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My Half Ironman Experience

By Mike Cameron. On Jul 9, 2013.

So here it is, 32 weeks of training all comes down to one day.  On Sunday July 7, 2013 I raced the Great White North Half Ironman Triathlon and I have to tell you that after my swim experience at the ITU I was a little nervous leading up to this event.  I made extra effort to get out to Hubbles lake the week prior to the race and get a swim in and get some more experience with the open water and the wetsuit.  That certainly helped put my nerves a little more at ease.  Still feeling a little bit anxious I reached out to some friends who had raced this event before and connected for a coffee.  That was a great idea as both of them had very positive and reassuring feedback.  “Trust your training Mike”, “This is what you prepare for”.  Also simply talking through my race plan was tremendously helpful.  Listening to different nutrition strategies and reassuring that my own plan was in line with past experience was comforting.  Then of course I had to have a meeting with my coach to discuss my race strategy and listen to any words of wisdom that he had to offer up.  That was again a lot of reassurance and a reminder to “Trust your training”.  He talked about how he felt I will love the Half-iron distance as the sprint tri’s often favour the “natural athletes” because of the short distances.  His contention was that the iron distances favoured the “hard-workers” and you, Mike, are a hard worker.  I really liked that thought as I have trained very hard for the last 32 weeks.  We also talked about my time goals.  I talked about my hope for a sub 6 hour race.  His response?  “Um… no!”. Oh, OK?  Then he proceeded to tell me I should break 5:30 easily.  My thought was “OK, you’re my coach, it’s your job to push me to excel, but really?? 5:30?? I don’t think so.”  We discussed my taper week and a little bit about the mental preparation and he suggested, since I am a left breather, I start on the far right of the pack on the beach so I can keep the bulk of the pack in view and have some room if I need it.

Thursday night my Mom, Dad and sister arrived in town from the lower mainland.  Oh, did I mention that my younger brother and sister were doing this race with me?  Pretty cool hey?  I was likely more nervous than excited at this point but really tried to hang onto the excitement to push out the fear.  Friday both Judi, Darryl and I did some light last minute training just to keep the joints and muscles limber.  We opted not to make the drive out to Stoney Plain for the race pasta dinner and athlete orientation as it is at least a 45 minute drive from my home in Sherwood Park.  We decided instead to stay at my place, have a light meal and hang out in the backyard.

I had registered both my son Christopher and I in the Color me Rad 5km fun run for 8am Saturday morning.  I know, I know, what was I thinking?  In hindsight running a 5km road race the day before my first half ironman was likely not the smartest of things to do.  I will save the rundown of the Color me Rad race for another post but it was a blast.

Saturday was also bike check in, T2 check in, and an opportunity to swim the course at Hubbles.  Both bike check in and the lake opened at 2pm so we made arrangements to head out from Sherwood Park at about 12:30 to pick up our race package and get the bikes in, and go for a swim.  There were so many things about this race that made it absolutely spectacular.  Besides being able to race with my siblings, I was also going to be able to race with my fitness trainer Jaime.  She has been an inspiration for me in my fitness endeavors for many years. I made arrangements to drive out with her on Saturday with my brother and sister following.  The nerves were in full flight now! Less than 24 hours to go!  As we drove out we made lots of small talk and both mentioned we were trying hard not to think too hard about race day.  At race package pickup I grabbed a GWN jersey and a sweatshirt.  After all, this was my first half ironman, I need to have some souvenirs!!  The four of us drove down to the lake, went for a quick ride to make sure the bikes were solid before checking them into T1(transition).  After that some banter on the beach as we wetsuited up and decided to swim out to the 400M bouy and back.  The swim felt great.  Darryl timed it and we were somewhere around 7 minutes for our out and back.  Looking pretty good for race day!

On the way back to Sherwood Park my sister called to ask about plans for dinner.  I think we were all unsure of an appropriate pre-race meal, but I had a craving for a BP’s BBQ chicken pizza!  Crazy I know!  Judi and Darryl were all over that.  So after Jaime dropped me off I headed out to BP’s to meet Darryl and Judi for my pizza fix.  Man was it delicious!  No beer tonight (sigh), just lots of water.  We ate up, headed home and, feeling quite wiped by the day, looked at each other at about 7pm saying “Is it bedtime yet?”.  We fussed and fiddled with packing gear for the morning for a while and I finally hit the sack at 9pm.  We planned to be on the road for 5:30 and I wanted plenty of time to eat a good breakfast.  Nutrition is obviously a critical element in any long distance event and I had my plan laid out so wanted to make sure I stuck with it.  I slept like a rock until about 3:30am then tossed and turned a bit until 4:45. Overall a great sleep for the night before race day.  Everyone had told me to sleep well on Thursday and Friday as I likely would not sleep well on the night before the race.  Thankfully I proved them wrong.  I went to wake up my 12 year old son who was to head out with Grandma and Grandpa to watch the race.  Unfortunately he had been fighting a cold and the combination of sickness and 5am made him opt to stay with his mom in Sherwood Park rather than head all the way to Stony Plain.  Who could blame him.  I got my oatmeal and 2 egg omelette in and we were on the road according to plan at almost exactly 5:30am.

We arrived at Hubbles lake shortly after 6:15 and walked our gear down to T1.  After checking out the bikes, getting our gear laid out and finding some friends, the dreaded wait began.  They had a countdown clock at the announcers tent and I remember trying to decide how early to get my wetsuit on.  Trying to think through transition and rerun my nutrition plan in my head.  As I mentioned in my last post the swim had me pretty nervous so I came up with a new mantra for the swim: “I’m calm, I’m strong, and I’m dom!”.  Anything to keep the mind going to those shitty places.  I ate half a banana and drank a 5 hour energy drink.  I laid out my 4 power bars to take on my ride and left the other half banana to eat once out of the water. Tick, Tock.  About 30 minutes til 7:30 and race start.  Then the announcer comes on and says that the water is a balmy 22 degrees!  You could feel the hush fall over the crowd.  “She’s not telling us this is a non-wetsuit event is she?”  No that was not what she was saying but I now there were a few moments of panic running through the crowd.  She then went on to say that swim warm up would close at 7:30 so they could get the race underway promptly at 8am.  WTF??? Race time was 7:30. Tick, Tock!  She quickly corrected herself and you could feel the crowd of athletes anxiety ease a little.  At that point I walked over to the beach area and found my little bro (picture attached) and the countdown continued. TICK, TOCK!  They soon called us over to cross the timing mat to initialize our timing chips and enter the beach through transition. “I’m calm, I’m strong, and I’m dom!” Tick Tock!  I found Jaime and the siblings on the beach.  A couple of last minute jokes I don’t have any hope of remembering.  I took up my position on the far right hand side of the beach middle depth of the pack.  The announcer announces less then one minute til start.  TICK, TOCK!  About 10 seconds later the gun goes! So much for a minute!  We’re off.  This time I calmly walked into the water as opposed to sprinting in in a panic.  I’m strong, I’m calm and I’m dom! A much more relaxed start than the one I pulled at the ITU sprint distance triathlon.  I quickly found my rhythm and took a few breast strokes when I needed to regain my composure after gulping some lake water.  I stuck to my mantra, but also started counting my strokes.  One, two, three, up to ten then sight and do it all over again.  Head up, find an open spot in the pack 50 or so meters ahead and target that. One, two, three over again.  Round the first buoy it got fairly crowded but now I knew I was 900 meters in.  You ain’t so bad, lake! Round the 2nd buoy and I’ve got 400 meters home!! Heck ya, I’m gonna do this thing!  I swim into knee deep water, stand and run toward the announcer table at transition where my glasses are.  Quick grab of the glasses, top down on my wetsuit, time to find me a wetsuit stripper.  A volunteer grabs me, I lay down and whoosh! Wetsuit off an in my hands.  As I find my bike I hear the announcer calling out Judi and Darryl as they come into transition.  YES!  Small victory, Judi has always been the stronger swimmer so it felt pretty good to be out of the water first!  No sibling rivalry here.  I put all my wet gear in the wet gear bag, wolf down my banana, bike shoes on, helmet on, load up the jersey with power bars, bike off the rack and away we go!

As I hit the mount line coming out of transition and try and get my shoes clipped in, I hear a very loud, strong, “MIKE!, MIKE!, MIKE!”.  Coach Craig is there!!  I look up as I fumble to get my second shoe in the clip, give him a smile and hit the road.  I remind myself of my nutrition plan as I hit the top of the hill out of transition and crack a power bar.  “Don’t forget to eat and drink Mike” I think to myself.  No matter how much you push yourself on the run if there is no gas in the tank there is nothing you can do.  I check my bike computer and it is on and tracking.  I sail downhill for the first 5km or so before we turn off the highway.  I’m moving pretty fast.  Feeling strong, strong, strong!  I know the bike is likely my biggest room for improvement but I felt good.  I think I was pretty close to halfway through the first lap when I hear someone yell “Move your ass 511!”  Damn, it’s my brother passing me.  I yell out, “Long way to go bro!”, he calls back “I know, I’m gonna die on the run”.  He obviously didn’t care at that point, he was in the zone!!  So cool!  I get goosebumps writing this.  I had three bottles of water/gatorade mix and made sure I drank them all on the 90KM bike. I took two bananas from the aid stations.  The second one almost killed me, as I lost my balance grabbing it and hit the death wobble.  The gal at the end of the aid station looked at me with terror in her eyes and says “You OK?”  All I can manage is a quick “Gulp, yup” as I fly by.  Holy crap that was scary.  Now, I’m not going to lie, I had kind of hoped I would be able to catch Darryl on the ride but didn’t.  I had to pee badly at about 20KM but decided to tough it out and wait for T2 before hitting the bathroom.  As I hit T2 Mom and Dad were there and yelled that Darryl had just gone in.  I parked the bike, grabbed my gels, put on my shoes and hit the ground running.  I decided not to hit the first port-a-potty as I wanted to find my running legs and I could see there was a second port-a-potty about 500 meters out.  As I came out of the port-a-potty I nearly tripped over Darryl!  I must have passed him in transition.  So cool.  We high five and he says I’ll see you at the finish line (I’m a much stronger runner).  I know he was worried about his hip, and his legs cramping on the run so I yelled him a new mantra… “Run your run, and do it freaking strong”.  Off I went.  I saw coach Craig again at the first bend and gave him a yell.  Damn, do I feel good.  This training is actually paying off.  My original goal was to run about a 2hr run which would put me at a 5:45/km pace.  My GPS said I was more around 5:12.  I was feeling good so I mentally adjusted my goal pace to a 5:30/km.  The further I got, the more it became evident that I was pretty comfortably hanging onto a 5:12 pace.  OK, new goal, 5:15 pace.  As I come up to complete the first lap of the run, I see coach Craig again and yell at him “Put me in coach! I’ve got my goal nailed, I’m working on yours!!” Meaning I felt confident that I could hit my six hour mark and thought 5:30 might actually be a reality.  As I come up to a small turn just into my second lap I hear my dad’s voice telling someone “….ya, all three of our kids decided to do this race…” As I round the corner I yell out “And here’s one now!!”  Have a mentioned how freaking cool this day is becoming?!?  Last lap turn around I’m about 5km from home and still feeling very, very strong.  I think I’ve got my nutrition nailed.  A required bathroom break, which I had to wait for someone set me back a little but could not be avoided.  I decided to try some flat coke (or rocket fuel as coach calls it) at the last aid station just for kicks.  The sugar boost is supposed to give you some quick energy.

I’m on the last KM now and feeling FANTASTIC!  I can’t wait to enter that finishing chute and sprint it out.  You can see the crowd getting thicker as you get close to the finish line.  The volunteers at the intersection of the lap turn and the finish turn are pointing as I yell out “Take me home!” and she calls back “You’re almost there!”  I round the corner and can hear the announcer, I can see the entrance to the chute.  I turn on everything I’ve got left.  I look at the clock.  I see five twenty something….  I think “If that says 5:29 and rolls over before I cross I’m gonna be pissed.”  I put my head down, sprint it home yipping and yelling and screaming as I see coach Craig and Jenn cheering me in.  I’m done!!! First half ironman complete.  Time?  5:26:08!  Don’t you EVER let ANYONE tell you you can’t do something.

As I hope you can tell, if you’ve made it this far, this was one of the most incredible days of my life!  32 weeks of training all coming down to one day.  What an absolutely unbelievable experience.  If half or full iron distance triathlon is on your bucket list I encourage you to make it happen.  You will not regret it.  As I fade from my high, I’m sure at some point I will realize that this is only one half of my journey and the nerves for Penticton will kick in.  But until that time comes I am going to revel in this accomplishment.  Thanks for reading all the way through and feel free to share your comments or experiences below.

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