Ironman Canada –– July 28th 2019 –– race report

August 11th, 2019 • Posted in News |

Ten months ago…

Me: ‘What do you think about going to Canada for my 50th birthday?’

Mrs L: ‘Sounds nice.’

Me: (… smiling …)

Mrs L: ‘Is there an Ironman there?’

Me: ‘There … might be.’*

*There was.

Two weeks ago…

And so we landed in Vancouver and drove to Whistler and I did Ironman Canada on my 50th birthday and we (me, my wife, our two kids) had the holiday of a lifetime. That’s the short version. The long version, as anyone who’s read my race reports before knows, is … longer. So settle down with a cuppa. There are bears, spiders, puking runners, potential penalties, whales, beers, eagles, and deer (though not all of them were involved in the race).

There’s a danger this will become a holiday report rather than a race report, but I’ll do my best. Suffice to say, it was very easy to decide to do this. The doing––from booking everything, to actually racing on a different continent––was not so easy. But I wouldn’t change a moment of it.

Realising last year that my 50th birthday fell on a Sunday, my first thought wasn’t what most people would think. ‘Oh great, a weekend, we can go somewhere and have a big slap-up meal and loads of fine ale and wines with family and friends’. My thought was, ‘Bloody hell, there’s bound to be an Ironman someone in the world on that day’.

Lucky me. It was Canada. We decided to build a holiday of a lifetime around the occasion. Pointless going all that way for a race, right? So it was Whistler for a week (landing on the Wednesday before Sunday’s race), then Vancouver Island to recuperate, then Vancouver for three days before flying home. It was epic.

But this is a race report!

This was my first race outside of the UK, my fifth ironman (though the 3rd IM branded race). And from the very beginning I sensed that this was a much more laid back event. The briefing concentrated on the positives, whereas my memory of the IM Wales briefing was a long list of reasons why you could be given a penalty or DQ’d. In Whistler, the announcer sounded almost apologetic when he mentioned penalties and offences. If you want to hold onto the kayaks for a bit in the swim, you can. If you litter it’s a 5 minute penalty (although actually I think this SHOULD be an instant DQ if it’s obviously intentional). Very laid back. I liked it!

In fact, the whole organisation was superb. It might have been one of the best organised races I’ve ever attended. It’s a split transition, but it was utterly painless both before and after the race, with shuttle buses taking me and my kit to and from T1, and everything being available in T2 after the race for me and my family to collect. The only slight hiccup was when the crew at special needs couldn’t find my bag. I could have really done with that PB&J bagel and Mars Bar right about then…

So, all the prep done, I hit the sack on the eve of my 50th birthday nervous, but mostly excited. I knew I could do the distance. I’d witnessed the breathtaking scenery I’d be racing in. And most importantly, I’d decided weeks before that this was going to be a ‘fun’ race. Training hadn’t gone brilliantly (with whole weeks here and there with no training due to work and time away), so for this one I was content to get my money’s worth. Besides, why smash myself to pieces for a time, when I’m racing in some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen?

So. It was going to be easy.

Right.

Swim…

Meeting at 4:30 in the morning in T1 for the shuttle buses to the swim and T2, getting body marked by volunteers (no tattoo transfers, this was old-style marker pens all the way … which had totally smeared off by the time I’d sun-creamed up and finished the swim), was a perfect opportunity to mention what the day was.

‘Age?’ asked the pen-wielding volunteer, ready to write my age group on my calf.

‘Fifty. TODAY!’

Cue cheers and whoops and a few ‘you must be fucking mad’ comments. And yes, I might just have told quite a few people throughout the day that it was my fiftieth.

Have I mentioned that yet?

Waiting for the swim, daylight dawned, and it was … beautiful. Just stunning. Water temp was announced at around 19 degrees, and on the distant mountains I could see snow and glaciers. Sun poured across the mountain ranges, a gentle orange and yellow glow welcoming in the long day to come. I had the first of several emotional moments that hit me throughout the day, thinking, ‘Just look where I’m racing!’ A singer sang the Canadian anthem, and there were plenty of tears all around me.

Then I stepped in bear shit. ‘Hmm, squishy!’ said the guy next to me, and it made a great moment perfect. The cannon fired to commence the rolling start, and I was standing in bear shit at the beginning of Ironman Canada. Some moments you know you’ll never forget.

The water was beautiful––clear, perfect temperature––and each time I turned to breathe I saw the wooded, snow covered mountains. I settle into a rhythm and completed the first lap quite comfortably. It was a two lap swim, no exit, and on the second lap I started to suffer. It’s been happening for a while on longer swims––numb arms and hands, and this time it got so bad that I just had to use my hands as flippers or oars. Maybe it’s bad technique, maybe it’s just wear and tear. I am old now, you know.

Swim completed in 1:26, a pretty bad time when I’d hoped for anywhere between 1:10 and 1:15. Voices of my NEWT clubmates echoed in my head in T1 (‘Don’t be shit!’). But nuts to it, I was settling in for a long, fun day. And I had the usual ‘what do I wear on the bike?’ quandary. Plenty of people were heading out just in tri suit, plenty more slipping on a jersey. I wore my bike jersey, and perhaps that was a mistake. It was going to get HOT out there.

The bike course was two long laps. The roads were excellent, the route glorious, and the first lap went pretty well. My strategy had been to aim for an average of 16mph for the whole bike. With 8,500 feet of climbing it’s known as one of the toughest on the North American circuit, but … I didn’t find lap 1 that tough. The hills were a pleasant surprise––there were lots of them, but they were all steady and long rather that short and sharp, such as in IM Wales for instance. It was pretty much all up and down with very little flat, but definitely a TT course. I’d elected to hire a road bike, not wanting to face the faff of bringing my Canyon TT, and I reckon I was one of only 10% of riders not on a TT, or at least a roadie with bars.

No excuses, though. The tough lap 2 was more down to being undertrained than the type of bike I was riding. I still enjoyed it. Sort of. But around mile 90 I had to batter down the creeping voice in my head. ‘There’s no way you’ll finish this. You’re knackered. You’re undertrained. Do you really think you can run a marathon after this?’

I smiled, and looked at the view, and lapped up the areas of support, having received a real boost from seeing my wife and kids on the roadside outside Whistler. I had to finish this. I had to prove that an old bastard like me could still do an Ironman. So I dug in and––

Oh no. A motorcycle was riding beside me, keeping pace, and I immediately tried to think of what I might have done wrong. I was being ultra careful, but even so everyone here but me rode on the wrong side of the road, and maybe I’d let myself slip once or twice?

Then I turned and saw the camera aimed at me.

‘I’M FIFTY YEARS OLD TODAY!’ I shouted, and that clip made its way into the official IM race recap vid!

By mile 100 my right foot was hurting like hell, but I ignored it. It’s only pain, right? Pain’s temporary, and this is an Ironman! Even so, by the time I handed my bike to a volunteer in T2, the first thing I did was to take off my shoes and breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe wearing the same bike shoes for 5 years isn’t the best idea. Maybe I should buy a new pair. Yeah, don’t be shit, Tim.

I finished the ride in a moving time of 7:16, but with a couple of stops that averaged out about 15mph. A tough ride, and even though none of the hills had been intimidating, I think the cumulative effect of constant climbing and descending––especially the long 7 mile drag up to the old Olympic Park, averaging maybe 5%––drained me more than I realised.

I saw Tracey and the kids again before the T2 tent, then I headed out onto the run. It was hot now, upwards of 25 degrees or more, and I’d been really careful on the bike to keep myself hydrated. I felt … surprisingly good. A bit of banter in T2, then I was out onto the run, and enjoying the more consistent shouts of supports through Whistler. I’d planned to start out and continue at a 10 min mile, and for a while this worked. But not for long. I was weakening, and the sun beat down, and I was sweating and sore and now I couldn’t get enough fluids into me. I felt queasy at the end of the bike and that continued a little onto the run––something I’d never experienced before––and I saw two runners stop and throw up beside the path. I didn’t want to get that bad, so I eased back a little, and started walking through the regular aid stations.

The run was also two laps. A couple of miles around Whistler, then out alongside a couple of beautiful lakes (Lost Lake, and Green Lake), where people were swimming (no thanks, had enough of that for one day) and barbecuing (bastards!), and on Green Lake seaplanes were taking off and landing. The long run out alongside Green Lake was particularly tough, and hitting Whistler at the end of lap 1, with a half marathon to go, and hearing people finishing was torture.

But I was smiling, saw my family, enjoying the support, and the surroundings were beautiful, and I reminded myself again and again how bloody lucky I was to be doing this somewhere so beautiful. Chatting to fellow runners helped (including a shouted ‘Hi!’ to the guy from Cardiff Tri!), and the marshals were uniformly excellent. Aren’t they always? But in Canada … well, they were Canadians, and something we learned on our holiday is that Canadians might just be the nicest people on the planet.

For the second lap I ran for a mile and walked for a 100 seconds, and that tactic seemed to work. And then I ran into Whistler for the finish, hearing the cheering from a mile or two away, trying to run all the way in, and when I hit the long road leading to the finish chute … the route jigged left and doglegged for another couple of hundred metres. That was the hardest and the best part of the run for me, and even though my time was entirely forgettable, my whole day had been remarkable. It had been painful, and a struggle, and I had to shove down moments of self-doubt … but wonderful.

Tracey and Dan were waiting at the finishing chute. I almost ran past them, then spotted them and went in for a kiss. Ellie was waiting for me at the finishing arch to take pics, and I ran in with the announcer saying ‘Happy birthday Tim Lebbon, you are and Ironman, Tim!’ Epic.

Something else that was refreshingly different at the finish was the attention given to the athletes. The moment I crossed the line a volunteer zeroed in on me, gave me my medal, a foil blanket, a bottle of water, my tee shirt and cap, and she said ‘Lean on me if you need to.’ I might have felt a little bit emotional. She insisted that she saw me out of the finishing compound and into the care of my family.

I met my lovely family and hobbled across to where they were giving out the pizza. Pepperoni. Pretty standard. But perhaps the best pizza on Planet Earth at that precise moment.

‘I’m fifty today,’ I told the woman handing out pizza.

‘You must be mad,’ she said, and she gave me another slice.

14:30. Not a great time. But I had a great time. And that’s what I always intended. Canada is an incredible place, and finishing that race was just the start of a wonderful holiday I had with my lovely family. We went white-water rafting and kayaking and cycling and hiking, saw a bear and an eagle and a whale and ospreys and deer and seals, ate some wonderful food and drank some splendid local brews, and made loads of great memories.

I’ll always remember where I was and what I did on my 50th birthday.

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