Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ironman Canada Race Report

The journey to this race was as long as the god awful two lane roads that I drove to get here. Penticton, B.C. is a five hour drive from Spokane, Washington. Frequently, like the drive, I was not sure if I was following the right direction. From the time I signed up, I was worried about how to train, where to train, what to train with. I picked this race because I wanted to see if I could do the challenging bike route and because people said the bike wasn’t that bad. I was convinced that they were lying. I rode the hilliest bike course in training that I could, but I was always slow. I couldn’t train as hard as I thought I should because I biked and ran in intense heat. I would get up before dawn to catch the hour or two before the sun and the heat drained the life out of me. I climbed hills on the bike and wondered if I was going to succumb to heat exhaustion in the middle of no where. I doubted that I could make the bike cut off. The bike route has two huge climbs and I didn’t know if I could make up for the slowness of my ascents on the rest of the course.

But standing on the beach of Okanagan Lake at the starting line, a weird sense of calm invaded my brain. The water was a deep blue, surrounded by the rugged, rocky, tree strewn hills. I decided my mental strategy was to take everything as it was happening and not worry about what was going to happen. Otherwise, the whole event was overwhelming. I just couldn’t picture myself being able to do the swim and the bike. I was about to start a huge race, but I was not thinking about it.

I went over to the left part of the starting line, hoping that the swim would be less crowded. A lot a people decided to do the same thing. Supposedly, 2830 people started. I found a friend who was attempting his first ironman race. He was going to pace off of me. The blind leading the blind. The gun went off and the water churned with the masses ahead of me. I waded into the water. When it was clear, I started swimming. I only thought about getting from buoy to buoy and I tried to stay calm. I hate the ironman 2.4 mile length swim and I didn’t want to think about how long it would take. The water was 70 degrees, but it was choppy and had swells. It was worse the farther out you got. Oddly enough, some swimmers were as slow as I and I could draft off of them briefly. I am usually alone in the swim with everyone ahead of me. I had to avoid the hazards of the flailing arms and legs of backstrokers and breast strokers who were having trouble with the swim.

At the swim turn they didn’t have the traditional house boat, just a lame white Subaru buoy that was hard to see. A fair number of swimmers were still with me at this point. My calf kept cramping. I had to hang onto a kayak at one point to stretch it. It wasn’t bad, but it was unnerving. I never really got cold.

I finally got to the end, spotted a volunteer in the water and bee-lined for him so that I could use him to help me stand up. I promptly got another calf cramp. I walked over the rocks and sand and I finished in about 1:56, a record for me. What the hell? Somewhere in cyberspace people were noting my time online. I thought about that every time I went over a timing mat. Friends not here in person were out there in spirit. So far, this was going to be a good day.

I went through transition to gear up for the bike. My next 112 mile test was coming.

The bike actually felt good on the rolling hills. I went through the town past the vineyards and small towns and farms selling peaches, tomatoes and other fruit. I was actually happy and having fun. It was a joy to be riding a bike in a beautiful setting. I averaged about 16.8 mph. I was trying to conserve energy because I knew what was coming. The evil Richter pass. The 11k climb was hard and long and it started to get hot. The crest of the first section, you are greeted by an announcer, music and people cheering. It made me smile. The incline isn’t continuous, but has dips, so I was not sure where exactly the summit was. I pass by “Spotted Lake”, a weird lake with large circles of something on the surface. Then it was a steep climb to the summit. The surrounding views were spectacular with mountains sweeping past the road. After that there were a series of hills to climb. My legs were starting getting tired. I was hot and thirsty. I had to stop at almost every aid station for ice and water. I couldn’t seem to get enough salt tablets and water to avoid feeling dehydrated. I didn’t think it was going to be in the nineties here. Isn’t Canada supposed to be cool?

Some nasty soul had put tacks in the road, but I managed to avoid the them because the race people had found out about it and were steering people away. One of the fears that had dogged me was getting a flat. A flat tire could have meant that I didn’t finish the bike course because of the extra time to fix it.

I reached the start of an out and back in the course and promptly got a bad leg cramp just as I reached a photographer. I am sure that was going to be a great picture. I think I was O.K. on time at this point, but I didn’t want to fall behind. I know people who hate this section, but I just wanted to get the hell out of it. A volunteer yelled that I was running out of time, although I was still had enough. It make me nervous and I picked up speed a little. I got another cramp and grabbed my leg to relieve it. The heat continued to nag at me.

I started the long climb to Yellow Lake and I made the mistake of throwing my bottle away, thinking that this was an aid station with all the discarded bottles. It wasn’t and I had to climb the rest of the way without water. I kept telling myself that I will get through this section. Times like this in the race was where I was testing myself. I was desperately thirsty by the time I got to the next aid station. I enjoyed passing people with fancy race wheels. I didn’t have any and thought Really? You have fancy wheels and are twenty years younger than me and I am passing you?

After the summit, I expected it to get easier at about mile ninety two, but it seemed to take a long time to get a good descent. I heard that a head wind was making gaining speed more difficult. I had more leg cramps. Seven miles to go out of 112. I was still concerned about the bike cut off, but I thought I had enough time. I started thinking about running 26.2 miles and told my mind to shut up. One mile at a time. I got into transition a little after five. I quietly whooped in triumph. I had made it. I will finish. The 7:53 hour time was only ten minutes slower than Arizona Ironman on a much harder course. Another time probably noted somewhere by someone watching me.

I didn’t feel all that great, but I was functional. The volunteer thought I was disoriented, but I thought I was just tired and dehydrated. Sweat stung my eyes. I struggled to put on my socks and steel myself for the next leg.

It was still hot when I started the out and back run. I could see all the people in town having dinner and I envied them. Then again, they couldn’t call themselves ironmen. They wouldn’t have what I was about to have. I had a goal of doing at least fifteen minute miles so that I could at least finish. I was going to walk up the hills and then run down them. It was going to take longer to come back than to go out. I saw people coming in who were about to end their day. I saw bike riders going past that weren’t going to make the cut off. I felt bad for them.
I slogged along. The miles passed slowly. I ate Pepsi, soup, oranges, pretzels, gels and bananas. None of the food I ate gave me any energy that I could tell. The second wind never came. I didn’t have any digestive issues, but I got tired of the food after a while. I was just exhausted. Local citizens had put out sprinklers for us to run through to brave the heat. I liked how they sat on their lawn chairs and made a social event out of spectating. They brought an energy to the race. They kept us going.

I ran/walked the course. I gave up running up the hills. Each mile was an painful effort. At least it was less hot when the sun started going down. I almost cried with relief when I got to the turn around at 13.1 miles. It had the requisite ironman drunk race watchers. It was getting dark and I wondered how the road would be with no light.

It turned out to be pitch black. No streetlights and no moon provided illumination, so the road was very difficult to see. It would have been nice to have a headlight. Every time my eyes adjusted to the dark, a car would come along and blind me. It was irritating. It was strange being out in the woods with the tall pine trees, dark brilliantly starry sky and the light reflecting off the lake. I could see a surreal line of glow circles where people a head of me were trudging. I kept looking for mile markers to count down the miles.

It was a relief to get to where there were street lights. I just wanted to be done. A deserted back commercial stretch on with hotels and malls on Main Street was tedious because there weren’t many people and it went uphill. I was mostly walking by this point. My legs were toast. The last three miles seemed to take forever. The final stretch on Lakeshore Drive was better because I had people cheering me on. One pudgy guy was dressed in a bra and a grass skirt cheering for us. It made me smile. I smelled ice cream and said “ice cream” and a guy said “not yet”. I laughed. More than once I saw the sign “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” Isn’t it the truth?

I tried to get motivated to at least run to the brightly lit finish line, the goal I had been chasing all day. I made sure to high five people. It seemed almost anticlimactic. Maybe it just takes a while for the accomplishment to sink in. I missed the accustomed United States announcer because he gets off of his podium, revs up the crowd and says “you ARE an ironman”. The Canadian announcer read your name off, but it was low key and kind of a snooze. At least it’s the end of the torture. Total run time was 6:15, which was sadly the fastest for any marathon I have done, even with all the walking.

I had my doubts about finishing this race. One of the reasons I signed up for this race was to see if I could do it. Training was difficult and the mental preparation was even worse because all of the fears of the unknowns of the terrain, the weather and the logistics. Even worse than the physical training was managing the prospect of failure. When I actually saw the course, I couldn’t picture finishing it. The undulating hills seemed to promise disaster. It looked impossible. I blocked out the fear, took a leap of faith and moved forward. The body will follow the mind and the mind is powerful.

Jordan Rapp, the men’s winner, said “ You do an Ironman because you want to reach the stars. And you want to do it the hard way, because that is what makes it special.” I don’t know about reaching the stars, but I was definitely flying.