Ed. Note—Part of our ongoing series tracking the Wattie Ink. racers (pros and amateurs), we rewind about ten days to recap the experiences of our five professionals who ventured up to Penticton, B.C. on August 27th for the ITU Long Distance World Championships.
For me, Penticton, B.C. will always by synonymous with my happiest memories of triathlon. I raced my first Ironman here in 2009, and other than August of 2016, I've raced every summer here on the last or second to last Sunday of the month. That first year I wandered through the swim and the bike, and then found myself running well early into the marathon, thinking I'm going to land on the podium. As with many debut Ironman races, however, I was mistaken, and the second half of the run (sound familiar, anyone?) turned into a long, slow walk. I can still remember the pain in my side; when you have hours to examine your discomfort, you get to refine its description—cozy up to it. It felt like someone had unbent a wire hanger, heated it for a while, and then slipped it between two ribs on the right side of my torso. I drifted back through the pack, giving up any positions I'd gained, and finished a ways back, in 21st. But the distance spoke to me. Something about the length of the race, and the fact that Penticton boasted one of the few non-looped courses on the circuit, had me already planning my return.
Over the years in Penticton, I've had good races and bad, but a majority of good races. I've been 8th, 4th, 7th, and 2nd on the good years. One year, in 2012, I managed to lead the race for close to half the marathon, before exploding into smithereens at mile fourteen, having fallen prey to something I'd never experienced: the pressure of leading a big race. I faded to 12th, and that day remains my biggest disappointment, my biggest missed opportunity, of my career. But regardless of the disappointments, Penticton has become my triathlon home, the place I remember when I need a reason to get up and go to the pool, to finish that final interval, to stay on the bike all day yesterday on my trainer, while Portland filled with smoke from the Eagle Creek fires. And when I learned, two years ago, that the ITU Long Distance World Championships were coming to town, I put a second ring around the final weekend of August 2017.
What are the ITU Long Distance World Championships, by the way? Other than a cumbersome handle, what do they mean, and what's their place in the sport? The competition and format grew out of a long distance event that premiered in Nice, France in 1982. The organizers hoped the race would compete with the new Ironman event in Hawaii, and for about twelve years a quiet game of tug-of-war existed between the two locations. All the greats of the 1980s and early 90s raced in Nice: Mark Allen won the event ten times, and Dave Scott, Scott Molina, Scott Tinley, Erin Baker, and Paula Newby-Fraser all competed. Although it eventually lost out to Hawaii, Nice had established itself as one of the centers of the triathlon world, and also established the distance of ITU Long Distance races for years to come: a 3-4000m swim, followed by 120k of riding and 30k of running, roughly 3/4 of the Ironman established distance. The race is more prestigious in Europe than in North America, due to the Eurocentric nature of the ITU, but it's been held several times in the US: as a weather-shortened duathlon in Henderson, Nevada in 2011, and in Oklahoma City in 2016. It's usually been dominated by the French, who seem to excel at swimming and have always enjoyed the editions with 4000m of swimming versus 3000. I raced the 2008 edition, in Almere, Holland, just as I began my professional career, and got destroyed. Unprepared for the speed and violence of the swim start, I came out of the water in 65 minutes, over fifteen minutes behind, and limped through the bike on a slowly flattening tire. It wasn't my proudest day.
So that brings us somewhat up to speed. The local organizers in Penticton decided, years ago, that they wanted to bring as many of the ITU World Championships to town during the same festival. They assembled five competitions over nine days: Sprint and Standard Duathlon, Cross Triathlon (the ITU's moniker for off-road racing), Aquathlon (a short but brutal swim/run competition), Aquabike, and the traditional Long Distance Triathlon. Wattie Ink. sent five of our pros to the race: myself, Josh Amberger, Joe Gambles, Nathan Killam, and Rachel McBride. We all took the start on a cool, clear morning on August 27th, swimming into the smooth waters of Lake Okanagan.
Josh quickly moved to the front of the race, and afterwards he told me he was surprised that Andy Potts hadn't come with him. Amberger came out of the water with one of the Spanish super swimmers, Despaña, and headed out onto the bike with a two-minute gap. Joe swam in a small group of American Drew Scott and Mexican 70.3 champ Francisco Serrano, and quickly got to work on the bike, headed off in pursuit of the others. I swam well, coming out of the water on the heels of Jeff Symonds and Lionel Sanders, about 40 seconds behind Joe. On the women's side of things, Rachel McBride continued her run of excellent swim form, coming out of the water in 39:38, swimming with the front pack of great swimmers such as Leanda Cave and Helle Fredericksen.
Up front, Amberger set about padding his lead, knowing that Lionel Sanders, on great form and on home soil, would be setting a torrid pace on his way to the front. Gambles played his steady game, riding deliberately through the field; I hitched my wagon to a small group of Symonds, Ben Collins, and Swede Sebastian Norberg; behind, coming out of the water after an uncharacteristically slow swim, Nathan Killam surged forward, despite riding a borrowed bike with a dodgy seatpost (an issue that has plagued him this season! See his report from Texas 70.3 here). I managed to pick up a 60" penalty for littering, and rode the second loop of the bike alone, trying to limit the damage and stay positive. At the end of the bike Josh still held onto his lead and set out onto the run searching for a World Championship. McBride rode a smart, solid bike split, knowing she'd raced a lot in July (see our posts here and here about her lead up to Worlds). "After an incredible swim out of the water with the lead pack, my bike legs just didn’t feel right," the Purple Tiger told me. "My perceived effort was well beyond the power I was putting out. It was really frustrating coming off such a record-breaking ride at Ironman Canada. I just put my head down and rode as hard as I could, knowing that if I was hurting I was working as hard as I could on the day." Back on the men's side, Nathan passed me like a man possessed while I cooled my heels in the penalty tent.
On the run Amberger held his lead gamely until the closing kilometers, surrendering the lead to eventual victor Sanders. "I expected the race to be super-fast and competitive, and it sure was!" he told me, after the race. Amberger had clocked an impressive 5:22:09, about 90 seconds behind Sanders, in an auspicious tune-up ahead of Kona next month. Gambles also ended up with a battle on his hands, coming into the final 5k with Andy Potts and last year's World Champion Sylvan Sudrie. "I just tried to kick it down to 5:35 pace for the last 5k," the fast Tasmanian told me. "It was hard, but I managed to hold them off!" Gambles had secured the second Wattie position on the podium. Nathan and I, a little farther down the field, finished in 11th and 12th, respectively, and on the women's side Rachel took 6th in a field full of super-stars. "I was happily surprised with the quality of the women’s field that toed the line in Penticton," she said. "It’s great to see the ITU World Champs getting more recognition. And a positive to my lackluster ride was coming off the bike and starting the run much more comfortably and faster than expected. I’ve gotten some really solid run training in finally, despite having several months off with a foot injury earlier this year. I took 10 minutes off my 30k time from ITU Worlds last year!"
"I was really surprised by how great the run course was," Killam said later. "Both from an athlete perspective and having spectators out there. They were able to see us multiple times per lap, which was incredibly motivating. I also gain a lot of motivation from being able to see where everyone is out on the run course, to measure gaps and splits to the other athletes, so that made the run course a lot better than I thought it would be. Also, the crowd turnout was impressive, most of the run course had people spectating on it, and the east end of Lakeshore Drive was deep with crowds cheering loudly, which was amazing. Other than that, I've raced here so many times, so there weren't really any other surprises. I expected an impressively beautiful and fairly challenging bike course and I got it! Penticton Rocks! Since my triathlon season is now over, I would say the race gave me confidence that I put in a lot of good work this year, and even though I had some issues to deal with during the race, I raced well otherwise. I definitely need to work on my swim while wearing a wetsuit, it hasn't been as good as my non-wetsuit racing has this year. But the pool is where I need to spend some quality time this off-season, I need to put myself further up in the swim to set me up for success. I'll also be racing a ton of cyclocross, which is part of where I have been finding my bike strength these last few years. Everyone should do cyclocross!"
And how do I feel about 12th? Well, I feel good. 12th is nothing special, from a pure outcome perspective, but I've been plagued by an intractable injury over the past two seasons, a left-leg inhibition that has stubbornly refused to let me run to my potential, I believe. Going into the race I wanted to swim 40 minutes, ride three hours, and run two hours. Coming out of the race, knowing that I swam 40:46, biked 3:03:15 (I'm going to regret that littering penalty), and ran 2:01:49 I'm ecstatic. You go through periods of racing where you aren't sure if you can do it any more, and this race showed me that I'm not done, not quite yet. I wanted to land in the top ten, but you can't control your competitors, and at the end of the day (and this overlong blog post) I'm super proud of this race, and incredibly grateful I get to race with rock stars like Rachel, Nathan, Josh, Joe, and the rest of the field, professional and age group, on my favorite course in the world (the following picture's facial expression notwithstanding). Thanks, everyone, for reading.