Craig Zelent "Ironman Canada"

on . Posted in TCSD Conversation

Craig Zelent

On Sunday August 28th I raced Ironman Canada.  IMC is one of 20 events around the world where you can qualify for the Hawaiian Ironman.  My time was 10:43:21 and after racing all day I found myself winning a sprint finish and qualifying to race Hawaii by a mere 6 seconds.  My age group (men 40-44) had the most participants (327 started) so we got the most slots for Hawaii (12).  At the end of the day I finished 18th out of 290 in my age group.  God blessed me as the 12th  Hawaii slot dropped all the way down to me.  Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.  I was very lucky on this day. 

The 50 pros started at 6:45am while the 2,200+ amateurs started at 7am.   I had the 15th best swim in my age group as I covered the 2.4 miles in 1:00:45.  Lake Okanagan is the very best lake I’ve ever been in.  The water was clear and actually tasted good.  You could see the lake’s bottom the entire duration of the swim.  I was pleased with my effort as I swam efficiently and did not try to go out too hard.  The only difficulty I had was about 5 minutes into the race as I found myself in a swarm of people.  I felt a bit of panic so I moved about 5 meters to my left and that provided me the room I needed to not get beat up.  I only got kicked in the face once and that was in the final 400 meters so that’s pretty good for such a long swim.

Transitioning onto the bike went smoothly.  It was already such a clear, warm day (high temperatures would be in the low 90’s and humid) that there would be no need for arm warmers.  I was actually on the bike course at 1:05:30 so I was a few minutes ahead of schedule.  The climb up Richter pass at mile 45 seemed easy – I actually passed my friend Katya Meyer who was racing as a pro (she passed me on the descent and I never caught her again.  She also qualified for Hawaii at this race).  The bike felt great until mile 70 when we faced the only headwind that I recall during the bike.  I was starting to feel tired in this section so I was thankful that we changed directions at mile 75 and enjoyed the tailwinds.  This was too early to feel tired and this concerned me.  I survived the final climb at Yellow Lake at mile 95, but that took it’s toll.  Just prior to the summit I had to shoo away a wasp that had landed on my hand.  I was really straining to turn the pedals and the last thing I needed was a sting (I’ve been stung 4x this year on bike rides – inside my helmet and jersey and on the face).  After the Yellow Lake summit, the bike course mostly descends for the final 17 miles.  And to help my recovery we finished the final 5 miles with some big tail winds.  I completed the 112-mile bike course in 5:36:24 for an average of 20 mph.  This was my same bike split from 1992 when I last raced this course. 

I had the 59th best bike split in my age group putting me in 38th place in my age group.  I thought I was doing much better than this at the time.  That’s the thing with triathlon.  You have to do your best at all times because you just never know where you are until the end.  The bad news was I had very little power as I finished the bike.  The good news was that I was starting my best event – the run.  And more good news – I had no idea that I was in such a horrible place after the bike.  If I had known that I was in 38th place and needed to pass at least 20 people, I would have curled up in a ball and started to suck my thumb.

Based on my preparation, I expected to run the marathon in about 3:25 or better.  I ran the 2001 IM California in 3:18 and the 2002 IM Wisconsin in 3:22.  The first half marathon of the Canada course was into those same big winds that we enjoyed at the end of the bike.  By mile 4, I was only averaging 8:00 miles which put me on pace for a 3:30 marathon.  I figured that would be good enough to qualify for Hawaii, but I could not afford to run any slower.  At mile 6 my stomach really hurt and I was starting to feel dizzy.  I was hoping that by now I would be running in a good rhythm, but I was having huge problems.  I’d had such a good swim and bike and now any hope of achieving my goal was falling apart on the run, my strongest event.  I did manage to mostly run, but a lot of walking (inconceivable to me) happened thru mile 16.  My stomach was killing me!  And I did not need to go to the bathroom or vomit so I was going to have to live with this feeling.  I was particularly dizzy at mile 13 to the point where I staggered a bit.  Thankfully no officials saw that – I had to at least finish this race! 

As much as I was determined to finish, I had also given up on qualifying for Hawaii.  I figured I had walked too much.  I estimated that I was on my way to an 11 hour race and that would never be fast enough.  There was so much “quit” in me.  I could find no reason to run and continue to “race” on this day.  At mile 15 my friends Bob Rosen and Bill Gibbs were at mile 10 on the out and back course.  Usually I’m good for an enthusiastic word, but today I could barely manage a wave.  I also noticed that my watch battery had just died – I did not like that symbolism.  At mile 16 miraculously my stomach calmed down.  I was on the verge of cramps in various leg muscles, but I could run gingerly with no walking.  I had no hope for Hawaii, but now this thing was all about pride.  I still wanted to beat as many people as possible.  Good things were happening – I was actually passing guys in my age group.  I saw my wife, Laurie Kearney when she was at mile 6 and I was at mile 20 - she looked like she was having a very good race.  I held off the leg cramps and made good progress to the finish line. 

I don’t recall anyone passing me in the final 10 miles after mile 16.  Then with 250 meters to go, a guy named Mark passed me.  I rallied and passed him back in a sprint finish.  I knew Mark was in my age group and I really just thought we were racing for pride at that point.  But the next day I learned that sprint finish was my ticket to Hawaii.   IM Canada set a new precedent for me with zero miles of feeling good on the run.  Somehow I had the 26th best run in my age group with a very slow run split of 3:58:31 (ironically the exact same run split as Mark, the guy I had outsprinted).  The fastest run split was only 3:30:20 so that tells me the run was brutal on everyone.  I had been passed by only 1 guy in my age group, but had successfully passed 21 others.  I’m still stunned about that because I thought I was standing still on the run.

My friend Steve Diggs helped me from the finish line to the medical tent where I would spend the next 30 minutes waiting for the world to stop spinning.  I later learned that 400 other racers would require medical attention.  I was very dehydrated, but I did not really need an IV.  I normally urinate 3-4 times in an Ironman race, but went only once at mile 90 of the bike and not again until after 10pm. 

I made some critical errors with hydration and sodium during the bike.  I should have been drinking much more, and should also have taken more Thermolytes (sodium tablets) during the bike.  I had planned to take 25 Thermolytes during the bike, but took only 15 – that was a huge mistake.  I did take 25 Thermolytes during the run, but by then it was too late. 

I learn lessons every time I train and every time I race.  This race simply confirmed some lessons I have already learned.  But it screamed those lessons loud and clear to me.

1)      Don’t ever give up.
2)      It will get better.   
3)      Execute your nutrition plan – especially fluid replacement and Thermolytes.
4)      The best things in life are earned.
5)      God has made me the richest man in the world – blessing me with family and friends who care about me and that I love so much.  If you are reading this story, then you are in that club.   

Laurie also had a successful race as she finished in 13:38:36.  She placed 73rd out of 146 in her age group.  Ironman Canada was Laurie’s 8th Ironman distance race and the 114th marathon in her racing career.  She has run a marathon in 49 of the US states and plans to complete her 50th state (Wyoming) in 2006.  I am extremely proud of her as she also worked thru the challenges of a very difficult day.

Laurie and I rented a house in Penticton for the week.  We had the pleasure of sharing the accommodations with Tri Club members John Heuisler (and his brother Chris), Mike Drury, Rob Hill and former San Diego resident Greg White.  5 of the 7 of us did the race and all had successful finishes.  Mike will join me in Kona as he qualified by placing 7th out of 261 finishers in the men’s 30-34 category with a time of 9:54:45.

Going into the race I knew my age group would have 12 slots to Hawaii.  I was really hoping to race well enough that I would claim a Hawaii slot outright and be in the top 12 finishers.  The top 12 guys had the opportunity to claim their Hawaii slot between 10am-12 noon the day following the race.  Thankfully only 7 of them claimed Hawaii slots.  So that meant I would still have a chance at the Hawaii Roll Down Meeting at 1pm.  I just needed 1 guy from positions 13-17 to decline the slot and that is exactly what happened.  That moment brought a huge sense of relief and thankfulness to me and an enthusiastic scream of joy for Laurie.  This will be the 4th time that I will get to race the Hawaiian Ironman and because I so narrowly earned my slot, Ironman Canada 2005 will be especially memorable and meaningful to me.