I chose this race for several reasons. First, because it was close to where I grew up, where my sisters still live, and where Brigitte has family east of Toronto. Second, after the 94F (34.4C), mostly walking, run debacle at IMAZ 70.3 last October, I was reasonably sure that it would not be hot for the ride and run. Third, the bike course was almost completely flat. Fourth, I would have the advantage of a 5000 foot elevation decrease between where I train and the race venue. And last, how cool would it be to run by Niagara Falls twice during a triathlon? I turned out to be right about three out of five.
We decided to drive to the race to save money and to have our own car in NY and Canada without having to rent one. Since I wanted to get there early so I could relax and do some course recon before the race, that meant we would need to leave a week before race day. Two and a half days of driving later we arrived at my sister’s house where we would stay until the night before the race.
Training had gone pretty well. I only missed one long ride on the bike that had more to do with scheduling issues around work than anything else. I had to miss several swims because my left shoulder has not been happy for a long time. I got all the long runs in and almost all of the runs off the bike that were on the schedule.
I was going to do one thing a little differently in training this time and that was to have a bit more active taper in the final days leading up to the race and I have to say that went pretty well.
The only question mark about race day after we arrived in NY was the weather. Western New York and southern Ontario had just had a very warm and humid although largely rain-free summer. The forecast for race day was more of the same, very warm and very humid. I was not looking forward to suffering in the heat and humidity and race day turned out to be worse than I had imagined.
We got to our hotel in the late evening the night before the race without incident. I wanted to stay in a hotel in Canada the night before the race because the swim was in Welland, Ontario and I didn’t want to risk any issues with the bridge over the Niagara River and the subsequent border crossing on race day. Our hotel was about 30 minutes from the swim venue.
I had my usual spaghetti dinner at a restaurant not far from the hotel and I got to bed fairly early for me on a pre-race night after a dry run to test the route out of town to get to Welland and the race.
Barrelman Niagara Falls Triathlon is a point-to-point, two transition race. We had dropped the bike at T1 in Welland, Ontario when I checked in on Saturday. It was very hot and humid with little to no wind then and it turned out to be a near carbon copy of race day weather, only cooler. T2 would be in Kingsbridge Park just south of Niagara Falls, Ontario where I’d leave my bike and start the 13.1 mile run. It was nice not having to deal with the bike on race morning other than to check the tires.
I woke up to the expected cool, foggy morning at 6 AM. Race start was 8:29 for the pros and 8:30 for the first age group wave. I was in the last age group wave that was scheduled for 9AM. Cutoff for the finish was 5:20PM so I had less than 8 1/2 hours to complete the race although I wasn’t concerned with any of the cutoffs. Barring a serious bike malfunction, I would easily make all the cutoffs.
Although it was a tad cool when we arrived at the start, it warmed up quite quickly and by the time I put my wetsuit on it was warm enough that I worked up a good sweat wriggling into the thing.
I got in a five minute warmup, but I should have warmed up a little harder. That’s probably the only logistics mistake I made all day. I guess after doing 35 of these triathlon things, you eventually figure most things out. Then it was time to line up on the dock before getting in the water for my wave to go off.
There were maybe 30 athletes in my wave which was men 60 and over and women 55 and over. After about 3 minutes in the water we were off. Only a little drama on the swim. I stayed with the group trying to draft as much as I could. It got a little congested even after we had been swimming for a while as I found myself in a pack of swimmers doing the same speed as I was. At one point I found myself swimming with my face next to the feet of a woman who was kicking vigorously and every time I turned to breathe I got a mouthful of water. I quickly moved away from that annoyance. The water was warm but wetsuit legal and truthfully, I got a little overheated on the swim and couldn’t wait to get out of the water. That was a sign of much warmer and more uncomfortable hours to come.
I swam remarkably straight as you can see from the GPS track. The swim venue was at the Welland International Flatwater Centre. This facility is on a disused portion of the Welland Canal that has been converted into a site for flatwater racing of all kinds. The rowing race course that we were swimming around is delineated into lanes with small white buoys. The buoys are anchored to yellow lines placed on the bottom of the canal that are easily visible in the clear water. So I was able to swim straight by following the line on the bottom much like swimming in a pool. This worked well until I made the final turn for the swim finish and, not having the lines on the bottom to guide me, veered to the right directly into the dock from which we started only about 30 yards from the finish. Also, at this point both of my calves decided to lock up into a crampy ball. I quickly corrected course, kicking furiously to relieve the cramps, and got out of the water in 48 minutes, 2 minutes slower than I had planned.
I headed into transition where I had a hell of a time getting my wetsuit off over the timing chip. I also had to pack up all of my swim stuff so the race could transport it to the finish at T2 resulting in a relatively slow 5:26 T1 time.
I was a little disappointed in my swim time. I was hoping to improve on last year’s 46 minute swim. I guess my lack of swim training due to my deteriorating left shoulder was more of a factor than I thought. Other than that I was off on the bike without forgetting anything. I had two throwaway bottles of dilute Gatorade on the bike which I would exchange at the two aid stations and a bottle of water on the aerobars that I would top off from the frame mounted bottles. I also had 10 electrolyte capsules and 8 Endurance Tap packets in my Bento box. All I had to do was remember to drink, take the Enduranced Tap, and take the electrolyte capsules.
The first third of the bike course was on rural, fairly quiet, and dead flat roads through farm country as we headed southwest towards Lake Erie. Unfortunately, the wind although fairly light was noticeably a headwind. I was feeling OK and made good time over the first third of the course.
My target for the bike was 3:30 or better. I had done 3:30 in Tempe on a much hillier, much windier, and much more technical course. This course had less than a third of the elevation gain and 90% fewer turns than Tempe, plus I had aerobars for this race that I didn’t have in Tempe because the Tempe course had 120 turns on the course making aerobars much less effective, so I thought 3:15 would be easily doable.
No problems on the bike. I sipped fluids steadily, exchanged water bottles without issues, and took my electrolytes more or less on schedule.
The headwind that we had going out to Lake Erie wasn’t much of a tailwind as we headed back to Welland. After we got to Welland and headed toward Niagara Falls we had a headwind along with the only significant uphill, a three+ mile long steady climb into a headwind after we went through the tunnel under the Welland Canal. I tired steadily as I pedaled towards Niagara Falls and my butt got steadily more sore as the heat built and the humidity kept my sweat from evaporating, resulting in my bike shorts never really drying out. I had lubed the undercarriage quite liberally before the race, but the soggy shorts dissolved it. I was hot, sweaty and uncomfortable for the last 25 miles.
By the time we hit the Parkway along the Niagara River, I was ready to be off the bike. It was a little cooler along the river and we definitely had a noticeable tailwind but I wasn’t feeling great as the day had become very hot and humid with no relief from the bright sunshine. I didn’t know it, but the run course would be a lot worse.
I finally pulled into T2 at Kingsbridge Park and hit the watch to end the bike ride. Three hours and thirty two minutes. A good 17 minutes off of goal time. The heat and humidity was definitely getting to me.
I had done almost all of my long training rides in the heat of Albuquerque’s high desert climate with temps in the mid to upper 90’s (35-37C) . I was prepared for heat, but not for the 70% humidity. More on the weather later.
T2 was uneventful although a tad slow at just shy of 4 minutes. My legs were pretty toasty after the bike and without the cooling effect from a bike ride induced headwind I was overheated as I started out in the blazing sunlight.
The first two miles of the 6.755 mile, two lap course were in full sun with virtually no wind on an afternoon with the humidex in the mid 90’s. I tried to run but the legs shut down in the heat. After the first two miles, the course had some shade and I started running 30 seconds and walking for 90 seconds.
I got confirmation that I was drinking enough when I had to stop and pee at about 3 miles. That was followed by walking the one steep uphill on the run course. After cresting the hill, we had moved away from the cooling influence of the light breeze wafting off the Niagara River and were now traversing a flat but stifling section of the course with a bright, full sun beating down and absolutely no wind. I started to doubt whether I would finish the run it was so uncomfortably hot. This was way worse then the 93F (33.8C) dry heat in Tempe and all I could think about was having to run this section again on the second lap of the run. Mercifully, this section was only about 1.2 miles long and we finally came to a shady section followed quickly by the downhill portion of the course that would take us by the Falls.
You may have seen iconic photos of Niagara Falls with the mist rising from the cataract and drifting over the Parkway wetting the cars and the tourists in a gentle, cooling rain. Well, today there wasn’t enough wind to blow the mist onto the course which followed the Parkway in a coned off lane for the athletes. There was the absolute gentlest of breezes that did provide some relief from the energy sapping heat and humidity. Thankfully, for the first mile or two on the course back towards T2 and the completion of my first lap of the run course, the sun was behind one of the few clouds in the sky. I didn’t pay much attention to the Falls. I was busy concentrating on relentless forward motion.
Once I finally got my running legs back, I increased the running time to 45 seconds and walked 1:15.. I figured that since I had walked almost all of the Tempe run course, a short but steady run/walk would gain me enough time over the Tempe run that I might make my 7:30 overall goal. I hit the turnaround to start the second lap in about 1:39. I knew it was going to be tough to make that 7:30 goal.
I picked up the pace as much as I could on the second lap, increasing the run to 1 minute and decreasing the walk to one minute. That was the best I could do. The temperature was just the tiniest bit cooler but the fatigue that was setting in more than made up for any performance improvement from ever so slightly lower temperatures.
I ran the second lap about two minutes faster than the first, finishing the 13.1 miles in 3:16. My last mile was my fastest of the run so I didn’t bonk or get dehydrated. I had no issues with hydration or nutrition on the run. I took my electrolyte capsules like clockwork and had no cramping at all in spite of the high humidity.
Total time was 7:47:04, a Half Iron Distance PR by 8 minutes. I did OK on the day given the conditions but it wasn’t the day I had hoped for as the weather delivered the hottest, most humid conditions in the history of the race. There were about 40 DNFs, most after the bike ride, and 108 DNSs. I finished 8 out of 9 in age group and 498 out of 539 total.
This was my A race for the year and I think I delivered an A performance given the conditions. Logistically, I did my best ever triathlon. I forgot nothing and took in hydration, fuel, and electrolytes steadily and on schedule throughout the race. My one fault was swimming into the dock, but that only cost me 10 seconds or so.
The jury is still out on whether I will do another Half Iron Distance triathlon. I think I have a sub 7:30 in me but I’ll be another year older before I can try again. In the meantime I have several sprint and olympic distance races on my schedule as well as a 100 mile bike ride. We’ll see.
Thanks to my wife, Brigitte, and to my sisters, Robin and Laurie, and my nephew, Ryan and his fiance, Tricia, Robin’s husband, Mickey, my niece, Stephanie and her boyfriend, Ryan, and Laurie’s partner Dave for their support during the race. It really helped a lot.