Eight Whitehorse-area athletes compete in 140.6 and 70.3-mile races in Whistler
It’s with a mix of enthralment and dread that I descend towards Pemberton, B.C. on Highway 99. Shifting into my lowest gear, I pedal furiously, tucking further over my drop bars.
Shouts of “on your left” blow away as I pass a handful of riders on our way to the final turnaround point on the Ironman Canada 70.6 bike course.
Later, my GPS watch will tell me I topped out at 69 km/h – a thrilling speed I never would have dreamed of comfortably hitting when I began training on a bike last October. Riding 90 kilometres on a mountain highway near Whistler sandwiched by a 1.9-kilometre open-water swim and a 21-kilometre run, was also not high on my radar when I clipped my feet to the pedals for the first time in April and promptly tipped over in the driveway.
A light mist hovers above Alta Lake on Sunday morning. At 6:45 a.m., the water’s glassy surface is disrupted as the pro women start the full 140.6 race. They’re followed shortly by the age-group athletes.
Somewhere in the pack is Valerie Girard, the woman responsible for our tiny group of women competing on the Whistler course. A veteran of the 70.3 distance, Girard is tackling her first Ironman.
The rest of our group is onshore, wetsuits dangling from waists. Sandra MacDougall warms up as Erica Van Vlack walks on her hands nearby. For each of us, this will be our first crack at the 70.3 distance. And we’ve chosen the notoriously difficult course at Whistler to test ourselves.
Soon, we’re corralled into the starting chute, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a couple thousand other souls coated in neoprene.
The man to my left is doing his sixth or seventh half Ironman. He can see the nerves on my face. He says to trust the training.
“You’ll be surprised at what your body can do on race day.”
I don’t tell him my taper didn’t go to plan. I don’t tell him that I had been battling a cold in the weeks leading up to the race, that I had questioned whether I’d even be able to stand on the start line.
I smile. It’s forced, but it calms me down and we turn to face the lake.
The starting gun goes off, but it’s another 15 minutes before my toes even touch the water.
Alta Lake, which had been so calm for the Ironman athletes a couple hours earlier is now a churning mess. The wind has picked up and I feel like I’m diving into the surf at a beach, not into the mild lake three kilometres away from Whistler Village.
The swim feels longer than I expect, but I take it one stroke at a time, focusing on the technique I’d spent all winter trying to refine with Stephanie Dixon and the Graylings Masters Swim Team.
The first red turn buoy appears, then another and another. At the third turn, we’re swimming back towards shore and into the worst of the chop. Some of my sights are futile. Unable to see even the tip of the final buoy above the waves, my head goes back in the water and I try again.
Stroke after stroke until my favourite discipline, my first half Ironman swim, is over and I step out of the water to get ready for the bike.
The sun is high in the sky as I begin the gruelling climb back up to Whistler Village.
Many athletes have already dropped out of the race. One sits with their head in their hands on the shoulder of the road, two pools of puke beside them.
A car passes by with more bikes strapped to the back.
I will not give up.
A few months before the race, when I’d expressed concern to my coach about hitting the cutoff times and being able to finish, Van Vlack looked at me.
“You’re stubborn enough to finish,” she said.
Indeed, I was. Coming up to the dismount line at the second transition area, my legs turned to jelly. I ran into the tent to change and start the final discipline of the half Ironman – the run.
Training for a triathlon in the Yukon, you spend a lot of time by yourself.
On the run course at Ironman Canada, you were never alone.
Slowing to a walk, another competitor grabbed my arm and urged me to run with her. We managed an awkward dance of run-walk all the way to the finish.
The last kilometre of the run winds through Whistler Village and crowds line the course to offer support.
I’d imagined the finish of the race for months and as my feet hit the carpet before the finish line, I couldn’t actually believe that I’d made it.
Months of training and of supporting each other had finally paid off.
I crossed the finish line of my first half Ironman with an ear-to-ear smile.
My official time: eight hours, 48 minutes and 15 seconds.
Now, days later, I’m still dreaming of my next course and where the swim, bike, run challenge will lead to next.
After a patio dinner in Whistler Village, we head down to the finish line to cheer on Girard. She appears in the finish chute, a huge smile splayed across her face.
After 15 hours, 46 minutes and 42 seconds, Girard crosses the finish line with a flourish and a high kick – an ode to her winters dancing with the Can Can girls.
Each one of us finished. Yukon Triathlon’s debut at Ironman Canada was a success.
Ironman results: Valerie Girard finished in 15:46:42, to place 45th in her age group (40-44); Brad Avery finished in 11:56:43 to place 16th in men 50-54; Rob Rees finished in 12:40:24 to place 28th in men 50-54; Jonathan Belanger finished in 13:16:35 to place 80th in men 40-44.
Half Ironman results: Barry Sugden finished in 7:52:25 to place 28th in men 60-64; Erica Van Vlack finished in 5:57:27 to place 15th in women 30-34; Sandra MacDougall finished in 6:30:02 to place 19th in women 50-54.
What’s an Ironman?
3.8K swim & 180K bike & 42.2K run
What’s a half Ironman?
1.9K swim & 90K bike & 21.1K run