay very focused, however, on keeping that pace and position, and was worried about the amount of effort it was taking and wondering if I could continue for the entire race. I faced a little panic at that point, but tried to keep that at bay, reminding myself that I'd trained for this, I was a stong swimmer, and just had to relax, breath deep, and I'd get through. Fortunately, things spread out as we got further along the first leg, and by the time we'd gone a half mile or so there was a little more space. Things pinched up again at the first turn, but, again, folks seemed pretty respectful of others space, and as long as I kept moving quickly, I didn't get swamped. I looked down as I turned around the first buoy and spotted a diver sitting on the bottom, looking up at the swimmers. It was comforting to know that we were being looked after from below as well as from above the waterline. There were a few times when there would be a huge pack all swimming close together that would surround me, but I managed to pull to the side or fall a little behind, and then again find myself with some open water to swim in. I managed, with minimal siting (other than looking at the swimmers to the left and the right when breathing) to stick close to the buoys, at times finding myself swimming directly into them. As always, the final leg into the beach was the easiest. When I stood up at the end, heading into transition, I was excited to see 1:11 on my watch; my agressive goal was 1:10, and my previous time was 1:15, so I was off to a good start. I found Silvia in the transition and she stripped my wetsuit. I grabbed my transition bag, headed to the tent, put on socks and shoes, race belt, and helmet, and was off to the bike. I was riding out at 1:16 - a good transition time, probably 5 minutes faster than last IM T1.

The bike felt terrific. I've been feeling really good on the bike this summer, having done 4 centuries, including the aforementioned Chelan ride and the course itself. I'd ridden passes around Mt. Rainier, so knew that I was ready for the course. I saw a lot of flats in the first 20 miles or so, enough so that another rider and I commented on the number. I kept telling myself that it was due to newby-nerves and overinflated tires and that it wouldn't happen to me. Turns out, someone had sprinkled carpet tacks on the course - a friend fell victim to one and found the tack in his tire. The first 40 miles roll through vineyards and fruit groves past fruit stands and wineries; I tried to not let myself get caught up with competitive instincts as many women passed me, and kept an easy spinning pace - it was going to be a long day, and it's easy to go too hard too early and not leave enough for the end. I sipped my Perpetuum and kept drinking sports drink and stopped for the bathroom in Oliver. It seemed no time had passed before we were in Osoyoos and turning off to head up Richter Pass. It was good to start climbing and I hit a good rhythem. There were clumps of spectators along the climb, whose enthusiasm added to the fun of the ride. Finally, I started passing people instead of getting passed. Crossing Richter, I felt strong with plenty in the legs, but at some point I developed a head ache that persisted through most of the ride. The rollers were as tough as I remembered, but I tried to take it easy and save energy. We hit the out and back, which we'd been warned was the toughest part of the race mentally as you find yourself going "the wrong way" for much longer than it seemed on the map. I was looking forward to this part, however, as I had yet to see Jeff on the course and I needed to reassure myself that he was okay. Normally, I get out of the water first, and then he passes me on the early part of the bike course. I didn't see him pass me this time, and I had just been hoping that he'd passed while I was in the port-o-potty. I finally glimpsed him about 6 or so miles from the turnaround, so was relieved that all seemed to be going well with his race, too. At the turnaround we got our special needs bags, and I munched potato chips (mmmm, salt...) while putting the second Perpetuum flask in my pocket and pb&j sandwich in the bento box on the bike. I went to the bathroom again, having to wait for a few minutes in line. Rolling again, I had a sip of the Perp, only to find that what had been frozen solid in the morning was now very hot from sitting in the sun all day. I decided not to risk drinking it and thus didn't get the 500-or-so calories I'd counted on getting. I tried to eat my sandwich, but it was hard going, and ended up eating only about 1/3 of it. This is in contrast to IM CDA, where I was really hungry by the time I hit special needs and scarfed down the sandwich I'd packed. The heat of the day was starting to take its toll. I kept drinking, however, and refilled my bottle with 3 bottles of powerade and 2 bottles of water. Once out of the out-and-back portion of the ride was my favorite part of the ride. While this is supposedly the beginning of the climb to Yellow Lake, the road is very flat and very fast. I was feeling really good at the point, and figured that since I was going to have a slow run regardless, there was no use saving anything on the road during the rest of the ride. I picked up the pace and started passing other riders. The crowds on the side of the road grew as the road started to climb, and the support was tremendous. I spotted Sylvia, again! and she got a photo of me with a silly grin on my face. The rest of the ride was anti-climatic. Most of the end is downhill, but was into a stiff headwind. I'm a skittish descender in the best of circumstances, and so rode the brakes a bit, but with the headwind, I didn't need to use them much, and didn't lose a lot of time on the descent. During the final miles into town, I realized how cooked I was feeling, and started worrying about how the run would go. I spotted Jeff running out on the course and marked the time to see how far ahead he was. I headed into transition, changed shoes, made sure to get a thorough application of sunscreen, and headed out onto the run course.

As I started to run, I felt terrible, and really wondered how I'd be able to run for 26+ miles. I just put one foot in front of another, however, kept the pace slow, tried to stay relaxed, and plodded along. I walked through each rest station that were located at each mile and drank powerade and water at each station. I tried to eat the clif blocks I'd loaded into my pocket, but had a hard time working through them. There's not much to say about the run - it was long, and I never felt good. There were times when I was halfway between stations that I wondered if it was safe to have all of out here running in 90 degrees already depleted and dehydrated. The ambulance passed back and forth, full of racers being pulled off the course to get rehydrated in the medical tent. I kept running with the understanding that it was the fasted way to get to the finish line. Never again, I told myself; I only had to get through the run and I wouldn't have to do this to myself again. As I approached the 11 mile point, once again I started looking for Jeff, who I'd figured started the run about 40 minutes ahead of me. I spotted him after the 12 mile point, which meant he was slowing down more than I was, but he looked strong and gave me a positive shout-out. I had forgotten about the special needs bag until I was passing them. I happily grabbed my second potato chip bag, and carried them to the next aid station where I munched a few while frantically sipping water. After that I started adding Pepsi to the collection of cups I grabbed each time through the station - trying to get in as much caffeine, calories, and electrolytes as possible while walking from one end to another. Finally, the course turned back into town, the crowds thickened, and I passed my mom, cheering like crazy, so I smiled as much as I could, hoping that she had no idea how miserable I was feeling. I continued the smile as I passed through the finish area, unbelievably happy to be done. Again, it was Silvia I saw who gave me a big hug and supported me with her boyfriend, Phil, to the finishers food area and we found Jeff. We couldn't manage to eat anything then, so slowly made our way back to the hotel, checked in with my parents, and showered before returning to the finish area to get some pizza and collect our gear.

Surprisingly, I was not that sore the next day and had almost no chafing - most remarkable considering how very hot it was. It took a while to get rehydrated - the wine tasting I had planned was much abbreviated, and we traded in winery visits for another fruit smoothy.

The best thing about the Canada race are the people. All of the volunteers, spectators, business owners, and racers are incredibly friendly and supportive. Despite the heat and the misery of the run, I would highly recommend the event, and am looking for reasons to travel back - the gran fondo, perhaps, or to volunteer, or just taste wine, as long as there isn't another hot marathon..