On August 30, 2015, I was fortunate to have participated in the inaugural Ironman Muskoka, in Ontario, Canada. It was a very challenging event in a beautiful setting. The following is a race report. Just like all my race reports, my goal is not to discuss the boring aspects of my own performance, but to give a useful guide to future participants in this event.
I live in the Chicago area. While driving is an option from this area, my wife is pregnant and it just would be unfair to her. I shipped my bike through Tribike Transport and we flew into the Toronto area. Based upon the airport and traffic, it is a 2-3 hour drive to the site of the race. Canadian highways (at least those that we saw) are nicely maintained by US standards, but the signage at night is not very reflective and can be confusing. Also, road signs indicate upcoming turns and there often is not a sign directly at the point of a turn. Another interesting difference with US highways is the tollway, which runs charges after the fact by matching license plate numbers to credit cards.
Oh, and by the way, as a dense American it just didn’t occur to me that Canada, our good friend to the north, is a foreign country. Therefore, I had not set up a data service for my cell phone and had to turn off roaming to save money. This did become an issue at some points while driving, since a cell-phone map would have been really helpful.
Also, passports are required. Make sure you obtain or update yours with a couple months to spare.
We decided to stay at Deerhurst Resort, which is the location of the race, including the packet pickup, swim start, transition area, and finish line. This is very convenient, especially just before and just after the race, but VERY overpriced. We paid prices that would be unsurprising for the Four Seasons in Chicago. These high prices were not only for the room, but for meals at the hotel. While much less convenient, there were plenty of other lodging options in the area and other dining options, as well. For a quick meal, I recommend the Pita Pit. For a nice breakfast (at half the price of the resort) I recommend Three Men and a Stove.
We stayed in a room, at the bottom of a hill, literally 50 feet from the swim start. The room was of decent size and clean, but certainly was not of high-end quality consummate with the price.
Our hotel did have a tiny trickle of WiFi which only appeared to work in our hotel room. This aspect of the hotel was especially disappointing.
Packet Pickup and Expo:
The race was not very large (under 1300 registrants) and packet pickup was a breeze. The expo was of good size and was adequate to get any last minute doodads necessary for a triathlon.
Other Pre-Race Comments:
The legendary 6x Kona Champion, Dave Scott, was at the race for the three days leading up to the event. He led a number of free group clinics. I participated in a group run 2 days before the race with Dave and about 20 other people. What a thrill to be told by Dave Scott that my running form sucks (all though not in so many words)! Seriously, he was gracious, energetic, and simply great. He, and dozens of other current and professional triathletes, are amazing examples of why our sport is so cool. Is there any other sport in which regular people can just go for a run with pros?
Also, there was a swim-up coffee and juice bar about 150 meters from the beach. This was really fun the day before the race.
Bike and Gear Drop Off:
In all Ironman events, these things are handled in the day or two before the race. This was easy, summarized in the race guide, and well-supported by volunteers.
At the time of writing this race report, it has been over a week since the race, and I am feeling nervous, again, just thinking about the start of the race. Wow.
This swim was a beach run-in to a comfortable (69 degrees Fahrenheit), clean lake. The start was staggered according to anticipated swim time (under 60 minutes, 60 minutes to 70 minutes, and so on) and started at about 6:45 AM, instead of the traditional 7 AM. This led to the obvious question: “does this mean that some people get more than 17 hours to complete the Ironman?” But the last finisher was at approximately 16:50, so this never was an issue.
The swim course was a clockwise rectangle with the out and back portions being very long and the connecting lengths being shorter. The finish was actually inside a cove closer to the transition area than the swim start. So, the return leg was the longest. The buoys were always on the right and were yellow for the first half, orange at the turns, and dark red over the second half. Since it was cloudy and I am color-blind, it was hard to see the buoys on the return leg of the swim. I ended up following other swimmers more than sighting on buoys. This is reflected in my GPS data, which shows much straighter lines of travel over the first half of the swim than the last. Anyway, I was delighted with my swim time (1:09 and change).
Some people felt that there was a helpful current headed toward the finish once we entered the small cove at the end. I did not notice this (since I was being run over by, primarily, female, faster swimmers), but I did notice that the water was cooler at this point. This felt great.
At the end of the swim, there were awesome volunteers helping people out of the water (it was slippery). Then, there were wetsuit strippers who worked in teams of two. I love these people!
There is a considerable hill running up the left (from the perspective of the swim finish) side of the resort to get to the transition area. I ran barefoot and I did not experience any sharp rocks, gravel, or other discomfort.
After reaching the top of the hill, race participants enter the hotel, run along a nice carpeted hallway, and enter his and her changing areas. Volunteers help participants to find their seats (on and under which both the bike and run gear bags are stored), organize their gear, and then stuff and close the gear bags. Essentially, my volunteer did everything for me but put on my helmet, sunglasses, socks, and shoes.
Participants then run back down the carpeted hallway and out to the bike racks. On the way to the bikes, I stopped at the sunscreen station, at which my wife was volunteering, and got a really healthy layer of sunscreen. I then got my bike off the rack and headed into hilly hell…
This course is challenging and technical. The total elevation gain is 2252 meters. The course is a clockwise loop, completed twice, around an area of lakes. To reach the loop, athletes ride about 5 miles from the transition area. Even from the very start, there are hills and these become increasingly challenging up to about a third of the way through the loop. I was constantly shifting gears and, truly, used every single gear on my bike. I also dropped the chain once. The middle third of the loop is fast and feels like a net downhill. Finally, the last third of the loop contains the two hardest hills of the loop. These are painful the first time around and agonizing the second. After completing the two loops, participants return along the same 5 mile connecting “tail” from the beginning of the bike course. This area was very surprisingly difficult at this point in the race. Did they regrade the roads in the 6+ hours I was out there?
The bike course was simply beautiful. It looks a lot like western Washington State, but without the mountains and with maples instead of alder and birch. We rode along lovely lakes at several points and through a couple of cheering crowds. Most of the ride was along residential roads, but there was some very smooth-feeling highway riding (with generally decent shoulders) in the second fifth or so of the loop. Traffic was generally quite light and usually, but not entirely, respectful of race participants.
I have raced Ironman Wisconsin, which has a total elevation gain similar to Ironman Muskoka. I have also done the Horribly Hilly Hundreds in southwest Wisconsin, which is much more difficult than Muskoka. Other famously hilly races I have done include Branson 70.3 and St. Croix 70.3, with its legendary “Beast.” But I had a bike crash last year which led to surgery on a clavicle. I also have had problems with muscle cramping on the bike. So my approach to this bike course was pretty cautious. Some of the downhills were just screaming fast and, yes, I chickened out and braked. The wind also picked up over the second half of the bike and this led me to be further concerned about excess speed on downhills, since a crosswind could lead me to lose control. This cost me in time, but my goal was to be able to finish the race, not break records.
My plan was to keep my power around 70% of my functional threshold power for the entire ride and I was passed quite often by other people powering up hills. Oh, to be fast! But I stuck to my plan, drank, ate, consumed salt, and conserved energy so that I would not be crushed by the run. I finished in about 6:25 or so, which was about 10-15 minutes slower than expected.
When I dismounted off of my bike, a volunteer took my bike to rack it for me. I then took off my cycling shoes and ran inside of the resort, again, to the changing rooms. Once more, volunteers were present to really speed along the transition process.
Okay, the bike was tough, so race organizers are going to even things out with a flat run, right? Very wrong! The run course has a total gain of elevation of 608 meters and, by my count, 46 hills of various sizes. That’s right, more than one hill per kilometer. Some of these hills are very steep.
The run course is an double out and back in which participants essentially travel from Deerhurst Resort to the Village of Huntsville (which is very quaint and cute), through and beyond the downtown area, then back to Deerhurst. There is almost no tree cover at all and it did get a little warm and sunny at points (I think it reached 76 degrees). The aid stations were, in a word, AWESOME. Participants essentially have access to 24 aid stations during the race.
I am at about 7:38 of this video, above.
Another aspect of this race that I enjoyed was the metric system. A marathon is 42.2 kilometers. That means that there are a lot more markers of progress than in American races!
There are a lot of good runners who participate in triathlons and I am not one of them. For some reason, my running performance has declined a lot over the last year. Knowing this, I had been conservative on the bike and just planned to keep an even, easy pace during the run. At no time was my heart rate going to get over zone 2. I was careful to drink and eat and even took salt tablets during the run. I continually ran, except walking through aid stations, for the first 8 miles, until I started to feel horrible. I drank and ate extra and just slowed down until I started to feel better. Then I ran-walked (more like walked-stumbled) the rest of the way. Just after the halfway point, a guy to whom I was speaking before the swim start, Tom, tapped me on the shoulder and we shared the misery for the rest of the race. Finally, another guy, Marcio, joined our slog for the last 10K. These guys made it immeasurably more fun to get through the run. My marathon performance simply stunk. I was hoping for 4:45 and I achieved 6:02. But I finished. This was an amazing feeling.
By any standards, this was a tough race. There were 1298 registered participants and only 1056 finishers. I think I had excellent training and a good approach, but my body just wasn’t able to respond as I had hoped. But I have been through a lot over this last year. 18 months ago I had the bike crash, in an iron-distance race, that led to surgical reconstruction of my clavicle and recovery. Then, almost exactly a year ago, in another iron-distance race, I passed out from heat stroke at mile 16 of the run. So just finishing safe and well was a “win” for me.
I have not spent nearly enough time mentioning the volunteers for this race. These volunteers were simply the best volunteers I have encountered in ANY race, of any kind, in my 10+ year “career” as an amateur athlete. There was uniform enthusiasm, energy, patience, and kindness throughout every aspect of the race from check-in before the race to check-out that night.
Thank you, volunteers! Thank you, Muskoka! Thank you, Ironman!
Most of all, thank you, Jessica, my wife, for putting up with me on this journey. I love you.