Monday, September 5, 2011

My first Ironman race - 3.8k swim, 180k bike, 42.2k run

Less than two years ago I ran my first marathon and I was hooked to running. But the idea of participating in an Ironman competition grew very fast with me sortly after my friend Isaac introduced me to a running group called "The Rockies". Little did I know that day that the people in this group were not only strong and passionate runners, but also great cyclists and triathletes. Some of them were members of Pedales Raipdos, a cycling group I joined in the summer of 2010. There were three triathletes in the running group who completed Ironman races before: Denis, Phil and Paul. They have inspired and motivated me every since I joined them. I owe almost everything I know about triathlons to them. They are the reason I ended up signing up for my first Ironman race:

August 23rd, 2011. My girlfriend Karin and I boarded on a plane to Edmonton and from there on another one who landed the same day at 12:30PM in Kelowna. The weather was great and the forecast for the race week was hot and sunny. We picked up our rental car and drove to Summerland. 

That day my dream of becoming an Ironman started to materialize, to become reality. We checked into the hotel and enjoyed the rest of the day by Okanagan Lake. This is where the swim part of the race would take place.

Okanagan Lake

Next day (Aug 24th) we drove to Penticton to pick up my bike. I had it transported in a truck, and so did about 50 other triathletes. The advantage of doing this was that I didn't have to take it apart in Toronto and put it back together in Penticton. It was very convenient. 

The Okanagan Valley is absolutely breathtaking and we decided to enjoy this beautiful scenery to the fullest. We went to the beach for a 20 min. swim and stayed there for the rest of the day.

Thursday Aug 25th we drove again to Penticton (it's only 10 min away from Summerland) to register for the race and pick up my racing kit which included: swimming cap, timing chip, five bags, labels, bib numbers.

Picking up my racing kit
Racing Kit

The bags were:
Morning Dry Clothes Gear Bag (this is where I put all my clothes I wore before the race)
Swim to Bike Gear Bag (helmet, cycling shoes, bib belt, sunglasses, bandana, socks)
Bike to Run Gear Bag (running shoes, running cap)
Special Needs Bike Gear Bag (salt tablets, energy bars)
Special Needs Run Gear Bag (salt tablets, energy bars)

I labelled every bag accordingly with my participant number and put everything mentioned above in them. 

Friday Aug 26th Karin and I drove the bike course so I could get familiar with it. I got out of the car twice, jumped on my bike and climbed a few km on Richter Pass and a few others on Yellow Lake area. I was told by Denis and Phil that getting a feel of the incline would help me in the race. And it certainly did because I knew what to expect...

Climbing Richter Pass wearing my cycling group jersey, Pedales Rapidos a few days before the race.

Climbing in the Yellow Lake area e few days before the race

Saturday Aug 27th I checked in my bike and my transition bags. Only participant athletes had access to the transition area. One of the volunteers walked with me through the whole transition area explaining me step by step what I needed to do the next day. There would be no access to the bikes until the morning race. 
Bike and gear bags check in
Transition area is the place where you can get changed between swim and bike (T1) and between bike and run (T2). There are two tents for that, one for men and one for women. This is also the place where the transition bags are neatly placed in a certain order so the volunteers can quickly pick yours up and hand it over to you when the right time comes.

In the transition area (wearing green cap) talking to one of the volunteers

Transition Bags
The whole race week I drank as much as I could (water that was), and in the evening before the race I loaded my body with carbs. The dinner was just what I needed - it was very filling, lots of pasta and meatballs. I ate up to the point when there was no more room in my stomach.

Aug 28th, 2011 - The big day has arrived!

I had a very good night sleep. Although I only slept for 6 hours, I woke up at 4 o'clock in the morning very well rested. We had a quick breakfast, and half an hour later we were on our way to the finish line. As you can see in the picture below, I was very nervous but at the same time excited. 
Am I nervous? YES!

I went to the body marking area and got my participant number on my left arm, right arm and my left leg. My age (40) was marked on my left calf. After that I entered the transition area.

I went straight to the bike rack to prepare my bike. I checked the tire pressure, made sure I had the spare tubes, CO2 cartridges, water bottles and my nutrition bag. Before I headed towards the beach I left my two peanut butter sandwiches on the handle bar ready to pick them up and put them in my tri suit pockets after the swim.

Swim Course - 3.8 km

And off I was to the swim start. I was wearing my tri suit and my wet suit. Okanagan is a fantastic lake. It is 135 km long, between 4 and 5 km wide, and has a surface area of 351 km² with warm and crystal clear water. Not quite the lake I was used to when I trained for this race. It is said by some that Okanagan Lake is the home to its own sea monster - a giant serpent-like creature named Ogopogo. Not really what I was looking for in this race :)

The people gathered together on the beach getting ready for the mass start. 2,835 people were eager to hear the horn at 7 AM as a signal to get started. It was crowded on the beach, and it was going to be crowded in the water. This would be my second mass start ever. But for whatever reason some of the nervousness I had before faded away. I fixed my goggles and was now ready to go.

Moments before the start

At 6:45 AM the pros had their own start. Everyone looked at the fairly small group of athletes fighting already for positions. And then, 15min later, it was our turn, the age groupers, to embrace the 226 km journey. I was somewhere right in the middle of the pack.

Seconds after the mass start

Every time I watched Ironman races on TV I got goose bumps when they were showing the swim start. From being calm, the water was all of a sudden "shaken" but thousands of athletes swinging their arms and splashing water. Some of them were in sync making it look like they were engaged in some sort of a dance.

This race was no different than what I saw on TV with one exception. I was there, in the water, swimming... It took me a little bit of time to find my pace and aim for the first bright orange buoy. As I was focusing on my stroke and my alternate breathing I was thinking "Is this really happening, am I actually participating in an Ironman race or am I dreaming?" The answer came shortly when I got elbowed, kicked, grabbed by my legs. It was like a wake up call: "Welcome to Penticton, punk!" This was nothing like my usual swim in Wiclox Lake when it was only Phil, Denis, Ruth, Paul, Karin and I. Although I have to say that Paul (an Ironman himself) often pushed me and grabbed my legs while we had our swimming training sessions so I could get a feel of what was to come. That helped me not to panic during the race. Thanks Paul!

The race is well on the way

The swim course is one big loop in the shape of triangle.  It seemed forever to complete 1,612 m to the first corner of it. Although it was crowded I sometimes found myself alone on a radius of 4-5 meters. I thought I got off the course, but that wasn't the case. Other swimmers were passing me leaving me behind... Getting to the first corner felt great. It raised my confidence and made the next 450 m seem like an easy job. However, the water was so crowded at the turn that we couldn't swim anymore. We were shoulder to shoulder and it took several meters to start swimming again. All I had now in my mind was the buoy where we would turn right again. And when I got there it was just as crowded as it was when we turn right the first time. I felt somehow relieved knowing that I started swimming the last 1,800 m straight to the shore. During this last stretch I was thinking of all the training I put over the last eight months and repeated myself  "I can do this". I didn't finished the race yet, not even the swim part but I knew I could do it. In my mind I was already an Ironman. I just knew it.
I got out of the water and ran through the swim gate to get my time recorded. I managed to finish my swim in 1:26:54 and be ranked 2,103 overall. I knew the swim was not going to be my strongest discipline but I was happy that I got into a comfortable pace that didn't bring my heart rate up. I felt quite OK while getting out of the water.

Happy to finish the swim. Don't ask me about the other guy in the picture:)

Running towards transition area
While running towards T1 I pulled my wetsuit down to  my waist. I didn't bother taking it completely off as it would have taken me more time to do it myself then it would have taken the peelers. They are volunteers whose role is to peel the wetsuit off of you. In my case they had an easy job to do. Within a split second I laid down and two peelers grabbed my wetsuit and before I knew it they peeled it off . I quickly stood up, took my wetsuit and ran towards the transition tent. On my way there I was handed my Swim to Bike transition bag. I got changed and ran to the bike rack. As soon as I arrived there, I quickly put my prepared peanut butter sandwiches in my pockets, took the bike off the rack and started running towards the bike mounting area. T1 time - 5:46.

Bike Course - 180 km
This bike course is one big loop that has pretty much everything: two major hills, fast downhills and flat areas. It is quite picturesque and I totally enjoyed it. I started the ride fairly easy. The sun was up already and I could feel the heat. It was going to be a very hot day, so proper hydration was something critical. I knew that the first part of the bike would be easy. The experienced triathletes in my group, Denis, Phil and Paul, who all did this race before, told me not to push too hard in the first part of the course (for about 70 km), and save my legs for the climbs to come. I let people pass me and it didn't bother me when they did that as I was sticking to my planned pace. That doesn't mean I didn't pass riders  myself, but only when it felt comfortable to do so. I had something better to do: enjoy the ride by Skaha Lake and stay on top of my nutrition. I saw many triathletes pulling over and fixing flats. I could only hope that I would not have any technical problems with my bike. At one point of time I did hear a weird noise coming from my front wheel. I pulled over just to realize that my tire picked up a piece of electrical tape. Every time the wheel would spin, the tape would touch my bike's fork making that noise. I immediately peeled the tape off and was back to racing in no time.

Riding by Skaha Lake

Every hour I would take energy gels, two salt tablets and drink lots of water, and I mean lots of water. 20 min before the Richter Pass I ate my peanut butter sandwich. Yummy! I was now ready for the first major climb. 

As I made the right U turn in Osoyoos I could clearly see the Richter Pass climb right in front of me. Long and quite steep. I often turned my head to the right enjoying the scenery. It was so beautiful. You can see me in the picture below climbing steady in an easy gear (the way Phil suggested to do it), off aero bars, looking at the top of the hill.
Climbing Richter Pass during the race
I started catching up with other riders and pass them on the hill. That felt quite good. It was about time to climb up in the rankings.

Getting on top of Richter Pass marked the end of a difficult sector on the course. From there, a well deserved downhill ride began and aero position was again in effect :)

During the relatively flat part of the course between Richter Pass and Yellow Lake there is an out and back sector that we rode. At the turning point of it we grabbed our special needs bag (120 km mark). I only had some extra salt tablets in it, just in case I would accidentally drop some during the ride up to that point. As it was extremely hot I decided to take the tablets and save them for the run. I was again focused on my nutrition as a new climb was ahead of me. That is when my second peanut butter sandwich came into place. I was having the picture of the Yellow Lake area climb in my mind, since I briefly rode my bike there. The plan was the same: steady climb all the way up.

Another climb
There were aid stations every 16 km on the bike course and I grabbed and drank a bottle of 500 ml of water almost every time I passed one. That was a lot of water but the extreme heat made it feel like there was never enough. 
Riding in aero position
Finally the Yellow Lake climb began. It was a little shorter than Richter Pass but challenging as well. Riders were forming a single file leaving just enough room for passing. There were spectators on both sides of the road (which was split in two, one lane for cars, one lane for riders) cheering for the athletes. It was fantastic to see people coming out there to support us. I was thinking that once I finished the climb there would be only 30km left in the ride, all downhill. That was an encouraging thought for climbing up the hill.

Once the climb was over I had a very fast ride back to Penticton. What a feeling! Getting closer and closer to the end of the bike ride made me think about the run to come. I changed into an easy gear and rode at high cadence. My legs started to feel better and finally I saw the volunteers waving at me to slow down and dismount before the line that marked the end of the ride. I quickly got off the bike and ran through the gate to get my bike split time marked and the volunteers immediately took my bike to rack it. My bike split was 5:36:19 which ranked me 609 overall (after passing 1,384 riders).

I was now in T2. On my way to the tent I was handed my bike to run transition bag. I got changed as fast as I could ran towards towards the run course. T2 time: 3:21

Run Course - 42.2 km 

The run course is an out and back one, with some hills offering a spectacular view.

Coming off the bike my legs felt good. I actually started the run at a pace which, according to my plan, was a little too fast. Thanks to my Garmin I realized that and slowed down right away. Otherwise I would have paid for that later by burning out. After only a few kilometers into the run I started to really feel the heat. Luckily, there were aid stations every 1.6 km. Volunteers were handing out sponges so I grabbed a few, squeezed them on top of my head. I shoved some of them under my tri suit in an attempt to bring my body temperature down. That felt good. But then I heard Denis' voice in my head saying "I don't see you doing your nutrition". So I drank some water and took my salt tablets. Up to the half point mark I had Skaha Lake on my right and the mountain on my left.

At one moment I saw the leader of the race on the other side of the road running back to Penticton to claim the win. He seemed so fresh and made the run look so easy. Amazing! I visualized myself in the same spot where he was, only 7-8 km from the finish line, and continued my running. "I am going to be there soon" my inner voice said.


Running by Skaha Lake and wiping some sweat off

The hills on the course were not that challenging but the heat made them seem quite steep. Thanks to the aid stations I made it to the half way mark. There, I could have grabbed my special needs bag but I chose not to since I had enough salt tablets with me. I was on my way back to Penticton! However, the heat seemed unbearable. I started taking ice at every aid stations and put it under my cap. I was doing everything I could to prevent overheating. All I was saying to myself "I have to finish strong. I have to." 

I got to the next aid station that looked like a buffet. I drank water, Pepsi, Ironman Perform, took some more gels, ate slices of oranges, watermelon... I tried pretty much everything they had available there. I actually walked through the majority of aid stations and ran between them. 

Entering Penticton was fantastic. There were people in front of their houses with their garden hoses in their hands offering to cool runners off. I said yes to one of them not imagining that the jet of water could be that powerful. It almost knocked me down. But I liked it since the water was cold. 

Everybody was cheering for athletes and I knew that end of the race was close. I picked up the pace while there only 4 km to go. It is unbelievable how much energy you can get from the spectators. All of a sudden I heard Karin calling my name. I was so happy to see her even if it was only for a split second. 
Back in Penticton
Happy runner

The last few km of the run

At that point I was really tired but there was no way I would have slowed down. I pushed as hard as I could as the finish line was in my sight. As I was running through the gate I heard on the speakers the officials saying the words I have been waiting the whole day to hear: "Adrian Constantinescu, first time Ironman!" My run time: 3:55:35 which placed me 327 overall. My total time: 11:07:53

Click here to see me coming out of the lake.

Click here to see me crossing the finish line.

Yes, I was finally an Ironman... I got my medal and off I was to the food area. I couldn't really eat but I could definitely enjoy the moment. Then I saw Karin looking after me in the crowd and waved her.

Do I look happy?
Karin and I after the race

August 28th 2011 was the best day in my athletic life. I enjoyed every moment of the race, even when the going was tough. In the end I was very happy as I have never finished a race as strong as I did that day. It was a fantastic experience that I will never forget. 

I am so grateful that I had so much support from so many people that helped me get to this point. My special thanks go to:
  • my girlfriend Karin who put up with my long hours of training. I love you Karin.
  • my daughters Diana and Sandra who also put up with my long hours and for following my race progress online and believing in their Daddy.
  • my coach Denis who I learned a lot from and has been an inspiration to me since the day I met him. Thanks for pushing me throughout my eight months of training, Denis.
  • my training buddy Phil who is an amazing triathlete. He took me on so many rides and gave me so much advice. My confidence went up because of him. However, thank God this training is over as I was getting tired of looking at his a$$ while riding my bike behind him.
  • Bobbo and Faygie whose passion for cycling made them go out of their way and organize the winter spinning session in their basement. Sufferfest forever!
  • Bobbo again for helping me with technical aspect of my bike. And yes, I did lubricate my chain before the race :)
  • Paul who is a fantastic swimmer. I enjoyed swimming with you. Your humor maintained my sanity. 
  • Isaac for introducing me to the Rockies. Thanks buddy!
  • Both Shelley and Isaac for training with me so many times.
  • Kappie for looking after the cycling group rides especially the Rideau Lakes Tour. 
  • Last, but not least, to the rest of The Rockies and Pedales members. You're all amazing.

Thanks to Karin, my best supporter

Thanks to Rockies Roadrunners


Thanks to Pedales Rapidos

I love my bike