Training and racing Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2016
The value of training in adverse conditions
My first ironman-distance triathlon was in September of 2014 in Hunter, NY and it included lots of elevation gain and frigid pouring rain. I knew the Mont-Tremblant bike course would be similar to Hunter, with close to 7,000ft of gain, and then when I started checking the weather a week before the race it looked like we’d be getting plenty of rain too. Maybe even all day thunderstorms.
Fortunately I trained in a wide variety of conditions this summer, including two 100+mi rides in pouring rain. The kind of rain where not a single inch of your underwear is left dry and you feel more like you’re swimming than biking. This kind of training was great because it taught me how much extra I needed to wear and eat to stay warm. I learned to pack my Tinderhearth sourdough spelt sandwiches into a few separate plastic bags so that when I ate one the others would stay dry, and to always, always pack my rain-wind jacket even if it felt sort of warm when I headed out the door.
Training in adverse conditions is important because it teaches an athlete how to read their body when they’re distracted. When the external conditions are extreme it can be easy to focus on that and not yourself. At least once in my early training days I realized too late that I was over heating or hypothermic and had to be rescued or limp home.
I had a fantastic experience of managing myself in this way during the Ultra Trail du Mont Albert in the Chic Choc’s this June.
It was hot and humid and the race covers 27 miles and climbs over 5,000 ft to the highest point in Quebec, which turns out to be exposed alpine tundra. There were very few aid stations and I had to keep track of my
nutrition, hydration and electrolytes while also really pushing myself to get up and down the mountain as fast as I could because of a looming afternoon thunderstorm. In the end I felt proud of myself for being able to move confidently over the mountain terrain and was able to finish the race a full half hour before my goal time.
Again, this kind of all-day self-management is an important part of Ironman training. By the time the race came around I felt totally confident that as long as the race wasn’t cancelled (due to fog or lightening), I would be able to handle the conditions.
Ironman Mont-Tremblant, August 21, 2016
When I registered for this race I was incredibly annoyed to discover that I had to check-in Friday afternoon for a Sunday race. What kind of people can take off two days of work for a race?? First the crazy registration fee and now taking vacation days during the busiest time of year? Adding insult to injury, I discovered the Thursday before the race that the traffic around Montreal could add a few hours to my travel time and it was very unlikely that I would make it to check-in if I left early Friday morning and I was going to need to leave Thursday evening instead. That’s how I realized I had three hours to pack instead of 16. Lucy, my 10 year old daughter LOVES check lists and was a big help in gathering everything on such short notice. Finally, having double-checked the epic Ironman gear list which includes such essentials as three kinds of zip lock bags, three kinds of tape, several colors of permanent markers and another random but possibly necessary 300 items, I was ready.
I left my house at 6pm Thursday evening and meandered my way through the moosey back woods of Maine. There really is no other way to get there from here. The tiny border crossing had one women and she waved me through. Good to see Canada won’t be building a wall anytime soon. I spent the night at a funky little college town hostel-type hotel in Sherbrooke and found a great coffee place in the morning with fresh bagels and smoked salmon.
I then made a fatal navigation error – following my car GPS without really knowing where I was going. It turns out the GPS was sending me to the heart of Mont-Tremblant Parc, which is not the same at the ski resort where the race was being held. They are in fact 60 miles apart. Again, insult to injury the road the GPS sent me on had a mysterious road block which sent me on another 40 mile detour. All I could think was thank god I had left the night before and still had plenty of time to make it to check-in. I arrived around 1:30 and quickly realized the scale of the event when I tried to park. Which ended up being three miles and a shuttle bus ride away. Finally I found my cousin Samantha who had been occupying her time with a serving of poutine while waiting for me to arrive. We found check-in, where again, I realized, this was definitely not a “throw my bike over the transition area fence” kind of race. I picked up all kinds of waivers, signed them, weighed myself (still not sure why we had to do this, but man, if you want to fuss up a bunch of triathletes try telling them not to take their shoes before they get weighed).
It took about 45 minutes to wind myself through the check-in maze after which I gratefully followed Samantha to the crepery for lunch.
Samantha and I shared a room at Auberge Le Lupin, a fantastic bed and breakfast only a 10min walk from the start line. We spent Saturday going through our gear and collecting miscalaneous missing pieces – like the straw to my aero water bottle that Lucy had borrowed for a home science project (and filled with mysterious black gunk), and a spare long-stemmed inner tube to use with the super-awesome Reynolds Assault carbon wheels that the Bar Harbor Bike Shop put on my bike for the weekend. We also gave in to the temptation and both bought new swim goggles, which turned out to be a great decision.
I was still debating what shorts to wear since I really wanted to wear one pair through the whole race and not change clothes at all during transitions but when I tried running in any of my tri bike shorts, even the ones with the thinnest padding it still felt like I was running with a diaper. I gave up on finding the perfect tri-shorts and packed my trusty running compression shorts into my transition bag.
The whole transition set up is really fancy and well-organized. We had to drop off our bags and park our bikes in their designated spot by 4pm Saturday afternoon, which means we had to be totally decided on what gear to put in each bag (a swim-to-bike bag and a bike-to-run bag) a full 15 hours before the start of the race. For the average type-A triathlete this kind of loss of control over gear can be nearly debilitating. But I managed to only goof up the placement of my watch, which is not waterproof and thus should have gone into my swim-to-bike bag, but since we were allowed access to our bikes in the morning before the race I stuffed it into the snack bag on my frame. Did I mention they photograph each bike before you roll it into the bike rack area? I’m pretty sure Midnight (my bike) felt like royalty in front of the paprazzi. Don’t tell her, but she’s an aluminum frame Cannondale CAAD10 and she was kind of a Mike Mulligan surrounded by a field of carbon tri-bikes.
With all of our gear taken care of we had a couple hours to enjoy the ski resort festivities which included riding the alpine slide and eating ice cream dipped in hazelnut chocolate sauce.
Pierre and Sylvie at Le Lupin made us a great pre-race dinner which we finished by 7pm and after only a little more gear review and anxiety (not much we could do at that point) we went to bed.
We woke up at 4:15am and ate an awesome pre-race breakfast, once again made by Pierre. The morning was warm but not at all foggy and the forecast for thunderstorms had been postponed until at least 11am. This was a great relief because it meant the race would go as planned (instead of altering or eliminating the swim portion).
We walked over to the bike area, pumped our tires, filled our water bottles and headed straight over to the beach. With the huge crowds slowing everything down we had no time to spare. We threw our “morning gear bags” into the giant dumpster truck as instructed and made our way to the water.
I had just enough time to jump-in and get wet before my swim wave was lining up. I kept telling myself “nice and easy” for the swim. No need to rush, no need to breathe hard, it won’t make me any faster and it was crucial that I not re-experience that panicky racing heart-rate feeling that came on when I had my episode of pulmonary edema this spring.
So that’s just how I swam: nice and easy. I took one buoy at a time and told myself I could swim all day if I needed too. The wave never thinned out and I had fun trying to draft off swimmers just ahead of me. I did get kicked a bunch and my goggles even came off once. Also, I still have no good way of managing my three feet of hair in a swim cap and about half way through my cap started flopping about precariously and was barely hanging on by the time I finished. The water got much rougher during the second half of the swim and I could see people bobbing off to the edges of the course and looking pretty green. I watched one guy puke and quickly turned my head back into the water pretending I hadn’t just seen that. I train quite a bit in Blue Hill Bay and it can be very rough with both choppy waves and big rollers and I’m lucky I have yet to get seasick.
Once out of the water I sat down on the red carpet and let the “strippers” pull off my wetsuit, which I then slung over my shoulder and ran the 500yds up to transition. All I had to do was put on my sunglasses, helmet and bike shoes but my transition was a bit slow because I couldn’t find my bike. Volunteers are supposed to bring you your bike (valet-style) but things got mixed up (or I got mixed up) and I had to chase down Midnight before the well-intentioned volunteer wheeled her all the way to the opposite corner of the bike pen.
My mantra for the first few miles of the bike was “don’t go out too fast”. I love to bike and it is by far my strongest of the three legs but I decided to see if going a little easier would give me more for the run. So I rolled along at a comfortable 18mph for the first big stretch of highway. There were some big rolling hills in this section and I hit 43mph a few times. At first this was fine, but as I caught up with the men’s wave it became a constant challenge to not run them over. I weigh at least 20lbs more than the average tri-guy (plus Midnight is a little heftier than her carbon friends) and consequently I overtake almost everyone on the down hills. About an hour into the ride it began to rain steadily and this added to the excitement because it is very difficult, if not impossible to break hard with new carbon wheels. The first lap of the bike ends with a dramatic 8% climb up a mountain with a corresponding descent. By now it was pouring and as I approached the start of the hill I came on a major bike accident pile up. There were a few guys on the ground, one was still in the middle of road with horrific looking injuries to his face and head, another on the side of the road with a friend stabilizing his neck. There were at least a dozen bikes on the side of the road and everyone was yelling to slow down. The riders coming down the other side of the road were barely able to break in time to avoid those of us biking up and around the accident – it was quite sobering and made me wonder if I would be able to adequately control my own descent. As it turns out by the time I was coming back down they had volunteers posted in the middle of the road above the accident and forced all of us to slow way down. I kept my speed below 15mph on the entire downhill and I was relieved when I made it back down safely. I had planned to stop once on the bike at the half way point – here I topped off my water, dumped in Tailwind, peed and headed out for the second lap. I had stuffed a rain jacket into my saddle bag and considered putting it on several times but kept being just not cold enough . . . I had plenty of energy on the second lap and started to regret that I hadn’t pushed it harder on the first. Then just before hitting the final ascent I fumbled (cold hands) and dropped TWO packets of Gu – which left me with no fuel for the climb or the remaining 40 minutes of riding. Oops.
Finally off the bike and onto the run. Have you ever tried to peel off wet spandex and then put on dry compression shorts over wet legs? It’s impossibly tedious and even slower with cold hands. I think I’m glad I did, though all my tri friends claim that running 26 miles with wet bike-padding isn’t as bad as it sounds.
The run was fairly uneventful. It took me about three miles to catch back up on calories but I was staying under 11 min miles and feeling pretty good. If you have trained adequately, the run in an Ironman is almost entirely mental – my mantra on this section was “if you can walk you can run”. I would pick out something ahead and tell myself I could run to there, and once there I would pick a new bench mark. Or I would count runners coming the other way and only after I had counted 50 would I allow myself look at my watch again. In the end I walked very little of the course and was really proud of how smoothly I completed the run. Maybe biking slower paid off?
My goal was to finish during daylight and as I ran down the final hill I could see lovely pink streaks of clouds as the sun began to set. I’m not a crowd person but it was fun to come through the finisher chute and high five all the cheering kids along the way.
As soon as I crossed the line a volunteer grabbed my arm and ushered me right into the recovery tent. I wondered if she thought I was going to pass out because she didn’t let go of me for a couple of minutes. The race logistics were pretty amazing at this point. The same bag I had tossed into a garbage truck at 6:30am was immediately handed to me with all my dry clothes in it. I managed to hide behind a space blanket to change while I waited for Samantha to finish. I also attempted to find something edible in the post-race meal, which turned out to be terrible. Cold and very mayonnaisey pasta salad, cold and very dry looking cous cous, and raw cucumbers and carrots. Plus of course poutine. Out of desperation I got the pountine without the pountine (aka plain French fries) and nibbled on cucumbers and carrots. All of the beverages were caffeinated but since I was hoping to sleep soon I stuck to water. Samantha finished an hour and a half after me and was in great spirits. She had also had a great race. I started to offer to help her get food and find her warm clothes when all of a sudden I felt horribly ill. Where was that overly protective volunteer now? All I could do was sit on the curb with my head between my legs getting more and more nauseated. The EMTs did find me and I tried to convince them that really all I had to do was puke and I would be fine again. The problem is that in every endurance event I’ve done my digestion pretty much shuts down after 10-11 hours of racing and it can take several hours for it to start back up. Usually I need to start with warm soups or tea before I can eat anything dense again. Thus the French fries and cold vegetables were just sitting there. But not for long. The EMT’s brought me a garbage bag and I gratefully puked into it, and yes, I instantly felt better. Samantha and I headed out to pick up our bikes and transition bags and walked back under a lovely, clear night sky to our bed and breakfast. I fell asleep on an empty stomach but miraculously was able to sleep all the way through until 7 the next morning.
We woke to the aroma of crepes Florentine and whole grain pancakes with fresh peach compote. Plus bread pudding and espresso. It was a beautiful fresh morning and I realized this little resort town had really grown on me. Or was it just Pierre’s cooking?
The drive home was mostly uneventful. There was no line at the border but the customs man did in fact check my passport card and cheerily told me he had gone to high school in Blue Hill. Also, by trying to avoid buying gas in Canada I ran my tank perilously empty in that 40 mile stretch of wilderness between the border and the first gas station. I’m convinced I only made it because there was a really strong tailwind. Gas isn’t the only thing that runs in short supply in this part of Maine. There is virtually nowhere to buy food (excepting slim jims and cheap American beer). Normally I would not notice such a thing but seeing as I was down a few thousand calories I was fairly desperate by the time I hit the Sugarloaf general store where I bought a box of wildly over priced crackers and a small square of cheddar cheese. This made it even sweeter to get home and discover that for dinner Lucy had made me a hamburger with all the fixings and steamed me a big bowl of green beans. It was the best homecoming ever!
Post Ironman recovery and what’s next
The great thing about triathlons is that they are fairly easy to recover from. At least in terms of soreness. I took the week off and started running the following week. Two weeks later I was still feeling general fatigue but only when I pushed myself. Even so, I had a great time running laps at the Last Man Standing race held at Pineland Farms this past weekend (32.4 miles total).
This week I’m working on my running mileage and plan to hike Mt.Katahdin this weekend. This will be my final training burst before the Vermont 50 (a 50 mi mountain trail running race) on September 25th.
Overall I am very pleased with how well my body is holding up. I think the considerable amount of strength work I did last fall-winter-spring has paid off and is keeping my hip out of the main-line of fire. Another success is that I’m feeling excited about running and being in the mountains. There’s nothing like training 18 hours a week to make a 3-hour run feel down-right relaxing!