“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes.” I read this quote from Pico Iyer before my trip to Whistler for Ironman Canada. The trip would be my third to Canada in thirteen months, each time for a race (Mont Tremblant and Victoria were the other venues).

 My goal for this race was to get on the podium in my division. Winning the age group is a sure Kona slot, but I knew the competition was strong and experienced.

In the days before the race, I had a few swims in Alta Lake, the swim venue.

A view of Alta Lake during a training swim. No, I didn't do dog paddle during the race.

A view of Alta Lake during a training swim. No, I didn’t do dog paddle during the race.

I also took a few short rides on portions of the bike course. On my first training ride, I got to see my first Canadian black bear!

My first black bear sighting! I put away the camera when he faced me and stood up.

My first black bear sighting! I put away the camera when he faced me and stood up.

I drove the notoriously hilly last 20 miles of the bike course and had confidence I could handle it. Of course I hadn’t ridden more than 90 miles by then!

Race morning brought clear and calm conditions. I enjoyed every minute of the swim and made sure to take in the huge, snow-capped mountains and forests of pines that surrounded the lake. I felt relaxed and fit, and while satisfied with my time, felt like I could have pushed harder.

What did I learn? Practice pacing for the long open-water swims and take advantage of my ability to ramp it up a bit.

What was I thinking during the swim? “I am blazing through this! Passing men, women, people younger than me. This is going to be a PR swim!”

What did I think later? “Not a PR. No wonder that swim felt relatively easy. It’s a race, not a sightseeing tour. Sheesh.”

The bike course took us from the lake to the Sea to Sky Highway, onto the road where I saw the bear. It was about seven miles of climbing to get to the turnaround at the Olympic biathlon center. No bears this time, but lots of great opportunities to see the pros flying on their way back, along with the age-groupers. After descending, it was back for dozens of miles on the Sea to Sky Highway to reach the town of Pemberton. We passed lakes that had the color of blue tourmaline. I’ve never seen water like that. We had some climbs, including a good one on a section a volunteer said was “Suicide Hill” and finally descended to Pemberton, with its miles of flat road. While it was great to be on the flats, it also coincided with the increasing discomfort I was feeling on my bike. I spent a lot of time shifting position, and wasn’t able to take much advantage of aero position. Many miles out and back brought us back to the highway for the infamous hills back to Whistler. It was here that physical and mental challenges really kicked in. Mile after mile of tough climbs, into a headwind. I kicked off a pity party, and no one else was invited. Some of the climbs reminded me of the climb in my area that we call “Costco Hill”. After 20 miles, the road finally offered some merciful terrain as we headed into T2.

Not a flat course!

Not a flat course!

What did I learn? Cycling skills can make a big difference in outcome. I still have lots to learn and practice, and the opportunities for improvement are evident and, I think, achievable.

What was I thinking during the ride? “This is crazy. People aren’t meant to ride 112 miles! There’s something wrong with people who do this…and I’m one of them. Never again!”

What did I think later? “If I can continue learning and improving on the bike, it could be a game-changer for me…”

When I started the run, it was warm and humid. I knew thermal regulation (ice, baby!), fluids, and electrolyte balance would be factors in how the run would go. As each mile passed, I continued to feel good. I kept the pace controlled, recognizing that 26.2 miles offers risks and rewards, with later miles often being affected by mistakes (or smart choices) in the early miles. The course took us through running/bike paths covered with canopies of trees, out into the sunshine alongside a beautiful lake, complete with a “party boat” full of cheering revelers. I passed a lot of people, including a couple of women in my division, but I didn’t know how many were in front of me, especially after getting passed by many people on the bike.

With about four miles to go, I had to come to a stop. About 50 meters ahead, the runners had jumped over a cement barrier onto the highway. A bear was standing on the run course. The runners yelled that she had two cubs. Mama Bear then jumped onto the highway, where the cars had stopped. A driver used a bear horn to convince Mama Bear to go back into the trees with the cubs. She obliged, and I decided to be the first to risk it and continued on my way.

In the final mile, I went from taking a walk break to sprinting through the village and down to the finish line. As I did a year earlier in Mont Tremblant, in one hand I held a Canadian flag, and in the other, an American flag, as I paid homage to my birthplace and the country where I’ve now lived for decades.

What did I learn? Don’t ever give up, even if it seems a race has taken a downturn. That run moved me up in the standings, and I was able to get fourth in my division.

No better race souvenir than an age group award.

No better race souvenir than an age group award.

Good choice to have a bear as the finisher's medal!

Good choice to have a bear as the finisher’s medal!

What was I thinking during the run? “This had better be getting me onto the podium. Finish this, and I don’t ever have to do this again.” At the finish line, I said to a volunteer, “Don’t ever do this. Not a good idea.”

What did I think later? “If I can just get things right on my bike…”

Whistler was beautiful, and I’d love to visit again. Even though I was in a different country, I had huge support from my teammates, friends, and family, for which I’m immensely grateful. It’s always fun representing Freeplay Magazine and our team’s sponsors. On to the next adventure!