Ironman Mont-Tremblant was special for a number of reasons: the maple syrup, the poutine, the awesome course and scenery, the people, my actual race. But the best part by far was that for the first time my entire family was there. The twins are too young to be able to remember it later on, but it was still awesome to have them all here and for my kids to get to see me do that while I still can. So it’s equally important to point out what it took to make that possible: my wife wrangling a 4 year old and 1 year old twins at an Ironman that required off-site parking and a shuttle system. I’m thrilled with my own performance, but actually probably fewer people have pulled off what she did. I also owe a huge thank you to my teammates and their families who offered to help in so many ways.
As for my race, I am thrilled to have pulled out a sub 9 on a difficult course (and my new favorite course), an age group win, and top 10 overall including the pros. This was just a great event in a great area, made better by being with family and teammates. Thank you to all the great people I met here as well who gave such amazing support and made this such a friendly and exciting atmosphere. Next up, Kona!
I originally registered for Ironman Mont-Tremblant as my backup plan in case I failed to qualify for Kona at Ironman Boulder. The fact that it was in a beautiful area with wonderful people and food and on a course with some solid hills were afterthoughts.
Once I did qualify at Boulder, the thought of course entered my mind that I should bail on Mont-Tremblant and just focus on Kona training. After a discussion with Jessi, though, those things that were initially afterthoughts came to the forefront. We decided that we could make it a fun family trip, one that happened to have a race (rather than vice versa, as many of our trips have been). I wouldn’t place much pressure on myself for the race, and as far as training went I thought the timing was actually pretty good: one last big event to see where I’m at heading into my pre-Kona training block.
So a few days before the race we loaded up the minivan and headed north: 3 kids, 2 adults, and a bike. A mere 13 hours later, which of course involved no crying, whining, puking, or screaming -none at all, definitely – we arrived at our Airbnb in the middle of nowhere halfway between Montreal and Mont-Tremblant.
I’ve had some pretty nightmarish experiences with Airbnb (for my worst, see The Streets of Malta and London), but being on a startup’s budget for business travel means it’s still what I default to. At the least those experiences have helped me learn how to find the good ones, and this one was an absolute gem. I walked in, and kept thinking there was some mistake as I continued walking back and discovering more and more space. To be honest, it was nicer than our own house in a lot of ways. Best of all, the whole week cost about the same as two nights in a tiny hotel room in Mont-Tremblant itself.
Unfortunately the rest of the pre-race time didn’t go as planned. An advantage of working at a startup is that I have a flexible schedule, the tradeoff of that is that it’s difficult to completely shut that schedule off. A critical need for work came up at the last minute and instead of enjoying the days before the race with my family exploring Canada, I was sitting at my laptop and hardly sleeping. Again back to the tradeoff: after getting this done I was able to completely disconnect and extend our time there for us to explore Canada after the race instead, a plan that my unbelievably patient and flexible wife was on board with.
And as a perfectionist who always has the perfect pre-race plan, the experience is something I think I’ll really be able to use in the future. Few things help prepare for unforeseen problems as much as, well, unforeseen problems. In fact in this particular situation I was relying pretty heavily on the memory of my experience at last year’s Lookout Mountain 50 Miler, where I got horribly sick the evening before the race but then ended up running one of the smartest races I’ve ever run.
To be clear: I don’t mention this to try to make excuses or put asterisks around my race. Almost everyone has things that prevent them from getting to the line with the perfect training or the perfect race prep that they had planned. That’s life. But the point here is that it will still be fine. The goal is to do as many things right as we can and in the end those usually absolutely dwarf the tiny details that distract us from the big picture at the last minute. Sometimes having something to force our focus elsewhere and prevent stressing about race preparations can be quite the silver lining.
So there I was race morning: there. And sometimes that’s really all that matters. I couldn’t accidentally leave my training at home, I couldn’t forget my experience, I showed up with myself and my gear and made it to the starting line. Then there was a one hour delay to the start, which came after I had already finished all my pre-race nutrition and prep. But there I was, still there and ready to go.
The swim was a self-seeded rolling start. I went out just before the 1:05 swimmers, still believing I was capable of that time but at the same time starting to lose some optimism. I had at least recently started to figure out how to be more aggressive in the water without losing form and having it be counter-productive, but I had still yet to do it in a race.
I set out at what I felt was a solid pace, focusing on staying aggressive, keeping good sight lines, and finding some good drafts. I found that when I lost a draft I was actually capable of surging to get back in one (before I’ve mostly just had the one speed while swimming). I actually felt like I was doing well, but I’ve felt that way many times before and then been disappointed when I got out of the water and saw my time. To make it more difficult, the race had 27 buoys, so instead of being able to count buoys every 100 meters or yards, the buoys were something ridiculous like 137 meters apart (I do math all the time while running, but while swimming? No thanks).
Once I made the turn at the halfway point, I was still feeling strong. But now the sun was in our field of vision and there were patches of fog that had re-appeared. I picked up the next buoy in one of those patches and took a line for it. Another person followed my lead and stayed just off my shoulder. After about a minute, I was finally able to discern that it was actually someone on a kayak we had been swimming towards, far to the inside of the course. I took a hard left back to the course, and gave the guy following me a nice slap on the butt to be sure he looked up to figure things out.
Different course, same story. I still felt strong and pushed the rest of the way in, but was hardly hanging on to hope of still getting a good swim time. As I came out of the water I glanced down at my watch. 1:03. Wait, 1:03?! Whoooo! 3 minute PR even with losing a couple of minutes to the kayak in the fog (Strava link, sort of). I was probably only down 10 minutes to my main competition instead of 15! I had never before gotten on the bike in that position, but that was at least one thing where I didn’t need the prior experience to feel good about where I was.
I hopped on the bike with a feeling I’d really never had before at that point in a triathlon: that I was still on track. The plan was still valid, and I didn’t need to move to plan B or scramble to come up with a new one entirely. But then my old post T1 nemesis reared its ugly head: butt daggers, which I had experienced again already this year at IM Boulder. I didn’t feel them at first but a few minutes into the ride there they were. Not bad enough to keep me out of the saddle or out of aero, but the same sharp pain began shooting through my right glute on every pedal stroke. But this too would pass, as I knew from experience. My mind again went back to the Lookout Mountain 50 Miler. Maybe the butt daggers would just prevent me from going out too fast as my excitement easily could have led me to do, and in the end my race would be the better from them.
Sure enough, about 20 minutes into the ride I began to be able to put some power into it and settled into a rhythm. That’s about the same time we came out onto the open road on the Route Transcanadienne. They had diverted traffic from the entire right side of the highway and what lay before us was mile after mile of wide open smooth and straight road that gently climbed through the beautiful and remote area just south of Mont-Tremblant.
I returned to the plan and started working my way up through the field. But then as I passed people, something entirely unplanned happened. People kept passing me back! I couldn’t shake some of them. I was so used to coming out of the water far enough back that once I did it was a steady and almost entirely monotonic progression up through the field all the way to the finish line. That’s ok I thought. Perhaps this too is actually good. I’ll have people to push myself against and to better gauge how I’m doing.
About 20 miles into it I got another surprise: one of the best triathletes in my area I know (he actually lives one neighborhood over from me), Bryan Rivera. Bryan won the first triathlon I ever competed in, the 2015 Nation’s Triathlon, and I have still yet to beat him at anything shorter than a half Iron. He is a very strong swimmer, and I didn’t expect to see him until the run course. Seeing him that early was my first really substantial indicator that I was off to a great start relative to the top competitors.
With the extra shot of confidence I continued on, still pushing against the same few people. I would power by them on the climbs, my slender runner’s body having much less difficulty fighting gravity, only to have them shoot past me on the descents. As we came around and started our 2nd lap, someone yelled at one of them behind me that he was in 5th place. “5th what?”, I thought. Amateur, age group? The rest of the field had started getting substantially more sparse, and overall amateur is what my sights were set on for this race, so I defaulted to thinking that. I was still putting out great power at that point (thanks butt daggers for the slow start?) and I set my sights ahead looking for those 3 remaining people.
We turned back onto the highway and I stole a quick glance behind me. I had finally broken away. Then, I got my first look back down the long, open road. It was one of the most wonderful things I have ever experienced in a triathlon. There was no one. To my left, a constant stream of people on their 1st lap whizzed by. In front of me, nothing. For miles and miles. I felt entirely in control, like I was out in front and for once everyone else was trying to catch up. The added bonus is that this truly was my favorite bike course I’ve done.
I savored it for a few miles, churning along like a training ride. Eventually, though, I remembered: there were still at least 3 people somewhere out in front of me. My view again became fixated on the horizon, looking for any sign of them. Eventually, people started coming in sight one by one. But it did little to help me determine my progress. At that point they could just as easily be pros as the people I was looking for.
By the end of the bike I felt I had passed at least 3 amateurs, and I was feeling good. I came in in 4:50 and ran into transition (Strava link). As I went in I asked a few people how many amateurs had come in so far, but the best anyone could tell me was “I’m not sure, no more than a few.”
I again came out of transition with a different mindset than I’ve ever had before. I was not thinking about how much ground I would have to gain, but about what I needed to do to close this out. Then, someone told me I was in 3rd, and 1st was 4 minutes ahead of me. I soared with confidence. There are very few people in amateur triathlon that I don’t like my chances against if I start the run within 4 minutes of them.
It wasn’t long before I caught 2 people. Was that it? Was I in the lead? Could I just enjoy the rest of this and go into disaster prevention mode? I headed out towards the turn around of the first lap (probably my favorite run course I’ve done as well), and when I was still over 2 miles away from it I saw the most surprising thing yet in a race full of surprises: someone with a non-pro bib number headed back the other direction. Wait, what? That means they must be what? Half an hour ahead of me? Haha no, no that’s not possible. I’ve been racing too well. There must have been a mistake with his bib number, or maybe he missed part of the course. Maybe he’s part of a relay team? At that point all I could do was shrug it off: if there was a mistake it was nothing to worry about, and if he really was that good there was absolutely nothing I could do (so again, nothing to worry about).
Close to the turn around two more amateurs went by in the other direction. Ok, I guess the person after T2 meant that I was 3rd in my age group. That’s alright. I’m going to have to run smart and run hard, but they were both within striking distance. I was moving along at about a 6:45 clip, and decided that the plan was still valid – that was about the right pace to catch them without putting myself at too much risk.
By the time I reached the turnaround on the second lap, I had moved in front of them and still just was not sure if that meant I was 1st or 2nd amateur. I decided to give myself a different goal to focus on: sub 9. It’s a goal I had always wanted to achieve before my time in triathlon came to an end, but to be honest I had never really expected to get it at a course like Mont-Tremblant. But there I was with about 10K to go and plenty of time to do it. Without about 5K to go things really started coming apart, but I duct taped them back together enough to continue at about a 7 minute pace. I began playing the “what’s the least I need to do” game: every time I hit a mile split I did the math for the minimum average pace I needed to finish with to hit sub 9. 7:30, 7:40, 8:10, 8:30. Every time the number went up, my confidence shot up alongside it.
Flying down through the crowd in the actual Mont-Tremblant village was an awesome experience. I had done it. I crossed the line in 8:58:35 with about a minute and a half to spare, my marathon time under 3 hours by roughly the same amount (Strava link, for most of it). I had also won my age group, but I still had no idea if I had taken the top overall amateur spot.
I got a bit woozy after stepping across the line, and ended up with a trip to medical to get some IV put into me. It wasn’t truly hot that day, but it was “sneaky hot” – enough to seriously dehydrate you if you weren’t careful, but not enough to make you think about it and actually be careful. After coming out and finding my family, I went to my next priority: finding the post-race poutine.
Then, I finally managed to check the results. I won my age group, but it turns out the guy who was so far ahead was legitimately that far ahead, and he got even further ahead on the run putting about another minute on me. He finished only 7 minutes behind Lionel Sanders, the 2nd overall finisher and last year’s Kona runner up. For non-triathlon people reading this, that’s runner up, period. Not age group runner up, or amateur runner up. 2nd overall in the professional field at the World Championship.
I’ve said before that if I’m going to lose, I’d rather lose convincingly so that I don’t second guess myself or end up playing the “what if” game afterwards. Well, this was convincing. No amount of sleep before the race or anything else I would have done would have closed a 27 minute gap (I was pretty excited myself to finish only 34 minutes behind Lionel Sanders!). So really all I could do was tip my hat to the guy. I headed back to our Airbnb thrilled with my performance, but also with my mind trying to comprehend what this guy had just done. Someone’s strong performance should never devalue someone else’s, but it can and should motivate us to search for ways to continue improving and elevate our next performance even further.
Out of all parts of my race, I was most excited about the swim. I had a solid, consistent bike, and held myself together pretty well on the run for a sub 3 on a tough course, but the swim was the big shot of confidence that I’ve needed. Despite all the gains I’ve seen in the pool over the past year and the efforts I’ve put towards the swim, until this I had had zero gains in actual races. It was only a 3 minute PR (would have been 5 if I hadn’t gotten lost in the fog), but that little chunk of time really did change the dynamics of the race, especially on the bike where I much more quickly found myself with people I could really race and push myself against. And without that chunk of time I wouldn’t have gone sub 9. Dropping my Kona time by that amount would have put me on the podium last year. There’s obviously no guarantee that I will drop my Kona swim time, but now at least I’m 100% sure that it’s possible.
I planned my Kona training so that this race would kick off my last big training block. As I write this I’m in the middle of that block. I’m excited to be headed back to the big island soon to give it one last go. It’s even more exciting now that two more of my teammates qualified at Mont-Tremblant. Our team will have their largest presence there they’ve ever had (26 athletes!) and I’ll really look forward to spending race week with them.
What makes an amateur?
My time was the 3rd fastest amateur time ever on this course, but the 1st fastest happened to be the same day. The top amateur wasn’t in my age group, so despite my feelings about Ironman age groups they benefited me for the 2nd time this year and I “won” again. My award was the same, my results are listed the same, there would be absolutely no official distinction whatsoever if I had been the top amateur. I had been aiming for it in this race as internal motivation, because I did feel that the pro / amateur distinction is actually pretty critical in triathlon. In running, even ultrarunning, it’s not impossible to start hitting that point of diminishing returns on training while working a job and having a family. In triathlon, where training and fatigue are split across 3 disciplines, much more time can be spent on training with highly beneficial results. The top pros train 35+ hours a week (plus actually get good sleep). That’s simply not possible for someone who does it as a hobby. Or so I thought.
A couple of days after the race, someone pointed out to me that the person who finished as top amateur at IMMT is a former pro, and still trains like one: in the 4 months leading into IMMT he trained 40+ hours a week. I still have no idea how that’s possible, and I have no idea why he chose to go back to amateur where he’s still doing exactly the same thing except not getting any share of the prize purse for doing it. But, that’s his choice to make and again hats off to him for an incredible performance. Training that much is not something I can or even want to do, but I realize many people might say the same thing about my training. That’s why goals and outcomes are such individual, personal things.
After really thinking about it, it doesn’t make me think “I should have been top amateur.” By some definitions, or by the spirit of the term, maybe I was. But that’s what really got me: the vagueness of the definition of this distinction between amateurs and pros that I thought had been rather clear cut. My previous perception was shattered. So rather than concerning myself with what place amateur I was, I’d rather just do the same thing I do in running: consider the overall results regardless of who is or isn’t called a pro. And with that lens, I was top 10, which I’m pretty proud of. But even more important than that I have my sub 9 hour Ironman, which is completely independent of anyone else. In the end that’s what matters: how well I did given my own capabilities and conditions, compared to my own previous limitations rather than to anyone else.
I’ve been meaning to write a post sometime on the many categories, rankings, qualification methods, and awards structures in triathlon. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that before Kona. I’ve also been meaning to write one on how I fit in my own training, but part of the secret is to not spend too much time writing blog posts. 😉 I’ll still try to do that, although now I’m not so sure how much the 16 hours a week average I managed in the 4 months before IMMT qualifies me to give tips on the subject.
Au revoir Quebec!
As I mentioned at the beginning, our plans got shifted a bit by work. So rather than exploring Canada before the race, we did it after. First we made it down to Montreal for a day, and enjoyed some incredibly good poutine at La Banquise (much better than the post-race poutine, except that post-race food inherently always seems better than it actually is), Mont Royal, Montreal bagels, and some time driving around Old Montreal while the twins napped. Then on our way home we stopped in Ottawa for a day, checking out the Museum of Nature, Parliament Hill (from the outside, the inside was closed already), Rideau Canal, and ByWard Market. It was a bit of a rainy day and our time was limited, but we enjoyed every bit of it. Thank you so much to all the friendly people we met along the way and to everyone who gave us tips on things to do – we wish we would have had time to do them all!
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Well Canada, it was fun. After Mont Tremblant we managed to get about a half day each in Montreal and Ottawa to sample the sights, museums, and food. Thanks to everyone who gave such great suggestions, and the incredibly friendly people (when not behind the wheel of a car 😉) who helped make it such a great trip! Your maple syrup and poutine reserves are safe for now, until next time… . . . #roadtrip #familyfun #ohcanada #greatwhitenorth #parliamenthill #ottawa #rideaucanal #canadianmuseumofnature #dinosaurs #montreal #montroyal #whataview #rcmp #labanquise #poutine
The whole trip did end up being an awesome time away with the family, and the great people, scenery, and food really topped it off. The only French I can still remember is “sirop d’erable.” So, I guess it seems like I’ve actually got the most important stuff covered. 😋
At this point my triathlon race nutrition is becoming, well, boring. In a good way. That is, I’ve settled in pretty well on consistently applying the same plan: a bottle of Perpeteum to start the bike, gels and 1/2 bars throughout the bike, and just a couple of gels on the run with some sips / rinses of aid station drinks near the very end. Water throughout (something I need to work on getting more of) and electrolytes as appropriate. All in all, I’m only doing about 120 calories / hour over the course of the race. I’ve never felt like I’m bonking, things just really start to hurt at the end of the race in the way that I would expect them to if I’m pushing myself.