Much like Ironman, the origins of this race come from Hawaii. In 1983, a few nutters came up with the idea to circumnavigate the Big Island of Hawaii in three days. This was achieved with a 10km swim, followed by a 145km ride on day one. A 276km ride on day two, and an 84km run on the final day. The field is limited to 35 people, each athlete requires a two person crew, and each stage must be completed in 12 hours. In 1993, this event was recreated in Canada, based in Penticton. Believe it or not, I have quite a few friends who have taken on the challenge, and was drawn into it in 2007, when it could be done as a relay. I filled in for a fellow who had a crash prior to the event, and did both bike legs for a relay team. A few years later, I was crew for Kathleen Wood, and head cheerleader for Kara Hoffman, and saw the nature of the beast in it’s entirety. I followed quite a few more friends through this event, then I heard that the event may come to a close. It was the nudge I needed to take on the challenge myself.
Be careful of what you put on your calendar, because it always comes to fruition with the passage of time. After months of preparation, August arrived, and I had a VRBO booking in Penticton, and a crew showing up to get me through the distance. My crew is the dream team. Jen Segger came up from Squamish to escort me through the swim on her paddleboard. She has a remarkable resume of adventure racing and ultra running, and is an Ultraman champion. Leah Goldstein came as a coach and crew member. She is a legend internationally as a professional bike racer and world class ultra-distance cyclist. Lori Moger has the most experience with crewing ultra distance events. She has crewed for Leah at Race Across America, which involves keeping a cyclist moving day and night over 9-10 days, which makes this event look like child’s play. Watching Lori’s attention to detail and ingenious ideas makes me realize that I was clueless when I crewed for athletes in the past. As you can probably imagine, it was quite humbling to have three people give up their time for me. I was the only athlete with two crews with distinct roles. Riding in the Mini was Andrew, Maddy, and Lori’s daughter Halle. They had the most important task….to keep me smiling.
Race morning came, and I felt the same as most race mornings….that feeling of a slow squeeze, where my stomach gets tighter and tighter as the reality of the day comes to consciousness. We all got down to the start area, and funny things started to happen as my brain was scattered with nerves. I realized that I had forgotten my wetsuit, and the crew called Andrew hoping he had not left the house yet. Five minutes later I realized it was in the back pack. That I was wearing. Suiting up, I got the neck lube all over my hands, and panicked that I wouldn’t be able to grab the water. Halle just appeared with a handful of soap to clean my hands. I found myself in a circle of 35 athletes listening to the blessings of the race director and local First Nations leader. I shook with shivers and nerves, then waded into the water to find Jen. I must have looked petrified, because Arnaud from France rushed towards me, picked me up and swung me around before the starting horn sounded.
As soon as my head was in the water, and I could see the sand moving under me, everything was okay. Jen’s board was by my side, and I could see her calm, confident paddling at every breath. My own breathing calmed, and I just swam steady and followed our plan: swim for 30 minutes, stop for a gel and water, and do it again. We didn’t stray from the plan at all. The gels went down well, and my swim stroke stayed in tact. Part way through the swell grew with the tail wind. While I am not able to surf the water like the good swimmers, I did find a rhythm. My only issue was if Jen was slightly ahead of me, and I couldn’t see the board. My stomach instantly felt nauseous as I lost track of land. Jen was so cool and relaxed that she could text and chat to Andrew to share my progress. As I got more tired, Jen gave me more frequent cues on time and distance, and reminded me to finish my stroke. We turned the final buoy and I had the hardest section with very choppy water to finish. Somehow I reached that shoreline, blew some kisses to Jen, and my crew walked me up to the transition tent. Swim DONE! Jen’s Garmin read 10.01km. I didn’t swim more than 10 meters more than required. What a pro escort. 3 hours 45min, 19th position.
Transition was comedy. There were a few too many hands on deck. As Leah attempted to take off my wetsuit, my slippery butt was scooting off the chair. When we eventually got that sucker off, my tri shorts did not want to go back on that butt, and just got stuck below the shelf. Eventually I made my way out to the bike, with every intention of getting on with it. Apparently my brain thought I was still swimming and my weight kept shifting in the opposite direction. As much as I thought I was riding straight, I rode off the road into the dirt. Feeling silly, I started again on the steep hill. Ten pedal strokes later, I went off the road again. This time I yelled out loud to myself to smarten up, and somehow stayed on the tarmac.
Day one ride is 145km, the old IM Canada route, but starting at Skaha lake and finishing at Okanagan Falls. This set me up with lots of confidence. It was a blaster ride down to Osoyoos, and I was clocking 45km/hour on the flats with a good tail wind. All of my energy went into managing intensity, food supply, and my breathing. I have a respiratory weakness, and when I swim the diaphragm acts as a core stabilizer, so after a long swim, my breathing is difficult for days. On this ride I tried to keep pressure on the pedals but never allow my breathing to lose rhythm or let the rate get too high. My crew did the leap frog method, and I received a steady flow of eLoad and water. It became clear early on that nutrition would have to be gels, chews, or liquids. I couldn’t swallow any bite of a solid. I was really comfortable on the climb over Richter, and the seven rollers towards Keremeos. Eventually the heat and the headwind caught up with me, and I started to feel the fatigue. A wasp found it’s way into my helmet and required a full stop to get it out. In that single stop, it felt like the energy just disappeared from my body. I hadn’t seen anyone in awhile, and the infamous out and back section in Keremeos was slow and bumpy as expected. I felt pretty low, and decided to pull out my trump card a little early. I asked for a bottle of Coke for the long climb towards Yellow Lake. It was the injection I needed, and I knew Andrew, Maddy and Halle planned to find me on the climb. They were there with a sign and cow bells, and I found a new gear. Once on top, I had a wicked fast descent into Okanagan Falls. A 5:00 hour clocking gave me the fastest women’s time of the day, and fifth fastest ride overall. Mission accomplished.
Over the course of the evening I began to feel the effort of the day. At this point, my breathing was uncomfortable and I got scared that I had over-cooked it on day one. I remember Kara Hoffman telling me that day one was the easiest day, and to do a slow build into the weekend. That thought brewed in the background, but the mood at the house was fun. Andrew made a steak dinner on our roof top patio over-looking Okanagan lake.
Morning came quickly, and I had only slept for snippets of the night. For whatever reason, I was sick with nerves. I had a tiny bowl of cereal at about 5am, then tried to have toast and banana an hour later but couldn’t swallow a bite. My crew was ready to rumble, but I was a puddle of tears. Andrew put on his ‘doctor voice’ and calmly talked sense into me. It’s was just a bike ride for Heaven’s Sake, but I didn’t feel up to the task. Leah just told me to roll into it, and that even my bad day would be a solid one. We were called to the line in order of the previous day’s ride, so I sat up with the big boys in fifth. The starting horn went off, and we head out to conquer 276km.
As soon as I was rolling all the nerves disappeared….and I was STARVING! I devoured everything in my pockets. The first section was 100km out and back to Osoyoos. Since it was a mass start, it was much busier than the day one ride, and drafting was a constant consideration. It felt fast and hard ride out of the gates. I had ridden the course in preparation and knew the race didn’t start until 100km, so tried not to get caught up in the early speed, but not lose touch with my competition. There are quite a few traffic lights along the course as you pass through towns, so that was another reason to try not and get separated. Well, I did get separated, and I did get stopped but tried to remember that it’s a very long day. My crew was on fire, constantly in the right place on the course with a system of white bottles for water, and clear bottles for eLoad, and nutrition alternated with that. As I approached Okanagan Falls the plan was to trade to my road bike for the climb. It was short and slick, and I was off to the infamous Wall on my road bike with shorty tri bars. It felt good to have a change of seat and lower gears. The Wall is not a big deal for me, as it’s pichy but fairly short. Nipper and Anton surprised me on the hill, and gave me a shot of energy. There is a no-feed zone for 12km then I hoped to see my crew to switch bikes. I was a little disappointed not to see them where I expected. I approached a loose intersection, and a crew car was parked where I thought there should be a sign. I asked which direction, and followed the point. I heard a car honk, so coasted and waited to see if someone would jump from the car to re-direct me, but saw nothing so continued on my way. A few minutes later a motorbike caught me going Mach 10. He turned me back to the bike course, asked me what my crew car looked like to track them down. When I was back on course, my heart sank as I saw riders who were previously well back from me. I had hoped to make my way to the front runner Katie as climbing is my strength. Well, I just decided to consider than my ‘flat tire’, and work hard. Eventually I saw my crew and changed bikes. This is where I made mistakes that affected the rest of my ride. I was so caught up in feeling ‘behind’ that I stopped focussing on nutrition. It got hot, and I took the food my crew passed me but just chucked it. I kept drinking water, but got behind on electrolytes and fuel. I found myself making the turn for the highway to Princeton not realizing that I was running on fumes. The highway is just a long slog for about 80km and nausea set in. I felt lucky the headwinds were much less than in practice, but the challenge is to stay in aero position and keep pressure on the pedals without loosing focus. I noticed that I was getting sleepy and having trouble keeping my eyes open. From past experience I vaguely remembered that this was due to serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, and protein was the ticket. I asked for the protein smoothie and tried to drink it on the fly. Much of it ended up covering my arms, but a good deal made it down the hatch too. Eventually I was making the turn for the out-and-back in Princeton, and saw the finish area that we would come back to in 60km. I had told my crew that I wanted Coke alternating with water only. Apparently Leah knew I was in big trouble at that point. She was right. I was vomiting and spitting up the smoothie. My body was in full goosebumps even in the heat. Well somehow 60km came to pass. Leah had jumped from the car to make sure the highway was safe to cross, but I just blew through to the finish.
I was done, but not feeling elated. I just felt so so sick to my stomach. Lori kindly walked me over to medical, and people were so incredibly helpful and kind. I wanted it all to be over so I decided to wash off in the ice bath so I could get a massage and get home. Noting that I was shivering too much, I though a short hot shower would help. It turns out that it was a freezing shower. That was my next mistake. By the time I lay down for the massage my core temp was dropping quickly, and my breathing was in panic mode. Medical went to find as many blankets as they could, and I brought my body in as tight as I could, but it was having no effect. Short on fuel, my thoughts didn’t make sense and I wasn’t problem solving. Karen the massage therapist put her warm hands on my head and whispered into my ear “We are with you.” I meant so much to me, as I felt like I was disappearing. A nurse from another crew made the decision to put me in the sun with a metal blanket. The heat of the tarmac felt so good. Ten minutes later, it all turned around, and it wasn’t long before I was snacking on potato chips. There was no medical emergency but I did ramp up the drama! Leah told me I was second on the day, and the third fastest female rider on that course ever. I said “I don’t give a shit”. She said “You will tomorrow”. 9 hours 12 minutes.
After a long warm shower and a bag of chips, I felt human again. I could see that in the background my crew was cleaning out coolers, filling up with gas, cleaning water bottles, organizing food, and buying bags of ice. They didn’t stop working for four days straight. Lori and I went out for dinner and Leah got out for a ride. I found out later than my crew was extremely worried about my run the next day. It was no secret that I had been juggling injuries all season, and my longest preparation had been 35km walk/jog on the Rail Trail four weeks prior. The gap between that and 84km on a hilly course was fairly obvious. Unbeknownst to me, Lori phoned Andrew in Penticton to send him on a hunt for compression socks and knees, and bananas and gels, abandoning my previous nutrition plan. Not an easy task on a Sunday afternoon.
Morning arrived, and I felt strangely relaxed. I think all the pressure was off since neither my crew or I expected a smooth road, and reaching the finish line in any way, shape or form would be a massive success. We drove out to the back road between Princeton and Summerland, and got called to the line. The whole field seemed relaxed and calm. I suppose 84km is long enough that no one is ramped up to race off the line.
So I just ran. Smooth, easy, quick feet, easy breathing, and continuous. The miles just kept ticking away. I watched some other runners bounding away from me, so I used my Garmin watch initially, to keep the pace down. I hadn’t recharged my watch, so then it was Leah and Lori, reminding me to slow down. I was very careful to walk the hills to keep the pressure off the hamstring. That would likely be the first thing to blow up. The knees would come later on the descents. The time seemed to pass pretty quickly….but perhaps not for my crew. They planned to stop every. single. kilometre. for 84 km. I think my job was easier than theirs. They were militant about nutrition. Every hour I was to receive to electrolyte capsules. Every half hour, I was to have a gel or equivalent. I was to alternate sips of water and eLoad, and not touch the Coke until the final half marathon. Leah and Lori kept a log, and watched me like a psych patient to make sure I got things down. It worked. My stomach generally felt good, and when it started hurting, I took Peptobismal and that worked too. I simply could not believe how well things were going. One little quirky thing was how much I didn’t want anything touching my skin. I chose not to take my watch back after it was recharged. My clothes were uncomfortable on my skin too. I took off my tank top, and ran in a sport bra. That felt too snug on my chest, and I got my crew to cut the fabric up the sides.
My next emotion was when I got passed. There had been some brushes with the first place woman throughout the run. I could see her white tank top and green hat just ahead of me multiple times. I saw her walk, then bound away again like a rabbit. I didn’t get emotionally involved because I knew my path would be a hard one. I found it hard when Susie came up and passed me about 15km from the finish. She was having a brilliant steady race, after swimming a record pace on the first day. I was so disappointed not to be able to go with her. My breathing was easy, and energy good, but my hamstring and knees could not respond. I was stuck trotting the flats, and walking the hills. I yelled at my crew car that I would Finish this F-er.
Lori had run on and off with me throughout the day. She carried bottles, moved at a snail’s pace, and didn’t ask anything of me. I began to rely on her heavily near the end. At some point, I caught sight of a Balance Point Racing Junior racing team jersey. He cheered me on as he whizzed by. More and more blue and black jerseys zipped around the corners, and it lifted my spirits to feel such youthful energy in the air. Sadly, no amount of willpower could improve my situation. The descents in the last 10km brought on a new level of pain. Tylenol helped briefly, but I could barely walk down them. I reminded myself that my coach Leah was there, and she understood suffering at an inhuman level. She road across America with her head held up by attaching her hair to her back. I would just have to dig deeper. I wished I could put on a show, and run hard to the finish, but I limped my way along. I told Lori that we needed to stay focussed on nutrition since it was taking much longer than I thought to finish up. I had another smile as Anton Kew found me and shared our long standing joke that my nose would always, always find it’s way to a Dairy Queen. At last I was turning the final corner. The BPR Junior team rode along next to me, and Luke and Stacey cheered me in. My crew surrounded me, and I ran the flag lined finish chute with Steve King excitedly declaring my finish, met by Bruce Schoene’s wife and Steve Brown with a medal. Relief, delight, disbelief, gratefulness, and a feeling of love and family at the finish line. I am the luckiest girl in the world to be surrounded by people who want the best for me, and worked so hard to allow me to experience this personal challenge. Run 9:37, Total 27:37, 3rd woman, 9th overall.
We came together as strangers, competed as friends, we part as brothers and sisters.
— Gerry van de Wint