My primary goal for the 2016 duathlon season was to qualify for the 2017 age-group world championships to be held in Penticton, BC. I had three opportunities to qualify – Gravenhurst, ON in July (2 spots per 5 year age group), the test event in Penticton, BC in August (10 spots) or Montreal, PQ in September (5 spots). I knew with my recent weight gain and low level of fitness this summer, I would not be able to qualify on the hilly Gravenhurst course. I was pretty confident I could qualify on the flat Montreal course to be held on the Formula 1 course at Parc Jean-Drapeau but with it being the last opportunity of the season, I didn’t want to delay until then. I chose to compete at Penticton, both because I felt confident I could finish top 10 in the women’s 50-54, and because it would give me a chance to test out the 2017 Worlds course.
I reviewed the course profile online before registering. It showed that the run course had a significant 400m hill at the 1.0km mark. I assumed this meant we would go up it twice for the 10k and once for the 5k. The bike course showed as completely flat, going along the west shore of Lake Okanagan. A friend warned that this route could potentially be windy, so I was apprehensive about that. Since I was so out of shape at the beginning of the season, I carried on with adding volume, speed and hills, and did four duathlons, five club time trials and three running races. I completed the full distance of this race 17 days prior at MSC Bracebridge, which gave me confidence that at the very least, I had enough endurance to complete the full distance. My time there was 3:18, which is about 40 minutes slower than the last time I did this distance duathlon. I hoped to be able to improve on that time.
After Bracebridge, I had a few more long and hard workouts but then moved into my taper. I ended up working a lot leading up to my trip, which meant I missed a couple of my lighter workouts. In the last couple of days, I was worried that I may have tapered too much. As well, my plantar fasciitis was flaring up and I had a nagging hamstring twinge. Rather than get treatment, I participated in a 5 Beer-5km race five days prior to this race with my hamstring taped up. Hey, life is too short to miss doing Stupid Human Tricks!
We arrived in Penticton two days prior to the race. By this time a full race preview was available. I learned that the run course was actually a 2.5km loop, meaning we would have to run up the large hill SIX times. It was also far longer and steeper than I had anticipated. The bike course however, was very flat and the wind at our 7am race time, was fairly calm, so that was a relief.
Going into the race, I knew I had the endurance to finish, and I knew I could get a decent time on the flat bike course. I knew my challenge would be the hills on the run. I spoke to some other competitors and they pointed out that the run turnaround was at the top of the steep hill. Running up and immediately down a steep hill like that four times and then transitioning to a hard bike ride, would also be difficult.
Race day finally came. I did about a 10 minute warm up with lots of stretching of my calves and hamstrings. I didn’t feel anything worrisome during my warm up, especially with my hamstring taped up. My legs actually felt fairly fresh, which made me relieved that I had tapered well.
Run 1 (goal 6:00/km, actual 5:50/km) – When the gun went off, I settled into my pace and covered the first flat kilometre. As we hit the uphill the first time, I was pleased to find that the hill actually flattened out in the middle so that we had a bit of a rest. I decided that I would count the hill in pieces, ie my first run up was 2 hills done, second time up was 4 hills done, and so on. With such a long race, I play games like this in my mind. The nice part was that the downhill was not as painful as we had thought. As well, the downhill grade carried on for a fair bit past the visible end of the hill so I was able to carry my downhill speed. Then with a final turn, the first 2.5 km loop was done.
I continued on and found that the short loop was easier psychologically than a big one loop 10km. I got to see the same water station and cheering volunteers 4x and got to go through the start/finish area 4x. I got a nice boost every time the announcer called out my name, especially on the second time through when he announced that this was my fourth time racing Nationals and that I was a consistently strong finisher. Not sure where he got that information from but it sure was nice to hear. By my third lap, I was being passed by the faster competitors, but even at their 35-40 minute 10k pace, they were good enough to cheer me on as they passed. I tried to reciprocate before they were out of range. Finally my four laps were over and I was thrilled to see that I had run under an hour in 58:30.
Bike (goal 27km/h, actual 28.7km/h) – The bike course travelled out of town along the south shore of Lake Okanagan, past the motel strip. The road was quite rough here but then we turned right to travel north up the west shore of the lake on the highway, where the road surface was very smooth. Highway 97 at this point is two lanes on either side, with traffic going at least 100km/h. The course was set up so that we had a closed lane in each direction. It was a bit unnerving to have traffic going at that speed so close to us, but I did not feel unsafe. Our course was two out and back 20km loops. I checked my speed at about the 5km mark and was surprised to see that I was already at about 28 km/h average speed. I was in my big chain ring and a mid-gear at the back and rolling very well. It felt like I had a slight headwind but I didn’t think this could be possible if I was going that speed. I have been tricked by the wind before so I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
Sure enough though, when I came through the 10k turnaround, I got a tailwind and my speed went up even further, to about 30 km/h. I started getting lapped by the faster riders, who were absolutely flying on their second bike lap. Now I started to get excited. If I could hold my speed, and do a decent final 5km run, I might be able to break 3 hours in total. I got back into town for the 20km turnaround at about 41 minutes. I headed back out and started to push my pace a bit more, now that I knew what the course felt like.
With the highway portion of the course being so flat, and only changing gears occasionally, I found myself getting mesmerized by the unchanging scenery and the traffic passing beside me. Whenever my mind wandered to something other than focusing on going hard, I repeated in my brain, Stay In The Box. What this meant to me, was to stay in the feeling of discomfort, of pushing harder than my body wanted and to empty my brain of anything other than that focus.
I knew that once I got to the turnaround at 30km, I could push as hard as possible and just shuffle my final 5km. That is what I did for the final 10km of the bike. My quads and hamstrings were getting very tired, but I just ignored them and pushed through to the end of the bike course.
Run 2 (goal 6:30/km, actual 6:28/km) – Due to pushing so hard on the bike, I had a rough transition to running. Whenever this happens, I focus on leg turnover speed, even if it means taking short, choppy strides. At least it gets me moving forward. I hit the base of the big hill and opted to power-stride it. This is a positive way of saying, I was walking! I was able to run through the flattened portion and then strided the top portion. On the steep downhill, I was able to run again. Once I came through the start/finish area, I was elated, knowing I only had one more 2.5km lap to go. I did the mental math and saw that I would be able to go sub 3 hours, if I just kept moving. Once more up and down the Vancouver Ave. hill, and then a short 500m to the finish. Sure enough, I came across in 2:58 with a huge smile on my face!
Results – I needed to get a top 10 in the Women’s 50-54 in order to qualify for the Worlds race next year. During the race, I became aware that there were not many women my age and over, so I was pretty much assured that there were fewer than ten in my age group, but I didn’t know how few. When I saw the results, I found that I was 3rd W50-54…. out of 3. This is the third time I have gotten a bronze medal at Nationals (also 2012 and 2013) but the first time that there were only 3 of us in total.
It is disappointing and awkward to explain this result when asked. A standard distance duathlon is a difficult sport with the two runs and it will always be less popular than triathlon. It is hard to interest people in participating in a race of 55km. It even seems a bit mind-boggling to me that I can propel myself over 55km in less than 3 hours, at age 53, especially while carrying extra weight.
Where does the motivation come from, to participate in obscure competitions at middle age? It has to come from within. (Yes, I am paraphrasing Chariots of Fire’s Eric Liddell there!) I have regained the confidence in my body’s physical abilities. Motivation also comes from friends who see my age, my size and my life responsibilities and tell me that they are now inspired to try activities that they once thought were impossible for them. That is humbling and motivating for me.
Now that I am back to being a sub-3 hour duathlete, I am very excited to continue my training and see what 2017 brings!
Finally, a shout-out of gratitude to Girls Who Bike, 20 Minute Daily Groove, Runners Choice London, London Centennial Wheelers, Multisport Canada, and of course my FamJam.