Ironman Canada, Penticton, August 24 2003

Ironman Canada is a legendary race. An Ironman triathlon consists of three back-to-back events: a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile run, then a 26.1 mile run (a full marathon). The very best in the world take just over 8 hours to do it, and the course officially closes after 17 hours. There are many Ironman races held worldwide each year. Each one is special in some way; Ironman Canada is so because of the beautiful town it is hosted in (Penticton), the overwhelming support of the people who live there, and the enthusiasm and collegiality of the athletes that come to race.

Penticton is in the heart of the Okanagan valley, a section in the interior of British Columbia that has a summer climate more like southern California than Canada. This particular summer, there was even less rainfall than normal, and BC was experiencing an unprecedented string of forest fires.

My friend Yvonne managed to get me a spot in this year's race. Normally, people that compete in Ironman Canada need to qualify to do so in some other race. However, people competing in the race can sign themselves and a few friends up in the next year's race. Yvonne has done somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen of these races, and signed me up for this one.

The race happens on a Sunday; I drove up to Penticton on the Thursday beforehand, to get myself settled in and check out the course a little. Driving up, I phone Yvonne (who showed up the day before) to find out what was going on. She broke the news about the forest fires to me: a major one was spreading in the Okanagan valley, about 30 kilometers north of Penticton and dangerously close to the city of Kelowna, up the lake from where we would be racing. The fire was large enough that the air in Penticton was apparently laden with smoke.

Pulling into Penticton that evening, I saw a horrible-looking, giant cloud of smoke on the horizon, faintly reflecting orange at its bottom. The cloud was menacing: the rest of the sky was clear, except for this giant, boiling mushroom cloud, coming from the fires.

For the next couple of days leading up to the race, circumstances worsened. The fire north of us crested the ridge next to Kelowna, and worked its way down into the city itself. Thirty thousand people were evacuated, more than three hundred homes were lost, but unbelievably, there were no injuries. Another forest fire was growing to the east of us, and the day before the race, a third forest fire broke out in the region that the Ironman cycling course was supposed to go through. The provincial newspaper had the headline "IT'S IN GOD'S HANDS".

Yvonne and I frittered away the two days leading up to the race by buying some last minute equipment (I needed a real bike jersey, and bought a pretty nice sleeveless one) and going for a practice ride along the lakeshore, and so on. Yvonne introduced me to her racing buddies. These were really good people, and unbelievably strong. One guy was telling me about some of the races he's done, including the only one he's never finished: the badlands, which is an ultradistance multiday "run" through death valley. Ironman sounded a little more manageable after that.
The night before the race, the organizer told us that the race was going to happen. Pieces of the race were being rerouted, and we were on. Circumstances had threated to rescue me from the race, but now I had about twelve hours to go before my long day.

My strategy for completing Ironman was to do the race at my own pace, and do it more like an adventure race than a triathlon. In other words, I wasn't going to worry about counting calories, going at a redline pace, or looking good. Instead, I was going to focus on keeping the food pipeline full for the whole day to avoid bonking, taking care of my feet and preventing exposure, and mixing walking and running in the last leg. My biggest physiological weakness has always been my knees, and I knew that if I actually tried to run the whole marathon, especially on tired legs from the ride, I'd blow up.

That night, some rain spinkled down on the Okanagan valley, and we all woke up to a beautiful, smoke-free day. We were off! The race began with a mass start; all 2,000 athletes began in one wave. The swim consisted of two loops around a pair of boats, about half a mile apart from each other. The water was warm, but we were all in wetsuits for the buoyancy advantage. The lake started off very shallow; it took about 100 yards of wading before it was deep enough to really swim. I was freaking out, with the enormity of the day ahead making me want to quit 10 minutes into it. But, I settled down, meandered to the edge of the pack to avoid feet and fists, and managed to pull down a respectable 1:10 swim time.

The next leg of the race was the 112 mile bike ride. On any day, 112 miles is tough, especially if you plan to do it without any rest stops along the way. Fortunately, the race was incredibly well supported. Every 10 miles or so, there was a support station with volunteers handing out cookies, bananas, gatorade, and water. It was still a tough haul, especially over the mountain pass at mile 50. But, about seven and a half hours later, I rolled into the transition area by the lakeshore.

Now on to the diciest part of the race: the marathon. What I ended up deciding the last night is that I would "powerwalk" at 4 mile-per-hour pace (running is typically 6-9 miles per hour over a marathon distance) for as long as it took to make me comfortable running. If I did the entire marathon at that pace, I'd be out for about 7 hours, putting me in at about 16 hours 30 minutes for the whole race. The plan worked: I power-walked the first 10 miles. I felt a little funny doing it, and was being passed like mad, ending up pretty far back in the pack, but I knew this was the right thing to do to finish my first Ironman. Around mile 13, I started alternating a mile running and a mile walking, and I ended up running the last few miles of the marathon straight. All in all, the marathon took me a little over six hours.

I finished! It ended up being a 15 hour, 26 minute, and 20 second long day, well under the cutoff time. Yvonne was there to meet me at the finish; she had finished a few hours earlier! (She's an amazingly strong athlete.) After hobbling around for a while, picking up my gear, we wandered back to the hotel, and went into our respective rooms to get some deserved sleep.

The next morning, Yvonne and I met to go sign up for Ironman Canada 2004. I can't wait. My goal: to come in under 13:30. Maybe I'll actually have to run the whole marathon. :)