Tuesday, June 24, 2008

(Lengthy) Race Report: Victoria International Half Ironman

Two thousand, four hundred and sixty point three two. A pretty random number that probably doesn’t get talked about all that much. I’m sure that some lonely chronofile sitting in a cubicle somewhere could have a field day with it, telling us all how many times it can be divided by pi (when calculated to a hundred digits) or how many times you could watch a Monty Python sketch in just under twenty-five hundred seconds, but for most of us, 2460.32 won’t ever mean anything. I myself had never even looked at or thought about that combination of digits until about five minutes ago. Why then, did 2460.32 almost cause me to break down and weep on a beautiful early summer afternoon this past weekend?

I think I should back things up a little and share what exactly it was that I was caught up in when I almost lost it on Sunday afternoon. While in days gone by (alright, not entirely gone) it would have been a screaming headache related to a game of “Pass the Fireball” from the night before that would have me near tears on a Sunday, this time around it was much different. After a year of focused training – four months of which was done in Yellowknife in the throes of one of the harshest northern winters in recent memory – I sought out on Sunday to complete my first ever half-ironman triathlon. By “half-ironman” I mean a 1.9 km swim, 90 km bike and 20km (half marathon) run, all done in succession in an exercise spurred on by a strange mix of masochism and narcissism, with a little bit of dehydration thrown in for good measure. Here’s how it all went down:

Swim – 1.9 km

Ahhh yes, the old mass start of a triathlon. If the sound of a Howitzer being fired off immediately behind you by Army reservists at 6:45 on a Sunday morning doesn’t make you want to jump into a lake and swim in a two kilometer rectangle with six hundred strangers simultaneously kicking you in the face, then you’re less of a sucker for cheap motivational instruments than I am.

I actually found my rhythm fairly early on and settled in nicely. I had really focused on my sighting (watching where you’re swimming) in my last few pre-race workouts, and it definitely paid off as I only took a couple of slight detours along the way. My right calf started to cramp a bit with less than 1000m to go, which had never happened to me in the water before, so I stretched it out as best I could while swimming and stopped using my legs altogether a few times (wetsuits are awesome). My friend Matt who had been coaching me (the guy was my saviour through this whole process) had told me a few months ago that he wanted me out of the water in forty minutes. I thought that he might as well have asked me to just walk over the water instead of swim, so I was pleasantly surprised and incredibly pumped (see the photo evidence below) when I looked at my watch upon standing up out of the water to see it read 40:00:00 exactly.

Transition 1: Swim – to – Bike

I ran up to my bike and saw that I was just a couple of minutes behind my good friend and training partner Max, whose bike was racked next to mine. Max absolutely shreds it on the bike and the run, so I wished him well as he rolled away, knowing that I wouldn’t see him again until the finish line. I threw my bike jersey on and had some encouraging words from my friend Nicole who had wandered over to watch the start and I was on my way.

Bike: 90 km

The bike course for this race truly is stunning: two big loops through country roads and farmland, with panoramic views of the water and lower Gulf Islands. Add to this the fact that it was a beautiful sunny day and that I’ve done a fair chunk of riding on various parts of the course over the past couple of years (here’s to you, Friday afternoon riding crew), and it’s not hard to see that I felt comfortable almost immediately. I found it hard on the bike to “run my own race,” as I was passed by more people than I would have preferred and knew I could have dialed up the speed, but I had to be mindful of not burning out too soon, and saving something for the run.

One of the highlights of the day came as I finished my first bike loop. Our good friends Colin and Evan had come out unexpectedly to cheer on both Max and I. Their signs were hilarious, and having some personal support halfway through the bike ride gave me a tangible boost in energy.

In addition, the other spectators and volunteers along the ride were super positive and inspiring. This is a hilly course that can wear you down after a while, but knowing that some friendly words of encouragement were never far off really helped to keep the quads strong. There was also some camaraderie between the riders, best illustrated for me when I was passed by a young female rider with a visible tattoo on her lower back. At the time I happened to be conversing with an older gentleman with a European accent who was riding next to me. No sooner was the young filly out of earshot (I’m not even sure she couldn’t hear us, to be honest) when my new friend turned to me and remarked “Wow! That sure was a sexy tattoo she had on her back, there!” That one had me laughing for a while.

I held my pace through the second lap, again being careful to leave enough for the run. I also stuck to my plan of eating a gel pack every 20-30 minutes, plus two energy bars and three bottles of either water or Gatorade along the way. I rolled into transition feeling pumped, and with a little over four hours on the clock I knew that my six-hour goal was well within reach.

Transition 2: Bike – to – Run

This one is always a little nerve-wracking, as one can’t be sure how the legs will respond after three hours on the bike. Luckily for me my friend Brian had stopped by to see how Max and I were doing, and some friendly words with him as I threw my running gear on kept me from worrying about my physiological well-being. I felt strong as I pulled my race-day-only yellow visor on and headed out for the half-marathon. I saw Evan and Colin again at this point, which gave me another boost. My watch read 4:04 as I headed out, but I knew the toughest was yet to come.

Run: 20 km

The run on this course is a beauty: two shaded 10k laps on packed gravel (so much better than pavement, in my opinion) surrounding Elk and Beaver Lakes. I watched my heart rate closely, as I have a bad habit of getting too excited after the bike and going out too hard. There were aid stations every 2k or so, and I drank Gatorade and dumped water on my head at each one, as it was starting to get hot out. I also ate a gel on each lap. Again, the volunteers were incredible and the spectators were really supportive. I was surprised at how strong I felt and had to focus on not pushing it too hard on the first lap. I gave myself a silent pat on the back as I passed the 100k mark, and before I knew it 10k was done in less than an hour. I passed my friends Rachel and Karen – more unexpected supporters – as I headed out for the second loop, and I knew that with a simple repeat of the first loop the six-hour goal would be mine. I also knew, however, that it is said that a long triathlon doesn’t start until the second half of the run. I was about to find out why.

About 2k into the second loop I took my first walking break. What had been a bit of muscle fatigue on the first lap quickly evolved into the cringe-inducing sensation that my legs had become overstuffed with liquid lead. With each subsequent attempt at “running”, my legs felt heavier and the pain in my quads intensified. It’s hard to describe the nature of the pain I felt, but it wasn’t good. Not quite burning, not quite aching, but a strange combination of both. The walk breaks became more frequent, and it soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to break six hours. A little disheartening, but I kept on keeping on as the fatigue grew and every other step brought a grunt.

With 4k left it occurred to me that I was definitely going to finish this race. All of the early walks to the pool in pre-dawn Yellowknife, endless hours spent counting my cadence on the bike and moments of doubt on 20km+ runs around Victoria all came rushing back in one exhausted and overwhelming flow of emotion. The finish line at Elk Lake felt impossibly far away when I was up North, as it’s hard to visualize a summer afternoon on Vancouver Island when you’re slipping out your front door at 6:00 A.M. in –45 degree Yellowknife. I also thought back to my days not so long ago when a triathlon would have meant beer, pizza and PlayStation and the concept of completing even a modest multi-sport event would have been a discouraging impossibility. So there I was: 2460.32 km away from the frozen mining town in the middle of the Subarctic where I had logged my toughest, loneliest training hours; what seemed like a lifetime away from my embarrassingly unhealthy lifestyle of just a few short years ago; and now only 4000 metres from the finish line of a half-iron. Perhaps I was being self-indulgent, but the reality of the distances I had traveled to get to the 16km mark on that run was more than my run-down body and mind could handle for a few precarious moments as I teetered on the brink of breaking down.

I bucked up, though, knowing that I wasn’t quite done. With the help of Evan and Max (Max, who could have read the Bible from cover-to-cover in the time between his finish and my own) who came out to pump me up with 1km left, I brought it home in 6:17. I didn’t crack six hours, but for the guy who couldn’t do one lap around the track in grade 8 gym class without stopping to walk, there was plenty to be proud of.

Thank Yous:

I sure as hell couldn’t have done this on my own. In no particular order, and at the risk of sounding like an arrogant Grammy winner:

To my family – Sarah, Mom, Rod, Liz and Dad (who I’m sure was watching) – thanks for understanding what a big deal this was for me and not scoffing when I set out (not that I would have expected you to). I knew you all had my back all-along, just like you always do.

Matt – brother, you went above and beyond. When I asked you for a few pointers in December I had no idea you would offer so much of your time and expertise in whipping me into shape. I say in all sincerity that I could not have done this without your help.

Max – right on, man. This has been a fun ride, and it’s been wicked inspiring watching you train and trying to keep up with you, even though I know I never could. Here’s to showing Seattle who’s boss, and the endless cycle of nutrition/hydration/nutrition/hydration. Let's not let this one be our last.

Marc, Sarah G., JCB, Nancy, Mike (always in the changing tents) and the rest of the LP crew – thanks for showing me the ropes, lending me gear and covering my shifts when I started out last summer. I wish they could all be as fun as a Monday-nighter following a day at the store.

Colin, Evan, Rachel, Karen, Brian and Nicole – I don’t know if any of you realize how great it was to have some love thrown my way when I was out there, and what a difference it really made. Thanks for making me feel warm and fuzzy when I should have felt anything but.

Thanks to Phish for giving me my official pump-up song.

Taiga – thanks for being my training partner up North. I was jealous of your four legs on the run.

And anyone I've shared a swim, bike or run with over the past little while.

Thanks for reading this one. It’s wordy but I’m damn proud and wanted to get this all down while it’s still fresh. I am fully aware that having the means and ability (mediocre though my abilities are) to even attempt something like this is an incredible blessing. My gratitude to the Almighty runs deep, and I am incredibly humbled to have had such an opportunity. Once my legs forgive me I’ll probably head right back into the pool, onto the bike and over to the trails. I’m not sure where this journey will take me next, but part of me is dreaming of an occasion to write about a race twice as long sometime next summer. Stay tuned…