Thursday, August 23, 2018

Ironman Mont Tremblant

I'm never doing that again

Perhaps the most popular words spoken after finishing an Ironman. After going to hell and back to finish Ironman Canada last year, I really meant that.

I started doing triathlons because I idolized people who finished Ironmans. Since my first year in the sport as a 17 year old, I looked at course maps of all the North American Ironman races and counted the days until I felt that I was ready to sign up for one. Even when I was racing elite draft-legal, I always felt like I was just building my fitness bank while dreaming of the Kona start line. After years of progressing at the half distance, in 2015 I finally felt ready and set my sights on Ironman Louisville.

I reveled in my first Ironman summer, through every mile and minute I logged, because I was on my journey to becoming an Ironman. I wanted to be one of those superhuman guys that did one - or more - every year, battling though these crazy events and maybe even qualifying for Hawaii. When race day finally came, it started like a dream with a lifetime best swim and bike. Then 10k into the run on a 3:15 marathon pace, everything started to unravel. I started throwing up and everything that I tried to take in came right back up. Not knowing what to do besides "just keep running", I pushed myself to the point of no return. My Ironman journey ended in the back of an ambulance with a couple bags of IV fluid draining into my arm.

The following year I tried to push the feelings of shame and self doubt out of my mind and focused on short course. I set PB's in nearly all distances and disciplines until injuries ended my season and forced me to think hard about my motivation in the sport. I knew that I had to return to Ironman and redeem myself. So I signed up for Ironman Canada, the race I had dreamed about for 10 years. I tweaked my nutrition plan, spent hours reading sports nutrition journals, and trained my ass off.

After once again dedicating a full year of building my life around one day, my race in Whistler proved to be a transformative experience. Another great swim, survived the insanely challenging and beautiful bike course, and at 12k into the run I thought to myself, "I hope my parents have beers on ice, I'm punching a ticket to Kona today!" 10 minutes later, I was doubled over throwing up, again. I learned my lesson from Louisville though and I walked. For nearly five hours.

I went to some very deep and dark places in my mind on the trails of Whistler, but I found a level of strength and perseverance that I didn't know I had. When I finally crossed the finish line I was so physically and emotionally drained I couldn't even lift my arms to celebrate, but it was the biggest athletic - and personal - accomplishment of my life.

Mom was fired up

Two Ironmans, on completely different nutrition plans, both with severe GI issues. I told myself "Never again. I got my finish, but I'm never going through that again."

A few weeks after the race I heard rumor that a ton of our Balance Point Triathlon Club friends were signing up for Ironman Mont Tremblant 2018. The suffering of IMC was still fresh in my mind though and I didn't give it much thought. Until sports nutrition expert Coach Mark from LPC put the bug in my ear: "There are lots of different things we can try with your nutrition!" Insert scratchy chin emoji face.

After some long talks with Coach James about race plans, Mark about the latest sport nutrition research and my sweat sodium testing, and Amanda about our work/life balance, I decided I was ready for another one. I was confident, mentally stronger, and desperate for another chance at the Ironman result I knew I was capable of. I was more motivated than ever to be on the journey again and attempt to solve the puzzle.

IMMT 2018 consumed my summer. I had the strongest and most consistent training block of my life. I did all the little things right. I tracked every damn molecule of my sport nutrition for three months with dozens of spreadsheets to prove it. I was dialed. My last 7.5 hour brick was one of the best workouts of my life, having done most of it at or below a 9:30 IM pace and felt fantastic at the end. I knew unequivocally that I was ready.

Of course I wasn't naive. I hadn't had any significant GI issues in training prior to either Louisville or Canada and I would once again be heading into the unknown when I got past 8 hours into the race. I knew it was a possibility that I'd have stomach problems again, or some other crazy challenge that I hadn't even considered. But I was mentally prepared for anything. My goals for the race were as follows, in this order:

1. Get an epic finishing picture
2. Win the mental battles and conquer the day
3. 9:40

Amanda and I arrived in Mont Tremblant on Thursday night. The next day my parents came along with my amazing aunt and uncle, who drove all the way from Alberta to spectate another one of these crazy things. Friday night we met up with Coach Gabbi and a few of the 16-strong BPT athletes, many of whom were doing their first Ironman. It was already an incredible week and I was ready for the race of my life.

Race morning came at 4:30am after a great sleep. Amanda and I went down to transition and she pumped up some of our BPT friends while I did my final gear check. We walked over to the swim start to the news that we would be delayed due to fog on the lake, though the CF-18s didn't get the memo and torched through the fog at precisely 6:35am.

Photo: Adam Plante

An hour later, the pro men were finally on the start line as the fog cleared off. Then literally the second the cannon fired, another fog bank rolled in and it was the thickest it had been all morning. But I didn't care, I just wanted to get this damn thing started. At 7:45 it was time for the age groupers to start. I lined up in the sub-1:05 corral and with a couple dolphin dives I was within the first 50 athletes in the water.

The fog certainly made for one of the more unique swims I've ever done. It was a bit daunting to jump in the water unable to even see the first buoy, but I stayed relaxed, trusted in my stroke and got on with the task at hand. It may have even been easier to not have to look out across the lake and see just how far we had to go!

cred: unknown, found on Facebook

I took away some hard lessons from my poor swims in my first two races of the year and systematically addressed my weaknesses in the six weeks after Muskoka 70.3. I did most of my swimming in open water working on my drafting skills, sighting and feel for my stroke in my wetsuit. I also worked diligently at finding the efficiency that helped me to a 59 minute swim in Whistler last year off limited swimming. I realized that I've had great swims in my first two Ironmans because I was focused on staying relaxed with a strong core and smooth stroke, and because I WASN'T focused on trying to swim "hard". So I did exactly that and cruised through the water, not allowing the claustrophobic fog affect my mindset. You couldn't see the buoys until you were almost on top of them but I managed to find them every time, which I took as a sign that I was swimming well.

Slowly but surely I could start to make out the shore line through the fog, and finally I could see sand beneath me as the swim exit came in sight. I had no idea what my swim time was and I really didn't care - it was probably the most relaxed swim I've ever done and I felt amazing running through the cheers to T1. Quick but methodical transition and I was out onto the bike course.

Swim time: 1:01. Solid start to the day!

photo: Ken Milner

I took my time settling into the bike, "just like any other training day, except I don't have to stop for bottles this time!" Similar to Muskoka a bunch of riders came blasting past me on the first couple hills but I stuck to my plan knowing its a VERY long day and I'd probably see them all again in a few hours. My average power was around 225W getting on Hwy 117, just a tad high so I eased off a bit even though it felt incredibly easy...for now.


I was in a good rhythm heading out to the first turnaround although the course was insanely crowded. With Louisville being a time trial start and Whistler only having about 1400 athletes, this was by far the most crowded course I had experienced in an IM.

Around 30k a draft pack of 10-15 guys came past me just at the base of a hill and the back of the group sat up as they all bunched together starting the hill. I had to get out of my aerobars to let the goofballs go, but before I could do anything I heard someone yell "Parlez-vous Anglais?!"

I turned to see an official who promptly told me I had received a 5 minute drafting penalty. My heart skipped a beat as I nearly screamed "ARE YOU F***ING KIDDING ME?!" I have never gotten a penalty in my life and I despise drafters. I held my tongue and calmly asked him to explain my infraction, to which he replied that I did not drop back quickly enough.

I knew there was no sense in trying to ask why he chose not to card anyone who was ACTUALLY riding in a draft pack and singled me out, and I certainly didn't want to get DQ'd for arguing with him. So I did the only thing I could - I accepted it, told him that it was not intentional and I would report to the next penalty tent. My next thought was that the 5 minutes better not screw up my overall time too much...but my cooler head prevailed and I told myself, "you knew something weird would go wrong today, this must be it!"

The penalty tent was another 20k away, and between the congestion on the course and my paranoia of getting another penalty, it was very difficult to maintain a rhythm or even hold any speed until I got there. Imagine trying to leave 100 feet of space in Toronto rush hour with nut jobs zooming in there as soon as there's daylight in front of you...that's what it was like trying to keep 12 meters back from everyone. But eventually I got to the tent, relaxed and let it go. There was another rider in there who told me he saw the official give me the penalty and couldn't believe he carded me...which made me feel a bit better! But I calmly let the 5:00 tick down as I got my forced break, then had a clear and positive mindset as I got going again.

Keeping the power in check

I got back into a good rhythm and stuck to my goal wattage of 210-215W for the remainder of the first lap. My nutrition plan was on track so far, although the small bites of solid food that I took in the first 2 hours of the bike were a little harder to get down than in any of my training rides. I listened to my body, eased off the power for a bit and opted for a simpler fuel source for my next nutrition interval.

70k in, back past the village

Starting the second lap I was feeling a bit mentally and physically drained...not bad but a little more than I had experienced in my previous Ironmans at half way. I decided I would stop for my special needs which included a third bottle of my sport drink along with 200mL of coke. On one of my last long rides I was feeling really drained and had half a can of coke at my pit stop, so I went with the same approach. It seemed to bring me back up a bit and I felt reasonably good to the first turnaround on the second lap, around 125k.

On my way back east on 117 I was starting to feel the fatigue again, but it was getting increasingly difficult to get any nutrition down. My stomach just felt off and my sport drink was not sitting well. I decided to toss it and switch to Gatorade - once again, something I had practiced in training in case I missed my special needs or I needed to switch to simple sugar. I learned from Louisville that forcing down my nutrition on the bike was a BAD idea, so I did my best to adapt by backing off the effort even more and skipped one of my gels.

Starting to feel it

By 140k my energy was starting to wane as I continued to take in only as much fuel as my stomach would agree with. I stuck mostly to liquids for the final hour but every time I had a sip of something, half of it would come right back up. I was holding back the frustration that I had never felt this bad on the bike in any of my training rides, but I had my mental strategies in place to stay focused. I struggled up Duplessis, as I knew I would, then relaxed a bit on the way back down to mentally prepare for the run.

I accepted that I wasn't going to crush the bike today, but I was doing a good job of managing the ride given the circumstances that race day provided. I knew my race was going to be decided on the run and I was still extremely motivated to execute a strong marathon. I cleared my mind getting off the bike, did a quick change and headed out. The thought of starting a marathon on an iffy stomach was pretty daunting but I stayed optimistic. After all, I "only" had to run a 3:30 to break 10 hours. All of my training indicated that I was capable of running 3:15 or better.

My only goal for the first lap of the run was to still be running starting the second lap. I knew that if I could do that, it meant that my stomach wasn't holding me back and I had the fitness to finish strong. I had to back off the pace a couple times in the first few k's as I settled in, but by 5k I already had to take a couple short walk breaks to settle my stomach down and try to get small sips of fluids in. Once again, I learned from my past mistakes and listened to my body. My plan was to run only as fast as my body would allow while still being able to eat and drink small amounts every 10-15 minutes.

As I got deeper into the first lap it was becoming increasingly difficult to stomach anything, and as a result I was taking in very little fluid and less than half of my planned nutrition. I figured that less was better than more to avoid absorption issues, but by 16k I could only handle a few ice cubes at each aid station and I was hitting empty. I was having trouble running in a straight line and I wasn't sweating anymore. I drank a cup of water at the next aid station and immediately had severe stomach cramps. I walked for a minute then got back to a slow jog.

At the next aid station I had some Gatorade, and again had to fight it from coming back up. But I was keeping my head in the game. After all, at 15k in Whistler I had to walk an hour straight while fighting non-stop vomiting, nausea and dehydration. This time I was limiting my walk breaks to a minute or less. I may not have been on my goal marathon pace, but I was still moving a lot better than last time.

I saw Amanda then my family at the end of the first lap and they clearly saw that I wasn't having the day I was hoping for. I hit my special needs that I had packed with the only things that sat well with me in Whistler last year - fig newtons and a banana. It wasn't easy heading back out knowing exactly what I was in for.

As I crested the first hill of lap 2 I threw up everything in my stomach. "Ugh. This again." Once again I hadn't absorbed any fluids since the start of the run. I almost nailed a kid on the sidewalk with my projectile vomit and heard the mother say, "its OK, he'll feel better now!" I thought to myself "I f***in wish you were right!"

I walked it off, cleared my mind and prepared myself mentally for a long second lap. When I saw Amanda she told me to run a minute then walk a minute, so I set an auto-lap on my Garmin. I set it to beep every 500 meters. I told myself that I had to run 500 meters no matter how awful I felt, then walk 500 meters. But I also knew if I did that, I'd be out there for a really long time. So my goal was to run the 500 meters, then in the next 500 I could walk as much as I needed to, but run when I could.

A few minutes later I saw Alex Vanderlinden who was having an equally rough day. We both agreed that we would get through it no matter what and I assured him that as brutal as it was, it would be worth it to make it to the finish. We each had to take walk breaks as needed, but it was reassuring to have an ally out there close by.

I stuck to my run/walk strategy as I ran for 500m, then walk/jogged the next interval on my watch while getting in any fluids my stomach would handle. At the aid stations I grabbed a cup of ice and either water or Gatorade, then poured the fluid into the ice and sipped it on my walk breaks, and sucked on a couple ice cubes while I ran. I was still in agony but I was able to hold the fluids down and the auto-lap strategy helped me mentally to dissect the distance. I made it to the far turnaround and was motivated knowing that I was on my way home.

By 35 or 36k I was starting to sweat again and was able to run 2 beeps (1km) before having to walk a minute for the stomach cramps to subside. Then at 37k I checked my watch and realized that I still had a chance of breaking 11 hours, but I couldn't do any more walking. I stopped taking anything at the aid stations, put my head down and ran through the pain towards the village. I desperately wanted to walk for a minute, at least up the hills, but I didn't let myself. I saw Alex at 40k and gave him some final encouragement, then my LPC camp buddy Mark Cullen shortly after and we shared some more positive words. I dragged my ass over the steepest hill (past my barf) then up the last hill through the pedestrian village. I knew I was going to make it, and damn it I was going to enjoy it this time. I turned down the finishing chute and high-fived every outstretched hand.

What an atmosphere!

Goal #1 - accomplished (and official finishing time 10:53). I may not have broken 10 hours, nailed my nutrition or had the race of my life. But it sure as hell was a day to be proud of. I faced my fears of taking on another Ironman knowing full well what I was in for, I managed the day and finished stronger and faster than last year.

I saw my dad who then brought the rest of my family over to find me. They all gave me hugs, and unlike last year I was able to take it all in. I was deeply grateful for the day and their incredible support. It was a moment that I'll never forget.

One of my unofficial goals for this race was to finish in good enough shape that I would be able to head back out later and cheer everyone into the finish. I was so messed up after Whistler that I just sat in the hotel room and passed out shortly after eating. But this time I debriefed the day with my family, showered, grabbed a beer and headed right back out for some poutine and a few hours of cheering with Amanda. As night time fell we joined Gabbi and the rest of the BPT support crew and got to watch every last one of her athletes cross the finish line. It was an experience that I can't put into words - you just have to go watch an Ironman to understand.

3 Ironmans, 2 finishes, each one a little better but the same GI problems every time. Once again, the first words out of my mouth were "Never. Again."

Do I really mean that? It's impossible to say. I honestly don't know if I could put myself through that again; to have one race completely consume my life for a year, then go through agony to finish hours behind what my training and 70.3 results would suggest I'm capable of. But Ironman still holds a special place for me. That sub-10 has eluded me once again, and that's a big goal left unchecked. But - at least for now - I've made my peace with it.

Maybe, if I have some eureka moment and find a completely new approach to training or nutrition, I'll try my luck again. Or maybe I'll help Amanda get through one some day. But I'm also alright with leaving it here, accepting that my limitations at the Ironman distance are completely out of my control, and focus on other goals moving forward. I guess only time will tell.

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