It’s been more than a week since I crossed the finish line at Ironman Canada in what I consider to be the race of my life. Justin still tells me on a daily basis, “I can’t believe you won your age group at Ironman Canada! That’s an Ironman named after an entire country! I mean, I believe it, but I can’t believe it!”
Me either. I set out to do one thing this year – qualify for the world championship in Kona. And well, I did it! My experience in Whistler, B.C. was well worth the time, energy, sweat, and commitment I’ve put into my training this past year and I’m excited to share the day. Settle in, it’s a long one. But so was the race. 🙂
I traveled to Whistler with my husband, son, and mother-in-law, who was a tremendous help the entire weekend. We stayed in a cozy condo in Montebello, which was walking distance to the Ironman Village and finish area – a luxury to have at any race. My coach, mom, and step-dad met us there and we all settled in waiting (some more anxiously than others) for race day.
Typical pre-race excitement and anticipation set in about 2 days out, as I picked up my race packet and swag, did a partial preview of the course, and went over all the details and numbers with my coach. “Stick to the plan,” he kept reminding me – and that’s exactly what I intended to do after deviating last year at Coeur d’Alene and watching my chances of a Kona slot slip away with each passing mile.
The night before the race was the usual – relax, eat pasta and protein, enjoy a glass of wine, and then attempt to fall asleep with visions of swim, bike, run circling around in my head. While I did not sleep as well as I do on a normal non-race night, I slept better than I ever have the night before a race. Before I knew it, my 4:15am alarm was sounding and I was pouring a gigantic cup of coffee before my eyes were fully open.
Justin walked me down to the shuttle area where I dropped my special needs bags and nutrition for T2. Because of the bears and their scavenging nature, athletes were not allowed to keep any nutrition in their bags overnight. Fair enough. I loaded the shuttle bus and headed to the swim start with hundreds of eager athletes.
When I arrived to T1 I stopped at my bike transition bag to drop off nutrition and then made my way to my bike to pump up the tires and prep my bottles. I borrowed a pump from a neighboring athlete, but when I tried to pump my tires the air kept wheezing from the sides and no air would enter the tires. Cue panic. I tried a different pump. Nope. I immediately unracked my bike and sprinted over to the mechanical area, lining up with a handful of other athletes who were also experiencing issues. I waited in line for about 20 minutes (or 20 hours in race morning time) before being assisted by a mechanic. Turns out, my valve had a leak and needed to be replaced, so the mechanic did a full tire change on my rear wheel. By the time my bike was “fixed” and ready to ride, most of the athletes had exited the transition area and were lining up for the swim start. I racked my bike, used the porta potty (finally) and squeezed into my wetsuit with the help of my husband. It was at the moment, with the Canadian National Anthem playing in the background to signify the start of the women’s pro race, when I looked around and realized that I was the last person standing in the transition area. I am that person, I thought to myself. I guess someone has to be. With all the nerves and anxiety, I finally made my way to the sea of black neoprene just moments before the gun went off for the AG athletes. Suddenly, I realized two things:
1) My heart rate was unusually high and the race hadn’t even started.
2) I was so flabbergasted about my bike situation and getting to the swim start that I forgot to eat and drink. Well crap, that’s not good.
But there was no turning back and before I could ruminate any longer, I was wading into the water and starting the swim. I loved swimming in Alta Lake. The water was incredibly calm and it felt like there was a lot of room for athletes to spread out and give each other space. I never once felt overly crowded or like I was fighting for position, and was even able to find some feet along the way to secure a draft for a few minutes here and there. The first loop came and went really quickly.
Apparently, we got really lucky this year due to cloud cover over the mountains toward the east, blocking the sun that would have otherwise been directly blinding in our eyes. I’ve heard that the sun can be a downright nuisance and make it difficult to spot the buoys, so we were really fortunate.
As I was finishing the final stretch, the sound of music and voices started to fade in and out with each breath I took, and I was eager to make it to shore. I trotted out of the water, found two lovely wetsuit strippers, grabbed my transition bag, and made my way into the tent.
I did not know my swim time until after I had completed the race and was ecstatic to learn I had shaved off 8 minutes from my swim time last year at Coeur d’Alene. How did THAT happen? I guess my commitment to really improving my swim paid off. In the weeks since CdA 70.3 I had invested a lot of time in open water swimming and worked one-on-one with a swim coach, Jaime, to make adjustments to my technique. I look forward to improving my swim even more over the next year.
Transition was a little slower than I would have liked. When I entered the tent it was packed and I had to scurry my way around to find an empty chair. All of the volunteers were already engaged with other athletes (further motivation to become a faster swimmer!), so I sifted through my bag and threw on my gear without any assistance. My feet were covered in grass and dirt, so I took a moment to wipe them down before putting on my socks. It was at this moment when I realized my timing chip was not on my ankle. PANIC. I quickly grabbed my wetsuit and found that it had been stripped off in the leg. Whew, crisis averted. I wrapped it back around my ankle and made my way out of the tent and to my bike.
There’s nothing like seeing your bike hanging all alone on the rack to remind you that you have a lot of ground to make up – 27 places to be exact – but for me, this is where I thrive. I ran to the mount line, after running across a set of railroad tracks (why didn’t they put carpet over these?), which was quite the cluster as you have to roll out on a pretty significant uphill slope. People were struggling. Thank goodness I started in an easy gear and quickly weaved my way through the madness.
T1: A painfully slow 7:23
The IM Canada bike course is said to be one of the toughest in the Ironman circuit, which works to my advantage as cycling is typically my strongest leg and I really enjoy climbing. The rumors were true – it was HARD.
The first several miles were fairly technical as you encounter a few rolling hills, curves, and big crowds of riders that have yet to string out. I pushed it a little harder through that section so I could find a comfortable space to settle in. The first 13 miles to the base of the infamous Callaghan Valley climb were fast and a bit of a blur. As soon as I turned the corner and started the climb, I fell into a zone. The climb was actually easier than I had anticipated, as there were several areas where you could gain a little momentum before the next climb. I could see how people run into issues here and go too hard – with fresh legs and adrenaline flowing, it’s hard not to push the pace – but I kept it chill and held back, knowing it would be to my benefit later in the race. We had driven this section of the course the day before, and saw a bear near the top of the climb, so having one eye on the road and one eye looking out for bears probably helped take my mind off the climbing.
The descent was really fun, with gorgeous mountain views to glimpse at from time to time, and the road back to Whistler was pretty uneventful, with a few climbs and rollers, and a welcome tailwind. On the way back to Whistler, I noticed that my Di2 shifting was starting to give me some issues. It felt like ghost shifting, however it was just shifting into the same gear over and over and over again. It was only doing it on occasion, so I really didn’t think too much about it.
After passing back through Whistler, the long epic descent down to Pemberton was, well, epic. I hit speeds up to 50mph and tucked in securely without having to pedal much if at all. There were a few bumps in the road and railroad track crossings that made nerves tingle a little, but overall the road was smooth and comfortable. Aside from the general feeling of “weeeeeeeeeee” as I was flying down, I was also thinking to myself “wow, I have to climb back up this!”
Once the descent was over, I weaved my way through the town Pemberton, stopping quickly at special needs to exchange a bottle and grab my Snickers. It was the best Snickers ever. I headed out of town for the long, flat out and back section and instantly found myself surrounded by farmland and meadows. And lots of wind. It was beautiful. Around this same time I started experiencing some major issues with my shifting. The problems I had experienced previously riding through Whistler had only magnified and I could not successfully shift entirely into a gear. Every time I would shift, the bike would shift into the same gear over and over and over again, making it impossible to find a smooth rhythm. My cadence was all over the place, and it was beyond discouraging to feel and hear a “click” every 15 seconds. Several days after the race I found out that I did the entire ride with a broken chain. How I survived that, I will never know.
I almost threw in the towel, as I could not hit my watts or pedal consistently in an area that required a steady cadence and pace. For the 30 mile out and back I averaged around 160 watts, which was well below my Ironman goal watts. Frustrating, but I somehow pushed through. I kept an eye out for a moto-bike or mechanic, knowing that I would flag someone down, but never saw anyone.
Once I made my way back to Pemberton and started the climb back to Whistler, I shifted to a smaller chain ring and crossed my fingers that the ghost in my Di2 would fade away. Yes! As soon as I was in an easy gear and added more resistance, the shifting issue stopped. Thank goodness for this massive climb, I thought to myself. Because I had conserved so much energy throughout my day, the 20-miles climbing back to Whistler were my best miles of the day. I enjoyed feeling somewhat fresh, passing people, and not having to deal with click click click every minute. I averaged more than 200 watts on most of the climb, which was right in line with my goal.
I finally made the last turn, weaving my way through the center of town to the bike dismount, where I have never been so excited to hand my bike off and start the run.
Bike: 5:46:09 (Fastest bike split in AG)
Transition was quick and painless, though I did stop at a porta potty for a quick pee. Might as well as ease into the run comfortably with an empty bladder, right? I exited transition and started on the run course, keeping my stride in check and under control. My coach blatantly said he would be grumpy with me if I ran anything faster than an 8:45 pace, so I did my best to keep him happy. I settled into an 8:40-8:50 range and made my way around Lost Lake feeling good. When I saw my family and coach at mile three I was smiling and feeling as though I could run 8:45s all day. They told me I was in 3rd place off the bike, 16 minutes behind the girl in 1st and only 72 seconds behind the girl in 2nd and a Kona slot. In fact, the 2nd, 3rd (me) and 4th place women in my age group were separated by just 90 seconds at the start of the run. No pressure, right?
It was also around this point where I was passed by Linsey Corbin. She was on the second loop of the run and on her way to the overall female win (and a new Ironman Canada course record). Linsey lives in Bend and I have been fortunate to train with her a few times, which has given me the invaluable opportunity to watch, listen, and learn. As she passed by, she gave me a few words of encouragement that helped motivate me to continue chasing down that Kona slot.
During the long out and back near mile 6, I saw the girl who was in first (Erin!) and we exchanged a few words of encouragement. She is someone who I admire so much in the sport and have befriended over social media. Side note: if you don’t follow her blog, you should check it out at Sweet Sweat Life. It was great to see her in the flesh, running strong and in a great position. Knowing what Erin is capable of on the run, I never thought once about catching her as she had a pretty substantial lead. Just make your way into second, I kept telling myself.
I did my best throughout the entire run to take advantage of the downhill sections and open up my stride. It was in these moments where I found myself making up a lot of time. The course was definitely hilly (total elevation gain of 1,100ft), but the hills were long and gradual, and not as painful as I had envisioned. To think I almost chose not to do Ironman Canada because I was intimidated by the hilly run course. HA! Turns out, the run was my favorite part of the day.
As I made my way back to Whistler Village, I saw my family cheering away and exchanged a few words with my husband. I was on mile 13 and was definitely starting to feel the effects of the day. My groin muscles were cramping on and off and I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep up the pace for another loop of the course. The thought of 13 more miles was almost overwhelming. My husband looked at me as I ran by and said “you have to keep running! You have to run like your life depends on it.” I kinda smirked, thinking to myself, “you get out here and run like your life depends on it.” But he was right. He knew that my dream of Kona was going to be made or lost in the next 13 miles.
During my second trip around Lost Lake, I saw my coach waiting for me near the top of a hill around mile 14. He informed me that I was in a virtual tie with the girl in second place (though she was physically behind me on the course – she had started the swim after me) and that I would need to run consistently and smart if I wanted to move into second. Even though my mind was drifting into some dark places, something clicked inside me and I found a second wind. I made it a point to eat a combination of Bloks and GUs every 10-15 minutes, take in salt every few miles, and drink water/Coke at every aid station. I hit my nutrition goals spot on and never seemed to run out of energy.
At around mile 17 I slowly approached a familiar figure. It was Erin, not looking too well and walking. My heart sank a little for her. I ran by and said “keep pushing Erin, keep moving forward, you’ve got this,” while she encouraged me as well. While the competitor in me was excited about moving my way into first, the friend and admirer in me wanted to stop, give her a hug, and pull her along with me. It was such a bittersweet moment as I know how hard she had trained for this and I genuinely wanted her to have a good race as well.
For the next hour, I felt the vibration from my Garmin as each mile passed. And each mile was roughly the same pace as the mile before it. In fact, miles 17-23 were some of my fastest miles of the day. As I made my way back to Whistler I knew I had positioned myself well enough for a top two finish. This was going to happen. My dream of Kona was actually going to be realized! I saw my coach one more time at mile 24 and could sense the elation on his face. Steady and smart all the way to the finish. As he told me repeatedly in the days leading up to the race, “An Ironman is not about who is the fastest. It’s about who slows down the least.” And though I was cramping every few minutes and struggling at times, my legs kept pushing forward one step closer to what would be the race of my life.
The final mile to the finish was a doozy. Uphill and endless. Ouch. But then I heard it. The cheers. The voices. The names. I rounded a corner and made my way to the coveted Ironman Carpet, high fiving my coach and family before hearing those glorious words, “Kristen Yax, you ARE an Ironman. “ I knew I had won my age group. And I knew I was going to get to compete in Kona.
The tears started pouring as I found my family and coach and smothered them with sweaty, salty hugs.
Total Time 11:00:51 (1st AG, 6th Amateur OA)
Despite the many ups and downs and adversities, I was able to find my stride (literally) and execute a smart and consistent race. Had anything been different, perhaps it would have changed the dynamics of the entire day. There was nothing flawless about my day, but that’s ok, that’s the beauty of Ironman.
Last year, I missed a Kona slot by four minutes and proceeded to spend the next 11 months motivated by finding those four minutes. This year, I trained harder and raced smarter, and in the process turned a 16-minute deficit at the start of the run into a 10-minute age group win. This sport continues to impress me more and more as I continuously watch myself (and others) grow and learn from the challenges and triumphs. It truly is a lifestyle and community of people that I am proud to be a part of.
My race recap would of course not be complete (or even possible, for that matter) without a huge thank you to my wonderful family and coach, for traveling the distance and supporting me through this venture. The daily sacrifices my husband and family made allowed this dream to come to fruition. And of course a huge thank you to my coach, Mike, who put together an advanced training plan to help me get stronger and more confident in all three disciplines. I could not imagine toeing the line of a triathlon without his knowledge filtering through my head. I feel privileged to share this moment with him and look forward to many adventures that await in Kona! And finally, congrats to my friend Mary for punching her ticket to Kona as well.
I also can’t say enough about the volunteers who were out there from sun up to sun down – the kindness of people connected to this sport is truly remarkable. Thank you thank you thank you!