Well, we did it.
After months and months of training, hundreds of hours of swimming, biking, and running, and thousands of hours thinking about (and dreading) this race, we completed our first half Ironman in Victoria, British Columbia!
Eric, Megan, and I, along with our incredible support team of Jordan and Nathaniel, made the drive up to Port Angeles, Washington, and took the ferry over to Victoria on Vancouver Island.
The intimidation started on the ferry. Well, truly, the intimidation began when we signed up for this race in September. But we didn’t encounter any other official Ironman athletes until we got in line for the ferry to Vancouver Island. The ferry was full of super fit folks wearing Ironman gear (read: this wasn’t their first rodeo), who all appeared to be in better shape than us and had much fancier bikes. I’m fairly certain we were shamelessly gawking at them and their flashy leg muscles.
Luckily, the ferry ride was gorgeous (Washington’s Olympic Mountains on one side, British Columbia’s mountains on the other), which served to distract us a bit from all the athletes.
We had a day to spend in Victoria before the race, but that ended up filled with race prep (a short workout, dropping off bikes, getting race packets, packing our transition bags, etc.). My favorite pre-race moment happened at dinner the night before, when we told our waitress we were in town for the Ironman. She asked us how long we thought that would take, and then she yelled, “SEVEN HOURS?!” before covering her mouth and apologizing (almost as if she couldn’t fathom the idea of exercising for 7 hours. I don’t blame her.). It was hilarious.
Race day started super early, with a 3:30 am wake up call at our house. That, combined with my inability to fall asleep the night before, left me running on somewhere around 3 hours of sleep. But with a 6 am start time for Eric, we had to get to Elk Lake nice and early to get marked and set up our transition areas. You’ll see the professional triathlete in me refusing to actually remove my warm clothes for body marking time.
The time before the race was spent setting up our transition areas (a tight squeeze with 2,000 bikes in the mix), braiding hair, waiting in bathroom lines, and posing ridiculously for photos. A big thanks goes out to Jordan and Nathaniel for capturing these beautiful moments.
I have no idea what was happening in the photo above, but I like it.
All three of us were in separate swim waves (divided by gender and age group), so I was the last of us to get started (Eric was already halfway done with his swim when I got in the water). Luckily for us, the water in Elk Lake was around 70 degrees, which was luxuriously cozy in a wetsuit. I was pretty nervous about the swim, mostly because I feared getting kicked in the face. A friend had advised us to swim on the outside of the group to avoid getting crowded or kicked, so we all went with that method. I’m pleased to report that we all survived with no injuries!
Each swim wave wore a different colored swim cap, which made me very aware of groups that started several waves after me passing me in the water. It appears that males between the ages of 40 and 44 swim quite a bit faster than I ever will.
The 1.2-mile swim was a rectangular course marked with numbered buoys. Let me tell you, for the first bit, I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer to those buoys. I’m also not super great at swimming in a particular direction, so I had to take little breaks to doggy paddle while I got my bearings to continue on the right course. People were kind of swimming all over the place, so you couldn’t really count on following the folks in front of you.
There were volunteers on paddle boards and in kayaks all around the perimeter of the swim course, just in case we needed a rescue. We also learned in our pre-race briefing that we could hold onto any of the bouys or volunteer flotation devices if we needed a break during the swim, as long we didn’t use them to move forward along the course. There were even jokes about doing a little sunbathing on a paddle board if you felt like it.
After the swim, we pulled off our wetsuits (super easy, thanks to the Glide I had applied all over my body, pre-swim), strapped on our helmets, packed our tri-suit pockets with snacks, and set off on a 56-mile bike ride. The ride was two loops through lovely farmland that occasionally opened up to incredible views of the water and mountains. But mostly, the ride was just hills. Hill after hill after hill. We knew that going in, which is why we trained on some pretty serious hills when we had the chance. I’m pleased to report that I didn’t find the hills nearly as discouraging as I thought I might. I went into the bike ride with the mindset that there would be lots of hills, and it didn’t matter how slowly I climbed them. As long as I kept peddling, they would be over soon. And it totally worked. Of course, it was super discouraging to be trucking along at a 6 mph pace on the uphill and see someone whiz by me on their super fancy bike with their flashy leg muscles. But the hilarious and wonderful part of being passed on the bike course was how complimentary the folks passing me would be. They’d always say something like, “Nice job!” or “Good work!” And then I would look down at their calf, where we all had our ages written in sharpie, and cringe at the fact that everyone passing me was over the age of 50.
In all of our training, we’d established a good fueling plan that involved eating about once an hour, and drinking throughout the ride. I fell hard for Picky Bars (we bought ours at REI, where I assume they thought I was just doing my grocery shopping based on the haul I’d get every time), which we all consumed in mass on the bike. I’ve found the key for me is to eat a bar before I feel hungry so that my body doesn’t get a chance to realize it is fatigued.
A few fun things happened to me along the bike course: First, I was putting my water bottle back in its holder, when I somehow missed and threw the bottle completely across the road. I vaguely remember running over it with my bike, but I’m not sure how that would’ve been possible, so perhaps I imagined that part. I had to pull over, wait for other bikes to pass, run across the road and into the grass to retrieve my bottle, and then stick it back in the holder again. Then, near the end of the course, right before a really big hill, my chain popped off my bike (the product of changing gears approximately a million times during the previous 50 miles). My chain had fallen off a few times during training, but Eric had always been with me to help (read: do it for me), so I tried doing what I remembered seeing him do, as well as what I learned in our REI bike maintenance class, but that didn’t work. So I ended up getting my hands covered in bike grease while trying to reassemble it at the bottom of a hill. Eventually, I got it, and carried on up that hill, totally proud of myself for solving the easiest of bike maintenance problems. I’m just super glad that none of us got a flat tire. We all noticed that the folks with flats around the course tended to have the super fancy bikes with the really tiny tires, so perhaps our beginner bikes saved us in that regard.
So here’s where the race started to get a little defeating. Once you get off the bike, you still have to run a half-marathon. Yikes. During my bike ride, I kept thinking about how much I wanted some chapstick (apparently I lick my lips a lot on the bike). I knew my chapstick was in my running belt, along with all my snacks for the run. So, when I got to the transition area, this genius removed all the snacks from her running belt to get the chapstick, and then, apparently, didn’t put them back in. By the time I realized that, I was already a few minutes into the run, with no chance of turning back to get my snacks. I have a super tricky stomach when it comes to fueling on the run, and over the past few months, I’d finally established a fuel plan that worked for me (a.k.a. didn’t make me sick). So, I didn’t have my snacks, which put me in a pretty foul mood. Up until this point, I was right on track with how I expected to the race to go: approximately 45 minutes in the water, and approximately 4 hours on the bike. But I knew that without my snacks, I wasn’t going to be able to run the whole 13.1 miles. I tried the gels they offered at the aid stations, but those immediately made me feel sick, so I just settled into a run/walk cycle, running until I felt too tired, and then walking until I felt like I could run again.
The run was 2 loops around Elk and Beaver Lakes. I have to say, multi-loop courses are not my favorite. During the first loop, there were plenty of other runners around, but apparently they were completing their second loop as I did my first. Once I started on that second loop, it was almost empty. That’s discouraging.
To add to feeling of “I’m completely alone out here,” we weren’t allowed to listen to music along any portion of the race course, which made this the quietest race of my life. With the way the course was set up, there weren’t a lot of places where spectators could come and cheer, so it was pretty darn quiet the entire time. And let me tell you, 7 hours is a long time to be alone with your thoughts. I was getting so bored that I, hater of small talk and talking to strangers, attempted to talk to anyone I came in contact with along the run. Please, SOMEONE TALK TO ME. I AM SO BORED.
And then, HALLELUJAH, Megan and I found one another. There was one tiny portion of the run where we did a little out and back, and that’s where I heard my name. Megan and I both raised our arms in the air, yelled each other’s names, and exclaimed, “THIS IS THE WORST!” I think we entertained a few folks. We spent the next little bit just walking and chatting, sharing tales of our troubles along the course, and just generally enjoying having someone to talk to for the first time in 7 hours. We crossed the finish line together (something we had joked about doing pre-race, but didn’t think would actually be possible), and celebrated finishing the LONGEST exercise experience of our lives.
Eric totally crushed this race, finishing a full hour faster than he thought he might (6:06:47), while I took a bit longer (7:31:57). Now, before you go getting too impressed with us, know that the winner of the whole thing finished in 4:09:11, which is only 10 minutes longer than it took me to complete JUST THE BIKE portion. Yikes.
We have to give a huge shout out to Jordan and Nathaniel for supporting us on the course, transporting our bikes, taking hilarious photos, and taking care of business for the hour after the race that the three of us spent sprawled out on the floor, debating showering or throwing up. You guys are the best.
As for future Ironmans, we’re kind of on the fence. During the race, I thought, “I’ll never do this again.” But in the week after, we all had a lot of back and forth about wanting to do another one. I’d like to try again to get a better time (and remember my running snacks), but I also love the idea of long weekend hikes and easy no-training-necessary getaways. Only time will tell…
Thanks for following along on this crazy triathlon training journey!