Friday, July 17, 2009

The A Race

I can’t believe how nervous I was on race morning. I didn’t think I was, I had driven down from Penticton alone in the car, quiet, enjoying my coffee and the calm of early mornings. I had done some visualization, a preparation strategy used by many and something I have learned to incorporate into every race. I was confident and really excited. I set up transition exactly as I had pictured it, I hadn’t forgotten anything and I had everything systematically laid out just as I needed it. It wasn’t until 10 min before the race that I started to feel the nerves - I was only slightly behind schedule thanks to the predictably long lines at the port-o-potties and I struggled to put on my wetsuit as I had already started to sweat in the heat of the 630am sun. It was going to be a hot day. After a short warm up, I was on the beach with a few other team members who were there to support and to race – each of whom brought some calm through cracking the usual jokes and offering the reassurance that I was prepared and going to have a great day. I'm not sure exactly what was going through my head at this point, to be honest it was a bit of a blur, but I do remember feeling sick and actually shaking with anticipation. I think this was the first time that the distance of the Half Ironman actually dawned on me. Up until this point, I looked at each of the three legs as individual units – today – I was going to string them together in one long, demanding test of endurance that will challenge my physical readiness and my will to complete one of the hardest courses in Canada.

Swim: Mass starts can be daunting. Should to shoulder, pressed back to front standing on the beach, the gun goes off and 111 women race into the water. Luckily, and I’m not sure why, but I am not bothered by the washing machine experience of these types of starts. It’s a turbulent mess of arms and legs. People ramming into you from either side, white water splashing and the unfortunate, but inevitable case of someone swimming right over top of you. Some how, I’ve managed to stay calm and just seem to keep going until the field spreads out and the chaos subsides. It usually only takes 2-300 meters. By then I’ve found a good set of feet to draft off and I’ve settled into a mantra that keeps me evenly paced and clear headed through the 2000M swim. Left arm, right arm, left arm, right arm, left arm, right arm….. Simple. Effective. Before I knew it, I was coming out of the water from my first lap, running around the beach buoy and diving back into the water for lap two on pace and feeling good. I swam pretty well and looking back I think I could have gone a bit quicker – I amped it up for the last 500M bringing it in strong. I wanted to swim in 40min or less – I ended up doing a 41:29. A lesson in pacing mostly, I really could have done a sub 40.

Something fun about this swim – they had wetsuit strippers! If you’ve read any of my past post-race blogs, you might remember that I have a particularly difficult time getting out of my wetsuit after the swim. This is because I have a serious case of noodle legs and between the adrenaline and the seasickness (yes – swimming in choppy water where I’m raising up and down with the waves actually makes me seasick) getting out of a skin tight rubber suit can prove to be a challenge all on its own. Not this time. I see the guy just outside transition waving me in like an air traffic controller directing a 747. With two hands rhythmically pointing to me then to the ground in front of him, I (ever so gracefully I’m sure) come in, lie down on my back, legs out and SWOOSH! With one rip he flings my wetsuit off and I’m back on my feet running into transition. Su-weet!

Bike: As I’m running out of transition, fumbling with my bike computer (something I should have done pre-race) I encounter another race ‘perk’ – sunscreen applicators! A few ladies standing on the directional turf out to the bike course shout as I approach “do you want sunscreen?” of course, my answer is “yes!” and in an instant, there are three women (6 hands!) rubbing my arms, back and legs with 30SPF. Nice! And just like that, I was out on the bike course.

Super stoked on my swim and my ‘catered to’ experience in T1 (first transition) I was smiling and feeling good about the being on the bike. Coincidentally I ran into Stan, one of the experienced members of our Tri-Club who was out riding the course as a bandit (he wasn’t registered in the race but out riding the course – is this technically illegal? – no… but not exactly something that’s encouraged). All smiles, and full of support Stan rode behind me all the way up Richter Pass. The climb up came and went with ease, something I feel like I owe to my training rides the week earlier. The rollers on the backside also came and went without much effort. I was riding well, felt great and on pace. It was just before the half way aid station that I caught up to and started to pass a few people, a confidence builder for sure. Despite having just caught a few, I stuck with my race plan and at the aid station stopped to refuel, pit stop (use the port-o-potty) and eat once I got back on the bike. In doing so, I felt 100% turning around, and catching a welcomed tailwind heading back on the only flat portion of the course.

Of course, knowing that this is not an easy course by any means, my ride wasn’t all smooth sailing. I climbed up and over the rollers heading back, each one starting to get a little harder than the last, and although I had caught up to a few people and passed them, I was also pulling a small pack of four or five. This is not a draft legal race, and while they probably weren’t close enough to be getting any huge physical advantage from my draft they were close enough to gain a mental edge. When you’re in front of the pack, you feel a little like a rabbit being chased. You’re not quite sure who’s behind you, how close they are, how they look (if they’re strong or struggling) it’s a bit of a guessing game that can distract you from your race. When your behind, it’s easier to relax, focus on the pace the leader is setting and stay cool. You can see if they are getting tired, watch where they are fading and use the fact that you’ve caught them as motivation to over take them. When that happens, not only does it boost your confidence, it deflates the person that you’ve passed. So, as the final roller approached, and it’s a big one, it took it’s toll on me and I really struggled up it. I lost my rhythm and got passed by 3 on the climb. It was a bit of a downer and it’s where I started to hurt a little. At this point too, my back was really starting to hurt and I knew that the tough part of the racing was starting.

I had been racing for over three hours, two and a half of them on the bike in the 35 degree desert heat. I had just been passed by three on a tough climb and another one was gaining ground closely behind. Up ahead – I still had to climb the back side of Richter Pass. I tried to stay relaxed, but the straining pain in my back made it almost impossible to do. More pain = more tension = less energy = slowing down = getting passed by one more person = another blow to the confidence. At the bottom of Richter Pass, I could see all the way to the top, and half way there already was the pack of 4 I had pulled through the last 20km’s. It was a long and lonely climb watching them get further and further away. By the time I reached the top, they were long gone, however, so was my “Debbie Downer” mood (thanks to a shot of sugar/electrolytes) and I celebrated another successful win in the “Sarah vs Richter Pass” climbing series. I had a huge smile on my face and decided that it was about time I got off this damn bike. Maxing out at 71km/h I raced down Richter and caught two of my ungrateful-clinger-ons. I was in great spirits as I finished up my ride in 3:38h.

Run: Once in transition, the first thing I did was take a 2 Litre jug of water that I had prepared and poured it over my head and down my back. The heat is a serious factor in the desert and the dousing in water was a tip handed to me by someone who raced last year. On the bike, your core temperature can rise without much notice since the wind (especially after just flying down the pass) can keep your surface temp slightly cooler. However, about 1km into the run, the still, scorching heat can hit you like a truck and by then, it’s too late and your reliant on aid stations. Definitely glad I took the advice, as I left to start my half marathon in good spirits and in pretty decent shape physically. Because of the heat, the run was definitely a matter of running aid station to aid station, I used my heart rate monitor to stay on pace, but I don’t think it would have mattered – I had only one speed this day and going too fast was not going to be an issue.

Soaked sponges, salt tablets, crushed ice, water, water and more water I ran through the first 15km’s comfortable and happy. I was with a few people I rode the bike with and even caught a few others. Because it was a two loop course, I saw lots of smiling familiar faces coming and going on various parts of the course. Lots of support and lots of encouragement.

With about 6km to go – the real race began. The body does strange, strange things when you push your limits. I first knew things were starting to go downhill when stopping to walk through the aid stations hurt worse then continuing to run. The change in muscle requirements starts to become painfully obvious. You start to have limited ability in what your body will offer and you have to choose – will it be the constant motion of running (looking straight ahead, arms systematically swinging back and forth, and the unchanging rhythm of your legs) or will it be the new muscles called on to walk, the energy required in saying "water" to aid station volunteers, grabbing food, chew ice etc. because it’s getting harder and harder to do both. Knowing that passing up water/sponges at aid stations is not an option, I go from “hero to zero” pretty damn quick. I’m 6km to finish and the tank is no longer running on fumes – it’s empty, and no amount of crushed ice is going to refuel it. I ran with a girl (that I passed coming down Richter) until about 3km to the end. Then my race was over – I was cross eyed, my ears were ringing, I had stopped sweating (bad news) and I knew that getting across that finish line was the only important thing. Slowly, the girl I had competed against, practically shoulder to shoulder for the last 2:20h drifted ahead and around the corner. Finishing was now my only goal.

Finally, after a 2:26h half marathon, I crossed the finish line at the Osoyoos Desert Half Iron. I finished in 6:52h and in 11th place in my age group. That girl that drifted away from me at just shy of 2km from the finish was the 10th place girl in my category and took the final spot for the World Championships. While I thought I would have been devastated at not qualifying, turns out that I’m not upset at all. I gave it everything I had, left nothing on the course and have no regrets.

I remain loving this sport and have a whole new respect for the demands it makes. I’m proud of myself for finishing, and look forward to racing again soon. 2 weeks to be exact. I’m heading to Calgary to race the Ironman 70.3 (Half Iron) August 2. I’m excited to see what that race will hold for me now that I have one of the hardest races in Canada under my belt and a little experience to learn from.

Thanks to all for the calls and support! Here's a pic of me trying to put on my game face at the swim start - totally faking it - I was freaking out! S.


  1. FUUUUN stuff!! Congrats again girl! You will rock your next one- which can't possibly be as hard as what you have already completed ;0)

  2. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I've been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!