Over the weekend I had the distinct pleasure (and challenge) of shepherding my partner through his very first full 140.6 distance triathlon at the 2014 Ironman Canada course in beautiful Whistler, BC.
While it was meant to be a vacation for both of us, it was obviously not so relaxing for him, and not nearly as relaxing for me as I thought it was going to be, though it was really valuable to be able to see first hand the preparation for the race, as well as all of the check in and race day logistics. But be warned- supporting your athlete, especially a first time 140.6-er is nearly a full time, all day activity in itself, both prior, during, AND after the race. There’s check in, gear bags to pack, check, re-check and drop off, shuttling your athlete and their bike here and there, last minute nutrition and other items to pick up, final workouts to get in, eating, eating and more eating, and lots of stress and panic calming to be done.
Even though I tend to think Ironman brand races are SUPER EXPENSIVE- you certainly get what you pay for- the race course is well designed and well supported, and everything ran extremely smoothly all weekend.
I’ll talk about the race from a spectator’s perspective and a little bit about the course from the racer’s perspective based on my observations and my partner’s comments.
Pre-Race Check In
The center of the entire weekend is the village in Whistler, and the pre-race check in and race expo (along with the finish) are all at the Olympic park in the village. Check in was easy and speedy, and Tony was super excited to see the awesome race bag (a really nice backpack with the race logo on the back) that he got at check in. We learned that finisher’s shirts (along with hats and medals) are given out after you cross the finish line. The race briefing was
equally well organized and executed, though I wish they had mentioned that athletes were allowed to get into the water during bike check on Saturday, as there were no swim practice details or times listed on any of the other schedules. As a result, we showed up to bike check on Saturday in normal clothes when had we known, we would have brought Tony’s wet suit with us so he could get in the water for a few minutes.
An important detail to note- T1 and T2 are in different locations. To check your bike in at T1 at the swim start/finish, and to get there on race day, you had to either walk, bike, or take a shuttle. On Saturday, all are welcome on the shuttle, but on race day, athletes only, so I had to walk the 1.8 miles or so down to the swims start (which wasn’t bad at all).
The Swim is located at Rainbow Beach in Alta lake. The water temperature on race morning was a not so bad 66 degrees, which was initially warmer than the air, and the waters were very calm, almost glassy. The beach is relatively small, so it is difficult to get a good spot to watch from (especially for shorter people, like me), so arrive early and steak out your claim, or be ready and willing to wade into thewater. This was the first time I have ever seen a mass start in action and it was definitely impressive! Tony said that even though he hung back a little from the main rush, he still ended up getting jostled a bit on the swim.
We knew the bike course had a reputation of being difficult, but as we drove a good portion of the course the day before the race, I was surprised at some of the very intense hills on the course, along with the very high volume of climbing, which includes a very uphill 20+ final miles of the ride back into T2. It’s definitely a course where you really need to pace yourself and be conscious of how much energy you are expending. There were a small, but sizeable percentage of folks on road bikes and a lot of compact gearing. A great bonus of the course is that the roads are closed to outside traffic (which includes the closure of a major highway) and the bike course takes athletes by the village after about the first third or so, so while I couldn’t drive out anywhere to cheer him on, I still had the opportunity to sit by the side of the road, cheer people on, and see Tony go by once on the bike.
A testament to how difficult this bike course is- the pro male lead came in almost 20 minutes ahead of second place off the bike. Tony (who came out of the water on the swim way later than most) ended up making the bike cut off by a slim 3 minutes or so. When I was having trouble locating him on the run course close to the cut off, a volunteer suggested I got check transition to see if he had racked his bike and I arrived at transition just in time to see him come in. I was relieved to see him and surprised at all of the run gear bags that had yet to be retrieved. There were a lot of people who didn’t make the bike cut off or DNFed out on the course.
The run course is awesome for spectators as it loops twice through Whistler village and the surrounding paths and it does so in a way that it’s relatively easy to jump from point to point to follow your runner. I got to see Tony about 8 separate times on the run. Or there were plenty of folks camped out in a shady spot for most of the day. One thing is for certain, there are a lot of people spread throughout the course to cheer you on during the run! Even as the day wore on and it got dark, I was amazed at how many people were still out and about! Tony said there were even people on floating docks out on the lake, grilling, partying, and cheering people on.
The run course itself is relatively flat with aid stations at every 1.2 miles or so and a nice mixture of sun and shade. It’s mostly paved with a short stretch of packed gravel on each loop.
I have never witnessed the finish line at an Ironman 140.6 event, but I was not disappointed. I told Tony afterwards that I would actually not want to finish super early in the day, as the finish line only attracts more and more people and gets more and more exciting as the day goes on. When I went to the finish line to see Tony, it was like a big dance party with everyone jumping and waving and music blasting. The atmosphere was simply electric. Athletes I had watched out on the course, many with faces clearly in a lot of pain, were finally smiling as they came down the final chute and across the finish line. I cried as I got to hear those awesome words, “Tony Barkey! You are AN IRONMAN!”
Overall, as one athlete featured in the official race video said, the Whistler course is epic. It’s big and beautiful and as long as you are a strong cyclist, an awesome place to race a 140.6. Some folks said they had a little trouble with the altitude, but for Tony and I coming from Denver, that wasn’t so much of an issue. There were also lots of cool things to do in Whistler- we rode the Peak to Peak gondola,and I went for an awesome trail run. There’s lots of hiking and mountain biking opportunities, which may not appeal to the athletes racing, but to those tagging along. If you stay in the village (we rented a place through airbnb), it’s great for spectators because you can run back to your place to eat, or nap, or both while your athlete is out on course.
Not that I did that.
Shhhhh, don’t tell Tony I took a nap while he was out on the bike!