© 2011 Ironman.com
2011.08.28 – Penticton, BC, Canada
[While I was writing this, Jill asked me if I was basing it on some parallel story, as I sometimes do with races, as with “Rappstar in Ironland” based off of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland about my first win at Ironman Canada in 2009. I replied that I was not. But I lied. Not intentionally, though. Right now, I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw, which is a collection of his articles from the “New Yorker.” I wrote this last night; as I sat down this morning to read another story from the book, I found it eerily familiar. Totally subconsciously, I wrote about this race in what, at least to me, seems like a very “Gladwellian” fashion. I think the unmistakable rhythm and flow and style of Gladwell, who is one of my favorite writers, implanted itself on my brain. And the result was this report, or rather, the way this report was written. Ironically, as I write this preamble, I find myself still writing in what sounds an awful lot to me like Malcolm’s voice. This was totally unintentional, even as I am aware of the obvious influence. So it turns out I did, in a fashion, base this on some parallel entity, just a stylistic one rather than a plot-based one. I hope you like it. (As an another aside, that very last sentence is basically a verbatim copy of the end of Gladwell’s introduction to What the Dog Saw. That’s my way of explicitly and consciously honoring his influence on what I wrote.)]
Three as in third at Portland Rev3. Two as in second at Calgary 70.3. And one, well, one as in first at Ironman Canada. While I don’t believe in fate, it certainly appealed to what Dr. Michael Shermer would call my human drive for patternicity. The 3, 2, 1 certainly does have a nice visual appeal to it, though I hope that I wouldn’t have given up my will to win in Penticton had I finished 4th in Portland and then 3rd in Calgary. Those half-ironman races were certainly important; I was glad to do well; and I was especially happy that my improvement in placing correlated with what I felt was an increase in fitness. But neither was a primary focus of my season. The focus of this summer was Ironman Canada. In 2009, It was the race that I think really cemented the legitimacy of my professional career. It proved that I was not, unlike one industry insider quipped to Dan Empfield, “a guy who couldn’t win an Ironman.” But just over a year after my accident, I felt I had to prove that all over again, albeit mostly to myself. While there were the reasonably obvious signs in both training and racing that not only was I as good an athlete as I was before my crash, I was better, there remained, deep inside of me, some lingering doubts. There really is nothing like grabbing that banner and crossing the finish line in first. There’s a win, and then there’s everything else. And that is why, entering the rollers after descending from the top of Richter Pass, I looked back at the three other athletes close on my wheel, and said, not quite loud enough that they could hear, “I’m about to rip your legs off.” And then I did.
My most common piece of advice to athletes who want to know how to race well at Ironman Canada is to tell them that the race truly starts at the top of Richter Pass. It’s a special place to me, that little crest in the hill with the rickety wood-and-wire fence on the right hand side. Jill and I actually briefly pondered naming Quentin, “Richter” after said pass, and I actually met a woman after the race who had done exactly that. It’s the Richter that really defines the Ironman Canada course, and it often defines people’s races, though they often don’t realize it at the time – or ever, for that matter – and so it seems an appropriate place to start my retelling of this year’s race. The swim and ride to Osoyoos are an important preamble, but like many stories, it’s the sort of stuff you can gloss over or neatly summarize. And so it is in this case, where all that really matters is that I found myself in second place overall, with three other riders close on my back wheel, as we entered the 10 rollers that I think are the most important – and most difficult – part of the course. None of the rollers is particularly long. Most of them are not particularly steep. In most cases, you probably think your momentum from the previous descent is going to be enough to almost carry you to the top of the next one. You might even think that they serve to buffer you against the typically Northern whipping down the Similkameen Valley into your face. In fact, I’d say it’s likely that you think this, even if you’ve ridden the course a handful of times. But you’d be wrong.
One of my best friends in college was a guy named Ben Brown. Ben had an on-campus job working in the student gym. It was a good gig for Ben, as he was an avid weight lifter, so the gym was a place he was going to hang out anyway. One of Ben’s favorite machines was the single-arm row. He rowed lightweight crew as a freshman, but eventually, his body rebelled against trying to exist some 50+ pounds below his “natural” weight, and one year of rowing was all he had in him. But pulling really hard on things never ceased to have appeal. One day, some foreign grad students approached Ben during a workout as he was hammering away on the one armed row. They politely interrupted him and asked, “how do you lift so much on this machine?” Ben didn’t miss a beat. He looked back at them and replied, “fury.” And then he went back to lifting.
I’ve ridden the rollers more times than I can count. I’ve tried all manner of approaches to conquering them. And in doing so, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are just really hard, and if you want to ride them really well, there’s really no substitute for simple fitness. Of all the tricks I’ve tried, nothing has been better than those days where the power just seems to flow to the pedals. Every ride is better on those days, but riding the rollers is especially good on those days. You want to know the secret to riding the rollers well? Fury. And so heading into the part of the course that I like to think of as, “My world,” I knew that I was going to crack the whip hard on the rollers. If they stayed with me through those 10 undulations, I liked my chances on the run. And if they fell back, I wondered how much time they truly thought they could give me by T2. However it happened, I left the last roller clear, and coming onto the long flat straightaway into Cawston, I finally put my wheel in front of Bert Jammaer to take the lead, almost exactly 2.5 hours into the bike ride. Again, not quite loud enough to hear, I said, “This is my race,” tucked my head, and drove hard into the wind I’ve faced off against on countless occasions.
All this hard riding was not without its price. I knew I had the fitness to execute that race, but I was not having a “no chain” kind of day. I had good legs, but I was pushing up against the limits of their “goodness.” On the very slight incline through Keremeos on the way to Yellow Lake, the hard riding of the previous hour started to take it’s toll. I fought hard to keep the power up, standing in those places where the inclined kicked up just enough to slow you to where it wasn’t a huge aerodynamic penalty to stand. Or waiting for those areas where I knew the terrain shaded me from the wind enough that I could relax a bit out of the aerobars and take in a bigger hit of nutrition. As I came to the base of Yellow Lake, I was ready to put the race truly out of reach. On good days, I will climb all of Yellow Lake in the big chain ring. On most days, I will climb at least the first half in the big ring. But today, I got about 2/3 of the way up the very first pitch before the left-hand turn (probably about 300m or so), and my legs cried, “enough.” I was cross-chained (54-23, in my case), and my legs had stalled. I panicked and hit my front shifter. Bang, the chain was off. I have a chain catcher (looks like it needs to be snugged up), and I thought I might be able to spin it back on. But as my momentum slowed, the chain stayed down. I shifted up to the big ring, unclipped one foot, and gave myself a few pushes before trying again to spin the chain back on. Eventually I got off and remounted the chain by hand. I would say I lost about 20 seconds in total, and while I think that I maintained my composure, there was a part of me that whispered, “let’s hope it doesn’t come down to a sprint finish…” My legs continued to protest the rest of the way up Yellow Lake and through the undulating and then descending final section of the course. I took some solace as back-splits to the chasers revealed that the hard ride had sapped their legs even more as they continued to fall further behind.
But with the long and fast drop from Twin Lakes into Penticton, I rode almost 40 minutes wondering just how far back I was putting these four other riders, in particular, the man wearing bib #1, he of eight other Ironman victories, and numerous 2:4X marathons – Viktor Zyemtsev. The first turnaround on Lakeshore was my first chance to see the chasers, and the first bib I saw was #1, roughly 1:45 since I made my turnaround, giving me about a 3:30 lead starting the marathon. I wanted to run sub-2:50. I knew I was capable of running sub-2:50. As Simon Whitfield reminded a week out, “the boys run under 3 hours; then men run under 2:50.” How far under I could go, I wasn’t sure. Less than three-and-a-half minutes than the one other guy I also expected to run sub-2:50? That I didn’t know. But I thought it’d be mighty demoralizing the hit the turnaround and have him see that same 3:30 at the halfway mark. And so I set out running my pace, thinking, “catch me if you can.”
Starting the run, I had some gas, but it was, as I am fond of joking with Jill about the noises that regularly emanate from little Quentin, “all sound and no fury.” And then, at about mile 9, suddenly it wasn’t. I’m reminded of the scene from Forrest Gump when he’s running across the US for the umpteenth time and steps in a pile of dog poop. The guy running with Forrest, who is looking for a slogan for a bumper sticker, says to Forrest, “oh man, you just stepped in a big pile of dog shit.” Forrest replies, “it happens.” “What?” the man asks, “Shit?” “Sometimes,” is Forrest’s response. And well, the rest is history (or, imaginary history as the case may be). And so it was with me. Sometimes, it happens. It’s sort of something you end up rationalizing, simply because a marathon is a really long time, and if you are focused on the task at hand, it’s hard not to at least acknowledge what’s gone on. And I apologize in advance if this falls into the category of “Too Much Information.” But I had 3:30 starting the marathon. And I wasn’t sure I was willing to risk at least 30 seconds – maybe more – of that lead when it might have been just a little, uhm, “inconvenience.” Ultimately, it was a fair bit worse than that, but as I ran by the port-a-johns early in the run, before it became obvious that I really needed one, this is what I decided. If I got passed at some point, I’d have plenty of time to clean up before crossing the line in 2nd (or 3rd or whatever). And if I didn’t get passed, well, I think people are willing to overlook some messiness if you win. And, so, as Forrest said, “sometimes [(sh)it] happens.” And that’s why you always want black bottoms on your race suit.
And so it was that what seems somewhat like it ought to have been a moment of great ignominy and shame ended up also being a moment of incredible triumph. As I wrote in my speech, “it is not an easy road from earth to the stars.” And it certainly wasn’t easy. But after 3, 2, 1, I felt that same levity in the finish chute as I did in 2009. I said that, in many ways, I felt like a truly different person after the accident. The athlete I was now had never won an Ironman. The athlete I was now was a new model. Similar to the original, but markedly different as well. After 524 days, I finally felt like I really and truly left that wreck behind. I kept joking with myself as I lay in the lake, rinsing off, “well, I guess I’m really not dead!” And while it was certainly the sort of thing that I feel gave me closure, I feel like I’m still the same person I have been since my life was changed so drastically. But I feel like the race certainly changed me somewhat, in the same way that becoming a parent changed me. Not in the before/after sense that I sometimes feel about my crash. But in an evolutionary sort of way. Having a child has been fantastic for keeping me grounded. Quentin doesn’t care if I win, but he also doesn’t care if I come 2nd, or DFL, or even if I DNF. But being grounded all the time isn’t what makes life interesting. Sometimes, you do need to aim for the stars. And while, at eight hours, 28 minutes, and nine seconds, it wasn’t exactly speedy, but I think I can finally say, “we have liftoff…”