With my 3rd Ironman under my belt, It’s taken me a bit longer than normal to process my thoughts Ironman Canada 2018 in Whistler, British Columbia. It was a challenging day – but one that left me feeling satisfied, grateful, and certainly hungry as an athlete.
This was my second go at Ironman Canada – but, across the board it felt like a completely new experience.
- The race course was redesigned with the most significant changes being made to the bike course; what was once a 1-loop course is now a 3-loop course with nearly 8,500ft of elevation gain over the 112 mile ride.
- The high for the day was 97 degrees, over 10 degrees warmer than 2016.
- This was my first Ironman as a father. This made for a much different Ironman build in terms of training. We modified our travel arrangements to make sure that Nathan would be as comfortable as possible. And of course, race week itself had a whole new level of energy requirements considering the amount of FUN our little guy needs and deserves.
The travel to Whistler, BC from Bend, OR (our home) is an interesting one. It’s close enough where driving is within reason. On the contrary, the drive isn’t necessarily easy and makes the appeal of flying that much stronger. As a Type-A triathlete, there is something about being able to pack everything you need to and control the experience, so for the 2nd time, I made the drive from Bend to Whistler. This time it was a different experience – April and Nathan flew from Bend to Vancouver while I made the drive with my Mom, Brother, Sister, and her Best Friend (shout out to the family for doing this!!!). We coordinated the logistics so I could leave early in the morning and make it to the Vancouver airport to pick up April and Nate-O that same evening. The planner in me thrived and I arrived to the airport with 20 minutes to spare, needless to say – it was a relatively good, smooth travel day.
We checked in to our AirBnb in the upper village of Whistler late on Thursday – so race week for us really got going on Friday. It was a classic combination of spending time with family, fitting in the last minute feel-good-workouts, getting checked-in for the race, and triple checking all of the gear. Going into the race on Sunday morning – I was confident in my preparation and excited to enjoy the gift of racing, considering all of the sacrifice it takes from family, most specifically my amazing April, to participate in the sport that I love.
Ironman Canada has logistics dialed. The race begins at Alta Lake – it’s about a 3km (~2 mile) walk/hike/run from the village, or a 10 minute car ride to get to Rainbow park, where the swim and bike begin. On race day, they close the road to the public and use buses to shuttle athletes. My awesome Mom picked me up along with one of my athletes at 4:20am – got us to T2 to drop off gear – and we were on a bus to the race start by 4:45, no problem.
Side note: The race morning routine is important – it’s an opportunity for athletes to feel like they’ve been here before and it certainly helps to alleviate anxiety or stress. For me, I wake up early – have a bowl of oatmeal with a big cup of coffee, and sip on a bottle of electrolyte while I get ready. Once I make it to transition/race start, I inflate my bike tires to 100 PSI, use the restroom, put on my wetsuit, find April to give her a kiss (this year, our kiss was in the condo since she stayed at the condo with Nathan), and begin my swim warm up. It’s important to be flexible with the swim warm up, as some races don’t allow you to get in the water beforehand. For this Ironman, I did a dryland warm up and didn’t touch the water until the gun went off.
The announcer was awesome – tons of energy, which made for an electric feeling at transition while athletes prepared to begin the 3,800m (2.4 mile) swim. Ironman Canada follows the (now) standard rolling start, so I positioned myself in the 1 hour group and once the gun went off – I was probably around 75th in the water.
< My swim training for this race was very different than my 2 past Ironman races. I swam 70% less volume in the 6 months leading up to the race (only 78,000 yards compared to 200,000+ yards past years) – I relied on my experience as a swimmer as well as sessions that focused on high-quality sets to prepare for this race. >
Due to my swim training, I believed I would be able to swim 1:00-1:03 for the race while staying within myself. That is an important goal in the Ironman, you don’t want to burn any matches in the swim or else you’ll pay the price throughout the rest of the day. The swim was mellow, and I completed the 2 loop swim just 3 seconds over 1:03, considering my training – I was very pleased.
After a smooth transition and applying loads of sunscreen in T1, I grabbed my trusty Cervelo P2 (I’ve never been someone who names my bikes) and began what would become the hardest bike ride of my life. Going into the bike, I had a plan. I wanted to average 225 watts (watts are measured by power meters, an important tool in pacing effectively during races and to measure progress in training), and I had a very good plan for nutrition including both calories, water, and electrolytes. This was my first race where I decided to use on-course fuel. Athletes had been told that Gatorade Endurance would be the on course electrolyte – so I trained religiously with this product which meant my body and mind were ready to fuel with it for the 112 mile bike.
As I approached the first aid-station, around mile 18, I slowed to grab a bottle of Gatorade and a bottle of water. After getting through the 200m aid station, I took my planned 8oz of Gatorade and thought to myself ‘this doesn’t taste like Gatorade endurance.’ I looked at the bottle and it was Gatorade Perform – more sugar, and less electrolytes (salt, magnesium, potassium) than Gatorade Endurance. I did some math, and calculated that I’d have to have about 30% more of this in order to hit my numbers for electrolytes and calories. I was disappointed, but, couldn’t let it get to me.
The next few hours of the bike went by pretty quickly – the course was enjoyable, the traffic on the course was manageable, and I was fueling to the best of my ability. When the 3rd loop began, I realized just how hard this course was. My legs felt strong, but certainly fatigued. The relentless climbing on the course was a continual series of climbs and descents, which made it difficult to ever truly find a rhythm – it was death by 1,000 paper cuts. The difficulty, combined with the nutrition snafu – made for a long final 30 miles. I have never had a headache before on the bike, and I have to assume this came from all of the additional sugar I consumed, I drank a lot of extra water to try and combat the headache but I could never get it to go away. I rolled into T2 with a bike time of 6:08, exhausted, but thankful to have made it through the bike with no mechanical issues and while riding my ride. I ended up normalizing 219w, so I stuck to my plan quite well.
I flew through T2. After a quick sock change, throw on the run shoes, and then grab everything else (race belt, visor, and arm sleeves to protect from the sun) – I was off. If I had my perfect day, I believed that my training had me prepared to run a 3:30-3:40 marathon. My Ironman PR for the marathon is 3:40, and going into this race I was hoping to beat that number. However, with the difficulty of the bike and the warm temperatures, I reset my expectations (sound familiar, Ironman Coeur d’Alene 2015???), and committed to getting the job done.
I kept my heart rate in check and held a controlled pace of 7:55-8:05 for the first 5 miles, my stomach was in knots, and I was having a hard time stomaching anything other than water – and by mile 6, I had to slow the pace pretty drastically. The next 3.5 hours, were the hardest mental and physical hours I have ever had as an athlete. I kept wanting to be disappointed. I had trained so hard, April sacrificed so much, and I wasn’t having the day I had trained for. I had to fight myself a lot to find gratitude and to remember that everyone else was facing the same conditions that I was – it was up to me to control my attitude, and to react to the day in the best way possible.
I came through 13.1 miles (half way) at 1:55, and I knew that the pace was going to continue to decline. I began to jog/walk and at this point my focus became finishing the race. I passed my family around mile 16 on the run and motioned to April to have her run down to me while I was jogging. I had a speech planned – I was going to tell her that I love her, that although I was hurting, I was going to get it done, and I wanted to thank her for everything she’d done the past 6 months as well as during race week to support me so selflessly. When she made it to me, all I could muster was “I” before I broke down in tears. When your person cries, you cry, so April and I had a memorable moment before she encouraged me to keep fighting. Running and crying is a weird feeling. But, keep fighting is exactly what I did.
When you get to a point in training where running 7:30 miles is easy, and you’ve completed big training days such as 100 mile bike days, 18 mile long runs, and weeks where you train for more than 17 hours – the definition of ‘hard’ continues to evolve. During the final stretch of the marathon, I was working so hard to just move forward, it was a humbling experience but one that I’ll remember forever.
As you come through mile 24, you enter the ‘home stretch.’ I saw my family, and got a huge boost of energy. I picked up my pace, and really tried to enjoy the last portion of the marathon. The final stretch through Whistler was amazing – so much crowd support, a ton of meaningful cheers and messages of support, and as I entered the finish chute, all of the potential disappointment went away, I was thrilled to be looking at my 3rd Ironman finish line. April and Nathan were in a perfect spot, when we caught eyes I wanted to stop, but April encouraged me to fight through the finish line. I raised my arms into the air as I hard the amazing words “Michael Wolber…you…are…an..IRONMAN!!!”
My perspective on Ironman racing has changed a lot over the past few years. Especially now that I’ve completed 3 of them with a PR of 10:33 and a Personal Worst from this year in 12:05. Enjoying the process is so important, the outcome of the race is dependent on so many things that you can’t control. I love the sport of triathlon more than I ever have and am enjoying a little ‘off’ time before I commit to my next endurance goal. As for Ironman racing, I won’t be signing up for Ironman #4 until I’m mentally ready (with my families support) to pursue my goal of racing in Kona.