To BE Extraordinary Transcend Ordinary

My Journey to becoming an Ironman – Canada 2010

Before you begin reading this you may want to get yourself a glass of wine or some tea… it is long, just like Ironman!

“Success is a journey, not a destination.  The doing is often more important than the outcome”

The journey to IMC 2010 began just over one year ago.  Standing in that line in Penticton on that hot summer day in August, 2009 registering for this race was a day I will never forget.  In 1989 when I was a high school drop-out I woke up one morning, still trying to recover from a hard night of partying, and flicked on the TV and watched 90 minutes of pure inspiration.  It was the NBC encore presentation of the infamous Kona Ironman where Dave Scott and Mark Allen went to battle.  Being completely inspired with their efforts at defying the laws of human limitation I told myself, I too would inspire others and compete in Ironman one day…. !

We arrived in Penticton on the Tuesday and had a great house only minutes from the start/finish line and transition.  My training had literally come to a close and by this point I was just ensuring all my gear was in order and that I followed my usual tapering routine.  Saturday, the day before the race, I went for my last ride and checked my bike, swim-bike bag and bike-run bag into transition.  This was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be as I kept teetering with what to wear for race day.  One forecast said warm with highs of 22 and others would say 15 with a few showers.  All week this was causing me more distress than it normally does.  Innately it meant to me that the weather was still undecided.

Race morning came and I was up at 3:30 am having breakfast.  Food went down well and I was in good spirits getting ready to race.  I got down to transition at 5:15am, got body marked, dropped off my special needs bags for the bike and run and headed over to my bike.  Racing for me is very much an individual journey so in the mornings I have my nano blaring my eardrums with upbeat dance and rock music.  This allows me to not engage in any conversations with anyone, even with people I know, I simply give’em a head nod and smile or walk over and embrace them with a hug.  I’m fairly focused and do my best to hold my space.  After a little dry land warm up and more to eat I put on my wetsuit only to learn that I misplaced my goggles.  “What… no Freakin goggles”!!!!  I back tracked my path for over 20 minutes looking for them, but to no avail.  I started to get into a little panic as it was only 20 minutes to the start gun.  So I stopped, closed my eyes and took several deep breathes.  “OK MAN, just chill the F**K OUT, you’re ok, we’ll get you some more goggles.  I opened my eyes, smiled, reached into a corner zipped pocket of my transition pack and voila, there it was, another set of tinted goggles… Whew!

Over the past year I have spent 15 to over 30 hours every week training.  Racing Ironman Canada was truly a celebration of all the training, hard work  and dedication I have put in.  One of the biggest challenges for my mind was wrapping my head around a 3.8km swim in the open water of Lake Okanagan with almost 3000 other athletes flailing their bodies around one another.  In fact the idea of this frightened me so much that I have literally spent 5-6 days a week working on my swimming over the past year.  Fear is an interesting thing.  It can literally handcuff us and prevent forward momentum or it may act as a catalyst to thrust us forward into the world of wonder and possibility.  We fear only what is unknown and create a future filled with illusions that appear bleak.

In Septemeber 2009 I began to spend several hours each week making the unknown… known.  The truth was that I could not swim.  Fear came from my knowing that I could not swim.  The solution was simple, learn to swim fast yet efficiently.  Ironman races are never won in the swim, but they can be lost here.  My days over the past year would begin at 5:30am every morning and I would visualize a cavalry of people behind me with each stroke forcing me to hold form and turn my arms over as efficiently as possible.  I have spent the last year swimming at the local pool in West Van, the open waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Aegean Sea of the northern Sporades of Greece.  And yes all this hard work had paid off.  The outer work on my swimming was an amazing catalyst to slay the dragons and move “FEAR” out of my stratosphere of consciousness for the swim.

“The only journey in life is the journey from within”

I left transition walked over to the spectator fence where Kate and the rest of my family was standing.  I gave Kate a big hug and kiss, waved at the rest and headed into the water for a nice 15 minute warm-up.  I found my start spot, right on the buoy line 2nd row, upfront.  The anthem ended and “bang” the start gun went off.  I felt nervous but kept turning my arms over and the body contact was kept to a minimum.  I sighted every 8 strokes and swam perfectly straight on the buoy line.  300 meters in all hell started to break loose.  Up until that point I was with a nice pod with people several inches to my left and right all swimming in my same line.  At 300m dozens of people started to cross our paths from the left and what appeared to be like a seamless swim became very effortful and aggressive.  Bodies were everywhere; I was getting elbowed, punched and kicked everywhere on my body.  The people swimming with me originally completely backed off their pace to look for more open water.  I decided to hold my line.  As the bodies came from my left I just kept swimming over them, I told myself “If they want to swim left to right, be my guest, but don’t mess with my line, I’m going to the next buoy.  Over the next 1000m I swam over dozens of peoples hips as respectfully and politely as I could.  Body contact is something I’m very comfortable with as I grew up playing hockey, lacrosse, and martial arts.  I had to get pretty tough and aggressive to hold my line, form and breathing.

After the first turn buoy I knew I had seen it all.  That turn was the bottlenecks of bottlenecks.  100’s of bodies thrown into a space of 10 yards, all I could do is laugh and smile… “Welcome to Ironman!”.  I kept holding my form and turning my arms over working at about 75%.  Eventually the swim leg came to an end and I was close to the shoreline.  The water was knee deep and I stood up and started my beach run with high knees to pass the water.  The swim finish shoot looked so far away and I realized I’d made a crucial mistake.

In life we have what I call the “herd mentality”.  We do things simply because everyone else does them too.  We do things without ever questioning and critically thinking about why we are doing what we are doing.  To me this is the disease of humanity.  We consume drugs, vaccinate our children, eat malnourished foods and then refer to our state of being as “age” and just being “life”.  I go out of my way to never follow herd mentality until I have thoroughly dissected it with a fine comb making my own informed decisions and choices.  I stood up from my swim at 1:04, yet I had to run for over 3 minutes to the swim finish because I followed all the swimmers in front of me… Herd Mentality!  I know for next year to keep right and exit the water at the swim exit.  This day it cost me over 3 minutes… ouch!

“Follow the road less traveled and that will make all the difference”

At this point I was still pleased with my performance, my first Ironman swim… 1:07!  As I was getting my wetsuit stripped off me and running through transition I was looking up at the sky and debating whether or not to put my arm warmers on.  I ran into the change tent, got my shoes, shades, helmet and arm warmers on.  I ran out grabbed my bike and was off for a 180km journey through the high desert of British Columbia’s interior.  This ride would take us through the wine country and include 2 significant mountain pass climbs with many rolling hills in-between.  Even on days when the weather is ideal this ride can be a challenge.

Since last year I have been hitting my pedals hard on my time trial bike.  Training consisted of short threshold rides of 1 hr to long base rides of 8hrs.  Each week I would be on the saddle from several hours up to 20 hours cycling.  I felt much more confident on the bike compared to swimming.  My build leading up to Ironman felt great and I was oozing with confidence for a strong bike split.

The ride from Penticton through OK Falls, Oliver and to Osoyoos was fairly seamless and I felt great.  My nutrition and hydration plan was perfectly executed and I was getting ready for the first major climb at mile 40, Richter’s Pass.  It was a good thing I had my arm warmers on as they kept me comfortably warm while the sun was still trying to come up.  I was riding my perfect “A” race riding my own pace averaging about 23MPH.  However, it was disheartening to see the amount of cheating that was going on.  There is a “no draft” rule on the ride where every bike must have at least 7 metres between the bike in front and behind them.  I was literally seeing clusters of people riding in a peloton of 12-15 people all drafting one another.  I know that when one cheats they are only robbing themselves.  I just sent them vibes of compassion!

The sun was out and I was heating up spinning my legs up Richter’s Pass, the first mountain climb.  I looked up and saw nothing but blue skies and sun, perfect race weather.  I got to the top of Richter’s fast, in about 15 minutes and decided to throw my arm warmers off and gave them to Kate and family as they were cheering me on at a spectator point at the top.

After Richter’s a series of 7 long rolling hills began.  I call them the 7 angels.  I would hammer down each hill to get as much momentum as I could for the uphill.  At this point I began to creep up to about 75% of my effort.  I eventually arrived at Cawston where there is a tough 14 mile out and back section of the ride.  This is where the race truly began for me.  I started to work hard here increasing my effort levels to 80+%.  I felt very strong mentally and physically, my legs did not feel like they had just rode over 75 miles.  I was on my “A” race… : )

After getting more lifts from my entourage and other spectators I continued to pass dozens of athletes.  I looked over my shoulders and saw that I had close to a dozen athletes now drafting me.  This continued for the next 20 miles through the false flats up to Yellow Lake, the next mountain pass.  I was still riding my race letting the other athletes ride on my coat tails.  After Cawston nobody would pass me on the bike again and I caught many people who had started racing too early on the ride.

“Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out”

As the climb up Yellow Lake was approaching the weather unfortunately started to turn.  I began to get extremely nervous.  My last race was a half Ironman and the temperatures were so cold I actually got hypothermic.  “Please don’t let it get that cold”… “Why did I toss my arm warmers????”  The mental chatter began in my head!  The temperature dropped from 19 to 9 degrees in what seemed like a matter of minutes.  I kept my cadence high, put my head down and kept on climbing.  I began to talk to my body, “stay warm body, stay warm, come on don’t fail me now”.  It was freezing, and then the head winds started, I would later learn that these head winds were over 50 km hour straight into my face.  Minutes later the rain started and turned into torrential down pours.  Big fat water droplets soaked my body head to toe.  I was still climbing, “keep it goin Suke, you’re tougher than this.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse the rain turned to Hail.  “OUCH”, this began to hurt, my body temperature dropped even more.

“What should I do, other athletes are stopping, should I take a break, no way, keep it going, how am I not going to get hypothermic????”  “Race your own race!” I began to slow my pace and contract my hands and feet as quickly as I could to keep the circulation going, even though they were completely numb, this would continue back to transiton.  And then I got a message from a spectator that would change my focus and state completely.  She yelled at me “you’re almost at the top, keep going, it’s way warmer in town, dig deep, you’re doing awesome, don’t give up”!   Thank you! Thank You!  Thank You!  You never know how far reaching the words that you speak may transform the lives of others.  This person was getting dumped on as I was and she stayed out there to cheer us on and lift my spirits.

I eventually started the descend back into town.  I was freezing and hadn’t taken in many calories or water over the past hour as my entire vascular system was working on turning my legs over and trying to lose as little body temperature as possible.  There was little left for digestion.  I was also off my bike split pace by about 15 minutes.  I made it back into town and my inspiring friend at the top of Yellow Lake was right, it was warmer!  I finished my bike split in 5:47.  Not an “A” race bike split, but still very respectable for my first Ironman.  An “A” race was still in my cards with a properly executed marathon.

I was in and out of transition in a hurry, but lost over a minute because a volunteer pointed me in the wrong direction.  Oh well, they’re doing their best out there and this race would never be possible without the army of 4000 volunteers!  I just laughed and smiled!  I got my race belt on, had my gels in my pockets and was ready to hammer out 26.2 miles.

Over the past year I have been running 4-5 times every week.  Some runs were short 25-minute transition runs off the bike and others lasted as long as 4 hours.  Those of you who know me well know that I am a super passionate runner and love to push the boundaries of what’s possible.  Training for 100km and 100 mile races in the past and running well over 100 marathon distance runs I knew I had the endurance to run off the bike for Ironman very strong.  But, in gaining all that endurance I sacrificed in giving up some of my speed.  My goal was to get back to my sub 3hour marathon speeds.

“The more challenge one encounters, within and without, the more significant and higher in inspiration life will be”

The wonderful thing about running is that you can take it with you wherever you are.  All you need is a pair of shorts and runners.  Training for Ironman over the past year Kate and I have hiked and ran on the sacred soils in South America during a 7-day trek to Machu Pichu in Peru.  These mountain passes were as high as 20,000 feet elevation, talk about altitude training.  We had also spent some weeks in the mountains and villages of northern India.  Here I would find myself being a street spectacle as people and animals would look at me as if I was from another planet.  It was an interesting experience navigating through cars, trucks, buses, scooters, motorcycles, cows, elephants, goats, donkeys, buffalo and millions of people.  Experiences I will never forget.

One of my favorite places I trained was on the island of Skiathos in glorious Greece, a place that is very sacred and dear to my heart.  Here I was hammering out 20-25 mile runs through hilly mountainous terrain in 40degree/Celsius temperatures.  This was a special treat.  And finally, the majority of my running was in the beautiful city of West Vancouver and downtown Vancouver.  There’s not too many cities in the world that you can go for a 4 hour run and spend 95% of the time on a seawall with picturesque back drops of the city on one side and mountains on the other.  It was a great year of lessons, journeys and “aha’s” while pounding the pavement.

I had so much adrenaline coming out of transition 2 that I had to keep telling myself to slow down.  I wanted to pace for a 3:03 marathon time and hold consistent 7 minute/miles.  Every time I would look at my watch I was running 6 minute/miles… “too fast keener, slow the heck down and stick to the plan”, I kept telling myself.

After mile 1, I found my legs and pace.  The turn over felt great, my legs felt strong, I was good to go.  The first 2 miles were seamless and then I started to get on my nutrition plan.  My body was still quite cold and I hadn’t fully recovered from the challenging weather on the bike.  Before I even tried to eat anything on the run I could feel that my stomach was not quite settled.  I began with water at every aid station, which was at every mile.  I was taking lava salt and VO2 max pills to maintain my electrolyte and mineral balances too.  From mile 3 to 4 my stomach started to feel worse, “damn it, there’s no way I can hold this pace if I can’t eat”.  At mile 4 I said, “screw it, just have a gel”.  I tore open a gel, plunged it into my mouth and down my throat and……. BOOM, I projectile vomited instantly… not cool!  “Apparently my stomach doesn’t want any food”.

“What to do… I’m totally noxious now!  Just keep running, one foot in front of the other”.  Mile 5…. 6… I continued with water and then tried my cocktail drink of what I keep in my fuel belt.  I quick sip… and again… projectile vomit. “OK, I’m still not ready to eat, I’m holding pace, but I can feel my carb stores are getting depleted.  At this point of the run I was hammering past people like they were parked, I even passed a handful of professionals that started 15 minutes before the 2700+ age groupers like me.  I’m a very a confident runner and know what my body is capable of.  In fact I began racing at mile 75 of the bike and since then I would find another athlete 20-30 yards ahead and slowly track them down.  Since mile 75 of the bike no other athlete had passed me and it was my goal to hold that to the finish line.

So I began on the cola at mile 6.  Now most people would tell you that’s way too early to start taking in cola, cause it’s like nitrous oxide and only lasts for several minutes.  Yet I figured with aid stations every mile I would just have to consume it from here to the finish line.  The cola was better but I kept feeling more and more noxious.  My energy levels were dropping big time and I was getting depleted from a lack of calorie consumption and from being ill.  I continued to track people down and pass them, but I couldn’t hold my “A” race pace.  I got to the half way point, 13.1 miles, in 1 hour and 40 minutes.  “OK no problem, let’s pull out a solid “B” race.

“If you do not dream, you will never find what is beyond your dreams”

The marathon run at Ironman Canada is an out and back course to the halfway point along Skaha Lake.  It’s a very hilly and challenging run.  Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse on the run, the wind from the north had picked up and was now hitting all of us straight into our face back to Penticton.  I was told after the race these winds were over 40kms per hour.  Running the last 13.1 miles reminded me of my old hockey days when I used to skate with a parachute attached to my back to add serious resistance.  What was a moderately tough pace to hold now turned into an intense speed run.  I held pace through to mile 15 and then my energy levels nose-dived.  The lack of calories was catching up to me.  “OK, one more time, let’s get some fuel in here.”  “Let’s get some food in here”, I downed a couple of shot blocks.   It felt ok for a minute and then again… I was sick.  It was right next to an aid station and some young volunteers handed me some sponges so I could clean myself up, while I was still shuffling my feet towards the finish line.

I had 11.2 miles to go and clearly my GI system was done for the day, but I wasn’t.  I kept on with small sips of cola and water, I would get extreme cramping in my stomach but I could manage that.  I kept my focus strong and dug deep.  In life many people identify themselves as their body.  Truly our bodies are our vehicles in which we experience life.  We must honor and nurture our bodies, but it’s during times like this that I’m reminded that I am NOT my body, I am something far greater than that!

“It is that special something that allows us to overcome even the grandest of challenges and obstacles.”

“One foot in front of the other, keep looking ahead and track somebody down”.  There was one gentleman ahead of me that I had been behind for several miles.  Similar to myself he was passing everyone and he looked to be having a solid race.  Every cell in my body just wanted to curl up on the side of the road and lay down to have a nap.  I was at a mentally low point and had to act fast to counter it.  So I dug deep, increased my pace and finally caught this guy at mile 17.  The wind was howling hard at our faces, running into the wind is not easy, he looked at me and said, “this wind is crazy, I feel like I’m at a snails pace”.  He was another professional triathlete, so I knew he could dig deep too.  I yelled back, “You look great, do me a favour and don’t let me pass you”.  He looked at me a little confused, “So I looked at him again and said, “ you’re a pro… start running like one!”  That got his attention and later at the finish line he thanked me for those “harsh” words as it got him back into the race.  That was my goal!  I picked up the pace and waved him forward.  He stayed on my heels and drafted behind me.

At this point I knew that I needed some help, I was in very rough shape and could break at any moment.  The last time I felt this bad was during an ultra-marathon in 2007.  I knew that mentally I was on a roller coaster with extreme highs and lows.  My strategy was that when I was high I would hammer as fast as I could to hold a decent pace with this killer wind blowing me back.  During my low points my professional triathlete friend would begin to overtake me and I could draft him.  Over the next 5 miles we would take turns drafting each other holding a decent pace together and still passing other people like they were parked.

“In life if you think you can… You WILL”

At mile 22 I saw Kate and my entourage on the side of the road making my way back into Penticton and the finish line.  Right when I saw Kate, I couldn’t help but feel the disappointment from not having an “A” race.  All the sacrifices she had made during the year and everything she does for me.  As tears rolled down my face I knew that I was still fulfilling a dream of mine by becoming an Ironman.  Somehow from my completely depleted and demolished body, I was able to dig even further and increase my cadence and pace.  The last 4 miles was an emotional download.  The streets were packed with spectators cheering, you could hear Steve King at the finish line on the microphone and I just ran as fast as I possibly could.  I’d lost my pacing friend as he couldn’t hold my pace any longer and I was running fast 6 minute miles which was faster than I had run all day.  I was digging deep into a body that was completely depleted and destroyed; yet I kept asking it for more.

“The only way to find the limits of what’s possible is by going beyond them into the impossible”

This day started with nervous butterflies on the beach and ended with cramping, pain and a roller coaster of emotions.  Nearly 2800 athletes began the race, the largest Ironman Canada has ever seen.  I exited the water in 721st place overall.  I was passed by many early on the bike, but after mile 75 of the bike nobody would pass me again this day.  I finished the bike split at 453rd overall.  And I had a 3.5 hour marathon time which was 132nd place overall.  I had some challenges but I was able to persevere and put together a solid race and finish in the top 8% with a time of 10.5 hours, plus change.

“The road of life is full of many twists and turns, yet no two directions are ever the same.  The lessons in life come from the journey, not the destination”

My journey to becoming an Ironman is now complete.  I will never have a first Ironman again.  Being an ultra-endurance athlete has many parallels to life.  In fact it is races like this that allow the essence of our human will to be fully exposed.  In life the greater the challenges the greater the opportunity for grand success.  Today another dream of mine came true.  I became an IRONMAN!

“The key to success is to take relentless action towards the pursuit of your dreams”