Ironman Canada 2009 – The Path of Perseverance

In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tanzanian runner John Stephen Ahkwari was the last runner in the marathon. He came in about an hour and a half after the winner, practically carrying his leg, as it was so bloodied and bandaged.
Film Director Bud Greenspan asked him, “Why did you keep going?”
He said, “You don’t understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it.

How To Finish A Marathon – 1968 Olympics In Mexico City


Yes, this piece is long, but so is an Ironman and the road you travel to get there. This was my third IM distance race (2007 IM Florida 12:00:20, 2008 Montreal Esprit 11:05:18), but my first time at Ironman Canada, in Penticton B.C. The 2009 Ironman Canada race? Oh that thing…

Ironman Canada Finish Time – 15:15:13
It’s just a number on the clock, but it doesn’t tell the story behind it. It’s just a number. The real tale is in the details. Sometimes the things held most precious are those that are purchased most dearly. That was the case for and the lesson learned on this race.

Based on previous races and listening to others that had done IMC before, I was predicting a twelve hour finish. I expected a 1:15 swim, sub 6:00 bike and hoped for a 4:00 marathon. At least that was the plan that I had trained for and felt like it was a do-able goal, but like all events like this, what you hope and plan for and what actually happens are some times completely different.

I drove the the bike course on Thursday before the race with my wife Rosie at my side doing the navigator thing. Boy, I’m glad I did. I was able to check that the impressions that I gotten from the “Real Rides” IMC bike videos that I rode to on the trainer over the winter. It also allowed me to rubber neck the scenery from the inside of a vehicle instead of on the bike. It also confirmed that the section between Karameros and Yellow Lake was going to be stinkin’ hot.

Pre Race
On race morning, I wasn’t nervous, I had a plan, I had the gear, I was organized. I only had the usual jitters waiting for the gun to go off for the swim, but that’s all, just the usual pre-race jitters. I had lots of time to get body marked, do a bike check, pass off clothing bags, zip up and get a short warm up swim in before the pro’s took off.

Swim – 1:13:57
I had a good swim. As the course goes clockwise, I started as far to the left as I could to avoid most of the heavy body contact. I sighted on the mountain top on the way out and some condos on the way back. I had a nice relaxing swim, chasing feet most of the way. I probably took it little too easy, and I didn’t even push my pace over the last 200 metres at all. I came out of the water feeling refreshed and able to swim further if I had to. It was a good start to the race.

T1 – 0:06:58
It went as planned, no surprises. I wore my favourite tri shorts and my Florida IM tri top under my wetsuit, so I didn’t even need the change tent. Why not the one piece? Well, at the two other IM’s, I had to go pee, and well, it’s a royal pain getting out of and back into a wet, sweaty, one piece tri suit. If I’m hydrating properly, I’ll have to stop a few times to relieve myself. Or at least that was the plan.

Bike – 7:17:50
Ah… Now, as soon as I got on my bike, it just didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It kept bugging me through almost the whole ride, until I figured out what was going on.

You’ll have to wait for it…

I had a great first half, trying to ride easy, sticking to my feed and fluid plan. I easily held 35-40 kph on the flats with a tail wind. Richter Pass wasn’t as hard as I’d expected and turned out to be slightly easier than the same effort on the video. I imagine Yellow Lake would be about the same as well, not too hard, just a long, granny gear grind up.

However, as predicted, it was stinkin’ hot and we haven’t had a lot of heat to train in this summer in Southern Ontario. I think it must have hit 35c or more on the section between Karameros and Yellow Lake, not to mention the head wind that just blew hot air at us. With a temperature inversion, we also had a lot of smoke later in the ride to deal with as well as on the marathon It was strange watching the smoke cloud working its way down from the peaks into the valley on the way to Yellow Lake.

On that section, I suffered more than I had ever suffered before. I couldn’t believe how slow I was going, how much my legs hurt and how little power I had in them. It was an effort just to coast. I wanted to quit the race a dozen times before Yellow Lake. I was in tears because of the pain and how bad I felt. I swear, I’ve never felt as bad in ANY other race I’ve done. None.

I was drinking enough, but due to a bike mechanical issue and the temperature, I barely made it to Yellow Lake aid station and when I did, I did the smart thing. I pulled in and had the medics check me over.

The medics there confirmed I was suffering from heat exhaustion, but I because I was, surprisingly, adequately hydrated, if I just got cooled down, I should be able to finish the bike. I sat in the air conditioned ambulance for about 10 minutes under a cold, wet blanket. The med team had a call so I got out and sat for another 10 minutes in the shade beside the kiddie wading pool that they had filled with water bottles and ice. Using the water and ice I eventually got my temperature back down to where I thought I could at least ride back to town. I told myself I could quit when I got there.

I still didn’t have any leg strength and the legs and my knees were screaming on every minor hill. Even spots that I thought were flat or slightly down hill, I still had to pedal to maintain forward momentum. It was so bad, I had to stop in town with only four miles to go to sit at the side of the road and let the pain, nausea and dizziness pass. I was at the lowest part of the race then, not even able to peddle the last few miles. I was trained, I knew I could do this distance with no problems, but I just couldn’t figure out why I was having such a tough time with the bike.

It was then I heard the squeak and noticed that the front brake calliper had shifted and was rubbing on the wheel. Not just a little tick-tick rub, but a hard constant pressure rub, hard enough to slow the bike down and keep the wheel from spinning freely. Unfortunately, it took me most of the race to figure this out. I think it must have jammed some time around Richter but it could have been that way from the transition area and partially explains why I got over heated and had to work so hard to just maintain forward movement, even on the flats in the last half.

I sat in the shade on Main Street for another 10 minutes until I cooled down and my legs had recovered enough to consider riding in to transition. Thank the IM Gods, it was down hill or flat from that point. Man, I was in bad shape.

T2 – 0:11:00
I hit the bike dismount line and asked for help getting off the bike. Yeah, I was that bad. I had an escort to the change tent and the volunteers had a medic stand by me. I explained what I was feeling and asked if I could lie down for a bit. The medic didn’t like that idea. I told him I wasn’t going to have a nap, just stretch out the legs and lower back. If I passed out, I was all his. It felt like I was there longer than the time indicates, but it was just what I needed. The med had to help me open my Bike-to-Run bag (the hands weren’t working too good), but I managed to get out of my bike shoes and helmet, grease up my feet and get the socks and running shoes on.

It was interesting watching him, watch me tie up my shoes. I knew he was judging how badly I was compromised with heat and dehydration by how well I was able to tie my shoes.

That done, he offered to help me up, but I said if I needed help to stand, I shouldn’t be allowed out on course. I even got a smile out of him. With that, I got up under my own power, and headed out on the run course.

Run – 6:25:30
I knew that my legs were fried, I had spent a lot of time standing in the peddles trying to relieve the pain round my knees before and after Yellow Lake. Bending my knees was a big problem and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to run. However, if I walked, I could keep my body temp and hydration levels under control, and my knees wouldn’t bother me too much. I did the math and figured that I still had enough time to attempt to walk the marathon and still get under the cut off time.

To paraphrase John Stephen Ahkwari, I went to Penticton to finish an Ironman, not to start one, so I decided to see if the legs would carry me that far by walking.

As it turned out, I didn’t run a step of the entire marathon distance. Yup, I walked the whole way. I even managed to latch up with a gentleman from England at the two mile mark that was having issues as well and we walked the distance together. I have to make a big shout out to Paul McGeehan, I couldn’t have done it without him, we pulled each other across those 26.2 miles. The smoke from earlier in the day had settled so thick across the lake by our return 13 miles, I thought it was fog, and in the dark it made the trip back to town a bit surreal.

During the walk we managed to knock off a steady 4 mile per hour pace over the whole thing and had a blast doing it. This is the only race I’ve ever walked across a finish line and I was damn proud and happy to be able to do it.

The aftermath…
Ironman Canada 2009 will probably be my toughest day at the IM office, and yes, it will probably stand as my personal worst time for an Ironman distance race. However, I don’t think I’ve been tested mentally, physically or spiritually as much as I was that day. I wanted to quit on the bike so many times I can’t count them, but baring harm to myself, I couldn’t bring myself to do it when push came to shove. In the end, I came to finish an Ironman and that’s what I intended to do, no matter what.

And being the toughest, it also made me dig deeper than I thought possible, to change, to adapt and do what needed to be done to finish the journey I had started at 7:00 AM that morning. It might be my slowest IM time, but I know I’ll be hard pressed to feel prouder than I do of this finish.


By Mark “2009 IMC Finisher” Collis
September 5, 2009