This is not the post I was hoping to write after Ironman Canada weekend. After training for 36 weeks, I hoped to write about a graceful swim, an easy bike and a powerful run (my race mantras) that led me to putting a solid first Ironman time on the boards. I hoped to put on a show of grit, heart and power not just for myself, but for my close friends who had traveled in from Montreal, San Francisco and Vancouver.
So on Friday July 22nd, two days before race day, it was with a heavy heart that I sent the following email to my crew:
First of all let me just say that I am so stoked to see you all, to introduce you to each other, and so grateful to have your support this weekend.
Second, this is a hard email to write and I am still processing it but I'll get straight to it. I will be starting the race on Sunday but will be unable to finish it.
Five weeks ago I had a fantastic race in Victoria at the Half-Ironman triathlon there. I suffered on the run but that's to be expected after four and a half hours of endurance racing. One week post-race, I started experiencing pain in both my knees. I thought it was just some leftover inflammation from the race (and nothing out of the ordinary) so I cut my training volume by 2/3 and assumed it would sort itself out.
Unfortunately it hasn't and I have a case of patellofemoral syndrome that has continued to get worse over the last few weeks. Basically what that means is my knee caps are tracking off centre due to excessive and imbalanced muscle tightness in everything that surrounds my knee. Your knee caps are shaped like a wedge on the underside, with a pointy bit that needs to track nicely down the middle of an equally wedge-shaped valley formed by the joint of your Femur (thigh bone) and your Tibia (the bigger lower-leg bone). I am quad dominate (thank-you cycling) and those bad boys have been yanking my knee caps towards the outside, creating pressure, inflammation and irritation on the underlying cartilage, bone and surrounding tissues. Thankfully no long-term damage done; just pissed-off knees. As an athlete I take full responsibility for the situation as I've learned that I haven't been stretching, rolling and recovering enough, to counter-balance the work I've been putting my body through.
The result is that even short runs at slow pace are painful and I can't put power through my legs on the bike – and we all know how much I love to hammer on the bike. A final, 40min test run this last Monday was fairly excruciating and I needed the assistance of handrails to get down stairs on Tuesday due to the extent of the irritation. A final session with my Physio early this morning – and another stern talking to (she knows how stubbon I can be) – and we have decided that I will start the race, do the swim, and try to complete the first third of the bike, which is a 60km out-and-back section that runs back through Whistler before heading north for the latter 2/3 of the course. I will take that 60km as it comes and mentally it's about being amongst fellow athletes and soaking up what parts of the experience I can, given the circumstances. I will then withdraw from the race and join you all in cheering on the athletes for the rest of the day.
I have been delaying sharing this news because frankly, I have been working towards July 24th for 36 weeks, since last November, and have been hoping I would be able to get right for race day. I have trained over 315 hours in that time: 174 on the bike, 61 running, 53 swimming, 27 strength training, and countless more hours in yoga, stretching, physio, massage etc. It's a tough pill to swallow.
And it's not lost on me that you all have traveled, organised to take time off, and chosen to spend this weekend with me and I truly wanted to put on a show for you all. To the extent that I can I will do my best.
And then, I'll look forward to spending time with you, enjoying the mountains and having a beer.
I am not done with Ironman. This is a frustrating, but humbling, part of a journey that continues to be very rewarding and enjoyable. After next week, I focus on recovery and getting back to basics as I build toward the Noosa Triathlon, which is an Olympic distance race in Australia, at the end of October.
Let's enjoy a great weekend in Whistler first.
Much love and see you all soon,
How did I not address this problem sooner?
Frankly, I'm stubborn, a little ignorant, and there's always the stuff you don't even know that you don't know yet.
Up until Ironman 70.3 Victoria, I hadn't had any significant problems except for some pain in my left foot that came on after longer runs. This might have been a symptom of a bigger issue but at the time I put it in the bucket of "suck it up buttercup", did some localized stretching / mobilization which helped, and kept pushing.
I should have gone to my physio earlier. Stubbornly, in my head, I was home. "The cake is baked!" I thought to myself after Victoria; time for one last three-week training cycle to bank some more fitness gains and then taper into Ironman Canada. We're good. But I really wasn't and should have been at physio a week after Vic.
When I finally did make it onto my physio's table – two weeks out from Ironman Canada – a few movement tests showed that my core strength was really not great, and my stability and alignment through each individual leg was also seriously sub-par. In a single-leg squat with my eyes closed I was so wobbly my physio said my level of control was like that of an old lady (we've worked together for two years and she knows I like a good dose of humour – so she serves it up from time to time). No amount of IMS was going to help. Though we tried...
I had the cardiovascular fitness to race Ironman but musculoskeletally (is that even a word?) I didn't have the alignment and control needed to push my body hard for 10+ hours. It didn't occur to me how critical this was until it was too late. Ouch.
Part of me just wants to shrug, make a deep sighing noise and say "Wow, I guess sometimes luck's just not on your side". But to brush this off as a bad stroke of luck would be wasting the most powerful learning of the experience.
The reality is, as dedicated to the training plan as I was, the plan was insufficient. I thought I was doing enough recovery work. Since committing to Ironman in November last year, I started doing a monthly session with an RMT, doing yoga once per week, and putting a 30-minute 'therapy' block into my calendar every day: time for stretching, rolling, Theraband exercises etc. I thought I was on it.
I did the RMT and the yoga. But was really slack with the 30 minutes of daily therapy. With busy days building a new career, and after training was done in a day, that therapy session was the first to go. There's a big difference between the intention to do something and actually doing it.
The lesson I've learned through all this is that the recovery aspect of my training has to be as robust as the 'work' part of the training. It has to be non-negotiable, just like training sessions are. I'm now painfully conscious of what happens when you work your body harder than you recover it. At some point it will tell you in no uncertain terms: enough. And that can happen at the worst possible time.
I won't waste more time beating myself up over being slack with my recovery work in the lead up to Ironman Canada. By the same token, I won't waste this opportunity to learn a powerful lesson.
Because even if it wasn't for Ironman Canada, or any other race, I'd still be doing a ton of physical activity. This is still my lifestyle. I love to sweat. And I want to be active well into the future. I want my body to keep up.
The shift that's occurred is that now I truly get that I need to take care of my body. I can't neglect it. Tough way to learn the lesson but if this is what it took – so be it.
What's the plan?
Back to basics. The big muscles are strong but the little ones are not. Without them as best supporting actors, my joints aren't protected, and as a whole the system lacks the integrity required to get through long course events. So back to physio, and lots of core stabilizer work. Back to technical skills development in the pool. Time in general to take a step back and make a new plan.
So far, no plans for another Ironman start line this year. Ironman Taupo, March 4th, 2017, is on the radar. I am registered for the famous Noosa Triathlon – an Olympic – at the end of October this year, and I'm really looking forward to that. In the meantime I want to be back on the bike ASAP and riding well because that brings me endless joy. I'm planning on trying cyclocross to mix things up and want to have a blast doing it. Fun = critical element of the mix. I would love to throw in another triathlon or two this year. But I will prioritize the foundational work and not race before I'm ready.
These are my Ironman souvenirs. A bunch of branded artifacts that only competitors get. A part of me wanted to get rid of all this stuff so I'd get to stop answering the question "You did the Ironman? How'd it go?"
I'd be lying if I said I didn't put my whole heart into this and that it didn't matter as much as it does to me. Ironman represents more than a race or a bucket list item. It represents a new level of personal progress – physically and mentally; a shift in what I experience as possible for myself.
My friend Dave Mackey also said after the race that Ironman is a great example of what's good about humanity: it brings people together regardless of who you are or where you're from, aligns us around a common goal and makes us pull together in support of each other. We need more of that. I love being a part of it and in my own way, being an ambassador for it. These mementos are the symbols of that and I will wear them proudly.
They're also mementos of the hardest lesson I've learned in training and racing to date. It hurts right now but that'll fade and the lesson will endure. I will keep them to remind me that recovering my body allows me to keep working it and be healthy for the long run.
Friday the 22nd – when my physio and I agreed the plan for race day – was a tough day. Ironman weekend was a tough weekend. I've never withdrawn from a race before. You know when people are in your corner when you send the email above and they immediately respond with messages of love and support.
To my crew who traveled from near and far to be with me over Ironman weekend: you were such a rock solid foundation of unconditional support. Mackey, Sciacca, Mathieu, Christie, DK, Kristian, Pete, Andy and Sara, I can't thank-you enough.
Likewise, to all the training buddies, friends and family who called, messaged and gave hugs – I don't have the words to express my appreciation. You are the best. Special shout out to Tom Waller and Ryan Muir: you both have been rad training buddies and I can't wait to toe another start line with you.
To My Team who helped me prepare for this weekend, a wholehearted thank-you: Vital Supply Co. for feeding me, Christie Baumgartner for yoga, Barb Tyers for massage, Noa Deutsch for bike fits, Steph Corker for winter riding inside, Movement108 for strength training, Paul Cross for swim coaching and Musette for community and coffee.
Points on the board
I still got to put an Ironman swim time on the board and it's great to have something to improve on. And I got to be out there on the bike course for 60km of the bike, amongst all the athletes and soaking up the experience on what was an absolutely perfect race day, weather-wise. I got to ride alongside my training and racing buddies Ryan and Siân, and exchange a few words and smiles. And then I got to spend the rest of the day cheering people on and watching friends run across that line.
My friend Sasha Gollish is an elite runner from Ontario who just missed out on making the Rio Olympic team. She knows a thing or two about the ups and downs of training and racing. She is a true sportsperson whose reflections on her own performances continue to inspire me. She sent me a note with some words which I'm taking to heart, as I regroup and begin working towards the next start line. Thanks again Sasha:
Photo credits: Dave Mackey, thank-you also for documenting the weekend in photos, many of which appear in this post. You got some great shots!