Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ironman Canada, What It Means To Be An Ironman

It has been over 7 months since I participated in Ironman Canada. Since then, a lot has happened personally for me, and for the race too- the race lost its charter from the Ironman brand and will now be known as Challenge Penticton- same course, same distance, just without the Ironman name. "Ironman Canada" will now be held in Whistler, BC.

Ironman Canada 2012 was held in Penticton, BC. Canada- which is lovely. I had actually never been to Canada before this race, and I had heard great things about the city, so I was excited to visit. A group of us flew up to Seattle, and rented a big SUV to drive 6 hours across the boarder to our destination.

I love a good road trip, and the scenery up there was beautiful.

Once we got up there we had a day or two to get acclimated, scope out the Ironman merch tent, go to packet pick-up, a swim in the lake to get used to it, and of course our team's inspiration dinner.

On race morning, I was pumping up the jamz on the bus that took our team to transition- nothing like Jock Jamz to start the day! We got there with all our transition gear and went straight to the bodymarking area.

We got ourselves together, dropped off out T-1 and T-2 bags to the volunteers, handed off our packs to our spectating teammates and got ready to swim.
It was a mass swim start- so Amy, Johnny and I made our way to the left side of the beach, up toward the back of the front of the pack. Before we knew it, it was GO TIME!

The water felt great- though of course the water was a bit crowded. If I had been swimming in the lake by myself I might have had a much better swim time. I got pushed off course and hit in the face several time- but I suppose that is the luck of the draw in a race like this. The buoys were extremely hard to see in my opinion- they were not very bright, and near the turnaround it was difficult to tell exactly what to aim for. On the way back- i tried to aim for the "Peach on the Beach" - a giant metal peach sculpture near the swim in/out area- as best I could. It wasn't my best swim ever, but I'll take it.

Then into the transition area. For many Ironman events you don't have a set transition area- you have all your gear in 2 bags- T1 and T2, that the volunteers hand off to you as you come in to transition each time (all marked with your race number of course). You run in from the swim- and into the changing tent where a volunteer hands you your stuff.
I was told that there would likely be volunteers around helping people get their wetsuits off, put their socks on, etc., but in my case they must have been otherwise occupied, so I dumped out my bag of gear onto the soggy ground and got out of there as fast as I could- avoiding the tub of public Vaseline for those who must have forgotten their body glide (gross).
Heading out of T1
I headed off on the bike- my new darling Trek Madone named Necco- and got into the swing of it. The first part of the course is relatively flat, with one moderate but brief limb in the middle- and I knew I wanted to take advantage of this first part of the course as much as possible before I got to the climbs at Richter Pass.

The climb at Richter Pass is a climb with about 1300 ft of elevation gain over about 5 miles starting at mile 41 of the ride. Just before starting the climb- I saw our amazing cheer squad dressed as fairies and unicorns at the base of the hill- perfect timing! With a shout of good luck from my teammates I started my climb. Luckily it was not too hot yet at that point in the day, so while it was of course a challenging climb- I imagine it could have been worse. There was an aid station part of the way up, and spectators lining the sides of the road cheering for all us crazy cyclists.
After Richter Pass, you get a breathtaking view of mountains and forest, and a fabulous downhill break- before you get to what some call "the seven bitches"- seven "smaller" climbs and downhills that could definitely be a bit soul crushing if you're not expecting them. I was ready for them and made sure to make the most of every downhill to pick up as much speed as possible to make it up and over the next hill.

I was leap-frogging with some other racers including my teammate Luke (usually passing them on the downhills, and being passed on the up-hills as one might expect), as we made our way over those seven hills. After that, the course starts to level out somewhat for the next wile up until the Special Needs aid station.

When my carpool buddies and I had driven the bike course the day before the race, we had made a wrong turn and ended up not seeing the out and back part of the course that takes you to special needs. Little did we know that that portion of the course as been described in some publications as "mind numbing". And mind numbing it was! This area was not flat, had several random turns, lower-quality roads, and at that point in the day, the weather had started to heat up.

Also at that point in the ride, my "seat" was getting very uncomfortable and my feet were in quite a bit of pain from being numb for so long. While I did not spend that much time stopping at the special needs station (where Riz and H-Sizzle were waiting and cheering in their fairy costumes), I probably should have gotten back on the bike a bit quicker. standing there allowed some blood flow to return to my more numb areas- making them absolutely excruciating once I started up again.

Flashback again to driving the course the day before- the last big climb at Yellow Lake- while in a car- was nearly undetectable- it seemed like some moderate inclines, but nothing big. On the bike- a completely different story. Between the heat of the day, the thinning out of the pack, and my excruciating feat and nether-regions, it was not a fun experience. Luckily i did not overheat, and I was on top of my nutrition, so that was not an issue- just the pain. I like to think that I have a respectable tolerance for pain (I did train for 2 Ironman-distance races after all) but I can easily say I have not felt that kind of pain before. After a while, my hands joined in the fun and started spasm-ing on occasion and going very numb as well. It was great fun.

After climbing Yellow Lake, you get some truly amazing views and some almost-made-the-climb-seem-worth-it downhills as a reward. I took those downhills like my life depended on it. I think I made it up to around 45 mph at one point on the way down- I was not messing around. Then came the seemingly never-ending ride back into Penticton- some minor ups and downs, past another mythical-creature-themed cheer squad, and then back into transition.

Despite the pain and the climbing and everything else, I PR'ed the bike course! Despite the thousands of feet of climbing, I rode that 112 miles faster than I ever rode 112 miles before. I made it into transition and saw Coach Brad who said: "What are you doing here?!" I was ecstatic at my bike time, and even more ecstatic to be off of the bike!

I made my way through transition, grabbed my bags, went into the (now sparsely occupied) changing tent, and put my running shoes on. I came out of transition- ready for anything, gave Brad a high-five and went out on the run.

When I was coming in on the bike, I saw Luke out near the start of the run. I assumed he would be well ahead of me by the time I got out there, but I actually caught up to him pretty quickly somewhere around mile 4 or so. I was feeling great. Some spectators were pumping music out of cars or small businesses by the side of the road and I was even singing along. I felt like I could run forever, so when I came upon Luke- who was feeling pretty rough at that point I just sang some oldies at him, tried to be encouraging, and went on my way.
It wasn't until mile 6 or so that things started to get a little rough. I started to feel a little yucky in terms of my nutrition, so I slowed down a bit, cooled off as much as possible, stopped consuming, and shook it off. I was pretty thrilled that I was able to knock out that issue before it became a problem (heat stroke will teach you a thing or two after a while!). Unfortunately after that, the proverbial wheels started to fall off.

Looking back now, I can hypothesize about what caused my feet to then start to feel like they were catching on fire. I would imagine that the lack of blood flow for several hours on the bike contributed to the searing pain that felt like my feet were covered in giant blisters- once I got feeling back in them.  At the time, I thought I must have blisters all over the bottoms of my feet, and so I started walking more than I would have liked. This was extremely frustrating because I felt great (as great as one can feel after multiple hours and over 120 miles can feel) and I really wanted to be running- I could have kept running if it didn't feel like my feet were doused in lighter fluid and set ablaze.

I eventually made it to the mile 13 turnaround where coach Rob and another cheer squad were waiting.  I grabbed my run special needs bag where I had stashed some extra socks just in case- and sat for a moment to change my socks out. I was amazed that when I took my sock off I saw not one blister in sight. Bewildered, I put my new socks on, shoes back on, and started swearing my way back toward the finish line.

I tried running as much as I could, telling myself that it's just pain- there are no blisters- it just hurts and there is no reason why I shouldn't try to run. I decided to focus on the gorgeous colors in the sky as the sun set to try and get my mind off my feet. I was very frustrated and in a lot of pain when I came across Riz again - now in the dark in her light-up fairy costume- probably about 10 miles out from the finish. She tried to encourage me, and I was trying to keep it positive, but clearly I was in a bad place. I kept up my run/walk (mostly walk) for quite a while more alone in the dark, until Riz came back by in a car this time, and said she had a surprise for me. I knew what the surprise was and in a way I was glad, but in a way I didn't want it. Coach Brad jumped out of the backseat and started walking with me. I was so glad to have him there helping me get through the rest of the course, but at the same time I was so very frustrated and disappointed in the way the run had gone that I could barely stand to see him there and have to talk about it.
Brad and I walked/jogged most of the way back into town, negotiating over every street sign and stoplight that we would start/stop running once we reached. "run at the next stop sign"  "no, run at the blinking light"...

The rest was a bit of a blur, I know there were more glowing fairy-themed teammates out there, I know the lights kept getting brighter as I got closer in near the finish line. I also know that Brad left me with a little over a mile to go and told me to run- to make sure I made it in under 16 hours. My goal had been 14:30.  I ran nearly the whole last mile on my hideous feet. most of the people who were out there could barely run anymore. I felt guilty because I was tired, but I could definitely still run (if I could ignore my feet). With the finish line in sight I was able to push through and ignore the pain - I ran it in to the finish at 15:54:30.

After the race I got handed a medal, an enormous finisher t-shirt, a hat, and a silver foil blanket. I remember waddling back to the post-race area to get some food and meet up with my teammates. After some pictures and some hugs, we somehow made it back to the bus and back to the hotel.

I decided to be good and (sans-shoes) crawled my way to the hotel ice machine to get an ikea-bag-full of ice for a mid-night ice bath. I waited for my race-roomie Amy to shower, then had my ice bath, then a shower, then some much deserved sleep!

Talking Johnny out of buying the Ironman bed
The next day we actually got up and went for a swim in the lake to help with recovery. Without our wetsuits the lake was nice and cold. Definitely a good idea. From there- we went to the merch tent to buy some finisher gear. Some people went nuts (like Johnny, who almost bought an Ironman-brand memory foam mattress and pillow if I hadn't stopped him), but I just bought a visor. That's all I needed.

All in all I would say the IM Canada was a great race- it was a challenging course, with amazing community support. The town is cute, the scenery is gorgeous, and it was another spectacular trip with some of my favorite people.

Race morning
Maybe it was a sign of PIDS (post ironman depression syndrome) since the race was over but a couple days after the race I got to thinking about what it meant to be an Ironman- now that I had finished my first official M-dot race. I think most people think that you become an Ironman when you cross the finish line, but I see it differently. From my perspective, when you cross the finish line, you finish being an Ironman- your training is over, the race is over, you stop doing all the things that made you an Ironman and got you to the finish line. Maybe it's because I have done this once before, but I feel like you are an Ironman when you decide to train for it, when you are in the middle of your training season, going through your hardest workouts, waking up every weekend day at 5 am to continue pushing yourself past your limits. That is what makes you an Ironman. Crossing the finish line is just a formality that puts a punctuation point at the end of the sentence "I am an Ironman" - it may be an exclamation point, or just a period, or a question mark depending on your mental state when you finish. I think my sentence ends with an ellipsis- if I am going to call myself an Ironman, there should be more to come...

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