It’s hard to believe the race has come, and gone … and I’ve woken up the next morning to tell the tale.
Even though moments from the race are etched into my mind, other parts are fading away already feeling like a hazy memory. I’ll try my best to remember what I was feeling during the race; what was going through my mind and what my thoughts are now, 24 hours later having slept 12 hours, well fed and sitting with my feet up staring out at the beautiful Walker’s pond.
Overall, I can honestly say that this was the hardest thing I have ever done. In my life. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and I am not sure if I could have prepared better for it but it was a test of mental and physical stamina beyond what I’ve ever experienced.
So let’s start from the beginning …
The morning of the race could not have gone any better. I was able to get a solid night sleep heading into the bedroom at 8:50pm - something I always say I’m going to do the night before a race but rarely do. When my alarm went off at 3:50 a.m. my eyes shot open and I was rearing to go. I had prepared everything the night before (something I ALSO say I’m going to do but rarely actually do) so I found myself relaxed and focussed on my first task of the day: Coffee. I sat down to enjoy my warm coffee with the intention of breathing and mentally preparing for the long day ahead. I went to the bathroom and did my hair while Luke prepared my breakfast which I was going to eat in the car while Luke handled the drive to Huntsville. My race morning breakfast consisted of a piece of rye toast with sunflower seed butter and 1/2 a banana sliced on top. With a dash of cinnamon to top it off, it was delicious, nutritious and very familiar.
The drive to the race was BEAUTIFUL. We watched the sun rise over beautiful Ontario lakes as we made our way up highway 35. We both commented on how beautiful the sunrise was and how we should make more of an effort to get up early to watch it. Luke had his eyes peeled for any moose or deer deciding to make the centre of the road their home for the morning but luckily we barely saw another living being. I was feeling excited and nervous! We arrived at the race at about 5:50 a.m. found a parking spot easily on one of the side roads and walked down to the race area. The streets were flooded with triathletes and families and there was more energy in the air for before 6am than I had ever seen! It was on!
Athlete registration and bike drop off were the day before, so race morning was really simple. We headed into the Summit Centre where I found a bathroom and changed into my tri suit, and then headed to transition to set up. My bike was racked with the other women in my age category and everyone was friendly, chatting about the day. One woman had come down from just outside of Chicago while another had travelled from Arkansas. Two other women had driven up from Toronto - all were experienced triathletes who had done multiple 70.3’s before. Everyone was super excited that this was my first half ironman and gave me little tidbits of advice - mostly to run my own race and not get wrapped up in what other people were doing. I set up my transition station with everything laid out easily and then put my wetsuit on and headed out of transition to meet Luke.
It was a bit of a walk down to the start of the swim so Luke and I headed down together at about 6:30 so I could do a little warm up and we wouldn’t be rushed. My emotions were wild at this point with excitement, fear, and adrenalin all pumping through my blood. When we got to the swim start I still had loads of time which was unusual but very nice. I’m usually the girl racing to get all my gear together and sometimes running down to the swim start pulling my wetsuit on - future triathlon me should remember having time and being relaxed the morning of makes a world of a difference.
With about 7 minutes to the start of the race I kissed Luke goodbye and headed into the water to warm up for the swim.
The swim portion of the race was definitely the smoothest and easiest part of the race. I was in the first wave consisting of men and women ages 30-35 and if you look at the gender discrepancy of the triathlon I was basically in a sea of men that was sprinkled with a few women. The energy at the swim start was palpable and I actually got a bit emotional when the announcer was counting down to the start. The horn blew at 7:00am on the dot and we were off.
I honestly could not have asked for better race conditions for the swim. The water was calm, the temperature perfect and I felt like I was flying through the water with barely any effort. My main goal during the swim was to stay relaxed and controlled and not push it. I knew it wasn’t worth it to bank an extra 2 minutes when I still had so so so many km's ahead of me. So I was steady and controlled and concentrated on staying relaxed.
The Garmin watch I usually use doesn’t have an open water swim feature (only pool setting) so I decided not to track the swim and just go purely off feel. I could however see the time, so every once in a while I would look down at my watch and see that 10 minutes had passed, or 20 minutes had passed but I had no clue how far I had gone. I actually really enjoyed focussing purely on effort and feel with no pressure.
Although the start of the swim was hectic I didn’t get kicked in the face (win!) and managed to stay on course the whole time. I had flashbacks to my first ever triathlon in Bracebridge where I had found myself swimming off course into a dock and a nice man drinking his coffee reminded me "the race is over there". This time I had practiced siting, looking up every 4th stroke or so, to see that I was still on target. A few times I had a little run in with some guy wildly flailing his arms and swimming what looked like to me on a diagonal line right towards me, but I would just brush it off and try to stay focused on the next buoy.
When I saw that we were heading into the canal my thoughts were 'wow we’re already here'! A few times during the swim I got a little cramp in my calf which has happened before in races but it never lasted long and I was able to keep going with my arms as I flexed my ankles to release the calves. Cramps would re-surface later in the race so it is something to think about for the future.
I was shocked when I saw the swim exit and looked down at my watch showing 35:00. So much can vary with an open water swim depending on the current, the water conditions and how close to a straight line you swim in so I really didn’t know what to expect. I came out of the water with an official time of 37:45. I always find I’m a bit wobbly when I first get out of the water so I was focusing on just putting one foot in front of the other and keeping my heart rate from spiking. There was a wetsuit removing station but I decided to just skip it and head up to transition myself. I wasn’t exactly sure how it worked and didn’t feel like experimenting.
Pace: 1:57 / 100m
18 / 42 in my age category
103/ 326 in my gender
502/ 1289 overall
OVERALL not the fastest swim I have ever done, especially considering the easy water conditions but I was able to get through it using virtually no energy and felt so fresh getting on my bike which was my ultimate goal!
It was a bit of a run from the swim exit up to transition, and I arrived around the same time as a few of the women in my age category I had been chatting with earlier. We all commented on how nice and easy the swim felt. None of the women were acting like they were in a rush so I took the cue off them and stayed calm and cool during this transition. My wetsuit came off, and I dried my feet and put my socks and shoes on for the bike. I applied sunscreen, grabbed the nutrition I wanted on my bike stuffing it into the pockets of my tri suit and had some water. I pulled my helmet and sunglasses on, took one last look around to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything then headed off to the bike start.
My official transition time was 6:15 but I’m pretty sure that includes the run up from the swim (don’t quote me on that). If I was going to actually try and race this event in the future (if I do another 70.3 again … notes on that later) I would definitely want to cut down on transition time. But for this race I felt good about taking the time I needed to stay calm and relaxed and get everything sorted for the loooooooong bike ride ahead.
The bike portion of the race was the one I was the most concerned about and is definitely my weakest discipline. It is a 90km out and back that can be broken down easily into 4 sections. The first 23km is out along Brunel Road, then a turn onto Highway 117 for another 22km, then a turn around back along 117 and back on Brunel road. My plan for the bike was to keep it very controlled and not burn out my legs for the run. I wasn’t quite sure HOW you bike 90km without burning out your legs, but I was hoping to find out today.
The area where you mount your bike was, as Luke described “absolute carnage”. Luke took a hilarious video of me mounting my bike (relatively gracefully I may add) immediately followed by a guy trying to mount his bike and absolutely failing - watch for total comedic therapy!
The first portion along Brunel road is the hilliest section of the course. I took the up hills slow putting my bike in an easy gear and trying not to wear out my legs too early. I tried to pick up some momentum on the down hills to help me with the ups. I was feeling good and really actually enjoying myself. It was still before 8am so the sun hadn't fully risen and the temperature was beautiful. When we turned on to 117 and passed the first aid station I could hardly believe how fast the first 23km had flown by. Mentally I felt great and I was happy to have the first quarter of the bike in my rearview mirror.
The second quarter out on 117 is probably the easiest portion of the bike course with long rolling hills that you can really build momentum on. It seemed to me like I was going more down than up and although this worried me for the return I was feeling great and tried to focus on that. I was consistently taking sips of water, and taking a gel every 45 minutes as well as a little banana and coconut chew or a cliff shot every 15 minutes.
At one point near the beginning of the bike course a man on a bike wearing an ironman shirt rode up behind me and asked how I was feeling. I said GREAT and he smiled saying keep staying hydrated and fuelling and you’ll do great. Thinking it was just another racer who saw my rickety bike and thought ‘that’s a newby if I’ve ever seen one’ I smiled and thanked him and he rode on ahead. It wasn’t uncommon to have little conversations with some of the other racers along the course. About an hour later the same man came back and asked how I was feeling. I said I was still feeling great and he said that was awesome and the next portion of the race had some nice downhill sections so I should enjoy it. It was then I realized he was a course medic checking on people during the bike course. He told me he would check in again a bit later and that I was doing great.
I was being passed consistently by both men and women which I was prepared for and it honestly didn’t bother me at all. I was racing my own race! It was actually quite funny when these bikes would zoom past me that were clearly thousands of dollars next to me and my little cyclocross bike, the same bike I use to commute around the city. Whenever one of those guys with the super fancy bikes would pass me with a 30-35 age written on his leg I would silently chuckle to myself and just think ‘I beat you in the swim’. Immature I know, but those small moments of glee were quite enjoyable.
The crowd support on the bike route was AWESOME! People were out at the end of their driveways with signs and bells, cheering loudly. The volunteers at the aid stations were also incredible giving us athletes so much encouragement. I made an effort to say thank you to every volunteer I passed who put a smile on my face and reminded myself to volunteer at a race this year.
I approached the turnaround at 1:40:19, slightly faster than I had anticipated. I did some calculations in my head and thought that if I could hold the same pace for the return, I would finish my bike in about 3 hours 20 minutes. At this point I was still feeling good, albeit starting to get a bit tired.
However… things changed on the journey back to transition. Somewhere around the turn-around the wind decided to pick up and it was intense. There were times as I was heading back along 117 that I was having to pedal to maintain a pace of 25 km/hr on a downhill section!! I realized that I was trying to maintain the same pace as I had been riding on the out section but was using FAR more energy to sustain it so I decided to just decrease my pace and focus on effort instead. I came to the realization I would not be able to maintain my pace on the return so rather than digging myself into a hole, I should relax and enjoy the ride. I was so cognizant of not burning out my legs as I knew I still had over an hour of biking left followed by a half marathon. For any new distance, I always air on the side of caution and oh boy am I happy I did, because things started to get hard.
It was during this section that I started to feel the effects of the days effort so far. My lower back started to ache a little (nothing huge, but just a bit uncomfortable) and my neck and shoulders started to get tight. I also started to develop some little cramps in my abdomen. I was torn between wanting to sit upright and stretch out my stomach while trying to maintain a low aerodynamic position to avoid the wind. I would sit up tall for a while and then get low on the downhills to avoid wind. Some of the downhills, were actually quiet scary as the wind was viscous and I thought I might get blown over. OH, and I had to pee. My God how I had to pee! I considered stopping at the next aid station to use the port-a-potty but I knew I could hold it in until I got back to transition. The thought of getting off the bike and then back on again wasn’t appealing. I was relieved when we passed Baysville and I knew the windy highway section was over. I was hoping the ride back along Brunel road, although hilly would be less windy as it was more tree lined and covered.
Biking back along Brunel Road I started to see lots of people struggling. I kept the uphill easy but was still passing some people which was a shock as I usually never pass people on the bike! Everyone was commenting on the wind and how brutal that had been. I remember thinking at this point in the race I just can’t wait to get OFF my bike. Everything was sore from my neck and shoulders, down to my back, and my crotch. Oh man, how my crotch was killing me. I had remembered from the ride out that km’s 5-10 had a few really big hills so I was looking forward to km 80-85 where those hills would be reversed and it did not disappoint. There were two massive downhills that I flew down. Looking back, that was my fastest 5km split. When we hit 85km I could feel the end of the bike and was just counting down the minutes until the sweet sweet relief of being done.
When I saw the dismount line in the distance I slowed down, dismounted my bike and ran into transition never so excited to run in my life.
Pace: 26.28 km/hr
27 / 42 in my age category
223/ 326 in my gender
1084 / 1289 overall
Immediately as I pulled into T2 I could feel the heat.
The sun was now fully up and it was radiating off the cement ground. I knew that keeping myself cool and hydrated would be important for the run. I also had to pee SO badly so I racked my bike and quickly changed my shoes. Helmet came off and hat went on and I think I reapplied sunscreen to my shoulders, face and neck. I’m actually extremely proud that I managed to not burn myself in so many hours out in the sun. I decided to get all my run nutrition together and put it in my suit and then head to the port-a-potty on my way out which in theory sounded like it made the most sense but in reality proved challenging. Peeing in a skin tight one suit is hard enough but add to that being so tired, hot and sweaty, and trying to avoid any of my gels falling onto the floor of the loo proved another challenge. I felt like I was juggling balls while trying to do it super fast not to waste time! All in all looking back maybe I should have started off at the toilet and then gone through transition and changed my gels and everything after. Would love to hear other triathlete's advice on the order of this!
My official time for T2 was 7:20. Again in the future this would be something to shorten but I was happy to be relaxed and get everything done.
And then there was the run… What high hopes I had for this run.
My favourite discipline by far. I am so proud of how much I have improved in running this past year. From racing a 30km in March to getting a new PB in my spring half marathon I was so excited to smash this run. I had specifically tried not to use up my legs in the bike so I could go out and do a really solid run. My goal was to get a 2 hour half marathon which is about 11 minutes slower than my PB.
When I first set off on the run I was feeling AMAZING. I know many people hate the feeling of running immediately after biking saying it feels like their legs are made of lead but I don’t find that at all! Immediately following the bike, my runs feel liberating and like I have rockets in my legs. Something about a bike warmup makes me move on the run.
And that is how I felt for the first… 3km of the run.
The run route comes out of the Summit Centre travelling uphill to the main road in Huntsville. The crowd support was incredible with people cheering, ringing bells and playing music. It travels up and down the main road, then turns onto some side roads meandering through until it heads out for about a 2 km stretch on the side of the highway. From there it turns around and follows the same route back into town. For the first part of the run, I was purposefully trying to keep it feeling easy. I decided not to look at my watch because I was worried I would see slow paces and subconsciously try to speed up even though I knew I should keep it easy. In reality, the opposite happened and without looking, I was running much faster than I thought I was (and probably should have been).
But I still hold true that those first few km’s felt easy. I got to the 5km mark and thought to myself “great, just do that 3 more times... and then a bit!”. The effort was definitely starting to increase but the highway portion was really flat and run-able although it was HOT with the sun beating down on the tarmac. I slowed down a little but was generally still feeling okay. The course then made its way back zigzagging through some side roads until it looped back onto the main road and then repeated that full loop again.
At 7km I started to feel the run building up but kept repeating to myself that I was one third done and I COULD DO IT. I was holding on and trying to stay positive. Then at 8km I felt a shift and the work increased dramatically! Almost suddenly I felt the sun beating down and the heat. Oh boy the heat! Looking back, this makes sense as it was just approaching noon, when the sun was highest in the sky. I kept my focus on just getting to 10km. I kept repeating to myself just get to 10km and then reassess.
It was just after 10km that I got the first big cramp in my right VMO (inner quad). It was spasming and sending a really sharp intense pain up my leg every time I stepped so I stopped and started massaging out my leg just above the knee. It managed to do the trick and I was able to get moving again. I passed the turnaround to signify the first loop complete and the guy next to me said "well at least we’re halfway there". Although meant to sound encouraging, the term 'halfway' hit me like a bullet in the chest. We had to do that all over again?? We commented on the awesome crowd support and how nice the hoses were lining the street to keep us cool. There was a nice big downhill section through the main town and I managed to get through that somehow then headed back onto the side streets. Somewhere in that time I saw Luke. He cheered and clapped but and yelled encouraging comments but all I remember thinking is 'he has NO clue how much pain I am in right now'.
Looking back retrospectively, none of the hills on the run course were really all that big. There are just pretty consistent elevation changes throughout so it feels like you are always either approaching a hill or going up. On the second loop heading out to the highway, there is a hill you have you make it up on one of the side roads and in my mind, I remember that hill to be SO big. It was the biggest steepest hill imaginable. I had totally run it easily in that first loop and even remember thinking 'this is totally manageable'. But at 11km into the run, and over 5 hours into the race, it felt insurmountable so I decided to walk it and then carry on running when I got to the top. That started an endless cascade of running as long as I absolutely could and then walking for about 30 seconds or until I could convince myself to start running again. Sometimes I wonder if I hadn’t let myself walk that first hill would I have made it to the end without any walking. But this is obviously retrospectively and I can confirm at that moment, feeling how I was feeling I couldn’t imagine running up that hill.
So I continued through the course, struggling to run, stopping at every aid station and drinking one cup of water and pouring another cup over my head. Trying to stay cool, hydrated and positive were my main objectives.
At about 15 km I began to feel slightly sick to my stomach. The heat and the effort were all adding up and I was starting to feel a bit woozy. I knew I was due to have a gel but the thought of anything sweet like a gel or an energy chew was not enticing. When we got to the highway portion on the second lap I rallied to get myself to run the entire 2 1/2 km section without stopping once to walk. I think I made it to the turnaround, took a short walking break and then ran back. I passed two women who were in my age category who were walking and promised myself I wouldn’t let them pass me back (although in reality I don’t remember caring at all about anyone else during those horrible last few km’s, I really just kept it about how I was feeling).
The highway portion was definitely the hottest but as I got to the end I saw the16km marker and I thought to myself only 5km left you can definitely do this!!!! I knew I would finish a this point it was just a matter of what the ratio was of walking to running. I was rationalizing to myself that the walking sections were actually useful as I felt fresh running after and felt like I could run faster than I was without the walking breaks. I sounded like a shopaholic rationalizing buying a new outfit; retrospectively I was just plain exhausted and looking for any relief.
At 17km the cramp in my right quad returned, this time with a vengeance. I ran with it for a while and then when it became unmanageable I stopped to massage it out. Two women on bikes behind me almost ran into me and when I apologized and they said “oh god don’t apologize, you’re doing great”. I realized they were the medics again and they told me I should really get some electrolytes in, as my back was covered in salt (it was white!!). They recommended I have gatorade at the aid station. They didn’t realize I hate gatorade and there was no way I was going to drink it but I thanked them and continued to massage out my quad. It did get me thinking though that I was likely very low on salt at this point. A few people had mentioned salt tabs to me but I had thought the gels probably had some electrolytes in them and I would be able to make due without. It’s only a half marathon RIGHT?! HA!
For my next race, I'll definitely take salt intake more seriously. I felt like I needed a boost of energy but the thought of a sweet gel was repulsing. Cursing myself for not thinking of this and having a non sweet energy option I sucked it up and forced myself to down a gel. Whether it was psychological or not, I think it helped!
Km’s 18-20 were probably the hardest and most gruelling of the entire race. I was completely depleted, hot and tired and I couldn’t quite see the end but knew it was near. There were a few hills I had to psychologically prepare to run over before the final descent to the finish line. Fighting the urge to stop running during these few km’s was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do and took so much mental strength. It was this strange combination of my legs wanting to stop because they were so tired and sore and my mind wanting to stop so badly as well to be taken out of this pain. In my head I was absolutely cursing this course. My mind was going wild. “This is fucking ridiculous! I am never fucking doing this again. Why am I doing this to myself. It’s so fucking crazy". Those were the negative thoughts that came to me. I also knew that it was so important to stay positive so I tried using some mental strategies to keep going.
I would remind myself not to get negative and to think how good it would feel when I was done. I thought of all the people I knew who were thinking of me and cheering for me and how I couldn’t let them down. I thought about all the training I had done, all those early morning rides and how I had to make those worthwhile. Thinking these thoughts really did help me out when I was struggling and kept me moving just a tad more.
I find counting is also a really good strategy to try and get into a meditative state. I would count to 50 with my right foot hitting the ground and then count to 50 with my left. If I wanted to stop and walk I’d say to myself ‘not till the end of this 50’ and then when I got there say ‘one more to 50’. Looking around, I was shocked by how many people were walking. Perhaps it was the heat, or the difficulty of the course but I was definitely not alone in my struggle.
Once I hit the 20 km marker I knew I was in the final stretch and had to run the final kilometre. Even with the psychological boost of being in the final km, every step was still a struggle. I didn’t care one bit what my time was, I just wanted it to be over. I turned into the driveway that lead to the finish line and crowds of cheering people lined the road. It was overwhelming and yet felt unimportant at the same time. We turned a bend and I saw the time on the clock read 6:29:35. I did the closest thing I could to a sprint to the finish to make it in under 6:29:50 right after another man and so for the third time my name wasn’t called out ! oh well.
Pace: 6:21 min/km
23 / 42 in my age category
165/ 326 in my gender
764 / 1289 overall
When I got to the finish line all I could think about was water and shade. A man congratulated me and put a medal around my neck. He then ushered me on to a woman who was collecting the timing chips from our ankles. I lifted my leg for her to grab the chip and that small act felt like I was being asked to run the course all over again. We were then handed our shirt and hat although this is all a bit of a blur to me now. I moved to the side of the road where where I found a tiny bit of shade and then saw Luke in the crowds. I stumbled over to him barely able to yell out his name! I dumped everything in my arms into his and told him I needed shade so we stumbled into the Summit Centre. He asked if I wanted to walk to find a bench but I preferred to just collapse in a heap along the wall. Cold cold floor never felt so good. It took me a while to form real sentences and actually tell Luke about the race. I think my first words out were “That was the hardest thing, I have ever done, in my life”.
After about 15 minutes I started to come back to life and we decided to get the show on the road so I headed back outside for a ‘finishers photo’. I was ready to pack it in but Luke thought I might want it in the future. I had to pack up my stuff at transition and pick up the drop bag I had left at the swim start. All in all it actually took a long time to get the stuff together and get back to the car. By this point I was starving and tired and my legs hurt like hell. Luke took my bike and went to get the car and drove round to pick me up. I was planning on getting food in town but the thought of waiting in a hot and crowded restaurant was appalling so we opted to just drive back to the cottage and eat there.
More proof that salt intake was a problem during my race was the first thing I wanted when we got back to the cottage was salt. Salted blue corn chips with salsa, hummus and guacamole was the first thing I went for, and boy was it good! For the rest of the afternoon, I alternated between snacking on that and lying down on the couch while Luke prepared the BBQ for a delicious dinner of chicken, corn on the cob and asparagus!! SO GOOD.
24/42 in my age category
188/326 in my gender
Overall I am so happy that I completed this event. Whether I will do another… I’m still not sure at this point. I think I likely will at some point do an event like this again (although I couldn't even imagine it during the run portion or immediately following). Already 24 hours later I’m starting to entertain the idea and while I reread this a couple days later I think a re-do is probably inevitable. The trouble with triathlons is that they are so bloody expensive! To do it well you need to have a decent bike and a sufficient about of gear. Running doesn’t involve the same financial investment. I feel very hindered by the bike I have, however also don’t have the money, or desire to spend so much money on a new bike that would only be useful for triathlons. I understand why the demographics of triathlon athletes are older than other sports - the majority of athletes are in their late 30s and 40s and even into their 50s. Triathlons require time and money!
The Muskoka 70.3 event itself was fantastic! For the number of athletes it was really well organized, the volunteers at all the aid stations were so nice and cheerful and helped us struggling athletes chug along. I learned a lot and will definitely take this information into my next race, whatever it is!
But now for rest! I’m going to take a full week off from any real training, other than maybe some commuting on my bike or some walking. From there I’ll see how I feel.