After a year of anticipation, the 31st Ironman Canada came and went this past August 25. For those of you who may not have been as close to the history of the event, this year was the first time that mainland North America’s longest running Ironman race had been been held outside of Penticton, BC. The new venue, the western Canadian alpine village of Whistler, British Columbia.
After racing Ironman Canada in Penticton in 2011 my plan wasn’t to return to Ironman distance racing for at least a couple of years. I’d done my 226 km race and it was checked off in the books. In the meantime I’d switch down to 70.3 racing which I really love and can race more of. But after volunteering as a catcher in 2012, and upon learning that Whistler would be the new venue, I couldn’t resist, and Ironman once again beckoned. As soon as the date was announced, I booked my accommodations, and as soon as registration opened, I signed up.
So here is the race report. I won’t compare the two courses much in this post unless it fits the context, I’ll just focus on this Ironman Canada, and compare the two in a later post.
Maybe grab a coffee and go for a bathroom break, because this is going to be long…
I drove out to Whistler from Calgary on the Tuesday before the race. It had been my plan to get out to the area a little earlier to recon the new course, but as fate would have it, with the floods in Calgary in late July I just couldn’t get away from home to make the trip out. From Calgary its about an 11 hour drive if you take the 99 rather than passing through Vancouver, and I have to say the last couple hours through Lillouet are some of the most scenic roads you’ll ever encounter, as long as you can stomach the winding roads.
Arriving in Whistler it was easy to see that the town had already embraced the race. Banners and signage were up for the race, and the 2700 Ironman athletes were beginning to make their way into town. That being said, the town of Whistler is no one trick pony, besides boasting one of North America’s largest ski resorts, its also a great summer destination for mountain bikers and has a vast and truly awesome landscape built for downhill and XC riding.
I managed to rent a house that in the winter would be a ski out on the lower slopes of Whistler mountain. A big plus for Ironman moving out of Penticton and heading over to Whistler is that Whistler is a true tourist town. The accommodations inventory is far superior to that of Penticton and while the town only has a residential population of about 10,000, it accommodates closer to 30,000 during the peak of the ski season. So accommodations for the most part were better, and cheaper as you’d have your choice of anything from a small B&B, to an OwnerDirect or VRBO rental, to a Hilton, Four Seasons, or whatever else you choose.
You could immediately tell that Whistler definitely had a resort feel, versus Challenge Penticton’s small town, family feel. I said this before in a post comparing the two races, I’m not saying that one is better than the other, they’re just different.
As far as race swag goes, we got a pretty sweet Ironman Canada backpack, a voucher for a local restaurant on athlete briefing day, some coupons for local attractions which were pretty decent, and some Oakley coupons, which I also thought were pretty good.
The swim course is a two lap, counter-clockwise course in a decent size alpine lake. The water temperature was surprisingly warm at about 19C on race day. With air temperatures closer to around 9C, it actually make getting into the water feel like getting into a lukewarm bathtub. Always a plus.
As far as scenery goes, this was top notch and in my race experience second only to Two Jack Lake where the Subaru Banff Triathlon swim is held.
The swim was a rolling start so athletes had the opportunity to swim out to the far end start line about 100m from shore, or start with their feet in the water on the closer end of the start line. The swim itself was pretty much what you’d expect from a rolling 2700 person start, crowded and with some random folks deciding to switch to breast stroke, backstroke, or treading water, but for the most part organized and familiar for any triathlete with a race or two under their belt. No chop or waves, and buoys were 5 foot buoys every 100m, and 8 foot buoys on the turns, and small 2 foot buoys marked the start line and were removed after the start.
My only gripe was that there was a short period between turns two and three, on the second lap, that athletes were swimming directly into the sun. At this point I couldn’t even see the buoy until it was literally a few feet in front of my face. Judging by the other swimmers I think this may have caused some athletes to cut, or almost cut the course. Next year however the race will be a month earlier which should mean the sun won’t be so low in the sky at race start, and this shouldn’t be an issue.
My swim went pretty well. I’m not the strongest swimmer and having only put a half dozen swims under my belt the entire months of July and August didn’t really seem to help. That being said, all but one of those half dozen swims were in open water at Lake Mackenzie, the Calgary 70.3 swim venue, and either 2km, or 4km. Getting a 4km swim in two weeks before the race was a huge confidence booster for me and really put me at ease going into this race.
I exited the water at 1:22:39, 1329th overall, so smack dab in the middle of the bell curve which I was happy with. That’s about 6 minutes faster than my first Ironman Canada swim time.
Not a lot to report here, swim exit was organized with a good number of strippers to help get things off (no pun intended… okay, pun intended). I did end up running right past my Swim-Bike bag, totally my fault for not doing a better pre race run through transition the day before. But of course the awesome volunteers were there to save my ass and grab my bag. Also hit the restroom before going to the bike.
Time ended up 6:06 for the Swim to Bike transition.
For a much more in depth post about the bike course, visit my other post here.
So, when I first blogged about the comparison between these two courses, I was going on data that suggested that the two courses were roughly comparable in terms of total ascent. I figured this course would be tougher though because it had an uphill from 150km into T2, rather than a big downhill like in Penticton. I was wrong.
Early riders recon’d the course and reckoned the total elevation to be closer to about 6000ft rather than the Ironman quoted 4200 feet. They were right.
The bike course begins with a ride out of the Alta Lake community and south on the Sea to Sky Highway out to Callaghan Valley Road. In this case “valley” doesn’t mean you ride into a valley. It means you make a 410m ascent up to the highest point in the race. The total climb is about 12.9km with an average grade of 2.8%. Knowing that the course was just showing us a little of what she could do and that the toughest part of the course was still hours away, I kept my pace conservative and relaxed and let others pass me. On this section I stuck to around 190 watts which got me up the ascent in less than 40 minutes, averaging about 20kph. Coming back down, the speed was closer to 50kph.
After the Callaghan climb you ride back through Whistler and north towards Pemberton. Coming through Whistler was like riding through an alpine town at the foot of a challenging climb in the Tour de France. The crowds were tremendous and made up of both locals and the families and friends of athletes. The whole section from Callaghan to Whistler is pretty flat and pretty straightforward. Roads weren’t closed by athletes had a lane right down the middle of the road which was wide enough that you definitely felt safe and comfortable.
Past Whistler, once the Sea to Sky Highway turned into the 99, athletes had the entire road to themselves. I’ll say that again, BC Transportation allowed the full closure of a numbered highway giving athletes exclusive rights to a huge stretch of road for the entire race. Impressive, most impressive.
Whistler to Pemberton is a descent, one long, 25km descent, punctuated by just the odd abrupt climb, one of which was actually the steepest ascent of the entire course at maybe around 13%. It’s great, you make up tonnes of time on this section, but you know that what goes down must come back up. What seemed like a while to ultimately descend would most certainly be an eternity to climb back up. So… you had that to look forward to.
After Pemberton on the way out is a long flat out and back section where you ought to be able to make up plenty of time. Pavement was decent here, but probably the least looked after on the entire course. My big issue with this section was that the long flat allowed people to form draft packs. This was pretty frustrating to see as course ref Jimmy Riccitello had stressed to no end that they would be strictly enforcing drafting rules. Nope, none. I’m a pretty weak swimmer, but a pretty solid cyclist. The benefit of that is that I see and pass a lot of people out on the bike course and I was bridging from one small peloton to the next and seeing that many of the riders had no inclination whatsoever towards breaking up. Groups ranged from 3 or 4, to probably as large as 10-15 and these guys knew exactly what they were doing. It was pretty clear that these weren’t just clumps of age groupers who couldn’t separate on a steep climb, they were solid sub 5:30 guys who knew how to ride. But you know what, I race my race, they race their race. If I had bothered to settle in with a draft pack I would have given up time and not moved up the field as far as I did.
I should mention here that I got my second wasp sting of the bikeride here. I don’t know what it is, but they loved me last week. Both times the wasps flew into my jersey by the neck, got caught in there, got stressed out, and stung me. Poor little dudes, my instant reaction both times was to grab the shirt where I felt the sting, and crush whatever it was as hard as I could.
So, you hit the end of the out and back, turn around, and get ready for the climb. The total out and back distance is 50km, so a good distance and a good time to refuel, and prepare yourself for the next section. At this point in the ride I also had the pleasant opportunity of exchanging a few kind words with a blog reader named Liam. Liam, if you’re reading this, once again, it was a pleasure and I hope you were able to make your dinner plans.
The Pemberton to Whistler climb starts around 145km. Having read the many forum and blog posts from riders who’d recon’d the course, I’d prepared myself for the strong wind out of the south that would be a headwind into an already gnarly climb. Luckily, the weather decided she’d cut us a break that day and it was a relatively calm day.
Back to the climb though. Rather than one long consistent climb the ascent was a series of undulating grades varying from 3% to 7%. From Pemberton to the transition in Whistler the elevation gain is 710m over about 32km, an average 1.4% grade.
As with any Ironman, for the most part the other athletes tempered their efforts and by this point in the race most the athletes were patiently making the ascent, fully conscious of the marathon waiting on the other side of transition. Throughout the bike course it was pretty clear that one of the most valuable tools for this kind of a ride is a powermeter. Over the last 30km I was able to stick to about 180watts, just as I’d planned.
In the end, I couldn’t have executed the ride any better. Going into the race I’d figured out my target power based on triathlon guru Joe Friel’s guidelines. Target power was 68% of ftp and I was spot on with my target, managed to keep my HR in the low 150’s, and never exceeded my threshold power for more than a minute or two at a time. I took in one strawberry powerbar gel every 20-30 minutes, and drank a sip of strawberry HEED whenever thirsty. By the end of the ride I’d gone through about 3 and a half bottles of fluid, with the lower temperatures and overcast skies I was careful to not over-hydrate.
Bike course time was 5:50:19, average power 178watts, average heart rate 152bpm, cadence 88, and speed just over 30kph. The recorded distance on my Garmin was 175.7km though that was a little short as I’d had some problems getting my Garmin Edge 500 going (bike time on my Garmin was closer to 5:47). My position getting off the bike was 662nd.
Bike course data;
Again, transition went pretty smooth. The entry into transition was lined with crowds and supporters, the volunteers were there to grab and rack your bike, and guide you to your transition bag. In and out just under 3 minutes.
The run is another two loop course through Whistler’s beautiful surrounding areas. Runners start out in the village and run along paved and unpaved trails through the forest, and through some open areas along the lake and highway. The natural beauty of the area is more than enough to take your mind off the hurt in your legs.
The course was well marked with mile markers through the course. Aid stations usually came shortly after mile markers and were well stocked and staffed with helpful and supportive volunteers. Even the local wildlife came out to support the athletes along the way.
In all seriousness though, one of the messages that the bike and run course captains stressed at the athlete briefing was to not litter or leave food on the course, simply because we are in fact guests in nature’s yard.
Early in the run I was feeling good overall but still very much like I’d ridden 180km. My legs were slightly fatigued, and I could feel the calories in fluid in my stomach trying to settle along the run.
Throughout the run I was very aware of where my stomach was at. At times I was backing off my pace to lower my heart rate and allow me to digest more calories. When I felt good I’d up the pace a bit and take advantage of the moment to push a little harder. A marathon is a funny thing, just like any experience in life it has ups and it has downs. Sometimes you feel good, and sometimes you feel bad. So when things felt good I made sure to take advantage of that and push a little harder, keenly aware that there would still be some tough moments in the marathon.
Another little life lesson that came into perspective on the marathon was that we can only control whats happening in that single moment. About 5km into the run my left knee started bothering me. It was nothing new and something that I knew any other day I wouldn’t have issues dealing with, but that day wouldn’t be the ideal day to have to deal with a tight IT band. In the days leading up to the race I could feel that slight pull but did my best to ignore it. Eventually I figured my knee would just loosen up and get better as the run went on, or tighten up and slow me to a walk. Either way, I was getting to the finish line so in that moment I may as well just keep calm and carry on running.
Into my second lap I had the pleasure of meeting another friend I’d spoken to on Twitter. John and I exchanged pleasantries for a couple hundred meters, then kept running. If you’re on twitter be sure to give him a follow.
My plan through the marathon was to break it down into miles between aid stations. This strategy worked well for me at ITU Worlds last year. A marathon is a pretty daunting thing if you think of it as one continuous 26 mile run. But break it down into a series 9 or 10 minute runs with a brief walking break at every aid station, and suddenly its actually a pretty reasonable undertaking. So with the exception of the very last aid station, I took advantage of the aid stations to walk and get calories in. The walking breaks provide a great neuromuscular break and there’s actually a fairly solid sport science basis for this strategy.
In the end, the run had a few more hills than I had anticipated as well. It wasn’t an exceptionally challenging run course, but it certainly wasn’t any easy one. I managed to run a 3:59 marathon, a PB for me, though this was only my second marathon (the first one was at Ironman Canada, the first time). Average heart rate in the low 160’s. Finishing the marathon I had moved up to 474th place overall.
Here are the technical deets on the run course.
The halfway point of the run through Whistler was lined with crowds and spectators. Coming into the second loop towards the finish the spectators were welcoming and urging athletes to the finish line. The finishing chute to Ironman was every bit as sweet as I remembered it at Ironman Canada in Penticton. I crossed the finish line at 11:21:10.
Families and friends are welcome in the finish area in the Whistler Olympic Plaza which served as the expo area for the race. I’m not sure how Challenge Penticton is set up these days, but this was a welcome change from Ironman Canada in Penticton where a small finish area was somewhat separate from the friends and family greeting area.
I’ve got to say, I was amazed at how into the race the locals in Whistler got. Following the race I went into the village to grab a well deserved beer with my brother and friends who’d came out to watch and support. Walking through the village each athlete guiding their bike back to the hotel, or draped in a reflective thermal jacket, would be greeted with a roar of cheers and applause from locals and tourists sitting on patios and enjoying a couple rounds. I spoke with one of the locals on the patio later on and was sure to thank them for their hospitality, and I was happy to hear that they were just as stoked to play host to us.
We stuck around right until midnight when the last few finishers came in. I was tired, but glad I stuck around. I’ve got nothing but respect for those racers who come in at those late hours, walking through the dark, alone and cold takes a different type of grit and mental fortitude than a lot of people, even fellow Ironmen have. The cheers and applause they received were well deserved.
I had an amazing time in Whistler and am grateful to the people of Whistler, the scores of volunteers, and the amazing spectators of Ironman Canada. And a big congrats goes out to all of my fellow athletes!