Friday, September 7, 2012

Ironman Canada 2012 Race Report, or "Falling from Cloud 9"

David McColm Photography

Ironman Canada 2012 Race Report

What I am supposed to say?

I'm incredibly happy.  I'm still taking it all in.  I've been waking up each day and at some point in the morning, realizing I won Ironman Canada.  Woah...

Suffice to say, I think I'm still in shock over it all.  I've actually been quite overwhelmed with the attention and the outpouring of positivity and support and all the kind words.  It's a lot, all at once, and certainly more than I ever imagined it would be.

All I ever imagined, in my visualization before the race, was how to get to the finish line first.  After that, my thought process had stopped.  So this is all new territory to me.
I am at a bit of a loss for words on how I feel about myself and this accomplishment (me at a loss for words is a weird thing), so if you're interested, I'll tell you a little bit about my race.  That I understand to a T.

And yes, I just referenced Katy Perry in my report title.  When you have a song in your head for 9 hours, it becomes quite near & dear.

Pre-race, or "I'm home":

I'm wonderfully supported by a local resident, Ann, in Penticton.  I've been able to stay with her for the last 3 years, for my first Ironman, my 2nd IMC and successful attempt to get to Kona, and my 3rd as a 1st year professional - and win!  So I must thank her for being my perpetual homestay and family friend - it's such a comfort to have a 'home' up there.

I finished up work & drove up with family on Thursday afternoon, and it's always magical to drive over the highway pass and start descending down toward the lake - it shimmers and huge boulders of mountains rise up against it.  It is the first time my heart did a big 'ka-thump'.  We're here.  It's race time.

David McColm Photography

I always do the same pre-race workouts, swim at the same times, bike to the same places, run the same hill near our house.  It's a ritual.  After travelling a lot this year and racing a whole bunch of new races, I'm so comforted to have familiar routines.

The unfamiliar?  Finding a tiny nail lodged in my not flat tire 2 days out from the race.  So off to the Bike Barn, a likely pilgrimage for so many triathletes pre-race, but I had never been (I was hoping for a Jeff Symonds "Rhymes with Diamonds" sighting but I didn't see him - oh well :)  Maybe he's too rich & famous to work anymore?).  They are just another testament to the greatness of the community of Penticton - ready to help, happy and smiling.  So, a new tire & tube, and I was a much happier girl - thanks Bike Barn!

So I have a functioning bike.  I have a pair of shoes.  And those are really the only pieces of triathlon equipment I own.  I was very fortunate to borrow a wetsuit for this race from my friend Jill who was super kind to lend me her wetsuit for the race (she took pity on me as I was a bit suspicious of the usefulness of my old (like, OLD) wetsuit that had a certain number of large-ish holes in it).  So thank you Jill!  And, as always, I am in a timeshare situation with a borrowed helmet from my friend Carolyn, who is the owner of the aero-helmet, but I use it most of the time.  So thank you Carolyn, a terrific friend and lover of cats, who did a super job of cheering for me on Sunday!  So I have the really does take a community to raise a child....or to equip a triathlete.  Or sponsors :)

The race, or "Full gas"

The swim, or "It was long....right?"

Without a bit by bit bore you to tears breakdown, here are my thoughts in chronological order.

"Holy crap, I'm standing beside Lisa Bentley"......"Oh, she's doing the relay, thank god".

As a group of us girls are chatting, one woman asks "Do we even get a countdown"?....2 seconds later...HORN!

(Me, to myself)

"Swim hard, don't be scared"

"Yes, there is a gap forming and you are behind it.  Keep swimming hard, hold on"

"All alone at 1/4 through the race.  Ok.  Empty your head.  Negativity is useless.  Keep swimming hard"

"You have arms & legs, use them"

"How far ahead am I from the helicopter overhead?" (signaling age grouper chase pack)

"Hmmm....waves.  These don't have a thing on Ironman St George - hahaha!"

"Bacon....I smell bacon"

"Ooh, the buoy is that way"

"This woman in the pink cap is kicking my ass" (age groupers start 15 min back of the pro start - it's Susan Williams, Athens Olympic Bronze medallist...oook then)

"My arms feel like bacon"

"I am done - and that was not a fast swim - this race is going to be tough"

The bike, or "Gabe kicks ass"

David McColm Photography

I have no other option on the bike than to cycle hard from the time I jump on my bike.  My bike's name is Gabe, and being on my bike holds a special place in my heart.  I also know it's time to thrash myself on this thing, because it is my only option to get back in contention.  But I can't panic.  I just start flying.

And flying is relative, but I am pushing as hard as I can (everything your coach told you not to do, likely).  I actually am breathing incredibly hard, my legs are sort of solid cement things, I'm quite cold (it was cool that morning and I'm not a super warm person), and my helmet is semi-stuck on my hair braid in an awkward way.  There is a camera in my face and I don't think I shy away from farmer blowing my nose.  Classy.  We'll see if that makes the cut.

I pray for no tacks on the road, and once I'm through that section I breathe a sigh of relief.  A frozen cold hyperventilating state is not a good state to change a tire.  I am expecting more guys to be catching up to me but really, very few appear.  A huge change from the massive packs of people that accompanied the ride out to Osoyoos last year.  Something that likely interfered with the Carl Hansen vs. Gillian Clayton battle, and caused a crash on his end.  Boo.  But that's all part of the race.  Nothing is exceptional and anything can happen.  I think that if you know that, and it doesn't phase you, you are bound for success. (Carl finished a very successful debut IM in 10:04.  I did however, thrash his time :)  Sorry Carl, but :)

After that, all I do is work hard, I just pretend like there is no marathon and there is nothing to save.  I start catching up to the other pro women by Richter's Pass and breathe a sign of relief.  I'm back in this.  But there is no time to relax because the gap to the front is huge.  Someone shouts 13 min, someone shouts 15.  Who knows, it's big, and there are good bikers at the front.

There were a group of kids with Mom out on course (I didn't know them) but they were one of my best cheerers on the bike course.  "Way to go, PINK SOCKS" - was their cheer.  I am a sucker for kids!  I waved and smiled every time I could.  There are farmers that come down to the side of the road with their families who watch and wave.  It's so great...not to mention the hundreds of crazy fans that are out on the side of the hot hot road screaming and you and cheering you on.  It's the best bike course I've ever ridden.  Probably always will be.

The rest of the bike is a blur.  My job is simple.  Eat, drink, hurt legs.  I feel as if I might fall off my bike going up around Yellow Lake.  Thankfully there is a camera right there filming me dragging my carcass up the hill.  It almost feels as if there is nothing between my hip socket and my knee joint, and poignantly pointed out by a man of the side of the road, I needed to "just sit and keep spinning".  Perhaps he knew if I stood up at that point I'd fall over and he'd have to deal with me. (See #11 on the  '20 types of athletes you'll see at an Ironman race')

Unfortunately for me on the way into town, the cramp brigade starts.  I have had minor leg cramps before but nothing too serious.  As I'm biking along, I mostly just ignore because I know that when I get off and start running they'll be gone.  For sure.  All of a sudden I'm in T2 and three of us are in there together - what??

The run, or "Chariots of (my legs are on) fire"

Alrighty, what would a race report be without a little nitty gritty?  This run wasn't short on drama.

Steve King announces on us exiting T2 that there places 2nd through 6th are within 4 minutes of each other.  First place is more than 18 minutes ahead.  This, is exciting.

One mile out.  "I feel great".  One mile and 1/4 out.  "".  Stopped dead in my tracks.  Bent over.  Full leg cramp.  Complete inability to run.  There are 3 girls coming within a minute behind me.  There is a camera in my face, if I'm lucky filming these super awkward stretch manoeuvres while I am hoping to release the spasm.  I am pretending to be a physio and not an athlete.  Nothing is releasing.  Girls are coming.  I am trying not to freak out.

My heart is sinking.  I'm not sure I can even walk.  A friend shouts encouragement as he runs by.  In my mind, there is no other option than to run on extremely uncomfortable legs.  So I get going.  It's a shuffle, but it's forward momentum.  I just want to race.  I just want to be in this.  I know who I'm racing, I know the numbers, I just have to get my run back up to speed and then have to react to what needs to be done.  42.2 kilometres gives me time.

I run up Main St - people are crazy cheering for everyone!  It is so uplifting - and thankfully, distracting me from my awkward running form.  I see my friends & family and it's a real comfort.  They're there for me.  They are what matters.  I am going to do this.  All along in my triathlon career, I have always relied on the run.  This time, it's my new challenge.  I catch up to my friend, Chris, who is so supportive and happy to see me back even though I'm slowly running by him.  It was great not to be alone out there in that moment.  You're never the best judge of yourself when you are under stress and a reassuring few words were so helpful.  Thanks Chris!

Finally by OK park I'm back into a rolling & steady running form.  I am in a weird scenario though, where I can run and keep cadence high, but I can't push much with my legs or the flickers of cramps come back.  So, momentum needs to be my friend.  My form might actually be legal in race walking -  but it's coming back to me.

Eventually I'm relaxed on Eastside road.  I am into 3rd, with a lead biker in front, and for what seems like endless (maybe 10) kilometres I run exactly the same splits behind Janelle Morrison.  She looks fantastic - so great it's scary.  I'm not sure how I'm going to do this, but it's the marathon, so you have time to think.  And I think it's time to wait this out, to be more patient with myself than I have to be with my competitors, and believe in my legs, and more importantly, believe that I will do whatever it takes to win.  And yes, the ice went in my pants.  And no, I didn't suck the sponges.

321 Photos by Mark Bates

At the turnaround, there are 3 of us (1st through 3rd) within maybe 25 metres of each other?  Okanagan Falls turnaround point was an exciting place to be on race day!  All of a sudden there is a car in front of me.  What?  Oh, it says 'Lead Female'.  This is surreal.  And girls were driving it - awesome!

I won't go on to describe searing pain and brutal mental toughness from here on, because from here, everything just became very quiet (not literally - people were cheering like crazy for a chick behind a car!) but in my mind, it was simplified.  Time to push.  I wasn't scared.  I was confident, but it's a hard thing to accept.  I'm in 1st place with 21.1kms to go.  Usually I get to this point on the run and think, "you're a runner, you can do this", but today I was thinking, "you are a triathlete, and you can do this".  It's a small switch, but a powerful one.  I've raced in races before where I look at the lead females coming through and they don't look like beautiful runners, but they are going fast and they are winning.  So previously as a runner with a triathlon complex, I both judged and was jealous of their position, their abilities.  And today I was realizing, it doesn't matter if you're pretty.  You're winning.

Pretty doesn't win races.

(Editors note: although pretty doesn't win races,  I do think pretty can win hearts :)  which I believe I make up for in the outfit department - so a huge thanks to Aquadiva Swimwear and Compressport Canada for the keeping me in outrageous pink and green apparel!)

By the time I got up the slow grade hill and into Penticton city, people started to say, "You're going to WIN an IRONMAN".  Woah.  That was a scary thought to take in, and I really couldn't.  My job is run to the line, but then more and more people, people I know - looked maybe a bit shocked but so happy to see me as the person running behind the 'lead female' Subaru.  Did things hurt?  Probably, could I pay attention to them?  Nope.  The crowd is going nuts.  I just keep eating ice chips, throwing the odd cola cup generally onto my face and probably not much in my mouth, and running on.  I'm reminded to enjoy this, and I'm starting to let a little of that in.

You turn onto Lakeshore Drive.  The crowd is deafening.  I really like this section of the course, but today, I am in LOVE with it.  Everyone is so happy!  Kids are high fiving!  A smile is starting to come out on my face, and I couldn't stop it even if I wanted to.  And through the noise I finally start to hear Steve King's voice.  This getting hard even to write!

The last minute is not something that I can really put into words.  It is an experience that I will have for my entire life.  Some days are hard work, hard luck, hardness of yourself upon yourself.  A lot of people have said to me, "it must justify all the hard work".  I realized when they said that I had no feelings of satisfaction in that sense.  I like the hard work.  That is why I do what I do, why I train like I train.  I love it.  So to me, winning this race was the proverbial icing on the cake.  It transcends justification or reward.  It goes beyond that, and I don't have a word for it.  So you'll have to take my other 'words' for it.

It's simply the best feeling a girl could ask for.

And that's that.

A huge thank you to the people closest to me in my life, because you are the reason I have been able to push my limits way beyond what I thought possible.  Life doesn't always go according to plans, and I'm sure glad that I somehow got mixed up in triathlon and have had the support ever since to go out and learn so much about myself I never thought possible.

Thank you for reading this and to all of those who have supported me along the way, big hugs and many thank you's!

What a day.

And a thank you to my sponsors for this race~

Aquadiva Swimwear

Compressport Canada

Pacific Multisport

You Got Chicked

The Massage Therapy Clinic at the UBC Aquatic Centre

The coaches - Jerry & Jeremy

Swim help (I need lots)  - Nathan

Wetsuit - Jill

Helmet - The Catlady

Everything else - Shawn


  1. Congratulations again!!! I was so happy to be one of those people out on the run who got to see you race in toward the finish and cheer happily ;)

    1. Molly - big thank you's then!!! I can't say it enough - how amazing I find it that people can race and cheer! Warms my heart - thanks for that!
      Hope you're recovering nicely and having fun! gillian

  2. Huge congratulations, Gillian! You are not just a great triathlete--you are also a fantastic writer! Thank you for sharing your race report. --Kendra

  3. Hi Kendra - thanks so much - that means a lot because I really enjoy writing :) Congrats on your awesome IMNYC performance!!! Go get 'em in Kona ;)