Ever wonder what it’s like to jump off a steamship? If you’re looking for a unique triathlon experience, look no further! The Gravenhurst triathlon put on by the Multisport Canada Triathlon Series includes a steamship ride to the swim start line on Lake Muskoka, and then a swim back to shore (sprint and Olympic distance races only – the try a tri starts from shore). The inspiration for this race was the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.
This was to be my 3rd Gravenhurst triathlon, having done the sprint in 2011 and the Olympic in 2013 in a time of 3:11:22. Before this year’s race, I said to friends that a finish of less than 3 hours would be an amazing race for me.
On race morning we woke up in a Gravenhurst hotel at 5:30 AM, and were at the race site just after 6:30 AM. We racked our bikes, picked up our race bibs, t-shirts, and timing chips, got body marked (bib number on both arms for me – not sure why the right – and age on left calf), and set up our stuff in the transition zone.
After multiple bathroom trips it was time for the 7:45 AM pre-race briefing, during which we got details on who would be boarding which steamship at 8 AM for the 8:30 AM race start (the Segwun and the larger Wenonah II).
After the pre-racing briefing, everyone headed to the boats, where we boarded in reverse order to our swim waves (first in last out). According to the Town of Gravenhurst website, the Segwun was built in 1887 and is North America’s oldest operating coal-fired steamship. The Wenonah II is a larger replica and was launched in 2002: “Combining all the style and grace of 1907 vessels and the modern conveniences such as air-conditioning and an elevator, Wenonah II truly offers a luxurious setting.”
Just before we boarded, my eyelids started burning – I hadn’t put my goggles on yet, and hadn’t used new sunscreen, so I wasn’t sure what was going on! My wave (“white caps”) was called and Alasdair and I said our goodbyes. I boarded the Wenonah II and took a seat where there was fresh air (starting the race with motion sickness would have sucked!). Athletes could sit or stand on any level and get cups of water from the bar. Thankfully, it was overcast and not too hot (all zipped up in our neoprene wetsuits!). The day’s weather was to be 30 degrees Celsius and humid, but we weren’t there yet.
As our boat approached the start line, everyone seemed to shift to one side of the boat to get a look at the athletes on the other boat jumping off – someone commented that the boat seemed to tilt slightly with the shift in weight!
I wanted to be one of the first in my wave to jump off the boat, because the first year I did it, I was one of the last, and hardly had enough time to swim to the start line before the race started!
Only when they called the “blue caps” (Alasdair’s wave – the 2nd wave) to jump off the ship and I headed for the exit to line up immediately behind them did I see him and realize that we were in fact on the same boat (somehow I thought he was on the other boat)! In any case, we got to kiss goodbye and say good luck again! Had I known we were on the same ship I would have had someone to sit and chat with!
I was the 3rd white cap to jump off the steamship and I headed for the start line immediately. I had lots of time to get there (it was about 25m away), and even ended up treading water for 6+ minutes, the time between Alasdair’s wave starting and mine.
There were some funny people at the start line (which was between 2 green buoys). “Stop TOUCHING me!” one athlete said, as dozens of people were treading water in close proximity to one another. Laughter ensued. “Okay people, last chance to pee!” More laughter.
Blasts of the steamship whistle sent us off. I had another great start, having lined up further forward than where I used to start. I was swum over not too long into the race but I just continued on. I had trouble sighting the first and only green turning buoy at the 400m mark, at which point we would make a 90 degree turn to the left and swim toward shore. I could see the orange sighting buoys though, and just aimed in their general direction.
I felt like I was swimming well and fairly straight, with only minor adjustments needed to my course. There was very little congestion, though I did get smacked a few times on the feet and legs. I was aiming for the brown arch on the dock 1 km or so away, but it was pretty hard to pick out. As I got closer, it was actually easier to see the multicoloured clothing of the spectators on the dock and head for them! I was thinking that either I was swimming fast and leaving everyone in my wake (unlikely) or slowly and everyone was gone, since I felt like a good chunk of the swim I was alone.
I would have been happy to see 35 min on my watch when I reached the dock, but when I reached the ladder (there were 3 to choose from to climb out), I saw 33 something! I climbed the ladder and started peeling my wetsuit off almost immediately (according to the pictures, most people hadn’t started removing theirs at the point I had mine nearly to my waist).
I ran carefully along the wet dock (they had warned us that after the first few swimmers, it would be wet and slippery), across the road, and avoided colliding with cyclists who were leaving the transition zone and crossing our path (in every other race I have done there is no criss crossing of routes, but it’s just the way the swim and bike work in this race venue). I was surprised to see Alasdair heading out with his bike! This meant that either: 1) I had a fantastic swim (and made up some of the 6 minute head start he had on me) and/or 2) he had a slow swim, and/or 3) he took a nap in transition! I continued running along the grass, around the transition zone, and in. I had no trouble finding my bike, and noticed that there were 4 left around me (I wasn’t the last swimmer!).
I decided to save time by peeing in my wetsuit before I took it off while I put my helmet and sunglasses on (yes, I rinse it out when I get home!). I struggled less to get my wetsuit off this time but sat down for part of it. I put my socks and shoes on and took off (my race belt with my bib number had already been on under my wetsuit).
Swim time: 34:54.1 (includes run to transition zone) (2:19/100m)
Age group placing (women 40-44): 14/29
Gender placing: 64/136
Overall placing: 179/327
Heading out of transition with my bike, I waited for a couple of seconds as 2 swimmers crossed my path. I passed the mount line and struggled to clip my left pedal in – it took 4 tries! And then I was off, heading along Highway 169 on a different bike course than the usual one due to construction. Apparently, it was to be a less hilly ride. I found the route to be a bit dangerous at times, with riders on both sides of the busy Highway 169, and 2 cars going opposite directions in between.
I pushed hard on the bike, and played leapfrog with a rider named André, who at one point while passing me said with a big grin on his face, “Guess WHAT?!….. On your left!” only to be passed by me a short time later. It added some fun to the ride and helped to pass the time! Later I played leapfrog with a rider name Paul, who I would pass on the downhills and get passed by on the uphills. He said at one point, “It’s a shame we can’t pool our strengths!” At another point of the ride, a man and woman were out for a Saturday cycle but caught up in the race (looking like any other athlete, but without body marking/race bibs) and the man said to me when he passed me, “You’ve got GREAT cadence!”
I knew that I was at most 2 min behind Alasdair at the start of the bike, and didn’t think I would catch him, but didn’t want him to get too much further ahead! I figured I would see him close to the turnaround, and I did. He was less than 500m past the turnaround when we passed one another, but he didn’t see me (he was passing someone at the time and probably saying “On your left!”) I likely beat him on the first 20k of the bike to catch him so close to the turnaround. I had about half a bottle of gatorade and my awesome chocolate peanut butter ball on the bike. Can’t believe I didn’t try them out sooner! At every 5k marker I saw that it had taken me less than 10 min since the last marker, so I knew I was riding 30+ km/h! It was a fast course, with no big hills, just rollers. I think the first half was a net elevation gain.
Along the bike route, I noticed several wire cages in the gravel on the side of the road, which I realized were there to protect turtle eggs before they could hatch. I noticed one Ontario Association of Triathletes official on a motorcycle give a penalty to a rider in front of me for drafting.
At one point, the rider just in front of me accidentally rode off the road and onto the gravel shoulder (sound familiar anyone?!). I was anticipating a crash, stopped pedalling, and would have jumped off my bike to help, but he somehow managed to get back onto the road safely! I asked him if he was okay (likely just shaken!) but I should have instead said, “Nice recovery!”
The return half of the bike route should have been slightly downhill, and I think it was…but I also think Alasdair’s pace picked up on the return leg more than mine did, because in the end he beat me on the bike by about 3 minutes. I was really happy with my 1:17 min 40k ride, over 30 km/h! (Turns out it was my fastest triathlon bike leg yet, for any distance.)
I racked my bike, took my helmet off, changed my shoes, and headed for the portapotty for a quick pee (I knew I couldn’t run 10k comfortably without making the pitstop). I headed out of transition and onto the hilly run course.
Bike time: 1:17:33.2 (30.95 km/h) (fastest ever race bike pace)
Age group placing (women 40-44): 11/29
Gender placing: 39/136
Overall placing: 164/327
T2: 2:02 (including pee break)
The run course is an out and back along a hilly country road. There is very little traffic, and even a bit of shade. Starting out I knew that I had more than 60 minutes to run the 10k if I wanted to finish in less than 3 hours, so it was doable. My legs felt tired at the start, but I forgot about them after a short time.
It was still overcast until I was at the half way point, when it suddenly got a lot hotter! I took a cup of water (or more) at every aid station, sipping a tiny bit and pouring the rest on my head or shoulders.
I ran for a while with Paul, the man I had played leapfrog with on the bike. He said, “This is different – you’re passing me on the uphills!” I told him that my husband was up ahead but that I likely wouldn’t see him until after the 3km marker, and maybe closer to 4. And sure enough, right before the 4k marker I said, “There he is!” We high fived and he said “I love you!” as he went by. “Awwww!” said Paul. I replied, “I love you!” Running with Paul helped to pass the time and forced me to forget about the constant hills, if only for a short time.
A little later, when I was past the half way point and heading back, I spotted André running toward me – we met in the middle of the road and he high fived me!
I had no side stitches on this run, so I ran at a pace around 6 km/h, I think. My pace started to slow in the last few kms, and I started to doubt my sub 3 hour finish. I started thinking “forget the time goals, I just want to finish”. But, with 3 km left, it was still mathematically possible if I didn’t slow down any more. With 1 km to go, time was getting tight and I was slowing, but I decided to push and go for it. I reached the park with less than 2 minutes to go, and wasn’t sure how far I had to run in the park to reach the finish line. I hadn’t noticed where it was before the race and couldn’t remember from 2 years ago. Thankfully, I spotted it, glanced at my watch, and knew it was possible. I finished, looked at my watch, and saw that I had finished with 42 seconds to spare. I later realized that I had actually finished in 2:59:42.6 and had less than 18 seconds to spare, but I had done it! Must be the beet juice!
After grabbing a cup of water, getting sprayed by a kid with a hose, finding Alasdair (who finished in 2:47:15.5), and getting some chocolate milk and a Recharge with Milk towel, I went back to the kid with the hose and had him soak my towel, which I put over my shoulders. I returned to him a couple more times to soak me again – I told him I was just going to hang out with him (because by that point, it was pretty hot out)!
Run time: 1:03:14.5 (6:19 min/km)
Age group placing (women 40-44): 13/29
Gender placing: 53/136
Overall placing: 179/327
I would have liked a faster run, but I’m still thrilled with my race!
Final time: 2:59:42.6
Age group placing (women 40-44): 13/29
Gender placing: 53/136
Overall placing: 179/327
For comparison – 2013 stats:
Final time: 3:11:21.8
Age group placing (women 40-44): 12/19
Gender placing: 58/100
Overall placing: 209/278
Swim: 41:56 (2:47/100m) – 18/19 women 40-44, 88/100 women, 258/278 overall
Bike: 1:23:25 (28.77 km/h) – 58/100 women, 216/278 overall
Run: 1:02:06 (6:12 min/km) – 12/19 women 40-44, 65/100 women, overall 221/278
Gravenhurst, we’ll see you again!