Animals and humans have an ability to suppress the memories of horrific and painful events. We inherited this genetic trait from our distant ancestors who's survival in part depended upon forgetting awful experiences and instead, focusing on the good aspects. Why this tendency improved our chances of survival and, as a result to pass on this gene to our offspring, I have no idea. I suppose, if we didn't posses this trait, women would never give birth to a second child and none of us would ever attempt a second Ironman.
As I knew it would be, it was one of the best days of my life - and one of the worst. My first Ironman was in November of 2001 in Florida. My only goal was to get through the event before the cutoff time of 17 hours. So I took my time and generally enjoyed the race. I took time to smile and thank the volunteers, I chatted up fellow runners as I passed them (or more realistically, as they passed me), I joked around with the cheering crowds and just plain old had a great time. I soaked it all in - everything. Slowly. 13 hours and 40 minutes slowly. I finished with the same smile on my face that I had when they fired the start cannon on the beach for the swim start.
This race was different. I had an agenda. I was out to kick some Greg butt. I wasn't competing with anyone else, I was competing with myself - my goal was to finish in 11 hours and 30 minutes and I knew it would take everything I had, every little tiny bit of focused effort and concentration on my race and my body to accomplish that. No time to sight see, no time to say hi to a neighbor Ironman competitor or to 'play it safe' and slow down a bit to conserve (although, I always thank the volunteers at the aid stations and thank the cheering crowd for encouraging words!). I was pushing hard and feeling the effects of that kind of prolonged effort.
The day started at 4:00 am with some oatmeal and a muffin that our gracious host John from the Saddleback Bread and Breakfast was kind enough to fix for his house full of Ironman guests. Such guests included a Pro from Hawaii, and 3 other men who were sub 10-hour Ironman triathletes and two women who were attempting their first Ironman.
After successfully completing the most important part of a pre-Ironman day (a good poop), Helen, the kids and myself were enroute down Apex mountain to the city of Penticton - host of the 20th anniversary of Ironman Canada.
By 6:30 I was body marked (my race number scribbled over my legs and arms), wet suited and standing on the beach in front of Lake Okanogan with the largest Ironman Swim start in history, and in fact, the largest mass swim start on record - 2032 athletes. That makes for one VERY crowded beach! I looked out at the orange buoys marking the 3.8 km single loop and could not even see the last buoy it was so far out. I determined that I could use the top of the mountain as a visual reference (sighting) and I would eventually make it directly to the turnaround buoy. Perfect.
The start cannon went off at 7:00 am sharp and 2032 swimmers plowed into the lake taking me with them. At first it was mayhem - I felt like a cheap hooker. I got grabbed, groped, felt up and down. I got used and abused, rode upon, dragged behind, slapped around, and spanked all over. After about 15 minutes we spread out enough that the ogry subsided and I found some private space I could call my own. My mountain top sight worked out perfect because it took me directly to the turn around buoy, and I was almost half done. It seemed like forever, but I finally made it back to the beach where hundreds of screaming spectators were cheering us out of the water. I anxiously looked up at the clock as I tripped over the rocks near the exit and was pleasantly surprised to read only 1 hour, 11 minutes which was 5 or 6 minutes faster than I expected. So far so good, I had a few minutes in the bank.
In the transition area the change tent was full, so I dumped my bag out on the grass beside Dave - a friend from Calgary. Out of 2023 athletes in Penticton, I accidentally ran into Dave about a dozen times that weekend. Dave is a 2:40 marathoner who has decided to give Ironman a try. For those of who don't speak marathonian, a 2:40 marathon time is really, really wicked fast. It means running 4 back-to-back 10 km races at 40 minutes each. 2:40 could probably win first place in a 26-mile marathon running race. But this is Ironman where the marathon comes after a 180 km bike race that follows a long swim. Dave's marathon time today would eventually turn out to be a humbling 5 hours!
The days leading up to Ironman Sunday and in fact days after Sunday were typical Penticton hot and sunny 30+ degrees Celsius, but today was magically overcast and cooler. So at least I didn't have the heat to deal with on the 180km bike ride. Instead I had 1000 ft. Richter pass and the 1000 ft climb to Yellow lake to deal with. I had been closely watching my average speed up to the start of Richter pass - a very healthy 35 km/hr. I needed at least 30 km/hr to finish the bike ride in 6 hours to meet my goal. I was feeling good and had a nice buffer. But by the top of Richter pass, as I struggled up the last 100 feet past hundreds of crazed spectators screaming and clanging cow bells, I sadly watched my average drop and drop and drop. Hoping to make most of it back on the free ride down the pass, I was upset to find that in the end, I was down to only 32 km/hr average, which meant that I might loose another 2 km/hr on the Yellow Lake up and down resulting in a bike split over my 6 hour goal. When I reached the bottom of Richer, my right knee was throbbing with each stroke. I tried to blank the pain out of my mind and focus on my form, my speed, my eating and hydration.
The remainder of the bike ride was pretty dam miserable. I had no major mishaps aside from constantly being peed upon by cyclists in front of me who for some reason decide to urinate while riding. My knee was becoming a major distraction though as I focused on trying to keep my speed up and not get caught in these huge drafting packs that I either passed or got passed by. By the start of the slow climb to Yellow lake, my shoulders and neck were cramped up from being in the aero position for so long, my knee was in constant pain and I was NOT happy about climbing another 1000 feet, and especially not happy about climbing it GRADUALLY which is the very worst form of torture imaginable. Again, if not for the cheery spectators gathered at various intervals along the climb, I might have tossed my bike into Yellow Lake. But, I knew that once I reached the top, I could glide all the way down to the finish line in Penticton and hopefully watch my average grow back to at least 30, which was now sitting at an embarrassing 28! By the time made it into town, my average was back above 30, but the final turn onto Main Street met some serious head winds and my time at the finish line was almost exactly at 6:00. That meant that I needed to put in a marathon time very close to 4 hours - something that I really wasn't sure I was capable of doing.
After a friendly volunteer grabbed my bike from me, I ran into the transition area and another volunteer handed me my T2 transition bag. I said, "where's the change tent" and she pointed to the great big white tent directly in front of me. Then I said, "What do we do next? Bowling?" and she chuckled - probably because she felt sorry for me. After a quick change and pee, I started the 26.4-mile marathon run and immediately felt stabbing pains in my gut. Pains that are no stranger to me. I often have stomach cramps when running after a long bike ride. They typically go away after about 30 minutes of light running, but I could not afford to baby my tummy for this first half hour, for the clock was a ticking. Loudly.
So I ran through the stitch pains trying to drink at each aid station to up my fluid levels in hope that it would drown the cramps. I wear a speedometer watch, which gives me a pretty accurate read-out of my running speed and distance. I had calculated before, that I needed to average at least 7.5 miles per hour average through the entire run to cover the 42km in 4 hours. That would also allow me to walk for 60 seconds at each aid station, which were exactly 1 mile apart. After about ½ hour, my stomach cramps started to wane, so I sped up to 8 miles per hour in order to 'bank' some time because I knew that it would be difficult to maintain 7.5 or even 7mph over the second half.
Again, I must comment on what makes Ironman Canada every triathlete's favorite race - the people. The volunteers and the people of the town who gather along the bike and run course to cheer the athletes on. It's really amazing to see such enthusiastic support from people of Penticton. They really embrace this event and it has become a part of their culture. They ARE Ironman Canada! I really got a kick out of the encouraging comments from the fans lining the run course. You can't be told that you are 'looking good' too many times.
The first 21 km to the turn around point were pretty great. I was running very fast, and feeling confidant that if I could maintain the pace that I would finish in well under 4 hours. But I also knew of the dangers of confidence like that - because in a single stride, the delacate comfort balance could sway, and I could be suffering big time. Sure enough, by the turn around point I was starting to slow. Also my open sores on both of the insides of my arms started to distract my attention from my running. Thank god for aid station girls with Vaseline covered hands. A couple of gobs of Vaseline over my chaffing sores, and, well, the sores were still sore, but there's something about two girls wiping you down with Vaseline…
Anyhow, The last 10 km was pretty darned miserable. I kept watching my time but my brain stopped working, and I couldn't remember if the marathon was 24 miles or 26 miles. After various mental gymnastics trying to multiply four times 10 km and converting to miles, I just gave up and figured that my average speed had slowed to below 7 mph and that I was probably not going to make it to the finish line in 4 hours. So I knew that I wouldn't be able to stop at any more aid stations. So I stopped at all of them. And I did the best I could for the remaining distance which was a mix of running, stumbling, walking the aid stations, stretching out hamstrings that were seizing up, and unconsciously babying a blister that was quickly forming on my left foot.
And this sign kept mysteriously reappearing just when I was asking myself the same question; "What Were You Thinking?" All I could do was shake my head. What was I thinking? I kept saying to myself "I CHOOSE to be here. I CHOOSE to be here".
Cody and Krista joined me for the final sprint and I let them run through the finish line tape. I almost fainted into my catcher's arms. A catcher is a volunteer who takes the finisher into the finisher's area and tends to their every need. Mine included about a half dozen donuts. And yes, I made it to the medical tent - not for dehydration or hyponetrimia, but to pop the blood blister on my left toe.
I had finished the run in 4:07 and my total time was 11 hours, 31 minutes. I was ecstatic. I had met my goals and RACED my first Ironman. A really, really LONG day, and an extremely fulfilling experience. I can't wait to learn what mix of misery and happiness my next Ironman will bring!