Race season is here. Training mileage goes up, personal time becomes scarce, the nerves settle in, fatigue catches up, and you wonder how you will have that one last push to make it through to the end. I’ve been here before; I know this story. I know the emotions and how it all unfolds, but I still love it. I love putting everything to the test, pushing my limits, unleashing my hard work, and almost more importantly, learning. In my first race of the season this past weekend at the Ironman 70.3 in Victoria, B.C., I learned that experience is a damn good teacher, and that nothing is as good as pure, hard work.
Since day one of training this year, and for the first time since I started this journey, I have been healthy and injury free (knock on wood). Because of this, I’ve been able to commit to six months of uninterrupted, dedicated, persistent, hard work. On race morning, I was physically more ready than I’ve ever been on any other race day for the past three years. The year-after-year training and good health speaks volumes to this, as does a coach who believes in me and isn’t afraid to push my limits. As long as I executed according to the plan, I was destined for a PB race.
As the minutes ticked down to race start, I delicately tip toed down the rocky path and towards the water. With a rolling start this year, we were all mashed in between two steel fences that funneled down towards the water. I felt like a pig being shoved off to slaughter. We all seemed to move in a mass together, shuffling down the line, fearful and anxious of what lie at the opening of the fences. But once I found a gap, I felt as though I could breathe again and the nerves turned into excitement. Without any hesitation, I took two deep breaths and ran into the water. Despite, the rolling start, the swim was still chaotic. A mass of bodies all funneling through in the same direction, well, mostly all in the same direction, meant there were flailing bodies I needed to push out of my way. After fighting through the mass, I was focused, calm and rhythmic.
The course was cut short due to a weed situation, so the swim was fast and I was happy to get back on my own two feet 400 metres earlier. As I approached the final buoy and sighted just ahead of me, I realized there was no shore, but a ramp that provided an exit out of the deep water. I was back in a mass of flailing bodies and people frantically trying to hoist themselves out. I tried to clamber up on my own but my eyes quickly darted to find a helping hand to pull me to the safety of dry land. Then it was the long run down the mats and into T2.
With my shoes on, I threw on my sunglasses and grabbed for my helmet. Yet, to my frantic shock it would not fit onto my head. Here is an example of where experience is a good teacher. If you’re going to try a new hair style the night before the race, make sure your helmet still fits properly. My thick braided hair was preventing the helmet from fitting on my head. I pride myself on being fast in transition – playing with my hair was not conducive to being fast. As I tried to slam it onto my head, my glasses became dislodged and hung around my mouth. I made the quick decision to hurl the sunglasses at the ground, and go with however the helmet was going to sit. Then, as I pulled my bike off the rack, my brake lever got stuck in the spokes of the bike next to me. I thought, that’s it, I’m never getting out of here. I heaved on the bike, trying not to destroy my neighbour’s bike or mine, and finally freedom. As I got on the bike with my helmet half way down my forehead and almost down to my eyes, I took two deep breaths and tried to shake the jitters.
The first half of the bike was spectacular with great winding descents and flat sections perfect for tucking into TT and settling into a fast pace. The second half of the course presented a bit of climbing, although it was nothing my training hadn’t prepared me for. It was at about the 60K mark though, when I was presented with a bit of a challenge, grabbing a bottle at an aid station. Ordinarily, this should be a simple and routine part of racing, but after my spectacular crash at Ironman Canada last year at an aid station, there was a bit of hesitation. Another moment in which experience has taught me a good lesson – be decisive, slow down and, for god’s sakes, do not reach across your bike to grab a bottle. As I looked down at my two empty water bottles I realized it was time to conquer my fears. Almost 50 metres out, I start yelling for Gatorade, then I slowly pulled up on the brake levers until I slowed to almost a turtle’s pace, took a deep breath, and reached out with my right, not left, arm to grab the bottle. A slight nervous wobble and I was on my way. I don’t care how many seconds or minutes I lost while taking the time to think and slow down, crashing is much, much worse.
After aid station success, I could get back to focusing on the final kilometres and getting back to transition and back to my own two feet. As much as I love to ride my bike, I’m always grateful to no longer have to overthink the possibility of crashing, mechanical failures or flat tires. And after 90K in the saddle, my lady parts are also grateful.
While racking my bike back in T2, I could hear my dad somewhere behind me yell my name, and I couldn’t help but smile. Having your friends and family chase you around on race day is one of the best parts of racing. It’s even better in the moments that amongst all the hundreds of kilometres you’ve covered and the thousands of other people that they manage to find you for 30 seconds, and offer you an encouraging cheer and high five.
As I threw on my shoes and grabbed my race belt and hat, I paused for half a second. Compared to T1, this transition was blazing fast and I wanted to be 100% sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. I do still believe there will be a day when I run out of transition with my helmet on. Not today – I couldn’t wait to get that thing off my head.
Heading out onto the run I had an incredible kick in my step – I was ready to move. For the next 14K, my pace was dialed in, and I relished in the quiet peacefulness of the trail – it was the perfect setting for some suffering. Gradually heaviness set into my legs, my breathing and heart rate went up, and I could feel those dreaded blisters forming on my toes. With about 4 or 5 kilometres to go I saw my coach, and I never thought I would be so grateful; I needed him to yell something at me, anything to get me moving with purpose again. “Bob is a minute ahead of you,” he yelled. “Go get him!” It was all I needed. Experience has also taught me that pain is just a feeling. Pushing through the pain and finding your beast mode is one of the most rewarding parts of training and racing. I may not have looked graceful, I may have sounded like a dying donkey, but I was determined to catch Bob. At the out-and-back turn-around I saw him, but I would really have to turn on the engines to catch him. The kick may have come too late.
Rounding the final bend, I saw my family one final time staggered along the last 500 metres. In true celebration style, I turned my neon trucker hat backwards, leaned around the corner, high fived my anxiously awaiting 6-year-old niece, and happily in pain ran through the finish chute and across the finish line.
Looking back on the past six months, I see a journey that has, for the first time, not been overshadowed by illness or injury. I see a journey of dedication and hard work where I could focus on getting better and faster every week without interruption. I got to pour my heart and soul into this season by facing different challenges and breaking through my own limitations. And it all paid off with a 45 minute PB over last year. Although, I missed catching Bob by 30 seconds, I did knock 30 minutes off the run, five minutes off my bike, and 16 minutes off my swim (although it was 400 metres shorter).
It’s five weeks to the big show in Whistler for Ironman Canada, and although all I want to do is rest, there’s lots of work to be done. The final push is the hardest and some of the biggest and toughest workouts are still on the horizon. That being said, I’m feeling strong, and I can see the end to this long road and the finish line is looking good.