The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.
Let me start off by saying that I wanted this one. Rarely do I go into a race with as focused a time / performance goal as I did at Leadman. It wasn’t just the belt buckle that you get for finishing in under 11 hours, though it gave me a pretty good excuse to tell people what I had set as my goal. Not finishing the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica earlier this year was hard for me. I know that withdrawing from that race after suffering exercise induced kidney failure was the right decision. I loved seeing my teammates continue to overcome every challenge they faced. Still, my DNF sat with me and I went into Leadman prepared, planned and well trained. (Don’t get me wrong, a 250km ultra distance triathlon still makes you pretty frickin’ nervous!)
Be Water, My Friend
When a race is called the Leadman Epic 250km Triathlon you know you’re in for one hell of a day. Standing at the water’s edge I was calm and ready for the 5km swim – yeah, 5km swim. Conditions for me were near perfect. Overcast, air temperature of 8 C, water temperature of 16 C. I learnt over the course of training that I love open water.
Siting through the first 2.5km only had a couple of challenges as we found our paces and selves in the water. The first turnaround was uncrowded and coming back I had to remind myself there was one more 2.5km loop. I eased back into my rhythm knowing there were 245km to go after I got out of the water. About 300m after the first turn the lead swimmer in the wave behind me hit me head on – he was a little off his line! Coming back into shore I felt strong. The swim at Leadman is two 2.5km loops requiring you to exit the water. pass an aid station and dive back into the water. This is done to check people for hypothermia…
The second 2.5km loop required much more navigation dodging fellow swimmers who had started after I had. As I passed the second buoy I saw a swimmer holding onto it signalling to a kayak, Leadman was starting to claim competitors inside the first 2km of the race. The depth of peace that I feel in water is a huge advantage. Coming around the far turn I cranked up the pace. I decided to push it again when I could see the lake’s floor.
75 minutes and 33 seconds after starting the 5km swim I emerged from the lake and ran into transition.
Mother Nature may be forgiving this year, or next year, but eventually she’s going to come around and whack you. You’ve got to be prepared.
The transition tents were steaming from the warm bodies discarding wet suits. I managed to get out on the bike pretty quickly. I have made a habit of flagging the row that my bike is in and a landmark in line with that row so I can find it easily. Clipping in I wove my way along the road out towards the main bike route. I anticipated managing my fuel properly over the course of the 223km bike course to be the main challenge on the day. Mother nature had a different plan.
I knew the two climbs up and over Mount Bachelor were going to be tough. I received some good intel from a couple of locals that when you hit the 57km mark you think that you’ve reached the top but you’ve really only begun. And that’s when it hit me. And hit me again. And kept hitting me over and over and over again.
You see Bend, Oregon has some pretty outstanding weather – about 300 days of sunshine each year. On this day, on this 223 km bike ride, the skies had opened up and delivered a punishing bout of hail. Climbing from 4700 feet to about 6500 feet the temperature kept getting colder and the hail kept getting harder. The first loop I managed to push through it fairly well but I knew it was going to make the entire day much more difficult. There’s a reason it’s called the Leadmand EPIC Triathlon.
Descending down the first loop the hail converted to rain and it began to drop my core temperature. Reaching speeds of 65km – 70km I was definitely hydroplaning at times. I could tell the weather was better at lower elevations so I made a commitment to get descend as quickly as I could. Mentally preparing myself to go through it once more.
Let’s get one other thing crystal clear – Central Oregon is unbelievably beautiful. High mountain desert, Ponderosa pine tree forests, volcanic peaks in all directions, lakes, rivers – you name it, it’s there. Despite the weather it was all you could do but enjoy the scenery. Now back to the gauntlet.
Kilometer 150 marks the aid station with your special needs bag and wow was I looking forward to the salted avocado I had waiting for me. Having solid food with healthy fats at altitude was a great suggestion from a trail running friend. I stayed long enough at the aid station to re-load my water bottles while I inhaled the avocado. Leaving the checkpoint I started focusing on the second climb up Mount Bachelor.
Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.
The rain began to fall from a much lower elevation and the hail returned. All of my energy was going to two places – keeping my legs moving and keeping my body temperature as warm as possible. Temperatures dropped to 6 C and competitors really began to struggle with the elements. My hands were beginning to get so cold that I couldn’t open any of the food I had. I stopped at each of the aid stations on the second climb for hot chocolate and shifted my focus to once again avoid hypothermia. I attacked the climb with everything I had. I pushed through a 4km climb at a 12% – 15% grade clocking a consistent 24 kph. This course was not going to beat me.
Before taking on the final 24km descent into Bend and the transition to the run I spent nearly 10 minutes warming up at an aid station. An amazing volunteer wrapped his jacket around me while I imagined crawling into the cup of hot chocolate being pawed by my hands. I knew it was critical for me to raise my body temperature before tackling the harrowing descent into Bend. I also knew that I needed to keep moving.
Leaving the aid station I became aware of one major problem – my hands were frozen. Seriously. They were so cold that I didn’t have the strength to shift or brake. I shifted into my big ring by reaching across with my opposite hand and pulling back with my shoulder. Success.
Normally the descent into Bend is a relaxing part of the Leadman Triathlon but with the conditions in 2013 it was anything but. One small mistake, closing eyes for 1 millisecond, focusing on how you felt rather than where you were going could mean the end of your race and serious injury. In the distance I could see sun shining in Bend and I knew that once I got there I would be able to warm up. Without being able to use my brakes I began to speed past other cyclists. I could see them shivering on their bikes and wobbling as a result. At one point I looked down to see myself break 80 kph. Time to find a way to use the brakes.
If this were an Ironman, I’d be done by now.
Seriously. Triathletes at Transition 2 of Leadman have already covered more distance than an Ironman race.
I came into Transition 2 exhausted. I had definitely considered withdrawing after the bike if it was raining in Bend. I hadn’t been able to eat for over 90 minutes and had probably burned 2000 calories in that time. My hands were definitely frost bitten and my feet were numb. I racked my bike and headed into the changing tent. Looking around no one was strong enough to undo their helmet so I pulled mine off my head. I dropped my shirt and pulled on a fresh top. I cursed several times trying to get my bike shoes off and when I finally did I wrapped my head around the fact that there was a significant chance I was about to run 22km with my shoes undone because there was absolutely no possible way I was going to be able to tie them myself. Bless the 75 year old volunteer who bent down and tied my shoes for me.
Coming out of the chute I didn’t no yet what to expect of the run. I knew that I had to eat. I new that my hands didn’t work. I straight up bit into the banana I had grabbed from my transition bag. I managed to eat about half of it before my inability to open it got the better of me and I through it away. Let’s get back to how beautiful Central Oregon is – the sun was beginning to set and the colours across the sky were an incredible mixture of yellow, orange and purple.
Finishing my first 11 km loop of the run course I knew it was going to be tight for me to finish under 11 hours. I got the news I was going to need to complete the second 11 km in about 40 minutes. For about 500m I cranked it up and then pulled back. My feet were now warm enough to feel but my hands were still numb. I settled into a pace that I knew was going to have me complete the race but without vomiting and collapsing at the finish line.
Coming into the final stretch of the run a cyclist passed me coming into T2. My heart sank. He still had his 22 km run to go and had probably spent over 10 hours on the bike. A true testament to the human spirit.
The final stretch of any race is always my favourite. No matter how I feel, even the day that dropped out of the Coastal Challenge suffering from kidney failure I gave it everything I had. Just over 11 and a half hours after my race began I came through the finish line completely and utterly satisfied even though I missed my goal.
I left every single piece of encouragement, every ounce of training, and every morsel of superficial fitness out on that course. Five years ago I would have told you it was impossible for any individual to self propel themselves 250km in 11.5 hours. No excuses, no disappointment and no belt buckle. Massive shout out to my girlfriend for the unbelievable race support and over the previous several months of training. She is some kind of wonderful. The conditions saw several people exit the swim with hypothermia, rain, sleet, hail and snow plagued the bike. My hands got so cold I couldn’t shift or brake. Chuck Norris isn’t a Leadman but Graham Snowden is.