A personal account of the summer 2018 Ironman Triathlon event in Whistler, BC…
By Bill Witt
About a year ago, I embarked on an Ironman triathlon journey. I had done several triathlons before, all of which were Sprint and Olympic distances. Now, I was contemplating an Ironman distance. That’s right, a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, and then finishing with a 26.2 mile marathon run — in one day, I would travel 140.6 miles.
A friend of my mine had completed a couple of Ironman races before, but in his last attempt he was unsuccessful; he did not finish. I thought why not enter into this race, train with him, and we could complete the race. I called another friend, who completed an Ironman before, and he welcomed the opportunity to join the venture. Another phone call to my son, who said that there was no way that I would be the first Ironman in the family, and he too signed up. One more call to a long-time rival, who agreed to do the Half-Ironman.
Living in the Northwest, I was hesitant to travel thousands of miles by plane to Hawaii to compete. Instead, I opted for a closer-by-car experience. Whistler, Canada. Ah yes. A July event with moderate temperatures around 75 degrees would be “the picturesque Ironman.” Yes, there would be a few hills, but if I started a year in advance to train, climbing a few thousand feet would be doable.
Another friend of mine, an accomplished triathlete with several Ironmans under his belt, offered to serve as coach. My wife, Leslie, has supported everything that I have ever wanted to do, and this was no exception. She agreed, and training began.
For the next 10 months, I would train 6 days a week, sometimes twice a day. At the beginning, a Saturday workout might take an hour. By late June, early July, I trained all day Saturday and Sunday. My once beautiful lawn had been jilted by an Ironman mistress. Post Ironman, I would need to grovel and slowly get the lawn and other domestic chores in order.
And just like that, the race was here. July 29th, 2018. A few days before, we loaded up the truck with race bikes, mountain bikes, gear, gear, and more gear. We traveled north and along the way picked up Leslie and my youngest son, Trevor, at the Portland airport. The two had been in Texas with my wife’s ailing mother for the past six days under hospice care. Only a few hours later, while driving near Seattle we received a phone call that my wife’s mom had passed. It became incredibly quiet. Tears and some clearing of the throat. We traveled through the traffic and each of us slowly regrouped and moved on with our day. Thirteen hours later we arrived in Whistler at a beautiful condo resort.
For weeks prior I watched the weather forecast increase, degree by degree, and by race day, the weather forecast would be a cool 97 degrees. I had suffered from heat exhaustion twice before so I was bit concerned, but I would prevail.
Many who witness this Ironman race often focus on the training. But a wise triathlete told me early on that Ironman involves 4 disciplines. Swim, Bike, Run, and Nutrition, with nutrition being the most important. I’ll add another log to the fire and say “Planning.”
Be it developing an annual training plan, getting your bike fit, getting the right shoes, balancing work, family, and training, figuring out what works for you nutrition-wise, checking your gear, studying the course, considering each transition, the list goes on and on. And at race day, you pull all of the planning together, and race 10 to 15 hours.
Race Day! I awoke at 3:30 am and had my standard breakfast of yogurt with granola, bananas, coconut shavings, and maple syrup. We headed to the shuttle station to get body markings, place nutrition in my run and bike bags, and travel to the start line for the swim. I had forgotten my bike computer, while sitting on the shuttle bus which was about to leave. I quickly got off the shuttle, ran to the car and retrieved my bike computer and quickly got back to the next shuttle. Problem avoided. If that would be my biggest challenge of the day that would be great.
I arrived at the swim start, reviewed my bike, and realized that I had forgotten to put electrolyte tablets in my bike bag — “are you kidding me?” My coach had said because of the extreme hot weather to “make sure to take 3 to 4 tablets each hour.” I had no time to retrieve any electrolyte supplements. I could not panic, I rationalized that I would take in more Gatorade & Bananas on the course. Unfortunately, later in the day, I would realize that forgetting those tiny white tablets would cause great pain.
The gun went off and I started swimming. I had made it a point to spend tons of hours training in the pool, swimming over 300,000 yards to better my stroke. The practice paid off. For the next hour and 13 minutes, I passed swimmers of all shapes and sizes. I finished the swim and arrived at the first transition with a personal best time. Yahoo. However, I quickly gave back a few minutes by lollygagging in transition (T1).
On to the bike I went.
The bike course had just under 8500 feet of climbing. I remember signing up for the Ironman and looking at the elevation map for the course. It said 2,579 in overall elevation climbing. Heck, I can do that. A couple of days later, I realized, I hadn’t notice that the 2,579… was in meters.
From T1, we made a right hand turn and after few pedal strokes, I met the first of many climbs, followed by a downhill, and yet another climb. All the non-swimmers that I had bested, they returned the favor on the bike. I thought I had a flat tire, a rubbing brake, something to warrant an excuse for going so slow. Nothing; the legs just did not have the energy that I was used to. I made the first loop without too many hiccups. Yes, the climbs were fairly difficult-particularly Callaghan road-but they were manageable. But the heat had not become a factor, yet.
As I finished my second climb of Callaghan road, the heat chose to climb as well. Unlike other climbs on the bike course, Callaghan road lacked one of my favorite things about the northwest, trees. Instead, shrubs, and low lying trees flanked the road, but no shade. The body quickly began to feel the effects of the heat, and the slow progression of an inbalance of electrolytes.
My pedal stroke slowed and the climbs became longer.
On to lap three and the final Callaghan climb brought out a whole new level of suffering. Much of the first part of each lap was rolling downhills. A slight uphill with a long downhill, followed by another slight uphill and a long downhill. Even so, I started having mild cramps in both my left and right abductor muscles. Secondly, for some reason, my left foot started swelling and heating up. The pain of pedaling on the left-hand side became more and more pronounced to the point that I had to stop at the aid station on Callaghan road, take off my shoe and massage the toes. My left foot had become completely numb. While training, I had dealt with discomfort and sometimes a bit of self-inflicted pain, but today was new and different.
Enough foot massaging.
Back on the bike, I continued to climb. It would take me 3 hours to travel a mere 30 miles. That’s right, 10 miles an hour. Traveling the second half of the third loop would now be a long uphill climb, followed by a short descent, and another long climb with a short descent. I had trained for hours on the bike. I had climbed a ton of mountains in the northwest and many times led a group of riders to the top. I have ridden all my life, I have ridden across America, I was ready for the bike, darn it. But today, the heat, and the lack of electrolyte tablets, brought on a whole new level of exhaustion. My quick fix of more Gatorade and bananas was like trying to mow the lawn with tweezers; it just did not work.
As I approached mile 100, the body started cramping all over. Each of us have two abductor muscles that run from our upper inner thigh to the quadriceps. I looked down and the cramping was so bad that these muscles had seized up to the point that it looked like a cucumber taped to each inner thigh. Next, the quadriceps muscles started contorting violently and they too became grotesque looking bulges near the knee cap. The right bicep started dancing. I guess part of my body thought we were competing in some type of bodybuilding presentation at Venice beach. And last, both hamstrings started quivering as if some type of internal volcano was about to erupt.
I made a left hand turn at the crest of another hill on Alpine road. I could coast. I stood up to stop the pain from the cucumbers in the shorts, but the left foot would then raise its hand and shout “remember me”, followed by the quadriceps pulsating like a battle ram. What to do?
I coasted to the base of the next hill, because I could no longer pedal. My legs had completely seized up, and the bike came to a stop. Like a keystone cop, I tumbled to the right onto an unshaded concrete driveway. I lay there with my cycling shoes still clipped to the pedals. I could not turn my feet to unlock myself from the bike. An official quickly stopped by and asked if I needed medical assistance. I asked him if I asked for medical assistance would I be pulled from the race. The answer was no. They would evaluate my condition, then determine if I could continue. I agreed to accept medical attention. I was worried. The official gave me a bottle of water. Like a fish that had just been hoisted onto a boat, I thrashed back and forth trying to stop the shear agony from the relentless cramping.
As I laid in the heat, I asked myself, is this really happening? I’m a mess. I have spent nearly a year training. I asked my family to allow me to engage in this narcissistic endeavor and I was not going to finish because of cramping. Really? This cannot happen. If the medical crew shows up then I will no longer have control of the situation.
I recalled the day before the race at the competitor village, that a triathlon coach gave some advice to all first-time Ironman participants. She said in life, we always have two voices. One voice offers bad thoughts, negative feelings, and self-defeating comments; while the other voice offers words of encouragement and positive feelings. “The goal is to turn off the bad voice entirely. This task is quite difficult, but you must remain positive-no matter what the condition. If you allow the bad voice to prevail, you are doomed.” Duly noted.
Lying on the scorching driveway, I had to focus on steps and not the entire Ironman race. Whether I would complete the marathon portion of the race was entirely premature. Right now, I needed to focus on trying to stop the thrashing about because of the cramps. I needed to get quiet and focus. No “woe is me” attitude. The fact that I had a terrible bike spill, and that I had forgotten a key component of nutrition (salt tabs) was history, and unless I could quickly find someone with a time machine I better come up with a plan.
Ok. I need to stop the cramping. My electrolytes were more imbalanced than the national debt. I needed salt.
From across the street a young girl with a volunteer shirt appeared and asked if she could help. I’m sure her name was Angel. While flopping around as if I were being electrocuted from below, I told her I needed salt. At the time, I had forgotten that the rules prohibit any assistance from a spectator. But she was a volunteer and the race official did not stop the request. So I guess I was ok. Little did I know, this girl would become instrumental in me finishing.
A little more thrashing about, compliments of that great song “do you think I can have more cramps?” and the girl arrived with a cylinder of table salt. Manna!
I reached for the salt and the bottled water from the race official and took a big hit of salt, followed by a water chaser. Then another hit of salt and another shot of water. I had a brief reprieve from the cramps to allow me to break loose from the pedals. I was finally able to at least sit up. Then another barrage of cramping, and another hit of salt and water chaser combo. I needed to get out of the sun. I shuffled my body near the garage door to avoid the hot summer sun. Another salt-water cocktail. I told the official no medical please I can do this. He obliged. Another cocktail and I slowly stood up.
I stood in the shade contemplating my next move. I could not pedal with any significant pressure and I still had 4 more climbs. I would need to walk the hills and then bike. I could not believe what I was planning.
Finally, what seemed to be forever, I was able to put my salt shaker into my water-bottle cage. Yes, it fit perfectly. I said thank to the young little girl and slowly pedal away. Steady legs… we can’t have another keystone cop episode.
The first climb was less than 400 meters and I started pedaling uphill and immediately my legs revolted with another onslaught of cramps. Yep, I was walking. Fortunately, I was able to dismount without crashing. But again I was in the sun. I shuffled across the road, avoiding oncoming returning cyclists whizzing by me, to find shade. Another salt-water cocktail from my salt flask.
I crossed the road again and hiked up the hill. At the crest, I was able to mount my bike and coast for a bit. The continual salt-water cocktails had helped. As I coasted along the long descent, I saw a fellow cyclist facing the same challenges. The medical team was there to assess the situation. That could have been me. Onward to the next hill, dismount, walk, mount, coast, repeat.
I made the turnaround at Stonebridge road, and passed the very driveway in which I had fallen a mere hour before. To the top of the last hill and then a slight descent to the next aid station. The cramps had subsided. I was able to chug down more Gatorade and a couple of bananas and handed my salt shaker to the volunteer suggesting to her that someone else might need this great elixir.
I arrived at the run transition (T2); 8 hours and 24 minutes. I had trained by riding multiple century rides with times under 7 hours, but not today. I walked to get my running gear and saw my wife, son and grandkids along the spectator fence line. I smiled and gave my wife a kiss. She had been very worried about my slow bike split. Concerned, she asked if I would be able to complete the marathon. I quickly responded, “I have over 6 hours to complete the marathon. I will see you before 11 pm,” and I entered the changing tent.
It’s 4:30 pm and the sun had been baking down on the changing tent. The smell was foul! Athletes were gathering their thoughts, getting new gear, water, and trying to get their head around the next task. It would take me 18 minutes before I would start the run. I now had my electrolyte tablets. I was ready.
I started walking and then shuffling and then a slow jog. I just needed to get to the first aid station which would be about a mile away. I chatted with other warriors who applied a similar regiment. Walk, shuffle, run, walk, repeat. I made it to the first aid station. I had finally controlled the cramping, or at least that was what my inner voice was repeating. The weather was still scorching hot and I needed to get some electrolyte balance. I downed two tablets with water. More Gatorade and I started jogging, then walking, and jogging, etc.
Slowly, I started clicking off miles. I had done a fair amount of backpacking in prior years and was able to get up a fairly strong power gait. When not jogging, I would power walk. For each aid station, I would walk, down another 2 tablets, consume a few shot blocks, and water. I figured by now, my stomach was duly trashed and adding more and more sugar could result in vomiting, so every other mile, I drank Gatorade with a water chaser.
I made it to mile 10 and was slowing jogging downhill when my hamstrings immediately revolted. I stumbled forward and nearly collided with a fence. I was now the Tin Man. My legs had seized up again. I was able to quiet the body and slowly stretched the hamstrings. While the electrolytes were certainly in better shape than before, the body had been abused for over 12 hours. A spectator walking along encouraged me to continue and said she would root me on when I passed her later. More stretching, regroup and more power walking. Soon, I was able to pass the spectator who held her promise and cheered like no other.
On to Mile 11 and out of nowhere my youngest son, Trevor and my two grand-kids, Abby and Alex, started walking along with me. What a great inspiration! For the next 400 meters, I power-walked up the long hill with my crew and at the mile 12 aid station they broke off and yelled, “You can do this!” Back into the woods for lap 2. I had completed the first half-marathon. I chatted briefly with other runners and said “I guess we walk the next half-marathon.” They chuckled, but they too realized that this possibility might occur.
I couldn’t just walk, I need to increase the pace. My bike split was unforgivable. I had made it through “cramp alley.” Get a move on. More power walking and then more jogging. As the sun finally set behind the majestic mountains, the temperature finally dropped. Like a massive weight had been lifted off my tired body, I was able to jog more quickly. The aid stations now had chicken broth. Oh my goodness, you have no idea how tasty cold chicken broth can be at mile 18. A swig of my new favorite drink and more jogging.
As I started jogging down a long descent, at around mile 19, I caught up with my buddy. He had pulled away from me on the bike by almost an hour, but here I was slowly able to reel him in. We were not competing against each other per se, but knowing he was ahead of me was a great carrot to strive for. I chatted with him briefly and continued with my pace of power walking and jogging. At the mile 20 aid station, many runners were hunched over, or sitting near a tree. They had no more to give. Exhausted, they had succumbed to the constant need to move forward. You could see in their eyes, a collection of bewilderment, disappointment. Each of them trying to come up with a solution to move forward. Some would continue, for others the journey would end.
I continued through mile 20 and onto Miles 22, 23, 24. More shots of chicken broth. More electrolyte tablets, more Gatorade, more shot blocks. I was slowly getting my 153rd wind. I reached the last aid station and realized that I would finish. Just another mile to go.
By now, it was getting dark and many of the spectators who had lined the roadways had ventured to the epic celebration finish. I would run alone for the next mile. I crested one last small hill and was met with a few spectators. Downhill I went. A right turn, a left turn, another left turn, and I was in the middle of the Whistler shopping village. For those who have never been, the Whistler shopping village looks much like Disneyland’s main street with shops and dining choices flanking both sides. I ran in the center of the road, with competitor barriers on each side, with spectators galore cheering every stride. Another right, up a slight hill and a final left-hand turn. I could see the finish ahead. No longer cramping, in fact, no pain at all. I thought I was running like the wind but I suspect that my pace was something a bit better than a slow jog.
I had reached the famous red carpet with lights blinding me as I ran. I moved to the right-hand barrier and gave as many as high-fives as humanly possible. Then over to the left-hand barrier to greet another slew of cheering fans. For a brief moment, the sheer volume of cheering, coupled with the euphoria of completing this epic race was breathtaking. Another few strides, and finally I heard from the announcer what I was waiting for, “You are an Ironman!”
Finally, I was done. 15 hours, 45 minutes. I had started the journey at 6:10 am and finished a little after 10 pm. I received my medal, gathered my thoughts and met my steadfast cheering section. I met my son, Lenny, who had finished nearly 2 hours before, and hugged my best friend, my wife.
It would be 1 am until I would finally settle down for some well-deserved rest. Friends Ken and Pete, my wife, and I had a beer around midnight to reminisce about the day’s event.
A day later I went back to the now infamous Mile 100 sun-baked driveway. I had stopped prior at a local grocery store and purchased a small cylinder of salt along with a card. The family and the young girl who lived at the house were not home. I placed the card at their door with a thank you note and in part wrote “a small gesture of kindness can have an invaluable effect on another. Thank you so very much for helping me on my journey.”
I have since reflected on the race. I would have never realized how much I would learn from competing in an Ironman race. I came to find out that I was slowest in my age group for the bike portion of the event and yet I would regroup to finish 90th out of 111. Back at mile 100, I could have earned a DNF for the race.
I learned that whether you are competing in an Ironman event or faced with any challenge in your life, you must not let the bad voice speak. You must stay positive. You need not worry about the big picture, but rather focus on one step at a time. Then focus on the next step. And sometimes, you might just need a pinch of salt to achieve your goal.
Bill and his wife Leslie own Witt Consulting in Corvallis.
Reach Bill at WittConsulting.com