Thursday, August 3, 2017

Ironman Canada

In some ways the build up to an Ironman and the months or years it takes to prepare for such a crazy event is the real story. Race day is just the "fun" part. When I signed up for the race I wrote down three goals and hung them in my pain cave:

My build for IM Canada went about as well as I could have possibly hoped for. After a string of frustrating injuries in 2016, with a renewed focus on strength, mobility and recovery things finally started falling into place in early spring. As with any Ironman build I had my share of super hero workouts and painful miserable workouts, but I got through them all and if my early season races were any indication things were moving in the right direction.

At times the progression in volume felt a little compressed especially in the 4 weeks after Syracuse 70.3, whether it was the circumstances of coming back from injury or the reality of squeezing training and some prep races in before a mid-summer full. But my body responded well to the volume and I arrived in BC healthy and fit. Goal #1 accomplished.

I had absolutely no outcome goals for the race at all. I had a number of friends ask what my time goal was or if I was gunning for a Kona spot, but I know first hand how unpredictable Ironman racing can be. Putting a time or placing goal on my race would only serve as a negative distraction if things didn't go to plan. I knew that if I got through the race without any major issues I had the fitness to be very competitive - I was fitter and fresher than my 12th place overall in Syracuse. But I can honestly say I didn't care what my time was, I just wanted to accomplish my last two whatever context race day provided.

Race Week:
I landed in Vancouver on the Wednesday before the hooked up with a sweet free upgrade on my rental car, and rolled up the Sea to Sky Highway in style. I stayed with my cousin in Pemberton for a few days which was an awesome low key place to hang out and recon parts of the bike course away from the hectic race site in Whistler village.

My parents, aunt and uncle drove from Alberta to join in the fun and arrived on Friday and I stayed with them in the village for the rest of the weekend. I was missing my travel partner in crime Amanda, but she was holding down the fort (fur children) back home for the week, and was the best long distance cheerleader EVER!

I checked into the race on Friday afternoon and got most of my gear sorted, then did my final race prep and gear bag check in Saturday morning. One interesting logistical wrinkle with this race is we could not leave any nutrition on our bikes or in gear bags overnight before the race, because of the bears! So I had to make absolute sure I wouldn't forget it on race morning!

Throughout the week we also drove the full bike course which was really valuable. The bike course is extremely challenging, not only with over 8000ft of climbing, but where the climbs are on the course. The final 45km is almost entirely uphill, with nearly 2500ft of climbing in the final 30k. But the entire course was unbelievably scenic and I was nervously excited to take on the challenge.

Race Day started at 4 am with a quick breakfast and coffee before heading down to T2 to put my nutrition in my run gear bag and catch the bus to the swim/T1 which is about 5 km away. I set up my bike nutrition, did a final walk through of transition and had a few moments of reflection watching the sun rise over the mountains before it was time to get my wetsuit on. I was about to take on Ironman Canada, the race I have dreamed about since I got into the sport 10 years ago.

As I've mentioned in my previous race reports this year, my primary goal for my swims has been to simply get through them pain free and without wasting too much energy. I only had about 3 months of twice-per-week swim workouts in before this race, but in the final weeks of my build I was surprised with where my fitness was. I was prepared to swim anywhere from 1:00-1:05, the latter being more likely.

With a self-seeded rolling start I was able to line up near the front of the race, unlike in Louisville where I was right near the back of 2500+ athletes starting in single file. At the cannon I was within the first 30 athletes into the water and after a few dolphin dives I quickly settled into my pace. For the opening 800 I simply focused on not getting too excited and staying relaxed, and I found myself drafting at the back of the lead pack. Woohoo, this is easy so far!

Coming around the far end of the first loop I reminded myself that this is an Ironman, and I don't need to push my luck sticking with the pack! I started to get gapped around 1500m in and after 50 hard strokes I decided it wasn't worth the energy to catch back on. I finished the first loop still feeling great and started my second loop with clean water all around me. I was able to bring my focus back to my stroke thinking about efficient rolling and strong core. I was sighting well and felt in control of my effort and stroke.

With about 800m to go I hitched onto a small pack that came past me as we began working our way through swimmers still on their first lap. I reminded myself to keep a quick turnover and strong catch to stay in the draft and I followed the small group all the way back to the swim exit. Through T1...grab gear bag, jersey/helmet/socks and shoes on, and out onto the bike! I checked my garmin and saw the time was 7:54, meaning that my swim + T1 was just over an hour...AWESOME!! I ended up with a swim time of 59:10...only 20 seconds off my current-aided time from Louisville. Let that be a lesson kids - don't skip your swim drills!

It took three or four conscious efforts to bring my power down to my target range of 210-215W (220-230W NP) as we headed through Whistler Village for the first time. I knew my family would be standing on the road about 10k into the bike and I gave them a quick wave on my way by.

The first 20k of the bike is rolling terrain before the 15k climb up Callaghan Valley Road to the 2010 Olympic nordic/ski jump venue. I knew that it would be critical to keep things in check on this climb with a LONG way to go after. I saw a few athletes blow past me in the first couple k's up the climb and thought to myself "see you in a few hours :)". In fact the first 90k of the course was all about conserving energy wherever possible and I stayed on track up the Callaghan then back down over the rolling net-downhill terrain all the way to Pemberton.

Into Pemberton it was like I was racing an Ironman in my home town with my cousin and her friends cheering like crazy before heading out to the section of the course I had been riding most of the week. From 90-140k the course is stunningly beautiful and mostly flat heading through the Pemberton valley. I was still feeling fresh but once again I told myself to keep things in check and hold back from the urge of letting it rip on the fastest section of the course.

At the far turnaround at ~115k I saw that I was in the top 30 ish athletes, but again I told myself not to get too excited. After all I was not at all concerned about my results or placing...I was focused entirely on executing MY race, and so far I had given myself a 10/10 score on execution. At 140k I got back through town and this is what I was holding back for. The final 40k is nearly a constant uphill back to Whistler. I had ridden much of that section and driven it multiple times before the race so I knew this was where the race really began.

Despite that, and sticking to the low end of my power target, I hit my first really rough patch at about 155k. It was a huge mental struggle to watch the time tick by on my Garmin while grinding away in my smallest gear for miles at a time. There were 3 or 4 times I wanted to stop and just take a break for a minute, but I managed to hold it together...barely. I listened to my body and brought my power down to make sure I wasn't digging a hole for the run. After what seemed like an eternity I was finally back in Whistler and got a boost of energy riding through the village to the dismount line. I was happy that I had held it together enough to end up with a 5:30 split on that beast of a course.

I did a full change in T2 and felt comfortable and refreshed hitting the run course. I knew that I had managed the ups and downs of the bike (both literally and figuratively) well. I saw my support crew again and settled in through the first 5k of challenging trails around Lost Lake. When I went back past transition again I gave my parents a thumbs up as I headed off to the long out-and-back section to finish off the first lap. As I did in Syracuse I decided not to wear a watch for the run so I could tune in to my internal pacing without any distractions. Out to the far turnaround at 13k I was feeling good and my legs were still solid.

At 15k I was feeling a bit low on blood sugar so I backed off the pace a little, then with virtually no warning signs I threw up everything in my stomach. It seemed as though my stomach had not absorbed or emptied anything since the start of the run. My very first thought of course was Louisville where I had the exact same issue and I couldn't believe this was happening again. I had been so meticulous with my nutrition, I knew exactly my carb, fluid and sodium (not to mention protein, fat, fiber, caffeine etc.) intake ranges, spent months testing and dialing in my plan, reading journals on carb uptake and gastric emptying, and never had a single issue in any of my 6+ hour workouts in training.

Looking back on Louisville my only regret was not walking sooner in hopes of salvaging a finish...instead I tried to soldier on running and ended up in the back of an ambulance. There was absolutely no way I was going to have the same result. My only option was to walk, and walk, and walk some more. I tried anything at the aid stations but nothing was staying down. So I kept walking. The best I can describe it is trying to run a marathon hung over out of your mind.

I finished the first loop of the run having walked for nearly an hour. I started thinking about how long it would take to walk a marathon (I figured about 7 hours) and I knew I needed to keep some fluid or carbs down or I wouldn't make it through the rest of the course. I saw my family and told them what was going on, and kept on walking.

I got my special needs bag, tried some pretzels and had another epic barf on someone's front lawn. I wasn't sweating anymore and was in pretty rough shape physically and mentally. But I thought of Amanda glued to the live tracking at home, my family standing outside all day supporting me, and all my friends in the sport who have inspired me over the years. I hit the aid station around 23k and tried everything...redbull, orange slices, ice etc. I managed to hold it down for a few minutes and I started to change my mindset, took in the scenery, and told myself "it's like I'm taking my dogs for the world's longest walk!"

I saw my parents again at 25k and of course they saw I was still walking. I told them to go hang out at the hotel cuz I was gonna be a while! I took some ice at the next aid station and was starting to sweat again, and I started to get a sense of urgency to my steps. I still couldn't fathom the thought of walking for 3 more hours, but somewhere deep down inside I had the burning feeling that I had to finish this damn thing. It may not have been the Ironman I was hoping for but it had become the essence of what Ironman is all about...doing whatever it takes to get to that f@cking finish line.

Around 28k I tried jogging 20 steps...and I didn't barf! How about 50 steps...oops almost barfed. Ok 30 seconds jog, 1 minute walk. At first it was more about just trying to get to the aid station faster than actually trying to run. But I got to the next aid station, tried a couple things, walked for a minute to make sure it would stay down then jogged again. I got to 30k and pushed my luck with what I could stomach and threw up again. I walked some more, then got back to 1 minute jog, 1 minute walk.

I got to the timing point at the far turnaround and had a small moment of pride thinking of Amanda seeing my splits, knowing that she'd realize I'm starting to jog a little again. For the first time in about 3 hours I started to believe I could finish. I started jogging 2-3 minutes then power walking for a minute. I was able to stomach half a banana and felt a boost of energy so I kept pushing on. I still felt like absolute shit but I was making progress.

I continued my strategy of running whenever I could, then walking the aid stations and for about 100 meters past to make sure whatever I took stayed down. At 36k I finally allowed myself to start thinking about how amazing it would feel to finish and that drove me forward. As I got back into the village I told myself "I don't care if I barf or pass out...I am running this in!" With 400 meters to go I almost did barf and pass out simultaneously, but I made it to the finish chute and took it all in. I couldn't believe that I made it. I finished.

I got my medal and finisher's shirt and hobbled over to the closest patch of grass and immediately lied down. Some random super nice Hispanic lady gave me an orange and a blanket and told me how proud she was of me - I wasn't sure if I was hallucinating the whole thing until my family found me and asked who gave me the orange. After 4 hours of begging for the pain to be over I was finally finished...and I still felt just as terrible for the next 3 hours!

After finishing I didn't have a single thought of frustration or disappointment over my final time. In a funny way having things go so far off the rails and being out there for so long gave me the most fulfilling Ironman experience I could have asked for. As cliche as it is, I learned a lot about myself over those final 28 k's.

I've had so many messages of support and congrats over the past few days I don't know if I've even gotten through them all. So all I can say if you've read this or followed along on race day at all is a huge THANK YOU. I was thinking about all the Ironman war stories I've heard over the years from my friends and teammates, and having so many people following along virtually helped immensely in getting me to the finish.

I haven't given much thought to what's next for me. At this point all I know is I'm ready for some much needed R&R and enjoy a little more free time again. I would like to try to figure out the cause of my consistent GI issues in long course...I thought I had done everything in my power to prevent it from happening again. But to be honest I don't know if I will ever want to try my luck at another one of these. It's time to get my life back after dedicating so much time and energy to finally finding the Ironman finish line.