Race Report: ITU Edmonton – September 6, 2015

This race would not have happened without some amazing volunteers.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, I want to start there. I want to focus in for a moment on the dozens of volunteer who stood out in the rain and 5 degree weather with a wind-chill that made it feel sub-zero.

Most of them were unable to really even move to get warm as they were handing out water bottles, or directing the crowds of confused athletes, and had to stay in one place to do their jobs.

Volunteers lined the make-shift run courses that were built an hour before the race start. Sunday morning, ITU officials made the call that the swim would be cancelled and replaced with an 8 km run. This meant that Run 2 was also shortened from 10 km to 5 – and that 2 new courses had to be built and marked.

Volunteers directed confused athletes to the starting lines.

Volunteers stood in the cold at the top of Emily Murphy hill and cheered.

Volunteers told athletes to take it easy around sharp corners.

Volunteers told athletes where to go throughout the race as no one knew the new courses.

Volunteers handed out water, watched for signs of hypothermia, and made sure everyone stayed on course.

Volunteer medics ensured the safety of those racing.

To those who sacrificed their comfort so that we could race – thank you. You were the true heroes out there.

This race was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

I went in with one goal: qualify for Cozumel ITU World Championships in 2016. I had chosen ITU Edmonton because I perform well in the crowded lake and the hilly, technical, bike course. I went in knowing that there were only 13 women in my age group and that I needed a top 3 spot to qualify. I knew that if I raced as well as I did at the BC Provincial Championships, a podium spot was likely – all I needed was to finish strong.

I wasn’t surprised that the swim was cancelled, although I had mixed feelings. Hawrelak Lake and I get along well. For someone whose biggest struggle on the swim is the mental aspec t, swimming in a small, shallow, man-made lake is heaven. I can touch the bottom, I can reach the shore. I can focus on swimming fast instead of on the mental game.  I’ve also swum it a dozen times and I know the course. My 3 races in this lake have been 3 of my best swims.

The familiarization Saturday was cold, but tolerable with 11 degree air temperature.

By Sunday morning, the 5 degree air temperature was not. Knowing that we weren’t swimming allowed me to better prepare for the cold in the morning. It meant less time in T2 layering up.

So began my first-ever duathlon.run start

I wore under armour and skins under my race suit, which were an absolute god-send. A dozen instant-heat packs lined my gloves, socks, shoes, toque, sleeves and bra.

Coca-cola in my water bottle instead of water – eating gels in the cold was next to impossible between cold fingers and the thick goo of the gels.

Last year, I was pulled after T2 with hypothermia – and it was considerably warmer. This year, come what may, I was finishing the race.

My coach, Sara Gross, had given me the best advice the day before:
“Bad weather is bad luck pure and simple. Its the same for everyone. How you deal with it is what will separate you from the other athletes.”

As we waited to start, I congratulated the speedy Maja Kralovcova that I had spent all of Friday’s 5k race trying to chase down. Tall and lean, it was clear from Friday’s race that Maja was built to run. I knew that she would be the one to beat today with a double run.

The 8 km run went well. I started off slowly, trying to find my pace, unsure of how to pace a duathlon. I kept my heart rate around 160, cheered on my fellow athletes, and focused on the fact that I was quite warm now that I was running.

High-fiving the volunteers fueled me to keep going. They shivered under their garbage-bag ponchos, holding bottles of water on the 3 aid stations that lined each lap (about 1 every .75 km). No one was taking any.

Into T1. bike 2

For someone who has spent the last 2 years working to perfect quick transitions, this was torture. Sticky shoes, layers, heat packets.

Out on the bike.

My quads felt tight – like the muscles didn’t want to warm up. I pounded up Emily Murphy as fast as I could, trying to get the blood flowing. The rain was falling and everything was soaked. Down Groat Road, the goal was simply to stay on the bike and not get caught in one of the many potholes. At one point, my bike hit a bump and it was all I could do to stay upright as my wet hands slipped off my aerobars.

By the time lap 2 started, it was clear that many racers had either quit or not bothered to start. I have never seen Saskatchewan Drive so empty. I went several minutes without seeing a soul. Technical officials rode up and down and up and down Groat Road… watching for what exactly I’m not sure. There was no one around to draft or block. And it was too cold to open a gel that was probably frozen anyway.

The coke gave me a boost coming around lap 2 and I felt the delicious burn on the back of my throat. Thanks to Chris McCormack for the tip – it really is the best racing fuel. bike 3

I started counting race numbers to figure out my position.  Every time I hit the “500m” sign going up Groat Road, I would see Maja coming down the other side. So I knew that she was about 3 minutes ahead. I wasn’t gaining any ground – but I wasn’t losing any either.
Taniya Birbeck was about 30 seconds ahead of me. I knew that I could catch her – it was just a matter of finding the right moment.


Kate Snihur and Maria Arlt were about 3 minutes behind me. I was where I needed to be – but I needed to stay there. I couldn’t afford to give them any room.

Lap 3.

By then the sprint racers had entered the course, and it was clear they were there to finish as quickly as possible. I saw 3 older men walking back to transition with damaged bikes, and more than one crash.

Just finish the race.

Lap 4.
Climbing Emily Murphy – I’m giving it everything I have, because this is all I’ve got. I might end up walking the run, I don’t care – but I’m pounding the pedals.

Standard racers are struggling to continue up the steep grade of Emily Murphy. I finally overtake

Taniya as she falls back against the harsh wind.
In front of me, an older man goes down when he can’t pedal enough to maintain forward movement. I pass a few of the sprinters, get the top, and call for medical who head down the hill to check up on him.

My fingertips are numb and aren’t able to work the brakes anymore.

Just finish the race. I knew that if I could just hold my number 2 spot – I was going to Cozumel.

Down Groat.

Up Groat.

I watch Maja start her final decent and I vow to close the gap. I sprint up the hill, down the hill and tuck into aero for the entry into the park.

Running off the bike, I can feel that my calves have seized up. I am limping as the muscles won’t fire. I don’t know if it’s the borrowed bike shoes, the cold, or both. But it’s all I can do to just continue moving forward.

I see my Dad cheering at the start of the run course.

Half-delirious, I yell out “I am finishing this f***ing race!”

Hopefully he didn’t hear me over the wind and the announcer.

I looked down at my watch, which told me that I was running 6:30/km – slower than even my slowest base run. My calves just wouldn’t fire. Keep going.

Water station. Smile at the volunteers.

I watched as Maja gained another minute – this was her run.

Slowly, the feeling came back in my legs. Slowly, I began to run.

6 minutes. 5:30. 5 minutes. 4:30, 4:20, 4:10. Finally, by the last aid station, my legs were moving and my face splits into a smile.

I was going to finish the race. I was going to Cozumel.

I could see Kate and Maria behind me – they had clearly struggled through the run as well and hadn’t gained any ground.

Finally – the blue carpet. finish

Shivering spectators quietly lined the chute. It was the strangest feeling. I put my hands in the air and cheered as I ran through the chute.

After what felt like an eternity, the crowd joined in and cheered back.

Across the finish line.
Taniya Birbeck finishes just seconds behind me. I take a moment to congratulate her.

I am wrapped in a blanket by an understanding volunteer.

My wonderful friend Vivian greets me with coffee. Nothing ever tasted so good in my life.

Ecstatic, slightly hypothermic, and deliriously giddy, all I could think was “I’m going to Cozumel.”

But that’s next year.

Chicago is now less than two week away.

Time to re-group and do it all again.