Race report: the Niagara Falls Barrelman (1/2 ironman)

Beet juice? Really? Five days before my very first 1/2 ironman, I got an email from my swim coach Mat telling me that I should be drinking 250 – 500 ml of beet juice in the days leading up to the race. Sure, no problem, I like beets! And then I tried the juice…

… but let me back up a bit! Near the end of the 2013 triathlon season, we heard that Multisport Canada Triathlon Series would be putting on a brand new 1/2 ironman distance triathlon (2 km swim, 90 km bike, 21.1 km run) on September 21, 2014, a point to point race starting in Welland, Ontario and ending in Niagara Falls. I had never done a 1/2 ironman before, but I figured that a year was enough to get ready, so I registered! A contest was held to name the race, and in the end the winning name was the Barrelman (“ironman” and “half ironman” are trademarked words, so this new race couldn’t use them in its name). The Barrelman was to be my 8th and final triathlon of 2014 (3 sprints, 2 Olympics, a long-course, and a sprint relay preceded it).

… Back to the beet juice. It was awful, but I forced it down, because it’s supposed to reduce the oxygen cost of exercise and increase high-intensity exercise tolerance. In any case, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

The Preparation

The weekend before the race, I gathered all my stuff:

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Food, clothing, and gear assembled!

The day before the race, Alasdair (also racing) and I dropped the kids at Grandma and Grandpa’s and headed to Welland, where we picked up our race kits and then did a very short “test out the bike” ride – shorter than the 5k we planned because of the crazy wind and busy roads. It was long enough to get an idea of what race day winds might be like… after a quick “test the legs” run, we set up our bikes in the transition zone (T1), partially covered them with garbage bags, and left them there for the night (security would be watching over them).

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Still fairly empty T1.

We headed to Niagara Falls, just 20 minutes away. We figured we’d check into our hotel, park the van there, and walk to T2, where we were supposed to be attending a mandatory 2:30 PM pre-race briefing. Well, did we ever mess that one up! First of all, we couldn’t find a quick route down to the Niagara Parkway – it looked like we’d have to walk a long way to find a road down. So, we paid $2.50 each and rode the inclined railway down (thankfully, trips left every 5 minutes and the ride was only 1 minute long), figuring that was our only option to get there in time.

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View from the inclined railway!

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Inside the rail car.

So we got to the Niagara Parkway, and not knowing which way to go to get to Kingsbridge Park (T2), we asked someone at the Niagara Parks booth – she told us it was a 1 hour walk to the park! She suggested that we take a bus, but it was about 2:27 PM at that point, and apparently the bus wouldn’t even go all the way. Instead, we gave up and decided to go to the 5 PM briefing instead (thankfully there was a 2nd one!). We had a look at the falls and headed back to our hotel instead!

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American falls on the left, Canadian falls to the right of the Maid of the Mist boat.

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Alasdair contemplating the next day’s swim.

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At the brink of the falls.

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“Rules are for wimps!” he said.

So we drove to the 5 PM briefing and made it there in plenty of time! With the weather forecast looking rather worrisome for race day, John Salt (Race Director) went through all the possible scenarios for weather-related delays and options to make sure we all got a race (from simply delaying the race start because of lightning, to turning the race into a bike/run). Check out those winds!

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As “affiliated” Koalas, our swim coach Mat (Fighting Koalas Triathlon Team) invited us to join the other Koalas for dinner at East Side Marios in Niagara Falls. We enjoyed a good dinner and lots of laughs! Then it was time to do our final race preparations. With the swim in Welland, and the bike going from Welland to Niagara Falls, we had to separate our gear into colour coded gear bags so that everything was where it was needed for the race, and it all ended up at T2 after the race.

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Left to right: clothes I would wear, swim bag, dry clothes bag for after the race + bike stuff, run gear bag

On race morning, our alarm went off at 5 AM, with the prospect of an adventurous day ahead of us.

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We figured we’d save time by wearing our helmets in addition to our swim gear.

After eating breakfast (oatmeal, banana, raspberries for me), putting race number decals on ourselves (our bib numbers and our ages), and making many trips to the bathroom, we headed to T2 where we would park our van and take an athlete shuttle bus to T1 and the race start. It started to rain when we got out of the van, and then it started to pour. We dropped our “run gear red bags” with volunteers at the buses, hopped on the bus, and waited just a few minutes before we were on our way to Welland. Unfortunately, the guy in the seat ahead of me had the window open, so I wore my rain coat on the bus and was getting water splattered in my face (much nicer than what splashed me during the bike ride…). I could have asked him to shut the window but didn’t feel like it.

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Water puddles!

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A glimmer of blue sky! I took this shot in case that’s all the blue we saw all day.

After setting up the stuff I’d need for my bike ride (left in a plastic bag so my socks and shoes didn’t get soaked!), eating a couple of bites of chocolate chip banana bread and making lots of trips to the bathroom, it was finally time to get dressed for the swim. I put my “clear dry clothes bag” (which I’d accidentally mixed up colour wise with the “wetsuit bag”, and ended up switching with the black bag) in a bin, and took one last pre-race photo.

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I headed down to the water and did a quick “make sure I remember how to swim warm-up”, and since my husband abandoned me while I was swimming (disappeared in a flash somehow), another athlete gave me his hand and pulled me out of the water because the footing was rough and rocky where I was warming up. I did manage to find Alasdair before the race, so we were able to wish each other good luck! By the time the race started, the rain had ended. I hadn’t put sunblock on, because as far as I knew, the forecast was still calling for rain with a risk of thunderstorms… that was a mistake!

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2 km swim was a counter clockwise rectangle.

The Swim

Alasdair started in the 2nd wave after the pros, and me in the 3rd. I had a fairly uneventful swim, but I did get whacked pretty hard in the head by someone’s elbow as they swam by. I followed Mat’s advice and tried really hard to tuck in behind other swimmers and draft off them. I managed to do it twice for a while, but eventually lost their feet (once because the person started swimming too wide). The swim seemed very far, though I’d done 2k in a race this summer in Kingston. I repeated “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” in my head as I swam. I did not like swimming under the bridge – it was dark and kind of claustrophobic, but when I did it the 2nd time (it was a counter-clockwise rectangular swim) it wasn’t as bad! Just before I reached the shore a hand grabbed my arm and helped me up out of the water. I checked my watch and saw 44:47 – not as good as my 42 minute Kingston swim, but I was okay with. I was a bit lightheaded so I walked the first few steps up the hill, then started running to the transition zone (about 300m). By the time I got there I had my wetsuit down to my waist and my goggles and swim cap off. Before taking my wetsuit off I wanted to pee in it (yes, really), so I put my bike helmet on, sunglasses, and started eating a banana. Then I took my wetsuit off (and struggled with the legs!), and continued to eat my banana while I stuffed my goggles, wetsuit, and pre-race water bottle into my “wetsuit bag” to be sure it all made it to T2. I sat down to put my socks and shoes on, and then I headed out of T1 with my bike.

The Bike

Niagara bike course

92k bike course (2 more than the usual 90 because of construction).

I wasn’t quite sure how to pace myself for this ride, knowing that it was 92k of mostly flat roads, but knowing that I still had to run a half marathon after it! I decided that with the ridiculously crazy headwind we started with, I wouldn’t push too hard, but would try to take advantage of the wind as much as I could – based on the wind direction, it looked like we’d have a pretty good tailwind (gusts up to 50+ km/h) for about 2/3 of the ride. This ride was definitely the windiest conditions I have ever ridden in. At times I felt like I was barely moving. At other times I was being blown sideways. I had visions of ending up in a little waterway we rode parallel to – survive the 2k swim and drown on the bike (would another athlete stop to help? how would I unclip under water? how long before someone pulled me out?!)! Two guys were driving me and another woman nuts by illegally drafting off of one another (tucking in right behind each other to cut the wind) and off of us! One of them was spotted by a race official on a motorcycle and received a 5 minute penalty (should have been disqualified in my opinion). It’s dangerous without wild wind, but with it, it was even worse! Even the eventual race winner (Lionel Sanders) was nearly blown off the road twice. It was kind of nuts! It wasn’t long after starting the ride that the sun came out in full force!! I emptied my gatorade bottle and half of a water bottle while riding, but ate less than I expected to – I just didn’t feel like eating, but did force down 2 chocolate coconut balls and half an energy bar because I knew the run wouldn’t go well if I didn’t. When we hit Lake Erie and turned away from the wind, it felt awesome (and the view was fantastic – waves crashing into shore)! Unfortunately it wasn’t a pure tailwind for the rest of the race. We also had to deal with crosswinds! Riding under the Welland canal was pretty cool. With less than 10k to go, I was just about to say “On your left!” and pass a woman when I got a face full of water – her spit!! She quickly apologized and said that she hadn’t seen me… but she hadn’t even looked! By the time I was nearing T2, I was more than ready to be done biking! The ride along the Niagara Parkway (along the Niagara River) was very scenic. Those first few steps I took after getting off my bike felt very odd. I entered the transition zone, put my bike down on the ground, and made a quick portapotty visit. As I grabbed my bike a volunteer asked me what bib number I was, and then showed me where to find my bike (the racks were supposed to be set up identically to those in T1, but they weren’t – thankfully the volunteers were great). I racked my bike, took off my helmet and biking shoes, grabbed my running shoes and hat from my “red run gear bag” which was sitting at #285, and off I went.

The Run

Niagara run course

Very scenic run!

I was surprised at how good my legs felt! I hit about 2k when I felt a side stitch. Unfortunately, I suffered on and off throughout the rest of the run. At times I had to stop to walk, but wasn’t able to get rid of the pain. The course was very scenic – we ran past the falls twice! We even got sprayed by the mist! I really didn’t feel like eating any gels, or anything really, but did drink heed at most of the aid stations and poured water over my head (it was full on sun, hot, and windy in places!). I ate a few grapes from some of the aid stations too, and said to one volunteer, “Warm grapes never tasted so good!” I had a few pretzels at one point as well (but had to wash them down with water). At 9k I ducked into a portapotty, and heard someone cheer for my friend Rebecca while I was in there. She had lapped me and was on her way to a 2nd place finish among women 35-39 (and a spot at Worlds in 2015 in Sweden)!! I hit about 9 1/2 k when I encountered Alasdair coming the other way, so I knew he was about 3k ahead of me. It was a 2 loop course. The run was less hilly than I expected, and would have been much more doable without cramps! At around 14k I ducked into a bathroom building along the route for a quick stop! I ran for a while with a few different people, which helped to pass the time. At one point I said to a guy from the Buffalo Triathlon Club, “This is hard, isn’t it?!” At times it felt like I would never finish the run, but eventually, I did – 6 hours 47 minutes and 10 seconds after my race began! And a little bit sunburnt (oh my!).

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We did it!

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So happy to be done!

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Barrelman finisher medal

Race Statistics

  • Swim: 44:58 (2:15 min/100m)
  • T1: 4:22
  • Bike: 3:17:18 (28 km/h)
  • T2: 3:57
  • Run: 2:35:39 (7:26 min/km)
  • Total time: 6:47:10
  • Age group placing (women 40-44): 19/32
  • Gender placing (all women): 120/188 (top 2/3rd!)
  • Overall placing: 336/445

This race was 4 years in the making and it showed. It was extremely well thought out and organized, and superbly run – I highly recommend it! I’m pretty happy with my first half ironman experience. It could have gone better, but it could also have gone much much worse!! I look forward to doing this race again next year!

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