Race Report: Ironman Canada 2011

Tom Davis

Visit Tom's home page

Race Report: Ironman Canada 2011 This was my third ironman-distance triathlon and I trained for it differently, with a different coach (Bruce Regensburg). The main difference was the rather long delay between my last long run and the race itself: I ran a 20 miler about 5 weeks before the race. I really enjoy working with Bruce: he's slightly older than I am so he knows a lot about the differences between older and younger athletes, has a lot of experience with ironmans (and has qualified himself for Kona a few times). Bruce lives in Canada, but that hasn't been a problem at all and we communicate via the telephone and internet.

I was in pretty good condition, had done well in the earlier races in the season, and I figured that if everything went well, I might even be able to finish it in under 12 hours. I got to the race with no injuries and although I'd not done all the workouts, I certainly had done most of them: I was at least as well-prepared as I had been for either of the other two ironmans I had completed.

The main thing I was worried about was the heat: temperatures were expected to be high for the race, and I have had serious cramping problems in hot weather: terrible cramps at the end of one Big Sur Marathon and after doing a long-course aqua bike at Vineman a few years ago, I had such bad cramps in my hamstrings after the bike that I could barely walk afterwards and I was incredibly thankful that I didn't have to start a marathon with the temperature in the 90's (Fahrenheit, obviously). At the Big Sur race both my calf muscles cramped so painfully at the end of the race that I passed out from the pain.

Getting Ready

I arrived in Penticton on Wednesday and had a great time during the pre-race period. Since there were so many people from my triathlon club racing, and many more who were there as support to the racers or who were there to volunteer and move to the front of the line to register for the race the following year that it was like a giant, six-day club meeting. It was almost always easy to find somebody to go to eat, or to go for a shake-down swim, ride or run.

I had no worries at all about the swim, so I didn't even get into the water, but I went on a couple of short runs and short shake-down rides in the days before the race. Just as I was finishing my cycling training at home, my bottom bracket started making some very disturbing noises so to be safe, I just had the local mechanic give the bike a complete bottom-bracket transplant, and it seemed fine on a short ride at home and on the shake-down rides in Penticton.

As advertised, however, the weather was hot and was predicted to be in the high 80's or 90's on race day!

My Coach, Bruce Regensburg, is part of an organization called LifeSport and although he was unable to make it to the race, he told me that other LifeSport coaches would be there and I should at least say hello. While I was there I got an email saying that their main coach, Lance Watson, was going to give a talk on swimming on the beach on Friday morning, so I did attend that. He was really fun to listen to, and I even learned a few things.

The main thing I learned was that it's better to draft by swimming slightly to the side of the person ahead and basically taking strokes toward his/her armpit. That way you'll be in more of a flying goose "V" formation. I usually don't try to do much drafting, but I figured I'd try this out, since it couldn't hurt. He also said that once you're 400 meters or so into the race, that's usually the pack you'll finish with, so go out hard enough to be in a "good" pack. I figured I'd try that, too.

I introduced myself after the talk and explained that I'd met Bruce Regensburg at, of all places, the Regensburg Ironman the previous year. Lance said that of course Bruce couldn't miss that one, since "it had his name on it." Of course Bruce "mispronounces" his own name: he calls himself "regions-burg" and the German pronunciation would be "ray-guns-burg." But now I think it's just a Canadian thing: at the awards banquet at the end, the female pro winner had also been a winner at Regensburg and the (Canadian) announcer pronounced the city name the same way as Bruce pronounces his own name.

I had a beer on Wednesday night, a glass of wine with dinner Thursday, and then no alcohol on Friday and Saturday, with the race on Sunday. As usual, I, and most of the other folks from home, ate huge amounts of food during the last few days.

Most of our stuff had to be checked in the day before the race, including the bike and the T1 and T2 gear bags. Since we would have access to those bags and the bike on race day and I'm pretty blind without glasses, I decided to walk to the start wearing dark glasses and put them in the T1 bag in the morning. (My swim goggles are corrected to something close to my prescription, so if I really need to see anything on race morning after I've abandoned my sunglasses I can use them.)

Here's a photo of all my transition bags laid out on my bed the day before the race. This way I could look at everything and make sure nothing was left out. The funny thing was that I published this photo on Facebook and got a thank you from somebody who looked at this visual checklist and noticed that he'd forgotten to include lubrication.

In my T1 bag I had the helmet, bike shoes, socks, race bib number on a race belt and a small towel. (We were required to wear the race number on our back on the bike, so I figured I'd use the race belt and turn it around for the run.) For T2 I had my running shoes, hat and some running shorts. I wasn't sure whether I'd change to shorts or just run the marathon in my cycling shorts. I crammed my Garmin wrist computer into one shoe so I wouldn't forget it in transition like I did in Regensburg the previous year. I also put a plastic coin purse with 10 electrolyte tabs in the other shoe. (There were 10 tabs because that's all that would fit.) I could have put my flip-flops in the T2 bag and walked to the race start (a bit less than a mile) in my running shoes, but it really didn't make much difference and at least the way I did it, there was no chance of forgetting the Garmin and the salt tablets on race day. I use the "Salt Stick" tablets since they seem to have more stuff in them than, for example, the Hammer "Endurolye" tablets.

When I checked in the bike I had the aero bottle between the aero bars filled with water and I had another small bottle, also filled with water, behind the seat. I was planning use the behind-the-seat bottle to drink before the race and leave it behind since I figured I could fill up with water at every aid station on the bike course (which were about 10 miles apart).

The race started at 7:00 am, and I don't like to be rushed at the start, so I got up at 4:00 am, had cereal, milk, a peanut-butter sandwich, a couple of salt tablets and then a pickle for good luck against cramps. (I had heard somewhere that pickle juice might help prevent or ease cramps and my experiments at home indicated that at least they don't hurt, so I figured what the heck -- I'd have a very strange breakfast. Now that I've returned, I've also heard from my endocrinologist friend that doses of vitamin D and/or ibuprofen can also combat cramps.) I also had a strong coffee made from instant coffee to make sure I had sufficient caffeine on board. In the past I've had a couple of hard-boiled eggs for breakfast but I was too lazy to make any and figured the protein from the peanut butter would work just as well.

My nutrition plan on the bike was to get most of my calories from Hammer Perpetuem, which I've tested extensively on long rides. I keep a bottle on the down tube of an extremely concentrated mixture and every time I take a sip of it, I take a gulp of water from the straw coming out of the areo bottle hanging between my handlebars. I was going to try to finish one bottle before I reached the special-needs station at about 80 miles and pick up a new one there. Since it would already be hot when I arrived, after mixing the special-needs bottle I froze it solid in the freezer so even after waiting for me for a few hours in the sun, at least it would be slightly chilled.

I also packed a couple of Clif "Mojo Bars" into my bento box. They're salty and have worked well on training rides. Finally, I planned to eat anything that looked good at the aid stations during the race. I usually can trust my cravings.

I had made sure that the motel I stayed at (the Black Sea on Lakeshore drive) was not only within walking distance of the start, but also that it had a refrigerator and kitchenette. When I arrived, one of the first things I did was to go shopping for groceries. I figured that most of my meals would be with friends in restaurants, but I got breakfast cereal and milk, some bran muffins, some bananas, bread and peanut butter, and a jar of pickles. Because they looked great, I also got a couple of pounds of locally-grown cherries, and they tasted fantastic! I ate most of them the first day.

On Friday night there's a "required" athlete meeting which follows a dinner, and they tell us about any special conditions, rules, et cetera. The only surprise to me is that in this race on the bike we were allowed to be in the draft zone for 25 seconds. In both my other ironman races the time was only 15 seconds. That means there was more time to sit right on somebody's wheel to get a quick breather before you blast ahead. Ten seconds is a long time.

Race Morning

I was joined at 5:30 by George and Carin for the 15-minute hike to the start. (In the image on the right, there's me (in dark glasses before sunrise) with Carin). I carried two special-needs bags. For the bicycle I included the frozen bottle of Hammer Perpetuem, a peanut-butter sandwich and a can of Pringles potato chips. A friend pointed out that it might have been a good idea to include a spare tube and CO2 cartridge so if I'd had the bad luck of getting a flat earlier on the course I could replace the bad tube with a new one. But I was already carrying two spare tubes and three CO2 cartridges, so again, that would have been on the verge of overkill. (I had put on brand-new tires on the front and back a week before the race, so I knew they were in good shape.)

In the run special-needs bag I tossed in a couple of gels with caffeine and a small container of vaseline. I was pretty sure there would be vaseline available on the course, but if not, and I needed it, it was nice to know I could get it at the half-way point on the marathon. I had never run for anything close to a marathon in the new SVTC kit, so I didn't know if there would be friction problems that required lubrication. (It turns out that the new gear worked just fine.)

We also had a dry-clothes bag to check all the stuff we wore to the start and I used it to carry my bike computer, a package of Clif Shot-Blocks, plus wet suit, goggles and swim cap. The bike computer is pretty expensive and although the racers are probably a lot more honest than the average "man on the street" and there were guards all night in the transition area, I didn't want to leave a $700 part which could be removed with a single push of a button out in the open all night.

I avoided the bran muffins on Saturday to make sure there would be no surprises on Sunday morning. One of our SVTC friends, Tammy, had volunteered to do body marking, but in the dark and chaos, we couldn't find her and settled for somebody else. As we were looking, Carin discovered she'd left something in one of her special-needs bags and had to go back for it, and that's the last of her I saw that morning.

Since there are so many athletes (almost 3000) milling around, my experience is that you can't count on sticking with a friend because something will come up to separate you and it's not worth the time to keep in contact of try to find them if you lose them. The problem is exacerbated because so many people are dressed similarly and once the wet suits are on, everybody looks like a black seal (or penguin?). I think I lost George in the bathroom lines. Of course I did run into other friends in the start area: Marie and Glenn spring to mind, and maybe there were others.

My morning "checklist" just consisted of the stuff in my bag: bike computer and chilled perpetuem -- check. I've got the Garmin 705 with batteries that last a long time so I just turned it on before I went to the swim start, and set the controls to not start recording until the bike began to move. That way there would be some recorded time in transition, but not much. I just had to remember to grab the water off the rear of the bike in the morning before the race. When I finally put on my wet suit (and remembered to use the bathroom first) the goggles reminded me to put the dark glasses in the T1 bag. I'd worn a light jacket to walk to the start, and that and the flip-flops went into the dry-clothes bag together with the remaining Shot-Blocks (I ate four of the six about 25 minutes before the start) and the water bottle I'd removed from the bike and taken a drink at the last minute before entering the start area.

I think one of the important things I've learned about triathlon is to try to arrange things so that you can't forget something. There are so many details to get right to race in three wildly-different sports that a mistake is likely, and even more likely because you're excited and worried and preoccupied. I didn't forget anything this time.

Here are a couple of photos of the bicycles in the transition area taken the night before the race. I figure this represents about $15 million in equipment.

Here's a photo of the bike-to-run transition area, also taken the night before the race. The bags are all arranged in numerical order.

The Swim

The pros took off at 6:45 am and I got into the water to warm up a minute or two after that. The water was warm and I did swim a few hundred yards before coming back to my starting place a tiny bit to the left of center, and right at the front of the pack.

This year Ironman Canada had allowed about 300 more people to register than last year (so there were about 3000 total) but the beach for the swim start has always been the same size, so things were really crowded, and it was one of the roughest swim starts I've ever experienced. I even came to a dead stop once when I was hit hard from both sides as somebody tried to swim over my head. I had to swim for 600 or 700 meters before things were relatively easy, and I did try to draft various people according to Lance Watson's advice.

The course is a long skinny triangle, and after the second turn, heading home with a really solid stroke, I did notice that I was very warm. It was a clean finish and I got "stripped" very professionally by a couple of big guys. They're called "strippers" and what you do is get the suit unzipped and your arms out as you climb out of the water. Then you lie on your butt on the grass, they grab one arm each of the wetsuit, you lift your butt and they yank off the whole suit in one motion. Then they grab your arms and help you to your feet and you grab your T1 bag, jog into the changing tent, and get ready for a bike ride. I understand that it's totally exhausting work, like doing lunges for two hours. Since every volunteer loves to do body marking this year they made the body markers also sign up to the strippers. In any case, my strippers did a great job. Of course during this race, as in most, I had no idea how well I'd done, figuring that's the job of my timing chip. I knew I'd do relatively well, and my final swim time was a bit over 1:05. Being a fast swimmer undoubtedly gets you to the strippers before they're exhausted, so that's probably partly why my transition went so well. I was first out of the water in my age group, so at least there was a little bit of glory for me that day.

It's funny, but in every post-race session over beer when we tell our "war stories" I never have anything to say about the swim. Other people seem to be aware of whom they were swimming next to, what fish they saw swimming, things they saw on the bottom, et cetera. From my point of view, all I see is a herd of indistinguishable black seals surrounding me, some with blue heads (males) and pink heads (females). The females usually don't hit as hard, but not always. Other than that, the only things I seem to notice are the buoys and any far-away objects that I use for sighting. In this race there's a mountain peak on the way out, and a couple of tall buildings on the way in.

One of the club members said that he felt like on the swim that every woman he'd ever annoyed took this chance to get even with him.

The Bike

T1 went pretty smoothly, and with the heat, I was determined not to push too hard on the bike. In fact, although I was planning to ride in zone 2 for most of the race, I was in zone 1 for 3/5 of it and only in zone 3 for less than 2 minutes for the entire 112 miles.

My bad habits on the bike are to stand up and to spend too little time in aero position, but I did very well on this race. I did no long sessions out of the saddle and was in aero for a much higher percentage of this race than for any previous ironman. I took on water at every aid station and sometimes ate bananas when there was time, and drank a full bottle of water every 10 miles. I also, over the 112 miles, ate all 12 salt-stick tablets (electorlyte tabs), fairly evenly spaced. The climb up Yellow Lake was a little more difficult than I'd remembered (in other words, I forgot where the top was), but the rest of the race was exaclty as I'd recalled. (I did drive the course with some newbies on Thursday, so it's stupid that I didn't pay enough attention on Yellow Lake, but my error amounted to less than a mile of climbing.)

Somebody dumped tacks on the road early in the race, and at mile 30 or so there were suddenly dozens of folks with flat tires, but I was lucky. I was also lucky to be relatively fast and although, due to the heat, a lot of the aid stations ran out of water, I got to all of them before there was a problem. I did notice a lot of folks taking a bottle to spray themselves and then one to drink, which doubled the water usage. I just took one bottle at every station, and maybe a banana.

The only problems I had on the bike were that I couldn't easily get open the Clif bar package (it took five or six tries of ripping at it with my teeth) and I got hot spots (and then blisters) on the centers of my feet due to the heat and my Speedplay pedals. I love the pedals so much that I'm willing to pay that price, but my feet were pretty uncomfortable for the last 20 miles or so.

The special-needs station was at about mile 75 and I got new Perpetuem (having finished the other bottle) and I ate three "stacks" of Pringles. A "stack" is the largest stack of chips I could cram in my mouth at once. I didn't eat the peanut butter sandwich since it didn't look good at the time. The bathrooms at special needs were full but I did need to pee so I continued on, looking for an unoccupied bathroom.

At mile 80 or so there was a free bathroom so I stopped and my hamstrings nearly cramped up solid when I tried to dismount. I did pee, got back on the bike, and started the climb to Yellow Lake. Once I hit the top, it was pretty smooth (and fast) sailing all the way back to transition, but I still made sure I was eating and drinking as much as possile.

The Run

My probems began as soon as I gave my bike to my SVTC friend Warren for racking. I had massive cramps in my hamstrings and couldn't even walk. After a couple of minutes, I could move again, and staggered to the T2 changing tent. I spent about 10 minutes in T2 until I could get on my running shoes and waddle out to the run course. The temperature was in the mid-90's: way too hot for me!

The next two images are me in T2, the right, hobbling into the tent to change after the bike dismount and on the left, getting slathered with sunblock before the marathon.

My friend Erica passed me a couple of miles into the run, and although it was her first ironman, she did fabulously well: under 12 hours! It was great to see her.

I was running, but very slowly, and at every aid station (which came roughly every mile) I'd walk for 45 seconds while I ate or drank whatever looked good. I was able to do this for about 7 miles, and then the cramping came back. I'd walk a bit, then try to jog, and it seemed like every time I started to jog, 100 meters or so later, the cramping would restart. In the next few miles I repeatedly tried jogging, every time with the same result. I calculated that even if I walked the whole thing, I'd finish in about 14 hours, so I just kept walk-jogging, mostly walking, and finally, walking only for the final 11 miles.

I walked with various people, including a couple of good friends from SVTC: Alan and George. Alan was having similar cramping problems and George couldn't keep anything in his stomach. About 4 miles from the end, my stomach started to revolt, too, so I ate/drank nothing but water from there on in. I did jog the final 100 meters or so to avoid a total humiliation at the finish. I did manage to finish in under 14 hours, but not by much, and my run split was longer than my time on the bike. Here's an image of me, walking with Alan, on the marathon.

Because of the walking and cramping, my heart-rate zones were much worse than on the bike: about one hour each in zones 1 and 2 and the other four hours "below" zone 1.

When I got to the end, my "catcher" (the guy who was supposed to take care of me after the race) was my friend Norm, and I was so happy to have a friend at that point. I got some recovery drink, turned in my bike to have it shipped home, and made it back to my motel room without incident.

Here are my final times:

Swim: 1:05:09
T1: 4:07
Bike: 6:19:15
T2: 9:37
Run: 6:19:19
Total: 13:57:24


I'm almost sure that all my problems were due to heat and cramps. On the bike, I was in zone 1 for most of the time, and on the run, in "zone 0": slower than zone 1 for almost the entire race. My highest HR was probably in the swim.

I have no idea what to do about racing in the heat. I had tried all the tricks I knew about, and ate about 18 salt tablets during the bike and run. I ate tons of pretzels on the run and drank the PowerBar electrolyte drink, whatever that was. Maybe the vitamin D and/or ibuprofen will help.

Maybe I should just avoid hot-weather races? Or stick to shorter distances where there's no time to overheat.

Return to my home page.

Want to send me mail? Click: ( tomrdavis@earthlink.net)