Sunday, 27 May 2012

Canadian Forces Running Championships - Ottawa Race Weekend

Photograph by: Ashley Fraser, The Ottawa Citizen

This would be my first time competing at the Canadian Forces Running Championships in Ottawa as part of the Ottawa Race Weekend. I had run the Ottawa Marathon in 2004, but had never run the half here nor had I ever competed under the Canadian Forces banner. I was very thankful to have the opportunity to race in Ottawa as it meant I would get the chance to return to Ottawa and see my family.  I was also very moved that I would get to race and represent the Canadian Forces.

I arrived to Ottawa on Thursday afternoon and was greeted at the airport by my father. It was a nice warm afternoon with temperatures in the high twenties. I was clearly overdressed arriving from Edmonton in jeans and a light sweater (when I had left Edmonton it was 4 degrees Celsius).  Once back at my parents house I changed and headed out for a run, my first in almost two weeks. The last time I had run was on the 15th of May – a short easy recovery run. As a bit of an aside…I had been scrambling the last two weeks completing renos around our house in St Albert so we could get it on the market and had placed training on hold. My legs that afternoon felt sluggish but that was to be expected. I was subsequently able to get short runs in on Friday, a quality run with intervals at race pace, and Saturday so felt fairly comfortable going into the race on Sunday morning.

The problem I faced was I didn’t have a clear sense of what I was capable of running. I had run a 1:17:30 through the first half of the Las Vegas Marathon in December so figured 1:17 was a somewhat realistic goal. I knew I was in great shape but had not gotten in a couple key training runs in the last few weeks so was lacking feedback. I was also very unsure of how I was recovering from IM St George and was a little concerned that the lack of running over the last couple weeks may have eliminated my top end speed. I decided that 1:17 would be my goal and I would attempt to run and hold a 3:40/km pace.

Friday afternoon we had a mandatory meeting at Ottawa U for all Canadian Forces members racing during the weekend. We were given the standard brief of what to expect and then issued our race shirts along with some other goodies. After the meeting we headed over to the Ottawa Convention Centre for our “pasta” dinner. We got a great meal and a speech from Mr. Running Room, John Stanton; a very impressive man who has been an unbelievable ambassador for this sport. He has quite a few positive words to say about the military and some words of wisdom heading into the race. It was a great time chatting with old friends while meeting some new ones.

Saturday was race packet pick-up at the Ottawa Convention Centre. The Military PSP staff had arranged with the race organizers to have all our packages. This made life extremely simple. We showed up at the military booth, signed our waiver form, and were provided our packages – a total time of like 5 minutes. I swung over to the shirt counter picked up my free race shirt and then spent some time touring the expo. I made sure to stop by the Brooks booth to see if there they had any good specials and also to see if they had either the Brooks Cascadia or Brooks PureGrit. (More on why I was looking for these in a later blog edition). Unfortunately they didn’t have either. I toured the remainder of the expo to see if the Compressport crew was in town. And to my surprise/delight there they were. John was running the expo when I stopped by and introduced myself…well kinda introduced myself. As soon as I said Joel and sponsored by Compressport, John quickly said something along the lines of, “Joel from Edmonton right?.” I thought it was pretty neat that John, someone I had never actually met before, knew who I was. (I was a little embarrassed as I didn’t really know who John was) John and I discussed my experience at St George, how business was going at the expo, and then I excused myself and finished my tour of the expo.

Moving now to the big day…Sunday. I had managed to get only about five hours of sleep as I tossed and turned for a good hour or two prior to falling asleep on Saturday night. I awoke at 0515hs as I wanted to get a good breakfast into me while ensuring sufficient time for my stomach to digest. I went with what I knew had worked in the past: two eggs over easy, two pieces of toast w/ jam, a cup of coffee, and a banana. I was still feeling a little tired so elected to take a quick power nap; a quick fifteen minute nap made all the difference. I got changed and was ready to go at 0645hrs. We departed my parents at shortly after seven and headed over to pick-up my oldest sister Kelly. I thought it was pretty neat that my parents and oldest sister were coming out to cheer me on; moral support is always appreciated. We arrived downtown at around 0730hrs without incident and easily located a parking spot about a five minute walk from the start. 

As there was still plenty of time before the start we just hung around out front of city hall and talked. I was a little nervous, but pretty excited at the same time. I think the nervousness was primarily caused by the uncertainty I faced going into the race. I had no clue of how my legs were going to respond and had done almost no running since IM St George (my own fault/choice). At approximately 0815hrs I decided it was time to start my warm-up. I did a couple minutes of light jogging up/down Laurier and then a few excels and I was ready to go. I moved to the start line with plenty of time to spare and was at this point extremely happy to have my dad at the race. It meant I could keep my warm clothes on until a few minute before the start and then hand them to my dad. It was ~14 degrees Celsius but there was a slight breeze from the south and it was overcast. As people started filling the blue coral, the first coral, my mind started to wonder. I didn’t recognize any familiar faces and I started wondering who in this coral was a threat…you honesty just can’t tell. I convinced myself not to worry about the competition and to just run my own race.

The horn went off at 0900hrs and we were off. I had managed to start right at the front on the left side. The temptation is always to go out really hard. I had told myself that this would be disastrous. Going out a little hard was ok, but I needed to check my pace early and often to ensure I did not overdo it. I checked my watch every couple hundred meters and tried to bring my pace into check, 3:40/km. I was running faster than that but there was another Canadian Forces member just off my shoulder so I figured I ‘d keep going at my 3:30-3:35/km pace and see what happened. There was no way I was looking over my shoulder to see who was behind me. I was told previously that looking over your shoulder is a sign that you’re struggling so I just kept the hammer down. The pace was faster than I had anticipated, but it felt comfortable and sustainable so I pressed on. At one point there was a couple kids along the road and it appeared they wanted high fives. So I did the honourable thing…swung to their side of the ride and gave each of the kids a high five as I ran past. The crowd in the area erupted cheering for the CF. I felt an extra surge of energy realizing the little joy I had brought to those kids. The early kilometers went by very quickly and before I knew it we were passing through Tunney’s Pasture. I went through the checkpoint at 10kms at ~36:00 and I knew it was only a matter of time before I was really going to be forced to focus to hold this pace.

The twelve kilometer marker passed very quickly thereafter and I just continued to put everything I had on the line. I had been running in a pack of runners 4-5 up to this point in the race. It was at this point that two of the runners (Jeremie and Andrew) really started to push (or perhaps I was just getting a little tired).  As they surged I decided I was going with them. I have absolutely no clue what was happening behind me or if some of the other guys came with us as I never saw anyone else after this point. We crossed to the Gatineau side and were greeted by a couple small hills…definitely not comfortable but hey I like hills. A quick jaunt on the Quebec side and then the climb up and over the Ottawa River on the Alexandra Bridge…that climb sucked. I dropped back from the group I was in by a few meters as I was really struggling to hold their pace. I knew I only had a few kilometers to go and I was pretty confident that I could bring home first in the CF. I knew I just needed to stay strong.

The eighteen kilometer mark passed and I knew with three kilometers left I could hold it together and finish strong. The nineteen kilometer marker passed and shortly thereafter we made a right turn and crossed the canal. The twenty kilometer marker passed and it was at this point that I knew that I had the CF title. I picked up the pace and really started to push. I saw the 400m sign and then really started to surge, 300m even faster, 200m still faster, and then a final big kick to bring it home. I was greeted by a ½ marathon banner, I signalled upwards and in my mind said a silent prayer of thanks to my Father above for having given me the strength to finish. I was excited to have completed the race, ecstatic to have set a PB 1:16:22, and simply humbled to have won the CF Championships. It was an honour to be wearing the CF singlet and have received the amazing support of the crowd. My mind drifted back to Afghanistan and I was reminded of the ramp ceremonies I had participated in for fallen comrades. I was struck by the realization that these fallen comrades would never get to feel the support of this great nation. A nation they had died for while in a fight to secure freedom.

Photograph by: Jana Chytilova, Ottawa Citizen

  Wow! What an amazing experience. The support the crowd showed for the CF was truly inspiring. It’s amazing to know that we as member of the CF are supported so well by the men and women of Canada.

It was a great race for me. I was happy to have finished 6th overall, 3rd in my age group, but most importantly first in the Canadian Forces Championships. I had given my best and set another PB in the process. The best part of the day however was being able to celebrate the race with family. Thanks Mom, Dad, Kelly, and Julia for coming out and sharing the experience with me. 

Thanks to the crew at Compressport Canada for the continued support and Brian Grasky of Grasky Endurance Coaching for keeping me going.  A special thanks to the PSP staff and CF running crew in Ottawa for making the CF Running Championships such a fantastic event.

And I best not forget my lovely wife Claudia. This one was for you sweetie! Happy 6th Anniversary! I am definitely owing in the love bank!!!

Monday, 7 May 2012

IM St George – A Race to Remember

Wow! I hardly know where to begin…! All week there had been early morning chop at Sand Hollow Reservoir so when I awoke at 3:50a.m. race morning, one of the first things I did was check the weather. I am not the strongest of swimmers so my preference would have been a nice smooth surface. The forecast was for a light 10km/hr wind from the North. I thought to myself, “well that will make the bike a little more challenging, but the reservoir should be fine”. And that is exactly what I saw when we arrived at the Reservoir at ~5:45a.m. 

Sand Hollow Reservoir - Early in the week.

I dropped my stuff off at my bike, checked my tires, doubled checked that everything was working fine and then got in line for the port-a-potties. After a wait of twenty five minutes I got my turn and then quickly donned my wetsuit for my favourite part of the race…the swim! It was a traffic jam getting into the water but slowly people worked their way to the starting line in the water. I worked my way up to about a third back and at 7:00a.m. we were off. I settled into a nice comfortable pace while working my way around a few people. At several points people had completely stopped and were treading water. If you can’t swim then please seed yourself accordingly. 

As I rounded the first buoy chaos struck. I made the left turn and popped my head out of the water to site the next buoy and to my surprise there was no buoys to be seen but waves 3-5ft crashing down upon the athletes. We were later told that the wind had kicked up, 40mph winds. It was quite evident that people didn’t really know where the next buoy was and very evident that many were in a state of shock at the change in conditions. I told myself I would just continue to swim despite the horrid conditions. For the remainder of the swim it was extremely difficult to get into any type of rhythm as you were constantly being thrashed by the waves. I am sure I swallowed a gallon or two of water but was just thankful to have completed the swim. It was a terrible swim, a 1:23 and change, but I am convinced that was due to the conditions.

It was a quick strip of the wetsuit, a dry-off in the chain tent, the application of some sunscreen and I was rolling out of T1, excited to be done the swim and onto the bike. I quickly settled into a rhythm and did my best to maintain the power Brian (my coach) and I had discussed previously. I knew it was going to be a tough go on the bike as the most difficult section of the course would be directly into the wind. The first climb up the hill on SR9 was quite uneventful but I was thankful to be climbing as it allowed me to put out a little more power and generate a little extra heat to warm up. My stomach was not feeling very well and I attributed that to having swallowed a large quantity of water and being sloshed around in the reservoir for over an hour. I stuck to my race plan and nutrition plan despite not feeling the urge to eat or drink. I was excited to finally pass Irvins park at ~9:45a.m.(I thought I would be through there by 0920hrs) as I got to hear the kids and Claudia cheering. The ride up to Gunlock and then onwards to Veyo was anything but fast. With the strong winds from the north coupled with the already tough bike sections it was anything but easy riding. I tried to stay aero and sat up for a couple of the tougher climbs as well as the hill on the north side of Gunlock and of course to ride up the wall. 

Powering past Irvins Park after the aid station.

Heading back to St George on SR18 was screaming fast. I could tell the wind had started to die down but the ride was still fast. I was thankful to have an ice cold Red Bull in my special needs as this was just the boost I needed to continue the ride into town and start the second loop. The second loop was much easier than the first as the wind had died down a little, but I was struggling to keep my power numbers up. I was feeling great and had no problems on the climbs but the “false” flats had me riding a very low cadence with a power number below what I should have been riding. I figured there was no point trying to push when my right quad had seized up once already and I could feel the left getting tighter. I just continued to press knowing that I wasn’t being passed and was continuing to pass other riders. I was happy to finally be heading back into town for the run…my specialty. A bike of 5:49:49 was definitely not what I was hoping for but based on the conditions it was all I had.

And then came the run. I knew it was a fairly “flat” course, but each leg of the course was down-hill and then back up-hill. It was a three loop course in the shape of the M. I figured I would run the down-hills easy and try and push the up-hill sections. I wasn’t too concerned with my pace initially as I just wanted to settle in over the first five kilometers and then see how the legs were feeling. Well, the legs felt great. I was through the first loop of the three loop course in fifty-seven minutes. I thought that was a little on the fast side so slowed it down a little on the second lap running a fifty-nine minute. At this point my stomach was still not feeling great. I continued to push the calories down range but knew that sooner or later I was going to need a wash room or I would have my picture plastered all over slowtwitch. I made the call on 400 Street and made a quick stop into the port-a-potty just before the aid station. With business taken care of, I finished the 400 Street leg and headed for Diagonal Street. The legs were getting a lot stiffer at this point and my pace was starting to drop off a little bit. It was at this point I hear Mike Reilly announce the first Age Grouper through the finisher shoot. I thought to myself that’s not bad I’ll be within twenty minutes of the top age grouper. 

Running up 400 East Street - Saying hi to the kids!

I finished the last leg on Diagonal Street and then it was to the finish line. I honesty had nothing left in my legs. I was tired, exhausted, and my stomach felt terrible. I had given my best, survived through some tough conditions, but was most thankful for just not having quit. I crossed the line in 10:20:38 having run a 3:00:41 marathon, the fastest AG marathon of the day and the second fastest including the pros. I was hoping for a sub three but I guess that’s for next time. 

I had given my best, I had pressed on to the finish to win the prize as it says in Phillipians 3:14. Unfortunately, this just wasn’t my day for a Kona slot. I was 25th overall and 5th in my AG, but seeing as there were only three slots in my AG and no roll downs, I guess I am off to IM Couer d’Alene. By the way, congrats to the others in the M25-29 age group for great races and congrats on your Kona slots…well deserved on a tough course.

Special Thanks to:
The volunteers. Especially those at the aid stations. You guys and gals were all top notch and made sure we got what we wanted.
My parents who taught me never to give up. I knew the conditions were tough, but I just don’t like to quit.
My lovely wife who despite being more than seven months pregnant continuously supports my insanity and brings Ruth and James out for the moral support.
Brian Grasky of Grasky Endurance Coaching for his amazing support and encouragement.
Compressport Canada for the great compression gear which allows me to race and recover like none other.