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Men and women of steel

The ultra athletic culture of Ironman



"People do not lack strength; they lack will."

Their suits may not be of steel, but their bodies have been hardened from months of excruciating training. Tireless metabolic furnaces kick and paddle through the water, struggling to breathe in the wake of thousands of other neoprene-clad human fishes. Emerging onto the shore and shedding their second skin, they straddle ultra light bicycles and crank the pedals, their aluminum and carbon fibre steeds slicing through the air. Hours later, the final challenge remains. Down to a pair of running shoes, they prepare themselves for the final phase of this endurance gauntlet. Just feet stomping the pavement now, breathing. Soon the pain will end.

The triathlon is in many ways considered the pinnacle of endurance sport. The combination of swimming, cycling and running requires a multidisciplinary training regime. It tests participants physically and mentally through a gauntlet of three races combined into one.

Then, there is the Ironman.

Conceived in 1977 on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, athletes from the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and Honolulu Marathon all debated over which race was the hardest on the human body. It was decided that the easiest way to settle the argument was to hold the three events back-to-back in a single day. The winner would be declared the "Iron Man."

The typical standard or "Olympic Distance" for triathlons is a 1.5-km (0.9 mile) swim, a 40-km (24.9 mile) bike ride and a 10-km (6.2 mile) run. What is known as "Ironman distance," — the original lengths from the first ultra triathlon in Hawaii — is a 3.8-km (2.4 mile) swim, 185-km (115 mile) ride and a 42.2-km (26.2 mile) marathon. Though it may seem superhuman to perform such a feat, it is actually possible to do with the right discipline and mentality.

"A lot of people come up to me and ask, 'do you think I can do it?'" says Christine Suter, an endurance athlete and coach who will be racing her ninth Ironman event this weekend, August 25.

"I just look at them and ask 'Do you think you can do it?' It more comes down to having enough time to prepare yourself, it's like having a second job. You can go into it kind of prepared and make it through, but it makes for a very long day. Yeah, some people are more suited to Ironman absolutely. But I do think anyone can do if (they) put (their) mind to it and take the time."

That's exactly what one local Ironman registrant has done. John Crehan, a 27-year-old bakery manager originally from Ratoath, Ireland, and now living in Whistler, has been training between five and six days a week for the last 11 months. He says that he has to constantly be thinking about his training schedule and balancing it around his work and personal life.

"It's a massive, massive commitment," says Crehan.

"Not a day goes by when you're not planning something or thinking about Ironman."

Having signed up and begun his training regime last September, there were months where Crehan found the cold weather and wet roads frustrating to train in.

"Throughout the winter it was definitely tough living in Whistler," he says.

That's not a statement you hear very often in a ski town.

"I spend a lot of hours in the pool, on the trainer in the garage and on the treadmill. But I'm so grateful that I live here because the course is here. Even though it was a bit of hindrance in the winter, it's been a definite plus in the summer."

This will be Crehan's first Ironman, having only taken part in a couple of sprints and Olympic distance triathlons in the past. With Whistler hosting Ironman Canada, he has been able to train on the course since the start of spring. He isn't expecting that to give him much advantage over the professional triathletes from all over the world who have descended on Whistler this week, but knowing the course could mean the difference between a strong finish and struggling to make it over the finish line.

"The bike back from Pemberton is probably the toughest part, it's a gradual uphill climb all the way back to Whistler," says Crehan.

"If the wind turns on the day you might be facing a strong headwind as well. It's a long grind on the bike, your legs are pretty heavy going straight into the marathon."

Ben Biswell is also heading into his first Ironman, though the winter ski instructor managed to squeeze in two triathlons last summer including the Half-Ironman in Victoria. Having competed in numerous 50-km trail runs and being a regular participant in local races such as the Rubble Creek Classic and the Comfortably Numb Trail Run, Biswell has really only dedicated himself to a full training schedule since the snow melted in the valley.

"I didn't really enjoy doing much in the gym," he says.

"Working as a ski instructor you're starting work early in the morning and by the time I'd finished I didn't really feel like going into the gym to train on a bike. I read a book on Ironman triathlons and then got some advice from Christine Suter and John Blok (Whistler Core personal trainer and seven-time Ironman competitor) on how to train for it. I really like doing other things in Whistler, so it's been tough to fit in a training schedule with normal life things like hanging out with friends and going camping. That's one of the reasons I made my own training schedule so I could chop and change it as I needed to do be able to do normal things."

Biswell is no stranger to suffering, but the sheer length of the Ironman course will be on his and every other Ironman competitor's minds on Sunday.

"It's more just the fact that you're out there for so long," says Biswell. "For me the running is my strong point, but you just don't know how you're going to feel in a full Ironman. I'm just hoping that I still feel good towards the end."

Both Biswell and Crehan say part of the reason for participating in Ironman Canada has been that it is being held in Whistler, but the biggest motivation is to see how their bodies respond to the ultra triathlon benchmark.

"Probably the toughest question people ask me is, 'Why are you doing this?'" says Crehan.

"It's to push myself and to see how far I can go. It's definitely a physical challenge, but the mental aspect of Ironman and training is what I found the toughest. Getting out of bed for those 6 a.m. starts to do 180 km on the bike on your own, spending seven hours away from your family. It's a lot."

During training, local athletes regularly meet Ironman participants who have come to Whistler to ride the biking course. Biswell one day met an Ironman veteran on Highway 99 with quite the inspiring story.

"Biking back from Pemberton I met a road rider training for Ironman who was in his late 50s and had done 17 Ironmans," says Biswell.

"He said he had to take a couple of years off to get over cancer — you think you're having a hard time training and then you meet someone like that."

It's a story that's not uncommon in the triathlon world. Last year, Ottawa triathlete Sindy Hooper missed out on qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii by two spots with a time of 11h 38m. Two months later she signed up for the 2013 Ironman Canada but after beginning training in January she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

"After surgery I was told about the radiation and chemotherapy I'd have over the next (eight) months," writes Hooper in an email to Ironman.

"I asked my surgeon if he thought I might be able to do Ironman Canada in August. He looked puzzled, shook his head in disbelief and mumbled something about moderate exercise being good for me. I emailed a chemotherapy doctor and asked her. She replied, in brief 'Chemotherapy and radiation will be very fatiguing and have huge effects on your body, hoping to do an Ironman would only be setting yourself up for nothing but disappointment.' I was crushed and very, very sad."

But Hooper's determination would not rest. Slowly ramping up her training schedule and pushing through the fatigue of weekly chemotherapy, she is still nowhere near her former fitness level, but despite having a fraction of her former fitness level she will be attempting Ironman Canada on Sunday to raise money for pancreatic cancer research.

"Will I be able to complete Ironman Canada? I don't know," writes Hooper.

"I've searched the Internet and have not been able to find anyone who has completed an Ironman while still on chemotherapy (I've had 14 sessions of chemo, three more when I return). This makes me nervous, but doesn't take away my hope."

(Hooper will be racing in bib no. 870 on Sunday. To donate to her cause go to http://www.pancreaticcancercanada.ca/site/TR?pxfid=1890&pg=fund&fr_id=1060)

Passing the torch

The city of Penticton has been the epicentre of Canadian triathlons after hosting the Ironman Canada event for three decades, but the legacy came to an end after its 30-year anniversary in 2012. At that point the city made the decision to not renew its agreement with the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) and opted to affiliate the long-standing event with Challenge Family, a global triathlon series that originated in Roth, Germany.

"It was an opportunity for us to review our options and Challenge came along with something that was a lot more community focused. They're very much about athlete experience and about community and we felt that was going to be strategically a better fit for us," says Andrew Jakubeit, Penticton's deputy mayor.

"I think we were looking at the race and the event going back to its roots, being owned and put on by the community and for profits to stay in the community."

The Challenge brand does not have close to the amount of international competition acclaim of Ironman, but its popularity and success in Europe is something Penticton wants to bring to North America.

"You look at Roth with 5,600 athletes and 200,000-plus spectators, they use a model that works and we want to move towards some of their successes," says Jakubeit.

"Losing this race was not an option. The Challenge brand was something we thought that we could build and strategically and economically would be better for our community."

When the decision was made by Penticton, Ironman Canada needed to find a new venue, and quickly, to begin preparation for the 2013 event. On the shortlist of bids from Western Canada were Whistler, Kamloops, Vernon, Kelowna and Calgary.

"Typically it takes us about 15 months to select a venue and make an announcement," explains Keats McGonigal, operations manager for the WTC and six-time Ironman finisher.

"Based on the timeline that we had with finding a new location, we had about six weeks to actually make the announcement. The timeline for the actual production of the event has been significantly compressed. We knew that going in and that's part of the reason why we chose to host this event in Whistler and Pemberton. We knew that Tourism Whistler (TW) and the RMOW were very used to working with event producers and recreators. We felt good about the team that was in place."

Part of Whistler's bid was submitting a proposal for the three segments of the course, all of which was viewed by the Ministry of Transportation (MOT), the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) the RMOW, the Village of Pemberton and other proponents. The proposed course was made public on Oct. 11, 2012 when the WTC confirmed that Whistler had been selected to host Ironman Canada for the next five years.

The swim around Alta Lake, and the running course from the village to Emerald and back via the Valley Trail, were relatively easy to plan.

But the 180-km bike ride was a different story.

"That's been the piece that's taken us the longest to get nailed down," says McGonigal.

"We did go through two to four different revisions of the bike course. There were some early versions of the course that had us going north to Pemberton first, but looking at the time lines of our athletes and how that was going to play out, we decided to make some adjustments and reverse it. We wanted to make sure that (residents) had the opportunity in the morning to come into work and come home in the afternoon after a typical work day."

Riding south past Callaghan Valley Road towards Squamish wasn't really an option given that Highway 99 experiences four times the amount of traffic south of Whistler than north, but the route through Pemberton and out to the end of the Pemberton Meadows Road hasn't been without its issues.

"It is not set up for bike traffic," says Don Coggins, part owner of Copper Cayuse Outfitters, a horseback tour company situated on the Pemberton Meadows Road.

"It's not just the day of the race, it is all of the training that's going on now. You have some riders who are really courteous; they're off to the side as much they can. There are others that bunch up and they won't get over. That road twists and winds, you can come around a blind corner and you can't see them until you're on top of them."

Signs urging cyclists to ride single file have been erected all along the Ironman course, particularly along the Pemberton Meadows Road since it is the only part of the course that lacks a proper road shoulder. Training cyclists, cars and trucks are therefore required to share a single lane, which can be dangerous when the riders are concentrated into packs and don't move into single file when vehicles approach them.

"We've taken feedback from Pemberton Meadows Road residents over the course of this process," says McGonigal.

"Some of the residents there are excited to be showcasing their area, others obviously are more concerned due to the increased volume. From Ironman's perspective, we're doing everything we can to educate our athletes and we ask them to be respectful of the local community and ride single file up there.

"With that said I'm not naive enough to (think) that (everyone) will listen to all of that, and obey all of those things all of the time. It is a fine balance that we're trying to do in terms of both educating the community (on positive economic impacts) and asking our athletes to be respectful of the community. We're trying to work this thing from every angle and make as many people, as happy as possible."

The community of Pemberton is mostly behind Ironman — the six hours of road closures that will affect commerce and transport notwithstanding. But after the Vancouver 2010 Olympics left little in the way of legacy, some Pemberton residents are wary of what five years of Ironman will bring to their community. Almost all accommodations, meals and incidental spending by Ironman athletes and their entourages will be in Whistler, with Pemberton receiving what has been termed "a boost in cycling tourism."

Athletes are out there training, but most are probably returning to Whistler post-ride.

On Sunday, Pemberton will be entertaining up to 2,000 people — some of them stranded motorists heading south — with a festival-atmosphere area near the turn off to Portage Road. Local Pemberton businesses will have a chance to showcase wares and potentially capitalize on the sudden spike in visits, but it is still very small compared to the retail exhibits and celebrations that will take place in Whistler's Olympic Plaza.

"(A lot of) Pemberton derives its living from Whistler, one way or the other," says Coggins.

"On the bottom line, I don't think most people are terribly upset if they can't get out of their driveway for five or six hours. It's an inconvenience, but one that should not be taken for granted.

"Ironman is not something we would like to see leave the area, our point is just to figure out a way to make it work."

Pemberton mayor Jordan Sturdy, also the region's MLA, will be feeling the effects of the road closures himself with his commercial farm business being inaccessible from Squamish or Whistler on Sunday, but he does see potential for positive economic drive to Pemberton in the long run.

"It's very challenging to really understand what these economic impacts are," says Sturdy.

"It's going to be easier to understand the downsides, but it's more difficult to assess what the upsides are. If you bring 5,000 people to the Pemberton Valley who haven't been there before, what does that do to our global exposure, to our restaurants, bike shops, hotel nights and even investments in property?

"Even if we're not able to put a solid dollar (amount) on it, we hope at least to have some way of assessing its impact and deciding in the future if this event is the type of event we want to support and promote."

On the issue of the Pemberton Meadows Road shoulder, as the MLA for West Vancouver - Sea to Sky, Sturdy said that investment would require an analysis to see if it fulfils the criteria for road upgrades from the province. He added that expecting immediate action to add shoulders on the road for the safety of training cyclists would not be realistic.

"As people say, you don't build the church for Easter Sunday," says Sturdy.

"Investments made in this province need to be investments that do pay, that provide value to the taxpayer and drive business in more than just a single day."

But the provincial government realizes the sharp increase in cycling tourism in B.C. in recent years — particularly in the Sea to Sky — and the need to accommodate those road cyclists safely.

"There is an increasing focus on cycling in the Sea to Sky, I think we can forecast that there will be more bicycle traffic all throughout the Sea to Sky in the years to come. We're going to have to increasingly factor cycling in any road building or upgrade improvement projects. But they come at cost and it needs to be a considered investment."