Whistler training camp: A bear, a bee, and a bum knee

Ironman Canada is fast approaching! Eons ago, when we signed up with a coach to train for this thing, he mentioned a group training camp that they do every year for the poor souls that register for the race (my phrasing, not his). We eagerly signed up for the training camp. Jeff successfully finagled his way around Navy reserve work, which, of course, was scheduled for the same days. And last weekend we made the jaunt up to the friendly ski village to our north and got a taste of what we’re in for.

Things did not start off amazingly, as the 4.5-hour drive up to Whistler took closer to 6 due to a major accident blocking the Sea-to-Sky highway, the only route from Vancouver to Whistler. We finally passed the bottle-neck and pulled off to get a few groceries. Upon our return to the car, Jeff opened the back door and we heard a whirring as the window decided to spontaneously roll itself down. Fair enough. Except that when we pushed the button to roll it back up, it wouldn’t. Fortunately, it was a fairly warm day, as we had to drive the final 45-minutes or so with the window open (though it eventually fixed itself without mechanical intervention).

We arrived Thursday night and had a brief team meeting to go over the fun and suffering planned for the weekend. There were about 20 of us participating in the camp, not including the 4 coaches. I had assumed all of the athletes would be doing either the full or half version of Ironman Canada, but there were a few who were team members in training for other events and I suppose just wanted a hard training weekend in a beautiful location, as you do.

The general plan was that Friday we’d be riding, more or less, the entire bike course. Saturday we’d be doing a short swim in Alta Lake, then getting back on the bike for another ride, then doing a long run in the afternoon. Sunday we’d wake up to a longer open water swim in the lake, then head home.

It was Friday that was my primary concern. Turns out, Whistler is not flat, I am not a very strong cyclist, and 110-miles is a long frickin’ way (my longest outdoor ride to date had been about 65-miles and fairly flat). Fortunately, none of this was earth-shattering news to me, and as I have been doing my best to physically prepare, I knew this effort was going to take considerable mental prep as well.

IM bike elevation
Elevation map for the Ironman Canada bike course, 6525 feet of elevation gain!

I’ve been reading this book, How Bad Do You Want It, by Matt Fitzgerald, which basically talks about the power of psychology in endurance sports. It’s interesting, after having participated in distance events for the past decade, I’ve found that I have personally experienced or discovered, mainly through trial and error, much of what he discusses in the book. Case in point, my chosen mental strategy for the first day of training camp: acceptance.

I didn’t actually read about acceptance, or attribute this name to it, until the car ride back from Whistler. In my own words, acceptance is this: expect pain, embrace it (aka don’t freak out), and just keep going. The book describes it as a way of “bracing yourself” by having a positive mental attitude “towards an impending disagreeable experience”. I have found in the past, my best races were the ones where I prepared myself for the discomfort. The worst were the ones where I mentally relied on my training and when pain came on in an unexpected manner (too early, while going too slowly, in a different muscle group than normal, etc.), my mind, and therefore performance was affected. For this ride, I tossed away any hope that my body would suddenly perform as a seasoned cyclist and I would sail through the course. As the book discusses, and makes logical sense, hope that something is not going to hurt very much is a poor mental strategy for endurance events. My mantra for the bike: Embrace the suck and enjoy the ride!

On Friday morning we woke up early to be in the first (slowest) group of cyclists to leave the hotel and ride the course. The actual Ironman course will start at Alta Lake on race day but the coaches chose to leave out this 4-5 mile stretch for logistical reasons. Our hotel was located in Whistler Village, which is near where the second transition will be, so other than the first few miles, we rode nearly the exact route that the race will follow. We departed as a group of 8-10 riders but the plan was to go at your own pace and the coaches would have support vehicles every twenty miles or so to check in with the athletes, help them refuel, reapply sunscreen, relieve themselves, etc. The coaches also traded off riding as cyclists to keep an eye on team members. It all seemed well organized, this was not the coaches’ first rodeo (shout-out to TN Multisports), but I still kept my cell phone on me per chance I managed to get lost or worse…

The first section of the bike from the hotel was 30-40 minutes of mainly downhill terrain going south on 99 until a turn-off onto Callaghan road followed by a climb up to an area they built for the 2010 Olympics. Amped by my mental prep for the day and the excitement to get ‘er done, the first several miles flew by. I was not even deterred as we started the climb up Callaghan, I knew this would be a fairly steep stretch, it was a decent hill, no problem. What could have been a problem however, was the black bear moseying directly to our right about mid-way up the climb. I was in my focused climbing mode, which does not allow for much sight-seeing, and it wasn’t until I was practically right on top of it that I noticed it. Oh… bear… literally, right there… Hmmm, it didn’t seem to mind our presence. I pointed out our company to Jeff, who shrugged, yeah, there’s a bear there. I then pulled up to his left, which he viewed as a tactical maneuver to place him between the bear and myself. Whereas I just wanted to check in to see how he was doing with the ride… Ok, it may have been a bit of an unconscious tactical maneuver. My go to bear-gets-aggressive-plan was to pull a U-ie and bail downhill back towards the highway. My mental prep for completing the bike course for the day had not included potential bear attacks.

No, I didn’t stop to take a selfie with the bear we saw, but this guy looks similar

Fortunately, we passed the bear without incident and the riders spread out as we went our separate uphill speeds (mine being more or less the slowest). I was still in high spirits, we’re riding in Whistler, we’re riding up to Olympic facilities, we saw a bear, it’s a beautiful day, when WHAP a bee flew into my face and got stuck in my helmet. I know it got stuck because it continued to buzz as I shook my head in an attempt to free it. 30-seconds, still buzzing. 60-seconds, still buzzing. Was my head stinging or was I just imagining it? I should have just stopped and taken my helmet off but I was in a mental zone of pushing through. Anyways, after a few minutes the buzzing ceased so I figured it either flew out or decided to hunker down and hang on for the ride. By the time I checked at the next support station it was gone.

Time passed quickly through the first several sections of the ride. We rode back down Callaghan and onto 99, then back towards Whistler Village. Another support car was parked just past the Village. Jeff was finishing up reapplying sunscreen as I pulled up to refill some water bottles. The vehicle then leap-frogged us, parked a ways farther up the highway, indicating the turnaround for the ½ Ironmaners, and provided another spot to replenish. We were then briefed on exactly where to turn into Pemberton and departed again onto a mostly downhill section of the main highway until reaching the town.

We eventually turned left just past a gas station onto a main street through Pemberton. Turns out there are a fair amount of Pembertonians who aren’t fans of triathletes, or at least, the inundation of cyclists through their town that has been spurred on by the Ironman. The night before, the coaches had emphasized to us the importance of cycling single file on the shoulder and being overly courteous riders through the town. Apparently it had gotten so bad that recently a cyclist had been intentionally clipped by an angry local. I duly noted their advice.

The ride through Pemberton provides the only consistently flat section of the course. You turn onto a rural road through farmland with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Jeff and I rode mostly together through this stretch. The road eventually dead-ends which was where our next support stop was. We checked in, reloaded, verified that we were indeed the last of the pack of cyclists, and headed out again.

I felt surprisingly good on the ride back towards 99. On the way out to the turnaround, I started getting a stabbing discomfort in my left neck and shoulder, but I was able to stretch it out a bit at the rest stop and was relieved that it didn’t instantly return as soon as I got back on the bike. Jeff and I stayed mostly together and were joined by another gal who was in college and training for her first Ironman as well. We cycled together back to the highway then started the climb on 99 back towards Whistler.

This was the stretch that everyone who has done the course or race before had warned us royally sucks. By this point you’ve ridden 80+ miles, it’s the heat of the day, the ascent is long and steady, and not shaded. It was about 85-90 degrees, which with the wind resistance on the flats felt okay. Once I started grinding away at under 10-miles an hour uphill it did not feel so okay.

We’d been climbing for a bit when Jeff and the other gal started slowly pulling away. They were still within view when I was slogging along on the shoulder and I heard a roar coming from behind. I looked back and driving along the shoulder (there was now a passing lane to our left) was a massive log truck… headed, apparently, straight towards me. What the…?! In a panic, I pulled off to the true shoulder, which was gravel, and it instantly halted my progress. I whipped my foot out of the clip to set it down so I didn’t fall over. The truck roared past and I was dead stopped. I watched as the passing lane ended and the truck re-entered the main lane just before getting to Jeff and the other gal, not impeding their progress in the least. Then I watched as they disappeared over the hill.

I was hot and tired and dead last and alone and stopped in the middle of a steep ascent. Okay, pity-party over, it was time to buck up and get going again! Getting started from a dead stop on a hill is not an easy matter. Getting started with clip in pedals (technically call clipless, which is a stupid name since your shoes clip into them) compounds the problem. Sometimes cyclists will actually turn around and go downhill to get momentum and then swing around again to restart the ascent. This was not really an option on a well-trafficked highway. No, I had to coordinate pushing off and clipping in before losing momentum (which happened almost immediately on this hill) and if I didn’t make it, hurriedly put the foot back down to avoid falling over. It took me 5-6 tries, each failure followed by a short string of expletives, before I managed to successfully clip in and resume my snail’s pace slog up the hill.

Several miles later I saw the coach’s car pulled off to the side and stopped at the last aid station. Jeff was just heading back out as I was pulling in and we exchanged brief pleasantries/grunts. Either it was really really hot, or I looked like crap, because as I approached one of the coaches seemed way more concerned than in the previous stations about hurriedly cooling me off and getting some nice cold fluids to refill my bottles. Or maybe it was just because I was the last one and they wanted to head back to the Village. I was eager to return to the Village as well and a bit jealous of their mode of transportation. Nonetheless, bailing on the last bit was not an option, so I hopped back on the bike and slogged on.

The last several miles were fairly uneventful. They consisted mainly of me trying to keep focused on my eating/drinking schedule despite not feeling like eating/drinking anymore, and counting down the miles/estimated minutes to completion. I eventually returned to the hotel, last but I’d like to think, not least. Jeff had only just arrived a few minutes before but would have been earlier had he not missed the turn-off the highway to our hotel. Fortunately, he realized it almost immediately but the turnaround process took a few extra minutes. At this point we were supposed to do a 30-minute brick run but I had been having some notable knee pain with running and was advised to sit-out. The next day we were planning to run the actual Ironman route and I really wanted to participate in that workout and see the course. So Jeff followed our marathon bike ride with a 30-minute run while I headed back up to our room.

Having written in agonizing detail about riding the course on the first day, I am going to attempt to breeze over the next couple days’ activities. Like I said initially, the bike had been my primary preoccupation for the weekend so I wanted to give it its due justice. Not to say that the rest of the weekend was uneventful…

Saturday morning started with a 30-minute swim in the beautiful Alta Lake. We then returned to the hotel for a quick break and headed out for another couple hours on the bike. We rode the first part of the course again, from our hotel up to the Olympic ski jumps on the top of Callaghan and back. I’m not sure if it was because it was a bit later in the day or if it was because it was a Saturday, but there were a lot more cyclists out on the route. I rode beside and chatted with a gal about my age from Australia. She lived in Vancouver and was out riding with her husband, they were both planning on doing the upcoming Ironman as well. We wished each other luck.

Prepping for our morning swim in Alta Lake, gorgeous right?

After the ride we returned to the hotel again, rested for an hour or so, and then returned to the lobby to convene as a group and tackle the run together. As I mentioned before, my right knee had been bothering me for the last 2-3 weeks. Overall, I’ve been fortunate to have remained relatively injury-free since I started endurance activities over a decade ago. I’ve had various aches, pains, and strains, but nothing that has really side-lined me from running for more than a few days. This knee pain felt different. During my previous run attempt the weekend before I actually stopped after a few minutes and walked home, something I’d never done before in my running history. Of course my PT brain was scrambling to self-diagnose and the worst possible scenarios kept coming to mind… I’m screwed, all this effort and I’m not going to be able to race the Ironman.

Of course this was an overreaction, and I realized that I wasn’t actually giving my knee any time to rest. I had kept trying to run through it. So I entered the training camp in Whistler resolved that I might only do the biking and swimming portions and rest my knee entirely from running. But… the biking didn’t seem to aggravate it and it didn’t hurt at rest or with walking. So I decided I wanted to try the afternoon run.

We headed out as a group, our coach Mark was on a mountain bike and led us about a half-mile from our hotel to the official start of the course. On race day the course is two 13.1-mile loops. We were planning to run one loop for training. Earlier in the day Mark had laboriously placed arrows and tape along the entire route to indicate every turn. Unlike the bike course, it could not be easily explained and followed. The day of the race the course will be blocked off and self-evident. On a busy summer afternoon filled with twists, turns, and tourists, it was not at all self-evident.

The route starts out on a compacted dirt trail around Lost Lake. The first couple miles my knee felt fine but then the familiar soreness started to creep in. For awhile I thought it mild enough to keep running but then it progressively worsened and I thought it wise to speak up. We coursed back, I thought, towards the hotel, and I mentioned to Mark that it hurt and I didn’t think I should do the whole run. I was thinking I’d just turn around and head back to the hotel. He thought it would be less distance if I continued running with the group to the turn-around point, where one of the coaches had a car for refueling. Fair enough. It wasn’t so sharp a pain that I couldn’t keep running a bit more.

Somehow in the route briefing I had the impression that the turnaround point and car was going to be at 7.5-miles (Jeff thought this too and had rationed his water accordingly). So, though I had brought adequate water and nutrition along, I thought I’d hold out over the last stretch as I’d be able to replenish amply once I stopped at the car. Did I mention it was a really hot day? And we’d already swam and biked earlier? Well, turns out the turnaround was not at mile-7.5. We were on a long straight path between the highway and a lake, very scenic, but at 7.5-miles you could see the upcoming course for quite a way, and no car was in sight. Though hot and sore and moderately dehydrated, I was oddly okay with this development. Mentally I was feeling bad for not being able to complete the run, though I did have a good physical excuse, so I welcomed this unexpected stretch as a way to challenge myself a bit. The turnaround eventually came about a mile later, at which point I begrudgingly stopped and caught a ride back in the car

Though bummed that my knee was still painful with running, I was pleased that it didn’t hurt immediately and as severely as in my previous run. A week of rest had done it well (or at least slightly better). After the weekend my coach told me strictly no running for a couple weeks and I have, to this point, obliged. The athlete in me wants to keep testing it. The PT in me realizes the athlete in me is an idiot and that things take time and rest to heal.

We wrapped up the training weekend with an hour swim in Alta Lake on Sunday morning. Have I mentioned what a beautiful location this is for a race? Nestled just across the highway from the Village, it has beautiful views of snow-capped mountains. We were initially concerned the water temp would still be quite frigid this time of the year but with a wet-suit on it was perfect. If it doesn’t warm up another degree before race-day I’d be quite happy.

Overall, take-aways from the weekend: Whistler is gorgeous. If my knee cooperates, which I expect/hope it to do, I feel confident I can do this. Doing this is going to take all frickin’ day, but thankfully we chose the most scenic course imaginable, so at least we’ll have some nice views for all those long hours. Also, hopefully it’s not this hot on the day of the race but we better be prepared for it to be. The camp, though hard, just reaffirmed my love for working out and challenging myself. It was just a few days, but I really enjoyed the lifestyle as well as the camaraderie of unique individuals working towards a common goal. I always thought I’d make a great pro athlete: workout, eat, rest, and repeat… perfect! Oh, except for the mediocrity of my athletic ability. Oh well. I’m not planning on quitting my day job.

Thanks for reading this far and supporting our quest to complete an Ironman. In one sense I can’t believe we’re so close to the big day, in another, looking over all my past entries, I can’t believe how far we’ve come. If it were to end tomorrow and for some reason I couldn’t compete in Canada, I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey and things we’ve accomplished along the way. That being said, there is one more ultimate goal, and we’re almost there!

Corny but apt summary of the training weekend

2 thoughts on “Whistler training camp: A bear, a bee, and a bum knee

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