Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Barrelman half iron distance triathlon - Race report

Finally, the day I was working towards all summer arrived. My first half iron distance triathlon. Turns out I have kind of a lot to say about it (surprise, surprise). Settle in, this is a long one.

Pre race

Stuff. 'tis a silly sport.
I was a little stressed out the day before the race, with having to get all my stuff organized to take to Niagara Falls. I must have checked my gear about 20 times to make sure I had everything! But of course everything made the trip fine. The bike was dropped off for her sleepover in transition, I got my kit, sweet t shirt, went to the pre-race briefing, and everything went very smoothly.

John Salt delivering the pre-race briefing.

Sam must have been in charge of the shirt colours.
We had a lovely dinner with Irina and Zindine and some of the other athletes from FMCT and their families, and also Kyra and Alasdair. It was nice to have something (wrangling the kids through dinner) to distract me from thinking too much about the race!

Captain of my personal cheer squad and chief kid wrangler. Not the frog. The guy. The frog was unhelpful.
Back to the hotel and in bed by 9:30, like a good little triathlete. Like I was going to sleep well! I woke up, wide awake and convinced it must be almost time to get up, at 12:30. D'oh. Slept fitfully after that. Too much excitement.

Race day

View from the hotel window. Looking like a beautiful day to come.
I was up before my alarm, of course, and busied myself checking social media and getting my stuff organized until it was time to wake up the kids and the husband and head out of our hotel room (for some reason they all slept perfectly fine). We’d decided they would drive me (and my Iron Canucks teammate Fab) directly to the start so we wouldn’t have to deal with the morning shuttle buses. It made for a very relaxed feeling morning with minimal time pressure and stress. And it was really good to see Fab, since we did a lot of training together over the summer, and he gave me a lot of good advice about race nutrition. Triathlon friends rule.

Playing mad scientist as I concocted my pre-race nutrition and race hydration.
I got to the race site, spent a few minutes checking on my bike and loading it up with my nutrition, and then went to find Nicole to get my bodymarking! She surprised us by being there as a volunteer, how sweet is that? She’s been such an enthusiastic and supportive cheerleader for Sam and I all summer long as we trained for this thing, and I may have gotten a bit emotional when I gave her a big hug. Thanks, Nicole, that really meant a lot for you to get up at an ungodly hour and come out to support us. You rock!

With no run gear, it doesn't look like enough stuff.
My kids were restless, tired, and hungry, so my husband and I decided he’d take them out for breakfast rather than hanging around for the start. I was busy lining up for the bathroom, making sure I got into the tri club picture and saying hi to everyone there, finding Coach Zin to make sure I got a hug from him and to wish him luck, and pretty much hugging and yelling hello at many, many people. How did I get to know so many triathletes so quickly? Going to races has become a total social event!
Check out that smooth as glass water in the canal!
Iron Canucks! I'm lurking at the back.
Into the wetsuit, and down to the water with Sam and Irina. Time to get this show on the road. On the water? Something like that.

Swim (2k)
Time: 42:34.7
Pace: 2:07/100m
Overall: 285/496
Gender: 76/162
Age group: 10/21

Picture from the MSC Facebook page. My wave starting off. I'd point out which one I am but hell if I know. In there somewhere towards the top/back!
The swim could probably best be described as uneventful. I stuck to the back of the pack for the in water start (I lost Irina at some point before the gun, so there went my half-formed plan to try and catch her feet!) and got going without too much contact with other swimmers. For the longest time when I’d breathe left I’d catch a glimpse of Sam swimming on that side, looking strong! I did feel a little shaky for probably the first 500m or so - too much adrenaline, too much excitement, too much of my brain thinking ahead to the challenge to come. My legs were literally trembling. Eventually, though, I was able to shut that off and just find my rhythm and get it done.

Swimming in the canal was just as wonderful as I remembered from the training day we did there a few weeks ago. Just a fabulous venue for a swim. My sighting was a bit wonky because I never found the guide ropes that run across the bottom of the canal, but overall I don’t think I swam too much extra distance.

My biggest fear going into the swim was imagining myself getting completely run over by all the speed demons in the later waves - initially I wasn’t super thrilled about being in the first wave of non-pros! But with the waves being separated by 5 minutes it wasn’t an issue. I only saw a few people pass me from later waves, based on swim cap colour.

As I made the final turn to swim to the exit arch, all I could think was one sport down, two to go! Maybe because of that I totally botched the exit of the swim - they had volunteers stationed in the water to help us out, and I somehow managed to swim BEHIND the guy on the left side. SMRT. So no hand up for me, but I made it over the rocks safely.

Nicole was waiting at the swim exit - so happy to see her! And then I remembered SHIT gotta take this wetsuit off. Right.

There's Nicole!! .gif courtesy Zindine and the excellent MSC photographers. I like to think of this as 'wetsuits, how do they work?'
Coach Nancy caught me still struggling out of the stupid thing on the stairs.
T1: 2:23
Found my bike. Wetsuit off (FINALLY). Attempted to put on socks while still standing, which went hilariously badly. Wet feet + socks = comedy. I ended up just sitting my ass down, because when you are talking about a 6 hour race, what’s 20 seconds to get some socks on?

Helmet. Sunglasses. Shove wetsuit/cap/goggles in to the swim gear bag. What am I forgetting? There’s nothing else on the ground! That was a bit disconcerting. I could not shake the feeling I was forgetting something as I ran out of transition with my bike. I think it was just the weirdness of there not being run stuff in transition that threw me off a bit.

Heading out onto the bike course. You can see the swim exit in the background.
Bike (89k)
Time: 2:55:42.5
Avg speed: 30.39 km/hr
Overall: 241/496
Gender: 47/162
Age group: 8/21

A drawback of being in the first wave of age groupers: spending the first 30km on the bike continuously being passed by the guys. Most were pretty courteous (Zindine, I have to admit I have no idea what you yelled at me when you went by, except I did hear my name!), and there were only couple of times that someone passed me and then slowed down (which is hugely annoying).

I had my 310xt set up on my handlebars showing my average heart rate, current heart rate, distance, and cadence. No speed information. I did not want to fall into the trap of trying to chase a particular speed; not with a half marathon to run after! I did sneak the occasional glance at my 920 on my wrist (which was showing speed), though. Just to check that it was working, you know.

The first part of the bike I knew there would be a tailwind, so I settled in to take advantage and start getting in my nutrition. It was pretty uneventful. The roads were in good shape, the other riders were being courteous, physically I was holding the effort I wanted (based on heart rate) and my peaks at my wrist were showing me I was above 30 km/hr. Well on track for a sub 3 hour bike ride.

At the 30k aid station I successfully managed to discard my empty bottle and grab a fresh bottle of water. First time doing that! And I didn’t fall off my bike or knock over a volunteer or otherwise humiliate myself! Then back to the grind. I got all my nutrition in as planned (for the curious, I ate about 12 salted dates during the first half of the bike, and a gel about half an hour before I finished. I also drank 3 bottles of Skratch + NUUN). It was also around the first aid station that I stopped being passed all the time and started doing a little bit of passing of my own. Very few women went by me, and I caught quite a few.

I spent probably about 30 minutes contemplating the vital question of when you can consider yourself halfway done a race like this (did I mention the terrain was FLAT? Very little to keep your mind busy. Pick a gear and a cadence and just hold it). Could I consider myself at halfway at 45k? That’s halfway through the second sport, but the bulk of the distance and time would still be left. I never really resolved that issue to my satisfaction, but at least it gave me something to argue about with myself. I also spent some time contemplating the fact that certain portions of tri suits should really not be constructed out of white fabric. White = see through and some things I just don't want to see, if you know what I mean.

Then I focused on getting to 63k because I knew there were going to be a few people from my triathlon club there cheering, and sure enough there they were! Such a great mental boost.

After that things got harder. There was a whole combination of factors at play. There were some rough roads (typical Ontario winter road damage). There was headwind. There was a group of people up ahead of me breaking the draft rules and the tri Ontario official showed up on his motorcycle and rode alongside them for what seemed like a really long time, and I slowed down a bit just to stay out of that whole mess.

Mentally, it was all just wearing me down a bit. My legs felt great, physically overall I felt great, my heart rate was right where I wanted it, but I just couldn’t keep pushing quite as hard. My mind was all, 'can we run yet? bored now. enough of this.' I ended up slowing a bit over the last 20k and my heartrate dropped. Looking at the data, I could have pushed this section more, but especially with a flat bike course like this there’s a real mental grind to holding your aero position and consistent effort, and my brain just wasn’t quite up to the task. Something to remember - and train for - in the future!

You can really see my heart rate drop over the last 20k.

The last few km of the bike were along the Niagara river, and were just gorgeous. I kept glancing at the total time on my 920 and hoping I’d be done in under 3 hours - somehow I misread how many km I’d done and all of a sudden - well before I was expecting it - I could hear an announcer and I went around a corner and boom, there was the dismount line!

T2: 3:39
When I hit the button on my watch for T2 and saw 2:55 total time for the bike I was ecstatic! Well under my goal time on the bike. Exactly the big boost I needed after my mini-mental breakdown at the end of the bike. I was pumped up and ready to run! The volunteers quickly pointed me to the correct bike rack, where sure enough my run gear was waiting. I chatted happily with a volunteer as I changed my shoes and socks and grabbed my visor. She told me to get out of there and she’d pack my bike stuff into the gear bag for me. Race volunteers are the best! Especially when I told her I smelled terrible and she just laughed and said I was in good company. Poor woman had to touch my stinky bike shoes.

Short stop at the porta potty to pee (yeah, I suppose I could have done that on the bike, but I’m not at that stage of commitment to this triathlon thing yet), and then saw Irina (who just killed the swim/bike event!) as I emerged and headed for the run exit. Another little mental boost as I headed out on the run. Little did I know that would be the first of many excited ‘Hey I know you!!!’ moments.

Run (21.1 km)
Time: 2:04:46
Pace: 5:56/km
Total race time: 5:49:19.8
Overall: 222/496
Gender: 46/162
Age group: 9/21

This run. This was the big question mark. How badly would it suck, basically. What kind of an idiot bikes for 3 hours and then decides to run a half marathon? Turns out lots of idiots!

I started out and felt...amazing. Like a pace of 4:59/km showing on my watch amazing. Damn it. Slow down! I got that under control and settled into 2 hour half marathon pace. That lasted until I got to The Hill. At which point I realized this course was not an easy run course and I stopped paying attention to pace and just ran at an effort I felt like I could maintain.

And I felt good. Startlingly good. Happy as a pig in shit, shouting encouragement at people I recognized as we did the out and back through the park. Up the hill (I ran it on the first loop, promising myself that if I ran it the first time, I could walk it on the second loop). Past Marineland. The long false flat to the Casino property (I swear 90% of the run course was uphill, somehow). The run through the Casino garden, which was really lovely! And I remembered to look to the right and could see the falls from above. You don’t get a lot of views like that in races around here!

Then down the super steep hill (man does it ever suck when a downhill is too steep to really take proper advantage of it) to the parkway, and past the falls. Even with all the tacky nonsense that surrounds the touristy bits, the falls never fails to impress.

Damn car blocking my sweet run pic with the falls in the background, *shakes fist*

Then the loooooong run back along the parkway, made a little nicer by the cooling mist coming off the falls. And the fact I was running faster than the cars on the parkway were driving. Many tourists staring - I started waving and giving thumbs up to anyone who looked supportive, because why not? Through all of this I grabbed water and Heed at each aid station, which were very well stocked and the volunteers were excellent (on the second loop I switched to Coke from Heed, and DAMN did that ever taste good!).

As I headed back towards the finish/turnaround I crossed paths with first Mari and then Sam heading out on their first loops. High fives! I also saw various Iron Canucks teammates and we shouted or high-fived. And then I saw the cheer squad again, and my family waiting for me! Gave both my girls hugs and then off to the turn around. That was an amazing feeling.

Coming in to finish the first loop. I think I'm attempting to do the club 'angry beaver' pose. It's a thing we do. Photo via Coach Nancy.
Frankly I got a little emotional after seeing my husband and kids. Took a few minutes to get my heart rate back under control.

As I hit the timing mat for the turnaround, I could see the race clock at the finish was at 4:45. Holy shit. I had a ton of time to spare and get in under 6 hours! Even if I had a dramatic crash and burn I’d probably still make it - and the way I was feeling, I knew there'd be no disaster today. Off to do the part of the race that beforehand I’d been dreading the most: the second loop.

Past the cheer squad again to start the second loop! Photo via Coach Nancy.
It was NOTHING like I’d expected. I thought it was going to suck, but instead I felt fantastic. I saw all the supporters again as I headed out, and because of the nature of the course I was kind of able to divide it into smaller, manageable segments in my head. You know how when you drive somewhere the first time it seems to take forever, but then when you do it again and you know the landmarks it seems shorter? Same thing here. Knowing exactly where I had to go made things seem shorter.

Through the out and back in the park (pretty!). Up the stupid hill (walked it, like I’d promised myself - there was a guy with me at the bottom who ran it and we reached the top at the same time, so I stand by that decision). Past Marineland to the casino. Through the casino grounds. Down the ouchy hill (my quads!). Past the falls again.

Then the long stretch back to the finish. And that’s where things got a whole lot more uncomfortable. One of my teammates who was running the relay caught up to me (I’d been expecting him to catch me for a while based on seeing him on the course) and tried to talk me into picking up the pace and running with him. Thanks for trying, Stephen! But I didn’t have the juice in my legs to keep up with his pace. Just. Keep. Moving. Ticking off the km until there was only one left to go.

Running in to the finish was amazing. Seeing my kids jumping up and down, losing their minds. I had the biggest smile on my face. The pictures probably tell the story best:

High fives from the cheer squad and the #teamies who had finished their portions of the relay! You guys, join a tri team. It's so worth it. Photo via Coach Nancy
High fives from Natalie! Who taught me all about open water swimming back in May.  Yay for #teamies! Photo via David H.
Not entirely sure why I look like I'm about to fall over backwards...
So yeah. I did it! And it went just about perfectly! I still can’t quite believe it. I’m just so, so happy. I trained hard, I had a plan, I executed, and it all came together. What an amazing day.

BOOM. This medal represents a whole lot of hard work.

You know I'll be wearing this sucker every single chance I get. Including fancy dinner parties and tea with the Queen, should invitations to either of those things materialize.
I was holding onto the bike because I didn't want to fall over.
This is an amazing race. Must do, bucket list type of race. The swim course is fantastic, the bike course is built for speed, and the run course! Normally I would hate that sort of run course (2 loops! lots of uphill! stairs!) but I loved it. Just way, way too much fun. Do this race!


  1. Congrats Emma, you trained so hard and it's awesome that it all came together on race day!! Loved the recap and the photos. I think your decision to walk the hill makes sense as learn that in trail ultras, that you sometimes move faster walking a hill then you do running it, plus you don't blow up the rest of your race. Congrats again and can't wait to follow you all to your first full :).

  2. Emma, you did awesome, just like I knew you would! Thanks for cheering for me out there on the run! I look forward to seeing you at triathlons next year! You got some great pics!!

  3. You were AWESOME Emma! Congrats on a fantastic race - and so very glad to have been able to see you that day! Love your report!

  4. Congrats Emma, what a fantastic race report! You executed your race perfectly!! I did the run leg of that race last year on a relay team and it's TOUGH. That downhill totally fried my quads the second time around.

  5. Great report as always! A wonderful accomplishment, very well earned.

  6. Emma I'm so happy for you, you did SO amazing!! Congrats on a well executed race, my friend. Xo

  7. Great recap and great race Emma! Looks like your pacing and (sort of) ignoring speed on the bike really served you well for the run. I agree 100% that other than that one crazy downhill it was entirely uphill...never ending climbs! Awesome work girl 👊

  8. Fantastic recap Emma. Congrats on your race and time. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Wow, wow, and more WOW! It sounds like it was an incredible experience through and through! Congratulations on absolutely crushing it Emma!!!

  10. Congratulations! I just registered for next year! What training did you follow? This will be my first. You did great!
    Kara Bisaccia

    1. Hi Kara! You picked a great race for your first!

      My bike plan was the half iron plan from Trainerroad, my run plan was from Run Less Run Faster, and my swim plan was 'swim 3 days a week at least once in open water'. I made a ton of modifications and adjustments, though. Training for three sports is challenging!