Ironman Canada 70.3 Race Report
There is a ride down here in Southern California that was once advertised to me as a “rip roaring descent” and to “get ready to light your hair on fire.” In a nutshell, that did NOT sell it for me. At least, it wasn’t a selling point back then. I feel changed after Ironman Canada 70.3. A really really good change. Like a wiggly little caterpillar transformed into a beautiful yet still wiggly butterfly. That can shoot lightening out of its antenna.
I signed up for IM Canada Whistler 70.3 about five months ahead of time. I knew NOTHING about this race except for the fact that I thought the live stream of it last year (2017) made the lake look like a dreamy place to be. And I’m a sucker for beautiful destinations. So I clicked the button. I soon after found out my really good friends had signed up for the full, totally unplanned as well. A perfect set up: plenty of time to train for a gorgeous summer destination race with the company and support of great pals. It’s all like a glittery shiny memory floating in the back of my mind that lives there untouched. And then one day not too long after, I saw the course elevation charts......oops!!!
Remember how I mentioned that ride in socal? The light your hair on fire kind? Well......Whistler became that image for me. Sorry to curse, but I f***ing panicked. What soon followed may go down in history as the most anxious hill training ever attempted in triathlon. All I thought about was how steep can I make descent training before I pass out. Oh yeah, and then I got a new bike. Like learning to walk again. Each week I’d ride hills, my ultimate goal was fearless and FAST descending. Not to brag, but climbing on the bike is my speciality. Like the little engine that could. I just had to get down the mountain.
So fast forward to the day before the race. I had overcome so many obstacles to get to this moment. Packing and shipping bikes, border crossings, last minute lodging snafus, extreme heat, extreme exhaustion, all the tireless preparation for this bike course. As I was driving up one of the steep climbs called Callaghan road, it dawned on me: I knew pretty much NOTHING about the swim and run courses. As a coach, let me advise you to not do what I did. Always know your courses. At least know what to expect! I knew I’d be fine because I’m part mermaid and part cheetah. (How’s that for a Halloween costume)? But my whole race was riding on those descents, pun intended.
PRE RACE CHECK IN
IM Canada (both the full and half distances) have separate transition areas for T1 and T2. They require bike check in the day before the race (Saturday), as well as mandatory gear bag check ins for T1 and T2 (they provide the bags and you fill them with your helmet, cycling shoes, run shoes, socks, hats, etc). Packet pick up was offered for 70.3 athletes both Friday and Saturday during designated times (possibly also Thursday but I’m too lazy to go check lol). The full distance athletes however were required to pick up their packets on FRIDAY. Saturday wasn’t an option. Why? Could be because it was too overwhelming to be checking in that many people on one day. There is speculation that it’s a way for Ironman brand to ensure the town of Whistler one extra day of lodging and merriment being paid for in the village. My friends found it extremely obnoxious because it required an all day trip into Whistler when they could have been putzing around Vancouver with me and another friend. If you choose to stay in Whistler village the entire weekend, it would have been much less frustrating.
As a side note: the heat temps that weekend reached into the low 90s F. It was exhausting to walk and ride around the area dropping off things, surveying the course, etc. T1 was at the edge of Alta Lake (your swim venue), about a 2 mile walk or ride from the main village (location of T2). The only way to get your bike there to drop it off was either to ride it (which we chose to do) or to wait in line for shuttles that the race provided (between certain hours). Riding or walking anywhere in the area is super exciting because there are bears EVERYWHERE. Bear sightings every day, multiple times a day. Nothing to be scared about, as long as you aren’t covered in raw meat or threatening them in some way. Because of this, you were NOT permitted to store any race day nutrition on your bike or in your gear bags. All of that needed to be brought with you the morning of. It makes me giggle to think of the bears being hopped up on Gu and Honey Stinger waffles LOL!!!
Because I had seen (what I thought) would be the most difficult part of the bike course (Callaghan Rd), I woke up race day morning feeling resigned to the fact that I was going to be careful and just take it one revolution at a time. Callaghan has multiple sections of 10% grade, which I will address later in this report. Additionally, the 70.3 athletes had to take it from bottom to top (a very significant length of consistent climbing). The 140.6 athletes got to turn around closer to the bottom, after only about two 10% climbs. Their course took them up this road THREE times (it was a 3 loop course).
The alarm went off, I grabbed by race nutrition/wetsuit/morning clothes bag, threw on my trisuit, and forced down a banana and a cliff bar. Traditionally I have always eaten one piece of whole wheat toast with peanut butter and a banana. But I just didn’t feel like buying a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter and have it go to waste (I wasn’t going to fly it home with me). I also try to drink a bottle of water with electrolytes in the morning. This year I delighted in sipping on some local iced coffee. My friends doing the full were also feeling the full weight of a daunting day, so our walk to the shuttles at T2 was mostly quiet and pensive.
The 70.3 athletes wave start was 7:20AM but the 140.6 athletes had a 6AM start. Therefore, I was on the shuttles SUPER early to accompany my friends. We were butts in the bus seats at 4:30AM. The bus took us directly to Alta Lake. At approx 4:50AM we were already setting up our nutrition in bags and on the bike. I was fully prepared, body marked, and finished with the bathroom by 5:45AM. At that time I just watched and waited for my friends to line up in the swim chute. The full distance swim line up was an absolute cluster f***. Ironman Canada is a rolling swim start. This means you line up according to your projected swim finish time. But the space for all those athletes was just too cramped. And I’m sure people self seated themselves incorrectly to get the advantage of being in the lake earlier (cut off times for this race were a little brutal). Once the gun went off and they began releasing people single file, it got a little easier to stand in line. All 1200+ full distance athletes were in the water by 6:30 or so.
I walked around, stretched, chatted with “you are Katie from Instagram” friends, and finally found my way into the lake for a little warm up. I was shocked how few of the athletes used their swim warm up time. I am so calmed by my swim warm up. Water is my friend. And the swim is the easy part for me. After that, into the chute I went. I caught myself smiling. It’s crazy how all the stress and anxiety just melts off of me when I know it’s game time. I was ready for whatever happened. And I was finally having fun!! I high fived the race director Christine and into the lake I went.
The swim course is super straight forward. It’s a lake. You swim around a rectangle of buoys. If you are 70.3, you swim one lap. If you are 140.6 you swim two. Objectives: don’t get kicked, don’t kick others, and swim fast. I was sad to leave the lake. But duty called....
I am not going to linger here because this bike course is not the beast I made it out to be in my mind. There are a few main roads you should know about: Hwy 99 “Sea to Sky Highway,” Callaghan, and Alta Lake Rd. Each has its own quirks and challenges. Full and half distance athletes had to tackle all three, but the 70.3 cyclists got to taste the full flavor of Callaghan. We took it all the way to the top, where the Olympic ski lifts were. About a 7 mile climb with multiple 10% grade stretches. It is a burner. But by golly it was the most beautiful road I’ve ever biked up and I would do it over and over and over and over again if I could. And the descents!!!! SO FUN!!! They are mostly straightaways. Only three spots where you needed to break or at least sit up and exercise some caution: 1) a 180 degree turn towards the top (you see it coming, plenty of time to slow down), 2) the lower half is where the full distance athletes turn around but the half distances athletes keep ascending/descending. Again, you see it coming, freaking slow down and be a decent human being. 3) The turn off from the descent back onto Hwy 99, it’s a big turn and you are coming off of a 10% grade. See it coming, slow down, look ahead, turn. Voila! You aren’t a cycling douche bag.
Hwy 99 is wide, mostly blocked off from cars, and sloping. Get into aero and let it rip. I got up to 45 mph here because the descents (although less, only 7%) last longer than the descents on Callaghan. Parts of the course cross the divets and rumble strips, so you do have to pay attention so you don’t get a flat or go flying over your handle bars. It is ALL downhill to Callaghan and ALL uphill back. The uphill freaking sucks. You are burnt out from the 7 mile climb, and these climbs are less beautiful. Full distance athletes have to do this THREE TIMES. RIP lol.
Alta Lake Rd. The biggest MF of the whole race. Everything about this road is the worst. It is at the end of your climbing (or the end of your loops if you are a full distance athlete). Therefore it is hot already. The road is narrow, lots of potholes and little icky parts of the pavement, and you always have those athletes in Ironman races who think they DESERVE to descend past you at some ungodly speed, on a turn, screaming PASS PASS MOVE OVER GOD DAMN IT. This actually caused A LOT of accidents on this road. I saw these blowhards coming way ahead of time, and moved over well in advance. I feel sorry for those who weren’t so lucky. I saw a guy with the entire backside of his trisuit SHREDDED and bleeding, still pumping away. He must have taken a bad fall and got right back up to finish the race. Woah. There are about 2-3 big climbs on this road. They suck, a lot. But if you can get past this part of the race, you are a superhero and you are almost ready for the run!
Holy ice in my sports bra. I began the half marathon in 93F heat. THANK GOD a portion of this run is covered. And just gorgeous. Emerald lakes. Sea planes landing. Dark green forrests with soft footing. Bridges. Rushing rivers. And a whole town of volunteers and extremely supportive staff. There was ice at every aid station and many opportunities to get soaked with water. A man in a gorilla suit gave me some sponges in ice water as I ran past. Another man played “Pump It Real Good” and danced as I ran past. Plenty of gels, snacks, water, soda, and fruit on this course. I had everything I needed at the aid stations. If you can just get your mind into the “get it done” or maybe even the “I love running yippee” mindset, this run course is one to see. Since part of it is off-road trail, you do have to climb a little. But who doesn’t love a little climbing after your climbing right?
Helpful tips here: bring trail shoes so you can bomb down the hills! Thank you ultra running for preparing me.
Take the ice if it is hot. TAKE THE ICE. You absolutely need to keep your core body temp down or you will end up in the med tent like so many of the DNF’s at this race. Shoot, even the people who finished ended up in the med tent!
Ask me about the kids with the river water, I’ll make you laugh.
If you go soda, stay soda. I heard that tip from a coach while I was getting my USAT cert. He said to keep away from the coke/pepsi on course as long as you can, but once you start, keep going with it. I needed it IMMEDIATELY. So I drank a little swig at almost every aid station and it helped me a lot. I am known to drink orange soda on trail runs. It gives me wings.
I finished this race ELATED. It is such an accomplishment and honor to even attempt it. The beauty of it all will stay with me for a long time. So, should you do this race? YES. I was the biggest baby in all the land about cycling those hills, and I come through the other end in one piece and loving it. It is HARD. This is not a race for someone who doesn’t want to use every ounce of their soul to finish it. But that describes most triathletes. We like the pain. And we like the medals.