Skagway Alaska Hill Climb Bike Race

Although the race takes place in Skagway, Alaska, it’s been the local bike club in Whitehorse that’s put together the at least Annual Hill Climb in this beautiful coastal community. I say “at least” because there have been some years where it’s held at the beginning and end of the summer so cyclists can see how much they’ve improved.  It’s a race not for the faint of heart. Starting at the turnoff to Dyea (pronounced di-ee, where the Chilcoot Trail begins) at a few feet above sea level it meanders for a couple of kilometers before going up, and up and up. It’s a steady seven percent climb until you reach the summit at slightly over 3000 ft. The record stands in the low 50 minute range but getting up to the summit in under an hour is a major accomplishment in getting across the finish. The weather can be challenging with possible snow, rain likely, pea-soup thick fog near the summit at you make your way through the clouds and the occasional beautiful clear day with scenery that will blow you away. Wildlife can also present a problem. Four years ago the competitor behind me had to slow down because a bear wandered onto the road behind me. Too bad I hadn’t seen it. I think I would have gone faster! It’s not a big race with competitors usually coming from Whitehorse, Yukon, and Skagway and Juneay, AK. Typical turnout is thirty or less. But even if half a dozen show up it’s race on. Pacing is difficult and if you push too hard early on, prepare to suffer immensely as you reach the upper part of the course. Image

10k swim finished!

Ten kilometers in a pool is a bit of over-kill, but sometimes it’s good to push it a bit. A friend of mine asked if I was going to do anything special to bring in the New Year and that got the wheels rolling . . . Now, when I go for a pool session, a forty minute swim will feel like I barely got in the water (at least I hope so 🙂 ) 

2014 A Swimmingly Good Year (I hope)

ImageSeptember 2012 I crashed in a big way. I was trying my first full ironman. I’d trained well and was having a good race and it was over in seconds. I broke my tri-bike and did it in such a way that it couldn’t be repaired. I also damaged my head and the repair for that was a long process. I did what my doctor instructed and it was a couple of months later before I very slowly and carefully started training again. What I didn’t realize till a year later was the impact on my emotions with lots of very low lows.

The good news was that I completed the race a year later. With that and getting away from my normal schedule and routine, I re-booted my thought patterns and the depressive thoughts have gone away. Yay!!!

I work best with goals to look forward to. Here’s what I’ll hopefully get done this year:

1. Tomorrow try to swim 100-100s. It’ not the brightest thing to do, especially since I’m not that strong a swimmer. It will be the farthest I’ve ever swam. As long as I don’t hurt myself or get sick afterwards it might allow to think that hour pool workouts are a piece of cake. I won’t think about the possible negative thoughts it might evoke!

2. I live in the Yukon and the first running race here is  the Law Day 5K on May third. Last year I only followed my training plan and didn’t race exept for the IM. This year I want to race lots!

3. I’ll travel down to the coast and take in a killer half-marathon in Skagway, Alaska in early June. There logo is 5% Tough, 95% brutal. Increadible scenery!

4. The Kluane to Chilcat International Bike Relay (very cool event) goes from Haines Junction, Yukon to Haines Alaska. I’ll be on a two person team this year. Here’s a link to check out

5. Up to Fairbanks AK. for the Sourdough Half Ironman in Mid-July. This is a weird race, but fun. The swim is five loops of a gravel pit!

6. In early August I hope to try the half-marathon distance in the Yukon Trail Marathon.

7. Finally I’ll head down to Montreal to see if I can complete the Esprit Triathlon (full ironman distance) in September.

Best wishes everyone for an exciting 2014, free from injuries and a few PBs thrown in for good measure!


Memories of an Avalanche


Memories of an Avalanche


          “Twenty-four and there’s so much more,” Those iconic lyrics from Neal Young have sifted through my brain many times. When I think back to August of my 24th year the words re-arrange to “Twenty-four and there is no more.” After spending the summer doing menial work, I was excited to head out on a climbing expedition with my two good friends, Dan and Jeff. Our big plan was to go up the Matanuska Glacier (2 hours from Anchorage) and do some climbing. The scope of the expedition was similar in time involved and elevation gained as in climbing Mt. Denali (Mckinley.)

          It was to be a low budget affair based on the income of three almost starving students. We had good climbing equipment, but we ended up eating lots of roman noodles and porridge that month. Our plan was to shuttle loads up the glacier (one load of climbing gear and one of food) till we reached base camp. We went up the glacier 3 times. This ended up taking close to 3 weeks, navigating back and forth between crevasses and holding out during storms and white out conditions. We got into really good shape during that time, carrying heavy packs and putting in long days.               

                      Our climbing plan once we established a base camp was to climb a mountain we named, “The Disk” It had the shape of a compact disk with a lot of exposure. The slope was between 60-70 degrees for several thousand feet. From there we planned on climbing “12,360″ (it had no other name) and then heading over and climbing Mt. Marcus Baker (the highest peak in the Chugach Range.

          Climbing the Disc went well. We first had to navigate through a crevasse field that was partially covered with snow. There were a few tense moments as we belayed across some ice bridges. We moved quickly during the climb, taking turns leading. The leading consisted of breaking trial through knee deep snow. On some hard packed areas, we’d cut steps with our ice axes. We ended up on a corniced ridge at the top of the climb. We had to stay well below the top of the ridge because of the possibility that the cornice could break off with us on it. As we neared the end of the ridge the snow WHOMPED beneath us. This is a sure sign that there was some instability in the snow pack. We were lucky it didn’t slide. We walked lightly the rest of the way. We spent that night just below the ridge, digging out a platform to set the tent on.

          The next day we climbed the rest of the way from the Disc along the ridge until we reached the summit of 12,360. I remember quite clearly when Dan was leading a steep pitch up to the summit. As he reached the top, he put his arm over the other side. It dropped straight down several thousand feet to the glacier below. We celebrated with all three of us sitting with one leg on either side of the very knife edged summit.

          From this vantage point, we decided not to push on to Mt. Marcus Baker. We were happy with what we had accomplished. We knew that unless everything went perfectly our supplies wouldn’t last long enough. Since it was late in the day, we decided to wait till morning to climb back to base camp. A little ways below the summit we found a relatively flat section to set up the tent. Although tired, we took the time to build a couple of snow block walls around the tent in case the wind picked up. It was time well spent. That night the wind did pick up to a very high intensity. It also started to snow. Our location was only ten miles from the gulf of Alaska. One of the areas well known storms had come our way. During the next three days somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 – 10 feet of snow dropped on us. We took turns digging out the tent. Not a whole lot of fun in the middle of the night.

             When the snow came to a stop, we were low on both fuel and food. We decided to attempt to get down. In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to wait a day and let some of the snow sluff off of the mountain. We were concerned though that another storm might come in. The cirrus clouds were rolling in. We decided on taking a different route down. We picked a way that was longer, but the angle of the slope was low enough that we thought we could avoid some of the avalanche terrain. With the fresh snow and the wind we knew that conditions were dangerous.

             The going was really hard work. The snow was up to our arm pits and we had to bulldoze our way forward. We were going through a large flat area. I was breaking trail when suddenly the ground WHOMPED under us and I was thrown forward. My first thought was that we were in an avalanche, but that didn’t make any sense because we were on a flat piece of ground. I turned around and a crevasse had opened up behind me. It was huge, probably 10-15 yards across and at least 100 yards long. Jeff was on the other side of it and Dan, who was in the middle of the rope, was out of site in the crevasse. We both tried yelling to Dan, but there was no response. Our thought at the time was that he must have been unconscious. Jeff was holding the weight and was in an awkward position. He was laying head first towards the crevasse about fifteen feet from the edge. He said that he was ok so I buried my pack, as a dead-man, to anchor the rope from my side. I planned on going un-roped around the crevasse over to help Jeff, but decided to work my way closer to the edge of the crevasse to try and make contact with Dan. It worked. When I got closer we could communicate. Dan was pretty freaked out (as you can imagine!) He had lost his pack during the fall, which unfortunately had the tent in it. As Dan learned more about the situation, he was able to relax a bit and made a plan. He was going to try and dig his way through the wall of the crevasse and work his way to the surface. It was a long and grueling effort, but after an hour or two Dan’s head popped through the snow, with a big grin on it. After Dan got out, I worked my way around the crevasse and we had a snack and decided what to do next. Continuing the way that we go going was out of the question. We were lucky that the crevasse was perpendicular to our route or all three of us could have gone in, and Dan said that he couldn’t see the bottom! What was wild was that there was no sign that the crevasse was there before it swallowed Dan. Usually there might be a slight depression where gravity is pushing the snow down.

          We judged that our best possibility would be to go the shortest distance across the face of the mountain and make it to the ridge. At least on the ridge, the avalanche danger would have been a lot lower. So we set out across the face. We hadn’t gone far before we realized that the situation was precarious. Every 30 seconds to a minute the ground would WOMP under us. Each time we would look at each other and either give a sheepish grin or shape our heads in doubt. We traveled like ninjas, walking as lightly as possible. By this point my nerves were pretty well shot. After about 30 minutes we were getting near the ridge and starting to think that we were going to make it. Jeff was leading, I was second on the rope and Dan last. The last thing I remember for quite a while was Jeff’s eyes getting really big and the whole face of the mountain sliding. I’m not sure if I passed out at that point or the injuries that I would soon sustain blanked the events from my memory.

           We dropped down a very steep slope for a drop of about 1000 ft. in elevation. The last 60 feet of that was off of a cliff. We fell under the avalanche because of our weight. The snow kept going down past the base of the mountain and about half a mile across the glacier. Dan and Jeff landed better than I did. Jeff landed in a snow bank and only had the wind knocked out of him. Dan hit an angled crevasse and slid a short distance before coming to a stop. Dan had broken his nose. I hit hard packed snow and wasn’t so lucky. Dan and Jeff found me lying on my back with blood coming out of the corner of my mouth. A stroke of luck took place when Jeff opened my mouth to see if I was breathing. I wasn’t, but by opening my mouth he opened my airway. I slowly gained consciousness and although I don’t remember this, they later told me that I was in a lot of pain.

          Before we began to descend that day we’d talked about what to do if someone was injured. Dan and Jeff implemented the plan. They put a closed cell pad down and were able to get me into a sleeping bag. They left what food was with them and headed down the mountain. We’d decided that it wasn’t safe for one person to try it alone. The chances of getting into another avalanche or crevasse was high and traveling alone would have been extremely unsafe. By the time they left I was coherent enough to know what was happening. My neck hurt, especially if I tried to move it and I was having trouble breathing. I was lucky that there was the pain in my neck. Doctors later said that if I had turned my neck even ½ an inch to the side the fracture at the top of my neck (C2) would have cut through the spinal cord and paralyzed my diaphragm (“Twenty-four and there is no more.”)  

          I ended staying on that narrow ledge on the face of the mountain at about 10,000 ft. for the next three and a half days. At the time, it didn’t seem that bad. I figured that my neck was only sprained and that the breathing problem was just broken ribs. I was in shock during that time and later, hypothermia. I thought that 8 days had gone by. At one point I wrapped a piece of clothing around my neck, stood up and looked around. Besides seeing how beautiful the terrain around there was, I couldn’t see any sign of Dan or Jeff’s tracks down on the glacier below. I thought that they must not have made it off of the mountain. I started making plans on going down myself. I probably wouldn’t have even made it off the ledge, but I it appeared to be the only option. It was an incredibly beautiful spot and I was serenaded by the sounds of avalanches going off in the surrounding mountains. A small flock of birds flew around the ledge I was on. I couldn’t imagine what they were doing up there, but I was glad to see something else that was alive.

          One thing that may have kept me alive was getting a small drink of water. I was badly dehydrated. I had lost a lot of water with all of the work we were doing in the deep snow prior to the avalanche, sweating profusely. Being at high altitude can also shrivel you up like a raison. While I was laying there I saw our cook kit. It was in rough shape, smashed from the fall, but it could still hold something. I had a near empty fuel bottle nearby too. I poured the fuel into one of the crumpled pans and scooped up some snow with another. I happened to have a lighter in my pocket and lit the fuel. I held the snow above the fire until the fuel was spent. The snow didn’t completely melt, sort of like slush. It wasn’t perfect. Some of the snow that I had scooped had some frozen urine in it. At the time I didn’t mind.

          Believing I was on my own I started my plan of trying to descend the mountain on my own. I managed to put on my climbing boots. They were a good quality leather climbing boot. Unfortunately,  they had gotten wet through our exertions.  They were frozen and very difficult to put on. I had to hold my head up with one hand while I tried to wrestle the boots on with the other. Then I had to tie the laces with one hand. A pretty neat trick considering the shape I was in. I was exhausted after the hour or two that it had taken and I laid down for a rest. I was getting  very cold by this point, the sleeping bag was wet. I was at the point in hypothermia where I’d stopped shivering. The next time that I woke up, I heard a great sound, the thumping sound of helicopter rotors going round. It was a helicopter out of Elmendorf Air force base in Anchorage, Alaska. I later learned that they weren’t able to get up to my elevation. I was able to wave at them before they turned around and left. Seeing them leave was sad but it did give me a little hope and I put my plans on trying to descend on hold.

          Things were deteriorating rapidly. My neck was broken at both the top and bottom (C2 and C7) vertebrae. The trouble I was having breathing was from having a collapsed lung. I only one lung was working, and there was the dehydration and my core temperature was dropping.

          When Dan and Jeff left me, they were fairly confident that they could get down the glacier quickly. We had left a small amount of food at the base camp although there was no way to cook anything. It took three days for them to get out. Quite a remarkable time considering that they barely ate and it took us three weeks of shuttling loads to cover the same ground. It ended up being a very painful walk. There was no longer any shelter. Tent and sleeping bags were gone. So each night they would huddle next to each other and wait till it was light enough to travel again. What made it especially difficult was dealing with the hypothermia that set in when the temperature descended with the sun. All the heat their bodies were producing stayed in their core and the extremities got cold. Jeff told me that they had ice on the inside of their boots. I was luckier than them as far as the frost bite went. My feet froze inside my boots and stayed frozen. Dan and Jeff’s feet would freeze a bit then thaw as they traveled. I can’t imagine the pain they must have suffered. When my feet thawed, it felt like someone was down there sticking in pins every few seconds. It also didn’t help that Dan was having bouts of uncontrollable diarrhea as they traveled further draining his energy reserves.

          As soon as they got to the point on the glacier where there was water running over the ice and they could drink their fill, they knew their chances were good to make it off the glacier. They finally got down to a tourist lodge at the base of the glacier. They must have looked pretty bad. Dan was still covered in blood from his broken nose and they both could barely walk. As they approached the lodge the owner came running out. My friends yelled, “We’ve got a buddy up on the mountain.” The elderly owner replied, “You’ve got a body on the mountain?” At that point and for quite some time after, they wondered. Dan and Jeff were taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital in Palmer, Alaska where they were treated. Frostbite and exhaustion had taken its tole. Dan’s frostbite wasn’t as bad as Jeff’s and he wanted to help out with the rescue efforts that were being organized. Rescue workers loaded Dan into a small aircraft and he flew up the glacier so that he could point out where I was. From there they sent the helicopter from Elmendorf that couldn’t get up to where I was. The next plan was to send a high altitude army rescue helicopter from Ft.Wainwright, Fairbanks along with a C130 aircraft. The C130 was there for reconnaissance and to organize the rescue.

          Time was running out. For me, I had crawled all the way inside of my sleeping bag in an attempt to stay warm. It wasn’t working. The sleeping bag was just getting wetter and I was getting colder. There was also another storm coming in from the Gulf of Alaska. High winds and cloud were rolling in. Fuel was a problem too for the rescue effort. Neither the helicopter nor the C130 could find me. They had just about given up hope and had decided to make one more pass before leaving. Luckily they spotted something blue on a ledge, me! The twin bladed Chinook helicopter tried to get over me, but it wasn’t easy. Their rotor blades were getting awfully close to the cliff face and the wind was buffeting the chopper. They still didn’t know if I was alive or dead, but they lowered down two PJ’s (paramedic jumper) on a cable. They had to swing back and forth on the cable so that they could jump to the ledge that I was on. All this time the fuel was getting dangerously low. I heard footsteps and voices outside of my sleeping bag. I reached out and grabbed a foot and I heard above the rotor noise, “he’s alive!” They put a cervical collar on me and put me into a basket. What came next took some guts. The helicopter was about to leave. There options right now for the PJs were to get me up there immediately or wait on the ledge with me during the incoming storm and try to keep me alive. The chopper was trying to get the cable close to our location. But they couldn’t get it to us. One of the PJs jumped out over the abyss and grabbed the cable. It swung back over to us and we all went up the cable to the copter above us.

          I don’t remember too much of the flight, although I remember an occasional face coming over mine with looks of worry on them. When the helicopter got to the hospital in Anchorage, they estimated that there was 30 seconds of fuel left! Those guys were amazing!

          My memory of the next while is sketchy. They stuck IV’s in both of my arms to get liquids in. I was severely dehydrated. They also put warm bags around me to try and raise my core temperature. At that point it was down to 87 degrees F. Other medical procedures included putting a tube through my chest to drain out the liquid so that my lung would re-inflate. There were also lots of e-rays taken and medication given.

          I was put on morphine to help deal with the pain of my frost bitten feet. I had a bit of a strange reaction to the drug. For one thing, I had a clear recollection of calling my parents and letting them know that I was hurt and in a hospital. Months later I found out that I called and said, “I broke my neck” and hung up. My parents said that they aged a lot that day. They had put me into traction. With screws drilled into my scull and sixty pounds of weights hanging off the end of the bed. Twice that night I somehow unhooked the weights and started walking around the ward. All I remember from that is that they kept having x-rays taken. They strapped me down after that and switched me on to synthetic morphine.

          The pain in my feet was intense. When I stabilized somewhat they put my feet in a whirlpool tub with hot water that had some chemicals in it. This was done a few times to try and get my circulation to improve. I was in a ward of the hospital called “The Thermal Unit”, which was designed for burn and freeze victims. I had some visitors during that time, but they all had to wear masks, gowns etc. because of the danger of infection. It was a boring time, which gave me more time to think about the pain. They gave me some prism glasses that allowed me to see at a 90 degree angle and watch TV. But that didn’t last as I knocked them off of the shelf and when I put them back on there were 2 TV’s. The specialist working on my feet was named Dr. Mills. I was lucky. This guy had pretty much written the book on frostbite from his experiences of treating soldiers and doing research as far back as the Korean War. 

          After being in traction for two weeks, the doctor came in to let me know what options I had. One was to get the vertebrae fused. They could do that and I would be able to leave soon after to carry on my life. The other option was to use a Halo Brace. They explained that a Halo brace is a metal ring that circles the upper portion of the head. It’s attached to your scull by screws that are driven through the first layer of the skull. There are metal rods that go down the front and back that are attached to a sheepskin lined plastic vest that is tightly wrapped around a person’s torso. I opted for the Halo brace as there was a better chance that I would have more flexibility. I figured I had the rest of my life ahead of me so it would be better to take the longer recovery route if it had advantages. They didn’t talk much about any disadvantages of the Halo brace. I had to learn about that on my own.

          The next day they slowly raised the upper portion of the bed so that for the first time since entering the hospital I wasn’t horizontal. I was hit with a fair bit of nausea as my inner ear got used to the new position. At that time a friend was over visiting. The doctor walked in carrying some screw-drivers and wrenches. I definitely rose an eyebrow seeing that. I introduced my friend who was a nursing student and the doctor asked her if she would like to stay and help. When she agreed, he asked her to try and hold me down. This was sounding less positive by the moment. They put the halo around my head and secured it with pins that had suction cups on the ends. These were placed one each over my temples and behind each ear. The doctor said that he could numb the skin, took out a needle and did so. This is when the fun began. He took out the pins one by one and replaced them with pins that looked like sharpened pencils. These were screwed into my skull. I believe that if the Germans had used this technique during WWII, they could have found out any information a person possessed. The pressure was incredible as he used the screw driver to slowly drive the screws home. So, when he was done, the pressure wasn’t! Eventually, (it seemed like forever), it did decrease to manageable levels. I wasn’t too impressed the next two mornings when the doctor walked through the door with his toolkit for more tightening sessions.

          What I found odd was that I had to learn how to walk all over again. First with a walker and someone to make sure I didn’t topple and later going solo. They told me that as soon as I could make it once around the unit that I could be discharged and head back to school. The hospital staff thought it might be wiser for me to go home for a while and skip a semester, but I was looking forward to getting back to my friends and my life.

          Luckily, I still possessed a bit of luck. The financial person came up to visit me and I was in a bit of a panic. Being a poor student, I didn’t have any health insurance. I was resolved that I’d probably be paying this off for a good portion of my life. When I told her I didn’t have any insurance, she said, “Oh, that’s bad.” She then asked if I’d ever been in the military. When I said yes, she said that being a veteran, I was fully covered. Talk about a big smile :).

          The next morning I got in an elevator and took it down to the lobby. From there it was a cab ride to the airport. At the airport I nearly did myself in. I had to go down a set of stairs. I didn’t realize that when a person normally goes down stairs they take a look at the first stair to make sure their foot is in the right position. I couldn’t look down because of the brace and I missed the step. I was about to go head first down the flight when someone coming up grabbed me and stood me up. I was shaking after that close call and went slower after that.

          It worked out pretty well back at university. Dan had recovered for the most part from his frost bite, Jeff hadn’t returned yet because of the severity of his. He had to have one of his toes amputated. It was lunch time when I got there and I walked into the food commons where about 200 people were eating. It got pretty quite as I walked in and I was more than a little self conscious. A bunch of friends came over and welcomed me back and I started getting my life back. The next couple of months weren’t quite a picnic. I had to sleep sitting up because of the brace and trying to do simple things like read or write were difficult. Luckily I had some understanding professors and I took the easiest class load that I could. The three of us also spent more time in the pub than was probably good for us.

          The helicopter crew was able to all come up for a reunion at one point. It was nice that I was able to thank them in person for saving my life.

          I wouldn’t wish a broken neck on anyone. I was extremely lucky not to have had any paralysis. If I had cut into the spinal cord at the top of my neck I would have died right there. If the C7 break had cut into the cord, I may have lived but would have had total paralysis of my legs and partially on my arms. I wouldn’t have had the ability to melt the snow that kept me alive. Sometimes people ask me if I climb any more. The next year I tried doing a climb with Dan and Jeff, but on the first snow slope, I was shaking and feeling panicked. I had to tell them that I couldn’t do it. Not too long ago my brother in law, Grant took me up on a long rock climb. Grant is a climbing guide and this was an easy climb for him. I’m grateful that Grant did this because I was still nervous and he showed me that I could still enjoy the steeper sections of the mountains. I think I’ll still skip the snow slopes though.


The Esprit Triathlon

ImageI’ve attempted the full distance Esprit Triathlon in 2012 and 2013. During the 2012 race I was passing another competitor during the bike leg when he suddenly turned into me and we both went down. I ended up with a serious concussion and my bike was totalled. I was having a lot of fun up until that point, not so much after.

The race this past year went much better. I love the Esprit for many reasons. The course, though repetitive, is fast. There are lots of cheering spectators “Ca va bien John!!!”It’s extremely well organized and having it in Montreal gives it that international flair. I’ll talk about my race below and during the description of my experience, I’ll describe the course and other details about the race.

The evening prior to the race there is a meeting for participants. Since I was staying in a hotel in downtown Montreal (20 minutes from the start) I knew I’d be taking a cab in the morning. After the meeting I was able to leave my bike in the large tent used for picking up race packets and where the food is served after the race. I took my bike to the race on the subway (the Metro) which wasn’t a problem. The meeting is covered both in English and French but a lot of the answers to questions ends up being replied to only in French. It’s a good chance to brush up on your French, if you speak it at all, if not the material covered is explained well enough that you won’t have any problem.

The evening before the race I’d called a cab company and arranged to be picked up at 4:45. When that time arrived, no cab. I waited another 20 minutes then began to panic. I grabbed my backpack with my race supplies and headed to one of the main streets and found a cab. It added a bit of tension I could have done without. Next year (I’m going to give it one more go) I’ll plan on flagging down a cab in the morning and allot the time for doing that.

The bike transition area is large enough to hang your bike on the rack, lay out shoes, etc. on the ground and you’re given a large plastic box to put extra things in. Coming without a car, the space is very appreciated for “after race” clothing.  

One thing I like about the race is the small number of competitors, though there can be a disadvantage to this which I’ll explain in a moment. The gun went off at exactly 7:00. I’d gone for a short warm up swim (I’m going to try to go a little longer in 2014.) I started out at a leisurely pace which was a mistake. The faster swimmers took off and I was left with no one to draft off of. I swam almost the whole race by myself. I was about five minutes slower than the year before (1:18:00 or so.)  I think more speed work in the pool would help too. It’s strange, I love speed work running or biking, but in the pool I tend to avoid it when I can. Bad attitude, eh?

The transition to the bike was OK. This coming summer I’d like to practice getting on the bike with the shoes already attached to the peddles. I’d practiced this a bit in the weeks leading up to the race, but didn’t feel confident enough to do it on race day. Instead, I carried the shoes and ran with the bike until I reached the point where I could get on the bike. I don’t have the numbers at my fingertips, but I was around three and a half minutes for the transition. I hope to take some time off that next year.

The entire race takes place on the Isle de Notre Dame, in the Parc Jean Drapou. The bike leg follows the route of the Canadian Grand Prix. We go where the formula one cars go, but just a bit slower. You enter near the hairpin turn and follow the course in a counter-clockwise direction. It takes a little getting used to. If you’re slower you are supposed to stay to the left and pass on the right. The opposite, of course, of normal road riding. The course is about 4.4 kilometers in length and is a long-narrow oval. You can sometimes see the other side of the oval while you’re riding. If it’s a good day you’ll start riding into either a headwind (or no wind.) The first half of the oval is somewhat protected with trees and even with a strong breeze you can still make OK time. The benefit happens when you reach the far end. At that point you climb a small hill. It’s a great opportunity to get out of the aero position and give your back a break. Some people stand going up the hill, but I found it was easier and faster to sit. It only takes roughly 20-30 seconds to make the climb. What worked well for me was to stand up and peddle for a few seconds upon reaching the top of the climb to re-establish some speed and give my bum a break. It’s flat at the top for about 200 meters then you come down the other side of the hill you went up. You want some speed by the time you hit the bottom and if the wind is at your back at that point you can make really good time down that side of the oval till you come back to the hairpin turn. This side of the oval isn’t protected and the tail wind is sweet (But if the wind is going the wrong way – L.) Two years ago, there was a very strong (and reportedly unusual) wind and racers were hitting speeds of up to 50 kph on the flats!

So, there you go. Forty one laps and you’re into your next transition. Before jumping ship, or bike in this case, I’ll point out a few more things about this part of the race. The ironman isn’t the only race taking place on race day. There is a half ironman, olympic, sprint distance and two distances of duathlon. They all take place at the same time, with staggered starts. For instance, the half IM begins 30 minutes after the full IM. That makes for a lot of bikers on the grand prix track.I (I believe there were somewhere around 2800 participants within all of the disciplines.  With my experience of crashing the previous year, I made a conscious effort to make myself heard when I was passing other riders. I also kept an eye behind to see who was coming up on me. A loud “On Your Right” kept other riders from turning into me. On one corner a woman started turning in my direction, but she stopped cutting across the corner when I spoke and we avoided kissing bikes.

There is a feed station just as you enter the hairpin turn. Again, it’s a bit unnatural to be passed water bottles from the left side. There is a choice of l’eau (water) or E-Load. I’ll talk more about my feeding experience later in the article and a mistake I made.

It is repetitive, 41 laps, but I like it. After a time or two around the course you learn where you need to apply some gas and where you can conserve. It is very much like the formula one race in that aspect. Save some of your energy / gas and avoid a pit stop / slowing down late in the bike. It’s not a good idea to pace yourself off other riders. Going the full distance is way different than someone racing the duathlon or the sprint distance. They had the Canadian Duathlon Championships during race day this past year and some of those guys were flying! My last tip has to do with memory, or rather the lack of it. If you can count to 41 and know how many laps you’ve completed, you’re more “race smart” than me. Two years ago when our bikes crossed over a strip of plastic that registered your completing the lap the announcer would occasionally say, “John Berryman lap 27.” Last year this didn’t happen. When I thought I must be getting somewhat close I yelled over to the lap counter, “What lap for J.B.” They quickly responded with “Lap 32 for J.B.” I asked a few more times after that. My memory worked less the more my body worked. If you don’t want to ask they tell you the second to last and final laps.

 I finished the bike leg in five hours and four minutes which I was very happy with. There were two more mistakes I made, although one of them was sort of out of my control. My heart rate monitor decided to stop working the morning of the race. The year before (before I crashed) I’d almost finished the bike with less than 8 laps to go. I used my heart rate to help me establish my pacing and to conserve energy. I found that if I kept my HR under 150 then I didn’t breathe hard yet could keep a solid pace going. When the HR began to creep up, I’d either slow my pace or practice breathing easier and deeper, focus on a round peddling stroke and other tricks to be more efficient. I missed the HR monitor last year and I think I went a bit too hard earlier in the bike and was beginning to run out of steam and slowing down during the last couple of laps.

The second mistake is related to the first though this one was completely my own goof. The previous year I kept my cyclo-computer in average speed. Later in the race I was able to see that each lap I was going slightly faster as the average speed slowly crept upwards each lap. I knew better, but I made the simple mistake of not resetting the computer. So it registered a slow 10 k from the night before. Once my bike is rolling you can’t reset the monitor and I wasn’t going to stop to reset it. I was still able to see how close I was to the finish (roughly) but the Average speed thing went out the window.

The second transition is straight forward and there are lots of volunteers that will direct you with where to get off the bike and where to go once you start running. Make sure that your bib is visible. Since it’s colour-coded the volunteers will be able to direct you to where you need to go. The run for the full ironman starts out on a dirt path. It’s a great way to start. The padded ground makes the transition from biking to running easier. After several kilometers you come back to the path that goes around the man-made-lake that you swam in earlier. Nine times around and you’re finished. There were three feed stations available for each lap. E-Load, water, cut fruit and pretzels were offered (possibly gels too, I’m not sure about that.) Pretzels didn’t work for me. I tried one and, instant cotton-mouth.

As I mentioned it’s nine laps around the water. For some people the repetition was difficult, “OMG I still have six laps to go.” I liked it. After two laps I could tell myself, “You’re about a quarter of the way there.” It’s all asphalt but there are places where you can run on the edge of grass if you need some relief from the pounding. It’s totally flat and potentially fast. The corners allow your muscles to work slightly differently and although gentle ups and downs might do a better job of this, by this point in the race I liked the flats. I finished the run in 4h 8minutes. I was happy with that, especially with what I’ll describe next.


I had a plan for feeding during the race. I should have followed it! I had 10 gels in my back pocket at the start of the race. Under the wetsuit, there was a tiny bulge which wasn’t a problem. I ate one approximately every 30 minutes during the bike. I sweat buckets so getting liquids into me was probably more important than taking in calories. I started with the E-load. It has a much milder flavor than the sports drink I usually use. It was probably at full strength but it tasted weak. I’d planned on drinking two bottles of that then one bottle of water to make sure the concentration of sugar wasn’t too high. Since it tasted weak, I skipped the water and reasoned with myself that once I start feeling slightly queasy I’d add in the water.   

This backfired during the run. The queasiness hit when my feet started pounding the ground. It didn’t get bad until about a half hour into the run, then all hell broke loose. My digestive system went on strike, a violent strike at that! It’s hard to run when you’re doubled over with cramps, feel like you’re going to up-chuck and have to look for porti-potties, or in my emergency induced state, a tree. I started drinking water (in small amounts) at that point and after an hour of unpleasantness my system relented. I then only had to deal with some of the amazing exhaustion that assaults most (if not all) participants.

I had a couple of mantras that I’d recite in my head when my mind told me that “It would be much easier and smarter if you stopped this stupidness!” I have a friend, Kerrie who has finished Ironman Canada a couple of times and she told me, “There is no quitting.” Another one I used which came from a Vipassana 10 day meditation course I took was that when pain happens, don’t react to it, just observe it. So, I’d tell myself, “Don’t react, observe.” I’d also tell myself (with the same idea,) “There is no spoon.” It didn’t totally make sense but at that point, nothing does.

I finished in 8th place overall with a time of 10h 37m and some seconds and was second in my age category. I was very pleased with my time since I was shooting for trying to finish under 12 hours.

This is a great race, though if you have ambitions of qualifying for the world championships in Kona, this race isn’t a qualifier. It doesn’t fall under the corporate name of “Ironman.” It certainly is the full distance, but it’s a company thing which will cost you a couple of hundred extra to register (if you can register – slots fill very fast for those races.) The esprit still has that small town feel and Danny McCann (the head organizer) along with all the volunteers have made this race more than just a little special! I can’t wait to go back next year!!! If you have Ironman aspirations and want a race that’s easy to register for, is potentially fast and is well run you won’t go wrong if you spend the first weekend in September (Sept. 6th this year) in Montreal.