Wednesday, January 31, 2018

ITU World Triathlon Championships: When finishing really is winning

Rotterdam ITU World Championships...found the Canadian Flag!
Looking back now, it is hard to remember the whirlwind that was the ITU World Triathlon Championships in Rotterdam. Partly that’s because I spent 10 days travelling in advance of the race with my niece (we visited London, Edinburgh and Amsterdam), and another 10 days afterwards going on a cruise in Italy and Greece with some friends who came out to watch the race. The week I spent in Rotterdam even included a dear friend from France visiting for a couple of days. It was definitely an Epic European Adventure.
But this post isn’t about the whole trip. It’s about how I had the opportunity to represent Canada on the world stage – and how, even when the race through me a curveball, I kept on smiling.
I always tell people, my three big goals in a triathlon are “Finish, finish smiling, and don’t crash on my bike.” That day in Rotterdam, I achieved every one of those goals. I couldn't have been happier.
To get to the chase, I finished dead last in my age group in 3:48:29, but my time isn't what mattered that day. What mattered was that I crossed the finish line.
Sometimes, finishing really is winning. 
Now - here's the full story.
Qualifying by Accident: Don’t mind if I do
In the summer of 2016, I heard about a new triathlon in Ottawa. I thought it would be a great excuse to go back to my favourite city in Canada (I went to school at Carleton), so decided to go up for the weekend. 
I rented a bike for the race (I don’t drive and I couldn’t take my bike to Ottawa on the train) – so you can tell I wasn’t taking myself too seriously. I knew it was the national championships, but really – I’m not fast compared to fast people, so I was just out for a good time.

Having a good time in Ottawa
The race itself was great. I wasn’t upset about the cancelled swim (despite it being my best sport) because Dow’s Lake is kind of disgusting and weed-filled (I hate weeds more than anything). The bike I rented was a lot better than my own bike (it was full carbon, including the wheelset) – and I had a magnificent (for me) bike split. It is still my fastest average bike speed ever for a race of any distance. The two runs (the race was turned into a modified duathlon) were decent, but not great. My overall time was solid for me, but I still came in 7/8 or 7/9 (I can't remember exactly). But there were 10 world championship slots per age group for the Olympic Distance race so I qualified. 
So, when I say I qualified by accident, that’s what I mean. It wasn’t because I didn’t legitimately qualify (I technically did) – but because there were more slots than people in my age group. And I didn’t go to Ottawa expecting to qualify (When I did nationals in Toronto, I think I finished 20/37 or something). It just happened by accident.
Regardless of how I qualified, there was no way I was going to skip the opportunity to represent Canada at the World Championships. I mean, really. I learned how to ride a bike in 2012 – borrowing a mountain bike to do my first try-a-tri. How awesome that just 5 years a few months later, I’d be at ITU Worlds? Way too awesome a chance to pass up.
The Prelude: Did someone call for crazy weather?
Outside of Ironman Arizona, most of the races I’ve done have been quite small - so I wasn’t at all prepared for just how -big- the ITU Worlds in Rotterdam were going to be. I mean, they put up special signposts for the race.

At Rotterdam Centraal Station!
And there was advertising all over the city.

Going down into the subway
I was overwhelmed by the whole production of it. I had no idea what I was in for – and it was incredible.
They put up street signs!
Now, I have to admit - the week leading up to the race was a blur of incredibly bad weather and nerves - from the day Team Canada was going to do a practice ride and there were wind warnings of 100-125km/h (I decided to give that ride a miss), to the day we did a course recon ride and ended up getting blasted by a spell of torrential rain and wind. Even the practice swim was difficult - so choppy I was just happy that swimming is by far my best sport.

The weather changed every five minutes. But mostly, it rained. A lot.
The organizers even had to cancel the Parade of Nations because it was pouring outside. Team Canada worked hard to make do despite the random weather…thankfully our pre-opening ceremonies get together was inside…but trying to get a team shot proved to be a bit challenging. At least you can see me (and my Moose-cot Digby). There were 300+ Canadians in Rotterdam. Talk about awesome!
Team Canada!
We got a second picture at the Opening Ceremonies - although the lighting still wasn't very good, unfortunately (and not everyone was there). You can still see Digby and I though!

Team Canada at the Opening Ceremonies!
A perfect day for a race
After the craziness that was race week, you can imagine how nervous I was about the weather for race day. Thankfully, race day turned out to be the most magnificent day of the entire week (the only nice day to be perfectly honest). Relatively sunny, light wind, beautiful temperature. Really, it couldn’t have been better.

Race morning - cool, but calm.
So…after a really long prelude (in which I skipped over a million awesome things…sorry)….on to the race! 
The swim
Got to the swim start with plenty of time to spare. I was pretty chilly, even with my wetsuit on, but otherwise I felt good. I dumped a bottle of water down my wetsuit before the start in order to stave off the cold water (but in the end, I didn’t find it that cold).

Waiting for the swim start.
As different age groups walked onto the dock, they were calling out names. Truth be told, if they said mine, I didn’t hear it!
We started in the water, with one hand touching the dock. I am not the most observant person in the world, so I didn’t realize this until a race official walked by and told me to do so. Oops.

I'm in the black wetsuit with the orange cap.
The start was a bit crazy, but surprisingly well spread out. I learned pretty quickly that there is a big difference between being a good swimmer and a great swimmer though. In local races, I am considered a good swimmer in my age group….in Rotterdam…ha. Not so much. But I did fine and came out in a decent time (just under 28 minutes). I felt good, had no trouble sighting, and felt calm and relaxed. 

Feeling good coming out of the swim!
Transition 1
The run from the Swim Exit to Transition 1 was close to a kilometer long. My coach had told me to be cautious with this, so I took it at a nice, but measured jog the entire way. Smiled at my friends as I ran by them.
Smiling as I approach my friends.
My spot in transition was fantastic, so it was easy to find my bike in the myriad of bikes that were in the transition area. It was muddy, but otherwise good. 
The Bike
Aside: I decided to rent a bike for Rotterdam. After my incredible experience with bike rental, I thought it would be just as good in Rotterdam. Alas, the carbon/ultegra bike I was supposed to rent got stolen before I got there, so I ended up with an aluminum road bike that wasn’t nearly as good. But I figured it would at least be serviceable. Little did I know.
The bike out of transition was fun with lots of people cheering. That was probably the most fun of the entire bike ride to be honest.
Coming out of T1. Got to love cobblestone.
The Rotterdam bike course was kind of insane with something like 42 turns on each of 2 laps. Thankfully, very few of these were outright U-turns which are my nemesis when it comes to biking.  

Early in the tire looks fine here.
I was excited when I made it through the entire first loop without having a stop/go turn. That was a really big deal for me. I wasn’t going super fast given all the turns, but I was doing much better than I expected. The temperature warmed up, so I felt pretty good on the bike and the winds were pretty light.
Before the end of the first loop. My tire already looks flat...I didn't notice.

Passing the halfway mark, I was feeling good, although something started to feel off. I wobbled badly on a few turns, but I thought it was the terrible road surfaces. Then I hit a left turn on cobblestone with a slight decline. My tire seemed to have no traction and slipped out from under me.
I had one moment of panic thinking I was going to fall. I honestly have no idea how I managed to stay upright. But somehow whatever I did with my handlebars kept me from falling and I was able to emergency break and finish standing up, if shaking from the after-effects of thinking I was going to fall. That’s when I noticed my tire was dead flat.
Aside: I’m not sure exactly what happened. From the pictures, it looks like my tire was going flat earlier in the race….probably as early as 2/3 through the first loop – which is probably when my handling started to feel really odd. But by the time I hit this turn, the tire was dead as a doornail. I’ve never had a flat while riding, so I had no idea what I was feeling. 
I didn’t panic at that point. I was just incredibly relieved that I didn’t actually crash. 
While I couldn’t find a cost effective flat kit anywhere in Rotterdam (and this rental didn’t come with one like my one in Ottawa had), I had bought a can of emergency repair foam so figured I’d be okay. Friends had used the foam and said it would get me through the race.
This is where I learned that NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY also goes for equipment used to change flats. I failed dismally with the foam…and had no other options on me.
Aside: I later realized I had a good-sized gash in my actual tire – so it was more than my tube that was the problem…so I probably couldn’t have fixed it either way…but still, that doesn’t actually negate the importance of the NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY rule.
After failing with the foam, I realized I was in a spot of trouble. I had nothing else to try to fix my flat, there was no bike support, and people were racing by so quickly it wasn’t like I could ask anyone for a spare tube (I still didn’t realize my tire was the actual issue). 
I am pretty sure I must have looked around aimlessly for a bit at that point. It would have been really convenient for an extra wheel to fall out of the sky at that point. Alas, it didn’t happen. After a minute or two, I realized that if I was wanted to finish, it was going to have to be on my own two feet. 
So I ran. 
In bike shoes. In my aero helmet. Pushing my bike. I ran. 
And, oddly enough, I smiled. Because once I started running, I knew I’d keep going – unless or until someone made me get off the course.
No one did. 
I had numerous volunteers ask me if I was okay. I had several ask if they could drive me back to the start. I even had one very distressed volunteer ask me if I knew just how far it was back into the City Centre. 
I always answered with a smile, “Yes, I’m good.” – “No, I will get there, but thank you.” – “A long way, but I will get there.” 
The only instruction I got was to keep right and be safe – particularly on one very narrow stretch. Of course, I did so. I didn’t want to get anyone else into trouble. I just wanted to finish.
The hardest part was running up and down a big bridge because my shoes were slippery and the road was narrow. But I did surprisingly well and was able to hug the side of the bridge to stay out of people’s way. 
After the big bridge (and 5.5-6km of running), a lifesaving Canadian woman stopped to see if she could help me. She actually gave me her entire flat kit – since I had nothing at that point to work with. Honestly, I was never so appreciative in my life. I made sure to find out who she was afterwards and thanked her profusely. 
So I stopped to change my tire. Again. I know how to change a tire, so this process went pretty well. Except when taking the tube off, I found the gash in the tire wall. Don’t ask how I missed this earlier. It wasn’t huge, but for being in a tire, it was pretty big. It was also right on the main part of the tire where it would be ‘impacted’ when riding.
I honestly had no idea what to do about it. So I simply changed the tire, and hoped for the best.
Ha. That didn’t work.
Aside: A broken tire isn’t fixed by the same stuff you’d use to fix a tube. In talking to my coach afterwards, I was told there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done at that point.
So there I was, still a good 7km from Transition – having lost another 20 minutes or so trying to fix my unfixable tire.
At that point, I decided to do something a little foolhardy. And a little dangerous. Something I would -never- recommend and can hardly believe I did in hindsight. I decided to ride the mostly flat tire/rim. I figured it was a rental bike – and I had to be able to go faster than I could running at least. 
Aside: To be fair, I was pretty speedy running in bike shoes. My average was about 6 min/km for those 5.5-6km – which is my ‘normal’ easy run pace so you can tell I was trying to book it…but I knew I still had to run a 10k if I ever made it back into transition.
Thankfully, the worst of the technical bits of the course were over. I figured I could just roll easy and stop if I needed to. I was afraid, but I was also really worried about my time – and if I’d even be able to continue if I made it to transition. I had no idea if there was a cut-off. I just knew running would take me a good 45-min to an hour, whereas on the bike, I could hopefully cut that time in half at least.
So I did it.
Second loop...riding with a flat. Like my old tube? I didn't want to be caught littering.
I was so very ready to be done here. I was trying to smile, but I just didn't want to lose control.

And low and behold, I didn’t die.
I have never felt so happy to see transition in my life. I was grinning like a mad fiend I am sure. When I saw my friends Chris, Greg and Karina on the road leading into T2, I shouted, “Have I got a story for you.”
I feel bad for making them wait so long for me – particularly since they knew how worried I was about all the turns on the course. But I am sure they were relieved to see me alive, well, and apparently unscathed. 
Aside: There are -no- pictures of me running with my bike that I know of. The reality is I did it in a really random part of the course (KM 27-33) where there were no photographers. All I have is my Garmin and some nice blisters to show for it. Oh well. Just trust me when I said I was smiling the whole time. I know that I don’t need pictures for my own memory. I will never forget the experience, particularly how hot I got running with my helmet on and how much I wished I had some water with me. Since I didn’t have my own bike with my speedfill, I didn’t bother carrying a bottle because I can’t grab one easily while biking. I figured I’d just drink in T1 and T2 which is pretty standard for me. Needless to say, that plan meant I was not very well prepared for an extra 6km of running while on the bike though. Oops. 
Transition 2
In transition, I was very happy to get rid of my bike, not to mention my bike shoes. Putting on my running shoes was a joy because they felt so light. I downed some water from my waiting bottle (and poured the rest over my head), grabbed a couple of gels (I was definitely hungry at this point)…and headed out onto the run.

Just out of T2 and entering the park, you can see I'm in the process of having a GU.
The Run
There isn’t much I can say about the run – other than it felt so much easier than the 6k I’d already run during the race. The run course was primarily in a park, which meant there was lots of shade (unlike on the bike course) – and I actually found it to be the most pleasant part of the race. Quite possibly that’s because once I hit the run I knew I would finish the race. Similar to at Ironman Arizona when I got off the bike after riding for hours in the pouring rain – the sudden sense of relief associated with simply knowing I was going to finish was magical.

Starting the second loop of the run.
At that point in the day, it was mostly people a bunch of age groups older than me on the course, so I spent a nice amount of my time passing people (although a few people came speeding by me too…let’s not pretend). My run wasn’t particularly fast, but it was surprisingly solid. And, while I might not have been able to go as fast as I’d planned, I can promise you that I enjoyed every single moment of that run. Of knowing I was going to finish.

Either starting the second lap, or coming in for the finish. 
The Finish
As I came down the main street to the finish, I was crying a bit and smiling at the same time. I tried to soak in the feeling of people cheering – knowing I earned that moment more than maybe any other race in my life.
Crossing the finish line.
I crossed the finish line in 3:48:29. I came in dead last in my age group by 35 minutes (I didn’t quite come in dead last in the entire Olympic distance race, but was pretty close).
But my time didn’t matter. On that day – dead last felt like I’d won. Why? Because crossing that finish line taught me a significant lesson about who I am and what I will do when things go wrong.
Given the option, I won’t give up.
Given the ability, I will keep moving forward.
Given the opportunity, I will finish what I started.
That day in Rotterdam, I finished. I finished smiling. I didn’t crash on my bike. As a bonus, I had the chance to represent my country on the world stage and, my finish time aside, I think I did it pretty well.

No doubt I earned this medal.
Special Thanks
Big thanks to my Coach Mark Linseman of Loaring Personal Coaching who has been essential in helping me keep moving forward – growing, learning, and getting faster each and every day. And to everyone in LPC for always being willing to give me encouragement, support and advice – particularly my fellow athletes who were in Rotterdam.

TeamLPC in Rotterdam!
In particular...two of my favourite LPC ladies - Helen and Josette. You ladies rock!

Before one of the practice rides.
Also to my parents, brothers, and their families for always supporting me and for believing I can do anything I set my mind to.

And to the friends who came all the way from Canada to watch me race. They were a big reason it didn’t even occur to me not to keep going. They crossed an ocean to watch me race….and darn it, I wasn’t going to let them down.
Thank you all.