As I walk from the hotel along Lakeshore Drive with Emma, there is a short-lived serenity, a beautiful very early Sunday morning with wonderful soft haunting music playing on the PA – an immensely moving outdoor sound system. It’s as though this were inside – an arena – with your personal music playing while you dreamed up the landscape. However, the smell of charred wood and smoke lingers, it brings you back to a very real reality and then you notice that it’s not morning gloaming after all that has settled across the water – it’s smoke.
Aside from the stress of the preparation for the event itself, the days leading up to the race had been more of an emotional rollercoaster than I could ever [have] wanted to imagine. Twice I had thought that I might not be competing at all. Once was my decision and the other was the Race Director’s.
There was no hiding the fact that there were serious forest fires in the vicinity. We arrived very late on the Tuesday evening, having driven from Vancouver (along the windy route!) and as soon as you stepped outside your room the next morning, you could smell a charred smokey smell. People had satellite pictures of the massive fires, halted only when they reached water’s edge. Coupled with that, the news channels [quite rightly] were focussing on this pyric disaster as it unfolded and moved ever closer. The daytime temperatures were in the 80s F and even into the low 90s (32 deg C) and it is a dry desert place.
The hotel was great, just a few mins walk from part of the run course and just over a mile from the race start. A neat feature was that all the rooms opened onto a spacious central courtyard. Mostly the hotel was full of competitors and I always find it a great comfort to be close by others whom are going to be competing in the toughest of sports. There are those little friendly chats you find yourself casually drawn into, impossible not to be uplifted and energised no matter what the topic. I was lucky enough to be chatting to an American girl at breakfast one day whom had also competed in the legendary ITU World Championships in Denmark over Ironman distance. We both glowed with pride and smiled as we acknowledged we had raced Ironman for our countries.
Checking out the Hog’s Breath for coffee was far more emotionally involved than I had imagined, due to the number of Ironman athletes chilling out there and then finding the posters they had laid out for competitors to sign (what a neat idea!). I obliged eagerly with tears in my eyes, committing in ink the fact that Ironscot #777 was here.
Unbeknownst to me I was to be faced with an emotional meltdown or rather emotional abandonment that lunchtime in a cafe on Main Street. I admit that pre Ironman is once of the most stressful times ever in my life – I know what’s coming and I know what it is going to do to me- and that’s on a good day without misfortunes. Emma had been quiet since we arrived and decided to share her relationship wobble earthquake with me during lunch – I guess whatever she was saying I knew that at that time she did not really want to be there with me and at that point I wished she wasn’t. I remember her looking at me while my body executed my usual stress response and started to perspire rapidly. Scrabbling to try and recover the situation, my relationship and everything else – I offered the greatest sacrifice I could – I said that if it would save our relationship, we could go off somewhere and I would not take part in the race. I meant it. In my personal development, I reflect on my ability to make such a quick decision as some proof that I was able to sense what was really important in my life. Somehow we inch by inch moved away from the crisis however, I consciously avoided too many Ironman-centric functions and concentrated only on necessary ones. Unfortunately that meant I saw very little of my Page (or Tri Lounge) friends until the Peeps Breakfast on the Friday. That WAS a treasure but it was all over too quickly.
The second emotional issue that grew as the days to the race passed was the fire. By Friday afternoon more fires had started and they were getting closer. We actually got close to a new one that started that day. The sky constantly had water dumping planes and helicopters working non stop during daylight hours, trying to douse the flames. The latest fire at Vaseux Lake was only a few miles away and strong winds fanned the flames so much so that the Highway and a key section of the bike route were closed. The Kelowna fire was huge and hundreds of homes were burnt to cinders. Residents of Okanagan Falls were on 1 hour evacuation notice. I began to feel uneasy about competing in my selfcentred race when people round about were losing their homes…it didn’t feel respectful of what was happening. Apparently on Friday night Graham Frasier had written a race cancellation speech as there really was no Plan B. This had never happened in the history of Ironman – a race being completely cancelled. The bike course was closed, many volunteers were fighting fires and the air quality had nosedived to a count of 230 when apparently bad starts at 50! I went to the Saturday morning athlete briefing ambivalent, not even knowing for sure if the race was on. What swayed me was Graham Frasier saying that they had asked the locals what they wanted to happen and that they had said unanimously they wanted the race to go ahead. That was it for me, I decided I would do my best on Sunday in recognition of the wonderful townspeople. Due to the fact that the swim course captain and some of the marshals were firefighters and working all night, the swim course was changed to a 2 looper, the bike course was as usual and the run course dramatically changed to a 3 looper, running down to Skaha Lake and back.
Approaching the race start and the hubbub…I head off to check my bike and prepare for the swim. As I wandered around transition, killing time…the haunting skirl of the bagpipes rang out – a schoolkid playing my National Anthem, Scotland The Brave. I stop momentarily amid the haste, to listen and draw energy.
Wetsuit deployed, I headed roughly towards the Giant Peach to the swim start, interestedly eager to see what my year’s individual coaching from my Brazilian swim coach Deivson Silva would do to my swim time – certainly when I first went to him my swim was as bad as it has ever been – but now he said it looked good Karma is a strange deity and standing in the shallow water at the edge of the lake, preparing mentally for the task ahead – I look to my left and there, right beside me, tall and strong is my friend (one of the Page Peeps) Fred Goss (aka Fast Freddy from Oakland – FFO). We smile as we recognise each other and we hug as if one of us was leaving on a very long journey – in fact, we both were.
Boom – we’re off – in fact we’re walking for a while as it’s so shallow – soon though we reach swim depth and off we go…I’m surrounded by wetsuited bodies – it’s a bit rough – I’ m pleased though, that I’m with others and as we reach the turns everyone funnels (the Iain Gauld effect!) together and I get a better draft. I can’t really tell but I think my swim is ok – I do check my watch at half way and remember being pleased. When I exit the water in a swim PR of 1:13:29 I am thanking Deivson as I now try and consolidate being ahead of schedule.
I change into my bike gear and head off out along Main Street to start the bike – after 15 or so miles I pass Boop, my legs aren’t feeling great but I’m cruising slowly past people. Then an eerie section of road where it is plain to see where the fire has burned right across the it, blackened and even still smouldering in places. In Osoyoos I catch up with Bee(linda) and then it’s Richter Pass, I feel quite steady up the climb but I’m glad when I reach the top as my heart rate has soared to 165.
I change strategies to try and distract myself from the discomfort and I take a bag of cookies from a smiling lady volunteer at an aid station after Richter, fed up with the rollers I asked some dude if these hills were ever going to end (he said they were called the Seven Little Bitches!) and there was only one to go . It was boring in the orchards, where I eventually conceded defeat and stopped for a pee, there we also picked up our special needs bag but it was waaay past halfway distance :(. Next the second big climb – Yellow Lake, amazing – all the cars stopped in the road leaving a lane for us, I don’t remember much as I was tiring…then mostly downhill for the last 12 miles but of course yer have already ridden 100 so yer aching and yer back is locking up…sooooo excited as I was coming into town not sure of how far to the bike finish and my time was just past 5 hrs 30. As I dismount, I really am thrilled to be under 5:40 with an official killer 5:39:47 – ooooh my fastest ever Ironman bike split and on a course with 6,000 feet of elevation My bike split is top 15% of the field.
I try and sort myself out in T2 in the change tent – excited that all I have to do is continue with one of my slowest run times and I may be able to set a new Ironman PR – I’m amused and for a few seconds distracted by the fact that I spot a blow up doll up in the rafters of the tent – apparently I was only the second guy to spot it (my usual amazing ability to spot things in my peripheral vision)!
I exit the change tent and head off with the time now just a couple of minutes past 2pm – my earliest run start. I know so far I have had an awesome race, Personal Best times for the swim and bike. I’m proud that I’m up the field. Again, I’ve passed 500 people on the bike and I’m in the top 500 as I’m heading out onto the run – I look to see if Emma is where we agreed, close by the run start…energised, I happily trot over and greet her with a big smile and a kiss, telling her that I’m ahead of schedule.
I remember trying to pace myself slow and steady and keep the speed down to see if that would keep me from getting sick for longer – 10 minute miles is my aim with a walking stop at every second aid station (about 2 miles to run) and as I round past my hotel at the end of my first lap I desperately needed some vaseline and [as you would expect] a wonderfully thoughtful volunteer was standing at an aid station with a vaseline-blob covered piece of cardboard. I’m able to get through halfway a few mins ahead of that but then the wheels come off and I’m walking outside an aid station and for a long stretch – my 2 hour run curfew has cut in again. As ever, the first time I have to stop and walk takes me a while to recover, but eventually I can run and walk – my survival shuffle. The good news is there are Peeps cheering me all along the run course. I see Sister Madonna Buder and I say hello and give her some encouragement – the Nun on the run – a 73 year old Ironman legend – hoping she will reciprocate and pray for me. I know the temperature is 25 deg C in the shade and that’s too warm for me – and as I slowly make my way to 16 miles the wheels really come off.
I run but my body is trying to throw up – so I walk, which usually temporarily alleviates the problem but no, now things are worse, I cannot even walk without retching, so reluctantly for the first time in a race I have to stop, completely – I sit on the kerb to let my body recover, looking down into the guttter – asking my body why it won’t let me continue to run. I’m thinking only of pausing for as short a time as possible – no other thoughts exist – just me, 10 miles to the Finish line and a chronological value. I feel embarrassed. Trying to avoid the gaze of the few spectators at the roadside, I keep my head tipped down so they cannot see my face. I get up and walk for about a mile and a half until I briefly feel as if I might be able to run a little.
I remember Boop running past me (looking strong and stunning as usual) as I was walking, kindly asking me if I was ok. I remember saying that I was ok, just a little sick and considering that I had stopped sweating – not a good sign when yer exercising in 25 deg C and sunshine…I see KP and give him some encouragement. Painfully slowly I make my way towards the finish, I manage to run a few miles and then I walk for a long time. Soon the lights and my Finish line salvation approach – I manage a semblance of a sprint finish as all-in my time isn’t too disappointing at 12:22:06 – it’s just what it might have been…had my run time been better than 5:13:36 – but then, that’s Ironman…
I’m so drained and tired as I leave the finish I just can’t hold the bags with my gear in them and push my bike – I want to stop and sit down – Emma thankfully takes some of the load before I collapse. I did make it back to the Finish Line before midnight to get some obligatory fries and I met a bunch of Peeps including Acorn who had got a Kona slot! I didn’t see them again (worst luck) but I heard that they all went drinking and had a great time at the nightclub…