Features & Images » Feature Story

Getting there in the end

Hours after the first competitors cross the finish line come the athletes at the end of the pack: They're not as fast, but they still get it done



At the annual Nimby Fifty bike race, competitors usually have to steel themselves for that baking sun in the Pemberton Valley before they cross the finish line at North Arm Farm.

However, the 2016 edition of the race, which was held May 28, wasn't like most years: Racers crossed the finish line shivering, caked in mud as the temperature failed to reach double digits and relentless wind and rain delivered hypothermia.

It was miserable, even for those who finished first. But what about the riders who were subjected to those conditions far longer?

For events like Subaru Ironman Canada, the difference between first place and last place is literally like day and night.

These are the athletes at the end of the pack: Those who didn't give up despite their slow pace.

'It was horrible'

Heather Macintosh minced no words about her first Nimby Fifty.

"It was horrible," she laughs. "It's one of those things where at the end, you're like 'Ah, that was alright,' but while you're in it, you're thinking it wasn't really the experience I was hoping for partly because of the weather. Those were probably the most miserable conditions I've raced in — being that wet and that cold."

Macintosh's experience could be pinned on a common scapegoat — the meteorologist.

"The Weather Network said it was light rain in Pemberton," she says. "It always rains lighter in Pemberton than in Squamish, so I kind of believed that. If I had known it was raining harder, I probably would have dressed a little bit different.

"When you're out there that long, you can't stay warm... At the start of the race, you're warm because you're amped up and you're pedalling, but then there's a big climb, so you kind of stay warm on that. Then there's a descent and then by the time you're on the latter part of the course, you're wet enough that you're cold even if you're pedalling uphill."

In the grand scheme of the day, Macintosh finished 253rd out of 262 finishers, coming across the line a full two hours, 14 minutes and 19.6 seconds (2:14:19.6) behind pro men's winner Cory Wallace.

Macintosh explains there were some points where she considered becoming the 71st starter who didn't finish, but given where she placed in the course, dropping out would have made little sense.

Instead, she broke down the course into smaller sections, more manageable chunks to tick off her list until she eventually found her way back to North Arm Farm.

"I just said to myself: 'Just get to the second aid station and then worry about how you feel at that point or after that,'" she says. "I didn't really think about it much on the first part of the course and then I started cramping when I got to the second aid station.

"The thing is when you quit, you still have to get back to the start. You're not done. You still have to ride a bit just to get out of the woods.

"It's like 'I'm here now. I might as well do this loop.'"

Some of those chunks had their own thrills, Macintosh recalls, especially in the final metres. With Vancouver rider Darryl Malby in her sights, she made a push to make one final pass and end the day on a high note. Even though her surge was ultimately unsuccessful, it was a pleasant surprise to discover she still had a bit of a bulldog mentality after four-and-a-half hours of riding.

"I pedalled a little bit harder to keep moving and had a little bit of motivation right at the end... You know you're finishing and want to finish strong," she says. "I had passed him (Malby) going into North Arm Farm but he passed me again after that.

"It had that good feeling that I didn't just drag myself over the finish line."

There were 70 riders who failed to finish, or DNF, of the 332 riders did this year compared to 53 in a roster of 379 riders the year before. And that was on a day when the temperature hit 28C. On the day where highs reached 27C in 2014, only 20 riders dropped out early.

The super turtle

Some of Macintosh's fellow riders — the last two to finish, in fact — had a happier outlook that day despite coming in about 2:51 after Wallace and nearly 20 minutes behind every other crosser.

Ring Stonechild — the official final finisher of the day who came in 0.1 seconds behind her boyfriend Charles Koehler — knew she had the legs to complete the map. The Vancouver resident just wasn't sure she had the speed to satisfy the deadlines set up by organizers.

"I knew I'd be able to make the full distance, but I didn't know if I could make the cutoffs. It's pretty long and it's pretty hilly," she says. "I wasn't confident that I'd do the event in a quick enough time to make the cutoffs. I can ride really slowly for a really long time.

"I'm no racer. I'm a super turtle."

She and Koehler entered the race without any illusions of winning, or even finishing much quicker than they did. The pair signed up for the race as a training run for the B.C. Bike Race, a seven-day singletrack stage race that ends in Whistler after taking riders through trails on Vancouver Island and then the Lower Mainland as they work their way north.

Koehler, who competed in the men's 50-to-54 event, stressed the importance of proper clothing. He and Stonechild, both experienced riders, decked themselves out in warm, water-resistant gear to ensure they had the best shot at getting their money's worth.

"My girlfriend and I ride year round so it was basically another bike ride. We ride rain or shine. We're not fair-weather riders so when we realized it was going to be a cold, wet day, we just threw on our raincoats and rain hats and buckled down and we just got 'er done," Koehler says. "We got up (to the paraglide launch) and there were a couple people that were just shivering. They decided to bail at that point and we were good to go so we just carried on."

When asked for what advice she'd give a rider in a similar situation, Stonechild agrees with Koehler.

"People were underdressed. There were a couple people in the trucks that I think were hypothermic," she recalls, adding that food becomes even more important in those colder situations. And, of course, one can always just stay in bed if the conditions appear too miserable, she laughs, which was the choice many seemed to have made.

As a rider for roughly 35 years, this isn't Koehler's first bucking bronco of a race as he recalled a mid-summer event near Kelowna that was more Christmassy than anything.

"Mountain-bike racing, you pretty much have to be prepared for everything. I've done other events over the years. I've been mountain biking since '82. I've done events in the middle of August where it's snowing," he says.

Hanging in the barn at North Arm Farm after the race, Stonechild was surprised that she earned a medal for her performance. It wasn't facetious — she was one of only two competitors in the women's 50-to-54 category to step onto the podium with Whistler's Caroline Lamont, who came in about 43 minutes before Stonechild.

"I was so embarrassed," she chuckles. "We were all gathered around and we were chit-chatting with friends after at the end, and then I heard my name called. I was sure I was being called because I thought they probably have a prize for being in last place."

The number of riders who may not have completed the race might have been even higher because Koehler stopped several times to help people change tires. And that cost him.

"We actually missed out on the food. The food was all done by the time we got there and we had to get back to the city," he says.

Roughly a month later, Koehler and Stonechild began the B.C. Bike Race in Cumberland. Lining up in the open mixed division, the pair weren't in contention for the title, finishing approximately a cumulative 15 hours behind winners Justin and Jenna Rinehart. But they were more than four hours ahead of the last pair to finish.

Koehler notes they could have shaved off more time if they had pushed harder the first day and had qualified to ride the rest of the week with a more talented group of riders. Alas, they were slowed down by inexperienced cyclists who dismounted during technical sections, which slowed Koehler and Stonechild.

And Stonechild credited the Nimby for helping them make it through a couple sloppy days early on.

"It was good mental preparation... because the first couple days on the BCBR were monsoony and rainy. I said to Charles then it was like the Nimby Fifty, only a tropical feeling," she says.

A little midnight magic

Finishing the Nimby Fifty long after the elite athletes can be underwhelming, especially on a day when fellow racers and spectators are huddled in a barn just trying to keep warm.

So something like Subaru Ironman Canada can feel almost like being on a Hollywood red carpet. There can be just as many fans welcoming in the 16- and 17-hour finishers as there are for the stars who clock in seven or eight hours earlier.

Ironman operations manager Keats McGonigal, himself an athlete, knows what it's like to be at the tail end of a day that includes a 3.86-km swim, 180.26-km bike ride and full 42.20-km marathon. On the course, athletes must pass Ironman staffers who watch like hawks to ensure competitors are on pace to finish before midnight. And that little extra boost can be exactly what a runner needs to make it through.

Ironman dubs the last 60 minutes of competition its "magic hour." Watching athletes cross the line, it's easy to believe there's some sort of fairy dust mixed in with their blood, sweat and tears.

"Getting to the finish line, for a lot of our athletes, is what they've been trying to accomplish for years and years," McGonigal says. "Obviously, it's a long day out there and the people that are coming in near the end, a lot of them have some anxiety and trepidation whether they are even going to be able to make it to the finish line. When they do actually get there and are able to truly celebrate, it's something special to see. The raw emotions that the athletes are able to let out — feeling that they have accomplished a dream."

That final hour can bring together athletes who didn't even expect to be there. As McGonigal explains, some competitors enter with the hope of digging deep within themselves to will them to a finish. But there's the flip side, too, for the athletes who begin the day in the hope of a personal best, but who have something go wrong.

Colorado athlete Stuart Ritchie says after 16 hours, 57 minutes and 19 seconds of pushing himself toward the finish line he was the second-last to finish.

"Training for Ironman, the three letters you're most afraid of are DNF. I've never been anywhere near the cutoffs, so I was doing some math during the entire run to figure out what it was going to take to make it within the 17-hour time limit. It's a really challenging course."

The day started fairly well for the 57-year-old Ritchie as he completed the swim in Whistler's Alta Lake in 1:25:30. Competing in temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than the scorchers he was used to, Ritchie figured he was in for a breezy day from there.

But the middle stanza, the bike ride, was a gut punch. From Rainbow Park, riders head south into the Callaghan Valley and head to Whistler Olympic Park. After turning around, they come back up through the resort and head to Pemberton, pedalling along Pemberton Meadows Road before another turnaround.

En route to Pemberton, of course, is Suicide Hill — the absolute hell for tiring athletes.

"I'm from Colorado and we've got a bunch of hills. The bike kinda got to me. I put a new rear cassette in with an extra gear, but I didn't have a compact crank, so it was really a lot of effort getting up the hills back out at Pemberton so I had kind of a crappy bike," he said. "I drove the course, but until you do that climb with 90 miles in your legs, that puts it into perspective. It just crushed me for the run."

Genevieve Blais, who was served with a disqualification after the fact, had some harsh words for that treacherously inclined S-curve.

"It's nasty, it's a bitch. It's a bitch climb because it's not forgiving. When you go down you observe everything and it's not forgiving too much because it's from 140 to 160K and you're tired," says Blais, who's from Barrie, Ont.

But after making it up the hill, completing the ride and running her marathon, Blais praises the Whistler fans who helped make the day memorable.

"It's not the best time ever, but this is the best finish," she says. "It's so inspiring. My dad passed three years ago and I asked for a lot of help from him today.

"It was the toughest mental race."

McGonigal explains that Ironman encourages the early finishers to return to the finish line to cheer on those who clock in under cover of darkness. Those who set their minds to accomplish a Herculean task — no matter how quickly or slowly — all become members of the same exclusive club.

McGonigal has completed seven races, some with times that qualify him for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, and some that have placed him among the last to finish.

Being among that last group makes it easier for him to relate when he has to monitor the cutoff points on the course.

"There are times where I'm the one on the course who tells people that they're not able to make another segment of the race based on the time cutoff," he says. "It's really special for me when a year or two later, I see somebody get to the finish line who wasn't able to accomplish it in the years prior and see the journey come full circle.

"For me, that makes the work and effort that we put into it really worthwhile."

Return of mojo

Joelle Tiessen had to pump herself up for her first-ever enduro race.

The Whistler resident, who moved with her husband from White Rock last March, signed up for Squamish's all-women Hot On Your Heels race on July 23.

Already feeling a loss of "mojo" coming back to ride after the winter, Tiessen was having second thoughts about using the race as a means of regaining it.

"About two weeks before the race was happening, I was totally panicking — no, I can't do it. I'm not ready. I don't know these trails. They're beyond my ability, I was just about to back out and the organizer of the race posted on the Facebook page saying 'Oh, a bunch of women have been backing out and it's for a good cause and you should just do it just for fun. Don't be intimidated,' she. "It solidified my decision. I'm not going to quit. I'm going to gut it out. Even if I have to walk every trail, I'm just going to get it done."

On race day, Tiessen and a group of women missed a gruelling climb on the course, then found themselves in a position they didn't want to be in at the top of the first section.

"If you knew you were going to be slow, you started at the back so you didn't feel like you were holding anybody up. We intended to arrive near the end so we would be at the back, but doing the climb trail put us towards the middle of the pack."

Tiessen and the others found themselves — completely by accident — ahead of the fastest racers.

"We went in and, of course, women who were a lot faster and a lot stronger were coming in down behind us. They were sending people off in 30-second waves, so about a minute down the trail, I realized I could hear the first woman catching up to me and about to overtake me. The courtesy is to pull over and let them go by. So I pulled over and let (her) go by. I thought 'This is going to happen again and again because these women are way faster than me.

"I got into this rhythm where I would count in my head '1, 2, 3, 4' and I'd get up to 30 and I knew it was time to pull off the trail. Right like clockwork, the next woman would come screaming by and thank me for getting off the trail and continue on her way. I don't know how many women passed me, but it was quite a few before I got to the end of the trail myself. Then there were four more stages after that."

After that was a steep drop to start the second stage. Tiessen got nervous and had to talk herself into continuing. It took about half an hour of watching her compatriots drop in before she took the plunge herself.

Over the course of five hours, she regained her confidence with each and every stage in part because of a belief in her ability — but also her desire to just be done with it already.

By the end of the third stage, Tiessen's adrenaline was going and she realized she was riding terrain that normally she would have walked.

"Partly, it was because I'm just so tired that I can't be bothered to get off and on my bike again and part of it was: if I stay on my bike, I know I'll finish this part of the course faster. So by the fifth stage, I was riding all sorts of stuff that earlier in the day or the day before I would have looked at and thought, you've got to be kidding me. I'm not doing that," Tiessen says.

With her renewed excitement for the sport, Tiessen acknowledges she wasn't prepared to tackle everything the course threw at her, and she opted to walk her bike over the finish line rather than risk carnage at the end of the day.

"I was a little bit scared because the very last section of the last stage was a woodwork rolling drop-type feature," she says. "Everyone was shouting at the end saying 'It's rollable! It's rollable! Go for it! Just do it! You can do it!'

"I totally panicked, slammed on the brakes and walked off. It wasn't the most graceful exit to the race, but nevertheless, I was pretty happy that I survived in one piece without any blood or tears."