Race Recap: 2016 Calgary Half Ironman

This year’s race was vastly different from last year. The biggest difference was that this year I knew what to expect. Or, at least I thought I did. Every time I made an adjustment to my race strategy to overcome a problem, a new challenge would pop up that seemed more difficult than the one I adjusted to overcome. So I got to face a completely new set of obstacles. Between last year and this year I focused on my lack of ability to run, and that took up the bulk of my training

If you want the full experience, go back and read the post about the 2015 Calgary Half Ironman to give you some context for what I’m going to talk about this year.

The Swim: Last year – 47:29, Goal – 47:29

Notice that my goal time was the same as last years time did you? Doesn’t seem like a good goal??? The reason that this is a more than reasonable goal is because all year I didn’t train for the swim. I put my wetsuit on for only ONE swim between last years race and this year. I got to show this lack of training race morning while everyone is putting on their wetsuits. I start by sitting on the ground contorting my body to try to remember how to get this thing on. After taking twice as long as anyone else to get it up to my hips, I stand up, proud that I have got the hardest part done, only to realize that the zipper is in front of me instead of in the back. I put this glorified recycled tire wannabe on backwards. So very quietly and so no one would notice, (except my wife who got a front row seat to this whole show) I sat down peeled it off and started again.

Because of the time I lost practicing how not to dress up for the swim I didn’t get a chance to do any sort of warmup. No loss really, if I didn’t train for the swim, why on earth would I warm up for it. We are asked to the start line and as an improvement from last year I swallowed my pride (which is lacking anyway after squeezing into a less than flattering balloon) and took up a starting place at the back of the pack. As a result, I didn’t have nearly as much contact with the other swimmers and in turn didn’t have a panic attack. However this caused me a couple of brand new problems.

The first problem was that instead of getting passed by other racers and having them tickle my toes and freak me out, I was actually doing some of the toe-tickling passing. Which doesn’t seem at all like a problem except now instead of my feet getting hit it was my hands and about 300 meters into the swim another competitor knocked my $600 Garmin triathlon watch off. It was gone, and so was my ability to gauge my pacing, speed, heart rate, and every other metric that I had trained with to pace myself for the race. The second problem was that I had learned to swim and ‘sight’ (see where you are going without stopping swimming) based upon some literature I had read and I was actually quite good at it. Which also wouldn’t seem like a problem except now I didn’t have to stop during the swim and it seems that turning your head side to side while breathing hard horizontally makes you a little dizzy. A lot dizzy and a little sick. A lot sick. I threw up in my mouth a little. But after a little break to clear that up I felt good again and continued on. With no training, I actually ended up doing the unthinkable and beating my time from last year.

Swim Finish: 37:03 and I beat my time by 10:26! WHO NEEDS TO TRAIN??? Not this guy!

Transition number 1: Last year – 7:46, Goal – Not to fall over

Last year I fell over because of standing up after swimming. This year I wanted to be able to stand up like a big boy. There were two methods I read about to be able to do this, kicking hard before exit and keeping water out of the ears. It appears all my training was reading about swimming and not actually doing it. But it worked! I was still a little dizzy but was able to walk to my bike no problem. Once I had my bike ready, I saw a guy in pain stretching after the swim, and asked if he needed anything. He asked if I would press on his foot to help stretch out his calf so I did. After about 30 seconds he thanked me, I wished him well, and now was coherent enough to be able to run out of transition.

Transition number 1: 3:54! Great transition and good deed of the day completed. Booyah!

Bike: Last year – 2:59:00, Goal – 2:45:00

My plan was to go easy on the bike because I spent all summer training for the run. I did not want to cook my legs cycling and blow up on the run like the year before. Going easy should be just that, easy. It was not. Not when my GPS was now at the bottom of the lake and now all of my training use speed, cadence and heart rate was gone. This means I had no external information to tell me I was going too hard and I had to rely on my own perceived exertion. What you perceive your exertion to be is challenging during a race can cause quite the internal argument between taking it easy and getting passed by other racers. Here’s what the internal struggle sounded like at about the 20km mark.

(Going along at the perceived pace that I should be going)
“A lot of people are passing me maybe I’m going too easy…”
“Those guys are better than you and they are on expensive bikes… you’re not THAT good”

(Get passed by a guy on a cheaper bike, not looking as fit, in my age group)
“You can’t let him pass you, quit being a baby and go a little faster..”
“My plan was to take it easy…”
“But a little faster wouldn’t hurt you…”
(Pass the guy that just passed me)
“There ya go, good job Clarke, that wasn’t so bad now was it”
“It’s still ok, but I need to eat something now and I’m going to fast to eat and ride”
“If you eat I will have to slow down and that guy will pass you”
“But I need to eat”
“But then you have to slow down, and that not happening…”
(A few minutes go by at that pace then I get passed by a younger lady looking extremely fit)
“Awe hell no, you ain’t going to let that happen”
“But I need to slow down and eat, not speed up to catch someone”
“Fine fatty, I guess food is more important than racing isn’t it?”
“No, but…”
“Get your butt in gear and catch up!”

That’s how the entire bike went. I was constantly fighting with myself and I am really good at it. I had to deal with my brain instead of a computer telling about my own body. Dealing with me was harder than pushing down on the pedal. I sincerely apologize to all of you that ever have to deal with me. It sucks.

Bike: 2:43:12, still beat my goal!

Transition number 2. Last year – 3:17, This year 2:22. Nailed every part of this. But it is really about getting off a bike, taking a helmet off, putting shoes on, and you’re done.

The Run… dunt dunt daaaaaaaa!!!! Last year – 2:43:44, Goal 2 hours even.

I had spent the entire year working to improve my running ability. This was my focus, and this is the part of the race I had been training for. I begin to run out of transition and I feel like a million dollars. I know the race has gone well so far, I feel good and I trained for this part of the race. This feeling of euphoria quickly ended 100 meters into the run when, BANG! Both my quads are hit with cramps. Then it hit me, I just trained by running and more running. I completely did not train for running after getting off the bike. A serious oversight which I learned that day is much like learning to expertly take off fly a plane without learning to land one. Amusingly, the results end up being pretty much the same. This race wasn’t about being able to do the cardio, it became about getting through the pain. I was able to ‘muscle’ (hahaha) through it and the cramps left after about a kilometer. This cycle repeated again around the 5 and 10 and 15 kilometer marks. I was lucky that at around the 1k mark, a fellow racer named Brian and I started to run together.

Brian was about 50 feet ahead of me though transition and I slowly caught up to him. I noticed three things: He looks like a triathlete, He’s 35, (age is written on the back of your leg) and he has THE triathlon watch just like the one set at the bottom of the lake for safekeeping. As I caught up to him, we began to chat I learned three more things: He has done many triathlons, he flew here from Los Angeles, and running is his best event. I was clearly out of my league as it become clear that he was much better triathlete than I.

I wondered now how fast together he and I were running as again I was unable to use my watch for pacing and heart rate. He did ask if I wanted to know the pace and I declined because I was doing what I thought to be fantastic. It felt good and it felt easy. When I got the cramps at 5 and 10k his pace and ability as a conversationalist is what kept me running at a good speed. Unfortunately, even he couldn’t get me through the cramps at 15. My calf started to seize, and the lack of eating food on the bike had accumulated to my need to walk. It wasn’t the fight with my cardiovascular system that I had prepared for, but instead, one with my muscles. Brian clearly could keep going and I told him he should continue on. He told me, “We ran this far together, why would I leave now?” and we ran (mostly walked) to keep me going until the finish line.

Run: 2:24:03 Still 20 minutes better than the previous year.

I beat last year by 54 minutes and finished the race in 5:50:25. I’m going to train to do it again even better next year. To overcome the challenges that I faced this year and try to prepare for the new ones that will inevitably arise. Why am I going to do this again? Where else could you, in just under 6 hours, lose $600, get sick and threw up in your mouth, have a schizophrenic episode with yourself, seize every muscle in your lower body, and make a friend? Sign me up for one of those.

2015 Calgary Half Ironman

If you want to hear the story of how my first triathlon went horribly bad, read on.

Last year I decided that I was going to sign up for a triathlon. Not a sprint or olympic distance triathlon, a half ironman distance. 1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21.1km run. I think they should have cameras on the people like me that have no business being in the race to watch the train wreck that is going to be there race. Because there were no cameras on me, let me tell you the story.

The swim. 47:25 (goal 45 minutes)

During the warm up I saw a decently large fish eating something in water that was about six feet deep. Insert every fear pertaining to the movie ‘Jaws’ and then go have a swim. It was a great way to get ready for the swim. I am a decent swimmer so I thought I would take a position near the front of the pack. The swim starts and now I want you to picture 200 people in wetsuits, swimming to the same place, at the same time. It only took about 100 meters from the shore and I found myself behind someone and trying to stay far enough back that I don’t touch his feet. The person behind me wasn’t as courteous. Every time he touched my feet, my heart rate would race and I froze on the spot, check and make sure that it wasn’t a great white shark, and then continue swimming. Before my heart rate would relax i would get touched again, stop, check, continue. And again. And again. Each time my heart rate would skyrocket until finally after about 50 more meters, it was going to beat out of my chest and I could swim no more. I stopped and tread water and forced everyone to swim around me while I gained my composure. Can I quit? I turned around to see another 100 people swimming at me. Swimming against the flow made me more nauseated. Can I get to one of the volunteers in a boat? Sideways didn’t seem like a good option either. So I stayed there treading water and let nearly the entire field pass me as I tried to regain my composure. Finally after 2 or 3 minutes I continued on in the race. For the next 500 meters every time I turned my head to breath I thought I saw someone beside me. Which now made my swimming stroke pull, pull, breathe, AHHHHHH!, stop, check. Pull, pull, breathe, OMG!, stop, check. Also because I hadn’t practiced seeing where I am going WHILE swimming, for the rest of the swim after 5 or so breaths, I would completely stop swimming and make sure I was on course and continue on.

Transition number one. 7:46 (Goal 4 minutes)

As I am swimming to the swim finish and my hand grazes the mud at the bottom of the lake I take a few more stokes and decide that the water is shallow enough that I can run. I stand up and promptly start to run…. and then fall completely over. My head is spinning. In an effort not to drown in a foot of water I frantically try to stand up. This seems impossible so I end up taking a knee until I feel that I could stand. It was the feeling just like when you stand up really quickly and are a little light-headed. As it turns out, if you try to stand up really quickly after 47 minutes of horizontal cardio you really really light-headed. When I am finally able to stand I start making my way to the bike. Running while taking off a wetsuit is the most awkward thing to try to do. It’s even more awkward when your head is still swimming and you’re not exactly sure which way is down. This continued as I tried to get ready for the bike. Finally, I just sat down and took some time to gather myself. After 7 whole minutes, I decided that I could probably balance on a bike and I would let the rest wear off while I was pedaling.

Bike 2:59:00 (Goal 3:00:00)

This is my strength in triathlon, and the only time during the race that I hit my goal. Actually everything went pretty well during this leg of the race. Except for going up the one hill climb and then going down it. Now I am not very good at climbing hills because I have a little more fighting against gravity than most other triathletes. So as I start to climb the hill, everyone starts passing me. EVERYONE. But usually I am able to make some of this up going down the hills. So as I crest the hill I hunker down and get ready for the decent. I passed 3 or 4 people then I came upon a woman, white knuckled and riding her brakes down the hill. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem except she was hugging the white line and there was a guard rail on the right which made passing on that side pretty sketchy. “On your left!” I yelled, but she didn’t budge. I yelled again and she didn’t move from the white line to make room to pass. With no oncoming traffic, I thought that I would pass in the traffic lane and surely anyone in a vehicle would move over into the oncoming lane to give me room. I passed the lady, and just as I do so a jacked up black pickup passes me so close that I could probably have licked his mirror. The startle of seeing a vehicle so close made me give the bike a little shake which nearly made me run into the truck. Thankfully, I was able to move over and survive to bike another day.

Transition number two. 3:17 (Goal 2:30)

Your brain doesn’t work so good after 4 hours of cardio. I took my shoes off while on the bike, pedaling on top of the shoes that are still attached. I get to where my stuff is, take off my helmet and put my running shoes on and start to run out of the transition area and into the run. I get just to the end and start to slow down to a stop. I had that sinking feeling that I forgot something. I forgot all the food in my bag that I wanted to take with me on the run. So I turned around and went back to my bag, and loaded up the food that I had ready, and left again. It’s just never a good feeling when your running against the flow during a race.

Run 2:43:44 (Goal 2:15:00)

Did you know that you should train to run? I didn’t and it showed. After 7km I hit the wall and died. Unable to continue running because of the complete lack of fitness I had to run/walk the remaining 14km and it took two whole hours. Do you know what it’s like to not have anything left in the tank, and still have two hours ahead of you? I do, and it’s the worst experience of my life. The people at Ironman know this, and that’s where they get you. To have a laugh, they put a turnaround at 10km, so your as far from the start as the finish. If you want to quit, you have to walk your butt back anyways, so you may as well try to ‘race.’ At around kilometer 12 I got passed by a guy that according to his leg was in the 60-64 age group. I yelled at him “your over 60 and kicking my ass!” Around kilometer 15 while I was attempting to jog, I got passed by a guy walking. Walking! It was then clear to me that I was doing a lot of bouncing up and down without a lot of forward motion.

In total, I completed the race in 6:41:16 and finished 736 out of 898 finishers. As I crossed the finish line I was hooked. I became a finisher. I became a triathlete. I became Superman… almost.

The Guy in the Spandex Shorts

I’m sure that in my youth I would have said, “men shouldn’t wear spandex.” When I did see one of these crazy guys I would think to myself “why would they wear THAT in public??? Are they just trying to look ridiculous and make me uncomfortable??? I do not need to see that bulge…” Nobody wants to see the guy in the spandex shorts. As it turns out many years later I started in cycling and learned of the very serious and very painful problem of chaffing. I took to the google-sphere to find a solution to this. Quickly I learned that spandex shorts is the one tried and true method to completely eliminate this problem.

I didn’t immediately go out and buy spandex shorts. I had to do some serious self-convincing that I needed them. That the pain of chaffing was greater than the pain of ridicule and social anxiety that came with wearing such clothes. I told myself that most of my cycling is done solo, and nobody will really ever see me. With those thoughts in my head I went off and bought my first pair of spandex shorts.

My first ride I decided to wear these under a pair of regular shorts. I didn’t want anyone to see me because I am a man and men do not wear spandex. They worked great and I had no chaffing at all! Cycling shorts even have a pad in them to help with soreness on the rear end. These were the best thing ever for cycling and made riding much more enjoyable. After a few rides I decided that I could go out without second regular pair of shorts on top. There I was riding around town in spandex for the world to see.

Then I met another cyclist who became my good friend, Brad. Brad and I decided to go for a ride together one day where we met at his house. I went to his house and I stood on his doorstep in skin tight cycling jersey and spandex shorts. I rang his doorbell feeling very exposed. He opened the door and stood opposite me outfitted in the exact same type of clothes. It was as awkward as a swimming pool men’s change room. Though, at the same time it was a relief that he was wearing it too, just like when you go to a party under-dressed and meet someone that did the same.

A few months later Brad and I went on a long bike trip from around Banff. We decided to stop at a coffee shop with a long line in Lake Louise for a bite to eat. As I stood there, I began daydreaming and looking around. My gaze went to a pair of shoes and I thought to myself that those are odd shoes. Mindlessly my gaze went up to see that the man wearing those shoes was in spandex shorts! Shocked and snapping back to reality I wanted to see the face of the man who would have the audacity to wear such a thing in a public coffee shop. It was my friend Brad! Quickly, I looked down to see that I was wearing the exact same thing. It felt like that nightmare where you go to work and forgot to put pants on. Now I was standing in this coffee shop with everything out there for the world to see.

It took a few seconds, but after the shock wore off and I realized that I do have at least something on, I understood. I understood all the men I had seen in my life wearing spandex. These people aren’t trying to show off their stuff, instead it was (hopefully) out of necessity just like me. I had turned into the guy in the spandex shorts, and it was OK. I have since become more secure in my training and the need for proper attire that I have bought many pairs of spandex running shorts and even a speedo. Though, I am not quite ready to be the guy in the speedo.

My First 100km+ Bike Ride

I am an idiot. I have spent some time writing in a journal and I find it really help sort my thoughts out for the day. Now that I have spent a little time writing about my experiences in triathlon, I really lack the ability to make any even decent decisions. I am relatively new to the sport, and I am bound to make some of the ‘newbie’ mistakes. But my first 100+km ride didn’t have any good decisions. Actually, if I wanted to try to kill someone on a bicycle, I would make them do exactly what I did how I did it.

The first thing that I messed up was getting it into my head that I should ride over 100 km in the first place . I don’t know how or why this got into my head. In 2012, previous to this first ride I had completed exactly six 20 km rides. Only six, and each one took me about an hour to complete. Not only did they take an hour, but a hard-working hour. Think sweating and panting. So after riding a total of 120 km, broken up by six different days I planned on a 100 km ride. Actually I planned on cycling from my house to a friend’s house in Medicine Hat, which was 140 km away. At this point you can see that there is clearly something wrong in my brain. I’m not thinking it’s just a loose wire, it seems more like somebody uploaded a virus into the mainframe.

The second fairly large mistake I made was that I was expecting this ride to take about 6 hours. This was because in my one hour rides I averaged around 23km/h. Being decent at math I figured 140km divided by 23km/h gets you pretty darn close to 6 hours. I thought I was really smart to figure that out. What I didn’t figure out at that time was that 23 km/h for six hours isn’t, and wasn’t, sustainable. The good news is that after this ride was completed I learned that nugget of knowledge. The bad news was that it came to me after being on the bike for six hours and only having completed 118 km.

Being on the bike for 6 hours is still a tough time. But because of what I know now about food, salt, and water needs, I know some of the logistics that would go into a long ride. I did not know any these things in 2012. I took enough food and water for what I know today to be enough for a 2 hour ride. Suddenly my math skills for a 6 hour ride don’t seem all that impressive. So as you can imagine about 3 hours and 70 km into the ride I start to die. Good news is that 15 km away is Ralston, and I can stop at a gas station and re-fuel. The bad news is that the gas station is 100 meters off the highway, and an extra left turn, so I thought it was best not to stop in. I kept going for another two whole kilometers before I hit the wall and had to stop.

Hitting the wall in cycling has a name. It’s called ‘bonking’ and it is the worst feeling that you can have without actually breaking something in your body. Imagine the feeling of being awake for 3 days straight, then add jumping up and belly flopping onto the concrete, and then add being given a shot of adrenaline. You’re exhausted you’re sore, and you’re hearts pounding, and I was still 65 km away from my goal. As I stop, another cyclist is coming towards me on the other side of the highway. He continues on past me for a few minutes and turns around crosses the highway and passes me on his way back to Medicine Hat. Bonk or no bonk, the race is now on.

I hop back on my bike but not to head back to the gas station. In the now 30 degree heat, dazed and confused, I decided that I am in a race with this guy back to Medicine hat whether he knows it or not. He starts about 200 meters ahead of me, and it seems like the road ahead is just a series of small valleys and hills. I get to the top of the first hill, and he has increased to about 300 meters ahead. I descend down the hill and catch up to about 250. At the second hill he is about 350 meters ahead and again after descending I catch up a little to about 300 meters. This continues on and he continues to pull away. On every hill I work harder and harder to try to catch up until I use every ounce of energy I have left. After about 15 kilometers of this he gets out of sight. I lost this race and now I am nowhere near that gas station.

I’ve hit the wall, I’m in the middle of nowhere, I have no water, no food, and a cell phone. What do I do? I kept going. At least what I lack in intelligence I made up for in determination. Ahead another series of small hills each slightly higher than the last. I kept thinking at the top of the hill, “I’ll see the town of Redcliff, and I’ll stop there.” But it seems that the joke was on me as every hill I climbed revealed just another hill. Upon seeing this I kept saying to myself “I can only do ONE more.” It seemed like forever that this series repeated, until finally I could see a straight shot to the town of Redcliff. 5k out I stopped, called my friend and asked her to meet me there instead.

That day I rode a total of 117.9 km in 5:27 minutes and I learned a lot. I learned I slow down as rides get longer. I learned that I need to take more food and more water. I learned that I should stop when I am tired and refuel. I learned that 100km is long way when you’re not in an air-conditioned car listening to the oldies. But unfortunately, in my next rides I make most of these mistakes again. So I guess I didn’t learn much. Hey, at least I didn’t die.

How it all Started

Every path has a beginning, here is mine.

I have been wondering about where to start this story. Where would captivate you as the reader. The problem was that everything has a backstory, and as interesting I think I am, I know that going on and on about my own life is not interesting to you. What IS interesting is HOW does someone get to the point that they choose to train to compete in the full distance ironman triathlon. What were the warning signs that my loved ones and I should have seen coming, so that we could have prevented this madness? As I go through the story you will realize that the choices get increasingly insane.

The First choice was in 2012, a month before my 30th birthday. It was, “I am going to get more healthy.” So I bought a cheap road bike new for $150. I rode it about as much as anyone whose bike largely collects dust in their garage. It wasn’t a serious relationship. This continued for the rest of that and for 2013.

In 2014, I made a second choice which seemed reasonable at the time. A coworker asked me if I would sign up and do a 5k spartan race and a tough mudder with him. “Sure, I’ll do a obstacle race. I’m trying to get more healthy.” This is another perfectly reasonable choice. People do these races all the time. My coworker and I talked about the need to do a some training for the tough mudder. After all, it is a 17k obstacle course race through the mud. So I made the second choice that put me on the path to triathlon. I thought to myself “I like cycling. I will ride my bike more to train for the tough mudder.” This is where I begin to get a little silly. Why would I think cycling is good training for a 17km obstacle run.?

I found a love for racing in the spartan race, for competition in the tough mudder, and a love for training on the bicycle. I decided to compete in something harder, but more cycling focused. So early in 2015 I signed up for 4 events that were more cycling oriented. So I made my third choice that I was going to sign up for, in order, a 100km road ride, a 147km road ride, a 167km road ride, and the Calgary half ironman triathlon. Yep, let that sink in. I thought because I was riding a bicycle, I should sign up for a triathlon, because after all, there are bicycles in triathlon. After such a terrible decision, you would think that I could follow it up with one that make sense.

My next decision was to train for the triathlon. At it’s core you may think that I was finally going to approach something properly. Definitely, one should train for triathlon, especially after such a large leap of simply completing a tough mudder. I am sorry to disappoint you. Just like before when I thought that cycling was appropriate training for a obstacle mud run, I thought that it was enough for triathlon. My fourth decision was for training I would ride my bike a bunch, no need to swim or run because I was a good swimmer in junior high and anyone can run. I had FINISHED a tough mudder and I though I could COMPETE in half-iron triathlon by simply cycling a little bit more.

That was the structure leading up to the 2015 Calgary half ironman. I finished in a dismal 6:41:16 exhausted, sore, and defeated. Due to a lack of training I nearly quit 2 minutes into the swim, and learned that running is hard, especially after cycling for 90km. As I crossed the finished line beaten up, barely able to stand or to catch my breath. This is where I made my fifth, and likely worse of all, choice. I decided that I had gone through so much suffering that I was going to train for this all the time, that I was going to do this race again, I’m going to train to do the full distance ironman triathlon.

That’s the story of why I train constantly for triathlon. So if you are a parent, don’t let your kids get a road bike and sign up for even a 5k spartan race. Pain, suffering, and many poor decisions will follow.