Ironman Canada – Smile

When the pain comes, you know what I do? I smile.

– Chris McCormack

I love sport comeback stories. Jonny Brownlee’s recent victory came at the perfect time. It was inspiring to watch before my Ironman because it was his first World Triathlon Series victory in two years. Jonny had many doubters.  “People have very short term memories,” he told ITU media. “They said that’s all in the past. I’m never going to get a podium, much less win one of these again. I knew I was going well in training this year. But I had bad luck after bad luck. I tell myself in my early parts of my career, I had a lot of good luck. It’s time I had some bad luck.”  Bad times make the good times better, he later wrote in his social media post.

Every setback is a setup to make a comeback.

Ironman Canada last year left me with so many mixed emotions.  From a racing standpoint, my head wasn’t in a good place.  I was pissy, annoyed, stressed, and struggling to find my passion for the sport.  Mentally, I was not ready to race and suffer; the T2 mishap was just a slap to the face when I was already down.  As far as contending last year wasn’t meant to happen.  On the other hand, it turned out to be one of my most memorable races to date. Finishing with my wife and helping her chase down her competition to podium in her inaugural Ironman will be a top memory that I’ll always cherish.

This experience completely changed my perspective about this sport – both athletically and on a personal level.  I don’t take the sport too seriously anymore.  I’m not as butt-hurt if a race doesn’t go my way.  I stopped pretending I’m a big deal and removed myself from all amateur sponsorships.  I’m rarely on social media, enjoy the few people I coach and mentor, and stay in my own bubble and do my thing… my way or the highway, as Fred Durst would say.

I made a goal early in the year that I only shared with my wife —  I’ve had very little success in M30-34; I wanted to prove to myself that I could compete in this highly competitive age category; and I wanted to do it on a course I’ve experienced great success and humbling defeat. It would be so easy to give up, but this challenge for myself seemed to motivate and reinvigorate my drive to train hard.

Moving to Washington has been a game changer.  It was a fresh start on life.  Living nearby family, sitting out on our boat or dock and relaxing on the lake, barbecuing on warm summer days, taking naps with the pups, lake view treadmill sessions, eating copious amounts of food at my parents house every week, and laughing with the wife… I wouldn’t change a thing.  I can honestly say I’m finally happy and content with my life.

Becca’s passion and quick success in triathlon has also inspired me.  She has the fire and dedication I had when I first started this sport — she follows all the pros, reads all the books, keeps up with the trends, and enjoys and lives the lifestyle.  I train my butt off so I can hold her off for as long as possible.  Though, I feel my day is soon coming to an end when the inevitable happens… getting chicked by wife.

We compliment each other well in training.  She’ll go out on on century rides with me; we swim at Masters together; and she’ll either run with me or SAG on her cruiser bike.  The two-man Kawaoka wolf pack… running around the ghetto, in south King County, looking for fitness gains and endurance… we’re a perfect fit.

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This was the final year of the Whistler Ironman before moving back to Penticton in 2020.  I did some recon of the bike route including riding up Callaghan.  The terrain was just like I remember… hilly, challenging, and bears.

Bears, beets, Battle Star Gallactica.

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In general, this course is not for the faint of heart.  It’s extremely hilly with 7,500 feet of climbing on the bike and another 1,100 feet of vertical gain on the run — deemed as the most challenging Ironman course on the North America circuit.  While I’m not the most dominating cyclist, it allows me to compete on a more equal playing ground compared to a flatter course.  I knew there wouldn’t be ton of drafting due to all the climbing and hills, and it especially favors the athletes who race smart, conserve as much energy as possible, and have the legs for the hilly run.

Swim:

I lined up in the front of the field, about 20 seconds after the official gun sounded — most Ironman events have shifted toward the time trial start, with a handful of athletes starting every five seconds. I’ve been trying out this new tactic which has been working well for me at my last few races… I sprint and go as hard as I can to the first buoy, then find feet, find my groove, and swim steady.  After settling in from the fast start, I found it ironic I swam with the same people as Coeur d’Alene a month ago.

The second loop of the course was a bit hectic weaving through the slower Ironman swimmers.  I had to sight more to make sure I stayed on the correct feet.  There was a lot of unintentional bumping and fighting to swim as straight of a line as possible, due to the added congestion.  I feel really bad for the 70.3 swimmers who started 80 minutes after us.

I got out of the water with over a two-minute Ironman personal best– 3rd in my age group and 22nd overall, 33 seconds back from the lead, and my fastest full distance swim ever.  Tokyo bound.

T1:

Flashbacks from last year crept into my head.  I couldn’t find my transition bag at first and started panicking.   The director of this event must not have instructed the volunteers very well, because most of them were standing around doing nothing (including the wetsuit strippers).  I bypassed the strippers, finally found my bag, and scurried to the change tent.  While I greatly appreciate volunteers, the captain and race director need to do a better job instructing volunteers on their exact tasks.  It seemed like chaos in transition with a lot of people standing around with confusion and uncertainty.

Bike:

The bike course changed once again in 2019.  This time we climbed Callaghan, an 8-mile, 1,200 foot ascent, two times.  Then we descended further down Highway 99 to Daisy Lake before making the climb back into Whistler (another 1,000 feet of climbing).  The course was two loops and contained 7,500 feet of total vertical ascending.  Just looking at the elevation profile online made me shiver.

Starting the bike, I knew I was pretty far in front of the field judging by the out-and-backs on the course.  Past experience played a big role on how I decided to pace the bike leg.  Going into the race I knew I’d be passed quite a bit on this course, especially with a faster swim time – either from competitors riding outside their ability (too hard) or by competitors simply stronger than me.

Every time I wanted to chase I kept reminding myself of what Scottie Smalls once said – Don’t be a goofus, don’t be a goofus, don’t be a Goofus!!!

 

Several people passed me including six guys in my age group.  If this was one of my first time racing this distance, I most likely would have tried to stick with them, burn matches, and ride way outside my abilities. I did not get discouraged when I was overtaken and I remained patient.

Instead, I focused on my own race and nutrition strategy.  My fueling was spot on and power was consistent the entire day, paying extra attention to limit the surging and huge spikes in power output.  While my bike time was nothing to brag about, I followed my game plan to perfection and felt extremely strong off the bike.   Spinning is winning.

Off the bike I was 7th in my age group and slipped to 38th place overall.

T2: Transition bag was present.  I ran to the change tent with a smile. I felt good… I mean really good…

Run:

Chris McCormack said it best: “The difference between a good race and a bad race is all about how you manage the (inevitable) pain.”

I trusted myself and created my own training program for this race. I’ve had some amazing coaches over the years and I’ve accumulated their guidance and philosophies to formulate a plan that worked well for me.  I felt confident about my training and fitness going into Canada, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little hesitant and nervous going into it being self-coached.  This year was a big learning experience for me fully trusting myself and my training with little to no outside guidance.

I ran a 1:22 at Coeur d’Alene a month ago with hardly any taper, so I knew I was capable of a strong run.  I even told my family before the race — given there was no men’s pro field at this race, I was fully capable of one of the best run splits.  I needed a stand-out marathon to be a contender.

I never doubted myself.  Going into any Ironman, everyone needs their “why” when the going gets tough.  How will you deal with the mental and physical toll on your body at mile 20 of an Ironman marathon?  What will you tell yourself when your body and mind are screaming at you to walk and give in just a little bit?  Facing and overcoming this adversity late in Ironman has been a key to my success in past races.

I need a reason to suffer.  My reasons were very mixed at this race… part of me raced with anger from what happened last year; part of me raced with happiness knowing that I have a family now, a supporting wife, our dream home, and an amazing life; and part of me raced with no emotion at all, closing my eyes, smiling, and blocking out the severe anguish on my body.  You go through a whirlwind of emotions on race day.

Note- Just to make the storyline better, I calculated time gaps from my competitors throughout the marathon.

Beginning the Marathon: 7th AG

  • 1st – Foster (-33:01)
  • 2nd – Cooley (-22:34)
  • 3rd – Cezar (-20:12)
  • 4th – Gildenstern (-17:45)
  • 5th – Rose (-7:07)
  • 6th – Bowen (-:56)

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to look at the splits and time gaps in the tracking app, it’s incredible how far back I was–  33 minutes out of first place, 22 minutes back on 2nd, and 20 minutes from 3rd.  I saw Becca out of T2 and she told me I was in 7th, but thankfully did not mention the time deficits. 

Becca goes on these Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kicks before and after races.  I was playing this song on the morning bus ride to the lake.  I remember repeating the chorus to myself to keep myself entertained the first 5K.

I ran the first 5k very conservatively.   While I felt strong, I knew the real race started in the second half of the marathon.  My first mile, for example, was a 7:19 minute mile… slower than my average pace for the entire marathon.  I ran, sang, and enjoyed the scenery.

My run was back.  Floating on air. Confident. Smiling.

Knock, knock you about to get shell shocked.

Mile 5: 6th Place

  • 1st – Foster (-31:03)
  • 2nd – Cooley (-19:16)
  • 3rd – Cezar (-16:06)
  • 4th – Gildenstern (-11:38)
  • 5th – Rose (-7:00)
  • Passed Bowen

I started to gain confidence as I saw my competitors on the out-and-back section and knew I was running faster.  Though, they were still very far ahead. I knew I just needed to stay strong, let the race play out a bit, and continue to diligently follow my nutrition strategy to ensure I felt good in the late rounds.

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Mile 10.7: 5th Place

  • 1st – Foster (-24:09)
  • 2nd – Cooley (-11:26)
  • 3rd – Cezar (-7:35)
  • 4th – Rose (-1:15)
  • Passed Gildenstern

First update from Becca.  She told me I was 5th and closing down on 4th… running stronger than the entire field.  This gave me a boost in confidence as I burned a few matches in this segment.  I ran my fastest mile of the day (6:22) as I witnessed the time gaps plummeting.  By this point, I still felt strong and the time deficits were much more manageable (other than the leader).  I kept on truckin’.

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Mile 14.2: 5th Place

  • 1st – Foster (-22:44)
  • 2nd – Cooley (-6:02)
  • 3rd – Cezar (-4:33)
  • 4th – Rose (-0:08)

Beast mode.  This is when it really started to hurt.  I started taking in Coke around this time as I experienced my first “dark moments”.  How bad do I really want this?  My legs were getting a little heavy, I felt the first signs of fatigue and pain, and it took some additional effort to concentrate and re-focus.

Time to do what I do best… suffer, claw my way back into contention, and leave it all out on the race course. I continued running with a smile.

Mile 17.5: 3rd Place

  • 1st – Foster (-21:41)
  • 2nd – Cezar (-2:17)
  • Passed Rose and Cooley

The real race begins.  I knew I was in podium contention but I was suffering.  Unlike the 70.3 distance where I can pretty much run at threshold the entire time, Ironman introduces a completely foreign kind of pain. An emotional fatigue creeps up on you, over time, and weighs you down slowly. When you add this to a fatiguing body, the cocktail of pain is so horrible that it exposes any weakness in your character.

This is the moment in an Ironman that makes or breaks people.  You simply cannot train hard enough to beat this.  It requires a completely cerebral approach to conquer.  It’s incredibly easy to panic and give up… but I’ve learned to embrace this feeling.  I know that if I’m suffering my competitors are hurting just as bad.

Smile, I kept reminding myself.

Mile 20.3: 3rd Place

  • 1st – Foster (-21:14)
  • 2nd – Cezar (-0:20)

At this point, I was starting to go into lala land.  There are only a few times throughout the year I can get myself to this magical place… where everything hurts, I’m not thinking straight, and I’m just grinding through the misery.   I grabbed an entire liter of Coke at an aid station and poured it over my head to cool off.  I grunted in agony as I prayed for the pain to be over soon.

I closed my eyes for seconds at a time trying to block out the pain. True living.

Mile 23: 2nd Place

  • 1st – Foster (-21:48)
  • Cezar (+0:43)

I was dazed, confused, and delusional at this point, but this turned out to be a highlight of my day.   I saw Becca for the last time around mile 23.  She told me I needed to hold on as third place was just 43 seconds back. She ran next to me in her flip-flops yelling at me and encouraging me to never give up.  I was speechless, but she knew exactly what to say to provide that extra boost of energy.

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She screamed, “You are my inspiration!!!” as I made the turn to the finish line.  While it’s somewhat of an inside joke between us, I think this statement gave me that extra motivation to finish as strong as possible.

I managed to high-five Becca and Clare in the audience as I ran down the finishing chute, and then went completely lifeless upon crossing the finish line.

Mile 26.2: 2nd Place

Final Top 5 in M30-34

  • 1st – Foster (-21:56)
  • 2nd – EK
  • 3rd – Cezar (+2:22)
  • 4th – Bustillos (+3:24)
  • 5th – Rose (+6:08)

2nd age group, 8th overall amateur, and 2nd fastest run split of the day.

I don’t think I’ve ever pushed my body to that amount of discomfort and pain.  I got carted to medical where Becca and the medical staff brought me back to life.  When asked what my name was by medical staff, I replied, “Borat”.  Apparently I thought I was a comedian.

This wheelchair is NOT black.

This comes at the tail-end of my report, but I could not have done this feat (nor would have continued the sport over the years) without the love and support from my family.  Becca, Clare, Anne, and Derek (who also did Ironman) were all present on this trip and their company, support, and cheers made the final year at Ironman Whistler an unforgettable one.  It’s been special to share my journey with my family and friends throughout the years and it’s the reason I continue to torture myself.  In many ways it has brought our family closer, and it makes me especially happy inspiring the people closest to me to live healthier, active lifestyles.

Becca podiumed (yet again) and was 3rd overall female at the 70.3.  The impressive feat of the day goes to her– she kicked butt at her race, ran to T2 immediately after finishing to watch me start the run, and supported me the rest of the day.  She even carried me to the medical tent as I kept falling out of the wheelchair! #wonderwoman

IMG_4053Bad times make the good times better, said Jonny after his WTS win.  He couldn’t have said it any better.  While each Ironman experience is vastly different, this one may have been my sweetest and most hard-earned yet. I’ve experienced many highs and lows throughout the years and it’s these race experiences that make me keep coming back for more.

Grandma – Lobster Girl and Costco Hotdog Boy are coming back to Hawaii in October!

 

Thanks for all the messages and cheers.  It’s good to be back.

ek

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Categories: Race Report, Races, Training

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2 Comments on “Ironman Canada – Smile”

  1. Grandms
    August 8, 2019 at 4:18 pm #

    Excellent write up on your experience and feelings. Good job!!!! When we’re in kona, must buy you a hot dog at Costco. Sorry Becka, mo lobster.

    • August 9, 2019 at 8:26 am #

      Costco hotdogs everyday when we’re there!

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