Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Gordo's Guide to Ironman Canada

Gordo's Guide to Ironman Canada
By Gordo Byrn

Gordo placed 22nd overall at Ironman Canada in 2000 and 8th overall in 2001, so this is a race course he knows well. Here, he shares his thoughts on the Penticton course.

In 1999, IMC was my first Ironman, so the town of Penticton and the Okanagan Valley hold a special place in my heart. I've made my fair share of mistakes out there so I hope that this article will help you avoid repeating some of my more serious gaffes.

The Swim
The swim start is very wide and, even with a record start in 2000, there was plenty of room for everyone to line up. The most important thing to remember is appropriate seeding. If you are a 1:05 or faster swimmer then you will want to be near the front. If you are a 1:30 or slower swimmer then you'll want to be at the back. If you are in the middle then it is best to ask those around you what their expected times are. In 1999, I lined up right at the front ... it wasn't pretty.

The taper, pre-race nerves and the energy from your fellow athletes will cause you to swim far harder that you think. I've had my best swims when I headed out in a controlled manner, found my stroke and then found a draft. Do your best to control yourself.

If you do run into trouble then roll onto your back and do some backstroke. The two main benefits of this strategy are:
a. you can breathe as much as you want, and
b. by staying horizontal other swimmers are more likely to go around (rather than over) you.

The free to back transition is one that you can easily practice in your last few swims as well as during race week. Having been kicked in the head, chest and shoulders by breaststrokers, I'd recommend against this stroke. Backstroke is better sportsmanship.

Soon after the start, you will have found your draft and settled into a good rhythm. If it feels easy when you are drafting then you're going the right speed. Keep an eye out for faster swimmers coming through. If you have the energy then you might benefit from switching over to their feet.

Quite often there is congestion at the first turn, so you might consider taking it a little wide. Many athletes slow here, so it’s a chance for a stronger swimmer to catch up to a faster pack. I've always found that the turns are an excellent place to improve my position.

If it's a sunny day then there will be some glint on the water for the last leg of the swim. However, there will be lots of athletes around so return navigation is easy. Maintain your draft and relax on the way back to shore. Your position in the pack is established and your energy is best saved for the rest of the race. I've noticed that many athletes tend to accelerate towards the end of the swim. Personally, I like to back off a little to reduce the stress associated with a rapid change from horizontal to vertical.

Investigate the swim exit in the days before the race, there is a "sand bar" that extends across part of the swim exit. If you know where it is then it is easy to avoid.

The transition layout at IMC is excellent. You'll want to walk the "swim to bike" and "bike to run" transitions in advance. You can do this when you hand your bike in or on race morning.

I made a huge mistake in 99 when I ate an energy bar in T1. It shut my whole stomach down and played havoc with my nutrition. Since then, I have waited until my heart rate settles (10-20 minutes into the bike) and then started eating and drinking. It's worked well for me.

The Bike
I love the IMC Bike course because it has an excellent mix of flats, rollers and hills.

In my opinion, the most critical point to remember is to control yourself until you are on the far side of Richter. If your taper has worked properly, the first two hours on the bike will be the most effortless riding of your season. Take it easy, the race will get tougher as the day progresses.

Athletes that tend to experience back pain will want to stay seated as much as possible on the short climb up McLean Creek Rd as well as the longer climb up Richter Pass. Staying seated reduces the stress on your lower back and also helps keep your heart rate under control. Know that any time "lost" from showing control early in the bike will easily be made up once you are on the second half of the ride (and still riding aero because you saved yourself).

Every year, several athletes are disqualified for crossing the yellow line on the curvy descent into OK Falls. Review this part of the course in advance and use your brakes if you think you might cross over the line.

For most athletes, the climb of Richter consists of steady work. Enjoy the view of the Valley to your right and stay in control. Steve King will be waiting for you at the top. The descent is a good time to rest your legs and have a drink. If you run out of gears then coast. There is no need to spin like a maniac - it will fatigue your legs for no real benefit.

For me, the ride begins on the far side of Richter. There is a series of long rollers and, normally, a headwind starts to build. If you have shown control then it is time to use some of your mental toughness to maintain your pace. Stay aero, keep eating and drinking.
The next major section of the ride is the out and back. The "out" is pretty nice -- the headwind is now a tailwind and you are heading towards your special needs bag. For me, the "back" is always a mental challenge where I am forced to overcome a large serving of self-doubt.

When things get tough, I like to focus on my nutrition. By this point of an IM ride, I am always sick of eating and I have to force myself to continue. Spin, eat, spin, drink, spin, eat... soon you will be in Keremeos turning right to head up to Yellow Lake.

You'll be gradually working up a valley, a little tired, your butt a bit sore. You'll want to back off and sit up. RESIST! Stay down on the bars and keep your focus. If you have paced yourself appropriately, then many of those people who dropped you on the first half of the ride will start coming back to you. This gives the patient rider a big mental boost. I'm sure it helped Charlie Cooper when he blasted by me last year!

The climb up to Yellow Lake is short and sharp. You'll have plenty of crowd support for the steepest part. Take in the energy from the crowd, focus on turning your legs over and know that you'll shortly be cruising back to town.

After you arrive at the Yellow Lake aid station, there is still some climbing to do before the long descent. However, you will be able to recover along a nice flat section beside the Lake. I always force down a Powerbar on this stretch. If you are using solid foods then it is a good time to eat -- you won't have had much on the Yellow Lake climb and there is enough time for your stomach to digest it before the run.

The descent from Yellow Lake is fast, winding and sometimes a little scary. Stay within yourself and under control. There can be crosswinds here and a speed wobble at 45+ mph is pretty wild (happened to me in 1999).

You'll probably have a headwind for the final ride through town. Whenever I am in the wind, I tell myself that it is the same wind for everyone and focus on being as aero as possible.

A final note on the bike course, somewhere between the Richter Rollers and Yellow Lake you will feel very, very bad. This happens to everyone so stay calm and keep moving forward. These feelings always pass after a little while, all you need to do is endure a little discomfort and you'll get through it. No matter how bad it gets, you can pull yourself together for the run. I have felt completely dead on the bike and managed to put together a solid marathon.
The Run
Did somebody say marathon? Best not to think about the run in its entirety. I like to break it into bite-sized morsels.

The run through town is not a problem. You'll likely be feeling rough but the cheers of the crowd will tide you through. Don't worry about your splits for the first three miles as you will be finding your running legs.

After you've run down Main Street, you'll turn on to South Main where you will trend downhill to Skaha Lake. Running along Skaha Lake is flat and fast (relatively speaking!). Most years, you have a tailwind on the way out. Be sure to keep taking in calories and fluids.

Coming into Skaha Estates the road moves away from the Lake and there is a moderate climb followed by a mile (approx) descent to OK Falls. Once in OK Falls, you turn left and there is a small climb up to where you will turnaround and receive your special needs bag.

Heading out of OK Falls is the toughest mile of the day, the climb back up the hill you just ran down. As far as hills go, it's not too bad, but it is challenging. I think Peter slowed to 6:45 per mile pace last year ;-)

Soon you will be back alongside Skaha Lake. This is where you find out what you're made off. Your body will beg to slow, your mind will give you excuses to slow, people around you will start to crack. It will be you and your race. You'll find out just how badly you want to hit your pre-race goals.

For me, Miles 15-23 are the toughest of the day. On a good day, this is where I start to ramp it up. On a tougher day, I have to dig deep to keep from walking. Keep pushing, keep moving forward and keep getting those calories in you. You'll be on the edge so skipping aid stations is risky.

If you are going for a Kona slot then push right to the finish line and pass every single person you can. The slots in Canada rolldown a long way and you'd kick yourself if you missed out because you walked the last two aid stations.

If you stay mentally tough then it is always possible to move up a few positions in the last 5K. The final mile will give you a chance to have one last look at your competition. One of these years, I know we'll have an awesome sprint finish.

As you cross the line remember to look up for your photo - now is not the time to check your run split!

See you there,